Tag Archives: complementarian

Paul, A Biography, by N.T. Wright, A Review

Reading N.T. Wright is delightfully invigorating. He is surely the most influential, and perhaps the most prolific, living New Testament scholar of our day, and an evangelical Christian to boot.

This has made Wright into the darling of millennial Christian thinkers, who look to someone like an N. T. Wright, as having the academic smarts, challenging the critical voices against Christianity in the 21st century, as well as possessing a cheerful, pastoral giftedness. N.T. Wright puts the often complex world of contemporary scholarship closer near the “bottom shelf,” where mere mortal, everyday Christians can appreciate and apply a more learned approach to the New Testament, as opposed to simply reading the Bible on their own, with little to no oversight to guide them.

Nicholas Thomas Wright. British New Testament scholar, retired Anglican bishop, … and agitator among more than a few conservative, evangelical Protestants. Now, with an outstanding biography of the Apostle Paul.

N.T. Wright: Scholar, Pastor and Popularizer

Otherwise known as “Tom” Wright, in his more popular writings, it has been often said that N.T, or Tom, Wright writes faster than most people can read. How he has found time to write as much as he has, while at one time serving as an active Anglican bishop, who only in recent years is now focused again on scholarship, is a wonder on its own.

Beleaguered by top notch critical scholars for several generations now, that appear to want to rip the Bible to shreds, thoughtful evangelicals take comfort in the fact that N.T. Wright has gone up against the brightest and best in the world of academia, and he has come out relatively unscathed. Even more so, he stands out with his good-natured, jolly British demeanor, as he declares his scholarly view of a wholly trustworthy and reliable Holy Bible. For a younger generation of evangelicals, N.T. Wright makes you feel like, intellectually, he has your back.

Wright earns the respect of non-believing and believing intellectuals alike, being read by everyone from British historian Tom Holland, to former editor-in-chief at Newsweek, Jon Meacham, just to name a few. Aside from Michael Licona’s brilliant work, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, N.T. Wright remains today’s most capable defender of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, through his highly cited academic work, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Culminating in Wright’s multivolume, comprehensive series Christian Origins and the Question of God, we find the “go-to” academic, contemporary treatment of critical issues in New Testament scholarship, correcting misguided efforts among intellectuals to take down historic Christian faith, starting with the infamous “Jesus Seminar” of the early 1990s.

I remember twenty years ago reading N.T. Wright’s written dialogue with liberal scholar Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus. Borg was known for dismissing every miracle of Jesus in the New Testament as fictitious, and yet, Wright had an answer for him at every turn. Still, the two men remained friends. I was left thinking, “Evangelical Christians need more scholars like N.T. Wright!

N.T. Wright is also a popularizer, engaging well with the wider culture, relating particularly to a more skeptical crowd, like a modern day C.S. Lewis. Along with New York City PCA pastor, Timothy Keller, N.T. Wright has been a featured speaker at Google’s headquarters, capable of speaking Christian truth to a largely sophisticated, unbelieving audience. Never parochial, always irenic, Wright receives invitations to speak at places, where more explosive and abrasive evangelical figures, such as an Answers in Genesis’ Ken Ham, would never find a welcoming reception.

Rudolph Bultmann, the German liberal scholar, who would have us “demythologize” the New Testament, was the most important New Testament scholar of the 20th century. Yet it would be fair to say that N.T. Wright enjoys the same stature, as Bultmann’s, for the early 21st century.

There is evidence to support this claim. N.T. Wright delivered the esteemed Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology, in 2018, an academic honor in Scotland. Wright is the only New Testament scholar to have delivered those lectures, since Rudolph Bultmann did so in 1954 to 1955.

Like Bultmann, who was regarded as having the preaching ability of a Billy Graham, despite Bultmann’s complete rejection of the supernatural claims of the New Testament, N.T. Wright has an appeal in his delightful written prose and public preaching persona. In a world where orthodox Christian faith appears to be being pushed to the side, in a secularizing society, on an almost daily basis, Wright’s presence as a public intellectual, engaging the toughest critics of Christian faith, is a welcoming sign that the Gospel is not completely lost in the era of post-modernity.

Nevertheless, despite the accolades, Wright’s superstar status has raised questions, particularly among his own evangelical brethren.

N.T. Wright’s greatest expertise is in the life and theology of the apostle Paul, which makes it a wonderful treat to finally have from Wright a popular level biography of the great apostle, Paul: A Biography. In Paul: A Biography, Wright constructs for the reader a very illuminating, and even quite entertaining, portrait of Paul. Wright follows the path of Paul’s career, along the contours of the Book of Acts, while interacting with the best of today’s scholarship of the first century. Wright places the writing of each of Paul’s New Testament letters, within this narrative, serving as an introduction to the entire range Paul’s writings in the Christian Bible.

N.T. Wright’s Delightful and Engaging Portrait of Paul

I can not improve upon the excellent review given by British pastor-teacher, Andrew Wilson, at The Gospel Coalition website. But I can add some commentary on what I learned the most from Wright, in this sweeping biography, while registering a few cautions here and there.

For example, I have always been a bit bothered about the reigning academic consensus, that contends that several of the letters traditionally attributed to Paul in the New Testament, were not actually written by him, such as Colossians and Ephesians. Yet I have never fully understood the evidence used to support this consensus view.

Wright cheerfully dismantles such claims against Pauline authorship, but does so by advancing Wright’s own provocative argument, that these letters, along with Philemon, were written while Paul was in prison in Ephesus. Most scholars have traditionally believed that Paul wrote these letters while in prison in Rome, or perhaps Caesarea in Palestine, if he wrote them at all. But Wright’s proposal of an Ephesian imprisonment, a minority view for decades among scholars, actually makes better sense of the available historical data.

An Ephesian imprisonment implies that the the letter “to the Ephesians” (Ephesians 1:1) could have been more of a circular letter, distributed among the small church communities, that were growing and adding new members in and near Ephesus (Ephesians 1:15), the second largest city in the ancient Roman empire. Likewise, with Colossians, the letter to the church in Colossae, a city no more than a 100 miles from Ephesus, it stands to reason that Colossians, too, could have been easily written from an Ephesian prison, as both Ephesians and Colossians share similar characteristics, along with Philemon.

The biggest drawback to Wright’s proposal is that Luke in Acts does not mention Paul being in prison in Ephesus. Nevertheless, Wright is able to put the pieces together, in a manner that explains why liberal, critical scholars of previous generations have erred in thinking that Paul could not have written Colossians nor Ephesians. Simply brilliant.

Here is another example: The intriguing “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians has often been interpreted in evangelical circles as a future coming “antichrist” figure. But Wright places 2 Thessalonians within the context of Roman history, within about a decade of the letter being written, when the Roman emperor Caligula, an utterly insane, autocratic ruler, sought to have statues of himself placed within the Temple compound in Jerusalem, reminding the Jews that the Roman emperor is to be worshipped as supreme.

Caligula’s reign was cut short by his death in 41 C.E., aborting Caligula’s attempt to profane the Temple, but it made many of Thessalonika’s Jews worried that another “man of lawlessness,” like Caligula, might rise up again against the Jews and those early Christians. Was this a prophetic reference to the coming emperor Nero, in Paul’s own day, …. or some future antichrist figure, yet to emerge in our present 21st century day?

While such questions often preoccupy curious American believers, Wright tells his readers that Paul’s intent in 2 Thessalonians, was not to set up speculation as to who a future “man of lawlessness” might be, but rather to say that Jesus is still Lord, over even the most blasphemous of Roman emperors, a warning that might benefit Christians today, who tend to obsess over “all things End Times.”

It is page after page of insights such as these that make Paul: A Biography a rewarding investment of one’s time to better understand the world of the apostle Paul. I truly enjoyed this book, and I commend it to others, even if “theology” or “history” books are not your thing.

That being said, N.T. Wright does have his critics, even among evangelicals, and not all are convinced by Wright’s attempts to chronicle the life of Christianity’s greatest apostle. Wright may be able to make the world of contemporary scholarship more understandable to the average Christian reader, but perhaps not understandable enough. And what is understandable draws some rather awkward, unfamiliar conclusions, that cast some doubts on certain features of Wright’s theological project.

N.T. Wright: The Cheerful Polemicist

For example, James Goodman, a British evangelical follower of the great 20th century Welsh preacher, Martyn-Lloyd Jones, gives Paul: A Biography a mere “one-star” review, believing that Wright is a type of trojan horse scholar, smuggling in the unbelieving errors of what Goodman contends is the radical New Perspective in Paul, that seeks to undermine the classic Reformation view of Paul’s teachings, of justification by faith alone. In a more generous and balanced review for Ligonier Ministries, New Testament professor David Briones, while finding many excellent and good things in Paul: A Biography, ultimately finds Wright to be unpersuasive, offering a caricature of the classic, evangelical understandings of Paul, traceable back to the leading lights of the Reformation, like Martin Luther and John Calvin.

So, why the bad marks from defenders of the evangelical Reformed tradition, for Paul: A Biography? For those who believe in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, N. T. Wright sends up red flags. This “righteousness of God,” which is alien to fallen humans, is applied, or “imputed,” to the Christian believer, as an expression of the love of God, through Jesus’ sacrificial death at Calvary. We as fallen, sinful human creatures, stand condemned before a Holy God, unless this Holy God, does something new on our behalf. The teachers of the Reformation contended that Christ indeed did such a thing, through this concept of the righteousness of God, being imputed to us. This righteousness thus declares the undeserving sinner to be justified by faith and faith alone, through grace and grace alone. Imputation is therefore considered to be the hallmark of true Gospel doctrine.

To Wright’s most conservative critics, Wright’s casually dismissive attitude towards this doctrine of imputation makes him just as complicit in attacking the Bible, as Wright’s liberal critics! To be fair, Wright does not hammer on this “anti-imputation” theme, as much as he has often expounded it in his more academic writings. Furthermore, not all of Wright’s critics lump him in a totally pejorative category, despite disagreements.

But neither does Wright, even in Paul: A Biography, seek to offer much irenic comfort to his Reformed critics, a recurring weakness in Wright’s work, in my view, though Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox readers will find some reassurance in N.T. Wright, in their respective understandings of Paul. Wright’s approach is not completely of disagreement with, but rather one of relative indifference to, classic Reformation theology, which is enough to isolate N.T. Wright from the most conservative corners of the evangelical movement. Though greatly softened in Paul: A Biography, there is still a polemical edge in this popular work of Wright’s, that seeps through from time to time.

If imputation is not critical for Paul’s message of the Gospel, then what does N.T. Wright say is critical for Paul’s message? For N.T. Wright, Paul’s central theme is that God, through His faithfulness to His covenant with Israel, has now extended that same covenant, with those same covenant promises, to the Gentiles, in Jesus Christ. For Wright, the Reformation emphasis on the human sinner, receiving a declaration of being made righteous, so that we might be reconciled to God, is a fine message, and does play some type of role in Paul’s thought, but it is not the central idea that catapults Paul’s ministry. Instead, the Good News of the Gospel that Paul preaches is grounded upon the reality that God faithfully keeps his promises to the covenant people of Israel, and then brings the Gentiles in, to enjoy those same promises as well.

Some readers will take N.T. Wright as therefore actually down playing the central doctrine of the Protestant Reformation, namely of justification by faith and faith alone, through the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness to the lost sinner. Concerned evangelicals, like pastor John Piper, at Desiring God ministries, and even more moderate voices, like that of the late John R.W. Stott, take Wright’s tendency to introduce false dichotomies into his work to task, while still greatly appreciating the positive work that Wright is truly offering the church.

Another example may help to explain unease about Wright, in certain evangelical quarters. Wright does exceptionally well in Paul: A Biography, in defending Paul against the common claim that Paul was a misogynist, that he “hated” women. Wright wonderfully shows that women were some of Paul’s most trusted colleagues in ministry, and that Paul valued having women in church leadership. But does this more egalitarian, sympathetic view towards women really undercut Paul’s (often disputed) teaching in the pastoral letters, that the office of overseer, in the local church, is to be reserved for men only? Is there not a possible both/and solution here, as opposed to an either/or, pick-your-side approach to be considered, as offering critical insight into the temperament and teaching of the great apostle? Wright skirts around this most important issue, just as he does in the justification debate, that might offer a third-way rapprochement in the controversial “women in ministry” debate, that divides evangelical churches today.

Wright does a much better job in Paul: A Biography, of establishing a view of Paul as being thoroughly Jewish, as opposed to critics who believe Paul to be the “inventor of Christianity,” one in direct opposition to historic Judaism. Wright’s study of Second Temple Judaism offers a vivid appreciation for Paul’s Jewishness, that previous generations of scholars, both liberal and conservative, have often never fully considered.

Nevertheless, Wright does not fully satisfy his critics in Paul: A Biography, by not adequately addressing the question of what promises in the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically to the Jewish people, if any, remain as valid possibilities for future fulfillment, in the mind of Paul. For example, many conservative evangelical Bible teachers would insist that Romans 11 envisions, at the very least, a great mass turning of Jews towards the Gospel, prior to Christ’s second coming. In Paul: A Biography, Wright does not even provide a hint of anything like that to be the case, proving to be a frustration to at least a few evangelical scholars and Bible teachers.

Towards the end of Paul: A Biography, Wright drops what some might consider to be a bombshell, regarding how one should think of the “End Times,” and beyond. Gone from Wright’s prose is the misty vision of believers, in white robes, with halos over their heads, in a blissful yet ultimately boring heaven, that characterizes many popular views of the Christian afterlife.

Wright brushes this kind of otherworldliness aside. Wright believes this view of a heaven above, as well as its damnation alternative below; that is, hell, to be a product of the Middle Ages, and not something that goes back to the mind of Paul. Rather, Wright sees Paul envisioning a type of new heavens and a new earth, a restoration of what God originally created, to be the future of a redeemed humanity. Wright is surely writing of a necessary corrective here, as millennial author and pastor Joshua Ryan Butler agrees, along with an older evangelical, Randy Alcorn, (see Veracity blogger, John Paine’s review of Randy Alcorn), but is Wright overcorrecting too much?

The vast majority of evangelical Christians today, along with the skeptics who mock them, attribute the “end of the world” language, used in much of the New Testament, to be speaking of a literal conflagration of the space-time existence of this present world. In contrast, N.T. Wright sees this “end of the world” language as mostly about anticipating the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, something that actually did take place in 70 C.E.

Wright understands Paul as surely believing in a future bodily resurrection of the dead, as well as a physical future return of the Lord Jesus, but pretty much everything else with respect to the “End Times” was fulfilled shortly after Paul’s death, presumably sometime in the decade of the 60’s C.E., or shortly thereafter.

This “partial preterist” position, regarding the “End Times,” is held by a few other evangelicals, such as the late R.C. Sproul, but Wright does relatively little in Paul: A Biography to fully dissuade the vast majority of evangelicals today, who foresee a future apocalyptic ending of the world, following the script of the popular “Left Behind” films and books. You would have to look to some of Wright’s other books, to learn what he is really talking about, particularly when it comes to the afterlife, which is more along the lines of what you find in something like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

A Recommended Biography of Paul, and an Introduction to N.T. Wright’s Grand Theological Project

Though I enjoyed Wright’s book tremendously, there are two, broadly cautionary notes I have with Paul: A Biography, as I reflect on some of the more controversial ideas put forward by this brilliant Anglican scholar. One is the tendency of Wright to possibly overreach in giving the reader a psychoanalytic evaluation of Paul’s mindset. There is simply too much that we do not know about Paul’s inner workings for us to fully evaluate what was really going on inside Paul’s head.

This does not mean that we can not probe. Informed by his competent grasp of Greco-Roman history and Second Temple Judaism, Wright does a masterful job of teasing things out of Paul’s letters, that a casual reading might probably miss. Nevertheless, sparks of insight should not allow us to become too carried away. We still need to be measured and cautious in our judgments, of what Paul really said, and not read certain speculative perspectives in unnecessarily.

Secondly, Wright is driven firmly by his narrative, formed by his moderate New Perspective in Paul paradigm, that focuses so much on the theme of Jewish exile, in a political world at odds with pagan Rome. As a result, Wright fails to adequately point out the gravity of the spiritual dimension of human lostness, as taught by Paul. To be fair, as an evangelical, Wright does not deny the spiritual import of Paul’s message, to the individual; that is, our need for a personal Savior, which Wright surely affirms. But neither does Wright emphasize this as much as he could.

As Susan Grove Eastman comments in her review for The Christian Century, “Wright mutes Paul’s radical diagnosis of the human condition.That diagnosis is far more global than simply viewing Rome as the enemy. In fact, Paul talks very little, if any, about Rome or Caesar. They are not worth his notice, and they are not in view when he uses the language of bondage and freedom. Whereas Wright emphasizes Jewish antipathy to Rome and posits that Paul wanted to plant his gospel of Christ’s lordship in opposition to the imperial claims of Caesar, Paul sets his sights on enemies far greater than any human power or institution. The enemies, as he repeatedly says, are sin and death, and it is the brutal reign of these suprahuman powers that Christ overthrew on the cross, thereby setting humanity free. That is the regime change that truly liberates.” If such a pointed critique came from a stalwart evangelical magazine, like a Christianity Today, that would be one thing. But to hear this from a Protestant mainline publication is unexpected, to say the least.

Still, despite some of the above concerns, many others find Paul: A Biography as being a delightful introduction into the life and ministry of Paul. Robert C. Trube’s review of Paul: A Biography, is a fine example of a Christian reviewer, who enjoys Wright’s captivating portrait of Paul, in terms of illuminating the human side of the man, often obscured by centuries of intractable theological debate.

This is what I appreciated most about N.T. Wright’s vivid portrait of Paul, a description of a man with shortcomings and human limitations, with whom I can relate. This, more humanized side of Paul, typically gets brushed under the rug, when many Christians consider that Paul was also the writer of a large portion of Sacred Scripture. Paul was surely one of the greatest servants of God, but he was still a flawed human being, in need of a Savior, just like you and me.

Wright’s Paul: A Biography may not completely supersede F. F. Bruce’s 20th century classic evangelical biography, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, but it succeeds in a way that F.F. Bruce’s work does not. Bruce’s Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free is more technical in his documentation, whereas I listened to Wright’s Paul: A Biography as an audiobook, and I never felt burdened once while listening.

F.F. Bruce is very solid, and far less controversial in his critical judgments, whereas Wright’s book flows better as great historical literature, with loads of valuable and fresh insights. Time after time, I simply had to stop listening to the audiobook version of Wright’s book and go, “Wow. I have never, ever thought of that before! This is great!So, despite the above noted cautions, Wright’s Paul: A Biography serves a dual purpose, of being one of the finest biographical surveys of Paul’s life and writings, along with being perhaps the best introduction to the theology of N.T. Wright, an invitation to explore the rest of Wright’s more scholarly work.

Eric Metaxas interviews N.T. Wright on this video podcast:


The Church Needs Both Fathers and Mothers: A Plea for Unity and Truth

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.


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An Interdenominational Church Asks: What Are the Core Doctrines of the Faith?

It is kind of hard to know what it means to celebrate our unity in the midst of our diversity, when we do not even know what that diversity is.”

— Troy Knapp, philosopher, poet, Michigan Tech fan, and fellow connoisseur of Mexican fajitas

The 19th post in a multipart series.

I am part of what might be called an evangelical interdenominational church. What I really appreciate about it is that there is a core set of fundamental beliefs (eight, to be exact), that guide the life and practice of the community. In a more denominational church setting, you will find certain doctrines or beliefs that are elevated in such a way, that it becomes difficult for other believers to fully subscribe to those beliefs, without going, “And, so, why is this such a big deal here? Can we not just focus on the essentials of the faith?”

The problem with being an evangelical interdenominational church is that it is not always that easy to figure out what a core doctrine is, versus a non-core doctrine. My Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends do not have this problem. It is all a “package deal,” my friends across the Tiber or across the Bosphorus might say.

In the meantime, we Protestants have to wrestle with how much our interpretation of the Bible bears on determining what an essential matter is, versus a “disputable matter.” I have been a Protestant evangelical long enough to realize that what might be an essential matter for one Christian, might not be an essential matter for another Christian. Some like and value confessional creeds, to help guide the faith of the church membership. Others believe creeds to be too divisive, and that all you need is the Bible. Therefore, you do not need a creed! Without a magisterium authority to settle matters, it is pretty difficult to know exactly where to draw the line. This is why there are so many thousands of Protestant denominations to begin with!

So, while I may cringe at some of the things that my Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends have to swallow somehow, they come back to me, looking around at all of the GAZILLION Protestant denominations we have, and they ask, “So, tell me, Clarke. How is that whole ‘sola scriptura’ thing working out for ya?

I just crawl back into my little hole and avoid giving an answer.

As a result, some think of an interdenominational church as simply a “pie-in-the-sky” wish dream. I do not think so, but I can see why there are those who disagree. It is just that such churches are really hard to find. But as my friend Troy says, a lot of times you may not even be aware of what the differences are that exist between believers.

In one of our foundational documents, in our church, we have the following statement: “Those other elements which have caused confusion and division in the past within the Church of Jesus Christ shall not be permitted to destroy the unity of this body. Accordingly, we urge that attitudes of Christian love and tolerance be expressed toward those within the Body of Christ holding different points of view.” But according to my friend Troy, many of us are simply not aware that there exists other believers in Jesus, who hold to “different points of view,” much less do we know how to love those people, despite those differences.

For three Sunday afternoons, my church held a series of teachings on the “Nature of the Chapel,” (the name of the church is the Williamsburg Community Chapel). The first week, led by our lead pastor, Travis Simone, and our Connect team leader, Hunter Rue, offers some teaching on the difference between biblical authority and biblical interpretation, a theme that shows up quite often here on the Veracity blog. The second week, led two other pastors, Rich Sylvester and Claude Marshall, focus on trying to figure out the difference between what is a core issue and what is a non-core issue in the church, using the issue of the charismatic gifts as a case study. The third week, led by Travis Simone again, looks at the issue of complementarianism versus egalitarianism, with respect to women in leadership in the local church.

It should be no mystery to realize that the question of having women as elders/pastor is the most contentious of these issues, particularly in view of the tremendous pressure being exerted on the church by the surrounding culture, regarding any and all matters pertaining to gender and sexuality, within the past few years. For an extended discussion, I would encourage the reader to go through the blog series I have been writing on the topic, that starts here.

The benefit of these sessions is that they demonstrate that there are some very real differences in biblical interpretation, held by members of our Christian community. Sadly, as with just about every evangelical church in America that I know, most people in our particular local church are unaware that such strongly held views even exist. Are the core values of this church core values for you? Or are there issues that are core values for you, that do not reflect the eight core values of this church? How do you live as a faithful follower of Christ, in your church, when everyone does not share the exact same core values as you do? How do you determine a core value, versus a “disputable matter” (Romans 14:1)?

After each presentation, a live Q&A session processes some of the content generated by the presentation, with another Q&A session recorded with just our pastors, the following week. I think all of our pastors did a fantastic job in their presentations. In the notes below, I offer some personal observations, that are mine and mine alone, that do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of our church leadership. Enjoy!

  • First Video (General Session: Week One) 1:12:00 mark:  Guess who asked this question, about the timing of the Rapture, and the nature of the millennium?  Yours truly!! Your ever curious Veracity blogger!!!!
  • Second Video (Q&A: Week One) 44:50 mark: A question was asked about how decisions get made at our church. The response given was that we have an elder board, plus a leadership team, made up of pastors, where the lead pastor serves on both the elder board and the pastoral leadership team. When asked about the job description of elders, it is partially described as setting the “long term strategic direction” of the church (46:00). I address this perspective in the Veracity blog post series on the topic related to gender and church office.
  • Third Video (General Session: Week Two) 1:06:25 mark: To follow up on the previous point, this discussion of how the church handles matters of church discipline and protecting the church against false teaching is related to the function of elders, including pastors. Yes, to a certain degree, all believers should be on guard against false teaching and unrepentant public sin, in the church. But ultimately those responsible for stepping up, to do the most difficult things, in my view, as expressed by Cliff Brigham, are the elders (1:08:46).
  • Third Video (General Session: Week Two) 51:40 mark: Backing up a bit, after Rich Sylvestor’s excellent talk on the “Postures of Polemics,” perhaps my favorite part of the sessions, only to be slightly rivaled by Hunter Rue’s presentation, the previous week, Claude Marshall speaks here about the cessationist vs. charismatic controversy. Claude is right that this issue was more divisive 30+ years ago, but the issue is still ever present, as the Charismatic Movement continues to grow across the global world, as the fastest growing segment of the church, at an ever expanding rate. But to be rather frank, most folks in our church are completely unfamiliar with the Charismatic Movement, as is the case with the majority of American evangelicals.
  • Fifth Video (General Session: Week Three) 6:45 mark: Pastor Travis goes into the most treacherous territory of explaining four views of women in ministry, based on a book, Women in Ministry: Four Views, that I wrote about in a previous blog post. He did a fantastic job, in my view.  At about 54:00 mark, Travis goes into the heart of the egalitarian view, to end up with exegesis of Galatians 3:28, which is often regarded as the egalitarian “manifesto” verse. I need to think about Galatians 3:28 a bit more, but as I see it now, there are problems with both the typical egalitarian and complementarian readings of Galatians 3:28. But to get a fuller grasp of the difficulty, I would suggest that the Veracity look back at my most recent blog post on Andy Stanley.
  • Sixth Video (Q&A Session: Week Three) 50:00 mark: Pastor Rich relates a story of someone in his small group from a Salvation Army background. I will save my response for the next and final blog post in this series.

Resources on the Complementarian vs. Egalitarian Discussion

18 in a multipart series.

Long before the current debates regarding sexual ethics and gender identity (think same-sex marriage, transgender, etc.) overwhelmed the cultural discussion, evangelical Christians have been embroiled in debates over “women in ministry” in the church.

Since as early as the English Quakers of the 17th century, and more recently, with groups like the Salvation Army, Free Methodists, and Nazarenes, starting around the late 19th century, some evangelical Christians have been ordaining women to the office of elder and/or pastor. However, this practice was largely outside of the evangelical mainstream, the peculiar quirks of particular groups. It has only been within the past 50 years, that the egalitarian vision of men and women, ministering in all levels of church leadership, went mainstream.

In the 1970s, Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty wrote their landmark book All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today. Scanzoni, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and Hardesty, a graduate of Wheaton College, both institutions of higher learning in the evangelical heartlands of the American Midwest, made their case that women should be accepted as pastors and elders in evangelical churches. Together, the two helped to found the Evangelical Women’s Caucus, a movement that attempted to spread the cause of women serving in all levels of leadership in evangelical churches (Here is an interview with Letha Scanzoni, reviewing her life’s work).

However, the comprehensive union supporting the Caucus eventually collapsed over disputes regarding the prospect of permitting same-sex marriages in evangelical churches, and the conflict over biblical inerrancy. The more conservative of the two sides, that rejected same-sex relations, in any form, became the leading intellectual wing that led to the formation of the Willow Creek Association. Willow Creek remains one of evangelicalism’s largest and most influential egalitarian churches. The heirs of this more conservative movement helped to form Christians for Biblical Equality, that remains the premier evangelical intellectual resource for supporting an egalitarian interpretation of Scripture, within a biblical inerrancy framework.

A united response to the growing egalitarian movement was met by Crossway’s publication of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, in 1991, edited by Wayne Grudem, then a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and John Piper, a Minneapolis pastor and founder of Desiring God ministries. Grudem and Piper had worked with a team a like-minded pastors and scholars that forged the Danvers Statement, that served as the backbone for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the premier evangelical resource for supporting a complementarian interpretation of Scripture, within a biblical inerrancy framework.

The timing of the founding of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood roughly coincided with the IVP publication of Women in Ministry: Four Views. This book entertained the writings of four evangelical scholars offering different perspectives on the topic at hand.

At the risk of oversimplifying their positions, Robert Culver wrote defending a traditional view, namely that women should not serve in positions of church leadership, basically assuming that women are more easily deceived than men. Susan T. Foh wrote defending a male-leadership view, a more nuanced re-evaluation of Culver’s view, that essentially summarizes the most common complementarian view promoted by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. For Foh, women are equal in intelligence, competence, and spiritual status as men, but they are not equal in terms of function, and women are not to serve as elders or pastors in a local church. Walter Liefield wrote about a plural-ministry view, that effectively eliminates the gap between clergy and laity, thus making any distinction between men and women in church leadership, largely irrelevant. For Liefield, church leadership has essentially a utilitarian or practical function. It is all about getting the job done. Alvera Mickelson defended what is known to be the contemporary egalitarian view, affirming the role of women as pastors and elders, empowered to extend spiritual authority over a local congregation.

The strength of Women in Ministry: Four Views matches with its weakness. The book manages to describe the complexity of the debate, as not simply being about the role of men and women in church leadership, but it also highlights the complex nature of how church leadership itself should be constructed at the local level, in the first place. Yet the book risks being overly complex, in the presentation of the arguments. However, the greatest deficiency of the book is that it is dated. More recent scholarship has largely found a few elements of the arguments, being advanced by each school of thought, represented in the book, to be problematic.

A more recent study, that is backed by more current scholarship, is the second edition of Two Views on Women in Ministry (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology), published in 2005, by Zondervan. Two Views is a more mature presentation of the arguments, in comparison to the more extreme viewpoints presented in Women in Ministry: Four Views. In Two Views, Linda Belleville and Craig Keener offer nuanced perspectives supporting an egalitarian view, balanced against the essays by Craig Blomberg and Tom Schreiner, who offer nuanced perspectives supporting a complementarian view.

Two Views offers comparatively little difference between Belleville and Keener, in their egalitarian views. With respect to the complementarian views of Blomberg and Schreiner, Schreiner is the more rigorous, objecting to the practice of having women teach from a Sunday morning pulpit, or even in adult Bible classes. Blomberg, on the other hand, would allow for women to deliver sermons on an occasional, irregular basis, and allow for women teaching in adult Bible classes, at times. However, the primary functions of elder and pastor, the “highest office” in the local church, is reserved to be done by men only. In my reading of Two Views, it would appear that both Blomberg and Schreiner might allow for women to serve in a pastoral role, on a temporary basis, assuming there were no qualified men present to lead. But this would be a rare case, not sufficient to establish as a norm.

One of the best recent directive studies of Scripture, from a complementarian perspective, is the third edition of Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-13, edited by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner. Women in the Church focuses on the most contentious passage of 1 Timothy 2:8-13, in the current debate, and it takes to task the claim made by egalitarian scholars that the Apostle Paul was trying to address a particular local, cultural situation in the church of Ephesus, in his letter to Timothy, when he forbids a woman from teaching and/or having authority over a man, in the corporate structure of church leadership. The contributors of this book make the case that Paul’s teaching about women and men in 1 Timothy in church office is timeless and transcends cultures. Egalitarian scholars who wish to make their alternate case must contend with the evidence presented in Women in the Church.

In contrast, one of best recent studies from an egalitarian perspective is Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ, by Cynthia Long Westfall. Westfall is a New Testament Greek scholar, who served on the editorial board for the Common English Bible. Westfall offers a fresh egalitarian reading of the relevant texts. In particular, Westfall makes the most helpful observation that the symbol of the veil, in 1 Corinthians 11, is much more profound than what most scholars and pastors realize.  In this passage, Paul insists that women should pray and prophecy, in worship services, with their heads covered. While this might be understand as a sign of submission of women to the authority of men, this interpretation does not fully grasp the larger radical force of what Paul was trying to convey.

Recent research indicates that married women in Ephesus, as elsewhere in the Roman Empire, were to wear veils, to signify that they were married. But this was meant to convey the idea that these particular women were not sexually available to other men. Contrast this with the status of female slaves in the Roman Empire. They were not allowed to wear veils, as they were subject to their masters. Without a head covering, it signaled to others that a female slave was sexually available to other men. Paul, on the other hand, in Westfall’s understanding, directs ALL women to wear the veil, as a sign that they were protected from exploitation. Paul was being counter-cultural in Corinth. In other words, Paul sees the wearing of the veil as an honor, for it demonstrated to vulnerable women, that through the Gospel, women are protected by Christ from exploitation. Complementarians would greatly benefit from this quality of egalitarian scholarship offered by Westfall.

A few “honorable mentions” include some books that I have not fully read, but that contain some really useful material. Catherine Clark Kroeger and Richard Clark Kroeger, who were instrumental in founding Christians for Biblical Equality, wrote the influential 1988 book, I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 In Light of Ancient Evidence. This is a very challenging book, but the Women in the Church volume by Köstenberger and Schreiner, mentioned above, serves as a useful rejoinder to the Kroegers, that critically examines the Kroegers’ claims.

Then there is Hannah Anderson’s Made for More, a recent book, accessible to the average Christian reader, that argues that before complementarians press their case for male and female “roles,” they need to consider what it means to be created in the image of God. I find this to be a bridge builder book between complementarians and egalitarians.

Much of the technical arguments advanced in the more academic books above assume at least some knowledge of New Testament Greek, which is unfortunate for someone like me who has had no formal training in the biblical languages. But the nature of the debate is technical, as it has a significant bearing on how Bible translation is done.

There are many dozens and dozens of books that address topics related to the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate. In the blog series that I developed, I looked to several of the above resources to develop the material in the blog, as I believe these are the cream of the crop. I recommend that interested readers consult these books and referenced websites for further information, useful for further biblical study.

 


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!!


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