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Published Date: May 18, 2023


Published Date: May 18, 2023


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Planting Seeds of Mutuality in a Complementarian Church

Every quarter, the same plea went out: We need Bible class teachers, especially for the teens and adult classes. If you’re willing to teach, let the deacon in charge of the teaching program know. For most of my life, I had heard that plea without really hearing it. Then my older daughter became a teen, and it began to vex me.

Years before, in graduate school, I held a graduate assistantship teaching Red Cross First Aid and CPR to university faculty and staff. When I finished graduate school, I found part-time work teaching classes at a local community college. Then, when I moved to another state, I began designing and teaching workplace safety classes to factory, healthcare, and transportation workers. After I had children, I took up homeschooling, and taught homeschool co-op classes to different age groups from kindergarten through high school.

In short, I had, over the course of my adult life, designed and taught classes to every age group from kindergarten through adult in every setting . . . except the church I had been a part of since birth.

Here I Am, Send Me?

I sat in the pew, listening yet again to the plea from the pulpit: If you’re willing to teach, let the Deacon in charge know. And I thought, Here I am, send me! Like the prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah 6:8, I saw the need; Like we had sung since my childhood, “Lord, Send Me!” I remember singing,

There is much to do, there’s work on ev’ry hand,

Hark! The cry for help comes ringing through the land;

Jesus calls for reapers, I must active be,

What wilt Thou, O Master? Here am I, send me.

(M.W. Spencer, “Lord, Send Me”)

I heard the cry for help. I was willing to go. But in a complementarian church, I knew full well—without even asking—that I would not be sent. That plea was not for me; that plea did not care that I had been brought up in church all my life, singing “Lord, send me!” with as much fervor as anyone. It did not matter that I had the required skills and the required faith. It did not matter that I was willing, or that I would do a good job.

All that mattered—the only thing about me that had any relevance at all—was that I was not a man.

I would not be sent.

It was frustrating to me, and it was foolish. Did the parable of the talents in Matthew 13:25–40, where servants who used their talents were rewarded, and the servant who did not use their talent was punished, not apply to women? Were women not also gifted by the Holy Spirit to do Kingdom work in the exact same ways as men in Acts 2:16–18? I knew that neither of those arguments would gain any traction with our church’s deacons or elders. I was a woman; I was (based on a doubtful interpretation of part of one verse in all of Scripture) “forbidden to teach” if there were a man present, and “man” was very generously defined to include boys as young as twelve or thirteen.

Adding to my own frustrations were those of my daughter. She was an incredibly bright student with a sincere faith, and her Sunday school teachers were not keeping up. Their choice of Sunday school material was poor quality, at best, and my daughter felt alternately bored and insulted by turns. Reasoning that perhaps there wasn’t anything better available, I decided to write Bible study materials for teens with her and my own former teenage self in mind. I wrote about topics that I thought would interest them, like How can I know that the Bible is true? And What about sex?

A Seed in Secret

When I went to self-publish the books through Amazon’s CreateSpace program, a friend who worked in sales for the local Christian bookstore advised me to use my initials on the books rather than my first name, so that it would not be immediately obvious that I was a woman. My own church declined to use the materials I wrote; I was not told why. But I do know that they were used in another complementarian church—in classes taught by a man who knew me personally—and they were well received.

That, then, was one way to achieve a sort of equality, a semblance of a voice in my complementarian denomination: by concealing my gender.

It was a seed, even if it only grew outside my own congregation.

A Seed That May or May Not Wither

At my own church, I continued to listen in frustration to the quarterly plea: Who will answer the call to teach the teens and adults?

Here I am, I thought, increasingly annoyed. Send me!  

I went to the elders. “I want to teach the teenage class,” I said, “and I think you should let me. You need teachers, and I’m a good one. I will do a good job. And there’s no reason I should not. Every single boy in that class is under his mother’s authority at home. If they can be under their mother’s authority at home, they can be under my authority in Sunday school.”

To my surprise, they agreed without argument. Unfortunately, I did not actually get to teach; the deacons in charge of the teaching program found willing men (or perhaps they drafted them; I do not know) and assigned the class to them instead. When I asked why I was not on the roster, despite having the elders’ approval, they shuffled their feet a bit and mumbled about someone possibly “objecting” to me teaching teenage boys. The next quarter, I tried again. And again, while the elders were willing to agree in principle, the deacons seemed unwilling to put principle into practice. I was left off the schedule, but no one ever explained to me why, beyond mutterings about unspecified “objections”.

Ultimately, I moved to another state before I could wear them down enough to overcome the potential objections of nameless parties, but the seed of the idea was sown: maternal authority extends at least to the Sunday School classroom and underage boys. Perhaps in time it would grow and bear fruit for someone else.

In the meantime, I had other seeds to plant.

A Seed That Grew

I finally got to see a seed that grew from my attendance at yet another ladies’ Bible class, where we studied (what else?) “women of the Bible.” I began to wonder about questions that were outside the scope of the class like, “Why do we only ever study Bible women in ladies’ Bible class? And why do we only study the same half-dozen women?”

I suspected that the answer was simply that no one had ever thought about it. With just a few exceptions—Rahab, Hannah, Deborah, Ruth, Naomi, Esther, and Mary the mother of Jesus. Women in Scripture are generally only referenced as secondary characters, lesser players in the stories of more-important men. But is anything in the Bible really “secondary”? It’s not a very long book, given the length of time it covers and its overarching purpose. Surely the women who are found within it are people we should know.

Again, I took my question to the elders of my complementarian church. As with the subject of my teaching a Bible class, I found them receptive in principle. Perhaps this is because we had already learned to trust one another. Over the years, my marriage had become increasingly tumultuous. My husband’s behavior toward me was less and less godly. Unlike many women in similar situations who find little sympathy or help in the church, when I went to my elders for help they provided it. They rebuked my husband for his behavior on more than one occasion, to the point that he wanted to find another congregation. I refused. When he finally walked out on me, they were kind and supportive of me through our divorce. I sent other women in similar situations to them—and after dealing with my ex-husband, they were swifter, harsher, and far less patient with those men.

I knew that these were men I could trust, even if I was coming to disagree with their church’s unyielding stance on women doing Kingdom work. They viewed all of Scripture through the lens of 1 Timothy 2:11–12, which they broadly interpreted as forbidding all women for all time from preaching, praying, teaching, or being in any position of “authority” when a man is present. Viewing Scripture exclusively through this passage (e.g., insisting that all of the rest of Scripture must be interpreted in a way that is consistent with this particular understanding of 1 Timothy 2:11–12 so that the Bible is not “internally inconsistent”) allowed them to simply negate the many instances in the Scriptures where women are portrayed as active participants in the preaching and teaching of the Gospel. They further defined “man” very broadly, sometimes including boys who were not even teenagers yet.

But that did not account for why the full church never studied the women of the Bible. So I asked the elders: “Why is it that only women study the women of the Bible? We all study the men of the Bible. Is there really nothing that men can learn from Bible women? What women have you ever studied besides Rahab, Ruth, and Esther, and when was the last time you studied them?”

They took the questions so thoroughly to heart that less than six months later, they decided that the entire congregation—high schoolers, the college class, and all the adult classes—would spend an entire quarter studying the women of the Bible. The classes were all taught by men, and in some cases I did not think they did a very thorough job, but I know that people learned from the classes nonetheless. I heard men express that they were surprised by how much they had learned, and even that they would like to study Bible women again in the future. I was very heartened that they embraced the study in the way that they did. Perhaps men who see that they can learn from women in the Scriptures can eventually embrace the idea that they can learn from the woman sitting next to them in the pew. 

I count that one as a win.

A Seed to Share

One of the lessons I have learned in life, generally, is that if the worst thing that can happen is that someone will tell you no, that’s nothing to fear. As a woman in a complementarian church, I had been trained my whole life to tell myself no. When I stopped telling myself no and began saying, “Here I am, send me,” I did hear no from other people, but I also saw growth, both personal growth and growth among my brothers and sisters in Christ. I wrote Bible studies that have been used to teach adults in complementarian churches. I received a “yes” to teaching older boys, even if the follow-through wasn’t yet there. I prompted the men of the church to think about what they could learn from women in the Bible. It is important for women in complementarian churches to continue stepping forward and offering to do the work that God calls all Christians to do. There is simply too much work to do; we all need to be about our Father’s business—not just the men. Women, we need to stop telling ourselves no. When we do, we can begin planting the seeds of God’s truth about mutuality in our own hearts and in the hearts of our brothers.

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

Related Resources

Audio: Making the Shift: Five Moves Faith Communities Can Make from Complementarianism to Egalitarianism

When Religion Hurts: How Complementarian Churches Harm Women

Complementarianism Exists in Egalitarian Organizations and Churches Because of Patriarchy