Growing up complementarian is an interesting thing. From an early age, I was used to the idea that men and women were equal in value, but not equal in authority. It was everywhere in the Christian circles I moved in. Women were empowered to function only within certain “submitted” confines. Hey, some degree of empowerment is better than what many fundamentalist Christian women get, but still, I grew up knowing there wasn’t so much a glass ceiling, but a big fat Bible you’d get swatted down with if you rose “too far.”
While I can’t remember if the complementarian “value vs authority” trope was ever said explicitly from the pulpit (by my pastor/father), it was spelled out a million ways in anecdotes and examples. To my sisters and I, he spoke the language of empowerment, while also educating me that I’d need to lay down my ministry to support my husband, and teaching me that love was expressed through submission. I read between those lines and learned I would do best if I made my opinions, intellect and even talent inferior to that of the menfolk around me. Also around me were examples of “good Christian womanhood” – submissive, diminutive women who deferred to their husbands or pastors on everything. Meanwhile, the men got to lead and achieve even if their aptitude was inferior to that of their lady friends.
I don’t blame my Dad at all. I think he was doing his best. I also don’t think there were any better examples at the time he commenced ministry in the late 1980’s. That sense of inequality was cultural in the church and outside of it. My mother was part of a sort of transitional generation. Her mother had been a stay home mum with no expectation to work. I’m (so far) her only daughter to marry and have kids. I don’t have the option to be a stay home mum. Life and economics have changed greatly in the last two generations. This is our reality now.
But here’s the kicker: I don’t want to be a stay home mum. The economic reality has changed but so have the expectations of women when it comes to fulfillment and contribution. I like to think. I am good at my job (as a research blogger and ghostwriter). If you ask me my opinion, I will lay it out for you. If you don’t ask me my opinion, then don’t expect me to sit on the sidelines of the conversation like an inferior wallflower. If Mamma K has something to say, you’ll hear it. That doesn’t make me out of step with my husband, or God, or out of line in general. It just makes me, me.
I remember when I first started stepping up into my call and being at peace with my brain and my place in the world, I was growing in confidence and thinking “Yeah! I love this.” That confidence had taken me 32 years and a lot of therapy to attain. But life was finally feeling good. Then an older, (well-intentioned) Christian woman placed a sympathetic hand on my arm and gave me a book on womens inner healing.
To her, the two were correlated. To me, a young woman just popping her head up out of the trauma and aftermath of a bad church experience, it was a fair whack. If I hadn’t have pulled that exchange apart with my husband pretty quickly, it could have been a “get back in your box” kind of a moment. It could have been a moment where the internalised patriarchy of another complementarian woman effectively chopped me off at the knees.
I’m a big girl. I wear my big girl panties with pride now. But not every young Christian woman has the ability to stand up to these systems. Not every young Christian woman has a husband (I know, irony) who says “Screw the patriarchy, baby, you be who you are meant to be.” Its for those women that I write.
The world is quickly adapting to women’s empowerment. In my observation, churches aren’t necessarily adapting so fast. Sadly, complementarian doctrine ensures, in many cases, that this inequity can’t be put right.
Inside my own experience, and when I hear stories of women like me, I often hear a familiar tale: outspoken women in complementarian Christian circles are often criticized and even shamed. Strength, if not expressed in stoic silence, is interpreted as a problem. But friend, we are not broken, just outspoken. We aren’t Jezebels. We aren’t speaking out because we are damaged and insecure or unsubmitted. We speak because we are valuable, insightful, and we have something to offer. That is a very good thing.
Even if a woman is speaking out of a place of damage, the correct response (I believe) is to respond to her with love and compassion that empowers her to rise above circumstances and grow beyond the reaches of her damage. It is never to put her back in her box.
I’ve been called a Jezebel in the past. It was horrible. It put on me a sense of shame, a belief that I couldn’t trust my own mind or emotions because I was under the influence of a demon. Can you imagine that? Knowing your thoughts are kindly motivated, well-thought-out and valid even if they weren’t, only to be told its potentially demonic? The effect this can have on a woman is immense. For many years, it was for me. I’ll freely admit this made me angry and frustrated. I’m a Kristen Bell kind of a girl. She once said that if she’s not in between 3 and 7 on the emotional scale, she’s in tears. I cheered when I heard that. Because that’s me. I cried out of frustration often and as soon as I did, I was often told I was too emotional and not thinking straight.
I was thinking straight. That was why I was crying.
Tears don’t mean weakness. They aren’t shameful. They don’t mean you are no longer capable of rational thought. They mean expression. They mean passion. They mean what you are talking about invokes a deeply personal response in you. This is good. Fine. Normal for a lot of people. It took me a long time to be free to realize that, and the moment I did, I cried less.
I’m so not alone. There are thousands of women like me: strong and smart because God made us that way, silenced because the church isn’t ready for this but determined to find our way out of these woods if not for our own empowerment then for the empowerment of our daughters. I’m lucky that, in adulthood, I found a husband who freed me of that internalised sense of patriarchy, and a church that empowers women. I am forever thankful for that (while also seeing the irony of a man being the one who helped me shake off the patriarchy). As a blogger, I am seeing a familiar message from my readers a bit too often: women are too often told their passion and opinions come from a place of brokenness that makes them untrustworthy, that their strength means they are unsubmitted, or that they can’t lead because they aren’t men.
Not Broken. Just Outspoken
I’ll never forget this particular church group that visited some years ago. I’d felt uncomfortable with their style and theology, so I’d been a bit standoffish, I’ll admit that. But the ministers took this to mean that I was broken somehow. At one point, a member of the team came up to me, grabbed my hand, and tearfully told me I was beautiful. I politely thanked her. She cried more and said it again. I again thanked her and said, “its nothing to cry about.” (I’m no Heidi Klum, but I also have a lot of faith in my cheekbones, you know).
It was like they tagged me as a problem. Another tried prophesying over me, but the prophecy didn’t ring any bells at all. Not a single stirring or moment of resonance. I listened politely but when this person asked me if that made sense, I very nicely said: “I’m sure you are hearing from God, it’s just for someone else I think.”
I wasn’t accepting a prophecy that didn’t sit right. I believe that words have power, so a wrong prophecy is a bad thing. At the end of the weekend, my husband said: “We should go let these people pray for us, even if we don’t really like them.” We wanted to be seen to do the right thing. You know, pastors’ daughter and son-in-law and all that. That’s when the kicker happened. One of the guys in the group came and prayed for my husband. Over him, they prophesied wealth, prosperity, influence and success. I stood holding his hand, clearly his wife, clearly happy about it. There was obviously no animosity between the two of us.
Then the minister prophesied over me: I was unsubmitted. I was out of line with my husband. I needed to submit or God would not be able to use me. On it went. I zoned out.
Why tell this story? Because its time we stop treating women as the lesser ones. Its time we stopped disrespecting their boundaries or their agency over themselves. Its time we stopped assuming the word of God comes through men because they are better and through women only when there are no good men available. It’s time we shake off this culture of disempowerment that means even women treat eachother like strength is a problem sometimes.
Let women in the church be who they are meant to be and make no assumptions about the limitations of that. Let them function. Because history shows a rich tapestry of womanhood: Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, Naomi, Junia, Pheobe, Euodia, Syntyche, Lydia, Dorcas, Mary, Elizabeth, then in post-Bible years the Kathryn Kuhlmans, Amy Semple-McPhersons, Elizabeth Eliots and Rachel Held Evans’s of the world – they show us the power of the feminine when it works in partnership with the divine. That list is finite unlike the possibilities of women who inhabit their strength in service of their creator
Femininity is divine. It is also evolving and that is okay.
I don’t know why I am telling this story and sharing this post this week. Maybe one of my readers needs to hear it. Maybe several of you do. Maybe its in reaction to things I see in the world, be it politics, current affairs, church life or even “the twitters.” I don’t know.
But I’d like to share a little reminder. God made mankind in their image (the image of the triune God). Male and female He made them. Perhaps no scripture could have been more complex to translate. But how can you make woman in your image if you aren’t feminine too? When Moses asked of God’s name, God responded “I Am.”
Women are made in the image of God just like men are. Women can be strong, smart, intuitive, submitted, leaders, quiet, loud, passionate, clinical, teary, tearless. Whatever it is, thats okay. I dream of a day when church leaders around the world aren’t scared of womens tears, talent, intellect or opinions.
We can be outspoken. It doesn’t mean we are broken.
Okay thats all!
Have a good day! I’ll be back next week with someone more intellectual (probably). In the meantime, go follow my socials! Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. (More YouTube content coming soon)
Ps. Image featuring some of my best kick-arse girl friends, and taken by one heck of a kick-arse girl! (Jessie Nauta Photography FYI)