It is hard to pinpoint when I began to fully accept my call to ministry. I spent the first couple decades of my life in Southern Baptist churches so I didn’t hear a woman preach until I was in college. I had always loved to read the Bible and participate in church activities but the ministry options that I thought were open to me—children’s director or missionary—did not feel like a good fit. Even though it felt like I was wading out into dangerous and uncharted waters, I eventually decided that going to seminary would help me understand my calling better. I was a Senior at Baylor University when my boyfriend’s roommates heard that I wanted to attend seminary. They sat me down on the porch swing outside of their apartment one night and lectured me on how ridiculous that path would be for me. “Why would you waste your time in seminary if you can’t even be a pastor? The Bible says that you can’t be the head of your own family, so you definitely can’t be the head of a church.”
Although I had been around complementarian theology my whole life, that was the first time I heard it explicitly articulated and used against me. I knew the content of the Bible well, and I thought that they were wrong, but I did not yet know how to counter their very specific argument. So, I silently endured the berating and then spent the whole night crying out to God in frustration and confusion. By morning, I was resolved. The next time my Baptist brothers berated me with the Bible, I would be ready. I would go to seminary, I vowed, and I would engage in the academic study of the Bible, learn Greek and Hebrew, and become equipped to defend my calling against any bullies who tried to take it from me.
Fast forward twenty-five years. I know now that my porch-swing intervention was much bigger than two zealous, evangelical college students. In the 1990’s we were in the middle of a programmatic take-over of American Christianity by political forces that opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and fought to keep the status quo of patriarchy and racism in our country. The complementarian message, which began as the “family values” campaign of the Religious Right, was at the center of this takeover (see Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes du Mez for more about this).
The complementarian takeover of American Christianity has been incredibly successful (read more on this here). Just type the word “complementarian” into YouTube and see how many John Piper videos pop up. Any time you hear someone talk about “traditional family values” or “biblical manhood and womanhood” you can bet that there is a complementarian behind it. Simply defined, complementarianism argues the following points (claiming, of course, that these are the “Biblical” view): 1) that men and women were created in God’s image, equal in worth, but that they were created for different roles; 2) that men are the leaders (or heads) in the home and the church and women are helpers to men, created to raise children and tend to the home; and 3) that leadership roles in churches, especially the office of senior pastor, are prohibited for women—women are not gifted or meant for leadership in the Church.
Complementarians base their theology on a few passages in Genesis and select verses from some New Testament epistles, insisting that God established Adam’s “headship” in creation. Despite this shaky foundation, the ideas that complementarians promote have saturated American Christianity. You can find them in most popular spiritual literature, in Sunday School curriculum, in Gospel Coalition blog posts, on podcasts, and in—God help us!—specialty Study Bibles. Even if your church does not preach this message, I guarantee that your people have come under the influence of this teaching.
And here is the problem with widespread complementarianism: it is causing great harm. In addition to discouraging women like me from the ministry and creating sometimes abusive imbalances in marriage, it is leading to sexual and spiritual abuse. The result of male headship and male leadership in churches is that women do not have power or authority—their voices are not heard. The report that came out about Southern Baptist ministers’ sexual abuse of congregants (and the churches who covered it up) provides a tragic example of what happens when men hold ultimate control and are not held accountable. As Diana Butler Bass says in her recent assessment of the SBC abuse, “Benign patriarchy doesn’t exist. Hierarchies — especially theological ones based in gender — always wind up oppressing and abusing someone.” The SBC had solidified their complementarian views when they changed the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000 to limit women’s roles in the family and the church. Since then, the exclusion of women from leadership and the abuse of those with no authority in the church has proliferated. The culture of purity and submission that plays into complementarian teachings has made it difficult for girls and women to assert their agency or say no to things that harm them. The Church must do better than this! We need to move our congregations from a complementarian default setting (influenced by Christian culture in America) to an empowering practice of egalitarianism.
Egalitarians agree that men and women were created in God’s image, equal in worth, AND they believe that men and women are full and equal partners in marriage and the church, with no limitations on roles. While complementarians insist that God established Adam’s headship in creation, egalitarians recognize that inequality entered the picture not in Genesis 1 but in Genesis 3, as a result of sin. The idea expressed in Genesis 3:16, that woman’s desire would be “for her husband,and he would rule over her” is a temporary condition of a disordered world. There are also some egalitarians who do not regard Genesis as an appropriate source for our anthropology or gender order and instead (rightly!) look to Jesus’s life and ministry to understand what it means to be truly human and equal. Egalitarians understand that marriage should be a partnership and roles within the family should be determined by gifting or by mutual agreement, not by gender. They also realize that having women in church leadership is vital; it allows women to exercise their ministerial giftings, ensuring a balance of power and a representation of all people made in God’s image. Most importantly, egalitarian leadership protects women who are vulnerable to the harm caused by the patriarchal systems and sexist views in our culture.
Even if your church holds egalitarian views and supports women in ministry, chances are that some people in your congregation have not caught that message. The cultural pressure to conform to a “traditional family” model or “biblical manhood and womanhood” is too great (read more on this here). I want to suggest some ways that pastors can move their congregations away from complementarian ideas and practices and toward more egalitarian ways of being in the world.* No matter where a church is on the spectrum of gender roles, there is always work to be done:
- Make it a regular practice to highlight women’s roles in the Bible – The Old Testament, despite the highly patriarchal context in which it was written, portrays women as leaders (for example, the prophets Miriam and Huldah and the judge, Deborah). Jesus’s ministry included women disciples, was funded by women disciples, and women were the first witnesses to the resurrection as well as the first evangelists (Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan woman). We see women participating in a wide range of leadership roles in the early Church, including Lydia as a house church leader, Phoebe as a deacon and benefactor, Junia as an apostle, Euodia and Synteche as church elders in Philippi, and Philip’s daughters as prophets. We assume that people in the pews know all this, but that is not always the case. So, we must preach about these women, teach Bible studies that highlight their contributions, and have our small groups read books about women in the Bible and in Church history.
- Reinforce the egalitarian nature of the gospel – For the last several centuries, the penal substitutionary atonement explanation of the gospel has dominated American Christianity. This myopic view of salvation has resulted in an individualistic gospel focused on sin rather than the renewal of all creation. It has also enforced patriarchal structures based on fear and control rather than striving for the beloved community of Christ. To counteract this distortion, we must persistently preach the full gospel. This gospel is fueled by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit with sons and daughters prophesying (Acts 2:16-18) and characterized by the equalizing love of Christ in which “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). There are too many Christians who do not hear this beating heart of the gospel because they have been exposed consistently to the exclusive and individualistic version of the gospel that most complementarians preach.
- Be honest about the limitations and dangers of complementarian teachings – Churches need to have conversations that confront the destructive implications of women’s submission and men-only leadership. It is difficult to talk about the sexual abuse and misuse of power that happens in evangelical church structures (like the Southern Baptist Convention) but we must expose the patriarchy and oppression in that kind of system for us to counteract their destruction. Healing and change will come much quicker if we are honest about the forces that perpetuate injury to the vulnerable.
- Increase women’s participation and inclusive language throughout church life – Regardless of where your church is with regard to egalitarianism, my guess is that there is always room for improvement. The goal is that women should be included at all levels of leadership and have voices at any table where decisions are being made. If your church has a male pastor, regularly ask women to lead from the pulpit. Ideally, women should have equal representation on deacon and elder boards, on nominating committees, on pastor search committees, everywhere. If women in your congregation are not yet comfortable with upfront roles, invite women from outside your church to preach and teach until the culture begins to shift and women are more willing to step into the pulpit. When you are hiring for pastoral positions, make it clear that women and men are encouraged to apply. You would be surprised by how many job postings use masculine language when talking about pastors, implying the exclusion of women for the position. This brings me to another important point—language is important. Using inclusive language for pastoral leadership normalizes women as pastors; using inclusive language for God communicates the true nature of God. God is not male (you would be surprised at how many Christians don’t know this!) and using exclusively male language for God is misleading and reinforces male power. Change for some churches in this area might be slow or produce resistance. Make sure to prepare people for equal representation and inclusivity by laying a biblical foundation for it, warning against the dangers of power imbalance, and modeling language that promotes egalitarian ideas. For an accessible guide to the importance of women in ministry, see this downloadable booklet put out by Baptist Women in Ministry.
- Be intentional about combatting complementarian ideas on gender, sexuality, and marriage— The complementarian machine has succeeded in disseminating their message across our culture. A huge bulk of the Christian curriculum, marriage devotionals, conference speakers, and Instagram influencers promote complementarian ideas, sometimes covertly and sometimes explicitly. It might be helpful to find out what your church members read and listen to in order to determine what influences them. Although they are sometimes difficult to find, there are resources and curricula written from egalitarian perspectives.
There is much more to be said about moving our congregations toward egalitarianism and there certainly more resources to help us counter ideas and practices that harm women. This is merely a start. Let’s be a community of support for one another as we journey toward greater freedom and flourishing in Christ. Leave a comment if you have any egalitarian resources to share or further questions you want to explore in this space.
To help people understand that “biblical manhood and womanhood” are not biblical ideas, try doing a book study on Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood.
For a study that congregations can use together about roles in marriage and the church, check out Beyond Sex Roles by Gilbert Bilezikian.
There are many egalitarian resources provided at the Christians for Biblical Equality website (https://www.cbeinternational.org/)
*The suggestions above are most appropriate for the context in which I minister and teach—white, evangelical or formerly evangelical settings. Black evangelical church settings will have different dynamics and will benefit from the intersectional work of women such as Chanequa Walker Barnes, Angela Parker, and Emilie Townes.
Jennifer Garcia Bashaw (PhD, Fuller Seminary; MDiv, Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary) teaches New Testament, Biblical Interpretation, Ministry, and Homiletics at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. She felt a call to ministry in a Southern Baptist Church as a teenager. She has served as children’s minister, youth minister, and associate pastor in several different Baptist churches over the last 20 years and is ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA.