This is part 2 of a blog about women,men and leadership in the church.
My twitter stream has been populated with an ongoing conversation about women in leadership in the church. For the past 15 years I have been on a long journey from a Complementarian to an Egalitarian position. (see previous blog for definitions). When I was a complementarian I had no desire or practice of abusing women, demeaning them or insulting them. I was trying to be faithful to the scriptures and believed that the Bible taught clearly that men and women were of co-equal value but have different roles.
I have been a convinced egalitarian for the past 8 years or so and I have come to believe that there are good exegetical grounds for seeing that women did have leadership roles in the early church and that they can have today because any restrictions Paul may have sanctioned had cultural and apologetic reasons for being in place. See this interesting piece by Graham Cole from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
There is also a very helpful book that Lis Goddard and Clare Hendry wrote together coming from very different theological positions. It is a model of gracious and robust dialogue. (more on graciousness another time…)
But I still believe that there are many men and women who are saved by Gods grace, that value Gods word and who are not intrinsically sexist or abusive who hold to a complementarian viewpoint. ( Of course we all need to continually check ourselves for racist or sexist tendencies wherever we are in this debate.) I cannot and will not break fellowship with them or refuse to worship or do mission together. I disagree with them, I am willing to have frank and robust discussion with them but I still count them as family. I have been talking a lot about meeting in the middle – and perhaps the language of middle ground may not be helpful. So let me try and explore what I am trying to work through.
One tweet from a friend that haunts me is this: Would you take a middle ground position on slavery or racism?
That is a telling tweet in this conversation and leaves me asking a few questions. (I am not seeking to criticise this tweet which was made in a long conversation. But to wrestle with the challenge of it and to respond to it.)
Is a complementarian understanding of the role of women equivalent to racism and slavery?
As a man some would argue that I can’t understand the experience of exclusion and injustice that many women feel on this issue. And they have a valid point. I cannot possibly understand what it is like to have your calling in life questioned or to feel marginalised because of who you are. But as an Asian who has experienced racism I can relate a little bit to what prejudice feels like.
I am not sure we can equate this issue with slavery as there are options – in the western context we can choose to be part of a church that is egalitarian and not stay within denominations and tribes that don’t allow the full expression of women with leadership and teaching giftings. Slaves have no choices at all so I am not sure they are comparable. As for racism there is no biblical justifiable warrant for this at all – although i dont agree with complementarians I believe they can make a case for it from scripture.
2. Is the idea of building common ground actually counterproductive to genuine change?
My argument has often been that though there are different opinions and this is an issue of great importance this is not an issue of things pertaining to salvation in other words someone that takes a different view from me on women in leadership is still in the kingdom. They are not to be considered a member of a heretical cult – like the mormons or the Jehovahs witnesses. This issue falls into the same area as baptism. As a convinced Baptist I believe the scriptures are pretty clear that believers should be baptised. I have many friends and family who take a very different view following either a Anglican or Presbyterian view of infant baptism. Many of my Anglican friends have a biblical case showing a real desire to submit their views to the authority of scripture. I cannot see that case at all. In the light of this I could:
a) write them off as people who have ignored scripture and have entered the slippery slope to liberalism/strong ( this line of argument is the way that the complementarians such as Wayne Grudem reads the egalitarian / complimentarian divide)
b) write them off as people who obviously dont care about mission and justice - as surely this is antithetical to the grace of the gospel which is offered to all people independent of their family or tribe or upbringing (this is the line that some egalitarians take the debate as for them to deny women leadership roles is an issue of the justice that the gospel brings.
c) agree that this is an important but not a gospel issue and so we can find ways of working together and to study the scriptures together in a way that we can help eachother to come to a deeper understanding of Gods will.
This is how evangelicalism was birthed – when Anglicans and Baptists joined together to fight slavery. I believe as we meet as brothers and sisters with humility and respect for eachother and a firm commitment to God’s word there’s more chance of change than if we retreat into polarized silos. I am looking for common ground in the polarised groups in a bid not to settle for a lowest common denominator middle ground – but to establish common ground that there can be any chance of a conversation that could possibly lead to change.
A friend of mine put it well – in the Northern Ireland peace process – someone had to start talking to terrorists. I can only imagine what a costly decision that was as both sides had clearly entrenched and deeply felt hurts. So many loved ones lost, so many injured, as Bono put it;
And the battles just begun
Theres many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters
But someone decided that rather than allow the war to continue to claim lives, there needed to be a peace process. The war within evangelicalism over this issue does no one any good. We shoot at eachother and as a result lives are damaged, ministries crippled and the gospel is not demonstrated or proclaimed as it should be. I am trying to find a way forward. Peace does not have to mean that egalitarians are the only ones that have to compromise – thats not peace. I am looking for a way to establish some common ground and praying for Gods spirit to empower us to do what scripture demands of us all (Ephesians 4:3):
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace
Jenny Baker has written a helpful post and is right to make sure that both sides are willing to the effort. So I am calling both sides to come and converse as sisters and brothers and lets work this one through.
Any ideas on ways forward or do we have to settle for a divided church / polarised church. Ideas welcome…
More to come… on graciousness, christians against sexism and more…