My Transformation from Complementarianism to Egalitarianism by Dalaina May

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Transformations are a part of the human experience. If we live long enough on this planet, we will eventually recognize that we are no longer who we were and we no longer believe what we believed. The same applies to our understanding of God.

For me, some of these spiritual transformations were sudden, such as the moment that a missionary friend’s baby was killed in a car accident, and I realized that I could no longer believe that my obedience to God obligates him to protect the ones I love the most from harm. Other transformations took years to be planted, germinate, and bear fruit.

My transformation from a complementarian to an egalitarian took most of my life.

You could say I was born a complementarian. Certainly it was the theology of family and the denomination that I grew up in. My missionary parents (fortunately) walked away from fundamentalism in my early childhood and settled into a fairly standard evangelical, conservative Baptist worldview, and I (a homeschooled kid) simply did not realize there was any other way to believe.

Anything I heard related to feminism was discarded as immoral and selfish, and anyone who tried to connect it with Christianity obviously was choosing culture over the plain reading of Scripture.

But at age 14, a seed was planted. I had been leading the youth group in my parent’s church plant, and one afternoon was in my room getting ready for the youth meeting. My mom walked in and asked what I was up to, and I casually replied, “Getting my sermon ready to preach this afternoon.”

In a word, she freaked. She told me with great passion that I was preparing a lesson that I would be teaching. Sermons and preaching were for men alone, and it would be categorically rebellious for me to preach to boys because I could not lead or have authority over them. When she left my room, a thought formed that grew in my heart for the following decade:

If God has made me a female with the desire and ability to lead and teach both men and women, and yet requires me not to do so precisely because I am a woman, He is cruel.

Fourteen years later, I had graduated from a complementarian Bible school, married a complementarian man, birthed 4 sons, and joined a complementarian church. However, in my late 20s I began discovering what I love (theology and social justice) and what I am good at (launching and leading pioneering ministries).

I realized that I was “unwomanly” authoritative in speech and fearless in risk-taking… and these things were clearly rejected in the church, at least for women. It struck me that I could walk away from the church and give my very best self to the secular world. I could lead with confidence and blaze a trail for women AND men there, and I would be respected and useful to my field. But I could not do the same in God’s family. This left me unsettled with a second thought:

If God has given women natural spiritual gifts and acquired life skills, but would rather put a less capable and qualified man into authoritative positions, simply because he is male, God is foolish.

These two thoughts began to be watered by my sudden first encounter with egalitarian theology. For the first time, I heard an alternative point of view that at least seemed to be using Scripture as a basis for its claims. I decided to take a look. For two years, I read the entire Bible, studying each passage related to gender in context and in isolation. I read the arguments on both sides about the “problem” passages, and I studied the ontological issues, the criticisms each side had for the other, as well as the fruit that seemed to come from each perspective.

In the end, it was women themselves who brought my transformation to its conclusion. Women like Deborah who led in military over men. Women like Huldah whose prophecy led the king and all of Israel in repentance. Women like Mary who asked no man’s permission before she said yes to bearing the Gospel in her very womb. Women like Priscilla who taught with authority over men. Women like Phoebe who was called a deacon, and women like Junia who was called an apostle. As I studied the plethora of women in Scripture, I was left with a final thought:

If God’s desire is that men lead unilaterally over women, yet over and over in Scripture there are situations in which women are in authority over men, God is incompetent… or else this is how God wants it to be.

With that, the floodgate was opened. I knew more than I knew anything else that my God is far from incompetent. He is omnipotent, so if he wanted men to lead alone, Scripture would be a testimony to that. It isn’t. Furthermore, my God is no fool.

First Peter 4:10 tells us that we are to employ all the gifts that we are given for the good of the Church, and 1 Corinthians 14:12 goes even further and tells believers to excel in their gifts. The talents and gifts of women are not supposed to be buried, and the very best that women have to offer is most certainly not to be a given only to the secular world.

I remember the moment in February 2014 when I realized that I simply no longer believed what I had once believed. Alone in my room, I said out loud, “God, I believe that you see me as an equal to my brothers in my being and in my function in your Kingdom,” and all of a sudden I was sobbing on the floor as God himself began erasing my unrecognized fear and belief that he is a cruel God.

I knew beyond all doubt that he had created me precisely as he had intended, and that he wanted all of me, not just the parts that complementarianism told me were good. As God’s creation, I was declared very good, even the parts that speak authoritatively and lead fearlessly. Now that I actually believed this, my transformation was complete.

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Dalaina May lives with her husband, Dan, and four young sons in Southeast Asia where they are involved in local anti-trafficking efforts. When she isn’t working, stepping on Legos, or breaking up lightsaber fights (in other words, after bedtime), she is usually geeking out on theology or advocating for Christian involvement in social justice issues. Her first novel, “Yielded Captive” was recently published.

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18 Comments

  • Wow this is an amazing testimony and makes me think, I know what u have said is right but I cannot get my head and my heart around. I think for me as I am not so well educated as you are theologically I have struggled with wanting to be obedient I. My giftings and talents and not wanting to be seen as rebellious or unteachable. It isonly as I reach retiring age that I can see that women have been kept from using their gifting and talents back in the church and many have gone into the secular world rather than work within a church environment.

    • Thank YOU for the encouraging response! 🙂 It’s the real life stories that are most compelling, and my hope is that mine will help a few others that are debating about whether or not to start wading into the deep end to go for it.

    • Hi Linda, No one is well educated theologically to start with, but it IS something that we can do with patience and humility, the Holy Spirit and a healthy community of believers. Like I said, it took me 2 years of studying my heart out. I wanted to pass on a few resources to you.

      Jory’s page as well as The Junia Project (http://juniaproject.com/) have information in bite-sized chunks, so both are a great place to start looking at different topics related to gender justice in the church.

      My go-to to start any research is Newlife (http://newlife.id.au/). The author is a scholar and her bibliographies are GOLD! Use the search bar and find commentaries on any passage with links to relevant research.

      The best book I can recommend is Discovering Biblical Equality. I love it because it has a respectful tone and comes at the issue from multiple angles – language, tradition, logic, hermeneutics, and trajectory (http://amzn.to/1neR2hX).

      If books aren’t your thing, this is a free lecture series on the Theology of Gender from Biola University/Talbot Seminary. It is presented by an egalitarian, but I think he is very fair and very gracious because he did not make the switch from complementarian to egalitarian until later in his career. (http://open.biola.edu/collections/bbst-450-theology-of-gender). Such a great class to watch as he starts in Genesis and goes all the way through the Bible.

      Be encouraged! This is not an easy task, but pressing into the heart of God has been the most freeing and joyful experience of my life. The hardest also. But the best. 🙂

  • May: “My mom walked in and asked what I was up to, and I casually replied, ‘Getting my sermon ready to preach this afternoon.’ ….She told me with great passion that I was preparing a lesson that I would be teaching.”

    Semantics, much? This seems to be common among hierarchical complementarians. If a man defers to the influence of a woman, he is leading. If a woman defers to the influence of a man, she is submitting.

    May God continue to bless your efforts as you seek to spread the good news of Jesus’ reign.

  • This essay is SO good! I stand with all my sisters, and brothers, who take up their biblical liberty to love and serve God as he has called them, without regard to ethnicity, class, or gender (Gal 3:28).

  • Hi Dalaina! Thanks for sharing your testimony. It’s beautiful to know that our God is transforming us. I love the testimonies of brothers and sisters of our faith about how they came to embrace egalitarianism. Our testimonies prove that we are truth seekers and lovers of God. Our testimonies prove us to be fragile and broken and human and loved by God. We overcome the evil one by the blood of the Lamb and the words of our testimony. Thanks for uplifting my spirit with your testimony! God Bless

  • Thank you for sharing your story. May you continue to follow God’s leading in your life. I was most struck by the observation that Mary ‘asked no man’s permission before she said yes to bearing the gospel in her very womb.’ Nor do we women need any man’s permission before saying yes to whatever God asks of us. Thanks for the insights and the encouragement.

    • Thank you for reading, Andrea! That was something that a friend just pointed out to me this Christmas, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. This was the perfect opportunity for God to go through a man before assigning a woman an incredible leadership responsibility, and he didn’t. That means something to me.

  • Great article, I support egalitarianism because it is biblical, history testifies to the fact that there have been great women spiritual leaders throughout the ages, like the Countess of Huntington(Selina Hastings – 1707 – 1791). Keep up the good work, Warwick

  • Great post and so encouraging. Over the past two years, I have gone through a transformation, as well. I’m curious to know if your husband has become egalitarian, too, or if he is still complementarian? How does this affect your marriage?

    • Great question, Tracy! Well, the first year was horrible! We fought like cats because he was so scared I was headed down a path to heresy, and his theology told him that he would be responsible for it as my “spiritual leader” if he didn’t stop it. I on the other hand, felt a bit like I was being pulled forward by God almost against my will. I knew that I had to get some questions answered or just live with a shallow faith in a God that I didn’t even like very much. We married at 20 with very little that we didn’t agree on, so learning to navigate having major opinion differences has been tough!

      He would have to tell his own story, but I think he would say that a lot of his own thinking crumbled a bit as he started studying on his own. He won’t call himself either a complementarian or an egalitarian. (Side note: one of his biggest reasons for staying away from the boxes is because how nasty both sides can get. I think that is a very important criticism to hear.)

      Where we are now is that he is still on the fence on some points, and I am able to (finally) leave him in God’s hands. It took me two years to realize that I can’t convince him or change him even though if I had one wish to make it would probably be that he shares my passion for this issue.

      However, I am watching him become an advocate for female leaders in our ministry which is pretty awesome, and I know that his heart is to honor and obey the Lord and his Word. I know where he is hesitant is where he hasn’t settled in his heart that the passages he’s always heard interpreted a certain way may have a better interpretation. I can respect that journey.

      So yes, we fought a lot at first. Now we both can respectfully acknowledge where the other is at. He doesn’t push to stop or change me and is encouraging in my activism even when it sometimes makes him uncomfortable. I don’t try to beat him over the head (usually) with what I believe, but I am able to talk about it without a problem. Sometimes we still debate over certain things, which I suppose is a gift because he’s made me go a lot deeper in the theology in order to support what I believe.

      • Thank you for your thoughtful response. My transformation has been the source of some struggles in our marriage, too. In some ways, your journey sounds like mine! Thanks again for this excellent article!

  • When all I knew was complementarianism I thought the same way about God, that He wasn’t very bright. The answer I was given was that God doesn’t have to make sense. That only made me think that Christians aren’t very bright either. So I left the faith of my youth. But when I got to know Jesus personally for myself? Ya, God is competent and makes sense.

  • You state:

    “If God has made me a female with the desire and ability to lead and teach both men and women, and yet requires me not to do so precisely because I am a woman, He is cruel.”

    And yet I do not believe you would agree with the assertion using the same lines of reasoning:

    “If God has made me a man with a desire to covet everything my next door neighbor possesses and yet requires me not to spend my days in jealous anger over what my neighbor possesses and what I do not, then He is cruel.”

    God is obviously not responsible for the desires of our heart which lead us to sin or even act contrary to His Word. Either the clear instruction of Scripture will be the final adjudicator over every area of our lives or it will not.

    • Oh absolutely, Gordon! We both agree that we must go back to Scripture. That is the authoritative truth regardless of my feelings. If you read the rest of the essay, you’ll notice that I spent two years doing just that – studying Scripture. At the end of the day, I found the weight of biblical evidence (linguistic, historical, contextual etc.) very much on the side of the egalitarian view of the Bible. I don’t have a lot of respect for egalitarians who believe what they do (even if I agree with them) because it FEELS good and because it’s what their pastors, teachers, and parents have always told them. I don’t have a lot of respect for complementarians that do the same.

  • I resonate with this post! I wish people would understand that for many of us comps-turned-egals, the issue is not just “women’s rights.” The issue is God’s character. Why on earth would God give me the personality and spiritual gifts for “men’s jobs” if only to cruelly take away opportunities for me to exercise them? Why on earth would he prefer an incompetent guy running the show instead of a qualified woman? Why did gender and gender roles seem so arbitrary and counter to how men and women worked?

    When you push women into a box and use Scripture to back it up, you’re not only saying something derogatory about women — you’re saying something derogatory about God. I’m so grateful I discovered conservative egalitarianism. Otherwise, I might have left the Christian faith all together — not because of what it said about women but because of what it said about God. I refused to worship an unjust, arbitrary God who delights in the hierarchical subjection of over half the world’s population.]

    Rant over. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • It was a good rant. I enjoyed it quite a lot. 🙂 I’ve heard some pretty nasty things about women coming from patriarchalists claiming to speak for God, and I just shake my head. “Nope. That is not the heart of God. It looks nothing like how He is presented in the whole of the Bible.” Thanks for reading!

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