Why Do Feminist Women Attend Complementarian Churches?

For several weeks now, fresh conversations – and controversies – about women in ministry have fuelled a number of interesting articles and blog posts. Although these pieces have focused on the Church and the state of women's ministry in the USA, they've prompted me to consider the situation here in the UK, particularly in light of one recent piece highlighting a conference attended by the leadership teams of some of the country's key churches – sadly, with hardly a woman in sight.

Since sharing my frustrations about the continued invisibility of women in many 'new' churches, it hasn't been surprising that numerous friends and acquaintances have shared their stories of moving on to a church where they feel women are better equipped and valued, serving in leadership, with egalitarian theology assumed rather than being up for debate. Some of them have encouraged me that I, too, could find a similar church. And it's true – I could; but at the moment, it's not something I'm considering. My name's Hannah, I'm a feminist through and through – and I'm part of a complementarian church.

It's not always easy for people to understand why women might stay in churches that – on the surface – might oppose their beliefs and even their calling. It's completely understandable that many can't imagine anything worse: they may have been deeply hurt by heavy-handed conservatism on gender, or simply felt marginalised or ignored. Instead, they find peace and acceptance in egalitarian churches.

The Church of England has many women clergy – but how do feminists cope when their church doesn't accept the equal ministry of women?Reuters

But finding a church isn't always straightforward. In addition to wanting a place of worship that affirms both men and women in leadership, there are the needs of other family members to consider, preferences of style and format, the proximity of local churches, choosing to be involved in your immediate community or travel further afield. And so many women like me find themselves settling in churches that hold to some level of complementarian theology despite their egalitarian and feminist beliefs.

With Christian beliefs about gender roles occupying a broad spectrum, it would be wrong to assume that most women who attend churches where there are no women in leadership find it a struggle to be heard or invested in or a constant battle against hardline complementarian theology. Some churches are theoretically complementarian yet are committed to empowering women and leave it up to individuals to work out how they deal with roles and expectations of men and women, while others actively teach rigid gender roles and expect members to adhere to them.

I spoke to several women who, like me, are feminist, egalitarian and attending complementarian churches. All agreed that they would find it impossible to belong to a very conservative church, but are nonetheless finding their way outside of egalitarian communities. So why do they stay?

Some women feel called to their particular church, committing to serving their communities and using their gifts no matter what the context is.

"I stay because I feel like I have a role in showing both rigid complementarians and young women that women do have an equal place in the church, whether it changes their viewpoint or not," says Steph, who works full time in ministry at a complementarian church in the USA.

Voice for women

Louise, a social media manager from London, has debated whether to stay or go. "I've been at my church for 11 years and battled with the views on women there, but things have improved over time," she says. "However last year I felt I couldn't resolve my differences and began exploring moving on, along with my husband and son.

"We began visiting another church but something just didn't sit right. We decided that we were meant to stay and in that decision I knew that if God was asking me to stay then He wanted me to be there and be who He had created me to be. I feel I'm there to be a voice for women and to speak out and encourage others."

Steph agrees, focusing on the difference she can make to young women in her congregation. "I think God really does use us feminists in all areas," she says. "If I'm able to influence one girl in the church and show her that yes, it's tough for women – but it's possible for us to be strong – then it's worth it to me.

"Girls have so many questions. I love that I can be there for them when they want to talk. It's powerful and makes a difference. I do think we can fight the battle by being faithful with what God has given us."

Some women are persevering despite particularly discouraging experiences that have left them wondering what place there is for them if they feel called to ministry.

"I highlighted to my pastor that no women are currently leading or teaching anything at church and asked him how we could encourage more women to consider their calling," says Jenny, a student from Glasgow. "He immediately told me that it's not the role of women to lead churches and that at our church, women will not be permitted to preach either.

"He asked me if it was something I was considering, and I said I couldn't rule out what God might lay before me in the future. He said that he would advise women against considering ordained ministry and I left very crestfallen.

"But I stay because I love the community there. Many of us are egalitarian and we support each other. People are campaigning for smaller changes and it keeps me going that the community is staying strong in its values of equality and spirituality."

Dialogue and change

Jenny isn't alone in valuing the community and opportunities for dialogue and potential change that her church provides. Jeni, a photographer and filmmaker from London, says she's committed to her church because of the excellent teaching and the opportunities it provides for building community and outreach. But she also appreciates the willingness of its leaders to engage with viewpoints different to their own.

"Our leadership is so open to conversation on hard topics. I have spoken to my pastor about feminism and women in leadership and had conversations with other members as well," she says.

"To be honest, the official church line is 'no women in leadership' but women are central to our community and I don't feel that we are patronised or devalued in any way. We are vocal in members' meetings and have an active place in the church. And while our pastors hold one view concerning women in church leadership that doesn't stop them working with women leaders in other churches."

She adds: "I feel blessed, but I also find it unfortunate that more complementarian churches aren't at least open to the kind of conversations that we have in mine."

Carla, who works in communications and lives in the East of England, also appreciates the opportunities for dialogue that her church allows.

"Women can't become elders at my church but they can do anything else, except they aren't actively encouraged or supported to do so. There's an unspoken divide between the older members of the church and younger people who don't really care about male headship. That's what keeps me going – I know I'm not a lone voice in challenging it. My husband and I will often explain why we disagree with something and about half the church tends to agree."

But it's not just their own spiritual lives that are of concern to women in complementarian churches. I'm still working through what it might mean for my four-year-old son to grow up in such an environment – the messages he might absorb and the things he might be taught – despite living in an egalitarian household. It's something Carla is concerned about too.

"I want any children of mine to grow up not feeling stifled in church or growing up to think that women are second best," she said. "So there may be a time when we decide to leave and travel further afield to a more egalitarian church."

Leaders being open to discussions about gender and the church is a clear plus point for feminist women who are part of more conservative communities. Since joining a complementarian church I've appreciated being able to discuss the issue and also understand how my church is actively seeking to be more inclusive, with women preaching, playing key roles in services, being developed as leaders and mentored, even if they don't have a place on the senior leadership team.

I know that this simply isn't the case in many churches and that therefore, the importance of women being advocates in churches that are open to dialogue is vital. Some people aren't convinced of the value of trying to effect change from within more conservative communities and in some churches, particularly very large ones, it's no easy task.

Others have found the personal cost of trying to be a voice for change too great. One woman I spoke to described the negative effects on her mental health of constantly feeling frustrated, undermined and excluded by her fellow Christians, all due to her holding an egalitarian view of gender.

Some people might find it hard to see why women might belong to churches that seem to stand against something they feel so strongly about, but it seems that many women in complementarian churches feel they have a specific role to play. These women are advocates, encouragers, people who might stand for gender justice when others don't see the need. They are women who might 'be the change'.

As Carla says: "If we all agreed about everything, we wouldn't be able to learn different views and I've found this really valuable for solidifying my own beliefs."

And Louise says: "I believe there is a lot of openness to moving forward and looking at gender roles in my church and I am not going to leave just because our views don't quite match up. It's about being there and opening up the dialogue, being prepared to have those conversations and raise the questions. If this doesn't happen then how will things ever change?"

Hannah Mudge writes about feminism and faith and is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. She works in digital communications and fundraising for an international development organisation. Follow her on Twitter @boudledidge