Just because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should (and other arguments)

Bronwyn, thank you for speaking into the question of application with such insight! I appreciate your openness and willingness to wrestle with these questions.

I also really appreciate your reminder, Hannah, that not all gender conservatives are complementarians. If I’m honest, I didn’t realize that until you explained it.

I can’t speak to the questions posed here from a complementarian point of view, as that is not my own conviction. But, the fuzziness of what it means to be in authority over a man is something I’ve wrestled with a great deal as I have tried to be faithful to God’s calling on my life.

As a recent college graduate preparing to head off to seminary, I met with a local pastor to talk about what might be ahead for me in my seminary journey. At that time I was adamant that I had no intentions to be ordained. I believed that women could not be called into ordained ministry. But, I did have gifts for teaching, and had been recommended by many of my professors to pursue an academic path. I also had a profound love for Scripture, and as God called me to seminary, I believed the Mdiv. would be step one on a journey towards becoming a professor.

I sat down on a couch in a dimly lit room with my husband by my side and a pastor in front of both of us. The pastor spoke kindly to my husband and to me about our upcoming seminary journey. He lauded my gifts for teaching and ministry, and he praised my husband’s faithfulness in pursuing his calling to pastoral ministry. And, then his face became very serious.

“April, I worry about you,” he said. “You’ve got gifts, to be sure, but you have to be careful how you use them. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

Interestingly, he never gave the same warning to my husband. And, though he never specified why he addressed this concern only to me, I knew that he was worried I’d start sliding down the “slippery slope” and soon become an advocate for the ordination of women.

In that regard, he was right, I suppose, though I don’t really believe in the idea of a slippery slope. And though it was the first time I had heard the can vs. should argument, it would not be the last.

Though he did not say it directly, I think what the pastor was getting at was the idea that even though a woman theoretically could take a position as a pastor it does not mean she should. He was taking his interpretation of the way God speaks to women and men and was applying it to the realm of vocation. If the Bible says women are not permitted to have authority over a man, how do we apply this to a woman who has leadership and teaching gifts?

What about situations in which men recognize a woman’s gifts and ask for her direction?

How does one discern the difference between what can be done and what should be done?

I also want to admit that I struggle in responding to this conversation as someone who is convinced that women can (and are) called into positions of leadership in the church. I struggle because I do not believe women and men have no differences whatsoever. But, I do not think God speaks to men and women differently in the Bible. I think God speaks to each person regardless of that person’s gender differently because we are all different people.

This is why we read the Bible in community, rather than in isolation, because we are a body and what one hears may be what we all need to hear.

Not All Conservatives

In order to address Bronwyn’s first question,

To what extent do Piper and Grudem (and the big names at CMBW) speak for all complementarians? How big, and how grey, is our grey area?

we need to clarify something. I believe that part of the “greyness” results from using the term “complementarian” to refer to anyone who holds a conservative view of gender—anyone who sees distinct male/female roles in marriage and church office. But what if not all gender conservatives are complementarians?

Complementarianism might be better understood as one expression of gender conservativism. As a response to evangelical feminism, complementarianism developed and flourishes in a specific cultural context, namely a western, white, middle-upper class context; because of this, it will reflect western, white, middle-upper class assumptions about work, economics, and home. The fact that Pastor Piper is even concerned with answering the question “what jobs can a woman do” reflects this.

Consider how the Danvers’ Statement positions complementarianism against “feminist egalitarianism” (which itself was influenced by 2nd-wave feminism). Insofar as complementarians formed their identity in direct opposition to 2nd-wave feminism, they became a photonegative of it.  None of us should be surprised, then, that complementarians are asking “what jobs can a woman can do” because this is precisely the same question that 2nd-wave feminists asked. But even this question is loaded with assumptions about class, race, and agency.

I grew up in a low-income setting where people didn’t have much choice about which “jobs” they took. Today I live and worship in a working-class community where very few of the women in our church have the luxury of not working outside the home. Even fewer would have the luxury of turning down a promotion if it meant she’d find herself “leading” a male co-worker. And yet, these folks would be the first to affirm that “father is head of the home” and that the office of pastor is restricted to men. (These folks would also tend to be congregational in church polity so women—as members of the congregation—enjoy a form of representation that those in more hierarchical settings would not.)

I am a conservative, but I often find it difficult to identify with complementarianism. Not because I reject gender differences, but because I reject the incomplete definitions of work, home, and economics that are part of the cultural context in which complementarianism developed. Still, it does exists. And because Piper and Grudem were leaders in its development, there is a sense in which I do think they speak for it. But insofar as complementarianism exemplifies a specific cultural experience, I do not believe that they speak for all who hold a conservative reading of gender.

Acknowledging this leads to answering Bronwyn’s second question.

If one does have a general commitment to a difference in male/female roles in church, family and the world… how in the world do we start trying to figure out what that looks like in practice without sliding straight down that muddy slope?

We start in context of our immediate relationships. We start at home. We start with our nearest neighbors. We start in our local churches. We start in our cultural context.

How my husband and I honor the gender differences between us, living here in Appalachia, will not be the same as how a couple in East Africa honors the differences between them. How my local church honors the differences between men and women will not be the same as how a church from a different ecclesiology honors the differences between men and women.

Admittedly, this requires more ownership of the issue as well as more male-female collaboration to honor those differences well. A pastor far removed from my home and local church cannot make a list of how men and women must relate here in my community. But we must wrestle with it. Pastors and leaders here must process it along with a whole host of other questions about human flourishing. And when we do, I believe we will honor these differences in terms of our relationships: my husband and my wife; my elder and my congregant; my brother and my sister.

And when we do this–when we live in community with each other–I believe much of the “grey” quickly comes into focus.

Lists of Things That Women Cannot Do: The Problem With John Piper (and Me)

file4171276032990John Piper made a bit of a splash with his podcast of last week: Should Women Be Police Officers? A female listener called in, saying she “is a woman who enjoys being a woman… and feels no desire to compete to be better than men at being masculine,” but felt she was “called to police work”. Was this wrong, she wanted to know?

Piper begins his response with a caveat:

“My sense is that it is unwise to make a list of women’s jobs and men’s jobs. There is simply too much diversity and too much flexibility in how many jobs there are and how the jobs are done and what the very relationships with men or women are in all the various jobs. It just won’t work to try to make a list like that.”

But then, as Benjamin Corey insightfully points out, he goes on to do just that. Using “biblical principles”, Piper elaborates on two general principles regarding masculinity and femininity, that being that women should, in general, not hold positions that are both personal and directive in their leadership over men. So, for example, a female traffic engineer may have a very directive job, in that she is telling (male) drivers where they may drive, but her leadership is not personally aimed at them. This may be contrasted with a female drill sergeant, whose leadership over men is clearly both directive and personal, and would “violate her sense of womanhood and their sense of manhood” in the discharge of her duties.

Like Aimee Byrd, I am grappling with this podcast. I, too, was deeply influenced by Piper and Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood when I read it fifteen years ago – but as time goes by I’m finding a deep discomfort with where the lines are being drawn, and I am more than a little irritated by the persistent theme that theirs is the line held by those who “deeply want to shape their whole lives by scripture” (the closing paragraph of the podcast). As if, by questioning his lines in the sand, this reveals something less than a deep desire on my part to seek and obey the Scriptures.

I remain a “soft” complementarian in that I am persuaded that the Scripture does address men and female distinctly and differently their relationships with one another and in the world. I admit that there are cultural filters to the context and worldview at the time we must consider (after all, we are not advocating for slavery according to the household codes of the NT letters), and that we are somewhere on the continuum of a redeemed view of humanity, with particular application to our expressions of sexuality. Whatever happened before, and in, and after the garden of Eden affected relationships between men, women, and God – and we have hard theological work to do to figure out where in that journey we are.

My own persuasion is that the Scripture still addresses me, as a woman, differently as it does to men. But what I don’t know, and what Piper’s list of what women should do in the workplace (and Grudem’s list on what women should do in the church) reveal to me is a deep problem in applying these convictions. The Danvers Statement states that “some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men,” a fact which Grudem insists “draws a definite line.” My question is: is the line really so definite?

In my experience, it really is fuzzy.

In Piper’s example of a woman (acceptably) working as a traffic engineer, she may not be personally directing all those male drivers and thus violating their sense of masculinity (!!!), but in the real workplace, she would be presenting her plans to a state level department of transport. There would be committee meetings and managers, presumably a high number of whom would be male. And then there are the construction crews who will build those roads and put the signs where she demarcated they should go. In a day to day way: her job would involve some significant personal direction with male co-workers and subordinates. Like I said: fuzzy.

In my own marriage, my husband and I are persuaded by the servant leader/capable helper model, but I will own that in practice – it looks a lot like the healthy egalitarian marriages I see around me, because in truth: respect and other-person-centered love, which Scripture calls us to, lands up looking very similar in practice. In my nearly 12 years of marriage, I can’t think of a single example of a “when the rubber hits the road, final decision” where my husband needed to wield his manly decision-making authority over me. It really has always been more considerate than that. Fuzzy.

And what of teaching? So, I can’t teach the scriptures to men, but if I publish a talk on my blog, can men read it? Should they? I can teach children and women, but not men… but at what stage do boys become men? Can I teach a high school group? What about college? What if there’s a male pastor who says I am teaching “under his authority”? Is there a difference between my sharing my testimony in a Sunday school class, or sharing it in the main Sunday service? Can I teach church history (which surely should be instructive), but not the book of 1 Samuel (which is both historical and instructive)? Fuzzy.

My confession is this: Pastor John’s podcast shines a light on something of the slippery slope of trying to apply principles. I find myself wanting to put significant distance between my own views and his, but I have a hard time knowing how, or where, to draw those (broad, smudged) lines.

The questions I’d like to raise at our SaltShaker table are twofold:

  1. To what extent do Piper and Grudem (and the big names at CMBW) speak for all complementarians? How big, and how grey, is our grey area?
  2. If one does have a general commitment to a difference in male/female roles in church, family and the world… how in the world do we start trying to figure out what that looks like in practice without sliding straight down that muddy slope?

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sophia?

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Jem. Some quick remarks in response, followed by some reflections on Sophiology:

  1. The sort of figure that Wisdom represents is a matter of considerable debate. Is Wisdom an actual entity or a sort of personification (prosopopoeia)? This could be compared to the question of the ontological status of the woman of Revelation 12. If it is an actual entity, is it personal or quasi-personal? Is it a divine entity or being? Is it a hypostatization of an attribute of God? Is it one of the persons of the Trinity? If it is a personification, what reality justifies the personification? I think that it is important that we take these questions seriously, rather than short-circuiting such study to a straightforward identification of Wisdom with the Second Person of the Trinity.
  1. The identification of the figure of Wisdom with the Second Person of the Trinity is a widespread position, well within the boundaries of orthodoxy, albeit definitely not a complete consensus (Irenaeus, for instance, identifies Wisdom with the Spirit—Against Heresies, 4.20.3). However, such identification does not legitimize the interchangeability of pronouns or conflation of representations (Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s Sophia-christology runs into problems here, I think), not without considerable further argumentation. One could argue, for instance, that the Apostle Paul is the mother labouring in birth in Galatians 4:19 or the nursing mother in 1 Thessalonians 1:7. Even if one could imagine extensive speech-in-character (prosopopoeia) of such a figure, it wouldn’t be appropriate to start using masculine and feminine pronouns interchangeably of Paul as a result.
  1. Imagery has its own logic and grammar, perhaps gendered imagery especially. Scripture personifies Israel in various ways: as a son, as a bride/daughter, as a mother, as an animal, etc. It can be tempting for modern readers to believe that this justifies an à la carte approach to biblical imagery. However, each element of imagery is part of a broader picture and each family of imagery meshes together in a larger symbolic network: you can’t appropriate imagery piecemeal or abstract them from the larger network without tearing the larger fabric. Once again, a crucial aspect of this is that male and female consistently stand for different things, because men and women are fundamentally different in their symbolic potential in Scripture: gendering isn’t a matter of indifference.
  1. The image of Wisdom (Sophia) in Proverbs and elsewhere needs to be understood in terms of the broader picture within she occurs. The entire book of Proverbs is about the relationship between the royal son and wisdom, framed in terms of the quest for a good wife. The book juxtaposes the way of folly, of the foolish woman who leads to destruction, with Lady Wisdom and the noble wife, who should be desired and sought. The book ends with the portrait of the noble wife, Lady Wisdom as royal consort. The prince’s relationship with Wisdom is presented as erotic in character, comparable to the relationship between a man and wife (a theme even more pronounced in Wisdom 8:2ff.). The work of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 is framed by the creational initiative of YHWH, the transcendent God, who is presented as grammatically masculine.

So, what is to be done with Sophia? Wisdom appears to be a sort of mediating figure, an immanent principle of divine operation or divine Person, present and active within the creation. Wisdom is that by which God created and that through which humanity seeks God. Wisdom is represented as a woman to be sought by the royal son. Wisdom is presented as the immanent agent of God’s great works and presence (e.g. Wisdom 1011). Themes associated with Wisdom are explored in 1 Corinthians, for instance, where Paul possibly alludes to such things as Wisdom of Solomon’s account of Wisdom’s role in the Exodus and speaks of Christ in terms of the wisdom (Wisdom?) of God (1:24, 30).

Although identifying Christ as/with Wisdom is attractive, I believe it is mistaken. I believe Wisdom is far more appropriately associated with the Holy Spirit (e.g. Isaiah 11:2; Acts 6:3, 10; 1 Corinthians 2; Wisdom 1:6; 7:7, 22; 9:17), not least on account of the way that they are described. Of course, Christ is anointed with the Spirit without measure, and the Holy Spirit is his Spirit, so a close relationship between Christ and Wisdom is to be expected. Christ is the royal Son who receives Wisdom. In the feminine figure of the Church, formed in union with the Son by the Spirit/Wisdom, I suspect that we see a fuller flowering of the nuptial themes of the wisdom literature. In the union between Christ and his bride in the Holy Spirit, the book of Proverbs arrives at a greater fulfilment.

Approached carefully within such a broader biblical framework, I believe that there is plenty of latitude for and much to be gained from exploring the imagery of Wisdom, not least its gendered dimensions.

“…we understand her to be the Word of God…”

A splendid variety of ideas so far – I’d like to pick up and ponder a couple of questions which Hannah provided.  Not to answer them, but simply to develop a couple of themes.  I’ll also be carrying on the Patristic note which April brought into our discussion.

Hannah noted the tradition of referring to the Spirit in feminine language, and speculated upon how using gendered terms for persons of the Trinity might connect with instinctive feelings about power.  If I’m reading her right, she implies that for some people using “she” for the Spirit will might inclusive and reflect the diversity in unity within the Trinity.  And, if I’m still understanding her, she implies that for others it might lead to subordinationist assumptions, given two historical accidents: the less developed theology of the Spirit in many Christian traditions, and the socially-conditioned view of women as inferior or secondary which is such a constant presence in our patriarchal societies.

I think she’s absolutely right in both cases, and I’d like to draw out a point which lies behind her suggestions: the contingency of speech and its dependence upon context and developing traditions.  As Hannah points out, “she” will have vastly different implications for different people, and its meanings will vary across time and cultures as well as across individuals.  Given the amount of time we spend scrutinising the context of past speech and writing, I wonder if it’s worth asking what context we’re imagining we speak in.  Would it be reasonable to speak of God differently in theological speculation than in communal worship?  In Biblical commentary and in personal prayer?  Might it be appropriate to be more kataphatic at some moments and apophatic at others?  There are many forms of speech – description, address, proclamation, performance, citation – which it might be helpful to consider as needing varying words.

It’s also possible to extend Hannah’s remarks by a reference to Origen, whom I was reading recently as part of my not very extensive pottering around the writings of the Fathers.  In De Principiis, Origen goes beyond referring to the third person of the Trinity with female pronouns, and cheerfully uses them of Christ.  the line I quoted for the title of this post comes from Of Christ, in the passage where Origen is concerned to identify the Word of God with divine Wisdom (and to insists on Wisdom’s hypostatic existence on the way.)  In identifying the two, he includes lines such as “we understand her to be the Word of God” and “on this account she is called the Word”.  I wonder how this connects with the issues of speech and context I sketched in the previous paragraph: does it seem controversial to put the pronoun “she” next to the second person of the Trinity?  If so, does that reflect a difference in situation, or a lack of thinking through our theological and Biblical commitments?

And I can’t quote that bit of Origen without remembering the heroine of Catherine Fox’s novel The Benefits of Passion, who finds herself frustrated by the way her tutor adds “or woman, of course, or woman” to the end of sentences to sound scrupulously inclusive, and expects one day to hear him declare “He was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit by the Virgin Mary, and was made man…or woman, of course.  Or woman.”

It’s Getting a Little Athanasian up in Here

Oh dear, Graham! I’m afraid everything I post in response to Alastair’s intriguing initial conversation starter will have, “That’s modalism, Patrick!” ringing in the background.

Alastair, thank you for kicking off this conversation, and thank you Bronwyn and Graham for your excellent responses and questions.

If I may, I’d like to ask a different question, one that I think all of our other questions are attempting to answer: Is the Trinity a helpful analogy for how men and women ought to relate to each other?

Genesis 1:27 says this: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NRSV).  But what does that mean for human relationships? More specifically, what does it mean for marriages?

I’ll go ahead and stick my neck out there and say that it’s dangerous for us to speculate too much about the inner life of the Trinity, especially if we are doing so in an attempt to understand what godly human relationships ought to look like. Creeds have been written, people deemed heretics, churches split, battles (verbal or otherwise) waged over the exact nature of the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the Trinity. And frankly, most of it is speculation.

The Gospel of John goes to great lengths to assert the divinity of Christ. John 1 talks about the pre-existence of the Son, that he was not created, and that he was present at creation. And while, 1 Corinthians 11:3 seems to suggest the subordination of Jesus, when read in the context of the rest of Scripture (the Gospel of John, Philippians 2:6-11, and more), the subordination of Jesus within the Trinity is decidedly less clear.

It’s interesting to me that this idea of subordinationism is still hanging on as the majority of the Athanasian Creed was written to refute it.  Truly there is nothing new under the sun. Here’s just a portion of that creed:

The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten; the Son was neither made nor created, but was alone begotten of the Father; the Spirit was neither made nor created, but is proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Thus there is one Father, not three fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three spirits.

And in this Trinity, no one is before or after, greater or less than the other; but all three persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal; and so we must worship the Trinity in unity and the one God in three persons.

Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity.

Well, all righty then.

Whenever we think about the inner nature of the Trinity, I think we have to do so with great humility, and with our sandals off. Indeed, this is holy ground, and we can never fully conceptualize God as God truly is. Because of this, I think we need to be very careful with social trinitarianism. Our human relationships should honor God. They should reflect the fruits of the spirit, which also means in some way they should reflect God. But, they cannot perfectly reflect the Trinity, nor should we insist that they do.

What can we learn from the Trinity that can be applied to our human relationships? Things like humility, sacrificial love, self-giving, and grace. In my own marriage, we strive for mutuality and mutual submission, but rather than claim that we live this way because the trinity is mutually submissive, we live this way because we believe all Christians are called to submit out of love.

Rather than social trinitarianism, it is the example of Christ’s radical self-giving and the call for all Christians to do likewise that compels us.

What Does The Trinity Teach Us (If Anything) About Gender Relationships?

Alastair has raised a number of questions about the use of trinitarian theology in discussions regarding gender. In a longer post, he laid out some critiques offered by leading trinitarian theologians about social trinitarianism, arguments that rely on the “use of the inner life of the Trinity as a basis for its social vision.”

Reading these posts left me spinning. Even though I have a theology degree and have read more than the average number of articles on men and women relating “biblically” to each other, this was a perspective I have never heard before, and yet on reading the critique I realized that YES! I have been confused by the fact that both complementation and egalitarian theologies rely on arguments positing a certain view of the way the Father, Son and the Spirit relate to each other to support their views (Complementarians: “just as the son submits to the Father, so women should submit to men! Together, men and women reflect the beauty of the Godhead!”… Egalitarians: “Just as the Father, Son and Spirit relate in mutual, affirming, mutually submissive ways, so too we are imago dei and there is no one-upmanship between men and women.”) The shifting and varying theological arguments here do suggest to me that rationalization, rather than honest and principled theological reasoning, is taking place.

I, for one, am in favor of taking a distinct step back from social Trinitarianism. The danger that we will project our social and hermeneutical biases onto Scripture is ever-present, and greatly heightened when the doctrine in question is the unknowable God himself.

However, I am not sure then what to make of the statements as in 1 Corinthians 11:3: “but I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”, particularly as it relates to the meaning of “head” and “submission”. These are relationship-words which Scripture itself uses to describe aspects of the Father/Son’s relationship, men and women’s relationship, and the relationship between us and God. Clearly, we are to learn something from the patterning of relationships, but it seems that we are in grave danger of error when trying to pin down exactly what it is we’re learning.

I do not understand “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 to refer to ontological ordering (head doesn’t mean “source”, after all), but if it does refer to some functional way of relating, I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to apply it. I had understood “head” to mean “authority”, and the verb “submit” to mean “appoint yourself under the authority of…”, recognizing that Jesus himself submitted to authority (the Fathers’, the rulers of his day etc), and that even the demons themselves submit (recognizing authority) in certain situations is significant because it signals to me that, whatever we say about mutuality in God’s economy, that we are not always at the same levels as others, and may need to accord proper respect and deference as is appropriate to that situation. Jesus is the King of Kings, but there was a time when he bowed to kings.

Even if I am persuaded (and I think I am) that there is no “eternal subordination of the son to the Father”, the scripture still speaks of Jesus’ submission, and in some way calls us to model that submission in appropriate relationships. As such: the questions of what that means for me as a woman relating to my husband specifically, the men in my church, and men in general still remain. It would be, however, something of a relief to not have the Trinity being used as a theological club to make points in that conversation.

Conferences and Catholicity

Many thanks for the welcome everyone has extended!  Hannah raises a really knotty issue, and one which I’m by no means equipped to answer satisfactorily. But a couple of issues spring to mind, which I thought I could use to help me think through the implications: conferences and catholicity.

Whose panels do you speak on? For the last few years, I’ve been hearing the idea that leftish men ought to make it a point of principle that we don’t accept speaking invitations where women wouldn’t be welcome on the platform. If memory serves, I’ve seen Nick Cohen and John Scalzi take this position, amongst others. It has had to be formulated as a principle, not because gender is such an inherent part of discussing science-fiction writing or the history of censorship, but because it’s so easy for men to just remain comfortably in old patterns of male domination.

From experiments on how soon a mixed group is perceived as “mostly women” (way before 50%) to the recent statement read at the Renaissance Society of America, we have plenty of evidence that no-one needs to be prejudiced. We only need to go along with the flow, and men will end up disproportionately represented and powerful under the current system. So appearing at an event where women would explicitly not be able to speak with authority would make me profoundly uncomfortable. It would also, frankly, make me feel slightly that my contribution was being valued more because of my chromosomes than my thoughts. Obviously preaching isn’t quite the same as speaking at a conference or political meeting, but that’s the direction my knee jerks in this case.

Set against that is the awareness that every week I confess my belief in a catholic church. It feels faintly disingenuous to make this profession, and to hum Thou, Who At Thy Eucharist Didst Pray, whilst maintaining that I wouldn’t organise with other Christians. One of the many uncomfortable paradoxes of the Anglo-Catholic tradition is the way our history accidentally produced something like a party within our own national church as a result of our belief in the catholicity of the faith. Another is the way our devotion to the Eucharist brings us closer to our brothers and sisters in Roman Catholicism, whilst it makes us more aware of the official ecclesial divisions between us, because we find ourselves sometimes unable to celebrate the sacraments together. I am certainly happy to worship, study and organize with friends from over the Tiber, so having a reservation about complementarian groups seems inconsistent.

However, it seems less inconsistent when considered in terms of social justice, and this is where I eventually land. The operations of gender and power in our society don’t seem simply something on which I have a certain opinion, and other people have different opinions. They are a system which places me in a position of relative power, and in doing so makes me less able to appreciate the lived reality of others. I do not know what it is like to have a vocation which is denied because of my gender (or indeed because of my sexuality.) There are other people who can tell me what it’s like, but they can only do so if I’m quiet for a while and let them speak. This doesn’t mean that I think men’s ministries or complementarian groups should be banned or disallowed. But it does mean that my decision to participate is made under an awareness that I don’t have all the information necessary.

And to actually answer Hannah’s questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are?

Luckily for me (and others!) I’m not in a position to allow or disallow.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake?

It sounds quite weaselly to say “depends what the greater something was”, but without knowing, I would say probably not. I would worry that the principles behind that restriction would have other effects.

What is more important to you personally—differences in application or differences in core beliefs?

Probably the latter, though the further we get away from application, the more core beliefs seem to converge in the far horizon of parenthood and fruit-based pies. We can all agree that men and women are made in the image of God, after all…

Is Complementarianism A Gospel Issue?

Hannah A raised a great question in her discussion of Jen Michel’s post at Her.meneutics: How far does Christian liberty extend in gender applications? The issue of a woman finding one’s place in a complementarian church is a different one from finding one’s place in a parachurch organization, which is by nature a less-organized (in the sense of less strictly governed, not in the sense of being administratively handicapped).

It was St. Augustine who wrote “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” It seems to me that Christians in church and para-church alike all agree with Augustine. We all want unity on the essentials, and liberty on the non-essentials. The underlying issue, then, is whether we consider the question of  roles and relationships of men and women in the church to be an essential, or non-essential doctrine. 

In other words: is the issue of women in the church a ‘gospel issue’?

I believe that the amount of liberty we are willing to extend in gender applications is directly proportional to how firmly we believe our theology of gender to be an essential to the Christian faith. Owen Strachan, President of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, certainly sees complementation theology as  quintessential to the Faith. “Complementarity is a simple biological fact and a core biblical teaching. This is not a fourth-order doctrine,” he writes, adding in parenthesis: “as if we can rank any teaching of Scripture.”

It is hard to disagree with Strachan on this. After all, James tells us that whoever keeps the law and stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking the whole of it (James 2:10). Who are we, then, to decide what is “important” in the Word of God?

Firm egalitarians face the same issue: that being that their understanding of the gender passages is intrinsically tied into their hermeneutic and understanding of the gospel as a whole. As such, for writers such as Sarah Bessey, seeing the Kingdom value of women and their call to discipleship is innately woven into the redemptive message of the Gospel. “There is Scriptural justification, historical justification, Spirit justification, traditional and communal justification for women preaching and pastoring and leading,” she writes.

Both complementarians and egalitarians have this right: that salvation is not an abstract concept for neutered souls. Rather the gospel of God’s Kingdom is for men and women (not gender neutral people), embodied souls who are saved in their maleness and femaleness – and somehow we must live our understanding of the Kingdom out in our gendered reality.

In a real way, this is so much more than a question of what women and men can and can’t do in practice – it is a more fundamental question of identity and finding our place in the narrative of God’s Kingdom. Looking at it this way, it seems that it is a essential issue in the Augustinian sense – something in which we should seek unity. And if that’s what we mean by essential, then we will not be able to afford one another much liberty on gender applications.

And yet.

Yet—all of life is undergirded by theology, and our hermeneutic of the Kingdom should affect every aspect of our life and practice. In some sense, everything we do is essential in as much as it is colored by our allegiance to Jesus; and even so we see the Scripture itself tolerating a variety of non-essentials, each of these shaped by the theological scruples and contextual background of the people in question. Is it okay to eat meat? Well, that depends. Are you Jewish? Were you an idol-worshipper? Who are you eating with? The apostle Paul had clear gospel-shaped convictions on this issue (1 Corinthians 8-10), and yet declared it to be a non-essential: an issue we dare not draw a line in the sand on and thereby judge those for whom Christ has died.

Must one observe the Sabbath? Well, that also depends. What do you understand by Sabbath? Are you a Gentile? Are you keeping with the intention of the sabbath and rescuing a fallen ox, or are you defying it an working? Do you mean Saturday or Sunday? And how does Jesus’ resurrection change that?

I do believe Scripture has something to say about the place of men and women in the Kingdom (and I believe it has something specific to say to each, since it was God’s delight to make us different), and I deeply believe that the Gospel should undergird and inform our hermeneutic and application of this question.

But do I think this is an “essential” question, one in which we must have unity? No, I don’t (and neither do any of our Creeds). I would put this into the non-essential category – an area where we have liberty, subject to the Word of God and our Spirit-led consciences. But, there’s still the matter of how we do church in practice. And so to answer Hannah’s more specific questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you? Yes.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake? Yes, I would participate. But I do not have a clear conscience about teaching men, so at this point would decline an invitation to preach to a mixed congregation. My own conscience is captive on this issue, but I do not feel a conviction to persuade others on it.

Thanks for opening up a good discussion, Hannah.

Now, would anyone else like the saltshaker?


‘Priestly’ and ‘Prophetic’ Forms of Ministry

I want to join April and Graham in welcoming Jem to the discussion! I’ve followed Jem’s blog for a couple of years and, although I come from quite a different perspective in these debates, I have found him to be an incredibly stimulating and worthwhile person to listen to. I look forward to hearing from him as the conversation develops here.

Hannah mentions the way the distinction between church and parachurch featured within the discussion following Jen Michel’s post. I believe this distinction is a crucial one to reflect upon, especially as it relates to evangelicalism’s identity. Evangelicalism has, I would suggest, always tended to find its centre of gravity in the parachurch, in the wider world of revivals, missions, movements, and faithful sodalities, and the way that individual faith draws from these sources.

It is easy to forget, for instance, that the Methodist movement was originally intended to exist alongside the ministry of the established Anglican church. It exercised a more expansive, footloose, and informal ministry that supplemented the more rooted and priestly sacramental ministry of the local Church of England parish.

I have compared the distinction here to the distinction between ‘priestly’ and ‘prophetic’ ministries within Israel. The former ministry was a ministry of ritually ordained persons, which exercised a highly representative and ‘official’ role and focused upon highly ritualized worship and authoritative community oversight. By contrast, the latter was a gift-driven ministry that included and addressed God’s word more generally both to Israel and to nations beyond it. While priestly ministry was highly ‘institutional’ and official ministry, prophetic ministry was in many respects more analogous to what we would class as parachurch ministry.

Evangelicalism’s history is, I believe, characterized by a forgetfulness of the priestly character of pastoral ministry and a tendency to universalize the logic of prophetic ministry. That which was once intended to supplement the liturgical worship of an assembled congregation under priestly oversight started to supplant it. Within this logic, the pastor is seen primarily as a preacher, a prophet-like figure, much less as a ‘priestly’ guardian of the holiness of the community, the symbol and enforcer of the authority of Christ within a specific congregation, and the officiator within the divine service of the corporate liturgy in the sanctuary.

There has been a forgetfulness of the contrasting logic of two forms of Christian ‘space’—the space of the priestly ministry and the space of the prophetic ministry. This is reflected in shallow ecclesiologies and in a failure to distinguish sharply between the more particular realm of the church and the more general realm of the parachurch.

The lack of a clear distinction here also characterizes evangelicalism’s attitude to the gender debates. Without a strong sense of the priest/pastor as a figure whose significance is chiefly defined by the symbolic and governmental position that he occupies within a defined congregation, the priest/pastor starts to be defined solely by gifts (e.g. teaching ability) and generalized duties (e.g. preaching). One result of this is that, for complementarians, any gendered restriction will tend to bleed into all sorts of other areas. Recalling this distinction will, I suspect, allow complementarians a much more accommodating theology for women’s ministry, especially in the area of the parachurch and, consequently, much greater latitude for cooperation with those who take an egalitarian approach to pastoral ministry.

Now to Hannah’s questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are?

What the accommodation of diverse practice looks like will vary from context to context. I think that there is lots of room for diverse practice in a parachurch context, somewhat less in a single denomination, and considerably less in a specific congregation. In the parachurch and denomination contexts in particular, I can tolerate considerable differences, while engaging in respectful dialogue aimed at breaking differences down in size, facilitating principled cooperation, and seeking to persuade those who differ.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake?

I have been both a member of a denomination and a member of a congregation with female clergy. Being a church leader in such contexts would present different challenges, though.

What is more important to you personally—differences in application or differences in core beliefs?

It really depends. I think that it is important to bear in mind that the level of an obstacle that a belief or practice presents to Christian fellowship or cooperation isn’t always proportional to its significance in the larger scheme of Christian doctrine and faithful practice. Also, our problems often tend to lie more at the level of irreconcilable practices than contrasting beliefs (Steve Holmes has some helpful thoughts here).