Some reflections on a church that has recently embraced egalitarianism

Last night I watched Pastor Pete Briscoe give his rationale for leading his church to welcome female elders to their leadership structure (see above). Briscoe pastors Bent Tree Bible Fellowship, a large congregation in the metro area of Dallas, Texas. His sermon amounts to a recitation of long-standing egalitarian readings of scripture. I admire that Briscoe and the elders made a public presentation of the decision and their justification for it. They have laid their cards on the table, and that is a good thing. But I still think their reasoning is flawed on many points. I am not going to give a point-by-point rebuttal. That would go beyond what is feasible in a single blog post. I would simply highlight three concerns that I think are salient in this particular case.

1. Briscoe and the elders say that they intend to be a “conservative” church that maintains a tenacious commitment to the inerrancy of scripture. That is something to be thankful for. There are many who join feminist readings of scripture to a more explicit repudiation of the Bible’s integrity and authority. Briscoe and the elders do not wish to do that. Still, whether they realize this or not, the theological rationale for their decision is at odds with a commitment to the Bible’s authority. On this point, I think Lig Duncan has well said:

The denial of complementarianism undermines the church’s practical embrace of the authority of Scripture (thus eventually and inevitably harming the church’s witness to the Gospel). The gymnastics required to get from “I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,” in the Bible, to “I do allow a woman to teach and to exercise authority over a man” in the actual practice of the local church, are devastating to the functional authority of the Scripture in the life of the people of God.

By the way, this is one reason why I think we just don’t see many strongly inerrantist-egalitarians (meaning: those who hold unwaveringly to inerrancy and also to egalitarianism) in the younger generation of evangelicalism. Many if not most evangelical egalitarians today have significant qualms about inerrancy, and are embracing things like trajectory hermeneutics, etc. to justify their positions. Inerrancy or egalitarianism, one or the other, eventually wins out.

Obviously, I am thankful for anyone who expresses a clear commitment to inerrancy. But that does not negate the very real concern about the hermeneutical principles that they have embraced.

2. Briscoe and the elders rely heavily upon William Webb’s trajectory hermeneutic. If you are unfamiliar with this, here it is in a nutshell. Webb argues that the Bible’s ethical position is often one of development, moving from an inferior ethic to an ultimate ethic. On this view, our goal is not merely to discern the ethical position of scripture but the ethical trajectory of scripture.

That trajectory suggests that we might reach an ethical ideal that is better than what is reflected in scripture itself. An example of this would be slavery. The Bible endorses slavery, but we now know that was wrong. So we reject slavery even though the Bible endorses it. Likewise, the Bible may teach male headship in marriage and church leadership, but we now know that was wrong. So we reject male headship even though the Bible clearly teaches it.

This way of reading scripture is precisely the kind of thing that Duncan warns about. It is a hermeneutic that teaches readers to treat their own notions about justice and fairness as more advanced and developed than that of scripture. In short, it teaches readers to stand in judgement over scripture. It’s a hermeneutical approach that militates against the Bible’s integrity and authority.For a more extensive treatment of Webb’s work, you should read the reviews by Tom Schreiner and Wayne Grudem. Grudem concludes his review this way:

I believe [Webb’s work] is a deeply flawed book that fundamentally contradicts the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura because it nullifies in principle the moral authority of the entire NT and replaces it with the moral authority of a “better ethic,” an ethic that Webb claims to be able to discover through a complex hermeneutical process entirely foreign to the way God intended the Bible to be read, understood, believed, and obeyed. Because a denial in principle of the moral authority of the NT commands is at the heart of the whole system, and because the system denies the historical accuracy of the creation account, I do not believe Webb’s “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” should be accepted as a valid system for evangelicals today.

Many evangelicals sounded the alarm about Webb’s work 15 years ago. Those concerns have not diminished at all after these many years. No church is served well by a hermeneutical approach that undermines the authority of scripture, and that’s what Webb’s work does.

3. Briscoe says that he wants Bent Tree to be a place where people can agree to disagree over this issue. He even cites a conversation with Darrell Bock, a member who disagrees with the elders but who also says it is not an issue worth dividing over. I think this point of view is mistaken. At the end of the day, a church will either ordain women pastors or they won’t. There’s no middle ground on that question. You may have people in the church who hold a complementarian position, but their views on the issue have no standing at all where male headship is denied in practice. Furthermore, if the hermeneutical issues are as serious as I have indicated above, then it would be a matter of faithfulness for Christians to contend against such teaching. Mark Dever has written prophetically on this point:

It seems to me and others (many who are younger than myself) that this issue of egalitarianism and complementarianism is increasingly acting as the watershed distinguishing those who will accommodate Scripture to culture, and those who will attempt to shape culture by Scripture. You may disagree, but this is our honest concern before God. It is no lack of charity, nor honesty. It is no desire for power or tradition for tradition’s sake. It is our sober conclusion from observing the last 50 years…

Of course there are issues more central to the gospel than gender issues. However, there may be no way the authority of Scripture is being undermined more quickly or more thoroughly in our day than through the hermeneutics of egalitarian readings of the Bible. And when the authority of Scripture is undermined, the gospel will not long be acknowledged. Therefore, love for God, the gospel, and future generations, demands the careful presentation and pressing of the complementarian position.

If these concerns are valid (and I believe they are), then the issue would definitely be one worth dividing over.

There is much more that can and should be said about this, but I will end here. I’m glad that the elders at Bent Tree have stated their views so clearly and have opened up a public conversation. Although I disagree with them, I hope and pray the best for Bent Tree. I think the elders are mistaken on this one and would do well to reconsider what the Bible teaches. If all sides are committed to the authority of scripture, then perhaps we have some common ground upon which to persuade one another. The issue is certainly important enough for us to try.

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