Last summer, some Reformed lady friends and I stirred up some spirited conversation about troubling teaching concerning extra-biblical prescriptions for gender roles, originating from a questionable understanding of the Trinity. Last week, some more Reformed ladies stirred the conversation up again. The differences between the responses our groups received says much about how far the conversation about women’s engagement in church life and ministry has come, but also how far we still have to go.
Several years ago now, a loosely affiliated cohort of Reformed women began writing about the topic of gender roles and the Trinity from a number of different angles, based on what we we were observing and experiencing in women’s ministry in our various denominational contexts. The topics included:
- Genesis 1 through 3, imago Dei, and its expressions in maleness and femaleness
- Differing foundational descriptions of maleness and femaleness – specifically, headship and submission as ontological categories of being, or as temporal functions related to specific roles
- Marriage as an expression of the gospel, vs. as the expression of the gospel
- Differing convictions on the nature of the relationship between the members of the Trinity (ESS/EFS), how those convictions influence perspectives on the issues above, and the articulation of those positions in books, Bible studies, and other resources for and about women
- Womens’ ministry and discipleship for all of life, in all spheres of life – pursuing a posture of affirmation of women’s gifting beyond the proscriptions of 1 Timothy 3, and calling the church to more intentional training and equipping of women to know and understand all of Scripture, and to affirm the use of their gifts for the glory of God and the building of His church.
The reception to our efforts was notably mixed. We received significant public encouragement from many laywomen, some laymen, and some leaders in ministry. The leading response from most institutions and their leaders was polite silence. Only when Dr. Liam Goligher posted a fiery, two-part post on the Mortification of Spin blog, at the request of one of our group, did the conversation really take off. Like a rocket.
You can go here to read ChristianityToday’s summary of the controversy and our role in it, and here to see a full bibliography of the websites and blogs that hosted much of the debate.
Some of us gently arched an eyebrow at the reception one brother with a D.Min received when he spoke boldly and directly in a single, two-part blog post , vs. the small village of women who had been speaking and writing with quiet, careful conviction for months, and even years. We also noted how much of the conversation centered almost solely on the intricacies of the Trinitarian issues, on the academicians who advocated for them, and to what extent their positions rendered them outside the bounds of orthodoxy and fellowship. Far less attention was paid to the practical implications of these doctrines for women that our experience in women’s’ ministry had uncovered, or to us as the women who had raised the issues.
Within a few months, the fierce flames of debate had died down, everyone returned to their respective academic corners, and little observably changed.
Fast forward to last week.
In March, three Reformed, African American women launched a blog called Truth’s Table. They described themselves and their endeavor this way: “We are Black Christian women who love truth and seek it out wherever it leads us. We have unique perspectives on race, politics, gender, current events, and pop culture that are filtered through our Christian faith.”
I’ve never met nor talked with Christina Edmondson, nor Michelle Higgins, yet, but I can say of Ekemini Uwan that all of the above is entirely true. I treasure the memory of a two-hour brunch and spontaneous parking lot prayer session we shared last year. Knowing her heart for the Lord and her keen mind, I subscribed to the podcast as soon as it launched.
Unfortunately, I had only been able to listen to snippets of several episodes when the provocatively titled “Gender Apartheid” episode came out. This was one I I knew I needed to make time to listen to, and so I did.
Several days later, I was still processing, and praying over, what I heard.
The topics the Truth’s Table sister covered were encouragingly familiar – there were a lot of “Yes. SISTER.” moments in my kitchen as I listened. The approach to some of the topics was unexpected, to the point of making me uncomfortable, so there were a few “Jesus, help!” moments as I listened as well. But I didn’t know reasons for their approach, the context for some of their assertions, or whether I was even representative of their target audience. Until I could understand these things better, (Prov. 17:27), I was reluctant to be either “all in”, or “all out.”
Others were not so reluctant.
On Friday, at the Mortification of Spin (a blog where our writing has been featured, and where Wendy Alsup was recently interviewed about her new book, “Is the Bible Good For Women?”), Todd Pruitt published a passionate protest against the podcast and called for the women to be reported to their various presbyteries (All three women are affiliated with either the OPC or the PCA.)
The inevitable barrage of Twitter fire ensued, until Dr. Edmondson intervened. She appealed for the detractors to stand down with their public ire, and invited them to engage together in private, with the Scriptures, on any points of dispute. But the unfriendly social media fire continued.
Late Friday afternoon, Todd Pruitt took the original post down, expressing shock at the charges of racism he had received, seeming to suggest that it was the charge itself that was wrong, rather than the statements or actions that invited it.
But while Todd attempted to put out the fire the critical post started, the cloud of accusations and theological suspicion lingers over the women to this day. To my knowledge, no private discussions or other attempts to reconcile the public disagreements have yet taken place.
So my heart was, and remains, very heavy.
Last year, some Reformed women raising questions without getting many answers had our work amplified by one supportive, albeit controversial, blogpost by a pastor/scholar. That was the spark that ignited a vigorous debate about Trinitarian orthodoxy between pastors and academics on both sides. The implications for gender relations and church life remained largely undiscussed. The women who raised the questions stood on the sidelines, not really engaged, but not attacked either.
Last week, one controversial podcast by three Reformed women on the very same topic ignited a debate between pastors and laypeople on one side,and the three women on the other, with the gender issues front and center. The women who raised the questions were hauled before a digital tribunal on charges of unorthodoxy, their expressed willingness to engage privately on the biblical substance of the disagreement ignored and/or declined, with the final verdict still pending.
The issues the Truths Table women raised last week are entirely in line with many of the issues my cohort of women raised last year. The category of controversial Trinitarian theology that emerged in this latest round of debate (this time about the Holy Spirit) is every bit as worthy of critical challenge and testing as the one discussed last year. So, too, is the question of which rhetorical strategies for these conversations are most helpful and effective, and which are not.
These are important and worthy conversations to have, and the Truths Table women, as sisters in Christ, with shared convictions, yet different perspectives, education, and experiences, are worthy women to have them with. And I lament the way they were attacked, rather than engaged.
I’m just returning home from three packed days of worship and teaching at TGC, all focused on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Last night, Ligon Duncan reminded us that one of the forgotten lessons of the Reformation is that “we cannot only stand for doctrine; we must also work for unity.” In that spirit, I am praying two sincere prayers in the midst of this situation:
1. That we would always center our fight for doctrinal orthodoxy on our own tendencies to stray from it, before we concern ourselves with others’. Specifically, that we would remember that there is no category of sin which we are incapable of committing, and no category of sin that is beyond the cleansing of the cross.
2. That we would heed Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:1-6
“…to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Coda: I completed this post on my first of two plane flights home. I decided to check Twitter to see if my in-flight prayers had been answered. And they had, in the form of this post by Richard Phillips, a fellow member of the ACE. I hope the way he carefully engages with the topics the Truths Table women covered, seeing much to agree with and articulating points of disagreement Biblically and with charity, is as encouraging to them as it is to me.
Meanwhile, Todd provided another update here, focusing on his dialog with other PCA pastors.