Her face was bright and warm. She recounted to us what it was like, at the age of only 14, to march for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama along with the giants of the movement, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was May of 1963. She and thousands of other school children faced fire hoses, police dogs, and arrest while their white peers taunted and screamed at them. Over 50 years later, she remains in the city of Birmingham, continuing to advocate for the black community.
We were a group of about 30 believers on a Sankofa journey – a pilgrimage for racial righteousness – with the Evangelical Covenant Church, listening to this woman’s courageous story. “What advice do you have for us? How have you persisted in the fight for justice all these years?” we asked her.
“Pray for holy boldness,” she said. “It’s not an easy fight. You’ve got to pray for holy boldness.”
Taught to be Timid
Her words are still underlined in my mind, just as they were on the scrap of paper I took notes on that morning. Boldness has never come easy for me.
For the people of God—both women and men—boldness is key.
Joshua urged Israel to not be afraid but to be bold and courageous, knowing Yahweh was with them (Joshua 10:25). Proverbs claims that it is the wicked who flee in fear, but the righteous are “bold as a lion” as they stand for justice (Proverbs 28:1). The story of Acts is the story of disciples who went from being timid to speaking before rulers and crowds the message that Jesus is Lord, even in the face of imprisonment and death. The Book of Hebrews urges us to approach the Lord with boldness as we ask for help, confidently knowing God receives us and delights to give us mercy and grace in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16). For the people of God—both women and men—boldness is key. Click To Tweet
We need some holy boldness today to stand before rulers and unjust empires. We need holy boldness to fight systems of oppression and avarice. Welcoming God’s kingdom reign will necessitate risk-taking and innovation. But are we discipling all believers to be bold for the kingdom?
These days, girls are still taught to be less risk-taking and more cautious than boys. Parents are four times more likely to tell girls to be more careful after a trip to the emergency room than they are with boys. Avoiding risks also means that girls learn to avoid activities outside of their comfort zone and to steer away from enterprises they have not already mastered. Fear becomes a feminine trait in the culture at large. “When girls become women, this fear manifests as deference and timid decision making,” writes author Caroline Paul in the New York Times.
The messaging in the church has not been any better. In Christian circles where complementarian theology explicitly or implicitly shapes the community, women are encouraged to hold back, to speak softly, or to stay silent altogether. A woman who speaks boldly, even when that boldness comes from a God-given giftedness or expertise, is often informed she is taking away a man’s opportunity to offer his voice and leadership. I was taught to hold back my gifts in order to honor the men in the room. In this same vein of thought, women who happen to speak and minister with boldness are often characterized as dangerous usurpers of authority.
In other words, for a woman, boldness is often not extolled as a virtue; it is an indication of a sinful inclination of that woman’s heart to dominate and control. For a woman, boldness is often not extolled as a virtue; it is an indication of a sinful inclination of that woman’s heart to dominate and control. Click To Tweet
The Impact of Culture on Boldness
There are other reasons I have struggled with boldness. As an Asian American, my culture’s roots in Confucian values means I was taught not to speak up, but instead to defer to what others around me needed. My Chinese and Vietnamese upbringing oriented me toward communal loyalty, which considers the needs of the group to be of much higher importance than the voice of an individual and discourages people from standing out from that group. A well-known Japanese saying is, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
As an Asian-American woman, I learned my role in the family was one of obedience and service. “Quietness is a virtue,” my mother often reminded me. My gifts of service and hospitality were welcomed—gifts that invited others’ voices and permitted others’ boldness, but not my own. Growing up in an immigrant family, the unspoken goal for my parents and my siblings was not to be bold and stick out, but to observe and learn how to fit in.
I also think of so many sisters in Christ, who are survivors of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse. In this experience, they are taught at a deep level to mistrust their own voices, instincts, and understanding of reality itself. This is another obstacle to a woman embracing holy boldness.
All of these factors have combined in my life to teach me the safety of timidity.
I have often wondered, “Lord, what were you thinking, calling me into ministry?” What was God thinking, asking me to step into the ministry of preaching where I must speak his Word each Sunday? How could he possibly have thought I—an Asian American woman—would be able to lead his church with the boldness and authority a pastor needs to shepherd her congregation through dark and unjust times?
And then I am reminded of the exhortation to “pray for holy boldness.”
What If These Women Had Not Been Bold?
If Rahab had not acted boldly by offering shelter to those her own society would have considered unwelcome foreigners, God’s people would not have been able to journey into the promised land.
Esther courageously advocated for her people even though it could have cost her her life. So much more than a compliant and pretty woman, she becomes a policy maker in the Persian empire.
Huldah’s bold exhortation to Israel to obey the Torah during the time of King Josiah led to a time of revival as the people rediscovered the beauty of God’s Word. King Josiah could have gone to Jeremiah or Zephaniah for help, two male prophets of that day, but he chose Huldah instead.
The Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 did not timidly return to her village where she was shunned, but boldly proclaimed she had met the Messiah, and through her testimony, many believed.
The women at Christ’s tomb did not cower in dark rooms, but dared to venture out to care for Jesus’ body on the first Easter morning, where they met the Risen Savior.
What if these women, and many others like them, had not been bold? What if Jarena Lee, and Phoebe Palmer, and Corrie Ten Boom had been satisfied with lives of timidity? Think of all that would have been lost!
When women act with holy boldness, the people of God advance, history is changed, revivals happen, men and women come to know Jesus, the church comes alive, the risen Messiah and the good news that Jesus is Lord is proclaimed, corrupt empires are resisted, and God’s kingdom comes.
The Kingdom Needs Your Boldness
Sisters, God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). The word for power here is dunamis, an important biblical word used 120 times in the New Testament. It means power, strength, and ability, and it comes from the Lord. This power fuels the believer’s growth in holiness and furthers the kingdom of God.
It was a woman in my life who boldly shared the gospel with me, taught me how to read the Bible, and showed me with patient endurance what it meant to follow Jesus. I am a new creation, brought to life in Christ’s kingdom through her enduring faith. Due to her love and tenacity, I was able to hear God’s call in my life to ministry. Her care for me has had rippling effects as I pastor my church, raise my children, and join God’s mission in the world.
As an Asian-American woman, I am still learning what holy boldness means for me. I will probably never be comfortable speaking up for just myself, but speaking up boldly for a group is something I am learning to love. Sometimes, I overstep the bounds of “holy” in my quest for boldness, and I must repent. Other times, I still struggle with timidity and fearfulness. But there is something healing in me as I continue to experience Christ inviting me to speak up, to hear my own voice, to tell my story. And what I am hearing from him in return is, “Your faith is making you well, daughter. My peace be with you.”
Women, the church needs your boldness. The world needs your boldness. Jesus invites your boldness. Women, the church needs your boldness. The world needs your boldness. Jesus invites your boldness. Click To Tweet
And men, the same applies to you. We need your holy boldness and we need your encouragement! When you see us stepping out and speaking up with boldness, help us understand how this is a blessing to you and to the church.
Let us pray for holy boldness together. Perhaps we shall then proclaim with the Psalmist:
On the day I called, You answered me;
You made me bold with strength in my soul. (Psalm 138:3)
To access the full recording of our recent #ChurchTogether conversation featuring Juliet and many others on the topic of shared leadership, click here!