The Hole in Our Complementarianism*


The Hole in Our Complementarianism*

Where I come from women don’t preach. They don’t pastor. And, for the most part, they submit. I have to say, this was not drilled into me, it simply was. And then I went away to study at a conservative Christian college, where—in contrast—it was drilled in and poured down and emblazoned into my spirit.

We were so into women’s roles and submission, I can recall sitting around on multiple occasions in the dorm discussing whether or not there was an exact point in the dating relationship when a woman should start to submit or if it just began quite suddenly on her wedding day. (You’ll be relieved to know there were no easy answers, but most agreed it was best to ease into it once you got serious about a guy.) I was told when and why a woman had to stop teaching the Bible to a boy (a boy); told why a woman couldn’t lead prayer in the main church service; told why a man could read my exegesis in a book, but he’d never put me in his pulpit. I was told all these things and I was told them with some well-chosen verses and parsed out Greek to back it all up. It was clean and neat and crystal clear. Paul said it, I believe it, that settles it.

Now, make no mistake about it, I was a strong, outspoken young woman. Demure, I was not. In fact, I was one of only two females in my graduating class to earn a degree in the school’s almost exclusively pre-seminary track, Bible Exposition. But as many from these circles can attest to, there is often no one more militant about submission and a woman’s limited role than the women who’ve chosen to live that way, and I was no exception. Where a good many complementarian men would shirk from putting a woman in “her place,” most complementarian women will make no bones about it, and neither would I at that point. Most women at my school eagerly embraced their complementary status, and were quick to trash talk those who didn’t as not knowing the Bible as well as we did. (I mean, didn’t they know what Paul said?) I am ashamed to admit, I even questioned the salvation of those who didn’t practice as we did.

This is not to say I wasn’t also subjected to the disdain of the patriarchy, because I was. On more than one occasion.  Some of my male classmates would have told you that the real problem in our New Testament Problems class was not harmonizing the Gospels, but rather that they had to study the Bible alongside two lowly women. But those are stories for another day.

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In my second or third year of college, Elisabeth Elliot graced our campus with her presence. Of course, at the time I was starstruck. I mean … Elisabeth Elliot. So it was no surprise that our chapel, held in the gym back then, was packed from wall to wall. I distinctly remember settling in the stands with a few of my friends and watching intently once worship ended and Ms. Elliot ascended the stage.

I can’t say I noticed it immediately, but at some point I realized that the large wooden pulpit usually adorning the stage had been replaced with a small music stand off to Ms. Elliot’s side. At approximately the same moment I took note of this, it occurred to me that this woman, Ms. Elliot, was in fact preaching to us. Preaching in chapel. And a sharp little nagging began in the back of my mind.

          She’s preaching.

          She’s a woman and she is preaching.

          And this is somehow okay.

          Even though we’d never dream of letting any other woman do this in chapel.

          This is okay, because we removed the pulpit. And only because we moved the pulpit …

Yes, it was acceptable, I realized, it was okay with my sage male Bible professors (one female, who was single and only taught women—naturally) and the rest of the faculty, because the pulpit had been removed and Ms. Elliot was—perhaps—telling more stories than the average preacher who came our way in a school known for expository Bible teaching.

But, you see, this was not okay with me. Where others might have seen a gracious exception to the rules for a stately woman of faith whose story has almost become legendary in Christendom, I saw a glaring hypocrisy. Because she was clearly being given an opportunity I’d never be given. And what made it so? The fact that her husband was martyred? Her age? The fact that she had authored many popular books? What made her spiritual authority worthy of the exception? Why not my mother or your mother? Who decided this, that it was okay to make exceptions, and how did they decide it?

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After that, after the hole was exposed, I noticed a lot of picking and choosing. A lot of “removing the pulpit” line-drawing/hole-patching to make things that were simply arbitrary exceptions feel more legitimate. For example, I couldn’t take Sermon Prep. I had to take Message Prep for Women. Was there any difference between the two? Not that I could tell from any conversation with those in the opposite gendered class. In Message Prep we had a female teacher. And there were just a handful of students. And we didn’t preach, we gave messages. And the class was much smaller. That was the difference.

But here’s the thing … we were preaching. We studied the Bible, we studied methods, we studied form, we studied the greats from Charles Spurgeon to Howard Hendricks to Tony Campolo, and then we’d preach. The eight of us. To each other. Strong women. Smart women. Women who knew the Scriptures and were fully qualified to talk publicly about them to anyone of any age and of any sex, on a page or in a pulpit. And our interpretations and applications might have been wrong—as those coming from 19-year-old Christians with very little life experience usually are—but we would have had every right to throw them out there to our brothers in Christ and let them learn from us and disagree with us, so that we could learn from them and disagree with them as well. (Imagine all the insights men are missing out on when they learn to preach only in a room full of other men!) The learning gaps each of us experienced by being segregated for this sacred training is tragic.

We should have been taught together with the male students in a large classroom where both substance and nerves could be tested. We should have been deeply instilled with the knowledge that our ability to teach God’s Word publicly as women—whether we planned on being pastors or not—was of incredible value and as such, we deserved the best possible learning environment, every advantage that our brothers were given by being in the larger class.

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But we were not.

And if you’re standing on the other side of this issue, now is the time when you are probably looking at the fine line of female ministry involvement my college walked and saying, “Well, you see, this is what comes of letting women do anything in ministry.” And maybe in a sense you are right. In a sense, it might be more logical, from a complementarian perspective, to not let a woman even open her mouth when a man and a Bible are present than to pick and choose arbitrarily what is okay and not okay for a woman based on all kinds of variable factors (including marital status and some cultural standards that no longer exist)—all of which we will throw out the window when Elisabeth Elliot comes to town.

Because that tore a hole in the complementarian perspective that began to grow for me. And grow. And grow. Until it could no longer hold all my questions, all the inconsistencies I’d started to notice in the biblical arguments, all the hypocrisy of praxis I’d seen, and all the greater truth evidenced in both the whole of the Scriptures and my life experience. If Deborah, why not me? If Priscilla, why not me? If Elisabeth Elliot, why not me? If there is neither male nor female, why not me? If Jesus said “go ye” and not “go he,” why not me?

Why not me?


What about you? Have your views on this topic changed one way or the other? How? And what was the hole that started your conversion to another way of thinking?

Note: I am happy to hear stories of those who moved the other direction, who found holes in the egalitarian theology they were actively practicing and then went the other way. 

*I recently read that “complementarianism” is not a word, however some of us have been in circles where being complementarian permeated theology as well as church practice, family life and culture. In other words, if there ever was an “ism” this is it. Also, much thanks to Rich Stearns for unwittingly giving me this title, a shameless play on his The Hole in Our Gospel.

For more posts from the #JesusFeminist synchroblog
celebrating the release of Sarah Bessey’s
 Jesus Feminist check out all the links HERE.


  • Tamara Rice

    November 10, 2017 at 10:41 pm

    For me it was hearing Kay Arthur. She was invited to preach at a preaching conference, and I ran toward the opportunity to hear this fabulous exegete. She preached on the Law being lost in the temple and I was riveted…until she made the following statement (which I am sure is somewhat paraphrased, but you will, I am sure get the gist.) She stated that she had a “very high view of the Scriptures” and because of that she “was not preaching but ministering.” She lost all credibility with me for a very long time. Here was a conservative seminary offering the opportunity for women to have a say…and then this. I could have cried…but instead I got angry. I am now a pastor, and working on a DMin in women in ministry…and trying desperately to create holes for other women who have had your experience. To do it with Love. To do it with integrity. But to do it. God would have it no other way. Thank you for this piece…it is powerful and so many hurting women need to hear it. Blessings to you.

      Tamara Rice

      November 18, 2017 at 9:52 am

      Thank you, Linda. I appreciate you reading and am encouraged by your story.

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Meet Tamara Rice

    Tam is a lover of words and Jesus and family, though perhaps not in that order. She’s an editor, writer, a breast cancer survivor, and an advocate for mental health and for victims of sexual abuse.