Recently I read a string of posts that attempt to update evangelicals on the egalitarian/complementarian debate. As I turned to the most recent post by Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition, it became clear to me that there are plenty of misconceptions and misperceptions flying around. While I have never met Carter in person, I have appreciated his work at First Things and his stand on various issues, and have had several positive email exchanges. With that being said, I think he gets a lot wrong on the nature of the debate and perpetuates common mistakes that seem to be taken for “truisms” by folks. While it is no surprise that he thinks complementarians are winning the debate, even this conclusion rests on misperceptions about the evangelical world.
Let me illustrate what I mean by responding to just three points Carter makes or reiterates from other bloggers.
1. Complementarians are winning on this debate
Carter’s perception of victory, I would suggest, is only true if one examines the Southern Baptist Convention or the Presbyterian Church in America. It does not appear to me that Carter takes into consideration much of the Wesleyan world (BTW, the Wesleyan Church just elected a Jo Anne Lyon to lead it) or the Pentecostal world. This is not to claim, on my part, that all Wesleyans and Pentecostals are egalitarian because they most certainly are not. The theological debate, however, occurs in those circles on very different theological grounds than it does in Baptist and conservative Reformed circles.
Carter exemplifies the kind of tunnel vision that I find in many parts of the evangelical world where the debate is viewed through the prism of one denomination or theological camp. It is no mistake that here at Regent School of Divinity we have around 40% women getting theology degrees. Most of them come from different parts of the evangelical world than Carter is familiar with. They are theologically conservative and yet sense a call to engage in ministry in the church, which leads me to my second misconception.
2. The interpretive “gymnastics” behind affirming egalitarianism will lead one eventually to get the gospel wrong
Based on a statement by John Piper, this claim is now making its way around the complementarian blogosphere. It is similar to the claims made by Piper’s co-defender Wayne Grudem in his book Evangelical Feminism in which Grudem expresses a concern that egalitarian arguments undermine biblical authority and hence lead persons inexorably to theological liberalism. Both Piper’s and Grudem’s assertions are really a version of the slippery-slope argument.
The challenge of such arguments is that they are historical in nature and thus depend upon historical analyses rather than “logical” ones, even though many authors favor the “logical” argument: If you hold position X, you will invariably move to position Y. What counts for “logic” in this case is a secondary claim to internal consistency; something akin to, “the only consistent position is to move from X to Y.”
History, of course, is much messier than this, as Carter, Piper, and other complementarians know. To make a slippery-slope argument is to engage in probabilities. It is more likely that this position will lead to that conclusion. The likelihood increases with the multiplication of historical examples and decreases with a rise in counter examples.
As a slippery-slope argument, the historical claims must factor in a number of contextual issues. Much of the time too much weight is given to one set of cultural factors over another set. The rise in women’s ordination, Grudem argues, corresponded with a move into theological liberalism on the part of mainline Protestantism. Grudem’s analysis, however, rests almost entirely on a sociological study that does not take into account the history of Protestantism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More importantly, his claims cannot account for the historical fact that Pentecostals were ordaining women from the beginning of the 1900s.
Let me make two quick applications:
One could apply Piper’s claim to cessationists like Richard Gaffin. Just a quick perusal of his arguments for why the charismatic gifts have ceased reveals how adept he is at the same kind of interpretive gymnastics. He moves so swiftly from a Reformed covenantal framework to viewing “foundation of the apostles and prophets” as connected to a redemptive-historical event to the conclusions that the gifts were for the foundational period that one cannot help but stand in awe at the backflips and dismounts in the service of a theological agenda. So, why isn’t Piper making the same claim about Gaffin? The answer is that Gaffin’s other theological commitments show that he is still within “normal” parameters of orthodox evangelicalism.
A second, deeply ironic, example is Grudem’s admission that Pentecostals like Jack Hayford embrace women in leadership positions and yet have remained within acceptable parameters. In other words, he knows that there are counter examples to his argument and yet he insists on expressing his genuine concern of a slide into liberalism.
So, with as much reservation as I can muster at this point, the long embrace of cessationism by dispensationalists and certain streams of Reformed theology going back to Calvin suggests that I could easily turn Carter’s claim that “evangelicals can always find an authority who will provide them with an authoritative justification for shirking authority” on its head. Is Calvin equal to scripture? Is he not an authority for Reformed folks?
The answer to how persons “get the gospel wrong” turns out to be quite complication indeed. So, let’s stop perpetuating these misconceptions about slippery slopes.
3. Egalitarianism represents a capitulation to the culture while complementarianism is counter-cultural
Carter claims that Rachel Evans’ functional egalitarianism “models our culture’s obsession with autonomy and disdain for authority,” while also claiming that patriarchy is counter cultural. In his rush to suggest that Evans does not understand the complementarian position, he fails to see the more subtle point that both positions are influenced by the culture and both are counter cultural.
The challenge of the complementarian position is to identify clearly what male headship actually means in practice. There is no New Testament example of husband/wife relations in the home. Does male headship mean that the husband makes all decisions? Does it mean that the husband must sign off on all decisions? Does it mean that the husband must initiate everything? Does it mean that the husband must be in charge of every family event? It is precisely in answering these questions, which every couple must do, that the culture encroaches upon the Christian home. At minimum, Carter must admit that complementarianism in the past has meant (and still means) culturally accommodated Christianity as the larger culture continues to define gender roles.
This post is now getting too long, but I plan to continue to post on this issue in the near future. Stay tuned!