Last Sunday at Barneys, in lieu of a more traditional sermon, I had a public conversation with my colleague, Erica Hamence. Erica is a passionate evangelist, a gifted bible teacher, a rigorous student of the Scriptures, and an enormous blessing to our church. I shouldn’t need to say this, but because Erica also believes that women can and should preach, teach and be elders, I expect that some will presume she is also a theological liberal.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
You can find the full (more than an hour long) video of the conversation here on the Barneys website, and I encourage you to check it out. In general, my understanding is that the (for some, novel) experience of a respectful conversation across differences was exciting and helpful.
However, a question has made its way back to me that I think needs to be addressed here. The question is: ‘If we have misinterpreted this’ – this being the role of women in the church – ‘what else might we have misinterpreted?’ And, in particular: ‘Maybe God is okay with people being professing Christians and in practising LGBTI relationships?’
Here are a few thoughts in response.
- All Christians are wrong on all sorts of things, all the time. Sin doesn’t merely compromise our hearts and our actions. Sin radically impacts our minds – what is called the ‘noetic effect’ of sin. Only a fool believes that their rational faculties offer a clear and unbiased assessment of the world. Ashley Null, the great Reformation theologian, summarised the insight of the period in this way: what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. Our minds pursue truth, but they also function to offer post-hoc rationalisations of commitments that exist at a far deeper and more fundamental level of our personhood.
- Therefore, as a basic act of integrity, we should be open to a constant reassessment of our worldview. Rather than waiting for doubts to creep up on us, Christians should be critiquing our views against Scripture, testing our beliefs for coherence, discarding attitudes that arise merely from our culture and replacing them with an architecture of thought that arises from the gospel. ‘What else might we have misinterpreted?’ is an essential question for the Christian life.
- Disagreement is no basis for disbelief. Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean you should doubt your own commitments. An absence of unanimity does not entail an absence of confidence.
- This is because, although almost every truth claim is contested with another truth claim, not all truth claims are equal. In the age of fake news, this seems to have been lost in the wash. Some people claim that anthropocentric climate change is a conspiracy, or that NASA never landed astronauts on the moon. The basic contribution of a liberal education is to train the mind to be able to recognise different kinds of truth claims, though this critical function of education has largely been replaced by an ideological function.
- We need to have an agreed basis for comparing the credibility of truth claims, and rejecting comparisons that muddy the waters. What might that basis be in the Christian life? How do we compare the claim that women ought to be elders with the claim that God affirms homosexual practice? I’m going to jump ahead and say that I am convinced that these are substantively different claims, which elevate the credibility of the latter at the cost of diminishing the credibility of the former.
- Any theological claim should be tested, objectively, against both a rigorous and detailed analysis of key Scriptures, with attention to text critical, linguistic, syntactical and lexical issues, to prevent their misuse, and against the broader witness of the whole of the Scriptures. But because our truth commitments are not arrived at by pure rationality, we also need to address the moral and spiritual qualifications of those making claims. This is why the primary requirement of elders and deacons in the church is that they be of good character and hold to the faith.
- It is on this basis that I think any comparison between the argument for women to be elders, and the argument in favour of homosexual practice, must fail. I do not believe a coherent version of the latter may be mounted without requiring us to jettison Jesus’ teaching of the authority of the Scriptures, or affirmation of the biblical vision of sexuality.
- Biblical egalitarians are the most visibly affected by this. When their arguments are equated with arguments for complete affirmation of alternative sexual expression, the rigorously biblical grounds for their claims are tainted by association. But I want to make the point that the whole church of Christ is affected: a failure to distinguish between good arguments and bad, between authentically faithful thinking and wholesale revisionism, between a call to humbly revisit the Scriptures and a call to set them aside in view of what we think we ‘know’ from the world, is a failure which compromises the whole church.
- What this means is that I do not believe that any kind of compelling case can (or should) be made by those who are opposed to female elders, that biblical egalitarianism is a slippery slope to liberalism and the affirmation of homosexual practice in the church. Certainly, the Salvation Army has had female church leaders and sexual orthodoxy for generations. But, equally, I want to pour cold water on the expectation that the argument for female elders might open a door for those who seek to bring a full affirmation of homosexual practice to the church. Unless those arguing the latter can do so within the historic orthodoxy of the Christian church, the teachings of Scripture and the example of Jesus, then it cannot be done, and I, for one, am not persuaded such an argument can be made.
I think I will give G.K. Chesterton the final word:
But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt–the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn… At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.