With vivid emotional clarity, I can remember standing helplessly before the chalkboard, crying in front the entire fourth grade class as I struggled to overcome the enigma of a long division problem. My teacher, a middle-aged woman who had apparently come to expect great things from me, was clearly frustrated with my lack of progress. Her verbal corrections did not help, and I felt a keen sense of embarrassment and shame. It was partly because of my inability to solve the formula, but also in part, I believe due to something else.
Although any student would find my experience at the front of the chalkboard upsetting, one reason I found it so hurtful as a boy was because a woman was making me cry. As a boy who was just learning the chauvinistic norms of my school, somewhere deep inside I knew it was especially embarrassing when a woman made you cry. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was supposed to be stronger than her, even though I was only eight or nine years old at the time. In this case, my gender was supposed to trump my age, even though I lacked emotional strength and maturity to understand or cope with the situation.
I was a victim of one of the many contradictions of complementarian Christianity. Complementarians say that men teach and lead while women learn and submit. Yet, at my school, most of the teachers were women. In fact, in Christian churches and schools throughout the world, females teach and lead while male students learn and submit. At some point (no one seems to know or agree about when), males are to stop learning from and submitting to women. In other words, age and gender seem to determine whether or not a woman is able to lead or teach, but the rules about this are foggy, at best. This creates confusion and emotional isolation for boys.
Before going further, let me acknowledge that girls face a tougher set of circumstances and challenges than boys as they grow older. Girls face a higher likelihood of being sexually abused and they must deal with all of the double-standards, objectification of female bodies, and other challenges that accompany sexism in the world. At the same time, it is worth exploring the challenges faced by boys as they grow older, particularly those that stem from complementarian theology and sexist policies within Christian institutions. Both sexes pay a price for arbitrary and restrictive gender norms, and although boys might pay less of a price, they are no exception to this rule.
The misguided and conflicting complementarian norms make growing into manhood a challenging prospect for boys. Boys often try to mimic the men around them. At the chalkboard, I felt shame, in part because I was not acting like other men in the church, who were leaders and teachers. Men were strong. Men were in charge of their emotions and of the people around them. But, the truth of the matter was, I was a boy, not a man, and so my role, at least for the time being, was a submissive one.
As boys become young men, their relationship with girls and women fundamentally changes. Instead of being surrounded by equals or leaders who enrich their lives, they are often isolated and burdened with expectations of leadership that may not align with their individual capabilities, giftings, or callings. Years of learning to project strength leave young men emotionally alone and ill-equipped for leadership. Only other boys and men (many of them also emotionally immature and afraid to be vulnerable) can speak wisdom into their lives. The consequences sometimes turn outward, taking the form of aggression, abuse, and violence.
In addition to being perplexing and harmful, the view that leadership is based on gender and age is not found in Scripture. In the Bible, neither age nor gender determine whether someone teaches, commands, submits, or obeys. Abraham submitted to Sarah, even though he was an older man and she was a younger woman (Gen. 21:12). Josiah and other political leaders in Judah submitted to the guidance of Huldah, who was likely an older woman while Josiah was a younger man (2 Kings 22:14–23:25). Mordecai, an older man, submitted to Esther, a younger woman (Esther 4:17). In the New Testament, Jesus submitted to his mother and father when he was a young man (Luke 2:51) and he submitted to his mother at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1–11). Finally, Apollos learned from Priscilla (Acts 18:24–28).
Clearly, the Bible does not restrict leadership or teaching based upon either age or gender. Ability, character, wisdom, and the needs of a particular situation were much more important in determining who led or submitted to whom in Scripture.* This approach not only better serves the needs of humanity, but it would also likely spare boys much of the confusion and heartache they face as they grow older. If boys grew up knowing that we can all teach and learn in different situations, they could experience a Christian world that made more sense and exposed them to less social stigma and shame.
My own episode at the chalkboard would have been much less upsetting without the additional gender baggage I carried. If it were normal for men to submit to women in my school and church, I would not have felt as much shame. Yes, my teacher probably could have been more sensitive, but my emotional reaction was certainly heightened by the gender dynamics.
It would be better for all of us if leadership roles in Christian organizations were uniformly based on talent and character. Boys and girls would grow up in a more logically consistent and emotionally sensible space. They could discover and help each other cultivate the gifts and personalities God gave them. They could mature as individuals into the persons God has called them to be.
* In an article in Priscilla Papers, my wife and I address the theological and historical aspects of these age norms in greater detail. This includes addressing the interpretive challenges related to age issues found within biblical passages such as 1 Timothy 2:11–12.