Lin Bian, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, wanted to understand how and when gender stereotypes develop, and especially the old stereotype that boys are smarter than girls. The results of her study were stark. “Among the 5-year-olds, both boys and girls associated brilliance with their own gender. But among those aged 6 or 7, only the boys still held to that view. At an age when girls tend to outperform boys at school, and when children in general show large positive biases towards their own in-groups, the girls became less likely than boys to attribute brilliance to their own gender.” Already by age six, children begin to develop the idea that girls just aren’t quite as smart as boys.
This stereotype soon collides with a second—that the fields of math and science demand a special kind of innate brilliance. Because girls have absorbed the stereotype that they possess less of this talent, they tend to steer or be steered away from those fields. This “double whammy of stereotypes—that men are more likely to be brilliant, and that brilliance is required in some fields—creates an atmosphere that makes women feel unwelcome, and pushes them away.”
It is an interesting study and one parents—especially parents of young girls—would do well to consider. I want to use it as a springboard to discuss a related issue.
Gendered Stereotypes in the Church
I wonder what gendered beliefs the six-year-old girls in our churches have about women and the Bible. I fear that an equally pernicious version of this stereotype exists within complementarian churches. I fear that young children may receive the message that women have an innate disadvantage when it comes to handling the Bible. They may receive the message that only men or primarily men can be specially gifted to understand and teach it.
To some degree, it’s understandable that they come by this stereotype. After all, God calls men to lead the church by authoritatively teaching his Word. Thus it is men who preach the Bible week by week and men whom children see carrying out this task. This is well and good. Yet God does not tell us that male leadership within the church owes to a unique teaching ability or gift that he distributes only to men. Rather, male leadership displays God’s good pattern of complementarity.
Children may come by the stereotype honestly, yet they may also come by it because we unwittingly (or even deliberately) perpetuate it. Consider the young girls in your church (or the young boys, for that). Much of what they believe about women and the Bible will come from what they see and hear when they gather with the congregation. It will come, of course, from what is confidently proclaimed as the official position of the church. But it will come as well from what is subtly communicated across the whole life of the church—worship services, small groups, children’s programs, prayer meetings, and even fellowship. They will learn, for good or for ill, about the relationship of women and the Word. They will begin to put together an understanding that may be biblical or may be stereotypical.
Perhaps questions like this can help us think about what we may be communicating.
- Do girls in your church see examples of women who love the Bible, know the Bible, and can skillfully teach the Bible?
- Does the church have positive role models of women who can rightly handle God’s Word? A young boy with an interest in knowing and teaching the Bible can observe his pastor and aspire to be like him. Who can the young girl observe and imitate?
- Does the church generate opportunities to teach women to better know and teach the Bible, or do such opportunities exist only for men?
- As the children learn that God reserves the eldership for qualified men, are we reinforcing that this is not on the basis of man’s increased or innate ability, but simply to honor and display the God-given complementarity of the sexes?
- Are we allowing and encouraging women to fulfill every role the Bible makes available to all Christians, regardless of gender? Or are we defaulting to what is safe or comfortable? Are we perhaps overcompensating as a means of pushing back against egalitarianism?
- Are we holding women back because we believe a woman with an interest in knowing and teaching the Bible is angling for a position of authority? Are we concerned about slippery slopes? Is there a sense in the church that theology is a masculine pursuit?
We must be grateful that God calls men to the ministry of the church and that he gifts them to lead and teach with all the authority of his Word. We must stand firm on gender complementarity, convicted that God calls only qualified men to the office of elder and to the authoritative teaching encompassed by it. But we must also understand that we best display and promote complementarity when we encourage women to accept and enjoy all the gifts God gives them. For many, that will include a gift of teaching.