Last week, Christianity Today published an article attempting to explain how women were involved in launching the online Trinity debate and why we cared so much about it. I say “we” because I was one of those women, albeit a relatively minor player. I say “attempting” because the formatting and approach of the article diluted some critical history and, like others have already noted, muddied some salient issues. I’m offering up this personal account to offer more background and context that I hope will be helpful in showing how and why women were drawn into prayerful thought and engagement on this issue, and what I pray God is doing in and through it.
Because of its length, I’ve broken it up into two parts:
First: how God used the common grace of the emerging Internet to draw intellectually gifted Reformed women into online community, ministry and eventual controversy,
Second: what insights this episode offers into how churches and parachurches, ordained leaders and laity, can more profitably learn from one another and minister together as a unified body and priesthood of believers, in a digital world, to the glory of God.
When I was a little girl, I would drag my sister and my cousin Ian into the backyard to play wedding, using my preacher Dad’s portable pulpit to add a touch of verisimilitude. I willingly let my sister be the bride; I wanted to be the preacher like my Daddy. The Christian college I eventually attended contained its expositional teaching ministry tracks to men, so I channeled the speaking, teaching, and intellectual gifts I inherited from my Dad into an English degree, with a minor in Bible. I applied my English education to a fulfilling career in high tech communications and marketing, and my Bible education to my transition to wife then stay at home mother several years later.
The challenges of that transition brought me a to a spiritual crisis point during which God moved dramatically to transform much of what I had been taught about Who He is in Christ, what His work on the cross accomplished, and how those truths were the foundation for my identity in Him. From that time on, I stopped studying God’s word through the horizontal plane of my identity as a woman, wife, mother, and started to study it through the vertical plan of the person and character of the Triune God. The more I learned to ground my identity in Him as His restored image bearer, the more I was able to live out of that identity, and into the other ones.
The more I learned and grew, the more I began to long for other women to experience the freedom and joy that comes through deeper and more gospel-centered study of God’s word, and the more frustrated I became at the legalism, moralism, and faulty hermeneutics that ran like black threads through the Bible studies and books that were targeted at us. With this feeling of disconnect between what I knew women’s souls were in need of, and what I saw us being taught, continuing to grow, I wanted more sources of help beyond what my Bible-major husband and my busy pastor could provide. So I took to the Internet.
If the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are remembered as the era when gifted Christian women lyricists like Fannie Crosby and writers like Hannah More modeled ways that godly women with word gifts could bless and influence the church, the twenty-first century might be remembered as the era when another generation of women rediscovered that calling, then digitized it. In a season of life when women like me were desperate to maintain a life of the mind while in the trenches of potty training and preschool co-op lesson planning, ministries like Desiring God and the Gospel Coalition had begun leveraging the Internet to deliver gospel-rich content to anyone with an Internet connection and a web browser. The combination of theology-rich blogs, sermon audio, and a comment platform through which to discuss it all, delivered digital manna to our hungry souls via a LAN line to our bedrooms and kitchen counters, while we sat in our slippers and prayed that the baby would nap so we could read.
Today, comment platforms are considered to be mostly case studies in the doctrine of depravity, rather than engines of sanctification. But in those early years, the comment mechanism offered a level field for women and men to interact together on weighty matters of theology both proper and practical, ecclesiology, and more. No degrees were required for entry; no ordination necessary for interaction. If you loved the Bible, were seeking to understand it well at a deeper level, and were able to ask or answer questions thoughtfully and with insight, you were welcome.
In 2011, TGC took another big step forward in “whole-church” ministry engagement when it incorporated women speakers at breakout sessions into its biennial national conference, the first one I ever attended. After enduring years of marginal Bible-y teaching on so-called women’s issues, the feeling of sitting at a conference designed by men that incorporated active, visible investment in women in learning and teaching the whole Bible to other women, is hard to put into words, even five years after I first experienced it. That feeling increased still further when TGC hosted its first women’s conference in 2012. Dubbed “a conference for women about God”, women who had built strong Internet relationships with other women via the TGC ecosystem were able to meet in person for the first time. Many women came just for the worship and fellowship. But many like me also left with the active encouragement of TGC leaders and staff that word-based ministry – blogging, book writing, speaking – was a needed and welcome ministry for women to pursue.
It was during these two critical years that the blog ministries of women like Wendy Alsup, Hannah Anderson, Rachel Miller, Aimee Byrd, the Out of the Ordinary community and others began and developed strong followings. If you have several hours to browse through TGC blogs and the series and comment threads that flowed through them and the ecosystem of womens’ blogs that grew out of them during those early years, a few themes will jump out:
- The general focus of womens’ blogs being deeper than usual meditations on books of the Bible, theological issues, and women in ministry in the church and the world.
- The call and response of thoughtful posts and lively comment threads between leading laity voices (both women and men) and Reformed leaders. Wendy Alsup’s post on New Wave Complementarianism initiated significant discussion; so did Thabiti Anyabwile’s series, “I’m a Complementarian, But…”
- My too frequent hijacking of the comment function with essay length responses because I was too unsure about whether I should start my own blog, and too ignorant about how to do it. (I eventually did, originally here, and now also here, and I also support Wendy with writing and administration at The Gospel Centered Woman). Sorry about that.
What I hope you will not see in our interaction is any kind of cohesive mission to dismantle patriarchy or generally foment digital conflict. Even if those had been the goal, they would have been laughably impossible to achieve. As laywomen with primary commitments to husbands and children, we had little time and no budget to invest in summits, convocations or the other in-person networking opportunities more easily afforded our ministry brethren because of their paid vocations. The majority of our interaction was through the engines of social media – at TGC and these blogs, through Twitter and Facebook blogpost sharing and discussing, with a sprinkling of spontaneous phone conversations at odd hours as family and local ministry commitments permitted. (TGC conferences, or as I jokingly call them – Reformed summer sleep away camp for women – were a welcome and helpful exception.) And during those rare moments of spontaneous phone conversation or late night hotel room conversations at a TGC conference, what aspirations we did voice were more about Proverbs 10:19 and the importance of being wise stewards of our influence.
But as the years progressed, both the content and the tone of the conversation in certain quarters about manhood and womanhood, complementarianism and the gospel, began to change, and some women came under increasing conviction about the need to speak in the louder voice of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 1.
Beginning sometime in 2015, some categories of concern began to weave themselves into conversation on complementarianism; categories connected to some old, hitherto ignored or unnoticed, and seriously problematic connections to old and bad doctrine. The center of these concerns the argument that headship and submission were ontological descriptors of masculinity and femininity, with ubiquitous application in all spheres of life, rather than the narrow functional categories of godly marriage and church polity. The Scriptural basis for this argument purported to be connected to the Trinity, specifically, Jesus’ state of eternal submission to His Heavenly Father. And the source of the majority of the problematic teaching was one organization – the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and its members.
For over a year, women, lead largely by Rachel Miller and Aimee Byrd, challenged this faulty framework of complementarianism, its origins and its seriously concerning applications, on a regular basis. We wrote, we shared what each other wrote on social media and, for the first time, through those same channels, we called on CBMW and the broader ecosystem of Reformed leaders to respond. From readers (both women and men) we received regular words of encouragement and thanks, both publicly and privately. From CBMW, we heard nothing.
Below is a (likely incomplete) list of the main articles Rachel, Aimee and other women wrote during this time frame, prior to Liam Goligher’s guest post at Aimee’s blog, as well articles written after his.
Together with the lengthy backstory I’ve offered, they demonstrate that, contrary to assertions in the CT article:
- Reformed women have been actively engaged in re-examining the central components of traditionally defined complementarianism for at least five years.
- Reformed women have been responding to the recent “doubling down” on teaching tying an unorthodox view of the Trinity to tenuous definition of complementarianism that has been stretched too thin, for well over a year.
- The content on CBMW’s website and that authored and published by its members in books, sermons and blog postings elsewhere, has this errant teaching as a major theme.
The way the conversation picked up steam (in both amount and temperature), is best left for Part Two.
February 25, 2013
May 8, 2015
May 22 2015
May 28, 2015
August 17, 2015
August 25, 2015
8 MAY 2015
Fred Sanders, “Things Eternal: Sonship, Generation, Generatedness” (8 MAY 2015), on The Scriptorium Daily at http://scriptoriumdaily.com/things-eternal-sonship-generation-generatedness/
22 MAY 2015
Stephen Holmes, “Reflections on a new defence of ‘complementariainism’” (22 MAY 2016), on Shored Fragments at http://steverholmes.org.uk/blog/?p=7507
1 JUN 2015
Fred Sanders, “Generations Eternal and Current” (1 JUN 2015), on The Scriptorium Daily at http://scriptoriumdaily.com/generations-eternal-and-current/
September 2, 2015
Dr. Valerie Hobbs
September 24, 2015
October 7, 2015
April 21, 2016
April 22, 2016
April 24 , 2016
April 26, 2016
3 JUN 2016
Liam Goligher, “Is it Okay to Teach a Complementarianism Based on Eternal Subordination?”
(3 JUN 2016), posted by Aimee Byrd on Housewife Theologian at
June 6, 2016
June 13, 2016
Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson
June 20, 2016
June 22, 2016
June 23, 2016
June 30, 2016
July 7, 2016
July 8, 2016
July 11, 2016