FINALLY, the last in a series on women in ministry in the church.
In the midst of this Holy Week, I want to close out this series with some personal reflections, as I “land the plane,” and propose a vision of how to move forward in the complementarian vs. egalitarian discussion, with respect to ministry to the world around us. At the outset, I will acknowledge that a lot of my Christian friends, to either side of me, will disagree with me. I will admit, right off, I might be quite wrong about a lot of this. Nevertheless, I am quite OK about going out on a limb here. So, let us see if I fall off or not.
All I ask is for you to hear me out, look back over the previous 19 or so blog posts, to see how I built my argument, and then engage me on that basis, and show me where I am falling off balance. Most of my critics have either not read the whole series, or have selectively read what I have written, which is a pattern I have come to expect. If I need correction, I encourage you to provide it. Just please engage the actual arguments I present. Thanks!
Christians today are divided by many issues. Whether it be the age of the earth, the nature of the millennium, the timing of the Rapture, infant vs. believer’s baptism, charismatic gifts, etc., the opportunities for division come up quite frequently. The problem is that the Evil One enjoys seeing believers in conflict with one another, as it is part of the demonic strategy to divide and conquer the church of God. When Christians are involved in pitched battles with one another, the witness of the church is compromised.
A word of wisdom I have gained over the years, as relayed by a pastor in my church: Divisions in the church breeds atheism in the world.
The question of “should women serve as elders, deacons, or pastors” is a particularly sensitive topic in this category. Whereas topics like “science vs. the Bible” typically generate interest only among a few, the relationship between men and women in the church impacts everyone who calls themselves a Christian. Pile on top of this, the cultural pressures in recent times, that seek to redefine gender, in all sorts of areas, one could argue that gender-related issues might well become more overpowering than a “disputable matters” approach can bear. Time will tell.
The Complementarian vs. Egalitarian Discussion: In the Order of the Church
Granted, this topic is not something most Christians have thought through. Most evangelical Christians have rarely heard of terms like “complementarian” and “egalitarian.” But for those Christians who have thought about this issue deeply, these terms are pregnant with meaning (Satire moment: If after reading the below, you are still confused, the BabylonBee will straighten you out).
First, let us clear up some basics: To be a complementarian is NOT the same thing as being a complimentarian. To be complementarian focuses on how the differences between men and women complement one another. It is not about the virtue of offering compliments to one another. Likewise, to be an egalitarian is not to be confused with a political movement. To be an egalitarian focuses on the equality that men and women share with one another.
A complementarian believes, that while both men and women stand equal before God, they are very different. With respect to the church, this difference is expressed in the Scriptural teaching that only men can serve in some offices in the church, and those offices carry with them a sense of spiritual authority. All other Christians in a local church, both men and women, recognize the holders of such office (or offices) as having that sense of spiritual authority. Where the line is drawn, regarding which offices carry such spiritual authority, vary from complementarian to complementarian. Some include deacons in the “male-only” list. Others do not. But nearly all agree that elders and/or pastors of the church (which some view as synonymous, whereas others do not), carry with them spiritual authority.
An egalitarian believes also that the Scriptures teach that men and women are different in many ways,. Nevertheless, an egalitarian insists that men and women are free to serve within the church, in whatever capacity God leads them to serve. If men are eligible to be elders, then so can women be eligible as elders. If you have male pastors, then nothing should preclude having female pastors. Differences between men and women are to be celebrated, but they are not to be forced. Where egalitarians differ among themselves, is with respect to what constitutes spiritual authority in the church. Does having women serving as elders constitutes women serving in a spiritual authority over others? Some egalitarians would say yes. Others would say that it is all about “getting the job done,” and that church eldership has really very little to do with the concept of “spiritual authority. Therefore, “spiritual authority” is a relic of the medieval, and perhaps even, the early church, and not relevant for today.
What strikes everyone as odd is that the two sides, including variances within the two sides, seem unable to understand why the other side interprets the Bible the way they do. Often, the discussion never gets started because one side will say to the other, “Well, the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
Furthermore, what makes the complementarian versus egalitarian dialogue so hard is that each side keeps misrepresenting the other, in order to justify their own readings of the Bible. Complementarians believe that egalitarians simply want to dynamite any sense of differentiation between male and female, and flatten out all distinctions in humanity. But most egalitarians I know recognize that there is more to being a woman versus being a man, and it is more than just the plumbing. Nevertheless, most egalitarians have a difficult time articulating what those non-plumbing features, the more spiritual elements of being male and female, really look like in a church. At the very least, the notion of an implicit hierarchy of men over women, triggers an allergic reaction for the egalitarian…. well that is for sure!
Egalitarians, in turn, simply believe that complementarians think that men are superior than women, or that men are more capable than women. So, no matter how often a complementarian will insist that this is not about competence or ability, the egalitarian just plugs up their ears, and refuses to listen, or believe what the other side has just said. Complementarians, among themselves, will differ as to how the whole “hierarchy” thing works out, but they typically say God has an established order, that has nothing to do with “superiority” or “inferiority.” Sure, you can still find at least some complementarians that really do not trust women at all, or who simply call their egalitarian interlocutors “liberals,” or “haters of the Bible,” and that just fires up egalitarian passions. But those kind of hyper-complementarians are steadily becoming a rare breed indeed.
As a result, many knee-jerk complementarians will readily dismiss egalitarians as compromisers “with the world,” and will go off and start or join churches that are theologically oriented towards being complementarian. Likewise, many knee-jerk egalitarians will dismiss complementarians as ignoring the larger scope of the Bible, and perhaps casting muttered thoughts of “judgmental,” “living in fear,” or “close-minded,” in the direction of the complementarian Christian. Egalitarians then have their own churches, with their own pastors, whether they be male or female.
This is what we Protestant Christians do. Divide and start new churches.
We do not like division, but we divide anyway. We experience less tension and less anxiety, living in our own echo chambers. We like to highlight in black all of those passages of the Bible that talk about the “unity” of the Body of Christ. It makes us all feel better.
At least it makes for an interesting way of planting new churches!
In the middle are probably the vast majority of believers, who do not know what to make of the controversy. Many have never really thought about it that much. Why all of the fuss?
To top it all off, what is one to make of this fuzzy category of “spiritual authority?” What is a deacon, elder, or pastor, and why should people even care?
This fracturing of the evangelical church is evident in the magazines Christians read. Show me someone who subscribes to WORLD magazine, and there is no doubt that this person is complementarian. If someone is reading RELEVANT magazine, chances are good that the person is egalitarian. Standing somewhere in the middle? You will probably find Christianity Today on their coffee table. Someone reading all three? Well, that person is just plain confused.
I believe both postures on the extreme ends of complementarian and egalitarian spectrum to be flawed. I am sure to get flak from both sides (I already have in this blog series!!). The problem is I do not exactly know how to resolve this, except I am pretty sure that the real issues are much deeper than who gets to preach from a pulpit on Sunday mornings, or who gets to decide on the ministry strategies of the church.
What I am persuaded by is the fact that complementarians and egalitarians need one another. Some are surely skeptical that such a reciprocal relationship can be achieved in a local church. Perhaps the skeptics are correct. But I believe it is worth trying.
Now, one could easily argue that if a church does decide to have women elders, not simply as a matter of theory, but that actually installs women in such positions, and someone objects to the practice, as a matter of conscience, then you could simply suggest that the complementarian objector can move on and join another church.
But for someone like me, who has always been drawn to the idea of an interdenominational church, that just does not sit very well. Unlike matters such as the age of the earth, modes of baptism, and different views of the end times, etc., the question of submission to a spiritual authority impinges on the conscience of believer, in a way that is difficult to avoid.
In other words, if such a scenario is reached, the sad conclusion is that an interdenominational evangelicalism simply can not work. You effectively end up with two different kinds of interdenominational evangelicalism, an egalitarian variety and a complementarian variety….. and the world just looks on, “See, there those Christians go again. They say they ‘believe the Bible’ but they simply can not come together with a mutual understanding of what that really means.”
So, is it possible for complementarian and egalitarian Christians to actually worship together in one church? Well, I think they can. I believe a moderate complementarian view of church order (or some might say, a moderate egalitarian view) can actually bridge the chasm that divides complementarians from egalitarians. Whether or not what I am suggesting really effectively reflects the kind of church that God has in mind, remains to be seen.
If you want to find some good working examples of how a generous complementarian and a generous egalitarian theology actually can work together, I would look at The Village Church, pastored by Matt Chandler, and where Jen Wilken serves in a non-pastor, non-elder position. Or in the UK, look at Kings Church London, where Andrew Wilson serves as the teaching pastor. I think both churches have done a great job putting together a working model that blends complementarian and egalitarian concerns.
So, indeed some churches are trying to do what I believe is worth aiming at. But it does mean getting shot at from both sides, at times.
My Personal Journey in the Complementarian/Egalitarian Discussion:
Here is my suggestion on moving forward, but first, I need to explain where I am coming from. Just as my views regarding the topic of “national, ethnic Israel,” and Israel’s relationship with prophecy, have changed over the years (see this blog post series), my journey in the current topic has had twists and turns.
If you would have asked me 25 years ago where I stood on the topic of “women in ministry,” I would have told you that I was an egalitarian. I was pretty “hard core” about it, too. I had studied all of those passages mentioned in previous posts in this series, and because I was attending an egalitarian, evangelical seminary at the time, I tended to fall in line with that mode of interpretation.
Though I had come to faith from out of a fairly nominal, mainline Protestant background, I was immersed in evangelicalism, since my latter years of high school. But I was frustrated with much of the evangelicalism around me, that had a distinctively complementarian bent to it. After all, my bottom line was that it just did not seem “fair” to allow men to serve as pastors and elders, and not allow women to serve as pastors and elders.
My devotion to the cause got hijacked by two broad-shaped events in my life:
First, I began to meet with complementarian Christians, and I began to ask them why they could not embrace egalitarian theology. To be frank, it was a nice, “Christian” way of saying, “So, why is it that you feel threatened by women so much?”
Inevitably, the answer I was always given was, because “the Bible teaches” a complementarian view of the relations between men and women, in terms of the structure and the order of the church. Different complementarians would define things differently, but by and large this meant that only men could serve as their elders and/or pastor.
I would then whip out all of my handy egalitarian exegetical arguments, in an effort to prove the complementarian wrong. “Someone give me Galatians 3:28!”
In some cases, the discussion might bring up something that had not been considered before, and this was good and constructive for all. But most of the time, my exuberance in trying to prove the complementarian wrong rarely worked. I would just end up more frustrated than before, and the conversation would wind up being an argument, with no real progress being made. There was no peace in my head or heart.
So, it really made me curious to know, and try to understand, why do complementarians think the way they do? The fact was, I had never really made a conscious effort to try to understand a complementarian way of reading the Bible before. Then once I was able to bring myself to consider a different perspective, I began to realize that these folks simply were not crazy, misogynistic fools….. well, okay, some really were crazy, misogynistic fools, but that is beside the point….. The more thoughtful Christians began to impress upon me that they had really thought and prayed about this, and that they had really sought to bring themselves underneath the authority of Scripture, just as I had tried to do. When I began to try to see things from their point of view, I realized that they just might actually have something to teach me.
The Role of Conscience
The second broad-shaped event was more serious than the first. In having conversations with more thoughtful complementarians, I began to realize that many complementarians simply could not submit to any woman as their elder and/or pastor. To them, the elder or pastor represented the spiritual authority in their life. For them, this precluded the notion of women serving in such a capacity. Their complementarian view of spiritual authority meant that to submit to an illegitimate authority would be an act of disobedience. In other words, it was their conscience that was guiding them, and that they needed to follow God, and not be hung up on what other people think.
As an egalitarian, this put me in a position of extreme cognitive dissonance. I was effectively asking the complementarian to ignore their conscience, and disobey God! It was particularly disturbing whenever the complementarian I was dealing with was a WOMAN!
Here I was, effectively saying to a female complementarian that “a women should be given the freedom to serve in positions of spiritual authority, to show that women have value….. so, if you do not like it, then, TOUGH! Like it or leave it!”
It was a like a snarky, judgmental way of me saying that this woman was simply “de-valuing” herself, as I was accusing herself of “self-hatred,” or “hating their own gender.”
After calming down a bit, and realizing that had I just told a woman, that she must ignore her conscience, or suppress her conscience, I had to do a double-take. The irony finally hit me that in order to elevate women, I felt compelled to suppress women at the same time…. and that did not seem right.
I saw this same disregard of conscience at work in the Episcopal Church U.S.A. about 15 years ago. When a man engaged in a same-sex relationship with another man, was elected as bishop, having spiritual authority over dozens and dozens of churches, under his influence, there was very little discussion about how spiritual authority works within that communion. Essentially, church people in that denomination, who had conscience problems with the concept of submitting to a man, who did not honor the 2,000 year-old tradition of Christian marriage in practice, was apparently left aside.
Now, just as a reminder: The ordination of women and the ordination of same-sex relations practicing persons is NOT in the same category. To insist that some slippery slope exists from the ordination of women to the ordination of same-sex relations practicing persons is a logical fallacy. I know many godly evangelical egalitarians who would insist that such a slippery slope is NOT a logical necessity, and I have no sound, automatic reason to question them. Sure, there are folks who do push their ideas too far, but not everyone does so.
My problem was (and still is) at the level of what it means to respect the conscience of person. If a person simply can not submit to the spiritual authority of someone, whom they think is not qualified to serve, I may encourage that person to reexamine their heart, to see if they are really motivated by conscience, or if they are really motivated instead by some sinful prejudice.
For a good example of a misguided conscience, being wrongly influenced by a sinful prejudice, one can look no further than the the unbridled racism championed by many Christians in the 20th century, who sought to condemn interracial marriage, between white skinned people and dark skinned people, in the American south, claiming the “Bible” as their guide. There is no biblical justification for this kind of sinful prejudice.
So, with respect to the complementarian versus egalitarian discussion, I may ask a person to reexamine their heart, to see if they are really motivated by conscience or sinful prejudice, in their refusal to submit to a spiritual authority, they believe to be improper. I may even challenge their notion of spiritual authority altogether! But to ask someone to disobey their conscience? Well, that troubled me some 20-25 years ago, and it still troubles me now.
As a full-on, take-no-quarter egalitarian, not only had I been driven by a sense of “fairness,” I had also been motivated by a sacred sense of respecting the conscience of others. It all sounded great in principle. Yet my eagerness to pursue equality, by running roughshod over someone else’s sacred sense of conscience, in the process, made me realize that I was motivated more by ideology than I was by truth.
That stopped me in my tracks.
Since truth trumps ideology, I realized that I had to start over again, and revisit prayer and the Bible in a new way. I had to repent. Big time. It was a difficult lesson to learn.
Where I Am Now
If I had to characterize my position now, it would be formally that of a moderate complementarian. What I mean by that is that a complementarian order of things appears to have the most evidential backing, but that egalitarian theology at its best has served as a necessary corrective against misogyny in the church. That being said, there are still a lot of things in some complementarian theology that strikes me as either out of balance, biblically and historically speculative, or just plain silly.
For example, in the “biblically and historically speculative” category, there are Christians who believe that women should not serve as deacons, assuming that the office of deacon carries with it a sense of spiritual authority, without citing any clear evidence from the text, and by dismissing the evidence from early church history of the practice of having women deacons. Though this is, with all generous respect, a legitimate possible interpretation, it just seems over the top to me, given the evidence we do have.
In the “just plain silly” category, there are some who take their complementarian theology into the workplace, that makes them think peculiar things, such as that women should not be police officers, etc. That just seems silly. REALLY SILLY (I heartily concur with Aimee Byrd and Carl Trueman, contra Denny Burk and David Talcott, regarding a flap a few years ago about a John Piper podcast).
On a more serious note, I have heard some hyper-complementarians refer to women, who serve in pastoral ministry, as “living in sin,” because of their desire to serve God in pastoral ministry.
Wow. What a way to build up a sister in the Lord…. NOT!!!
If a Christian resorts to that type of rhetoric, we might as well extract women like Deborah and Huldah out of the Bible…. and what about the many hundreds of wives of pastors in China, who stepped up to lead their churches, when the mid-20th century Chinese government arrested countless male pastors? Would it have been better for those pastors’ wives to have simply allowed their congregations to shrivel up under persecution?
No, a much better position to take would be to thank such women, for their selfless service for the Lord. Thank such women for standing faithfully in the gap, when the time called for it. Nevertheless, for complementarians and egalitarians to worship together in the same community, another step forward needs to be taken.
ADVICE TO BUDDING COMPLEMENTARIAN ACTIVISTS: Please, do not refer to women serving in the Salvation Army as “living in sin.” I will be blunt here. That is not simply an unbiblical way of thinking. It is just plain stupid.
As a final example, I note that for women who have experienced abuse in the church, perpetrated by male leaders, the mere mention that women should “submit” to men in church leadership, is enough to send shivers down their spine. A lot of complementarians fail to consider that there are women in our churches, who have been deeply threatened by men in leadership, due to horribly negative experiences in their past. As a result, such women feel a lot safer around women in positions of leadership, than they do around men in positions of leadership.
We need to treat those terribly difficult cases with an extreme amount of sensitivity. Thankfully, these situations do not happen all of the time. But they happen often enough that it behooves the complementarian to bear this in mind: Be ye gentle.
If my critique above encourages some complementarian to think of me as a “closet feminist,” well, then, you might want to try telling that to some of my egalitarian friends, who are already very nervous in reading this (Or just ask Rachel Miller, a woman who upholds that the office of elder is reserved for men-only, but who annoying still gets called a “closet egalitarian,” or a “thin complementarian.”… or listen to the interview of Rachel here at the Theology Gals podcast).
With the above caveats in mind, here are the three basic reasons that push me over the line towards a moderate complementarian theology.
First, I am essentially an evidentialist. If the evidence points me in a particular direction, that is the way I will go. At this point, in my studies of this issue, I no longer see the egalitarian view as having as strong a biblical case as I once thought it was. However, if more evidence becomes available, that might change my mind, I am open to repenting yet again.
Secondly, I began to think more about the mysterious, sacramental, and dare I say, supernatural element associated with eldership. A Christian can surely hold to a more traditional Quaker-like mode of church structure, with effectively no pastors or elders. But most evangelical churches simply do not work that way.
Nor is this necessarily desirable. If there are no pastors or elders, then there is effectively no instrument for spiritual authority in the church. One might be content with the spiritual health of such a community, whereby spiritual authority is purposely made absent. But without spiritual authority, it does open the door for perversions of the truth to enter into the community, in a future generation, that were not conceived, when such spiritual authority was intentionally dismantled. Of course, it does not necessarily follow that such perversions are inevitable. But it does raise the question as why spiritual authority existed in the first place.
God could have chosen to implant His Word with computer chips in the brains of every believer. Instead, God gave us the mode of preaching from a sacred text, so that the very truth of God might be heard, to be passed down from generation to generation. The Scriptures use the image of shepherding sheep, or pastoring, to describe the activity of faithfully communicating the Word of God to the sheep. Is this merely a handy analogy, a practical illustration of a pragmatic function, or a revelation of mystery, deep at work in the supernatural reality of the church?
Furthermore, does something uniquely masculine have something to do with it? Given 2,000 years of Bible interpretive tradition that predominantly has said, “YES,” it is worth an examination. To remind the reader, yet again, and again, this has nothing to do with the ability or inability, or competence or incompetence, of women. Neither does it preclude other avenues of ministry within the church. It has to do with some mysterious, spiritual quality of eldership. At least, we should be open to the possibility that this might indeed be the case.
Yet whenever I bring this up, head scratching inevitably raises some objections. So, why a male-only eldership? The hyper-egalitarian impulse pushes back by saying that this does not seem very “fair.” Why put up this barrier for women?
But this is like asking why God chose to reveal His plan and purposes through a single human person, in a particular place and period in time, and a Jewish one, to boot. Why are the Jews the “chosen people?” Does that seem “fair?” Why do some receive the Gospel and yet others do not? Why Christianity, and not other religions as well? Does that seem “fair?” I could go on and on. Perhaps this “scandal of particularity” of male-only eldership serves a sacramental purpose of reminding us that our human concept of “fairness” runs headlong into and against the particularity of Christianity?
It reminds me of the Garden, whereby God created this beautiful Garden, filled with all sorts of fruit trees. Pomegranates, oranges, tangerines, nectarines, strawberries, big and small, apples, kiwi, bananas, raspberries, blackberries, white grapes, black grapes, red grapes, twenty thousand different kinds of mango,….. you name it!! You have more than enough choices of fruit trees to enjoy!!
But you see that one single tree over there? Please, do not eat anything of THAT tree.
What then is our human response? Yep. You guessed it. “That just is not fair.”
It is quite a sensible thing to reject the concept of male-only eldership as not being fair. Women are perfectly capable of being elders and pastors, just as much as men! But as C.S. Lewis remarked, perhaps that is the problem. Those who would reject a male-only eldership are being “too sensible.”
Ah, but the hyper-complementarian is not spared by this analogy. Instead, hyper-complementarian makes a bigger deal out of male-only eldership than it needs to be. It moves from being a sacramental reminder of spiritual mystery to an element of control.
That control issue pretty well explains why there are so few female theologians, and frustrated women, who have a sense of calling to “do ministry” in the church, but they get stomped on by those in power.
Eldership moves out of its restrictive realm of spiritual authority into becoming a corporate board of directors, which runs the church like a business.. This is where all of the decisions get made. The ever-expanding church bureaucracy. The rigid chain of command. Micro-management. Abuse. Male machoism. Chauvinism. Elitism. Power. More power. More and more power. Helicopter parenting. Big government. MORE POWER!!! Squash the little person. Male privilege…. Did I mention the thing about “more power?”
I could go on. We have heard it all before. Yet whatever happened to the idea behind a balanced understanding of male-only eldership, as those who kindly shepherd the flock, serving a sacramental purpose reminding us that Christ came to serve, and not to be served?
This abusive view of church eldership reminds me of the Garden, where God’s command to not eat of that one single tree, gets amended by the humans. Not only shall you not eat of it, neither shall you touch it!! Of course, God said nothing about not touching the tree, only not to eat of it. But by adding the not-touching part, it made the prohibition of not-eating that particular fruit into something greater than what God intended. It elevated the desire for human control, instead of a humble trust in God.
Yes, perhaps there is something to this mysterious spiritual quality of church eldership, after all.
Yet, the third reason that pushes me over the line towards a complementarian theology has to deal with the Christian mission to a lost world. In the broadest sense possible, the church needs fathers, more mature men, who will help teach the younger men and boys how to be and become men. The church also needs mothers, more mature women, who will help teach the younger women and girls how to be and become women.
If egalitarian theology really helps to achieve these aims above, then wonderful. Nevertheless, there is something going on in the world today and in the church today, that we need to come to grips with.
To put it succinctly, men are in crisis.
The Crisis of Men, and a Ministry Opportunity for the Church
The feminist movement has done some wonderful things over the past number of decades. It has guaranteed the right to vote for women, and given them opportunities for education and careers, just as men have enjoyed. It has lifted women out of poverty. It has exposed the problem of sexual abuse and called for accountability. These are all incredibly important things, that Christians should rejoice over and support.
But the feminist movement has accomplished these things at a tremendous cost. We live in a day where there is a crisis of masculinity. The stability of families suffer, as a result, as well as bringing about other problems.
For example, women today are doing great in the world of higher education. Women are demonstrating that they are just as bright and capable, if not more so, than men. But the story for men is comparatively not as great.
Men are falling behind in attaining an education. Story after story shows that women, with the exception of the science and technology fields, are obtaining higher degrees of education than men, and that men are simply not keeping pace. Young women are more likely to finish high school than young men. Women are more likely to excel and finish college than men. If the trend continues, this will become not only exceedingly worse for men, it will also become worse for women as well, as men will become a drain upon women.
Consider the rising frequency of mass shooting tragedies. Men are far more likely to commit them than women.
Men are more likely than women to commit suicide.
GQ Magazine, hardly the paragon of evangelical Christian orthodoxy, is putting out articles asking the question as to how men can teach other men how to be men.
If you go to church and realize that the number of women usually exceeds the number of men, in terms of participation, you know exactly what I mean. If your church has more women than men involved in childrens and youth ministry, you know what I mean. If your church has more outreach, mentoring and discipleship opportunities for women, as opposed to men, then you know what I mean. If you know of men, even Christian men, who are unable to step up and take responsibility for their life, and the lives of others, then you know exactly what I mean. If you are a Christian woman and married, and you get frustrated that your husband is not leading his family, in terms of spiritual discipleship, then you know exactly what I mean.
Having women come in, no matter how gifted and competent they are, to do the work for men will not help those men.
The data points keep adding up. Men are in crisis.
The Jordan Peterson Moment
Sadly, the church has not been able to speak with a clear, united voice, as how to address this crisis.
At the same time, some people are trying to teach and show men how to be men. Sometimes, God has to raise up prophetic voices from outside of the church, in order to wake up the church.
Here is a case in point: Canadian clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson, has been been described by the esteemed New York Times columnist, David Brooks, as currently being the world’s leading public intellectual. Jordan Peterson is the Canadian professor who has publicly challenged proposals to changing Canadian law, to require people to use certain speech, when speaking of transgendered persons. A look at Dr. Peterson’s YouTube channel shows that he has nearly 2 million subscribers. His YouTube teaching series on the Bible has received millions of views. His main message, at least in how it is received, is that men are in crisis, along with the idea that the Bible contains the resources to help men learn how to become better men. Peterson had no intention of targeting men with his message. It just turned out that way that men are more desperate in needing to hear it.
What is so strange about the whole Jordan Peterson phenomenon is that Dr. Peterson is somewhere between being an agnostic and an atheist, of sorts, and not a Christian. Some of Peterson’s readings of the Bible, are a bit sketchy, a blend of Carl Jung’s mysticism and evangelical theology jumbled together. Yet it is as though Jordan Peterson has discovered a thread woven throughout Scripture, that sadly remains somehow elusive to many Christians. Why is it that an agnostic psychologist can get so many people to look at the Bible, when evangelical Christians who believe the Bible to be the Word of God, remain unheard?
It is as though Jordan Peterson has tapped into the mythological substrata, of a post-Christian world, and he is bringing the Bible back to life for many people. A stranger thing still is that Peterson just sort of stumbled upon these traces of spiritual awakening, left hidden in our secular scientific world, while evangelical Christian leaders have been left wondering why so many of the faithful in our churches seem unable to get “out of the ark,” and cross the street to visit our non-Christian neighbor, just to have a simple conversation about Jesus.
People disconnected from Christianity can not seem to get enough of Jordan Peterson’s lectures on the Bible. They flock to hear him. At the same time, we have evangelical Christians who can not muster up the courage to do evangelism. Think about that: Evangelicals who do not evangelism.
Now, from a missiological perspective, how much sense does that make? Do Christians have something to learn from Peterson?
I do not want to completely interrupt the flow of the argument here, so if you want to come back to this later, you should. The following interview with Peterson has his New Zealand female interviewer asking why so many men seem desperate, and even suicidal, looking to people like Peterson to give them answers. She asks, “Is this a fault of post-religious society lacking meaning?” (4 minute mark)… What a great question. I’ll continue below, if you want to skip for now…
The Crisis of Men in Our Churches
Men are in crisis.
So, while the topic of “women in ministry” is a divisive issue in churches today, it is only the tip of the iceberg. The underlying questions, of what does it mean to be male and female, are simmering underneath. Whether it be questions over same-sex marriage, gender dysphoria, etc., our fundamental theology of gender remains to be the elephant in the room, that does not get fully addressed. What does it mean to be male and female? What does it mean to become a man or a woman?
Does this describe many of the men even in our churches today?
- He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls (Proverbs 25:28 KJV).
I have no clear idea why this is happening, but the church is surely not immune. But apparently, when super-talented, incredibly competent women step into eldership-type roles in the church, many men become either intimidated, or feel like they are somehow “off the hook,” or perhaps something else. Some say it is the “feminization of the church” to blame. Whatever the reason, broadly speaking, men are not taking the responsibility to lead in the church and the home.
In fairness, this is not true of all men. There are plenty of exceptions. A lot of men appear to be doing relatively fine. But there are enough men in serious trouble, that this has become a human, and yet ultimately, spiritual crisis.
There are many godly women who are praying and praying that their husband “step up to the plate” spiritually. In many, many cases these women believe that having other women in spiritual authority only makes their efforts more difficult.
With respect to those outside of the church, Christians have an opportunity to help men in crisis, but so much of the complementarian/egalitarian debate within the church has blinded believers from seeing that the “fields are ripe for the harvest.” What are we doing to reach out to these men?
Things are looking better and better for women in many ways in Western culture, but it is looking like a looming disaster ahead for men. And if the trend continues for men, the women will eventually suffer as well. The church needs to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem.
Churches need to be places where the more mature men are helping men and boys to be and become men. They also need to be places where the more mature women are helping women and girls to be and become women.
To reiterate, this does NOT mean that women can not use their gifts to lead in various ministries in the church. To reiterate, this is not about superiority vs. inferiority. This is not about competence or ability. For example, we need more women, not less, to get advanced theological and biblical training, even PhDs., so that the next generation can be better equipped to face the challenges of a spiritually lost world. If non-elder positions do not currently exist in churches, to employ such gifted women in exercising theses talents, then we should make every effort to invest in developing such areas of ministry.
However we address the issue of ministry involving women, it does mean that the church needs to think more strategically in how to address the crisis of men, both within and outside of the church.
On the Supposed Demise of Complementarian Theology
I know that many of my egalitarian friends will shake their heads, and say that I am simply out of step with the times. It is only matter of time before complementarianism, of any sort, gets swept into the “dustbin of history,” they might say. Some say that complementarianism will fade out with the generation of the baby-boomers. This might be true.
However, I am not completely convinced. As long as the church, broadly speaking, is divided, as it currently is over complementarian vs. egalitarian churches, there will always be a counter-impulse to heal the breach. We may not see this counter-impulse move steadily in the current generation, but it will not go away.
The evidence from church history indicates that whenever something is assigned to the “dustbin of history,” it will eventually make its way back from the recesses of forgotten history, and re-enter the conscious discussion of Christians. It may not come back in the same manner as what was regarded as hopelessly antiquated, but it will come back.
For example, many Christians who have over the years poo-pooed older forms of liturgical Christianity as being something lost to the dinosaur age, are becoming shocked at how liturgical Christianity is making a comeback, albeit in different forms. Many have thought that the season of Lent was simply a relic of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox formalism, something better off left to be forgotten. So why is it that more and more evangelical churches are reviving the season of Lent in their worship practices? Was not Lent tossed into the “dustbin of history?”
Many have dismissed the charismatic movement as something that belonged to the first century, apostolic age, never to be restored again. So, why is it that charismatic forms of Christianity constitutes the greatest form of church growth in Latin American, Africa and Asia, in the 21st century? Were the not miraculous gifts of the spirit consigned to the “dustbin of history?”
I could go on to describe other Scriptural themes that were thought to have gone extinct, only to be revived in more recent times. Have I made my case?
The most persistent thing about Scripture is that there are people who actually do read it. So what happens when a believer reads something like John 17:11 (ESV)?
- And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.
Then they look around and see that evangelicalism is divided between evangelical complementarians and evangelical egalitarians, and that Protestants are divided from Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers, who are nearly universally complementarian. Chances are pretty good that at least a few will become grieved over the situation, and will seek the Lord, asking Him where we have gone wrong, and what can be done to correct the problem.
You many not see this type of theological re-evaluation coming any time real soon. Too many Protestants, both complementarian and egalitarian, remain largely distrustful of the so-called “Great Tradition;” the common thread that binds Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox together. But as secularism continues to grow in the West, fueled by the acid of skepticism, that continues to boil away at evangelical confidence in the sacred integrity of Scripture, Protestant evangelicals will eventually realize that they have more in common with their Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox fellow Christians, than they have historically realized…. and once that rubicon is crossed, that will be a game changer.
I am neither a prophet, nor a son of a prophet. But if I were to make a prediction it would be this: Once egalitarianism has largely rooted out the worst of misogyny in the church, under the guise of complementarianism, it will eventually run out of steam as a movement. It will fade away as Christians will tire of it. Churches will have found better ways of using the gifts of women for ministry, without needing them to occupy the role of “elder” to perform them.
Furthermore, corporate worship in “a big box,” like going to Walmart or Costco, that emphasizes efficiency and sensibility, will give way to a renewed hunger for the older, more authentic, liturgical, and more mysterious forms of Christian worship, that emphasize a more counter-cultural approach to faith. Christians will rethink things, and say, “Maybe, despite our differences, those Roman Catholics and those Eastern Orthodox, who have kept the practice of male-only eldership for the past 2000 years, actually have something to teach us. Maybe, they have been right all along.”
So, I really do not get too bothered by the prospect, in the near term, that women might serve as elders or pastors in a church. NEWS FLASH: In numerous evangelical churches, women actually have been doing so, for well over one hundred years! As several commenters have noted, throughout this blog series, “One of the strongest arguments for the egalitarian position is the fact that women make good pastors and teachers and that the Holy Spirit has seen fit to abundantly bless such ministry.”
I mean, who knows? The evidence for egalitarianism might go the other way. Egalitarians might actually figure out a way of adequately distinguishing between male and female, in the order of the church, without stiffly hanging onto the clunky idea of male-only eldership, that complementarian Christians have been clinging onto for centuries. Furthermore, with so many conflicting and confused understandings of what constitutes church eldership and pastoring today, it almost hopeless in thinking that the labels of “elder” and “pastor” serve as any useful guide in providing clarity for the discussion, without extended conversations as to “what is an elder?,” and “what is a pastor?”
So, maybe I am completely wrong here. But I do not think I am.
I believe it is possible to find areas where women can serve in Christian leadership, in such ways, that do not offend the conscience of sensitive complementarians. It just makes it a lot more difficult, in the long run, to unwind church structures that have gone the full egalitarian route, to get things back to the proper order of things.
I am more bothered by the prospect, that egalitarian leaning churches will needlessly drive away those complementarian believers they will need, to assist in reaching the current and the next generation for Christ.
We need spiritual mothers in the church, to help the younger women learn how to become women. We need spiritual fathers in the church, to help the younger men learn how to become men. I make a plea for unity, yes, but I also make a plea for truth.
Having a male-only eldership can be problematic, because it can get really fuzzy, and smell like misogyny creeping back in. A male-only eldership is not a panacea. I really get that. We need to address deficiencies that arise within the church. But at least a male-only eldership celebrates and honors the differences between men and women in a very concrete, sacramental way, and it has a biblical precedent for it, as well as the explicit force of 2,000 years of church tradition, in unity across all flavors of Christianity, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox, behind it.
Perhaps this is a good place to start.