Raised Right Special Edition: Complementarianism

Note from Jarred:  When I began reading chapter eight of Raised Right:  How I Untangled my Faith from Politics, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much space Ms. Harris devoted to sharing her own experiences with sexism in the Church and how it affected the way she saw others who had a differing view on various subjects.  I felt it would be good to spend a bit of extra time looking at this topic.  I also felt that there was someone (several someones, actually) who was better suited to speak to the topic.  So I asked an old blogging buddy, Pam Hogeweide, if she’d be willing to write something on the topic.  After all, Pam has not only done a good deal of research on sexism in the church and women in theology, but as a woman, she has first-hand experience.  I was delighted when Pam accepted the invitation.

On an editorial note, beyond making a few visual formatting changes (such as fixing up the quotes for my blog) and bolding the word “complementarianism” where Pam gives a brief definition of the word, I have strived to duplicate Pam’s words exactly as she sent them to me.

Jarred and I are blog buddies and Twitter pals. Though we’ve never met, we have crossed paths many times in the digital world for several years. I am honored that he has invited me to share some thoughts for his series on the book, Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics, by Alisa Harris.

In chapter eight of the book, Alisa gives us glimpses of the sexism she experienced from her church  that has left her a bit scraped up. Female prejudice is an unfortunate reality in our culture, though Alisa sheds light on how the Christianized version of sexism tried to box her in. Like after her graduation from college. Alisa had travelled home only to find that the spiritual leaders from her childhood were there to stage an intervention:

“. . . I sat between my parents and listened while our pastor and a church elder explained how my own sin required them to stage an intervention. The pastor and elder, part of a loose affiliation of fundamentalist churches, had grave reservations about women attending college when God ordained marriage and babies instead. College had changed me, they said. I talked more about careers and academics than about being a wife and a mother. . . I was no longer the kind of person they wanted their daughters to emulate.”

These are harsh words hurled by men of the cloth who are attempting to keep Alisa on the straight and narrow of being a good Christian woman.  It is all too common for women from conservative Christian churches (as well as not-so-conservative) to experience this tearing at personhood for the heresy of being Her.

I am well acquainted with the complementarian position Alisa’s childhood pastors asserted. I used to live under it myself and also defend it. Complementarianism is a fancy theological term that shrouds the idea that women are equal, BUT separate. It’s the idea that God in his divine order of creation has uniquely created men to lead and women to assist. It’s why men are the the pastor and women the secretary.

This view is based on a handful of scripture verses that at first glance seem to support the complementarian position. For instance, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 says, “The women are to keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.”

Sounds pretty dire for women, doesn’t it? But the same author who is given credit for penning these words–the apostle Paul–also wrote in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  So which is it Paul? Are women free to be anything or is there a hierarchal constraint designed by God?

It was these kinds of inconsistent Bible verses that got me into debates with other Christians when I was younger. I saw the world in black and white evangelical hues. I was the girl who had the bumper sticker that read, God said it, I believe it that settles it.   But I have always been a blessed woman who has possessed strong minded female friends. And it was one of those friends who first wrangled with me that God does indeed esteem women as fully as men. Just look at how Jesus treated women. He was scandalous. Rabbis of his time were not to look let alone speak to women publicly or touch them. Yet Jesus related freely with women, breaking all social and cultural and religious protocol.

So the issue of female equality in the typical protestant church is reduced to the interpretation of a few Bible verses. The problem here is that rigid beliefism locks many people into an immovable perspective that leaves no room for a spirit of inquiry or respect for differing opinions.  Like this commenter who left this challenging remark at my blog in response to my post about women’s equality in the church:

You need to be reminded that this world isn’t about you and what goes on in your mind. This about God and what he wants, and if he were to demand that there be a separate, lower section of seats in the church for women to sit in, then as a believer in God you better sit there! Now obviously I’m using a more extreme case of “sexism” or whatever you would call it to illustrate my point, but at least you understand it.? If you disagree with that argument then you are disagreeing with God, because whatever God asks of you, you need to do.? It’s a simple fact that Eve took the fruit and ate it before giving it to Adam and convincing him to eat it as well. So you tell me, why do you think God doesn’t want women to lead the church?   (from How God Messed Up My Religion)

I wish I were making this up, but nope, sexism is alive and well in the 21st century and it’s dressed up in pretty church language in Christendom.

A woman’s identity is overrun with messages from her church that she is to be the sidekick to man’s leading role in the narrative of life. These forces shape and inform a woman’s perception of herself. Alisa reveals this when she writes,

“I sat through sermons where the pastor said we should train our children–but especially our sons–to be spiritual warriors, as if women’s warfare was battling a grimy kitchen instead of the forces of darkness. I sat heavy in my seat while the pastor invited the men and boys, but not the women, to pray for a teenager going on a mission trip. Women probably shouldn’t be missionaries, said the pastor’s kid.”

A thousand instances like this one will affect the image of God a woman will internalize.
I remember one women’s Bible study I attended years ago. One of the participants said out loud to us in a moment of vulnerability, “I wonder if God just thinks women are meant to be doormats.” She began crying with that admission, her feminine wound bleeding out  on the clean church carpet. The room sat quietly, and then, the moment passed, and we resumed our discussion of why biblical submission is a Christian woman’s duty.

I’ve blogged about these things many times. There is always pushback like from the commenter above. It is controversial, and this I find absurd, an absolute absurdity that the issue of women and equality in church is an issue at all.

Hear me on this: in the 19th century American church, slavery was a controversial issue!

I’m glad Alisa is telling it like it is. Women need to do this. We need to tell our stories, to say out loud what’s happened to us and to make sure we don’t minimize Christianized oppression as a mere theological hiccup that’s irritating but has to be accepted. No. I don’t think so, and it sounds like Alisa doesn’t think so either. The church might not have raised her right in helping empower her in all her womanly glory, but she’s managed to find her voice despite her conditioning to be a domesticated female. That makes her a warrior woman  in my mind, no matter her faith or politics.

Pam Hogeweide is a blogger and writer. Her first book, Unladylike: Resisting the Injustice of Inequality in the Church, confronts and dismantles Christianized sexism. It will be released by on Amazon January 23. Pam lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Jerry and their two teenagers.

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