Sometimes I think I’m done writing for awhile, and then I stumble across something that reminds me of all the pain still trapped inside. This week I stumbled upon an article on social media entitled A Southern Baptist Pastor’s Plea: Please Listen, and I started bleeding again. Watching a complementarian man receive praise for “listening” all week on social media has been painful, and at first, I chose to stay silent. I knew to speak would open the floodgates and unleash the hurt still buried deep in my soul. Then Aimee Byrd wrote her response, Why Complementarians Can’t Listen. I found the cries of my heart echoed in her words and those cries are no longer able to be stifled.
I shared part of my story in a previous post. What I didn’t say is that I believe my former church is one of the best churches the SBC has to offer, and I say that with all sincerity. Before we began attending our church, I was suspicious of baptists because I had attended a fundamental independent baptist high school and had sworn that I would never be part of a baptist church. Then I left home to attend a public university in a city where, unbeknownst to me, a southern baptist seminary was located. Southern Baptist churches dominate the area, and many came into being during the age of Mars Hill; the Young, Reformed, & Restless movement; Acts 29, etc. They were “hip” and drank beer and were so different from the baptist churches of my youth that I thought they were safe. Post-college, my family ended up at an SBC church after one of our dearest friends from college invited us. The people were welcoming, many were in a similar life stage, it was in our neighborhood, and most of the people at the church had chosen to move there because it was a high-refugee area. (We had moved there because it was affordable and close to the university where I worked as a college minister. At our previous church, my Sunday school teacher had criticized us for moving into a “bad” neighborhood, so it was really attractive to find more like-minded folks). When we first started attending, the church was relatively diverse, and their goal was to create a multi-ethnic community. The church stood beside several women and helped them get out of abusive marriages. Politically, our church was one of those rare purple churches you read about in the news. People voted on both sides of the aisle, and there was some room to talk about it. We left before the anti-CRT craze swept the SBC, but I know during that period, several SBC families landed at our church because our church claimed to value racial diversity. I know our church took Covid seriously. I know they stood for victims in the sexual abuse allegations against the SBC. I share all this to say, our former church is a “good” complementarian church.
In my first post, I shared that the process of recognizing the misogyny of my church began with the way the all-male leadership treated a female congregant. It was disturbing, and I was upset. I didn’t share that I went to the church secretary (who functioned as the de-facto female minister who the elders dragged along to meetings whenever they thought another female should be present) to express my concern, and soon after, one of the elder’s wives privately came to me. They both expressed similar concerns. One of the elder’s wives and the de facto female minister were concerned with how the men were handling a situation with a woman, but they voiced those concerns to me, not the leaders. They said things like, “Well, I don’t agree with all the decisions they’ve made, but they’re young and just doing the best they know how” and “I’m concerned, but I’m going to trust their leadership.” This emboldened me enough to request the first of many meetings with the elders. The two female “leaders” totally backtracked their story once I went before the elders. The elder’s wife took me out to coffee to tell me I needed to submit more. Then, after the first meeting, another elder’s wife approached me and said, “I’m glad you’re saying something because I’m really bothered by how they’re handling this.” That was her last Sunday at our church before her family headed overseas to be missionaries.
At least four spiritually mature women (most were also older than the elders, but that’s a story for another day), were concerned but had no authority to change anything. All they could do was speak and hope the elders would listen, but three of the women were so afraid of even appearing unsubmissive that they chose not to share their concerns with the elders, and I only felt emboldened to speak after I realized other women shared similar concerns.
There were so many meetings that followed that the details have all blurred together at this point. For the first meeting, the secretary (de facto female minister) was present (and backtracked on what she had told me privately), but in all subsequent meetings, I was the only female present with sometimes as many as five elders in the room (my husband was with me.) The elders never met one-on-one because it was against their policy. It was okay for me to be alone, but not for them. I didn’t even bother going to the last two meetings, because at that point I knew my husband’s voice mattered more than mine. The elders weren’t concerned that I wasn’t there even though they were discussing me, and my husband had to face them alone (they always came in pairs to have a “witness”). In some of the early meetings, I felt like they “listened.” But here’s the thing, nothing changed. There were no actions. So I kept asking for more meetings. At first, they labeled me “strong” and actually said, “we need to figure out what to do with strong women like you.” By the end, I was “contrary.” I was pouring out the deepest hurts of my soul. I developed chest pains and heart palpitations during this time (meetings happened off and on again for almost a year). I experienced countless nights of insomnia. One day, I passed my house three times with the kids in the car because I was so lost in my head. (The kids still joke about it to this day – “Remember that time mom kept driving past the house.”) I poured out my soul which included accusations of misogyny. They “listened.” And eventually, they judged me “contrary.” That was when I knew it was over. At first, I had enough hubris to think I could advocate for change, but I knew as a woman, once I carried the label “contrary,” the male leadership effectively silenced me. Anything that wasn’t “Yes, sir” with a smile plastered to my face would be viewed through that lens.
During one of our earlier meetings, our lead pastor told me I was the first person to ever accuse him of treating women unfairly and that he had partly built his reputation on elevating women. Apparently, I was wrong for calling out sexism in our church because no one else ever had. In fact, others praised him for his treatment of women, and so it didn’t seem right to him that I should suggest otherwise. In our church, our pastor had a reputation among women for being a good listener. In one of our meetings he said, “When I’m nodding my head at you while you’re talking, it doesn’t mean I’m agreeing with you, it means I’m listening.” He nodded his head a lot.
When it was all said and done, the people that hurt me the most were the “nice” guys. I knew who the alpha-type men with blatant hard-line complementary views were among the elders (and they were outnumbered). In the end, I have more respect for the hard-liners. I knew where they stood. It’s the ones that showed empathy and “listened” in the meetings but ultimately did nothing but double-down on their authority and defend their decisions that hurt the worst. It was a stab in the back instead of from the front. One of the “nice” ones is a rising star in the SBC, known for his empathy and compassion towards women. It’s painful to watch. Another was our family group leader. We tried to leave on gracious terms in the hopes that we could maintain some of our friendships. Even when we left, we made an excuse about being “called to a new season.” (We hadn’t been talking to our family group or friends about our concerns, only the elders, because that would be gossip). At our last group meeting, our family group leader said he would know if we were still friends if we (not him) reached out to stay in touch. We lived a few blocks from each other. We never heard from him again. His wife contacted me a year later to ask for financial support so they could be “missionaries” in the Caribbean. The other “soft” complementarian, the Greek “expert” of the group, interrupted me in one of the meetings to try to soften the meaning of 1 Tim 2:12 when I was actually talking about 1 Peter 3:4 (only a man would confuse those two verses by the way). A few days later when I approached him during a church potluck to ask him more about the verse, he said, “I just remembered something I need to do,” and literally ran out of the room. It was tragically hilarious, and he never did follow-up.
I was a good complementarian. I believed in male leadership in the church and in the home. I’m a happily married woman with four kids. In many ways, I thrived in complementary spaces, and I carry many good memories from those spaces with me, but I started listening to the voices on the margins, and then I decided to join them. At this point, I have five friends who attended our old church because I invited them. For various reasons, each had “meetings” with the male eldership. Now none of those friends attend church anywhere, and some of them no longer even identify as Christian. I am on a journey of processing the ways I was both victim and victimizer in the spiritually abusive church world of patriarchal theology.
Complementarianism is Patriarchy. The “nice” guys who “listen” mask the misogyny. Nice guys are just playing the “good” cop, but ultimately, their role is to enforce the rules of the patriarchy too. To paraphrase Sheila Gregoire, an author and advocate for healthy marriages, by partnering with a belief system (men lead, women submit) that enables abuse, you are lending your seal of approval to these beliefs and the churches that teach them.
When you stay in these systems, you empower them to continue. As Sheila Gregoire says, “Vulnerable people will be hurt.” I wish everyone that supports complementarianism would wander over to Sheila Gregoire’s website or Facebook page and spend time reading through the comments sections and sitting with the stories of marital abuse. Please. Sit and listen to the stories. Then take action. Empower people on the margins to positions where their voice has authority. If you don’t, I consider you more dangerous than the blatant misogynists. In my experience “good” complementarian men (and women) are the biggest and most dangerous problem. Their presence hides the “misogynistic rot” at the foundations of complementary theology.
Jesus came for the “least of these” (Matt 25:40). Jesus came for those on the margins. Jesus came for those living in the wilderness.
Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted…
By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested?Isaiah 53:1-4,8
If your theology does not bring good news to those on the margins, it is not good. Jesus doesn’t just call us to listen to the voices in the wilderness, but to join them.
Title image is Hagar in the Wilderness, by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot
Finding My Voice (in the wilderness) – Part 1 – the beginning of my journey into the wilderness
Different AND Equal: One Woman’s Journey from Complementarian to Egalitarian – I often ask myself why I avoided wrestling with egalitarian theology for so long. I’ve concluded it’s a weird stew of several factors: a desire to be objective, a rejection of secular white feminism, a result of my circumstances, a propensity towards self-flagellation, and a fear of becoming a feminazi.
Life under Patriarchy: Death by a Thousand Cuts – Part of my journey towards healing is examining the wounds of my past. Life under patriarchy is death by a thousand cuts. Time to examine more cuts.
The Apostle Paul Led Me out of Patriarchy – Paul would be appalled to see the way his letters have become the letter of the law to restrict half of the human race from fully expressing the gifts of the Spirit.
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Thank you for sharing your story, even the difficult bits that were hurtful. You’ve had quite a journey from an unhealthy theological view to a healthy one. I applaud your courage and resolution to move to circles that value true mutuality.
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