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Rebuking A Sexist Prayer

Exploring complementarianism and finding the courage to speak up

Published on:
July 11, 2018
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11 min.
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We were winding down a group prayer time, an earnest gathering ’round, asking Jesus to give wisdom to friends who were considering a move to another country. Over the past few months, I’d watched this couple’s first tentative steps in this direction, and I’d encouraged them:

“God seems to be stirring something, so keep it stirred up.”

“Just take the next step. Ask questions. Be open.”

“How wonderful that the Holy Spirit is nudging you.”

I was left a little stunned at how completely my blessings intended for both had been negated, funneled just to one.

Now, as dusk settled outside, almost twenty of us left the spots where we each sat, pressed shoulder to shoulder on couches or perched on kitchen chairs, and we huddled close to our friends. I sat on the floor at their feet, lightly touching my girlfriend’s blue-jeaned leg. With my eyes closed, I listened as voices circled above me, blanketing our friends.

For my turn, I prayed aloud that she and her husband would listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice, keeping their finger on the pulse of what he was saying and where he was directing.

After a few minutes, the man who’d been asked to pray last spoke up, closing his prayer with: “God, may Steve[1] hear from you and may Maria support him. Amen.”

And like that, it was over, and people were rising to their feet and returning to their seats. And I was left a little stunned at how completely my blessings intended for both had been negated, funneled just to one.

Outwardly I was silent, but inwardly I was in turmoil. Could I remain silent?

Looking Back to Youth Group Days 

Years ago, to be honest, such a prayer might barely have registered. I’m not sure if I would have agreed with it or not, but I suspect it would have washed over me—a familiar tide. How long had I been swimming in those waters?

My childhood was not steeped in those gender restrictions. I had attended a United Presbyterian church until I left for college. Our youth leaders were energetic young couples, with strong women holding their own. We read the Bible together and talked about God—guys and gals often sprawled on the mismatched couches in the youth group room.

As I recall, our pastors during those growing-up years were men. But over the years since, women as well as men have served as elders and pastors at that church. We were never told, then, that we were spiritually different from each other.

Theology was light then, I realize now, and I never quite understood much about Jesus. God felt far away, but I was assured that I would find him. I knew that I was loved and that I was valued.

Not till my college years did faith come to life for me. The light bulb went off, as they say, and there was a deep sweetness and assurance that God was real. I clung to that.

A Christian ministry group became my family in many ways. I was aware of other branches of the Christian faith at that point, but only a few. Christians in those groups hung together like family too. Different families. Slight differences in how we expressed our faith. And really no interaction between us all.

From that start, I was basically, gradually funneled into the evangelical stream. And into complementarianism.[2]

Of course there were large-group co-ed meetings. But it was routine to be part of segregated Bible studies. Women were invited to retreat days called (I kid you not) “feminars,” where we were instructed in topics such as dressing modestly so we didn’t “cause our brothers to stumble.” And we were usually, to my great frustration, served salads. (I rarely learned the details the guys discussed in their “meninars,” but I’m pretty sure they were served meat.)

Being reminded by smartly coiffed leaders that we were “women of God” lit a little-understood flicker of rebellion in me. Even now, when I hear about women’s ministry events, I usually want to flee. I think it’s tied to being reduced to one thing—a gender—rather than being respected as a multifaceted believer with a meaningful career and gifts to contribute to the whole body of Christ.

Considering New Paths 

After college, I still ended up in complementarian evangelical congregations, but usually of the “soft” complementarian variety. I would have felt the stained-glass wall if I’d harbored dreams of being a pastor. But I was never restricted from teaching Sunday school classes to adult men and women. I was invited into meaty discussions and responsibilities on deacon teams, on evangelism teams, in small-group leadership. I was encouraged to explore and express my spiritual giftedness.

I also entered a time of greater spiritual exploration, opening myself up to streams of Christianity I’d long overlooked. When a friend considered converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, I read Facing East by Frederica Matthewes-Green. When I joined a church (still complementarian) that welcomed the gifts of the Holy Spirit in ways I’d not experienced before, I began reading books by Sam Storms and Jack Deere

And somewhere along the way, I also listened to voices that challenged the hermeneutics of gender roles with which I’d grown comfortable but never questioned. I began to recognize that Spirit-gifting should not be trumped by gender.

Why are just a few Bible verses being plucked here and there to prohibit half of the body of Christ from fully expressing their gifts and leading in the church?

Soon, I was devouring issues of Mutuality and plowing through the thick Discovering Biblical Equality. I came across bloggers Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, and Eugene Hung, and signed up for emails from Missio Alliance and Christians for Biblical Equality. I flipped back-and-forth between articles by Wayne Grudem and by Philip Payne, between authors Mimi Haddad and John Piper.

I read and read and read and pestered friends of mine with questions. I bemoaned how each would lead me down a rabbit hole of online research to explore how various theologians were tussling. Which left me, without a seminary degree, feeling woefully inadequate to parse the arguments and know what the original biblical authors intended. Are ordinary believers not able to apply God’s word accurately to their lives?

Exploring Mutuality

Meanwhile, for reasons unrelated to this search, I ended up joining a new church in January 2015. I knew that it, too, held to complementarian teaching. But both my spirit and my mind responded to the worship and the teaching, and so I was willing to give it a chance. I spoke with the pastor about its complementarian bent. He assured me it largely meant one restriction: that only men could preach or serve as pastors and elders. That had been my M. O. for most of my adult Christian life, so I settled in.

I continued exploring and reading and soon was asking another question: Jesus was the great liberator of women and Paul proclaimed that we are all one in Christ. So why are just a few Bible verses being plucked here and there to prohibit half of the body of Christ from fully expressing their gifts and leading in the church?

In spring 2017, with that in mind, I attended the Christians for Biblical Equality conference, “Mutual by Design.” And, there, finally, theologian Jamin Hübner’s closing talk gave me the handle I needed. 

Hübner pointed out how both egalitarians and complementarians agree that unclear passages in scripture should be interpreted by clear passages (the principle of the perspicuity of scripture, as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith).

Hübner used 1 Timothy 2:9–15 as an example of an obscure passage—one that has produced a variety of interpretations, that uses an unusual number of obscure terms and that is difficult to apply in concrete, contemporary situations.

A portion of verse 12 is most often cited by complementarians: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.” Yet as numerous scholars have pointed out, the word for authority that’s used there (authentein) is not used elsewhere in the New Testament (and appears only rarely in Greek literature). In his writing, Paul more commonly uses the simple exousia to talk about authority. So authentein qualifies as an obscure term.

Authentein means not simply “authority” but “domineering authority” or to “usurp authority.” (It was even used in Greek tragedies to connote the violence of murder.) As The Junia Project points out about the 1 Timothy passage, “Considering the context, it is likely that [Paul] was objecting to something other than the legitimate use of authority.”

Hübner’s excellent presentation (explored in much greater detail here) rang true with me: While we are never to ignore passages of scripture, even difficult ones, we don’t build a whole theology on those that are obscure. Instead, we look for consistency in the voice of God across scripture. A complementarian reading of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 does not ring true with other places in scripture where Paul acknowledges Phoebe’s role as a deacon (Romans 16:1–2), heralds Junia as outstanding among the apostles (Romans 16:7), and announces that spiritual gifts are given equally for the building up of the body (1 Corinthians 12)—not dispensed by gender.

Paul’s teachings on using our gifts and on living in freedom comprise a far more consistent voice than one or two scattered verses that seem to speak differently.

In the middle of his triumphal declaration of freedom to the church in Galatia, Paul also writes: “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27–28).

This one obscure usage of authentein simply does not reflect the voice of God across scripture. 

Anglican Bishop Todd Hunter, during the October 2017 SheLeads conference, pointed out what he sees as a strong trajectory from creation, through Old and New Testament examples of women leaders in the church, until the eschaton: Both men and women are called to rule and reign with God. 

“The end of this story,” he points out, is Revelation 22:5. “They will reign with him forever and ever.”

“Since God’s new creation is where we’re going,” he says, “and since the kingdom is inaugurated in Jesus and since we’re called to act now in every arena of human life in concert with what we will be then, then I believe it’s appropriate for women to lead.”

Finally, Hunter quoted New Testament theologian Gordon Fee: “Spirit-gifting precedes all issues of structure and gender.”

Paul’s teachings on using our gifts and on living in freedom comprise a far more consistent voice than one or two scattered verses that seem to speak differently. Each of those scattered verses needs to be studied, yes, and the author’s original intent and audience considered. But they cannot serve as a few individual rocks upon which we attempt to build a theology that silences women’s voices and gifts.

Rebuking someone’s prayer?

After our group prayer that evening, my friends and I returned to our seats and continued with discussion of the Sunday sermon. Meanwhile, I squirmed in my spirit, waiting for the meeting to end. 

I thought again and again of the closing prayer, where my fellow church member basically proclaimed that the Holy Spirit would only speak to a husband. Outwardly silent but inwardly in turmoil, I wondered how the unbiblical statement might resonate in the spirits of all the young believers around me, including Steve and Maria. After all, God speaks individually to his children—and sometimes he speaks to a wife first.

In Genesis 16, God speaks to a frightened, shunned Hagar, and she is the first to call him El-Roi, “the God who sees me.” An angel of the Lord appeared to Samson’s mother with the good news of her yet-to-be-born son (Judges 13). When her husband Manoah asked for another visitation—“to teach us how to bring up the boy who is to be born”—the angel didn’t immediately respond to him but appeared to his wife first.

In the New Testament, the birth of John the Baptist is indeed foretold first to the father, Zechariah (Luke 1:5–23). Yet the most amazing news of all was delivered first to a young betrothed girl, not to her husband-to-be (Luke 1:26–38; Matthew 1:18–21).

I may not always be bold. But the prophet in me can rage, and when it rages, I have to do something.

As soon as the meeting ended and everyone stood to mingle, I made my way over to Maria and Steve and waited for a chance to speak privately amid the din of chatter rising around us.

I spoke of how the Holy Spirit indwelled both of them, not just one of them, and therefore each of them could rely on Him for guidance (John 16:13).

“I have something I believe I need to say, but I want you to ask God if it is from him or just from me,” I started, looking at each of them, seeing their earnest kindness.

“I want to rebuke what someone just prayed over you.”

I wasn’t sure how they would respond to me, but as I continued, I saw in their quick glances at each other that there was an openness, an appreciation. I spoke of how the Holy Spirit indwelled both of them, not just one of them, and therefore each of them could rely on him for guidance (John 16:13). I reminded them that his Spirit would bear witness with their spirit (Romans 8:16), regardless of whom he might speak to first.

My words came out almost in a rush—what I’ve come to recognize as being carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21)—not a common experience for me (someone who likes to think twice before speaking) but one I treasure. 

A few weeks later, I spoke again with Maria and Steve. They had taken a brief exploratory trip to the country where they were considering moving. In their small, sunny kitchen, with bowls of homemade soup before us, I heard the future in their voices. They spoke with anticipation of leaving jobs here for a new life and ministry role together on the other side of the world. It was clear that our prayers had been answered.

“Tell me,” I asked, “when did you know?”

And each told me a story. For Maria, it was one moment, a burning, almost—an awareness that Jesus was right here, a culmination of so many passions he had embedded in her. When she spoke of it with Steve, he knew it was so. And he soon had his own sense of yes that was confirmed in a series of moments.

And now? Now they were simply talking of when and how, no longer of if. I know that tears came to my eyes as I told them to hold onto those assurances for the long months of transition ahead. 

Obeying the Holy Spirit 

My heart was light: My young friends had listened for God’s voice and then taken what many would consider a huge leap of faith. But wasn’t it simply a matter of obedience, one step at a time?

I want my heart, and the heart of both men and women around me, to be set at liberty to run the ways of God’s commandments, not be pinched and stifled by an emphasis on gender that negates how God has uniquely gifted us.

Just as surely, I knew that I was not done with my own journey of obedience. The Holy Spirit kept nudging me to follow up with our mutual friend about his prayer that (only) Steve would hear from God. But, oh, I fought it. For several months. My upbringing, my personality and my perception of this young man’s openness to hear—it all conspired to keep me silent.

My upbringing. In my growing-up years, the mantra had been, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” And so I’d never seen much modeling of how rational, loving disagreement could be healing. I was afraid that I would lose a relationship if I disagreed.

My personality. The reality of being a peacemaker (for whom harmony in relationships is paramount) made me stuff conflict, which never removed the conflict but pushed it inward.

My perception. Would this avowed complementarian even hear the voice of a single woman speaking scriptural truth? Would that constitute “teaching” such that he’d disregard it?

Finally, the Holy Spirit’s nudging won out over my discomfort. I asked my small-group friend to meet for coffee. And God showed up too.

I asked questions, I listened and I was humbled by how I had let the situation grow until I doubted his heart. I had “told myself a story” about how he would respond. And none of it was true. While we still differed on basic convictions about men’s and women’s roles, he never meant to convey that the Holy Spirit limits his speaking based on gender.

Far from creating disharmony, my honesty and initiative (and listening heart) opened doors to a deepening relationship.

Speaking Up for Freedom

My journey is not over. I suspect that a lifetime of remaining silent about disagreement will take a while to change. I long to hear clearly and obey when God wishes me to speak truth—and watch him open more doors, strengthening relationships. 

Since brothers and sisters in the body of Christ still differ on this issue of people’s gifts and gender, there well may be more speaking up to do on this topic alone. I find myself returning again and again to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3:17: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” 

Matthew Henry’s Commentary adds, “The heart is set at liberty, and enlarged, to run the ways of God’s commandments.”

I want my heart, and the heart of both men and women around me, to be set at liberty to run the ways of God’s commandments, not be pinched and stifled by an emphasis on gender that negates how God has uniquely gifted us. May God give me the courage to keep speaking up.

Diane McDougall
Diane McDougall is senior editor at Virginia magazine.

[1] All names have been changed.

[2] Complementarianism is a conviction that the Bible teaches God-ordained gender roles, such that Christian women must submit to male leadership in the home, church (and, according to some) society. Its counterpart, egalitarianism, holds that the Bible emphasizes giftedness rather than gender, and thus men and women share equal status and responsibility in the home, church, and society, without hierarchy.

Cover image by Chris Liverani.

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