Over late-evening coffee a small group of us were discussing the question of women’s leadership in the church. One man said, “For several years I’ve nominated women to be ruling elders in our church, but each time either the women themselves refuse or else their strongest opposition comes from other women in the church. So now I’ve stopped trying.”

His pastor was with us, and I asked him whether he thought he should publicly encourage women to assume leadership roles—not only in the church but in whatever sphere their talents lie. He felt he did not have that type of “prophetic” responsibility, and my friend concurred with him, saying that would smack too much of “filling quotas” or “affirmative action.”

Later I had occasion to talk with two of the women my friend had nominated in earlier years. Both said that for women to exercise leadership and teaching roles over men was not appropriate. Both of these women were extraordinarily talented and capable persons, and exercised considerable leadership over other women in various organizations and study groups.

Christian women seem to be able to be assertive toward other women and toward children but not toward men. Moreover, many Christian women and men seem to accept this state of affairs as the right one. I’d like to consider three questions. (1) Exactly what do we mean by women’s assertiveness? (2) Why aren’t women more assertive toward men? (3) Is a change of affairs in order—should women become more assertive? If so, why? And how can we bring that about?

What Assertiveness Is

First, assertiveness should not be thought of as something negative. One can be both humble and assertive—can display “holy boldness,” as the Puritan devotional writers put it. To be assertive or exercise “holy boldness” is to determine what one should or must do because it is right in the sight of God and because it is fair and just to oneself and to others, and then to act on those convictions. That’s the “boldness” part. The “holy” part is trying to help others profit by your assertiveness and trying not to hurt them.

Paul catches the humble spirit of assertiveness when he says, “If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). Christians—female and male—might well be concerned if they are so unobtrusive that they never come into disagreement with others over what is right. Very often a “doormat mentality” overlooks the fact that there is evil, selfishness, and greed in all of us. Therefore we must all exercise our biblical responsibility to “check” others when they begin to behave in a selfish or self-seeking manner toward us or toward anybody else (Gal. 6:1). We do others no service, nor are we virtuous, when we fail to check their selfishness. We only compound our hurt and their hurtfulness. To check them may mean that the peace is disturbed, as Paul, the Lord Jesus, and indeed many of the biblical writers imply it sometimes may well be and should be. It is to be hoped that the disturbance can be negotiated amicably, the injustice removed, and peace restored.

However, the lives of Paul and of Jesus Christ contain many examples of disturbances that could not be negotiated amicably. They continually and assertively called attention to injustices and wrongs (personal and corporate), and for their assertiveness they suffered greatly. The same assertive stance and its consequences are seen in virtually every Old Testament prophet and in many figures down through church history.

Not many women have placed themselves in the position of speaking out for justice either for themselves or for others. We have had difficulty in thinking of a woman as an “assertive prophet.” But there are biblical examples of assertive women—Miriam, Deborah, the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment and tears and dried them with her hair, the woman in the parable who was persistent with the judge, the woman with the “issue of blood” who pursued Jesus’ healing touch, the Syrophoenician woman who wanted Jesus to heal her daughter. There is also Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who asserted herself to defy social custom by forsaking the kitchen to talk theology with Jesus. The women who followed Jesus and financially supported him and the disciples must also have been bold and courageous persons to contravene prevailing customs in these areas. Likewise, women were the ones who were bold and full of faith enough to risk social censure in order to keep vigil at the cross and at Jesus’ tomb; they were therefore the first to know the joy of his resurrection, receiving his commission to tell the good news to the male disciples. The epistles chronicle numerous women who apparently were leaders in the early Church: Priscilla, Lydia, Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche, and others.

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Church history likewise contains the names of assertive women such as Catherine Booth, Gladys Aylward, and more recently Corrie ten Boom, who engaged in civil disobedience and lying in order to do God’s will.

Why Women Aren’T More Assertive

Since there seem to be ample biblical and historical evidences for assertiveness among Christian women, why haven’t more women been bold? Why do many Christian women hesitate to be assertive?

Here we must be very careful not to get bogged down over different views of woman’s “proper sphere.” There are devout Christians who believe women should not preach, but there are equally devout Christians who believe they should. Many sincere Christians believe women should live ultimately under the authority of men; other equally sincere Christians hold that God’s ideal is equality between the sexes. With love in our hearts toward those who may differ with us, let us turn from our differences and focus instead on what unites us.

In the past, many Christian women (and men) have confused submission with acquiescence—an acquiescence that led to passiveness and to a failure to pursue God’s will diligently. Recall that Corrie ten Boom would not acquiesce to Nazi rule when it violated God’s rule. She had to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Therefore, let us agree that we must not press our views of “spheres” of authority so far as to cause women to become acquiescent or passive creatures. In the past, those pressures probably influenced women to tone down desires for “holy boldness” out of guilt and fear of censure. From childhood they have learned to defer to males rather than to be decisive. Their training in home, church, and school has not led them to think of themselves as equals with men in the senses in which the women who worked with Paul thought of themselves and were thought of as “co-laborers” (Phil. 4:3).

Once we agree that passiveness is not desirable, then the answer to our third question becomes self-evident: a change of affairs is in order. Christian women need to be strong and active persons as described in Ephesians 6:10–20, First Corinthians 9:24–27, and elsewhere. Such assertiveness is healthful for the entire Christian community—churches, families, mission societies, Christian colleges, and more.

Specifically, such assertiveness in women is healthful for men. We males would all be better off if God-gifted women were vigorously exercising their talents on our behalf and calling us to account where we have acted selfishly or unjustly towards them or others. Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, asked in 1859 that church leaders seriously consider “whether God intended woman to bury her talents as she now does, and whether the circumscribed sphere of woman’s religious labors may not have something to do with the comparative non-success of the Gospel in these latter days.”

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Christian women need to ask, “What can I as a woman do to be more assertive?” And Christian men need to ask, “What can I do to encourage assertiveness in my wife, my daughters, my women friends?” What can all of us do to produce Deborahs, Priscillas, and Corrie ten Booms among the youngsters in our homes and churches? One very practical place to begin is to read the lives of great female missionaries (such as Gladys Aylward and Mary Slessor) and other biographies showing strong assertive women (Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place is a fine place to start).

There are also books designed to provide guidelines and actual training in assertiveness. Manuel Smith’s When I Say No, I Feel Guilty is one. Another is The Assertive Woman by Stanlee Phelps and Nancy Austin. These books offer much insight into how a woman can be assertive and yet not feel condemned or guilty for doing so. There are also tips on how not to be acerbic or overbearing.

Unfortunately, we have had few public examples of women who exercise leadership skills—the ability to be assertive with men and to negotiate firmly, yet with good humor and reasonable flexibility. Perhaps women such as Barbara Jordan or Ella Grasso or Alice Rivlen (head of the Congressional Budget Committee) can begin to fill the void.

Meanwhile, Christian women (and men) can use as a model of assertiveness and of justice with compassion Barnabas, the “son of consolation [encouragement]” (Acts 4:36). His assertiveness is first seen in Acts 9:27. He was the one who had the courage to bring the converted Saul of Tarsus to the apostles and to convince them that he was on their side. Subsequently, when God began to establish an exciting Gentile church at Antioch, Barnabas went after Saul and brought him into the thick of the action (Acts 11:19–26). His initiative and assertiveness were largely responsible for Paul’s becoming a “minister to the Gentiles.” In addition, Barnabas’s determination helped cause the Jewish church to accept Gentile Christians as equals. Ironically, that same determination (Acts 15:37) caused a split between Barnabas and Paul over the worthiness of John Mark. Barnabas’s assertiveness was blended with compassion for Mark, and in the twilight of his life Paul gratefully acknowledged that Barnabas’s determination had paid off (2 Tim. 4:11).

Let Barnabas serve as a model of assertiveness and its positive value for both women and men. Let Christian women learn to pursue God’s will no matter what. Often the fiercest reaction to their assertiveness will come, as it did to Barnabas, from other Christians (of both sexes). If their boldness is tempered by Barnabas-like compassion, the prospects for a beneficial outcome are enhanced.

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