Tag Archives: eldership

Embracing Complementarianism: A Review

The relationship between men and women in the family and the church is one of the most hotly contested issues among Christians today. The controversy is part of a fundamental shift in Western society associated with questions about gender and sexuality:

  • What does it mean to be male?
  • What does it mean to be female?
  • What is marriage?
  • What is the relationship between the church, as a spiritual family, to the biological family?

All of these preceding questions were largely settled in the minds of most Westerners during the mid-20th century, and perhaps as late as some thirty years ago. Today, these questions are subject to vigorous and hotly contested debate outside of the Christian church, but the church is not absent from the discussion.

Large churches will get removed from their denomination for changing their position on having “women pastors,” as in the case at Rick Warren’s Saddleback church in February, 2023. Attempts to explore the relationship between sex and salvation will lead to public censure, outcries on social media, and triggered concerns about sexual abuse, as author Joshua Ryan Butler sadly learned with “THAT TGC article” controversy in March 2023. In other words, the debate touches practically everyone of us.

Over the past four years, I have written a number of blog posts in a series regarding this issue, particularly as it relates to the question of men and women serving in the church. In the process, I have felt like I am wearing the proverbial Union top with a Confederate bottom: I get shot at by both sides.

The debate is often pitched as being between the complementarians, who focus on the complementarity between male and female, and the egalitarians, who focus on the equality between male and female. But the reality is that most Christians are on some type of spectrum between the two points of view.

The egalitarian case is generally more restricted in scope in that the bottom line is simpler, especially when it comes to how men and women are to minister and exercise leadership in a local church setting. But it is quite rare to find an egalitarian who is consistently egalitarian, as the early Quakers were, in the broadest sense possible. Those early Quakers completely despised any notion of an organized clergy or local church office, preferring to sit in a round for their worships services, waiting for the “Inner Light” to prompt anyone to speak as the Spirit guided. Today’s evangelical movement still likes the idea of a hopefully educated and skilled orator behind a pulpit, often standing upon an elevated stage, expounding the truth of what is taught in the Bible, while the rest of the congregation quietly takes in the message.

Not very “egalitarian,” if you ask me.

But you would be hard pressed to find anyone giving a Sunday morning sermon pleased if someone else from their church would interrupt their sermon to correct them.

In other words, today’s evangelical egalitarians will still insist that we need leaders in our local churches, thus rejecting the radical egalitarianism of traditional Quakers. But when it comes to the question of men and women serving as leaders in the local church, today’s evangelical egalitarians are embracing a particular view that was largely dismissed as being contrary to Scripture, or exceptional at best, until roughly a hundred years ago. Evangelical groups like various Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Holiness movements led the way in the shift roughly a century ago, but relatively little controversy arose in its wake. But since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the changes only accelerated since the 1960s, as denomination after denomination among the Protestant mainline began ordaining women as presbyters (elders) in their churches, while smaller, more conservative segments of those denominations broke off to form their own denominations, thus retaining the practice of having only qualified men serve as local church elders (and in some cases, becoming more restrictive).

The egalitarian side of the conversation today generally embraces the view that when it comes to the question of men and women serving as elders in a local church that men and women can serve interchangeably in these leadership roles. There are three main questions that arise when consider this perspective:

  1. Egalitarians will insist that they see no difference in a man or woman’s service as an elder in a local church. However, many egalitarians will still insist that men and women are still different. But what does this difference actually look like in a local church fellowship? Is the local church to be thought of as a spiritual family, and if so, what does that actually mean with respect to liturgical practice and/or church governance? Is the local church modeling for biological families within that church what healthy brotherhood and sisterhood, fatherhood and motherhood, etc. actually looks like? If so, how does the local church express this form of a being spiritual family? To put it another way, what is a “man” and what is a “woman”, and how does that impact our view of the local church as a spiritual family, in the sense of how gender distinctions are expressed in a healthy way, setting an example for children and other young people today in a culture beset with confusion about gender? How do we define our terms here?
  2. What exactly is an “elder” of a local church? Are the elders merely functioning like a board of directors for a church, comparable to a secular organization? Is the oversight they exercise merely administrative or is there actually some spiritual authority component active here? What is the relationship between “elder” and “pastor?” Another way to ask questions like these is this: is the office of elder tied to some notion of passing the faith down from one generation to the next, charged primarily with protecting a local flock from serious theological error? How do we define our terms here?
  3. How does an egalitarian read passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 (most controversially), along with 1 Timothy 3, and Titus 1, which historically have been interpreted to argue for only qualified males serving as local church elders? What exactly has changed that gives egalitarians the confidence that their newer reading of Scripture is correct?

On the other side of the debate, today’s complementarians, particularly in an American context, will largely reject many of the excesses of patriarchalism of the past. Gone are the days when women were forbidden to go receive a college education, because “women do not really need it,” etc., because of a culturally-defined, patriarchal logic, not due to any particular Scriptural teaching. I personally have known of a woman who became an egalitarian because her dad forbade her from getting a driver’s license until she was out of the house in her twenties!! Really? Wow!

Nevertheless, today’s complementarians will still insist that some distinction with respect to roles in the church and in the family still needs to be maintained, in accordance with Scripture. Sure, there are still outliers who still believe some distinctions between men and women need to be carried into the marketplace as well. But the vast majority of complementarians view it necessary to value some form of “male headship” when it comes of leadership both within the home and in the church, and keep the discussion limited to those realms.

There are a few problems with such complementarian views:

  1. Not all complementarians are the same. In fact, some differences among complementarians are just as wide among themselves as differences in general between complementarians and egalitarians! Some believe that only qualified men should be leaders in a local church, regardless of office or other role. Alternatively, some believe that while the office of elder is restricted to only qualified men, women and men can serve together as deacons (a view that I hold). Some define “elder” one way and others define it another. Some say that being an “elder” and being a “pastor” are interchangeable roles. Others do not. The list of possible situations appears to be quite different depending on which school of complementarian thought you are encountering.
  2. Are complementarians really following Scriptural teaching, or are they simply clinging to older cultural norms? Have complementarians marginalized the contributions of women to the church, or have they empowered women and men to truly be who God made them to be?
  3. How does a complementarian read passages like Romans 16 and Galatians 3:28, which suggest that women were encouraged to serve as leaders in Paul’s churches alongside men, and that Christians today are encouraged to follow Paul’s example?

After doing several years of research, I have come to the conclusion that leaning towards being a complementarian is the most faithfully Scriptural way on interpreting the Bible on this challenging issue. Some might call me a soft complementarian, or a narrow complementarian, or even a moderate complementarian.  I prefer the terminology of being a sacramental complementarian, where ultimately I understand the Bible to teach that there is a profound mystery behind what it means to be male and female, and that the Bible teaches that having qualified men serving as elders in a local church has been designated in the New Testament as the most faithful means of church expressing that mystery, while at the same time encouraging women to serve as leaders in other capacities within a local church.

As noted above, I get shot from both sides here, where egalitarians are bothered that I am complementarian, while other complementarians do not think I am being complementarian enough!!

The best short summary that comes the closest to detailing my view can be found in Andrew Wilson’s article “Beautiful Difference: The (Whole-Bible) Complementarity of Male and Female.”  Nevertheless, I have longed to find a book that sets out to lay this vision out both biblically and practically. Finally, such a book is now in print: Embracing Complementarianism: Turning Biblical Convictions into Positive Church Culture, by Graham Beyond and Jane Tooher.

It is best to quote the introduction or jacket cover of the book to get a feel for what the authors are trying to accomplish:

A biblical vision for the roles of men and women in the church—and how to put them into practice.

It can be tempting to shy away from addressing the issue of gender roles in church because it’s often controversial. But this can result in churches either being increasingly influenced by secular culture or simply sticking with the status quo when it comes to what men and women do in church.

Building on the belief that complementarianism is both biblical and positive, this book focuses on what these convictions look like in practice. Moving beyond the familiar discussions around “gender roles”, and leaving room for variety in how readers implement these ideas, it will encourage a church culture where men and women truly partner together—embracing their privileges and responsibilities, and maximizing their gifts, in joyful service of God’s kingdom.

Too often, conversations about complementarian theology tend to get bogged down into discussions that focus on the negative. Instead of exploring the beauty and goodness of God’s purposes, as grounded in creation, for men and women, discussions tend to focus away from what men are called to do and instead focus on what women are NOT to do.

Such conversations often go something like this: “Men and women are different. The church is called by God to celebrate those differences while acknowledging the unique gifting of men and women…. Oh, and so therefore, this means that women are prohibited from serving as elders in a local church.”

In an age when secular feminism is predominant in the culture, and makes its presence felt even in the church, such a discussion sounds antiquated at best, or even discriminatingly destructive at worst.

At that point, you can often feel the tension, a tension that is so thick that you can cut it with a knife. Once you get stuck there, everyone begins to look for an exit. Unfortunately, this is NOT the best way to move the conversation forward.

Instead, Beyond and Tooher focus on the practical, helping those who embrace a complementarian theology to find ways for men and women to serve together in a local church, while remaining committed to the principle of a qualified male eldership. In many ways, Embracing Complementarianism is a step up from Kevin DeYoung’s book Men and Women in the Church, which I reviewed almost a year ago, which does well in its general theological framework, while still supporting a much “harder” view of complementarianism, which I contend is unwarranted by the actual teaching of Scripture; e.g. DeYoung argues for no women deacons in the church, and no women teaching of any kind in a mixed-setting, even under the authority of an all-male eldership.

The theological driver behind Embracing Complementarianism had its beginnings in the ordination debates for women in the priesthood in the Anglican Church of Australia in the 1990s. I have dear friends of mine who reject the faulty logic of slippery-slope arguments, and to a great extent I would agree. However, we have come a long way since the 1990s.

Back then, opponents of women’s ordination to the priesthood were concerned that the adoption of such a practice (which was eventually endorsed) would tend towards a slippery slope towards the full acceptance of same-sex unions in that Anglican communion.  In those days, supporters of women’s ordination sought to reassure their opponents that the full acceptance of same-sex unions was a type of slippery slope argument that was unwarranted, and that there would no serious attempt to try to change the definition of marriage in such Anglican communions. Contrary to the prevailing culture that sees “womens issues” and “LGBTQ issues” on the same continuum, defenders of women’s ordination in Australia sought to draw the line against same-sex marriage.

However, one can only look at what is happening today in the Church of England, which in the 1990s also endorsed women’s ordination, but that is currently in an uproar concerning proposed changes to allow for same-sex union blessings in the Church of England, despite calls for the Church of England to repent from this change in theological direction. Slippery slope thinking may indeed be faulty logic, but as many church bodies like various Anglican traditions, including U.S. Episcopalians, Anglican Canadians, and now the mother church of Anglicanism in the U.K. continue down such slippery slopes, I have more doubts now. I once thought that those who warned about such “slippery slopes” were over-reacting. Now I am not so sure about that. A robust theology of gender is desperately needed, which encompasses all of the great debates of our day, not just “women in ministry,” but concerns about the definition of marriage and the transgender movement.

A community of Australian Anglicans since the 1990s formed Equal but Different, where a very positive review for Embracing Complementarianism can be found, an organization which the authors of Embracing Complementarianism have an affinity for. The very fact that a man and woman team of authors partnered together in writing this book is a very positive step forward. The focus is less on authority and submission and more on partnership together as men and women in leadership, another great step forward. Australian author Ruth Baker has a very positive review of the book.  Interestingly, even a conservative blogger like Tim Challies has effectively endorsed the book through his review.

The best part of the book, apart from being fairly short, was in its attempt to frame the principle of a qualified male eldership to be a very positive thing. In other words, it is a expression of the beauty and goodness of God in creating men and women as God did by being grateful that men should be encouraged to step up and lead in their churches in such a way that encourages men to lead their families, by following the example of Christ loving the church, who laid down his life for others (Ephesians 5:25). In contrast to more traditional views, the concept of “male headship” is not a call to a unilateral, top-down hierarchy of husbands “ruling” their wives, but rather, there is an emphasis on servanthood and partnership, which is also to be reflected in the spiritual family of a local church body.

Despite the practical benefits of Embracing Complementarianism, there are two drawbacks that I would still note about the book. First, while Embracing Complementarianism rightly leans towards a more generous, “softer” version of complementarian theology, it does not come across as strongly enough in rejecting some of the excesses found in more “harder” versions of complementarian theology. For example, the two co-authors do not agree with one another on whether or not women should ever lead in Christian worship, even if the all-male eldership of that local church would encourage the practice, even only on an occasional basis.

For example, one reviewer has noted that chapters 5-7 in the book speaks a lot about “male leadership” in the church, which can give the mistaken impression that women should never be leading in a local church. It would have been much better if the authors had stuck to the principle of a “qualified male eldership,” instead of the more slippery and sometimes misleading notion of “male leadership.” For example, Nympha had a church meeting in her house (Colossians 4:15), and Lydia did, too (Acts 16:11-15), which assumes that both women had some leadership role. But to say that Nympha and Lydia were leaders in their respective churches does not mean that either woman was an elder in that church, anymore than saying that just because I have led Bible studies in my home, that therefore this has made me an elder in a local church. That type of logic simply does not follow. 1 Encouraging men to lead in the church should not be a discouragement from women leading, in a complementarian fashion.2

Secondly, the focus on the practical working out of a complementarian theology was somewhat hampered by an insufficient exploration into why having a qualified male eldership in a local church fully explains Paul teaching on this subject in the Pastoral Letters (primarily 1 Timothy and Titus). This criticism is rightly made in Andrew Bartlett’s review of the book.

My answer would be that Embracing Complementarianism would have been even better if it had tried to connect complementarianism with a more sacramental theology. Thus by acknowledging the sacramental character of qualified male eldership, we do not have permission to ignore this practice in a local church, anymore than it would be to say that the sacrament of baptism is unnecessary today because what really matters is a conviction within the heart, as though the liturgical practice of water baptism is simply an irrelevant, old-fashioned ritual that belongs to a by-gone era. Rather, in recognizing the mysterious element here of how male and female relate together offers an invitation to explore the theological reasoning that undergirds this mystery. In other words, simply saying that the Bible teaches about a qualified male-only eldership does not offer enough theological substance for folks who wonder why God would have the Apostle Paul lay this principle out in the first place. A brief attempt to try  to paint a sacramentally theological vision for a qualified male-only eldership was made decades ago by the great Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, by drawing upon the analogy of ballroom dancing. But more imaginative theological reflection is needed now in the 21st century. As Lewis himself put it, “the Church ought to be more like a [dance] Ball than it is like a factory or a political party.

There is a serious need for complementarian theology to be expressed in book form that tackles this task. In the meantime, Embracing Complementarianism fits a needed space for a type of complementarian approach to what it means to be male and female in the church today without falling into either the Scylla and Charybdis extremes of a Council of Biblical Manhood and Woman-style, more-hardened, authoritarian-leaning complementarianism, on the one side, and a Christians for Biblical Equality egalitarianism, on the other side, which at times reaches too far with what comes across as exegetical handstands in trying to defend their arguments.2

Co-author Jane Tooher summarizes the message in her book, and she was interviewed about the book, in this video below. Dig the Australian accents!!


1. Egalitarian biblical scholar Linda L. Belleville makes this non sequitor logical error in her essay in Two View on Women in Ministry, p. 54, in saying that “Mary, Lydia, and Nympha were overseers of house churches“.  With respect to Mary, the mother of John Mark, Belleville cites Acts 12:12 for support, using the same faulty logic. Sloppy and slippery definitions of what it means to be an “elder” and “overseer” in a local church merely complicate the conversation, thus keeping the discussion from moving forward in a constructive direction. When we can not even agree upon the meaning of the terminology in a discussion, healthly productive conversation will often suffer.   

2. A textbook example of how confusion reigns in the evangelical movement today can be seen in the 2023 move by the Southern Baptist Convention to oust from their affiliation churches like Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California, for ordaining women as “pastors,” while still having all-male “elderships” in place.  For Saddleback, they saw no problem in having women “pastors” serving under the authority of all-male elder/oversight.  What is so odd about the move is that there are prominent complementarian leaders who endorse a distinction between “pastors” and “elders”, including Sam Storms, which would allow for women to serve as pastors, but not as elders.  On the other side of the argument can be found in the Southern Baptist Faith and Message (2000) itself, which seeks to equate the role of “pastor” with “elder.”  Furthermore, there is additional confusion as one of the “teaching pastors” at Saddleback is a woman married to the other teaching pastor, and even Sam Storms would argue that woman should not be a “senior pastor,” as it blurs the line between “pastor” and “elder.” Even Rick Warren agrees with that qualification. So while the Southern Baptist Convention has every right to exclude Saddleback from its membership, it does raise the question as to why the Southern Baptist Faith and Message conflates “pastor” and “elder” together, thereby creating a divide even within the ranks of complementarianism. The new lead pastor of Saddleback Church, Andy Wood, explains the rationale for having women pastors while limiting eldership to only qualified men.

3. See my review of Lucy Peppiatt’s book Rediscovering Scriptures’s Vision for Women, with a critique of some of these exegetical “handstands”.   

A History of the Bible: A Progressive Christian View of Scripture… (And Why It Does Not Work)

Shocking truth claims: Did you know that the four Gospels were not based on eye-witness testimony, and that perhaps the Gospel of John was written as late as the second century, and not by the Apostle John? Or that the Apostle Paul had no knowledge of the doctrine of the Trinity? Or that a good chunk of Paul’s letters were never even written by him in the first place?

If you were to pick up a copy of A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths, you might discover shocking claims like this. What might shock you even more is that this popular survey of the Bible was not written by an avowed skeptic of Christianity, like a Bart Ehrman, but rather by John Barton, an Oxford professor emeritus and Anglican priest, serving in the Church of England.

…. another in a series of blog posts on “historical criticism” of the Bible….

Dr. Barton is certainly a well-accomplished scholar, and a very pleasant man through his appearances on YouTube, who has mastered the historical critical tradition of biblical research, which dominates academia today. A History of the Bible has received wide acclaim in the secular press. The Christian Science Monitor describes this volume as “the definitive account of the century,” regarding how we are to understand the Bible. A leading atheist/agnostic Bible scholar, Bart Ehrman, says that the book “gives a superb overview… condensing masses of research into an easily accessible volume for the non-specialist.”

While Dr. Barton is not as well-known on this side of the Atlantic, A History of the Bible is well poised to become a standard exposition for contemporary scholarship rooted in historical criticism, aimed at both believer and non-believer alike. This popular presentation of Barton’s vast research of the Bible over many decades, published by Penguin Books, one of the most reputable book publishers in the world, will surely impress many readers, and in many respects has much to offer. However, one wonders why Dr. Barton continues to describe himself as a Christian believer, and even an Anglican priest, after he dismantles a long history of confidence in the Bible being the very written Word of God.

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked an upsurge of interest in the Bible, and the British Broadcasting Company took notice of this, and decided to broadcast abridged excerpts from Dr. Barton’s book in late 2020. These excerpts were brilliantly read by the Downton Abbey actor, Hugh Bonneville. I can just imagine listening to Lord Grantham speaking from his armchair, from the library in the Downton Abbey estate, with his yellow lab sitting by his side.

In an interview since that broadcast, Barton does not go as far as Bart Ehrman does, in labeling the four Gospels or the “disputed” letters of Paul as outright “forgeries” (many scholars believe that Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, 2 Thessalonians, and Titus were not written by Paul), but rather as an Anglican priest he is still able to say that Christians can find these New Testament books “useful” as part of the accepted canon, even if they were not written by the people who claimed to write them.

Really? Why would a Christian find certain writings to be “useful” that had the explicit purpose of deceiving their readers? How can one treat such writings as being authoritative, under that kind of shadow?

Dr. Barton admittedly has some qualms about all of that, but he forges ahead to try to make some kind of defense of the Bible.

Where John Barton’s A History of the Bible is Helpful

First, let us consider some of the benefits provided by Dr. Barton’s book. Just from these abridged readings of A History of the Bible, the reader is intrigued to learn more about how the Old and New Testament texts came together, how these texts have been preserved over the centuries, how Judaism and Christianity eventually parted ways, and the importance of allegory in the history of Bible interpretation. You can find this type of material elsewhere, but one sure benefit of A History of the Bible is that this is all assembled together in one volume.

John Barton rightly corrects the common misunderstanding that the early Christian church had a completed list of what constituted the books of the entire Old Testament portion of the Bible. To the contrary, the definitive listing of the books of the Old Testament was not firmly established in the Western church until the 16th century, when the Roman Catholic Church officially adopted the books of the “Apocrypha” at the Council of Trent, while the Protestant Reformers officially rejected the “Apocrypha,” declaring it to be inappropriate for establishing church doctrine. In other words, books in the “Apocrypha” like 1 and 2 Maccabees, which are unfamiliar to most Protestants today, were actually well-known to Christians for the first 15 centuries of the church, though their canonical status was unclear across Christendom.

Furthermore, the ordering of the books in the Old Testament differs between Jews and Christians, and there is a theological reason for the difference. Christians place the prophets at the end of the Old Testament, which fits in with the overall Scriptural narrative. The story moves from creation to fall to the promised hope of redemption, where the prophets anticipate the coming of the Christ, who will accomplish that redemption. In fact, the Book of Malachi, which ends off the Christian Old Testament, itself ends with a vision for the coming “Day of the Lord,” with the prophet Elijah announcing that time of judgment. It is no mystery that John the Baptist, the herald for Jesus the Redeemer, emerges in the Book of Matthew next, as the “new” Elijah. Furthermore, the figure of Adam is central in the Christian story of the Old Testament, the created human who suffers a terrible fall, where Jesus becomes the “second Adam,” restoring Adam to his original created purpose, according to the New Testament.

Jews, on the other hand, place the two books of Chronicles at the end of their “Old Testament,” their Hebrew Bible, and not the prophets. The last phrase of the last verse in the Chronicles is “Let him go up,” which refers to the promise of the restoration of the land following the Babylonian exile. This is an invitation to the faithful Jew to dwell in the Promised Land. For the Jew, the story of Scripture is more about God establishing the Law with His people, with the promise that if they remain faithful as His people, they will dwell in that land. As for Adam, his presence is largely forgotten after the first few chapters in Genesis, according to Jewish theology. Dr. Barton brings that point out nicely, but I only learned about that difference after being a Christian for about 35 years. Why had it taken so long for me to learn about that?

Plus, Dr. Barton is quite right to say that you can pretty much find whatever you want in the Bible, as the teaching of the Bible has been “shape-shifted” to take upon the concerns of whatever age or culture the reader is in. That really is not a compliment towards readers who use the Bible that way. Simply consider how much effort was made to find out where the COVID-19 virus came from, just by looking at the Bible. Uncomfortable realities like these are sprinkled throughout A History of the Bible. Like taking a cold shower, A History of the Bible will challenge a number of cherished, yet erroneous beliefs.

Where John Barton’s A History of the Bible is NOT Helpful

Unfortunately, Dr. Barton’s liberal bias reveals a persistently bad habit by those who lean too heavily on historical criticism to adjudicate the ultimate interpretation of Scripture, by supposing that a contradiction in Scripture exists, where a reasonably plausible alternative actually makes better sense of the text, within the whole message of Scripture.

Barton makes no attempt to hide his liberal bias. This bias permeates and distorts much of his otherwise helpful prose. For John Barton, the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation fall under the category of adiaphora, or “disputable matters,” from Romans 14:1, which the ESV translation renders as “opinions.” Would any truly historically orthodox Christian find that acceptable? Absolutely not. Nor does any historical creedal document in Barton’s own Anglican Church agree with him. Stretching “disputable matters” to this degree is essentially useless.

Here is another example: In the story of the rich young man who comes up to Jesus, Mark tells us that the man asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers the man with: Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”  

Dr. Barton suggests that Mark is raising some doubt as to whether or not Jesus is truly divine. Dr. Barton then suggests that Matthew contradicts Mark by correcting Mark by having the young man instead ask, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?,” with Jesus responding with, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” (Mark 10:17-18; Matthew 19:16-17)

It is an interesting thing to consider why the Gospels differ here. But Jesus’ response to the young man in Mark’s version does not necessarily imply doubt about Jesus’ divinity. Jesus’ question back to the young man most likely means to get the young man to think (as well as should modern readers), and consider the implications of what he is saying. For if only God is good, then Jesus’ question back to the young man is quite relevant to Jesus’ identity. Mark focuses more on Jesus’ identity, whereas Matthew focuses more on ethical action, that flows from one’s relationship with God. Matthew complements Mark, and vice-versa. To read a contradiction between Mark and Matthew here is to read something into the text that need not exist. Because the discipline of historical (or “higher”) criticism sometimes trains even the best of scholars to look for contradictions, it becomes easier to see such contradictions, when a more nuanced, and far more interesting solution is available to the reader.

Dr. Barton does not make sufficient effort to educate his readers that decades of conservative evangelical scholarship have sought to answer a number of these difficulties, with reasonably plausible alternative solutions. For example, fellow British Anglican Bible scholar Ian Paul faults Dr. Barton for making no mention of the research done by Richard Bauckham, in Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, that makes a cogent case for the Gospels having been based on actual eye-witness testimony. Nor does Dr. Barton engage the argument made, ironically, by a fellow liberal scholar, the late John A.T. Robinson, that many of the books of the New Testament could have easily been written before the year 70 A.D.

When it comes to the common scholarly proposal that many of Paul’s letters were not written by him, Dr. Barton manages to ignore the conservative argument that differences in writing style and vocabulary, tailored to a specific audience, using different secretaries, might sufficiently account for “discrepancies” between the “undisputed” and “disputed” letters of Paul. Nevertheless, Dr. Barton seems okay to live with the “taint of forgery” (p. 186) in such questionable letters, where he can find certain teachings to be persuasive in certain areas, while acknowledging this does take away from the full divine inspiration of these New Testament texts.

This is a bit of an aside, but an important one, nevertheless: Barton’s position regarding what he misleadingly calls the issue of “women’s leadership in the Church” (p. 186), in which his Church of England affirms women serving as elders/presbyters, actually is enhanced by his ambiguous view of Pauline authorship of disputed texts. When it comes to the disputed 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus, the so-called Pastoral letters, where most arguments take place regarding whether or not women may serve as elders in a local church, Barton is easily dismissive of what is taught here. “The Pastorals have no place in attempting to reconstruct the thought of Paul” (p. 186), but acknowledges this regarding what he calls regretfully the issue of “women’s leadership in the Church“:, where conservatives oppose women serving as elders, and liberals affirm women serving as elders”:... conservative opponents who appeal to Paul tend to rely on 1 Timothy, and more liberal believers reply that this letter is not really by Paul anyway. Along these diverging lines, little meeting of minds is possible” (p. 187).

At least Barton is right about that. The gulf between conservative and progressive Christianity seems to widen with each passing year. It is important to note that evangelical egalitarian arguments in favor of both Pauline authorship of the Pastorals AND the affirmation of women serving as elders do not even register a blip on John Barton’s radar. More on that in a future blog post in this series, or for a more in-depth look, read this earlier Veracity posting reviewing a recent book by historian Beth Allison Barr.

Anyway, here is what Barton says on p. 187, as his way of making a conclusion on the “forgeries” of certain letters associated with Paul:

‘A lot depends on how we define the authority of biblical books. Are Paul’s letters authoritative because they are by Paul? If so, then establishing that one of them is in fact pseudonymous presumably reduces or even annuls its authority. Or are they authoritative because they are in the Bible? If so, the question of who wrote them might be regarded as irrelevant.’

Is this a ringing endorsement of the authority of the Bible? Hardly. Furthermore, Dr. Barton makes the rather odd suggestion that none of the four Gospels were considered to be inspired by God, as initially written, simply because modern scholarship acknowledges that Luke and Matthew most probably used Mark as one of their sources for their own gospels. Nor were the writings of Paul considered to be inspired by God either by his first century readers.


All of this comes from the pen of a scholar hailed as writing “the definitive” book on the Bible for the 21st century.

Why does Dr. Barton neglect to tell his readers the following?: The Gospel writers and Paul probably were not aware that they were writing “Scripture” when they were composing their work. But this need not preclude others from recognizing the inspired nature of their texts. Paul himself was quite forceful in claiming that his message was received via divine revelation, and not a product of man’s (Galatians 1:11-12). It would have made no sense for his readers to have rejected his occasional letters as inspired, and at the same time come to recognize that Paul’s Gospel verbal preaching came from God.

Furthermore, even when Paul is supposedly “giving his personal opinion” in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, this most probably means that Paul is making a distinction between (a): Jesus’ teaching, given in Jesus’ earthly ministry, prior to any encounter with Paul, versus (b): teaching that Paul received directly from Jesus, following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Both teachings from Paul and “from the Lord” are equally binding authoritative statements. This neglect on the part of Dr. Barton reveals the fundamental flaw behind A History of the Bible: It shortchanges the divine inspiration of the Bible.

Does A Liberal, Historical Critical Approach to Defend the Bible Really Work?

Speculating on “contradictions in the Bible” may make for interesting scholarly discussions, as a more sophisticated response to a wooden, rigid dogmatism. But this does little to inspire people to have confidence in the Bible as God’s Word. Furthermore, the underlying posture towards the Bible adopted by Dr. Barton is nothing new. For example, doubts about the authorship of several of Paul’s letters are derived from the ideas of early 19th century German theologian F. C. Baur, but the whole project of historical criticism goes back to 17th century philosophers, like Baruch Spinoza, or even earlier.

Making ill-conceived judgments about the sincerity of John Barton’s progressive Christianity would be out of place. In other words, Dr. Barton clearly identifies as being a Christian, and there is no compelling need question to that. But one must consider the ramifications of his teachings. Based on the arguments presented in A History of the Bible, it deserves asking why one would want to become a Christian after reading this book.

For if A History of the Bible was my only source for learning about the Bible, I would merely conclude that the Bible is an interesting cultural artifact. An appreciation for the Bible’s influence on Western culture would be gained, but not really a sense that this is a book based on divine revelation. As a specimen for an anthropology class, it would be interesting. But would this really inspire obedience and worship? I am highly skeptical. The best you can probably get is either British historian Tom Holland’s wistful longing for Christianity to be true (even though he believes it is not), or else the BBC’s Melvyn Bragg perspective that Christianity is a “tribal thing” worth preserving, or even Jordan Peterson’s appreciation of Christianity as the mythological glue of Western society. Admirable as these sentiments are, they are nowhere near close to historic, orthodox Christian faith.

Nevertheless, despite weaknesses like these, Barton’s A History of the Bible does something that we do not find enough of in conservative evangelical churches today. Book reviewer Jeremy Marshall puts the situation like this:

As the Bible fades into the background from the general culture it acquires a power to shock and influence which its previous familiarity has reduced. We might ponder as evangelicals for example on the extraordinary case of Jordan Peterson, who gives 2- to 3-hour talks and draws millions by lecturing mainly on the Bible, without even being a Christian at all…. There is a growing demand to learn about the Bible and what it says to us today from the general public…. Maybe some great biblical scholar can write a book like this, about the Bible from an evangelical perspective, aimed at the general public?

To answer Marshall’s question, I say, “Here! Here!” If only our churches were to address the topics found in John Barton’s A History of the Bible, from a more historically orthodox perspective, framed within a compelling story, we would not only curb the tendency towards a progressive drift in evangelical churches, we would also unleash the power of the Bible itself to dramatically change the lives of people, who have a hunger to know the God of the Bible better. If we fail to take up that task, then we will find our young people looking to books like Dr. Barton’s, and then wonder why anyone would make any fuss about the supposed revelatory “faith” being promoted in the Bible.

If the church fails to take up that challenge, then we might as well tell folks to read books by agnostic/atheist scholar Bart Ehrman, and avoid the complicated efforts to try to “rescue” Christianity from the jaws of skeptical “historical criticism,” as John Barton tries to do.

Attempts like A History of the Bible to somehow rebuild a more flexible form of the Christian faith from a brittle fundamentalism might convince some people reared in the church, searching for a reason to continue to believe. But for the vast majority of folks for whom the Gospel remains opaque, a staunchly progressive approach to the Bible leaves those readers flat. That type of apologetic simply does not work.


…. In our next blog post in this series, there will not be a book review, but we will consider how some of the thinking behind “historical criticism” has shifted from the 20th century, to the 21st century, where the prominent 20th century biblical scholar, Rudolf Bultmann enters the story. Stay tuned for that………. Muslim apologist Paul Williams, at Blogging Theology, interviews Dr. John Barton about his book, A History of the Bible. If you want to get a feel for how a highly intelligent, knowledgeable, progressive Christian employs “historical criticism” when reading the Bible, you might find the following interview educational… but you might find it disturbing as well. There is just enough really good stuff in A History of the Bible, that it can easily overshadow the spiritually damaging elements in it that can sneak up on you, and knock out the legs from underneath your faith:

How Christians Change Words

I am doing a study on how Christians use words, taking a look at reading some of the Inklings, namely Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis. But I ran into this nugget from a blog post by Logos software bible scholar, Mark Ward, author of the extraordinary Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, that I reviewed last summer.

So, what is a “pastor?” Furthermore, what is an “elder?”

I have already written about that elusive term “elder.” So, let us focus on the former here.

Oddly enough, for the word “pastor,” the venerable King James Bible (KJV) only uses that exact word once in the whole Bible, Ephesians 4:11. Otherwise, the term “pastor,” from the Greek word poimen, is translated as “shepherd,” as in being a shepherd of sheep.

Notice that in Ephesians 4:11, the word pastor does not describe an office, but rather a particular spiritual gift. Elsewhere, the concept of pastor/shepherd describes a certain function in the church. Notably, that same concept of shepherding is used to describe the function of the elders (from the Greek, presbyters) of the church in Ephesus, who are charged by Paul (Acts 20), to care for the flock, and protect them from spiritual wolves, that threaten to come in and devour the sheep (Acts 20:28-30).

The word elder, and its related term, overseer, do correspond to a type of office in the church, as in 1 Timothy 3, as one who is “able to teach,” “not a recent convert,” and so on. This meshes well with the function of pastoring the flock.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex topic, or beating it to death, ponder a moment again about that word elder. Oddly though, Christians today typically do not always regard the word elder has having the same sense of pastor. Often, we split the concept of elder from pastor. Many churches will have a group of elders, but those elders are different than the pastor or pastors, which can be really confusing.

Then there is the term overseer. The old King James Version translation of that Greek word, episcopos, “bishop,” does get used by different denominational groups. Furthermore, for those traditions that tend to predate the Reformation, there is the terminology of priest, that is sort of, but not quite, synonymous with the Protestant pastor, but that is another whole intricate discussion.

But for some odd reason, the term pastor appears to win out, above them all, to describe the leader of a church, in many evangelical circles. I typically hear someone called “Pastor Bob,” but never “Shepherd Bob,” and only sometimes “Elder Bob.” Never have I heard someone called “Overseer Bob,” or “Church Leader Bob,” despite the fact that most modern translations of 1 Timothy 3:1 speak of the word overseer or the phrase church leader, to describe an elder. Rarely do you hear “Elder Bob” mentioned as the “Pastor.”

As Mark Ward points out, this is an example of when a metaphor, becomes so stable over time, that it effectively becomes a whole new word. If I could pay money to get every student of the Bible to grasp this, I would surely go broke.

To be a pastor was once used to describe a practice in animal husbandry. Now a pastor has become almost exclusively an ecclesiastical term. You rarely see a shepherd caring for their flock of sheep, in industrial, modern societies. But when observed, I never hear the term pastor used, only shepherd.

A pastor is nowadays almost always a “religious” term.

What was once a metaphor to describe the function of an office, has now become the office itself. Rightly or wrongly, that is what Christians do to words. Language changes.

…..Which just goes to prove that a lot of the discussions we have in our churches today about church governance can be exceedingly difficult, when we do not share a common vocabulary, by not recognizing how metaphors change character over time, to create new meanings.

What is an “Elder” of a Church?

How can we think of the question of eldership more like a dance…. instead of a brawl???

Calling someone an elder doesn’t make them an elder… so writes British pastor, Andrew Wilson, in his excellent blog essay, “A Theology of Eldership.”

Wilson begins his essay with a famous, Abraham Lincoln anecdote:

Abraham Lincoln was fond of asking people: if we call a tail a leg, then how many legs does a dog have? “Five,” his audience would invariably answer. “No,” came his standard reply, “the correct answer is four. Calling something a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”

When I look around at how different churches implement spiritual authority, I observe that rarely is there a clear, biblically-driven understanding of what it means to be an “elder” of a church. At the risk of being overly too-brief and simplistic, an “elder” is an office in the church, and as Wilson argues in his essay, the primary function of an “elder” is to act as a type of shepherd, or pastor of a flock, to borrow from the Bible’s teaching related to tending after sheep. To shepherd or pastor is to protect the sheep from physical harm. Likewise, an “elder” is someone who serves the community of faith by protecting them from spiritual harm. An “elder” is a type of guardian, making sure that the people are grounded upon solid, Bible doctrine.

But no matter how wonderful or effective they might be, how many “elders” in churches really function like that?  For example, there are churches where a pastor or pastors of the church, who preach on Sunday morning, do not serve as “elders.” Furthermore, there are “elders” who think of themselves, not as spiritual guardians or shepherds, but rather as “members of the board” of the church, like in a business corporation. That may work for a Fortune 500 company, but is it appropriate for a local church?

In other words, such “elders” are primarily tasked with administration of the church, handling financial matters, etc., but it is not altogether clear as to what type of spiritual authority they exercise, if any, in terms of shepherding or pastoring the flock. Perhaps, much of these administrative tasks might more properly be viewed in terms of “waiting on tables,” as in Acts 6:2, and not something that should distract the “elders” from their more pressing duty, of faithfully expounding the Scriptures to the community of believers. So, here you have a case of pastors, who act like “elders,” but they are not “elders,” and “elders,” who do not necessarily act like “elders,” because the pastors are already acting as “elders.”

How much sense does this really make?

My concern is that such a fluid understanding of what defines an “elder” is terribly confusing.

Calling someone an elder doesn’t make them an elder.

Unless you have been living under a rock for most of your Christian life, the subject of “women and elders” has been a hot-button issue in evangelical churches for a long, long time. Some believe that the Bible does not permit women to serve as elders. Others believe that the Bible does allow women to serve as elders. Some see this, not as a question of superiority or inferiority of a particular gender, but rather as an issue of proper spiritual authority. Others see this, not as “caving into the culture,” but rather as an issue of encouraging the full use of gifts for ministry, for both men and women, as well as an issue of justice, in a world where women are marginalized and abused, who need to know about and experience the liberating power of the Gospel. Some see male-only eldership as part of the historically ordained, orthodox principle of church structure, in keeping with the New Testament, and not to be tampered with, whereas others see a male-female joint eldership as an inevitable reality that all churches must eventually accept…. it is just a matter of time.

Unlike other controversial issues in the church, like the use of alcohol, age of the earth, different views of the End Times, etc., the “women and elders” issue is simultaneously public, profound, and pervasive. It is public, because while others may never know about your use or non-use of alcohol, a woman in the pulpit is hard to ignore. It is profound, because unlike the dispute over the millennium or the timing of the “Rapture,” Christians can exist for years in our churches, without a decided view on the End Times, but how we think about gender, and its relationship to spiritual authority, is something that touches on the core of every person’s being. It is pervasive, because while not all Christians are highly scientifically minded and motivated, to understand the age of the earth, gender-based issues impact just about every area of life.

Both sides in the “women and elders” controversy can make some powerful arguments. (… and yes, you can find extremes on both sides, too, those who view gender categories as completely interchangeable, making no mention of spiritual authority, and those on the other side who devalue the competence or performance of women, decapitating one-half of the Body of Christ, from the service of Christ’s Kingdom. I am ignoring these extremes here…)

The difficulty is that when churches wrestle with these issues, we do our congregations a disservice when we fail to adequately define what constitutes an “elder,” so that at least everyone is on the same page. For example, if a church allows women to serve as deacons, but the so-called “elders” in the church are largely performing the office of being deacons, to prohibit women to serve as such “elders” is completely nonsensical, thus offending the conscience of those who seek, in obedience to God, to celebrate the full gifting of men and women. But if you allow women to serve as such “elders,” railing against the conscience of those who believe that the Bible does not allow women to serve as elders, for the sake of upholding biblical, spiritual authority, what is the point? This is particularly confusing, when it is, to a large part, non-“elder” pastors of the church, who are mainly fulfilling the task of being “elders.” What then, is the positive, edifying purpose you are really serving?

This all seems like a recipe for madness, to me, an excuse for those passionate on both sides to vote with their feet…. and unnecessarily so, as it neglects laying the proper groundwork to achieve a common vocabulary, which is necessary to gain a proper understanding of the issues.

Here is my practical suggestion. I might be wrong, so I would appreciate correction, if needed. If a church is considering the “women as elders” issue, it might be useful to consider limiting the office of elder, for men only, to actually that of pastoring and shepherding, as much as possible, and greatly expanding, as much as possible, the role of deacon, including men and women, to serve the community, and thus empowering all, male and female, to fully use their God-given gifts. It will not make everyone happy, but it might be a good step forward to promote peace.

Might I humbly suggest that churches should consider crafting a clear understanding of what constitutes an “elder,” before engaging in discussions, about whether or not women should or could serve in such a capacity?

Deborah’s Dance: Women in Church Leadership?

Radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944). A modern day Deborah? Or a sensational character leading evangelicalism into the tragic morass of contemporary feminism? (Photo credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944). A modern day Deborah used by God to help restore the church to its proper ministry? Or a sensational character whose example, if followed too rigidly, will lead the church into the tragic morass of contemporary feminism?
(Photo credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

My wife loves to dance. I am not the best dancer in the world, but I must admit that I enjoy it, too. However, there is a certain mystery to dancing. There is just something about dancing the defies rational description…

Our church is doing a summer Bible study on the Book of Judges, and this past week the sermon was on the story of Deborah. Deborah brings one of the brighter moments in Judges. Deborah is celebrated as one of the great leaders in Old Testament Israel amid an ever spiraling downward movement of God’s chosen people. Her contemporary Barak lacked the confidence by himself to take on Sisera, the enemy of Israel, desiring Deborah’s presence as God’s anointed judge to assist him.

Deborah has always posed the question regarding whether or not women should be permitted to serve in certain positions of leadership in churches that hold to the authority of the Bible as God’s Word. The issue came up in our small group a few nights ago: How does one reconcile the positive example of Deborah’s leadership with the writings of Paul in the New Testament where the Apostle urges churches not to permit women to teach or have authority over men (I Timothy 2:11-15 and I Corinthians 14:33-40? Is the example of Deborah a partial fulfillment of God’s intended purposes that celebrate the leadership roles of both men and women equally in the church? Or is Deborah an exception to the rule, which specifically urges churches governed by the New Testament to only have men as elders and/or pastors, and thus honoring the complementarity between the sexes?

(PARENTHETICAL NOTE: The issues here are indeed complex. If you have not done so already, I would suggest that you stop where you are and go back and read my earlier post on Rachel Held Evans that addresses the sensitive question of “Biblical Womanhood.” There I have listed a set of the best resources available to do an in-depth study of what the Bible says on that topic in general, giving a fair hearing to both sides of the debate.)

What I will say here about the specific issue of women in church leadership is that I have had to learn how to deal with this issue the hard way. Not only is it important that we understand what the Bible says, it is also important as to how we approach this issue in our discussions with other Christians.

It has something do with dancing.

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