American Evangelical Twitter is in a flutter about the issue of women preaching in the Southern Baptist Convention—an alliance of Baptist churches in which complementarianism is, according to Al Mohler, an article of faith. (You can watch his video on the subject here.)
Al Mohler this week was bemoaning the reopening of an issue that he thought closed. He said:
This seems at least partly to be a response to Beth Moore who had been invited to preach at a church on Mother’s Day, and then had tweeted about having belonged to several SBC churches all of which exhibited “generous orthodoxy” towards the idea of women using their teaching gifts in a Christian gathering.
Having written a fair bit about complementarianism last year, I will not reiterate too many of the arguments again. I’ll limit myself to a couple of observations about this particular flare-up.
1. The false dichotomy is damaging
The way Al Mohler and hundreds of Twitter commenters speak, you’d swear there is a glossary at the back of the Bible that gives clear definitions of words like “complementarianism”. So many arguments take the line that if it isn’t complementarianism (definition apparently obvious) then it must be egalitarianism (definition also apparently obvious), and therefore evil. Any number of people accused Beth Moore of being a liberal or a heretic because “generous orthodoxy,” if it’s not my orthodoxy, must be heterodoxy.
Mohler and other Christian leaders should take responsibility for this kind of behavior among their followers, because to so frequently present complex issues as though there are two clearly defined camps creates an “us” and a “them,” and this, in turn, prompts those with a poor grasp of nuance to slander everyone who occupies the grey areas in between. False dichotomies like “complementarian/egalitarian” pretend that these issues are simple, they negate the need for fair, open-minded debate, and they make the church inhospitable for anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. You either say “I’m with Al Mohler,” or you’re one of the liberals of 30 years ago who were destroying the SBC.
But of course there is not only one kind of complementarian and neither is there one kind of egalitarian (and this is why I prefer to be neither). There is a spectrum of beliefs and a lot of moving parts associated with each broad view and both have good biblical support. We have to allow people the freedom to study Scripture and make up their own minds.
2. Certainty is a helluva drug
In Al Mohler’s video linked above, he claims that the Bible makes “very very clear statements” about the role of men and women in the church and that the biblical teaching is “excruciatingly clear”. He explains that the Bible teaches that “women do not preach to the gathered assembly on the Lord’s Day, specifically,” and that the issue is ultimately one of authority. When it comes to teaching men in other ways and on other days, then he allows that Paul isn’t talking about that.
But the trouble is, the Bible doesn’t really limit the prohibitions in this way; Paul just says “I am not allowing a woman to teach and have authority over a man.” Perhaps more to the point, this is not how Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood contributor Douglas Moo interprets the same text (he wrote that “to teach” is a technical term that refers to exposition or teaching theology, not that it refers to the main gathering on the Lord’s Day), and the same text prompts several Christians in my circles to disallow women to serve on a church council, for example, or to lead a church service or a mixed fellowship group. In other words, the “excruciatingly clear” Scriptures do not produce a consistent perspective on women in ministry, even among complementarian interpreters.
Even more to the point, for Mohler to claim such levels of clarity for his own interpretation means what about everyone else? What about interpreters like Gordon Fee or John Stott or Craig Keener or RT France or countless other voices from the middle? The implication is surely that they are explicitly and intentionally operating in disobedience of the clear Scriptures (and writing commentaries etc. to justify their disobedience). As genuine as he might be and as pure and earnest as his motives clearly are, Mohler’s position implies a fairly horrifying judgment upon fellow Christian scholars and pastors.
There are core matters about which we can have a high degree of certainty, but there are several compounding factors that make the majority of biblical issues less certain than we’d like. The fact is that orthodoxy ought to be generous (virtually by definition) because certainty is elusive, no matter how much you wish it weren’t so. To claim certainty for your own position and error for everyone who takes another line is first-class hubris.
3. Theology and tradition should be open for review
JI Packer said long ago that all doctrine “terminates in mystery.” There is so much that we do not know or that we perceive only dimly, and so while we hold humbly and gratefully to the revelation that we have been given, we ought to acknowledge that it is very, very partial. Furthermore, our minds are very, very small, and God is very far beyond us. What He has given us has been accommodated to our very small minds and our elusive grasp of transcendent things.
Theology is never finished.
Mohler bemoans the reopening of an issue that 30 years ago was a threat. However, was egalitarianism the threat or did it merely accompany the threat? Is complementarianism the final answer, or was it merely an answer that conveniently repelled a presenting danger at the time? You’ll never know if your answer cannot be questioned. Theology needs to be reexamined because as a human endeavor, it is subject to our blind spots and weak-mindedness. Since Paul himself teaches us that we now only perceive “as in a mirror darkly”, theology has a strong component of mystery, it should be approached with humility, and it should not be undertaken from the assumption that whoever disagrees with the status quo is an enemy.
4. Stop confusing separable issues
Finally, Mohler’s video mentions in passing that he considers the attempt to move away from complementarianism ultimately as an attack on the authority of Scripture. I don’t know if this is a genuine underlying concern or just one of those things that we say to ramp up the level of seriousness with which we would like an issue to be considered, but this might explain why there is so much wagon-circling concerning this issue.
Yet this need not be an attack on the Bible; it is often a genuine attempt to discuss the Bible, which is something we really ought to be able to do as evangelicals. We really must reserve “attack on the Bible” language for those occasions in which that is really happening, otherwise we end up communicating to our followers that any opinion that differs from that of a leader on an issue that said leader considers important is actually a contest for the heart of the faith. It ramps up the stakes, drives people into factions, and prevents us from even hearing Scripture on the matter. The Bible actually forbids us from doing this with disputable matters, but we seem less keen to obey this clear biblical command than the one verse that may or may not be a universal prohibition of women pastors.
Inasmuch as Brian McLaren and the emergent movement might have hijacked the phrase “generous orthodoxy,” it remains a brilliantly concise summary of what it is that we’re actually called to. The Bible calls us to be faithful to the gospel (orthodoxy) while being defined by love, humility, and unity in mind and purpose (generosity). Tell me how it is possible to be all those things when we claim orthodoxy as our own and confuse unity for uniformity?
For more on these issues, look out for Turn Neither Right Nor Left due to be released later this year.