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Is there a case for complementarity?

Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson

September 12, 2019

During the Baptist International Conference on Theological Education (BICTE) held in Nassau, Bahamas, July 5-7, 2019, I heard debate over a term that was unfamiliar to me. A participating scholar promoted the idea of complementarity as the rationale against women in pastoral ministry. Complementarity speaks of “equal but different” ministry roles, recognizing that while women’s equality and worth before God is fully respected, men and women are given different functions of ministry corresponding to an inherent God-given difference in gender. Admittedly, the argument created some ambivalence for me.

On one hand, I have some appreciation for gendered roles and responses. As a parent, I see the differences in my approach with my son versus that of my husband. Often, I am the nurturer, providing a stereotypically female response versus that of my husband, who might respond more stereotypically male. In the church, I have had the occasion where a female member was more comfortable speaking with me as the associate pastor about an intimate matter than with the male senior pastor. And yet, even in these reflections, I recognize that the roles were not so fixed. At home, my husband is at times the nurturer, while I am the hard-nosed parent. At other times, we are both forceful with our son or both nurturing. And in the church, as pastor, I served all my congregation and worked hard to put my members at ease, modulating how I ministered so that men and women would be comfortable with my leadership. Recognizing the ability and need to be both soft and hard (if that is an accurate characterization), the argument for complementarity seems to fall apart. As a parent and a pastor, I responded in the ways that were necessary in the moment without regard to gendered roles.

On the other hand, I found the theory unacceptable for reasons more rooted in race than in gender. When I heard the term “equal but different,” my mind went immediately to the late-nineteenth-century doctrine “separate but equal.” As confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, racial segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which required equal protection under the law for all people, if facilities provided to the races were equal. But we all know how that went. The facilities provided for African Americans were far from equal to what was provided for whites. In every accommodation from schools to railroad cars, services for African Americans were inferior. Nevertheless, the law of the land sanctioned discriminatory treatment.

Viewed from that lens, complementarity becomes an untenable concept because it sanctions the same kind of inequity where women are relegated to lesser and inferior roles to that of men. And unfortunately, I have already experienced enough of that kind of complementarity in the church. I remember church dinners where women labored in hot kitchens while male clergy sat at head tables waiting to be served. I remember mothers being pressed into service to function as Sunday school teachers without similar insistences placed upon men. There were countless occasions where women were assigned to roles of servitude in the church, but never did I see reciprocating, complimentary roles played by men. Where was the equality in difference? How did such imbalance demonstrate equality under God?

In the book “Female Advantage,” Sally Helgesen made the argument for what were said to be feminine styles of leadership. Unlike the stereotypical characterizations that suggested women possessed softer, nurturing skills, Helgesen maintained that because women value cooperation and relationship over complex rules and authoritarian structures,[1] they have skill in building web-based relationships. Such feminine styles of leadership were suggested to make women better leaders than men because these feminine styles were more suited for the complexities of contemporary organizations.[2] Rather than spark a debate on which gender is better equipped for leadership, my point is simply that our leadership will be different. Race, gender, religious beliefs, socioeconomic considerations, and more factor into who we are, which in turn impacts how we lead. How I lead as an African American woman may differ from the leadership of a man of European ancestry, and those differences cannot simply be explained by gender. There is more to it than that.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal. Schools were ordered to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” While it is antithetical to Baptist polity that some entity would pronounce how we are to function from on high, I do wish that we would demonstrate some deliberate speed where the call of women to pastoral ministry is concerned. We believe that all are made in the image of God. We maintain that all who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior have been imbued with spiritual gifts to further the realm of God. So, if our God, whom we believe to be omnipotent, can do anything, why would we doubt that God would call a woman into ministry, and why would we prevent her from living into that call? Not in complementarity, but in our equality, let us minister together. In our equality, let us both serve. And in our equality, let us recognize that there is no male and female, for we are one in Christ Jesus.

The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is an independent consultant and author who leads custom, high impact engagements for non-profit and faith-based organizations. She was previously the director of Lifelong Learning at Yale Divinity School. Her book “Spiritual Practices for Effective Leadership: 7Rs of SANCTUARY for Pastors” is available through Judson Press. Her latest Judson Press book “Meant for Good: Fundamentals in Womanist Leadership,” is scheduled for release in January 2020.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

 [1] Sally Helgesen, The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership, (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990), 38.

[2] Patricia S. Parker, Race, Gender, and Leadership: Re-Envisioning Organizational Leadership From the Perspectives of African American Women Executives, (New York, NY: Psychology Press, 2005), 9.

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