This submission is one of our top ten CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!
When I was six I asked my father, “Daddy, why can’t Mommy be a deacon?” I don’t remember my father’s response, but I remember puzzling over gender roles in my Southern church from an early age.
My dad was a member of the all-male deacon board at our church. Complementarianism was like the carbon dioxide in the air I breathed. It was there in my church and my congregation—flowing in and out of my lungs moment by moment though I was rarely conscious of it. Keeping women out of leadership in my church didn’t give spiritual life to me or my loved ones, but we accepted it as part of the atmosphere
Despite being raised in such a conservative, complementarian church, my family was not stereotypical. My mom worked outside the home as a doctor and was the main breadwinner for our family. She even started her own practice. My dad worked from home as an author and took on responsibilities most would associate with a “stay-at-home-dad.” My parents made family decisions together; I cannot recall a time when my dad made a unilateral decision for us.
Once I got to college, I joined a college ministry that celebrated women’s leadership. After my first year, I stepped into leadership myself, leading several bible studies and discipling several young women. I was so thankful for the amazing example of godly women leaders in this fellowship, and to have the opportunity to exercise my leadership abilities as well.
After college, I knew I wanted to invest in an egalitarian community. Last year, I began interning with an urban ministry which also celebrates women leaders and has egalitarian values. I see how my church and my ministry benefit from the godly example of our women teaching pastors.
I recently re-entered the dating scene after an extended dating fast. Now that I live and work in Southern California, I figured that most Christian men around me would be okay with women’s leadership in the church. One day, I connected with a guy named Jack* on a dating app and we hit it off.
Jack’s faith was important to him; he was a bit of a nerd; and he was pretty cute. After a few days, the conversation turned to our churches. I looked his denomination up; I was curious about their values since social justice issues are important to me.
As I was reading about their core beliefs, I found the seemingly innocuous but telling line: “The equality of male and female and the principle of male servant leadership.” Further down the page I read, “Both husbands and wives are responsible to God for spiritual nurture and vitality in the home, but God has given to the man primary responsibility to lead his wife and family in accordance with the servant-leadership and sacrificial love characterised by Jesus Christ… The Elders/Pastors of each local church have been granted authority under the headship of Jesus Christ to provide oversight and to teach/preach the Word of God in corporate assembly for the building up of the body. The office of Elder/Pastor is restricted to men” (Acts29).
My heart sank. I took a deep breath and texted Jack: “What do you think about women in church leadership?” He soon responded, “I’m complementarian,” with a brief explanation of his viewpoint. I debated about whether to reply. I eventually decided to give him a shot. So I told him that I am egalitarian, that I currently attend a church which benefits from having men and women lead and teach as pastors. Surprisingly, he said he was interested and asked me out.
I agreed to a date with complementarian Jack since he seemed open to other points of view. We went out for coffee. The date was not totally awful; parts of it were actually quite enjoyable. But things went south when the topic of women in ministry came up.
He told me, “If you were going to convince a complementarian to be egalitarian, I’d be a good candidate.” He followed this up by launching into a forty-five minute speech about why he was complementarian and how that did not make him sexist.
He used strange metaphors like, “Say a woman borrows money from a loan shark and she gets into debt. If I’m her husband, I think it’s my responsibility to take care of my wife and help her get out of debt. That’s what I mean when I think a husband is responsible for his wife, as a leader.” I could barely get a word in, despite his self-proclaimed “openness” to other viewpoints.
When I challenged Jack’s views by bringing up issues of interpretation and context regarding the few verses he based his argument on, he changed tactics and began talking about how the complementarian-egalitarian divide wasn’t a “huge issue.” He had a lot of friends who were egalitarian. It was a minor doctrinal issue to him. I briefly attempted to share how this was a major issue for me, as it directly affects me as a woman in the church and in ministry. Eventually, Jack walked me back to my car and we said goodbye. I hold no ill will against him, but he did not get a date number two.
Soon I was texting another Christian man. Peter* had a heart for social justice and ministry, and he also loved working with children. Once again, the topic of churches came up and once again I googled his denomination, feeling apprehensive this time. And there it was, a clause about male headship and training up men as pastors and leaders in the church. I asked what he thought about women in church leadership. I didn’t get a response for almost twelve hours. Peter’s reply was remarkably similar to Jack’s, although he explained his complementarian beliefs more fully. He ended the text with, “Personally, I’m open to learning more about all this with humility. Above all, I want to grow into what’s biblical and what God truly intended for us.”
I was discouraged to find out he was another complementarian, but I was also encouraged by his humility and desire to learn. I decided this time, I would explain my beliefs more over text. So I told Peter about how I had seen the church built up through male and female leadership as well as how traditional gender roles can be unhelpful for both men and women. I mentioned the context and interpretation issues present in the verses used to justify complementarianism. At 1am I received a response. It was a very affirming, kind, and confusing text, in which Peter said he thought I was “seriously special,” “very gifted,” and “extremely passionate for Jesus.” He followed this with, “It would be best if we went our separate ways.”
I wasn’t heartbroken; we had chatted for only a week, and had never met in person. I was discouraged. I was starting to wonder if it was even possible to find a compatible, egalitarian man. I briefly wondered if I should be more open to dating someone who believed in traditional gender roles and who didn’t believe God would permit me to become a pastor.
In the past, I was open to dating complementarian men. I knew many such men in my childhood church who were good men of God. I do believe there are many complementarian men who love the Lord and strive to love others well. But as I sat alone on my couch pondering all this with a mug of ice cream, I realized God has called me to be a leader both in ministry and in life. I recognized that I long for partnership in a romantic relationship, and I knew that I would never be satisfied with anything less.
I reflected on the many ways in which Jesus elevated the oppressed, including women. And I remembered the many ways I had seen my current church elevate women and people of color and others who typically aren’t given a voice in church. I was reminded that many egalitarian churches embody Jesus’ message of humbling the proud and raising up the humble in ways many complementarian churches do not.
An egalitarian man may be hard to find, even in Southern California. But I trust that the Lord has good plans for my life, both in seasons of singleness and seasons of relationship. If I never find a compatible egalitarian man, I know I’ll still live a full life of wonder and faith as a leader following my Lord. And if I do find such a man, I have a feeling I will be so glad that I did not settle for less. Regardless of what is up ahead, I look forward to the journey Jesus has for me and for my fellow women as we learn to find our voices, lead well, and love others in the church and beyond.
*Names changed to protect privacy