Mike Bird said that he was keen to hear my thoughts on his latest article, giving advice for egalitarians who find themselves worshipping in complementarian churches for one reason or another. That’s the cool thing about Mike—he genuinely wants to dialogue about this and seeks out people who may have another perspective. Mike’s advice is pastoral and gracious. It’s advice I would have gotten on board with a few years ago—before I had to go through the process of seeking help for harassment and spiritual abuse in a complementarian church. So as I’m reading Mike’s advice, at the end of each of his sentences my own mind tacked on “Sure, if you’re a man.”
This sounds harsh of me. It sounds like because of the trauma I experienced, I am now unable to distinguish the healthy from the corrupted. It sounds like the last thing I want to be: a bitter woman. Mike and I just did a video discussing the latest action in the Southern Baptist Church, disfellowshipping churches from the denomination who have women in any pastoral roles. A couple people commented that we were too smug in the video. Man, the last thing I want to be is smug. And in thinking about it, trying to do some self-examination on that critique, I’m ashamed to say I was smug. But not because I think we should have been more gracious. I was smug because I was holding back on my anger, and frankly fear.
I know who pays for complementarian theology. I have been behind the curtain. I used to think, okay, some people abuse this theology of benevolent male leadership. I even thought I was in a good church who cared about women. Who wanted our contributions. Who would shepherd me and protect me. I believed in complementarian theology. But the reality is that the woman’s voice is managed. And it is suspect, not trusted on its own. Her voice needs to be validated by a man’s. And it better not challenge a man’s. The female voice is to constantly admire the man’s. See him up there in front. She will not be able to speak God’s word here. Or serve his body and blood. Or pray for her brothers and sisters. Or bless them as they go out into the world again.
I accepted all this before. Thought it was biblical, even. But there was nothing biblical about how I was treated by leaders in my own denomination. There was nothing biblical about the whole process addressing it: being made to “Mathew 18” with an elder, to endure his gaslighting, minimizing, turning on me; to exchange my own voice for male “protection;” to be mocked and slandered in official ecclesial meetings, all the men playing lawyer while a sister is neglected care; to go through two years of this process for the most reductive, minimizing outcome that protected…male power.
And sadly, it took my own battering to be able to see that it wasn’t merely bad apples who have harmed the many, many others. Sure, there are bad apples who take advantage of this complementarian theology. And there are good men and women in the system. It’s what makes it so hard to leave. And there are the many silent observers galavanting around, not looking at the damage. Look, I can separate the good, bad, and the ugly within complementarian churches. And I want to love them all well as brothers and sisters.
And to be clear, I am a stain to these people. So many in the Reformed churches won’t get near me. It would be a leprosy to their careers. Old friends ghosted me. Ones that I thought were the “good ones” in complementarian theology. I’ve been disinvited, blacklisted, treated like a disease that you only whisper about. For what? Asking for help and then saying what happened to me? For leaving the very spaces I was no longer welcome? And then examining how this theology, this movement of complementarianism, led to it all? And then I really crossed the line; I accepted an invitation to preach.
Some brave and loving souls who pastor complementarian churches have encouraged me. Publicly, even. But I have found that they are the anomaly, not the bad apples. Do we look for the anomalies?
I can’t do it. I can’t walk into these churches. My whole body screams from my gut and my veins and my bones that I am not safe there. And it isn’t only the OPC. Or the PCA. Or the SBC. It’s the core of complementarian theology. This will keep happening. It isn’t good for the men either. To be this way. To think this way. To call it Christian worship.
I want to be gracious to people. And I can have good conversations with complementarians. I am sharpened by some and have a lot more to learn. I’m excited to keep learning. And I know that smugness and anger will not lead to conversion. I want people to see the beauty of our sexuality and siblingship in the church. I want people to see that women are not only to be tolerated, but that we are needed contributions. More than that, our very essence as woman beckons all peoples to Zion. This is what I write books on. We won’t get that picture in the movement of complementarianism, one that has merely polished an Aristotelian anthropology. The “best” scenarios of this framework miss the mark. I also don’t want to settle for an egalitarianism that says, “Sure, we welcome women to lead,” when it is merely an invitation for women to enter male spaces, acting as they do.
So, I get why Mike is being gracious. I get that we need to be able to have conversations on issues in the church. Maybe I should extend the graciousness that was not offered to me. I want reconciliation. I want people to see the light and beauty they are missing. But I would answer differently to an egalitarian asking that question. I am speaking now from the underground of disillusionment, with the other discarded and wounded. I will keep saying this: hope isn’t sentimental. It bears scars. And we will not hide them.
Mike, you know I love you. But I just can’t take this approach. It’s surface, and I am on the underground where the other fallen gather. I don’t have the luxury or the desire anymore to entertain that question. My family knows we are not safe in complementarian churches. And therefore, we know that it is kayfabe—the benevolence and protection, all to uphold a fragile sense of self and power. I can’t play along with a faux sense of safety and belonging.
What kind of hope are we left with when we refuse to look at the wounds and face the darkness? What kind of hope can the church offer if her own leaders will not care for her wounds? Will not reveal their own complicity? What kind of Christ do they preach when they won’t move toward true reconciliation with his people? When so many are left holding the shame that chokes out our hope, making us feel like God doesn’t care enough or that we aren’t good enough? If we stuff all this down, we are only pretending. We can’t develop the healing scars that we need. And then we miss Christ.
So if I’m asked this question about worshipping in an complementarian church when you don’t hold those convictions, my answer is to show my scars.