September 9, 2010

Can egalitarians be "gospel-centered" too?

There aren't many topics more controversial within evangelicalism than the issue of women in ministry leadership. The debate between evangelical complementarians (those who believe Scripture prohibits all women from serving as pastors or elders in the local church) and evangelical egalitarians (those who believe Scripture does not prohibit women from serving in those roles) often gets pretty heated. I won't rehash the arguments here since most of us have probably made up our minds, but I do have some questions:

How big is the gulf between evangelical complementarians and evangelical egalitarians? Is it more like a crevasse or a chasm? And how much should we insulate ourselves from those on the other side of the great gender divide?
On some days, the gap seems pretty wide. Those are usually the days when I'm reading blogs, books or articles by anyone associated with The Gospel Coalition, an organization that for all its merits, appears to have elevated complementarianism to a level of non-negotiable orthodoxy to the exclusion of egalitarians like myself. I truly hope this isn't the case because there's a great deal to like about TGC as one of the most intellectually astute, culturally engaged and discipleship-oriented interdenominational networks in all of Western evangelicalism. I'd be willing to wager my ESV Study Bible that if I wasn't an egalitarian, I'd probably be a TGC enthusiast by now. But if my stance on women in ministry excludes me from certain fraternities, I'll learn what I can through my binoculars from across the canyon.

There are other days when the prospects for respectful disagreement and Kingdom-oriented collaboration among complementarians and egalitarians seem within reach. These tend to be the days spent closer to street level, where I see Christians across the evangelical spectrum coming together for parachurch conferences, seminary classes, small group Bible studies and yes, Sunday morning worship services despite their differences over gender roles. In these settings, the question of women in ministry seems more like a secondary theological debate open to more than one interpretation among committed believers. I've even heard of a few egalitarians reading books by Tim Keller, J.I. Packer and Jack Deere as well as complementarians benefiting from the writings of Scot McKnight, Richard Mouw and Dallas Willard.

In case you're wondering, this is not the part where I throw up my hands exclaiming, "Can't we all just get along?" Softening our convictions for the sake of a creating a mushy middle is not the answer. So long as both camps are making a sincere and prayerful effort to follow the teachings of Scripture in good conscience, I would not expect either side to discard their best theological arguments, websites and academic journals as if these differences of interpretation and ministry application did not matter in any significant way. To the contrary, they matter immensely. Just ask a gifted woman who is told she can never teach the Bible to men or a complementarian who is told that all gender distinctions are inherently oppressive and best left behind. The sheer potency of this explosive topic is enough to warrant sober theological reflection and discussion within the body of Christ.

Besides, it's logically impossible for both camps to be correct. God either calls and gifts certain women to serve in positions of pastoral authority or he does not. When a woman experiences a call to ordained ministry along with the preaching and shepherding responsibilities entailed, such a call is either compatible with Scripture or it is not. "Middle ground" approaches that leave matters up to congregational popular vote or veto depending on the "comfort level" of vocal parishioners are entirely unconvincing to me. Whether implicitly or explicitly, every church and denomination will eventually need to take some kind of stand, all the while remaining careful neither to prohibit what Scripture affirms nor affirm what Scripture prohibits.

Interestingly enough, I was originally a complementarian during my undergrad years at Wheaton. But after significant time wrestling with the "problem passages" and reviewing the arguments of both sides in the years since, I've decided to plant my flag with the other guys (and gals). Not that this switch has added much convenience to my journey of preparation for vocational ministry in evangelical contexts. If I was convinced the apostle Paul's prohibition of women teaching/leading men in 1 Timothy 2 was meant to be universal, I'd find a vast array of ministry resources and church planting networks eager to equip me from a complementarian perspective. It would also increase the pool of potential mentors, churches and denominations consistent with my theological convictions which are mostly of the old-school evangelical variety (not including my 'charismatic' understanding of the Holy Spirit which is another can of worms).

On a practical level, I've discovered this whole egalitarian thing to be a downright dealbreaker in many circles, keeping me (and my wife) at arm's length from an array of otherwise palatable opportunities for ministry networking and training. It's painful to admit this, but complementarians are increasingly in the middle of the action these days when it comes to a putting forward a theologically robust integration of church planting and discipleship resources for local congregations. While the real world doesn't always mirror what's happening online, I foresee TGC embodying more of a long-term trajectory than a short-lived trend. Living in Hawaii, it can take a while for the rumblings of Christendom (i.e. mainline decline or complementarian resurgence) to reach our shores, but it's only a matter of time before the well-equipped contingent of "gospel-centered" churches makes its mark (or should I say 9 Marks) on the islands' evangelical landscape.

Last year, I posed some questions looking at why one’s persuasion on gender roles carries far more weight in the 'Restless Reformed' movement than other secondary issues open to evangelical disagreement including one's view of baptism, the Lord's Supper, charismatic gifts, eschatology, church polity or young earth/old earth creationism. The line of reasoning typically offered by my TGC brothers tends to rely on slippery slope scenarios. The basic gist goes like this: "If we allow egalitarians into our movement (which would invariably include the voices of women pastors who are unfit for spiritual leadership), the stage would be set for additional theological compromises to inevitably follow." I'll grant that potential for doctrinal drift always exists, but this can work both ways. Are egalitarians more likely than complementarians to slip into certain forms of cultural accommodation including moral relativism, universalism and the denial of biblical authority? Yes, but couldn't it also be said that complementarians have been more susceptible to other vices in the direction of fundamentalist separatism, sexism and self-righteous legalism?

When terms like "gospel-centered" and "gospel-driven" are only used in the context of describing complementarian ecclesiology, it creates the perception that one does not have the Gospel right if one is not a complementarian. When egalitarians are excluded from any reference to participation in "gospel-centered ministry," the implicit message is clear: We will not recognize or affirm your commitment to the Gospel unless you hold to complementarian theology. Conversely, egalitarians (however orthodox) are disqualified from being trusted as ministry partners in the task of proclaiming the true Gospel. I could be wrong, but this appears to be more than just a case of like-minded parachurch organizations taking a strong stance on gender roles. It feels more like an attempt to marginalize egalitarians outside the boundaries of orthodoxy.

I can hear some of my egalitarian friends saying, “Relax Dan, you can’t expect those restless reformed guys to touch anything egalitarian with a ten-foot pole. If they want to isolate themselves as the only true bearers of the Gospel, so be it.” My response would be that the Gospel Coalition represents anything but an irrelevant, shrinking movement. Far beyond a loose affiliation among big-name pastors like Piper, Keller and Driscoll, the vibrant network of complementarian Calvinists continues to broaden and deepen through an effective strategy of vigorous church planting, publishing and of course, online resources up the wazoo. They are not so much isolating themselves as they are isolating us. Again, I'd love to be wrong because some of my favorite pastor-authors include guys like Tim Keller and Sam Storms, godly men who have been incredible role models in the development of my own approach to ministry. It is precisely because my fellow egalitarians have so much to gain from their wisdom that an evangelical schism over the gender debate would hurt both sides.

In essence, here's what I'd like to ask my brethren over at The Gospel Coalition/Desiring God/9 Marks/Ligonier/Acts 29/Sovereign Grace/White Horse Inn/T4G:
  • To what extent is complementarianism more than just a prominent feature of the New Calvinist movement, but essential to the Gospel itself?
  • Is adherence to complementarian theology a prerequisite for becoming "gospel-centered" or "gospel-driven?"
  • As someone who affirms the Nicene Creed, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the supreme authority/infallibility of Scripture, original sin, the existence of hell, Christ's sinless life, his penal substitutionary atonement on our our behalf, his propitiation of God's wrath, his bodily resurrection and his second coming but also holds to an evangelical egalitarian perspective on women in ministry leadership, have I failed to believe the Gospel?
  • In short, can egalitarians be gospel-centered too?
Since it is my conviction that the boundaries of historic Christian orthodoxy can (and must) include evangelicals of both the complementarian and egalitarian variety, here's what I hope we could say to one another:
"With all due respect for your sincere desire to follow Jesus and adhere faithfully to the teachings of Scripture, I disagree with your position on this important issue. Just as I would love for you change your mind on the question of women in ministry, I'm sure you feel the same way about my stance. But because our shared belief in the Gospel is more important than our differences on secondary matters, I'm hopeful we can respectfully disagree as brothers/sisters in Christ while encouraging each other to live joyfully and faithfully in light of the good news."
But if this sounds too much like key lime pie in the stratosphere, maybe we could just shout it across the canyon once in a while.

UPDATE: Scot McKnight has begun a related discussion over on his Jesus Creed blog.