A Complementarian View of Justice?

Kate Wallace Nunneley


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Last week, I attended The Justice Conference that was held here in Los Angeles. I have to say up front that it was incredible. I truly appreciated The Justice Conference for presenting a great line up of speakers who, unlike those at many Christian conferences, didn’t all look exactly the same.  The gender, race, and age ratios were pleasantly surprising, and the presentations covered multiple facets of justice work. Getting to hear from so many different speakers was a highlight brought up by almost every person I talked to that weekend.

And in the midst of those amazing speakers, and the great musical performances, and the opportunities to meet remarkable people, one thing didn’t fit. It made me wonder if I was the only one who was torn – the only one struggling with language, nuance, unspoken prejudice.

Because one thing came to my mind more than a few times throughout the conference. I sat there and couldn’t help but see the irony in listening to (a few) complementarian men talk about justice – men who do not see men and women as ontologically AND functionally equal, yet who talked about righting the wrongs of the world. How strange it was to sit and listen to people who didn’t see the underlying injustice in their own teaching about justice.

It made me squirm.

And I even struggled with the fact that I had a hard time listening to them, because I ended up having a conversation in my head that went something like this:

Kate: Ugh I can hardly hear his message over the loud noise of his patriarchy.
Kate: So you’re unable to listen to people who you disagree with?
And back and forth it went…

But my struggle to listen to complementarians speak about justice doesn’t really have to do with the fact that I disagree with them. It’s something different from that.

It’s that I wonder if they can really believe the worldview they ascribe to.

It’s that I wonder if they have really thought it all through.

It’s that I wonder if they really think that the God of justice would create one group of people to be subservient to another.

It’s that I wonder if they notice that most of their examples, and all of their pronouns, are about men, for men, to men.

So I stopped listening. Because I’m done hearing talks about “justice” that continue to favor men above women. I’m done accepting that if I am in a Christian environment, women will be missing from the talk, or the sermon, or the illustration, or the story. I’m done hearing one more man talk about the harmful effects of sin in this world without realizing that his patriarchal mindset is one of them.

I struggle to listen because in order to overlook this male-centeredness, I have to suppress the very thing within me that cares about justice in the first place. So I tune out, and write what will turn into future blog posts instead. Not because I think that these men have nothing to teach me, but because I wish they would listen to their own messages; I wish they would apply the principles of justice they talk about to their own views of men and women, instead of thinking they have no relevance there.

It’s really hard to take a complementarian pastor seriously when he warns against worldviews that might cause us to do justice work unjustly; when his church strives to free women from sex slavery, but not from the patriarchal system that created the industry in the first place.

And I struggle, because their churches do a lot of good. I know they do. But imagine what their churches could do if all of their members were seen as full and equal participants of Kingdom work. Imagine how much more powerful their words would be if they came from lips that spoke the full message of freedom for women, and not only freedom from physical bondage.

Because when they talk about freeing women, I want to ask freeing them for what? For a different kind of subordination? To be relegated to second class status in the Church? To be seen, not as full and equal, but as lacking and needing the leadership of another? Do we really think that is the best that Jesus has to offer women? Or do we think the cross means more than that?

We need to remember that male-rule doesn’t show up in scripture until after the entrance of sin.

We need to remember that patriarchy slithered into this world on the back of a serpent.

And if sin created male dominance in Genesis 3:16, then a Christian conversation about God’s justice should never take place without acknowledging that Jesus’ death and resurrection frees women from all the results of sin, including all notions of male superiority.

We cannot miss this fundamental message of the equality of men and women in scripture. It must be at the heart of our vision of justice, because without it we miss the power of the cross. Without it we say that Jesus can fully restore men to relationship with God, but that women still need a covering to do so.

Christians who do not see men and women as ontologically and functionally equal, need to re-evaluate their theology because, as Dr. Mimi Haddad would say, “ideas have consequences”. If we truly believe that God created a whole people group (women) to be under the authority of another people group (men), then that affects the way we think the world should be ordered, and it will affect the way we do our justice work. If we believe that God gives special privilege to men; if we value the male voice over the female voice; if we segregate teaching, leadership, and service opportunities based upon gender – then we function under a mindset that God favors men over women, and our idea of justice is, in and of itself, unjust.

If Christians continue to hold to this unjust theological view, then the subordination of women will always exist, and we will never be able to right the wrongs in a world where the majority of human rights violations are committed against women.

And that just isn’t good enough for me.


For more on the problems inherent in saying God designed men and women to be ontologically equal but fulfill different functions, read Richard Beck’s great article “Hierarchical Complementarianism Implies Ontological Ineptitude“.

Update: I think it’s important to point out that Dr. Mimi Haddad presented on egalitarian theology and gender justice at the Justice Conference’s pre-conference session. I was thankful for this viewpoint going into the main conference. It was a fantastic presentation!

Kate Wallace Nunneley

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  • On reading all this again, I am reminded of the moment I had something concrete to share with women struggling under the yoke of confusion. I saw a beautiful reenactment of the Easter Story on Christian TV! From the perspective of Mary of Magdala. How the first human to see Christ in his risen, pure beautiful state was a woman! She was ON HER OWN! And the Risen Lord, revealed His identity to a loving, faithful committed WOMAN. Where was the man who had to validate her to allow her to meet Christ, where was the man some presume Christ must have appointed to make her spiritual enough to be bestowed with this privelidge? We who are free know! Right in front of Mary with His nail-pieced hands and scarred brow, and scintillatingly refined and exquisite Presence! There lies my peace and confidence that I, as a present day woman am in every,way equal to any man, as my loving husband believes me to be, and my sons treat me. I am not better in any way, just spiritually equal and FULLY created in His image, ‘so the Bible tells me so’. It is a wonderful feeling of joy to know I am whole whole because My Creator says so!

  • Thank you for writing this, Kate. As a Wesleyan Methodist minister working in a Christian aid and development agency (in New Zealand) currently increasing our work against sex trafficking, I really appreciate this.

    My work at the moment involves research around the link between pornography and sex trafficking and this will, in turn, lead to a push against pornography as a driver in the demand for sex trafficking. I have found the research truly disturbing and there are times where I have had to spend time in silence to deal with what I have been taking in.

    I heard a critique of ‘religion’ recently that said Christianity is simply a tool for older men to control the sexuality of younger women. I think it was a misguided critique, but all too often it’s true. The sad thing was that the person making the critique defended pornography as some sort of liberation from that, but the sad reality of the industry says that it’s not, it’s just one of the darkest outworkings of it.

    This may seem to be somewhat disconnected to what you’re saying, but statistics show that there is a big problem in our churches with pornography and interestingly, the biggest problem seems to be amongst the group that label themselves as ‘fundamentalist’ and we can probably safely assume these are groups that would most identify with theological views that subordinate women to men.

    Pornography and sex trafficking are the ultimate dehumanisation and commodification of women, the complete subordination of women to the desires of men. What this should alert us to is the need for all of us to check our theological positions and see where they may actually be feeding, driving and providing tacit support to some of the grave injustices in our world. I’ve heard complimentarian Pastors encourage the wives in their congregations to make sure they are sexually satisfying their husbands.

    My guess is that those ‘fundamentalists’ viewing pornography feel guilty about doing so, but may not be addressing the underlying thinking that begins eroding the full humanity of women and therefore begins the commodification of women in their subconscious before they even click the links to what they’re watching.

  • So well said! I think the one question every person who does not believe in equality of spirit in male and female could be asked is: why is it good enough to send female missionaries to preach Christs word, but NOT good enough for women to preach to Western men in first world countries? By their stated beliefs, should they not only send males to preach Christ, and is an individual who responds to a woman’s teaching a lesser Christian because they were shown the way by ‘lesser’ authority? I grew up in a church with male pastors, but saw women in every sphere of church life and I didn’t know this weird repression of women until I was older. I’m female so I can if I choose, bear children, he is male so he can, enable that process, to me, end of story. What do these churches believe is the lot of a single woman then? Funny, I thought Christ died for the individual, and if individuals marry, is her salvation somehow then under the control of the man? Who is going to tell God He got it mixed up until man in his ‘wisdom’ set God straight? Whoo, not this little black duck!

    • Ruth, you bring up a fantastic question about women as missionaries. It is completely inconsistent when people say women can’t preach here in the US, but can be missionaries and preach in other countries. One of the prominent comp theologians, Grudem, suggests that very idea. It’s very poor logic.

      • Kate, I just had to make an additional comment. I do have a personal viewpoint on Wayne Grudem. (True, it comes from 30 years ago, but still.) Dr. Grudem was my former husband’s advisor when my husband attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. An extremely kind, pastoral sort of man, too! Yes, I did talk with Grudem on several occasions, at the time. And yes, I did engage him theologically! At no time did I feel I was being condescended to. But then, perhaps Grudem had not fully considered the possibility of women being full, egalitarian partners with men in ministry.

        I do know a highly skilled woman missionary in her late 60’s who for decades has trained groups of church leaders all over the world in how to do inductive bible study. Yes, she came from a little complementarian church in a rural area. But God has richly gifted her, and it shows! I think there is a hole in the complementarian logic I could drive a truck through. (And, yes, I do have a commercial driver’s license. Had one for more than 25 years. ) @chaplaineiiza

      • I wish I could remember where I was just reading about this. A complementarian pastor (or ministry leader of some sort) actually said that when a female missionary leads people to the Lord, she should put herself under the men’s authority as soon as there are men able to take leadership of the new church.

        • Wow! I thought Christ was doing the saving and we were doing the planting! Does the verse we quote say ‘go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel, and lo, I am with you always?’ I never read the bit these people must have which said…’unless you are a woman’. I think our souls are being blasted by a blistering attack of the Devil to distract us- the ones told to go- from our commission. I think I am blessed not to be under such repression and belittling! Roll on the mighty army of witnesses, who ever they are!!

  • Nearly two years ago after six months of wrestling, I finally left my church because I could no longer reconcile the constant talk about Justice, serving the city, and loving people with the practiced sexism and silencing of women’s voices. Many people were “invited to leave” the church for even discussing the issue. My old pastor spoke at the Justice Conference again this year. I pray that someday, the move of the Spirit in the lives of women will no longer be considered a “pre-conference” sort of issue.

    • “I pray that someday, the move of the Spirit in the lives of women will no longer be considered a ‘pre-conference’ sort of issue.” Well stated Emily! I am so sorry you had to go through that.

  • Kate, thank you so much for this! I completely agree. For equality and justice to reign in this world, the church really needs to stop subordinating women by promoting the authority and hierarchy of men over women and the lie that women should only function in certain God-given “roles.” Justice has to go ALL the way… not just in opening up leadership/pastoral roles to women. We also need to stop teaching and supporting hierarchy in marriage and the family as well. The way we view and treat women has to change everywhere.

  • Thank you for speaking up so eloquently, Kate. This was just excellent. Your work is appreciated so much.

  • Thank you for your blog. We have such a long way to go before we see true justice for women in leadership positions, even in supposed egalitarian churches. I belong to a church that allows women to be elders and ordains them as ministers. I am serving a term as elder myself. Our denomination prides itself on its commitment to justice and has made a conscious decision to welcome women and LGBT members into leadership.

    But, and to me it is a big but, once a year our ministers’ association gets together with the ministers of a different denomination, one that does not allow female leadership at all, to worship and share communion. Our male ministers see nothing note worthy about the fact that our ordained women ministers are excluded from serving during that service, after all the women can still attend the worship service. In fact, I’ve been told that it would be selfish of our women ministers if they were to object to the exclusion. That says two things to me. (1) That the male ministers still see themselves as a body with the authority to grant or withhold the right to full participation in worship by women and (2) they don’t understand that if they truly believed women were equal it would be unthinkable to exclude them, even only once a year.

    Sometimes this makes me sad and tired. Sometimes it makes me angry. Thanks for giving me a place to say that out loud.

    • And how beautiful it would be to come together with that other church and be able to show them how men and women serve together in yours. The gracious thing shouldn’t be the women leaders stepping down on that Sunday, but the male leaders of the other church accepting your church for what it is, women leaders and all.

      Thanks for sharing Julene!

  • Your ideas in this article are so right down to the truth. I grew up in a UCC church with a husband and wife pastoral team. This was in the 70’s and 80’s. Anne Lutz, the wife preached often as I was growing up in that church, and no one seemed to question it, but then I was a child and teenager. She became, to me, what a woman of faith is and can do, strong, intelligent and loving all at once. But when I began dating and then married my husband we attended, and still do, our over 300 year old Mennonite congregation. When my daughter was first born the storm over having a woman pastor brewed, 21 years ago. It was so new to me, the thought that it even would be a question. The patriarchy in Mennonite history is very strong. But I feel that the biggest part of following Jesus and being a part of his body of believers is love first. Love means you keep listening, keep working together and keep forgiving, but also keep speaking the truth and fighting for our sisters and brothers all at the same time. But most of all keep loving.

    • Thank you for sharing some of your story Jennifer. I love the last part of your comment about love. Thanks for the great reminder 🙂

  • “And if sin created male dominance in Genesis 3:16, then a Christian conversation about God’s justice should never take place without acknowledging that Jesus’ death and resurrection frees women from all the results of sin, including all notions of male superiority.”

    Why, then, were all of the other consequences outlined in Genesis 3 were also removed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. After all, snakes still slither on their bellies in the dust, we women (last time I checked) have extremely painful labour, men (and women) still must work hard to earn a living, farming is still a fairly difficult proposition, and people still die and return to dust. So you are saying that Jesus’ death on the cross abolished only one of these realities of life that we began to face after the fall?

    Genesis 3:16 never called for acceptance of a patriarchal world — it noted the dynamic of the relationship of a wive to her husband. Last time I checked, that involves only one man and not a world full of them. Sure, many who have exceptionally strained marriages in this area had a terse relationship with their father (if they even had one), but isn’t that making a single man pay for the injustice created by so many others? Women shouldn’t be generalized this way because we’re individuals and not some mindless homogeneous gender label; its wrong to do the same thing to men.

    The Bible is pretty clear about the relationship between the husband and wife in the New Testament in a number of places (Colossians 3:18, 1 Peter 3:1, 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, 1 Peter 3:7) but perhaps most concisely in Ephesians 5:22-14: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”

    What was this verse penned if Genesis 3:7 was abolished on the cross. One can’t correlate God’s design for marriage with social justice. At the end of the day, truly living a Christian life requires submitting to a man — Jesus Christ. This is undoubtedly still a very real struggle today. Women are miserable in marriage because their man won’t submit; women are miserable in marriage because their man does submit — an emasculated man is no woman’s dream husband.

    • Hi Tayaa,

      I’m sorry you think that. There has actually been a lot of scholarship done on all of these topics, but I’ll leave you with a few things.

      In regard to the consequences of sin, in the words of Gilbert Bilezikian (Beyond Sex Roles):

      – Where there was the loss of Eden and alienation form God, there is a family of reconciliation where all people may call God their Father (Gal. 4:4-7).
      – Where there was terror in the face of the great violator in Eden, death itself, now there is the quiet assurance of eternal life (John 11:25-26)
      -Where work had been a curse, it now becomes a blessing (2 Thess. 3:12-13)
      – Where bread was eaten in hardship and sorrow, it now becomes a sign of God’s bounty to be shared together (Acts 2:46).
      – Where the curse had predicted “he shall rule over you,” the gospel ordains that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:28).

      In regard to it being “clear about the relationship between the husband and wife,” it seems like you are being selective in your reading. Take for example the chapter you pointed out as an example, Ephesians 5 – You begin the section at verse 22, when verse 21 calls for the submission of husbands as well, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”. When one does a simplified reading of the text, it is easy to overlook context and even other verses around it.

      I had trouble understanding the rest of your comment, but I hope that helps. If you are honestly interested in learning about egalitarianism, then please feel free to contact me through the website and I can send you some resources. If you are simply looking for a fight, this isn’t the place. Thanks though for sharing your thoughts.

    • Hi Tayaa, I was really intrigued by your comment.

      My husband and I have an egalitarian relationship. He submits to me, I submit to him and together we submit to Christ.

      Our marriage is incredibly happy. We don’t have gender specific roles (other than the fact that I’m the only one capable of carrying our ever growing child within me), and we work together, taking the lead where each of us is strongest. We honestly don’t fight, we put each other’s needs first and we consider the other as “better than ourselves”. It’s the kind of relationship that we have seen examples of in most of our friends around us, young and old. None of the men are emasculated, none of the women are miserable. If I had seen this growing up, I would have entered adulthood with a much more godly and inspiring image of marriage.

      We hold each other accountable for sin, and there’s such a fair, open honesty, that we truly trust each other completely. We’re best friends, equal in everything.

      I was raised to be complementarian, and to be honest, all (I promise, not an exaggeration) of the complementarian marriages around me were bitter. Both the husbands and the wives were bitter. Both felt like the other one was not loving or not respecting or not doing something. But as an egalitarian, living with an egalitarian, there’s seriously none of that.

      Not to say that all complementarians have miserable marriages, but my experience with those friends and family is that the subjugation and hierarchy damages the trust and ability to work as a team.

      To go back to your reference to Genesis, Eve was called Adam’s ezer kenegdo. This is translated to mean, not helper, but “power (or strength) that corresponds/is equal to” (also a rescuer) Adam. It’s a phrase (ezer) that’s only used for God elsewhere in the Bible, in relation to rescuing his people in times of trouble. We’d never subjugate God, so why would he refer to himself thus if that phrase is intended to show woman as lower or subjugated to man?

  • Oh Kate, thank you. The words “complementarian” and “egalitarian” have been a part of my vocabulary for less than a year. I attend what you would probably call a “soft complementarian” church and we don’t even really talk about these issues. I found the Junia Project and other egalitarian resources last year when I began struggling to understand gender roles in the church – thank you so much for being here. I came to Christ later in life, I am a single mother, and at the moment I can’t imagine ever being married (it just has zero appeal for me) – this is a strange place to be when surrounded by a complementarian worldview. I think that view might be easier to accept when you fit into the cookie cutter, but when you don’t, something just feels deeply wrong with the whole concept. It doesn’t feel like Jesus. I began to wonder if I was worshiping Jesus as I wanted him to be, or if I was worshiping him for who he actually is. If I questioned the complementarian view, was I questioning him? Was I trying to mold him into what I felt he should be? This. This article – you addressed some of the foundational issues that I am wrestling with (more of a by-product of your intended point, but appreciated nonetheless). So . . . thank you 🙂

    • Stevie, I am so glad you found The Junia Project! Thank you for commenting and telling a part of your story. There isn’t one way for a Christian woman’s life to look. We all have different stories, different circumstances, and different callings. I am so encouraged by your comment. I’m not sure if you have seen it already, but I wrote another post that is more along those lines https://juniaproject.com/incomplete-gospel-biblical-womanhood/
      Let me know if it is helpful 🙂

      • I think this is actually one of the first articles I read on The Junia Project! Thank you for linking to it because it just happened to be the perfect time for a re-read (as you could tell from my original comment. And thank you for engaging – it is so great that you address everyone’s comments 🙂

  • Many thanks for this! It is a validation and comfort to know I am not the only one who has felt this way. I was told (before I had dug in and really studied and read deeper on this issue) ” that it’s not about how we feel…God said it and that is the way it is”. Hmmm..not for me anymore it isn’t! Blessings to you! Keep writing…we need it badly!

    • Hi Karla, I have heard that many times as well. When our intuition (or the Holy Spirit) is telling us to take a deeper look into scripture, it’s hard to simply accept a surface level answer. Thanks for commenting!

  • I know you have like 50 comments that are positive but I have to add mine. PREACH IT SISTER. I’m fired up about this. And ran into this head when I was in seminary. Please don’t hire men to teach women how to become pastors when they don’t actually believe in the ordination of women. Goodness gracious. How does this happen? And similarly (and my favourite line of yours): “when his church strives to free women from sex slavery, but not from the patriarchal system that created the industry in the first place.”

    • Hi Jane,
      Thanks for commenting. Wow, it would be very difficult to sit under the teaching of someone who didn’t think you should be there int he first place. Yikes! You are so brave!

  • “And I struggle, because their churches do a lot of good. I know they do. But imagine what their churches could do if all of their members were seen as full and equal participants of Kingdom work.”

    Kingdom? I think you mean “Kin-dom.” 😉

  • Wow…you REALLY hit the nail on the head for me! Thank you SO MUCH for writing this article! I am glad that there are others out there that think the way I do and have gone through similar circumstances. I have been living and working in South Korea for over 3 years now. I found an amazing church here with a Korean-American pastor (he is ethnically Korean but a citizen of America). He is really passionate about fighting modern day slavery and justice…so much so that he gave his son the middle name “Justice”. However, unfortunately, I started to realize that I did not agree with his complementarian theology (though I did not know the terms “complemetarian” and “egalitarian” at the time) and I started to see the injustice in his justice. So, I had to make the hard decision to leave that church because I did not agree with its theology about men and women. I also struggled with all of this because I know that church does a lot of good, but I still had to leave. I do not regret leaving that church, but it is hard for me because I cannot find an egalitarian church in South Korea which is a very patriarchal culture to begin with. This experience makes me even more angry toward those with complementarian views in the church. Church used to be my most favorite place to be, but now I do not even have a church. Once again, I feel as if patriarchal men have taken something very valuable from me and have pushed me farther away from the church and God that I love.

    • Hi Corinna,
      You are definitely not alone in that struggle. Many many women are struggling to find their place in a Church culture that isn’t welcoming to them. I will be praying for you about that. I will also ask around about egalitarian churches in S Korea. What area are you in?

      • Thank you for your prayers. I live in Suwon City. It is about an hour from Seoul.

  • WOW… I LOVE that sentence – ‘patriarchy slithered into this world on the back of a serpent’! I wish I’d said that.

    However, even though I agree totally with your perspective on this frustrating issue, I can understand how godly complementarians do not know they are freeing women to another kind of servitude.

    It’s about disengagement. If you’ve been taught, enculturised, brain washed, into a worldview that teaches that God says that men lead, women follow, end of!, you will deny your misgivings because … God said it! If every scripture you’ve heard taught comes from the perspective that men lead, women follow, you’ll read every scripture as that. If you happen to stumble across a good woman preacher/writer/speaker/organiser/businesswoman, you will have question marks in your head, but you will continue to hold fast to what you’ve been taught… men lead, women follow.

    It’s the place of disengagement that is so dangerous because it denies you the right, even the possibility of thinking anything outside what you’re supposed to think. I know, because after I became a Christian i was in a complementarian church… I learned it all… I taught it myself … why? Because I’d learned it! From people I trusted! Who learned it from people they trusted.

    The issue that was so incongruous was that I could SEE that it wasn’t like that, that what I was learning and what I was observing didn’t meet up BUT I was afraid to think that through because it would mean questioning… God! And who wants to question God!

    Except that I am a thinker … and I know that I’m responsible for what I preach and write, so I had to think it through in the end… and God helped me think it through, till I arrived at His perspective, that He sent His son to die to set all mankind freee… and women are included in mankind. Jesus didn’t come to bind some of us back up again.

    But it’s revelation, only revelation that gives light to this, and first you have to allow yourself to think somethign other than what you got taught… by the people you trusted.

    Fantastic post Kate… I lOved it.

    • Hi Bev,

      Thank you so much for this comment. You have such great insight! I am finding that to be very true about many complementarians I talk with – that they see every scripture in light of the idea that men lead and women follow. It is hard for them to even see a passage for what it is, without reading that mindset into it or finding some random passage about women and trying to apply it to the one at hand. It makes it very difficult to talk with some people about specific theological issues, because we always have to come back to their view of men and women and can never move forward on another issue.

      Thanks for such an insightful comment Bev!

  • Love it, girl. But I think I didn’t know as much about the speakers as you did. Who specifically did you have this issue with? If you don’t want to call them out, can you just email me? ([email protected]) I’m curious since most of the pre-conference speakers I saw were egalitarians and I assumed most of the main speakers were too.

  • This post saddens me, strangely. Not because I disagree with it. In general, I agree with what is being said. It saddens me because I agree with what you are trying to say… but I’m pretty sure that you’ve said it in a way that will only be heard by those that already agree with you.

    The conversations about this issue that I have found most powerful, even transformative, in my own life, are the ones where egalitarians have called me to look at the Bible with open eyes, to see that I might be interpreting it incorrectly, that many passages that are interpreted simplistically are actually quite complex, and that we need to consider these theological issues carefully.

    Now, you are probably speaking here the way you do because you feel you are preaching to the choir. You are writing on the Junia Project blog, after all. But you have a wide audience, and not everyone is singing in the choir yet. Many are open, curious, examining, maybe questioning themselves for the first time.

    In this post, you described your opponents’ views in ways they would never describe them themselves, in ways they would never agree with. Maybe some have a secret agenda, maybe many have a hidden love of power and desire to subordinate women. But many (both men and women) believe quite sincerely that the “traditional” (in the short term sense) views of men and women in the church are NOT a “subordination” of women, do NOT denigrate women, do NOT imply that women are “lesser” or “need a man to lead them” or have “second class status”. To them, these words sound like a straw man argument, a cheap way of belittling the other side of the debate. It sounds petty, though I’m sure you don’t mean it that way.

    And it gets worse. Because then you start talking about the Bible, and you use the same type of simplistic argumentation and dismissive tone that has so frustrated me about complementarians for so many years. You imply that it’s obvious that patriarchy is the result of the fall. No, it actually isn’t obvious. Many reasonable, thoughtful, well-meaning people would disagree about that, and the Bible isn’t unanimously on your side of the debate. There is ambiguity, and it deserves to be respected.

    Then, the climax: “[without full equality], Jesus can fully restore men to relationship with God, but that women still need a covering to do so.” I know of very few complementarians who would agree with that statement, publicly, privately, or otherwise. There are some on the far-out fringes that speak of women needing a male intermediary to relate to God, but they are not mainstream in any sense. Nearly every complementarian I know would read that sentence and say, “She obviously doesn’t understand what I believe. I disagree with that too. She obviously has no idea what she’s talking about when she speaks against complementarianism. She’s not talking about what I believe.”

    Back to my point… that saddens me, because the complementarian position doesn’t need to be simplistic in its use of Scripture or demeaning in its attitude toward opposing viewpoints to be powerfully convincing. When it is presented in this way, I’m afraid that the choir gets louder, and the auditorium gets emptier. And that makes me sad.

    • Mark, I’m going to jump in here because I helped monitor social media yesterday. First, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I am glad to report that there is no need to be sad, at least not about the “preaching to the choir” concern (though there is plenty to be sad about related to this debate). Yesterday we had almost 4 times our normal traffic, and Kate interacted with complementarian views on Twitter, including Denny Burke. Interestingly, they did not have an issue with any straw man argument. They wanted to argue that male headship was established before Gen 3:16. I would also point out that readers tell us and we have observed that the “covering” theology is very much alive in one way or another. Take for instance something as extreme as R.C. Sproul’s recent head covering movement, or the popularity of Debi Pearl’s women’s study Created to be a Helpmeet, or something as innocuous as Rick Warren having to be on stage when his wife teaches a mixed group.

      What we are seeing is that there are multiple complementarian views just as there are egalitarian views. So while you don’t adhere to this thinking, others outside of your circles do. Frankly, in some ways I respect them more than some who take a less restrictive stance, because I think they are more consistent in their application of their interpretation than the “soft” complementarian stance. But anyway, I do appreciate your reminder about generalizations!

      • You are certainly right that there are a variety of complementarian positions. And certainly there are plenty of versions of “covering” theology, though very few of them would say that women require a covering to be restored to relationship with God. That’s the phrase I was highlighting.

        I’m glad that Kate was able to interact with complementarians who didn’t raise “straw man” objections. That doesn’t surprise me. My concern is less about the outspoken complementarians who enjoy a good debate. My concern is about the curious complementarians, questioning, quietly reading to see if this egalitarianism thing might have something important to say… who will read something like that, say to themselves, “egalitarians must just be over the top, if they have to exaggerate complementarian views like that. That’s not what I believe at all.” And, tune out the rest of the conversation.

        It is the silent losses that sadden me.

    • Hi Mark,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I really appreciate you bringing up your concerns. I in no way wish to misrepresent complementarians or to merely preach to the choir.
      My aim with this post was to articulate the questions that have been rolling around in my brain as I have been engaging in justice work (mostly anti-human trafficking). I have been in many conversations with egalitarians, complementarians, and people in between on this issue.

      I want to echo what Gail said in her comment, that throughout my study of and relationships with people who adhere to complementarian theology, I have learned that there are many different embodiments of that theology. And, as Gail said, the complementarians who I interacted with yesterday about this post didn’t say that I had misrepresented them. In fact, they were confused at how I can value scripture and not agree with their beliefs as I had stated in the post.

      In relation to your concern of describing my “opponents” in ways they would never describe themselves, and making simplistic arguments, I want to say that what I was trying to do what take their philosophy farther than many of them do. If they believe (as is written in almost every book on complementarian theology) that women are ontologically equal, but functionally different from men, then I want to get them to continue that line of thinking farther- Can people be ontologically equal but functionally different, if that difference is based on something that they cannot control, is something they are born with?
      Furthermore, if we are saying that men lead and women follow (which comps do), then I ask why do women need a leader? Most comps who I talk to about this (and read) say that it is because women need a spiritual leader. If they believe this, I want to take that farther and point out that it used to be taught that everyone needed a spiritual leader (a priest), but when Jesus died and rose again, he took that need away. So, if we are saying women still need that kind of spiritual covering (as much of comp theology claims), then what does that mean in regard to Jesus’ sacrifice? Does it apply less to women?

      I think it is important to ask complementarians to think their words and claims all the way through philosophically (and I hope that they do the same to me). This may be because I studied philosophy, but I see the importance of consistency in our beliefs and actions.

      I do apologize that you think I am misrepresenting the complementarians you know, but I do not believe I am misrepresenting the majority of them, as their theologians and pastors say these very things. I do, however, use language they wouldn’t in order to push their thinking, not in order to preach to the choir.

      I hope that eases some of your concerns. I do want you to know that your comment is valued and heard. I will keep that more in mind as I write future posts.

      • “… they were confused at how I can value scripture and not agree with their beliefs … .”

        I’ve received the same questioning from some complementarians as well, Kate. I’ve not only had my view of Scripture questioned, but my salvation. What a hoot!

        Other complementarians, like Aimee Byrd (The Housewife Theologian), are not so hide-bound as to think that egalitarian doctrine necessarily represents a low view of Scripture. Would Aimee take the role of pastor and stand up in a pulpit every Sunday morning to preach? I doubt it, but she and other com[ps like her wouldn’t think me a heretic when I sit under such a woman’s teaching.

        When did the comp/egal issue become a litmus test for who is in and out of the kingdom? It’s making it a litmus test that really shows who has a low view of Scripture.


      • Thank you, Kate. What you wrote here is powerful.

        I also love philosophy, and I also have an almost obsessive commitment to intellectual consistency. But I’ve found that when I play the “logical extension” card, pushing views I disagree with farther than their proponents would take them themselves, I have to be careful to do it in limited doses, within a context that makes it clear that I know those statements to be over the top.

        The way you said it here, the way you presented it here, makes everything you said earlier far more powerful, in my opinion.

        • Thank you Mark. I really appreciate that. Thank you also for keeping me honest! I will definitely incorporate that feedback in future writing! Please keep commenting 🙂

  • I read this post with interest, especially the quote: “Because when they [complementarians] talk about freeing women, I want to ask freeing them for what? For a different kind of subordination? To be relegated to second class status in the Church?”

    That is precisely what I have been speaking out against for years! I attended a conservative Christian college and received an undergraduate degree in Church Music. I knew I was a second-class Christian simply because I had been born with two X chromosomes. However, I have now embraced my 30-year calling to ministry. I am so grounded and fulfilled in my preaching, chaplaincy and other forms of ministry to individuals and groups in the Chicago area. I offer my blog post for yesterday: Being of service? How about showing love, too? http://wp.me/p4cOf8-5g @chaplaineliza

    • Hi Eliza,
      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your blog post. It was a great read!

  • Is the “corrective” journey (away from all the patriarchal messages that all women hear numerous times a day) for many women (like myself, raised in traditional AND progressive values) to learn more assertive behavior and other leadership skills; and for many men to learn more about listening to, encouraging and supporting the other (whoever that is) and not automatically assuming leadership? I am astounded at how many times a day I sometimes feel the need or expectation to explain why I am flouting social convention!

    • You ask an important question Allie. I do believe that men are going to need to figure out how to see themselves as important members of the Church without assuming that means a leadership role. All the rhetoric sold to them now makes it seem like they are either leaders, or not involved at all – there’s never any in between. Bob writes about this in his post, you might enjoy it: https://juniaproject.com/to-lead-or-not-question-for-men/

      • I know that this references men in general, but I’d venture to say that there are many, many men who participate in church and who have deep faith in God who don’t insist on being “leaders.” Men, like women, have a wide and diverse range of personalities. My husband would never want to preach or be in charge of big decisions. He’s happy to be one of the “flock” and to be a quiet encourager. I think the issue is those who have such a stake in the power structure that they are willing to defend it by excluding half of God’s people. I pray that the Holy Spirit moves them to see that they are in error.

  • Yes, yes, yes, Kate!

    There is a huge disconnect in complementary churches that are doing significant work in combatting injustice and abuse of women outside the church yet choose a theology of women that perpetuates the injustice within their own walls. It’s difficult to reconcile the incredible impact these churches have outside their walls and what looks like God’s blessing with how the women in the church are kept from their full potential and use of gifts.

    It’s difficult to reconcile a church working to empower the voice of women to stand up against abuse and slavery with not empowering the voices of women sitting in the pews to contribute to the life of a faith community.

    It’s difficult to reconcile the good side of complementary male leaders who are respected and are thoughtful men with the dark side of an unrepentant, humble heart when confronted with the pain of called women or the possibility that the pattern of this world (Rom. 12:2) is actually patriarchy not feminism. (I wish complementary leaders would take Rom. 12:3 to heart. Interesting that this verse is following by teaching on the full expression of gifts in the church.)

    Kate, it was interesting to me to read your response to the Justice Conference. I went to the one in Portland two years ago. It was their second one. I am aware of conversations between the organizers and some people who were advocating for a stronger presence of women in the workshops and among the plenary speakers. Women were noticeably absent at their first conference. The organizers listened and added more to the next year, the one I attended. What you describe for this year, the fourth, appears to be a significant improvement.

    But your post is exposing the question that is yet to be asked at these conferences: Can a “justice” conference really advocate for justice outside the church without confronting the injustices felt by women inside the church?

    Will the organizers of the Justice Conference be brave enough to voice this as a legitimate question?

    • “Can a ‘justice’ conference really advocate for justice outside the church without confronting the injustices felt by women inside the church?”

      You hit the nail on the head Harriet! What an amazing question.

      Thanks for telling me about your past experiences with the conference. Yes, I quite enjoyed it and appreciate the various viewpoints a lot! Eugene Cho was probably my favorite as he yelled from the stage “LET WOMEN PREACH!” It was awesome!

  • Thank you for listening to that voice in your head (also known as the Holy Spirit). When messages/sermons/teachings don’t pass the squirm-test, we shouldn’t ignore Him as we are often taught to.

    • Thank you for the validation Mary. “the squirm test” – I like it haha

  • Kay Becker commented “Women were made to be the heart for a man.” This is a post-fall idea, that women have more heart than men, and it is just as destructive as the idea that men are always stronger than women and therefore always in the role of protector.

    It’s all part of the captivity that men and women find themselves in after the fall. Jesus said he came to set captives free. That’s the gospel that should guide people, a gospel of freedom through our glorious Savior. Preaching ontological differences in those God has said are not different from each other in their place in his kingdom (no female of male, etc.) is heresy to the gospel of Christ.

    I am glad you decided to spend your time on this post rather than the speakers, Kate.


  • Hi Kay,
    How does your philosophy affect how you view justice issues? (The point of this blog post) For example, if you belive only men are to protect, should women not be involved in trying to stop human trafficking(or should we limit ourselves to emotional support?)? I’d like to suggest you examine these ideas in light of the Bible. Nothing in there says that men are exclusively meant to protect and serve and nowhere does the Bible say that women are supposed to be men’s “hearts” (whatever that actually means). Both men and women in the Bible acted as protectors (Miriam, Deborah, Abigail, and Rahab come to mind for female examples) and we are all as Christians called to serve one another- that’s not a gender specific command.
    Perhaps part of the frustration of this “competing relationship” you mention is that it is a false dichotomy and sets both men and women up for failure.

    • You bring up great questions Natasha!

  • Love this, Kate!

    By the way, the link to Beck’s article is broken…was looking forward to reading it!

  • Men were made to protect and serve women. Women were made to be the heart for a man. Equal but different. We are both crying out in pain and have been set up in a competing relationship. Now we are all frustrated. It is a growing struggle. God Bless

    • Would love to see the scriptural references you are basing these ideas on. Where does it say in the Bible that men were made to protect women? That women were made to be the heart for the man? It seems to me that one has to read a lot into scripture that isn’t there to come to those conclusions, no?

    • If “women were made to be the heart for a man”, where does that leave single women? This teaching has lead to much “crying out in pain” and “frustration” for women who have been made to believe they are incomplete without a male. And for both men and women who enter into relationships for the wrong reasons (i.e. to not be alone). If I am not mistaken, the Bible teaches we (humans) are made complete only in Christ.

    • I *am* frustrated with the state of things. I’m not, however, frustrated in my egalitarian marriage where we strive to do all things in unity rather than in hierarchy. I’m not frustrated in my church where women and men are considered equally gifted by God and called to use those gifts in whatever way God asks.

  • Oh I just love you Kate. I am currently in our church’s God & Women class, and I actually attend a complementarian church, so it’s VERY interesting. I resonate SO much with all that you are saying here. I personally go back & forth asking myself why I stay, but I can’t fight the compulsion to dig in my heels, sit in the pews and the classrooms with my hand raised to ask the hard questions. Believe it or not, they are LISTENING! And precisely BECAUSE they are listening, I stay. Just yesterday we got the instructor to agree to push for a forum with the elders where the women (and any who are interested) can ask their hard questions to. And so I stay. I lean in. I ask the hard questions, and then I pray for justice in the meantime.

    This line:
    “How strange it was to sit and listen to people who didn’t see the underlying injustice in their own teaching about justice.

    It made me squirm.”

    I feel this, every single time I sit my butt in that classroom centered around building a “proper theology of women” in the church. When they define themselves as “Complementarians who lean closer to egalitarianism, like a happy marriage of the two” (this class taught by a woman our age) I SQUIRM.

    “While there may be very few levels women can’t participate in, (i.e. eldership), our elders believe women are free to participate in any and all other categories…”

    *Hand up*


    “If that’s true, then why is it you are excluded from pulpit? Why can’t you preach?”

    “… well, within the definition of eldership…” blah blah blah.

    And I squirm. And before long, I tune out.

    The “hole in our complementarianism”… it is a gaping hole.

    Thank you for speaking into the cavernous spaces Kate. Your echo is being heard.

  • I’ve thought similar things. Especially in developing regions where religion is still seen holding significant authority over a community, how can a theology that restricts a class of people confront social injustices whose existence is, in part, justified by that very theology? It is bad dualistic thinking – that what happens in the “sacred” sphere does not affect what happens in the “secular” sphere.

    • That is such a great way to put it Mark! Thank you!

    • Exactly. When women are owned by their fathers, brothers, or husbands, how can Christianity offer them the freedom of the gospel but in the next breath tell them they must remain subordinate to those same owners?

  • This was absolutely breathtaking to read. It is logical, passionate, compassionate, real. Thank you for writing it; I can barely pick a favorite point.

  • Preach it!
    Love this. I was going to copy and paste my favorite quotes, but it quickly became too much.

    I will say though, God uses anyone, even flawed complimentarians. Even prideful me…to accomplish his goals. I’d rather have a misguided man, than no one. So ladies, we should step it up ourselves too. Don’t spend all your time fighting to teach and preach and have nothing left to actually do it.

  • Kate, thanks for your insights and sensitivity to the ongoing injustice of patriarchy in a Christian context. On one level, it is really quite simple. The creation account in Genesis 1:26-27 explains that both men and women are created in God’s image. If the primary leadership in the church has been male for 2000 years, then we have not received the full picture, in fact only half, one that has too often been sexist and too willing to embrace violence in our world.

    Regarding the hypocrisy, it is amazing to me that women can serve in the mission field in any variety of leadership positions and that they can provide leadership in “children’s ministries, yet they cannot preach or function as a senior pastor. So they can be trusted with the most impressionable minds in the church, but not the adults?

    Brent Wood

    • “[Women] can provide leadership in “children’s ministries, yet they cannot preach or function as a senior pastor. So they can be trusted with the most impressionable minds in the church, but not the adults?”

      This, this, a hundred times this 🙂

    • Thank you so much Brent! What a GREAT point about the hypocrisy of women being able to teach children and “foreigners” but not adults in the local church!

    • “it is amazing to me that women can serve in the mission field in any variety of leadership positions and that they can provide leadership in “children’s ministries, yet they cannot preach or function as a senior pastor. So they can be trusted with the most impressionable minds in the church, but not the adults?”
      I looked for the “Like” button, then realized I wasn’t on FB. I have said this so many times. No, I have SCREAMED it!

  • The major error with the author’s viewpoint is that she is equating equality with sameness. Men and women are fundamentally different, which is why it takes to two to make a whole. A baseball pitching ace may be equal in importance to a slugger, but they are very much different.

    • She is not equating equality with “sameness.” We all know that males and females have differences. We aren’t blind. But the differences are outweighed by the sameness of being human, created in God’s image, being equally gifted, equally loved, equally in need of being told we are strong, courageous, worthy of love. Are blacks and whites “funadamentally” different? No. Different, yes. But not in any way that matters.

    • The major error with your viewpoint is that you don’t see the similarity in what you just said and the talking points of those who argued in favor of segregation. “Separate but equal” is the same as “Equal but not the same”.

      • Actually, the beauty of two becoming one is not that there are two halves making a “whole” but two “wholes” making a whole! Any other way it just math- no miracle in that!

    • I don’t think that’s what she is saying at all, especially as very few egalistarians would agree.

      Saying men and women are different is fine but my end of that sentence would be, but not all women are the same and not all men are the same.

      There is a difference between finding a *complimentary* way to live together based on men and women being different *and* equal, as opposed to the principle of complementarianism which boils down to men are superior to women.

      • Exactly. All men are not different (except in biology/physiology) than all women. There are differences, but they are NOT in roles, giftedness, personality, etc, which is probably what the OP is saying since that’s a standard Comp line.

    • Your response sounds like kind of a nice out for not really attending to what Kate was expressing in her thoughtful post. Nowhere does she say that men and women are the same. Or from your metaphor (with my limited baseball expertise) that what an ace pitcher does is the same as what a slugger does. What she says is that a complimentarian worldview is premised on the idea that women are ontologically inferior to men and that those who speak from that perspective are also affirming their belief that the very essence of who women are is morally inferior to men. With that in mind, she goes on to express how difficult it is to hear someone with that perspective talk about social justice and Christian moral imperatives, so she decided to tune out. The article she references by Haddad (2014) “Ideas Have Consequences” is a great resource if you want to do some reading on the topic. In the mean time, my question for you is what are those “fundamental differences” you are referencing (beyond the obvious physical differences) and when does difference equal “better than?”

  • “So you’re unable to listen to people who you disagree with?”

    I think the answer *no* to that question is fine a lot of the time for exactly the reasons you lay out. Once you get down to principles there is too much discord to be able to be *united.* The fact someone is complementarian for example doesn’t mean they can’t heal the sick, hand out a food parcel, or lead me on guitar – but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t scrutinise and sometimes reject their theology and teaching as hypocritical. Great article.

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