How I became an egalitarian

Recently a Twitter thread has been going on where people have been answering how they “became” egalitarian after being raised complementarian. I was intrigued by some of the responses, noting how for some people, the more they studied the Bible, the more questions were raised about complementarianism. For others, it came from looking at the fruit of the theology they grew up with, and resulting trauma, abuse or mysogeny that seemed rubber-stamped with God’s approval that didn’t line up with the God of the Bible. For others, it was just a wholesale rejection based on personal logic. Some reasons seemed more valid than others, but it seems everyone who finds themselves in the egalitarianism camp has a story. So do I.

I grew up in a complementation church, and have always been a natural leader. Outside of the church this meant leadership awards, scholarships, and opportunities, but inside the church it meant a lot of confusion. Armstrong wrote about this in a recent article:

“Younger women especially have a hard time reconciling the opportunities the secular world affords them with the limitations they face in the Church. Uncertain about whether the Church would consider their gifts, education and abilities an acceptable offering from a female, and not wanting to create controversy, many women consciously or subconsciously side-step the issue. They opt to minimize their church involvement and pour the best of their energies into their careers.”

Jenny Rae Armstrong

I resonate deeply with this quote – with the exception that I have always felt a call to ministry. As a preschooler, the elders in my church approached my mom to tell her to get me to stop “playing” pastor since I was female. When I saw a woman in our evening service speaking, and found out “missionary” was an acceptable career path for me, I was all in. I have pursued missions wholeheartedly most of my life.

It was a way for me to use my gifts and abilities and “stay in my lane,” so I embraced working in the margins, with children and youth, in undesirable areas where women have often thrived in the church.

I found my leadership was encouraged and welcome in most of these spaces – often beyond my own comfort levels. My (mostly male) leaders were quick to affirm my giftings, and used the “Deborah rule” (women can lead when no willing male counterparts were available) or the “Priscilla rule” (leadership allowed as long as there was a male overseer) to legitimize my roles.

That worked… sort of. But the more experience and education I received, the less likely there would be a male counterpart equally qualified to lead. Should I stop learning? The more leadership I was given, the farther away the male “head” was – to the point that on paper it looked good, but in 10 years of ministry, that “head” would be hard-pressed to answer any questions about what I actually did. 

And it only got more awkward from there. Finding out male colleagues in parallel ministries were earning double to triple my wages (“because we could never hire a male at the wages you’re willing to take, and besides, he’s got a family to support”). Realizing my job description was nearly identical to a local church planter who had the title, salary, authority and ordination of a pastor, but I was a “missionary,” allowed to have all the responsibilities he had but banned from similar titles, salaries, authority or ordination. And the children and youth I served were growing up – but any tension I raised about having “authority” over now-adults was dismissed because (and this will hurt) they were not white.

I think that was the end of my unquestioned allegiance to complementarianism. The deeper it got, the more complicated of a dance it became to “stay in my lane,” and the less Jesus-like it seemed. Increasingly, the issue for the male leaders I served with and under was not what I did, how I was gifted, or where I served – the issue was how much I was paid, and how much power/authority it afforded me over white men. That’s just not gospel.

One could argue that the folks I was serving alongside had it wrong, and a better example of complementarianism would have made a difference. Maybe. But these were godly men, trying to understand and practice the word of God, and holding to a complementarian stance not because the Bible was clear, but because it was how they were raised.

Either way, all this did was to send me back to the Bible. Where did our ideas of leadership and gender come from? What did the Bible have to say about it?

I had to know, so I began pouring over my Bible, reading articles and picking up books that tried to explain things to me.

I look back on how I sought to understand the issue and shake my head a little. I was unwilling to read any female theologian (they had an agenda, in my mind). I was reluctant to read anything too recent (probably liberal). I rejected anything from church history (sola Scriptura, after all). 

And even so, there was so much that didn’t make sense.

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