I’m sixty-five years old. In the time and culture in which I grew up, equality for women just didn’t exist—not in the church and not in the workplace. But I also had the privilege of growing up in a family with strong female role models and three older brothers. I didn’t learn about gender equality sitting in a church pew, but it was always taught around our dinner table.
My parents didn’t expect less of me than my brothers because I’m female. Rather, I was taught that my gender wasn’t a barrier to achieving my life goals; I could do anything I wanted. And yet, my gender continued to be a massive barrier in the church for much of my life.
For a long time, I saw gender equality in the church as an abstract idea. The issue of women in vocational church ministry wasn’t on my radar. It wasn’t even debated. My father was a pastor; two of my brothers went to seminary; and one brother eventually went into ministry. But I wasn’t interested in becoming a pastor, so I didn’t spend much time thinking about what my church taught on the subject.
And then I had two sons. My husband and I taught our sons the same things I was taught about gender equality. But in reality, my sons’ goals were never limited by their gender. So I, again, didn’t pay much attention to the toxic messages my boys were hearing at church. They made me cringe, but I believed they didn’t have a direct impact on our lives.
I was wrong—wrong to think sexist messages didn’t affect me or my family because I didn’t aspire to become a preacher and because I had sons and not daughters.
Every time my boys heard a message that limited women’s role in the church—however subtle—it affected them. My sons listened as a visiting preacher vehemently opposed a woman teaching tenth grade boys in our church. They knew I was that woman. They got the message: women aren’t capable of teaching young men.
When faced with an unusually large group of near-high schoolers, our church opted to hire a full-time youth pastor rather than allow the two women who’d led that large group for three years to continue in that role. Neither woman was considered for an official position, simply because they weren’t men. My younger son, a member of that youth group, heard that message too: women aren’t allowed to lead in church.
When the boys and girls were separated in youth group for purity messages, my boys learned that girls need to dress in ways that don’t “cause” boys to lust, but boys aren’t responsible for their actions nor are they capable of self-control. The unstated but very dangerous implication of these teachings: girls who dress “immodestly” get what they deserve, and maybe it’s normal to assault women.
There were many, many more messages that, despite not being specifically targeted at my sons, impacted them. Fortunately, my husband and I were able to talk to our boys about gender equality and teach them another narrative—one where men and women are full equals. But no matter what we taught them at home, they still heard untrue and harmful messages in the sanctuary.
I didn’t like what I and my sons heard in church on these issues, but there was no sense of urgency in my life. We’d attended a complementarian church for over twenty years. We raised our sons in that church.
But when our family began to fill up with little girls, my focused sharpened. I’m very involved in the lives of three great nieces and my cousin’s young daughter. I’ve been blessed with two precious granddaughters. I would move mountains for these little girls. And they’ve made it impossible to stay silent on these issues.
I’m more vocal about gender equality in the church now than ever before. I don’t want these precious girls to ever believe they’re less valuable or less qualified or less capable because they’re female. When they first entered my life, I said that I would never have attended a complementarian church if I’d raised daughters instead of sons. Since then, I’ve realized how wrong that assumption was: that my sons weren’t negatively impacted by these teachings too.
We stopped going to that church, and I’ve apologized to my now-adult sons for believing they were immune from these teachings. Luckily, both have grown up to become men who reject the notion that women are unqualified to lead. Both married strong women and have very egalitarian marriages. Considering all they heard to the contrary in the church, that alone is pretty miraculous.
More often than not, this isn’t the outcome. There are still too many parents of sons who don’t think about the consequences of what young boys hear during their formative years—both in the pews and around the dinner table. For some of us, it takes a daughter or a granddaughter to really grasp how important this issue is. But it matters for our sons too, and we should be just as cautious about what they hear in our sanctuaries.
Yes, it’s critical to watch what our daughters hear in the church. We need to stand careful watch over them and speak God’s empowering truth into their lives. But that’s only half of the solution. Men are also being shaped by harmful, toxic teachings at a young age.
As parents of sons, we have power to challenge these teachings and help determine the kind of men our boys will grow up to become. How?
We can loudly teach our sons that women are their equals in every way. We can model for our boys what it looks like to treat women as full equals in the church, home, and workplace. We can strive to take toxic, unbiblical messages about gender just as seriously as parents of sons as we would if we were parenting daughters. Anything less misses the mark.