5 Ways to Avoid Undermining Your Theology of Gender

Tim Peck

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I was a complementarian for more than 20 years.

I believed that women should not serve as church elders or senior pastors, that the primary vocation of Christian wives was to submit to the leadership of their husbands, and that husbands should lay claim to that leadership.  Because I came to faith when I was 19 years old and immediately joined a complementarian church, I thought this was the only approach to gender roles that took the Bible’s authority seriously.  I attended a university well known for its complementarian faculty, completed a masters of divinity, and worked as a pastor at a complementarian, non-denominational church for 17 years.  I prided myself as being a “soft complementarian,” distancing myself from the more extreme examples of patriarchy I saw in the Christian community.

Cracks began to appear in these convictions about nine years ago.  Consequently, I began to reexamine my theology of gender.  I read books and journal articles on all sides of the spectrum.  I talked to women serving in ministry as pastors, and to women who had given up their calling because of roadblocks they encountered.  I reflected on the results of complementarian theology on the women I knew over my years in pastoral ministry.  The tipping point came from reading Discovering Biblical Equality and then William Webb’s work on the hermeneutics of cultural analysis. As a result, I experienced a significant paradigm shift.

I became convinced that egalitarianism had better biblical and theological support. 

I now believe that Galatians 3:28 applies to more than just our legal status before God. Rather, this passage (and others like it) provides the church with a redemptive vision for community life. I believe patriarchy is a result of the human fall (Genesis 3:16), and that perpetuating it ignores God’s new creation that has invaded our world through Christ’s cross and resurrection.  I believe that Christian marriage ought to be patterned according to equal partnership and mutual submission of the husband and wife to each other (Ephesians 5:21).

I also discovered that twenty years of socialization is not easily unlearned.  I began to see in myself habits, responses, and assumptions that threatened to undermine my newfound commitment to gender equality.  As I looked around me, I saw others making these mistakes as well and decided to make some changes.

Here are five lessons I’ve learned about living out my theology with authenticity:

 

#1  PAY ATTENTION TO BODY LANGUAGE

After embracing an egalitarian theology, I noticed a troubling dynamic. I realized that I had a tendency to make more eye contact with and pay more attention to the men in the room than the women. This was not intentional, but I was inadvertently engaging in a microaggression towards my female colleagues. I had been socialized to treat the input and ideas from my female colleagues less seriously than that of my male colleagues.  Once I recognized this, I began to pay closer attention to my body language.  I was intentional to engage in active listening and make eye contact with female colleagues when they were speaking.  By aligning my body language with my theology, I was able to make headway in unlearning old habits and developing new ones.

#2  CHALLENGE YOUR ASSUMPTIONS

My complementarian theology instilled in me some assumptions about gender and personality traits.  At an unconscious level I viewed assertiveness, confidence, and competition as acceptable traits in men; however, my ingrained impulse was to see these same traits as negative in women.  Even after embracing egalitarian theology, I still found that my knee-jerk response was to assume that women displaying these traits were stirring up conflict or trying to cause trouble.  In my previous ministry experiences, opinionated and assertive women were sometimes labeled by male leaders as “troublemakers” or “busybodies”.  Once labeled, men had the social justification to discount anything these women said, in effect silencing their voices.  None of these responses were evoked when I encountered men displaying these same traits. Recognizing that these deeply ingrained assumptions were largely the result of my years as a complementarian, I began to challenge them, and I was able to begin listening to the voices of the women around me and value their leadership.

#3  USE GENDER-INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE

The language we use says a lot about what we value.  After becoming an egalitarian, I would sometimes speak of “men” or “man” to refer to all people, not realizing that such language eclipses women.  This too was an example of microaggression.  In patriarchal culture, a woman’s identity and status is embedded in the man she is most closely related to (her father, husband, or another male relative); my use of gender exclusive language inadvertently perpetuated this same idea. 

I became very aware of this when the translation committee updated the New International Version of the Bible, and their use of gender inclusive translation theory was met with significant resistance from complementarians.  This debate reminded me that language matters; how I choose to speak should reflect my deepest convictions.  I started paying closer attention to my language.  Was I greeting mixed groups with the colloquial, “Hey guys” or the gender inclusive, “Hey friends”?  Was I making statements like, “Jesus calls all men” or saying, “Our Lord calls all believers”?  I began to shift my language to be more consistent with my theology.

#4  RETHINK YOUR EXAMPLES

Christian leaders love to use stories and examples to communicate.  Appeal to exemplars is a tool of the leadership trade, its usefulness attested as far as Aesop and Aristotle.  However, after shifting to an egalitarian theology, I began to notice that most of the examples I used were men or about men.  This was not only true in sermons, but also in ordinary conversation.  I realized that my exemplars of Christian courage, faith, and devotion were mostly men.  The amazing women of faith who had lived exemplary lives were largely unknown to me.  Somewhere along the way their voices had been silenced and their influence shrouded.  I realized that the unspoken script I was sending was that real work for God’s Kingdom comes through men. So I became intentional about learning. Ruth Tucker’s Daughters of the Church was immensely helpful in this process. Now in my communication I try to balance male and female examples, both in preaching and in other conversation.

#5  BE WILLING TO PAY A PRICE

As a man, I am sometimes afforded opportunities that are not given to equally qualified women.  My new convictions forced me to think long and hard about what to do in these circumstances. I faced this very dilemma when I began the ordination process for my current denomination.  I joined a denomination that best reflected my theology and ministry convictions. As a result, I found myself in the ordination process with several gifted women. Through an unusual series of events, my network moved to a province that would only ordain men.

I was given a date for my ordination, the culmination of a two year process.  But the women in the process with me were not given the same opportunity.  My gender had opened a door that was closed to my female colleagues.  As I prayed about it, I felt it would be wrong for me to accept this opportunity, and wrote a letter declining the invitation.  I realized that this could close the door for me to ever be ordained with them, but I felt strongly that this was the right thing to do.  A short time later, my network realigned with a province that ordained women and I joyfully accepted the invitation to be ordained. I don’t share this to paint myself as any kind of hero (in fact, this lesson has been perhaps the most challenging for me), but to demonstrate that convictions sometimes come with a cost.

Paying attention to body language, challenging assumptions, using gender-inclusive language, rethinking examples, and being willing to pay a price for my convictions are all things that have helped me become more authentic as an egalitarian leader.  Having spent most of my Christian life in a setting filled with unspoken assumptions about gender inequality, my journey to align my practice with my faith is still a work in progress.  Fortunately, I have several women around me who are willing to give me honest, constructive feedback when I ask for it.

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YOUR TURN:  Can you relate to some of the dynamics Tim shared? What do you find helpful on the list? What would you add?

 

Tim Peck

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47 Comments

  • Thanks so much Tim! You can’t know how encouraging it is to hear things like this from men, who sometimes have the luxury of not considering these issues. For you to choose to consider them, warms my heart.

    I still catch myself judging other women too harshly when they have assertive or “manly” traits…which is ironic, because I myself have many of these same traits and would hate to be judged for them. But women are taught to see other assertive women as a threat to our own influence and well-being. I am currently in a long process of trying to train myself back out of that.

    I think women instinctively sense that we are shouldered out of opportunities because of our gender. We feel that there is a very limited quota of how many influential women one community or organization can handle, and if another woman starts acting in that role, it means there’s one less place at the table for the rest of us. This is obviously a very unhappy and unnecessary way to live life, and I pray that women gain more influence and stop seeing one another as competition.

    • Great thoughts Rachel. I think all of us need that kind of self knowledge.

  • Thank you! It’s a frustrating to me to have to “chose a side.” I came Christ in my 20s. I’d just assumed that mostly illiterate women of the first century naturally wouldn’t be allowed to preach. Now, decades later, I wonder about my 3-year old granddaughter: will she have to chose between a literate, educated adult or being a Christian woman?

    • Charity, that’s what you get for being logical and considering the context of NT writing…haha! What you’ve said about your granddaughter hits the nail on the head. Many bright, talent women have already made the choice, and it has not benefited the church.

  • This is just excellent! Thanks so much, Tim, for thinking through some of the pitfalls that remain even after the intellectual shift to egalitarianism is made. It takes longer for assumptions, language and habit patters to shift. I am so grateful to see this thoughtful approach. Really well done.

  • Great article! I appreciated Tim’s point on the cost. Coming from a complementarian background, ordination was not necessarily an easy option for me. My husband refused to get ordained before I could. He was determined to support my call. I am ordained, and due to a job move & life, my husband hasn’t been able to complete the process yet. I am grateful for his sacrifice!

    • How inspiring is that?? Thanks so much for sharing your story, Lisette. What a great example of mutual partnership in marriage 🙂 And congratulations on the ordination!

    • Glad you found The Junia Project Lisette! Glenkirk is lucky to have you 🙂 And way to go Kyle!

  • I believe in the egalitarian view as well, but I think women and men should still have serving hearts. If a man doesn’t know how to use certain equipment, why not help him out? Would a man turn a women away if her car broke down and she asked for help? I wouldn’t want a man or a women to be my pastor with that “one-upman/woman-ship attitude”.

  • I am in a denomination founded on egalitarian principles, and my husband and I heartily espouse those principles in our faith and in our marriage. But still, there are moments that catch us up short. And so often, we hear sermons (and especially the ice-breaking jokes in them) that make “worldly” assumptions about the strengths and weaknesses of each gender. We both face difficulty in going to male and female events because the male events often center around sports (not an interest of my husband) and the female events seem to center around crafts or beauty or ballet (none of which interest me). There are not enough “couples” events or events that could be attended by both genders.

    • Linda, I think many of us feel that way in our churches. I have stopped going to women’s events and now I go to a weekly small group that has marrieds and singles of both genders and all ages. It has been a good alternative for me and has given me a place to grow that I hadn’t found before.I heard this in a blog somewhere once, but I agreed with it: I am still waiting for a women’s Bible study that has a dragon on the front of the brochure. I’d go to that!

    • I agree- I would definitely appreciate more church ministry events that aren’t so gender-segregated! I think that they tend to try appeal to a certain type of man or woman (i.e. sports, meat, and hunting for guys and spas, cooking, and mom stuff for girls). There’s nothing wrong with liking that stuff, but when that is your focus it makes gender-wide assumptions and excludes a variety of people that don’t enjoy those things.

    • I agree this is something churches really need to work on. I see this constantly, where culturally formed norms about gender are used to create events, causing those who don’t fit these culturally formed norms to feel (often unintentionally) marginalized.

      • I agree too. Even when it’s unintentional, it does leave some folks feeling marginalized and out of place. But, it is also hard to create a social event to specifically minister to the marginalized. (Maybe… is that what birthed the hipster movement? 😉

        Great post, Tim. And hello…. long time, no see! This is the Dan McM that coached baseball with you and ended up at your old church back in 2002. I hope you and the family are doing well!

  • Such a very good article… So much of good mental health and good spiritual health is about being a good student of ourselves. These suggestions go a long way toward helping us build a framework and a habit for doing this. Thanks…

  • This is awesome!
    I serve as a children’s and worship pastor at my church and I am in the process of pursuing ordination.
    You are spot on with all five things to be aware of, thank you for sharing. We need more egalitarian men to speak up on these matters!

    • Amen Megan! And that’s awesome about ordination! Keep us updated on that so that we can celebrate with you 🙂

  • As a woman pastor who met, and continue to meet, a lot of resistance because of my gender from other pastors and christians, I just want to thank you so much for this article, it’s so encouraging to see how God lead you to change your views on the place and voice of women in church, I pray that He will awake many more like you. Thanks again!

  • I have joined a denomination that does ordain women, yet I know old habits die hard. During a break in our denomination’s recent meeting, as I walked over to get myself a cup of tea, one of the male delegates walked up to me with papers in his hand and said “Could you make copies of these for me?” I said “No, I’m a philosopher, not a secretary.” (I am not even on my churches staff.)

    One of the other women standing there explained where the copier is…

    I am used to this, and there was no rancor in my voice when I said that. I also make a point to gently, but firmly correct non-inclusive language…even if I get an “eye-roll”.

    Thank you for this blog post.

    • Oh my goodness, Lisa. That is so frustrating! Good job recognizing what was going on and kindly challenging the behavior!

    • Just, wow! Hard to believe these kinds of things are still happening. We really have to have thick skins in this movement 🙂

    • On the subject of the gender-inclusive language, I have no trouble admitting I’d be one of those who would give you an eye-roll, accompanied by a dismissive “Pfft! Yeah, whatever.”

      However, on the copier thing, I can’t imagine why it would even occur to anyone to ask you that, rather than “Can you direct ME to a copy machine?”

  • Another excellent reading source is “Finally Feminist” by John Stackhouse.

  • This is an outstanding article. Thanks so much for advocating and opening doors for your sisters in ministry. So encouraging.

  • I read in your “How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership” post that one of the results of the fall was patriarchy; can you speak to cultures that have more of a matriarchal society?

    • Surely any society that is unequal is a result of the fall? It is wrong for one human to hold power over another simply because of the way they were born.

      • I think you are right on that one – both matriarchal and patriarchal systems place one group of people under the authority of the other, simply based on a characteristic (gender) that they have no control over.

    • Hi Josh: Great question. Not being an anthropologist, I can’t really answer this from the perspective you’re probably looking for. However, my conviction in the blog comes from my reading of Genesis 3:16. Chapter four of Discovering Biblical Equality would be a great place to start. The author Richard Hess relies heavily on Susan Foh’s fine article on this topic. I suppose we could say that any culture where one gender dominates the other gender would be a consequence of this judgment from the fall. Just my initial thoughts.

    • I’m wondering Josh, do you have a particular example of a matriarchal society in mind? Anthropologists, sociologists and historians are not convinced that such a culture ever existed. Matrilineal describes groups where certain social attributes are acquired through the mother’s side of the family but in these cultures the men still “rule.” There are segments of society that experience an absence of fathers and/or husbands in households across generations. I am not sure this is matriarchy either. I do agree with the other replies that hierarchy itself is the problem.

  • This is a strong list. I especially appreciate Tim’s comments on point #2. I think it’s a very tough association to break, given how much it is socialized into us all outside of church contexts, let alone within the complementarian circle.

    • I agree Meredith. I think #2 is very hard for people to work on. I have also noticed #1 a lot in certain circles. Both require changing personal habits I think.

    • I have to wonder if this is some sort of regional thing. I live in a small town (~8k people) northwest of Pittsburgh PA. You literally can’t go more than about two blocks in any direction without running into a church of some sort. A fairly loose “the man is the head of the house” attitude is common, but even in churches that explicitly teach some form of complementarianism, I’ve seen little of this. I won’t say “none,” however. The soft-comp. church I attended does encourage women to be “girly-girls,” which I tend to find insipid. (Um… No offense intended to any of you girly-girls.)

      • One nice thing about the Pittsburgh region is the ingrained use of the gender neutral term “yinz.” 🙂

  • I really appreciate what you wrote here, Tim. Thank you.

  • This is an incredibly honest article and I appreciate you sharing the process you went through as God began to show you how he was viewing and relating to women.

    I have shared this, and really thank you for writing.

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