When God Calls a Complementarian Woman into Ministry

April Fiet

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Author’s Note: The word “Complementarian” is not my favorite. It is a loaded word that immediately raises defenses. By way of explanation for those who are unfamiliar with the term, complementarianism is a theological worldview that suggests women are the complement of men. In this worldview, women are to submit to their husbands, and it is inappropriate for a woman to take on leadership roles in the church (specifically elder and pastor, though there are many complementarians who also do not believe women should be deacons).

Recently, I read an article by Tamara Rice called The Hole in Our Complementarianism.  I resonated deeply with much of what she described in an experience that tore a hole in her complementarian worldview, and as I read, I thought it might be helpful to describe my own calling into ministry.

My call began taking form when I was in elementary school, though I never would have described it as a “call” at that time. A family in our neighborhood had “Backyard Bible Club”, and I loved going.  We would sing songs, memorize Bible verses, play games, and read a story about a missionary’s journey. I vividly remember one story about a missionary who had gone into a remote, jungle area and told people about Jesus. Even though I had never been much for adventure, and even though I’m an introvert and a homebody, I felt my heart stirring. “Could it be that I’m supposed to follow God’s voice into the jungle?” “Could God call someone like me to do something for the sake of the Gospel?”

I remember sitting in church and listening to our pastor preach. I could feel God’s Spirit moving in me, and was keenly aware of God’s presence with me. On a Youth Sunday, I was asked to read Scripture. Even though I was shy and didn’t say much in Sunday School, I agreed. I stood behind the pulpit with my knees shaking and spoke as confidently as I could. Afterwards, several people told me that they knew I would be used by God as a reader in church. Someone even suggested that I should think about preaching the next time.

I could read the Bible. But preaching? That was never going to happen.

In high school, we moved to a new state. For the first time in my life I was in the religious minority, and it was a difficult transition. Add to that the awkwardness of puberty, and I had some very trying years. I began to think about having a boyfriend, and wondering who God might lead me to marry. I started attending a Bible Club, and the leader of that group led several studies about dating and marriage. For the first time, I started to think that if I was going to have a godly marriage, I had to learn to submit myself to my husband. Even though I had been taught by my parents that women could do anything men could do, I liked the idea of submission. As a timid, quiet girl, I found a tremendous amount of comfort in the idea that if I married a strong, winsome man, I might never have to stand up for myself or make difficult decisions on my own again.

After graduation I moved across the country to study at an evangelical Christian liberal arts college. I repeatedly found myself in conversations about women’s submission, the evils of women’s ordination, and the importance of marrying a strong, Christian man who would lead the family. Surprisingly, the more I heard this message, the more I began to question it. In 2001 I wrote this in my journal:

”Today I felt a calling, a calling towards ministry. I don’t know if this would be music ministry, or otherwise. I pray to the Lord of Hosts that He may be the interpreter of such a calling!”

Calling.  In spite of holding a worldview that told me I couldn’t be called, and while taking classes taught by those who probably never thought I could be called, God spoke to me and confirmed that I was called to ministry. I immediately excused the thought of pastoral ministry, and decided it must be music ministry, or something more “appropriate” for a woman.

One day in my Introduction to Speech course a young man gave a speech on why women’s ordination was an abomination. Afterwards, we were invited to give feedback and ask questions. People were cheering the speaker on, adding their own two cents as to why women should never lead, and then someone used my least favorite phrase: “The Bible is perfectly clear that any woman who leads in the church or her family is sinning in doing so.”

Those words rang in the air for a brief moment, and then the person sitting right behind me spoke up with confidence. She said, “Both of my parents have doctorates in biblical studies and interpretation. And they both believe that a truer reading of the Bible suggests women can be just as called to church leadership as men.”

Tamara Rice talked about a hole being torn in her complementarian worldview, but when this classmate spoke up, my complementarian worldview was nearly shattered.

I knew God was calling me, and I knew I desperately wanted to be faithful to God. The only thing holding me back was an intense yearning to be faithful to God’s Word. If the Bible said I couldn’t preach, I would never preach, even if the fire burning within me told me otherwise.

Suddenly, I knew that there were two people in the world who had studied these texts and did not come to the conclusion that women were barred from church ministry.

At the end of my studies one of my professors asked to me to job shadow a female pastor. I resisted. I told my professor that even though I was applying to seminary, I had no interest in preaching. The truth was, I was afraid to do something that was going to be controversial.  I knew that if I preached, people would take exception to me before I even opened my mouth. I’d step behind the pulpit and people would judge me. My professor made it non-negotiable, and so reluctantly, I complied. And, it made me never, ever want to be a pastor. I saw the pain this pastor dealt with, and it scared me.

When I was accepted to seminary, I decided that it was a stepping stone to doctoral studies, and that the only sermons I would ever preach would be the ones required for graduation. My first semester was academic and theoretical. I loved the reading, and the papers were challenging, and as a lifelong learner, I was in heaven.

But second semester pushed on the cracked complementarian worldview I had, and pieces started to fall out.  I took a New Testament course, where texts about women’s submission were expounded upon and studied. And I took a preaching class, where I preached sermons to a room filled mostly with men.

The morning before I preached my first sermon, I went into the prayer closet my husband and I had made in our seminary housing, lit a candle, read Scripture, and prayed, “God, please let me hate preaching. I don’t want to do this. I’m just doing this so I can teach. Please, please, help me hate this.”

And, then I didn’t.

My first sermon was rough, but there was a distinct moment while I was preaching that I felt God taking my words and transforming them.

I preached another sermon for class, and nine sermons that were evaluated by congregations. My husband and I were then asked to lead a service as part of our examination process. We brought evaluation forms with us, handed them out to people who looked friendly, and then we preached a dialogue sermon. Several weeks later, I received the evaluation form. I got good marks, and at the bottom, the person wrote: “I do not believe the Bible permits women to preach, but the Holy Spirit really used you today.”

I had already been praying and studying Scripture. I had already come to realize that you could take God’s Word seriously and believe that women could be used in church leadership. I wasn’t doing it because it was easier to follow cultural trends of equality.  I was being faithful to God’s calling and the Bible.

And here, on this evaluation form from someone who disagreed with me, I had all the confirmation I would ever need. The Holy Spirit used me.

In Acts 10, when the disciples are wrestling with the idea of the inclusion of the Gentiles, they had plenty of Scripture verses to prevent Gentiles from coming in. They had every reason to demand that the Gentiles eat kosher and follow Levitical law. But, just as Cornelius was, God heard his prayers and answered. Just as Cornelius was, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon his family, and they were baptized. The giving of the Holy Spirit to those who were not observing Jewish laws revolutionized the early church, and it was the beginning of the full inclusion of Gentiles.

I had studied the verses used to prevent women from entering church leadership, and I had come to believe that women could used by God to preach and teach without throwing out God’s Word. If the Holy Spirit was guiding my ministry and using my preaching to bless others, who was I to stand in the way?  After three years of seminary, I walked across the stage (36 weeks pregnant) and received my Masters of Divinity degree. About 8 weeks later, my husband and I moved (with our three-week-old child) to rural Iowa to accept our first call as co-pastors. In a very small, intimate service with friends, we were ordained.

We have been serving in our first church for the past 6 1/2 years. Surprisingly, my ministry has been a non-issue in my congregation. They have been warm, embracing, and kind as I get my feet under me as a pastor. I have had moments of doubt, and nights where I prayed and asked God, “Are you sure you want me doing this?” but every step of the way, God has been there, confirming that all I need to do is be faithful.

I have friends who are complementarian, and I deeply respect them and value their desires to see God’s word taught in its purity. I have friends who, even now, are hoping I will see the error of my ways and reject this calling. This is very difficult and painful. From the moment I told God I would follow this calling, I prayed that my presence wouldn’t be a divisive one. My desire is to see the church united, not divided about whether or not it is appropriate for me to lead. Even though I am convinced that I am following God’s lead, it is still difficult when I hear someone say that I’m a sinner for being a preacher, or when someone refuses to attend a service if I am there, or to think that my family is judged when they tell people what my vocation is.

But, just as God called me out of an unlikely situation, God continues to call, speak, and guide. All I have to do is follow – even when following means pain.

———————

This post was adapted from the original post on aprilfiet.com.

April Fiet

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34 Comments

  • Thank you, April. My story about growing up in church is so similar to yours. Even after a few years at theological college (doing an M.A., not an MDIv like my husband), I’m still not sure if I’m called to be an ordained “pastor,” but that is mostly because I don’t want to cause division either and I’m waiting for someone in my community to say those words that someone said to you. I don’t want to push my sense of a calling on anyone else. But I do feel a strong calling to preach and interpret God’s Word for the church even as a lay person, something which has been affirmed by our community. We’ll see what happens down the road.

    Thank you for speaking your story as a woman who has also been down this road of service to Christ, no matter what!

    • Thank you so much for reading and sharing your story! I finally had to ask myself to think about what I would do if I had no opposition. When church leadership was still there, I knew I at least needed to explore it. My husband supported me in it too, which was greatly helpful!

  • April, Thank you so much for your courage and for sharing your giftedness. Like you I grew up thinking women could do anything that men could, outside of the church. I still think I have gifts that complement my husband and the ministers I work with, but I don’t for a minute believe that those gifts are due to my gender. I avoided listening to God’s calling for years. I ended up with a PhD in Math and a career as a professor, but I still was looking…I recently quit my job and since women in my tribe are not blessed to be in ministry (yet) I volunteer as a full time minister. The more women who share their gifts, and tell their stories, the more women’s voices are heard in our churches, the more we experience true inclusion, the more I feel like we will be blessed by God. Keep up the great work.

    • Jessica, WOW! Every good and perfect gift comes from above…I’m thankful that you are using those gifts even though there is still resistance in your tribe. I will pray for you!

  • Absolutely follow your calling! The more I study the Bible as a believer, I wonder about those who think it says things “perfectly clearly?” So thankful that God directs our steps.

    • So thankful God directs our steps! If things were so clear, there’d be no room for debate. These texts have stumped scholars for a long time! So…in our difficulty reading them, we are not alone!

  • Thank you for sharing your story. I am currently processing my own call, reading how you struggled with this helps me realize I’m “normal.” God bless you!

    • Blessings on you as you discern the call God has for you!

  • Two of my favourite quotes from your inspiring journey:

    “And here, on this evaluation form from someone who disagreed with me, I had all the confirmation I would ever need. The Holy Spirit used me.”

    “The giving of the Holy Spirit to those who were not observing Jewish laws revolutionized the early church, and it was the beginning of the full inclusion of Gentiles.”

    Thank you for sharing your story, and for having the faith and courage to answer God’s call. God bless you sister.

    • Thank you, Bob! And…thank you for the way you support women who seek to be faithful to God’s calling!

  • Thank you for sharing your story. I remember when I enter seminary I told God, “Fine, but I’m not going to preach.” When someone would question why I was there, I simply stated “because God told me to.” God has opened so many doors and simply amazes me everyday for the last 13 years. Your story is a blessing.

    • I had that exact conversation with God! Haha! Funny how, even in my resistance, God still got things done!Thank you for reading!

  • April, this is such a great story and so well told. So many of us never asked for leadership, yet God designed us so and … that’s all there is to it. I was thinking about your underlying desire to not bring disunity and thought of how Jesus said He didn’t come to bring unity but had a sword to divide even the closest of relatives and friends… tough eh!

    • So true, Bev! We know Jesus prayed for the unity of the church (John 17), but he didn’t promise that unity came easily or without conflict first. Faithfulness is tough, but it is the calling of all believers! 🙂

  • Thank you April! So well stated as I have actually contemplated, prayed my way through the question of ordination for myself… It really made me realize that I was not afraid of preaching, of pastoring…I was afraid of the church and the condemnation that would/will come when I answer the call in my life. My personal question about women being ordained has been resoundingly answered by God. Now… how to live that out? currently under construction 🙂 Truly, thank you for a well written essay on your experience, past and present.

    • Cheryl, I love that. “Currently under construction.” I don’t know if the construction ever ends, but sometimes we can see the goal a little more clearly 🙂

  • Wow – I’m a little nervous even leaving a comment on this: your story (and more particularly, your honesty about the true fears of being rejected or shunned as being ‘unbiblical’) gives me goosebumps. Thank so much for sharing this, April. I have much prayer and thought yet needed on this topic, and much discernment in figuring out what God’s call on my life as a theologically-trained, teaching-gifted, complementarian-cultured woman means. This was encouraging, challenging, unnerving and comforting – all in the same breath.

    • Prayers for you, Bronwyn! It speaks volumes to the way you love God. You want to love the church too, and the people in it…May God give you the courage and grace to live into your call!

  • Might I suggest another path? Well, first let me ask: Is it necessary that Complementarianism hold to BOTH wife compliments her husband AND women cannot serve as pastor? We have taken another path. I believe my wife is my compliment. I also believe my wife is gifted by God to serve in the church. Where do I fall? What term is used to describe us? Why must a woman complimenting her husband also be somehow less than her husband? Biblical submission after all is mutual! I believe we are one entity, my wife and I. Equal partners, equal in rights and responsibilities but different in roles and function. So where do we fit?

    • David, I affirm what you’re saying here. My husband and I are a team. Mutual submission is for sure the model we follow. 🙂

  • I remember knowing in my twenties that I had been called to proclaim, then shoving that way down because I knew that, as a woman, I could not possibly do the thing God had gifted me to do.

    And now, in my forties, I’m finally realizing this calling is clear.

    • Mary, your writing, honesty, and your journey bless me so much. You are doing ministry even now!

  • Oh, this is so great. I’ve never been a complementarian, but I’ve seen how hard being a woman in ministry is and have literally flinched when my leaders call me out as someone who should “seriously consider seminary.” Cheering on your courage and faithfulness to His call!

    • Thank you, Jen! And…that can be so scary to hear. “You should consider seminary.” And then, somehow, God gets us through that fear, and we may even find ourselves there. 🙂

  • Thank you for sharing your story, April. I resisted God’s call on me for years because I didn’t want to create (or face) controversy and I didn’t want to be divisive. But God would not let me feel the rest of obedience until I stepped forward and said yes to pastoring and preaching. It has been very hurtful to experience rejection, but along with that I am sure it is the confirming work of the Holy Spirit that has given me courage and endurance — not the approval of man, much like your preaching evaluation. Galatians 1:10 was a key verse that I stayed very close to, and God has done a huge work in me there. Blessings on your ministry and may the Lord use your experience to make a way for someone else!

    • Kaye, bless you for your obedience! I have no doubt you bless others around you by your faithfulness!

  • Thanks for sharing your journey, April. I especially appreciated when you realized that you didn’t want to shadow the woman pastor for fear of controversy. I can really relate to this fear. I recently talked to a successful business woman who told me her life philosophy was ‘Doing things Afraid’. As a 75 year-old woman, she reflected about driving her ’57 Chevy up to Seattle to attend nursing school back in 1967. Those in her life opposed her and told her women shouldn’t be going to school. 24 years later she came back and ran the family biz where she later sold it for over $10 million. I also serve on a board named after the first woman dentist, Lucy Hobbs, who showed up in the dental school admissions office every day for months to get admitted. She was finally admitted because of her persistence. I am so grateful for the the women who overcame their fear of creating controversy and moved into their calling. It gives me inspiration and courage to do the same not only for the sake of honoring God, but to offer hope to others daring to risk the controversy. Thank you for showing up well in this area.

    • Wow! “Doing things afraid.” I think that will preach! Thank you for sharing those stories. I had never heard about Lucy Hobbs and her persistence before, but her story is inspiring!

  • Thank you, April, for linking to my story and for sharing your own–as I can relate so well to your experience and it indeed makes me feel less alone.

    I’m not currently in a position of leadership or ministry, but one day I’ll have to write about the first time I preached at church. Like you, I was both invigorated and terrified. It was a monumental day in my spiritual story and personal identity. Thank you for sharing yours.

    • Tamara, thank you for the courage to write that post! It spoke to me…and still does.

      I’m with Bronwyn, too. I’d love to read that post!

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