When God Calls a Complementarian Woman into Ministry

By November 9, 2013Theology & Culture

Note: The word “Complementarian” is not my favorite. It is a loaded word that immediately raises defenses. By way of explanation for those who are unfamiliar with the term, complementarian is a theological worldview that suggests women are the complement of men. In this worldview, women are to submit to their husbands, and it is inappropriate for a woman to take on leadership roles in the church (specifically elder and pastor, though there are many complementarians who also do not believe women should be deacons).

Yesterday I found a wonderful article by Tamara Rice called “The Hole in Our Complementarianism.” I resonated deeply with much of what she described in an experience that tore a hole in her complementarian worldview, and as I read, I thought it might be helpful to some of my readers to describe my own calling into ministry.

In my growing-up years, I had a few different home churches. I was baptized as a toddler at an Episcopalian church (though, I didn’t know about that until I was in seminary). Later, I spent many formative years in a Disciples of Christ congregation, where I was baptized again at the age of eleven. I had no idea at the time that I had already been baptized, and that is another story for another day. I spent my high school years in a non-denominational church in Utah. I never had someone explicitly tell me that I was not allowed to be a pastor, but I had never heard a woman preach. I had also read passages from the Bible that talked about women not being allowed to speak in church, and about women needing to submit to their husbands.

My call into ministry began taking form when I was in elementary school, though I never would have described it as a “call” at that time. A family in our neighborhood had “Backyard Bible Club” every year, and I loved going. They had a praise band, made up of the mom, the dad, and their children. Every day we would sing songs, memorize Bible verses, play games, and read the next part of a story about a missionary’s journey. I vividly remember listening to one story about a missionary who had gone into a remote, jungle area and told people about Jesus. Even though I had never been much for adventure, and even though I’m an introvert and a homebody, I felt my heart stirring. “Could I be supposed to follow God’s voice into the jungle? Could it be that God would want me to grow up, stay single, and live among people I had never known?”

I mostly kept these wonderings to myself, but every now and then I would find myself thinking about it again. Could God call someone like me to do something for the sake of the Gospel? I remember many times sitting in church and listening to our pastor preach. I could feel God’s Spirit moving in me, and I was keenly aware of God’s presence with me. On a youth Sunday, I was asked to read Scripture. Even though I was very shy and didn’t say much in Sunday School, I agreed to be a reader. I stood up behind the pulpit with my knees shaking, and I spoke as confidently as I could while I read. After worship, several people told me that they just knew I would be used by God to be a reader in church. I even had someone suggest that I should think about preaching the next time youth Sunday came along.

I could read the Bible. Those words weren’t mine. But, preaching was never going to happen.

In high school, we moved to a new state and town. For the first time in my life, I was in the religious minority, and it was a very difficult transition for me. Add to that the normal awkwardness of high school and puberty, and I had some very trying years. During that time, I began to think about having a boyfriend, and wondering who God might lead me to marry. I started attending a Bible Club once a week before school started. The leader of that group (a high school girl who was a couple of years older than I was) led several studies about dating and marriage. For the first time, I started to think that if I was going to be a Christian and have a godly marriage, I had to learn to submit myself to my husband. Even though I had always been taught by my parents that women could do anything men could do, I liked the idea of submission. As a timid, quiet girl, I found a tremendous amount of comfort in the idea that if I married a strong, winsome man, I may never have to stand up for myself or make difficult decisions on my own again.

After I graduated from high school, I moved across the country to study at an evangelical Christian liberal arts college. During that time, I repeatedly found myself involved in conversations about the importance of women’s submission, the evils of women’s ordination, and the importance of marrying a strong, Christian man who would lead the family. Surprisingly, the more I heard this message, the more I began to question whether or not God really had these desires and plans for Christian marriages. As part of my required curriculum, I had a course on the interaction of theology and culture. At the time I took this class, I was also in the habit of writing in my journal every evening. In 2001, when I was still heavily enmeshed in a worldview that told me women must submit, men must lead, and women could never use their gifts as church leaders, I wrote this in my journal:  “Today I felt a calling, a calling towards ministry. I don’t know if this would be music ministry, or otherwise. I pray to the Lord of Hosts that He may be the interpreter of such a calling!”

004

Calling. Somehow in the midst of a worldview that told me I couldn’t be called, in the middle of a class that was being taught by someone who probably never thought I could be called, God spoke to me and confirmed to me that I was called to ministry. And, then I immediately excused the thought of pastoral ministry, and decided it must be music ministry, or something more “appropriate” for a woman to do.

For the first half of my college studies, I was a music major in the rigorous music conservatory. Through a series of events, including a doctor telling me that I needed to quit playing the clarinet so many hours a day if I wanted to be a healthy person, I changed my major. In the communications department, I found myself in speech courses, but also in courses about abusive relationships and gender stereotypes. During my Introduction to Speech course, we did a unit on persuasive speeches. One young man got up and gave a speech on why women’s ordination was an abomination. Afterwards, our class was invited to give feedback and ask questions. All of the feedback was positive. People were cheering the speaker on, adding their own two cents as to why women should never lead in the church, and then someone used my least favorite phrase: “The Bible is perfectly clear that any woman who leads in the church or her family is sinning in doing so.”

Those words rang in the air for a brief moment, and then the person who was sitting right behind me spoke up with confidence. She said, “Both of my parents have doctorates in biblical studies and interpretation. And they both believe that a truer reading of the Bible suggests women can be just as called to church leadership as men.” Tamara Rice talked about a hole being torn in her complementarian worldview, but when this classmate of mine spoke up, my complementarian worldview was nearly shattered. I knew God was calling me, and I knew how desperately I wanted to be faithful to God. The only thing that was holding me back was an intense yearning to be faithful to God’s Word. If the Bible said I couldn’t preach, I would never preach, even if the fire burning within me told me otherwise. Suddenly, I knew that there were two people in the world who had studied these texts in great detail, and did not come to the conclusion that women were barred from church ministry.

At the very end of my undergraduate studies, as my husband was preparing to start seminary, one of my professors asked to me to job shadow a female pastor. I resisted. I told my professor that even though I was in the process of applying to seminary, I had no interest in preaching. The truth was, I was too afraid to do something that I knew was going to be controversial. In all the personality testing I had to do as I entered seminary, one of my most well-defined personal struggles was identified as being a people-pleaser. I knew that if I preached, people would take exception to me before I even opened my mouth. I’d step behind the pulpit, everyone would know I was female, and they would judge me, my faith, my heart immediately. And that scared me.

My professor made it non-negotiable for me to job shadow a female pastor. Reluctantly, I did. And, it made me never, ever want to be a pastor. I saw the pain this pastor dealt with, and it scared me. When I was accepted to seminary, I decided that it was a stepping stone to doctoral studies, and the only sermons I would ever preach would be the ones required for graduation.

My first semester of seminary was academic and theoretical. I loved the reading, and the papers were challenging, and as a lifelong learner, I was in heaven. But, second semester pushed on the cracked complementarian worldview I had, and pieces started to fall out. I took preaching class, where I knew I would have to preach sermons, from a pulpit, to a room that was mostly filled with men. I also took a New Testament course, where those texts about women’s submission would be expounded upon and studied. The morning before I preached my first sermon, I went into the prayer closet my husband and I had made in our seminary housing, I lit a candle, read Scripture, and I prayed, “God, please let me hate preaching. My husband feels called to be a preacher. I don’t want to do this. I’m just doing this so I can teach. Please, please, help me hate this.”

And, then I didn’t.

It was rough. It was my first sermon. But, there was a distinct moment while I was preaching that I felt God taking my words and transforming them. I didn’t want to tell my husband that I had enjoyed preaching, but I told him reluctantly. And it didn’t bother him. I had one more sermon to preach for preaching class, and I had to preach nine sermons that would be evaluated by congregations. At a classis meeting, my husband and I were asked to lead a service of worship as part of our examination process. We brought evaluation forms with us, handed them out to people who looked friendly, and then we preached a dialogue sermon. Several weeks later, I received the evaluation form from that sermon. I got good marks, and at the bottom, the person wrote:

“I do not believe the Bible permits women to preach, but the Holy Spirit really used you today.”

I had already been praying and studying Scripture. I had already come to realize that you could take God’s Word seriously and believe that women could be used in church leadership. I wasn’t doing it because it was easier to follow cultural trends of equality.  I was walking these steps in this journey as I tried to be faithful to God’s calling and the Bible. And here, on this evaluation form from someone who disagreed with me theologically, I had all the confirmation I would ever need. The Holy Spirit used me.

In Acts 10, when the Apostles are wrestling with the idea of the inclusion of the Gentiles, they had plenty of Scripture verses to prevent the Gentiles from ever coming in. They had every reason to demand that the Gentiles eat kosher and follow Levitical law. But, just as Cornelius was, God heard his prayers and answered. Just as Cornelius was, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon his family, and they were baptized. The giving of the Holy Spirit to Gentiles who were not observing Jewish laws revolutionized the early church, and it is the beginning of the full inclusion of the Gentiles. I had already studied the verses used to prevent women from entering church leadership, and I had already come to believe that women could be called and used by God to preach and teach without throwing out God’s Word. If the Holy Spirit was guiding my ministry and using my preaching to bless others, who was I to stand in the way?

After three years of seminary, I walked across the stage (at 36 weeks pregnant) and received my Mdiv. About 8 weeks later, my husband and I moved (with our three-week-old child) to rural Iowa to accept our first call as co-pastors. In a very small, intimate service with friends, we were ordained.

AprilJeffOrdination

We have been serving in our first church for the past 6 1/2 years. Surprisingly, my ministry has been a non-issue in my congregation. They have been very warm, embracing, and kind as I get my feet under me as a pastor. I have had moments of doubt, struggle, and nights where I prayed and asked God, “Are you sure you want me doing this?” but every step of the way, God has been there, confirming to me that all I need to do is be faithful.

I have lots of friends who are complementarian, and I deeply respect them, and value their desires to see God’s word preached and taught in its purity. I have friends who, even now, think I have gone astray, and they are hoping I will see the error of my ways, reject this calling, and return to my former worldview. This is very difficult and painful for me. From the moment I told God I would follow this calling, I also prayed that my presence wouldn’t be a divisive one. My desire is to see the church united in its worship of God, and not divided about whether or not it is appropriate for me to lead them. Even though I am convinced that I am following God’s lead, it is still difficult for me every time I hear someone say that I’m a sinner for being a preacher, or when I have someone refuse to attend a service if I am there, or to think that my family is judged when they tell people what my vocation is.

But, just as God called me out of a situation that made my calling seem unlikely, God continues to call, speak, and guide. All I have to do is follow – even when following means pain.

About April Fiet

April is a pastor, writer, wife, and mom of two kids. Find out more about April here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter. April writes for At the Table with April Fiet and for That Reformed Blog.

  • This is BEAUTIFUL. Thank you for writing so clearly about your passion for God’s word and preaching. I have felt the same way. I felt the call to ministry at a young age, and as a woman I am always wondering what areas are even open to me. Thank you so for sharing how God spoke to you about this!

    • Anna – thank you so much for reading and commenting! I’m learning every day that where God calls, God equips and gives direction. May God use your gifts and faithfulness in a mighty way!

  • Thank you for this! I’ve struggled with this “call” as well. It was easier to ignore or assume it was my own selfish ambition when I wasn’t studying the word for myself. It has stayed with me through four kids as I have fought to find contentment in the only role I had believed I was designed for- stay at home mom. And yet His voice has always driven me deeper, and my complimentarian covering has worn thin. Not sure what exactly He has next for me, but I can’t ignore Him anymore. Thank you for being brave to share your story. It makes me feel brave to read it.

    • Aleah – thank you for reading! I will pray for you as you seek clarity on the call God has for you. No matter how hard we try to resist God’s call, it still has a way of finding us. Blessings on you!

  • Nancy Le

    Thank you for sharing your oh so personal story, and more so for obeying.

  • Jason M

    “I do not believe the Bible permits women to preach, but the Holy Spirit really used you today.”

    That line just amazes me! Did that reviewer consider what they wrote? The only logical conclusion I can come to was that they felt the Holy Spirit was going against the Bible? I hope that was just the beginning of God’s work in that person to bring about change.

    “But, preaching was never going to happen.” In hindsight it amazes me that we tell God never, or think that we can. I have learned it is pointless to tell God never to something He wants, unless of course we are secretly hoping for it? But then why the charades? I believe we are given freewill but if we are aware enough to sense His will we will end up submitting. It isn’t easier to run first!
    It is great to hear that the Lord prepared the way for you to preach there!

    • I have often asked myself that question about what the reviewer had to say! The only thing I’ve been able to think of was that the person knows the Holy Spirit can work even when we get things wrong. And, while that’s very true, in Scripture the presence of the Holy Spirit indicates where we should go. I couldn’t ignore that, and even though the comment could’ve been a setback for me, it was a great encouragement for me to keep on following God’s Spirit. Thanks for reading and engaging!

  • Mara

    I have heard snippets of this story but never the whole story all at once. Thank you! I never cease to be amazed at how God does new things thru people who are faithful enough to take big risks. I count it a privilege to share the journey with you!

    • Thank you for reading, Mara! Being able to process things with you has blessed me greatly, and I’m thankful for the ways God has used you in ministry, and in my life.

  • Frank Boerema

    Thank you for your encouraging story. I feel God is calling me to start a support group to help homosexuals – LGBT – grow in their faith. I too know this will not be acceptable.

    • Frank, it is so hard when you feel convicted to do something, and yet you know you will face opposition. Thank you for reading, and may God bless you as you seek to be faithful.

  • Thanks for sharing April! I do think some parts of scripture are clear that women shouldn’t teach. I just think those parts are wrong. They are also contradicted many times elsewhere in scripture and throughout church history in God speaking powerfully through women, such as yourself.

    • Wayne, thank you for reading and commenting…and thanks for the support and kindness you always show me. 🙂 I don’t personally think those verses are wrong. I think they are usually taken completely out of context with little mind paid to the actual words Paul uses. But, I do agree that throughout Scripture we find plenty of examples of women being used by God in mighty ways – and non-traditional ways.

  • Thank you for sharing your story. It is very encouraging to me on my journey.

  • Val

    Thanks for this story, I come form a very egalitarian point of view, and am in my early 40s. What I have been noticing, and you have so well pointed out, is that the younger generation seem far, far more likely to hold a Complementarian point of view than the older generation (and are more strongly supportive of it). Even my pastor is alarmed (Mennonite Brethren) by this shift. I asked a few people why (my age) and none of us could pin it. However, one women told me at a well-known Bible College all the young men were going on about Complementarianism. I began to suspect it was through the bible collages that this was being pushed – it wasn’t 20 years ago. So thanks for the window into the comments from your classmates. I also noticed it was your dorm life and peers that seemed to be the most rabidly Complementarian (women preaching is an abomination, etc.). That is a worrying trend. What will the next generation be like? Sorry for all your friends who are so upset by your calling. It wasn’t too long ago that churches endorsed slavery because of their Bible interpretations, and it won’t belong before churches look foolish trying to cling to patriarchy. It just may take longer in North America because of all this push back to Complementarianism. You may never need to go to some jungle to preach, those jungle dwellers may well need to come to North America and preach a thing or two to our culture and it’s trends.

    • Val – thank you for sharing! I agree with your assessment. My seminary is very strongly egalitarian, and yet in the past ten years or so, there has been an increasingly larger complementarian presence in the students there. I do think some of this comes through the Bible Colleges, and some of it has to do with very persuasive complementarian preachers who are gaining a lot of traction. The very interesting thing to me is that it was usually the women on my college campus who spoke the most openly and winsomely about the importance of complementarian relationships. Very interesting to think about…

  • April Fisher

    Thank you April for your clear, direct words about women and preaching. I found your blog through Jes Kast-Keat, our associate minister, who is a dynamic preacher! I have always believed that since Jesus broke the rules on a number of occasions; as His follower, I may be called to do the same!

    • Hi, April 🙂 Thank you for reading and commenting! Jes is a dynamic person and pastor online, but I’ve never heard her preach in person. How wonderful that you get to be blessed by her at your church! And, you are so right. Jesus wasn’t about the letter of the law. He was about the spirit of it.

  • Jill Vande Zande

    April,
    I have so much emotion coursing through me right now that I can’t even reflect on the words, phrases, and ideas that resonated with me. I’ll try to after I have myself in hand. For now, just know that I could have written your blog post nearly word-for-word. And although we’ve never met in real life, I know without a doubt that you are called, and I am honored to call you friend! Preach and lead on!

    • Jill – thank you so much. You inspire me in so many ways, and being able to share these stories with you blesses me in an incredible way!

  • Mary Strawsma

    April, Wonderful writing. I am proud to have known you back long ago when I was the only woman on Classis Illiana committee for young pastors in seminary. I lived far away and worked early the next day but I stayed on the committee for a few years. It was not easy. . I am blessed to have as Pastors Andrea and Drew Poppleton who faithfully bring us along in our journey. I would love to converse with you on a private email.

    • Mary – thanks so much! How wonderful to be able to reconnect with you. 🙂 I sent you an email!

  • Pingback: 12 Years a Slave – Why Women should be Equal in the Church | The Millennial Pastor()

  • Pingback: Evangelical drama needs Mainline experience | The Millennial Pastor()

  • Pingback: Re-Blog: Evangelical Drama Needs Mainline Experience | The Junia ProjectThe Junia Project()

  • Pingback: Growing into Authority | At the Table with April Fiet()

  • Pingback: In Defense of Men in Ministry – Guest Post by Rev. April Fiet | The Millennial Pastor()

  • Hmm. I have been wondering about a calling too. I think it’s a ridiculous idea, but I’m trying to see where God leads. I keep getting a picture in my head of long robes. But I’m not in a denomination that wears robes so I’m puzzled by this. Also, illness has laid me low for many months now, plus I’m studying part-time for a degree in International Development and Data Analysis, so I can’t see for the life of me how it could all fall into place. But I am willing to follow wherever God leads… I’m trying anyway! I will sign up to follow this blog. I need to learn. Thank you for the honesty within this post – and thank you for showing me that God can and does call us despite ourselves and our life circumstances 🙂

    • Sandy – I will pray for clarity and discernment for you! It’s been amazing to see how my journey has unfolded. Certainly not how I would ever have expected. But as I look back on things, I can see how I was being prepared and led into ministry…even when I wasn’t aware of it at the time.

  • Faith

    Thank you for this article. I am a missionary in rural Mexico and interestingly I have never heard the women-can’t-be-pastors teaching taught here. I told a woman about the common conservative view on the issue when I saw that her name was on the preaching rotation for their church. She said, “But those scriptures were a specific response to a specific issue, not a blatant command.” Apparently she had never heard what the Bible “clearly” teaches.
    My husband and I have been married for twenty years and have been transitioning away from the complementaryism I was raised with. He was raised just good-old-fashioned worldly sexist. I really identify with what you said about the comfort of submission. The areas in which we have not become “equal” are more about laziness or irresponsibility on my part, than sexism on his. It is easier to let him continue to carry certain responsibilities than to learn to do it myself.

    • Wow! I love the response you got from the woman whose name was on the preaching rotation! And…so true about those areas of laziness or irresponsibility. I’m definitely guilty of that…and as a partner to my husband, I’m trying to challenge myself to be a better partner and help by trying and helping out with those areas of difficulty rather than coasting along. Some days I’m better at that than others, but we keep on trying! 🙂

  • pastordt

    Beautifully done, April. I’ve been retired from pastoral ministry for just over three years now, after a midlife call to seminary and then to the ministry. I could surely tell some of this story, using many of the same words and emotions. And I join you friend in the comments in voicing my concern about the rice in complementarian voices, especially out here in the blogosphere. It is alarming and saddening to see such strong resistance to the full inclusion of God’s daughters in the ministries of the church. I’m thankful for voices like yours which encourage us to see the truth clearly.

    • Thank you so much for reading and sharing a bit of your story! I have noticed that rise in voices also…I’m not sure what has led to it, but they can be very destructive for women who are trying to work out their calling and remain faithful.

  • pastordt

    Make that RISE in complementarian voices. Sheesh.

  • Pingback: I Love It When Men Speak for Me - At the Table with April Fiet()

  • Caitlin

    I read this first on The Junia Project, but I had to come over and comment. I am in tears. I feel God move in me when I read your story. I am 24 yr old graduate student in Texas, studying English. I too was raised with strong parents who taught me to be independent and intelligent and to think critically. God called me to ministry when I was 13, and I figured it was for music and children’s ministry. I went to a small church that just had a big controversy over ordaining a woman so she could be a prison chaplain, and I graduated from a small, private, Baptist college and while I was there, I learned a lot about women’s role and submission, mostly from my peers and my very literal reading of the Bible. I decided I must be called to be a pastor’s wife. And then I went to England to do youth ministry and female pastors were respected and held up, even by the very conservative pastor I was working under. And I came home and began reading Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey. I met, fell in love with, and am marrying a boy who will probably never be a pastor. I’m in school to learn to read and think even more critically; and as I research and read, I am convinced that we have understood the role of women in ministry wrong. But I am still terrified, even though I graduate in May (maybe) and feel Seminary may be the next step. I don’t know what my parents will say. I don’t know what I’m actually called to do. But my heart resonates with your story. Thank you for sharing. I’m going to pray now.

    • Caitlin, thank you so much for sharing your story and your heart. I feel blessed to be able to read it and see how God is moving in your heart and in your life. The calling on my life has been a work in progress – and I think that’s how it happens for most of us. We follow one step at a time, not really sure where we will end up, but there will come a time when you know.

      I remember the first time I preached a sermon…and suddenly realized this was what I needed to do. It was both a wonderful moment, and a terrifying one. But, when you follow God in faithfulness, you will be blessed beyond what you could ever imagine. I’m adding you and your discernment process into my prayers!

  • It’s exactly experiences like yours that convinced me that women should be able to preach. If God contradicts what we think the Bible says, then obviously we’re interpreting wrong. Thank you for writing about your experience.

  • Pingback: Why My Calling into Ministry Was a Lot Like Jonah's - At the Table with April Fiet()

  • April, Where did you attend seminary?

    • I went to Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. They have added so many neat things since I went there, too. They just started up an MA program, and they have a great distance learning Mdiv. too. It was a fantastic place for me to learn, especially because they value women’s voices and all of their faculty are supportive.