The Hypocrisy:: Sexism in the Evangelical Church

Just a couple of weeks ago there was a video circulating of a pastor in Missouri standing from his pulpit, talking about wives. With a rotund belly protruding from his waistband, he spoke of women needing to keep up their appearance and manage their weight to sustain their husband’s interest- basically to prevent them from cheating. He was of course, so kind and gracious {insert eye roll} to acknowledge that not all of us women can be trophy wives like Melania Trump but we should at least shoot for “participation trophies.”

After the video was released, the public was appropriately shocked and disgusted and the sermon was immediately deleted from the church’s archives. Tweets were fired and articles written. I don’t know if the pastor issued an apology, and I hope he did, but that’s not really my point.

My point is, that while this message sounds absolutely abysmal to our ears in 2021, it’s a message women have been hearing for a long time in the evangelical church. Maybe it’s not usually stated quite so bluntly, but perhaps that’s what makes it so insidious. The message I received over and over in my youth group, college small groups, or women’s bible studies was much more subtle. It was a little more cleaned up and dressed up making it harder to spot as so problematic- “benevolent sexism” it’s called. But it left me with the same takeaway as Mr. Missouri-blatantly-sexist-pastor, which is essentially what is at the heart of “complementarian” theology.

The Hypocrisy:: Sexism in the Evangelical Church

Complementarianism- what is it?

This theology teaches that men and women have unique and different roles given by God. It says there are two different genders, so there are two different roles. As a Christian woman, it is my job to protect and prevent men from the temptation to sin by how I look and act. As a Christian wife, it is my duty to submit to my husband who is to be the “spiritual leader” of our home. What “spiritual leader” actually means has never been completely clear to me. It has been discussed, defined, and written about in a million different ways, but to my college self, it meant that I needed to find a husband who knew the bible more fluently than I did, {you know, so he could lead me}, and who felt comfortable initiating prayer and spiritual discussions in our home.

There is no mention in complementarianism of individual strengths or weaknesses, personality traits, or even likes and dislikes. There are only two boxes:: male leader and female follower. Deeply ingrained in this theology, I internalized it and developed some really high expectations about what kind of spiritual leader my husband needed to be. I also placed some high demands on what type of sweet submissive {and beautiful} wife I should be. Spoiler alert:: neither my husband nor I could meet those expectations.

Let’s Talk About Sex

This ideology of complementarianism essentially dictates expectations for the Christian married sex life as well. Basically, the underlying sexist narrative is that men require a lot of sex and women need to satisfy them regularly to prevent them from cheating or looking at pornography. There is no education or discussion around female desire or pleasure. In fact, it’s better if a wife just schedules sex on the calendar like clockwork because she will need to have sex even if she doesn’t want to.

And let’s be real, when female pleasure is not ever discussed or prioritized, she’s probably not going to want to very often. Another thing to note, if the husband isn’t actually quite as sexually interested on the daily as we are taught to believe is normal, both partners will probably start believing something’s wrong with them. And I haven’t even gone into the troubling and sexist aspects of purity culture that go along with all this.

Woman’s Work

I haven’t mentioned children or work yet, but I’m sure you know where this is going. Complementarianism teaches that the wife should definitely stay home with the kids while the husband is at work because James Dobson {among others} told us {and the budget was laid out clearly}– that the money women would make at any type of job would just go straight to childcare, clothes for work, lunches out, etc. so we might as well stay home. After all, motherhood is our highest calling and how will we care for our children’s emotional and physical needs and all the needs of the household if we are so exhausted from a full 40-hour work-week? While I appreciate the acknowledgment that working and parenting is hard- what about the other parent taking equal responsibility?

As someone who chose motherhood and to stay at home with my children {albeit under the influence of evangelical culture}, there are times now it can feel like I’m stuck with this choice forever. After over 13 years out of the workforce, when I think of returning I realize how far behind I am. I have no academic or work-related contacts anymore. My earning potential is far below my husband’s even though I have a master’s degree. And thankfully we are in a healthy relationship but when I think about all the women in unfaithful and/or abusive relationships who could potentially think more about leaving if they had a realistic financial option to support themselves and their children- complementarianism seems like a trap to tell women to quit their jobs and stay home out of submission with no realistic pathway for financial freedom.

Because my husband and I came into the marriage with such huge expectations of these dualistic male/female roles to fulfill, we struggled to see each other as individuals within the system of complementarianism. I started thinking something was wrong with us because we just didn’t quite fit the mold of spiritual leader and submissive wife. And we are people who fit a lot of molds. We are white, middle-class, youngish, healthy, and able-bodied. So, who does fit the mold? Maybe it truly does work for some relationships, but it just never quite fit our personalities or strengths. My husband was not living up to this idealistic spiritual leader that was conjured up through years of evangelical rhetoric and I resented him for it. Likewise, I berated myself for not praying for him more and quietly leading by example- what I thought a “sweet submissive wife” should do. While in couples’ therapy after about ten years of marriage I cried to our therapist saying I just wished I could be a “sweet wife.” Another spoiler alert: “sweet” is not one of my spiritual gifts.

Female Preachers?

You may also remember in 2019 the controversy surrounding Beth Moore. Famed Southern Baptist speaker and writer of Bible study materials and curriculum for women, Moore tweeted that she would be preaching at her son-in-law’s church for Mother’s Day that year. The pushback was swift and punishing. Complementarian men and pastors everywhere tweeted, wrote articles, and preached sermons about how it was unbiblical for a woman to teach men. John MacArthur even infamously sat among a group of men during a conference and said that Beth Moore should “Go home.” Again, not a very nice way to put it, but just like Reverend Missouri-sexist-preacher, at least he got straight to his point. I listened to a church service shortly after this where the pastor said he believed women could have any job that a man could have, including the president of the United States, except for head pastor of a church. Funny, I don’t remember specific distinctions like that in the Bible.

Now, complementarianism has been the stance of the Southern Baptist church for as long as I can remember, but the truth is, there are many denominations where women have been ordained as ministers and have been preaching and teaching from pulpits for decades. The other truth is I’m pretty sure Beth Moore has been doing just fine since all this. She runs a million-dollar company based on her Bible studies and teaching. Spiritual leader? I think so.

Who I worried more about after that entire debacle were the women in churches without the power, fame, and platform of Beth Moore:: the women with actual teaching experience wondering why they can’t teach a mixed-gender Sunday School class when they would do a far better job than many of the men who end up there; the women with theology degrees relegated over and over to childcare and nursery work; the women staying silent in their bible study groups because they don’t want to come across as too opinionated, or too angry; the women with doubts and questions about scripture who don’t know who to talk to because there are no women on staff. Time alone with a man would be perceived as improper thanks to the widely spread “Billy Graham rule” that, once again, may sound chivalrous at first but actually ends up leaving women out of a lot of important discussions and decision-making conversations. 

All of these messages of complementarianism about who, what, and how women should exist in the world are sexist and damaging. Period. Saying that men are the heads of the household, the spiritual leaders, and that only men can be ordained pastors pull from the same thread of patriarchy and sexism that says women should be trophy wives and maintain their appearance to keep their husbands faithful. This ideology contributes to and perpetuates rape culture by saying men are incapable of control and women should submit to them and never tell them no. It perpetuates victim-shaming by constantly teaching women that we alone control men’s behavior by our clothing and behavior rather than men being accountable for their own actions. It silences and devalues the unique voices and gifts of half the population.

For the Bible Tells Me So…

I know there are passages of the Bible that perpetuate these beliefs of complementarianism. Some passages, such as women covering their heads during prayer, were explained away as “cultural.” I was told women no longer had to do that because Paul, the author of that particular portion was speaking to specific people in a specific time and place and not to all women everywhere for all time. It made sense to me at the time but now I wonder if there aren’t more of those “cultural” moments everywhere in scripture. I mean, Paul’s writings are letters after all. He was writing to specific people at specific times and places. When I look at the whole of scripture and Christ himself I see women who had been oppressed by the prevailing patriarchy being lifted up, treated as equals, and included where before they had been left out and demeaned.

Because this hierarchical, patriarchal, sexist message of complementarianism was conflated with scripture and even with God, feminism in the church was a dirty word. I never knew what it meant nor did I embrace any women’s history. I never even knew who Ruth Bader Ginsburg was until a few years ago when, after hearing her name in the media so much, I purposefully sought out some information about her life and work. I was surprised to find that her contributions had actually impacted me and I hadn’t even known. For example, to know that I could tell my employer I was pregnant and not fear firing; to have my own bank account; to sign a lease or a mortgage on my own without my husband; equal access to a college education- the list goes on and on! These are mind-blowing rights that I completely took for granted. They were not assured to my grandmother’s generation or even my mother. And my great grandmothers? They couldn’t even vote.

As I dug into more and more women’s history I saw the courage and fighting spirit of women who moved the needle on women’s rights while certainly not embracing the quiet, submissive, or sweet spirit I had been taught to admire. These women were sent to jail and even killed for protesting and fighting for our rights loudly and without apology. And here I was in the church- unknowingly benefitting from the lives of those feminist freedom fighters- being taught to believe I needed a man to spiritually lead me.

We are all unique

What I failed to see under the sexist teachings of complementarianism is that there are many different ways to be a woman. If you hold a quiet strength by nature, then by all means live it out freely. If you desire to stay home with your children and you have the privilege and means to do so, please do it. If you want to work and even be the breadwinner, do it.

There are also many different ways to be a man! Sexism is harmful to men too by cutting them off from any expression of “feminine” characteristics or emotional expression. If a man wants to stay home with his children- why shouldn’t he? The definition of feminism is the belief in and advocacy of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. Now that I know that definition, I don’t see how it’s actually in any way in contradiction to my Christian faith- it is only in contradiction to the hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity being taught through complementarianism. 

When I really think about the people in my life, both men and women in the church and outside of it, I see unique individuals. I see women who make decisions for their families, who are organized, disciplined, and determined, hungry for knowledge, education, leadership, and yes, even money. I see women who communicate effectively and with boldness. I also see men who are tender and caring; who desire intimacy in friendship, who experience a full range of emotions, enjoy caring for their children, and participate in and even enjoy the many tasks of running a household. I can see plainly that there are many ways to be a woman in this world and just as many different ways to be a man. We don’t all fit within the two tiny boxes of complementarianism presented to us by the evangelical church.

Parenting as a Feminist

As a parent of two boys and one girl, I never want to lock my children into the gendered roles of complementarianism. Should my daughter only behave in traditionally “feminine” ways? Only wear dresses, ruffles, lace, and pink? Should she be gentle and sweet only? Of course not. I will always encourage her to dream and dare; to speak and act. To stand up for herself, even if it’s not always sweet and polite. Likewise, I want my boys to experience the fullness of their unique humanity and not cut themselves off from anything deemed “feminine.” They are not wild beasts that cannot be tamed. “Boys will boys,” it’s been said. “Suck it up, don’t cry, be a man.” But what does this encourage and teach? It’s explicitly saying that emotions are bad and must be squashed even at the expense of humanity. What an unhealthy view of manhood. In learning what it is to be a feminist, I want to bring a holistic view to my parenting and an acknowledgment that everyone has unique and individual emotional and physical needs.

What’s Next?

Can the evangelical church shift this thinking when it comes to gender roles, marriage, and parenting? Why do individual people, who are fearfully and wonderfully made, need to fit into such pre-determined and narrow roles around gender? Why do we place such heavy expectations on ourselves and even our own children? It seems to me that it’s the system that’s the problem, not the people.

It’s beyond time for the evangelical church to see and accept that men and women are actually more alike than we are different. While I could no longer stay inside this system, my hope for us all is that it will change. When we know better, we do better. We are ALL capable of both temptation and self-control. We are ALL filled with both desires and needs. We are ALL capable of leadership and submission. We are all human beings; both loved and created by and in the image of God. 


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Bethany, the daughter of an army chaplain and a special education teacher, grew up moving every 2-3 years. She considers herself an introvert who had to learn how to make friends quickly! She met her Houstonian husband, Paul, in college and they married in 2004. They first settled just north of Houston, where she earned her master's degree at Sam Houston State in School Psychology. After working in public education for a couple of years, she decided to stay home full time with their children, Charlie {2008}, Norah {2010}, and Will {2013}. The family moved to Katy in 2012, where they’ve been ever since. She loves decorating and even had her own small business for a while. She also loves to read, binge-watch old TV shows, talk politics and enneagram, and will not turn down a cup of strong coffee or a good conversation with a friend.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Such a great writer! Been a long time and sounds like yall are doing well. While I love your skilled writing, I was saddened by the content and I’m only sharing because I hope I can help move the needle in the way you view such a wonderful biblical concept. When complimentarianism is lived out humbly and spirit filled, it is such a wonderful, beautiful thing. This is not a FB rant type of response. Not wanting to just shout negative stuff here as I’d rather give feedback and encourage you to re-look at this theology through the lens of scripture.

    It seems you have a very narrow view of complimentarianism which has cast a heavy negative view of it which I think is quite unfair. Ashley and I are 1000% complimentarian in our view of genders and the way we live our daily life in marriage. That being said, our marriage looks NOTHING like what you wrote which is why you can imagine this saddened me and came across as unfair. My assumption, based on your writing, is that because you’ve seen abuses within complimentarian marriages so you assume the whole thing is wrong. The same could be said of all relationships. I’ve seen marriages crumble all around me… does that mean marriage is bad and we must reinterpret the scriptures differently because marriage must not be what God actually meant?

    I could say many things about each section and if yall ever want to get on a zoom to discuss, we’d love to or for me to send over additional thoughts and scriptures, I can do that. My recommendation when tearing down a strong theology that has a lot of great scriptures backing it up is to make your opposing arguments with scripture. You shared a lot of opinions, which you are totally entitled to, but no scripture to back up why this theology is supposedly incorrect. This is SOOOO important. You’re not just sharing a random thought or experience in this post but you are trying to make a valid argument as to why a theology is incorrect which REQUIRES scripture interpreted exegetically in order to accomplish this.

    I believe scripture teaches a complimentarian view of marriage AND a high value on women. Both are true and a proper view of complimentarianism can be very encouraging to women without having to scrap the whole thing or made to feel less than. I would agree that many of the persons or things said by those people you shared are pretty terrible. That’s not complimentarianism speaking… that’s just their ugly sin coming out. But let’s not let them represent the whole and let’s remember that their sins, like yours and mine, don’t disqualify what the Lord has told us in his word. Witnessing a lot of terrible behaving Christians, such as myself, doesn’t mean that we tear down Christianity and then look at his word and assume we are all misinterpreting the Bible.

    My sister, this is where I would strongly caution you. This sentence caused me the greatest concern of the whole article.. “It made sense to me at the time but now I wonder if there aren’t more of those “cultural” moments everywhere in scripture.” This is exactly what Satan wants us to think. Not that you shouldn’t research this but be careful as you do. Doesn’t it sound eerily similar to Satan’s words in the garden when he said to Eve, “Did God actually say…”? May we all hold tight to the word, pray like crazy when we open it, beg for understanding, dig deep to understand the context and intent, and trust the Lord even if it says some things we don’t agree with.

    We love you guys and miss yall. Please don’t see this as a harsh internet rant but rather me speaking with love and a smile. 🙂 Feel free to delete as well. 🙂

    • “My assumption, based on your writing, is that because you’ve seen abuses within complementarian marriages… you assume the whole thing is wrong.” Yes, exactly that. I’ve experienced it firsthand and heard about it from close friends. The fruit is rotten. But complementarianism has really worked out for you, hasn’t it? You would want to defend it. Thanks for the feedback, have the best day available to you.

      • But there is the issue again. Where is the scripture that says God did not create gender roles? Where are the scriptures that God says that there is no order within creation or marriage? There are not just 1 or 2 isolated verses but there are numerous ones that show this is designed by God starting in Genesis 1 and throughout the NT. Entire books backed with bible have been written on the subject but your blog anecdotally suggests the fruit is rotten. We can always find bad examples in life and toss the baby out with the bath water. We can also find good situations to a bad system and make it the new norm. I can give you 1,000 examples of it having “great fruit”… so who’s right? This is why I’m appealing to you (and all of us) to use scripture. In order to strike down a theology that has numerous scriptures, you have to back it up with scripture and not feelings or experiences or we all can strike down each others thoughts and say that each others beliefs produces “rotten fruit”. My defense of this theology is not primarily from experience but from Bible. This is my main issue with this blog post. Either God’s word is true or it isn’t. We will have to stand before the Lord one day with what we ended up deciding on this statement.

        Btw, there are a number of things you said in your blog that I’m in agreement with and I bet it would surprise you that proper complimentarianism is in line with what you said as well. Maybe it’s not an all or nothing. 🙂

        • You are aware there are a lot of egalitarian denominations, right? I’m not just coming up with this out of thin air. If you’re interested in researching the scriptural basis, go for it. And I never suggested this should be all or nothing. I clearly said if that type of relationship is working for both people, do it. I’d also like to point out that you haven’t given me any scripture to back up your claims either. Hear me say loud and clear: I’m not asking you to give me any- I spent many years living and studying it myself. I’m only pointing out that you also are relying on your experience as the lens through which to interpret scripture. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing- I think it’s beautiful, as the Holy Spirit is our God, not scripture.

          • To be clear, I’m using scripture as the lens to view my experience… not the other way around. Hear me say it loud and clear as this seems to keep getting missed. BIBLE must dictate what we believe. Not experience. You know what scriptures I’m referring to so I didn’t write them but I have yet to see you point any scritpures out. Nor do any egalitarian churches you mentioned. The argument usually looks like your post.. a lot of misinterpretation of scripture or just pure experiences which cant. be. trusted. That’s the danger because there is no truth to stand on and then where does this approach to theology end? We begin to change our stance on all cultural arguments. We find ourselves waaaaay off the path of biblical Christianity. Anyways, I’ll leave this be and let it go. Take care!

    • Josh, you can’t divorce your reading of scripture from your experiences- there is no “neutral” interpretation that isn’t influenced by your upbringing, socioeconomic status, the time in history you live, your culture, and those around you. It’s arrogant when we start to believe we are doing it right and those who read and view scripture differently are misguided. And if this were as simple as you claim it to be, why have many, many scholars dedicated their lives to the study of scripture and yet, still vehemently disagree on many interpretations, including this topic?

      As for marriage, the institution itself was starkly different in the time the Bible was written as it is today. It’s unreasonable to read scripture and not take into account the extreme patriarchal society in which women were expected to be silent and there is an actual commandment for “slaves obey your masters”. No one believes everything in the Bible applies to our lives today, and cherry picking concepts like complementariansim is just an attempt to uphold the patriarchy and fit a certain agenda, which can and does lead to abuse and prevents the flourishing of women and their gifts.

  2. WHERE’S THE LIE! So good, Bethany.

    Complementarianism has got to be one of Satan’s greatest cons. Such a nice little thought that sounds good til you live it and see all the abuses it can involve.

    Love to see when people push against the norm, ask questions, and research for themselves to find truth.

  3. We absolutely bring our experience when we read scripture, or anything at that. It’s part of being human. I used to believe we didn’t, but then we constantly say, well this doesn’t apply, and not this, and that was because of the culture…sooo….do we take the culture into account or not.

  4. Thanks for your insightful words Bethany. I really enjoyed reading your article. As a man who believes egalitarianism is entirely Biblical, I’ve also come to realize it often takes deep self awareness and humility to live out such beliefs in settings where many men cling to their power over women. My wife and I’s God-given skills and gifts reflect the way God intends men and women to live in partnership – as complete equals. As the husband of a strong, independent woman and the father of two equally strong and independent girls, I’ll keep fighting against the sexism cloaked as “theology”.

  5. Such a thoughtful and well articulated article Bethany. I find the condescending and arrogant remarks completely typical of the patriarchal system you discuss and a perfect example of what’s wrong with it. So you’re expected to do a complete exegesis of the topic on a non-faith based blog but yet, others aren’t…interesting. One of my biggest frustrations with the church is the frequent refusal to be humble enough to admit that there may be other theological perspectives including ones rooted in Scripture. There are certainly a large number of churches, both evangelical and non-evangelical, that believe in egalitarianism. My brother is the senior pastor of the largest Protestant church in downtown Pittsburgh and is one of them. Thanks for capturing the beliefs and experiences of so many of us and don’t let anyone, male or female, make you think you don’t have a good enough understanding of the Scripture.

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