I have spent the majority of my life worshipping with and leading in congregations that profess to be egalitarian.
My early formation was in the Pentecostal tradition. I come from a family that has produced generations of Pentecostal pastors and leaders. In the Pentecostal denomination where I grew up, the majority of the pastors and leaders were male, but a number of female pastors and leaders represented a sizeable minority. When a congregation was led by a female senior pastor, it was accepted as a normal part of God’s kingdom. I was privileged and blessed to personally know several gifted and effective women who were pastors, missionaries, and leaders. Their examples certainly helped me envision myself as a congregational leader. I was taught and believed in the scriptural support for women operating in the gifts God had poured into them, including Joel’s declaration (Joel 2:28–29), and the examples of Deborah (Judg. 4–5) and Priscilla (Acts 18), to name just a few.
But as I became a young adult and began to contemplate my own entry into pastoral leadership, I recognized that the church leadership structure was shifting — women were no longer a sizeable minority of pastors. In fact, I could barely find a handful of women serving in such a capacity. Of those, most were well past their middle-age years and closing quickly upon retirement age. Our denomination still strongly believed itself to be egalitarian and professed as much on a regular basis. In practice, however, it was becoming more and more complementarian.
During my college years at a Pentecostal institution, it was not uncommon for male faculty members to tease female students that their goal was an “M-R-S” degree and ask why their ring fingers were still bare. I personally experienced both of these things more than once. I laughed along with the professors because that’s what you do as a young student. Inside, though, I longed to have my pastoral call affirmed. For those women who did declare themselves as pastoral candidates, the assumption was frequently made that they were preparing to teach other women and/or children. This was particularly true for women like me who were single.
During my years as a staff pastor or leader in various congregations, I have repeatedly encountered complementarian practices and expectations in churches that profess egalitarian beliefs. In one instance, the senior pastor of our congregation sincerely believed he was egalitarian but wasn’t troubled by the fact that we never had women speaking from the pulpit. When I asked him about our lack of public support for women in ministry despite our professed egalitarian beliefs, he pointed to the women who sat on our council. He was perplexed when I suggested that many of our congregation had little idea who our council members were because of the “behind-the-scenes” nature of the role. None of the groups I led knew the council members. However, they knew all the men who spoke from the pulpit. Unlike my early experiences, the children in our congregation were seeing no examples of female leaders. Our young girls were denied the opportunity to see examples of female leaders to fuel their own ideas of how to step into a congregational leadership call.
The lead pastor I worked with in another congregation embraced the “Billy Graham rule” out of a sincere desire to avoid “the appearance of evil.” As a result, although we shared responsibility for ministering to and caring for our congregation, we struggled to find acceptable arrangements for praying together and discussing sensitive congregational issues. My mere presence when alone with him constituted a perceived threat, “the appearance of evil,” and interfered with my ability to carry out my responsibilities. However, he truly believed he was egalitarian.
In these instances, and many others, male congregational leaders truthfully believed themselves to be egalitarian because they weren’t actively opposing women living fully into their gifts. However, their actions, such as consistently identifying men to fill the pulpit or refusing to be alone with a sister in Christ, were aligned with the teachings of complementarians. Women in these congregations are left to process through the confusion of leaders saying one thing and doing another.
Discerning how best to advocate for women’s equality in these environments has been challenging. When patriarchal complementarianism is straightforward and obvious, advocating for women’s equality requires well-researched beliefs and a healthy dose of grace. When complementarian practices are not acknowledged or recognized as such, advocating for women’s equality still requires an abundance of grace and well-researched beliefs. Beyond that, though, it requires us to work through the process of getting people to actually realize what they believe and evaluate whether their actions are aligned with those beliefs.
So, how do we advocate for women’s equality in the church when leaders believe they are already carrying that banner? Here are some actions and approaches I’ve found helpful:
- Always be ready to highlight when there’s an opportunity to implement egalitarian practices. For example, pointing out to our lead pastor that a truly egalitarian church regularly schedules women to teach from the pulpit.
- Be prepared to explain how the full participation of women is valuable to the life of the congregation. For example, hearing a woman who has experienced infertility teach the story of Hannah, incorporating the wisdom she’s gained from her own lived experiences walking with God through those struggles, can bring deeper insight into God’s compassion for us. This is particularly true for men who do not relate to the women of Scripture. The result for our congregation is a greater understanding of who God is.
- Ask the Lord for a renewed gift of grace. I ask for the constant reminder that those who consciously or unconsciously work to oppose women fully functioning in God’s kingdom are also bearers of the image of God.
To be prepared to advocate for women’s equality in the church, we have the responsibility to continue studying and deepening our understanding of what Scripture says about the community of Christ: how is it designed to function? What does it look like when women and men are gifted, called, and allowed to serve equally? I am now part of an Anabaptist community that is committed to affirming all the gifts God has given to all our people. On a weekly basis, I see women and men in our community advocating for women to fully live out the callings God has placed in their hearts. I am so very thankful for them!
Learning from My Mistakes: Being Intentional about Practicing Egalitarianism
The Unsuspecting Egalitarians: An Unintentional Journey Toward Egalitarianism
Unlearning Complementarianism As An Egalitarian Newlywed