Less About The Fence, More About The Playground: Female Ambition and Complementarian Culture

by Allyson Howell (Todd) February 17, 2021

There was once a community that experienced a great deal of growth. Many families with young children moved to the area and city planners saw the need for a place where parents could bring their kids and connect with one another. Plans were made for a playground to be built, but the only area big enough for a playground was near a busy intersection. Every day, families would pass by the construction site to see intricate tunnels, colorful swings, impressive slides, and all the latest in modern playground design. The children grew in eager anticipation for the day they could partake in this joyful park. 

The week before the playground was to open, a large, sturdy fence was established around the perimeter with all the safety precautions any parent could hope to see. Finally, the day came for the grand opening of the playground. The community flooded. Parents walked through the gate and let their children take off with all the speed their tiny feet could muster. Children ran and squealed and jumped and laughed while their parents sat comfortably on the benches watching their children explore, create, and learn.

Now imagine a family comes with their son for the first time to this playground. They walk in, serious and somber. Their child is eager to join with his friends, but the parents hold his wrists tightly and walk over to the fence. The father bends a knee to look his son in the eyes and says, “Do you see this fence? I want you to study it, know it, remember always that it is here. When you are playing, I want you to keep your eyes on the fence because this fence is the only reason you are able to play at all. And whatever you do – this is the most important thing I will say to you – do not try to climb the fence.” 

Is the father’s statement wrong? No. Is his desire for his child’s safety good? Yes. But what happens to the child’s spirit? His joy is squelched and his fear is elevated. He may climb the monkey bars and forget the fence is even there, only to hear his father yelling in the background, “Don’t forget about the fence!” 

If you’ve been in the world of Southern Baptists or complementarians for any length of time, you might be familiar with a giant fence we like to call “the office of elder reserved for men.”1 One of the first assumptions made about me when I started seminary was that my desire was to climb this fence. Even after explaining and demonstrating that I had no desire to even come near the fence, I still heard the bellowing voices of my fellow complementarians shouting, “Don’t forget about the fence!” 

I still hear them today, and my guess is other women do too. I trust that many who declare over and over again that women are prohibited from the pastorate have good intentions. They are confident in God’s Word and trust it as absolute truth and authority. They desire to defend the truth and speak clearly and often about the Scriptures. They see the world’s hyper-feminism and belief in equality without distinction and they want to stand in direct opposition to this distortion of God’s good design. I share in the deep trust of God’s Word, the desire to defend it, and the longing for this broken world to be made right. 

But the emphasis on the “fence” too often repeated can overshadow a woman’s good desire to serve the church. 

I know a lot of women, myself included, who are tired. The slightest hint of ambition can be misunderstood as reaching for the pastorate. A woman who speaks her mind or has strong opinions can be declared unfeminine. If a woman holds a leadership position in a church or Christian establishment, she can be subject to skepticism in ways that her male counterparts are not. The road to ministry in the church for women can be a weary one.   

When weariness takes its toll, it is easy for rebellion to rise in our hearts. I know there are times for me when the chorus of “no” feels so strong, I wonder if it’s even worth it to stay, or if I should just jump the fence and flee to the land where a boundaryless “yes” resounds. 

By God’s grace, when I am most tempted to run for the boundaryless “yes,” I am reminded of the sweetness in a “yes” that comes with boundaries. I am far less tempted to climb the fence around me when I hear my friends on the playground shout, “Allyson, come and play! Look at all that you can do!”

Fellow believers, when is the last time you encouraged women in your church to use their gifts? Are you more inclined to comment on what women cannot do than what they can? What would it look like if you spoke less about the fence, and more about the playground? 

I have seen the ways my church has grown when our pastors encourage women to use their gifts, and I am confident that God is most glorified when the whole church is encouraged to serve. 

It is not wrong to talk about the fence. It is not wrong to state very clearly that climbing the fence is dangerous. In fact, it is the very existence of the fence that gives us freedom to use the playground without fear. If I believe God established the fence as a good boundary, then I can roam freely within the playground He has created for me. I can explore, create, and learn all the ways I can glorify Him and serve His church. The fence is what makes the playground safe, but it is also what makes the playground boundless. What joy and goodness wait for the church when women are encouraged to sprint full-force into the playground where they can use their gifts in any and every way possible! God’s full and complete church, every man and woman, every pastor, deacon, or layperson, every child and every seasoned member, are necessary for the exultation of God’s glory to the ends of the earth.

May we, by God’s grace, speak less about the fence, and more about the playground. For the glory of God and the good of the church. 

1For the purpose of this post, I am working from the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, which states that the office of the pastorate is reserved for men. My personal conviction is that the role of pastor or elder is the only role in the church that is limited to men and other roles or leadership opportunities in the church or outside of the church are open avenues for women to use their gifts. There are, of course, many nuances in this discussion and my goal is not to address them all here. https://bfm.sbc.net/bfm2000/#vi-the-church