From Complementarian to Egalitarian

Essays, Social Justice — By on March 12, 2012 at 7:55 am

Several years ago when we first began looking for a family vehicle, I fell in love with Mercedes Sprinter vans and suddenly, I couldn’t escape being inundated with Sprinters. UPS drivers sported fancy brown Sprinters. Fed-Ex drivers delivered packages in Sprinters. Hotels shuttle drivers drove Sprinters. Everywhere I turned, I saw a Sprinter, or so it seemed.

Similarly when I applied for a Fellowship focused on the Holocaust and its pastoral lessons in regards to ethics, faith and our image of God, I experienced a heightened awareness and exposure to the Holocaust. My seminary class reading discussed it. I read articles online about it. I saw video clips about it. The implications and challenges of the Holocaust lurked on every corner.

Our lives are so filled with images, sounds, experiences, information, and opportunities that we can scarcely take them all in. We naturally apply blinders and filters as we engage with the world, limiting what we notice, acknowledge and interact with. As new realities come to play in our lives, our filters shift, allowing in new stimuli – hence the explanation for my seeing Sprinters on every corner, and the Holocaust on every page.

Sometimes too, as we engage with the world in new ways, we become exposed to realities we wouldn’t have before noticed. Shortly after our adopted Haitian daughters arrived home, we were at the local community college gym helping with concessions for a youth basketball tournament. While I worked at the concession stand, my younger five daughters played with other kids in the gym. After a short time, my daughters returned to the concession stand, despondent and angry. Upon seeing my Haitian daughters, the girls’ playmates had declared, “We don’t play with people like THAT!” For the first time, our children faced the ugly realities of racism. It wasn’t that racism hadn’t existed before that day, but it was the first time they had faced it.

The same may be true for the potentially contentious issue of women in ministry. If you had asked me four years ago about whether women could serve in ministry, I would have likely responded from my unexamined assumption built upon the patriarchal hierarchy I grew up around. It isn’t that my family was particularly sexist or adherent to stereotypical gender roles; in fact, I grew up being told men can be nurses and women make great doctors. But in the church, outside of a plethora of women Sunday School teachers, including my mom, I saw only men in church leadership.

So when God called me into ministry, I suddenly was thrust into discussions and reflections about scriptural tensions regarding women in ministry. Did women have to be silent in church? Was there indeed no difference between male and female in Christ Jesus? Could women teach adult men? Could they teach teenage boys in Sunday School (and where was the distinction)? Were women truly made in the image of God, or primarily just susceptible to deception? I wrestled with complementarian views which held women are subservient to, and helpers for men, only allowed to serve designated roles, none of which include anything in church leadership.

My eyes were opened, and I began to ponder questions of justice, equality and oppression. Had God’s original design been so fully overcome by sin that it was unable to be redeemed and restored? As my filters and blinders shifted, I began to ask questions I had never before considered. And the questions couldn’t remain generic and hypothetical, as somehow I had to also wrestle with how my gifts, talents and calling fit with my developing understanding. Would God call me to a ministry forbidden by His word? Had I completely missed the path He was leading me on? And what to think of women who intelligently and willingly held to complementation views?

I recently realized that perhaps women’s complementarian views completely fit within their current perspective. The understanding they bring to scripture fits where they find themselves. Just like our family not directly experiencing racism when we all were caucasian, perhaps none of them had a sense of call to ministry not allowed in their preferred model.

Admittedly, this may be an obvious answer too easily overlooked. But if I experience no personal call to ministry beyond what is allowable in complementarian ways, why would I question or feel uncomfortable with a system which affords me no opportunity beyond where I am comfortable, called and content? Indeed there are women who are called by the Lord to serve Him in ways that are perfectly fitting within the complementarian view, and if they are never exposed to women who are called differently by the Lord, perhaps it isn’t something they must truly, intellectually wrestle with in a personal way. After all, I may not be the only one whose views changed only when faced with a new reality.

Isn’t that, after all, how change happens? Our blinders and filters shift, and we are faced with resolving the tension between our current reality and our faith. I’m reminded of Proverbs 24:12, “Once our eyes are opened, we can’t pretend we don’t know what to do. God, who weighs our hearts and keeps our souls, knows what we know, and holds us responsible to act.”

Change happens. We grow. We understand new things. God calls us to new places. God calls us to greater understanding. Our faith does not stagnate. And perhaps, we begin to see Sprinters on every corner, the Holocaust on every page, and our complementarian views of women in ministry challenged.

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  • Are you saying that those who hold complimentarian views do so because they have blinders on? You are aware, I am sure, that many such people are scholars and have arrived a heir positions on this topic quite carefully.

    It sure would be nice every now and then to hear someone say “This is the stance I am taking, and I am quite sure about it, but I refuse to insult those who see it differently.”

  • Mabel says:

    Just because they are “scholars”, none of them have blinders? Many such “careful” scholarship turned out to be not so scholarly afterall. I do not sense any “insult” in the article. James, it can be construed that you have “insulted” her by saying she is insulting. How do we carry on a normal conversation if every nuance is turned into an insult? I think we are adults and should be beyond that. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to discuss anything if we have to walk on egg shells, all the time.

    • “Just because they are “scholars”, none of them have blinders?”

      Mable, I said nothing of the sort. I’m not against egalitarianism; I’m against people being unable to express their viewpoints without casting those who see it differently without using words like blinders and oppression.

  • Matt Miles says:

    James, I’d recommend reading “Junia is not alone” by Scott McKnight. The transition from Junia to Junio and the reasons behind it provide a reason many of the scholars you mention are met with distrust. And I don’t think “blinders” is meant as an insult. We all have them about something, and scholars are not immune.

    • Matt, there is a lot of talk about civility these days, at Burnside and other places where Christians express their views. Yet as much as I see that, I see people getting in these digs (in the case of this piece, it’s the words “blinders” and “oppression”) toward those who hold different views.

      The fact is that a perfectly reasonable, rational person can conclude that the bible teaches complimentarianism, and a reasonable, rational person could also conclude that egalitarianism is what it teaches. Until those who take positions on either side of this issue will acknowledge that, divisiveness will reign among believers.

    • Matt Miles says:

      We have different connotations of blinders, then. I think reasonable, rational people can have them too, and that suggesting maybe someone’s missing something by using the idea of blinders or blind spots isn’t a low blow. Everyone starts with a conclusion about some things, and when you do that and come across something that challenges your conclusion, you run the risk of blind spots. It’s a common mistake, made by reasonable rational people. I don’t agree that pointing it out is a dig.

  • Mabel says:

    quoting a few bible verses out of context while ignoring the rest of Scriptures is commonly practiced.
    “A PROOFTEXT is a verse or short passage from the Bible used by someone as part of his proof for a doctrinal belief he wishes to substantiate to others. However, since verses and passages may rely extensively on the context in which they appear for correct interpretation, pulling these out of their context and having them stand alone in a “proof” can, at times, be very misleading. In addition, a set of such proof-texts can completely ignore other passages which, if added to the mix, might well lead to an entirely different conclusion.
    Someone who relies strongly only on a list of proof-texts in order to make a doctrinal argument may have a very weak case for his argument. Noting that a religious teacher relies heavily just on proof-texting is viewed in theological circles as a very negative evaluation. Doctrinal beliefs based strictly on proof texts can lead people to believing, and even whole churches to teaching, something which is not Biblically correct. “Definition of Christian Terms – BibleStudy.Org

  • To be clear: my church employs, in a pastoral role, a divorced woman, and I am clear that God has put her there. My issue isn’t about women in ministry; the thing I am passionate about is how we speak of those of our brothers and sisters in Christ who come away from Scripture with different viewpoints than we do.

    • Ryan says:

      I applaud your desire to foster constructive, civil dialogue when discussing controversial matters. I also think Kristen did an excellent job at that. Having enough compassion and broad-mindedness to say that an opposing view is due to having “blinders on” is quite civil. It allows that the other party is not somehow evil or inherently wrong, but that they are doing what we all do: the best they can from their own finite perspective.
      Also, the oppression thing is something that has come up more than once on this site recently and correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think it was ever directed at the people, but rather at the practice and the institution of complementarianism. While it is an ugly accusation, at least there is the civility to avoid the ad hominem and stick to the heart of the matter.

  • Since I wrote the article that is producing such a great dialogue, which, by the way, I think we could definitely use more of rather than diatribe and rhetoric which gets us nowhere, I’ll chime in. I wrote this piece after reflecting on my own transition and growth from a complementarian to egalitarian perspective. What prompted that change in me? And why do so many others still ascribe to the complementarian view? These were questions weighing on my mind.

    Blinders or filters are not meant to be negative, but simply a statement that we see through eyes which are very situation- and time-specific. Several years ago I saw this issue very differently than I do today. My research, reading, calling and position are also different than they were several years ago. And yes, for me, coming against some individuals’ complementarian views has been very oppressive-feeling to me. Being told that you are a perfect candidate with your background, education, gifting, personality profile and calling….except that you’re a woman – I experienced that as oppressive. If you haven’t experienced that, it’s a challenging thing to sit through – especially when the individual saying that has “God” on his side.

    This piece, like any personal reflection, is just that – a personal reflection. It isn’t meant as a blanket statement, as I know well-educated, well-read individuals stand firmly on both sides of this issue. Sometimes, though, I think we forget in our academic dialogues that real people – people created, called and gifted by God – are affected. And too, I think we must be willing to stand in such an open stance to God that we are open and willing to learn, grow, remove filters/blinders, and have what we have long believed changed to more fully reflect God’s heart and intent for the world. This is a snippet of my journey of doing that…

    • Kristen, thanks for your reasonable and cordial elaboration. I think we’re still on different pages, and that’s OK.

      Let me ask you to consider this: If someone who is convinced that complimentarianism is biblical were to tell you that they see things clearly, and that you have moved from one position to the other because you have put on some blinders, would you feel insulted?

    • Carrie Allen says:

      I think the words “blinders” or “lens” both work well. I just wanted to comment about how much I could relate to this article and understand exactly what you’re talking about. One of the most frustrating arguments I hear in response to women being called into a non-complimentarian role is that “God could not possibly be calling you into that role.” That to me is a great example of “blinders” because as men who are leaders in the church, they are literally blind to understanding what it is like to be told that God cannot call us to do certain things within ministry. And of course this is different at every church so that always makes things easier.

      Luckily for me, while I was called to full time ministry, I felt called to youth ministry. I had done youth ministry for so many years that I knew I was qualified to be a “director” and though I would have loved to have done high school, I knew an easier way in was through Junior High and there was a position open at this time. I absolutely loved every second of serving those kids. I redid their entire youth room, led the leaders, planned events, and spoke almost every week twice a week. I was pastoring almost 40 junior high kids! But I felt so alone. The male pastors would have their weekly meeting together and come back with rulings on my requests. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t go to these leadership meetings… I needed pastoral guidance and encouragement too. Surely it wasn’t my lack of education – I was the only staff member who held an actual degree in theology. Surely it wasn’t my level of responsibilities – the high school pastor was allowed to go (and I had more students than him!). It was clear why I wasn’t included – because I am a woman and I am not a pastor (nor will I ever be a pastor there because I am a woman). And don’t even get me started on the pay differences because I am not a pastor.

      I left ministry that year and am currently back in school getting my master degree in social work from UC Berkeley. I felt like I needed a “trade” to be able to support myself and shouldn’t rely completely on my theology education (bachelors and masters) to get a job in ministry… One where
      I fully felt comfortable. I miss ministry every day. Don’t get me wrong, I am 100% sure this is where God is calling me right now. I do volunteer leading a bible study for undergrads, but its not the same. I MISS PREACHING. I love putting together an exciting sermon and preaching hard on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights.

      Anyway, thanks for your thoughts… They were really great to read this morning. And sorry in advance if there are typos – I am typing this from my iphone.

    • Carrie Allen says:

      Ps. I inserted this comment in a weird place – this reaponse is for Kristen. I wasn’t trying to get involved in James’ conversation.

      Thank you,

  • James,

    Good question, and an important one I think, in terms of fostering true discussion. If in the context that I know I used “blinders” someone asked me that, I wouldn’t feel insulted. I’m realizing that my word choice might not have been the best; “lens” might have been better. However, without the advantage of knowing how the person chose that specific word, I might. But I would also want to move to a discussion to better understand where we agree and where we disagree. Or more specifically, I would want to share my “lens” that I’m looking at scripture through, and then listen to yours. Every exegetical choice we make has consequences, and I’d want to engage in dialogue about the consequences and results of each of our lenses. So in that sense, I would be excited to be given an opportunity to explain my approach, perspective and yes, even blinders.

  • Jo hilder says:

    It never ceases to surprise me James, no matter how many times it happens, that you so quickly presume a vehement view which stands contrary to your own is meant as an insult. The beauty of Burnside is the nature of the conversation – were all free here, unlike in other places, to express our conclusions, experiences and expositions without fear of judgement. The diversity of Burnside is wondrous and precious. It would be a great pity if that diversity, passion and authenticity that marks us as a community of difference changed, and I fear this could happen if people begin to respond because they have taken a personal affront to views that are shared, and jump to conclusions about the authors motivation and intent. It is very hard for writers to write – you know that, as a writer – and even harder to fight is that voice inside us that says we must not speak, because we are afraid to offend. It took me a long time to realise that offense will come, and i may well be the one who brings it, but I never need to apologise for being honest about my own beliefs or experiences. I applaud Kristen not just for her willingness to obey the call of God, but for her willingness to examine her mindsets and challenge them, to grow and evolve and reconsider her position. She is a woman to be admired for so many reasons.
    Thanks for this piece, Kristen.
    Jo :)

    • jo hilder says:

      PS, James, I am really looking forward to your well-thought-out and reasoned piece for Burnside on complimentarianism. The subject interests me no end. :)

  • Jo and Emily:

    I am aware of that it appears, especially lately, that I am on some sort of vendetta and am targeting articles which speak to equality toward women. I am very aware of how it comes across, and am trying to be pretty clear in explaining, in subsequent comments, that my objections are not based on the topic itself, but on what seems to me a mean-spirited attitude toward those who hold views differing from that of the writer.

    If you read all my comments above, you will see what I was getting at. Even the author of this piece, Kristin, very gracefully admits that, even though I took her words differently than she meant them, she might have used different words.

    My passion has not changed since I first interacted with you: seeing Christians present various points of view respectfully. You both are FB friends of mine, so perhaps you have seen some of the stuff I have observed in recent months.

    Heck, just yesterday, a guy I know posted two pics simultaneously: one said something about how “we Christians are not going to sit back and let liberals destroy our nation” (my paraphrase) and the next one right after it showed a pic of Jesus, with soft pastel colors in the background saying “God is love”.

    Such attitudes sadden me, and I see it from all sides. In the last couple of weeks, I have seen someone write an article where they cast crude comments toward Sarah Palin, then called for civility in discussions about politics.

    Here’s what would be ideal: Someone stating why they fall into the egalitarian camp, and directly address why they believe complimentarians are misreading, for example, the verse I mentioned last week: Ephesians 5:23. I would love to hear that interpretation.

    Bottom line is: egalitarians and complimentarians are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Palin is our sister. Obama is our brother. Mark Driscoll is our brother. Let’s feel free to say why we agree or disagree with them. Let’s declare it boldly, but respectfully.

  • Paul Luikart says:

    But, dude, James, Kristen was really respectful in her original article. There was not a word in there that was disrespectful. Toward anybody. You know?

    • Paul, there were two terms which i felt were red flags. I highlighted them in previous comments, but am not going to repeat them here because the author has explained she didn’t mean them the way I took them.

  • “Would God call me to a ministry forbidden by His word?”

    How does one know with certainty that he or she is “called” to do something? I by no means am suggesting that the author was or was not called to ministry, but since the topic of complementarianism versus egalitarianism is so decisive and is something the author wrestled with, I feel like the idea that God Himself called the author to ministry needs to be fleshed out more for the sake of the argument.

  • Jo Hilder says:

    Well, James, I think Emily has a point, and I would be very disappointed if you could not concede even slightly that it is the way you construe our meaning rather than our meaning that is the issue here. Like I said, I look forward very much to coming to understand your views on complimentarianism by reading your comprehensive post in defense if the issues, which on the whole would prove infinitely more interesting than the reactive responses you make to our own pieces.
    Write the piece you want to read James, I am sure Burnside will publish it, and we will certainly read it. Frankly, it would be great to understand fully what it is you feel are threatening in writing as we do.

  • Matthew says:

    One thing I find prevalent in the discussion on egalitarianism, or whether or not divorce disqualifies one for the pastorate, or the ongoing debate on homosexuality… Is that in each case, the argument comes from exerting personal circumstance onto Scripture rather than allowing Scripture to influence our self-concept.

    Rather than seeking reasons as to why disqualification for certain roles does not apply to us, would not we be better served if we humbly made certain we were not disqualified? Especially in our western context we are so quick to assert our qualifications and independence… Yet, when i study Scripture, the leaders are the ones who serve. Their leadership is appointed, not something to which they aspire. And in instances where it was an aspiration, the road to leadership was often horrowing and humbling – God molded them for service.

    For both men and women, there seems to be a real lack In understanding the depth and nature of Christian leadership… And the church, as well as those who should not be in those roles, suffer from it.

  • It seems to me that James has become a target in these posts instead of the issue. I don’t think he has even ever said he was a complementarian; in fact, on March 12 at 12:21, he wrote, “I’m not against egalitarianism” and at 12:32, he wrote, “To be clear: my church employs, in a pastoral role, a divorced woman, and I am clear that God has put her there.” Maybe he is a complementarian, maybe he’s not. Either way, I think he’s proven his point that decisive issues lead to comments that are perhaps less than constructive.

    Before, I get attacked, I’ll add that I am a feminist, and I have regularly attended churches pastored by women. That said, I agree that “lens” is a better word choice than “blinders,” and go a step further to say that phrases like “We grow” and “God calls us to greater understanding” imply that those who hold complementarian views have not grown and do not have great understanding. Having read the full article and comments, I believe our author is sensitive and balanced and does not mean to make those implications, but I can understand how someone might take issue with certain phrases.

    • Jo hilder says:

      Hi Stephanie, I feel I must point out that some of what is referred to in this exchange with James is in the context of other discussions on other posts on this site. It has gotten a little hijacked, I apologize for my part.

  • Marie Whitehead says:


    Thanks so much for sharing a bit of your journey on this issue. I personally believe we all have a variety of blinders and filters that shape our view of everything, not just the issue of women in leadership. Many times over the years, Jesus has made me look afresh at whatever current set I am holding in place with a near death grip. He invites me again and again to let go and trust that His Spirit will guide us in all truth, even when it is safer to stay content and live within the confines of others blinders and filters.

    May God richly bless you in your calling.

    • Marle,

      Thank you for your kind words. I completely agree that God is continually in the process of growing and changing us by enlarging our perspectives and understanding. Excellent point!

  • Inchristus says:

    Indeed the Church across America (and beyond) needs a challenge in this area! Phil Payne’s book Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters. is one of the best to date (see my review series). Thanks for your testimony and may God provide courage and clarity to you on your journey.

  • EricBreaux says:

    Someone correct the overconfident numb skull who wrote this article

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