I was a complementarian for more than 20 years.
I believed that women should not serve as church elders or senior pastors, that the primary vocation of Christian wives was to submit to the leadership of their husbands, and that husbands should lay claim to that leadership. Because I came to faith when I was 19 years old and immediately joined a complementarian church, I thought this was the only approach to gender roles that took the Bible’s authority seriously. I attended a university well known for its complementarian faculty, completed a masters of divinity, and worked as a pastor at a complementarian, non-denominational church for 17 years. I prided myself as being a “soft complementarian,” distancing myself from the more extreme examples of patriarchy I saw in the Christian community.
Cracks began to appear in these convictions about nine years ago. Consequently, I began to reexamine my theology of gender. I read books and journal articles on all sides of the spectrum. I talked to women serving in ministry as pastors, and to women who had given up their calling because of roadblocks they encountered. I reflected on the results of complementarian theology on the women I knew over my years in pastoral ministry. The tipping point came from reading Discovering Biblical Equality and then William Webb’s work on the hermeneutics of cultural analysis. As a result, I experienced a significant paradigm shift.
I became convinced that egalitarianism had better biblical and theological support.
I now believe that Galatians 3:28 applies to more than just our legal status before God. Rather, this passage (and others like it) provides the church with a redemptive vision for community life. I believe patriarchy is a result of the human fall (Genesis 3:16), and that perpetuating it ignores God’s new creation that has invaded our world through Christ’s cross and resurrection. I believe that Christian marriage ought to be patterned according to equal partnership and mutual submission of the husband and wife to each other (Ephesians 5:21).
I also discovered that twenty years of socialization is not easily unlearned. I began to see in myself habits, responses, and assumptions that threatened to undermine my newfound commitment to gender equality. As I looked around me, I saw others making these mistakes as well and decided to make some changes.
Here are five lessons I’ve learned about living out my theology with authenticity:
#1 PAY ATTENTION TO BODY LANGUAGE
After embracing an egalitarian theology, I noticed a troubling dynamic. I realized that I had a tendency to make more eye contact with and pay more attention to the men in the room than the women. This was not intentional, but I was inadvertently engaging in a microaggression towards my female colleagues. I had been socialized to treat the input and ideas from my female colleagues less seriously than that of my male colleagues. Once I recognized this, I began to pay closer attention to my body language. I was intentional to engage in active listening and make eye contact with female colleagues when they were speaking. By aligning my body language with my theology, I was able to make headway in unlearning old habits and developing new ones.
#2 CHALLENGE YOUR ASSUMPTIONS
My complementarian theology instilled in me some assumptions about gender and personality traits. At an unconscious level I viewed assertiveness, confidence, and competition as acceptable traits in men; however, my ingrained impulse was to see these same traits as negative in women. Even after embracing egalitarian theology, I still found that my knee-jerk response was to assume that women displaying these traits were stirring up conflict or trying to cause trouble. In my previous ministry experiences, opinionated and assertive women were sometimes labeled by male leaders as “troublemakers” or “busybodies”. Once labeled, men had the social justification to discount anything these women said, in effect silencing their voices. None of these responses were evoked when I encountered men displaying these same traits. Recognizing that these deeply ingrained assumptions were largely the result of my years as a complementarian, I began to challenge them, and I was able to begin listening to the voices of the women around me and value their leadership.
#3 USE GENDER-INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE
The language we use says a lot about what we value. After becoming an egalitarian, I would sometimes speak of “men” or “man” to refer to all people, not realizing that such language eclipses women. This too was an example of microaggression. In patriarchal culture, a woman’s identity and status is embedded in the man she is most closely related to (her father, husband, or another male relative); my use of gender exclusive language inadvertently perpetuated this same idea.
I became very aware of this when the translation committee updated the New International Version of the Bible, and their use of gender inclusive translation theory was met with significant resistance from complementarians. This debate reminded me that language matters; how I choose to speak should reflect my deepest convictions. I started paying closer attention to my language. Was I greeting mixed groups with the colloquial, “Hey guys” or the gender inclusive, “Hey friends”? Was I making statements like, “Jesus calls all men” or saying, “Our Lord calls all believers”? I began to shift my language to be more consistent with my theology.
#4 RETHINK YOUR EXAMPLES
Christian leaders love to use stories and examples to communicate. Appeal to exemplars is a tool of the leadership trade, its usefulness attested as far as Aesop and Aristotle. However, after shifting to an egalitarian theology, I began to notice that most of the examples I used were men or about men. This was not only true in sermons, but also in ordinary conversation. I realized that my exemplars of Christian courage, faith, and devotion were mostly men. The amazing women of faith who had lived exemplary lives were largely unknown to me. Somewhere along the way their voices had been silenced and their influence shrouded. I realized that the unspoken script I was sending was that real work for God’s Kingdom comes through men. So I became intentional about learning. Ruth Tucker’s Daughters of the Church was immensely helpful in this process. Now in my communication I try to balance male and female examples, both in preaching and in other conversation.
#5 BE WILLING TO PAY A PRICE
As a man, I am sometimes afforded opportunities that are not given to equally qualified women. My new convictions forced me to think long and hard about what to do in these circumstances. I faced this very dilemma when I began the ordination process for my current denomination. I joined a denomination that best reflected my theology and ministry convictions. As a result, I found myself in the ordination process with several gifted women. Through an unusual series of events, my network moved to a province that would only ordain men.
I was given a date for my ordination, the culmination of a two year process. But the women in the process with me were not given the same opportunity. My gender had opened a door that was closed to my female colleagues. As I prayed about it, I felt it would be wrong for me to accept this opportunity, and wrote a letter declining the invitation. I realized that this could close the door for me to ever be ordained with them, but I felt strongly that this was the right thing to do. A short time later, my network realigned with a province that ordained women and I joyfully accepted the invitation to be ordained. I don’t share this to paint myself as any kind of hero (in fact, this lesson has been perhaps the most challenging for me), but to demonstrate that convictions sometimes come with a cost.
Paying attention to body language, challenging assumptions, using gender-inclusive language, rethinking examples, and being willing to pay a price for my convictions are all things that have helped me become more authentic as an egalitarian leader. Having spent most of my Christian life in a setting filled with unspoken assumptions about gender inequality, my journey to align my practice with my faith is still a work in progress. Fortunately, I have several women around me who are willing to give me honest, constructive feedback when I ask for it.
YOUR TURN: Can you relate to some of the dynamics Tim shared? What do you find helpful on the list? What would you add?