A Time to Listen

The venerable fourth century pastor John Chrysostom faced a predicament. A group of widows had become some of the most prominent leaders in the church at Antioch, and their influence was increasing. Though he described them as “cherished,” they had also grown increasingly vocal which apparently had created some conflict. In a surprising show of submission, or better yet wisdom, John said (and I’m paraphrasing here): “I most often give heed to their requests, because they have made clear that whether I listen or not, they will be heard!”

A new season is potentially upon evangelicals, where the voices of many of our own cherished women who have felt pressured to be silent might return to the forefront.

Patriarchy among evangelicals has come under fire once again. Decades ago, the term complementarianism was introduced as the biblical middle ground between the subjugation of patriarchy and what was seen as an overcorrection in feminism. After all, the root word “complement” sounds both amenable and appealing to all. The implementation of this theological position has not been favorable to all, however. Instead, most evangelical complementarianism is only a more subtle form of patriarchy.

When I first became aware of complementarianism as a young Bible and theology student, it appeared to be a balanced biblical view of gender roles for the family and the Church. I believed my pastors and teachers who assured me that complementarianism clearly affirmed equality between male and female and the redemptive reversal of the curses that included division between man and woman in Genesis 3:15. While this all sounded good on paper or when sermonized, I quickly realized there were many whose practice of complementarianism only fostered more division and oppression.

…most evangelical complementarianism is only a more subtle form of patriarchy.

This damaging form of complementarianism, which I have dubbed radical complementarianism, is neither biblical nor representative of what many evangelicals believe. This ideology was developed almost exclusively by evangelical men. Though radical complementarianism claims to value men and women equally, it inherently subordinates both the roles and views of women to second-class at best, insignificant or even inherently wicked at worst.

Radical complementarianism reared its ugly head for the first time in my own experience during my years as a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS). I currently hold two degrees from SWBTS (M.Div., 2006; Ph.D., 2011), both of which are signed by Paige Patterson, who was recently removed from the seminary due to his pattern of subjugating and endangering women, both in the student body and the faculty.

I am deeply thankful for many of the godly professors and mentors I had at SWBTS, some of whom remain there. At the same time, I also witnessed a misogynistic shift from the top down that happened nearly overnight. It was cunning, ruthless, and unapologetic. I knew immediately that I would never subscribe to the version of complementarianism that had infiltrated and poisoned SWBTS.

As I became more involved in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) as a vocational minister, I soon realized this advantageous (for men) misappropriation of a few selected scriptures reaches far beyond SWBTS. As a pastor, I have been committed to calling radical complementarianism what it is, and drawing people back to the Scriptures to lead us away from this harmful teaching and practice. 

I have also learned that things have not always been this way in the SBC.

A HOPEFUL EIGHTH GRADE GIRL

In 1960, Mary Jane (Peitz) Howarth was in the eighth grade. As part of her Girls in Action (GAs) group at church, she was asked to write an essay about a biblical topic in order to attain the rank of “Queen with Scepter”. Though this was nearly sixty years ago, Mary Jane titled her essay: “What Christ Has Done for the Uplift of Womanhood in the World.”

Mary Jane Essay

Again, this was not last week. This was in 1960, early in the Civil Rights era, and also a high point in SBC life. The denomination was flourishing, missions sending was booming, and the future looked bright. As both evangelicals in general and the SBC in particular now face significant decline, our people look back on this era in many ways as a watermark.

I am so thankful Mary Jane has kept this essay after all these years, and not just because it makes me feel less ashamed for also keeping every paper I have ever written. I am thankful because it introduces us to an optimistic and hopeful adolescent SBC girl, who believed God had equipped her and could work through her in the same ways He could through any other person, regardless of gender. Here is an excerpt from eighth grade Mary Jane’s essay:

“Christianity and God’s word [have] been the backbone to woman’s progress . . . Ever since the beginning of time, woman has been put in second place to man. She has always been possessed by man, and therefore has had to obey his commands . . . Woman [was] not given the full respect that man is given. She must remain in the background only speaking when spoken to. As you might say, in the earlier day her place was in the kitchen, tending the children and making the living while her husband was out among the townsmen building up his reputation . . . Also, because she was a woman, [she was kept] from receiving an education because man did not feel it was proper for a woman to cultivate her mind . . . 

As Christianity progressed and civilization progressed, man began to see that woman was equal to him and one could not live without the other. They both had a place upon earth and a part in the advancement and well-being of their nation . . . 

When Christ was on the earth in person, woman was given more respect; and at that time is when she progressed the most. All during Christ’s life He loved and cared for His mother like she was an angel sent from heaven . . . Many times, Jesus was found speaking to women and healing them in public places.

On down through the years woman has been allowed to do more things. She was finally given the right to be educated and to vote (in our country) and she has won the respect of every man.”

“She has won the respect of every man.” This impressive eighth grade girl in the 1960s did not believe women would someday be uplifted in the church. She believed it had already happened. Eighth-grade Mary Jane was brimming with not only optimism, but assurance that Christ Himself had already broken down barriers for her, and an expectancy that God would use her to do great things in His name. When I asked Mary Jane to explain her outlook back then, she responded, “It never entered my mind that I couldn’t excel in whatever He wanted me to do and become.”

Unfortunately, Mary Jane describes what happened later as a “rude awakening,” when her “optimism became shattered by the opinions, attitudes, egos, and societal changes across all peoples, even within the church.” Reading this essay that was not only accepted but applauded by her GA leaders all those years ago, I have to wonder how many other young girls and women have experienced their own rude awakening amidst this radical, patriarchal complementarianism.

I am proud to say that today Mary Jane is a teacher and leader on the front lines of ministry to hurting people in our church. I personally want to hear much more from the Mary Janes of the evangelical world and less from the misogynistic men. Thankfully, several other women in our church have also been willing to share their experiences, and more than a dozen attached their names to the SWBTS letter on behalf of other evangelical women.

Again, I believe it is vitally important that we acknowledge that patriarchal complementarianism has not always represented the party line of the SBC. From its inception, voices of women like Mary Jane were intentionally filtered out of the conversation. Radical complementarianism has thrived in an atmosphere of selective listening.

A NEW DAY HAS COME

As Evangelicalism in general, and the SBC in particular are facing two decades of continual decline, perhaps we will stop pointing fingers at our culture and take this moment to look inward. At a time when we need strong leadership the most, half of our disciples have been asked to remain in the background because of their gender. I believe this could either be a moment that finally breaks things loose, or seals our demise (evangelicals, not the Church) within a generation. 

At a time when we need strong leadership the most, half of our disciples have been asked to remain in the background because of their gender.

Right now. Right now, is our time to both acknowledge and affirm the ways God has equipped our sisters in Christ to not only serve, but to lead. It is time for us to encourage our own cherished women like Mary Jane to be used by God to pull us out of the messes we have created.

I am all for it.

Sisters in Christ, may this be your moment. Make clear to us that whether or not we listen, you will be heard!

5 thoughts on “A Time to Listen

  1. Elizabeth O. Walker says:

    Thank you, Eric, for being clear and specific about this subject.
    I am thankful that my pastor is not ‘on the fence.’
    See you in Dallas.
    Liz Walker

  2. Rachel K. says:

    It is like getting oxygen reading this from one of my anchors to Christ. While others maintain a view of radical complementarianism I’m further pushed from the baptist church as a whole, no matter what I try and grasp onto. The climate for the past two years has been like seeing the man behind the green curtain in Wizard of Oz.
    It is more than refreshing to read your blog.

  3. Steve Linn says:

    In order to acknowledge that God has equipped women to lead, and benefit from there leadership, it is time to consider women deacons (which is biblical by the way ). “I’m all for it. “

  4. Michael Grout says:

    Dr. Costanzo,
    Thank you for your thoughts on this important issue. Do you hold to a literal translation of 1 Timothy 2:12, for the role of senior pastor?

    1. Eric Costanzo says:

      I have served with several churches in contexts overseas with strong female senior pastors who are as educated and equipped as any man, and are being used by the Holy Spirit to do incredible Kingdom work. Those churches are not less blessed because of their female leadership, in fact in many ways it is the opposite. I think the end of 1 Timothy 2 is very misunderstood. It is often used to exclude women from teaching men, but rarely if ever does anyone teach literally that the female gender is under a harsher punishment because Eve was deceived first (vs. 14); nor does anyone teach literally that women are saved by childbearing (vs. 15). It is convenient to take a literal view in terms of teaching, and to take the other verses figuratively or open up the possibility of interpretation. I am also all for strong male leadership in the home and church. Women and men are both called to serve and lead.

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