Moving from Complementarian to Egalitarian

Jenn Dieringer

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MY STORY

Women reading complementarian book

I was 32 years old before I heard the word egalitarian.

My universe was very small, growing up. I, realized, sort of, there was a Christian culture outside of my soft patriarchal, quiverfull one. But that’s how it was always understood. Being out there, on the fringe, barely Christian, if they were Christian at all.

Even though I was shy and non-confrontational by nature, I grew up with a strong sense of justice…and the culture around me was unjust. I knew it. I had no theology to back it up, no one to talk to who could explain to me that there was a different way. I didn’t even have words to put to it. But I knew it was wrong.

As a teenager, I started to see more specifics. I saw that the system we were in, the theology we were being taught, was leading to abuse, especially sexual abuse. But how could I, a shy young GIRL, in a world of patriarchy, explain that to the adults, who saw these all as isolated incidents. “Sad, yes, but probably the girl should have known better. Maybe if she had just dressed better.” And then there would be another sermon on female modesty. I couldn’t put any of it into words at the time but I knew patriarchy didn’t work.

When I married, I moved on from patriarchy to complementarianism.

At the time it was very freeing. My new pastor and his wife had a good, loving relationship. Through them, I learned about a God who loved me, who valued me because I was created in His image. Of all the complementarian teachers I’ve heard, and I’ve heard quite a few, my pastor had the most beautiful interpretation. It left me feeling thankful that God had made me a woman. It was complementarianism at its absolute best.

It should have produced this wonderful, deeply satisfying masculinity and femininity that complementarians were always promising. But it didn’t. It was more subtle, softer. But it still left the hierarchy in place with women (and some men) as less than. It came out in joking by one man as we cleaned up after a service where the teaching had been on women’s roles. “The women should be the ones doing this,” he laughed.

It came out when my thoughts were dismissed the second I became emotional, even though I am extremely logical and a deep thinker. When I tried to explain that women being compared to secretaries while men were compared to CEO’s made me feel less than, it came out in being told that wasn’t reasonable and I shouldn’t feel that way.

My husband’s struggle with sexual addiction brought it out even more. Some placed the blame on me directly, others were more kind. But even the kindest pastor made assumptions about my motivations for instituting boundaries, without even considering the hours (years really) of research I had put into addiction, the time spent in counseling, or the time I spent in prayer. He couldn’t see past my femaleness; past the narrative that complementarianism creates, the one that says I must be trying to control my husband.

I also experienced the downside that complementarian theology creates for many men.

My husband doesn’t fit into the “godly manhood” model. He is sensitive, a deep-thinker, and speaks slowly and thoughtfully. He’s humble and wants to hear my opinion on things. Putting thoughts and feelings into words is sometimes difficult for him. Because he knows I am more articulate, he sometimes asks me to speak for him. These are all things that make him an amazing partner, but bad at conforming to the complementarian definition of “biblical manhood”.

Because of this, I have seen him talked down to, dismissed, and held back in leadership. At one church, when he asked for help with his addiction, the leaders scolded him like a child and threatened to tell my dad on him. They refused to accept his “no” and only backed down when I cried and begged them not to do that.

Added alongside my personal experience were the continual public scandals among patriarchal and complementarian leaders. Time and again they were caught misusing the power that hierarchy provided them, often in sexual ways. Not only were these leaders committing heinous crimes, but other leaders were also covering up for them.

Again, people were trying to take these as sad, isolated events, but I was seeing them systemically. I was realizing that you can’t have hierarchy without placing differing value on people and inevitably you protect what you value most. If males, especially adult males, and most especially adult males in leadership have the highest value, then the converse is also true. Females, especially young ones, have the lowest value. They are the easiest to sacrifice because it doesn’t cost these cultures anything. This is what hierarchy ALWAYS creates. Because complementarianism maintains that gender hierarchy, it doesn’t work.

It was in reading blogs by other people who were also bothered by these injustices that I first ran into the word “egalitarian”.

Up until then, I experienced a lot of theological dissonance. On the one hand, from reading the Bible as a whole, I saw a God who loved justice and whose heart was for the weak, the poor, and the disempowered. On the other hand, I read passages like 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 and heard sermons and read complementarian books, and it seemed like this God had created women to be “less than”. I would say to God, “I don’t understand. Why you would create this system that leads to abuse and some people being valued more than others simply because of their genitalia? I don’t get it.”

Now I was reading articles and comments by people who didn’t believe that God had created this system, but that sin had. I read scholarly, thoughtful, reasonable explanations for the verses I had found so troubling. And these weren’t out-there, just barely Christians running down the slippery slope as I had been lead to believe all my life. Instead, they were lovers of God from all walks of life, from stay-at-home moms to college professors with numerous degrees.

I read voraciously for months, and then one day I announced to my husband “I am an egalitarian”. I had been discussing my thoughts and findings with him all along so he wasn’t totally taken aback by this announcement!

I now have the language to describe all those things I felt growing up. I have the Scriptures and theology to back up what I believe. But most importantly for me, I have found something that works. Something that breaks down the barriers between men and women. Something that brings freedom from the oppression so many women and girls experience.

Something called egalitarianism.

Jenn Dieringer

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22 Comments

  • Have you ever read someone else’s thoughts and felt like you were cut from the same cloth and could totally be besties? Yep. That’s me right now. I’m on my journey to egalitarianism. I, too, have a naturally egalitarian marriage. I, too, have wrestled with scripture that seems to canonize the complimentarian way of thinking. I, too, have strengths and gifts that don’t fit with the complimentarian model of a Biblical woman. I, too, am filled with the Holy Spirit and yearning for a way to exercise my gifts and talents for the betterment of the Church and the reaching of my community with the gospel. I don’t seek to pull men down. I seek to give women a hand up, those whose spiritual gifts are guiding them into leadership roles. I’m struggling to find a church or denomination that seeks to correct the imbalance without creating another one by vilifying traditional men. I simply seek to fulfill the partnership that God created when he realized it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone even though he wasn’t lonely. Adam needed a partner in this world even though he was in perfect unity with God. We both were made to reflect the Image of God in individual ways that are not easily divided down gender lines.

    • Oh my gosh, you just made me almost cry! I feel so alone most of the time. You don’t happen to live anywhere near wisconsin do you? 🙂

  • So many of us women have the same testimony! I stand and applaud the God who sets the captives free.

  • I was thirty one and in a deeply complementarian marriage, when I happened to read a Newsweek article about the past twenty-five years of IQ test being studied. They found that the average woman has a higher IQ than the average man. That’s when I cried out to God, asking why if you made us smarter, why did you ask us to not use our intelligence. It would be decades before I had an answer. He didn’t.

    • I too have had so many of those “God I don’t understand” moments, only to find out later that it wasn’t Him who made things that way. I’m still sorting through a lot of those type of things. Its really hard to separate what is true from what I’ve been taught to be true all my life.

  • Well done Jenn. I was in WM and close to 50 before I heard the word egalitarian. That awakening led to all kinds of mess leading me away from my tradition. But I’m so thankful now. I cheer you younger women on!

    • Thanks! I am still in the middle of the mess of separating tradition from truth. It is very confusing and sometimes disconcerting, but I’m so thankful to be here.

  • “you can’t have hierarchy without placing differing value on people and inevitably you protect what you value most.”

    nail meet head

    Jenn, my story is very very similar to yours. And what is the most beautiful part is that we get to raise our kids differently. They will have their own struggles, but believing in the equality of women won’t be one.

    Great post!

    • Raising my children differently has been a huge area of thought for me lately. This is new for my husband and I so we are having to undo some of our former teaching. Thankfully we’ve always had an egalitarian marriage so their example of the marriage partnership has been one of mutuality. But because of choices we made early in our marriage, mostly due to our theology, the practical roles of life are divided very traditionally. I don’t think there is anything wrong with dividing them that way, I just don’t want them to grow up thinking these are the only options they have. One thing I wish we could change is my husband having to provide all the income for our family. If we could go back and make different career choices I would try to do something where we could both work part time. I would love for home responsibilities and financial responsibilities to be something we could share equally instead of being so starkly separated. I find it interesting that patriarchy and complementarianism make so much of a man having to be the leader at home and then require him to bear all the responsibility of providing financially thus ensuring that he is not actually going to be at home very much!

      • Wow! This is such a great insight: “I find it interesting that patriarchy and complementarianism make so much of a man having to be the leader at home and then require him to bear all the responsibility of providing financially thus ensuring that he is not actually going to be at home very much!” I’ve often thought about that but have never put it into words. Something to chew on!

        • Very good insight…we all need to think about that and speak about it to others.

  • Sexual abuse has been the key that unlocked the door for many in the churches…In a way I am glad that it happened (sorry sisters) but millions of women began to see that giving men full rein gave them freedom to sin and to cover it up. The good guys COVERED IT UP and that is the LAST STRAW…or the nail in the coffin if you will.

    That is my story too. I saw a church crumble because of the above and that is surely the common theme of millions of people who are no longer in churches. ..That is why women are becoming preachers…not from ego but from a realization that the interpretation of scripture that gives men full authority over women is wrong…and gives absolute power to them…you can figure out the rest of my comment from that.

    Time to stand up and speak. No tolerance for intolerance any longer. We are on the side of truth, whether they can prove it from scripture or not..they are not entitled to absolute power.

    • I agree that it’s time to stand up and speak! I think the reason a lot of these abuse cases are being uncovered is because people are being incredibly brave and standing up to injustice and evil. Unfortunately in a lot of the abuse cases and cover-ups when people stand up, it is usually the ones without power to begin with, and then the ones with power simply close ranks and nothing changes. Although the power of the internet is changing this somewhat in that it can give a voice to those who formerly had none.

      • I watched a very successful church fall apart because of a cover up. The numbers dwindled, groups separated. It was devastating. Then I started to THINK. Why weren’t the women in on this? They weren’t elders, deacons, in any positions to know about it. The men kept it from their wives. The men built a house around the perpetrator. THEN another MAN, who was vilified by them for HIS sin, got fed up and called the Feds. It became a legal issue and the courts had to fix this…NEVER were women notified until this blew open…That is why it is time for the men to be removed from singular power. They cannot be trusted and have too sympathy for the sins of other men that women would NOT have had, since a young girl was the victim. Churches simply MUST divide authority between men AND women or they will utterly fail.

        Also a side thought…I have heard it said that Jesus was almost androgynous in character, having both strong male character and strong female character (compassion, gentleness, comforting and submissive)…yesterday, driving, I suddenly thought about this: “In Christ there is neither male nor female”…and considered it a two-fold quote for the first time…it also speaks of Christ Himself…although in body he was definitely male, in essence He was neither male (a he-man type, courageous, bold, unyielding to sin) nor female (only gentle and submissive) but the best of both types. This may not be profound to others but it hit me as a light going on.

        • I definitely agree that leadership needs to be divided between men and women. Not so much because men in general cant be trusted and women can, but because men and women are different. We see things differently. We as women usually know what it feels like to be among the marginalized and will more easily see things from the side of others who are marginalized or victimized.
          I think its not just a problem of one gender being in power but that the whole theology of complementarianism leads to a very homogenous type of power. Not just men, but all the same type of men. Those who fit into the “biblical manhood” model. Then you have group think because they are all pretty much the same.
          My perfect leadership team would have as much diversity as possible in the community it exists in. Single moms, married moms, single women, single men, married women, married men, different races and ethnicities, different church backgrounds, no church background…etc.
          The leadership meetings would probably be pretty intense but I feel like the church body as a whole would be served so much better!

  • Yes, religious patriarchy is the Gordian knot that must be untied for health gender relations. We must overcome man *or* woman as singularities, and must overcome man *and* woman as complementary, and must keep evolving toward egalitarian gender relations. God is both Father and Mother. There is feminine genius in Jesus Christ. Even the language of the Creed is patriarchal, but this is a limitation of human language that we must overcome.

    • I agree that language is a limitation. I think English is especially difficult because of words like mankind and pronouns always having to have a gender.

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