Unknowingly Complementarian

We arrived at the trendy new wine bar slash cafe on Bloor Street. It was early fall, dusk descending. Candles on tables, the glow of street lights keeping the patio in incandescent glow. Cars trawled the street. Students and lovers and seniors and kids out past their bedtime wandered the tree-lined streets.

I can’t remember who arrived first, us or them. We, the newly married couple. They, the pastor and his wife.

We had attended their church over the summer months, and had since moved on. We first arrived at the church newly engaged. We had come from two different churches, and were looking for one to attend together. Any choice would mean one of us leaving a beloved group of friends. Any choice would have some relational cost. Try as we might, we couldn’t pick either of the congregations we had been attending as a good fit for us both.

Instead, we set out on the journey to embed in a community that would be ours, together.

We had visited a few, nothing really sticking. No deep connections made. At the recommendation of several friends, we had come to this church, and – perhaps because it was easy – stuck around. The preaching was decent. The music was fine. We could see ourselves in the people who were already there. It was the people who had drawn us in. Folks we knew had invited us. When we arrived, we were made to feel welcome.

It was the sense of community that told us we might be able to belong there. And so we attended when we were in town.

Throughout the summer as we planned our wedding, we started to consider that congregation a potential home. Looking back on old correspondence, I’m reminded that we thought it home enough to consider asking the pastor about pre-marital counselling. We never made the ask, but it was a consideration. We got involved in other ways as we were asked. Planned a coffee house, participated in shared meals. Built relationships. Offered hospitality.

Over those months, the pastor reached out a number of times, inviting me to coffee.

We went out a number of times, each time the conversation far-reaching. I felt cared for. He checked in with me, seemed genuinely interested in how I was doing. In the midst of wedding planning, he asked thoughtful questions about Ericka and our relationship, even making great suggestions to ensure that we didn’t lose our relationship in the midst of planning a wedding. These times were meaningful to me. But in the back of my mind a nagging question: why was Ericka never invited to these kinds of meetings? Why were these meetings only for me?

At that time of my life I was in seminary. In my classes were men and women studying for ordained ministry. That made perfect sense. My professors came from a variety of backgrounds and traditions, were of a variety of genders, and I respected each of them for what they brought to my education.

The diversity of views and experiences formed me, caused me to ask new questions, to examine many of my beliefs. One semester I was the only man in a course focused on women interpreters of the Bible. It was a phenomenal class unearthing the history of women’s interpretive work that has been pushed intentionally to the margins of the church.

But I wasn’t the one to voice the question. Ericka drew to the surface the question that needed to be asked.

What do you think the pastor believes about the role of women in the church?

There was nothing on the website. We hadn’t heard anything preached from the pulpit on the subject. Their beliefs on any number of issues was unclear, but this one was staring us in the face. It was a church reboot, its leadership slim. But as we reflected on it we noticed who was brought to the centre, and who wasn’t. At the centre were men and only men.

Oh.

We both had spent formative years in complementarian churches. We thought we had left them behind. But over the summer we had found ourselves a part of this community vouched for by our friends. Perhaps because we trusted our friends, perhaps because we were more focused on the wedding than anything else, we didn’t ask the questions one ought to ask about a church.

  • In what ways do women exercise leadership in this community?
  • In what ways do members of the LGBTQ/2S community exercise leadership here?

There are other questions, too. There are plenty of other questions I can’t not ask these days when encountering an unfamiliar congregation:

How is this community working towards reconciliation amongst indigenous and non-indigenous people? How is the gospel work of justice embodied in this place? How do we put into practice – individually and as a community – the way of Jesus. What is the fruit of this congregation? How do these people, in this place, work towards human flourishing? How are they working towards the common good? How does this community deal with differences of theological understanding or theological conflict?

We were too busy to think about these things. We didn’t consider them before committing. We were drawn in by the people without first asking some fundamental questions about where this all was going.

The night we met up with our former pastor, we had already left the congregation for one in our new neighbourhood. At that time in our life, we had made a commitment to living as locally as possible. The commute to church didn’t fit with that model. We found a congregation in our neighbourhood, and said goodbye to our summer church.

As a way of closure, we got together one last time with the pastor and his wife at the end of October. It was casual. No real agenda. We talked for hours about life, about marriage, and our new adventures on the west side of the city. They shared their own memories of their marriage and its early years.

All these years later, I can’t remember how it happened, but the conversation turned to the question that we had discussed so often that summer – what was their view of the relationship between men and women? How did women exercise leadership in that church?

The pastor took the lead in the conversation, and suddenly it all clicked. Suddenly it made sense why the pastor had met only with me. He was discipling me, and I was to disciple my wife. The conversation turned. It turned to questions about us, about why we did not believe what the Bible clearly said about the proper relationship between men and women.

The evening ended awkwardly shortly thereafter.

The two of us got on the subway. Frustrated. Amazed. Processing aloud all we had just learned. We had dodged a bullet. We could never have stayed knowing that there was no room for us (and our radical egalitarian views). How had we become unknowingly complementarian? How had we been unable to detect for so long that we were attending such a church?

We assumed our friends knew all of this, so we didn’t bring it up. We had already left, and this meeting had made it easier to say goodbye. Months later, we discovered many of our friends had also been unaware of the church’s position on women. It only came up when the slate of nominations for the elders was made up exclusively of men.

All these years later, this experience, still rings in my ears.

We were drawn into a community vouched for by our friends. We stayed as long as we did because of the relationships we had built there. When we left to respond to a call, it was the relationships made it hard to leave.

 

Reflecting on this experience all these years later leaves me wondering how many people find themselves in immovably complementarian congregations, and who stay because it seems daunting to build community again.

I’m left wondering how many of us so-called allies find ourselves in congregations intractably non-affirming of LGBTQ/2S people, but who stay because the risk of leaving to build new relationships seems too great. If the leadership is not going to change, and if we believe the gospel is really big enough to embrace all of God’s children, how will we express that?

How will we embody resistance to a restrictive gospel?

How will we embody embrace of a far-reaching gospel that really is good news for all of God’s children?

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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as Director of Ministry Innovation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.
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