Over the last few years, I’ve met a lot of people who have begun thinking about biblical equality—either as a result of academic study or through their own experience with the disadvantages women face in the church and world. I am so grateful to the many egalitarian theologians who have painstakingly searched through the original Greek and Hebrew texts to provide academic and scriptural justification for the belief that women are indeed able and called to be leaders in the church.
I am also grateful to the women and men who have created spaces for women to be encouraged in their leadership gifts and call. To those who have given their time, energy, and finances to create spaces for women in the church, thank you. To those who have worked to deconstruct the obstacles women face as they seek to live out God’s will for their lives, thank you.
However, my personal introduction to egalitarianism didn’t come through academia or through the debate on whether women could or should lead. Though I work fulltime as a gender justice specialist and live my life proclaiming that God loves women, the fire in my belly wasn’t lit by academia or lack of opportunity. It was ignited by God in the darkness of the grave.
It may sound dramatic to talk of graves and of course, I wasn’t actually dead. At twenty-one, I found myself living in a hospital with a premature baby and a traumatized two year-old after my husband had assaulted me and caused my son to be born three months early. I was emotionally and psychologically dead. I had nothing.
For four years, he hurt me, manipulated me, lied to me, abused me, and prevented me from loving God. He destroyed everything I was and made me believe I was worthless, useless, and ugly. He stripped me of everything I had, degrading and humiliating me.
After my son was healthy enough to leave hospital, by the grace of God, I began to recover from all that my ex-husband had chosen to do to me. The question of “Why?” came up again and again. “Why did he do that do me?” “Why couldn’t I have got away sooner?” “Why…?”
In recovery courses and counseling, I learned that abuse is about power and control. The desire to have power over someone and control them is rooted in beliefs of ownership: “I own my partner” and entitlement: “Because I own my partner, I have the right to do what I want to them/with them.”
I discovered that these beliefs about power and control are often deeply gendered. Men are socialized to be the “subjects” in society, while women are made the “objects.” I soon learned about patriarchy and (thanks to Walter Wink) that it was a principality and power the apostle Paul taught us to pray against.
Around that time, I began to reexamine my Christian upbringing. At seventeen when I began my relationship with my ex-husband, I believed that submission was God’s call for women. I thought forgiveness meant staying with him no matter what. I didn’t know the difference between sex before marriage and sexual assault. Submission teaching had life-threatening consequences in my life.
And then I began to learn about egalitarian theology.
The egalitarian versus complementarian theological debate is often perceived as a secondary issue, not imperative or central to the Gospel. But it is my primary issue, because I have lived the logical conclusion of women’s submission. The consequences of submission teaching left me dead inside and almost led to the death of my son.
I remember trying to resuscitate him at home, hoping desperately that he would start breathing again. And just as I revived my son, the Holy Spirit revived me with an alternative way of understanding the Gospel.
This month, CBE is focusing on domestic abuse in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM). So, what’s domestic abuse got to do with biblical equality? The answer is everything.
I’ve been asked before whether it is possible for complementarian theology to effectively respond to domestic abuse and the answer is “yes” and “no.”
This tree helps explain that answer:
I call this the “Tree of Death.” It is planted in the soil of patriarchy. Out of every branch grows a different form of gender oppression. Complementarian theology can attempt to saw off the “branch of domestic abuse.” An individual who believes in complementarian theology can still support friends and family who are being subjected to abuse by a partner. In those individual situations, they may make a huge difference in someone’s life.
But on a macro scale, the complementarian approach to abuse is incomplete. If our mission is to end the abuse and oppression of women, it becomes clear that we can’t just saw off individual branches of oppression, leaving the tree rooted in the sin of patriarchy. No, we must find a way to uproot the tree. We must make real changes in our culture and ideology of abuse. Egalitarian theology is uniquely capable of uprooting the “Tree of Death” from the soil of patriarchy. Egalitarian theology can offer real hope to women and girls.
Natalie is a contributing writer in CBE’s latest book, Created to Thrive: Cultivating Abuse-Free Faith Communities.
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