Breaking the chains of complementarianism: A female seminary student finds her voice

At a young age, Union Presbyterian Seminary student Amanda Shanks felt a call to ministry. Having no model for female leadership in the church, she ignored it until two years ago. What changed?

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

In response to the Southern Baptist Convention’s actions to explicitly bar female pastoral leadership and Dr. Frances Taylor Gench’s article, “On women pastors and biblical authority: A Presbyterian reflection.”

As a child, I sat next to my mother in the pews of my home church, scribbling little notes and doodling dogs and flowers on the offering envelopes. Even in the fidgety, squirmy, early years of my childhood, I loved church. I had a strong sense of God long before I attempted to make sense of God. More importantly, I felt loved at church. As my faith flourished, an astute youth minister recognized gifts for ministry in me and provided me with opportunities to teach and lead. Later, he would encourage me to explore a call to ministry and theological education. Nudged by his encouragement, I discerned a call to ministry, but I felt extremely uncertain about following it for reasons I could not quite discern.

I can now more clearly identify and articulate what I did not yet have words for as a teenager: I felt uncomfortable with my call to ministry because I grew up in the most loving of soft complementarian churches, where women and men were considered equal in personhood but with different and complementary roles and responsibilities. In such teachings, women are generally not allowed to spiritually instruct men.

During my formative years, while scribbling notes and doodling on the back of offering envelopes, I heard my first sermons concerning the role of women in the church. The male pastor read from 1 Timothy 2:8-15 that women are to “learn in silence with full submission” and are not to “teach or have authority over a man.” He encouraged the congregation to read the text literally, and I rarely (if ever) heard someone present an alternative interpretation that weighed the historical or cultural context of these passages or considered contradictory passages from Scripture depicting empowered, involved women. Although my denomination did not explicitly deny women the ability to serve as ordained ministers, it was not encouraged. At the age of 18, I had never met a female pastor and women did not serve in the highest levels of leadership.

I felt uncomfortable with my call to ministry because I grew up in the most loving of soft complementarian churches…

Moreover, as I left the relatively safe bubble of my home church and became more active in my denomination, I experienced moments of blatant sexism and misogyny which I believe stemmed from complementarian teachings. While visiting a Sunday school class, an older man held his hand up to my face to silence me during a lesson, very clearly communicating that my thoughts and voice were not welcome. In another instance, I raised questions concerning the interpretation of Scripture during a training only to be received with a smirk and an eye roll from across the room.

And so, I didn’t know what to do with the call to ministry I felt as a teenager, and it would be years before I took the time to examine the role of female spiritual leadership. Instead, I left my call behind and went on to pursue a career as a mental health therapist. I’ve dedicated my private practice to reproductive and maternal mental health, to working with women. By happenstance, I also found my way to a PC(USA) church in adulthood, where I had the opportunity to learn from women who occupied all spaces of leadership. However, it was not until I spearheaded an online women’s Bible study during the pandemic, that I felt my call to ministry reignite. A part of me came alive as I carefully and analytically studied the Bible.

Interestingly, I have never felt a strong desire or call to work with or lead men. Twenty years have passed since I first discerned the initial call to ministry, and it is precisely because of a life devoted to working with women that I finally accepted that call. In therapy, I have helped women find their voices, set boundaries, break glass ceilings, escape cycles of abuse, work through disenfranchised grief, and challenge the impossible, and often conflicting, expectations placed on new mothers.

I have seen firsthand the damage that has been done to women who have stayed in abusive situations in an effort to “submit” to their husbands (Ephesians 5:21-33), sometimes at the urging of their male pastors. This should come as no surprise given the recent exposure of massive sexual abuse scandals within the evangelical church, revealing decades of gross misconduct and a failure to protect survivors of physical and sexual abuse. Women often believe they are safe and will be protected in the church; yet, when they seek pastoral counseling and care, their concerns are minimized, belittled and they often report feeling blamed and shamed. In a space where women ought to feel like beloved children of God, they are too often seen and treated as a threat to authority and power, and their voices are silenced.

Despite being loved, cared for, and even validated in my ministerial calling by the people in my home church, complementarian teachings instilled in me a deep sense of inadequacy and inferiority.

As a therapist, I have heard their voices – hundreds of voices – sharing their stories. Each story has deeply impacted me, and along the way, I found my own. The very presence of a gender hierarchy in my denomination harmed me. Despite being loved, cared for, and even validated in my ministerial calling by the people in my home church, complementarian teachings instilled in me a deep sense of inadequacy and inferiority. These teachings have also done great harm to many young men of faith, who have learned to treat women differently and, whether intentional or not, to devalue the thoughts, experiences, giftedness, and contributions of women to the church and to the world. And thus, these teachings have harmed the church, silencing voices, stifling diversity, perpetuating abuse, and breaking unity as we seek to accomplish God’s work in the world.

After two years of seminary, I still struggle at times with feelings of inferiority while also wondering if my very presence in a seminary classroom is somehow wrong or sinful. However, unlike in my early years of doodling on offering envelopes, I am now fully paying attention. My faith is now my own and I believe that wrestling with Scripture, and with God, is a faithful act.

The debate concerning the roles of women according to Scripture is long-standing and complex. There are not always clear answers and there are many differences in interpretation. While I continue to welcome respectful dialogue on this topic, I no longer allow an eye roll from across the room or a hand, held up to my face, to silence my faithful questioning and desire to do the will of God. Encounters and stories from other women who grew up in complementarian environments have convicted me and convinced me that silence is no longer an option. I am learning to trust the movement of the Holy Spirit which pours out gifts among all people, guiding us toward greater fullness and wholeness within creation.

I believe that wrestling with Scripture, and with God, is a faithful act.

Through careful study and discernment, I believe more than ever that the entirety of Scripture points to a freedom in Christ that we hope for but have not yet seen (Romans 8:24-25). I believe we are all equal image-bearers of God and any effort to silence or subjugate a group of people ought to be measured against the entirety of Scripture, including the teachings of Jesus and Galatians 3:28 which states, “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”