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 ...

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