I meant to write about my view of gender roles and leadership today. Not for the blog, because it would be long, and probably boring. Just for myself, to sort out my scattered thoughts and interpretations and come to neat and tidy conclusions.
Then I started writing, and I found thoughts and interpretations, sure…key passages on women in the church, sermons on how to interpret them from both sides, definitions of “complementarian” and “egalitarian.” I did find my position on this issue.
But mostly, I found stories. Here are a few of them.
Amy is eleven, and her sixth grade teacher has just concluded a social experiment disguised as a unit on Ancient Greece. Sparta was full of athletes who dominated the mock Olympics, Megara was made up of quiet, shy girls who did great on the art projects but not the presentation, and Athens was represented by overachievers who spent most of their time trying to boss each other around. And her group, Corinth? Well, Amy isn’t sure what they had in common, but they surprised everyone by winning the competition.
After parent-teacher conferences, her mom comes back with the report that Amy’s teacher had formed her group by putting the two oldest boys in the class with several girls who she thought were more the following, passive type. She wanted to give the boys encouragement to be leaders. “Except I didn’t count on one thing,” her teacher said. “Amy. She was clearly the group’s leader, and she knew it…but every other person in the group thought they were all leading together.”
Amy is secretly pleased, and she remembers. She remembers that, for some reason she doesn’t quite understand, boys are supposed to be the leaders instead of her. But she also remembers that there’s a way around this, that everyone approves if a girl leads by creating unity and encouraging others and giving credit instead of taking it for herself. And then the whole team wins.
Amy is fifteen, at Camp Lake Ann, and each girls’ cabin is paired with a “brother cabin” for the games and competitions. At the end of the first day, each team has to choose a guy for a leader and a girl for a co-leader.
“Why not call them both leaders?” Amy asks her counselor, because, to her, if you co-lead something, it means the two of you are leading together.
“Because men in the Bible are the ones who are pastors,” the counselor says, knowing Amy well enough even after twelve hours to know she’s not going to be able to dodge this one. “It’s complicated. Don’t worry about it.”
But she does worry about it. When her cabin tries to nominate her for co-captain, she refuses. She thinks of it as a separate-but-not-really-equal protest. But, deep down, it’s really because she knows the other girl already nominated will win the vote, because she’s prettier and popular and all the boys like her. The other girl is voted co-captain, and she comes up with cheers and carries the team flag and occasionally nods along to what the captain decides as he does all of the actual leading. And maybe, Amy thinks, that’s all I should want to do too.
Amy is seventeen, and she is hefting boxes of unused food and paper goods into the church van after a youth group mission trip while some of the other girls are Cloroxing the kitchen within an inch of its life. As Amy goes back for another box, one of the leaders stops her.
“This is just something to think about,” she says, “but why not let the guys do some of this?”
The answer seems obvious. “Because they’re not.”
The leader sighs. “It’s not just lifting boxes. I’ve noticed that the girls in the youth group plan the events, show up at the service days, and answer all of the questions at Bible study.”
Amy stares at her leader flatly. “If we don’t do it,” she finally says, glancing over at the guys giving up a cheer at the carpetball table, “it won’t get done.”
“Maybe they would if they had a little encouragement. Or if they didn’t know their sisters were going to step in and handle it all.”
And Amy wants to believe her…and at the same time she doesn’t. Because if she stops doing everything, if she gives up even a little bit of control, she might not be indispensable anymore, and she needs to be needed.
Amy is now twenty-four. And as I see these stories written out, I think about what I’d tell myself if I could go back.
Eleven-year-old Amy, this is the first of many times you will be afraid that you are too…something. Too smart, too much of a leader, too weird. But God has not given you a spirit of fear. He’s given you a gift, and he’ll help you know how to use it.
Fifteen-year-old Amy, it is complicated, but in no way does that mean this question is off limits to your “whys.” Remember that even people who mean well can put their emphasis in the wrong place. They might imply that you’re less valuable because you’re a woman, and sometimes you might feel less valuable…but God does not say that, not ever.
Seventeen-year-old Amy, did you hear that, did you recognize its importance? That was the first time someone framed the discussion of gender roles and leadership in the context of putting others before yourself. Yes, the guys need to do that too…but their reaction is not your problem. Love your brothers. They may never understand what it costs you. Love them anyway—and they might surprise you.
There are probably many people reading this who draw totally different conclusions than I do on the issue of women in leadership, who would give different advice to young Amy at all stages. That’s fine. I’m not arguing for complementarianism here—that blog post would look totally different.
So, what am I doing? I guess I’m suggesting three things.
First, what we believe on paper matters. But what we say and do matters too, and it should be consistent. Kids and teens are picking up a lot of secondhand theology from both. (It should be said that I’m thankful for the many great examples in my life of what it looks like for men and women in the church to love and serve each other. I chose these three stories mainly because I wanted to show the tricky parts, the residue of small resentments and uncertainties that can be left behind when we try to navigate a hard issue.)
Second, it can be useful to think about how your past influences what you believe, but if you don’t actually sit down and study the Bible, you might end up either A. drifting into what you believe based on your experiences or B. lurching toward the polar opposite view as a reaction. This is not a good way to come to conclusions on things.
Third, when someone tells you what they believe, no matter what their religion, it’s not just based on their culture, upbringing, or life experiences, but those are all there, even if they’re present in ways the person doesn’t fully realize.
Stories like mine are the invisible subtext behind theological discussions. We can’t base our beliefs on our experiences, but we are whole people, all of us—head and heart, logic and emotions, reasoned exegesis and gut-wrenching memories. All of it is a part of being made in the image of God, and all of it is a little bit broken because of sin. We struggle with living out the complicated, with holding our beliefs in tension, with knowing how to love each other.
Remember that, and then ask difficult questions. Think hard, feel deeply, approach tricky questions with humility…but do approach them, because they matter. Let’s do theology well, not because we want to have all the right answers, but because we have stories to live.