Choosing a church Part Two

Ok, so, evidently I can’t leave this alone (a part two wasn’t the plan) and in particular I received some loving feedback about my use of the word “contempt” in the first post, and the metaphor of drowning. Why did I use such harsh language, is it a fair portrayal or a caricature?


In many ways I want to immediately apologise for those words and take them back because I know that people around me and above me have striven in love for me and are trying to honour God. But at the same time, taking it back would feel like a denial of my experience. So I’m going to try to explain why such obviously critical words and metaphors are what popped out, and again, I’m open to feedback about that, but also the things I’m saying are what are for me… So it’s difficult to pull them back in…


And for my friends who disagree and/or are distressed by what they feel are my mischaracterisations and blindness, I’m sorry.


If my last church in Sydney was so supportive and positive about my gifts, if I was given so many ways to serve publicly, how can I describe that experience as drowning? There are two main reasons:


  1. The most encouraging paths open to me at that church were the least conservative Complementarian. For example, leading prayer from the front at church. I know of many other churches who feel that that betrays the principles of Complementarianism. Or service leading. People within my own church had a lot of problems with me doing that, and it was only opened to me when a minister made a public announcement that he’s actually ok with it. Why did he need to say that as an announcement? Because a number of core people in the church did have a problem with it. And on the preaching front, as I’ve said even on this blog before, it was both wonderful to be invited to preach, and depressing and confusing. Only preach to the small congregation. If a man comes to the church and is college trained, he can preach as a lay person. But even though you have the same training, that invitation, to the pulpit in the congregation you’ve been a part of for years, will never be made to you. This was roughly the same situation at the other church I was a member of for a significant time in Sydney. That situation has now changed, but it means that, like my more recent church, it’s spoken of by some as a “dodgy” church. Which again illustrates the reason I chose the word “contempt”. It’s very hard to be the reason people “warn” others about a church.
  2. Not only were many of the paths open to me not what conservative Complementarians would give their approval to, there was still clear discomfort about the issue of women’s ministry whenever it was raised in public. At several AGMs and at Parish Council, eyes would be rolled and lips pursed when anyone asked whether or not we’d be having women in the pulpit. I can fully recognise that a lot of this wasn’t intended as contempt but rather a reflection simply of discomfort. The discomfort of being asked to stand by a stated position when it would bring disagreement and distress to others. Ie, the discomfort I experience every time this comes up also. However, there are only so many times you can endure being responded to as a “bother” as “rocking the boat” when asking ultimately quite a simple and reasonable question before it begins to feel that you are the problem, rather than the issue. People have pointed out to me when I raise the issue that it’s “tricky” or “that’s a difficult question”. I know. I’m one of the people at the end of the question. It’s not and never has been abstract for me.


So those are two key reasons that even at a supportive church, I still often felt discouraged and suppressed.


And so what of my other experiences of this church culture I described in my first post? Again, why use the metaphor of drowning or words like contempt?


Some of it is very practical, some of it more sociological.


  • It’s sitting in a cathedral full of ministry trainees, the majority of whom are women, and being told our role in the church planting movement is to get married.


  • It’s graduating from a reputable Bible college with a masters degree to a small handful of jobs, made smaller because usually when a church has enough money to hire a second person, if they’re conservative Complementarian, they want to hire a man so he can “help with the preaching”.


  • It’s listening to brothers and sisters groan when a speaker neutrally mentions someone as a “feminist Christian” author.


  • It’s being told an academic path could be one to consider but that Complementarian colleges really only have women teach languages, and I happen to suck at dead languages, so why are we even having the conversation in the first place?


  • It’s being reassured that women are also gifted in teaching and preaching and that what we need to do is provide good platforms for that and yet, even at the least conservative Complementarian churches I’ve been at, this still never happening, because we’re all time poor etc etc, and because so few women get practice with speaking, sometimes even our women’s conventions speakers are men so that they’ll be good.


  • It’s being reminded joyfully that women are allowed to teach children, and then being told that we’ll never have a female speaker for this key kids camp though because there are leaders listening, some of whom are men, and ultimately it’s better for the kids to see strong examples of good godly male leadership anyway.


I freely admit it’s ultimately things like the eye-rolling that get to me the most. And leads to me using words like contempt. And maybe it is too strong a word because I know that the position held by the friends and ministers who aren’t keen on women preaching, praying or leading from the front is held with integrity. They’re not trying to convey contempt and would be (and are) distressed by that interpretation. Many truly believe a woman’s best place is in the home as a wife and mother. Many believe there’s more to following Jesus than that for women, and yet often there’s still a vacuum where that role could be. Even efforts to ensure women are represented better in the approved of roles often meet with a lack of response, in my opinion, this is partly because women haven’t been trained or mentored into those kind of roles, so aren’t leaping to take them on. It’s hard to feel like these things are not contempt.


When I say I feel like drowning it’s because of how fraught these conversations are. And how fraught the lived experience is. I suppose this is one of the reasons I constantly toy with just taking a fully egalitarian position, is not only because I believe there’s good Biblical support for it, but because then there’s actual freedom.


I know freedom is not the goal of life, nor the be all and end all of Christian discipleship. Although of course it’s interesting to me that the New Testament writers end up speaking about it quite a lot… Anyways. I know that equally as important is the idea that we should submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. But, often, even in the positive experiences I’ve had, that submission feels like suppression. Drowning. Half-breaths. Freedom within often very narrowly defined boundaries. When I do preach, I have to do it knowing that people in my church strongly disagree with me doing it and want to ensure it doesn’t happen at other services. When I service lead, it’s knowing that people are sitting there unhappy that I’m being allowed to do it. Even the moments of encouragement are simultaneously discouraging.


So, I don’t know how to explain the feeling any better than that. To me, it feels like what I think drowning feels like. Heavy. So close to air and yet not. I don’t know how to explain the hurt and frustration without causing the same feelings in others. And when I wrote the other night, it was the culmination of a bunch of conversations about local churches where I was being warned I’d find those things equally frustrating and depressing as I have in the past. And that was depressing too! This issue has dogged me since early teenage years when I began to read and research and form opinions about it. From reading my own mother’s college essay on 1 Timothy to tackling Piper and Stott and others. And of course, and primarily, God’s word itself. The church I was born into is so Complementarian that in many local congregations, women sit in a separate place behind the men. I’ve certainly experienced a lot more freedom since then, but at the same time, it’s all been contested, all been a struggle.


What I was trying to express in my previous post is that sometimes that struggle is overwhelming. A huge and depressing part of being a Christian. Something that I usually try to participate in despite, but that ultimately I’d love to not have to feel that push back on every little thing all the time.


And maybe that’s selfish. Or maybe it’s perfectly fine in line with my freedom in Christ.


I’m glad that many of my friends thrive in conservative Complementarian contexts. It’s just not been my experience. For me it is a heavy burden, that easily becomes bitterness. I can survive in less conservative Complementarian contexts, but they can still feel few and far between, and often open ministries as a concession instead of, or perhaps as also a joy. Or open ministries to me but with the simultaneous warning that it will upset other people. And that’s hard. This may be a burden I’ll continue to need to shoulder for the rest of my earthly discipleship. But I’m open to looking at other options because of how hard it’s been so far.


I’m grateful for the opportunities and encouragement I’ve had. But they’ve always been mixed in with a holding back, a discouragement, a reluctance. That’s why I can’t express only the gratefulness, because the other part has also been true.


I’ve loved the opportunities I’ve had to serve, and ultimately am hoping that I can continue to do so in the ways God has given me.

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