Can’t Believe You Think That

Conferences, conversations, posts and phone calls.

I attended a major international evangelical conference a couple of years ago at which there was a Q &A panel session with three of the leading speakers. The questions generally were on what constitutes an evangelical. I asked the panel to comment on why some bodies were making a complementarian position a condition of evangelical orthodoxy.  I got to ask it just before the end of the allotted time so I wasn’t expecting a nuanced response. Nevertheless I was shocked at the “answer” I did receive: “Yes, there are different views, but complementarianism is the only possible position for a mature Christian and when egalitarians grow up they will change their minds and become complementarians”. The other participants sniggered, implying that he was being a bit tongue in cheek. I didn’t. For three reasons. 1) I wasn’t sure that he was being tongue in cheek; 2) I still didn’t have an answer; and 3) it wasn’t funny.

Similarly, I was at another international gathering some time later – one specifically for academics – and mentioned a certain blog I had found helpful for general apologetics purposes. The guy I was speaking to said “Oh, I try to stay away from his stuff now”. I was surprised since, in my experience, the writer was an extremely lucid thinker and evangelist. When I asked why, wondering if there had been some serious doctrinal shift or loss of faith that I had missed, I was told: “he’s begun to advocate for the ordination of women”. I was amazed. For three reasons. 1) You’re meant to be an academic; do you always stay away from stuff you don’t agree with? 2) What has this got to do with the writer’s competence or helpfulness in the area of apologetics and cultural critique; and 3) is this not a secondary issue?

Then I found myself dipping into a conversation on social media not so long ago. A statement from a well known evangelical church planting organisation had been posted which outlined its stance on not training female church pastors. In context it was an eirenic document which, compared to some complementarian statements like those mentioned above, showed a willingness to engage with those who thought differently and were working in different locations. It also reiterated its commitment to make the Gospel, and not denominational positions, the over-riding factor in their church planting strategy. Nevertheless, because they, in being true to their own convictions, still held to a complementarian stance, what followed was a range of hostile reactions ranging from the ludicrous: “It’s back to flower arranging and tray-bakes” (who has ever advocated drawing the line there!); to the abusive and insulting: “It’s all burkas and babies to them;” or simply: “awful, just awful!” The dominant theme of the whole thread was a naïve and somewhat patronizing “I can’t believe there are still people who think that!”

Experience number four in this personal journey through the depressingly weird world of what passes for popular contemporary theological discussion, came in a conversation with someone who was surprised that I rated a particular preacher because “I’ve heard he doesn’t like women” (which amusingly and ironically was not a comment on this person’s sexuality, but on his complementarian convictions). They were even surprised that I suggested sending a leading female speaker, whose itinerary we were organizing, to have dinner with him. I was shocked that this person’s perception of the pastor’s position would lead them to consider ensuring no women ever met him. (If they really had been concerned about his view of women, one would have thought that the best way to engage would be to allow an extremely capable woman to interact with him!)

I’m not going to the stake over something godly people have disagreed on

Two more. A (much milder) social media conversation where someone honestly expressed their struggle to have open fellowship with other pastors because they knew that these pastors did not support women’s ordination. In the ensuing dialogue, as a number of folks mentioned the secondary nature of this issue, the original poster claimed that for him it was becoming a primary issue.

Then a good friend phoned me some time back and in the conversation said: “I don’t know what you think about the women’s issue but, for me, it is becoming more and more key. I don’t think we can be missionally effective as long as we are being disobedient in this area.” – For him, complementarianism was becoming a primary issue. (For the record, my reply to him was “I have changed my mind on so many secondary issues over the years that I’m not going to the stake over something godly people have disagreed about for centuries.”)

So, if you are reading this hoping to find out what my view is, you will be disappointed.

I have changed my mind – on more than one occasion.

In fact the whole point of this article is precisely that my view isn’t important. Nor should it define me or determine whether you listen to me or not.

Stay Calm and Keep Listening

I think before we even get to debating the finer points of interpretation that eventually decide which side of the fence you come down on, both sides could do with getting a bit of perspective.

As Director of a national parachurch organization, I rejoice in the way, for decades, and together with our global partners in over 160 countries, we have managed to hold together Christians of very different views on secondary matters. Sadly, what we encourage our students to experience in terms of cross-denominational mission and discipleship, is not reflected often in the wider church.

Increasingly, many of us only speak to and listen to those who agree with us. A fascinating article in The Guardian recently showed how Facebook’s filter system was feeding us newsfeeds and views from those who were similar to us. This explains why, for example, I found it difficult to find anyone on my feed who thought Brexit was a good idea – even though I had friends who voted Leave.    Hence the mantra I have heard on both sides of the Complementarian/ Egalitarian debate: “I can’t believe there are Christians who think…”

And so we stereotype those who disagree with us: they are either unbiblical liberals, or neanderthal misogynists. This is lazy, unloving and unbecoming of the church. The interesting thing is that in my home territory of Northern Ireland, in the realm of political cross-community relations, we have seen that the only way to transcend such stereotyping is actually to engage with those who disagree. And yet many seem so unwilling to offer that same amount of respect and patience to fellow evangelicals. “I wouldn’t have her/him near my church” and “I’m fed up listening to them” are just two comments I have recently heard from people on opposite sides of the debate.

 Two recent examples

This is where recovering the important art of respectful theological debate is vital. We have seen this twice recently at a national level. Working for an all-Ireland organisation, I found myself sucked into two major debates on either side of the border. In the Republic we had the marriage referendum, and in the North, the Brexit decision.

we have lost the art of mature debate

David Quinn wrote a frightening piece for the Irish Independent on how people who were going to vote No to same-sex marriage had been brow-beaten and essentially bullied into silence so that many had said “I’m just telling people I’m voting Yes to avoid the hassle of being labelled a homophobe”.

Similarly one northern friend who thankfully did get through my Facebook filter and who gave thoughtful and reasoned answers as to why she voted Leave, explained that she was frightened into silence before the vote, and had to endure person after person referring to anyone who thought like her as xenophobic thickos. As Quinn rightly observed, we have lost the art of mature debate, and the new technology with its unrelational nature and increased cloak of anonymity has only exacerbated the problem.

On taking offence

And so back to the issue in hand. Have we forgotten how to debate maturely?   It frightens me how easily we can shut down debate, or stifle dissent. Assertions are made as to why it’s not a good idea to talk about this – and no-one complains.

In the gay marriage debate – and I’m not equating the issues, just drawing comparisons to the methodology – one organisation said that to even debate the issue was damaging the mental health of gay people. There is nowhere to go from there.

Similarly I have regularly heard it said (and the social media exchange referred to earlier bears this up) that to articulate a complementarian position, however graciously, offends women, opens wounds and causes pain. (Likewise, I have seen egalitarian speakers denied a platform because some in the audience might be offended at their views). Please!

Possible offence cannot become the sole arbiter for public discourse.

“Offence” is being used as the unanswerable objection, the supreme reason to ensure that you never get to hear an alternative viewpoint.

I will be the first to admit that many of us can be unnecessarily offensive in our attitudes and words, but we also need to understand that just because someone is or may be, by their own rules and definitions, ‘offended’ by what we say, gives no indication either of the truth of what was said, or of the wisdom or necessity of saying it. Possible offence cannot become the sole arbiter for public discourse.

A primary issue? Really?

Within the church family this is even more important. There are a host of issues we think differently on. Sometimes those issues concern very important matters. I could, for example, choose to be very offended that Catholics and strict Brethren bar me from the sacrament, that Baptists bar me from membership, or that Charismatics don’t believe I have the fullness of the Spirit. It could be argued in all of those instances that the positions they take somehow diminish me or even call aspects of my relationship with God into question. But I choose not to be offended. Precisely because these are secondary issues and I understand that for me to say “I can’t believe anyone would think like that”, or to ask them to change their views, would be arrogant at best and totalitarian at worst.

for either side in the complementarian debate to imply that this is a primary issue is surely coming dangerously close to adding to the gospel.

For sure, the recent unedifying spat within complementarianism whereby some major spokesmen appear to be allowing their position on this subject to effect primary doctrines such as the Trinity, or for complementarian principles to be extended well outside of the church into an all-encompassing world-view affecting social and vocational roles, is worrying and indefensible. But for either side in the complementarian debate to imply that this is a primary issue is surely coming dangerously close to adding to the gospel. The fact that elements on both sides wish to make it a mark of orthodoxy should alert us to the fact that perhaps neither side’s case is a strong as they think it is.

The fact is, both sides can make their arguments from Scripture. Egalitarians would do well to recognise that the complementarians have the simple meaning of Scripture on their side and that the burden of hermeneutical proof lies with the egalitarians. When the plain meaning of the text lies in a certain direction, cries of “I can’t believe how anyone would think like that” ring a little hollow.

Similarly, complementarians would do well to recognise that egalitarians have (to continue John Stott’s classic categorisations) the harmony of Scripture on their side – a strong hermeneutical case based on the broad sweep of Scripture and outlined by many evangelical scholars. In light of this cries of “just grow up and read the bible’ ring equally hollow.

Beyond the stereotypes

Furthermore, not all complementarians are mysoginistic males. I have come across pastors who have treated their female staff and members with dignity and allowed them to flourish, and egalitarians whose actions far from matched their words on this subject.

Most significantly I have met complementarian females who have been the strongest advocates for that position. On more than one occasion I have had conversations with young women at both congregational and para-church level, trying to persuade them to take on a role for which they were more than able, only for them to decline because they would feel uncomfortable doing it. I had to respect their decision. They weren’t suppressed, they weren’t stupid; they were just highly competent women who didn’t think that this was their job. Before egalitarians make lazy stereotypes about complementarians they need to listen to the voices of these women.

Neither side can lay claim to being the only way to be faithful to Scriptural truth or the only way to grow a church.

Similarly not all egalitarians are wishy washy liberals. I have met many who would take more conservative theological stances than I on other issues. Some are rigorous biblical scholars whose arguments stem from a high view of the authority of Scripture. Complementarians need to listen to these voices. To try to silence them because of their views on this subject is to betray a lack of confidence in one’s own argumentation and to diminish the church.

We would do well to recognize that there are complementarian churches that are missional, contemporary, culturally tuned-in and growing exponentially; and there are churches with female pastors and leaders emptying faster than Old Trafford after a fake bomb scare. Neither side can lay claim to being the only way to be faithful to Scriptural truth or the only way to grow a church.

it would be helpful if we cultivated the emotional intelligence to disagree with respect and the moral courage to develop ongoing relationships with those who think differently

So before we decide on whether Galatians 3:28 has anything to say about roles within the home or church (I don’t believe it has), or whether the instructions in 1st Timothy 2 must be seen as universal trans-cultural imperatives (I don’t believe they must), I think it would be helpful first if we cultivated the emotional intelligence to disagree with respect and the moral courage to develop ongoing relationships with those who think differently on this subject.

Maybe next time before dismissing someone for their views on this subject we would do well to afford them the dignity of having thought about their position, and to dig deeper and ask “what has led them to think this way?” or “can I learn from listening to them?”

Oh, and next time, before you say “I can’t believe we’re still having this debate” remember there are some people with the totally opposite view saying exactly the same thing.



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Irish theologian, Kevin Hargaden

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