I’m a complementarian and I couldn’t care less about anyone’s hair

by jillst


I stopped going to Equip a few years ago.

There was, at the time, no controversy. No especial love lost between me and that gaggle of shiny haired conservative women. I didn’t consciously decide to stop meeting with them, to stop soaking in their cheer – so bright a playschool presenter would roll their eyes in envy.

To be honest, I thought my non-attendance was just a side-effect of my busy-ness. But either way, I wasn’t there when one of them got up a week and a half ago and unconsciously lit a wildfire.

Following now famous comments from a speaker about whether or not a woman should have short hair, the tiny bubble that is the Sydney Christian internet erupted. A small and angry portion of women were annoyed about being told not to cut our hair or have tatts. The larger portion of the chatter was about bigger questions of theology and identity – about feminism, biblical interpretation, preaching, headship and gender. The mainstream media got involved. Lots of people pointed at Equip as an example of the kind of bullshit complementarianism is best known for, and on some levels,  I can’t fault them.

I feel I should say straight up that I myself am a complementarian myself –though probably a bit of a watered down one. I’m proudly and vocally a feminist, but I’ve traditionally held that it’s men who should be the rectors at church. That marriages should be equal, but that men should lead the way in displaying sacrificial, Christ-like love. Not because I personally think it’s a great idea but because I think that’s what the bible teaches – though I absolutely respect the well-supported opposing viewpoint.

Honestly though, reading the often heartbreaking stories of so many women this week has me re-considering my position unlike any biblical argument ever has.

To be saying at Equip that a woman shouldn’t cut her hair is not only hurtful and a poor witness and confusing and probably racist – it’s also, on so many levels, silly and a waste.

If you’re the kind of Christian who thinks it’s deeply important that women look like women, there are loads of ways to do that that have nothing to do with hair. Quite frankly, even if I buzzed my dome tomorrow, I think my DD’s would continue to give away that I have a vagina.

Sadly though, this isn’t the first time us complementarians have been guilty of taking odd verses of scripture to illogical conclusions.

Shockingly, the last time I attended Equip five years ago, I went with a secret that was not my affiliation with a certain F-word (by which I mean the better f-word – feminism). It was a silence I wore, quite literally, around my neck. It hung, bumping against the soft skin at my waist, on a long, cheap silver chain. It was a diamond engagement ring. I’d been given it the night before the conference.

I had gone hoping to glean some insights for the road ahead – my engagement and eventual marriage. I expected to find plenty among such perky marriage lovers as the women of Equip, but among the cheery kindness, I didn’t find much balm for what I felt were quite reasonable fears. Marriage was a long time, was I ready? How do you even love someone for that long? Did an odd surety that this was the right one make up for my many questions, my many faults? How would I tell all my non-Christian friends I was engaged at 22?

How could I hold all these fears and, the next day, once our families had all been told, draw my engagement ring out from behind my dress, and handle the squeals and jealousies I knew were coming?

None of these questions were answered that day – though this was hardly surprising in a conference not specifically about marriage. I did get some advice though, while sitting through an elective by an impeccably attired blonde lady. I don’t remember what the topic was supposed to be, but I do remember one of the takeaways of such.

“We should all be dressing in the ways our husbands like best,” she said. Or, she said some version of such – forgive me, it was five years ago.

“If your husband doesn’t like makeup, don’t wear it – and if he does, you should.”

A bullet-like bullet point. Straight and simple. Here I was seeking, ready to lap up any advice about marriage. But this hit seemed so shallow, so out of place. Yet another thing to do, to worry about. I wanted to be let in, to see the real stuff, but I was being kept at arm’s length by advice perhaps too trivial even to be scribbled in shiny pen on a scrap of paper and placed in an advice box at someone’s kitchen tea.

It is perhaps illuminating that I don’t remember what part of the bible the speaker was using to justify this point.

Don’t get me wrong – there was a time, not too long before this, in my early twenties, when I would have loved to dig down deep into the tiniest parts of a speaker’s understanding. I wanted to know everything, I was hungry for the most obscure scraps of wisdom. I was anxious to be completely perfect, totally absolved.

I’m not sure if, back then, I really understood grace.

I don’t blame myself, I was young, and I’d had too wonderful a life. But something had clicked in the difficult preceding year, as I’d turned round to really face the failings of my church and myself. Little things are of course, important, but I’d started to understand then, as I understand now, that I’d been adding too much weight to them.

I had spent time, for the preceding several years, in quite a liberal university group. Most of them would have called themselves egalitarian, and at first I, a staunch complementarian, had struggled to adjust. But the fact was that what united us was more powerful than the divide. I had learned a lot from them, and I had seen the power of their presence on campus.

At the same time, I was starting to feel the pressing in of a new knowledge. I had been working, at that time for several months, at a legal centre where the majority of the clients were homeless. I spent some of my period of engagement helping battered wives fill out divorce applications. The need before me was palpable, my own problems shrinking under its weight.

It had started to filter through me then, and now fills my whole body – the wonder at the tiny, petty fights Christians sometimes  seek to start from the pulpit. Not because we shouldn’t disagree – I feel strongly that we should. We’re not a cult. But can’t we disagree about something that matters? Can’t our leaders guide these disagreements in a direction that helps our understanding, and our love for the world?

I have so, so much empathy for the women who were hurt by these comments, all of which seem to have been silly and unnecessary. A woman CEO “helping” her male employees? How about she helps her female co-workers close the wage gap first?

But you know what? Even in my own anger, I see the senselessness of this debate, of this very valid parade of hurt feelings.

I don’t feel that, when I stand before the Lord, my complementarianism will come up. I can’t believe it will be added to my long list of sins – my greed, my pride, my doubt, my many failures to love, my laziness, my selfishness, the ways in which I have let down the ones I care about or was given to teach. But nor can I imagine my choice not to identify as egalitarian will earn me some kind of commendation.

I hope we spend time in heaven talking to each other, because I have a lot of people I’d like to catch up with. But I doubt that, even with eternity before us, we’ll spend lots of time on such tiny questions of theology. I certainly don’t think we’ll spend much time re-hashing past hairstyles, and examining each other’s tattoos or lack thereof.

None of this would matter, I don’t think, if we had all gained the kind of perfection I’d imagine life would someday mould me into when I was young. Perhaps, if we all lived lives of devoted service free from the world’s cares, we could all spend a good portion of our waking hours wondering the best ways in which our tresses could reflect the heavenly.

But as it is, I can’t get into such niggly debates any more. And it seems, based on the strong and swift condemnation of what was probably an example in a much larger talk, many Christian women feel our time is better spent in other ways than worrying about out hair.

The fact of it is, I think, that we are too busy, and too tired. And in many cases, too hurt by a shiny, Stepford wife stereotype that Equip – for all its good points – has helped perpetuate.

For Christian women, traditional pressures, the type dealt with by our mothers and grandmothers, remain. We are still meant to be able to whip up an excellent meal or cake at a moment’s notice, to be a natural hand with children, to keep a spotless home, and to look fabulous no matter what the reason or season.

Add to this the new pressure to be one of the lucky few plucked from the crowd for partnership – whether or not that’s what we want it’s what others want for us – it’s no secret eligible men are now slim pickings in many places.

Then we add traditional service to the church, teaching scripture and making meals and cleaning up messes and praying with our friends – as well as more modern egalitarian roles, now present even at more conservative churches. We teach at bible studies and youth groups, lead singing and prayers.

Then, we are also workers – there are so few places left in Sydney where one can wrangle being a stay-at-home spouse or parent. Whether we are high-flying lawyers, doctors and executives, or work part-time or freelance, bringing in the bacon is now an element of life for almost all of us.

Add to that even the good things of life – time with wonderful friends and family, time with ourselves, celebrations and joys.

Add to that then the very bad – death, disease, caring responsibilities, health concerns.

It’s no wonder that when we were told what we should really care about is helping out our male co-workers (and beauty tips) we all lost the plot a little.

There are so many things we could be taught, at a time for just us. So many cares that could be cast to the cross. I would love to hear, from women wiser than I am, how to place Christ at the centre of this avalanche of competing wants and needs. How do I talk about Jesus with my friends and family? How do I make my love for people obvious in my workplace? How do I create a strong marriage that can also out to the many single people around me? Is having children really the horrible disaster the secular world assures me it will be? How much can I care about my career before I’m being a selfless dickhead? And on and on ad nauseum, the endless questions and concerns. And these are just mine! Imagine all of those in that room! The swirling dance of uncertainties, loves and losses, the regrets and the pride. And somebody got up and spoke about HAIR.

Just thinking about it all makes me so tired.

Perhaps I am wrong when I sometimes think that the way the church treats men and women is fundamentally different at every level. At one level, I’m beginning to think, it’s the same.

I think so often about how out of touch male preachers sometimes are with their congregations – with the opinions, concerns and troubles of the everyday worker, parent and neighbour.

If I’ve realised anything in my reflection on Equip, it’s that many of our female preachers suffer the same fatal flaw. For whatever reason, they do not come to the pulpit with the same concerns as their listeners. They give time to tiny fears and insecurities – rather than to trying to tackle the big concerns of money, relationships, time and work that see the majority of us still up at 1am on a school night, reaching for a big glass of wine or a second Connoisseur ice cream.

I hope that future me will make the time to attend Equip next year. My complaints, I promise, don’t come from any ill will towards the speakers or the organisational team- many of whom I know to be women who are Godly, kind, and in every way well-intentioned. I almost chose not to publish this post, because reading negative comments constantly about one’s work is awful in a way that those of us in the media are only too familiar with. I’ve decided to hit publish out of selfishness, and out of solace with those egalitarians who have spoken out.

I hope to come back to Equip not only to show my support, but because I have missed being part of such a big crowd of female believers – and I still believe, fundamentally, in the power of women preaching to women. In our concerns being tackled by our own. Also, I just really like hearing metaphors in sermons that aren’t about superhero movies or sport.

I hope, though, that this little ruckus will bring change. That Equip will become a place where women are armed, not coiffed. A place like the men’s conferences, advertised with fighting words and comforting shots of mountains. Where women can hear talks that bite and shift, but also include and console. Where, like men, we will hear talks about being strong and courageous, talks that speak to our whole lives, and that – please Lord – don’t focus on the “controversy classics” or those standards of Esther and Ruth.

I hope we can hear talks that speak to the women who are really there, rather than the old myths that are not.

Talks that are truly, equal but different.