Author’s Note: The word “Complementarian” is not my favorite. It is a loaded word that immediately raises defenses. By way of explanation for those who are unfamiliar with the term, complementarianism is a theological worldview that suggests women are the complement of men. In this worldview, women are to submit to their husbands, and it is inappropriate for a woman to take on leadership roles in the church (specifically elder and pastor, though there are many complementarians who also do not believe women should be deacons).
Recently, I read an article by Tamara Rice called The Hole in Our Complementarianism. I resonated deeply with much of what she described in an experience that tore a hole in her complementarian worldview, and as I read, I thought it might be helpful to describe my own calling into ministry.
My call began taking form when I was in elementary school, though I never would have described it as a “call” at that time. A family in our neighborhood had “Backyard Bible Club”, and I loved going. We would sing songs, memorize Bible verses, play games, and read a story about a missionary’s journey. I vividly remember one story about a missionary who had gone into a remote, jungle area and told people about Jesus. Even though I had never been much for adventure, and even though I’m an introvert and a homebody, I felt my heart stirring. “Could it be that I’m supposed to follow God’s voice into the jungle?” “Could God call someone like me to do something for the sake of the Gospel?”
I remember sitting in church and listening to our pastor preach. I could feel God’s Spirit moving in me, and was keenly aware of God’s presence with me. On a Youth Sunday, I was asked to read Scripture. Even though I was shy and didn’t say much in Sunday School, I agreed. I stood behind the pulpit with my knees shaking and spoke as confidently as I could. Afterwards, several people told me that they knew I would be used by God as a reader in church. Someone even suggested that I should think about preaching the next time.
I could read the Bible. But preaching? That was never going to happen.
In high school, we moved to a new state. For the first time in my life I was in the religious minority, and it was a difficult transition. Add to that the awkwardness of puberty, and I had some very trying years. I began to think about having a boyfriend, and wondering who God might lead me to marry. I started attending a Bible Club, and the leader of that group led several studies about dating and marriage. For the first time, I started to think that if I was going to have a godly marriage, I had to learn to submit myself to my husband. Even though I had been taught by my parents that women could do anything men could do, I liked the idea of submission. As a timid, quiet girl, I found a tremendous amount of comfort in the idea that if I married a strong, winsome man, I might never have to stand up for myself or make difficult decisions on my own again.
After graduation I moved across the country to study at an evangelical Christian liberal arts college. I repeatedly found myself in conversations about women’s submission, the evils of women’s ordination, and the importance of marrying a strong, Christian man who would lead the family. Surprisingly, the more I heard this message, the more I began to question it. In 2001 I wrote this in my journal:
”Today I felt a calling, a calling towards ministry. I don’t know if this would be music ministry, or otherwise. I pray to the Lord of Hosts that He may be the interpreter of such a calling!”
Calling. In spite of holding a worldview that told me I couldn’t be called, and while taking classes taught by those who probably never thought I could be called, God spoke to me and confirmed that I was called to ministry. I immediately excused the thought of pastoral ministry, and decided it must be music ministry, or something more “appropriate” for a woman.
One day in my Introduction to Speech course a young man gave a speech on why women’s ordination was an abomination. Afterwards, we were invited to give feedback and ask questions. People were cheering the speaker on, adding their own two cents as to why women should never lead, and then someone used my least favorite phrase: “The Bible is perfectly clear that any woman who leads in the church or her family is sinning in doing so.”
Those words rang in the air for a brief moment, and then the person sitting right behind me spoke up with confidence. She said, “Both of my parents have doctorates in biblical studies and interpretation. And they both believe that a truer reading of the Bible suggests women can be just as called to church leadership as men.”
Tamara Rice talked about a hole being torn in her complementarian worldview, but when this classmate spoke up, my complementarian worldview was nearly shattered.
I knew God was calling me, and I knew I desperately wanted to be faithful to God. The only thing holding me back was an intense yearning to be faithful to God’s Word. If the Bible said I couldn’t preach, I would never preach, even if the fire burning within me told me otherwise.
Suddenly, I knew that there were two people in the world who had studied these texts and did not come to the conclusion that women were barred from church ministry.
At the end of my studies one of my professors asked to me to job shadow a female pastor. I resisted. I told my professor that even though I was applying to seminary, I had no interest in preaching. The truth was, I was afraid to do something that was going to be controversial. I knew that if I preached, people would take exception to me before I even opened my mouth. I’d step behind the pulpit and people would judge me. My professor made it non-negotiable, and so reluctantly, I complied. And, it made me never, ever want to be a pastor. I saw the pain this pastor dealt with, and it scared me.
When I was accepted to seminary, I decided that it was a stepping stone to doctoral studies, and that the only sermons I would ever preach would be the ones required for graduation. My first semester was academic and theoretical. I loved the reading, and the papers were challenging, and as a lifelong learner, I was in heaven.
But second semester pushed on the cracked complementarian worldview I had, and pieces started to fall out. I took a New Testament course, where texts about women’s submission were expounded upon and studied. And I took a preaching class, where I preached sermons to a room filled mostly with men.
The morning before I preached my first sermon, I went into the prayer closet my husband and I had made in our seminary housing, lit a candle, read Scripture, and prayed, “God, please let me hate preaching. I don’t want to do this. I’m just doing this so I can teach. Please, please, help me hate this.”
And, then I didn’t.
My first sermon was rough, but there was a distinct moment while I was preaching that I felt God taking my words and transforming them.
I preached another sermon for class, and nine sermons that were evaluated by congregations. My husband and I were then asked to lead a service as part of our examination process. We brought evaluation forms with us, handed them out to people who looked friendly, and then we preached a dialogue sermon. Several weeks later, I received the evaluation form. I got good marks, and at the bottom, the person wrote: “I do not believe the Bible permits women to preach, but the Holy Spirit really used you today.”
I had already been praying and studying Scripture. I had already come to realize that you could take God’s Word seriously and believe that women could be used in church leadership. I wasn’t doing it because it was easier to follow cultural trends of equality. I was being faithful to God’s calling and the Bible.
And here, on this evaluation form from someone who disagreed with me, I had all the confirmation I would ever need. The Holy Spirit used me.
In Acts 10, when the disciples are wrestling with the idea of the inclusion of the Gentiles, they had plenty of Scripture verses to prevent Gentiles from coming in. They had every reason to demand that the Gentiles eat kosher and follow Levitical law. But, just as Cornelius was, God heard his prayers and answered. Just as Cornelius was, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon his family, and they were baptized. The giving of the Holy Spirit to those who were not observing Jewish laws revolutionized the early church, and it was the beginning of the full inclusion of Gentiles.
I had studied the verses used to prevent women from entering church leadership, and I had come to believe that women could used by God to preach and teach without throwing out God’s Word. If the Holy Spirit was guiding my ministry and using my preaching to bless others, who was I to stand in the way? After three years of seminary, I walked across the stage (36 weeks pregnant) and received my Masters of Divinity degree. About 8 weeks later, my husband and I moved (with our three-week-old child) to rural Iowa to accept our first call as co-pastors. In a very small, intimate service with friends, we were ordained.
We have been serving in our first church for the past 6 1/2 years. Surprisingly, my ministry has been a non-issue in my congregation. They have been warm, embracing, and kind as I get my feet under me as a pastor. I have had moments of doubt, and nights where I prayed and asked God, “Are you sure you want me doing this?” but every step of the way, God has been there, confirming that all I need to do is be faithful.
I have friends who are complementarian, and I deeply respect them and value their desires to see God’s word taught in its purity. I have friends who, even now, are hoping I will see the error of my ways and reject this calling. This is very difficult and painful. From the moment I told God I would follow this calling, I prayed that my presence wouldn’t be a divisive one. My desire is to see the church united, not divided about whether or not it is appropriate for me to lead. Even though I am convinced that I am following God’s lead, it is still difficult when I hear someone say that I’m a sinner for being a preacher, or when someone refuses to attend a service if I am there, or to think that my family is judged when they tell people what my vocation is.
But, just as God called me out of an unlikely situation, God continues to call, speak, and guide. All I have to do is follow – even when following means pain.
This post was adapted from the original post on aprilfiet.com.
- When God Calls a Complementarian Woman into Ministry - March 5, 2014