We are looking at why various Christian institutions are going to divide over the question of women’s public ministry. In the previous post I argued that the fight over whether women should wield authority over men in the church is a high-stakes debate. It is fundamentally a fight over the question of authority and equality—whether authority and necessary submission must always be linked to genuine inferiority. Those championing women’s ordination generally believe that authority can only exist when one person is inferior to another—a view that I will classify as egalitarianism. Those opposed believe that authority and real equality can coexist—a view that I will classify as complementarianism.
That single difference between the two groups reflects a profound disagreement about ethics and human nature, and it is because it is such a fundamental disagreement that people are generally so hot over the issue, and so prepared to campaign tirelessly for one side or the other.
My claim is that we are now in the place where the two sides will begin to structurally separate from each other into rival/parallel systems of churches, dioceses, denominations, and parachurch organizations.
There are a couple of signs that this is occurring.
First, the two positions have ceased to speak to each other, if they were ever capable of it. My observation of both sides of the debate is that those who participated in the great debates many decades ago have given up on convincing the other side. Complementarians have continued to focus on exegesis, showing with more and more sophistication that the key texts, those that speak directly to the question of women exercising authority in public church settings, state what they have generally been understood to have said for two millennia. Egalitarians have increasingly moved their argument from exegesis, to hermeneutics, to theology (the doctrine of Scripture, as well as the nature of equality and increasingly the doctrine of the Trinity)—increasingly moving from the plain sense of the words of Scripture to establishing interpretive presuppositions. These enable the key texts that speak straight to the debate to be understood in a less directly authoritative way than they would seek for a text like John 3:16, but to do so without having to say, “The Bible is just wrong at this point”.
Increasingly, the books on both sides are being written for the people on their own side—both sides of the debate have, on the whole, ceased speaking to each other, but content themselves with speaking about each other’s arguments to their own ‘side’. And this is true most of all when both sides engage with the other side’s arguments. This is a sign of unofficial structural separation. Both sides are relatively resigned to the fact that the other side is not going to be convinced by argument, and so arguments are not offered to the other side, but merely to catechize and mobilize those already on side, and to win over those who are still ‘up for grabs’. We are in much the same position as Europe was in at the end of the 16th century between Catholics and Protestants. Lots of apologetics was going on to defend positions already established, but neither side had genuine hope that the other could be persuaded to change. I think we can see something similar now.
Secondly, the two positions cannot exist together in the same structure. Egalitarians chafe in institutions that do not allow women to have authority over men. Even if an egalitarian is given freedom of conscience to dissent from the institution’s position, being involved in the institution is, for them, a kind of participation in the structural sin of oppression against women that is practiced by that institution. Egalitarians can only exist in such a structure by accepting some kind of complementarianism in practice—which means only those egalitarians who have a conscience flexible enough to support a structure that practices what they consider to be some kind of apartheid. And complementarians can only function in egalitarian contexts by being prepared to submit to an authority that they believe is disobedient to God. Or unless they are given structural solutions that mean that they can avoid submitting to a woman—a step that then will tend to isolate them from the broader life of that institution and will be an ongoing offense to convinced egalitarians.
As the last few decades to the present have shown, the two positions cannot coexist if the institution tries to give room for both to exist together. At best, an institution seeking to be inclusive has to back one side—either ordain or not ordain women—but then seek to allow some freedom within that institutional stance for dissenters. A diocese that doesn’t ordain women can still license them to preach and/or allow them to function as associate pastors. A diocese that ordains women can avoid having a woman bishop, or can establish requirements that a woman bishop will not have authority over clergy opposed to women’s ordination. Such arrangements are the ‘best’ that is possible if inclusivity is the goal pursued—they offend the consciences of the idealists on both sides (who would rather the institution do what is right than be inclusive of what was wrong), but allow some space for genuine dissent. It allows representatives of the two positions to coexist with varying degrees of tension.
But the two positions can’t both exist in the same institution. An institution has to pick one. It either ordains women, or it doesn’t. There is no third way. A demand for freedom of conscience to allow supporters of women’s ordination to have women priests, becomes in time a demand to enable those women priests to be able to be bishops (or the chair of the presbytery, or the head of the Baptist Union, or whatever the rough equivalent may be), and then becomes a demand that their authority as bishops be treated the same as any man—with no conscientious objection allowed or provisions for alternate oversight. So the desire to enjoy freedom to act on conscience in favour of women’s ordination in time requires a denomination (or diocese) to restrict the freedom of conscience of those who disagree with women’s ordination. It cannot be any other way. For the egalitarian, until women can hold the highest position in an institution and all are required to submit to their authority, then they are not being treated the same as men; and if they are not being treated the same as men then they are not equal to men. For the truly convinced egalitarian, even allowing objectors the freedom to not submit to a woman bishop’s authority results in women still being second class. Any point short of that outcome means that the battle for women’s dignity and equality is not yet truly won.