Why I’m Not a Complementarian Anymore

Kids who grew up in the church are all deconstructing in one way or another. Not because there is something wrong with the Sunday School answers we gave of Jesus, God, and the Bible. But because there is something wrong with evangelicalism and church culture. I grew up in what I would call a hyper-complementarian church. My closest family is complementarian. It’s how I grew up. Many of the girls I saw growing up in that church didn’t go to college, but got a job and waited for a husband as they prepared for marriage and motherhood. Of course women have the freedom to not go to college, but the message received was, “why go to college and pursue a career if you only want to be a wife and mother?” or “the highest calling is to be a wife and mother, so why should a girl go to college?” The main point is that girls in my church were indirectly being told that a woman’s place is in the home as a wife and mother, and that her value was tied up in a man, without offering any other scenarios away from this pattern. I tried my best to sort through these unhealthy (and unbiblical) messages as a young single woman and fight them on my own. 

Though I did try my best to sort through and process these subliminal messages, I wasn’t prepared for how the errant messages I received (rooted in complementarianism) would serve to hinder me as a woman in my particular marriage. I entered marriage with man-centered messages I received growing up: please your husband (and yes, this also means sexually), serve your husband, sacrifice your life for your husband, look good for your husband, basically just revolve your whole life around him. Some of these are not bad messages in and of themselves (of course we want to serve our husbands and please them to a healthy extent), but if the woman is the only one doing these things then something is very wrong with the marriage. I was primed for submission, but what I needed was to learn assertiveness and boundaries. 

The messages I received about myself as a woman, about men, and marriage were not right and eventually proved damaging to me. I know this is not everyone’s experience with complementarian beliefs, but it’s mine. And the last six years I’ve been unpeeling, questioning, and searching for what I believe about men and women, marriage, and gender roles. I’ve been reading a lot, and one recent book I found helpful was by Michelle Lee-Barnewall called, Neither Complementarian Nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate. If you are just beginning to question your stance, this is a great place to start. She doesn’t answer any of the hot button questions everyone wants answered from the Bible like, who gets to make the decisions in marriage? Can women preach? Are men supposed to lead and have authority? But Barnewall does offer some great questions for both sides of the debate and some different frameworks to start from. 

I feel like she does a good job staying objective and not favoring either side. She’s not saying which stance is correct, but she is trying to provide a new way forward where we can reconfigure the issue altogether. 

She says this, “Like many of the people with whom I have spoken, whether professors, pastors, or laypeople, I have come to believe that the topic cannot be completely defined by either the complementarian or egalitarian viewpoint, and that there is room, perhaps even a necessity, for an alternative way of conceptualizing gender issues.” 

Basically, Barnewall is saying we don’t have to choose from only two positions, it doesn’t have to be so polarizing, and not all of life is made up of either/or decisions. Maybe authority and equality aren’t the right categories to begin from, but love, unity, and holiness. Barnewall says, 

“Gender relates to love and unity between husbands and wives, among the many members of the body, and ultimately between Christ and his bride.” 

Both sides are also coming from an individualistic viewpoint (hence authority and equality terms being used), but Barnewall reframes the issues of gender from a community standpoint as the truer focus of God’s Kingdom (hence the more communal words of love and unity). 

It’s also important to understand how we’re part of an upside down kingdom where the last is first, the greatest least, and the weak are strong. This type of reversal of the ways of the world is clear throughout Scripture and should help us navigate the ideas of authority and equality. Barnewall also addresses the “softening” that complementarians have taken with their stance by using the term servant leadership for men. She makes it clear from Scripture that it should not be just a modifier of the word leadership, but the place that leadership is based in and grown out of. I really appreciated that part. It’s one thing if a man is a leader and just tries to tack on the servant part, but it’s a whole other person who starts as a lowly humble servant. Robert Greenleaf, a Quaker, is actually the one who originated the term “servant leadership”. He describes the different dynamics of each:

“The natural servant, the person who is servant first, is more likely to persevere and refine a particular hypothesis on what serves another’s highest priority needs than is the person who is leader first and who later serves out of promptings of conscience or in conformity with normative expectations.”

This book by Barnewall is more of an academic read than a Christian Living book. She does a great job laying out gender in evangelical history, then she goes into reframing gender according to Kingdom themes. She then addresses and critiques (rethinks) equality and rights in ministry and marriage (egalitarian), and then she does the same for authority and leadership in ministry (complementarian). She also dives into these ideas in the context of marriage from Genesis 2-3 and Ephesians 5. 

Wherever you land in the debate, I hope you pick up this book and keep an open mind. If you don’t find your home on either side and want to stay away from the labels (like me) this is one hundred percent the book for you. The third way Barnewall proposes is a bit more ambiguous than the hard stances we see, but I think she leaves it with us to answer the questions she proposes and flesh it out in community. The kingdom themes of inclusivity and unity are beautiful, and what I believe God truly wants for the Church. 

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