Ladies, Truth, and Tables

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.

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11 thoughts on “Ladies, Truth, and Tables

  1. Hi Rachel, here’s a post by Nate Sparks which you might like to read and include in this discussion. I’ve put two comments on Nate’s post. In the second comment (still in moderation) I say that unlike Nate, I don’t think suggest female ordination. But I do think there are some grave doctrinal errors in complementarianism it is largely taught and practiced at the moment.

    https://natesparks130.com/2017/04/03/injustice-ignored-an-open-letter-to-the-gospel-coalition/

    And btw, I’m yet to read all of your post, so won’t comment on it till I’ve read it all. 🙂

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  2. thank you for engaging with this so well. I’m stuck in my response to the action alert email I received from the Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals calling for negative action against the women involved within their own churches. I didn’t have time to investigate further, but between the wording used in the post and other things I’ve heard Pruitt say on Mortification of Spin, I couldn’t take it anymore and unsubscribed with a charge of misogyny. Probably overly harsh, but I’m getting sick of the junk on gender coming from a lot of the male reformed contingent. When using voices of power that carry, we as Christians should not be propping up our own power.

    I’m working/praying on the forgiveness thing. :-/

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    1. TR, I appreciate what you said here. I haven’t yet decided to unsubscribe from Mortification of Spin, because I really am interested in what Aimee Byrd has to say… and I’m watching and wondering how the relationship between her and Pruitt and Trueman may end up. I believe Aimee is far more aware of the gender problems in the church than Todd Pruitt and Carl Trueman are.

      Thanks for protesting about the misogyny in the church!

      May I ask, are you a man or a woman? (I’m just curious, given your view of the misogyny issue.)

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  3. I have listened to the podcast. Beyond the frank references to the anatomical differences between men and women, I couldn’t lay my finger on anything in the discussion that was essentially different than what has already been said by women such as Wendy Alsup and Aimee Byrd. As for those frank references, I think that is due to cultural differences in what we feel is appropriate to talk about. It is interesting that the women on the podcast noted the cultural difference between women of European and African origin, as I have observed the same thing.

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  4. “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.”
    That remains to be seen. The others have been remarkably silent. I have no doubt the women at TT are delightful, Godly women in real life. The podcast, though, has shone a light on a significant Ideological conflict between progressives and conservatives.
    I’m sure I would love Michelle as a person and a sister, — but how does a women whose denomination supports her in earning her MDIV, supports her serving as a full time Worship Ministry Leader, and has given her the director lead position over their MNA conference events — how does that woman come to decry “toxic patriarchy” and claim that the church is full of misogyny.
    I’m sorry, but that’s just not logical. That statement does not diminish how I feel about Michelle or the other women. I sincerely believe they are godly, gifted sisters.
    It’s the broken, progressive theology that they’ve been exposed to and embraced that needs checking. Thank you for listening. God bless.

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    1. Hi Rebecca G., I’m not sure what you mean by ‘broken, progressive theology’ and what things in the Gender Apartheid podcast you perceived as ‘broken, progressive theology’. Can you please explain? Thanks!

      And you asked: “How does a women whose denomination supports her in earning her MDIV, supports her serving as a full time Worship Ministry Leader, and has given her the director lead position over their MNA conference events — how does that woman come to decry “toxic patriarchy” and claim that the church is full of misogyny.”

      FIrstly, how do we know that Michelle’s denomination SUPPORTED her in earning her MDIV?
      Secondly, I have no difficulty believing that a woman who serves her church as full time Worship Ministry Leader, and who has been given to the director lead position over their MNA conference events, can still be aware of toxic patriarchy and misogyny in the church, and be actively calling it out.

      Yes, she has been given some leadership positions. But why is that the big issue?Why is that the ‘proof’ that misogyny isn’t widespread in the church? I’m pretty confident that she sees misogyny being prevalent in the church not just in how it may have affected herself and her career and the recognition the church may have given to her own gifts and capacities for leadership. I’m confident she would be seeing misogyny in the church as it works on many women… not just as it may have affected her personally.

      Furthermore, in her leadership roles she may well have been privy to ‘back-room’ conversations among other leaders that demonstrated misogynist mindsets and presuppositions.

      Why am I confident of this? Because I hear about and observe a LOT of misogyny in the conservative evangelical church, and most especially in CBMW and TGC and Reformed circles. I co-lead the blog A Cry For Justice and we hear all the time from women who are victims of domestic abuse who have been further mistreated by the leadership in their churches when they reported the abuse and/or when they left or divorced their abusers.

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    2. Yes, so far the other women who are part of the ‘loose cohort’ Rachael Starke refers to have, it seems, been silent. But there are reasons for this.

      I believe Aimee Byrd is doing the rounds in various places promoting her latest book. And I think Wendy Alsup has been in the middle of launching her new book. Rachel Miller is probably busy (as she always is) with the many and varied things she does—her own blog, helping compile the Aquila Report, etc). And some of the women in the ‘cohort’ may be unwell. Plus, I think apart from me (and I’m not even sure Rachel Starke includes me in that ‘cohort”) are working at their paid jobs plus also being wives and mothers….

      I’m blessed in having the ability to follow discussions like this and contribute to them, because I don’t have parenting responsibilities any more and I do not have to attend to a husband (I’m divorced) and I don’t have to work to earn money either.

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  5. Hi Rachel Starke, thanks for this post! It’s a good contribution to the ongoing debate, and I appreciate the way you listed the various topics which have been raised that relate to the issue of gender in the church.

    If I may, I’ll give some links to articles I’ve written which deal with some of these topics. If you don’t want to publish my links, I will respect your call — it’s your blog!

    — Genesis 1 through 3, imago Dei, and its expressions in maleness and femaleness:

    https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2016/04/15/what-is-the-womans-desire-how-susan-fohs-interpretation-of-genesis-316-fed-steroids-to-abusers-pt-1-of-2/

    https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2016/09/14/the-change-of-genesis-316-ess-the-colonial-code-of-relationship-and-a-call-to-bystanders/

    — Differing convictions on the nature of the relationship between the members of the Trinity (ESS/EFS) and how those convictions influence understandings of gender (male as ‘head’ … female submission).

    https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2017/03/12/complementarity-without-subordination-what-does-it-look-like/

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  6. Rachael noted that one of the topics which the small village of women have been raising is “Marriage as an expression of the gospel, vs. as the expression of the gospel”/

    May I suggest you rephrase that a bit, Rachael? The phrase I see used a lot is not “marriage as an expression of the gospel,” but “marriage as an ILLUSTRATION or DISPLAY of the gospel”. I know that may sound like only an insignificant difference, but in practice it is not insignificant, especially when this phrase is used to victims of spousal abuse. Let me explain:

    John Piper has taught that The Chief Purpose of Marriage is to Display the Covenant Keeping Love of God for the Church. This idea has been disseminated and taken up very widely in the evangelical church. Many people think that it is taken straight from the Bible. But this idea is false and it greatly hurts victims of spousal abuse because they get told “You must not divorce your spouse! If you divorce you will not be displaying to the watching secular world the covenant keeping love of God for the Church. You will be betraying the gospel.”

    This heavy message unfairly puts guilt and fear into victims of abuse. It pressures them into staying with their abusers. And thus it prolongs and compounds the suffering of victims of domestic abuse.

    The purpose of marriage is not to ‘illustrate’ the covenant keeping love of God for the church. The purpose of marriage is what is said in the old Anglican Marriage Service — which most of us know almost word for word if we’ve watched or read Pride and Prejudice:

    First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

    Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.

    Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined. Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.
    (source: http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/compraym.html )

    Furthermore, Ephesians 5 only employs the analogy of Christ’s love for the church when urging HUSBANDS to love their wives with the same kind of self-sacrificing love which Christ showed to His people. Ephesians 5 does not urge wives that way, it’s an analogy which is only directed at husbands.

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  7. FYI: The most recent update to the bibliography you link is on Books at a Glance at http://www.booksataglance.com/blog/twenty-seventh-updated-edition-trinity-debate-bibliography/ [accessed 17 APR 2017]. The link you provide in your 4th paragraph above is to the first edition of the bibliography posted 18 JUL 2016. It was updated weekly since then until earlier this year when we went to monthly updates due to less “traffic” on the issue.

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