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Mental Illness: Lament and Hope

I had the privilege of speaking last weekend at a unique, but much needed women’s event near my hometown. The topic was mental illness. Friday night, I began the weekend with a spiritual look at our grief and anxiety, along with the need to process both in ways that lead to health, not harm of ourselves or others around us. We looked at the lives of Job, Hagar, and Joseph for help, because, though our circumstances are different, our God is the same.

On Saturday, a psychiatric nurse practitioner gave valuable practical insight into diagnoses and treatment.

I really appreciate the vision of leaders at Harmony Church in Sumter, South Carolina for the women in their community. I hope such ministry spreads.

My first time on stage is at the 10 minute mark. My longer talk is at the 29 minute mark.

Reflections on an Unplanned Pregnancy

The following is an anonymous essay from a friend who is walking with his adult daughter through the aftermath of a rape that resulted in a shocking pregnancy.

My daughter was raped. She had agency over how she responded to the pregnancy that followed. She’s choosing life. 

Not all Christians who believe abortion is a sin are triumphantly celebrating the impending Supreme Court ruling. Some are lying low, hopeful and humbly grateful, but unconvinced that the triumph of moralism in politics is the opportunity for righteousness that others predict. Some have themselves walked alone into the valley of the shadow of abortion and have emerged holding the hand of a child. 

Evangelicals who talk about abortion in flippant ways, stigmatizing those who are solemn about the outcome of the Supreme Court, sound like people who have never had a wave of horror wash over them when a pregnancy was announced. Have they never experienced the irresistible thought piercing their mind, “I could just fix this by ending it,” despite their high view of life? 

Some who oppose abortion have themselves been on the edge of a hellish decision, the abyss of finality laying below, and have chosen life over death. Even though the call to terminate the pregnancy may have been banished like a demonic goblin to the darkest parts of hell, the sulfuric aura still lingers in their trembling souls. Shaken and crying in the doctor’s office at the news of an unexpected, unwanted pregnancy, they felt how the immediate solution, just out of their reach by their own moral convictions, would ease the weights on them in the coming months and years. Gasping for breath against the panic attack of the news of a pregnancy, those who chose life understand how, for a woman who finds herself flailing in the void with the ground completely disintegrating beneath her, the end-it-now choice proposed by the compassionate nurse guiding her hyperventilation to slower and deeper breaths, seems irresistible and wise. She might even sigh with heartfelt gratitude for the option. 

But, of course, for the Christian woman it is not a wise choice. Actually, between her and her God there is only one right choice, free though she may be to choose otherwise. And there are many women, Christian and non-Christian alike, who have made the choice to preserve the life of the baby in the womb of their self-autonomy, who do not feel the euphoria of the political pro-life movement even though many of them strongly believe that the only wise choice is always life. Many even believe in some forms of legislation that shepherd women to the right choice, but they are not in the victory parade with politicians, activists, and moralists who believe a great conquest has happened just because choice is potentially removed from thousands of women. 

These mothers freely made a choice. A choice for life. When given options other than life, they found deep within themselves a humanity that was God-like, sacrificial, bold, and empowering. They chose to have a baby, to bring into the world a new creation. Out of their void, they would form something new. Choice empowered them. 

But for a dark moment they could identify with the appeal of choosing abortion, and it didn’t feel murderous; it felt like a shocking, desperate gasp for breath when all their dreams collapsed, and the air was sucked out of their world with one simple urine test. It was not a calculating me-first sensation that smashed them literally to the ground, causing others in the room to physically lift them back into a chair.

It was a survival instinct.

In many cases, thoughts of ending the pregnancy were tied to the God-given sense of justice that rattled their bodies. The pregnancy, it seemed, was an assault after an assault. In that moment, however brief, a feeling was germinated that would flower into gracious and humble expressions later: a profound sense of sympathy for women without grounded families, without resources, without options, without moral convictions, and without a sense of a loving God to immediately call upon. The only thing they have, or had, is choice. And the women who chose life take no pleasure in taking choice away. 

When disempowered and scared, choice is an instant fortifier. In the dread of the moment when the fabric of one’s life is limp and torn, choice stiffens the resolve and humanizes the victim. Many choose to end it all; others choose a new beginning. In saving a life, they have started a long, life-saving change on themselves. They have voluntarily constrained their own choice on this subject forever, yet many new choices, some very hard, still lay in front of them. For those who choose to end their pregnancy, they choose choice itself at the expense of a life. 

Perhaps this Supreme Court decision is life-saving. For the sake of argument, we might assume that fewer abortions will actually take place as a result of this decision. But life saving decisions do not have to be celebrated triumphantly and, indeed, often should not be. How twisted it would be to celebrate the life-giving decision to amputate a child’s gangrenous legs with a dance! Sometimes a life-saving change of course requires a humble pause. 

What have we lost in this gain? What has actually happened? What is new? What is old that will never be again? 

We are told that it was at the public scene of Golgotha where Jesus “canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness. . .took it away, nailing it to the cross” and “disarmed the powers and authorities, making a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”  The victory was historic. Yet even he lay silently dead for three long, speechless days before resurrecting without fanfare, mistaken as a gardener, and revealing himself little by little to his faltering disciples. This is how he began to build an eternal kingdom of light and glory. He triumphed without triumphalism. Two thousand years later those of us in that kingdom are still not in party-mode. We triumph over evil, finding new life in quiet, irresistible growth. 

It is the deep conviction of many mothers that, because Jesus gave up his life to die for them, they are empowered to choose life over death in the doctor’s office. And yet they are grateful that they had the choice. It empowered them to voluntarily offer to their God a dying-of-self and life for another. When death was a tempting option, they worshiped God with life. 

Such women sympathize with the moral angst of the righteous over a nation consumed with lust and self-gratification, the deification of the individual over righteousness and selflessness. They believe that human passions should be constrained and that good government does limit choice for the governed. But they quietly sympathize, with deeply felt caveats, with those who say “My body, my choice.” They would tell the clamoring triumphant masses, “My emotions, my choice.”

These women do not see a political victory or defeat in this historic moment. Instead they see a nation shocked into a foreboding expectancy of what is yet to come. Many will panic and choose death. Many others will celebrate as if a long-awaited child has been born. These women choose contrite hope, chastened by experience and seasoned with grace. 

The crime is done. The seed was planted. A choice was made. And now we await a precious birth. There is no triumph. There is only love. Worship has begun, and sorrow is transforming incrementally into joy. Gut wrenching pain is morphing into celebration.  

When our neighbors see and hear us talking about my daughter’s choice for life, they will see a family chastened out of triumphalism and into contrite worship. And, awaiting my grandchild who arrives any day, eager joy. 

I Forgive You

I forgive you. These are words many long to hear. These are also words many of us wrestle to say. If you’ve been listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, you can imagine the aftermath of broken relationships left in Mars Hill’s wake. It wasn’t just Mark Driscoll who sinned against others. And many folks who harmed others had also been harmed themselves. But there were several examples of true repairing of the wrong that had been done. Many did find forgiveness AND reconciliation in the wake of all that was broken and lost.

I explore this and more in I Forgive You: Finding Peace and Moving Forward When Life Really Hurts. If this topic resonates with you, would you consider being a part of our launch team? You can sign up for that here.

Odds and Ends for September

Lina Abujamra released a book that speaks into alot of what is going on in at least my little corner of the evangelical world. With the rise of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, there is good discussion processing church hurt. Fractured Faith: Finding Your Way Back to God in an Age of Deconstruction is a gift to the Church is this moment. Lina spent time in a church with a pastor very similar to Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll. I’m so thankful that she has shared her journey with others who are trying to figure out their own way forward.

Also, a former pastor gave me this idea for a women’s tshirt.

If this hits you like it hits me, I am selling them for one week. If you want one, paypal $25 to with your mailing address and the size you want (womans S, M, L, XL, or XXL).

24 Most blessed of women is Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite;
she is most blessed among tent-dwelling women.
25 He asked for water; she gave him milk.
She brought him cream in a majestic bowl.
26 She reached for a tent peg,
her right hand, for a workman’s hammer.
Then she hammered Sisera—
she crushed his head;
she shattered and pierced his temple.
27 He collapsed, he fell, he lay down between her feet;
he collapsed, he fell between her feet;
where he collapsed, there he fell—dead.

31 Lord, may all your enemies perish as Sisera did.
But may those who love him
be like the rising of the sun in its strength.

Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood

“I like criticism, but it must be my way.” Mark Twain

How do you respond to criticism? Would you rather defend than correct yourself? Do you police the tone of criticism as an excuse not to hear legitimate concerns? Henry David Thoreau said we don’t get a man’s most effective criticism until he has been provoked. Don’t be surprised when the hard words that follow are given with some bitterness. 

In light of recent disturbing allegations of child pornography against Josh Duggar, and the protection his patriarchal circles afforded him over those affected by his sexual perversion, the critique of patriarchy and complementarianism lately has been angry, even shrill. But as Thoreau observed, such a tone wasn’t formed in a vacuum. Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood fits Thoreau’s observation as well. The tone of her critique may put off some, but I believe there is value in staying engaged with her text until the end.  

The Making of Biblical Womanhood is both memoir and history. Barr, with a doctorate from the University of North Carolina, teaches medieval history at Baylor University. She holds to Nicene orthodoxy but not biblical inerrancy. [Edited to add that Dr. Barr in response to this review says that she was arguing in her book against inerrancy in practice, not the doctrine of inerrancy itself.] Her husband was a longtime youth pastor in their Southern Baptist church when controversy arose over whether a woman would be allowed to teach young men. 

Barr states several times that her examination of patriarchy and complementarian thought stems directly from this conflict over women teaching young males. I listened to this part of her story in my car on my way to teach a Bible lesson from Matthew to youth in our little church plant. I rotate teaching our youth (all males at the moment) with another mom and two male pastors in our church. It was odd hearing of Barr’s church experience as I compared it to mine, both churches claiming a complementarian view of biological sex in Scripture. 

Barr uses “complementarianism,” “patriarchy,” and “biblical womanhood” interchangeably to mean anything that involves male authority in the church and home. If only qualified men can hold the office of elder in your church, by Barr’s definition, you’re patriarchal. Many readers will not find their understanding or experience of complementarianism in Barr’s experience. Others will. Regardless, I still found value, even some agreement, with her criticisms.

Barr’s discussion of Christian women in medieval history was particularly interesting. Compared to the time of the Reformation and later Victorian England, medieval Christian women were a bold bunch, known more for speaking truth to spiritual authorities than for being keepers at home. 

But the story of the widowed Saint Paula, who left her abandoned children crying on the shore as she sailed for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, left me sick to my stomach. Barr succeeds in showing that notions today of the ideal Christian woman have strayed far from those of medieval times. But she doesn’t show that the medieval model was more faithful to Scripture in all of those differences. History tells us how things were, but it cannot tell us how things should be.

Junia or Junias?

The most intriguing chapter for me was Barr’s history of Bible translations. Most serious Bible students recognize that Bible translations weren’t written in a vacuum. The unspoken agendas of some are more obvious than others, but all leave some taint of biased human hands on inspired Holy Writ. Why did the Geneva and King James Versions translate Junia as a female and allude to her as an apostle? Why do later versions not? 

The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood recognizes the arguments for translating Junia in the female form. Different translators chose differently. Were they affected by recent textual criticism? Were they influenced by culture? Were they most influenced by the patron who funded their translation? 

Why did the King James translate the Greek for women/wives in 1 Timothy 3 as wife when the Latin Vulgate translated it as woman? Why does the ESV use “wife” while the more literal New American Standard uses “woman”? The answers to these questions aren’t always straightforward. It’s valuable for all of us to know how our translation of choice compares to the versions that came before or after it. If a philosophy of translation is good, it will hold up under careful examination.

Barr criticizes patriarchal practices that deny the place of women like Deborah, Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia in God’s kingdom, and we should too. Paul, and the long story of Scripture, show us the necessary partnership of men and women in church, home, and workplace. A conservative understanding of sex that has no vision for single or widowed ezers (the Hebrew word translated helper in Gen. 2:18) is lacking indeed. It should be critiqued, and Barr’s arguments about that should be received. 

My disagreement with Barr (like most folks who disagree on such matters) comes with Barr’s analysis of the writings of Paul in Scripture. Barr acknowledges the clarity with which Paul speaks of qualified male authority in the church and home. In response, she argues that Scripture isn’t inerrant. In her view, the doctrine of inerrancy has been a tool used to keep women down and institutionalize abuse.

“Inerrancy introduced the ultimate justification for patriarchy—abandoning a plain and literal interpretation of Pauline texts about women would hurl Christians off the cliff of biblical orthodoxy.”

“After all Paul says clearly that man is the head, and wives must submit. Except now I know that when Paul’s words are contextualized, both theologically and historically, they read rather differently.”

Barr’s use of the word inerrancy in this section was confusing. Did she mean that what we read of Paul in Ephesians or I Timothy was not actually what he wrote in the original manuscripts? Or does she mean that while we do have what he originally wrote, it no longer applies in our modern context? Historical context and inerrancy are two very different things. Rather than referring to a theological, academic understanding of inerrancy, she seems to use the word to refer to the type of literalism used at times to shut down criticism and even reasonable discussion. Her use of the word inerrancy confused her point. Many inerrantists I know still believe in textual criticism. 

This was the point at which Barr and I diverged. Paul explicitly taught male-only eldership and wifely submission in the home. But Paul isn’t the only evidence we have for God’s created plan of two complementary biological sexes, with both overlap and distinctions, imaging him in the world. Paul isn’t the only one to show us qualified male elder authority in the church. The Bible is the best commentary on itself. Scripture helps us clarify what Paul does and doesn’t mean. But he definitely means something that stands the test of time and culture. 

In my opinion, the weakest link in Barr’s argument against complementarianism (which some might actually find her strongest) is that complementarianism leads to abuse. “We can no longer deny a link between complementarianism and abuse,” Barr writes. She gives ample personal testimony, including a harrowing experience in Bill Gothard’s patriarchal circles during a time he was abusing a young woman. 

But God forbid the teaching of complementary sexes, headship, and submission in Christian marriages explicitly taught in Scripture be evaluated solely in light of Bill Gothard or Josh Duggar. Is there abuse in complementarian contexts? Absolutely. But #ChurchToo revealed abuse in egalitarian contexts as well. The entire #MeToo movement, from which #ChurchToo flowed, involved widespread abuse in secular contexts that eschew all of the Bible’s ethics about sex. 

In contrast to Barr’s experience, I’ve found respite from abuse and misogyny in my complementarian church. Women are integral to every ministry in my church. Our input is solicited. Our voices are valued. As a divorced woman, I was careful in the church I joined. I didn’t want to walk my road alone, with all the responsibility on my shoulders. I chose my church cautiously, knowing the pastors in my church, along with my dad, would have a role of influence, even authority, in my life that I needed and wanted. 

I’ve had far more experience with humble rather than proud male leaders in complementarian churches. I’ve had more experience with men who value my voice and ministry than those who disparage it. And I have much more experience with leaders who help me carry the weight on my shoulders than those who add heavy burdens they are unwilling to carry. But the help and protection I’ve found in my complementarian churches doesn’t deny the abuse Barr says she experienced in hers. Neither does the abuse she endured undermine the good ways my pastors and father have blessed me as heads in my life. 

Experiences Matter

Our experience isn’t the final say in whether a teaching from Scripture is good and right. But no one can deny that our individual experiences of complementarianism in practice affect how we understand the doctrine. 

I’m a help (ezer) to my pastor in the strongest sense of the word. But before I sat under his leadership (and the three other pastors that came before him), I sat under a pastor who held onto deep anger at his wife and who generally believed women were out to take control of his church. He was the first to teach me that Genesis 3:16 meant that a woman was predisposed by the Fall to want to take control from men and work against men. His misuse of that passage became a convenient cover for his misogyny. I understand the type of patriarchal experiences that Barr is reacting against even as I have a separate set of experiences that reinforce the value of complementarity in the Body of Christ.

The Making of Biblical Womanhood shows Barr’s rich understanding of medieval church history. Her book is compelling. It’s important to know what has happened in the past, and her writing will be an important contribution to church history. But the greatest strength of the book, it’s historical narrative, is also its greatest weakness. Barr argues against a doctrine of Scripture, not with Scripture itself, but with history and personal experience. 

Barr argues against complementarianism by saying that Scripture isn’t inerrant and complementarianism inevitably leads to abuse. [Edited to add that Dr. Barr has clarified online that she does believe that the original manuscripts of Scripture were inerrant and that the Bible is authoritative.] My conviction is that Scripture, in the original manuscripts, is without error and that God has preserved it for us so that we can have confidence in the text. My experience is that complementarianism is not inherently abusive, that it can, in fact, protect from abuse in certain situations. 

I don’t deny the harm done in some complementarian contexts. Our call, as believers who hold to a conservative understanding of sex from Scripture, is to take criticism seriously and examine ourselves honestly. All have fallen short of God’s glory, and the truth of Scripture will stand up to our examination of ourselves, our history, and God’s Word. 

Wendy Alsup is author of Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence through a Jesus-Centered Understanding of Scripture.

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day is Monday, March 8. Why have such a day? Despite all of the differences among women worldwide and the fact that men struggle internationally as well, there remain some sobering norms about women that are worth considering, norms that give insight for why women internationally might benefit from a day of attention.

Did you know that around a third of women internationally have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner? While women’s acceptance internationally of being beaten by their partners has decreased over the last seven years, laws addressing such violence are still not universally available. About one-fourth of the world’s nations still have no laws prohibiting violence against women.

Did you know that in this pandemic, twice as many moms as dads report ongoing depression related to a change in circumstances? And four times as many women as men lost or left jobs in September last year.

Here’s an odd statistic that hints that there may be a great deal more going on internationally than meets the eye that is NOT in women’s favor. In a study of 45,000 crash victims over 11 years, the University of Virginia found that women are 47% more likely to suffer serious injuries in car crashes. Why? Because safety features such as the position of head restraints in relation to seat position are designed for men.

Many folks who are concerned about such statistics wonder if the Bible too is biased against women. How do we answer that question in our own heart? As Christians, or those maybe even just considering belief in the God of the Bible, we wonder, can I trust God as a woman? Can my sister who has been harmed trust God? Can I submit to Scripture as a woman? Can the Jesus who uplifted God’s word, even the hard parts of the Old Testament, be trusted with my own concerns today?

Or maybe concerns over women’s rights internationally, or even locally, are not on your own personal radar. Maybe you are even suspicious of such concerns. Consider then that they likely are on the radar of someone you know and love. How do you answer questions of those you love? Do you dismiss their questions? Do you deride them for having the questions? If so, I encourage you to instead respect their questions. In my experience, they come from a place of genuine hurt and concern.

I have wrestled with these questions for myself. I have great confidence now that the God of the Bible can be trusted with every last concern I have as a woman. He can be trusted with my body. He can be trusted with my spirit. He can be trusted with my soul.

{I model how I’ve wrestled with these things in this post on a difficult passage from Numbers 5.}

If you’d like to read more of a defense of the goodness and trustworthiness of Scripture, Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence through a Jesus-centered Understanding of Scripture is on sale for $1.99 in honor of International Women’s Day. I hope it will aid you and/or someone you love with confidence in the God of the Bible and His revelation of Himself to us all through the Scriptures. He loves His daughters, and He is very good.


On Monday, International Women’s Day, I will be hosting a live event through Intervarsity Press to encourage weary sisters in these long, hard days. If you’d like to come, you can preregister here.

A More Excellent Way

I’m welcoming Alex Keen to the blog today. I appreciated her careful handling of Philemon as guidance for relationships in the church with cultural power differentials.

Several years ago, I was encouraged to consider writing a piece on navigating authority as a woman in a complementarian church. During this time, quite a shake-up was happening in both evangelicalism and the world at large. There was a heated kerfuffle in the reformed internet world over trinitarian doctrine as it related to the roles of men and women. There were abuse allegations mishandled in the world and in the church. In all of this, the voices of leading women rose against the abuse of male authority in both spheres. Frustration spread like wildfire through hashtags and hateful words. While the heat has cooled a bit for now, the issues themselves have yet to be resolved and full familial restoration may be a long way off for many. I would like to propose a way forward by examining the book of Philemon and offering four principles derived from this very short letter. Late? Yes. Timely? I hope so.

To begin, there are three men involved in the story behind the letter: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Paul is in prison at this point, writing letters to churches. He not only wrote a letter to the believers in Colossae (where Philemon lived), but a personal letter to Philemon who hosted a church in his house. Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, had abdicated his responsibility and somehow found his way to Paul. There, he is brought to saving faith by Paul’s testimony. Now Paul is faced with a decision. To use his authority to keep Onesimus? Or to send Onesimus back into a situation that might result in his suffering? 

1. Acknowledge Authority

First, Paul acknowledged different spheres of authority. All three men had authority in some way. Paul had authority over others as an apostle and elder. Philemon had authority over others as a church leader and master. Onesimus had authority over himself as a fellow believer and brother. Though Paul could have ordered Philemon to do what is right, he instead acknowledged and honored Philemon’s authority by making requests instead of making demands.

Though I am not certain, evidence seems to indicate that Onesimus returned to Philemon freely. Paul, in Colossians 4:9, calls him “our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your number.” Onesimus came as an equal in order to be restored, not as a slave to be punished. Paul most likely did not use his authority to force Onesimus to return, but honored and encouraged Onesimus’s choice as a brother to return.

Acknowledging the authority of others instead of using authority to coerce obedience highlights the equality of all people in Christ, regardless of gender, race, or social status.

2. Appeal to love

Second, Paul appealed to Philemon for love’s sake. In doing so, he left room for Christ to exercise his authority in Philemon’s heart. He pointed to Philemon’s love and faith in Christ, and how he had comforted and refreshed fellow believers, and encouraged him to treat Onesimus the same way. Paul explained, “without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.” He knew that using authority to demand a certain action would not bring about Christ’s work. The fellowship of love is the fertile soil for God’s work to come to fruition in the lives of others. 

Appealing to love honors Christ’s authority to work in the lives of others.

3.Accept Responsibility

Third, each person in this situation exercised their authority by bearing their responsibility. Paul accepted his responsibility as an apostle and elder to care for Onesimus as a father would a child. He did so by bearing true testimony to Onesimus’ salvation and offering to repay Philemon for anything he had lost as a result of Onesimus’ actions.

Onesimus accepted responsibility for his actions by returning to serve Philemon. And as a brother who happened to be a bondservant, he had the responsibility to work heartily for the sake of the Lord, not for men (Colossians 3:22-25).

Philemon was asked to bear responsibility for Onesimus as a brother by forgiving and restoring him. And as a brother who happened to be a master, he had the responsibility to treat his slaves with justice and fairness (Colossians 4:1). 

It is tragic to have either authority without responsibility, or responsibility without authority. I would go so far as to suggest that authority and responsibility are nearly synonymous. All of these men had responsibilities placed on them under Christ’s absolute authority. Thankfully, they were given authority to carry out their responsibilities. 

Accepting responsibility as those under authority serves Christ.

4. Aim for Fellowship

Last, Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus as he truly was, an equal, a brother, and fellow heir of the kingdom. He desired that Philemon might “have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (vs. 15-16). In fact, Paul expressed a certainty that Philemon would do even more than simply restore him as a slave (verse 21). From this, we see that his ultimate aim was not justice or proper social order (it is good to note that slavery is not a proper social order), but fellowship. He knew joyful fellowship could not be demanded, so he handed authority and responsibility to Philemon. He knew that only Christ could bring true reconciliation by establishing the social order of the kingdom. In Christ’s kingdom, all are brothers and sisters, equal heirs to the great promises of God, regardless of social status. 

It helps to note that the word for “appeal” in verse 9 is parakaleo, which means to call to one’s side. It is not simply a request, but a request that includes assurance of comfort. Paul wanted Philemon’s comforting presence side by side with him in his joy and as a co-laborer in the gospel.

Aiming for fellowship acknowledges the goal of the gospel, which is the fellowship of love with God in Christ, and with each other as equal image bearers.

So how does this relate to men and women in a complementarian church?

The Way Forward

All of us have some measure of authority given to us by God. “Complementarianism” recognizes that men and women are equal in complementary ways and have different spheres of authority by God’s design. While I do not wish to quarrel over where those lines are drawn here, I do wish to point out that it’s important to be able to discern and honor spheres of authority. In order to do this, we must first acknowledge that both men and women are made in the image of God and are fellow heirs of the kingdom. From here, we realize that we must acknowledge the authority given to each of us, male or female, as image bearers. No one has absolute authority over another, regardless of the structures of our social systems. 

However small or large our spheres of authority, we are called, both men and women, to use our authority to pave the way for Christ’s absolute authority to work itself out in our fellowship. Instead of demanding obedience, for love’s sake, we appeal to our brothers and sisters to act according to the grace of the gospel. We want them beside us as equals to share our joy as we serve our Lord. 

Our ultimate aim in the church is not proper social order, not really even justice, but fellowship in Christ. Yes, we must work against injustice, but we do so by using our authority for the good of those who are in more vulnerable positions. The elders, men charged with shepherding the flock, must accept responsibility for those entrusted to their care by first acknowledging the spheres of authority given to both men and women, and leading them to accept responsibility within their own spheres. This will take a great deal of discernment. Elders are responsible for using their authority to protect the vulnerable, and there are times when fellowship between offended and offender may not be wise, and this might become a matter of church discipline. In the end, no one who belongs to Christ loses anything by allowing God to use his or her authority to order our lives toward love and fellowship with him and with each other. After all, we know that in the end true justice will be served.

In this day of #metoo and #churchtoo, navigating authority within a complementarian setting is complicated. Trust between men and women has been deeply shaken. Constant suspicion is the best defense the world can offer. However, like Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul, those who belong to Christ have been called to trust. It is not a naïve trust, for we of all people should be aware of the evil in human hearts. Our trust is not in men, but in Christ who has all authority in heaven and on earth. Because of this, we can bank on having everything to gain as we acknowledge authority, appeal to love, accept responsibility, and aim for fellowship under Christ’s ultimate authority. 

Paul, in the 13th chapter of his letter to the Corinthians, urged the believers to see that the more excellent way to interact with each other is the way of love. As men and women seeking to walk faithfully in difficult times, this is the way forward. Love overcomes wrongs and restores far more than human justice ever will. For love’s sake, then, I appeal to all of us in Christ to choose the more excellent way.

Alex Kneen is on that journey described by St. Anselm as “faith seeking understanding.” She lives in Gastonia, NC, is married to David, and mother to two boys, Rowan and Bastion.