Complementarians like me see egalitarians as reading the Bible under the shadow of the Enlightenment. Their notion of equality is not value-free, or intuitively obvious, or true at some pre-critical presuppositional level. It is a view of equality that was articulated in the Enlightenment as part of that movement’s attack on Christianity. So for the complementarian there is a close relationship between egalitarianism and theological liberalism: not all egalitarians are liberals; but almost all liberals are egalitarians; and both read the Bible in light of convictions that lie at the heart of the modern liberal-democratic state. For both movements, culture and modern reason define all the key terms, and the Bible is then understood in light of that first step made by culture. God isn’t just a Westerner and a convinced democrat, he is an ideal example—the kind of guy any Western cultural liberal would be proud to know; the very model of a modern major general writ large.
From a complementarian perspective, as the last 40 years have played out, people and institutions who accept women’s ordination usually also adopt egalitarianism. And those (individuals and institutions) who adopt egalitarianism usually move increasingly over time in a more liberal direction. So complementarians see women’s ordination as giving birth to egalitarianism, and egalitarianism when it is fully grown giving birth to liberalism.
In other words, proponents of women’s ordination see their opponents as immoral and ungodly, opposing the new way that the gospel opens up for human communities. Opponents of women’s ordination see those pushing for the innovation as captured by the wisdom of the world—adopting as true one of the points of our society’s beliefs that is opposed to the truth of God, and so over time losing their grip on the word of God and the gospel altogether. It is no wonder that this debate generates so much heat.
Both sides see that this is not a ‘food sacrificed to idols’ issue, where the ‘strong’ can make allowances for the ‘weak’. (Or, at least, both sides see that this issue doesn’t work that way for their side. It’s surprising how often people think the ones on the other side should respect the conscience of those who disagree and restrain from acting on their convictions.) For both sides, this is an issue of submission to word of God—either given through Scripture, or given through Scripture as read by a modern moral intuition. One side believes that the gospel requires women to have authority over men on an even footing with men having authority over women. The other side believes that Scripture forbids women to have authority over men.
And behind that disagreement in how affairs in the household of God should be organized are fundamentally opposed understandings of the nature of God, Christ, salvation, human nature, sin, authority, love, equality and even eschatology. (This is something, it should be said, that egalitarians tend to be more aware of than complementarians. Complementarians often limit the debate to the authority of Scripture, to exegesis, and to hermeneutics, not exploring how radically egalitarianism departs from classic orthodoxy on a wide range of issues.)
In such a confrontation we are again stuck in the perennial problem that has faced the people of God over the millennia: two sides, each plausibly claiming to speak for God, and each saying something that flatly contradicts the other side and that expands out to touch on the whole course of Christian doctrine and ethics. Just as with the prophets and the false prophets in the Old Testament, Jesus and the leaders of Israel in the gospels, Paul and the Judaisers in the epistles, the Nicenes and the Arians in the fourth century, and the Protestants and the Roman Church in the 16th century, so now we are faced once again with a blunt, high-stakes, mutually exclusive opposition waged within the house of God.
And this coming stage of separation is going to drive home that the gulf between an evangelical egalitarian and an evangelical complementarian is at least as large as that between Reformed and Arminian, evangelical and Pentecostal, or even Protestant and
Roman Catholic. Egalitarians will, where it is politically possible, push complementarians out of the institutions where they get control. And this public action will drive home the fact that, for them, this is not a ‘second tier’ issue but an issue on a par with divinity of Christ, his bodily resurrection, or justification by grace through faith. In the next post I will try and sketch out why I think this next stage is upon us.