Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part article. Next week will discuss how to remain healthy in each situation and give some advice for men.
Mindy loved her church. She and her husband were married there. They were raising their children there. Her husband’s entire family had belonged to the church for generations. Mindy and her husband had made deep roots of friendship in a Bible study and prayer group that had been going for the past seven years. Mindy trusted this group with her deepest pain and considered them her closest friends.
Even though the church leadership held to a complementarian position, Mindy had never felt stifled in her ability to use her gifts in the church. She had no desire to preach or lead worship “up front,” so it wasn’t hard for her to hold an egalitarian position personally while participating in the life of her complementarian church.
Mindy’s situation began to change when a new pastor was hired. The pastor made a point of calling men in the congregation by their names and titles, if they had one. Mindy had a PhD, but her pastor called her “Mrs. Smith” whenever he saw her, with a bit of condescension in his voice. Experiences like this became more common for Mindy and she found herself wrestling internally with the question: “Should I stay, or should I go?” She could not imagine leaving her dearest friends and her church community behind, but she also could not imagine staying in a place that did not fully value her and her contributions.
Valerie began attending her church as a college student. She chose the church closest to her college campus, which was ideal for students who had to walk. Valerie attended worship on Sundays with her roommate and a few other friends. They made connections and friendships in the college ministry group at the church, and this group quickly became Valerie’s home away from home.
After graduating from college, Valerie got a job in the area and continued attending her church. She watched her friends get married and have children. Her friends’ husbands were invited into positions of leadership. Valerie started to notice a passion within herself for church leadership and teaching, but she was reminded quickly by the church’s pastor that women were not allowed to do such things. Some of her friends were able to teach or lead studies if they team-taught with their husbands, but there was no option for single women to use their gifts for leadership. Valerie felt frustrated and sad, but she also struggled with the thought of finding a new church after so many years. What if every church was the same as this one?
Mindy’s and Valerie’s stories are just two examples of the challenges many egalitarians face in complementarian contexts. The question of “Should I stay, or should I go?” is a deeply personal one, and the answer that works for one person may not be the answer that works for someone else. In this article, we will explore some reasons both for staying and for leaving, offer guidance for making this difficult decision, and provide a helpful framework for living out either decision in as healthy a way as possible.
While both of the examples offered at the beginning of this article describe women struggling with this decision, we recognize that many men face this tension as well. With that in mind, we will also offer a word specifically for egalitarian men in complementarian contexts who are seeking to discern whether to remain in their churches or leave in search of a community that better fits their values and convictions.
Both Valerie’s and Mindy’s stories highlight many of the common reasons egalitarians give for remaining in their complementarian churches. These churches have become places of community. There may be a lot of history there: friendships made, milestones celebrated, and generational family belonging. The tension between personal values held and the church’s theology may not feel so bad, especially if it is not affecting one on a personal level. Other times, the tension may be difficult to deal with, but a person may want to stay to help bring about change in the community.
We have identified four common reasons people may choose to stay in a church that does not fit their egalitarian commitment and values:
- “It’s my church community.”
- “I have so much history here.”
- “It’s not so bad.”
- “I want to bring change.”
This list of reasons is not exhaustive, and in many situations, more than one of these reasons may be present.
First, many people choose to remain in a church despite conflicting beliefs about women in leadership is because the church has become their community. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, in his work on the crisis of loneliness in the United States, writes, “We all need to know that we matter and that we are loved.” This is a human need, and the thought of leaving behind a community of support in search of another community we haven’t identified yet is scary. Rather than risk the relationships a person has already formed, a person may decide to remain in a church whose theology isn’t the best fit for them.
Second, many people who choose to remain where they are do so because of the history they have in the church. The church may be the place where their grandparents were married and buried, where their children made friends and first heard stories from the Bible. Generational ties and milestone experiences can often motivate someone to remain in a church despite theological differences.
A third reason egalitarian women might stay in a complementarian context is that “it’s not so bad.” Mindy didn’t feel compelled to leave her church right away because the cost was not significant to her. She didn’t feel called to preach, and she didn’t want to be a leader in the church, so the church’s theological teaching about women’s roles did not prevent her from serving in ministries that were of more interest to her. Many people are able to serve and participate in their churches in life-giving ways, which lowers the sense of urgency needed to push for change or to find a new church home.
Others choose to remain where they are because they hope to bring change to their community. This reason often goes hand-in-hand with the other reasons listed above. Why leave a church in which you have community and history when you can work for change in that place? For many people who remain in a church in the hopes of bringing change, they long for the people they care about most to embrace a theological conviction about the equality of women and men.
The decision to stay or leave a particular congregation is a difficult and personal one. For some, the reasons above may be enough for them to choose to stay; others, though, may choose instead to leave.
Just as there are reasons to stay, people caught in the tension between their egalitarian conviction and their complementarian context can find reasons to move on. We have identified four reasons that could warrant a change in a person’s faith community:
- “I’ve been worn down by the repeated experience of marginalization.”
- “There’s no hope for change here.”
- “We’re moving in the wrong direction.”
- “I’m isolated in my convictions.”
First, the repeated experience of marginalization can wear women down to the point where leaving becomes the healthiest option. After enduring various microaggressions over time, women can hit a point where they just can’t handle any more. We see hints of this “death by a thousand cuts” experience in both of the stories at the beginning of this article.
Second, when efforts to bring change are continually met with resistance, it can be time to go. Too often, egalitarian women pitch ideas for change, but keep hitting their heads against a complementarian wall. Sometimes, there is no openness to change whatsoever; other times, some change happens, but it fizzles out quickly, and still other times, change is promised but turns out to be a bait and switch. The system is unable or unwilling to accommodate the hoped-for change, and over time, women reach a point where they are done trying and it is time to move on.
Third, perhaps the context is shifting in the wrong direction. One friend put it this way: “While my church was slowly taking actions toward increasing women in leadership, I engaged in the process. Years later when the same church started taking actions to undo these achievements, I pointed out what was happening to those in power. When they showed no concern or willingness to stop this new direction, that’s when I decided it was time for me to leave.” When women look down the road and don’t see viable hope for change, it may be the right time to find a new faith community.
Fourth, women may find themselves bereft of peers that share their egalitarian convictions. Without allies, sympathetic listeners, and nurturing friendships or dating relationships with like-minded folks, women can experience isolation, and this experience of isolation may well cause women to move on from that community.
These are four reasons why women might decide the best decision for them is to move on to find a new church, but there could also be others. The common thread is that women reach a point where their developing egalitarian convictions no longer fit the complementarian context in which they are situated.
Making the Decision
Given the reasons to stay or go articulated above, how would one go about deciding what to do? We want to offer four questions that people can consider when making the decision of whether to remain in a complementarian context or to seek out a community that better aligns with their egalitarian convictions.
First, and most importantly, what is your personal sense of calling? Put another way, is God calling you to stay or releasing you from your engagement with this particular community? Getting space to sit with the Lord, pray, and reflect on your ecclesial calling is crucial.
Second, what does your gut say you should do? Sometimes, God speaks to us through our emotional center. And while it can be difficult to understand what’s happening deep down, if you have a persistent, gut-level sense that your current scenario isn’t working for you, it might be time to seek out a new place to fellowship and serve.
Third, what is your community saying about what is best for you? At times we can struggle to have an objective view of what is right or healthy for ourselves, and in those cases it can be useful to get input from trusted friends who will listen to Jesus on our behalf, seeking to discern the best possible steps forward. In her book Pursuing God’s Will Together, Ruth Haley Barton articulates the notion of submitting to group discernment, as opposed to going it alone. This could be a valuable practice in deciding whether to stay or go.
Fourth, as you look ahead, can you see any hope for positive change? As embodying your egalitarian conviction grows in importance for you, it is crucial to see pathways to exercise your gifting and calling. Can you see them? Returning to Mindy’s story above, the recent installation of a pastor who clearly has a hierarchical view of gender and the church might mean that change in this area is far off, if it happens at all.
As you pursue this fourth question, you might consider honing in on the more specific question of whether God is calling to you to stay in order to be prophetic, in your words and/or your actions. As we know from the Bible, God has a history of calling women and men into a prophetic ministry in order to bring change. Is that you? If the answer is “yes,” what will you need in order to remain healthy? This question about health is important because, as we also know from the Bible, being a prophet can be a challenging assignment.
These four questions aren’t necessarily exhaustive; there may well be other questions that merit attention as a person discerns whether to stay or go. But these four are solid places to start as you seek to make a determination about whether to stay or go.
Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.
 When it comes to understanding the Bible’s message regarding women in leadership, there are two primary theological camps. Complementarians believe that women and men are created equally but are given distinct roles, both in the home and in the church, with men being called to provide sacrificial leadership. Egalitarians likewise believe that women and men are created equally, but that there are no role distinctions outlined in scripture. Instead, leadership both in the home and in the church, should be decided by gifting and calling. For more information on the complementarian position, see Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Crossway, 2001). For more information on the egalitarian position, see Discovering Biblical Equality (InterVarsity Press, 2021). As will become evident in this article, both authors firmly subscribe to the egalitarian position.
 Vivek H. Murthy, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, (New York, NY: Harper Wave, 2020).
 Psalm 42 is a good example of God being present to a person in the midst of their emotional world.
 Listening to one’s gut is important, but so too is paying attention to the rest of one’s body. Stressful situations like this can impact a person’s physical and mental health. Indeed, “Women who attend sexist congregations have worse health than women who attend less sexist congregations and worse health than non-attending women.” For more, see: https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/when-religion-hurts-how-complementarian-churches-hurt/.
 To be sure, sometimes community can bring unhealthy pressure on a person, even encouraging them to stay in a situation that is harmful for them. That’s why inviting people to speak into a person’s life requires careful discernment.
 Barton points out that communal discernment runs counter to how we usually think about discernment. “One of the reasons for this failure to discern important matters together may be that the commitment to discernment runs so counter to the independent mindset of our Western culture. It literally doesn’t compute that one would confer with others regarding what seems like a personal decision.” Barton, Ruth Haley, Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 138.
 The Bible is full of stories of prophets who faced challenges. Sometimes the challenges were internal. When he was first called, Moses questioned whether he could adequately fulfill the assignment, and Jonah certainly had some qualms about his prophetic calling. More often, the challenges were external. Prophets faced ridicule and even threats to their lives. And yet our Bibles are full of stories of prophets who overcame these challenges to faithfully call the Church to be different. Indeed, prophets like Anna, Isaiah, and Miriam would be worthy examples for women who are called to stay to emulate.