A Travelogue of the Interior

faith questions

Men and the debate on women’s roles


Disclaimer: I am not a man.

Happily, I could end my post there and have said something meaningful.

The thing is, there is a lot of discourse over gender roles these days, much of it seething just below the surface with anger and fear for sure, but hope and optimism too. The stakes feel high.

25 years ago, I started reading, thinking and praying about the question of what women ought to be and do in the church and home. By “ought” I mean, what, if anything, has God ordained as boundaries for women, and what might God’s motivation have been in doing so.

In 25 years, I’ve concluded that there is no definitive answer, so the one thing we can say with absolute confidence is that clearly I am not the quickest study out there.

If there was a definitive answer, surely we would have landed upon it by now, what with all the words that have been spilled in hot pursuit.  But faithful, Jesus-following, Bible-honoring people continue, year after year, to disagree on the boundary markers for women, and will go on disagreeing until God establishes shalom as God promised God would. I believe with all my heart that God’s people will laugh heartily in those days about all the stupid things we bickered over, and we will grieve even as our tears are wiped away for the ways we ran roughshod over other human beings in our need to assert our theology was “right.” I for one am counting on the fathomless mercy of God.

Lately I’ve been taken with what seems to be considered a flip side of the “woman’s roles” question but really is just as essential and fundamental: how do the various beliefs about women’s roles in home and church affect men?  Our operating metaphor leads us to ask questions in bifurcated ways, but really we are dealing with ranges of possibility. I’m hopeful we can engage as sympathetic interlocutors rather than adversarial ones, allowing as best we can for the fullest set of possible responses.

Since I am not a man, rather than make pronouncements I’m going to throw some questions out there and hope those of you who are men speak up. I hope women contribute too, either by asking additional questions, by nuancing the questions I’m asking, or by postulating answers but holding loosely to them so that if actual men contradict or nuance those answers, we are able to genuinely hear each other. I also hope women take time to ask the men in their lives these questions — not just marriage partners but fathers, sons, brothers, friends. If you get any great insights, share them with the rest of us!

I have tried to keep my own point of view out of the questions as best I can, but I’m sure I’ve failed, so feel free to re-write the questions or deconstruct them to show me and everyone else the assumptions I’m operating with.  Remember, I love a good deconstruction.

So, without further adieu …

  • How do beliefs about gender roles for women affect men?
  • When a man sees himself as the spiritual leader in his home, is that motivating or paralyzing for him?
  • When a man sees himself as the leader at church, does that affect the ways and places he chooses to serve?
  • Do unmarried men feel they have as much leadership opportunity in the church as married men?
  • What sorts of expectations about women and marriage does the debate about biblical womanhood create for unmarried men who are looking to marry?
  • Does a man raised in a complementarian church or home have different beliefs about what a good marriage will be from a man raised in an egalitarian church or home?
  • Do men raised in complementarian versus egalitarian homes or churches choose categorically different kinds of women for marriage partners?
  • Do clearly-articulated roles for women tend to minimize manipulation within relationships or exacerbate it?
  • How do men respond internally when popular preachers say that men fail to be “Godly men” if they are not the sole breadwinner in their home or if they are a stay-at-home dad?
  • How do men respond internally when popular preachers encourage women to take leadership roles in their homes and churches?
  • Are we assuming there is only one “correct” response from “real” Christian men to these questions?
  • Is there room in our understanding of God’s created order both for men who want to lead and men who want to partner? Can we have both or must we continue to duke it out until we are all in agreement?
  • Are these even the right questions?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Author: karen d

Thinker, Dreamer, Traveler. Recovering Pharisee.

6 thoughts on “Men and the debate on women’s roles

  1. Ha! I am reading your blog at the exact moment you are reading mine 🙂 New mutual fans, clearly. Karen, I love this post. What an excellent set of questions. I am re-grappling with this issue after several years of putting it on the back burner. I came into marriage with a whole lot of complementarian expectations, but ten years in I am realizing that when egalitarians describe the give and take of their marriages, there is a lot of common ground there too. In particular I appreciate the question you raise about what our views on gender roles do to men. I wrote about my realizations on this at Start Marriage Right a few months ago, if you’re curious…. http://www.startmarriageright.com/2013/11/spiritual-leadership-a-movement-in-three-parts/


    • Bronwyn, I had such a similar experience to yours in the sense of coming to marriage with a litany of complementarian expectations, and I think those expectations shaped my experience of marriage in some pretty significant and not altogether healthy ways. I am currently trying to wrap my head around the implications of going the route that NT Wright seems to suggest, which is jettisoning the bifurcation altogether and refusing to use the categories, as if they are meaningful or helpful signifiers. It leaves something of a vocabulary void, so I’m kind of floating right now but hoping to land on something solid sooner or later, at least solid for me 🙂


  2. Wow . . . I love your heart behind the questions and I love the questions, as well.
    In particular, as I grow older, I pray the mercy Christ has poured into my life also pours out of my life. I don’t want to be known for the things that I disagree with or don’t have a clear position on, as much as I want CHRIST to be known in all His glory and grace! So, I appreciate your sentiment that one day we will likely look back and laugh and even grieve over the arguments that seemed so important during these years.
    I also love the questions you ask . . . and I’ll be very curious to hear some responses from your male readers. I’m definitely going to be asking those questions to the men in my life.
    Some days the “grey areas” frustrate and confuse me. More and more often, I find those “grey areas” just throw me back to the feet of Jesus and strip away my pride and self confidence. That’s a good place to be . . . so I’m thinking those grey areas won’t be black and white for me any time soon.


    • Hi karen … great to hear from you! I love following the life and times of the Firstbrook family on Facebook. I connect a lot with what you are saying about the grey areas and how they lead you back to the feet of Jesus. I suspect we need a lot less “confident knowledge” in our spiritual lives and a great deal more aptitude to be surprised by the grace, compassion and mercy of God. Here’s to living in the grey! (or is it gray?) xo,k


  3. Those are definitely the right questions, Karen. I’m particularly struck by the question about unmarried men and their opportunities to lead, because I often read comments from people on the issue of women and marriage that question where an unmarried woman is supposed to fit in to a church that tells women their ultimate place of service is as a wife and mother. Your similar question about how single men are supposed to serve fully in a church that extols a man’s leadership of his wife and children shows just how limiting both concepts are.

    Boo to that.


    • I couldn’t agree more. To make matters worse I think, because there is such an over-emphasis on marriage, single men are seen with suspicion. Single women “of a certain age” are viewed with pity (as if being unmarried was a fate worse than death!) … but unmarried men of a certain age are too often squinted at as if there must be something wrong with them. We need to get away from this “ages and stages” mentality in the church!


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