Preaching to the choir

Why are we obsessed with leaving? I’ve noticed a common sentiment within the egalitarian movement that if you’re in a complementarian church, you should get out. I’m not so sure. 


If we're always leaving communities that oppose our beliefs and ways of being, how will we challenge each other to think differently, to grow, to - maybe! - even change? We already have a tendency to silo ourselves, to create relationships with people who look, think, and act like us. It takes commitment and forethought to do differently. 


Meanwhile, I suspect that the vast majority of people will only change when confronted with experience; when they are comforted by a female chaplain, when they hear the sermon of a woman minister, when they observe the balance of power in a mutual marriage. This will never happen if - instead of deciding to dig in our heels and work for change - we’re throwing up our hands in frustration and evacuating via the nearest exit sign. 


And yet committing to existing in this tension can be painful, exhausting, discouraging, and maybe even impossible. 


Do as I say, not as I do?


I am far from the person to cast the first stone. You see, after nearly a lifetime in a variety of complementarian churches - some more dogmatic than others - I finally left this culture for a church that is open and fully inclusive of all genders and sexualities in church leadership. I can’t tell you how freeing it’s been to see women serve in all capacities, to hear Biblical stories honoring a diversity of contributions, to know that I am valued - with no caveats. 


I made the decision to leave the complementarian church as a woman called to ministry - but I wonder if I did the right thing; I wonder if I abandoned my ministry.


Ryan and I finally cut the cord with churches that were anything less than 100 percent affirming after we had Junia. Interesting how a baby changes the way you think about things. Up until then, I was troubled by the lack of complete equality I experienced in the churches we attended, but I stayed. This was my community, the place I served. Usually, I didn’t feel restricted - I was able to preach, to teach, to lead. It was only through little insidious inconsistencies that I was reminded the community wasn’t always on board with my calling. And there were others who believed as I did - I felt part of my ministry was to advocate on their behalf, to give them a voice, and to challenge those who thought differently. Now that I’ve removed myself, I wonder who will carry on this mission. 


But babies don’t do cognitive dissonance. And thinking back on my own upbringing, I realized I learned much more by osmosis than I did by being explicitly taught certain things. I became aware that my daughter could grow up in an egalitarian home with a mom who was a chaplain, a preacher, a religious educator, and still feel she wasn’t on completely equal footing. 


Of course I know there are no guarantees and even my best-laid plans may not be enough to provide assurance that she is fully empowered and valued. But it became more apparent to me that, as a parent, I had to do everything in my power to fight the sexist, complementarian culture that too often prevails. Ultimately, this came down to leaving my church. 


So is this a case of “do as I say, not as I do”? I’m bothered by this prevailing mindset to abandon complementarian environments, yet here I am having done just that. And it’s not just about complementarianism and egalitarianism. It’s human nature to surround ourselves with people who think like we do, whose lives look like ours do, so that not only are we robbing ourselves of diversity, we’re robbing the world of our contribution.


Changing others as we change ourselves


The more I change, and when I see others around me change, I’m reminded that it usually doesn’t happen because some talking head quoted a great statistic, or because they heard about someone who was different from them, or because a theologian wrote a compelling blog post. ;) These things might play a role (and I hope they do, for my sake as a theologian and writer!) but change overwhelming happens when relationship, community, and experience softens someone’s heart. 


Maintaining relationships with people who think differently from me is a delicate dance. It was one I endeavored to carry out in environments that weren't 100 percent affirming of women and one that I'm still dancing even after my decision to leave. Because while my new denomination may be affirming, that doesn't mean everyone in the pews is. And it certainly doesn't mean we all agree on every other topic either! 


And that's ok. A community of faith should not be homogenous. We should all be dancing our own delicate dance, “testing the spirits,” listening for guidance on when to speak words, and when to speak with our lives. It’s a laborious and often frustrating process, but if done right, it's where the church should excel.


So no, I don’t think all egalitarians should abandon complementarian communities indiscriminately. But if you decide to do so, or if you find yourself surrounded by people who think similarly to you, I encourage you to not shy away from relational opportunities where you can challenge and be challenged, providing an example with your life of a different way forward, using words when necessary.