There’s no doubting that gender continues to occupy a lot of time, space & energy in the church. It regularly raises the emotions and generates a lot of heat and little light. It can also put Christians into camps where the ‘the other side’ can be seen, talked about & treated as a problem or worse ‘the enemy’. In the church this is nothing short of disastrous. So I’ve invited Hannah Mudge to a blog conversation with me about faith and gender.
P: So, complementarian churches – how do you see us? Misguided, oppressing women whether we mean to or not, on a slippery slope to misogyny and domestic abuse (I’ve heard that one a few times), a few steps away from the Vision Forum? I hope I’m exaggerating but I’d be interested to know how you view churches like mine.
I would hesitate to apply labels to complementarian churches because I know that there is such a breadth of belief about gender that really differs from church to church. I’ve read some intriguing research, for example, claiming that many members of complementarian churches actually have ‘functionally egalitarian marriages’ and I know that this is a huge bugbear for some more hardline pastors in the USA. I know that some complementarian churches would teach that women cannot hold positions of authority in society, and that gender roles are practically a salvation issue. But then I know some where gender is barely discussed and no-one really talks about the fact that all those in positions of power are men. I myself attended a complementarian church for some years and gender was very rarely brought up on a Sunday. It was clear from the attitudes of some that male headship was very important to them and some were more hardline than others, but some other members of the congregation struggled with the complementarian stance and the fact that many things were off limits to women.
I would also hesitate to say that “complementarian churches are on the slippery slope to domestic abuse”, but I think it has to be recognised that churches that emphasise male headship, female submission, and a fairly authoritarian outlook can easily enable abuse and let it go unchecked. When a woman is being abused by her husband, she should not be counselled that she needs to make sure she’s submitting to him and praying for him, rather than actually getting help, or her husband being dealt with. The attitudes of some prominent complementarian figures have shown that there is often a less than sympathetic outlook towards women. As for women who attend complementarian churches, again I don’t want to put a label on them or make judgments. If they’ve come to those conclusions about scripture and how they want to live their lives, that’s up to them. If they are happy with their lives and happy in their marriages, that’s great. I know that lots of them may not be, but that’s going to be the case wherever you go. The one thing I find frustrating is when women who are happy in a more traditional role insinuate that because they’re happy with this, they don’t see why some women might not be happy. We need to recognise the breadth of choices that women might want to make and the giftings they might have. I’m aware that works both ways.
I certainly wouldn’t lump New Frontiers et al in with Vision Forum, don’t worry! Vision Forum and similar ministries have created a dangerous set of beliefs that is extra-Biblical, tied up with US culture to the extent that many of their ideals would be unworkable elsewhere in the world, take a thoroughly revised view of history, and elevate fathers/heads of households far beyond what’s right, or indeed normal. There are barely hidden white supremacist views and very visible dominionist views. There are rules around “betrothal” and “courtship” that mean that marriages are practically arranged. Many churches practice excommunication and shunning. These groups have taken complementarianism and created cults.
One thing I worry about is the way complementarian churches can be pretty discouraging to women who feel they don’t fit the mold being offered to them, or limiting when they have gifts they feel they can not use. You mention that you’ve worked in churches where women have been involved in a wide range of roles – that’s great. But sadly we’re still often confined to singing, serving refreshments, and looking after children, which is fine if that’s what you want to do. A friend was telling me recently of a youth event run by a complementarian church where some teenage girls came away extremely upset and not wanting to go to church any more. They had been told that women who aspire to leadership roles have a “Jezebel spirit”. If this sort of thing is stopping people from attending church, there’s a problem. I’m friends with several women who have left the church due to the stance on women they encountered there. Some are still believers, some aren’t.