I have argued in a previous series that the disagreement over the role of women in the church has now reached a point where some structural separation at the institutional level is likely to work itself out. The debate is, by and large, over; leaders of the two movements are now moving on to explore the ramifications of their position for doctrine, the Christian life, and how church and ministry are conducted. This will mean institutions will become more monochrome as they take steps that make it hard for people to stay if they disagree. It will also mean that both groups may well find themselves diverging on related doctrines, as the fundamental principles at play behind the concrete debate over women’s ordination increasingly work themselves out to other areas of doctrine and practice.
This can all sound pretty pessimistic, as though the hidden message is, “Say goodbye to the pro-women’s ordination evangelicals, folks! They’re leaving the station for parts unknown.” But I am more hopeful than that, although that does (somewhat less nicely than I’d say) capture my fears for egalitarianism as a movement. In this four part series I want to sketch out some of the issues that egalitarians are going to be faced with from here on, issues that mean that I think at least some of them will pull back from finding out just how far the egalitarian rabbit-hole goes.
I see strong parallels between where we are now in our debate and the fourth-century debate over the Trinity—between those who thought that the Son of God was a creature (the Arians) and those who understood that he was fully equal with the Father (those who followed the Nicene Creed). Alongside these two groups was a third group, a large group of Christians who couldn’t accept the kind of theology that is now taken for granted as orthodox. For them, any suggestion that the Father eternally begot the Son, or that the Father is the source of the Son but yet didn’t create the Son, just seemed logically absurd—a contradiction in terms on a par with speaking of a ‘married bachelor’ (or, we might say, on a par with speaking of someone being both equal and under authority).
Throughout much of the fourth century this large group tended to support the convinced Arians who increasingly argued that the Son of God was just a creature much like any other. The orthodox position seemed so logically absurd to the large group that it could not be accepted, and so they tended to run with the Arians even though they thought the Arians were too extreme in their views. This ‘middle’ group has often been called ‘semi-Arian’ by historians of the period.
But by the end of the fourth century most of this group had pulled right back and had taken on an orthodox position. Partly this was because people like the Cappadocians (who began as semi-Arians) and Athanasius managed to address the concerns of the semi-Arians. Partly it was because the Arians kept moving more and more on their trajectory and the semi-Arians became increasingly unsettled about where that kind of theology was going. What at the time appeared to be a large loose group of pro-Arians, over time split up between a small hard-core of true-blue Arians; and a large group who moved increasingly towards the theology articulated by the Nicene Creed.
I’d suggest that something similar might occur today. Many people who support women’s ordination, or who reject the idea that husbands should be the head of the home, don’t want to push those views very hard or very radically. For them, they just can’t see how denying women an unlimited role in the public life of the church is anything other than saying that women are inferior, or less gifted, or less spiritually mature. And so they are committed to an egalitarian position for want of something better. They are, if you like, a ‘semi-egalitarian’—egalitarian in practice, but not really sold on the fundamental convictions that lie at the heart of egalitarianism.
But as in the fourth century, positions don’t stand still. And the evangelical semi-egalitarian is going to experience increased pressure that will tend to either push them in a liberal direction and towards a more radical expression of egalitarianism, or to resist that push. And resisting that push may well lead them in a more complementarian direction. And we’ll turn to some of those pressures in the following posts in our series.
It’s sometimes interesting to see the difference between the series that a writer thinks they wrote and the series to which readers seem to respond. In light of the sometimes strong reaction to the previous series, I thought it might help to add a short note at the end of this first post.
This series is going to look at some of the pressures that some people who see themselves as more or less egalitarian are likely to experience going into the future. It is speaking to complementarians about egalitarianism, and about egalitarianism as a ‘political’ entity—a social group that experiences various pressures.
In and of itself, the series isn’t trying to make much (if any) capital off these observations, as though they somehow prove egalitarianism is wrong in and of themselves. Like the previous series, it’s an exercise in trying to see clearly and unsentimentally about what is occurring and extrapolate accordingly.
Given my argument that we are moving to a new phase in the gender debate—where egalitarianism is gaining the political power to run various Christian institutions on an egalitarian basis—that means that the ‘game’ is changing for egalitarianism and those moving more or less under its banner might experience some new pressures. So looking at those is a natural next step to follow on from the previous series.