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Published Date: March 5, 2012

Published Date: March 5, 2012

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Moving Away from Subtle Extremity

“Mr. Jones, would you lead us in prayer?”

It was an innocent request. But why was Mrs. Jones or Ms. Smith never asked? Despite a perfectly capable array of women who could have prayed, the task always fell to any man in the crowd. 

This was a normal occurrence in our homeschooling existence. Decades later, we recognize this as subtle extremity: a way of communicating rigid gender roles without directly addressing them. While we didn’t encounter many blatantly extreme patriarchal views, we were taught that our gender clearly defined the true nature of our personhood. Who we were as people was not to be discovered, only embraced. The Christians around us said that boys should embrace their true nature as leaders, protectors, and providers. Girls were taught to embrace their supportive role in life, championing their husbands, keeping their homes in order, and raising children.

It was supposed to be so simple. God would be pleased with our efforts to surrender our individuality into the molds that were clearly outlined in the Bible. And the Christians who disagreed with these standards, well, they were duped into wanting something besides “God’s best” for their lives. 

While this “subtle extremity” may not have included the overt abuse that would make reasonable people cringe, it was pervasive, and it colored our entire approach to life. It heaped judgment and shame upon those, especially women, who deviated or disagreed. The subtlety made it acceptable. If anyone had directly identified the ramifications of this mindset, then it would have been swiftly and completely rejected. After all, many of the women who were in charge of us children were fully equipped to be leaders of all people, but they paid lip service to a subtly patriarchal view that they themselves didn’t fully embrace. 

Growing up female in this culture, you were expected to live a hyper-emotional, half-logical life in which a male figure was required to keep you grounded. Behavior that would have been considered emotionally disturbed coming from a male was at times accepted from females, because that was “just how God made you.” Any attempt to be logical was largely ignored. After all, thinking was for the men and feeling was for the women.

Men were supposed to be the down-to-earth, matter-of-fact counterparts to women. They could drift over into the women’s domain occasionally and hold a baby or rustle up some dinner, but emotional reactions needed to be tempered and muted, lest they compromise their masculinity. Men were also to be preparing themselves for doing all kinds of “manly” tasks. In one of the groups in which I (Jonathan) was active, I was in charge of cleaning facilities. I remember many different men telling me that, unless heavy lifting was involved, I should leave that kind of thing to the women. There were far more important jobs, and more appropriate jobs, for me to do.

Both of us were raised in families that tried to model the patriarchal system, but the real damage came from the larger homeschooling community. Because homeschoolers are a small minority and have at times been denigrated by some, they often perceive a sense of competition with outsiders. A collective group mentality can take over, and, since patriarchy was such a huge part of the culture, it became an overwhelming force. We heard it everywhere. Standard curriculum included volumes such as “Christian Manhood and Womanhood,” which set horrific patriarchal standards for males and females. Conference sessions often had themes like, “For Dads Only: How to Be Your Family’s Spiritual Leader.” Many wives served their husbands in blind obedience. Many husbands bossed their wives around as if they were one of their children. It was impossible to ignore. It was all around us, all the time.

The details of these roles were rarely spoken of directly, making them more powerful. The power was in the abstractness of the assumptions; there was really no need for much in-depth explanation. We heard only passing statements like “Boys should treat girls this way,” or, “That’s not becoming of a young lady.” They were usually enforced through passive-aggressive communication—nonverbal cues and a particular tone of voice that attempted to shape our behavior by shaming us. 

This whole system was fraught with double standards. Girls could routinely lead their male peers while growing up, but once they became women, this had to end. If taking care of home and family wasn’t enough for a woman, then she must be denying her true identity, the reasoning went. And, if she wanted more from life than family alone, then there was something very wrong with her spiritual life and marriage. 

Women were encouraged to pursue an education, but only as a form of insurance in case their husbands died, left, or were physically unable to provide. While you could discover your gifts and abilities, you were limited to using them in “feminized” roles. As a pianist, for example, you could teach children or play for your church, but you shouldn’t be a performer. If you were a good negotiator, then you should use those skills to get bargains on groceries and furniture, but not to broker business deals. The best jobs for women, you were told, were those you could do from home.

Boys, likewise, could submit to the leadership of their female peers, but the expectation was clear that once you reached adulthood and took a wife, you would assume responsibility for your home. After all, you were a man, and leadership was a trait born deep within your wild and adventurous male heart. You were supposed to look forward to the day you won the heart of a woman who, until you showed up, was firmly covered by her father’s protective umbrella.

At the core of all this was the disturbing message that women couldn’t be responsible for themselves. If a woman didn’t have a husband, then responsibility fell to the parents. What this taught, so subtly but profoundly, was that women are incapable of living their own lives. This transference of responsibility is the heart of subtle extremity. When one person surrenders personal responsibility, mistreatment is close behind. No wonder some women turn to passive aggressiveness and manipulation—without a voice, it is often the only way left to influence.

Strangely enough, though girls couldn’t be responsible for themselves, they bore responsibility for boys’ thoughts and actions. I (Kelsey) remember being a teenager and trying to ignore the persistent and enthusiastic flirtations Jonathan was sending my way. Such interactions were, to say the least, frowned upon by many in the greater homeschooling community, but I was the one reprimanded. “I’m not doing anything!” I would reply, but I was told on many different occasions that my behavior was “inappropriate” and “a bad example.” Romans 14:13—“Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way”—was a mantra. Girls were told, “Protect your brothers!” and, “Don’t cause them to stumble.” Yet the clear but underlying message was, “His thoughts and actions are your responsibility.” 

It can be disorienting to grow up with such strong messages about men, women, and “biblical” roles. At times it feels like an inescapable pressure. Because very little is overt, the pressure feels phantom. Becoming aware of the message behind the words, the meaning inside the tone in which it is given, and the intent of the shaming can be intensely painful. But looking at your past honestly and grappling with those phantom pressures is the first step toward freedom.

For me (Kelsey), the first shifts came in adolescence. There was a deep awareness that I didn’t fit into a subservient lifestyle. It was a slow and sudden change, greatly stimulated by a few caring and gently confronting relationships. The homeschooling community had taught me I was incapable of responsibly questioning beliefs. However, it became increasingly evident that I had a good mind, and that God was honored when I used it. The final shifts away from patriarchy were achieved in academic discussion and finally accepting that I was as competent and capable as my male counterparts.

My (Jonathan’s) transition came about more slowly. In college, I attempted to impose patriarchal roles into my relationships and studies. I was very vocal, even vindictive, toward friends and classmates who I felt weren’t following God’s ordained will for their gender. During graduate school, I had the opportunity to study under some Christian egalitarians who helped me understand that the Bible supported mutual submission between women and men. It was not an easy transition, but being married to a loving woman who continually seeks to identify the consequences of ideas has helped me arrive at a viewpoint of equality.

For those coming from subtly extreme patriarchy, we encourage you to seek out nonjudgmental people willing to embrace differences. For us, lasting change came from relational experiences with people prepared to dialog without shaming. Challenge anything that feels strict and heavy, consistently looking for the practical implications of the belief.

If you find yourself engaging with those coming from subtly extreme patriarchy, first and foremost, keep engaging! For both of us, an essential part of our sojourn out of patriarchy was consistent and positive engagement with committed Christian egalitarians. Encourage them to find their areas of giftedness. Discuss difficult Scriptures with them, and interpret the Bible together in light of cultural context. Come alongside them as an equal, not a teacher. Be intentional in being collaborative; their past is likely filled with authority figures telling them how to believe.

Be careful not to condemn. They are coming out of an authoritarian culture that has heaped toxic beliefs about themselves and the Creator into their hearts and minds. Be genuine and authentic with them on their journey out of patriarchy. Be excited about who they are, and don’t assume you already know what they should be.

Second, understand that the passive-aggressive nature of subtle extremity breeds guilt and shame. To counteract this, we must bring the underlying issues out of the darkness and into the light. Gently address the injustices that are presupposed realities for them. Look for the emotional undercurrent that guides discussions about gender. Do your best to verbalize tone and nonverbal communication. Be sensitive to yourself. If you pick up on any shaming and guilting, it’s probably there, even if the other person doesn’t realize they’re doing it. Make all communication on the subject clear, concrete, and verbal. Get practical and specific.

Finally, once beliefs about gender have been verbally communicated, help the other person follow them to their conclusion. For instance, telling girls that they are naturally too emotional will eventually cause them to distrust their intellect. And, insisting to boys that they need to “suck it up” and deny their emotions will produce emotionally repressed men. Be gentle, but remember that finding the logical conclusion of their beliefs is essential if they are to see the toxicity of their views. All ideas have consequences. Help them find the consequences of theirs. Ask questions like, “If this is true, what does it mean about you? About me? About others?” Through humility, love, honest conversation, and prayer, we can point them away from oppressive ideas and toward the hope and healing of Christ.

Three women smiling at the camera, each is holding a present.

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