Last week I describe how the summer’s Trinity debate had its roots in multiple years of Internet conversation by concerned Reformed laywomen. Today, I offer some concluding thoughts about some of the beneficial changes the debate could effect, if we’re willing to pursue them.
History books are peppered with stories of the catalytic effect of small actions – a piece of paper nailed to a door, a tired woman sitting in the “wrong” seat, a shot heard around the world. These moments hold historical import because of what was happening (or not happening) before they occurred, and especially because of what happened after. After five years of conversation and careful challenge from lay women on complementarianism and doctrinal overreach went largely unheard, a two-part guest post at Mortification of Spin by a Scottish pastor with a D. Min from RTS, did not. More than enough Internet traffic has been generated in the posting and reposting of what Christianity today found was over 150 leading articles on the topic in a single month’s time. What remains to be seen is what changes the digital storm und drang will effect, if any.
Many opportunities for fruitful change exit; here are just a few:
CBMW and the Danvers Statement
In one oddly punctuated paragraph in its article, Christianity Today states that CBMW is “neutral” on the doctrine of the Trinity, and that the unifying foundation for CBMW for the foreseeable future is the Danvers statement. Taken at face value, these assertions are collectively problematic for many reasons.
- Rachel Miller has demonstrated how the belief in ESS runs like a cohesive thread through the content on the CBMW website (both currently accessible, and previously accessible but currently missing), and the teaching and published works of its leading members. Conversely, advocacy of the opposing position and corollary perspectives on gender relationships are difficult to find.
- Calling for unity around a decades-old statement on cultural challenges to certain Biblical texts on the nature of gendered humanity, but neutrality on interpretation of an ancient creed confessing the nature of the God in whose image our humanity is derived, seems backwards.
- Numerous orthodox Christian scholars have previously called out the doctrine of ESS as unorthodox, problematic, and even heretical.
- CBMW members have previously equated their particular application of principles of ESS to complementarianism to the gospel itself, by default setting those who reject those principles as outside the bounds of gospel fidelity.
- American culture, and the church in which it is exiled, has changed dramatically since the Danvers statement was first crafted in 1989. The Supreme Court has declared gay marriage constitutional. The normalization of transgenderism as a state to be recognized in school bathrooms and classrooms is being debated. Porn culture is has spread like toxic bindweed through every aspect of American life. The latest front for the sexual revolution involves robots (no links because obviously, but this shouldn’t be surprising).
At the same time, many quarters of the church have woken up from their long, dark, moralistic therapeutic deism coma, to renewed commitment to the centrality and transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A return to a Christocentric hermeneutic of Scripture is now elevating the church’s gaze up from the foundations of the “every day” of sanctification (home, church, neighborhood), to the vertical structures of gender and race relations, economics, and civics, on which that foundation rests. Read through the newer lenses of a dying culture and a reawakened church, the Danvers statement as written in 1989 is may not be framed squarely enough for this new day.
The relative silence from CBMW is possibly a kind of pausing to catch its breath in the wake of its leadership transition corresponding with such an intense season and debate and questioning of its mission. I hope the silence will not continue indefinitely.
The Gender Debate
Of all the questions raised by women (and largely unanswered) prior to and during the Trinity debate, none remains more central than the need to distinguish between what the Bible says about gender-bound roles specific to certain contexts, and what it says or does not say prescriptively about gender as an ontological category. As Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson pointed out in their pivotal post on June 14, maleness and femaleness are not roles to be played, but ontological categories in which we live throughout all of life. God prescribes submission in connection to one context in which femaleness is lived out (marriage), and with notable conditions (to a woman’s own husband, in the Lord); what He prescribes for women beyond that is a matter of considerable debate. The tenuous ties of prescriptive gender characteristics such as headship and submission to a less than orthodox perspective on the Trinity have now been exposed. Consequently, there has never been a better to go back to the Biblical drawing board to consider which lines around gender God has drawn definitively, and which have been surreptitiously added due to eiesegetical overreach, or fear-driven overreaction to cultural trends.
The Role of Laywomen in the Life of the Church (and the Parachurch)
As I argued here, there may be proscriptions against women acting as agents of ecclesial authority within local church contexts, but there are none against their speaking from their positions as fellow citizens and heirs to the church at large. One of the surest ways to rescue the complementarian concept from the edge of the definitional junk pile could be to consider how God tunes the eye, ears and minds of women to experiential frequencies of daily life that that differ from men. Amidst the fervor over not capitulating on women’s God-ordained limits in formal ministry because of their gender, we forget that men in ministry inherently experience gender limitations of their own. Men might wisely set limits for themselves to inoculate their marriages and ministry against the temptations of their own flesh. But beyond the limitations they set, men will experience limits in their ability to minister to the women in their congregation simply because they do not live out the experiences of women, in women’s bodies. Women who have been given the blessing of that experience, and the gifting of the theological aptitude to illuminate it with the light of God’s Word, are no threat to the ministry, but necessary allies in it. That so many churches and parachurch organizations have been weakened or broken by failures in pastoral oversight is not necessarily evidence of a failure of male leadership; it may be symptomatic of how the refusal to receive the spiritual help that the intellectual and theological gifting of women can offer, weakens the church as a whole.
Not all of us are in formal church ministry, with the charge to wrestle with these issues as we shepherd a congregation or denomination. Fewer still are ministerial stewards of parachurch organizations like CBMW. But with the help of the Holy Spirit, all of us can be like the men and women of Berea who not only received the Word with eagerness, but searched daily to make sure what they heard was true. May God give all of us the desire to be faithful with the measure of gifts we have been given, and may He be the one who receives the glory for whatever fruit those gifts bear.