Saturday, March 10, 2018

Mind the Ditches

The folks at the assemblyHUB website have embarked on an initiative to reexamine the biblical roles of men and women in the church, the world and the home (WAMS 2018). To date, Bernadette Veenstra (twice), Crawford Paul and others have weighed in on issues like complementary gender roles, women usurping authority and women’s silence in the churches.

For reasons I will get to shortly, I find myself less than delighted.

Now of course, that could just be crabby old me; the exercise may in fact turn out to be tremendously beneficial. The careful scrutiny of scripture is never a bad thing.

So since it’s going to happen whether I end up liking it or not, let me suggest a few principles that may be useful in analyzing, weighing and applying what the New Testament teaches on the subject of roles. More than a few of these evangelical “reexaminations” have gone off the rails. Why have another if we can avoid it?

Principle 1: There’s a reason this teaching is not straightforward. It’s not an accident.

Do we believe this? I hope we do. This is the inspired word of God, penned for us by his apostles. If we occasionally have difficulty understanding and applying it, we can be sure it is not because the Holy Spirit failed to take into account our limitations, our myopia, our self-interest, our incorrect presuppositions and our almost-complete ignorance of history outside holy writ. If this is what he left us with, it is sufficient for life and godliness. Any problems we have applying it are ours, not his.

No less a luminary than the apostle Peter declares that Paul sometimes wrote about matters “hard to understand”. Far from dismissing these passages on that account, he refers to them as “scripture”. He also makes it plain that teachers who take advantage of the apparent difficulties in these passages to distort and misrepresent them are not doing themselves or anyone else a service. Even today, the danger inherent in indulging people who misrepresent Paul is that we may “lose our stability”. Let’s not do that.

Paul was not incapable of clarity. I believe he followed his Lord in the way he wrote.

Jesus Christ was a tremendously difficult teacher at times; anyone who thinks he always spoke plainly is simply not paying sufficient attention. There was a certain class of individuals to which the Lord deliberately made his sayings obscure: those who demonstrated that God’s will as he had expressed it to them was not to their taste. Having rejected the truth they had already received, they were incapable of receiving more, and Jesus very deliberately did not entrust deeper truths to them.

Thus it is necessary to approach Paul’s comments on headship and other role-related subjects in faith and with an absolute determination to obey whatever it is we may find there, whether we like it or not. If we don’t, we can be sure we will never figure out what on earth it is we are looking at.

Principle 2: What is written on this subject is not impossible to apply.

Whatever the complexity of Paul’s teaching on the subject of authority/submission, headship and silence/participation, I hope we can agree on this: it all means SOMETHING. Further, unless you are prepared to swallow the intellectually incoherent cultural argument made by the Christian Left, and swallow it hook, line and sinker, it means something to US, not just to the various churches of Paul’s day.

Thus any local church today that claims its practices are grounded in the New Testament must make some decisions about how to apply Paul’s role-related teaching. It cannot be dismissed outright. Yet a church in which gender roles are interchangeable has done precisely that. A church in which women never cover their heads (or men wear ball caps) has done precisely that. A church with a woman pastor does precisely that. They have written off Paul entirely.

If that seems a silly or obvious point to stress, ask yourself when was the last time you saw a YouTube video of a sermon shot in a big evangelical church in which there was a single headcovering visible.

“Complex” and “difficult” are not synonyms for “meaningless”.

Principle 3: Others have been down this road before.

This is not a new subject area. It’s approximately 2,000 years old. While I absolutely believe it is necessary to reexamine the word of God and revisit our practice regularly in order to really understand what we are doing and why, any expectation that we may suddenly discover something nobody has ever seen before in Paul’s role-related teaching should be treated as highly suspicious.

Thus we should not be surprised to find that the HUB writers are asking questions others have already answered, and have answered both accurately and repeatedly. It could hardly be otherwise. Do you have a copy of Precious Seed’s Church Doctrine & Practice (unbelievably, still available on on your bookshelf? It was compiled between 1945 and 1970, and a mere ten pages from it shed considerably more light on this subject than all four WAMS blog posts combined. If there was something lacking in Frank Holmes’ or A.G. Clarke’s treatment of the subject, I’d be more than happy to give that deficiency prayerful consideration. I’m not saying they didn’t miss something, but surely their hard work, which has stood up for so many years, can be employed to narrow the scope of the HUB’s extensive questioning of existing church practices just a tiny little bit.

“Outside the gatherings of the assembly [a gifted woman] has a large field”, wrote Holmes way back when. How has this well-trodden subject suddenly become so impossible to navigate and its various aspects so thoroughly muddled?

Does nobody in the “assemblies” possess a copy of William MacDonald’s New Testament commentary? MacDonald is by no means the final word on any subject, but his labor of many years deals with pretty much every aspect of the roles issue currently being revisited on the HUB pages.

Anything MacDonald, Holmes or Clarke are alleged to have neglected or mishandled, I would be happy to take my own comparatively feeble shot at. First come, first served.

Principle 4: Not all questions are good questions.

To date, the HUB folks have asked more questions than they offer answers. Questions are not bad things if you ask them with a definite destination in mind; the Lord used them for that purpose all the time: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Of course the Lord knew precisely where he intended to move that conversation.

On the other hand, it seems to me counterproductive to lob out questions a mile a minute unless you already have something useful and edifying in mind and intend to say it clearly before you’re done. Not all questions are good questions (“Did God actually say …?” comes to mind). I trust the HUB writers will get where they are going at some point, but so far we are left with a lot of assurances that they have no particular agenda to push, no specific changes to advance and may not even be 100% sure what they think about these things themselves:
“We intend to foster discussion not to come across as absolute authorities on any subject.” (the WAMS disclaimer)

“The goal of this article is not to push for wholesale changes or any change at all.” (Kruszelnicki)

“When godly men and women see things a bit differently than a traditional reading, it raises questions.” (Veenstra)

“I’m not saying [mainstream Christian culture] is right and that we should follow it.” (Veenstra)

“I fully confess that I am on this journey of learning, as we all are, and don’t hold this view dogmatically.” (Paul)
Either the writers of these articles are unsure where they are going, or they know all too well and are simply not telling us up front. (I think the latter unlikely.) Still, both options seem suboptimal.

I believed, and so I spoke” is the normal order of operations. If you’re not sure yet what position you want to advance, why not wait until you are? The status quo is not so desperately in need of being kicked over that it requires help from tentative Christians just poking the bear or stirring the pot.

Principle 5: Not all “difficulties” are so very difficult.

The HUB writers multiply alleged “difficulties” for us. Again, I’m all for raising difficulties if you have some idea how to resolve them and intend to teach what you have discovered. If you haven’t and don’t, then why test the faith of others who may not have come as far as you have?

As it turns out, many of these “difficulties” and “challenges” are a little dubious, and some are flat-out red herrings. Others only arise because the writer has made assumptions that are either contestable or just plain wrong.

My list of WAMS disputables to date:
  • There is absolutely zero indication that Priscilla, Anna (who predates the church!), Philip’s daughters who prophesied, Euodia or Syntyche ever uttered a word in a church meeting or did anything else contrary to Paul’s teaching about roles. None. Nor should we reasonably dismiss Paul’s instructions about silence in church gatherings even if they did.
  • The idea that headship is a product of the Fall is mistaken (it’s “as in Adam all die”, not “as in Eve” or “as in Adam and Eve”). I am happy to dedicate a blog post to that subject any time.
  • Conflating roles with value is a category error. The fact that men and women are both made in the image of God has zero bearing on the particular roles assigned to each.
  • There seems to be ongoing confusion about the appropriate use of spiritual gifts (i) within the Body of Christ generally, (ii) in the world, and (iii) in church meetings. Many (if not most) spiritual gifts were intended for use primarily outside the formal gatherings of the saints.
  • Prophecy and teaching are not synonyms. Unless we are prepared to argue that the gift of prophecy is still being given today, then what women prophets may have done in New Testament times when the gift was being given is irrelevant to any discussion of church order today even if they did prophesy in church (and we have no evidence they did).
  • It is difficult to see how the possibility that some women have verbal spiritual gifts leads inexorably to the conclusion that there must be ways for women to use these gifts in church meetings. This does not follow at all.
  • History is not doctrine. What Ruth or Esther did in the Old Testament has nothing to do with women’s gifts, roles and responsibilities in our day.
  • “No spiritual gift is restricted to either gender.” This may well be true, but we have zero hard evidence of it and no reason to expect this detail should have been shared with us by God. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Principle 6: Some changes are easier to roll back than others.

Suppose your church decided to ditch one-man platform ministry in favor of a small group of gifted teachers discussing a subject or passage together. You might later discover that the necessary gift to do this regularly was not present in your church, or that the new practice was confusing, unprofitable and led to disunity. You could likely still revert to your former practices the very next week with hardly a ripple.

On the other hand, if you decide to experiment with women praying audibly in the meetings of the local church or “sharing” in small group meetings held every Wednesday night, and later discover that the results of these new exercises in liberty are equally unprofitable (or worse, conclude too late that they are genuinely unbiblical), good luck rolling that one back. In the current political climate it will never happen.

The ditches on either side of the ‘reexamination road’ are littered with vehicles. Those who wish to travel down it are therefore cautioned to do so with care. I’m not saying don’t go there, just don’t go there casually and without clear purpose.

And, yeah, mind those ditches.


  1. The book you referenced in today’s post is
    available directly from Precious Seed.

    As you can see from the above link, the price is considerably less than on Amazon.

    1. No kidding! Thanks, Patrick. I've had mine for thirty years. It's a staple.

    2. Thank you for this segment. Others seem to be seeking to question rather than presenting good clear truth.

  2. Rest assured, there are no ominous or bait-and-switch motives. If you'll allow me to share the rest of the paragraph that you cited above, very much out of context. I trust you will be able to discern the whole of my motives – it is not veiled. I’m a pretty open guy:

    "The goal of this article is not to push for wholesale changes or any change at all, but to emphasize that belief in complementary gender roles is not an assembly distinctive. Many other churches and denominations hold to important distinctions in the roles of men and women, they simply draw a different line than ours.

    In the same way, it is very possible for an assembly to engage in thoughtful, prayerful and respectful conversations about the extent of women participation in any one of their meetings without rejecting biblical gender roles. Can women share prayer requests or participate audibly in a discussional Bible study? Can they call out a hymn or pray out loud? These conversations do not represent a rejection of the distinctions between men and women. Instead, they are a healthy debate over the location of the line.

    The principle is biblical. It’s application is a matter of prayer and discernment. Otherwise stated, a belief in complementarianism does not necessarily result in identical complementarian practices."

    There are ways of reaching out to any one of the writers on assembly hub and engaging non-anonymously if you have any future concerns. Biblical ways. I would expect that anyone who “calls someone out” publically has reached out to them privately first to have a discussion, or to get clarification if that is what you’re looking for.

    For my part, I’d be glad to chat with you directly – my articles have my real name on them so you could always look me up. To make it easier though, I have shared my full contacts by personal email, in case you’d like to meet for coffee. I hope that we could encourage each other in the Lord. Please know that I will not be responding electronically beyond these two corrections on your article. Truly, I am praying fervently that your blog would find a whole new gear, and a whole new level of readership as you contend for truth with love – in all of its true expressions.

    1. See my remarks about quotations and context below.

      For the record, I am not "calling anyone out". None of this is personal, and I have zero animosity toward anyone quoted here. I am merely responding in a public forum to opinions about my very favorite book that have been published in the most public forum of all.

      I'm not sure if you're thinking of Matthew 18:15 as being the correct procedure to follow between believers in these sorts of circumstances. If so, I would have to disagree. I'm not claiming anyone quoted here has "sinned against" me or "offended" me in any way, which is the Matthew situation. This is not in the least personal.

      I must confess I am unsure how iron can sharpen iron without at least the occasional spark.

  3. The author of two of the assemblyHUB posts quoted above has emailed me the following extended quotes from her post, which she feels present a much more accurate picture of what she said in her article:

    "I’m not saying their example is right and that we should follow it. (Actually, it’s the exact opposite.) I’m saying that we need solid answers when we say it’s wrong. We need to make sure our practices are Biblically based, and not merely tradition.”

    "And while we don’t take our cues from other denominations, obviously many evangelical denominations see more freedom in the given scriptural parameters. They allow women to exercise their gifts in a more public way than most assemblies. When godly men and women see things a bit differently than a traditional reading, it raises questions.”

    She has also asked that I redact her name from the article, which I
    have done. (I trust I got them all.)

    I should point out three things:

    (1) As with everything quoted here, the context of [redacted]'s remarks has been available via link since March 10, when my comments were originally posted. No reader who wanted to see it has ever been deprived of the author's context.

    (2) Quotations are necessarily truncated versions of an author's remarks. Where to cut them is always a judgment call. Whether these accurately represent the whole is up to the reader to judge.

    (3) My blog email is currently down, and I can only respond to emails received publicly, in the comment section here. Since that may not be what either of the two authors who have requested anonymity would prefer, I will do so privately when I am able.

    1. Thank you.

    2. I'm good. Thanks for your attention.