I married a minister when I was twenty years old, just as I was finishing my degree in nursing. I had long felt a call to ministry, and I believed my training as a health care worker would enable us to minister as a couple to hurting people. My husband and I worked together in churches as God led, with me filling leadership roles suited to my gifts and interests.
We had an egalitarian marriage from the beginning. We believed that Scripture taught mutual submission, and that the dominance of any person over another, in marriage or otherwise, went against Christ's teachings. Our views on gender and relationships were often different from those held by people we ministered with, but initially our choice was accepted. We lived and taught servanthood founded on love, with men and women equal in all respects. My husband was my encourager, offering me opportunities for service and inspiring me by his confidence in my abilities.
A few years after we married, it became apparent that a shift was occurring in our denomination. We began hearing from our leaders and teachers that Scripture prohibited women from leading in church or home, and that God wanted men to be the authority in all matters. We heard at one conference after another that the scriptural model for families and churches required submissive women and decision-making male leaders. Complementarianism became the approved model, and other views were deemed to go against God’s order for the world.
We tried earnestly to conform to this model, even though it felt awkward to us both. I dropped from leadership roles at church, and with our two children I continually deferred to their father as the decision-maker and spiritual leader. I felt like I was abdicating my responsibilities, but the lessons I heard from our denomination were clear and definite, so I did my best to follow them. We believed that the people holding positions of authority in our churches and in our denomination must know more than we did about such matters. We saw apparently successful marriages that seemed to conform to the approved model, so it made sense to follow their example. I taught complementarianism to the women in our local church, and strived to live it.
Meanwhile, I was doing well in my career. I started health care businesses, worked hard to make them successful, and then sold them to bigger companies. I became chief executive officer of a multi-state corporation and then senior vice president of a large publicly held national firm. My husband was also succeeding in his world, assuming ministry positions in successively larger churches and then moving into a denominational role with wide influence. Our lives were very full, with enormous demands, but in our respective work worlds we were happily using our gifts. The problem was that the more leadership I took on in the secular world, the wider the gap became between who I was at work and who I was expected to be at church and home.
I tried to find ways to reconcile the two worlds. I was traveling a lot, speaking at national conferences, and finding myself with previously unimagined opportunities. Yet I still carried the work burdens of the household and was the main caregiver for our children. Paradoxically, I continued pushing decision-making onto my husband. He didn’t want the role I was trying to force on him any more than I wanted to be subservient. I was fulfilled at work and frustrated at home; conflicted and confused.
As my work responsibilities grew, my husband and I finally realized we had to rethink our division of labor. We worked things out so that everyone pitched in to keep our home on an even keel. We took on nontraditional roles in which we had strengths: I managed the money, while my husband cooked and decorated. We resumed our collaborative approach to decision-making. We moved back into the egalitarian marriage we were most comfortable with, working as a team for the health and security of our family, at least as far as tasks, finances, and everyday decisions were concerned.
However, I still wanted to follow my church’s teachings, so I continued trying to conform in other ways. I stopped leading our children in prayer and Bible study. I left that to my husband, although my resentment grew as I felt he wasn’t doing the right things. I wanted him to provide spiritual leadership as I defined it, which meant I was asking him to take on responsibilities God had actually given me. As I look back on this, I am particularly ashamed of abdicating this responsibility to help lead my children in spiritual growth.
I continued trying to conform to expectations at church. Putting on the cloak of a submissive woman, however, became more and more burdensome as time went on. I felt a stranger to myself at the denominational gatherings I attended, smiling and pretending to be content with being on the sidelines. On more than one occasion I wanted to shout, “I have abilities that could help this organization, but I cannot contribute because my ideas are not welcome!” I identified with an acquaintance of ours, a chief financial officer for a major banking system, who left her church after being told she could not serve on the finance committee because that level of decision-making was reserved for men.
As I led my companies—and as it became apparent that the best, most loving, and most practical model for our family was egalitarian—I became increasingly conflicted. My own lived experience of what was right for me and for my family was in direct contradiction to the things we were being taught, and I couldn’t make sense of why what I felt and lived were so at odds with what God supposedly wanted.
One morning the conflict inside me came to a breaking point. As I was entering one of our branch offices, I was stopped by an employee who was waving a page of The Wall Street Journal and wearing a wicked grin. “So,” my employee said, “are you going to start being a submissive woman now?” I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I soon learned. Our denomination had made a historic change to its statement of faith, adding language that affirmed the complementarian view of men and women. Women were being told very publicly what our scriptural place was, and that we were to stay firmly in it or be out of God’s will. Although I knew this was the message being taught in many of our churches, it had never before been the official position of the denomination. Now it was, and my internal conflict finally had to be faced.
One thing was clear: I could not continue to lead my hypocritical double life. I either had to find some way to reconcile my personal experiences, sense of calling, and abilities with the scriptural teachings that seemed to deny women an equal place in the world, or I would abandon my faith. I could no longer live with the inconsistencies, and I no longer wanted to follow a God who seemed to want to make me a second-class citizen.
Not long after this, our denomination declared that all the ministers holding denominational posts would be required to sign a document affirming their agreement with the revised statement of faith. This was a difficulty of another level entirely. My husband was supportive of my journey, and together we were exploring other ways to understand the confusing scriptural passages about women. But he did not feel as strongly as I did, and now he had to choose between keeping his job and making his wife happy. I actually threatened to divorce him if he signed it, although we both knew that was an empty threat. He signed, not knowing any other way to keep his job, and feeling that I was making too big an issue of it anyway. He said I should just learn to ignore this particular teaching and make the best of the other good things our church offered. On most days, I thought he was right, and that it was very unloving of me to expect him to change his career because of my struggles with principles that millions of other people believed. On other days, I knew this was a teaching I couldn’t ignore, because it meant living my entire life as a lie.
We continued studying, reading, and praying to achieve a proper understanding of Christian gender roles. Someone recommended Dr. Bilezikian’s book, Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Woman's Place in Church and Family, and I read it eagerly. My excitement grew the more I read, because here was a respected Bible teacher giving a reasoned picture of God’s true view of women, based soundly on Scripture. I experienced enormous relief as the puzzling inconsistencies in my head and heart began to dissolve. I understood at last the overarching principle of God’s empowerment of women through the centuries, his encouragement of our gifts, and his liberation of our gender from the restrictions placed on us by culture. I began to feel whole again and affirmed in my leadership abilities, instead of feeling out of God’s will. I could finally accept what I knew in my heart—God gifted me as a leader, and he wants those gifts used in his service.
My husband, however, pleased that I was settling things in my own head, put the issue aside for a few years. During that time, pressures at his job to conform to increasingly rigid theological positions led him to start looking for alternatives. As he followed God’s prompting away from his denominational role and into another area of ministry, he came across another of Dr. Bilezikian’s books, Community 101: Reclaiming the Local Church as Community of Oneness. The picture of God as community, and our call to community, transformed my husband’s view of how God wants us to operate, including how God views people in community, male and female as equal contributors to the whole.
As God continued bringing us the books we needed to read, I found CBE. I cried as I realized there was an entire organization devoted to helping people like us. My husband, after much agonizing, deliberation, and prayer, left his denominational position and stepped out on a risky ministry venture that was more compatible with our new understanding. He even began, slowly and cautiously, to quietly champion women in ministry leadership.
Interestingly, sometimes I still have to remind myself that it’s okay to lead, okay to step out and be in front at church and home. I have to give myself permission to be a whole person everywhere, not just leading at work but also in God’s kingdom. Yet, I am convinced that God does not want to relegate me to the margins of life. God wants me and other women in the thick of things, changing our worlds for the better.