In July 2014, my husband Daniel, our two young boys, and I took a full U-Haul from Cleveland, Tenn., to Richmond, Va., for Daniel’s new job as a teacher at a Christian private school. The move had pushed us past broke, into donations from relatives, but we were eager nonetheless. After many years, my husband had finally figured out what he wanted to do with his life. He was thrilled for the opportunity to become a teacher, and I—coming off of a year nursing my youngest son, who would not take bottles—was excited to look for work in a new town.
At East End Christian Academy, Daniel signed a strict contract stating, among other things, that he would not drink in public, that he would regularly attend their associated church, and that he would live a Christ-like lifestyle. It was a conservative church, I knew, but I’d attended conservative-ish churches my whole life. My parents still vote Republican. I had different opinions and views, but I had always been able to get along.
A year later, Daniel was fired a week before a major surgery for failing to adhere to his contract.
Daniel was born with something called Hirschsprung’s Disease, which is almost always treated successfully in childhood via a pull-through surgery. But for him, there had been complications. He was dealing with a lot of pain and discomfort, for which a colorectal specialist recommended he have a major abdominal surgery that would require a temporary ileostomy and eventual reversal. He arranged his procedures around his school schedule, but his recovery from the first surgery was much slower than expected, and he ended up spending nearly all of June in the hospital.
In the last week of July, a week before his ileostomy was set to be reversed, Dan Helland, pastor of the church, and his wife, Sue Helland, director of the school, called him into his office and told him that they would not be renewing his contract. Among his offenses were “differences in beliefs,” things I had been posting to Twitter and Facebook (including articles written for Gawker), and a short video of Daniel drinking a beer while grilling burgers on the Fourth of July—the first he’d had all summer, since he’d been unable to eat or drink real food for nearly two weeks, receiving most of his nutrients through a PICC line.
During this conversation, the Hellands accused me of “throwing them under the bus” by posting controversial things: writing that I think it’s okay for Christians to drink, and that not all Christians are conservative. Daniel said to them, “I signed the contract, not her.” They responded, “Well, you’re supposed to be the head of the household.”
Even in the years when I considered myself conservative, Daniel and I have always had an egalitarian marriage. This, for many people, is simply “marriage”—partners treating each other like equals, relationship roles undetermined by gender, leadership shared rather than assigned automatically to the person who was born with a dick.
A complementarian view of marriage, on the other hand, is a Christian framework that pins your role in the partnership (by definition a heterosexual one, of course) on what’s between your legs. The sexes are made to complement each other, OK? It’s a relatively positive spin on a patriarchal relationship—God loves you and your husband equally, women! It’s just that one of you is going to stay home with the babies and let your spouse be in charge whether you like it or not.
I never adhered to this type of view, even though it’s impressed upon Christian girls from childhood. Men—fathers—are always viewed as leaders of the household, addressed as the head of the family. Sermons casually mention a woman’s need to remain “pure” before marriage or talk about the importance of a mother taking care of her family in the home. The insinuations start off relatively subtle. But by time you’re actually married, people in fundamentalist churches start explicitly discussing the fact that if you’re a “real” Christian home, the husband is supposed to be in charge. Anything to the contrary is borderline blasphemy. Several of my religious friends and family members have shared this image on Facebook, and it’s a pretty good representation of how fundamentalists actually believe a family should function.
But for me and Daniel, the words “obey” or “submit” weren’t in our Christian wedding vows; they were replaced, instead, with “honor” and “respect.” Our mothers both worked our whole lives; I was raised around and by strong women who never felt the need to discuss the “role of women” or taught me to limit my hopes and dreams. I saw my grandmothers take on strong leadership roles in their churches, homes, and lives, and that’s how I aspired to be. But in an otherwise conservative environment, female subserviency was the norm: women who submitted to their husbands; the talents of women in the church ignored in favor of masculine leadership; feminine voices relegated to “women’s groups,” as if they weren’t good enough to address the entire congregation.
For a long time, I didn’t do enough to fight for women in the church. But after years of silence, I was finally getting bold enough to speak my mind. I was a freelance writer trying to find a place for my progressive religious voice, with the confidence and support that comes from an egalitarian partnership. And as a result of all this, my husband lost his job.
It wasn’t the case that Daniel ever stopped working hard for the church/school. In fact, it was the opposite. The year he’d taught in the high school had been full of drama, with two youth pastors coming and going, and the pews emptying out. The school’s teaching positions also often take the form of revolving doors, with people hardly staying past a year. But Daniel was there as often as he could be: volunteering, playing guitar for church services, skipping friends’ and family weddings as not to miss a Sunday, and helping to plan school and church activities above and beyond what was required. All of this, too, for a meager salary of $2000 a month. Daniel told me he felt called to it, that he would do anything for the church. And he never asked me to change anything about myself for his benefit.
So, in return, out of respect for his work, I went to the bake sales, offered to help with the website, attended the events. I sat through sermons I found difficult to listen to: hateful warnings about not getting caught up in the “love” part of the gospel, plans to march for “traditional marriage” in DC ahead of the Supreme Court decision, encouragement to shun girls who didn’t dress modestly. I tried to find connections instead of just focusing on the differences, because I wanted to support my husband’s career the way he supported mine. But as the church saw it, his job was not to support me to but to control me.
Two days after Daniel was fired, I was let go from the administrative assistant position I’d held at the Supreme Court of Virginia. This bad news was more expected—I’d known my department was being audited, that it was possible my position would be cut. But this timing was so bad that Daniel called the school back up to see if there was anything that could be done. We had been nearly broke even before he’d gotten the job offer in Richmond; we had far outspent the school’s $1000 moving allowance in the process of uprooting ourselves. My plan of transitioning to freelance writing full-time had depended on Daniel having steady income. But an unemployed teacher in surgical recovery was unlikely to get another teaching job right before school started.
Two adults, two kids, no income. It was the scariest situation of my life. The school offered no severance, no financial assistance, no advice, not even any consolation. They just said they’d pray for us. Some of the old church members were kind enough to reach out and ask how we were doing, but many never spoke to us again.
In the end, the story ended up okay for me. I have regular freelance writing gigs, and my friends, family, and online strangers rallied around me to raise a substantial amount of money so that we could get back on our feet. My husband recovered quickly from his second surgery and is healthier than he’s ever been. Miraculously, he did get another teaching position at a wonderful, much bigger Christian school that knows the story of how and why he got let go from his old place—and doesn’t care, because to them, quality education is the top priority, not what the teacher (or his/her spouse) does in his/her spare time. Best of all, we now go to a United Church of Christ congregation. Our pastor is a woman, and they participated in our community’s gay pride festival this year. The sermons focus on what we can do to help others, not pointing out our neighbors’ so-called sins.
But for so many others, it could have gone terribly wrong. Girls who are raised with a complementarian view of marriage may not be so comfortable speaking out about things they disagree with in their churches. The people at East End often poked fun at me—when my kids misbehaved, they’d smirk and reference the article I wrote about why I don’t spank my children. They didn’t like my clothes or my tattoos or even the food I ate. For me, it was fuel for the fire—proof that an institution I loved was worth spending effort remaking. For others, it could be devastating.
Millions of teenagers and young adults who sit in small, conservative churches all across the United States are being told that education isn’t a priority, especially for women. They’re being told that gay and trans people are sinners who are going to hell. They’re being told it’s a woman’s job to keep her body covered so that the men won’t lust or sin. They’re being told their occupation and familial roles are dictated by their gender. Worst of all, the young girls and women are told that if they meet a man they want to marry, they will have to submit their hopes, dreams, and opinions to him or risk being an outcast in their families and churches. That’s normal to them. It’s far more normal than you can imagine.
In several denominations, Bible study classes are divided by gender, with the men’s classes focusing on subjects such as “leadership” and “strength,” while women’s classes tend to be about “gentleness” and “sacrifice.” In the student handbook for East End’s school, they stated that boys should become strong and godly leaders, but girls are to become noble “Proverbs 31” women. (The famous Proverbs 31 verse isn’t that bad at all on its own, but in the hands of fundamentalists, it becomes a laundry list of things that are expected of women in order to be deemed a good Christian or a good wife.)
This tactic won’t work in the long run for the evangelical right. They’re already rapidly losing their grip on American politics. And the panic is making them paint feminists—anyone in an egalitarian marriage fits in this category, by the way—as hateful individuals destroying the fabric of society. They’re actively working to silence (and likely alienate) half the population they see in their pews—or even more, considering that women are more likely to be religious than men. This isn’t reflected in their leadership, of course: only 5 percent of churchgoers attend a church that is led by a woman. But the status quo, if it holds, will be hiding discontent and instability. The church’s systematic attempts to control women through usage of outdated theology and cherry-picked Bible verses is leading to severe consequences for people of faith.
For example: a few weeks ago, 103-year-old Genora Biggs was told by her pastor that she was no longer welcome to attend Union Grove Baptist Church, a church she had attended for 92 years, allegedly because she had the nerve to disagree with his style of preaching. When she showed up for services anyway, they called the police.
Churches that devalue women are contributing to the breakdown of religious faith in this country at large. If you tell a young girl that her voice doesn’t count in the house of God, why would she want to go there? If you tell a woman she can’t lead a congregation when her gift is public speaking, how could she believe that she has a purpose with that deity? And if a religious leader tells a man that he’s supposed to control his wife by being the “head of the household,” how can you be surprised when that same wife begins to resent her secondary place?
When you are spurned so thoroughly by an institution in which you have placed so much of yourself, it can break you to the extent that you lose your beliefs. I feel lucky to limit my loss of faith to complementarianism itself. I remember that the greatest commandment Christ ever gave was to love: God, your enemies, your neighbors, the poor, the dirty, and yes, the assertive woman posting things on Twitter that make you shake your head in disagreement. Without that love, your “church” is bitter, and will break.
Illustration by Jim Cooke