Confessions of a Closet Egalitarian

Liz Wolf

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CLOSET EGALITARIAN

I had never heard the words “egalitarian” or “complementarian” until last summer.

The first of my true confessions. At 50 I’m a little late to the dance, but my 22-year-old daughter has been my inspiration and encouraged me to write this.

As a young wife in the late 80s and early 90s, I was bombarded with information about God’s designed hierarchy for the church and Christian home.

Magazine articles, radio shows, and whole conferences were devoted to teaching that wives should submit to their husbands in all areas, the husband is the head of the home, he had the final say in all decisions, and that a Christian woman’s job as a wife was to be her husband’s “helpmeet”. She was to support him in his work because that is where his self-worth came from, but hers should come from her home and children.

I learned that a godly woman should stay at home with the children, cooking, baking, and keeping the house clean, so when her husband returned home from work, he would have peace and tranquility. Women were not to teach or have authority over men in the church. This went against our culture, but it was God’s plan for His people.  The bible was clear on all of this, so if I questioned my role, I was rebelling against God’s plan for my life and Christianity as a whole.

My husband seemed comfortable with these guidelines, but nothing in my background had prepared me for this.

I was raised by a strong and capable single mom who worked hard to raise five kids. My dad, due to a traumatic head injury, didn’t have much of a presence in my life. I had grown up playing sports, being a team captain and leader. At school, I was chosen for many leadership positions from junior high on.

I didn’t start attending church until I was 16 and had never heard much about the whole idea of women submitting, except a little talk about how silly it all sounded. Some of my friends in college were religion majors and planned to be pastors and leaders in the church. (My former roommate is actually now in seminary!)

I had a degree in Physical Education and Health and taught while my husband finished school. When our kids were little, I stayed home with them but returned to work part-time when they were a bit older. I enjoyed (and still enjoy) teaching and using my education and talents. I couldn’t figure out why God would bless me with a full academic scholarship and give me a gift for teaching if He didn’t want me to use that gift.

I love my children and am glad that I was able to be home with them so much when they were growing up. I also believe that it was good for the kids to see me working and contributing financially to the household as well as to learn how to pitch in and help around the house. My husband and I had a few clashes over roles, but we managed to figure out a balance that we could both live with.

We attended a church for many years that encouraged women to serve freely. We had a woman children’s pastor and women in all areas of leadership, including the elder board. The ordination of women was a hotly debated topic in the denomination, but aside from senior pastors, women served in every capacity. The church taught that men were the heads of the home, but balanced with Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”. I served on various committees and in several roles in the 17 years we attended there and always felt valued.

Then last summer, we moved to a small town with very conservative churches.

At first, I thought it was just that – conservative and a little old fashioned. The pastor at the church we settled into spoke on marriage and taught the same things I’d been taught as a young wife. Women are not allowed to do much in that church except play music, lead women’s groups, and teach small children. My daughters pointed out that there were no women in any leadership positions. I countered with everyone was friendly, and it was okay, they were just really conservative.

But (confession #2) what I didn’t tell my daughters, or anyone, is that this church’s teaching on gender roles “as designed by God” brought to the surface fears that I had been hiding for over 25 years.

Fears that I really was a “second class citizen”, and that God wanted it that way. That ignoring “clear” commands in Scripture to be completely submissive to my husband, for women to not teach men, or hold leadership positions was rebellion and sin; that, because I am a woman, I am not worth as much as a man; that the church is really only for men and that women are only along for the ride. The words “brothers”, “man” and “he” implied that God surely did favor men. I always told myself that those words included me, but a nagging voice told me that I am really not a brother, a man, or a “he”. And I wondered how many other women my age secretly worry about the same thing.

Then one sermon turned my fears into anger. The pastor preached about “the infancy of the church”, using Acts 16 as his text. This passage talks about Paul and Silas going to Philippi and speaking with a group of women on the Sabbath. Lydia “was a worshiper of God” and she responded to Paul’s message and became a believer in the Lord. She invited them to her house and they accepted. Later, when Paul and Silas got out of prison, they went to Lydia’s house again.

The pastor completely ignored Lydia, and the only thing he said about the women was that “obviously God would not start a church with women”.

He claimed that several prisoners who were with Paul and Silas must have come to the Lord since a church was started there (“so important is male leadership to God”).  I lost it, furiously writing notes to my husband about the pastor adding things to scripture that aren’t there and ignoring the women who were there.

I came home and started reading commentaries on Acts 16. Every commentary praised the faithful women. From there I jumped into researching mistranslations of Greek words – things like the word for “siblings” translated “brothers”, gender-neutral pronouns translated as “he”, the word describing Phoebe as a “deacon” translated as “helper”.

And it hit me. God wasn’t the one who had excluded women. 

God hadn’t inspired the writers of the New Testament to only address men. God doesn’t only use men. I was happy and MAD.

• Who did this? Why? Why do Greek scholars ignore it?

• How can pastors pray about their sermons and claim they are speaking for God when they don’t know what God’s word really says?

• If I can research and figure out what the Greek says and discover the historical contexts of Ephesians and Philippians, why can’t pastors?

• Why are churches continuing to teach error and wounding faithful women?

• Why is there not an accurate translation of scripture that corrects these centuries-old mistakes?

My fierce sense of justice and fairness kicked in. I can’t sit here quietly and take it.

While I don’t feel called to be a pastor or hold an important office in a church, there are women who are called, who need to be allowed to answer that call without being told they are rebellious or trying to “usurp” the roles of men.

I am starting a quiet campaign to educate women that they are important to God; that they don’t need to experience the fear that I buried for so long. Sadly, I’ve already noticed a hesitation to even talk about such things among women my age.  I’ve been told to “be careful”. One woman looked at me like she wasn’t sure if I was a heretic or a lunatic.

I still have more questions than answers.

I loved reading Sarah Bessey’s “Jesus Feminist” and wholeheartedly agree with her take on “God’s radical notion that women are people too”. I’m not sure that I am ready to embrace the word “feminism” yet – at 50, the word brings up negative connotations and images.

But I am ready to embrace the fact that God did not make a mistake when He created me to be a woman. He sees me as His precious daughter, fully equal to His precious sons.

Liz Wolf

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14 Comments

  • Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m 27, and the first Christian in my family. Perhaps ironically, my atheist parents have a very complementarian marriage, and when I became a Christian, I felt lost for good role models from older women about how to be a Christian and a woman. It felt like two impossible things to marry! It is so encouraging to me to hear stories from women who have been walking with God much longer than me about how they find their way.

  • Beautiful!! And I understand your fear of the word feminism- there are extremists in every group. But I’d encourage you to use it. It just equality between sexes, though I know others have used it to push their agendas.

  • “And it all hit me. God wasn’t the one who had excluded women.”

    When this hit me it was like a thunder-clap. It changed everything. Thank you for being God’s faithful spokesperson.

  • BRAVO, Liz. You may feel that cooking is more in your comfort zone than blogging, but you’re a pretty darn fine blogger. I especially applaud you for standing up in ways that affirm your young adult daughters and that set a great example for your sons. I’ve been attending a “complementarian” church, too (a polysyllabic word meaning “what women aren’t allowed to do”), and I’m finding I can no longer make excuses to my 20-something daughters about why I’m selling out in this area of my life.

  • Thank you for your great post, Liz. I affirm your leadership gifts and teaching abilities as truly God-given! (And WHY are there fantastic, HIGHLY-skilled female professors, teachers and coaches in secular high schools, colleges and universities? but now I’m getting off-topic . . .)

    Having been in mainline denominations for the past twenty years, I am happy to say that I don’t hear much about this female-as-second-class-Christian thing. However, I still have friends and acquaintances who are firmly in this paradigm. I went to an evangelical bible college for undergrad (bachelor’s in church music, fitting myself to be a “suitable pastor’s wife”).

    I’m also posting on a blog about intentional service to God and to others–A Year of Being Kind. I am really pleased (and touched!) at last Sunday’s post. (If you have time, read it and let me know what you think. http://wp.me/p4cOf8-5g ) God’s blessings as you continue to serve where God has placed you! @chaplaineliza

    • “WHY are there fantastic, HIGHLY-skilled female professors, teachers and coaches in secular high schools, colleges and universities?”

      I actually have an opinion on this. I think it’s because the world says to women, “You are equal, you are valuable, use your brains and your talents!” But, sadly, a message that women seem to get from the church is “Come to Christ where you’ll find forgiveness, love, wholeness and purpose and then come to church where you can use your gifts to bake cookies, wash dishes and serve in the nursery.”

      Thank you for your kind words! I will pop on over to your blog!

      • What you say reminds me of a wonderful, dear Christian senior who is 80-ish, daughter of a Quaker doctor from out East. She attended college and graduated with highest honors. She married a Christian professional man who traveled a lot for a living (and she went along with him). She moved often during those first years of her marriage, but she hung her college diploma (summa cum laude) and Phi Beta Kappa certificate over the washing machine wherever she moved. Just to remind herself that she had them.

        She and her family went all over the world, attending a whole series of different schools. She trained her children well! Two doctors, and one Presbyterian pastor’s spouse.

        I, too, grew up with parents who gave me the idea that I could become whatever I wanted, and do whatever I felt I gifted to do. My parents both attended a prestigious university during the early years of World War 2, true, But their encouragement helped form my ideas of egalitarianism. My mother flouted public opinion, breastfeeding her children during the 50’s and into the early 60’s (shock!). She was politically active and a force for better education in our city, even though she had six children at home. (Or, was it because she had six children at home?) One of my sisters was the partner in a law firm (now retired). Two of my other siblings were managers in large corporations before they both retired a few years early.

        I’ve always had strong women figures (but not necessarily mentors) in my life. So, these female role models were only natural and matter-of-course to me. I did not become exposed to “complementarian” values until I attended an evangelical Christian college. ANd once there, boy! Did I get exposed!

        Since I had been brought up in what is called today an “egalitarian” family, I wondered about all that “complementarian” teaching. I would examine it, thinking like Mr. Spock, “Fascinating!” And I would mean it! It was incredibly interesting for me to learn what was being taught to people at evangelical colleges and seminaries!

        I guess from the time I was very young, I was strong enough in my egalitarian self-esteem, self-concept and personhood. And, I have always tried to teach my four children the same things. All of which is a long way of responding to your response. I really hope you pass on those Godly truths that are so important to you. @cha

  • This is SO good! We were married in 1990 and much of our marriage spent under this “umbrella” teaching. Agreements we made within our marriage are very much in the “closet” when we are around other Christian couples. One of these days I’ll write about it, but for now,

    Yes! and AMEN!

    • You should write about it! I’m glad you could relate to this!

    • do you really live in Paris? Not too many egalitarians around in French evangelical churches…

  • Thanks Liz!
    Your story and mine are so similar, in fact it seems that you took the words right out of my mouth! My daughter said “mom you need to read this, you could have written this”. She was right. Glad to see your son is at Northwest Nazarene University. I’m 3rd generation Nazarene and my daughter and I both graduated from sister Nazarene Universities (egalitarian in theory). She has not only taken up my cause, she is proceeding forward and is now working on her Masters in Theology at Fuller Theoligical Seminary. I say you and I stood our ground and endured but not for nothing. I believe through our example to our daughters we set the stage for the next generation to get behind, walk beside and hopefully run in front of us to get our church’s house in order. When that’s done, we will see an exponential unleashing of the power of God through everyone’s giftedness, regardless of gender. And God might be asking “what took you so long?”

    • I knew there were more women like me out there! Good for you and good for your daughter!

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