I was 32 years old before I heard the word egalitarian.
My universe was very small, growing up. I, realized, sort of, there was a Christian culture outside of my soft patriarchal, quiverfull one. But that’s how it was always understood. Being out there, on the fringe, barely Christian, if they were Christian at all.
Even though I was shy and non-confrontational by nature, I grew up with a strong sense of justice…and the culture around me was unjust. I knew it. I had no theology to back it up, no one to talk to who could explain to me that there was a different way. I didn’t even have words to put to it. But I knew it was wrong.
As a teenager, I started to see more specifics. I saw that the system we were in, the theology we were being taught, was leading to abuse, especially sexual abuse. But how could I, a shy young GIRL, in a world of patriarchy, explain that to the adults, who saw these all as isolated incidents. “Sad, yes, but probably the girl should have known better. Maybe if she had just dressed better.” And then there would be another sermon on female modesty. I couldn’t put any of it into words at the time but I knew patriarchy didn’t work.
When I married, I moved on from patriarchy to complementarianism.
At the time it was very freeing. My new pastor and his wife had a good, loving relationship. Through them, I learned about a God who loved me, who valued me because I was created in His image. Of all the complementarian teachers I’ve heard, and I’ve heard quite a few, my pastor had the most beautiful interpretation. It left me feeling thankful that God had made me a woman. It was complementarianism at its absolute best.
It should have produced this wonderful, deeply satisfying masculinity and femininity that complementarians were always promising. But it didn’t. It was more subtle, softer. But it still left the hierarchy in place with women (and some men) as less than. It came out in joking by one man as we cleaned up after a service where the teaching had been on women’s roles. “The women should be the ones doing this,” he laughed.
It came out when my thoughts were dismissed the second I became emotional, even though I am extremely logical and a deep thinker. When I tried to explain that women being compared to secretaries while men were compared to CEO’s made me feel less than, it came out in being told that wasn’t reasonable and I shouldn’t feel that way.
My husband’s struggle with sexual addiction brought it out even more. Some placed the blame on me directly, others were more kind. But even the kindest pastor made assumptions about my motivations for instituting boundaries, without even considering the hours (years really) of research I had put into addiction, the time spent in counseling, or the time I spent in prayer. He couldn’t see past my femaleness; past the narrative that complementarianism creates, the one that says I must be trying to control my husband.
I also experienced the downside that complementarian theology creates for many men.
My husband doesn’t fit into the “godly manhood” model. He is sensitive, a deep-thinker, and speaks slowly and thoughtfully. He’s humble and wants to hear my opinion on things. Putting thoughts and feelings into words is sometimes difficult for him. Because he knows I am more articulate, he sometimes asks me to speak for him. These are all things that make him an amazing partner, but bad at conforming to the complementarian definition of “biblical manhood”.
Because of this, I have seen him talked down to, dismissed, and held back in leadership. At one church, when he asked for help with his addiction, the leaders scolded him like a child and threatened to tell my dad on him. They refused to accept his “no” and only backed down when I cried and begged them not to do that.
Added alongside my personal experience were the continual public scandals among patriarchal and complementarian leaders. Time and again they were caught misusing the power that hierarchy provided them, often in sexual ways. Not only were these leaders committing heinous crimes, but other leaders were also covering up for them.
Again, people were trying to take these as sad, isolated events, but I was seeing them systemically. I was realizing that you can’t have hierarchy without placing differing value on people and inevitably you protect what you value most. If males, especially adult males, and most especially adult males in leadership have the highest value, then the converse is also true. Females, especially young ones, have the lowest value. They are the easiest to sacrifice because it doesn’t cost these cultures anything. This is what hierarchy ALWAYS creates. Because complementarianism maintains that gender hierarchy, it doesn’t work.
It was in reading blogs by other people who were also bothered by these injustices that I first ran into the word “egalitarian”.
Up until then, I experienced a lot of theological dissonance. On the one hand, from reading the Bible as a whole, I saw a God who loved justice and whose heart was for the weak, the poor, and the disempowered. On the other hand, I read passages like 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 and heard sermons and read complementarian books, and it seemed like this God had created women to be “less than”. I would say to God, “I don’t understand. Why you would create this system that leads to abuse and some people being valued more than others simply because of their genitalia? I don’t get it.”
Now I was reading articles and comments by people who didn’t believe that God had created this system, but that sin had. I read scholarly, thoughtful, reasonable explanations for the verses I had found so troubling. And these weren’t out-there, just barely Christians running down the slippery slope as I had been lead to believe all my life. Instead, they were lovers of God from all walks of life, from stay-at-home moms to college professors with numerous degrees.
I read voraciously for months, and then one day I announced to my husband “I am an egalitarian”. I had been discussing my thoughts and findings with him all along so he wasn’t totally taken aback by this announcement!
I now have the language to describe all those things I felt growing up. I have the Scriptures and theology to back up what I believe. But most importantly for me, I have found something that works. Something that breaks down the barriers between men and women. Something that brings freedom from the oppression so many women and girls experience.
Something called egalitarianism.