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September 27, 2012

Bossy Older Sisters in the Church

Cultivating and wielding female strength


Not long ago, when I was pregnant with my now-infant son, I must admit that it came as quite a shock to me when I found out I was having a boy. I was sure that I was having a girl. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind. And because I was so certain of my child’s gender, I had already begun to think about how to raise a faithful Christian woman.

As I thought about my future with a daughter, there was one fear that weighed heavily on my heart, as well as my husband’s. In fact, it weighed so heavily on my husband that he secretly wanted to have a boy!

Although it is probably sheer coincidence, my husband and I both had negative experiences with “bossy older sisters.” Within our own families and others, we observed a recurring family hierarchy in which the first child, a daughter, reigned over her siblings like a queen. And to be perfectly honest, I was that sister. I have one sibling—a younger brother—and for reasons I cannot explain to you now, I was bossy. Really bossy. In fact, I think my 30-year-old brother still has flashbacks whenever I raise my voice too loud.

Again, our experiences could be pure coincidence. I am quite sure that not every older sister is a nightmare. I am certain that many female first children are magnificent and caring and responsible and good. But the pattern in our own lives led me to wonder if there was anything behind the trend. As a mother, how could I prevent my daughter from becoming a bossy little girl?

As I mulled over this question, I formulated a hypothesis, and I would be interested to hear your own thoughts on it. So here goes:

When I was growing up, adults were very intentional about teaching boys to harness their strength. This emphasis manifested itself in many different ways, but it was especially apparent in the commandment that under no circumstances should a boy ever, ever hit a girl.

I am grateful that adults took the time to convey this message to boys. It’s an important one. But the funny thing is that adults spent less time teaching girls how to harness their strength. Perhaps this is because girls are, in general, smaller and less physically threatening, but that is not the only way to measure strength. Girls and women are very strong, and one of the ways females exercise their strength is through verbal communication—the abuse of which is sometimes bossiness.

That said, I can’t help but wonder if these different approaches to raising boys and girls are the reason some girls misuse their power. If girls are not taught that they can hurt people with their strength in the same way boys can, they are probably more likely to abuse their power. And sometimes they do.

Moving beyond my “hypothesis,” we see plenty of examples of female power in Scripture. The Bible provides us with countless examples of both the good uses and horrible abuses of female strength: Rebekah cunningly manipulated her sons and deceived her husband to acquire Jacob’s blessing; Esther courageously used her influence to save the Jewish people; Delilah exploited her marriage to bring about the downfall of Samson and his people; and Joanna, manager of Herod’s household, financially supported Jesus and the disciples.

Although journalists like Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have shed light on the powerlessness of many women throughout the world, and we must continue to advocate for those women loudly, it is also worth remembering that women are strong. God has granted us unique strengths that we can use either to build up God’s Kingdom or in selfish rebellion.

Whether or not my hypothesis about little girls is true, women undoubtedly have strengths that need to be cultivated correctly. The more common conversation among women in the church concerns hardship and overcoming struggle, but that narrative needs to be supplemented. In addition to helping women overcome, the church should also help women identify their gifts and their strengths. If we fail to do this, the strengths of Christian women are not only likely to go unused, but might even be misused.

Sharon Hodde Miller is a blogger, freelance writer, and PhD candidate who lives in the Chicago area. You can find her at her blog, She Worships.

Related Tags: female, power, responsibility, strength, women


Ah! You've identified a really important missing piece for me. That I am strong. Sometimes I try so hard to fit into the stereotypical "submissive" role that I don't realize my own power & strength. And when we don't get a chance to own that part of ourselves, to explore its characteristics, we don't know how to use it well. Thank you for the call for us Christian women to use our strengths, and to use them well.

Im also the eldest, at sometimes being very bossy towards my brother. In my case, it was definitely for the best that I've been the stronger on. My brother, although 51, just never grown up. He got deaf when he was 18mnths old and attended a special school for deaf children. My mother absolutely spoiled him and gave him everything he wanted. Now, today, he still expect everybody to spoil him. He cannot work with finances, always in dept, etc. If it was not for my bossy attitude towards him, I think he would have been without a house or job today. Sometimes I feel bad to be like that, but.....what can I do?

Sharon -- I like your hypothesis. A lot. It makes sense that if our strength was seen as a character quality that needed to be cultivated and honed, perhaps it would have manifested itself as refined leadership skills, given to helping people discover their own qualities instead of just bossing them around.

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