Last time we met up, I showed you an evangelical woman who wasn’t sure anymore if she could create change in her religion from within. Her admission was a response to the terrible story told by a complementarian pastor, Josh Howerton. The whole situation is still blowing up across the Christ-o-sphere because it highlights the terrible nature of complementarian relationships. As a result, this one response writer seemed to be struggling particularly hard with complementarianism as a doctrine.

At the end of her response (archive), Shannon Makujina wistfully admitted that she’d really hoped she could effect positive changes to complementarian evangelicalism “from within.” But maybe she’d been “too idealistic.”

That’s where we’ll start the second part of our examination of what Josh Howerton accidentally told the entire world about evangelical men’s sexism-for-Jesus scam. Similarly, this one evangelical gal has exposed the real stomach-churning truth of her religion—without even realizing it!

(From introduction: The Geek Social Fallacies; Adam Sessler’s 2022 meltdown and 2024’s electric boogaloo; Mark Kern is very upset about slightly edited skimpy outfits on female characters in video games; The whole WTAF blowup over Sweet Baby Inc and the Steam curator list of their games.)

(This post went live on Patreon on 4/30/2024. Its audio ‘cast is there too and publicly available! Feel free to check it out!)

Defining change from within

Changing an organization from within means working to change other members’ opinions and the group’s activities and stances while the change agent remains part of the group. The change agent tries to subtly persuade the group to change while also participating fully in group activities.

Critics outside the group may hope to spark change by revealing scandals and other abuses, but those who believe in change from within believe that change is far more likely to occur within the group than to be sparked from outside of it.

Evangelical leaders have happily weaponized this concept, and so have their control-hungry followers. I’ve been criticized multiple times by belligerent evangelicals for having deconverted and left Christianity rather than staying to change it from within. They always say it like that’s even something anyone could do—and like I should have continued placing myself in harm’s way while doing it.

By now, the notion of change from within is a bedrock belief in Christianity in general—and in evangelicalism in particular. Generally speaking, the higher in control-lust a Christian group is, the more likely they are to buy into this belief. (The diagram below illustrates what I’m talking about.)

The possible origin story of change from within

Starting around the mid-2010s, I began seeing evangelicals talking about changing their flavor of Christianity “from within.”

Somehow, the phrase has taken on an even stronger dimension as Christianity itself continues to decline. Evangelical leaders are desperate to figure out a way to keep their flocks’ butts warming pews. (I’ve noticed that what I call Butts in Pews, or BIP, is a very important measure of a pastor’s power.)

The overall idea may have arisen thanks to a big-name evangelical leader from the UK, John Stott. Decades ago, he explicitly told pew-warmers to do exactly that when other people in his denomination, the Church of England, began noticing a proliferation of evangelicals like him in their ranks. In 2016, a Christian described the situation (archive):

At the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress (NEAC) at Keele in 1967, a major question was whether evangelicals, still with a sense of being a beleaguered minority, should stay within the Church of England at all. Martyn Lloyd Jones of Westminster Chapel had said no—they should ‘come out from among her’ and form a pure, uncompromised, evangelical church. John Stott, of All Souls’ Langham Place, urged evangelicals to stay, engage, and effect change from within. Stott won the day—though his position then still does not convince everyone now. Evangelicals are not always good at compromise.

That last bit made me laugh. No, evangelicals are not just “not always good at compromise.” Their Dear Leaders have very successfully taught the flocks to consider compromise downright demonic. Just speaking the word in their presence makes them hiss like cats.

Another site, Firebrand Magazine (archive), repeated this same lore in 2021. However, by then they did not approve of the idea. They’d seen that decades of trying to swing their denomination rightward “from within” had failed.

(See also: John Stott and the evangelism goalpost he moved.)

A lot of Christians have a lot of faith in change from within

Over the years, many Christians have expressed a great deal of faith in the notion of changing their churches/denominations from within.

In 2016, a Christian wrote a Medium post (archive) titled “Is It Okay for a Christian to be Deeply Frustrated with The Church?” Apparently, it is totally okay—with three important provisions:

Christians needed to remember that their churches aren’t “just for [them].” They also needed to manage their frustration in a properly Jesusy manner. And they needed to remember that fallible humans make up the capital-C Church as a body (emphases in original, as always):

Remember the community is a collective of individuals. Imperfection and failure is inevitable, but don’t let that be an excuse for not taking responsibility and avoiding to be part of the solution towards positive change. Commit to change from within, not critique from without.

A heartbreaking 2017 comment echoes this belief from “Cynthia magi” on a Valerie Tarico post. Even though she hadn’t been able to change her church from within, she still felt “there is a place, perhaps for others to stay and try to change from within.”

And an evangelical’s 2023 post (archive) about the misogyny of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) takes for granted that outraged SBC-lings will need to consider change from within as a potential action path.

Few Christians even question the idea of change from within

In 2019, a Christian named JD Davis wrote a moving post about his own journey through evangelicalism (archive). That journey included a startling realization:

I realized that, while from the outside, it’s easy to evaluate and dismiss evangelical communities based on the hardline stances of their leadership, there often is also an underground, subversive contingent of discontented congregants who believe that the only way to save the community they love so much from the grips of fundamentalism is to stay, hoping that they can slowly but surely affect change from within. [. . .]

Some of my friends in evangelical spaces believe that their only recourse is to leave such an environment. Others believe that their time in these spaces is well spent, and that they can perhaps change the toxic culture from the inside.

By 2023, Christians alarmed by the growing division in their ranks still expressed optimism (archive) that change from within could make evangelicals behave less hypocritically toward others:

Most importantly, some are willing to critique their fellow partisans, respectfully disagreeing with policies and behavior they find problematic with the hope of encouraging change from within. Although space for thoughtful public dialogue has significantly diminished, forums remain for meaningful, critical discussion of political issues. Seek out such writers, follow their work, and commend them for their courage.

(LOL, nope. Nothing can make that miracle happen.)

A Redditor commented in 2022 about evangelical musician John Cooper’s declaration of war on the entire deconstruction movement:

…how exactly would such a war be fought?

In a better world, the answer would be an empathetic look at the reasons people leave the church accompanied by thoughtful outreach and calls for change from within.

Sure. And then what would happen…? Oh, yeah: NOTHING.

Sometimes, the truth reveals itself with fangs

In 2023, the New York Times ran an article about Black evangelicals (archive). In the article, they referred to “the classic challenge” facing this group:

[John] Onwuchekwa began to question whether he could truly help the S.B.C. diversify — confronting him with the classic challenge of trying to generate change from within an organization.

The topic also shows up on a subreddit for exvangelicals. In February, one of them asked about it (archive). After working hard to persuade the people in his church, “kevintheschmole” writes:

There was a time when I saw myself as a progressive evangelical, part of the change in the movement, but then one day something in me just snapped. I don’t know exactly what it was.

He ended up disaffiliating entirely, but he wondered if anyone else had tried to change their church from within. Many, many responders said they’d worked very hard to do that.

Alas, it’s not surprising at all to see that not a single responder claims to have succeeded. Nor have I ever encountered any other Christians who managed the trick. In “steeplejacking,” conservatives may swarm a compassionate, inclusive church to yank it rightward forever.

There is no similar trick that does the opposite.

That’s not some weird accident. That’s part of the function and design of evangelicalism.

Generally speaking, evangelicalism has become a dysfunctional authoritarian regime. If it ever could fulfill its own stated goals, it certainly can’t now. It has become a conduit of power for its most unscrupulous leaders.

Over many years, those leaders have systematically pared away all power from their followers. They have given that power to themselves. Unlike government bodies and charity watchdogs, nobody holds them accountable for any of that power, either.

Accountability as the X-factor

And that is exactly why complementarian theology is so dangerous for women, children, and anyone else designated by evangelicals as weaker and inferior to men. Complementarianism provides men power without accountability. At every step in a complementarian-espousing system, leaders gain more power while shedding more accountability.

At the very top of the system, we find a leader with limitless power and zero accountability.

Accountability is the magic ingredient that makes authoritarianism functional. Without it, the group becomes dysfunctional. Once dysfunctional, it cannot be rescued or reformed unless its major power-holders quickly recognize what’s happening, immediately move to stop those responsible, and then set strong rules in place to prevent anyone else from dragging the group into dysfunction.

The longer the group’s power-holders take to act, the more impossible it’ll be to fix things.

A few sheep within the flock clamoring for reform won’t faze the power-holders at all. At most, they are a minor distraction.

The requirements of functional authoritarianism

Authoritarianism isn’t necessarily bad. It can be extremely effective as a group management ideology.

But to be effective, and to prevent outbreaks of abuse, it needs certain elements or it quickly becomes dysfunctional:

  1. Leaders are qualified to lead. In other words, a business—like the SBC—needs a CEO who has proper business credentials, such as an MBA from a good school.
  2. The appointing of subordinates is completely impartial. Promotions are handled on the basis of skill and suitability for the role.
  3. Everyone in the group is aware of where they stand in the chain of command and what their duties are. The rules are clear, concise, and publicly-available. Leaders do not ever tolerate a court of favorites jockeying for power.
  4. The group has baked-in, top-to-bottom accountability. Watchdogs of various kinds have the power and access they need to expose scandals and breakdowns in leadership. The group’s leaders care more about meaningfully addressing scandals and breakdowns than they do about their own reputations or the group’s money flow.
  5. If someone in the group must be reined in or cast out, the group’s rules are clear enough that nobody doubts the propriety of the response. Nobody fears arbitrary punishment or cruelty.
  6. Group leaders ultimately want to fulfill the group’s stated purpose(s). If something has to change so that can happen, they are on board with the change.

In a more volunteer-rich environment, some of that list has to be amended slightly, of course—but not as much as you’d think. I’ve seen free-to-play games online that have run tickety-boo for decades with a fairly authoritarian structure. And others have crashed spectacularly and very quickly because their admins couldn’t live up to that list.

(In fact, my earliest thoughts about authoritarianism and functional-vs-broken systems came about as I moved through the online gaming world! It was a lot easier to contextualize my experiences in fundamentalism by seeing how similar it was to the worst gaming environments I’d experienced.)

If authoritarian group leaders transgress these elements and can’t be brought back in line quickly enough, then the group becomes dysfunctional. The group’s reason for existence becomes the gaining and growing and protecting of power.

And the group will never recover its former functionality.

What we see in dysfunctional authoritarianism

Now we can go down the list of what can go hideously wrong with an authoritarian group. These don’t necessarily happen in order, but it seems to me like one rotten leader can destroy the entire group in short order.

  1. Leaders aren’t qualified to lead. They haven’t the training or temperament to do it.
  2. In their incompetence, leaders appoint subordinates based upon personal affection and trust rather than skill and suitability. They can’t distinguish between a charming bad-faith actor and an actual good candidate for promotion.
  3. The group’s leadership becomes a crony network. Leaders protect each other’s interests and the group’s reputation. As soon as the group’s dysfunctionality level drops enough to allow it, a court of favorites springs up to jockey for leaders’ favor.
  4. The group’s rules change depending on who’s breaking them. The word of a leader counts for way more than that of a low-ranking member. Abusers in leadership would wreck the group’s reputation, so leaders close ranks around them and silence any talk of the abuse.
  5. No watchdogs keep an eye on how power is exercised within the group. Leaders operate in darkness and silence. Their lackeys help them maintain secrecy. The group is trained to blame abuse victims rather than their higher-level abusers. They trample anyone who dares to talk about what’s happening.
  6. Leaders leap upon every opportunity to grab more power from followers. They may downsize committees, rewrite charters, impose church discipline or member covenants, eliminate positions that threaten to expose them, eject troublemakers from the group, and more.
  7. The group is in constant defense mode. Drama, gossip, and backbiting breaks out constantly. Nobody knows where they stand. Punishments may seem arbitrary and way out of proportion to the offense. Sometimes, members get accused of things they didn’t even do.

Change cannot happen in this environment. That’s the last thing its masters want.

Bugs vs features, change from within vs no change ever at all

As Audre Lord tells us in her famous essay:

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support

It’s no accident that the complementarian men in charge of the SBC have taken literal years to begin dealing with their sex abuse crisis. Nor is it an accident that the complementarian hardliners in the denomination keep insisting that there is no sex abuse crisis in the SBC in the first place.

Nor is it an accident that complementarian control-hungry trainwrecks like Josh Howerton keep telling “emphasis word, joke[s]” and offering up “golden nugget[s] of advice from a mentor” that objectify, abuse, hypersexualize, humiliate, and denigrate the very women that complementarian ideology tells them to protect, cherish, nurture, and honor as “weaker vessels.”

These aren’t accidents. They aren’t bugs.

They’re the very features of complementarian ideology that evangelical men desire. If somehow someone in complementarianism could force them to live up to their end of the ideology’s terms, they’d drop the entire thing in an instant.

As above, so below: How complementarian men maintain their power over women

What I outlined above deals in the bigger picture. It describes large organizations like megachurches and similar regimes. But it can be scaled down just as easily as up. The same exact progression occurs at the micro-level in complementarian marriages:

  1. Evangelical men are not qualified to be the undisputed kings of their marriages. But they get crowned anyway. (See: Rick Pidcock’s rightful anger over Howerton “telling women to crown dishonorable men as their kings.”)
  2. These men listen only to authority figures who agree with the crowning of incompetent leaders like themselves. But even those authorities can’t rein them in.
  3. If the victims of complementarian abuse seek redress, the men they beg for help tend to side with their abusers. Men look out for their fellow men. They protect each other’s interests. If even one man gets fully outed and recognized as an abuser who took advantage of the one-sided nature of complementarianism, that threatens the power of all the other men who use this system. So that one man must be minimized and hand-waved away. And the next, and the next.
  4. Nobody can force complementarian husbands to do anything. There’s no one anywhere who can hold them accountable. If any evangelical leaders even try, the men they try to discipline can (and will) simply leave that church for another.
  5. Complementarian men are generally quite aware that their system allows for the abuse and subjugation of women. They are unwilling to introduce real accountability to that system, so they are always in defense mode. I don’t mean that they’re always arguing with egalitarians, though they certainly are. No, I mean that they’re always holding their breath till the next scandal drops, because there will always be another scandal any moment now that they’ll need to minimize and hand-wave away.

The only way that complementarianism works is if both people in the marriage are determined to act only in good faith. If one or both of them aren’t doing that at all times, then the system will fail—without any doubt or question.

That failure can end in the woman’s favor occasionally. Remember that munchie mom from American Gospel? She sure found a way to escape the unfair workloads imposed on women in complementarian marriages! But usually, the system fails in the man’s favor.

How a lack of accountability makes change from within impossible

Last time we met up, I briefly mentioned that Shannon Makujina’s essay ended with a hope that is indoctrinated into evangelicals by their leaders. It’s not “too idealistic” that she wants to make change from within. It’s simply the end result of many years of indoctrination and promises from evangelical leaders. She might similarly realize that her beliefs about prayer are too idealistic, or magic healing, or any one of a number of other false teachings in evangelicalism.

Evangelical leaders talk about “change from within” like it’s possible because it benefits them to keep their marks in the sheepfold.

Stay in your churches, little sheep! There, you can subtly influence your leaders. You can totally turn this Titanic around! We neeeeeeeeeeed you, you see! Without YOU, nothing can change! If you leave, everything will stay the same! And it’ll be YOUR FAULT!

Whatever happens, the marks must be kept within the sheepfold to be preyed upon. Whatever lies the sheep need to hear to stay put, evangelical leaders will tell those lies and more. They’ll lie all day every day, and they’ll do it with big Jesusy smiles on their faces and winsome tears rolling down their cheeks.

Their sideshow performances change nothing.

Evangelical pew-warmers might realize the truth eventually

Whatever evangelicalism was once as a system, its leaders allowed bad-faith actors to proliferate and gain leadership roles under them. Those bad-faith actors couldn’t and can’t gain that kind of power anywhere that’s reputable. They’d be kicked out of power very quickly in any functional group, too, once they revealed their true colors. No, they need groups that grant huge amounts of power quickly, have no way to prevent the ascension of bad-faith actors or eject them, and don’t hold power-holders to any kind of real accountability.

That’s why evangelicalism nowadays is a sickeningly toxic movement (archive).

Similarly, complementarian ideology has a lack of accountability and a very one-sided power dynamic. These flaws are a big part of its appeal for evangelical men. There’s no way whatsoever that anyone—critics outside or dissenters inside the fold—can change or fix those flaws. That’s because those flaws are exactly what make complementarian ideology so incredibly appealing to those who need a lot of institutional help to get and keep undeserved power.

Complementarianism is to evangelical relationships what dysfunctional authoritarianism is to the larger scale of evangelicalism as a whole. If either ever got reformed in a way that allowed their adherents to achieve these systems’ respective stated goals, those who most benefit from these systems as they are now would abandon them immediately.

Of course, there’s not a chance in Hell of reform happening. Those who benefit most from dysfunction have ensured that those they control have no power whatsoever to make changes to the systems. However, they’ve also dishonestly taught the powerless in their groups that this kind of change is possible.

People may go mad in herds, but we awaken one by one, alone

I see awakening from the illusion of change from within as being very similar to awakening from the illusion of Christianity itself. It’s a sad awakening. It’s no fun to realize that something you’ve believed your entire life isn’t true at all. One by one, we awaken. Perhaps it must be that way. Nobody can rush epiphany. Antiprocess will ensure failure if anyone tries.

In Reddit threads, in comment sections, in forums, I see people awakening to the truth of change from within. They do it alone, always, much like deconversion itself. It’s a struggle—and a painful one, at that. The illusion felt so good. It should have worked. It should have!

But it wasn’t true. There was never going to be a happy ending to that story.

Dreaming the impossible dream of change from within

Still, I don’t think it’s impossible to create change from within. I just think it’s not gonna happen with a dysfunctional authoritarian group.

In more functional groups that are open to change, typically change is always occurring within them anyway. So nobody has to gird their loins and set out to do that. That tells me that if it’s gotten to the point of someone explicitly, expressly setting out to make change from within, chances are good they’re in a dysfunctional group and should just leave.

The trick is recognizing which groups are functional and which ones aren’t before wasting your time.

Be alert for the signs I’ve outlined. Look for accountability. Seek groups that can identify bad-faith actors and eject them once found. Don’t hang around groups that sprout constant abuse scandals. The more bad apples you find in a barrel, the greater the chance of that barrel being dysfunctional. Nobody in a dysfunctional group will ever protect you better than you can protect yourself.

If you’re not looking out for your own best interests, then please don’t be shocked when nobody else does it for you.

But if you awaken, know this: You can only leave a broken system. You can’t fix it, can’t repair it, can’t reform it. Its masters have made sure of that. You will fail.

If someone in a broken system needs more than that to feel comfortable with stopping and leaving, then here is my official permission to make the break:

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.


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