What I Would Tell My 12-Year-Old Self About Gender Roles

Andrea Heinrichs


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girl reading bible no attribution


girl reading bible no attribution

My two sisters and I were raised to believe that we were able to do anything we set our minds to.

Well, almost anything. As a preschooler, my younger sister went through a short but memorable stage in which she wanted to be a daddy, a cowboy, and a fireman when she grew up. A cowgirl, and a firewoman (we hadn’t thought of firefighters yet) were in the realm of possibilities, but we had to break the news that fatherhood was not in her future.

It wasn’t until I started attending a private Christian school as a 12-year-old that I became aware of the spectrum of views regarding the roles of men and women in the church and in the home. In seventh-grade Bible class, I was taken aback to learn that some Christians believe that the roles of teaching and authority in the church, and the sole leadership role in the home are reserved for men only. A small number of my classmates and I were more interested in carrying on the lively discussion than others, so our teacher agreed to mediate a debate on the issue outside of class time.

During our lunch break, we tried to make sense of the verses that we had encountered in Bible class. These weren’t among the verses that we memorized to earn stickers and prizes in Sunday School, and I certainly hadn’t seen them printed on any greeting cards or other giftware at the Christian book store.

1 Timothy 2:9-15

1 Corinthians 11:1-16

1 Corinthians 14:34-35

I puzzled over these verses, ached over them, and resented them. Soon enough my friends and I squared off against each other in a debate with plenty of emotion, and not nearly enough knowledge, nor understanding and grace for the opposing viewpoints. Accusations of chauvinism, and disrespect for scriptural accuracy and authority flew like emotional spitballs across the table.

It was deeply unsettling. I knew that historical context must be tangled up in these uncomfortable verses, because nobody was arguing about head coverings, or about wearing gold and pearls, which appeared in the same passages. I knew something was amiss in interpreting women to be subordinate, but I did not have the knowledge to justify and articulate my intuition.

It was the first time that I heard the phrase that women are “equal, but different,” to mean that men and women are equal in value, but not in function. It was a difficult concept to understand. To say that men and women are equal but different, to say that women are just as valuable as men but not permitted to teach or have authority, did not compute in my mind. It was akin to “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others,” a point which struck me as I read Animal Farm a couple of years later.

Sometime in the last decade, I became familiar with the terms “complementarian” and “egalitarian” to describe the different views on women in leadership. I must admit that it was challenging for me to remember which term pertained to which ideology because they both sound really…nice. I believe that men and women work together in complementary ways; we are not the same. I also believe that men and women are equal.

So how do the two perspectives differ? 

Complementarians believe that the husband has been divinely given the role of leadership in the family, and that the wife should submit to his leadership. Complementarian theology limits the role of women in the church, reserving some or all leadership and governance roles to men.

Egalitarians, conversely, believe that men and women are equally gifted and can fulfill any roles, regardless of gender. Believers are to live in mutual submission to each other, both in the church and in the home.

In seventh grade, however, I only knew that my perception of my place in the world had been upended. I am the second of three daughters, and my occasional childhood worries about whether my parents would have preferred at least one son were never justified. My parents did not love me less for being a girl, or have low expectations of me in leadership because of my gender, but suddenly I wondered if God did. I felt like Anne of Green Gables, asking “You don’t want me because I’m not a boy?

I feel like I sat at that seventh-grade lunchroom table for years, decidedly on one side, but with more questions than answers. I wondered if my reluctance to embrace unreciprocated submission was justified or, as complementarian theology proposes, sinful. The messages I received, implicitly and explicitly from church and mainstream Christian media through my teens and early twenties all supported a complementarian version of Christianity. In the early years of our relationship, my husband and I often talked about the opposing views of women. At times it seemed that the only way to uphold Biblical authority was to accept the complementarian interpretation.

But I couldn’t escape the dissonance that rang within me when I thought of all the women I knew who were gifted in leadership. My mother. My grandmothers. Sunday school teachers, including one who became a Member of Parliament. School teachers. Misssionaries. Business Owners.

Adhering to the complementarian interpretation was, as my husband says, like wearing a shoe that just didn’t fit. You can only walk in ill-fitting shoes for so long.

I’ve been reading voraciously on the subject for the past four or five months, and talking with anybody who has an opinion on the issue, and my head has finally caught up to heart. I am deeply grateful for those who have undertaken the work to research and share their findings, and I now have confidence that scripture supports the full equality of men and women in value and roles.

I wish I could slide back through time for a few minutes and visit my kilt-clad 12-year-old self.

I would tell her to persevere in seeking out answers.

I would tell her that mutual submission in marriage is a song of beauty. We may not always hit the right notes, but my husband and I sound out the harmonies. Jesus is the only melody we need leading us through the song.

I would tell her that God wouldn’t trade her for a dozen boys. That God’s vision for her and for every girl is so much more than playing second string, more than muted thoughts and predetermined roles.

I would tell her that those troubling verses were radically subversive of that culture’s patriarchy. While hurtful and confusing upon first glance to women in our time, they actually provided support and hope to women in that age.

They continue to speak to us today as part of the larger story of the Kingdom of God, in which the first are last and the last are first.


Click on these links to read more on these “difficult passages”:

Lost in Translation – A Look at 1 Timothy 2:12-15 by Bob Edwards

The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16  by Marg Mowczko

On 1 Corinthians 14 & Women’s Silence in Church by Mark Kubo

Andrea Heinrichs

Women and the Bible

The Bible and the Undoing of Patriarchy

Beth Felker Jones

Editor’s Note: On January 25, 2022, we came across this remarkable Twitter thread summarizing the…

General, Women and the Bible

Power Dynamics Between Jesus and the Canaanite Woman in Matthew 15

Harriet Reed Congdon

In a reversal of pattern, it’s the Canaanite woman, not Jesus, who delivers the final

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  • I accepted those roles for years until I came across Frank Viola’s take on it.
    It was very freeing.

  • Andrea — this is one of the best articles I’ve read on this issue. So personal, so well stated, and so powerful. Yes, the church has too often operated like Animal Farm rather than by the Kingdom values Jesus called us to. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Andrea Heinrichs, I loved this so much! And Animal Farm! And Ann of Green Gables (which my daughter started reading today)! So good! I can very much relate!

  • My favorite part of this post – “Adhering to the complementarian interpretation was, as my husband says, like wearing a shoe that just didn’t fit. You can only walk in ill-fitting shoes for so long.” I knew as a 16 year old new Christian that it didn’t fit, and fortunately my parents didn’t wear those shoes either. Blessed to be part of an egalitarian church – they are out there!

  • Andrea, I grew up in a family of two girls and two boys, and we never heard in our home that the role of one sex was different from the role of the other. Your own journey through all of this reminds me of when I wrestled with the idea of complementarian doctrine too, and (as you and you husband put it) that shoe never fit me.

  • Andrea, I’m the third of three daughters… the one who went without a name for 3 months after I was born because my parents didn’t think fate could be so unjust as to give them THREE girls! They loved me, but ….

    I too have had a journey coming to the conclusions you have also come to… and thank God for it. There are many women and men, girls and boys, out there who are looking for role models of women leaders.

    • I’m so glad for this journey as well, and thankful for the wonderful women who are leaders in my life. Thanks for the feedback, Bev.

  • I grew up in a complementarian church that didn’t think mentioning that there was another possible interpretation was important. We never had these conversations, and it’s only been as an adult that I’ve come to realize how many subliminal messages were passed to me in subtle ways.
    I’d like to go back to my 12-year-old self as well and tell her that church leaders, even good ones, are not the same as God.
    So thankful for this journey for you (and for me).

    • Good point about church leaders. It is easy to conflate the two as a child. Something I appreciate in leaders is the willingness to fairly address viewpoints that differ from their own.
      I’m thankful for this journey too!

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