Being Egalitarian in a Complementarian World

Eva Burkholder


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Being Egalitarian in a Complementarian World

As I listened to the pastor of my new church describe the insults and attacks he and the elders had endured after they made the decision to invite women onto the elder board, a weight lifted off my soul. For the first time in my life, I discovered what it felt like to have male leadership take the hit for me.

Prior to this, only one or two individual men had heralded my gifts. Finally, I knew what it meant to be part of a church body where I did not need to keep my mouth shut or squirm in my seat or disagree in silence whenever issues regarding women were addressed. Because that is my world for the most part.

While my own position concerning the role of women in the church has gradually changed, my work environment has not. I serve with my husband in a conservative mission agency where complementarianism is the default mode. I walk the tension between being considerate of my colleagues who don’t believe women should lead teams, preach, or hold high leadership positions and my own beliefs that we would be a healthier agency with more positive outcomes if we would not put such restrictions on our women.

I believe women have three choices when they find themselves in a dilemma like mine: 1) stay where they are and serve however they can, trusting that God sees and will reward their faithfulness; 2) stay where they are but be an agent for change and; 3) go where they can serve with all the fullness of their gifts.1  To date, I have not felt God’s okay to move out of my current circle and so I navigate between choices one and two. How do I manage this?

I study and read and then study some more.

At first, I studied all the theological arguments concerning the role of women in the church in order to stay true to God’s Word. Now I study so I can present my interpretation of Scripture using terms that will not scare off my colleagues but rather build bridges to common ground. I stick to topics like ezer kenegdo and the biblical examples of strong women. I suggest that there may be another interpretation for a complex text. I never want to be caught unable to respond with clarity and confidence to a commonly held belief.

I strive for excellence in my service.

While for many years I served anywhere I could, I now serve in the areas of my strength. I try to bring good ideas to the table, to research my suggestions, and to be helpful to those in leadership in order to gain credibility and respect. I want to demonstrate by example how the body is strengthened when women exercise their gifts.

I teach and lead whenever and however I can.

When God opens a door, it doesn’t matter who the audience is, if I can use my gifts. Even if the topic is outside my comfort zone, I take advantage of the opportunity to teach Biblical truth every time. If I am spearheading a new initiative, I confidently model the leadership capabilities of women.

I model the “blessed alliance” with my husband.

This phrase, coined by author Carolyn Custis James, beautifully describes how my husband, a department director, affirms me, welcomes my assistance, invites me into the discussion, and accepts my influence. When asked to give a devotional, he invites me to co-teach with him. He even goes a step further and speaks up on behalf of all women in our agency.

I don’t have a chip on my shoulder.

When women are overlooked because of a theological position, I remind myself this means we still have work to do, and I don’t take it personally. I don’t want my hurt to cloud the discussion when I am speaking up for and empowering other women. It helps that I have a naturally quiet voice, which lets me speak gently and non-threateningly (although I can be quite passionate) and yet be true to my character and personality.

I push the envelope where appropriate.

I nominate a female candidate for our board. I gently suggest we allow a woman to give a devotional from time to time. I throw my support behind a woman being considered for team leader. I ask for a title that is appropriate for my role (Assistant Director). I make suggestions to empower and enable our women to use their gifts fully and openly. When a controversial text is mentioned, I present a different opinion. Bottom line, I attempt to lead up through influence and collaboration, rather than power or position.

I look for external outlets.

Because I don’t have a lot of support internally, I read egalitarian authors who enforce my ideas and challenge me (such as The Junia Project). I attend an egalitarian church where I feel the burden of my beliefs lifted and I can witness women in high leadership positions. And I have found some soul sisters and brothers among my colleagues who encourage me to continue navigating these waters.

But I don’t always navigate them perfectly. At times I wonder how far to go. Should I be more vocal? Should I confront a director on his dismissal of the need for women on the board? Should I tell the president that relying on an agency-wide vote as God’s sovereign choice is not enough? Should I insist on teaching a devotional? Should I invite a woman to speak to a mixed group?

And so I pray.

I ask God to give me wisdom, discernment, kindness, and opportunities to influence. I invite God to show me when to speak up and when to be silent.

I began my journey with the choice to serve however I could and trusted that God would reward my faithfulness, and I have gradually seen God open the doors for me to influence change. Maybe one day I will be called to move on the third choice – to go where I can serve fully, using all my gifts.

1Adapted from Carol Becker, Leading Woman, Abington Press, 1996.

Eva Burkholder

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  • An acquaintance from my church told me that she had read your article and appreciated it. As for me, it’s an area I’m unsure of and would rather not be labeled in either camp. I’m doing research. Thank you, Eva! My husband and I are privileged to work with you in our organization. You and your husband have made it a better place and we thank God for you!

  • I am new to this post, however grateful to have found it. I’ve sensed for many years and through the study of the scriptures that for decades we have looked through tinted glasses and not seen the obvious. There is no division. We are equal as new creations in Christ. Spiritual gifts know no gender. May those who in brace the male dominant viewpoint see truth from the spiritual perspective. Thank you for this blog. I am 60 and I feel like I missed my calling as a pastor because of the fear of being a trouble maker. Recently, I see the trouble is in a false perspective. The body of Christ has lost half our laborers….and we can Ill afford to. May God open eyes and hearts an especially minds.

  • Thank you for this roadmap of how you deal with complementarianism. To be honest, I do have a chip on my shoulder, having grown up under that “male headship” thumb (which was ironically enforced by women) and when I hear teaching about how men should run everything, I feel like that horse in black beauty who couldnt handle the bearing reins (sp?)
    Honestly, dividing the genders to specific roles creates power struggles and seems to go against Jesus’ example, which was to serve. He said, if you wanna be a leader, you be a servant.
    It was misinterpreted verses in the bible like 1 tim 2:12 that pushed me away from God, then when I later read the whole bible, I came back to believing in Him.

  • Well said. I have worked through steps one, two, and three. I’m glad to have been released from the necessity of continual engagement with people who see women as secondary beings. Hopefully, you will be able to move from that situation one day.

  • Eva,

    Yay! So happy to read your post and praying more desperately needed changes will come within our org. It is disheartening when it seems women are considered disqualified or their voices not heard. Thank you so much for being a voice of truth and change for us!

    • I’m grateful for you too. We’ll keep praying and following the Spirit’s leading.

  • Hi Eva & others it is a real blessing for me to hear your testimonies & I appreciate your openness. It is challenging to be able to see a glimpse of the struggles many have in our congregations in relation to gender and positions available in Church. I as a male Elder exploring this issue ‘value your opinions . I follow your blog with an aim to follow the truth of his word and the guidance of his Holy Spirit. I am saddened that I am almost required to wear a label of either egalitarian or complementarian as I explore this area .I am encouraged by this verse & it keeps me focused on Christ :

    Col 3:11.In this new life it doesn”t matter if you are a Jew or Gentile …slave or free Christ is all that matter and he lives in all of us. (NLT)

    Many thanks

    • Rob, I too do not prefer to use a label and actually this is the first time I have done so. I did for the purposes of this blog but in my own circles, I do not. Maybe I am fearful, but I was taught in my cross cultural training to use terms that build bridges and not walls. This will be an ongoing tension for me and I need the Spirit’s guidance. Thank you for wrestling with this for the sake of those you serve.

  • Eva, beautiful post. I love how God has led you and continues to lead you. I have been on the same journey but have stepped out from the constraints of complementarianism. While it is different than your journey, it is also a journey ripe with the awareness of God’s graces and guidance.

    Blessings to you as you continue on the path God has you. And, it’s good to see the work that God has led both you and Mark to do.

    • Good to see your name, Vicki. Maybe Some day we will be able to connect in person again. Thank you for your encouragement.

  • I was a member of a half-egalitarian church. The church happened to be founded by a woman, so they believed and had women in leadership in the church, but they also taught that a husband was to be the leader in the home. I thought I could be an agent of change and I thought it would be straightforward to do so. Also, I had prayed about possibly leaving and did not sense a freedom to leave at that time.

    So I stayed and spoke up as appropriate but was put under further and further restrictions about what I could say in public by the leaders. I would talk with them one on one and none of them could find a way to refute my points, but they still restricted me. Finally, a pastor prayed a specific prayer for me in public that I could not accept and I asked him in private never to do that again. He declined to even respond to my request. As I prayed and meditated on it, I believe God showed me that this pastor by his action and inaction was not in mutual submission to me per Eph 5:21 and so was out of order; this released me to leave this church and seek another.

    • Don, for some reason your response went into our spam file, so I apologize for the late posting! I had a similar experience of being at a church that said they were egalitarian but women were not encouraged to participate and were often left out of key decisions. I recently read a quote that noted “culture is as much about what we encourage as about what we allow”. I think my church, as dear as it was to me, had arrived at a place where women in leadership was allowed but not encouraged or seen as an essential value to the life of the community. After several years of advocating for change, I finally left. I needed to be at a place that encouraged women, rather than just allowed their participation. Finding such a place was like cool water pouring over me on a hot day! My new church isn’t perfect, but I love having women regularly speak from the pulpit and administer communion, and that our pastor regularly reminds the body why gender equality is important, both inside and outside of the church!

      • That quote, Gail. YES! I’m so glad I came across it in your comment today. I need to write that one down. Thank you for sharing it!

    • While I wrote this from a woman’s perspective, I see that the three options can also apply to men (anyone). Thank you for your example of following the Lord’s leading for release.

  • Bravo, Eva! I am currently at number two in my church. Blessings on you for saying so eloquently what I wish I could say. And I also want to be well-versed in the Scriptures, especially the original language of difficult passages.

    • Thank you. I am still very much learning and will continue to do so.

  • This post truly spoke to me, Eva. I am a warrior like you, seeking to infuse the Christian community with truth. And we cannot speak of freedom in Christ without eventually dealing with the places where women are not yet truly free. I am in the midst of writing a biblical perspective on the subject, in response to the many women who are either choosing a low view of Scripture or even leaving the Church. It hurts my heart to see God’s institution being compromised in ministry to half the church by faulty interpretation.

    My struggle is in keeping a hopeful and encouraging tone, staying positive as I write, and not to succumb to arguing or disproving those voices so prominent out there. Your article helps me– giving me a godly, practical example. So much of the egalitarian voice is filled with anger. But we cannot allow Satan a foothold, even when anger is grounded in truth. The perspective you offer is so very good. Thank you!

    • Thank you. I know that others have studied well and come to a different interpretion than I have and I never want to disparage them. I want to concentrate on encouraging women and helping open doors for them, not shutting people out.

  • i have left the church. i stick to daily bible reading/study. i have enrolled in a bible college/seminary that i can accomplish online, but often, i’m not sure why i am wasting the money…

    i take opportunity to host women in my home; the talk always turns to Jesus…

    my husband is saved but stays home too but he has different reasons for not attending a local church. we aren’t quite on the same page with egalitarian ideas but he was willing to attend CBE conference a few years ago.

    i feel a called to something… but i’m truly not sure what anymore. my husband does not feel a call though he is gifted to teach. and i don’t think he’d feel comfortable if i started a fellowship in our home…

    i do feel the weight of the days we are living in but i’m not sure of my role in them anymore…

    • Thank you for your honest thoughts. I pray that God will guide you as you study his Word and seek his direction. He has created you for some good work. Ask him to show you what it is.

    • I am a United Methodist pastor, and if someone in my church described the call I see you writing about I would encourage them to explore becoming a pastor. The United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Disciples of Christ and Episcopal Church all ordain women and have for decades. We are far from perfect, but might provide an avenue for your ministry to flourish.

      • Thank you for your kind invitation. I am certainly open to however God leads me. And yes, it is encouraging to remember there are branches in the church where the struggle is not so intense.

  • Thanks for sharing your journey, Eva. I relate to so much of it and pray for the day when the blessed alliance is recognized as the truth it is.

    Until then, I listen and watch for signs of what I hear God saying and see God doing … and join in the work as opportunity crosses my path.

    Blessings to you and your husband as you live with integrity where you are.

    • Thank you for your kind words. Blessings to you too as you seek to influence your corner of the world.

  • Those steps you list and then flesh out are golden, Eva. they show a leading of the Spirit in each step and because of that they can apply to doctrinal issues and relationships in ministry covering a lot of different situations. When it comes to women in ministry and so many other aspects of the body of Christ, these are wise steps for us to follow you in.

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