Complimentarianism and Egalitarianism both require proof-texting to make their points, reading their own ideas back into the text whose writers would not recognize them. Both sides fail to address the proof-text for the others arguments and so a stalemate ensues and the church remains divided.
Jonathan David Faulkner
As a budding Historian of the Church in America in the 19th Century I get to study all the various debates that raged through that century. I also get to study the origins of those debates either in the enlightenment or in eighteenth century revivalism. Wrapped up in the radical individualism of western culture they end up dividing and splitting the church into fragments. Instead of engaging other ideas, writers would just dismiss the argument and attack the person making the argument. This was the case in the debate between Jonathan Edwards and Charles Chauncy during the First Great Awakening and between Charles Finney and Charles Hodge during the second. Or in the debate between Mercersburg and Princeton, though the Mercersburg Theologians do a better job than most actually addressing their opponent’s arguments theologically rather than just tossing insults back and forth. John Williamson Nevin understood that personal opinion and preferences were no basis for an entire theological system. Adam S. Borneman in his book “Church, Sacrament and American Culture” notes that: “Nevin was not anti-individual. Proper reason and proper religion, however, only took place when the individual submitted their own subjective reason to universal, objective reason. Private judgment, if it remained private, was not sound judgment. In order for it to be rational and accurate in its interpretation of the outside world, it was necessary for such judgment to show “itself to be truly general.” In other words, there was room for opinions within the Church, but those opinions should not be the basis for private, individual theologies that you then chose to associate only with like minded individuals. To both Nevin and Schaff Party Spirit was a worst enemy to the church than Roman Catholicism, a point I agree with them on. The result of all these debates, and what is still true today, is that both sides present railroad arguments that either dehumanize their opponents or make them into some identarian boogeyman. Like the gentlemen who said to me once in a theological forum concerning the interpretation of 1st Timothy 2&3. When confronted with Gordon Fee’s insistence that you cannot interpret 2$3 outside of chapter 1 and the cultural issues going on at Ephesus, he said: “Fee is tainted by Feminism, we cannot listen to him.” Fee, one of the preeminent biblical scholars of our time and likely one of the more conservative, was dismissed because of the boogeyman of feminism. In our 21st century context we are still inundated with the debates like this, we still practice party-spirit.
Here is the thing though, if you look at the basis for most of these debates, they center around one or two and sometimes three passages that rely only on a plain reading of the English text without any critical thought. Basically, these opinions get blown up into essential doctrines based on building an entire philosophical framework based on dealing with a text in a complete vacuum, wrestling it away from its cultural, literary, historical backgrounds and at the expense of the consideration of the full biblical council about the topic at hand. Some translators, like in the case of the ESV’s, have even admitted to making lexical decisions on difficult passages based on their preferred theological framework. This approach to scripture is dishonest, but at least consistent with the dictates of both modernism and fundamentalism (another debate from the 20th century). Reject the full council of scripture in favor of a personal opinion that is built on one passage that in the Greek is actually not as black and white as the English text makes it. The result is that we come to the philosophical system before we come to the truth of scripture and then we pigeonhole the text into that philosophical system. Thus we create a culture of proof-texting based on nothing more than two or three texts (sometimes only one) in the English rendering and claim those opinions are infallible. As I said in last week’s article, we love to read those opinions uncritically back into the text, the fallacy of Presentism.
The most hot-button issue where this happens is in the debate between complementarianism and egalitarian debates of the 20th and now 21st century. Both systems can trace their roots back to the nineteenth century and both sides practice this kind of proof-texting to make their point. Complementarians love 1st Timothy 2:11-15 and 3:1-13 with Titus 1:5 and a passage in Corinthians as the basis for their arguments and Egalitarians love to use passages like Romans 16:1-8, Matthew 28:1-15, and passages in Acts to make their point. Both are convinced they are right, both are built on proof-texting, both refuses to answer questions asked by the other. The closest thing to reconciliation between the two parties is Gordon Fee’s “Complementarian without hierarchy” but even this falls short because like the other two it requires proof texting and a though slightly larger, limited view of scripture. I have even heard it said that: “The Bible preaches complementarianism/egalitarianism” and absurd claim because scripture knows nothing of either philosophy and does not serve the purpose of preaching to anything other than Jesus Christ and His saving work through his death and resurrection for the Glory of God. Being first an ABC and then a CCCC Pastor I have had to study this issue in depth, I minister regularly with both men and women and associate with churches that have women pastors, women deacons, women Elders and so on and so forth. The second-highest ranking person on my denominations board is a woman and when we were securing the Board for 10:31 we explored thoroughly the debate and the scriptures associated with both sides. I also attended seminary with extremely qualified women who know the scriptures better than many men I know. The Pricilla’s to our Aquilla’s if you will. Because of this I have worked hard to study both the book of 1st Timothy and the role of women in the early church. I have talked to scholars on both sides of this debate and delved as deep as possible into the ancient world of Ephesus to learn what was really happening in the Ephesian Church that Paul might do a basic reset of the church. Because of this I have concluded through thorough study and teaching on this subject, just a few things. 1. It is dishonest to interpret 1st Timothy 2&3 in a vacuum that neglects chapter 1 and dishonest to deal with any passage in that way, 2. That there is a very specific cultural reason Paul gives for his words in those two passages and that has to be considered. 3. Women were not exceptions within the leadership of the Early Church, but regularly worked alongside men as Deacons and Elders, with even one serving as an Apostle. And 4. Both sides of the debate are wrong because they are predicated on proof-texting and ignore sound biblical theology making systematic theology impossible, doing damage to the text, dividing the Church into factions, are based not in the texts themselves but man made philosophy and have been used to justify all kind of heresy and mistreatment of others.
Now, I am not saying there no room for dissent on this issue, but if we cannot disagree without being disagreeable, to use a phrase from one of my mentors, then we have already failed. There is also a deep hypocrisy behind telling someone that the English text says: “Husband of one wife” while you yell at them and berate and threaten them to put you in violation of the rest of the text as a church leader. In that moment you cease to be “Above reproach” or “Sober-Minded” and you certainly are not in good standing with all the people. This again is the problem with this type of hunt and peck individualistic theology, apply what you want and leave the rest, even if what you apply makes you a hypocrite in another area.
So, what do we do with these ideas? It is important to remember that the world the bible was written into know nothing of these ideas. For complementarians then, I want you to consider passages like Romans 16. The text is clear there that Pheobe was a Deacon or Minister in the Church in Conchrene and that Junia (not junias, no self-respecting Roman would name their son after a goddess), who was “Premiant/well-known among the apostles.” Or Pricillia and Aquilla who were foundational for the founding of the Church in Corinth and who the ordering of the way in which they are addressed would imply Pricilla had some greater role in the church than her husband. They are even credited with having taught Apollos. They should also consider later evidence of women serving in the church such as John Chryssosotem who refers to his older sister Matilda as “The Teacher.” Consider that the book of 1st Timothy is not as black and white in the original Greek as many would like to make it, that there is actually ambiguity and confusion to this day among translators and scholars because the language is not as cut and dry as our English text makes it. It is possible Paul built this ambiguity in chapter 3 on purpose so that once the women learned quietly as the Jewish School boys and Catechumens were required to do they could lead again, in short, once their witnesses were restored, following how they had been destroyed by participating in the Cult of Artemis and the eve cult that may have been present because of it, and they knew the scriptures well, they could minister again. If the historical data we are starting to learn more about yearly is what happened, then we must consider it in interpreting the text. One might even look up N.T Wright’s arguments on this point and his translation of the passage which brings out the cultural nuances of the words used in 2:11-15. This is not a rewriting of scripture, but a translation that is built upon a deeper understanding of how the culture of that time would have interpreted the words. Also consider the implication of Jesus first instructions after raising from the dead was to instruct the women to literally preach and proclaim his resurrection to His brothers. Apply the same criterion for interpreting these passages in Ephesians that get used for this argument as well.
To Egalitarians, consider the texts in 1st Timothy, that there are standards for those who serve within the rank and file of God’s family. And those standards mean that not just anyone can teach and lead within the Church. There must be a standard and that standard cannot be built on man-made agendas, philosophy and criterion but on the Word of God. There is nothing wrong with desiring leadership within the church, as we have seen there is lots of biblical precedence, but that leadership comes with a requirement that starts with “Above Reproach” and includes being able to rightly divide the word of truth. The pastoral calling is a high one and it has been disgraced by too many preachers both men and women who have failed to maintain the integrity of the office and the integrity of biblical interpretation. One should not enter this calling lightly and those who do should consider both the internal and external call of God to make sure this is what God is calling them too. If we all did this there would be a lot less of us in the calling today. Women and Men both called to the ministry must be students of the Word of God and learn all they can about it if they are going to teach it. They must guard against dealing with a text in a vacuum and seek to become good and solid biblical theologians before they are good and solid Systematic Theologians.
Neither side then should ever Lord it over the other and demand the other should shut-up or “go home.” That is neither respectful nor consistent with how the Bible teaches we are to interact with one another as Brothers and Sisters. Instead, each side should mutually submit to the other, making allowances for the others viewpoint and considering the others arguments and doing so in a manner that does not cause further division, oppress the other or harm the advance of the Gospel. Too much of our discourse from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries are marked by this kind of toxic sectarian discourse that we are now carrying forward into the 21st century. In doing so we have continued to do damage to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and hinder its spread because Christians have lived and acted offensively in the name of the Gospel. The message we bear is offensive enough in our hyper-individualistic society, it ill-behooves us to live in such a way that is a stench as well. The early Church lived a life that was attractive to the outsider and they had favor with all the people (Acts 2:47), knowing how offensive their message was. Yet the way they lived attracted people from the lowest and highest strata of society and made them a family defined as members, one to another (1 Corinthians 3:1-3, 12:14=26). Both sides of this issues should work to “Maintain the bond of peace and the spirit of unity” (Ephesians 4:1-5) which means we cannot angrily shout each other down and work hard to eviscerate the other in comment sections.
Finally, let me address you from the other side of my calling, the pastoral side, not as a Church Historian who studies these debates, but as an under shepherd of the Christ. Through the Holy Spirit you are Brothers and Sisters, Heirs and Co-Hers with one another and with Christ. You are not individuals existing in a vacuum, the way you act, the way you treat one another in debates like this reflect the attitudes of your heart towards you brothers and sisters and have consequences and affects on your brothers and sisters. I have been deeply, deeply hurt by brothers and sisters on both sides of this debate because in their mind this is an essential issue. But no theological or philosophical position, held corporately or individually should ever be held over your brother or sister in Christ in a manner that denies them the love of Christ, the compassion of the Body or the dignity they inhabit by being made in the image of God. There is a time and place to contend for biblical orthodoxy but that orthodoxy cannot be divorced from orthopraxy and must be rooted in the full council of the authoritative Word of God, Holy Scripture, Old and New Testament, Genesis to Revelation, not the ideologies, philosophies or opinions of man. This requires us to lay aside our confirmation biases and approach one another with a spirit of listening and understanding. We must work to be biblical peace makers, not body dividers.
Consider too that we are entering a cultural moment in the South and Midwest that the East and West Coast churches have already experienced and had to respond to. One where we no longer have the luxury of these debates, when we will need all hands-on deck and devoted to Holy Scripture if we are going to survive it with our distinct Christian Identity, rooted in scripture, intact. Those who have doubled down on these positions on both sides, have made fools of themselves and made fools of the church in the public square. We are no longer in a place where we can afford our comfort and those churches which want to maintain the status quo of American Individualism and theologies based on individual opinion and built on two or three verses of scripture are dying and will die. If Jesus were walking among us today would he look at us who claim to be His children and say: “You wicked and unbelieving generation, how long must I endure you” (Matthew 17:17) or will we all hear: “Well done my good and faithful servant.” As much as many of us would like to hear the latter, I fear it will be the former that we would hear. Our hope is not in man, its not in rooted in Western Individualism or modern Western philosophy or any construct of Man, but on Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior and the Gospel which He has left us. The only way to restore the Church in America is through a return to the Holy Word of God and a rejection of the man-made ideas that are causing our death.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.