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.


Becs said...

Well said Dan!

Judy said...

These two perspectives on the role of women in ministry is, from what I see, also influenced through culture. Japan and Korea would culturally hold to being complimentarians while the Philippines, which is a strong egalitarian society would just stand on the other side of the chasm and shake their heads at them in dismay. Culture plays a large part in peoples' interpretation of the Scripture.

Julie Clawson said...

Good questions. I think a lot of this boils down to interpretation of scripture. Sadly, many Christians don't think they actually interpret scripture - they believe that they just read the words on the page and get the "truth." But how we read scripture is totally dependent on our culture and our biases. Realizing that how our culture has taught us to view women influences what we believe the bible to be saying is a necessary step for any sort of dialogue on this issue.
Before debating scripture, I think it is most helpful for anyone to do a self-assessment where they honestly admit what they think of women, what women in leadership makes them feel, what influences their bible reading, and so forth. There is always more going on than just the words on the page.

Dan Stringer said...

Thanks Judy and Julie for your comments.

It's true there are a host of thorny cultural and personal influences that come into play when interpreting Scripture, especially on a question as loaded as this one.

This is likely part of what accounts for the diverging viewpoints on this issue, even among respected evangelical scholars who otherwise agree on so much else, namely the basic essentials of the Gospel.

In light of the significant differences between comps and egals, the question I'm asking is, to what extent should we or should we not insulate ourselves from those on the other side of the great gender divide?

Anonymous said...

Definitely a thorny issue and difficult question to answer. Let us know when you find a solution because I don't see one yet in sight.

Ethan said...

Hey Dan,

Thanks for you post. I think egalitarians can be gospel centered. I wasn't aware that egalitarians were not included in The Gospel Coalition or T4G. I wonder if any egal leaders have attempted to join.

Dan Stringer said...

Thanks Ethan for stopping by.

Both the Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel strongly affirm complementarianism in their respective confessional statements, which would preclude egalitarian leaders/churches from being included.

It doesn't mean I can't benefit from their online resources though...

Aaron D. Taylor said...

Exactly! The groups that you refer to in this article take an all-or-nothing approach to orthodoxy. Either you agree with all of my doctrine, or you're out! It's my way or the highway. I actually think you're a little too generous to these guys in your article. They are this way on EVERY issue, not just the gender issue. Their version of orthodoxy is so narrow that I'm not even sure JESUS would fit their rigid doctrinal standards.

DeeCee said...


Instead of just arguing over each other on the exegesis and hermeneutics of the “problem passages” (which gets us absolutely nowhere), I think egalitarians and complementarians — especially the Young, Restless, Reformed and “gospel centered” crowd — need to articulate nuanced, Biblical, intelligent, and winsome positions on the extent to which genuine Christians who differ on this issue can and should work with one another based on similarities and differences on other doctrines… something the “gospel centered” complementarians have simply refused to do. The silence is deafening… though genuine egalitarian evangelicals tend to lash out in provocative, unhelpful ways, too.

I echo Dan’s call… as someone often caught between the divide it’s simply sickening that we as evangelical Christians still haven’t done this. Thankfully non-evangelicals and non-Christians have not yet gotten wind of this and how severely it weakens our witness.

T4G TGC Ligonier White Horse Inn Desiring God please say something.

ScottL said...

Great article, Dan.

You did say: 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.

As an egalitarian, I have never felt that complementarians are marginalizing egalitarians outside orthodoxy. I'm sure there are some. But I haven't felt much of the push outside of orthodoxy.

To be honest, I am pretty convinced that we will have moved pretty much completely towards egalitarianism in the generation of my grandchildren (who have yet to come since I only have one son just over 1 year old). It will still be an issue for the early years of my children, once they are into their 20's & 30's. But by the time they are having children and their children are in their 20's and 30's (so some 50-60 years from now), I can't see the major parts of the church still trying to hold on to a more complementarian view.

Matter of fact, just as we, today, think it quite odd at the idea that slavery was argued from Scripture some 150 years ago, I believe my grandchildren will think it odd when I tell them stories that, when I was in my 20's and 30's, people used to argue against women as elder-pastors. It took longer to move towards the entire church accepting that slavery is not a good thing. But with the way the global world moves so fast today, this is why I believe we will have moved more completely towards egalitarianism in half the time.

ἐκκλησία said...

Imagine you have two pieces of a puzzle, how do you answer the question Are they equal, or compatible?.

Some would say they are equal, both being part of the same puzzle.
Others would say they are compatible, both being part of the same puzzle.
Both positions treat the puzzle pieces as separate entities (atomically).

What does the Bible say?
[Romans 12:4-5][1 Cor 10:17, 12:12-14,18,20,25][Eph 2:16][Col 3:15] shows that the Bible doesn't look at individual pieces of the puzzle atomically, rather it looks at the entire puzzle.

In fact, the Bible takes a rather dim view of this individualist approach speaking of those who become lovers of self, swollen with conceit [2 Tim 3:2-3] because it is exactly that type of self-centredness that breaks the body of Christ down from a unified whole into individuals.

So are women and men equal or compatible? The verses [Malachi 2:15][Gen 2:24][1 Corinthians 6:16][Matthew 19:5-6][Mark 10:8][Ephesians 5:31] all suggest we stop asking this question, for in God's eyes it takes both male and female to form one 'flesh' (in marriage).

How long will it take us to realize that In Christ there are no individuals.

This union (of male and female) represents the smallest atomic Biblical unit God recognizes. It was not A man OR A woman created in the garden, rather it was the man AND the woman. That "one flesh" first created in the garden was created in the image of God [Gen 1:26-27].

Quoting: "Let us make man (the species, not the gender) in our image", and this union was referred to in the plural as having dominion "let them have dominion ..".

If we argue about equality vs compatibility, it is because we fail to see the Bible's atomic focus is neither male nor female (not individuals), rather its actual focus is "one flesh" consisting of both. The Bible also treats the non-married, not as individuals, but as married to God.

Perhaps we should all re-read [Romans 14:5-8] again in the spirit of Grace

Will said...

Camille Lewis and I are asking this question and a host of other similar questions in a series examining the rhetoric of Together for the Gospel at

I think you've hit the nail on the head!

Mark said...

I really appreciate your perspective here. I, too am wrestling with this as I have long accepted the notion of complementarianism as "the one true way." You mae interested to note there there is a very thoroughgoing discussion going on over at Will Lee's blog Anwoth. It is quite an impressive analysis taking place over there.

Here is the link in case you're interested:

Anonymous said...

OUTSTANDING article! Thanks for posting.

Your para. 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. is spot on!

tmnord said...

I am a year late in reading this post, but I was on your blog today and really enjoyed reading this. I don't have anything to add to the discussion, but I wanted to say thanks for taking the time to write this.

tmnord said...

Dan and others, I came across a recent post from The Gospel Coalition (TGC) that begins to address some of the questions you raised in this blog post. It does not thoroughly address the complementarian/egalitarian divide, but it does address boundaries in TGC. I would be curious to read others thoughts on this article:

Dan Stringer said...

Thanks tnord for stopping by and sharing the link. I found it to be another thoughtfully articulate statement from TGC; I've come to expect no less from Keller and Carson.

While I appreciate their efforts to shape TGC as a "center-bounded set" while avoiding "lowest-common-denominator theology," it remains true that TGC is unapologetically complementarian in both their practice and preaching across the board among their growing network.

My concern is not that they are a coalition of complementarians per se—I have benefited greatly from the work of wise Christian mentors and writers who happen to be complementarians. What I find troubling is the implicit linkage being made between complementarianism and the vocabulary of “gospel-centeredness” as described in TGC's Confessional Statement and other writings. For TGC and their 'restless Reformed' ilk, it appears that complementarianism has become a prerequisite for gospel fidelity.

For example, I have yet to hear any leading writers/thinkers associated with TGC (i.e. bloggers on the TGC site, pastors of TGC-affiliated churches or TGC council members) say, “Yes, it is possible for an egalitarian to be a gospel-centered Christian” or “No, complementarianism is not an essential requirement for confessional Christian orthodoxy."

I hope I'm wrong, but the current stance of TGC, Acts 29 and co. still seems to be that only complementarians need apply for membership in the "Gospel-centered" club.