Complementarianism is Sexism: A Response to Tish Harrison Warren

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On March 15th, I read an article entitled, “The Gender Conversation We Aren’t Having,” by Tish Harrison Warren, which was published by Christianity Today Her-Meneutics (Find Here). While I very much appreciated Tish’s insights and even complimented her and retweeted the article, I had some mixed feelings.

I sat on those mixed feelings for about a week, hoping they would go away and I could simply keep my mouth shut, but they have only become stronger.

We all have personal gifts which the Holy Spirit gives us in order to move the Body of Christ towards justice and righteousness.

Tish seems to have a gift to unite what she calls “two rival gangs.” These include egalitarians and complementarians. I honor her for that gift, as we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, despite our differences.

Tish will be able to get through doors that will be closed to me, because she is able to take a moderate stance and remain true to her egalitarian convictions. I believe that she plays an important role in moving women forward, which is why I am able to support her article and her, even with some serious concerns.

If you haven’t noticed by now, my gifts are to see truth and call out injustices against God’s daughters. These gifts do not always help me to make friends, nor do they always open doors for me, but they are the gifts that God has given me, and God seems to expect me to remain faithful to them.

The major issue that I see with Tish’s article is this very fact: complementarianism IS sexism. 

Sexism is defined as prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.

I spent one year studying complementarianism, as I biblically combated it in my master’s thesis, and I am quite aware of what this doctrine entails.

Tish states, Regardless of our complementarian/egalitarian labels, all believers need to honestly and frankly address the sin of sexism. Sexism is not the property of one theological positionWhile I believe strongly that Tish’s heart intent is good, the statement that I bolded above is simply not accurate.

Complementarianism is very much sexist in its theological position. It holds clear properties of sexism that egalitarian theology does not.

Complementarianism’s unapologetic theological stance is that women are not permitted to be lead pastors or elders (and sometimes not even Bible teachers to men), simply because they were born female.

It does not matter how qualified women are in ministry experience and theological education, they will be discriminated against for their gender if they seek to lead in any of these leadership positions (which almost always include associate pastor, administration pastor, family pastor, evangelism pastor, college pastor, youth pastor, and sometimes even worship pastor).

If this is not discrimination based on gender, I don’t know what is.

Please note that the job of “Women’s Pastor” is rare and is often only found in mega churches after many male pastors are hired first. On churchstaffing.com, which lists hundreds of ministry jobs and is a primary site for ministers to job hunt, I found one opening for a “Women’s Pastor.” The job is only part-time and the compensation listed is between $25,000-$30,000 annually (See Here).

I dug further. I decided to look up this church that is in need of a part-time women’s pastor to see how many male pastors are already on staff. The unapologetic sexism present is even worse than I expected. Before this church, that is obviously complementarian, has even thought to hire a “part time” women’s pastor, they have hired a male senior pastor, executive pastor, pastor of family ministry, pastor of discipleship, director of worship arts, junior high director, high school director, and college director. There are two female ministers on staff and both work with children (see their staff page below).

Staff

Tish later states,

In the other camp, complementarians can spend their energy arguing for male leadership while neglecting pressing problems of sexism in their midst. A pastor friend told me recently that working alongside a woman in lay ministry convicted him that he had ignored voices of women in his congregation, where pastor and elder roles are reserved for men. He is now trying to actively repent by meeting with female congregants to ask them about their experiences, including women in all church decisions, and learning about the history and current reality of sexism. He’s working to make voices and gifts of women a priority, even while maintaining his stance against female ordination.

I truly hate to be the one to break the news (I am not being sarcastic, my heart breaks), but this pastor can seek out meetings with female congregants all he wants, but until he repents of his sexist theological position, his heart cannot completely turn around on this issue.

As long as pastors, churches, elders, organizations, and universities embrace complementarianism, the voices and gifts of women will never be a priority. Without full repentance, complementarian leaders may be able to prioritize women’s gifts and voices for a while, but it won’t take long for them to fall back into their old ways because the real issue was never rooted out and thrown away.

I agree with Tish about this ongoing debate not really being about complementarianism verses egalitarianism, and I am sure many of us are getting tired of these terms, but one of these two theologies is openly sexist in its very nature, while the other theology is not at all openly sexist in its very nature.

This in no way means that every egalitarian Christian leader is not sexist. It is clear that even egalitarian denominations discriminate against female ministers by almost always preferring to hire male ministers over female ministers. This may be worse and even more dishonest than complementarian leaders, but that would take a whole other blog post.

Regardless, if complementarians want to continue to cling to their doctrine of “hierarchies based on gender,” then let them at least be honest about their sexism. If they believe that the Bible is sexist, so they have the “moral” obligation to be sexist, too, then fine. Let’s at least call it what it is.

Perhaps at that point, complementarian seminaries can stop accepting female students into their programs or at least significantly lower their tuition for women, because it can be pretty difficult to pay back $80,000 of student loan debt as a children’s director, church secretary, pastor’s wife, or writer.

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19 Comments

  • In the old days, the church embraced being “sexist” and said that it differentiated them from the world. (They said the same about racism. The Moral Majority’s first political act was not to fight abortion, but to fight desegregation.) These days, sexism has become so socially unacceptable that almost no one wants that label, so they are seeking ways to talk their way around it. They want to practice discrimination and not be called sexist. I personally don’t think it is going to work much longer. I’ve noticed that my children’s generation (twentysomethings & teens) have much less tolerance for discrimination, and they aren’t as easy to hoodwink, perhaps from their experience of being bombarded by social media from a young age.

  • Amen! Love your ability to applaud other women who are advancing egalitarianism as God has called them while remaining faithful in your calling to proclaim the truth about sexism in complementarian theology. Very refreshing.

  • Amen! You are a beautiful truth teller, Jory! How refreshing it would be if we could call a spade a spade rather than using sugar-coated language to disguise sexist practices and clear discrimination. Separate but equal is as much a lie with gender as it is with ethnicity.

  • I love your passion and you state in many posts things I’ve thought for years, and I’ve shared your blog.

    I could not write what Tish did. And my issues with it are different:

    Yes, we know how the word “egalitarian” is used generally (though I do look it up, because frankly it’s not used much where I am!)–but the general definition of the word is not relevant to the article as written because egalitarians in the sense of those in the church who are aware of “complementarianism” (many people are not, actually) and oppose it on biblical grounds are usually very, very careful to not frame the discussion in terms of rights. It’s a very specialized use of the term “egalitarian”, rather than the general term, and I would have appreciated the article clarifying the specialized use, if there were a need to bring in the general use, and contrast the two.

    Also an opportunity was missed to mention that “complementarians” introduced hierarchy into a word that lacks it in its general use.

    IMO, this is by definition what complementarianism IS, though for her audience, she cannot state this, or they’re gone:
    “If one professes male headship, then it is particularly important to rigorously disentangle that view from sins of sexism and cultural misogyny. Otherwise, complementarianism can become a mere façade to “baptize” the dehumanization of women and self-centeredness of men.”

    I disagree with the idea that there are two extremes here: men are in charge, vs. men and women should work together. An example of two extremes would be men are in charge vs. women are in charge. You can make unbiblical choices or hold unbiblical beliefs anywhere along a continuum–there’s no need to make things “opposites” to make some choices bad/wrong.

    I also believe that we are clearer on what egalitarianism is than what complementarianism is, is clear: I don’t buy that the two positions are equally unclear. The places where a comp denomination/church draws its lines that women are not permitted to cross vary widely. There are no lines in an egalitarian church. This is not the same as me saying that there are no differences between women and men, so please do not misunderstand in that way.

    I see more that I am uncomfortable with, but don’t want to pile on or get too personal, and honestly I am more comfortable with what Jory is doing here and that leads to some of my discomfort with the other article. That won’t work for everyone, though.

    Having said that…
    I am so, so glad to see Tish’s article. She is doing greatly needed work. I can’t be as kind and patient as she is about this issue (obviously), and the cause needs us all.

    I completely agree with this: “Sexism is not the property of one theological position; it is a pattern and state of the heart.”

    It is absolutely the truth; Tish illustrated that with her example of her friend who was overlooked in favor of men, “as men around her were asked to preach, lead, and be formed as pastors,” and the similar stories Tish knows from around the country.
    Egalitarians can be sexist in practice, in word and in deed, most of the time, some of the time, occasionally, whatever, despite claiming belief in a non-sexist theology. Sexism did not originate with theology, and theology will not eradicate it.

    I agree that we need people like Tish advocating for people to listen to each other, and specifically for men to *listen to* women in complementarian churches. As men and women get to know each other–which can be a challenge in some comp churches, as it is not believed that women and men can be friends, and many activities are sex-segregated–walls could come down. And in the meantime, maybe a man will *listen* to a woman in his church who needs someone to listen to her. Maybe she will need to be heard by someone in leadership, and he is in leadership, and will decide to listen. I don’t know: I hope so.

    One more thing–to share something another friend pointed out to me today–most if not all of us have biases on issues of race. I’m white, so this is uncomfortable for me to type, and please let me know where I need improvement. However, calling someone a racist who expresses some of these biases (not recognizing, perhaps, the bias in their attitude on a particular issue), is more likely to discourage conversation and progress than it is to help the biased person and the cause move forward. The same applies, here. I won’t disagree that compism is sexist (among other things), but labeling the people who live by it with that term is not going to make them open for conversation.

    But mostly I am glad that Tish is following her call! Though we are not in touch, I had been praying for her to do so for a while, now. 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I agree that it is probably not helpful to call individuals “sexists,” but to call out a theology as sexist seems to be necessary in moving woman forward. At least, I sense this is the direction God is taking me as an advocate. But, as a friend who also advocates for this causes told me, we all have are own lane to run in. 🙂

      • Absolutely! And my lane has more in common with yours in some ways…OTOH, I have friends who are still “inside”, so I have to speak more gingerly than I’d care to, sometimes.

        Like Tish, I was on the inside of comp-ism for a time (we attended the same church for a time, actually). I was a part of complementarianism–though I never consciously bought into it intellectually–for years, and also studied (alternatives to it) for years. It was not a fun road, but I have insights now that *I* could not have had otherwise (YMMV).

        We never know which voice someone will hear! And personally I think you are dead-on most of the time. So your voice speaks to me, and I appreciate it.

  • I had similar mixed feelings when Jeff Crippen at A Cry For Justice posted a mini-rant about how he wants to get past the labels of egal and comp. I get where he is coming from; he believes that it can be alienating some churches and organizations that desperately need to hear his messages regarding domestic violence in the church. At the same time, it is difficult for me to separate the two, as I firmly believe that ANY sort of gender hierarchy provides a fertile breeding ground for abuse. I still believe that his ministry is EXTREMELY important in this day and age, but pray that he will see the connection.

  • As an ordained minister in an officially complementation evangelical denomination, I appreciate this article. In particular, I appreciate the line “If they believe that the Bible is sexist, so they have the “moral” obligation to be sexist, too, then fine. Let’s at least call it what it is.” That’s essentially where I am at, and let me tell you, it’s a damned uncomfortable position. I feel pretty confident that I can walk my way out of Ephesians 5 without a problem, but I have a big problem with 1 Timothy 2.

    I feel like I am stuck. I resent the sexist implications of certain passages of Scripture, and I do what I can to avoid them in my ministry (which actually isn’t a problem because of my unique situation) and definitely in my marriage. My skin crawls and I get angry when I see sexism in the church, whether on a practical level or in the theological writings of guys like Grudem and Piper. But how else do I say it? 1 Timothy 2 is sexist too. At least they, unlike me, seem comfortable with that. What now?

    • Have you checked out the online resources at the Chistians for Biblical Equality website?
      Good scholarship is available there and I found the organization helpful when I was in an evangelical comp church and trying to make sense of things.

      There are also many blogs–including this one–with lots of helpful information.

    • I appreciate your honesty. I believe that patriarchy is the backdrop of the Bible, but not the message of Jesus Christ or the Apostle Paul. This post is a good place to start in reading 1 tim 2 in proper context: http://juniaproject.com/defusing-1-timothy-212-bomb/

      Also, we must realize that the Apostle Paul praised an Apostle name Junia and a Bible teacher named Priscilla and more women leaders.

      We also we Judge Deborah leading the Israelite army (which was a spiritual role as well as military) in the OT.

      God bless your research.

      • Thank you both for you gracious replies. Two things before I respond: first, I am coming at this through my training as a biblical scholar, not as someone who could at all be considered an expert in the theologies of gender or in feminist theory. Secondly, this issue has been on my mind as what I see as a subset of a much larger issue with the way that evangelical Christians read the Bible as a sacred text, using creative interpretation to gloss over problems. I say that not as a way of diminishing the work that you are doing, but merely to say that I am not well versed in specific interpretive arguments surrounding this issue, but only more generally in the issues of theological interpretation of ancient texts. Having said that, I hope that you can be patient with me as I share a few of my own personal reflections and experiences in encountering this kind of reading; what I say is certainly not meant as a personal attack, particularly since I haven’t read that much of your writing, but more generally because I am describing my own experience of intellectual wrestling, not trying to say that you are wrong.

        First, then, I agree with you that patriarchy certainly forms the backdrop of the Bible. There are far too many examples to list where patriarchal modes of thinking are simply presumed or reinforced by passages of the Bible without actually being explicitly prescribed. Take, for example, the running metaphor of the people of Israel as the “whoring wife,” which borrows a stereotypical masculine fear that attempts to control female sexuality in ways unparalleled in articulations of male sexuality. The Bible never explicitly says that male sexual expression outside of marriage is good, but its deafening silence regarding the issue, particularly in the OT, in comparison to the astonishingly harsh words regarding female sexuality paint a picture of, if you’ll pardon the pun, unadulterated sexism.

        You mentioned the story of Deborah. As much as I would like to agree with you that this is a tale of a strong woman, I cannot help but read the story in the larger context of the failures of Israel, which forms the refrain of the book of Judges. It seems to me in that story that the primary significance of Jael and Deborah’s gender is not that God values the leadership of women (unfortunately), but that God can win a fight even when he’s working with insufficient means. It’s all but insulting, of course. Sisera is defeated by a woman and killed by another woman, and meanwhile Barak is running scared and has missed the action. The feminine elements of the story are used as a means of shaming the two primary men in the story (as in, “you were beat by a *girl*”), while simultaneously demonstrating the power of God by achieving the impossible through minimal means (cf. Gideon and the reduced army).

        However, I also think that what we might call the presumed background frequently crosses the line into the explicit foreground. There are numerous laws, for example, in Deuteronomy 21 and 22 that discuss female sexuality, including an inaccurate virginity test (that has no concept of male virginity, only of female virginity) with the death penalty attached, as well as the laws regarding a rape (essentially revolving around the question of whether it was a “legitimate rape”). The rape laws in particular are disturbing not least because they utterly ignore the personhood of the actual victim and instead see the ruling man, whether father or husband, as the actual victim who needs to be compensated for the loss of his prize, whether through vengeance or repayment. The forced marriage of the rapist to his victim is only symptomatic of the larger worldview; her feelings are irrelevant. Instead what matters is that the rapist pay for the father’s damaged goods in the form of the bride price and then is not allowed to divorce her, since the father should no longer be held financially responsible for the property that the rapist damaged. These kinds of laws and others like them are certainly consistent with the much broader ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu, but they cross the line from the kind of presumed sexism of the Deborah story (where sexism forms the necessary literary backdrop to underscore the primary message); these laws enforce the patriarchal standard.

        Typically when these kinds of issues are raised in the evangelical church, they are shouted down with a resounding chorus of rejection. I suppose this is a good thing, because most sane people don’t want to go to churches where this kind of iron age perspective on the roles and worth of men and women continues to be promulgated. But in my experience, what arises in its place is a series of tortured readings where problematic texts are subjected to interpretive gymnastics, which produces sterilized readings of what actually remain manifestly problematic texts. I say that to my immense frustration. When I look at these passages as a pastor, I want to believe in their theological re-imagning; when I look as a scholar, I know it’s all nonsense, and the passages really are as problematic as they seem.

        So that brings me to a passage like 1 Timothy 2. I appreciate your reference to the interpretation from the Junia Project, but I cannot help but see there the same kind of imaginative re-reading. Frequently when I read egalitarian or evangelical feminist interpretations of texts, I am struck by the fact that there seems to be an underlying argument that the problem of patriarchy in the church is not a sexist text; it is sexist readers. But the fact remains that in order to get around these texts, we are left not with concrete readings, but mere attempts to create enough imbalance in interpretation that we can walk away thinking that the passage is confusing, not that it says something else.

        So, for example, the Junia Project author makes an appeal to the Greek, which sounds good, but doesn’t hold water. Ms. Wallace appeals to the singular “gune”/”gunaiki” in 2.11–12, arguing that perhaps Paul is referring to a specific problematic woman in Ephesus. But this is merely an attempt to get theological blood out of a grammatical onion. A reference to a specific woman would almost certainly include an article adjective; far more devastatingly, Paul uses the singular “andros” as well, indicating clearly that he is making generic statements about “man” and “woman,” not referring to one woman’s attempt to usurp authority. Likewise, she attempts to sidestep the meaning of “have authority” by appealing to the broader semantic range of the word authentein, but unfortunately a quick perusal of a standard Greek lexicon confirms that the ordinary translation is far and away the preferred translation, and attempts to read a strongly negative connotation into such a bland word are unfortunately misguided.

        I say all that as a way of expressing just a piece of my own internal struggle with these issues. In some sense, I admire the effort of everyone involved on both sides of the debate because they are essentially struggling with the same problem: the text seems to say sexist things, and both egalitarians and complementarians are attempting to say, “but it’s not really sexist if you just read it correctly!” I tend to think that the complementarian reading is closer to the original in the sense that it preserves the sexism under a veneer of “separate but equal,” while the egalitarian reading is more morally appealing, though in my view less textually accurate, since it sees in these ancient texts at the very least the seeds of if not a full blown articulation of feminist views of equality. I am much more inclined to see it as an expression of the same kind of patriarchal views that prompted the writer of Sirach to write, “Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace.” The proof, in some sense, is in the most basic test. If you or I read 1 Timothy 2 and didn’t know it was in the Bible, we would immediately dismiss it as offensive sexist garbage. It is only because it is in our sacred text that we feel obligated to justify it and understand it in new ways. Indeed, that’s why modern feminist scholarship (except in the left-leaning evangelical world) has completely dispensed with the project of reclaiming the Bible that so consumed them in the sixties through the early eighties; speaking in general terms, feminist biblical scholars of today do not attempt to argue that the text contains the seeds of proto-feminism; instead, they approach the texts as feminists using the tools of their discipline to unmask the patriarchal assumptions of the text, or self-consciously offering superimposed feminist readings of chauvinist texts. They see themselves as feminists critics of a sexist Bible, not ideal readers unmasking the sexist readings of a feminist Bible.

        Perhaps the way forward is to recognize Paul’s sexism, but then to engage in these re-readings, not as an attempt to uncover the original meaning of the text, but as a way of filtering our theology and creating a distilled version that prioritizes certain concepts regarding equality and re-imagines problematic texts through this lens. There is much that is appealing about this approach, but it is also fraught with danger, because we must necessarily presume the authority to judge the text and to dismiss St Paul’s views on gender as those of an unenlightened misogynist. And perhaps he was, but I waver on the edge of that terrible precipice.

        My profuse apologies for the ungodly length of this comment! Many thanks for your patience with me as I articulate the things I have been thinking in my head for a couple years.

  • “If you haven’t noticed by now, my gifts are to see truth and call out injustices against God’s daughters. These gifts do not always help me to make friends, nor do they always open doors for me, but they are the gifts that God has given me, and God seems to expect me to remain faithful to them.”

    YES YES YES! This resonates with me completely! Thank you for your brave voice. I have been on the receiving end of sexism from a complementarian church leadership that refuses to acknowledge their apparent sexism. I left after being shamed for speaking up about a struggle I was having. My voice for this real issue has grown and continues to as I heal from being burned and then made to feel like my hurt was merely my perception. All that said, thank you. Keep pursuing your gift!

    • Welcome to the Jezebel club! They just can’t let a female foot in the door, eh? Oh Lord, please deliver us all from this sexism that defies the command of James 2:9! (We can cherry pick scripture, too) Ever heard the latest ongoing teaching that when the Spirit of God first fell on the early church it was ONLY on the 11 apostles…no one else? Yes that was one of the last lessons I learned in Reformed Fundamentalism…and it is also found on the internet…I guess Peter was hallucinating when he quoted the prophet Joel and that some will stop at nothing to keep women locked out! May God open their sick minds and blinded eyes.

  • “A man convinced against HIS WILL is of the same opinion still”…and therefore, because Complementarianism is a disease of the WILL more than of truly dispassionate and objective study of scripture, no amount of arguing will convince a man who wills his own entitlement (and what sinner would not?) to abandon it even if the Bible were to spell out equality more plainly than it already does.

    The solution is for women and men who see the problem to ABANDON ALL Complementarian “businesses” until those benighted souls are able to deal with their intransigent stiff-necked wills that prevent them from objectively studying the Bible rather than reiterating the same old, same old, arguments that reject an honest overview of scripture. The diseased culture of patriarchy is so ingrained in mankind from the Fall that its tangled tools of mind manipulation are extremely sophisticated, perhaps too sophisticated for most human minds to overcome, especially when the will is also in bondage to selfish desires as well, not to mention, complicated by the financial problem of sharing their jobs placements with women. (hence the evil requirement of many Comp. religious businesses, for all men in their employ to sign legal documents promising to never broach the subject of women in ministry, on pain of losing a promising or intact career.) This may play an important part, as well as the inherent belief in the superiority of, and preference of God, for men.

    The Bible is clear and God is clear that He will brook no oppression or bondage of any person. (“oppress” in all its variations appears over 100 times in scripture with always with rejection) The Exodus was perhaps God’s most memorable beginning of outright war against the sin of entitlement in the black hearts of mankind. HD’s convoluted determination to justify his beliefs is a case in point. He will need to get to know God better in order to understand that God is NEVER the author of oppression or bondage but of liberty for all and that God DOES NOT EVER play favorites (a respecter of persons), nor must we (James 2:9)…Therefore it is impossible to honestly ascribe patriarchy to God. But this requires a detached reasoning that is not possible when one cherry picks scriptures to back up a failing ideology and, frankly, a religious business!

    • Thank you for your provocative response, which was at least in part directed at me. I can understand your apparent feeling of revulsion over what appears to be your impression that I have made some sort of convoluted attempt to justify my own collusion with the patriarchal ideology of complementarianism.

      However, I have spent the last week thinking about my annoyingly long comment and its implications, and I think that you have misread where I am at. I am not heaving a convenient sigh as I reluctantly accept my God given privileged status over women. On the contrary; I am finding not that I am less egalitarian, but rather, that I am less evangelical than I had hoped. In other words, I remain unconvinced that the Bible as we have it actually manages to avoid being implicated in the patriarchal ideology that Jory and the rest of you so rightly condemn. I wholly sympathize with your goals because I agree with them in principle, but I am not dissuaded that the Bible, at least in some parts, does in fact support the very thing for which we all have such a distaste. I don’t say that because I am encouraged that Piper, Grudem, et al are so faithful to the Bible; I say that and cringe at the awful thought that the Bible at times may uphold immoral systems. (Please understand when I say that as well that I am not saying that God himself upholds the immoral system.)

      I realize, of course, that you find my readings of the Bible unconvincing yourself. I admit I am somewhat envious of the ways that you have found to maintain the tack of your egalitarian convictions in the prevailing winds of Scripture. I have found myself in much murkier waters. Happy sailing. May we both find ourselves at some point nearer to the sea of glass.

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