Us vs. Them: Complementarianism and Culture Wars in UK Churches

Women’s Ministry leader in the FIEC, Sarah Allen, has recently published an article reporting research on the state of complementarianism in UK churches. The experiences her respondents report are concerning and worthy of careful attention, considering the scarcity of research in this area. However, Allen positions her research within an overall United States vs. United Kingdom narrative, a common discursive strategy within and among religious communities. Why does she do this? Two words: culture wars.

I wonder how many have seen Sarah Allen’s article on complementarianism in UK churches, in the most recent issue of Foundations, an online journal of evangelical theology published by Affinity’s Theological Team. Perhaps I’ve underestimated this journal’s readership, but if Twitter is any measure of its audience, so far this article hasn’t seen the response it warrants.

Allen’s article seeks to “examine the current state of complementarian practice and attitudes within UK [Christian] churches.” Complementarianism, for those unacquainted with it, is founded on the belief that the Bible teaches that while women should be active in the life and mission of the church, ordination is limited to men, and likewise men take primary responsibility for leadership in the home. These views impact the organisation and culture of churches across the UK, including some within the Church of England and other conservative denominations and fellowships.

After an introductory discussion about the issue, Allen reports questionnaire findings from 12 female workers in Fellowship of Independent Evangelical (FIEC) churches and a smaller number of male church leaders. As she admits, this is hardly a scientific sample. Nevertheless, the experiences her respondents report are concerning and worthy of careful attention, considering the scarcity of research in this area.

The quotes and anecdotes Allen includes from her respondents tell a story of unique pain and grief among some female church workers in the FIEC. One source of frustration is repeatedly having co-workers and members of the congregation question the validity of women’s work in the church, which has taken its toll on these women.

One women’s worker testified of her grief at having to lay down one ministry she had served in for several years because a change in pastor precipitated a discussion at elder level which had not been had before. She said, “I don’t want to be a boat-rocker, but that is what I’ve become.

Some of the responses of male leaders provide context for these women’s experiences. Allen writes that “women’s ministries were described as ‘a fledgling creature’ and quite a distance from the vision of the pastor.” This distance was echoed in the fact that none of the male leaders reported a formal mechanism by which women in the congregation could provide feedback or share their ideas on spiritual development or the mission of the church. Worse, one male leader’s frank reflections on why women don’t approach elders of their own volition contain explicit sexism. According to him, there’s “a certain kind of immaturity that women might be ‘more susceptible to.’”

The stories of this small sampling of Christian leaders may or may not be representative of the FIEC, but they are consistent with portions of last year’s thirtyone:eight report on the abusive culture that thrived at The Crowded House in Sheffield for over a decade. In section 10, on “Complementarian Theology” of that report (p. 57), we learn that “women’s voices were not heard,” “a number of professional women had left the church” and “the culture was very male dominated.”

We can also draw comparisons to these comments about the influence of complementarianism on leadership in student faith and belief societies, in a recent report published by Theos Think Tank:

At the Red Brick university, many members of the Christian Union attended a local evangelical church with a complementarian view of gender roles and disagreed with women holding leadership roles in Christian contexts. When a woman ran for President of the society a couple of years prior to our research, this led to an internal debate about whether women could lead the Christian Union … Ultimately she was unsuccessful in the election – one of our interviewees implied she did not win because people voted against her on grounds of her gender.

Reports like these (see also here), considered alongside Allen’s findings, should constitute a major wake-up call among UK churches that espouse complementarianism. As Allen concludes, rather understatedly,

without the visible championing of women, the use of teaching illustrations featuring women and the deliberate seeking out of women’s ideas and opinions, a truly complementarian ministry cannot be said to be flourishing.

Yet I think Allen’s work here may fail to resonate among church leaders. There is a lack of urgency in her writing I want to probe a bit. This becomes clear in the opening discussion of her article which perpetuates a prevalent and persistent naiveté about the reality of complementarianism among UK Christians. Allen writes,

many of those kicking against what they perceive as an extreme and oppressive cultural complementarianism are responding to phenomena much more prevalent in the US than the UK.

Complementarian problems are largely American problems, in other words. But as we’ve already seen, the matter is rather more complex than that. Why, then, does Allen position the problems within complementarianism in an “us vs. them” narrative?

Complementarianism through Rose-Coloured Glasses

As I discuss in my book on religious language, an “us vs. them” or “dichotomous worldview” discursive strategy is common in religious communities. It provides a mechanism to articulate the distinctiveness of a group.

United around its distinctiveness, a sacred community uses this discourse strategy to reinforce group solidarity and group boundaries and may seek to encourage others to join the group or non-conforming members to leave. The general idea here is to emphasize what’s good about being in the group and what’s bad about being outside the group (Hobbs, 2021, p. 56).

As foundation for her claim that oppressive complementarianism is more of an American than a UK problem, Allen paints a picture of the “anger and frustration” that is “palpable” among critics of complementarianism-cum-patriarchy like American conservative Christian writers Aimee Byrd and Rachel Miller. She positions these against a UK audience’s distaste for a debate “so emotive and divisive it has become unhelpful to follow.”

Allen acknowledges that the alarm bells some American women are sounding raise “important questions,” not least about prevalent misogyny and abuse, linked to such phenomenon as purity culture. But Allen’s account of complementarianism in British churches is almost entirely rosy by comparison. She cites a sharp increase in young women entering some form of church ministry in complementarian churches, points to multiple training opportunities for women committed to complementarianism and cites cherry-picked statistics that suggest women have achieved equality when it comes to the gender pay gap in the UK[1].

However, even looking beyond the FIEC, the subject of Allen’s study, the Church of England is still grappling with what Ben Cooper at Christ Church in Sheffield describes as a culture in which women gospel worker is among the “most difficult and lonely vocations there is.” At the Equipped! Conference in the North of England in 2018, Cooper said to an audience of women that,

We would like you to get involved in gospel ministry in the future. But for you women, that can be a difficult path to take. It’s financially insecure. There often aren’t the jobs out there to look for. It’s underfunded, under-supported. You’ll get quite a lot of hostility from your Christian sisters who have a more egalitarian point of view, if you take a complementarian stance yourself. They’ve got it somewhat easier. There are more official paths within the Church of England for them to go down. It can be a difficult place to be. You might find in your local churches that some men are suspicious of you and suspicious of the kind of ministry that you do or uncomfortable about it in one way or another. So this is a difficult place to be.

More evidence of the particular difficulties that face women leaders in pro-complementarian environments appears in the most recent external review of Oak Hill College, which Sarah Allen cites as one avenue for complementarian women to receive training. Regarding the elective module on Women’s Ministry, part of Oak Hill’s aspiration to recruit more female ordinands, the reviewers write that,

It is perhaps unfortunate that male ordinands taking these modules would be invited to see women as identified primarily by their childbearing or life stage status.

The reviewers go on to urge the college to carry out a mapping process across the entire curriculum to discover ways the ministry of women could be more fully embedded.

The Prevalence of Abuse in UK Churches

All this helps us begin to see a fuller picture of complementarianism in UK churches. But it is Allen’s lack of engagement with research on abuse in UK churches which is a particularly glaring error. In a March 2018 report on church responses to domestic abuse, Dr. Kristin Aune and Dr. Rebecca Barnes write that

Domestic abuse has a lower profile within the UK church than it appears to have in the USA or Canada [but] what little research exists on domestic violence and the UK Christian Church indicates that domestic abuse is prevalent in churches.

Aune’s and Barnes’s findings from their case study on 129 churches in Cumbria confirm this sad reality. One in 4 of their church-going respondents reported experiencing abusive behaviour in their current relationship. Around 42% reported experiencing abuse in a current or previous relationship. And most experiences of abuse were long-term. Yet the majority of church-goers in Aune’s and Barnes’s sample thought that abuse was simply not a problem in their church.

Surely, then, any discussion of complementarianism in UK churches must engage with the reality of abuse and with the culture that fosters and even enables and supports such abuse. Yet this is something Allen mentions only in the context of discussion about American complementarianism. Why is that?

Allen’s small study focuses on women in the FIEC, so it makes sense to examine some of the FIEC’s online materials about complementarianism, many of which are written by FIEC National Director John Stevens. In a footnote, Allen writes that it’s unfair to think of highly controversial American pastor Douglas Wilson, bastion of “extreme cultural conservativism,” as representative of complementarianism. So why then does John Stevens refer UK Christians approvingly to Wilson in the context of discussion about complementarianism? Why does Stevens evoke Wilson’s infamously disturbing take on marital sex in his post on marriage, writing that,

The reality, as some feminists have long recognised, is that from a women’s perspective sex involves either willing submission or rape.

Many complementarians, like Pastor of Everyday Church in London Phil Moore, rightly point out that the problem of intimate partner violence is not solely a complementarian problem. But reductive statements about men and women by influential complementarian leaders in the church foster an atmosphere which is attractive to abusers.

Complementarian Culture Wars

I’m still left with this question. Why do conservative UK Christians depict the extremes of complementarianism as a primarily American problem, even as articles like Allen’s expose some of the problems closer to home? Why does discussion of complementarianism in the UK so often adopt dogmatic language? Why does FIEC Director John Stevens declare, without any hint of ambiguity, that only complementarian marriages are obedient to God?

Strictly speaking there is therefore no such thing as an egalitarian marriage in the eyes of God. Such a marriage is simply a disobedient marriage that is falling short of the standard that God has objectively and eternally established for marriage.

Here’s one likely reason. A growing number of UK complementarians now believe, as American theologian and CBMW Council Member Bruce Ware wrote for Evangelicals Now in 2015, that complementarianism is

central strategically in upholding the Christian faith within a culture all too ready to adopt values and beliefs hostile to orthodox and evangelical conviction [emphasis mine].

Among those who have bought into the notion that the church’s place in the wider world is to fight culture wars like these, complementarianism is a secondary doctrine no longer. And in such a battle, it seems complementarian churches cannot afford to speak frankly about weakness. Holding the complementarian line is the priority.

Set in the context of this culture war mindset, us vs. them, complementarian leaders appear unwilling to talk frankly about serious problems about their distinctive beliefs. Vulnerable members thus become casualties. Though Allen’s study is a helpful start in some respects, more research on the realities of complementarianism is sorely needed.


[1] What Allen doesn’t mention are the wider findings of the gender pay gap report she cites, namely that:
The gender pay gap for full-time workers is entirely in favour of men for all occupations.
Men are proportionally more likely to work full-time than women.
Overall, women’s pay grows less than men’s and also stops growing earlier than men’s pay.
See also recent discussion about the ways the coronavirus is widening the gender pay gap.

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