Different AND Equal: One Woman’s Journey from Complementarian to Egalitarian

I’ve avoided the egalitarian label most of my adult life. I’ve been trying to process why. I’ll begin the story in the middle, when I first learned the terms complementarian and egalitarian.

In college, I got involved with an interdenominational Christian ministry at a public university. My faith thrived. About a year after graduation, I was recruited to go on staff with this ministry. As a woman raised in patriarchal church culture, I had never explored becoming a minister even though I loved ministering to others. I was so unsure of myself that I volunteered for a whole semester for discernment before I committed. I even told my recruiter “no” before I actually prayed about it and felt like I clearly heard God tell me “yes.” The knowledge that a man actively pursued me for the position, my husband fully supported me, and I would be partnered with the current male minister, all factored into my decision. However, I still felt confused about women in ministry. My supervisor introduced me to the terms egalitarian (men and women lead mutually) and complementarian (women are subordinate to men). He shared why he was egalitarian and encouraged me to pursue the issue more deeply. I bought some books, and they sat unread on my shelf for over a decade. Interestingly, even though my faith thrived and I felt most valued as a woman in ministry during those years in a Christian egalitarian organization, I clung to the complementarian label. To fellow Christians, I never referred to myself as a minister, but called myself a “staff worker with a college ministry.” (To explain my occupation to non-Christians, I used the phrase “college minister.” It was too complicated not to.) I knew my actions and beliefs were not in alignment with one another, but I performed mental gymnastics to suppress the dissonance. These past few years, 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” – a term I often heard growing up used to belittle women.

Objectivity

Deep down, I always wanted to believe women’s voices were as valuable as men’s in the church. I didn’t trust myself to objectively wrestle with ideas that would tell me it was so. The great irony in patriarchal systems is that when a woman judges that patriarchal theology is bad, (she interprets the Bible to believe her voice should be equally valued in the church), she’s criticized for being subjective. When a man judges that patriarchal theology is good, (interprets that the Bible teaches he should rule), he’s praised for being objective. I had internalized that as a woman, I could not objectively value my worth.

Secular White Feminism

I attended a fundamentalist Baptist high school, but while most of my peers went to Christian college, I decided to go to a public university to see if my God was big enough. (I didn’t want my faith to be driven by fear.) In college, I read the assigned feminist literature. Often, the literature I read and the professors I interacted with completely erased the differences between men and women. (I have all the respect in the world for Serena Williams as an athlete, but the number of times professors tried to use her to nullify physical differences between men and women was exhausting.) Academia had little to no value for motherhood. Hook-up culture was celebrated. Traits and spheres often associated with women, such as submission and sewing, were frowned upon, and traits and spheres often associated with men, such as aggression and athletics, were idolized. I wasn’t convinced it was all healthy. To me, the feminism I encountered in college often felt like an attempt to turn women into men. “Male” values were celebrated, and anything that fell in the “female” sphere was denigrated. (Also, I witnessed blatant misogynistic acts from male peers and professors that claimed to be feminists.) It wasn’t that there wasn’t value and truth to be found in secular feminism, there was. I didn’t suffer the extremes of Christian purity culture partly because of my feminist education at a public university. For example, reading Vagina Monologues my freshman year helped me unlearn shame about my vulva I didn’t realize I had internalized. I loved many of the lessons I learned at university, but I also saw a dark underbelly of misogyny lurking in its culture. Although I rejected the extremes of the Christian fundamentalism of my high school years and secular feminism of my college days, I made the mistake of believing the complementarianism of white evangelicism was the healthy middle.

Circumstance

Complementarian theology was also matter of circumstance. I met Jesus within conservative white evangelicism. Hallelujah! I was raised in it, and in many ways, I flourished. I was happily married with four children by my early thirties. I chose and enjoyed staying home with my children during their little years. Church provided nourishing social structures for my family that were not easily found in other places (but often not for women that did not fit the complementarian mold). As an adult, I lived in a city where most of the “thriving” evangelical churches were patriarchal on some level. I had been raised to fear white mainline traditions and had limited (and not always positive) exposure to Christian traditions outside my bubble. I didn’t really have a full awareness of other options. Outside the parachurch organization for which I worked (and it was interdenominational—the “egalitarian” man who recruited me attended a patriarchal church and my male co-minister held patriarchal views), I never encountered a church that practiced healthy egalitarianism. In many ways, complementarianism was all I knew.

Self-flagellation

I confused worshipping a suffering Savior with believing he wanted me to suffer. Self-flagellation’s evil twin is self-righteousness. Where one is present, you will often find the other lurking. Throw false humility into the mix, and you have a toxic stew of self-delusion. I believed I was holy by suffering in silence within the system. People raised in a patriarchal culture are wired to read Scripture through a patriarchal lens, and Scripture provides plenty of verses that can easily be misinterpreted to support patriarchy. Both in the church and the larger culture, women are trained to suppress their own desires and elevate the wants of men. Certain teachings in the church, like self-denial and submission, are over-emphasized, especially among women, at the expense of teachings in Scripture on justice and mutuality. I hyper-focused on verses like in 1 Peter: “When they hurled their insults at [Jesus], he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly…Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands” (2:23, 3:1), and I glossed over sections such as Galatians where Paul chastised Peter for showing favoritism in the church: “I opposed him to his face” (2:11). Scripture teaches that Jesus came to set captives free from the forces that divide and subjugate us:

[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21

Because I identified with a suffering Savior, I rationalized my own subjugation. I failed to fully comprehend that Christ suffered to set humanity free from oppressive systems.

Becoming a Feminazi (or The Cracks Begin to Grow)

I clung to patriarchal thinking partly out of fear of becoming a “feminazi,” a term often “jokingly” wielded in the spaces in which I was raised to criticize any woman who failed to prop up the patriarchy. Becoming a feminazi haunted me, but I couldn’t help but see some of the structural flaws in the system. I remember casually flipping through a seminal text of patriarchal theology in college, John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and recognizing the blatant hypocrisy and racism in their opinions about female missionaries. According to their logic, God called women (like Elisabeth Eliot) to teach brown and black men overseas but not white men in the pews of American churches. I sat uncomfortably with the racism hidden in complementarianism for years. Then I watched a female friend get crushed by the all-male leadership of my church. In the midst of this turmoil, Beth Moore, one of the most well-known women’s bible study teachers in white evangelicism, unexpectedly posted A Letter to My Brothers on her blog, lamenting what it’s like to be a female leader in the conservative evangelical world. I felt the suppressed cries of all my years of serving as a woman in the church echoed in her words. I remember sitting in my living room with a tablet in my hands and sobbing. I felt so seen. Not long after, when I was counseling a struggling friend and trying to explain our church’s position on male eldership, she told me she “felt that the church sees a diminished version of the person she believes herself to be” just for being female. I had always been able to encourage women, but in that moment, I felt the weight of all that I had witnessed as a woman in church, and I was speechless. Something deep inside me finally broke. The cracks in the dam of my complementary theology had been growing for years, and the pain of being a woman in patriarchal spaces finally broke loose. I could no longer be silent. I believed the corrupted practices of complementary theology could be redeemed, and I began calling out the ways women were being harmed and neglected in my church. Eventually the elders labeled me “contrary.” I knew then that our time at our church of almost a decade was over. At first, I had enough hubris to think I could advocate for change within the system, but I knew as a woman, once labeled “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.

One of the crazy things during all of this was that I STILL didn’t trust myself to read “egalitarian” books objectively, so I asked my husband to read the one I had purchased years ago that had been collecting dust on a shelf. This is the part that’s still hardest for me to process. Why was I so afraid to even wrestle with egalitarianism? It’s so against the way I’m generally wired, but the fear of the slippery slope had been drilled into me since childhood. To be honest, it is a slippery slope. Once you start to question the role of women in the church and home, you start questioning everything, because patriarchy is foundational to the sect of Christianity in which I was raised. I still don’t fully understand why I was so resistant to egalitarian theology for so long, but my resistance was partly driven by fear. I intrinsically knew to be judged a Jezebel, feminazi, or “contrary”, was one of the worst crimes a woman could commit within the white evangelical tradition I had moved and breathed my whole life.

The Journey Out

Back to the book I asked my husband to read. My husband hardly ever reads books, but we were trying to process what was going on at our church together. The book took the most common Bible passages used to support patriarchy and claimed, in the original Greek, they meant the exact opposite of what’s been translated into English. We both felt disoriented. We left our church because we realized they were spiritually abusive, but we were still confused theologically. Somewhere in the midst of my journey I stumbled upon Marg Mowczko‘s blog and read Lisa Sharon Harper’s The Very Good Gospel. These women came from Christian traditions similar to my own and spoke about Jesus in a way I found familiar. I started to respect egalitarian theology even if I still didn’t fully understand; and I kept reading my Bible. I’ve shared in previous posts, but ultimately, I realized the fallacy of patriarchal theology by studying Song of Songs with an ESV Study Guide and reading through the entirety of Paul’s letters. Talk about the work of the Holy Spirit. As I wrestled my way through the Bible, my husband and I also started to understand and heal from ways patriarchal theology had harmed our marriage. Sheila Gregoire’s book The Great Sex Rescue played a large role in the healing process.

After we left our church, we landed in a megachurch to hide and heal. I knew the church was patriarchal if you dug deep enough, but they were a “softer” version of patriarchy than the church we had recently left. Even if I was starting to lean egalitarian, I still believed patriarchal theology was legitimate and I was comfortable worshipping in churches that practiced it. Then Gary Thomas, one of my favorite Christian authors, released Married Sex. The book overflowed with all the teachings that had caused great harm to my marriage. Many women felt betrayed and tried to explain why certain teachings were problematic. On social media, I witnessed Gary Thomas repeatedly dismiss and speak condescendingly to women trying to express concerns with the content of his book. His book was brimming with endorsements from big names in evangelicism. They endorsed the misogynistic content of Gary Thomas’ book and then stayed quiet during the controversy that ensued – including the pastor at our megachurch.

To me, men like Gary Thomas and the pastor at our megachurch represented the good side of complementary theology, but I finally realized “soft” complementarians were just playing the “good” cop. Ultimately, their role is to enforce the rules of the patriarchy, where men abusively rule over women. When you stay in these systems, you empower them to continue. We left the megachurch. We still don’t know where we’re going to land, but we no longer feel comfortable worshipping in spaces that don’t value woman as equally mutual partners. I still don’t love the term egalitarian, but it is the most commonly used word to describe the journey I’m on, and so I’m learning to claim it.


Title ImageThe Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse


I don’t love the label egalitarian. I claim it, but labels are tricky things. Though often necessary to quickly capture complex subjects in easy, accessible language, the very act of simplifying people and ideas into labels obliterates nuance and oversimplifies complexity. I explore this paradox more fully in
Language: Labels & Longing


For more of my personal story in patriarchal church spaces, see
Finding My Voice (in the wilderness) – Part 2

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