Perhaps one of the more sobering truths about the egalitarian-complementarian debate is the reality that more is at stake than just the interpretation of a few words or a few verses. Rather, our whole vision of God is altered by how we view the nature of authority relationships. This is so because authority relationships plainly exist within both the immanent Trinity and the economic functioning of the Trinity.
As it has been noted, the husband is given authority over the wife in 1 Cor. 11:3 because “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Since the word kephalē has never been acknowledged as meaning anything other than “one in authority over another,” we must plainly see that this verse is teaching not only that men are to submit to Christ and that wives are to submit to husbands, but that the example for these requirements to submit is the relationship of Christ submitting to his Father. This example is important because it clearly shows that there can at the same time exist 1) equality in a relationship, and 2) an authority structure within a relationship.
Within the Trinitarian relationship, the Father “gave” his Son (Jn. 3:16) and “sent” the Son (Jn. 3:17, 34; 4:34; 8:42; Gal. 4:4; etc.). The Father predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29; cf. 1 Pet. 1:2) and “chose us in the Son” before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). The Son is obedient to the commands of the Father (Jn. 12:49; Phil. 2:5-10) and confessed that he had come to “do the will” of the Father who “sent him” (Jn. 4:34; 6:38). God the Father created the world “through” his Son (Jn. 1:3; Heb. 1:2; 1 Cor. 8:6). These relationships are never reversed. The Son never initiates of his own will, never directs the Father, never creates through the Father, never sends the Father. The Father never speaks the words that the Son gives him to speak. The Son sits at the right hand of the Father (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 1:3, 13; 1 Pet. 3:22; etc.). The Father never sits at the right hand of the Son.
These relationships are proven to be eternal (ie. they exist in the immanent Trinity and are not limited to the economic functioning of the Trinity while Christ was on earth) for several reasons. It is easily seen that the Father created the world through the Son (see above). Even before the creation of the world, however, the Father chose his elect in Christ to be reconciled to him through Christ (Eph. 1:4-5). Furthermore, passages such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 make it plain that it was the predetermined and definite plan of God the Father that Christ would come and suffer for the sins of his people (interpretation affirmed by NT preaching; Acts 2:23). Moreover, it is plainly visible in John 17, at the end of Christ’s earthly ministry that he viewed both his words and his own followers as those which God the Father had given him. After the defeat of death, at the consummation of all things, Christ remains under the authority of God the Father who has always held all authority (1 Cor. 15:26-28).
God is one and all parts of the Trinity remain equal in holiness, worth, beauty, etc., yet there is clearly presented within the Trinity an authority structure relationship. All this has yet said nothing about the Holy Spirit who is portrayed as being under the authority of both Father and Son, yet is himself in authority over neither of the others. We must allow this picture to form our understanding of value and authority in a culture that views being in authority as great and being under authority as horrible. The picture of submission within Scripture itself shows that submission to a rightful authority is a beautiful, noble, even wonderful task because it models the Trinity itself. Thus the husband is seen as a picture of Christ (because he is an authority over his wife, as Christ is authority over man) and the woman is seen as a picture of Christ (because Christ is under the authority of the Father and gladly submits to his will). Both positions in the relationship are godly and God-glorifying.
When providing the basis for his statements with regard to the male-female authority relationship, the writer of the God-inspired text almost always appeals to an eternal principle, outside the realm of sin and never once does he appeal to the secular culture of his day.[i]
In 1 Cor. 11 Paul makes it clear that “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (v 3). The Greek kephalē (“head”) has always referred—without exception—to one who has authority over the other. While many egalitarians have attempted to make kephalē mean “source”, this meaning is absolutely without precedent and cannot even be verified as a legitimate possible meaning for the word (and that is without even dealing with the context which clearly shows that an authority in relationship is within the purview). [See this article, originally published in JETS, for more.] Paul’s point is clear: Inasmuch as the relationship of Christ to God, or man to Christ cannot be altered by time or culture, so it is clear that the relationship between husband and wife cannot be altered by time or culture.
In Eph. 5 Paul draws the parallel of husband and wife to Christ and the church. In no uncertain terms, he states this repeatedly. “For the husband is the head (kephalē) of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its saviour” (v 23). So Christ is the head of the church and the church (his bride) is his body. Thus the command in v 28, “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies,” because Christ’s bride is his body. “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (v 24). Again, the wife is to submit to the husband every bit as much and in every way as the church submits to Christ (hence, Christ is the Lord of the church, vis-à-vis the command in v 22 to submit to the husband “as to the Lord”). Continuing on, the apostle draws out in great detail how the husband is to love his wife sacrificially “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v 25). As if it were not enough in this instance to refer to the relationship of Christ and the church, Paul relates the marriage of Christians (after the redemptive work of Christ) to the marriage of Adam and Eve before the fall and quotes Gen. 2:24! He, by inference, is saying that by maintaining this order, the Christian marriage will uphold God’s plan for marriage as it was before the entering of sin into the world as well as modelling Christ’s relationship to his church to a sinful world.
In 1 Tim. 2:13-14 Paul refers to creation (before the fall) as the reason why the women in the family of God are to be characterized by good works and a quiet and submissive spirit (vv 10-12). As noted above, the creation order is significant to Paul, the inspired OT commentator, who says “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (v 13).
This reasoning is true even beyond the scope of Paul’s writing. Peter, too, when he commands the continual observance of the authority relationship between husband and wife (1 Pet. 3:1-7) cites God’s desires, and the approved tradition and pattern of holy women. Women are exhorted to let their “adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (v 4). Indeed it is precious, because it is what Eve was created to be! This is the reversal of the effects of the fall whereby the woman’s desire is against her husband, to usurp his authority. In the tradition of the “holy women who hoped in God” (v 5), the NT wife is to submit to her husband. The husband is to honour his wife and live with her in an understanding way (not rule over her harshly, as in the curse), but he is to remember that she is a fellow heir with him of the grace of life.
Thus it can be seen that the repeated pattern of the NT authors was to not rely on the realities of their own sinful, transitory and shifting culture for the pattern of a God-honouring husband-wife relationship, but to refer back to either an eternal relationship which cannot change (viz., Christ and the church, Christ and God, man and Christ) or else to refer to God’s original creation before the effects of sin (viz., creation order, purpose in creation), or both. Never did an apostle base his argument for the authority relationship of husband and wife on culture—not even once.
[i] The example of 1 Cor. 7 might be cited as an exception. In that case, however, the authority over each other’s bodies is contextually limited to the sexual relationship within marriage. Moreover, the only actual concession to culture in that instance is that men and women should indeed marry rather than remain single, because it is better to marry engage in God-pleasing expressions of sexuality than to be “aflame with passion.
It is purported by some that since Paul’s instructions to slaves and masters are now passé, it can be argued backward, that his instructions to wives must also be cultural, and thus passé as well. This is rejected outright for the following three reasons:
1)The Structure of Marriage was Ordained Pre-Fall. Slavery, on the other hand is most definitely a result of the fall. Scripture clearly acknowledges, then regulates, minimizes and mitigates the effects of slavery (particularly in the nation of Israel). The commands about slavery may in fact be deemed to be temporary because of their origin (post-fall), but the analogy fails with the marriage relationship because it originated and was ordered before the effects of sin (see above).
2)The Consistent Picture. Throughout Scripture marriage is pictured as good (cf. Song of Solomon). Though sometimes effected by the fall so that it was not practiced as intended (Gen. 3:16; OT practice of polygamy / harems, etc), in the NT, as a result of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross which reverses the effects of the fall, marriage is defined with all the more clarity (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:22ff; Col. 3:18-19; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1; cf. elder qualifications in 1 Tim. 3:2ff and Titus 1:6ff). While slavery is pictured as a result of sin and the effects are mitigated, the order in marriage is consistently seen as good, particularly after the redemption accomplished in Christ.
3)The Parent-Child Analogy. While egalitarians argue backward for the abolition of the authority of the husband on the basis of the temporality of the commands to slaves, they ignore the logical and necessary implications with regards to the parent-child relationship. In fact, this must be intentional, because the parent-child relationship is discussed in between the commands to husbands and wives and the commands to slaves and masters (this shows intentional manipulation of the text). If it is true that the authority relationships discussed with regards to slaves and masters and husbands and wives are all passé, then what becomes of the commands to children to obey their parents? It must be supposed that a mutual submission would be the ideal state (cf. the egalitarian interpretation of Eph. 5:21) in that regard as well, if the logic is applied consistently. Therefore, parents should have no more authority over children than children have over the parents.
Historical Novelty of “Mutual Submission” Overruling Authority Relationships
It is worth noting that not until 1971, after significant strides had been made in the west by the feminist movement did a single commentator ever present this argument from Eph. 5:21. In contrast to that, commentators as early as Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) and John Chrysostom (c. 345-407), right through Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Calvin (1509-1564), to Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), John Wesley (1703-1791), and Charles Hodge (1797-1878) all saw the classical complementarian interpretation as being plainly in view (namely that the instruction to submit to others in the church is qualified by the instructions that follow which detail some specific authority relationships).
Galatians 3:28 in no way abolishes gender distinctions, but rather, the false assumptions that value or worth could somehow be attached to the simple identification of an individual as a slave, free man, Jew, Gentile, male, or female. (After all, if it really did abolish gender distinctions, then how could homosexuality be wrong?) Rather, the text says that in Christ, all were purchased at the same price (the context of the book is obviously justification), and in creation all were equally made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).
Mutual submission, as presented by egalitarians (so as to abolish the existence of an authority within a relationship), does not fit with the flow of Paul’s argument in Eph. 5 (wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters). Moreover, it does not fit with the established meaning of hypotassō which is always indicative of submission to an authority. The use of allēlous (“one another”) does not necessarily convey the idea of “everyone to everyone” in its common usage. Although it sometimes can indicate this (cf. Mark 9:50; John 13:34; Phil. 2:3), full reciprocity is sometimes obviously not even possibly in view (cf. Matt. 24:10; Luke 2:15; 12:1; 24:32; 1 Cor. 11:33; Gal. 6:2; Rev. 6:4; etc.). In light of the particularly odd construction (“submit unilaterally to one in authority to one another”) it must be deemed best to allow the context (the ellipsis in the original undisputedly indicates a continuation of thought from 5:21 to 5:22) to determine exactly what Paul means. Given the explanation and examples that follow, the best understanding of hypotassō allēlousis “be subject to others in the church who are in positions of authority over you.” In other words, even though you are all one in Christ, do not use this as an excuse to forsake all authority relationships (which are shown elsewhere to be established by God; cf. Rom. 13:1-7), but continue to submit to one another, where authority relationships exist. This is the best meaning linguistically, since it stays the closest to the invariably attested meaning of hypotassō and the contextually interpreted allēlous. It is also the best option contextually because it moves best with the flow of thought in Eph. 5, moving from the whole corporate body to specific application in the home life.
Furthermore, if the idea of mutual submission was the original intent of Paul, then it must also be applied to Christ and the church (Paul’s own divinely inspired illustration). This is a concept that is never attested to anywhere in the Bible and seems illogical at best and blasphemous at worst.
It is also notable that in the explanations of authority relationships that follow Eph. 5:21, Paul takes care to indicate how, in each relationship, the one in authority is to carry out that authority properly, in a God-glorifying manner. The husband loves his wife (vv 25-33), the father does not provoke his children (6:4), and the master desists from threatening and remembers that he too has a master (6:9). This is further proof that Paul clearly has in mind relationships with a source of unilateral authority and does not desire the abolition of those authority structures.
The idea of mutual submission overruling a wife’s submission to her husband as one in an authority position is also inconsistent with other instructions on ordering the NT home (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1). None of the other passages which carry such instructions for the authority of the husband include any statement that would even vaguely suggest “mutual submission.” Moreover, writing to the culture that he was, Paul would not have needed to tell the wife to submit to the husband (if mutual submission was his intent), but rather, he would have had to make it very clear that the husband was now to submit to the wife. “Husbands submit to your wives” would have been the newest revelation and is what would have needed clarifying and emphasizing. Nowhere in Scripture is such a statement even hinted at. Nevertheless, the commands for wives to submit to husbands are multiple. The classical complementarian position is established therefore by allowing Scripture to interpret itself (as Eph. 5:22ff; 1 Cor. 11:3; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1 all clarify Paul’s meaning in Eph. 5:21). This is much preferred over the egalitarian argument which pits a false Greek construction of Eph. 5:21 over against the rest of the NT teaching on husband-wife relationships.
The purpose of this article is simple: It is my intention to lay out the foundational reasoning for why we believe what we do about the order of the male-female relationship. It is my conviction that the God-ordained roles assigned to men and women (within church and marriage) are clearly laid out in Scripture and are eternal principles which are beautiful when exemplified and always glorifying to the God who has created us exactly as he has.
Complementarians have no reason to be ashamed of these roles, but ought to proclaim them as divinely handed-down and very good in the eyes of God and men (Gen. 1:31). The complementarian position is not indefensible, nor is it academically insufficient or in anyway logically inferior. It is not old-fashioned, but has been the “holy” (1 Pet. 3:5) order of relationships for all time. It is the historically attested position of the church of Jesus Christ and is based upon the perfect triune relationship of God, the relationship of Christ and his bride, and the relationship of Christ to humanity. This position, as it will be shown, can be argued (and indeed must be argued) entirely from Holy Writ and no other source.
It never ceases to amaze me that in “evangelicalism” it seems that somehow, just by sheer volume of material and popular opinion, the egalitarian position has managed to shift the burden of proof back on the complementarians. That is bizarre. It would seem to me that the group clearly acting in opposition to quite perspicuous biblical commands would have the burden of proof on them. Still more odd is the fact that when complementarians simply respond by citing the same Scriptures over and over again in response to every new egalitarian argument, this is seen as a weakness. But wasn’t it our claim all along that our only backing for our position was Scripture? It’s a shame that egalitarians claim that same principle, yet in their argumentation show what they truly hold to be persuasive (see the appendix on “gullibility” in William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals, for example).
Man and woman were created as equals; both alike in the image of God, with the same worth, dignity and honour associated with this image. Though both maintain the same value, there have been complementary roles assigned to men and women within the realms of marriage and the governance of the body of believers. The man is to lovingly and sacrificially lead, love, protect and provide for his wife as Christ has loved his bride. The woman is to live out a quiet and gracious spirit in a life characterized by good works and chastity, all the while joyfully submitting to her husband’s authority. All women are not subject to all men, but wives are subject to their own husbands. Within the formal gathering together of the body of believers for worship, positions of authority are limited to males who meet many specific character quality tests.
Our Foundation: The Bible as Canon
God has inspired his Holy Word which is our authoritative rule in all matters of faith and practice throughout the centuries (2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:1-2; 2 Pet. 1:16-21).
While some passages of Scripture are more difficult to interpret than others (2 Pet. 3:14-18), this does not necessitate another authority or turning to outside sources. Even the difficult words and texts of Scripture can be understood as seen within the context, as interpreted from the original languages, and most importantly, with the help of God (2 Tim. 2:7). The Scriptures alone are sufficient (2 Tim. 3:10-17).
God created the world and all that is in it and declared it very good as it was (Gen. 1:31). As result of sin, all of creation was subjected to the curse of judgment which brought death to all (cf. Gen. 3), and distorted the relationships between men, women, and animals (Gen. 3:8-24). It may then be concluded that the order established in creation before the fall was entirely according to God’s design, not man’s, and that restoration in the order of all creation is what Christians should desire, though it can come about only through the removal of sin.[ii]
The Order of the Male-Female Relationship Prior to Sin
Male and female are created as equals; both are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27; 5:1-2).
The distinction in roles given for men and women are seen to be present before the fall. Therefore, they ought to be desired and preserved by all who seek to please God. This can be seen in no fewer than nine ways:
1)The Order. Adam was created before Eve in the biblical account (Gen. 2:7, 18-23). According to the NT, this is of utmost importance for the continuing governance of the male-female relationship (cf. 1 Tim. 2:12-13).
2)The Representation. Adam was given the role of representing the race as a whole. This is confirmed in the NT by the fact that even though Eve was the first to sin, we are told that we are all guilty because all sinned in Adam, not Eve (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22). Throughout the NT Christ is compared as the representative of his people with Adam, the representative of his people (1 Cor. 15:45-49; Rom. 5:12-21). Seeing as how it was Eve who first sinned and led Adam into sin, unless there was some reality of the headship of Adam already present, it should have been Eve listed in the NT as our representative.
3)The Naming of the Woman. There is a motif of naming that would have been easily observable to the original reader throughout the early chapters of Genesis. This is important to notice because in every single instance the one doing the naming has implicit authority over the one being named. In Genesis 1:5, 8, and 10, God is the one naming specifics of his creation. In chapter 2:19-20 (after the reader has already been informed that man has been given authority over the animals, 1:26, 28) man is given the charge of naming all the animals that God has created. Once woman is created, the same process occurs again, as woman is brought by God to man, and man names her (2:22-23). Obviously, as has already been stated, she is one in nature with man (“bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh”) and every bit as much an image-bearer of God as man (1:27), and therefore is not to be equalled in value with animals. In fact, she, with Adam in 1:28ff is given the charge of ruling over the animals and all God’s creation. She is one with him and created from him, an image-bearer of God, but there is still a role distinction made, as man is pictured as the one to have authority over the woman.
4)The Naming of the Human Race. When God created the human race (man and woman), he named them together, “Man” not “Woman” (Gen. 5:1-2; note the phrase “when they were created”—this was not a result of the fall, but most likely refers back to 1:26). “Adam” in the Hebrew is not a generic gender-neutral term to the Hebrew reader, who in the first four chapters has seen the same word used in 2:22, 23, 25; 3:8, 9, 12, and 20, (to cite a few examples; the word “Adam” has been used 13 times up to this point in Gen. 5 in this way) always to mean specifically “man” as opposed to “woman.” Of those 13 times, the word is used five times in those chapters as a proper name for Adam in distinction of Eve. Thus, in 5:1-2, the naming of the race “Man” with the same word is in effect saying, the woman shall take the man’s name; he is the representative head. God could well have given humanity a gender-neutral name, such as “humankind,” but he did not. With this perspective, knowing that God named them “Man” when they were created, this makes proper sense of 1:27 (“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”).
5)The Primary Accountability. After the sin of Eve and Adam, God came looking specifically for Adam to give account. Gen. 3:9 reads, “But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” In the Hebrew, “man”, “him”, and “you” are all singular. Even though Eve was the deceived, the first to sin, and the one to lead them into sin, God demanded that Adam give account. In Gen. 2:15-17, God gave the original command to Adam, and here God demands that Adam give account for the disobedience of his race. It is also significant that the Serpent spoke to Eve first, as if to invert the order God had decreed (Gen. 3:1).
6)The Purpose. According to the biblical account, Eve was created by God to be a helper for Adam. The term “helper” (Hebrew ’ezer) is not necessarily a term of subordination. In fact, it is quite often used of God himself as Israel’s helper throughout the OT. However, the one who is helping, for that time is seen to put himself in subordination to the one primarily responsible for the task at hand. According to Genesis 2, however, Eve was not Adam’s helper on occasion, but was in fact created for the very purpose of being Adam’s helper. She would be Adam’s helper in the carrying out of the charge already given to Adam (2:15-17). Despite the purpose of being a helper to Adam and Adam being the one bearing primary responsibility for the carrying out of the charge given by God, Eve is still very much seen as Adam’s equal, and in no way inferior because of her role distinction. The Hebrew for “fit for him” is kenegdô, which renders the phrase “a help corresponding to him,” that is, “equal and adequate to himself” (2:18).
7)The Conflict. The curse in no way introduced new roles for men and women, but rather, it simply perverted roles already established. Gen. 3:16 speaks of a woman’s “desire” being for/against her husband and of a husband “rul[ing]” over his wife as a result of the fall. The Hebrew formation of “desire for/against” (teshûqāh ’el) is used only here and in the following chapter (Gen. 4:7). The verses have incredible resemblances in structure and vocabulary and the latter is probably written with the purpose of recalling the former in the mind of the original reader. In both of these contexts, it seems that this construction means “an aggressive desire, perhaps a desire to conquer or rule over, or else an urge or impulse to oppose or act against.” The Hebrew word māshal (“rule”) is regular in the OT. It almost without exception implies rule by strength and force, often in an oppressive fashion. Thus, sin resulted in a perversion of the God-given roles of joyful “helping” and loving “providing for”. As a result of sin, woman would desire to usurp her husband’s authority (hate him for it) and the husband would rule the home and the world oppressively, in a harsh manner, by force of strength. Furthermore, the consequences meted out make all the more sense when put into this relational context. Woman would now have pain introduced to her area of responsibility (“in pain you shall bring forth children”), and man now has pain in his area of responsibility (“in pain you shall eat of [the ground] all the days of your life”). Thus we have pain introduced to the relationship between them (the conflict) and pain introduced in each of their areas of responsibility.
8)The Restoration. After the grand act of redemption and the re-ordering of things in Christ, we would expect to find the effects of the curse undone completely. And thus we do, affirms Paul: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (Col. 3:18-19). This statement is a direct command to undo the impulses created in the fall (to oppose or to usurp and to rule harshly).
9)The Mystery. A “mystery” in the writings of Paul generally refers to something understood vaguely, if at all, in the OT, but has been made clear in Christ. Thus, he refers to marriage as a reflection of Christ and the Church. Paul does not look at the culture surrounding him to analogize marriage, but to the perfect order of things in the Garden (prior to the fall) to instruct his readers how to live in marriage now (in the NT). Paul quotes from Genesis 2 “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24). This mystery is a profound one, but I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31-32). In other words, the relationship of husband and wife just described (Eph. 5:22-30) is a model of Eden (Gen. 2), and both (marriage before the curse and marriage after Christ’s work) are a picture of Christ and his bride (an eternal reality—not a picture from the culture of his day).
[i] Excepting the section still to come, titled “Apostolic Proof Texts”, almost all of what follows is taken from thoughts expressed in Wayne Grudem, ed., Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002). By and large this paper has been created as a summary of arguments put forward in this impressive volume. The thoughtful reader will want to study the original to delve into the arguments at a scholarly level.
[ii] That is not to say that the teleological end of all Christ’s work is a “return to Eden,” but it is to say that what was present in Eden was a right ordering of relationships. Ultimately, redemption in Christ brings much more than was ever promised or seen in Eden; thus the visions of the City of God in Revelation are much different and much better than anything experienced originally in Eden. Also, Jesus himself taught that in heaven there would be no marrying or giving in marriage (Matt. -33). Obviously, then, there is a different plan and order for humans post-resurrection. This does not nullify the point, however, that on earth, the authority relationship between a man and his wife was ordered before the fall and is confirmed after the work of redemption. Throughout Scripture and the entire movement of redemptive history, the husband-wife authority relationship is seen as very good.
One of my good friends recently had an invitation extended to him to go work for a church in Toronto as an evangelist and to preach every few weeks. It would be a great position for him because he is gifted for and passionate about evangelism. I have no d0ubt that our Lord will use him to call sinners to himself.
The church that was offering him the position is (as it appears now) dying. I know lots of other churches in this same situation… it seems all too common in Canada these days. It’s an elderly congregation (which is not bad!) but it is shrinking in size and in many ways the end appears near.
My friend was wondering if by going to the church he could potentially bring some new converts, help them reach the community, and restore some semblance of life in the congregation. I advised him not to go to the church, however, and here’s why: they have women elders.
For one thing, I know him and I know that long-term he would not be able to work as a pastor-elder in that situation, so I told him it would not be to the church’s benefit to have someone come who could not commit long-term.
The more important matter, as I see it though, is that a long time ago they abandoned the Bible’s clear teaching with regards to church leadership. Somewhere, at some point along the line someone stopped using the Bible as their final authority. That opened the door for pragmatism: ‘Our women are gifted and passionate, why should they not step into that role? We don’t have any men to take that role right now…’
In my mind a Christian who entrusts the eternal state of his soul to the words on the pages of our Bible should never begin to question it at places where it is hard to understand or apply. Why should we trust the what the Book says about this if we believe it for the most important matters we could ever possibly consider? Is it trust-worthy or not?
Anyway, it seems to me that neither my friend, nor any Bible-believing Christian should attempt to go revive that church. Let her die. What’s the alternative?
If you go there and evangelize and bring people to your church, you’re bringing them into a church which is standing on an already-eroding foundation. Bringing a new convert into that situation is like bringing a newborn baby into a room full of people with SARS (see 2 Tim 2.17 for a similar analogy). It’s inviting their peril.
Here’s why I think letting her die may well be the best option:
(1) The true Christians in the assembly will move on. They’ll find a church and minister and be ministered to there; they’ll be better off for it.
(2) The false professors will either find another dead church and continue on as they were. The official death of an already dying church will serve to separate the sheep and the goats and perhaps serve to help purify the physical local churches here and now.
The people I feel the most for in all these situations (and I know several) are the ones who are the true believers who are sensitive to their friends in their congregations and want more than anything to see revival come to their church. The death of the church they’ve attended for so many years would be incredibly hard for them for so many reasons… but in reality, you can’t but wonder what life is really left there to save.
Lloyd-Jones was right to tell others to get out of the Anglican church… he saw where it was heading. It doesn’t make sense to stay on a sinking ship when it becomes clear it’s going down.
Save your own soul, honour Christ; let the dead bury their own and follow him. Find a church where the Bible is taught, where the seats are filled with Christians, where you can minister and be ministered to. This is the only church against whom the gates of hell will not prevail.
Tertullian lived ca.150-ca.225 AD. He was born in Carthage, which is in North Africa (so he was probably a little darker than the picture would suggest). He was a man brilliantly gifted by God for writing. He wrote extensively on things like apologetics and ethics and often wrote polemically against the heretics of his day (eg. Marcion and Praxeas). He ably defended both Scriptures and the Trinity. In his writings–which are easily dated from the end of the second and early third centuries–Tertullian quotes from the New Testament, plainly citing it as being on par with Old Testament Scriptures, thus indicating an already accepted Canon, long before Nicaea.
All that said, Tertullian was not perfect (as no saint has ever been). Tertullian was associated with a movement in his day known as Montanism. Based on the teachings of a ‘Prophet’ named Montanus, this group believed that the age in which they lived was the dispensation of the Holy Spirit (the Old Testament was the dispensation of the Father, the Gospels were the dispensation of the Son). Since this was the age of the Holy Spirit, they relied heavily on prophecies and other miraculous revelatory gifts for their doctrine and ecclesiastical practice.
Citing John 16.12-13, Tertullian and the Montanists claimed that the ethics Jesus declared were not finally absolute, nor fully developed, but that they were all that the disciples were able to handle at that point in redemptive history. The Holy Spirit, who was to come, would then have the ministry of revealing a heightened ethic to Jesus’ followers in the days and years to come.
It is absolutely essential to notice, however, to what end Tertullian and friends used this position. They argued for the insufficiency of Scriptural ethics in several areas: namely, marriage / remarriage, and flight from persecution. Whereas Jesus had made allowances for both of these, the Holy Spirit was now teaching them to advance beyond what Scripture had revealed to a higher ethic.
Why in the world would they choose these areas? Because that’s what their culture demanded. Asceticism was the philosophical milk Tertullian had been raised on, and persecution had become the norm for Christians of their day. For Christianity to be consistent, relevant, and morally / ethically contemporary with the philosophical ideals of the day it needed to be advanced from what Scripture had revealed.
The irony, of course, is that looking back from about 1800 years later it seems absurd to us (in a completely removed culture) to suppose the Holy Spirit would counsel against marriage (or even remarriage after one’s spouse dies) or that he would specifically command that Christians not flee, but rather, seek persecution.
Since we don’t breathe that air, it smells real funny to us.
But here’s the thing: People today insist on making the same mistake as Tertullian and the Montanists. No, not with the marriage / remarriage thing or the persecution thing (in fact, we’re tempted to loosen the biblical commands here rather than tighten them), but rather, with the ordination of women to the position of elder, or to accept some forms of homosexuality as legitimate lifestyle alternatives.
People argue now, like Tertullian argued then, that the Bible’s ethics are unfinished; they merely establish a trajectory that we must follow, and by the guidance of the Spirit (and by finding the ‘spirit of the text’) we can ultimately determine a better ethic than the one laid out in Scripture.
But it’s all hoogly! I would be willing to bet–if any of us could be around–that 1800 years from now people will look back on our times and wonder why in the world we would think the Scriptures were insufficient in these areas.
Just like we look back on Tertullian and see him reading Scriptures and conforming Christianity to his culture, so we must see that we ourselves are always being tempted to do the same. The simple fact is that we live in a profoundly feminist, pro-gay culture. The pressure we face is always to accept these things. We have been raised and educated, indoctrinated from our youth to accept these things. The ‘highest’ of ethics in our culture is an accepting one that does not place boundaries on other people, especially when it comes to gender or ‘sexual preference.’
Those are our ‘hot-button issues’, just like Tertullian’s were asceticism and persecution. We must not be like him. We must stand firm and stick to the Scriptures. It is them alone which are able to make us wise for salvation, and them alone which equip us for every good work.
The real questions we must ask are not about whether women should be ordained as elders or homosexuality should be accepted; we already have the answers to those questions!
The real question that needs to be asked is this: Am I willing to stand on the authority of the word of God alone? Do I have enough faith in God to base my ethics on it, even when it makes me appear ‘morally backward’ in a culture of acceptance? Is God’s word enough?
For a fuller treatment of ‘Trajectory ethics’, see here.
For another post on the influence of asceticism on Christianity, see here.