Monthly Archives: March 2019

A Modest Proposal to Make Peace Between Complementarians & Egalitarians

17th in a multipart series.

Here I want to sketch out in some basic detail, a proposal that seeks to make peace between complementarians and egalitarians in a church, that holds to an “agree to disagree” position on matters pertaining to women and men, participating together in ministry. I have outlined this proposal in brief before, but perhaps it needs a bit of fleshing out.

To get the sense of how this modest proposal is arrived at, I would urge the reader to review the previous 16 posts in this series, to get the full flow of the argument. I have anticipated each objection to the various points made in this proposal, and suggested answers to these objections, in those prior blog posts, as well as a future follow-up post.

Some will undoubtedly be skeptical, thinking that such an “agree to disagree” solution will not work. Perhaps the critics are correct, and I am wrong. But for the sake of the reputation of the church, I really hope I am not.

Some things are worth dividing a church. The question of “women as elders,” is not one of them (at least I hope it is not). Nevertheless, how we view the concept of “eldership” is consequential as to how the discussion proceeds.

Some on both sides will think I am simply “giving in” too much to the other side. I fully expect such criticism. If what I am suggesting feels like too much to bear, I simply ask that you think and pray about it. But I would hope that the vast majority of those who are either in the middle, or otherwise, undecided, might find this proposal acceptable, at least in principle.

My aim is to make a proposal that makes a demand upon a Christian’s charity, but not a demand upon a Christian’s conscience. It requires that a Christian, who disagrees with another Christian, to give as much forebearance as possible to another believer, in terms of giving that person the benefit of the doubt, as to what ultimately motivates that person, in hopes of seeking to gently persuade the other to at least consider seeing something from a new perspective.

I must confess that I am not so good at doing that myself. I would much rather rally around the task of reaching out to a lost and dying world, than spending countless resources debating over this particular issue. I know that this issue is important to a lot of Christians, but to me, it pales in comparison to knowing that people are perishing everyday, not knowing Jesus. So, if I have come across as snarky or otherwise impatient, in some elements of this whole blog series, I ask for your forgiveness.

This proposal aims at preserving the conscience of the believer, not to compromise on the most fundamental, theological principles that they hold dear. For as the bookish 16th century monk, Martin Luther, argued before the Diet of Worms, with the Holy Roman Emperor in full view, armed to the teeth with the power to destroy Luther’s life, “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

At its most fundamental, the complementarian holds dear the principle that men and women are different, and that this difference is best modeled within the life of the church by preserving the office of elder, those who exercise ultimate spiritual and pastoral authority within a local church, to be held by men and men-only. To submit to a woman as elder would go against a complementarian’s conscience.

In contrast, the egalitarian holds dear the principle that men and women are equal within the sight of God, and they should both flourish in the full exercise of their gifts and talents, to serve Christ and His Kingdom, for the building up of the body, and reaching a lost world. To fail to honor the giftings and calling of women, for ministry, or to put any artificial, arbitrary limits on women, as to how they can serve, would go against an egalitarian’s conscience.

In the spirit of Acts 15, here are the different points of this modest proposal:

  • Elders are pastors, and pastors are elders. Limit the responsibilities of the elders to function primarily in the role of pastoring, those areas that directly seek to protect the spiritual health of the community, as in the definition of church doctrine, implementing church discipline, and being willing to die first, for the sake of the larger body, when placed under the threat of persecution.
  • Encourage both men and women to serve as deacons.
  • Expand the office of deaconship, and other church staff and volunteer activities, to offload as many tasks as possible from the elders, that do not specifically pertain to the function of pastoring, identified above.
  • Allow for the possibility that women may serve as elders.
  • Yet in practice, restrict the actual selection of elders to be only men.
  • Encourage a congregation wide vision of men training men, and women training women, for the sake of Gospel-centered discipleship.

Here is why the above proposal might work, point-by-point:

  • The primary function of an elder is to pastor and shepherd the flock. To clutter up the task list of the elders with those activities that distract the elders from fulfilling their primary tasks is to be avoided as much as possible. Work towards divesting the elders of non-pastoral functions, and give them to non-elders. The primary task list of a shepherd can be reduced to the three “D’s”:
    • Doctrine: To define and preach the biblical theology of the church, such that the congregation is being protected from false teaching and heretical error, that might compromise the tender faith of the flock.
    • Discipline: To take the appropriate action, when serious sin is committed in the church, that could severely impair the spiritual health of the community, with the aim of encouraging repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, if possible.
    • Death: If persecution become inevitable for the local church community, the elders would be the first ones to “go to the stake,” and give their lives, on behalf of the church community.
  • The office of deacon should be open to men and women, recognizing that both have much to give to the service of the local church.
  • Encourage deacons, staff members, and other volunteers to assume those tasks that can be delegated away from the elders as much as possible, under the spiritual oversight of the elders. For this modest proposal to work, elders and non-elders must work together, making it clear that any exercise of ministry, conducted by non-elders, must have the full blessing of the elders, that non-elders would be in full submission to the elders, recognizing that these elders bear the spiritual responsibility and authority over all ministry efforts, of that local church body. This would include making it possible for all non-elders, men and women, to fully exercise their gifts and talents, to include the widest range of activities; such as (and this is an incomplete list):
    • administration
    • the ministry to children and youth,
    • church planting, outreach to the poor, sick and homeless, and other missionary work,
    • developing the long term strategic direction of the church,
    • the leading of corporate worship in prayer, music, etc.,
    • assist the elders/pastors as they lead, in the administration of the sacraments or ordinances of the church.
    • Bible study leading, adult Bible class leading, leading in parachurch-type ministries,
    • public exhortation, the appropriate exercise of prophecy, and perhaps even an occasional testimony or sermon (you can call it “exhortation,” if you do not like the word “sermon”)
    • broadly speaking, for the geeks out there, this would also include affirming women in evangelical academia in the exercise of scholarship, that would help the church to gain a better insight into Scripture.
  • For 2,000 years, most Christians have understood the exercise of pastoring, as defined by the the three “D’s” above, to be the proper domain of men. However, tradition is not above being reexamined, in light of what Scripture says, in each and every generation. It is therefore possible that this male-only eldership understanding of Scripture has been wrong. If sufficient evidence is demonstrated, then the church needs to be willing to allow for the possibility of thus permitting women to serve as elders. This demands charity on the part of complementarians, while preserving the conscience of egalitarians.
  • However, in deference to this 2,000 years worth of long-standing tradition, despite occasional exercises to the contrary within the history of the church, the local church should refrain from selecting women as elders, in practice, until it has been sufficiently demonstrated that this historic position has been wrong.  This demands charity on the part of egalitarians, while preserving the conscience of complementarians.
  • Having a congregational-wide vision of men training men, and women training women, is the last step to all of this. But not only does this impact discipleship; that is, how we can enable believers to grow in their relationship with Jesus. It also involves a strategy for how to reach a lost world for Jesus.

I have my own ideas as to how such a strategy to reach a lost world for Jesus might be accomplished. But I will wait until an upcoming blog post to spell it out. Aside from a few straggler blog posts, to come out here and there, that upcoming (and last in the series) also gives me the opportunity to finally “land the plane,” so that you can figure out where I ultimately stand on this issue, if you have not figured it out already. You can take what I say or leave it.

Onward as we near the end of this series!!


The Mystery That Church Eldership Reminds Us Of?

16th in a multipart series.

Please consider the following theological thought experiment. Let me know what you think.

The great North African bishop of the 5th century, Saint Augustine, described a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.”

We Protestant evangelicals, by and large, do not know how to handle the sacraments of the church all that well. For many Protestants, we even shun the language of “sacrament,” as it disturbingly sounds too “Catholic.”

Instead, many Protestants prefer the less liturgical sounding term of “ordinance.” Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, otherwise known as the Eucharist, are “ordinances.” That sounds reasonable, and keeps us safely far away from those robed clerical figures, who wear those odd-looking big hats, or wearing long beards.

But the language of “sacrament” is actually quite biblical, as it derives from the Latin sacramentum, which is the word that the great 4th-5th century contemporary of Augustine, Jerome, used to translate part of Ephesians 5:32 into Latin, that eventually makes it way into many of our English translations, as the word “mystery”:

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (ESV).

This wonderful verse from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, is near the end of a passage (Ephesians 5:21-33), that describes the relationship between husband and wife, in the bond of marriage, a favorite at weddings.  “Husbands are to love their wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v.35). Marriage then, somehow, mysteriously refers to Christ’s relationship with the church.

Many Christians “get” this notion of the mystery of marriage, as it relates to Christ’s love for the church, and how husbands and wives are to treat each other, and yet, they do not necessarily see a connection, in how the organic structure of the church, its ecclesiology, is also meant to reflect the character of God, in much the same way.

Not all Christians are married. But all Christians are part of Christ’s body, His church. Would it not make sense, for part of this mystery, that which is revealed in marriage, to also extend to the corporate life of the church?

As I think about it, I suggest that something in the life of the church, lived together corporately, must have a type of sacramental expression, that reminds us of what Genesis teaches:

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 ESV).

In her book Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God, author Hannah Anderson reminds us that humans are made in the image of God, male and female:

When Genesis teaches that we are made imago dei, it is doing more than simply explaining how we came into existence or offering an argument for why we should respect and care for one another. By revealing that we are made in God’s image, it is revealing how we are to exist, how we are made to live, and what it means to be human. Being human means sharing God’s nature in some way… living as he lives and doing what he does. (p.33).

Anderson’s thesis is that before we even begin to think about the proper “roles” for men and women, we need to think about what being made in the image of God is all about.

Put briefly, my extension of Anderson’s  thesis is that men and women are equal with one another, but we are not interchangeable with one another.

There is a “sameness” that men and women share together, but there is, at the same time, a quality of gender that we do not share. Any Christian theology of gender needs to grapple with that reality.

 

Hannah Anderson’s Made for More, though beneficial to men, is written primarily for women. She looks past the tired debates of women’s “roles” in the church toward what it means to be created in the image of God. Kathy Keller calls Anderson’s book “Refreshing.”

Complementarian and Egalitarian Distortions of Eldership

What would it look like, for the church as a community to reflect this sense of being in the image of God?

I must confess that I am not 100% sure about all of this, yet I would argue that the concept of eldership has something to do with it. But it might be best to start with describing what this sense of being in the image of God does not look like.

On the one hand, complementarians are often very concerned about authority in the church, in how the command of God is to be properly passed on from God, down to us humans. Namely, this means that God speaks to the man, who then passes the word onto the woman. To reverse the order is to invite discord and treachery into God’s good order, for we know that the serpent sought to disrupt paradise by deceiving the woman, as opposed to challenging the man directly.

I do not necessarily deny the truth of this, but it does not effectively get at the real depth of male and female, being made in the image of God, particularly when it comes to the question of church eldership. For the complementarian fault is falling back mainly on a rigid, top-down “chain of command,” that distorts the genuinely dynamic interplay between male and female in human relationships. Yes, order is important, and hierarchy is an inevitable necessity, but the mystery of the image of God often gets institutionalized and ritualized, where rigidity steps in, when complementarianism is driven to an extreme.

Here is an example of how this gets distorted in some complementarian practicing churches (though you can see this, oddly enough, in some egalitarian ones as well): Sometimes, when a church brings on a new elder/pastor, who is, in fact, married, you get to meet the man, but you are only casually introduced to his wife, if she is introduced at all. It is as though the man’s wife is like an accessory, an expendable part of that man, which has the tragic effect of devaluing that woman. But as every man knows, behind every great man is a great woman, who supports him, and makes him who he is. I really wish churches would stop treating the wives of elders/pastors as mere accessories, and instead, view them as indispensable partners in ministry together.

For the egalitarian, what matters the most seems to be a sense of equality, with respect to being in the image of God. As a result, the sacramental character of church eldership, as being constituted by men, tends to fall in the opposite direction, in contrast with the complementarian approach. It can become so lost and distorted, that the egalitarian thinks it best to largely get rid of the whole mysterious character of eldership altogether. So, the church life then no longer has a clear signpost, that points towards the reality of being in God’s family, whereby fathers and mothers together, train the younger men and women, to grow spiritually, in the image of God, as male and female.

Rather, the egalitarian model threatens to secularize the whole thing, whereby the church corporate structure resembles that of a secular business, just with a religious face to it. Some complementarian churches are guilty of this, too. The head pastor becomes the CEO, and other pastors become vice-presidents, the fellowship of elders becomes the board, and the rest of the congregational membership becomes stockholders. This is egalitarianism driven to the extreme.

Here is an example of where I see this tendency leading a church astray: When the elder board gets reduced to being like a corporate board, the fellowship of elders loses its mysterious, spiritual character. When the primary focus of what the elder board does is to set out something like the “long-term strategic vision of the church,” I am left wondering where the sense of spiritually shepherding the flock has disappeared to?

It might be better to task a separate planning committee with working out the “long-term strategic vision of the church” instead. Sure, the elders can get involved, but if such activities take the elders away from their primary task of acting as shepherds for the flock, protecting them from doctrinal error, and rooting out body-destroying sin, that can poison the flock, then something crucial is lost.

Some may protest that my critique of both sides are caricatures, or that I am not being fair. That might be true. Then, again, maybe not.

In examining these extremes of complementarianism and egalitarianism going awry, the mystical character of eldership gets distorted. This is all a far cry from the beauty that the apostle Paul envisions, as the local church, made up of brothers and sisters together, in Christ:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! (Philippians 4:1 NIV).

 

Is eldership of a church merely an unfortunately necessary cog in the bureaucracy machine, of running a church, or does it have a sacramental quality to it, as mysterious as the Lord’s Supper?

 

The Awkward Nature of Eldership: And the Quaker Innovation

Nevertheless, there is a weakness to my argument. Let me describe it for you:

Let us narrow the concept of eldership to be a male-only eldership. Some on the egalitarian side might protest that the notion of a male-only eldership is an ill-fitting manner of sacramentally pointing towards the familial relations of brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, growing together in the love of Christ. Christian love and fellowship, honoring men and women, can be done without the need for a male-only eldership.

Sure, from a human perspective, male-only eldership sounds quite awkward (… and even offensive to some!).

The Quakers of the 17th century came to such a conclusion. The Quakers were really among the first Protestants to advance the idea of “women preachers,” along with men preachers. The founders of the movement, George Fox and Margaret Fell, were able to push this idea forward because they completely rejected any mystical notion of “eldership” altogether. For these early Quakers, the concept of “eldership” should be discarded, a relic of Roman Catholic paternalism, a superstitious belief on par with a transubstantiation view of the Lord’s Supper.

Still today, in traditional Quaker services, there is no one, single pulpit, from which the Word of God is expounded by a member of a leadership group, to the other congregants. Instead, Quakers gather together in silence, typically in a circle, only to have the silence broken when any member can stand up, as they are guided by their Inner Light, to speak of the things of God.

No pastor.

No elder.

Each Christian is simply “led by the Spirit” to say and do what they think best.

Why depend on such an awkward and clunky thing as “eldership?” Good riddens with such superstition!!

Mmmmm…….

 

Quaker-Like “Radical Reformation,” Gatekeeping, and the Sacramental Function of Elders?

Those early Quakers, and “traditional” Quakers today, and other such “Radical Reformation” proponents, have their critics. Those who believe that the Quakers have gone too far contend that the practical elimination of the office of elder and/or pastor has opened the door for theological chaos to enter the church. Such critics argue that elders/pastors act in the critical role of serving as gatekeepers. The gatekeepers are there to make sure that false teaching does not creep into the house of God.

There is precedence for this “gatekeeper” view of eldership in the early church. As the Christians of the first few centuries of the church had to face different heretical movements, from within their own ranks, such as the Gnostics, the Ebionites (Jews who insisted that Gentiles keep all of the Mosaic law), Marcionites (those who rejected the Old Testament), and several others, the elders of the early church would encourage the faithful to stick with the orthodox leaders of the church.

The early church martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, who died no more than 50 or so years after the close of the New Testament, was known for his defense of Gospel truth, against the false teachers. He urged that Christians should “stick with their bishop” (“bishop” is normally translated as “overseer” in Bibles today), as a means of affirming the universal, or “catholic” affirmation of genuine faith (this is “catholic” in the sense of what Christians universally believe in all places at all times, not in the modern sense of “Roman Catholic”). Ignatius assumed such “bishops” to be male:

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8).

However, what if those Quakers turn out to be right? What if there really is no sacramental, mysterious meaning associated with eldership? If that is indeed the case, then my suggested argument falls flat. If the Quaker argument holds, then there really is no point in making any gender distinction, with respect to church office, since church office has no spiritual significance. Church office is merely a necessity required “to get the job done,” of building Christ’s Kingdom.

However, think about baptism for a moment. Is not baptism just as awkward as eldership? For we think of baptism as a type of washing, whereby Christians have been washed and forgiven of their sin.

But as any Christian knows, just as soon as someone gets cleaned up, it does not take very long to become dirty again. As someone gets dirty again, you have to wash and clean up, yet again. But baptism is a one-time event in the life of a Christian. You do not get re-baptized every time you sin, as a Christian.

Why then bother with baptism? If we accept Jesus into our hearts, and renewed from within, and we can experience the forgiveness of our sins, as we daily walk with God, why do we even need to get baptized with water?

We might be tempted to say, “Let us get rid of water baptism, as it is only something external and physical. What really matters is the meaning that water baptism represents, and that is more internal and spiritual.

However, that baptism serves as a reminder that Christ died for us one-time only, so that we can come to Christ every time, and receive the forgiveness for our sin. Our baptism reminds us of the grace of God.

Likewise, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper can mean different things to different Christians. For some, the Lord’s Supper is merely a symbol, a memorial to something that Christ has done, for sure, but otherwise, this is only a bread mini-wafer and a sip of grape juice. But for others, the Lord’s Supper is a mysterious encounter with the divine. But we dare not get rid of the eucharist, for at the very least it serves as a physical reminder, pointing towards the spiritual reality of Christ’s sacrifice for us, on the Cross.

So, yes, from a human perspective, a sacrament like baptism, or even the Lord’s Supper, looks rather clunky. But from God’s perspective, these are symbols that God has given us, describing the great and deep mystery of our faith. They are fitting physical representations of spiritual reality because God has revealed them to us.

 

The Real Sticking Point: Gender With Respect to Eldership?

If I was only talking about eldership, without any gender qualifications, folks might be with me so far. But let me see if you will allow me to press the point.

Is it not then fitting that a male-only eldership might have a sacramental character, along the same lines as baptism, or even the Lord’s Supper? For a fellowship of male-only elders signifies that men and women, though all united together, as equal partners as brothers and sisters in Christ, are also non-interchangeable. Male is not female, female is not male. A male-only eldership visually and outwardly reminds us, at the level of the corporate life of the church, that men and women are equal, and yet different.

Is it awkward? Is it clunky? Yes. For it does not seem to automatically recognize the woman-only domain that women have, in the life of the church. But it may just be fitting according to what God has had in mind.

I am mindful of an idea that Hannah Anderson expresses, when she notes that when a mother at the hospital delivers a baby, no one bothers to ask, “Who is the mother?” It is quite easy to spot the mother. Rather, when the nurse comes out to announce the birth of the child, the question is asked, “Who is the father?” For identifying the father is not always so easy, when it comes to childbirth.

Likewise, it would be analogous to say that the spiritual mothers of a church should be relatively easy to pick out. If you hang out in a local church community long enough, you should be able to spot who the spiritual mothers are quite readily (Blogger Jennie Pollock has some excellent tips on “How to Spot a Spiritual Mother”  in the church, if you do not know how).

But when it comes to finding the fathers of the church, this is a lot more difficult. It might be fair to say that the office of male-led eldership could be God’s way of answering the question, “Who is the father?”

A Matter of Conscience

For many egalitarians, any discussion about a supposedly sacramental, or mystical view of eldership seems completely irrelevant, particularly if it is male-only. Not all egalitarians will draw such a conclusion, but such a conclusion is common: What is the point? A church leadership structure serves nothing but a practical function, namely, to get the job done! For such egalitarians, the main issue is equal opportunity for women to serve at all levels in church leadership. To qualify that, in any way, rubs against the egalitarian conscience.

Complementarians must come to grip with what binds the conscience of the egalitarian.

Yet if eldership has no mysterious quality to it, then the egalitarian could easily look down upon the complementarian, who sees this differently, as being hopelessly hung up on something trivial. “If you do not like the idea of having women as elders, then well, you will just have to bite the bullet, and get used to it!

For the complementarian, who accepts this mysterious quality of eldership as a given, submission to a woman elder, ANY woman elder, would be a violation of their conscience.

Egalitarians must come to grip with what binds the conscience of the complementarian.

An Invitation to Discuss “What is Eldership?”

This is only a very brief sketch, and I could be quite wrong about a lot of this. I could have this whole thing about male-only eldership completely sideways. There is a lot more work to be done to think through theologically as to what biblical eldership really looks like, assuming we even need it. Perhaps those 17th century Quakers were right all along!!

But we need to start talking about eldership. I just find it strange that the sacramental, mysterious character of eldership is rarely discussed when it comes to the complementarian versus egalitarian debate, concerning church governance. It often devolves into obtuse discussions about who is in charge, who gets the power in the church, and comparing the relative competence of women with that of men, thoughts that completely pollute the spiritual nature of the conversation that we should be having. When I hear Christians get locked into language such as, “Why do the men get to make the decisions in the church, and not the women?,” then I know that the discussion has completely fallen off track. Back up and start over again, folks.

At the end of the day, I am drawn back to this idea that male and female are created in the image of God, and that the life of the church, lived together corporately as brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, is to somehow express this mystery of male and female together, united in the love of Christ.

I have two more posts in this series, that I hope will tie everything together. The next one will be a modest proposal to move forward in this discussion, followed by some thoughts about the future.

 

Want to think more about being made in the image of God? The folks at the Bible Project have a perfect video for you:


Resolving the Question of Women in Church Leadership: Who Bears the Burden of Proof?

15th in a multipart blog series.

How does one resolve the question of women serving in church leadership?

Well, surely, as discussed in the previous post, it is not a matter of churches inevitably following down some slippery slope, towards something like the adoption of same-sex marriage. To repeat again, just in case there is any confusion, a “slippery slope” is a logical fallacy. The adoption of female elders does not necessarily entail a betrayal of classic Christian sexual ethics or other fundamental truths. So, while such supposed slippery slopes do raise important questions, they do not fully help us to resolve the question at hand.

What then shall we do?

As we have surveyed, the Scriptural evidence examined thus far (and there is a lot more to consider), is complex, and in a number of cases, ambiguous. Complementarians have their prooftexts. Egalitarians have theirs. Plus, not all complementarians or egalitarians are exactly the same!

If there is no one, or two, “killer” Bible verses to settle the matter, what do you do? There are two things that I believe will help here, as least as starting points:

  • It is best to narrow down the question to the very crux of the issue. There are so many nuances and various positions one could take, but it helps the most to identify the real sticking point, the clearest area of disagreement,” as British Bible teacher Andrew Wilson put it. Should women serve as elders, assuming that the elders are those who take upon the function of pastoring in a local church? When it comes to things like the office of deacon, women teaching under the authority of elders in a mixed adult group, etc., complementarians are all over the map. But when it comes to elders, all breeds of complementarians will say NO, whereas egalitarians will undoubtedly say YES.
  • Build a cumulative case, that takes into account all of the available evidence. In this blog post series, I have tried to lay out some of the crucial arguments used to interpret various texts. Yet what I have set out is by no means exhaustive.

That is all very important, but in this blog post, we will examine still another, very important part of the discussion: the role of tradition.

Throughout the breadth of church history, there is good evidence to show that having women deacons in the church was considered to be uncontroversial, particularly prior to the medieval period. For example, before robes became common for adult baptism, Christians would at times be baptized in the nude, in the early church. As a result, women deacons assisted with baptism. Furthermore, women at various times throughout church history, have used certain teaching gifts, church planting gifts, and other leadership gifts, to the great benefit of other believers.

Granted, some in our day say that having women serving as deacons is still wrong, despite what the story from early church history shows. However, those who would suggest that women should not exercise their full range of ministry gifts, from various forms of teaching to administration, whether being “deacons” or not, simply do not have the force of tradition on their side. Such tradition reaches all of the way back to the New Testament, where we have the record that four of Philip’s daughters prophesied (Acts 21:8-9 ESV).

Evidence from Church History: Women Deacons, Yes, But Women Elders?? Not So Much.

But when it comes to elders and/or pastors, over the past 2,000 years, the story tends to work more against the egalitarian cause. Until relatively recently, women have not generally served in those capacities, as these offices have been, in a certain sense, associated with the exercise of spiritual authority, however it may be defined. Historically, there has been hardly any dispute about this, despite some limited evidence to the contrary.1

Even today, the overwhelming majority of church congregations throughout the world practice some form of all-male eldership, in their churches. However, within the past couple of hundred years, and particularly within the past few decades, in certain Protestant circles, having women ordained to positions of leadership, where spiritual authority is being exercised, as with elders or pastors, has become acceptable. Some see this as a good thing, believing that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, to unleash more ministry for the Kingdom of God.

Others think that the church has been going down the wrong track, with this newer practice of having women as elders and pastors, and the church needs to turn around. Compare this modern, innovative practice, with the chronologically broader practice and unified consensus for 2,000 years, among Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, that for priests, who perform the sacraments of the church, they are to be male and male only.

In other words, when it comes to the sacraments, particularly with respect to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and taking the long view of history, gender matters, reflecting a long standing consensus of what the New Testament teaches. As a well-informed commenter noted, in response to a previous post in this blog series, to think that modern Christians know better what the original Greek means, than did the early Greek fathers of the church, would be the “height of arrogance.”

So, why have Protestants, in comparison, been so relatively open to challenging the tradition?  Part of it is the commitment to sola scriptura. Scripture alone is the authority among evangelical Protestants, and this has led to a number of traditions and traditional interpretations of the Bible to be abandoned. As a result, certain texts, like Galatians 3:28, have been read in a particular way, that have led towards the acceptance of women as elders. But is the weight of the evidence sufficient enough to overturn the tradition?

C.S. Lewis. A theological dinosaur??

A Word From C.S. Lewis

There is much to be thankful for, in our modern world today, ranging from advancements in medicine, to instant communication across the world, over the Internet. However, in our world today, where we glorify the “new,” with our infatuation with the latest iPhone and the other near-daily improvements in technology, and despise the “old,” as worn-out or old fashioned, we tend to ignore the voices of those who held the long view, and embraced the riches of history. One such is the Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, who was greatly concerned by innovations, that would toss out the baby with the bath water, all in the name of “progress.”

Does this situation fairly apply to the question of eldership for women? For example, Lewis, in his 1948 essay, Priestesses in the Church, had this to say about the possibility of women serving as priests in the Church of England in his day:

To take such a revolutionary step at the present moment, to cut ourselves off from the Christian past and to widen the divisions between ourselves and other Churches by establishing an order of priestesses in our midst, would be an almost wanton degree of imprudence. And the Church of England herself would be torn in shreds by the operation. My concern with the proposal is of a more theoretical kind. The question involves something even deeper than a revolution in order.

Note that this was written in 1948. Women were finally ordained in 1994, in the Church of England, for the priesthood. Since then, despite some small gains, the Church of England has suffered an interesting type of decline. According to the Guardian, while the total number of parishioners who occasionally attend church has gone up, regular attendance at church continues to decline.

Is there a correlation? Was Lewis just a crusty old curmudgeon, an otherwise noble product of his own culture and his own time? Or is Lewis like a voice crying out in the wilderness?

But let us set such statistics off to the side: What concerns me about the more aggressive side of the egalitarian debate, is that by introducing women into such positions of spiritual authority, we do cut ourselves off of the Christian past, as Lewis contends. When we do something that furthers the divide that already separates Christians, this does not speak well of the unity of the church.

Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do differ from Protestants in many deep, deep respects. I am not suggesting that Protestants completely abandon the Reformation, though many of my Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends would be elated, if such steps were taken. Ah yes. I can hear them now, with their whispers of “Come Home! Come Home!,” as their voices cry out from across the Tiber and the Bosphorus, respectively.

Nevertheless, all three branches of Christendom share much in common as well, as an expression of the unity of Christ’s Body. To work towards further reconciliation, if possible, is a good thing, is it not?

Egalitarians who call for more opportunities for women to serve in leadership are right, and sadly, many complementarians are needlessly dragging their feet. But when egalitarians seek to push the point on church eldership, we enter dangerous ground. Are we not then driving the wedge in deeper, on issues that divides us, in the Body of Christ?

Christ has called us to be one body, and yet, much of the history of the Protestant movement has continued to pull us apart.

And that makes me sad.

A Deeper Mystery?

There is that last line I quoted from Lewis, that keeps bugging me: “The question involves something even deeper than a revolution in order.”  What is that “something even deeper” that Lewis is warning about?

Lewis goes on in his seminal essay, in response to those who argue for women eldership (Lewis uses the Anglican terminology of “priest,” which is an important and neglected issue in the discussion):

I have every respect for those who wish women to be priestesses. I think they are sincere and pious and sensible people. Indeed, in a way they are too sensible…. I am tempted to say that the proposed arrangement would make us much more rational “but not near so much like a Church”…..The Church claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests. If it is true, then we should expect to find in the Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and which believers will call supra-rational. There ought to be something in it opaque to our reason though not contrary to it – as the facts of sex and sense on the natural level are opaque. And that is the real issue. The Church of England can remain a church only if she retains this opaque element.

Is Lewis right? Is something important at stake near to being lost?

As someone drenched in the riches of church history, Lewis knew of things that few of us in the 21st century can fully appreciate, particularly among Protestants. We have become so enamored by the great principle of the “priesthood of all believers,” that we forget that Israel had an all-male priesthood, in the Old Testament. Was that simply a cultural artifact of the Bronze Age, an excuse for misogyny that we are better off without? Or could it be that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions are preserving something, that in that opaque sense, reveals the glory of God? Does an all male eldership speak to a profound mystery, that many Protestants have simply forgotten?

What about Jesus’ selection of twelve men, to be his original apostles? Does not the number twelve correspond somehow to the twelve tribes of Israel? Jesus broke all sorts of cultural customs, such as speaking directly to the woman at the well, and associating with female prostitutes. So, why did he start with these twelve men, when he could have mixed a few women into the bunch?

Was he simply holding back on his reforms, thinking that the Jewish community of his day, would not be able to handle having women as elders, yet? Or was this all-male pattern of spiritual leadership somehow mysteriously ingrained into the very revealed purposes of God?

I wonder.

The next blog post will explore this theme a little further, but let us for now consider the other side of the debate.

NEVERTHELESS!! TRUTH MATTERS!!

Still, I get the standard Protestant idea that we should not preserve the unity of the church, at the expense of truth. Truth is more important. C.S. Lewis could have been wrong.

A lot of egalitarian Christians believe this to be the case. Despite whatever good intentions C.S. Lewis might have had, there are a number of egalitarian Christians who already find the evidence from Scripture to be compelling for allowing women to be elders. To refuse women as elders threatens to be contrary to the impulse of the Gospel.

Some egalitarians even contend that there is a certain trajectory, inherent in Scripture, that make the full participation of women and men together, in all levels of ministry, an inevitable consequence of the following the Gospel!2

What then must be done, with respect to those who do not find the egalitarian case so compelling?

We should be open to go wherever the Holy Spirit takes us, and put our trust in God. Follow the evidence wherever it leads, but when the evidence is difficult to decipher, caution is in order. A few churches have done just that by not taking a position, one way or the other, regarding whether or not women may serve as elders. It can be a difficult position to take, but in my view, it would be a wise road to take, at the present time.

Who Then Must Bear the Burden of Proof?

What shall be done in the meantime, until further evidence comes in, to settle the matter? Here is my guideline: it is those who believe it best to overturn a traditional interpretation of the Bible, who bear the burden proof, not the other way around. To do otherwise threatens to be a recipe for chaos. Sadly, we live in an age when what is new is often assumed to be better. We reject the old…. well, because it is old, but not because we always have sufficient evidence to support the new, and reject the old.

Therefore, if we assume that the verdict is still out concerning having women as elders, the default position should be clear. Across the widest spectrum of Christian belief, a complementarian view has remained the standard. The presumption of complementarianism is the wisest path to take.

Nevertheless, this blog series has shown that there are at least some elements of the traditional view of women and church leadership that do need to be discarded. The biblical evidence marshaled to support the most extreme complementarian views has proven unpersuasive, and even contradicted by the Bible. For example, you would be hard pressed to find any Christian saying today that women are somehow inferior to men. Egalitarianism has surely helped all of us in the church with that.

Misogyny has no place within the mind and heart of the Christian, and to that extent, the egalitarian side of the debate has made their case, and met the burden of proof. Any perspective on this issue that denigrates women, in any way, shape, or form, does not pass the muster of the biblical standard. Hopefully, this much is clear.

Both sides of the debate deserve a full hearing, concerning the touchstone question of having women as elders (I am including pastors here, too). If the full force of the egalitarian argument meets the burden of proof, then we must be prepared to say that complementarianism should be rejected. If not, then it is best to let the complementarian view stand.

So, now is a good to time to ask the reader: With respect to having women serving in the office of elder and/or pastor, has the egalitarian side of the debate met the burden of proof, based on the evidence?

 

Notes:

1. Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek’s Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History indicates that the practice of having women as deacons in the early church was known, though the practice was more common in the East than the West. Regarding women as elders, we have substantially less evidence for the practice, but ironically, for what evidence we do have, it is found more in the West than the East. Nevertheless, Madigan and Osiek tells us that, “As is so often the case in Church history, the sources do not tell us what we would most like to know” (p. 198). The terminology of female elder, or presbytera, could simply have referred to an elderly woman; that is, an older woman in the church, or it could have been to designate the wife of a male presbyter. It in no way implies that such women “elders” were in the position of presiding over the sacraments of the church. Either way, the practice of having women serve in various offices, such as “deacon”, began to steadily decline by the end of the sixth century.  

2. Such is the basic argument found in William Webb’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Webb contends that just as slavery was eliminated, even though the New Testament allows for it, the same situation applies to women in ministry. The Gospel paved the way for the elimination of slavery. It also therefore paves the way for the elimination of gender discrimination in all levels of church office.  


Is Evangelicalism On A Slippery Slope Regarding Gender?

14th in a series.

If you are just joining in, I urge to go back to the first blog post in this series, and work your way forward, to get to where we are now, as this discussion will now take a different, broader turn, built on what was discussed previously….

Here is a hot potato to try to handle: If evangelical churches move in an egalitarian direction, regarding having women as elders, are they on a slippery slope towards accepting same-sex marriage?

For many conservative evangelical churches, that have chosen over the past one hundred years, or more, to ordain women at all levels of pastoral ministry, the answer would be a firm, “NO.” Consider these examples, and the dates when women first started to be ordained: Nazarenes (in 1908), the Assemblies of God (in 1914), the Free Methodists (in 1864), and various Pentecostal churches (in 1906), along with their charismatic descendants.

Despite a few exceptions here and there, these historic denominations have maintained a firm commitment to a classic, historic view of Christian marriage, as being between a man and a woman. They have held to other fundamental doctrines of Christian faith, too. Many have come to Christ, through the effectiveness and faithfulness of these ministries, and have held stedfast to the Gospel. Many egalitarian evangelical churches are indeed growing. Slippery slopes, therefore, are not automatic.

On the other hand, the story among mainline Protestant churches is quite different. The Episcopal Church USA began ordaining women as priests in the 1970s. Back then, it was unthinkable for many Episcopalians to consider the possibility of having same-sex marriage ceremonies held in their churches.

Fast forward to the first decade of the 21st century, when the Episcopal Church USA ordained an openly practicing gay man as bishop of an influential northern diocese. In 2018, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution, stating that same-sex couples will now be able to marry in their home parish, even if their local bishop has moral objections to same-sex marriage. The resolution stopped just short of fully integrating same-sex marriage liturgy into the Book of Common Prayer, but that has not stopped some Episcopal priests from secretly performing same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The story has been repeated a number of times over the years. Mainline churches that several generations ago began to ordain women, and promised to “hold the line” against same-sex marriage, are now finding themselves under increased pressure to allow for and even endorse same-sex marriages in their churches. The United Churches of Christ began ordaining women in 1957. In 2005, the United Churches of Christ affirmed “marriage equality” in their foundational documents. The same type of stories have been repeated, or are currently repeating, among more mainline Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and some United Methodists.

As a result, these once dominant, mainline bodies of churches have continued on towards a trajectory of decline. Mainline churches once boasted of 30% affiliation among Americans in the early 1970s. That number has dropped to around 10% affiliation among Americans in 2017. If the current trend continues, mainline churches may not be around anymore in about 20 years. Or at least, they will become a shadow of what they once were. Is the current trend reversible?

Furthermore, as the mainline has declined, the line between evangelical churches and the older mainline has grown fuzzier and fuzzier. The culture today is vastly different from the culture a hundred years ago. That being the case, what can prevent an evangelical church today, in the current cultural climate, from following the declining pattern already established by the older mainline?

Many egalitarian evangelicals unswervingly hold to the conviction that the practice of having women as elders and pastors is fundamentally unrelated to the question of same-sex marriage. I do not question this conviction. As stated above, plenty of evangelical churches who have been ordaining women to elder or pastoral ministry have remained firm in their commitment to classic Christian sexual ethics. In other words, an “inevitable” slippery slope is a logical fallacy.

However, what I am not sure about is why these issues are fundamentally unrelated. This question of why same-sex marriage is wrong, and why women as elders, for many, might be wrong as well, does not get thought about often enough. I know many fine egalitarian Christians who truly believe these issues are fundamentally unrelated. But it is not always clear as to why that is the case.

Give this some consideration: The main issue with having women as elders is not about competence nor ability. It is about gender. Likewise, the main issue about same-sex marriage is not about love, family, or commitment. It is about gender.

What then is our theology of gender all about? Do the gender distinctions between male and female really matter, and where is this to be applied? Only with respect to sexual behavior, or is there more to it?

The narrative of creation sets the stage for how we think about gender, what it means, how significant it is, and where the differences between male and female really matter:

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:27 ESV).

This is a complex issue, that requires thoughtful reflection, and no single blog post can easily resolve the discussion. To put it briefly, Genesis teaches us that men and women are created by God to be equal. But men and women are NOT interchangeable.1 The problem is, that in discerning what the practical implications are, requires a lot of thought and prayer, in our efforts to figure this stuff out.

Egalitarians must be willing to take a hard look at this: By promoting the idea that woman should be serving as elders/pastors, are they merely copying “what the world does,” or are they truly resisting “the world?” Is egalitarian theology really rooted in the Gospel? If not, then perhaps the gains of tinkering with church eldership will be offset by the dilution of a robust theology of gender.

Complementarians must be willing to take a hard look, too: By only permitting men to be elders/pastors, are they honoring women, or are they somehow denigrating women? Is complementarian theology really rooted in the Gospel? If not, then the hard line taken against women in those leadership roles will distort a truly robust theology of gender.

What Is The Positive Posture To Take on Such Matters?

A further problem to consider is this: When trying to “hold the line” on an issue, whether it be same-sex marriage, or for some, women as elders, are we neglecting to consider what might be a more positive way of approaching these issues? Are Christians to be known for what they are against, or for what they are for?

If a church is going to forbid same-sex marriage, it is imperative that a church consider how that community will serve and support those who wrestle with same-sex attraction. If someone in this latter category agrees with the position of the church, regarding marriage as being only between a man and a woman, or perhaps they are unsure, but who remain open to the teaching of the church, how will that person find love, support, friendship, healing, and encouragement, in their own journey of faith, in that community? With respect to ministry to the so-called “LGBTQ” community, what are Christians known to be for?

Likewise, if a church is going to forbid women from serving as elders or pastors, it is imperative that a church consider how that community will serve and support women, who have extraordinary gifts and skills for ministry. Will they be treated as mere “second class citizens,” in comparison to men? Or will women be fully supported and encouraged to use their gifts and skills? What are Christians known to be for?

Too often, churches will make statements concerning an issue, in an effort to “hold the line” against cultural trends invading the church, and completely neglect the pastoral implications that inevitably arise, due to making such statements. When such churches neglect such things, often their statements fall upon deaf ears. In other words, how we say something matters just as much, if not more, than what we say.

Are men and women flourishing together in your church?

Whew! There is lot more I could say about it, but I will leave it at that. For the remaining blog posts in this series, I will circle around the airfield a few more times, so to speak, and then try to “land the plane.”

 

Notes:

1. Sometimes, Galatians 3:28 gets thrown into the discussion: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (ESV).” Some see this as breaking down the distinction between male and female, but one must be careful here, not to minimize Genesis 1:27 in the process. The more traditional interpretation of Galatians 3:28, adopted by most modern day complementarians, suggests that male and female are equal in Christ, with respect to salvation; specifically the work of justification. It does NOT mean that male and female can serve in equivalent roles, in the church. More recent egalitarian interpretations extend the application of Galatians 3:28 beyond the work of justification, to include how male and female are to relate together, in the order of the local church.   


Reviewing Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy Movie

This past week, I went to see Timothy Mahoney’s new film, Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy. Following the relative success of Mahoney’s first film on the Exodus, Mahoney has been able to raise enough funds to put out this second movie, that seeks to defend the idea that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.

On the good side, Mahoney demonstrates that there is a certain critical bias among mainstream scholars, that tends to pooh-pooh the idea, that a man named Moses really had that much do with the the transmission of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, down through history. A lot of Christians are surprisingly ignorant of the fact that doubting the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, has been pretty much the standard teaching in nearly all institutions of higher learning in the United States, for decades. So, Mahoney gets brownie points for urging Christians to engage more with critical scholarship. If you send your kid off to college, allow them to watch TV, or allow them to surf the Internet, it behooves the Christian to become aware of the challenges that confront a young person’s faith.

But the down side of the movie is that Mahoney leans heavily on the contrarian, and highly disputed theories, of Egyptologist David Rohl, to make Mahoney’s case that God essentially inspired the human alphabet system, that allowed Moses to write the Torah. The movie was basically a 2-hour slog, through a rather complicated apologetic argument, to try to defend Moses’ involvement in writing the first part of the Bible. Even Gary Bates and Lita Cosner, Young Earth Creationist apologists for Creation.com, found Mahoney’s alphabetic writing system proposal as “both unnecessary and unsupported by Scripture itself.

Why Mahoney leans so heavily on David Rohl, the latter who admits that he is an agnostic, is beyond me. In contrast, Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, an outspoken evangelical Christian, and highly respected by many of his agnostic and atheistic peers, dismisses David Rohl’s speculation as pretty much total nonsense. Kitchen, author of the exhaustively learned On the Reliability of the Old Testament, champions the so-called “late date theory” of the Exodus, that the film maker Mahoney casually dismisses twice in the movie, as having “no evidence” to support it. Rohl makes some legitimate criticisms of “late date theory” proponents, but his alternative solution fails to convince most scholars, believer and non-believer alike. I will spare you the details and simply refer the Veracity reader to ‘s fair and balanced review of The Moses Controversy.

I do not mean to pile onto Tim Mahoney, as he seems like a really likable, sincere guy, and I do commend him for addressing the topic. I think that his experience with doubt, and his journey in trying to resolve such doubt, should be treated with respect and sensitivity. Mahoney plans to put out another movie, addressing the apologetics of the Red Sea crossing. Let us hope that this next movie will be an improvement over The Moses Controversy.

Despite its shortcomings, I am very glad and thankful Tim Mahoney has put out a thought-provoking film, that will hopefully spur thoughtful Christians to actively engage the issues behind The Moses Controversy. Nevertheless, I am concerned that an uncritical examination of Mahoney’s claims will only confuse Christians, when they actually encounter peer-reviewed scholarship on this topic, making it harder to defend the faith before an unbelieving world.


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