Complementarianism and Courage
Courage is determined by one’s social group. It takes no courage at Northern Seminary to affirm women in ministry while it might take more than a little courage in some TGC churches or conferences to stand publicly for women as senior pastors and pulpit preachers. To say it again, it takes no courage in TGC settings to stand against women in ministry while it would take some courage to stand up in a class at Northern and oppose women pastors. Thus, for the folks in this video to posture themselves as courageous is to say they are in a safe tribe that will support their views. It takes no courage for them to say folks in other settings don’t have their courage. Put differently, the claim of courage is little more than patting one another on the back.
To which my response is: yeah, but. Courage is obviously contextual, and in that sense, determined by one’s social group. It took a huge amount of courage to defend gay relationships fifty years ago; these days, it often takes a huge amount of courage not to; and the reason is that the predominant consensus of the social group to which we belong has changed. So, to the extent that your church represents your social circle, it is probably very easy to say things and do things which your church agrees with, and perhaps to congratulate yourself for being bold enough to say and do them. So far, so good.
But three factors make it a bit more complicated than that. The first is that almost nobody does ministry “in TGC settings.” It takes virtually no courage to oppose women elders in a TGC video discussion with Keller, Piper and Carson, and I don’t think anyone is claiming that it does. What they are claiming, I think, is that for most Americans - and it is even more true in the UK - it takes courage to oppose women elders in normal, day-to-day life, when you get asked about it by your neighbours, or relatives, or visitors to your church, or local journalists, or people who have been hurt by complementarian churches in the past, or even just fellow pastors or writers. Admittedly, talking about complementarian values in a hotel ballroom in Louisville is easy. But talking about them in Manhattan or Minneapolis, which is where they (and everyone else) spend the vast majority of their time, is a lot harder.
The second, as I’ve said here before, is that in this particular cultural moment, pushing “right” is a lot harder than pushing “left.” Contemporary secular culture is well to the left of the Bible on most things it teaches. Non-Christian Britain, like America, thinks the Scriptures are backward on all sorts of topics, including judgment, evolution, tradition, war, marriage, slavery, sexual ethics, holiness, gender roles, and the idea of teaching doctrine in the first place. So when we push to the left, we are almost without exception moving closer to what the culture around us thinks, and that makes the process much more comfortable for us. (I’m not saying, of course, that pushing to the left is thereby wrong, merely that it is easy - and therefore that, if I know my own heart, the temptation to distort the Bible to get there is likely to be more acute.) Moving to the right, on the other hand, makes us more likely to be ridiculed by The New York Times, Stephen Fry, the writers of sitcoms, our social network, and all the other cool-ade people we desperately want to like us. It shouldn’t, but that does make it harder.
And the third factor is simply the witness of the individuals concerned. Obviously, I have no independent means of verifying whether it requires courage for Don Carson or Tim Keller to hold to complementarian practice in their church, and how that compares with the courage required for an egalitarian to do the equivalent. But at the very least, I think I should take seriously their claim that it does, and that this is not merely a question of patting themselves on the back. I’ve been in a few theological scuffles over the last few years - some with people across the world, and some with people in my church, and even in my home -and it is certainly my experience that the desire to capitulate on certain hot-button issues is pretty strong. How easy it would be to back down on X, or fudge Y, or just not make Z an issue: more people would like me, and let’s face it, my view could well be wrong. (Again, none of this means I’m right about X, Y or Z, merely that I’m being truthful when I say that holding those views requires courage.) And my experience is also that being attacked by someone more conservative than me, like Ken Ham on evolution or Dan Phillips on inerrancy, makes me feel validated, contemporary and heroic, while being attacked by someone more aligned with modern culture, like Pete Enns on Scripture or (insert name here) on gender difference, makes me feel deflated, morose, unpopular, unfashionable, and tempted to duck the issue next time. My guess - though it is just that - is that Carson, Piper and Keller find the same principle at work, only (given their platforms) on a much larger scale.
So much as I get Scot’s point, and agree with it in the abstract - not least in the blows that get traded over gay marriage, in which everyone seems to be courageous in their own narrative (as Owen Strachan points out here) - I think there’s more to it than that in this particular case. And no, before you ask: it doesn’t take a huge amount of courage to write this post. I’m saving that for the next time I write about equality.