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Published Date: April 20, 2023

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If Complementarianism Isn’t Working for Some, It Isn’t Working for All

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2022 Writing Contest Honorable Mention!

My close friend, let’s call her Ally, is a strong woman. We were in our early twenties when we first met, attending the same complementarian evangelical church. She had just moved across the country to work as a travel nurse. Since then, she has moved abroad and spent countless hours learning a notoriously difficult language, worked and volunteered with a plethora of nonprofits, and completed a master’s degree. She also got married—I was in her wedding, and she was in mine—and recently had her first child.

Ally is one of my favorite people in the world. In our values, personalities, and faith, we hold much in common. But she and I disagree about church-y patriarchy. She doesn’t see it as a problem. She doesn’t feel that, as a woman in complementarian Christian settings, her options have been limited in any way. She doesn’t feel that people show her any less respect or value her any less because she is a woman.

I, on the other hand, do feel all these things. I feel them so much. At the complementarian church where I met Ally, I chafed at the exclusion of female preachers from the pulpit. I seethed at the suggestion that women were less rational than men and therefore less suited to eldership. I felt like I was drowning in that world and the only viable option was to leave. I felt like I might explode with the injustice and indignity of it all. And so, I walked away. I still go to church—but a very different kind of church from the one I attended in my twenties. I still believe in God—but not in a God who wanted me to stay one second longer in a place that wasn’t good for me.

I’ve thought about this a lot because I love and respect Ally so much. If there is a (completely unfair) stereotype in my mind of a woman who has happily stayed in complementarian spaces—perhaps a woman who is not smart, or not strong, or not independent, or not interested in having her own career, or not creative or initiative-taking or ambitious—Ally does not fit the description. She is so smart, so strong, so all of these things. And she has been content to stay.

What I have come to realize is that the particular ways in which Ally is strong, smart, ambitious, and independent tend not to rub the nice church-y patriarchy the wrong way. The ways in which I am strong, smart, ambitious, and independent absolutely did. And so, I have seen the walls go up. I have caused the patriarchal gatekeepers’ hackles to rise. I have felt the confines of the complementarian cage tighten around me. My experience of complementarianism has been very different from Ally’s.

Because, really, as historian Beth Allison Barr has written, the issue with complementarianism is not exactly that it does not value women. There are women, as Barr observes, for whom complementarianism seems to be working. It is a system that “does not center women” but does “[value] women who help keep it going.”[1] It works fine for Ally. It just didn’t work for me. This has nothing to do with our comparative strength, intelligence, character, or anything like that. I am not a better person, or a worse one. I just happened to be gifted with different gifts. My strengths happen to lie in different directions. My particular ambitions happened to point toward places forbidden to me. As Ally gained skill and confidence over time, her path took her to lead in medical settings and then in nonprofit spaces, none of which the Christian men in our spheres had a problem with. As I gained skill and confidence over time, my path took me to lead in church settings. And that’s when I started to face gendered backlash.

Complementarian men are often happy enough to support women in our callings—as long as those callings do not feel threatening to them in any way. They are glad to rejoice with women’s successes—as long as these successes do not make them the least bit nervous. They want women to feel fulfilled in life—as long as what fulfills us does not involve preaching or church leadership. The farther I walked down the path I felt God inviting me on—the path that aligned with my gifts and passions, the path that held fruitfulness and meaning for me—the farther I ventured into territory outside the realm of patriarchally-approved feminine activities. I felt the weight of this.

In my mid-twenties, I was prompted by a church class to write a personal psalm of lament loosely based on Psalm 142. I wrote about my experience of being a woman in a world that considers me “less” in so many mundanely traumatizing ways. I wrote about the men I knew, in my Silicon Valley world, who assumed girls and women weren’t interested in coding rather than acknowledging that a sexist world pushes us away from tech careers at every turn. I wrote about going to an office supply store with my male coworkers to look for a new office chair and realizing that every single chair in the store was made for a man.

My classmates and I all read our psalms aloud to one another. It was a brave and powerful time, full of tears and grace and breaking of silence around the deep places of pain in our lives. I shared with my classmates―my friends and fellow churchgoers―what I had written about all my experiences of being considered “less” as a woman. But there was one part I self-censored. This is what I did not share:

And God―the church! Your bride!

How much longer do I have to listen

to people, your people―good men with good hearts―

tell me that allowing women in leadership

is not what is most loving to them?

That elders make the strategic directional decisions for the church,

and that is the man’s role?

How much longer do I sit and suck this up,

or how much do I fight,

and alienate, and create division,

or when do I move on to a church that does not tolerate,

let alone propagate,

this sort of oppression?

God, if my gifts are in things like strategy, discernment, direction,

and I love the church and want to serve,

there is only so far I can go.

And it feels like I am considered

less.

I did not know how to tell my church community how enraging it was to feel that I was beginning to bump my head against a stained-glass ceiling. I had gifts, and I wanted to serve the church. But there was nowhere for me and my gifts to go. I was part of a body that didn’t quite know what to do with me.

I know that there are women who are happy in patriarchal churches. But that doesn’t make patriarchy right or good—or even tenable or tolerable. If it is not working for some women, it is not working for all women. If there is even one of us—and I know there are many, so many, with experiences similar to mine—who has been held back from pursuing her God-given callings by complementarian theologies and by patriarchally-minded people in power, the whole system is not right. It is corrupt from the inside out. It needs to change—and if, as is so often the case, it is not willing to change, then women need to leave.

Church communities are hurting not only individual women but also themselves as a whole when they don’t make room for every kind of woman in this world—every personality type, every set of gifts. If there is not room for us all, something is missing. This is what the metaphor of the human body in 1 Corinthians 12 is about: we are not whole as a community if any body part is broken or missing. Churches who say to women, you may not preach, or we don’t want you to lead us, are like the eye saying to the hand, I don’t need you (1 Cor. 12:21). And, the apostle Paul is very clear here, if one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers (1 Cor. 12:26). The Luke 15 parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son tell a similar story: God cares about the one for whom the system is not working, even if it seems to be working for one or nine or ninety-nine others. God values and makes room for each individual in her amazing and complicated particularity. Church communities are invited to do the same—and we miss out dearly when we refuse to.

I want there to be room in the church for those like Ally, room for those like me, and room for every single one of the four billion women in this world. I want there to be room for us and our gifts, exactly as God made us to be—no one pressured into roles that do not fit them, no one belittled or stereotyped or cast out for being who they are. Complementarianism may seem to work for some women. But it does not work for us all. And I will no longer settle for anything less.

Photo by Pazargic Liviu.


[1] Beth Allison Barr, “Why I Supported Complementarianism: Lisa Weaver Swartz, Bertha Smith, and Me” Patheos, September 6, 2022, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2022/09/why-i-supported-complementarianism-lisa-weaver-swartz-bertha-smith-and-me/.

Related Resources

Courage to Unsubscribe from Patriarchal Beliefs

The Consequences of Soft Complementarianism

Video: Why Pastor Priscilla Ends Christian Patriarchy