Aimee Byrd

Inside the word. Outside the box.

Photo by Denis Komarov on Pexels.com

Chris Davis wrote a moving and humble piece for Christianity Today, A Southern Baptist Pastor’s Plea: Please Listen. It’s a reflection after the whole Johnny Hunt debacle. You know, the latest “Christian” catastrophe where the once president of the largest American Protestant denomination is proclaimed ‘restored to the ministry’ by four rando ministers, six months after he was credibly accused of disgusting sexual assault. Davis laments the condition of the Southern Baptist Convention, complementarianism , and even his own failures in listening to women, not valuing their voices, and side-arming them from any contribution outside of the domestic sphere. He sees this video presentation of “pastors” explaining this restoration to church leadership not as a one off to critique, or even as an example of what’s wrong with those “out there,” but as a mirror. He sees himself and the ministerial decisions he’s made in their explanation, himpathy, and defense of this man:

“It is a mirror that shows us what happens when our convictions about complementarity rot into misogyny.”

That is a loaded sentence.

It’s a brave post and plea. Complementarians don’t even listen to women, much less seek them for any positions of leadership. It is basic misogyny. Rot. Male superiority. And it harmonizes with racism. Of course it does, the common denominator is becoming quite an embarrassing elephant of disillusionment.

But here’s the problem. Davis’s plea is vulnerable and sincere. I don’t want to question that. Yet there’s still something he doesn’t see. He is still disillusioned in his very plea. Complementarians just can’t listen. It’s taken me many years and a lot of personal cost to accept this. They can’t. Because they foreground the (white) male voice. This is their posture. Ostensibly, they are there to listen. Appointed listeners. More importantly, appointed men with the “right” information we need to live the Christian life. We clamor for an ear, trying to ascend to the worthiness to be heard. To be a part. But it is all backwards. Why are we the ones needing to develop the grip strength to ascend, throwing off what weighs us down, dying deaths of reputation, security, social ties, dignity, and psychological safety to try and be justified by The Great Oz? Don’t you see what’s off here?

Ah, but there is a surprise. When we stop clamoring to justify ourselves, to seek help from the appointed ones who are standing tall, we find that God is more than we thought he was. In our own disillusionment we learn to listen and look for Christ (Song 2:8). We can see just how intimately present he is. He is using our very disillusionment as a tool to show himself to us. We needed to die those deaths. It is an act of his grace to reveal to us the counterfeit belonging that we were trying to find satisfaction in. Christ is better than our constructed value systems. He is better than what we think freedom is. Or success. Christ is better than any acceptance or influence we think we have. He is better than the security we hold in checking the boxes. He is better than our image of the perfect Christian. In fact, in turning to him while facing our disillusionment we learn that there are matters that transcend our sanitized ideals. And beauty, goodness, and truth cannot be reduced to our constructed versions of them. To our own bewilderment, rather than downloading all we need to know to be good Christians through information, he is inviting us behind the curtain into the holy of holies. Our disillusionment isn’t only with the church; it is with ourselves and what we thought Christ was doing with us in the first place.

Sometimes[1] the poets can tell us better. I do a lot of work from a Malcom Guite poem in my upcoming book on rising from disillusionment with the church. It’s so clarifying. He tells the story for us in his poem, “A Grain of Wheat,” a meditation on John 12:24. Jesus provokes us, “Truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24). What a glorious truth! It is the story that echoes throughout Scripture. If you don’t see it, then you will certainly not value women or anything they say because this is the story of the creation of the bride. We see it in Adam and we see it in Christ. We are a body that is rebirthed and fruit producing through death. Guite’s poem is a prayer and a longing:

Oh let me fall as grain to the good earth

And die away from all dry separation,

Die to my sole self, and find new birth

Within that very death, a dark fruition

Deep in this crowded underground, to learn

The earthly otherness of every other,

To know that nothing is achieved alone

But only where these other fallen gather.

If I bear fruit and break through bright air,

Then fall upon me with your freeing flail

To shuck this husk and leave me sheer and clear

As heaven-handled Hopkins, that my fall

May be more fruitful and my autumn still

A golden evening where your barns are full.

I’m convinced that this is where the church is to be—on the underground, daily dying to our sole selves and finding the earthly otherness of every other. And the leaders are the first to fall as grain to the good earth. Leadership is merely an order of love. There are so many of us down there, where these other fallen gather. But if you are too busy feeling superior with your sole self, and your own version of the perfect Christian, you don’t see the underground. And that is where this movement of complementarianism is. Up there. It’s busy keeping others underfoot rather than seeing the crowded underground in their own death. Complementarianism sacrifices its own for their false security in “leadership.”  

So Davis’s plea, and my own so many times before, makes no sense to them. They need people under them to feel godly and special. We are asking them to come down with us and see the spectacular view. It’s a completely different posture. Many of us whom complementarian leaders clobbered are down there. While our scars tell a painful testimony that cannot be sentimentalized, they also reveal a different kind of power. One that sees Christ’s faithful presence as he meets us there. One that dies, receives, and gives. One that listens. Complementarians can’t listen because women’s voices are too disruptive to their sense of power, control, and male competence. To recognize their incompetence and need would counter their constructed value system of masculinity.

The underground is vulnerable. And there we behold the earthly otherness of every other. That beauty beckons us to love. To give of ourselves. To freedom in belonging. We see that we are each a part of the body of Christ. No one is a whole, only a part. Christ is unifying us, mending us together into something new. We rise with him. This—Christ in every other— gives us the ears to hear and the eyes to see.

I’m not very good at this dying to my sole self thing. I have to learn about it every day. Each disruption to my own sense of security and self-importance is an invitation to listen and look. What is our invitation today? On the underground? This is where we get a glimpse of the resplendence of Christ in one another. This is where little resurrections are happening.

So it is a gift for any to see the rot in the complementarian system, and all other systems of false belonging. Let’s let Christ shuck those husks and teach us to love from the underground.


[1] An understatement.

14 thoughts on “Why Complementarians Can’t Listen

  1. Andrew Bartlett says:

    Interesting piece. I raised a parallel concern about ability to listen in a short piece on Mike Bird’s substack site – ‘Complementarianism and a listening problem?’ https://michaelfbird.substack.com/p/complementarianism-and-a-listening?s=r

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  2. Excellent blog! Rev Chris Davis defends complementarianism. He says “…devolves into arrogance and presumption.” What he doesn’t see is that those two words define complementarianism. Arrogance that God chose men over women, and the presumption that it is perfectly alright.

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  3. Mark Schaefer says:

    For much of my disagreement with Paul David Tripp, I think he is very insightful about who goes to seminary. Seminarians tend to be some mix of academic, teacher and authoritarian. They don’t tend to be pastors. Paul’s class, from what he related, was opening seminarian’s eyes to the “pastor” part of pastor, and he said that many of his students couldn’t wait to get through his class and get on to the real pastor work. Tripp had an analogy. It’s like a doctor in a hospital throwing up his hands in frustration and saying, “why am I constantly surrounded by sick people?!?”.

    I think there is a darker underbelly here of misogyny, but I think the message the SBC needs to hear today is “Jesus doesn’t need fake pastors to fill pulpits”. Jesus was clear that HIS shepherds would feed the flock, not abuse them. If Hunt wants to serve the church, fine! Become a member somewhere and serve the church, but that isn’t what he wants. He wants to wave over the trees. So, not only is he disqualified by sexual abuse, but he is disqualified because his pastoral theology is bankrupt. He proclaims week by week that all can serve the church to their capacity, but when it’s HIM, the only way he can imagine serving the church is by running the show. Yuck.

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  4. Dynamic here operating from spiritual paradigm. Nations which are founded on bloodshed & later legalize will be subjected to the same dynamics as Naboth in his family vineyard. Having untempered morter in a nation’s foundation subjects its government to have wide open doors to same dynamics. Same Govts granting legitimacy to religious organizations and corporations will then also be subjected to same spiritual dynamics. Saying directly- the family of Ahab & Jezebel was, never prone to either listening or desiring to follow the prophetic voice from God in their era. Ekklesia comes to mind.

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  5. Mara R says:

    I appreciate this post

    And I agree that the structures of men make listening to women unnecessary.

    Jesus says in so many places that hierarchies, like this, between believers in not to be a part of his Church. And yet, here we are.

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  6. Sharon Letchford says:

    Well, this is what happens when your ideology is rooted in idolatry. That’s what patriarchy – even in its most benevolent forms such as ‘soft-complementarianism’ is.

    This is not a topic on which one can merely ‘agree to disagree’. It goes way beyond ‘gender roles’.

    Complementarianism does not belong in the church.

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  7. Sam Powell says:

    I love the thought of the underground and the dying seed… Thanks

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  8. Gordon says:

    Please forgive me if I am not understanding well. It sounds as though you are opposed to all aspects of whatever you are defining as “complementarian”, which surprises me. Are you advocating for a reform in some of the practices and culture of present-day “complementarianism” or are you arguing against the idea in Biblical theology that that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, and religious leadership?

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    1. Aimee Byrd says:

      Hi Gordon, I am speaking to “complementarianism” as the movement that it is, that is only around 30 years old, in which it’s founding book turns something like roles, which means to play a part, into an otological reality based on an unorthodox view of the Trinity. Submission then becomes who you are instead of a gift you give of yourself in love. Woman is subordinate, less. It is repackaged Aristotelian anthropology. If you hold to male-only ordination in the church, this has to be represented better, because the teaching of this movement is not true complementarity.

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      1. Mark Schaefer says:

        I was “soft” complementarian when I read Russell Moore’s “AFTER PATRIARCHY, WHAT?” paper. Soft meant that I felt my wife and I had equally important, but unique roles in our family. We made decisions based on consensus rather than fiat, and although I was the “spiritual head” it was meant sacrificially rather than something to be wielded. However, Moore’s paper said that the evangelical model of complementarianism was just repackaged egalitarianism. For example, he says: ‘This therapeutic orientation of contemporary evangelicalism is the reason, Wilcox explains, evangelicals do not seem to speak often of male headship in terms of authority (and certainly not patriarchy), but usually in terms of a “servant leadership” defined as watching out for the best interests of one’s family—without specifics on what this leadership looks like. Thus “headship has been reorganized along expressive lines, emptying the concept of virtually all of its authoritative character.”

        In other words, if I don’t lord it over (exercise authority over) my wife, then I’m functionally egalitarian.

        The more I searched the scriptures to understand Moore’s point, and whether it was Biblical, the more convinced I was that complementarian theology as a whole was irreparably flawed. It distorts the character of God, forces hierarchy in all relationships, and denigrates all those who are subordinates in the imagined hierarchy.

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  9. Dallas N says:

    Thank you for this Aimee. I read your book, Recovering From, and I want to read everything else you’ve written, too! I’ve been watching your interviews with various folks and I’m just so sorry this has happened to you. I want to let you know that I am one of the fruit of your harvest. We left an abusive complementarian church last month and it’s been SO hard. I wish peoples’ eyes could be opened and that more would see this rot for what it is. Male superiority power structures will reap what they sow, though.

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