Earlier this week, Rachel Held Evans tweeted her disapproval of the lack of female speakers at The Nines conference. Blogs and tweets erupted in protest, either against Evans or against The Nines conference planners.
Jonathan Merritt followed up with a provocative blog – “Are Christian Conferences Sexist?”, in which he denies that conferences are “downright sexist,” while implying they are at least in some measure discriminatory. I took issue with the logic of the blog post by wondering out loud whether Jesus would pass egalitarian standards, considering the fact his twelve apostles were male. That tweet provoked a lot of responses, some helpful, some not so much. (Also a lot of name-calling that surprised me. Just take a look at the mentions to me on Twitter in the past 24 hours!)
There are two issues surrounding this little dust-up that I find interesting.
Do Egalitarians Live Up to Their Convictions?
First, I think it is disingenuous for Jonathan Merritt to critique complementarian pastors’ conferences (where the majority believe the senior pastor role is reserved for men) for not having female speakers. That’s a little like critiquing a charismatic conference for not having a cessationist representative.
Moving beyond that issue, however, is a good point made by Merritt and Evans: many of these conferences claim to be egalitarian in their convictions. In other words, the planners have no trouble with women in pastoral leadership roles, and yet their convictions are not reflected in their choice of conference speakers.
Along these lines, a research project almost ten years ago showed that even though the moderate wing that split off the Southern Baptist Convention (the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship) affirmed women in pastoral roles, startling low numbers of these CBF-affiliated churches actually had women pastors.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons Evans and other egalitarians are frustrated. More evangelicals seem ready to affirm women’s ordination, but this affirmation is not often reflected in conferences (or churches).
Why is this the case? Why do many evangelicals affirm an egalitarian viewpoint and yet consistently prioritize male leadership?
Appealing to the Calendar
There is a second issue that I find frustrating, and it’s why I rarely engage in the complementarian / egalitarian debates. It seems like there is a profound inability to engage in a civil conversation over women’s ordination. Perhaps I am expecting too much from a medium where one is limited to 140 characters. Even so, I’m taken aback by the lines of argumentation regarding this issue.
Part of the problem is framing the discussion around “rights” and “progress.” For example, Merritt speaks of evangelicals making “great strides” on the issue of women’s ordination, and utilizes the language of “crossing the Rubicon.” This is the kind of argument from “progress” that appeals to a calendar, not to Scripture. “This is a new day!” is not an argument for women’s ordination. And screaming “sexist!” at all conservative Southern Baptist churches (as did many who responded to my tweet) is probably not going to change anyone’s mind.
Progress is a powerful myth in our day, and it often carries emotional weight if not logical persuasiveness. Being “progressive” is trendy and forward-looking. Being “traditional” is seen as backwards or stuck-in-the-mud. In a society that values novelty, people generally want to be on the side of “progress,” whatever that may be.
The problem, of course, is that progressive churches have this curious tendency of progressing themselves right out of existence.
That’s why it is deeply ironic that a small subset of shrinking Western churches would label the rest of world Christianity as “sexist” for not getting with the egalitarian program. Progressives are all about casting off the chains of imperialistic Western-centeredness, until there is a clash against our Western assumptions of progress. Then, we dig in our heels.
Please Appeal to Scripture
If you want to make a case for women’s ordination, please do so by appealing to Scripture, not to a “trajectory” where you can smuggle in all sorts of contemporary assumptions and, in the end, steer the Scriptures into a convenient alliance with modern society. Ironically, it’s a supporter of women’s ordination who makes this point well, N. T. Wright:
The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat. What is more, the Church’s foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history.
Along these lines, here are three short eBooks that feature authors with a high view of Scripture, who do serious engagement with the biblical text and refrain from making arguments based on Enlightenment assumptions:
- Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons by John Dickson.
- Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry by Michael Bird.
- Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry by Kathy Keller.
If you want to get deeper into the discussion, I recommend reading both of these books: