A Stupid Question

6 September 2022

Can a woman be a pastor? Back in the day when we were formulating a response to second-wave (and early third-wave) feminism, that question was the practical dividing line within the evangelical world.

It was a heady time: suburban megachurches were growing, and even though the far majority of churches were not remotely that big, most churches and pastors looked to the megachurches for leadership. We were paying a lot of attention to leadership, org charts, and such things in those days, so it was only natural to formulate the questions around the church org chart. Which genders can hold which positions? You define the duties for a particular box on the chart, define the skills and attributes that go with those duties, and then put out a call for resumes.  

So in that setting, the question everyone wanted an answer to was, “Can a woman serve as a pastor?” One group said no: men and women have complementary responsibilities in the church, and serving as the pastor is a man’s job. Another group said yes: men and women have equal responsibilities in the church. This is where our two terms (complementarianism and egalitarianism) came from – two different answers to a question about a church org chart. 

But it’s a stupid question. The office of pastor as generally practiced in the American church has no New Testament precedent whatsoever. It doesn’t exist. The right question is not “Can a woman have that job?” The right question is “Should anyone should have that job?


Not Automatic

2 August 2022

In conversation with a young female friend about how the church handles conversations on modesty, we stumbled on something interesting.

Men need female attention; women need male attention. “Need” is actually the right word here — God made us for relationship, and we actually do need each other. When a young woman’s father has not been doing his job well, and she then she hits puberty, that’s a recipe for disaster. Suddenly, she’s getting male attention she never got before. It feels like water in the desert, and it doesn’t take her long to figure out how to dress to get more of that sort of attention.

Now, normally in the church, we want to say something to her like “You don’t need to do that.” Here’s the thing: for a lot of these girls, that’s just not true.

If she’s been neglected by her father and the other men in her life, if no one has taken the time to nurture her talents and abilities, then her legitimate needs have gone unmet. She’s spent her whole life hungry for male attention. The only reason she’s getting it now is her body, and she knows it. Of course, in the abstract it’s certainly true that a young woman could get a better class of attention through musical talent, intellectual prowess, writing well, athletic achievement, and countless other ways. But the thing is, none of those things come automatically, and if no one has taken the time to nurture her talents, then not only does she lack those skills, she doesn’t know how to develop them. Meanwhile — pardon me putting it crudely — she got her hips and her boobs for free, and that’s getting her the attention she never got before.

In her experience, she does need to flaunt her body. As far as she knows, that’s all she’s got.

If we know better — and we do! — then the path forward is not to shame her for using what she’s got. Scolding that girl about her necklines is not going to get her where she needs to go. We know that she’s handcrafted in the image of God, shaped with God’s purposes in mind. Even if nobody knows what her talents are, we know they’re in there. What if we just decline to notice her neckline, look her in the eye, and focus our attention on her talents, her achievements, her growth as a human being? Maybe, if we can give her a better class of attention focused in the right direction, she’ll find she likes that attention better. We aren’t likely to succeed at getting her to give up the wrong kind of attention if we offer nothing in return.


Who’s in the Tent?

26 July 2022

In the story of Deborah, the job to be done is to defeat the Syrians. There’s a point in the story where we consider the question of who would be the best person for the job. Deborah (speaking for God) wants Barak to go out and do it; he’s the one. Barak says he’ll only go if she comes with him; she replies that she’ll do that if he wants, but the glory of the victory will not be his if he doesn’t rise to the challenge on his own. 

So Deborah goes, Israel wins the battle, and Sisera, the Syrian commander, flees the field looking for a place to hide. He comes upon the encampment of Heber the Kenite. At this point in the story, it no longer matters who the ideal person for the job would be. The only question that matters now is, “Who’s in the tent?”

There are church situations where you have the luxury of defining the attributes for the ideal candidate for whatever the job is, and then sifting through applications looking for the right mix of talents and experience for that particular slot on your org chart. That’s a thing that can happen. But far more often, we find ourselves at a decision point, and the only question that really matters is, “Who’s in the tent?”


Sinning in All Directions

14 September 2021

In conversations about the church’s characteristic sins, I’ve noticed something really interesting. When I talk about the church’s characteristic sins against men, I inevitably get an earful of “Are you kidding? Have you seen what the church does to women?” — the vibe being that the sins against men aren’t really even worth talking about compared to what the church routinely does to women. I’ve also noticed that when I talk about the church’s characteristic sins against women, a smaller but very vocal number of people — mostly single or divorced men — respond in the same fashion: “Are you kidding? Have you seen what the church does to men?”

For some reason we seem to have bought into the idea that the church has to be sinning against men OR women; it couldn’t possibly be doing both. What are we thinking?

What drives this dynamic is the neomarxist class warfare paradigm, which is so deeply entrenched in our culture that even Christians have trouble shaking it — even though, on paper at least, we definitely know better. The neomarxist paradigm provides a handy template for any situation where there’s oppression. If there is oppression against one class (in this case, one sex), then the other class is the “oppressor” class. One has to be on the bottom, and the other on the top; one good guy, one bad guy. It’s a very simplistic way to view the world, a template suited to old Lone Ranger serials for kids. Even in our fiction (say, Avengers: Civil War) we know better than that — to say nothing of the complexities of real life.

In the real world, any single human being is more than capable of sinning in all directions at once. The Church is made up of many, many such humans, and say what you will about her, she’s an able multitasker. She is certainly capable of sinning in all directions at once, and of sinning against multiple different classes in different ways that are specifically injurious to that group.

That has certainly happened, has it not? The Church has treated women, as women, infamously in certain readily identifiable ways. The Church has also treated men, as men, infamously in other readily identifiable ways. We need to repent for ALL of it, and we won’t grow, any of us, by trying to out-victim each other, by minimizing the sins against another group in order to get some attention for our own group.

And lest we forget…WE ARE THE CHURCH. There’s nowhere else to point the finger — it’s us, it’s our people. We are the household of God, and we need to get things in order. So let’s own our failures, repent, and find a better way together.


Not Talking Past

26 November 2019

I first encountered the egalitarianism/complementarianism discussion when I was in college. I’ve been away from the conversation for nearly 20 years–having way too much fun enjoying my rich relationships to waste time theorizing about them–but of late it’s come up again. Naturally I have many friends who call themselves feminists, others who don’t prefer that label but will cop to ‘egalitarian,’ and a stolid few who know what a complementarian is, and admit to being one.

I’ve noticed that in these complementarian/egalitarian/feminist conversations — as is common with any highly charged issue — the two (or more) sides are regularly talking past each other. Here are a few key starting points that I’ve found to be helpful.

1. Ask “Was Paul right to give that instruction to that particular audience in that particular time and place, or was he wrong?” This question accomplishes two purposes. The first is to tell you what sort of discussion you are in. The “Paul was right, but he wasn’t speaking to our culture” conversation and the “Paul was wrong” conversation are two entirely different discussions. The former is an exegetical and pastoral conversation among Christians. The latter is an apologetic conversation between Christians and moderns who happen to take inspiration from parts of the Bible — entirely different religions, as Machen pointed out a while back. In the latter case, it’s a much wider discussion about epistemology and authority — there’s really not much sense in talking about the specifics of Ephesians 5 until the more foundational issues are settled.
The second purpose of this question is to regulate the exegetical conversation. Many (not all) proposed schemes for understanding the passages under discussion would imply that Paul made a mistake, if the principles were applied consistently (not that they will be…yet). If we are seeking to obey the Scriptures, rather than simply avoid parts of them that we don’t like, then it’s not enough to propose an interpretation/application that yields the results we’re hoping for, like medical researchers that work for tobacco companies. For the proposal to be viable, it has to address what we should be doing now, but it also has to account for what Paul told the original recipients to do then. (For example, a number of complementarian schemes for evading uncomfortable applications like head coverings fail to meet this standard.)

2. If you’re in an exegetical/pastoral discussion, talk about a specific passage, not about “those passages.” When we lump passages from 1 Timothy, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians and other books together, we are assuming that they all have the same basic things going on exegetically. That is a conclusion to be demonstrated, not a bit of groundwork to be assumed. Papering over the differences between specific books, passages and audiences is no way to exegete. Deal with the specifics of each passage; “those passages” may have less in common than you think. Or more—but you don’t find that out by assuming.

3. Meet serious exegetical discussion with serious exegetical discussion, and rhetorical tricks with rhetorical tricks. A serious wrestling with the application of that rough passage in 1 Timothy should be treated with respect. An attempt to dodge the Son’s submission to the Father through appeals to the immanent vs. economic trinity ought to be met with a proposal of immanent vs. economic gender relations. Likewise, a serious consideration of how to map NT categories onto present-day pastoral ordination (which has no obvious NT parallel) is well worth discussing, but a knee-jerk rejection of ordaining women under any circumstances ought to be met with a challenge to demonstrate that we should ordain anyone to the position of pastor, as we presently define it. There’s not much point being serious with people who refuse to be serious…might as well have some fun.