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Jesus and the womens' fringe

Dear Equip,

I was there last Saturday. I was listening intently. I don’t doubt that you all spoke from the Bible, and your preaching was in good faith. Your love for God and women was clear, and your faithful hard work was evident. I was thrilled to see so many Jesus followers gathering to sing and learn.

My concern wasn’t that you talked about hair or feminism or Kristen Stewart. And I accept that after searching the scriptures and wrestling with the hard stuff that you’ve landed with complementarian theology. Plenty of evangelicals do.

But here’s the thing. Plenty of evangelicals don’t.

The controversy since Saturday has been messy, and plenty of it unloving, which saddens me greatly. Messy discussion indicates that deep wounds have either been inflicted or reopened. Many have shared with me personally and on social media that they came away from Equip feeling conflicted, confused or demoralised. Those feelings are typically what people describe after they’ve experienced a trauma. Here’s what I think happened on Saturday.

I understand that you’ve concluded that womanhood is expressed in submission and helping your husband to shine. I respect that you’re so devoted to Jesus that you’ve decided women can’t preach to men. I heard you when you said that its ok for a female to be a CEO but that she should enact her role in ways that help the men around her[1].


Please, can we acknowledge that that’s not the only reading? Can we admit that God’s Word is pretty clear in some places and pretty obscure in others? Can we agree that 1 Corinthians 11 is one of the historically and culturally complex passages that has more than one credible exegetical endpoint?

When you said ‘Feminism tricks me into crying out for what I’m missing out on’[2] you made it feel like there isn’t room in God’s family for those who identify with feminism. You did a disservice to the good that feminism has achieved, including: the vote, ability to divorce an abusive husband, and more equitable pay. And worse, when you said ‘I would have called myself a Christian feminist… but then I went to bible college.’ You made it seem that those who subscribe to any or all of feminism are immature or uneducated. Your words are confusing for many reasons, not the least of which is that Equip and feminism share a core belief in the equality of the sexes. And while you’ve made it clear you’re not feminists yourselves, could we please approach a complex and loaded subject with a little more nuance than saying feminism tricks us, and that there’s no place for it in God’s good order?

When you said that nature reveals the reality of headship, whereby ‘there’s a natural sense that men have short hair and women have long hair’ across times and cultures, I saw and heard the audience begin to squirm. But then you added ‘there’s something rebellious about long hair for men, and short hair for women’ while showing a picture of Kristen Stewart’s recent buzz-cut. The time spent on using hair length as an indicator of rebellion against or submission to God opened the way for Satan to whisper ‘shame’ to sisters who shave their head but not their underarms, and ‘pride’ to sisters who shave their underarms but not their head. And, unintentionally I’m sure, but nonetheless, you’ve cast doubt or guilt over cancer patients, Shave for a Cure champions, the girl with hair so darn frizzy that she has to shave it to get the nits out, women suffering hair loss from pregnancy or illness, not to mention mothers who chop it all off just to make the day manageable. Oh, and half of Africa.

When you imply that feminism is uneducated and ungodly, and liken cutting your hair very short to an act of rebellion against your God-given womanhood, you’re catering to the conservative core and alienating the fringe (pardon the pun). And my guess is that Jesus cares more about our love and inclusion of the fringes of society than he does about the fringes on our heads.

When you talked about women coming under the headship of her father or husband, you sidelined single women, women with dead or absent fathers, and unmarried, divorced or widowed women. Aren’t widows and orphans the ones for whom we’re to show particular care (James 1:27)? Where was the message of God as the sufficient loving Father for them?

You talked about women created to be helpers; helpers in the spheres of home and church, and also beyond as helpers in every sphere. You talked about headship being eternal not cultural, and the general principle of headship extending from all men to women. And you said these conditions of female submission to male headship are not an expression of inequality. I know there’s endless discussion on this topic, but I thought it should have been explained how you can simultaneously restrict women in opportunity, voice, and representation in every sphere, yet still call it equality. It sounds exactly like inequality to me.

You rightly condemned domestic violence, rape, pornography, abuse, and objectification of women, and I’m grateful that you clearly said that women are made in the image of God and never deserve such treatment. Some female image-bearers do find joy in submitting to a caring, loving, kind and godly husband, but not every woman has a husband like that. You taught us to be as innocent as doves, but I was waiting for the message to the women who’ll need to be wise as serpents when they go home tonight (Matt 10:16).

The unilateral submission you preached is an inherently risky doctrine, as the bigger, stronger partner is given authority over the other. Complementarianism would be safer to practice if sin wasn’t present, but sin is always present. If you preach headship and submission, you also need to preach the limits of headship and submission, to safeguard the women who subscribe. I was waiting for an illustration of the difference between healthy submission and enduring abuse, but none was given[3]. In cases where husbands regularly misuse their power (which happens in more Christian households than we’d care to consider), it’s those women who need clear descriptions of manipulation and control, and then permission, no, direction, that safety overrides submission.

Then you talked about complementarianism bringing freedom to women. It does bring freedom to some women, but I suspect that the women who have been harmed and oppressed by complementarianism felt anything but free. I know you say its sin that’s the problem, not headship, but complementarianism provides the conditions under which sinful abuse and poor treatment can flourish. My counselling room remains full of women who are hurting and downtrodden at the hands of complementarian men. I was waiting for you to offer some solace to the women who can’t call it freedom.

Then there’s the women who have been failed and neglected by fathers, husbands, male bosses and male church leaders. Those are the women who seek refuge at a womens’ conference. They seek solidarity and peace in the safety of ‘female’. To tell them that ‘female’ is to help men shine invalidates their deep pain, and adds inadequacy to their desire to glorify God directly.

Last Saturday, another very different gathering was happening. A friend of mine was publicly shaving her head to both raise awareness about her own female pattern baldness and fundraise for a young friend who lost her hair due to chemo. My friend drew the church and secular community together for the event. She showed powerful, public witness to the love of Jesus. While taking a pre-emptive strike at her own hair-loss condition, she also raised money to support her sick young friend and her family as they walk the cancer treatment road. Now that’s what I call biblical womanhood.


[1] I refer to what was said at Equip 2017 with as much accuracy as I can. Accuracy may be limited by my inability to take notes as fast as the preachers spoke. However in this article I have endeavored to only refer to what was said from the pulpit when I am confident I’ve captured the main words and spirit of the message.

[2] The accuracy of quotes may be similarly limited, as noted above, however remains true to the main words and spirit of the sermons.

[3] An excellent book on this subject is “But He Says He Loves Me” by Dina L. McMillan


Kylie is a Christian Psychologist who works with perpetrators and survivors of family violence. She holds tertiary qualifications in theology and psychology.

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