In this four-part series we are looking at some of the reasons why some egalitarians are likely to reconsider their commitment to women exercising authority in the church. This time around, we are looking at the pressure placed upon egalitarians by the gay lobby. The times, they are a changing, and yesterday’s radical advocate of equality and liberty (for fighting for women’s ordination) is today’s muddle-headed conservative champion of prejudice (for not approving homosexuality). One of the biggest challenges evangelical pro-women’s ordination advocates are going to experience is the growing move to approve of active homosexual lifestyles.
Thoughtful evangelical egalitarians are very uncomfortable about the pro-gay agenda. They can see how champions for women’s ordination are often also champions for approval of homosexual relationship as well—consider Muriel Porter in the Melbourne Diocese of Australia. Or they see how high-profile champions of the gay agenda, like Bishop Gene Robinson in America, consider women’s ordination the precondition for change on the church’s teaching on homosexuality. Robinson has stated that he has advised priests in the Roman Catholic Church not to work directly for the approval of an active homosexual lifestyle, but rather to work for the ordination of women first as it is a necessary precondition. Robinson, himself an openly practicing homosexual, understands that women’s ordination is a precondition for the acceptance of homosexual activity—so much so, that his strategy for advancing the cause of homosexuality is grounded in the promotion of women to authority roles first. He, like many other homosexual promoters, sees that only once a denomination or Diocese has endorsed the logic behind women’s ordination is it even possible to discuss whether active homosexuality is legitimate.
Thoughtful egalitarians can see this connection, and it troubles them—when someone like Gene Robinson pushes the connection, not primarily to the world at large, but to a secret meeting of agitators for homosexuality looking for a concrete strategy that will work in their context, it is hard not to see that those in favour of homosexuality perceive a very real connection between the two issues. And so thoughtful evangelical egalitarians are defensive about this link between the cause they cherish, and the cause they repudiate. Some get angry about claims of the possible link, others are hurt at the suggestion, but many egalitarian writers are spending time now to try and show why the link does not have to be there—why ‘the women’s issue’ can be hermetically sealed from ‘the gay issue’. I, like most of their critics, think their attempts have failed to this point, but the fact that this is a new cottage industry amongst egalitarian evangelicals shows that this is a pressure that is on them now—and is only going to get hotter in the foreseeable future as our society moves in an increasingly pro-homosexual direction. That very pressure, and the way that pro-gay activists will keep challenging the egalitarians to ‘go the whole way’ and join them will probably begin to push some back in the opposite direction. If they are left with a choice between what seems to be misogyny, but whose advocates claim is not, and approving a way of life clearly repudiated by Scripture, some egalitarians will take another hard look at whether they got the whole women in ministry question right after all. Others will continue to hold their approval for one issue with their rejection of the other, and still others (as appears to be happening here in the UK among moderate evangelicals) will indeed begin to shift on the gay issue. But some will be troubled by the link, and have a rethink about the various issues in play.
Hence, I think that within the providence of God, that there may be a movement back from within the egalitarian evangelical ‘camp’. Once women’s ordination is established, it becomes the conservative position within a branch of evangelicalism that is always picking away at received tradition (i.e. open or broad evangelicalism—which is generally made up of people who are less conservative in their theology now than they were ten years before, or who like to see themselves as not just conservatively accepting received evangelical tradition). Moderate or broad evangelicalism thrives on being avant-garde—of being up with the latest cutting-edge innovations. But once women’s ordination is in place, and women can attain the highest role in an institution, it ceases to be the great cause celebre to unite the troops against the terrible conservatives. In time, it will become simply the hang-up of ‘the old guys’—everyone over thirty-five. That is, once the view has won, it ceases to become the tool to challenge tradition but becomes tradition among a branch of evangelicalism that thrives on challenging tradition. Its attraction to some moderate evangelicals leaves as soon as it becomes reality.
In the meantime, some egalitarian evangelicals are going to feel increasingly horrified by where a more radical egalitarianism goes using the same arguments and presuppositions that they embrace—and at the moment that seems to be towards approving of homosexual behaviour. Other egalitarians of course will grow more liberal over time. But many may well draw back and look for something that seems to offer a secure theological basis to not follow their former friends and allies down the path into liberalism.
This tension some will feel will only be worsened as egalitarian evangelical leaders continue to find common ground with homosexual activists that outweigh their common ground with fellow evangelicals. A good example in recent years was the launch of Muriel Porter’s book attacking the Sydney Diocese, especially over its opposition to women’s ordination. Muriel Porter is a classic liberal, who supports changing the church’s teaching on homosexuality (not to mention a range of central doctrines). Yet, it was Charles Sherlock, a prominent Melbourne Anglican evangelical, who launched her book.
Such actions raise the question whether at least some egalitarian evangelicals consider themselves fellow worker with liberals against the threat posed by other evangelicals. Some egalitarians will likely ask, not unreasonably, “Why would you launch a book by a liberal attacking a predominantly evangelical institution unless what you have in common with the liberal egalitarian outweighs what you have in common with an evangelical complementarian?” In such cases, is the ‘egalitarianism’ or the ‘evangelicalism’ more fundamental to one’s Christianity? Is there so much common ground between the evangelical Sherlock and the strongly liberal Porter that Sherlock finds her a more natural ally against evangelical Sydney rather than joining force with Sydney against Porter’s liberalism? Could one imagine a complementarian evangelical joining forces with non-evangelicals to attack fellow evangelicals who practice women’s ordination? Generally speaking, evangelicals only join with non-evangelicals to attack other non-evangelicals—evangelicals might join with Catholics of various stripes to attack liberalism, for example. But when evangelicals believe that they share the same gospel with someone else, that usually trumps most other differences. It’s rare indeed to find an Arminian evangelical join forces with, say, a Roman Catholic to attack a reformed evangelical—even though both the evangelical and the Catholic repudiate the doctrine of election. The fact that the both the Arminian and the reformed hold to justification by grace through faith is considered more fundamental.
Such actions suggest that, among the leaders of egalitarianism, egalitarianism is often more important than whether one is liberal or evangelical. Women having authority over men is a fundamental aspect of the gospel. And for other egalitarians, that will be a step in one’s self-identity that they may well wish to draw back from. They will want to not allow egalitarianism to become so all-defining to their Christian faith. And the struggle to step back may well result in them leaving it altogether. Seeing the link, some will do whatever it takes to not join in partnership with liberals or with those who promote homosexuality.