The Consequences of Soft Complementarianism

by Mikaela Bell | June 24, 2020

Editor's Note: This is one of the Top 15 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!

When women and men share their stories of harmful church teachings about gender roles, we’re accustomed to hearing the obvious horror stories. We’ve heard repeatedly about churches that have abused and demeaned women until their mental, physical, and spiritual health was irreparably damaged. These kinds of experiences tend to be the consequences of more strict patriarchy, or “hard” complementarianism.

We also know that the problem of theological patriarchy is far more widespread than many of us imagined, and it’s not always so overt. We’ve all heard people say things like, “complementarian theology isn’t the problem—sin is,” or “complementarianism works great if the men are modeling Christ appropriately.” There are a hundred variations of this that all boil down to: “This argument isn’t relevant because my church isn’t abusive.” For “soft” complementarians, this is all evidence that we are fixated on the wrong thing.

The real problem is that complementarian theology itself—even “soft” complementarianism—lays the foundation for abuse and can have harmful unintended consequences in all its expressions. You’ll see from my experience why I feel comfortable making this claim.

Laying the Foundations

I grew up in a white, middle-class Baptist church where girls were expected to go to college and at least were given the option of working outside the home. I was never told that I was worth less than the boys, or that I should mask my intelligence, or that I didn’t have rights. I was told that I needed love more than I needed respect. The church was “seeker friendly,” so sermons were topical and often followed a formula: “What does God think about ____?” plus a slew of Bible verses divorced from their context.

One of those topics was, “What does God think about female pastors?” Of course, a quick glance at the relevant verses seemed to make the case quite clear: “I suffer not a woman . . .” (1 Tim. 2:12, KJV) and all that (1 Cor. 11:3; 14:34–35; Eph. 5:22–24). There was no room for debate. And these beliefs and teachings had consequences for my own family more than once. My mother did all the work of a worship pastor for three years and was unceremoniously pushed aside in favor of a man once they decided to make it a paid position with a title attached. One time, when the elders came over to our house to pray for my brother who was having some behavioral health issues, my mother and I were asked to leave. Our presence might undermine their ability to pray with authority. From this, I learned that even my presence could be spiritually threatening.

All of this was happening while I was attending a public school, learning about critical thinking, textual analysis, and sexism. But the Bible seemed very clear to me, and it felt wrong to subject it to the same kind of analytical lens used for other texts. God had preserved it exactly as he meant us to have it. Mostly, I tried not to think about it too much. When a teacher at school asked if the girls had ever been told there was something we couldn’t do because we were female, I didn’t raise my hand. Pastoring a church didn’t count. Besides, I wasn’t called to be a pastor. Nothing in the Bible said I couldn’t become an academic. And if I had to be under my husband’s authority, well, it never said he had to claim that authority. Authority only counts if you exercise it, right?

But there has to be a reason why you’re not allowed to lead, the nagging voice in the back of my head always said. You’re avoiding the reason.

I don’t need a reason, I would answer. The ways of God were mysterious. It didn’t have to make sense.

Reaching a Turning Point

During my freshman year of college, I started dating. It was a far too familiar story: two lonely young people find each other and mistake the initial rush of emotion for love. We started talking about marriage almost right away. Except, of course, that this inevitably led to a discussion of gender roles, and that’s when I found out that this guy was not quite everything I’d hoped for. There would be no abdication of authority with him! I think he understood a husband’s role to be similar to a loving parent. Except I didn’t want to marry a loving parent. I wanted a partner. I wanted to be wanted as a partner. I thought non-Christian girls got men all the time who wanted to be on equal footing. I knew they were wrong, but still, I envied them.

I couldn’t stomach marriage on his terms, so we broke up.

Then I started to doubt myself. The Bible was clear. God was on his side. I was going against God. So I began doing research. Online searches led me to the writings of men like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, which seemed to confirm my worst fears. My mother handed me Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage, which was gentler in its approach but provided no satisfactory answers. Then an acquaintance at an on-campus student ministry loaned me Women, Authority, and the Bible, an edited volume by Alvera Mickelsen, and Men and Women in the Church by Sarah Sumner.

Reading those two books was like finding a river of water after a lifetime in the desert. I had never dreamed that there could be so much more to this subject. And yet these people read the Bible very differently than I had been taught. They examined whole passages as a unit. They asked not, “What does it say?” but, “Why does it say it?” They examined the meaning of Greek words and compared them with how other Greek writers used them, too. They studied for years to reach their conclusions.

The Moment of Crisis

I had always been told that the Bible was God’s personal guidebook for my life. Any problem or question could be solved simply by looking up the appropriate verses and applying them. Now these egalitarian writers seemed to imply that I would have to make a lengthy, in-depth study of any important issue in order to understand what the Bible had to say about it. I might even have to learn some Greek. Didn’t pastors go to seminary to save us from doing all that work? Who did I think I was, to question thousands of years of patriarchal theology? And if I started doing that, where would it end?

No, I decided that I had to be able to take my Bible at face value. And so, one night, I opened my concordance and read through every single verse in the Bible that referred to women. I decided I would read the verses, and then I would follow through on what they said no matter how painful it was.

This was how I came to several important conclusions. First, I concluded that I had not been created for God, but I had been created for man. Genesis 2:18 clearly stated that God made woman to be man’s helper. My entire existence was based on his need for an assistant. Eve had demonstrated what happened when we tried to find our own way. And the ways of God weren’t all that mysterious after all, because the Bible said right out that women are not allowed to teach men because we are weaker than them (1 Tim. 2:11–15). No amount of “nor is there male nor female . . . in Christ” (Gal. 3:28, NIV) could be allowed to undermine these cold, hard facts.

Second, all the women I had ever met were failing to live up to this creation mandate because they were investing time and energy in identities that existed independently of their husbands. I had no right to my own dreams and ambitions! I was made for his dreams and ambitions! And if accepting this fact felt like drowning, then that was the result of the fall, of my rebelliousness. After all, we were called to “die to ourselves,” right? I would only find true fulfillment if I stopped existing as a human altogether.

Now, I would like to stress again that I had never been taught anything remotely like this in church. I came to these conclusions on my own, but I was using the “soft comp” framework I had been given. I am quite sure that if my former pastor were reading this now, he would be horrified. He would say—rightly so—that I had been deceived. And yet, this was the result of his teaching. I was reading the Bible the way he had shown us in sermon after sermon filled with Bible snippets carefully chosen to support his point of the week. “Fact-check me,” he always said. “You’ll see it’s all in there.” And I concluded that it was.

When the cognitive dissonance is fully confronted, “soft comp” theology can have only two possible outcomes. Either you follow it to its logical conclusion, or you reject it altogether and become an egalitarian. I had chosen to follow it to its bitter, misogynistic end.

It was the only time in my life that I have seriously contemplated suicide.

Called to New Life

That might have been the end of my walk, one way or another, except that something happened. I remember lying there, alone in my dorm room, crying and begging God to let me end my life. How could a God who was willing to die for me be so unspeakably cruel? But then, he hadn’t actually died for me, because the Bible said, quite clearly, that women were saved through childbearing (1 Tim. 2:15). I was created for man, not for God. God didn’t care how I felt.

Then, behind my closed eyelids, I saw, I heard, I felt with every sense I had, a garden. And I was standing in the garden, and I was crying. I was Mary Magdalene, and all my life I had been used, and set aside, and used, and set aside, and I had thought this endless misery was all there was, and then Jesus had come. And he saw me. For the first time in my life, someone saw me. I thought, “I have finally seen the God who sees me.” He had thrown out my demons, and I had followed him. I had sat at his feet, among his disciples, and actually dared to hope for the future. And now he was dead. And they hadn’t even had the grace to leave his body alone.

I heard footsteps behind me. I turned. He said my name. I ran to him.

As the images faded, Jesus said to me, “How can you read this, and still believe all those horrible things about me?”

I woke up with his words still ringing in my head. They have never stopped ringing.

It’s hard to argue when Jesus makes a personal appearance in your dorm room. That’s not to say the rest of the path was easy. I needed a lot more prayer, counseling, and more direct signs from God to really come to peace with an egalitarian theology. And I had a lot of work to do. Instead of merely reading my Bible every day, for the first time in my life, I had to actually start studying it.

Now my faith today is deeper and broader than I ever could have imagined, and it is because Jesus set me free.


Find more winning entries from CBE's 2019 writing contest here.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

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