For eight years, my family and I were members at a church that identified as “complementarian”—but we did not know exactly what that term meant. No written statements clarified the meaning of the term. The church’s website and membership materials did not mention it. Pastors scarcely used the term in sermons, and leaders were unwilling to expound on its meaning. What it really meant for this church to be “complementarian” was obscure.
That is, until I experienced the fruits of complementarian theology firsthand, while co-leading a racial reconciliation group with another woman of color. I have seen how the issue of racial disparity and gender bias intersect. Those in power maintain gender and racial inequality by creating oppressive systems and policies that benefit wealthy, white males. These systems continue to subjugate the majority of the population.
The call to repent and reconcile beckons our leaders to do better.
What Does Racial Reconciliation Have to Do with Complementarianism?
A couple of years ago, I and another woman were leading a thriving group of racial reconcilers. Our group represented people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and some had experienced or witnessed racism in the church. Just six months after launching, we had over 100 church members interested in participating. My church seemed enthusiastic and encouraging.
Then, not long after our group launched, I began to see male hierarchy rear its ugly head. We never thought that we needed to protect ourselves from our pastors.
The accusations began. Our reconciliation group was (suspected of being) divisive and hostile. The pastors were not happy. We were accused of spreading ideologies that were unbiblical. A few months later, it was over. I was told to step down from any leadership position at the church for six months. The charge? As a leader, I was not in agreement with the complementarian view of the church.
There it was.
Male hierarchy had been masked as disengaged interest for diversity in the church. Our group was allowed and encouraged, so long as the complementarian view we knew little about was upheld. It turned out this meant a man must lead it. I refused to agree with a view, like complementarianism, that was unfamiliar to me. I wanted to learn more and discuss the reasons behind such a decision. But no one would take the time to explain it to me.
Learning to See Power as the Core Issue
In the modern-day church, segregation is real. We are all too familiar with the famous quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that says, “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.”1 If the issue of race is not addressed and corrected, the issue of gender bias is even farther off. The reason is that at its core, the issue is not the color of our skin or our gender. It is power.
The issue of power has been problematic since the beginning of time. In the Old Testament, midway through Genesis, prostitution and slavery were already rampant. For example, let’s look at the account of Hagar and Sarah in Genesis 16. Although God had promised her a son, Sarah convinced Abraham to sleep with Hagar, her slave. Not only did she make her husband sleep with another woman, but she then became angry toward the child Hagar conceived and sent her and the child off to a desolate place in the desert. The Lord had mercy on Hagar and saved both her and her son, Ishmael. Sarah’s heart, however, was bitter and merciless. Consider the position in which Hagar was placed. Sarah sinned and forced this upon Hagar. That is why Paul writes in Galatians 4:23, “His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh.”
We see the same issue in the life of Jacob, starting in Genesis 30. His wives, Rachel and Leah, bickered and fought, forcing him to have children with their slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah, in order to outdo one another in childbearing. Like Sarah, they knew that their patriarchal culture would only grant power to them if they bore their husband sons.
All of it is a display of sinfulness. What was done to these slave women is appalling. All of it done for the same goal. Power.
Now we must ask, was God okay with these grabs for power? Here is where I love to share my thoughts about the Year of Jubilee, which was decreed by God for faithful living among his people, the Israelites. In the fiftieth year, the Israelites were to return to their home of origin. God commands his people to show compassion and be just to those among them who are poor and are slaves. The heart of God is clearly displayed:
If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God. (Lev. 25:39–43)
The Psalms and the prophets all echo these calls for justice and help for the oppressed. It culminated when Jesus read the scroll of Isaiah on the Sabbath Day in the synagogue, saying,
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. (Luke 4:18–19)
Do We Want Power or Reconciliation?
At church, my family and I chose to comply with the six-month disciplinary suspension. But after several failed attempts to receive instructions and guidance during this time, we decided to withdraw our membership and leave the church we had called home for eight years.
Today, our reconciliation group is thriving. We meet regularly for study and discussion. We share special events and everyday life. Our relationships are growing. On Sundays, we meet for worship, and I share a sermon that we discuss afterward. As a seminary student, I am committed to studying God’s word and providing sound interpretation based on what God reveals to me. I am now aware of my calling. My church family reminds me that we are called to community. In this unity, we build one another up. Our commitment to one another has superseded any attempt to divide us. It is also clear to me now that our purpose as a reconciliation group was not only about race. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20, God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. We exist to exemplify the unity, love, and compassion Jesus modeled for us and called us to imitate.
Reconciliation exposes our deep-seated sin. The old ways of treating one another—with racism, gender discrimination, patriarchy, prejudice, inequality, injustice, oppression, jealousy, and hate—are made new in Christ. God has transformed our small racial reconciliation group into a community of believers, who are actively spreading the message of reconciliation. We have moved from functioning within a system of white, male hierarchy to one that welcomes all leaders, regardless of their race or gender. We serve and lead based on our gifts and calling from God, rather than based on our physical embodiment as women or people of color.
I pray all pastoral leaders, elders, counselors, and members who have at some point chosen power over reconciliation will realize the impact of their words and deeds. My heart aches for the many women and people of color who have been hurt by others in the church. Our voices continue to be unsilenced, “We will not be shaken,” and “We will not be moved.” On the shoulders of those who struggled and fought before us, we stand up and raise our voices against the oppressive powers that be.
I invite you to join me in recognizing how a thirst for power has corrupted how we treat each other—based on gender, race, and class—since the very beginning. The history of the church reminds us of how believers fell short of differentiating themselves from a society who discriminated against and separated from those they deemed inferior. Knowing this, let us examine our own churches to find instances where those in power may even still be treating the historically disadvantaged poorly. All have sinned, but so, too, has Christ died for all. No longer may we remain silent as systems that promote superiority based on gender and race thrive in our churches. The oppression persists, and women and people of color continue to suffer. As a result, the witness of the church remains loveless and hardhearted. So I leave you with Paul’s exhortation to embrace a ministry of reconciliation, and I also challenge you to “test the spirits” within the power structures present in our churches “to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:18–20)
Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., interview by Ted Brooks, Meet the Press, NBC, 17 April 1960.
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