Confessions of a Former Complementarian

Bob Edwards

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When I first came to the Christian faith, I did so through the witness of a good friend who attended a local complementarian church. In my early years attending this church, I was taught to believe a number of things:

1) God is perfect.
2) God’s word is infallible.
3) God has preserved his word for us through the ages so that we still have an inerrant translation of it.
4) God’s word clearly says that he created men and women to fulfill complementary roles in the church and in the home.
5) A man’s role is to be a “servant-leader;” while a woman’s role is to support and submit to male leadership.

In this church, our Senior Pastor was a man. The Youth Pastor was a man. All of the Elders were men. These roles were evidently part of what it meant to be a man and a servant-leader in the kingdom of God.

Everyone acted as if the status quo was quite satisfactory and God-ordained until a woman at a conference dared to suggest that she was a suitable candidate for pastoral ministry.

Suddenly, my Christian brothers became overtly hostile. “This woman’s call could not have come from God,” they said. “God did not call women to pastor churches. He called men–and men alone–to teach, preach, and exercise authority in the church. Any protests against this arrangement are outright rebellion against God and His created order.”

In response to this outburst, I saw something that I’ll never forget. The woman cried. After she cried, she left. I never saw her again.

This was the first time something about my Christianity struck me as profoundly un-Christian.

I was learning a lot about Jesus in those days. I learned about his friendships with Mary and Martha. I learned about the woman who washed his feet with her hair. I read how he talked with a Samaritan woman at a well and offered her “living water.” I saw that the first people to come to the tomb after the crucifixion were women and that they were the first to carry news of Jesus’ triumph over the grave.

Jesus liked women. More than that, He loved them.

He treated them with dignity and respect. The same could not be said, I thought, for the religious leaders of his day. They brought a woman caught in adultery before Jesus, seeking permission to stone her to death. Where was the man? The way they spoke of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet was less than flattering. Apparently, she was “unclean,” so much so that Jesus should not have allowed her to touch him.

The hostility of my friends towards the woman at the conference did not remind me of Jesus.

It did remind me of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. The ones to whom he said, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men” (Mark 7:8, NIV).

One day, my pastor encouraged me to ask God if he wanted to “call” me to the ministry. I did as he suggested, and prayed that God would make it clear if he wanted me to become a minister. That night, in a dream, God told me to read John 20:21. When I woke up, I opened my Bible, found the passage, and read: “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21, NIV). Soon I was off to Bible College to begin my training. It was there that I began to hear some disturbing things, things that I honestly couldn’t accept at first.

I learned, for example, that my English translation of the Bible had been altered by translators who may have been biased against women.

Junia“, a female apostle, had been translated “Junias” in my Bible; a man’s name had mistakenly been substituted for a woman’s. Women, I was told, could in fact be apostles, just like Paul. He preached; he taught; he was a leader in the church. And so, apparently, was Junia. Unbelievable! Literally. I had learned to believe that God was perfect, that His word was infallible, and that He had preserved an inerrant translation of His word for our generation. My Bible couldn’t be wrong. That would mean that God was wrong, and that was impossible.

As time went on, I continued hearing and reading things about the Bible and women that did not align with my deeply held beliefs.

At this point, I experienced a crisis. For a while, I defended my convictions with thinking that some might call rationalization. “God is not wrong to make men leaders,” I thought. Some Christians apparently just didn’t understand the concept of “servant-leadership.” God wasn’t setting men “over” women. Men and women simply served each other differently. The roles were “complementary.” This kind of thinking made me feel better.

Yet, all of the decision-making at my church was done by men.

The interpretation and teaching of the Bible were all done by men. Women couldn’t teach men, and they had to submit to men’s decisions, simply because they were women. There was clearly a chain of authority in the church, with men at the top “over” women. Women had to “submit” to male authority. In contrast, men did not ever have to “submit” to female authority. “Servant-leadership” sounded good in theory, but as far as the organizational structure of the church was concerned, men were indeed “over” women, without exception.

My rationalizations began to fail me. I decided that I had to examine this issue very thoroughly. I began this work in 1987. Since then, I’ve examined photographs of the oldest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and looked at ancient church documents written on animal skins. I’ve poured over ancient history and church history as recorded in the oldest available sources. What I found left me experiencing emotions I still can’t name.

“The church has not been kind to women.”

That is perhaps the most profound understatement I have ever made about any subject in my life. Jesus liked women. Unfortunately, church leaders (especially of the 3rd and 4th centuries) did not. St. Augustine said that men must rule over women, because women are mentally and morally unfit. Like slaves, he said, they require intelligent men to rule over them (Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, § 153). St. Jerome said that women are classed with the greatest evils (Against Jovinianus, Book 1, §28).

Canon law of the 12th century, based upon Roman law and the opinions of Augustine, Jerome, and like-minded others forbade women from teaching or exercising authority in the church. Biased translations of the Bible, based on the views of the early church fathers, portrayed female submission as “the will of God.” For hundreds of years, daring to challenge the authority of the church on matters of doctrine was an offense punishable by death.

John Calvin, an enthusiastic believer in St. Augustine’s theology, carried this bias against women into the Protestant Reformation. Many churches today–as mine did—wholeheartedly embrace the theology of John Calvin as “the word of God.” This includes accepting his view of male authority as divinely inspired.

In light of my studies, I’ve come to a number of conclusions:

1) God is perfect.
2) God’s word is infallible.
3) God’s word has been translated by fallible men.
4) For centuries all of these men lived in profoundly patriarchal cultures. Evidently, they projected their own biases against women onto God and the Bible.
5) Generations of Christians have accepted a deeply held prejudice against women as “the word of God.”
6) The church, as a result, has historically not been kind to women.

God is calling the church to repent. We must no longer confuse the prejudices of men with the word of God.
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You can find more stories from writers who changed their mind about complementarianism here and here.

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23 Comments

  • What a clear and honest article, thank you. I was also trained to believe the complementary nonsense, and like you now understand that we submit one to another… The church has treated and still treats women atrociously, making us no better than the man made religions that are guilty of the same. Let’s keep shouting out for the sisters!

    • Thank you for the encouragement Mark. I think on this issue the church mirrors man-made religions because the doctrine of male authority is literally “man-made.” It has been attributed to God, but I’m convinced he wants no part of it.

  • Thanks for this story. Do you find it ironic now that you were encouraged into ministry without even seeking it, because you are a man, while a woman was actively discouraged, and punished if she even considered it? The contrast between how you were treated and how she was is so illustrative of your point!

    • It is ironic, and yes it does really illustrate the point doesn’t it? I know many women who have experienced dramatic calls of God to preach, teach and lead in the church. Many of their experiences parallel those of many men I know.

      The men have been told that their call did indeed come from God. In some cases, the women–solely because they are women–were told that their call must have come from the devil. It’s incredible how a rigidly held belief can have such a dramatic impact.

  • I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus also cried that day Sandy. It’s a tragedy that so many men reject emotion, calling something evil that God made to be good.

  • What an excellent summary of the situation ccpruett. Thanks also for sharing a hopeful vision of reconciliation. With God all things are possible.

  • That sounds like a good resource Heidi. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Bob, nice to hear your story. Craig Keener, in “Paul, Women, and Wives” explains that Aristotle believed women are inherently inferior to men, and therefore should be ruled over by men. His ideas were adopted by the Romans and became law; the church adopted these ideas. A sad history, and I am glad men like you are supporting positive change!

  • It is so important to understand that the Bible is infallible, but people are fallible. This doesn’t mean that the Bible writers made the Bible unreliable; God has more power than that! It does mean that both writers and translators may have chosen to use their culture’s words to communicate a true Biblical principle.

    Some years back when I lived elsewhere, I attended a church board meeting as a non-voting regular member. In a discussion about getting the youth involved, one elder was insistent that we “be careful” not to let the preteen and teen girls pray or preach up front since they wouldn’t be allowed to do so later, as grown women. I spoke up in protest, was quashed, and afterward the pastor came and put his arm around me and told me “He’s just like that.” I asked if that was true, whether the pastor agreed with him, and the pastor said yes.

    I was sickened by his arm around me. There wasn’t anything untoward in it as far as his intent–it was just so insulting and so hypocritical to pretend to care about me as a female church member after he had *just* squashed my protest and upheld the traditional churchly (and worldly) gender hierarchy.

    One wonders what heaven will be like. Perhaps this is one thing that really helps women to know that this is not our home and to long and work for heaven even more passionately. That doesn’t make it right, but we must always remind ourselves that while this will never be our home, we do have a home where justice and love will reign supreme.

    • Hi! New reader, first time commenter. 0=)

      On the one hand, while I have my own issues with refusing to allow women to pray or preach in church, and, yes, he was dismissive, I see it as far more consistent on his part to say “Let’s disallow this across the board, both in terms of degree of public prayer/speaking in church and age.” I may not like it, but I like it far better than some ‘magic’ age where it becomes inappropriate (same as a boy ‘magically’ no longer accepting authority from a woman because he’s now thirteen).

      • Kaci, that is a great point. Either women can speak or they can’t – there is a lot of inconsistency in how “women must be silent” is enforced in churches who believe Paul’s comment was meant to apply to all women for all time. Thanks for joining us 🙂

        • I was actually thinking the other day about that section, and that I might need to dig a bit into the text. If it *is* a cultural context, then why is it written with a general “women” instead of “these women” or something? It’s just a thought that reading this site overturned.

          Thanks!

  • Whenever I read a personal account of someone who used to be complementarian, I can always see a difference between how the men tell that story and how the women tell that story. The women’s stories usually include a personal identity crisis; the men’s stories, on the other hand, usually include a period of peace (one might almost say blissful ignorance) followed by a social injustice committed against someone ELSE that then brings a sense of personal conviction to the one who observed it.

    I think that alone is a great illustration of how women are disadvantaged in the church. Their stories almost always involved a personal hurt that leads to questions, whereas men often see someone else being hurt and connect to it from one step removed.

    • I’ll admit that I was surprised when I got to the end and saw that this post was written by a man. I’m not used to them being sensitive enough to the problems to be willing to look into it further. Most men I know would have taken her crying as “proof” that women are too emotional for leadership, therefore, God put men in charge. (gag)

      • That’s probably where I think it’s strange…I grew up around very considerate men who would have thought that through. That conversation just wouldn’t have happened.

  • Good words! I’m especially pleased that these words come from a man. Patriarchal attitudes hurt women in many ways. Besides driving potentially great preachers away from the church, a male-superior idealogy also puts female congregants at greater risk to be violated by men in power. Most cases of clergy sexual abuse are perpetrated by male pastors on female congregants or employees.
    When women’s gifts are honored equally, and when women are respected as full equals in the church, the whole church will thrive.

  • I love this, thank you! It is significant to acknowledge the fact that “God’s word has been translated by fallible men” as well as recognize and understand the pervasive opinions and attitudes of the prominent men who largely shaped the traditions that permeate our churches even today. Indeed, the church has not been kind to women, in part, as a result of these influences. But the very admission of these realities is a huge step toward reconciliation, and with genuinely honest reflection, we can help turn the tide toward a more accurate reflection of Jesus’ opinions and attitudes toward women.

  • Thank you, again, Bob. Well done and well said, brother! May your tribe increase….

    • Thank you Peggy, and thanks to everyone for the encouraging and thoughtful responses.

  • Excellent work, Bob. I’ve seen the woman leave crying after being treated that way as well. There’s nothing at all Christ-like or biblical in that treatment, and much that is pharisaical.

    • Thank you Tim. The whole gender hierarchy philosophy does seem incredibly legalistic. For centuries the submission of women was enforced by “canon law.” I thought the church was a community of grace? I thought that the law was a tutor to bring us to Christ? I thought that the law was fulfilled in Christ and that we were now called to live according the Spirit? I thought Paul consistently took a stand against legalism, yet complementarian interpreters have him appealing to “the law” to silence women.

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