As a Christian who believes strongly in equality between women and men, I had often spoken up about gender issues with family and friends, in Sunday School classes, and among colleagues. However, when I was invited to teach a Gender Studies course at the Baptist university where I am a faculty member, I found this to be the most intense challenge I had faced yet. In some ways I would only be doing for students what I had already done with those who know me more personally. Yet, somehow teaching this course seemed much more daunting.
Maybe the intensity increased because, unlike discussing my position with a friend over lunch, I wouldn’t be able to easily change the subject if things got uncomfortable. Maybe I was anxious because I would be going deeper into the topic than I had in any other setting. Maybe discussing gender issues with a roomful of people, many of whom did not share my beliefs, was unsettling and stressful. Whatever the reason, as I prepared to teach this course, I felt a strong desire to bolt and run.
What I found, however, was that educating people who have relied on inaccurate information, prejudice, and half truths, is somewhat the same regardless of the arena: the classroom or the church. I also found that while such work presented challenges, meeting those challenges has empowered me and given me enthusiasm for promoting gender equality in other contexts.
Challenges & Responses
Challenge 1: Feeling overwhelmed
In accepting the teaching assignment of a Gender Studies course, I was overwhelmed. Not only would I be working against inaccurate gender stereotypes perpetuated in our culture, but many of my students held to a more traditional interpretation of Scripture that might prevent their willingness to consider another point of view.
My experience has been that even when we acknowledge that men and women have equal abilities between the genders, we often believe that in order to be biblical, men and women must maintain separate God-given roles. “Sure, women have the ability to lead effectively, but God has assigned them the role of follower.”
Although I was confident that some students would be open to thinking about gender in a different way, I dreaded the reluctance and outright resistance I anticipated from many of my students.
First, I worked to accept and respect where my students are at this point in their lives. Their beliefs about gender and gender roles are understandable since they may have limited knowledge of alternative viewpoints. My class might be their first exposure to a different perspective. It takes time to consider and accept another point of view. I reminded myself that many people, including myself, who are now completely committed to gender equality, once held more traditional views. The process of rethinking a mental framework and rebuilding another is, of necessity, a slow process. I had to accept and respect that.
I also had to realize that while I am responsible for providing the information, what my students do with it is their own decision. Some of these students will embrace what they learn; others will not. For some it may be the proverbial seed being planted only to mature later with more education and life experience. Regardless of their response, however, I have to respect their right to choose, knowing I have done my part.
Challenge 2: The threat of being judged unfavorably
To be honest, the rejection of my teaching wasn’t the only threat I felt. The possibility that my students might make judgments about me personally and about my Christian commitment was uncomfortable, and frankly a bit exasperating! I want very much to have good rapport with my students and to be a person they can look to as a Christian role model. To think that our rapport might be damaged because they do not respect my egalitarian convictions made me wonder if it would be worth it.
Being a person worthy of their respect involves my being authentic about who I am. If that brings their critical judgment, even if it hinders the rapport we have, it’s a risk worth taking. I reminded myself of those students who, because of what I say, will feel a greater connection to me and whose lives will be touched in ways they wouldn’t have been otherwise.
In addition, if I hope for my students to respect me regardless of my stance on this issue, I have to do the same for them. Toward this end, I worked toward setting a respectful tone for lectures and class discussions, modeling in my behavior what I hoped to see in theirs.
Challenge 3: The fear that I wouldn’t be able to adequately defend my position
It takes relatively little time and effort to quote “wives, submit to your husbands” but takes considerably more time and effort to explain the cultural context of this often-quoted verse. Likewise, being well-informed of the research which dispels many of the inaccurate gender stereotypes is a daunting task. There is so much information available, not all of it easily understood. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to relay the information in a way that would do justice to the complexity of the issue.
I prepared. I spent months becoming more informed than ever about physiological and environmental causes of gender differences.
I spent even longer preparing myself spiritually. I prayed for my own graciousness toward my students for months before teaching the course. I worked on being able to state my position clearly with unapologetic conviction. I started the semester stating briefly that I am a strong proponent of equality between men and women in the home, in society, and in the church, and that this is the position from which I would teach the course.
I also discouraged our class from becoming an arena for arguing over Scripture verses. Rather, I encouraged them to learn more about gender equality from a biblical perspective through the Christians for Biblical Equality website and I provided information to any student who came to me wanting to know more about my position from a theological perspective. In addition, I invited a guest speaker from our School of Theology to address scripture passages often used to support gender inequality.
In summary, as I prepared to teach this course, I developed some effective ways of meeting the challenges I faced. I worked toward being gracious and respectful of the students’ rights and responsibility to choose for themselves. I tried to be authentic about my knowledge, beliefs, and calling. I prepared so that I could teach with the confidence that comes from being knowledgeable. I put thoughtful planning into communicating that knowledge. Most importantly, I prayed for God to prepare and guide me spiritually and emotionally so that I could reflect the Lord’s graciousness, rather than simply reacting to the challenges I feared.
What I learned teaching this course
What I learned teaching this course can be easily transferred to other areas of witness for gender equality. Whether I am teaching a university course, leading a Sunday School discussion, or talking with an individual whose perspective on gender is far different from my own, the same basics seem to apply.
First, I found that I was able to thoroughly enjoy my students in this class regardless of our agreeing or disagreeing about gender issues. I have come to realize that our similarities as Christians are much greater than our differences. Disagreements don’t have to pose an obstacle to relationships. Therefore, I have become more respectful of those with different perspectives on gender and more accepting of the fact that change takes time. I know this will be an asset to me as I continue to be a voice for gender equality and will strengthen my ability to work within my church in other areas in which Christians sometimes disagree.
Second, I have found that people are more open to gender equality than I had expected. Sometimes those we least expect to be sympathetic can surprise us with their openness. We need to avoid prejudging others’ willingness to listen with an open mind — an important lesson to remember for future work within the church!
Third, I have found that being well-informed strengthened my ability to speak graciously and with conviction. Regardless of the arena, the church, our communities, or the classroom, we need to be as informed as possible on the issues on which we speak so that we have confidence in our message. The confidence we have in our message makes possible the graciousness with which we communicate that message.
Finally, I have found that there is a great need for networking among those who work toward gender equality in the classroom. Although I have friends who are committed to equality and whose input and encouragement were invaluable, I had very few colleagues who could offer guidance based on their experience teaching this topic. Evidently, small Christian institutions that offer courses on gender studies are rare. Just as those working within the church need to share their experiences, struggles, and insights, those working for gender equality within the classroom need to do the same.
Though I was initially frightened, the positive results of teaching this course have given me renewed energy and excitement for teaching it again. I also have much more confidence that I can be an effective voice for gender issues in the classroom, the church, and my community.