“Women’s Work” (by Bailey Bergmann Steger)

woman

One of the churches I attended prohibits women from “leadership” positions. For example, woman may not serve as an usher, pass the offering plate, or lead worship. I wrote a letter to the deacon board challenging them to rethink this unofficial policy. Silencing women’s gifts cripples the church’s ability to function properly.

The letter prompted a heated deacon board meeting and a letter in response, listing all the things women can do in the church. It affirmed that men and women are different, and that God calls men and women to use their gifts in gender-specific contexts. The crux of complementarianism is that men and women are different, those differences are good, and together, those differences complement each other.

In a counter-intuitive way, complementarianism tries to preserve the unique ways women serve the church by forbidding them from serving as a man serves.

As far as stereotypes go, many women do enjoy taking care of children, cooking for the potlucks, and mentoring other women — traditional “women’s work.” But ironically, complementarian churches don’t operate in a complementarian way. In complementarian churches, there’s no such thing as work that’s exclusive to women only. There’s no such thing as “women’s work.”

Yes, complementarian churches value women counseling and teaching other women, but men may counsel and teach women too. Complementarian churches value female nursery workers, but men may work with preschoolers and all other ages too. Complementarian churches value women’s contributions in cleaning, cooking, and other behind-the-scenes work, but men may do all of those jobs too.

In complementarian churches, there is nothing a woman can do that a man is prohibited from doing, while there are a myriad of things men can do that women are prohibited from doing.

That is the injustice egalitarians want to rectify.

It’s erroneous for complementarian churches to argue that they support women’s work as something special and equal to men’s, because in complementarian churches, there is nothing exclusively female and off-limits to men.

True, perhaps few men will volunteer to work with four-year-olds or bake a casserole, but if a man wants to teach first grade Sunday school or clean the church, nobody’s going to tell him, “No, you can’t, because you’re a boy” (and then slap him with a Bible verse for good measure).

If there’s no such thing as exclusively “women’s work,” then there’s no such thing as true complementarianism: true complementarianism requires distinct femininity and distinct masculinity to operate. But if men are permitted to do whatever women can do, where’s the distinct femininity? Where’s the complementarity?

If complementarians were serious about preserving distinctly feminine roles, they ought to feel just as comfortable telling men, “Nope, can’t, you’re a guy” as they do telling women, “Sorry, but you’re a girl.” That sounds more like “separate but equal.”

Or, as an alternative, why don’t we stop bickering about which gifts belong to which gender and simply use all the gifts God gave us regardless of gender? The church shouldn’t be about “women’s work” or “men’s work” but Christ’s work. So let’s get on with it!

ba

Bailey Bergmann Steger graduated summa cum laude from Hillsdale College with a B.A. in Christian studies and an M.R.S. in a quirky relationship with her chemist husband, Erich. She’s particularly interested in patristics and wrote her thesis on the early church’s view of femininity and spirituality. She works as a kindergarten teacher at an inner city school and writes at www.weareezer.com.

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6 Comments

  • “If there’s no such thing as exclusively “women’s work,” then there’s no such thing as true complementarianism”

    Excellent point Bailey! And your analysis is perfectly accurate from those churches I used to attend. There was NO avenue closed to men until the insurance company got involved and demanded that no man look after the nursery…so it wasn’t even forbidden to men until the secular world got involved.

  • THIS. Thanks, Bailey! You’ve given me a whole new perspective on this. Love reading your stuff, and I think this is some of your best work.

    • Wow, thank you! It took me forever to put my finger exactly on what bothered me about complementarian theology regarding “women’s work.” Once I stumbled across the realization that there IS no women’s work in complementarianism, everything made more sense. 🙂

  • Loved reading about this Bailey…..you make some excellent points!!! I attended a church that supported this view….so when I decided to leave my husband, a Christian man, when the marriage turned abusive (or when I discovered this gradually) I had a lot of people who were well-meaning but slightly misunderstand, that I should think of my son’s best interests (he was 9 years old when we left). Well, I was thinking of our son’s best interests in not exposing him to that again — and I found my pastor’s support fell short…he wanted us to get together again: but after several years of counselling with him — that hit hard! He knew what I’d been suffering…when he told me this — in front of my son, about what was on his heart about his wanting my ex and I to get back together….God gave me the wise words to respond: ” I appreciate you sharing your concerns with me….I just hope if God leads me otherwise, that you’ll be able to accept that, as well.” As my son knew him as “the pastor”, it was the best way to communicate to him as well as my pastor, that ultimately — God is the one who is in charge of this……

    And after my ex and I split: his behaviour never improved, it only got worse. But God had my back as I seeked His direction, in ways I never saw before, until afterwards.

    My son and I still have an excellent relationship and communicate daily, and encourage his seeing and understanding his Dad’s reasoning in raising him….especially now that he’s remarried. While this isn’t ideal as the new missus and I don’t see eye-to-eye on matters with my ex’s endorsement, I’m continuing to pray about the situation, and for them during our nightly prayer times…to send the right message to my son: It’s important to talk with God about all situations that affect us, and not just with people who like us…..

    I attend a new church now, and am enjoying serving others as a single Christian woman and mom, and enjoying the best fellowship with Christ, along with time with my son…..and I am going to endeavour to teach my son life lessons that we all must do in “doing housework”, as it is not just for women to do…and that he will find that he will be appreciated by women for doing this……

    Thank you again for a great read, and keep on blogging…….

    Laura Walsh John 14:27

    What I found interesting was that in surviving domestic badgering, spiritual abuse was included as well in that often men would use the leadership role to keep in control….and that was really the main crux of the abuse. It did affect my son for a while and while working through the anger was difficult, I held on to the words the women at the shelter told me: “Your son feels free to express himself with you, because he feels he can.” Good or bad, I found support, thanks to the Lord and people he put in my life.

    • You are an amazing, wise woman. I am awed by your confidence, graciousness, and reliance on God. I’m so glad you’re in a better place and are such a wonderful role model to your son! Thank you for sharing your story with me.

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