DRINKING SALT WATER: How Complementarianism Left Me Thirsting for God (by Leah Ross)

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I feel as if I was born saved. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want or didn’t have Jesus. I was born into a Christian home. My parents were Sunday school teachers; we were at church on Sunday, Wednesday, Friday, and sometimes on Saturday for fellowships. With all the time that my family and I spent at church, I never once resented it. I was exactly where I wanted to be. I LOVED God! I loved God’s people! I wanted to be where God was.

I was thirsty for God.

I was a young, shy introvert, with a bright smile and a bubbling spirit. My mind was open and ready to receive. I loved learning about creation, the flood, David and Goliath, and all other biblical accounts. I wanted to know everything about the Christian faith.

I longed to connect with this awesome Being who painted sunsets, whose very breath created souls, and whose power and love were unmatched. I was in awe of God. The thought of living for Jesus and loving Him my whole life excited me.

I was thirsty for God.

As a young adolescent girl, while others were excited about the latest social trends and stepping into the dating scene, I was studying the gifts of the Spirit and eschatology (the study of the end times). I would spend hours studying Bible concordances and Greek and Hebrew dictionaries. I wasn’t sure if marriage was for me. I was happy to live for Jesus unattached to anyone.

I was drinking from the well that would never run dry; only it did, for many years. 

I would say that my crisis of faith had been slowly building over the years, but came to its breaking point when I was in high school. My church leaders decided to do a full-scale church-wide indoctrination of complementarian theology. Complementarianism is the belief that although men and women are equally valued and loved by God, they have different roles and responsibilities. Men are said to be the called leaders, whereas women are said to be the submissive helpers.

Although complementarianism had always been practiced at my church, this was the first time my eyes were opened to what it truly meant to be lived out in the life of a Christian. I remember the exuberance exhibited by the male teachers and teenage boys in my Sunday school class over the fact that God had created them male. After all, it did come with undeniable perks and privileges.

A man could fulfill any office in the church, pursue any dream or career, and when he got married, he would always have the final say.

I remember one of my male teachers would frequently burst out with phrases such as, “I’m the MAN!” On the other hand, I remember the angry shock and trepidation displayed by the teenage girls in my Sunday school class over the fact that God had created them female. We were taught that a woman usurping authority caused the Fall of Humanity. We were taught that we were easily deceived and naturally controlling. Obviously, we would be resistant to God’s mandate of submission and helping.

The advice given to us was to learn to have a submissive spirit and marry someone who was trustworthy enough to obey. Perhaps the most valuable advice was to know before marrying how many children our fiance wanted, because once married, we would have to be obedient even in that.

I was devastated by complementarian theology and thirstier for God than I had ever been. Though I would have a subdued lot in life as a woman, there was something more excruciating than that: I was in love with God, but God was not in love with me. Jesus was so beautiful in my eyes, but my essence wasn’t beautiful to Him. Though I desired Him, something about me was undesirable. Being a daughter of Eve meant that I had characteristics that not even God could redeem.

God couldn’t trust me with secrets or most important things. God’s Word had to come down to me from a trust worthy source – a man. Like a game of telephone on the playground, I had to receive God’s messages second hand, and even once I received a Word, I could never proclaim it in a crowd.

COMPLEMENTARIAN THEOLOGY AND PRACTICE LEFT ME THIRSTY FOR GOD. It left me thirsty for life, for joy, for peace, for acceptance, for love, and for God. It was like drinking salt water.

Please understand that complementarianism was taught along with the Gospel, as if it were part of the Gospel. Therefore, if I wanted to experience the goodness of God and to stay true to God, I had to swallow this doctrine along with the pure water of God’s Word. The more I drank it, the thirstier I became. The “equal in value, unequal in roles” mantra did nothing to quench my parched spirit.

I couldn’t bring my full self to God. My gifts, ideas, questions, and revelations went unacknowledged. Worse of all, this doctrine destroyed my connection with God. I never lost my love for God, but our relationship was like the end of an old western film, destined for unrequited love. I could no longer read large sections of the Bible because I thought the message meant that I was unimportant to God. My soul dried out in many places.

Thankfully, after many painful years of searching and crying out to God, I was introduced to Christian egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is the belief that both men and women are created in the image of God and have equal value and importance. It goes further to declare that in Christ Jesus, there is no “spiritual authority” hierarchy.

Every Christian is called to serve out of their spiritual gifts. God speaks to all of God’s children without prejudice. When I first embraced this truth, I was like a kid running into the house on a hot summer day, putting my mouth directly over the faucet! I began studying the Bible the way I did when I was in my youth. I realized that egalitarianism is biblical.

I was studying the Bible in its original languages, not from sexist translations scripted to keep women oppressed.

My soul was being satisfied. I was no longer thirsty. I loved God. God loved me. I wasn’t cursed because of Eve. I was blessed after all. I was redeemed – every part of me! There was actually only one intercessor between me and God, and that was Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). He says, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again (John 4:14).” And so now daily, I drink.

leahross

Leah Ross, wife and mother of 4, loves volunteering and everything health related. You can find her running in a race or in the organic section. Before she was an outspoken women’s rights advocate, Leah was a little girl whose only dream was to hear Jesus say, “Well done!” That hasn’t changed.

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50 Comments

  • Exactly my journey too, sister in Christ! SO glad you came to this understanding…it took me more years that you, I think. How any man would wish to conclude this (Comp) can be no credit to him. How utterly egocentric of men and how insulting to women, not to mention ungodly…for God is no respecter of persons…I think they pass over that repeated insistence from God as if it doesn’t apply to women…perhaps that is why it took 2000 years for us to be legally declared “persons”, hence we could be disfavored (‘respected’ as inferior) by God…twisted, no?

  • This. was. excellent. I can so my own journey exactly here. Coming to an egalitarian understanding of scripture led swiftly to falling in love with Jesus again and really believing for the first time that he wanted ALL of me.

    • Thanks Dalaina! The greatest sin of comp theology is that it robs us of our relationship with God, and there is no way around that truth. That is exactly what it does.

  • Leah, you’re a very inspiring person. I had an experience very similar to this the first time my youth group talked about complementarian roles. Despite being raised in an egalitarian household by a father who was very adamant about my mom’s equality, ONE experience with direct complementarian teaching when I was 13 had me questioning everything I had ever heard about God’s love for me as an individual. I came away not understanding how God could love me as much as men. This despite the fact that the message I heard wasn’t even as “hard” complementarian as what you’re describing.

    I think stories like that are the best testimony of why comp theology doesn’t work. When it breaks your view of God’s love and esteem for you, then something is wrong.

    • I totally agree Rachel. Something is certainly wrong when women and girls walk away from a message not knowing if God loves them the same.

      • Leah I’m a bit confused. Complimentarianism means that we have roles that compliment each other, ie. different physical roles. However, I couldn’t genuinely understand how this led you to believe that you have less power or authority or less of a place in God than a man.
        I also do not understand how you see complimentary roles as a problem. I heard how it effected you but I didn’t hear what the issues were.
        I believe men do have more authority than a woman but it is the same authority we see in Jesus. They have a responsibility to have this authority and it is to treat women as Christ treats the church. This is how he treated the church, he served it, he never demanded but told them what should be done to live in happiness, he never laid anything on them but the only thing he commanded from his Father was love.
        Women see authority as an issue and it starts psychological problems when hearing theology. It makes us remember the layers of history wrapped up in misconceptions of authority and consequential abuse of power. When laid out right complimentary is just like being complimentary with God. In fact it’s exactly the same. The issue is a false idea being preached on complimentarianism and making it something it is not. Women have absolute freedom but there are jobs like that are probably reserved for men, not because God wants us to miss out on feeling equally important but because this is part of a mans responsibility to ensure they are taking care of people and not just demanding women do everything. Not only that but there are many reasons around protecting us women from having too much on our plates….we women have a tendency to do everything.

        • Hi Charmaine and thank you for taking the time to read and respond! I had a little trouble following your response. You said that you didn’t understand how I felt that I had less authority than a man, but then you said that you do believe that men do have more authority than women. I do have a problem with “roles” as taught by complementarians today, mainly because I don’t believe they exist as they are being taught. The metaphor that God uses to describe the Church is a body and this not determined by gender but by gifts. We should function harmoniously as the gifts of the Holy Spirit allow. I don’t believe that complementarianism “protects” women from doing too much. I have come across some very tired and exhausted comp women trying desperately to raise children and obey the demands of their husbands in an imbalanced and unhealthy way. I hope that clarifies my position. God Bless you.

  • Spot on honey – Jesus smashed patriarchy to bits on the cross. When Paul appears to be endorsing complementarianism what he is actually being is sarcastic ! He does it elsewhere in the Scriptures – ‘i would take a whip to you’ etc. There is no hierarchy, no slave. no black, no white, no Jew, no Gentile etc. No spiritual hierarchy therefore no church structure as we see it today. From Martin – your brother in Christ in the UK.

    • Very fascinated to be introduced (for the first time) to complementarianism through this article. Very well articulated but a very interesting read indeed! I did though, have a bit of trouble following the concept that our Only ” intercessor” b/ w us and God is Jesus Christ; yes— Christ is the only way to enter into heaven…but what about the role of God’s “helper”– the Holy Spirit as an intercessor?? Isn’t that more biblically accurate. That the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf on earth as Christians, while Christ was the sacrifice and therefore cost of what it takes for Christians to gain to heaven? Perhaps because of the way the concept(s) were stated in the sentence, is why after reading them, I kind of got ” hung up” on them. While I do agree that we are created equal in our roles to each other as male & female, we are more than just equal, we also are complementary in our ” equal” roles to each other and were created to be the ” helper ” to men while simultaneously being appropriately submissive to them especially in marriage, so as to be a reflection in the Union of marriage, as to what our relationship as the church is to Christ…..w/ Christ being the ” headship” or the leader of the church and thus men mirroring that relationship in marriage especially to women….to love and cherish= treasure as Christ has loved the Church = the body of believers.

      • The problem is that we don’t understand the meaning of the words the way that the first people to hear the words understood. Our English translation, esp the word for word ones, so not represent the right meaning.

        For example, the idea of the Woman as “help meet” sounds as if it trivializes women. However, the word used for help in Hebrew is used to God in most places – I lift up my eye…… where my Help comes from – as well as to kings with more power and stronger armies. The word for “meet” is a proposition that means face-to-face, or equal to. Thus women are not “daddy’s little helper” as many believe. The Man could not do his job without the Woman. Sadly, many use this verse to ignore the strong help that women give, to discount it, and make women feel like they were created to be inferior. This simply is not true.

        And the word “head” in Greek didn’t have connotations of leadership to the good folks of Ephesus. Paul was not trying to make a hierarchy. There were plenty of words for leader that Paul knew, and would have used. Instead, the use of the word here is one of unity and source. Paul is arguing against the pagan religions of the time, esp Gnosticism, the cult of Artemis Ephesus, and asceticism, in both his letter to Ephesus and then his letters to Pastor Timothy there. There is no pink and blue versions of Christianity – we are all one in Christ Jesus.

  • Thanks for sharing! I was raised in comp denomination and found it hard to see true Biblical equality until just within the past year or so through deep discussions and scripture study with a friend. I always knew that God loved me equally, but I am freer than I have ever been, although not because of my church affiliation. I am grateful for a Christian upbringing and teaching regarding the authenticisity of scripture which paved the way to my present joyful understanding of my relationship with Jesus.

  • Wow sister! The words you speak are filled with truth. God is definitely making a move during this time. Continue to speak His truth. Shalom!

  • Oh, how that resonates with me! My husband and I have just always been equals. Our idea has always been to out do each other in love. We don’t make anything close to a “big decision” without agreeing on it. There has never been a time where one of us has had to be in charge and make the final decision. If we didn’t agree, we learned more, prayed more then talked more. That seldom needed to happen. We married someone truly suitable. Over 20 yrs ago, we had a pastor just throw a fit about how we were not doing it right. This affected not only our marriage, but my spot at church. See, I was the only one willing and able to take care of the music, but because I was a woman, I was “usurping authority” when I picked the hymns for Sunday morning. However, my husband was told that the could be in charge of it, then it would all be OK. He said no way.

    I was the little sister at home. I have one older brother, and it always felt like he got the better end of the bargain. Some of this may be my own interpretation, but we did what he needed to, my folks were all excited, but when I had something, it was a misery. I was always sharper and more outgoing, but they tried to make me feel stupid, to make him look better. I got his hand-me-downs. All I could think after being hit with this “biblical inequality” was that I was still just a little sister. The church would never let me grow up. I would only get jobs that left over by the men, or jobs I didn’t want. The pay-off would not be equal. I was pretty upset!

    My husband and I just couldn’t believe that God wants women to stay immature. We never could find a “girls at this way, and boys are that way” in the Bible. The more we heard that teaching, the unhappier we became. Fortunately, back in the early 90’s before the internet, we were able to find information that we needed about how the Bible never teaches a hierarchy. Although we still find people that try to “fix” our marriage, they no longer upset us. We know that they are operating under false beliefs. We try to educate them, which is sad as so many people do not want to learn. I am so disgusted with my Christian sisters who have swallowed the “I am too easily deceived” thing hook, line and sinker!

    Praise God that I no longer feel like a little sister! Praise God for a husband who loves me for what I am! I would say that after 39 yrs, we must be doing something right!!

    • Amen! The conclusions that comp theology draws about the character of women are so insulting! It’s so freeing to have a clearer understanding of God’s word in this area. & 39 years of marriage, wonderful!

  • Wonderful article! I have posted a link on my FB Timeline. So true. Your faith is so strong and you write so well. I hope you will also write and minister on other faith topics. You clearly have a gift of communicating your faith. God raises you up to preach and teach (from a pulpit or in blogs) this man would like to learn from you.

    • Thanks Bill! I plan on writing tons more. I am a deep thinker and a poet at heart. My dream is that the Church would rise above this hierarchical mindset and just free every person to proclaim and express God’s beauty in the way He leads. We are all supposed to learn from eachother. I plan on starting a blog soon! Thanks for the encouragement☺

    • Very fascinated to be introduced (for the first time) to complementarianism through this article. Very well articulated but a very interesting read indeed! I did though, have a bit of trouble following the concept that our Only ” intercessor” b/ w us and God is Jesus Christ; yes— Christ is the only way to enter into heaven…but what about the role of God’s “helper”– the Holy Spirit as an intercessor?? Isn’t that more biblically accurate. That the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf on earth as Christians, while Christ was the sacrifice and therefore cost of what it takes for Christians to gain to heaven? Perhaps because of the way the concept(s) were stated in the sentence, is why after reading them, I kind of got ” hung up” on them. While I do agree that we are created equal in our roles to each other as male & female, we are more than just equal, we also are complementary in our ” equal” roles to each other and were created to be the ” helper ” to men while simultaneously being appropriately submissive to them especially in marriage, so as to be a reflection in the Union of marriage, as to what our relationship as the church is to Christ…..w/ Christ being the ” headship” or the leader of the church and thus men mirroring that relationship in marriage especially to women.

  • Excellent. Clearest description yet of the effects of complementarian doctrine on women which implies we girls must take second place as if somehow Jesus wasn’t able to redeem us back to the equality Father gave us in Eden…I love that line ‘I was in love with God but God was not in love with me…’ . Beautifully expressed.

  • Leah, I just found out about the egalitarian viewpoint a few months ago. I am interested in what you have found out about these Scriptures in the original languages. Do you have a blog about that? I’ve noticed that in general when a pastor talks about a word or phrase in the original language it turns out that it is so much richer in meaning. Yet English translation after translation comes out and basically says the same thing the others do, never enriching the understanding. I’d like to know more.

    • Christians for Biblical Equality is where I learned back in 1991. Also God’s Word to Women is good. I am sure others will have good ideas as well.

    • Hi Anne! There are so many resourses to go deeper into God’s Word. I don’t have a blog, but this blog is an EXCELLENT resourse. Read Jory’s Master Thesis. It’s right here on this site. Christians for Biblical Equality is great. I also love the Junia Project. Usually on blog sites, you can find out about other bloggers who a particular blogger likes. Also something that you can do personally is compare Scripture in Greek and Hebrew to its English translation. It’s easier than it sounds. I’ll explain. Pick a word that you would like to study. Let’s pick “Deacon” for example. Find a webpage that can display English translation as well as the original Greek. (blueletterbible.com is one such site.) The site will display every verse in the Bible where the Greek word “Deacon” appears. You will learn that most English translations from the Greek for “Deacon” is just that, “Deacon”. However, this is not the case for Phoebe (Acts 16:1). Bible translators give her the title “servant.” Phoebe was a servant. She served as a DEACON!!! Bible translators would have you miss this fact.

  • Leah, I can so relate to your journey. I wish that more women would understand what you do, that our translations are scripted to keep women oppressed and that we need to study the Bible in its original languages. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Kristen! Here’s the thing: many Christians don’t realize that there is a bias in translation. I didn’t know it for many years. We have to spread the word and prayerfully, people will investigate and come to the truth.

  • Something we all must deal with as we do this, however, is that we can’t start hating men! I don’t believe that most Bibles were translated to restrict women ON PURPOSE, at least not until lately. Instead, I think that translators looked at society and translated the words that seemed right. Then they used those translations to reinforce what they saw……. and it all became circular reasoning.

    Men are just as fallen as we are, and God predicted in the Garden that men would rule over women. Those not filled by the Spirit took to that idea strongly. Those men are our brothers, our equals, our co-sinners. It make take time to work this out when you have been hurt badly, but we must pray for them, love them, and forgive them. That’s the only way to make this work. It’s part of why I describe myself as an egalitarian and not a feminist.

    Too many people have come out of an environment of suppression, and immediately began to suppress some one else. Let’s not do that, but instead, be mature in Christ.

    • Ann,
      Much of this Comp nonsense was invented in the 1990’s by a group of men and the Danver’s Statement. It wasn’t widely believed or taught. Even conservative Christians, elderly Christians, are fed up and leaving churches over it. It is destructive and wrong. I will never step foot in a church again that believes it. I will never give money to a church again that doesn’t respect the priesthood of all believers, including women.

      I like what Bent Tree Bible Church in Texas recently did in opening up elder positions to women (they already have women pastors), and they’re a conservative church. It’s on youtube. Very biblically sound.

      • Oh, yes, I know the Danvers statement well! Having dug into this since the early 90’s, I know what horrors there were, and was at the receiving end of that thinking too often. It is hard for me to believe that all these years later, we are still fighting the same battles. Sin is hard to let go of. This whole man as boss thing really had its start in the industrial revolution, then was strengthened by the end of WWII, when it was time to get the good little women back home where they belonged. The sexual revolution of the 60s really had Christians close ranks on this. It is just evidence of that hold of sin, which allowed men to hold onto power that was never legitimately all theirs in the first place.

        However, we still need to remember that we have to forgive. I struggled with it myself, but it does give us even more freedom when we do.

    • Hi Ann! We are all one in Christ Jesus. He came to reconcile us back to God and eachother. I believe in declaring the truth in love and in forgiving just as Christ has forgiven us. The egalitarians and Christian feminists whom I have encountered are of that same mind.

  • Refreshing article. Thank you. I was in a Comp/Patriarchy church for nearly a decade. And it almost killed me spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I have never seen more depressed women and more arrogant, abusive men than in that setting.

    Godly couples, families, and singles that had discernment fled and never looked back.

    It is such a destructive teaching. It dishonors God and is fundamentally wrong. So the Holy Spirit functions ok in men but is defective in women?
    Jesus’ blood atoned for Adam’s sin but not for Eve’s? Therefore, Jesus is defective in Comp theology? Jesus doesn’t present us as women, but a mortal man? None of this Comp doctrine makes any sense. It’s just heresy.

    It was older, conservative Christians – elderly Christians – who deprogrammed me from this nonsense and told me that it hadn’t been widely taught until the 1990’s when some men came up with it and the Danver’s Statement.

    • I experienced the same thing in the church of my youth, but I am so encouraged to see God’s Spirit at work!

    • Did you get a lot of input on what is feminine and masculine and what isn’t (from a cultural traditionalists’ view)? I know that I did.

      It was disappointing to find sexism in many churches rather than the freedom in Christ I had found.

      • This is a side bar, but I often feel that the label “non-Christian” is a bit unfair. So, just to clarify, some guys I’ve had a date with were possibly Christian but at a different level of growth or commitment. I have often prayed for their salvation and/or growth. I was always taught not to do “missionary dating,” but I don’t know what to think.

      • Yes, I did. Feminine meant to be quiet, supportive, sacrificial, and home based (focus on children and husband). Masculine was to be boisterous, confident, career/dream driven, a leader and decision maker/ruler. I could make a longer list, but this is the just

  • I almost cried when I read this paragraph: “Though I would have a subdued lot in life as a woman, there was something more excruciating than that: I was in love with God, but God was not in love with me. Jesus was so beautiful in my eyes, but my essence wasn’t beautiful to Him. Though I desired Him, something about me was undesirable. Being a daughter of Eve meant that I had characteristics that not even God could redeem.”

    I was blindsided by the results of complementarianism in the early 1990s, in part through an older guy I dated who attended the same church as I did. I was 26 & he was 34, and I was so damaged by the relationship that I didn’t date for a long, long time. As I told a good friend, the guy (I dated) almost destroyed my relationship with God. A few other things happened to add to it. It was ten years before I started going to church again. I didn’t share the gospel at all because I didn’t want to be associated with religious nuts.

    I am still single. In the bit of dating here & there that I have since done, non-Christian men treat me with respect. And they seem to like me. Christian men have added to the damage.

    I didn’t really know much about complementarianism back when I was 26, other than the little I heard from the handful of fellow Christians who believed in it. One said very directly that I was not the complement to his personality that he preferred.

    It’s sad, really. As much as I would love companionship of a man who shares my faith, my experience reinforces the idea that I am better off alone.

    • I feel compelled to say that I have met a few men who aren’t like this in church circles. I know that there must be others.

      • Jennifer, I am sorry that you have experienced so much pain. I am learning that so many women have been damaged by this theology on many levels. This encourages me to speak out against it. It takes time for the Holy Spirit to heal the damage. I pray that you will be restored and healed on every level. I pray that God will bless you with rich and meaningful relationships full of love and respect. This theology will leave you skeptical of men, but just know there are some Jesus-loving, Bible-believing brothers who are a strong voice in advocating FOR women’s equality in the Church and world. Be encouraged! Blessings Sister.

    • Jennifer,,don’t give up. The right person will,come when you and he are ready. Better to be single wanting to be married than married wanting to be single.

  • “Though I would have a subdued lot in life as a woman, there was something more excruciating than that: I was in love with God, but God was not in love with me. Jesus was so beautiful in my eyes, but my essence wasn’t beautiful to Him. Though I desired Him, something about me was undesirable. Being a daughter of Eve meant that I had characteristics that not even God could redeem.”

    Reminds me so much of Tess of the D’Ubervilles

  • Jennifer, you will find the right person. God’s timing is perfect. Don’t give up.

    I will say though that what is very evil about comp philosophy is their teaching that a woman’s highest calling is to be a wife and mother and then the way they either passively or actively ensure women attending their churches do not get married.

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