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Commentary Let Her Lead Life Theology

How Being a Complementarian Pastor Changed Everything

My complementarian foundation began to crumble, ironically, while I was a complementarian pastor.

Our experiences powerfully shape our understanding of the Scriptures. As I said in my first post, the truth of the Bible does not change, but our understanding and applications of it do depending on our culture, community, and circumstances.

How can we be sure this is true? Here are several obvious examples.

If you have never spent much time with the poor, much of Jesus’ ministry and teaching may not impact you all that much (it also may make little sense). But if you take a month, a week, or even a day to live among the poor, your eyes will probably be enlightened to what was already there, but you had missed. Jesus’ words will likely land on you with the force he originally intended.

Or say you have a strong conviction about what a worship service should look and sound like. But then you visit a worship gathering in another culture where people obviously love Jesus and want to honor the Scriptures. Hopefully, going forward, you will read those passages about corporate worship with a little more flexibility and less conviction about your own culture’s way of doing things.

Many of us (myself included), last summer, began to see the call for justice throughout the Scriptures quite differently in light of George Floyd’s death and the conversations on race and injustice that followed.[1]

If you see the Bible in accord with a particular denomination, chances are you grew up in that denomination or the people welcomed you and were nice to you at a critical juncture in your life. If not, you wouldn’t be a part of that church![2]

If nothing else, we can understand this simply because we mature both chronologically and spiritually. Parts of the Bible hit us differently at various stages of life. We hear it all the time: I’ve never noticed this before but since becoming a parent…a widow…a foreigner…etc.

The Scriptures never change. But we do.

The Scriptures never change. But we do. And that’s the point I’m making. Can we agree on that?

Not having certain experiences and therefore not seeing all Scripture “evenly” doesn’t make us rotten people who are actively rebelling against God. It’s just part of being human.

I believe that God is compassionate and the he accommodates us. We’ll talk about “accommodation” in a future post, but in a nutshell, it means God meets us where we’re at. Isn’t that the whole point of him becoming human? And he’s bringing us along on a journey. Isn’t that the whole point of spiritual growth?[3]

Our experiences in the world are the “lenses” we look through to interpret the Bible. Right or wrong. But that’s not the only lens we wear. Our experience and familiarity with the world of the biblical authors (or lack thereof) also helps (or hinders) us in understanding and applying the Bible.

Our experiences in the world are the “lenses” we look through to interpret the Bible.

In this post and the next one (or two), I want to share how God graciously provided me with experiences and observations to help me see the passages about women’s roles in a fresh way. My experiences weren’t the conclusive evidence. They just opened the door to a new possibility.

After these posts on my story, and before getting into specific Bible passages, I’ll talk about how knowing the world of the biblical authors can help us, particularly as it relates to women’s roles.

Forgive me in advance for the length. I want to share as much as possible as quickly as possible so we can get on to considering what the Bible has to say.


Complementarianism: Case Closed?

As a white, middle-class, Midwestern kid who grew up in North American megachurch culture, I didn’t give much thought to gender roles in ministry.

There was never a debate to be had.

The church I grew up in was a part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) denomination. Our church only had male leaders (pastors/elders).[4]

Every Sunday, a male pastor preached from the Bible. Our church also only had male music leaders/directors.[5] Women did serve in a number other capacities, most notably women’s and children’s ministries. I assume this is similar, if not identical, to the experience of most people reading.[6]

Growing up, I simply assumed that men did the “big church leading” and that women taught other women and kids.

I lived in a male-dominated church world.

It didn’t feel wrong. It just was.

I assumed this was the correct stance not only because of our church’s practice, but also because of how I was taught to read the Bible: it is literal in what it says. I don’t mean that the Bible is literally true. That’s a different thing–which I believe. What I mean is that from home to church to private school, I was taught that we believe the words as they exist on the page.

Case closed.

I was in this church–and don’t get me wrong, it was a good church–until I went to college.

One memory from this church stands out that, perhaps, planted a seed of doubt that the issue was actually closed. It certainly added a level of complexity, if not inconsistency, to the male-only paradigm. Every year, our church had a missions conference. Missionaries came back home to share what God had been doing in the mission field. Every year an older, single woman came back to share about God’s work in the small West African country where she ministered. Her name was Mary.

I’m not sure what her ministry specifically involved, and I didn’t give it much thought then. But recently, I’ve wondered, as I’m sure some of you are wondering right now: Was Mary able to preach the gospel to a mixed group? Did she ever share Jesus with men? Did she ever teach new Christian men how to study the Bible and pray?

These women were likely doing the exact kind of ministry overseas they were not permitted to do at home.

I have to believe she did. At least once, right?

There are countless stories of faithful women who served as missionaries throughout church history, just like Mary. They were likely doing the exact kind of ministry overseas they were not permitted to do at home.

Mary wasn’t called “pastor” or “elder.” But she was (probably) doing the job of one.

The One Passage I Couldn’t Avoid

My first eighteen years of life in this church weren’t very formative theologically speaking. (I got bored with Jesus in middle school, but that’s another story entirely.) Instead, it was during college, then serving with a parachurch ministry in Nebraska and South Africa after graduation, and finally during seminary that I really started to establish myself theologically.

To make a long story short, I listened to and read just about every Reformed, complementarian pastor, author, and blogger there was. You name him, and I knew everything about him. Like so many other millennial Christian men, I wanted to be a strong, godly leader. So complementarianism was the obvious place to pitch my tent.

My position was simple. And it all hinged on one, precious verse. I once heard a well-known complementarian pastor and theologian quip: “If you can get the Bible to say, ‘I do permit’ when it says, ‘I do not permit,’ then you can get it to say whatever you want.”

He was talking about 1 Timothy 2:12, of course: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (NIV).[8]

I identified with what he said, but not mainly because of the gender issue, as important as that was for me. I wanted to be a “strong, godly leader.” But even more, I wanted to take the Bible seriously. What I found in Reformed complementarianism was a group of (male) teachers who did that. So I grasped on to everything they taught–lock, stock, and barrel.

I had been converted to Jesus. Now, I was being converted to biblical literalism.[7] I became convinced that if someone doubted the straightforward, literal reading of 1 Timothy 2:12, they were on a slippery slope toward rejecting the authority of the Bible and, eventually, Jesus himself.

Granted, I didn’t personally know anyone who believed in female church leadership. But if I ever meet someone who does, how can I be sure they won’t twist other Scriptures if they can’t see what Paul is OBVIOUSLY saying in 1 Timothy 2:12?!

I knew there were other passages in the New Testament that seemed to suggest that local church leaders should be men. But, for me, everything hung on 1 Timothy 2:12.

To me, it seemed like a watertight argument.

Pastoring Among Female Spiritual Giants

Ironically, it was my experience as a pastor in a non-denominational, evangelical, complementarian church in Upstate New York, that paved the way for me to consider the egalitarian / co-laborer position.

Early in the interview process for the role of associate pastor, I was asked to articulate my position on women in ministry. I explained that I believed the office of elder/pastor was reserved for men, only men could preach during a formal worship gathering of the whole church, but that women could exercise their gifts in any other capacity.

Check. Passed with flying colors.

The church did not have an official position on women’s roles in ministry that I knew of. In tradition and practice, however, the church subscribed to complementarianism.

Here’s how it played out for this church:

  • Only men were permitted to serve as elders.
  • Only men were allowed to give the sermon on a Sunday morning.
  • Only men could formally teach the Bible/theology in an adult education class (i.e. Sunday school).
  • Women could lead worship, read Scripture, pray, give the call to worship, and even give biblical reflections during special services.

In terms of ministry activities, this looks a lot like “soft complementarianism.” The other side of the coin is the leadership’s attitude toward women. That is so much harder to quantify than what ministry activities women can do/lead! I’ll discuss the general dynamics of that in the next post.

Once I was immersed in the life of this church, I started to realize how fuzzy things really got when it came to gender roles.

When you minister to a church you’ve never been a part of before, it doesn’t take long to find out who the spiritual giants are–those people everyone else looks up to and wants to be like.

This church had a lot of these people.

And many, many, many of them were women.

These women had an insatiable hunger to know Jesus and his word. They explained Bible passages and Christian theology with passion and ease. They shared the gospel with non-Christians. They served the poor. They welcomed foreigners into their homes. They prayed–oh, did they pray! They were honest, gracious, compassionate, and patient.

So patient.

They were (and still are) women of whom the world was not worthy.

And there I was, 30-something, first-time, male pastor, leading among these female spiritual giants. I went in thinking I needed to teach them. I left realizing how much they had taught me.

I went in thinking I needed to teach them. I left realizing how much they had taught me.

The women in our church never demanded a female elder. They never demanded that a woman preach a sermon. Their vision was simpler–and grander–than that. They wanted their voice, their gifts, their passions, their person, their womanhood to matter. They didn’t want to be ignored, silenced, or marginalized.

An older, retired pastor befriended and mentored me while we lived in New York. We spent Wednesday mornings at IHOP talking ministry and drinking bad coffee. He constantly nudged me toward including and empowering our women without ever trying to convince me of one theological position or the other.

His counsel, time after time, was to recognize and celebrate the spiritual gifts of women by actually letting them use their gifts, and, most importantly, ask for and listen to their insights, opinions, and preferences on church matters.

“If you want to see ‘church’ become a movement,” he’d always say, “you need women.”

Even as a complementarian, I recognized this and wanted it. I knew women were not second-class kingdom citizens and they had amazing things to offer.

The bigger question was, How does this fit in my theological framework?

That Time A Woman Preached

Over several months, I worked with many of these women on various things. Women even helped lead teams, and our elders had started a women’s advisory group that met with some of our elders to share their thoughts and concerns about the church.

We were making progress. But the progress was primarily behind the scenes. Women still did not have much of a voice when it came to big picture leadership or discipleship issues, including, of course, proclaiming God’s word to the whole congregation.

But I sensed a change on Good Friday 2015, during a Tenebrae service. In this type of worship gathering, various people prepare brief reflections on the sayings of Jesus from the cross. In a “hard complementarian” church, this would be reserved for men only. But we had a mixture of men and women give what truly was a “sermonette.”

One woman spoke on “I thirst” from John 19:28-29.

Angst shot out from her face while she whispered as if her lips were dry, cracked, and bleeding, “I’m thirsty!” Reciting the psalmist’s searching cry in Psalm 63, she showed that Jesus fulfilled that ancient song in his statement from the cross. Jesus didn’t simply need physical water, she pointed out. He wanted–needed–his Father. That’s who he was thirsty for. Jesus died of (spiritual) thirst.

It was the one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.

Everyone in the room knew she was preaching. And she was preaching like she was born to do it.

And I knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was preaching. Everyone in the room knew she was preaching.

And she was preaching like she was born to do it.

I can’t remember if I felt conflicted in the moment. (I hope I wasn’t debating the legitimacy of it–it was Good Friday!) Besides, everyone seemed edified because of what she said.

Whatever I thought about the role of women that night didn’t matter at all.

What mattered is that I wanted to know Jesus, love Jesus, and be like Jesus more because of what she said during that beautiful, dark, haunting Tenebrae service.

“What About Sunday School?”

Months later in late 2015, I had transitioned to interim pastor after our senior pastor had resigned. Discussions on the precise roles of women continued to increase. By spring 2016, our elder team had to deal with the most significant theological and practical question during my years as a pastor: can a woman teach and lead a Sunday school adult education class?

Prior to this, the church had an unwritten rule that only men could teach the Bible or theology proper.[9] But we had capable, knowledgeable, and willing women who wanted to teach on various topics, particularly books of the Bible, theology, or spiritual formation. They wanted to know if that was an acceptable way to use their gifts.

We (the elder team) had to answer in a way that 1) honored these women, and 2) upheld our complementarian framework. Our position was not up for debate–we weren’t all of a sudden going to have women elders or a woman preach to the whole church on a Sunday morning. But the application of our position wasn’t set in stone.

I spent weeks studying and praying about this issue. I read and re-read the Scriptures and consumed just about every article and opinion you could find online. I agonized over it.

I came to the conclusion that there was nothing in the Scripture that prevented a woman from teaching mixed groups in a “Sunday School-like” setting. I believed, as some complementarian churches do, if the person teaching and what is being taught are under elder oversight, it would be acceptable. I shared my view with the other elders and after many conversations, we agreed to start allowing women to teach adults the Bible and theology.[10]

Feeling the Foundation Crumble

What I’ve shared in this post is a tiny glimpse into the people and events God used opened my eyes to the value of women in the church, which then allowed me to see Scripture in a different light. Obviously, I don’t have the space to share every experience that deeply influenced me–private conversations, email exchanges, prayer times, planning sessions. I wish I did.

Ironically, while I was a complementarian pastor, my complementarian foundation began to crumble. By the time I stepped down as a pastor of the church my heart had ripened enough to at least be open to other options. After all, my wife and I were both transitioning to work with Cru as campus ministers together.

Carly, my wife, is tremendously gifted and, while I was a pastor, desired to use her gifts for the good of the church, too. But how could she use her gifts of teaching, wisdom, and discernment as the wife of a complementarian pastor in a complementarian church? How could we co-labor to serve both genders together? It seemed impossible.

In the next post, I’ll share more of our story, focusing on my wife’s influence on my journey and our experience together in the church as we started to notice the major blind spots of complementarianism.


Notes

[1] I’m not talking about the politics of race. I’m talking about Christian empathy, compassion, justice, and God’s heart for all people groups, especially marginalized ones, which, as we’ll see, relates to the issue of women in the church.

[2] I recognize that some people join a church or denomination based on doctrine or the “statement of faith” alone. But I’d be willing to bet my retirement account those people are by far the exception.

[3] In Christian theology, the term for this is “sanctification.” Sanctification comes from the Latin word sanctus which means “to make holy, to set apart.”

[4] The CMA has a long history of empowering women in ministry. However, their current position is still that only men can serve as local church elders. Their website states: “Women may fulfill any function in the local church which the senior pastor and elders may choose to delegate to them…and may properly engage in any kind of ministry except that which involves elder authority.” However, just two weeks ago Christianity Today reported that the CMA is reconsidering their position. CMA President John Stumbo said, “It’s become clear to me that some of our policies unnecessarily restrict otherwise called and qualified ministers. This grieves me.”

[5] Different churches have different names for their leaders: elders or pastors are most common in North American churches. In some baptist churches, “deacon” is used for the men who lead the church. Biblically speaking, however, “deacon” can refer to someone who is a minister-at-large (see Rom 16:1-2) or someone in a specific local church who helps with more practical, material needs (see Acts 6).

[6] For my friends and family who grew up in Pentecostal traditions, they are much more likely to have experienced female leadership in some capacity. The official position of the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination, is that women are not restricted in any sense: “We conclude that we cannot find convincing evidence that the ministry of women is restricted according to some sacred or immutable principle.”

[7] “Biblical Literalism is the method of interpreting Scripture that holds that, except in places where the text is obviously allegorical, poetic, or figurative, it should be taken literally.” GotQuestions.org, “What is biblical literalism?”

[8] Essentially every major English Bible translation says the same thing for 1 Tim 2:12. See the comparisons.

[9] “Theology proper” in our church’s context would be something like the content of our statement of faith, which primarily covered the essential doctrines of Christianity (the Trinity, atonement, salvation by faith, etc.). A parenting class, for example, would deal with aspects of theology, but would not be “theology proper,” therefore a woman would be allowed to teach it.

[10] You might be asking, “What happened next?!” About 5-6 months later , we announced that we’d be joining staff with Cru. We left the following spring. So, I can’t add much because my part in this church’s story came to an end.