Christian Liberty in the Gender Debate: A Case Study

Before starting into my thoughts on Hannah’s post, welcome Jem Bloomfield to the discussion. Looking forward to your participation.

Now, on to the topic at hand; Hannah A has brought up some thoughts which hit at the heart of what we’re up to here (in my own thinking and desire for PTSS at least). She asks about how far do/should we extend liberty on differences of opinion on gender. In other words, to what extent can people of differing views continue in partnership. I am glad Hannah brought this up, because at present some within my own “tribe” are asking this very question (or at least a very similar one); can complementarians and egalitarians function together in a missional body. I am part of the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec (CBOQ). CBOQ approved the opening of ordination to women at our Annual General Meeting in 1947. It was not unanimous, and even now, the differences of opinion persist. There are some (I don’t really now what the numbers are like) pastors, laity, and congregations which believe ordination ought to be restricted to men only. These people/congregations continue to function within CBOQ, even though they disagree with this position. A “live and let live” approach has typically been the norm. But periodically the question pops up again.

So the question which Hannah asks “Where do women belong in complementarian organizations?” can also be expanded to say “Where do egalitarians belong in complementarian organizations?” and also tweeked a bit to ask “Where do complementarians belong in egalitarian organizations?”. In other words, yes, complementarians need to wrestle with the question of what freedoms women have to use their gifts, and whether they can function within organizations which have policies which are contrary to their convictions. And egalitarians need to ask similar questions. One Complementarian pastor recently spoke out in a blog post about what the lines in the sand for his continued affiliation with CBOQ are. One of them was if CBOQ declines to ordain someone because they hold to complementarian convictions. Of course, CBOQ has never done so, but our official policy is that women are free (and encouraged) to pursue ordination if they are convinced of a calling. I am not sure how complementarians process this tension, since they are part of a body which encourages something which they find to be contrary to Scripture. When I try to reverse the situation- in other words, if I, as an egalitarian, were part of a complementarian body- I struggle to see how I would continue to remain within that voluntary association.

PTSS is an experiment in such thinking. Can egalitarians and complementarians (with varying gradations within those two broad groups) discuss in Christian unity and grace the implications of our views? So far, I think the answer has been yes. This gives me a great deal of hope. But this is an online project. What happens when we move this to body like TGC or CBOQ? As of right now, a complementarian view of gender is a line in the sand for TGC, but a difference bridged by Christian liberty within CBOQ (although this isn’t always done well).

I think Hannah has captured the tendency well, saying “For many complementarians, egalitarians have been reduced to “liberals” and for egalitarians, complementarians are oppressive chauvinists.” This is the big issue. Can complementarians and egalitarians drop the labels and assumptions they’ve built about the folks on the other side of the conversation? Can we become people who graciously disagree? In denominational bodies where ordinations are overseen and performed, the issue comes into sharp conversation. But in non-denominational or inter-denominational parachurch bodies, this seems more like a possibility.

One nitpicky item to note, Hannah writes “The current debate between egalitarians and complementarians began when feminist theology started making inroads into evangelicalism in the 1970s.” This is only partially true. In some cases, in was after the new wave of feminism in the late 60s/early 70s which saw big shifts, in other cases, it was much, much earlier when egalitarian views began to gain real traction (like for e.g. CBOQ who began a conversation much earlier which culminated in the decision to ordain women in 1947.

But in answer to Hannah’s questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are? I certainly aspire to this as best I can. I have complementarian colleagues who I continue to interact with, continue to pray for and with, and continue to break bread with. I have no intention to change this.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake? I can’t say for sure. This is the part I am wrestling with. A pastor friend of mine from another denomination asked me to apply for a Sr. Pastor job at his church. I declined because a) I am currently planted in a call, and haven’t felt the conviction that it’s time to leave and b) I would inevitably run into problems because I have trouble keeping silent on the issue (the church in question allows women in all positions except Sr. Pastor and Elders, and the denomination does not ordain women). Would I speak at a TGC conference if invited? Probably (of course, I doubt they’d invite me for various reasons). Would I join? No (for various reasons). Would I join another organization that I agreed with on every front but this issue? There’s where things get tricky, and in all honesty I can’t answer right now. Luckily, I am quite comfortable with tensions and “I don’t know”s.