Splitting the Difference

Do Recent Abuse Claims Undermine Complimentarianism?

First, as a Southern Baptist of nearly 20 years, I am compelled to condemn the behavior that has been made public in recent reports that have come out regarding pastors and leaders in the church. As a man and having been in leadership I am ashamed by the behavior of men who would abuse their position and authority: you men have brought dishonor upon the church and have made the name of Christ a by-word for your own desires.  Such men are a stain on the bride of Christ and apart from repentance and the mercy of God demonstrate that there are wolves in sheep’s clothing in the fold that need to be identified and exposed. 

As it stands, there are those who want to equate what has occurred in the largest evangelical denomination in the United States with what has occurred within the Catholic Church. As certain as those comparisons may seem, the SBC does not have the ability to deliberately hide or shuffle into hiding those who would perpetrate such evil and despicable acts through a dense bureaucracy. These acts were often perpetrated locally and over years. 

Indeed, there have been scandals in evangelicalism in the past few years, such as with Paige Patterson who may have downplayed sexual assaults and may have been imprecise in statements regarding spousal abuse and Bill Hybels’ escapades. 

Some are using such scandals to argue against the teaching of biblical complementarianism, claiming that it lies at the heart of such cases, rather than the fact of sin and rebellion that lies in the heart of every human being. This is not to minimize the fact that systems of belief and authority can become enmployed and entrenched that not only enables those who would abuse it for their own ends but can cause people to turn a blind eye to that abuse. 

However, the suggestions that are being forwarded to address the problems that might exist are not to go to repent of sin and rededicate lives to Christ and the demands of justice, rather they’re to ping-pong off into what is essentially Marxist theory. Now, what they will cloak this in is an appeal to egalitarianism.

See also The Poison of “Social Justice”

While the debate between those who argue for complimentarian position versus an egalitarian position might be interesting, I think that there’s good reasons to argue that it is not a case of either-or but rather of both-and. I can see valid points on both sides of the issue, but sometimes it’s not which one is right over against the other, rather my position is coherence when it comes to the application of Scripture. 

Then there’s also a problem with that. Whose application? 

Do we accept the complimentarian application or the egalitarian application? Why?

I’m willing to argue that we shouldn’t take either. For example, Dr. Guy Waters, over at The Gospel Coalition blog has written an admirable response to the question of whether or not the Bible supports the concept of female deacons, where he writes in conclusion,

The New Testament, then, opens the office of deacon to men only. To leave matters here, however, would be out of step with the character of diaconal ministry in the New Testament. As we have seen, the New Testament routinely singles out individual women believers, distinguishing them for their selfless service to Christ and his church. It’s Paul’s expectation in 1 Timothy 3:11 that women will have a part in the church’s ministry of service to the needy.

Waters’ point is true. The church office of deacon is established for men. The problem is that you have incidents, such as he discusses involving women, such as the deaconess named Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2. A crucial fallacy in Waters’ argument is not Scripture though, he appeals to The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America and makes it his authority to define biblical terms. While he does bring in Scripture to undergird his assumptions. In doing that, Waters allows his traditions to override a meaningful interpretation of Scripture and prefers to split hairs when it comes to the word that describes Phoebe’s role in her home church as a “servant” (ESV)  over “deacon” (NIV), when they’re translating the exact same word, διάκονον. 

Thomas Schriener, in his article defending women in the deaconate notes,

Some worry that appointing women as deacons violates 1 Timothy 2:12, where women are prohibited from teaching or exercising authority over men. We must recognize, however, that deacons occupy a different position from elders/pastors/overseers. The latter is one office, as Ben Merkle has convincingly argued, in which two qualities are required that are not required of deacons. First, elders must have an ability to teach biblical truth and correct deviant teaching (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9). Second, they must have gifts of leadership (1 Tim. 3:4–5; 5:17; Titus 1:7). And remarkably, teaching and exercising authority over men is the very thing disallowed for women in 1 Timothy 2:12. Women therefore may serve as deacons because the diaconal office is one of serving, not leading. Deacons don’t teach and exercise authority, but rather help in the church’s ministry.

Then, in the book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, co-author Randy Richards relates to us this interesting anecdote that begins on p.169,

While I was living in Indonesia, I was invited to speak at a “pastors only” meeting. In the audience of over one hundred pastors, I noticed a half-dozen women. The bylaws of the Convention of Indonesian Baptist Churches clearly state: “Pastors must be male.” I should have left it alone.

“I thought this meeting was for pastors only,” I remarked to the conference organizer.

“It is,” he replied.

“But there were women in the audience,” I pointed out.


Now I was confused. “But your laws say pastors must be male!” I exclaimed.

The convention president calmly replied, “Yes, and most of them are.”

From that exchange, he draws this conclusion,

His answer represents a fundamentally different view of law. To the non-Western mind, it seems, a law is more a guideline. Americans would likely want to change the Indonesian law to read, “Most pastors must be male,” and then we would argue over the percentage. The Indonesian—and arguably the biblical—view of law always left room for exceptions.

And that’s what bothers us, the idea of exceptions. We have convinced ourselves that the “rules” are absolute, while at the same time constantly making exceptions, often to our own detriment. For example, one qualification that is often misunderstood when it comes to deacons is the qualification that he is to be the husband of one wife (1Timothy 3:12). That is often assumed to mean that a deacon can never have divorced and remarried. However, there is no mention of being continuously married to the same person as being a requirement. If we take the requirement literally, then it would exclude single men, childless men, or widowers. The problem with such a narrow view is that we often fail to consider the facts. 

Should a man be excluded from service in the church if he has been the victim in the divorce? I don’t think that it’s fair to him or the church to exclude him. I will agree that the church has a duty to investigate these matters to find out if the situation before excluding such a person out of hand. 

The point that I am getting at is this: as much as I am a complimentarian, I am also an egalitarian. God gifts different people differently and those gifts are given to be used for the good of the church. Scriptures do not say that men are given certain exclusive gifts and that women are given a different set of gifts, rather it says that the Spirit gives as he pleases. The complimentarian in me sees that men are called to lead, but I also recognize that sometimes a woman might have a better grasp on that gift than a man. That doesn’t mean that she should do it as one having a singular authority. 

Notice that I am not saying that every leadership position in the church should be open to everyone. Rather, I am saying that God has gifted people with different gifts that are for his church. It is the job of the church to nurture and encourage those gifts and provide opportunities for them to be expressed as the Spirit leads, in accordance to what God has made known in his word. 

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