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When Women Police Themselves, The Church Is Diminished

On May 11, 2016

I’ve seen you do it a thousand times. You speak, but you hedge, qualify, and apologize for your words. You backtrack. You surrender. You question your experience and viciously undermine the truth you speak. You tread softy and sit small. And who can blame you?

It is what the world taught you to do. It is what the church taught you to do.

You patrol the boundaries of your ideas carefully, allowing only the softest, sweetest version of the truth to slip through. You trim the jagged edges of your story away so men aren’t made uncomfortable. You’ve been trained to protect their privilege, so protect it you do.

Women are used to suppressing and minimizing their opinions. For many, the instinct to capitulate to men is as natural as breathing. Many have even come to see that surrender as gospel-inspired despite a multitude of passages that celebrate those who speak boldly and exhort others, women included, to do likewise (Proverbs 28:1; Ephesians 6:19; Romans 8:15; Acts 28:31).

Women don’t get to be Jesus-turning-over-tables-in-the-temple angry or even aggressively prophetic like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Not by patriarchy’s rules. Instead, they are encouraged to speak without weight, stealing authority from their own words.

From childhood, girls learn to demand little from others. Boundaries are negotiable—and they often continue to be in adulthood—opening the door to physical and sexual abuse. Assertive, headstrong, and strong-willed are the “dirty” words used to undermine female strength and independence.

By the time they reach middle school, many girls have learned the most important lesson of femininity—how to defer to men.

Strong women often regard their very natures as sinful and gospel-contrary because of patriarchal conditioning. By teaching young girls to be conciliatory instead of prophetic, accommodating instead of assertive, and passive instead of active, the church is complicit in the self-suppression of women’s gifts.

Women are not passive by nature. We teach them to be. We train them to guard the privilege of men in conversation and beyond. We, the church, build the highest of fences around women’s minds.

Patriarchal conditioning makes women enemies of themselves. Studies show that women qualify and apologize for their opinions where men assert and argue. This is compounded by complementarian leaders who would have women play games with their language—never confronting or convicting—all in an effort to protect the fragile masculinity of men.

The self-questioning speaking patterns of women are not an accident and neither are they the product of a more passive, agreeable female nature. They exist because patriarchy cultivates uncertainty, other-appeasement, and self-doubt in women. 

Of course, men participate in the silencing of women and benefit from a patriarchal system that prioritizes their voices over female voices. They create male-centric environments that make it difficult for women to speak and dismiss women’s ideas and stories as misinformed or overly emotional.

But today, I don’t want to talk about how men silence women, as important a topic as that is. I want to examine how patriarchy encourages women to silence themselves.

It’s easy to think that we’re just being nice when we qualify our opinions—because we really don’t want to offend anyone. Maybe we even buy the lie that bold, prophetic words are unwomanly. Patriarchal conditioning provides women with many reasons to stay silent. And women who do speak up are often penalized for doing so.

Nobody wants to be the headstrong woman these days.

The world feels a lot more comfortable when women’s anger, pain, and grief are safely trapped behind the glass of pacified biblical womanhood. The church is at ease when women play nice, responding to the suffering of half the world with smiles and polite nods.

Sometimes, we consciously play their game. But perhaps just as often, we unconsciously police ourselves. I catch myself doing it all the time.

Even when I’m confident, I verbally undermine my ideas, opinions, and testimony. In the name of not appearing too aggressive, I tread softly and sit small. I surrender, capitulate, and backtrack.

But often, no one tells me to defer to men. I undermine myself, because it is what I have been trained to do. Even as an independent and empowered woman, I still fight tooth and nail against the subtle conditioning of a world that says that his story is the whole story.

I wish I could tell you that I’ve stopped doing it, that I never tell men what they want to hear because it’s easier. But I still catch myself qualifying, hedging, and apologizing even when I know I’m correct.

In particular, I police ideas, opinions, and stories that might be perceived as threatening to men. I often pair my words with concessions and qualifications to counter any perceived aggression. I soothe egos and preemptively critique myself so I don’t appear bossy or controlling.

The world will do its best to silence us. And it will do its best to make us complicit in our own oppression, conditioning us to defer to men. Concede. Apologize. Do it all over again.  

No more.

I believe in a world where women don’t apologize for having opinions. Where they aren’t conditioned from childhood to undermine their skills and knowledge. Where they don’t defer to men simply because they are men.

I believe in a church that trains women to be steady and certain. A church that empowers women to speak the kind of truth that brings down mountains. A body of Christ that is prepared, at long last, to unleash the full gospel-strength of women.

When women police themselves, the church is forced to operate at half-power. Women have immense untapped potential for the kingdom. Jesus recognized this truth—it was women who bore the news of his resurrection. Jesus didn’t restrain or silence women’s voices, he amplified them. The church should do the same.

But it’s equally critical that women recognize their own untapped kingdom potential. Women who believe their opinions, ideas, and stories matter are harder to silence. And they are free to move at the Spirit’s prompting.

When women hold back, the church is diminished. When women are free to share, sing, shout, exhort, teach, lead, and prophesy, the church is refined. 

So let’s reject every conditioned instinct to suppress ourselves. Let’s lay our jagged, unpolished truth before the church without fear. May brave words trip lightly off our tongues. May we cease to police ourselves. May we speak boldly and, at long last, be heard.  


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