Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sheep, Shepherds, and Complementarians

I found myself in church today, frantically wiping away escaping tears.   Trying to breathe deeply, slowly, in an effort to calm my pulse and push back the flood behind my eyes. 

Normally wet eyes in church are a sign of spiritual conviction; of hope welling up or hard truth sinking down.  Today's emotions were different.  The heat of hurt mixed with the cold of bitterness, and I was grateful when it was time to pray with closed eyes so that I could sniff away the traces of my feelings until the car ride home.

One of our pastors preached on John 10, Jesus as shepherd.  Towards the end he shifted away from the passage and into an examination of the human shepherds in our lives, those who mentor and teach and guide us towards a loving Jesus.  Amid reminders that we should respect these people, with humility he admitted that leaders, even himself, get it wrong sometimes.  Questioning and accountability keep the church alive, and shepherds are human too.

All good, until the end.  As he wrapped up his message, this pastor asked that we pray for our shepherds.  He asked the spiritual guides within the church to stand: "The elders, the deacons, the fathers, and the single mothers."  He repeated this short list.  Around us those people stood while my heart fell.  Jason widened his eyes at me, grabbed my hand, and stayed seated next to me.  That's what solidarity looks like: My wonderful husband, sitting if I cannot stand by his side. 

Here is the problem: I am a spiritual shepherd.  To my son, possibly more than anyone.  But also to my husband, my friends, hopefully my siblings, and maybe the occasional stranger craving kindness or a conversation about life's meaning.  Chances are that you too are a spiritual shepherd.  If you hope through your actions, your position, or your words to show Christ's love to others, you are a spiritual shepherd.  We are both also spiritual sheep, if we ever learn from others.  My parents, my grandparents, my husband, my friends, my pastors, my teachers, my siblings, and even, unknowingly, my toddler--they have all at one time or another shepherded me by showing me a sliver of God's character. 


I cried in church today because with several carefully chosen words, this pastor invalidated the spiritual impact of a good portion of his congregation.  Since all of the elders in my church are complementarian, they believe that a husband is the spiritual head of his wife (justified by one of several interpretations of Ephesians 5; my interpretation coincides more with this one).  This belief is often taken even further, to imply that the husband has sole spiritual authority over and spiritual responsibility for all of his family, although this view is unsupported by Scripture.  I can only assume that this is the reason this pastor specifically asked single mothers to stand, rather than all mothers--somehow, mysteriously, it is only appropriate for a woman to shepherd her children if their father is not living in their home?  This is the implication of this pastor's words, and the unfortunate logical conclusion of the concept of male spiritual responsibility as defined by many complementarians.  

Just as I reject the overemphasis of gender roles in the church, I have to speak out against the exaltation of hierarchical authority within the faith community.  The New Testament writers put far more emphasis on humbly sharing life together than they do on having authority over one another.  This is probably because we all follow a Man who, "being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing" (Philippians 2:6-7, emphasis mine).  Who, after all, are the shepherds in our lives, but living compasses, pointing us to God (1 Corinthians 3)? 

I deeply respect this pastor, and believe that the intention behind his words today was good.  I agree with him that there is a place in the church for loving leaders, willing to spend the bulk of their time doing the hard work of theological study and teaching.  But I think that if we contemplate our lives, and focus on those who have climbed with us up our spiritual mountains, we will realize that the distinction between "sheep" and "shepherd" is blurred.

20 comments:

  1. I wonder why he even needed to name specific roles. Why couldn't he just say, "Stand up if you're a spiritual guide." The fact that he named specific roles makes it unlikely that he simply overlooked certain roles. It points more toward intentional omission.

    Also, whether or not you believe that a woman should spiritually guide her husband, it's more than absurd to assume/imply that married women can't be spiritual guides at all.

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    1. I do think it was intentional, mostly because I've heard this pastor speak enough times to know that he is careful and intentional with his words, which is a good thing!

      I'm thinking of emailing him to try to get answers to some of my questions...

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    2. I will be praying for you as you consider emailing. I'm sure that must be a hard decision. I've recently read "10 Lies The Church Tells Women." It is very helpful in regard to these situations, at least I have benefited from it.

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    3. Thanks Julie! I will look into it.

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  2. Oh my friend, I love you so! Today I was reminded of how easily we wound one another... Even in such unknowing circumstances. Words are a volatile thing. I respect you very much. Your heart is beautiful.

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    1. Lacy, you are too sweet. And you are right; words can heal or wound. Thanks for YOUR kind words today.

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  3. I would have been crying too, and I'm so proud of your husband for his solidarity. Sometimes I wonder why we put up with unacceptable behavior in religious institutions when we would never stand for it elsewhere. It would seem that Jesus' influence would make his followers more loving and accepting, not less so. Jesus embraced spiritual shepherds regardless of the package they came wrapped in. I hope your pastor can find a way to let go of ego-filled labels and do the same.

    I will pray that you are able to lovingly address this within your church. No matter what anyone says, these types of omissions wound deeply.

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    1. Thanks, Monette. I always appreciate prayer.

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  4. Hey, I came from Whispers on a Journey who linked to this blog ... sounds like he should've asked everybody to stand up, even the smallest child! How powerful that would've been, eh?

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Leanne. I love the idea of everyone standing. That would have been beautiful!

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  5. Your husband was awesome for that. Recently I stopped attending a church where women aren't respected for what they are: made in the image of God. I am hopeful about my new church. Already, there are women leading worship, women leading and giving communion, and women giving the benediction at the end of the service.

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    1. Jaimie, he is awesome, then and in general. :) I am grateful that in my church women lead worship and serve communion, but they are definitely not able to be elders. We do have quite a few deaconesses, but the idea is that any woman serving in church will always be under some male authority. I disagree, but like other things about my church enough to overlook it....for now.

      Also, though it's tempting, I realized that if all the egalitarians leave our church, it might never change. But we may leave, depending on how things go.

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  6. I see your point, but this might be nit picking the pastor. I am a pastor and I wouldn't have people stand up like this anyway...you are bound to leave someone out. It's possible he didn't mean anything by it. It would hurt me if I realized every person was being this critical of every phrase I said...just a different perspective...

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    1. Scott, thanks for your comment! I definitely have respect for pastors--it is hard to have your words constantly analyzed. But I also believe that Paul (and God) call church leaders to a high standard in choosing their words. My pastor actually did recognize that he could have used his words differently, and even apologized! His response is chronicled here: http://theincorrigiblegingers.blogspot.com/2012/03/my-pastors-response.html and here: http://theincorrigiblegingers.blogspot.com/2012/03/unexpected-impact-of-egalitarianism.html

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  7. The pastors of churches are not positioned to speak for Christ. Ministry in the body is reciprocal, and never allows a position of an authoritarian professional clergymen in the spirit of the body of Christ. That being said all people who accept this construct should always be ready to be hurt, mislead, and unintentionally injured.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Marc! I do think that our modern churches often give too much power into the hands of too few people (generally just men). I appreciate a strong leader, but this system does have the potential of corrupting through hunger for power.

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  8. Um, I can't get past this..."The elders, the deacons, the fathers, and the single mothers."

    Single mothers? They would never have been included at my church (well, my ex-church...I can't take it anymore). It's all men, all the time.

    And it's crazy. :-( I have a husband like yours; he supports my voice and other women. So much so that we're looking for a new church where men AND women are regarded as spiritual leaders.

    Thanks for sharing this.

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    1. Thanks for commenting! I'm glad you have a supportive husband.

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  9. I have always considered the couples who pastored the congregations I've been a part of (they just happen to have not had any singles pastoring) my pastors, and they knew it. I need to ask, but I am pretty sure that's actually how our leadership sees it. They just recently revised the congregational charter to make it clear that women can be elders, and that if a married man is going to be an elder, the couple are elders. There is hope!

    I pray blessings like this- and more- for you all.

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    1. Thank you! I hope our church moves in that direction....who knows?

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