March 3, 2010 / David Fitch

Women in Ministry and the Gay/Lesbian Question: The Post-Evangelical Terrain As I See It

imagesWithin post-evangelicalism, no two issues divide the terrain more than the issues of women in ministry and the gay/lesbian question.  I think how they relate to each other is telling as to what theological currents drive the various “streams” ‘emerging’ out of evangelicalism.  In a continuation of my effort to sort out the streams of post-evangelism in N America, I lay out the tenets of the three positions (Neo-Reformed – Emergent – NeoAnabaptist Missional) on these two issues and some comments on the theological currents that drive each one. I HAVE GROSSLY OVER-SIMPLIFIED – THIS IS A BLOG POST REMEMBER – SO CUT ME SOME SLACK 🙂 . In this post I treat Neo-Reformed and Emergent which leads to my second post on the Neo-Anabaptist  Missional position. I hope to clarify the issues better so we can all discuss some day what drives us to the conclusions we have come to and why we come off certain ways to each other. In each position, I treat the position’s view on Scripture, authority in the community, sanctification, and desire. I hope this helps!

Position No. 1 – No Women in Ministry/ Not Affirming to Gay/Lesbian Sexual Relationships(The Neo-Reformed)

In this view – a.) women are hierarchically subordinate to men in ministry and b.) all gay/lesbian sexuality is against the norms of God-ordered creation.

This is grounded in a view of Scripture that sees it as propositional and perspicuous. Scripture as propositional truth is clear and absolute. What we need therefore is good study, someone with certain gifts, expertise and wisdom to make it clear. This understanding of Scripture lends itself to an autocratic view of authority.  I mean this not in a disparaging way. Rather, because of this view of truth and Scripture, church authority in decision-making and leadership must be exercised in top-down fashion. Afterall, if we can’t all agree in church, who will make the final decision? All of this serves to argue for men to be over women in ministry because Scripture is clear on it and authority is autocratic. In this world, authority must carry itself in the same way within marriage. Men must be heads of their homes because – afterall – if a husband and wife disagree, who is going to make the decision? I am fully aware that various forms of soft complementarianism has “softened” how these principles are carried out within this group.

Within this view, sanctification is an individualistic pursuit. Sin is recognized, forgiveness received and then one seeks to follow (Scripture) in dependence upon the Spirit. Desire is, to grossly exaggerate, inherently depraved (some post Calvinist influence here). One must measure all desires against the Scripture, and all that doesn’t jive must be suppressed, or in effect denied. This is oft prone to a strange subtle legalism. “You are free, you are graced with forgiveness not of anything you’ve done, it’s all up to the Spirit now, but hey, you’re not doing it – the Scripture says ______ , so stop doing it!” I call this a Cartesianist view of sanctification. There is little appreciation here that cognitive knowledge does not lead to sanctification, that all desire must be reoriented in the spiritual disciplines of walking into the Spirit corporately as well as personally. This approach is oft prone to a harsh, dispassionate judgmentalism especially when it comes to the gay/lesbian question. The Scripture says “such and such” so for goodness sake, go and do “such and such. You will be blessed.”

It is out of this approach to sanctification, that this group speaks to the gay/lesbian issues. Because of what I see as lacks in this approach to sanctification, it comes off as lacking compassion and hopeless.

Of course this is the caricature of evangelicalism that so many people disavow these days. The Neo-Reformed carries much of this same theology yet softens it quite a bit with compassion and holistic mission. I see Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller and most Neo-Reformed bloggers coming down in this camp and attempting to reshape its theology away from the lacks mentioned above. 

Position No. 2 – Yes to Women in Ministry/ Affirming of Gay/Lesbian Sexual Relationships (Emergent)

In this view – a.) women and men are equal to each other in the exercise of authority and roles within the church and marriage, and  b.) gay/lesbian relations are affirmed as inherently life-giving, loving and God honoring when monogamous in some way.
The view of authority here is derived from the political understandings of Western political democracy, – liberalism as a political philosophy (which drives evangelicals and prot mainliner alike). Authority is best exercised in democratic fashion by a charismatic leadership within a tolerant inclusivist community. The singular concern here is the ultimate value of each individual to flourish into the person God created him/her to be. Each person is equal to the other and should be judged on skills and merits for the job or role in life, ministry and marriage. Women therefore should be considered equals with men in ministry and marriage. They should have equal access to the authority structures of the church. Scripture is interpreted via these values.  Gay/lesbian peoples should not only be tolerated but also blessed in the ways God has created them. Scripture is interpreted via these insights.

Often the narrative of women and gay/lesbian relations is constructed via the historical progression of the liberation of the individual from oppression. The story goes, the African slave was once oppressed via Scripture. Today the slaves are free. Women likewise were once oppressed and today are emerging free. Now the same liberation needs to be set loose for the gay and lesbian peoples among us and welcomed and affirmed into full participation in the Kingdom. Scriptural hermeneutic is an evolving exercise and should be interpreted with this history in mind. This makes sense of the key value that drives this group, the liberation of the individual as seen and understood via a Western individualist romanticist liberal (read liberating here) understanding of the world.

Sanctification in the Christian life is the daily walk of following the way of Jesus. Desire is seen (mostly) as inherently good as created (versus inherently depraved in group one). The calling out of one’s sanctification is in challenging each one to live into the love, grace and renewal of all things inaugurated and exemplified in Christ. This is often understood in terms of “following the way” of Jesus. He taught the Kingdom of God, a new way of forgiveness, love, living for the other. Let us live into and work for these great ideals in the world. This is the Kingdom of God. Yet there is also an edge against “religion” that seeks to oppress individuals and maintain its ideology. Some deconstruction is in order to help us see how various power interests/religious structures are at work to hold us back from life with Jesus. (Derridian Messianic Democracy fits well with these values). It is this aspect of their critique which moves this group beyond the bland protestant liberalism of the past.

Of course, herein lies the ideas most associated with Emergent and the emerging churches that aligned with this group. Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and friends most often come down in this direction.

Have I been fair here? Have I overly generalized? Again, I am not trying to make enemies here – just get the lay of the land. I am sure people on both sides disagree, can you show me why, point me to some quotes? I am merely trying to delineate the issues in what is emerging in the three streams of post evangelicalism. In the next post, I hope to argue for a Neo-Anabaptist Missional position no. 3 which says: Yes to women in ministry, but is Non Affirming to Gay/Lesbian relationships as normative for the Christian life. I hope to show how this position is most adequate to the tasks of Mission/Witness in post Christendom, post modern contexts.