T4(G)ender Hierarchy redux

The Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference is finishing up where CBMW has a booth and is handing out free literature. Here is an abridged verion of a post I wrote in 2006 protesting the conference’s statement on gender roles.

Debate over the roles of men and women in the church and home rarely informs and often offends. That seems to accord with the reaction to the statement from the highly publicized Together For The Gospel (T4G hereafter) pastors conference. Featuring an array of near celebrity leaders of conservative Calvinist teachers—Al Mohler, John MacArthur, John Piper, RC Sproul, C.J. Mahaney, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan III–the leadership published a statement of faith that opines on the significance of women’s roles making them an “article of faith” with regard to one’s witness to the gospel.

Article XVI reads:

    We affirm that the Scripture reveals a pattern of complementary order between men and women, and that this order is itself a testimony to the Gospel, even as it is the gift of our Creator and Redeemer. We also affirm that all Christians are called to service within the body of Christ, and that God has given to both men and women important and strategic roles with the home, the church, and society. We further affirm that the teaching office of the church is assigned only to those men who are called of God in fulfillment of the biblical teachings and that men are to lead in their homes as husbands and father who fear and love God.

    We deny that the distinction of roles between men and women revealed in the Bible is evidence of mere cultural conditioning or manifestation of male oppression of prejudice against women. We also deny that this biblical distinction of roles excludes women from meaningful ministry in Christ’s kingdom. We further deny that any church can confuse these issues without damaging its witness to the Gospel.

Add that to a statement that begins with “We are brothers [gender specific] in Christ united in one great cause—to stand together for the Gospel,” that is qualified with Article XVI and you get message that decidedly makes the conference about “being together for the gospel” not far from one about “being together for gender hierarchy.”

It is important to review the key features of Article XVI: (1) “a pattern of complementarity” is “a testimony to the Gospel” itself, (2) men and women have “important” and “strategic” roles, (3) only the “teaching office” of the church can be assigned to men, (4) men are to “lead” in their homes, (5) the “distinction of roles” between men and women has nothing to do with the culture, (6) said distinction does not excluded women from “meaningful” ministry, and (7) those that “confuse these issues” can not go without “damaging its witness to the Gospel.”

By the statement’s logic (7) follows from (1), which entails (3) and (4), thus making (3) and (4) contained in (1) implying (5). How (2), and (6) follow is not immediately apparent, except that their definition cannot include (3) and (4).

In essence, what we are seeing here is an unabashed proclamation that permanent, comprehensive, necessary, and unchanging female subordination to male headship, based exclusively on the virtue of gender is a “testimony to the gospel” itself and to “confuse this issue” is “damage” its witness. The message could not be anymore clear: if you deny such an order exists between man and woman you undermine the church’s witness to the gospel. Hence, it follows that an “egalitarian” (one that allows for women in the “teaching office”) cannot be, as C.J. Mahaney describes, “friends because of the gospel” with a “complementarian” (those that forbid). For the leaders of this conference the man-woman debate has become so explosive in the last decade that it has been made a cardinal of faith that is even more important than baptism.

One of the interesting things about the T4G conference is that it is a blend of baptists and pedobaptists (those who baptize infants). Both appeal to scripture in support of their position and repudiate the other on the same grounds. But it would seem that the act of Christian initiation and obedience to Christ’s own command is less important than the so-called “complementarity” between the sexes. Female subordination to male headship is a greater testimony to the gospel than the rite by which one signifies union with Christ.

This is interesting, to say the least, in that in the light of history, the magisterial Reformers (those who practiced infant baptism) had no qualms about arresting the radical reformers, (those that denied it) and sentencing them to be drowned in European rivers. It’s more than a scary thought to imagine a world where the leaders of this conference would not be around due to an order from Zwingli.

Al Mohler once addressed this issue and makes a clear distinction between first and second order doctrines in one of his daily commentaries:

Second-order issues would include the meaning and mode of baptism. Baptists and Presbyterians, for example fervently disagree over the most basic mode of Christian baptism. The practice of infant baptism is inconceivable to the Baptist mind, while the Presbyterians trace infant baptism to their most basic understanding of the covenant. Standing together on the first-order doctrines [Trinity, Person of Christ] Baptists and Presbyterians eagerly recognize each other as believing Christians, but recognize disagreement on issues of this importance will prevent fellowship within the same congregation or denomination.

Interestingly enough, a little later, he says women’s roles pertain to the same point,

In recent years, the issue of women serving as pastors has emerged as another second-order issue.

One has to wonder, in light of this, how holding contrary positions on the gender issue could eclipse those on the issue of baptism in the supposed “weakening” of the church’s gospel witness.

At any rate, no matter how one interprets the situation, it cannot be denied that egalitarians have been purposely targeted and alienated under the banner of “togetherness” in the gospel. Unlike the statement The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration which welcomed anyone without regard to their persuasion on the gender issue, the T4G authors deliberately exclude egalitarians from unity in Christ’s message to lost people.

One has to ask, “Where do egalitarians go from here?” It is pointless to engage in debate with those who, according to one commenter I read, believe that those who do not share T4G’s views of gender hierarchy “call God a liar.” Instead they should move towards trying to understand how such otherwise obvious sexism and sectarianism are shrouded in benign language and obfuscating terms and bring it to light.

In here witty and brilliant article Strange Bedfellows: Strategies Shared by Darwinists and Traditionalists, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis notes that public discourse is always controlled by the dominating paradigm (in this case, gender hierarchy) in order to dismiss dissenters before they even enter the debate. Appealing to an authority that the challengers would have no reason to not accept prefaces the assertions (“Science has shown… The Bible teaches…”) in a way that makes them unimpeachable. To assert otherwise is to be irrational or under the influence of Satan. Thus a Bible-believing Christian is a “complementarian” (of the patriarchal variety), and to deviate from that position is to become “unbiblical” or “unorthodox” or worse “damaging to the witness of the gospel.”

Unwarranted extrapolations are the next step. Since it has been shown that there are natural differences between men and women this entails the prescribed roles of authority and submission in the church and the home. To deny these prescriptions is to deny there are any differences between the sexes whatsoever. Hence, anyone who dissents is left looking like a buffoon who sees sexuality as purely androgynous, and is one step away from endorsing homosexual marriage—all before he or she has even uttered a word!

Categories of ridicule developed in phrases and slogans like “radical feminism” and “breakdown of the family,” are used to evoke an insidious agenda that will stop at nothing, even the destruction of the gospel itself, to legislate its immorality. Even “evangelical feminism” can be used as a term that serves as a useful rhetorical tool for those who oppose it in that they can define it as “theologically liberal” or “culturally influenced” without ever representing its advocates have tried with much care and nuance to do. Those who are “evangelical feminists” are to be regarded as self-absorbed-career-loving-bible-ignoring-politically correct “persons” who care nothing for children, throw biblical authority to the wind, and don’t believe in absolute truth.

Groothuis aptly quotes Thomas Sowell’s observation, “Once you have are committed to moral melodrama, rational responses to the real problem become almost impossible.”

In his fascinating study called The New Testament Definition of Heresy (Or When Do Jesus and Apostles Really Get Mad) Craig Blomberg notes that a feature of both covenantal nomism and legalism involved an emphasis on the matters that have been called “badges of national righteousness.” Things like circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and dietary laws were used to set Jews apart from their Gentile neighbors. If one were to seek a modern analogy relevant to some areas of Christianity today, rituals like baptism or having certain spiritual gifts (like speaking in tongues), or an observance of a long list of “dos and don’ts” are considered marks of “discernment” for those obsessed with separating the “sheep” from the “goats.” A vital relationship with Jesus Christ that includes faith, repentance, and obedience is eclipsed by this error, and at least for the T4G statement, a commitment gender hierarchy could be added to the list.

The reason for this post is not express a long drawn out pedantic rant. Nor is it because I think it fundamentally unacceptable to have a conference target a male-only audience of leaders. It is because I take Christian unity–under the gospel–with those whom I differ very seriously, and am grieved that such secondary issues are being made primary. I have no pretension that this will not be received pleasantly by many of my readers, and I would certainly hope not. I want to honestly ask, how this is not the error of fundamentalism: making second-order doctrines first-order ones? Certainly, there is a danger in drawing boundaries too broadly, but as Blomberg notes at the end of his paper “one can become heretical by being too broad-minded or too narrow-minded.”

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2 Responses

  1. I appreciate the fact that you took hours to write this post. I will be following this blog, brother.

  2. Well said (or written). I fully agree with your points. At the same time I wonder what T4G would look like if they included egalatarians (which I think they should)? That is, every speaker at T4G is a (hard?) complamentarian and many of them are outspoken on the issue itself throughout the conference.

    Many of these men would never be invovled in a conference with a woman speaker following them. Perhaps that close to where the rub comes, the issue is by necessity front and center in a way baptism is not. Either one sex or both sexes will be “leading” the conference, but no parents will be bringing their children to the stage for baptism during the conference.

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