Complementarianism and Suppressing Women

Complementarianism and Suppressing Women

There have been numerous really wonderful articles on women in ministry lately, and I have been so busy both with my own writing and editing, proofing, and formatting my very unsuppressed wife’s new book on grief, that I have not been able to get involved.

I’m going to point to a couple of posts on Dave Warnock’s blog, and add just a few short words of my own so that if any of my readers have been missing all this, they’ll have a place to start.

I dove back into the issue with Dave’s most recent post on the issue, Responding to comment storm, in which he deals with the storm of comments that resulted from this post in which he mentions that his wife refused to make a certain person her friend on Facebook.

My attention was caught especially by just a couple of lines:

. . . It is not and cannot be up to you to judge whether your actions make women feel inferior. You cannot do that, I cannot do that, no man can do that. Only women can judge whether complementarianism and male headship does that to them, in that way the evidence is clear.

I have also frequently heard the refrain that certain men’s wives and daughters and totally happy and nobody feels suppressed in their churches. I also do know women who are complementarians, and would say the same thing. But I find it interesting that this apparent happiness is to be denied to others. There are many reasons why a woman might not feel suppressed in a church where leadership is confined to males. She might not be called to leadership herself. She might truly believe complementarian doctrine and thus stay away from such positions out of obedience to God as she sees it. I do think there is a certain peace in obedience to what you truly believe is God’s will, even if you are wrong.

But then there is the other side, reflected in Dave’s comment that I quoted. We truly can’t speak for others. We can’t know how our attitudes and our speech impacts other people. I recently was able to rejoice as a woman with whom I am acquainted was sent out to pastor a church. She had felt God’s call when she was 10 years old, I believe, but her grandfather told her that women could not be pastors and she should forget about it. She did, but then with her children grown the call came again, and now she has the peace and joy of obeying that call. What impact did that grandfather’s denial have on God’s kingdom?

But I really want to share my own personal perspective. My wife and I attended a service at a much more conservative church than we normally attend. At that service, the minister expressed the complementarian view rather forcefully, and then offered communion. It was open communion. I was simply amused at the sermon. I thought it was theologically and Biblically naive, though presented by someone who has a PhD in Biblical studies. It wasn’t just the complementarianism but the related church structures that he improperly inferred from scripture. Basically, I saw it as a theological debate.

My wife, however, felt differently. I could tell that she was hesitant and a bit withdrawn during communion. She told me afterward that she had questioned even taking communion, but had finally forced herself to do so. The man was still a Christian brother. But what was a theological debate to me was a personal affront to her. What’s more, she was right, and if I had been fully sensitive to her perspective, I would have heard it as an affront. It said, “You are not what you claim to be.” She is called to be a teacher. She is a teacher of exceptional skill. Denying that role is an affront. Complementarians don’t see it. They think it’s some kind of pride issue. But of course the only people who are to humble themselves are women.

For my wife to “humble herself” under those circumstances, however, would be an affront to God, because she truly believes she is called by God. It’s not something she can just put aside and ignore because some bigoted church leaders say it isn’t so. There’s a prophetic action against injustice that is called for, a proclamation: “I am called of God.”

Does she need to disrupt someone else’s service? No. It’s their church. She doesn’t need or want to do that. But she isn’t going back there, and she will be very clear in other circumstances as to what her call is and to the fact that she rejects any claim that denies it.

But let me get more personal about myself. I also cannot claim to define how others will feel about what I say and how I act. I have been egalitarian since at least my college years. I support ordination of women in ministry. I believe my wife’s call is at least as important as my own, and quite possibly more so. (I have no standard of measure, so who knows?)

But when my wife felt she was supposed to submit a resume for a job in another city, she took some time to bring the issue to me. Why? She felt that I would not consider the move because of my own work circumstances. What had I done to give her this impression? I’d made some negative comments about the job option involved, amongst other comments that seemed minor to me. And I would note that my wife is not particularly shy. That particular job didn’t happen, but I thank God for the opportunity it gave for me to speak positively and precisely about how I viewed her calling. I made assumptions about that, and I should not have done so. (Note that we married when we were both in our 40s. There hadn’t been a large amount of time for her to evaluate my response.)

There’s a certain amount of man vs. woman stuff here. I tend to breeze by things about feelings; she doesn’t. But at the same time, none of us should assume that we can speak for someone else on what will seem oppressive and what will hurt. We need to give consideration to what they express themselves and make as certain as we can that they are free to make such expressions.

Final note: Dave has a number of good links related to this issue here

18 thoughts on “Complementarianism and Suppressing Women

  1. I would hope that any married person of either gender would discuss matters with their spouse before applying for a job in another city. Matters like this which uproot the whole family, require them to change church etc are not for one person to make alone.

  2. Well, yes, Peter, but I’m wondering if you’re just adding the point or if i somehow gave the impression that I or my wife would suggest otherwise. If so, I was unclear. The problem I was pointing out was that she didn’t realize how open I would be to the move, and thus hesitated to bring up the subject.

    In the end we discussed it, decided we would make the move for her job if it worked out, and in the end it didn’t work out. Nonetheless, we both learned from the event.

    We always operate on the “two yesses and one no” principle.

  3. Thanks for the clarification. I had misunderstood you as suggesting that you might expect a man, but not a woman, to apply for a job in another city without consulting with their spouse.

  4. I wonder sometimes if the reason Protestantism in the West has been feeling such a call for women in ministry is that with the fall of monasticism (and therefore the scarcity of monastery and convents) that those women called to full time service of God have no other choice than ministry.

  5. Of course for a long time in the 19th and 20th centuries women called to full time service had the option of missionary service. Many single women (but few single men) did go, and continue to go, and (hypocritically, or perhaps racistly) the men had encouraged them to preach to foreign tribes but didn’t let them preach at home. This option is still open, but perhaps less so than it was, whereas women called to full time service are expressing more loudly their objections to being sent overseas.

    (Henry, please change my blog name in your blogroll to Gentle Wisdom.)

  6. Mark, I don’t think that is really the issue for me. For example, my wife does not feel called to ordained ministry, yet many complementarians would not allow her to teach, to which she does believe she is called. So this is not only an issue of ordination.

    For me it is an issue of how one employs God’s gifts in a 21st century context. Not that the 21st century is so out of line with every other century, but I think one should ask the same question in each time and place.

    I would add that I may be influenced by the fact that I see less value in the strong distinction between lay and ordained service. I say may because I’m not certain just how far I want to go on that issue, nor how it might influence my views on the ordination of women.

  7. Henry,
    What do you mean by “teaching”. I’ve never seen a church where women don’t teach the youth. As you know, I’ve recently been Chrismated Orthodox, and I think Orthodoxy is one of the more conservative Churches out there. We have had a homily given by Mother Gabriella, of Dormition Monastery. She lead a workshop for the full Saturday before preaching on Sunday. Orthodoxy also holds a pretty important position of Parish leadership for the Matushka/Presbytera, i.e., wife of the Priest.

    It seem to me the only thing a woman cannot do in Orthodox tradition practically speaking is perform Sacramental Acts, Eucharist, Baptism, etc. It seems to me, but you might check with your wife, that restricting that role to Men is not such a big thing, after all the ministry called to, be it teaching, healing, outreach, or whatever is unrestricted based on sex.

  8. Mark,

    I don’t have to check that with my wife. She has no desire to perform sacramental acts. She would, however, support the call of another woman to do that, and has done so.

    But if the issue were merely sacramental acts, while I would continue to support full use of the gifts of women in the church, I would not feel the sense of urgency that I do. The fact is that you may not be as conservative as you think. There are numerous churches–substantial churches–right in my own neighborhood in which a woman cannot teach any group that includes men. She could teach an all women’s Sunday School class, for example, but not a class that includes men. I know one church that works around this by having husband/wife teams teach, which means then that she is teaching under the authority of her husband. Such churches would also restrict positions of authority to men, thus there are no women as elders, and elders exercise the real authority.

    Women can teach children in most of these churches. One of the regular items for debate is how old the child can be before he should be taught by a man. I’ve heard various answers. There is also, as Peter Kirk has noted, the possibility of women teaching men as missionaries, which has certain racist overtones.

    The issue is much broader than the authority to perform sacramental acts.

  9. Of course for Protestants, and I include myself here, sacramental acts are not of great significance, and so not allowing women to perform them is not an important restriction, although a puzzling one.

    But in the Orthodox perspective, which I would expect Mark to share, this restriction is a very fundamental one. As I understand things, it reflects a belief something like that only males and not females share enough of the nature of Christ to represent him as priests. This is of course a really significant devaluation of women, a denial of the teaching of Genesis that females as well as males share the image of God and of Philippians that Jesus took on fully human nature. If to Mark this is “not such a big thing”, it may be that he does not yet understand the fundamentals of Orthodoxy.

  10. *grin* SOME Protestants, Peter. 😀 I’m guessing you’ve already read the post Henry linked to before about “what is not assumed is not redeemed” and so it’d be redundant of me to mention it again?

  11. Peter,
    When I wrote “not important” I meant that I’m thinking that when we try to put our gifts and callings to use, not being able to do Sacramental acts stops women from little in exercise and sharing of their self and talents. See this post. As you can see, I disagree on the devaluation claim.

    But I’ll willingly admit that cannot speak with (much) authority on Orthodoxy, due to inexperience.

  12. OK, Clix, SOME Protestants. I accept that some, including the higher end of my own Anglican church, do have a fairly high view of priesthood and the sacraments. I was thinking more of the typical evangelical view in which the person who says a prayer over the bread and wine before distributing them is of little more significance than a head waiter, or waitress. Of course it is still wrong to exclude women from such a role, but surely it is not a big deal.

    I didn’t find your link to “what is not assumed is not redeemed”. I suppose your point is that if Jesus did not take genderless human flesh he did not redeem women as well as men. And I quite agree. But evangelicals see no link between that and the gender of the person praying over bread and wine, for that person is not a representative of Christ, in any sense more than every believer, male or female, is.

  13. Mark, from the post you linked to:

    Men must lead, because it forces them to stretch themselves. It is a burden for them to bear … which might strengthen them.

    I’m sorry, Mark, but this is highly offensive gender stereotyping.

    it was on account of Mr Neufeld’s healthy and strong faith that a burden like that could be given to him to bear.

    So are you saying that God only allows those who have a healthy and strong faith to lose a son? First, what kind of God would punish his most faithful servants like that? Second, this is manifestly untrue, plenty of men with weak or no faith lose sons.

    I have a Ukrainian co-worker who was baptised in secret by his grandmother.

    Interesting. I was going to ask if women could baptise in the Orthodox tradition. Apparently they can. So it is only being a waitress, sorry, celebrant of the Eucharist that you deny to women.

    Men in the priesthood are the young men and officers of the parish. They get the glory and the leading, because that helps them more than it helps the cause. The women are the ones, so very often, with the greater spiritual gifts, pulling the loads, making things tick, and keeping everything afloat.

    True enough, and, since it is the men who perpetuate this system, self-serving and absolutely immoral. If your position is typical of Orthodoxy, remind me never to consider becoming Orthodox.

  14. Peter,
    Well, I’m sorry it took so long to respond, but I hope you’re subscribed to comments or will check back, because I wouldn’t like this conversation to die.

    On the comment which was “highly offensive stereotyping”. I’m at a loss to what you refer. My essay had as thesis women are more spiritual than men … and that as conclusion men should have to lead to force them to assert/find their own spirituality as well. Which part of that is offensive, the premise or conclusion? Do you dispute the premise, which seems surprising to me?

    On burdens, are you preaching a prosperity gospel? I was thinking of a verse I’m looking for to quote. It was from Jesus where he talks about not giving a burden too heavy to those who cannot bear it. Do you exegete that differently?

    I’m pretty sure his grandmother didn’t baptize them herself, but took them to be baptized in secret. I have no idea about the details, but I’m guessing a priest was involved. I’m curious, I’ve heard from numerous people the statement that the women of Russia saved the Russian church from being wiped out by communism. That was meant to be an example of that. If the women were the titular leaders of the church, they would have been persecuted and killed more aggressively by Stalin and perhaps the Church would not have survived there.

    Why do you think it “men who perpetuate this system.” My wife went to a seminar led by a monastic woman, who suggested the same thing. The point is, it isn’t just men perpetuating this notion in Orthodoxy but the whole community.

    I also heard that is was part of Jewish lore as well, that in the Midrash is the wisdom that women are more spiritual … and therefore men must be rabbi and teacher to lead them furthermore that this is done for exactly the reason I suggest.

    And again finally, I may be “typical” of Orthodoxy, or not. I’ve been Christian for 3 years and orthodox for 5 months. I’m not an expert. My essay was largely speculative, taking a premise I think likely and finding that logically male priesthood made sense in the light of that premise. I’m flabbergasted and confused by the intensity of your negative reaction, frankly.

    Just so you know, Orthodox tradition used to require (now “encourages”) all priests to marry. Bishops must be chosen from the ranks of the monastic community and therefore are celibate. The wife of the priest, called Matushka, Presbytera, or Khoria (sp?) has an important, official, and recognized leadership position in every parish.

  15. Mark, thanks for replying.

    My essay had as thesis women are more spiritual than men

    This is the “highly offensive stereotyping” I had in mind. I resent being stereotyped as less spiritual than women. Maybe that is a sign of me not being as spiritual as I might be! Nevertheless it is an generalisation which, if accurate at all, is so only because of accidental culturally conditioned factors. To the extent that I am personally less spiritual than many women in my church, I see this as a deficiency in myself (not in all men) which I seek to rectify by learning from those women and allowing them to lead me, not by making myself even more unspiritual by lording it over them.

    it isn’t just men perpetuating this notion in Orthodoxy but the whole community

    Well, the women teach what the men tell them to teach, and teach it only to women I suppose, so it all originates with the men.

    The picture you have painted is of a group of inadequate men getting together to deal with their inadequacy, not in a proper healthy way, but by persuading gullible women to serve and honour them. I would judge this as being very close to immoral and abusive. I hope you, as a newcomer, have misrepresented the Orthodox tradition. There is I’m sure a lot more to it than you understand yet.

  16. Peter,
    See I disagree with this:

    Nevertheless it is an generalization which, if accurate at all, is so only because of accidental culturally conditioned factors.

    I think there are real differences between men and women that aren’t just cultural or purely related to the mechanics of procreation. And, further the notion that women are more spiritual than men is just about the average/aggregate not particular individuals.

    Now if you want highly offensive imagery:

    The picture you have painted is of a group of inadequate men getting together to deal with their inadequacy, not in a proper healthy way, but by persuading gullible women to serve and honour them.

    Golly. That sounds like an explanation that really does look down on women. Try this, grant the premise (if only temporarily). If the conclusion follows then the community that practices it (women and men) don’t “persuade gullible women” but work as a community to strengthen the weak.

    Finally, Christian leadership has little to do with “lording it over anyone” as I read it. Where did “he who would be first must be last” go?

  17. Sorry, try instead of “If the conclusion follows then the community that practices it (women and men)” read “If the conclusion follows from the premise then the community that believes that premise (women and men)”

  18. the notion that women are more spiritual than men is just about the average/aggregate not particular individuals.

    Fair enough. In that case, why not suggest that by the average/aggregate men are more suitable to be priests than women but individual women might be more suitable than many men? In other words, why argue from an average/aggregate situation to a firm rule which is applied to everyone?

    That sounds like an explanation that really does look down on women.

    Huh? I am simply accusing you lot of looking down on women by looking for gullible ones. Thank God that most women are not gullible enough to accept this kind of situation, but you have managed to con a few.

    Meanwhile I’m not sure what the premise is that I am supposed to grant temporarily. But I can’t see any possible premise which would imply that the community works together to strengthen its weak female as well as male members.

    Christian leadership has little to do with “lording it over anyone” as I read it.

    Absolutely. But it was you who mentioned that in the Orthodox system as you understand it the men “get the glory and the leading”, while “The women are the ones, so very often, with the greater spiritual gifts, pulling the loads, making things tick, and keeping everything afloat.” Who gives them these loads, I wonder, if not those who “get … the leading”? This is what I meant by the men lording it over the women, and this is indeed fundamentally anti-Christian.

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