Help! The Bishop says I'm Poisonous!

Late last night, I was so engrossed in reading Mike Horton's systematic theology that I thought I'd better do something else before bed so as not to be kept awake thinking about aseity. So, very foolishly, I turned to twitter. And that did keep me awake. And not with wonder-filled thoughts about the glories of the Triune God, but with thoughts altogether different.

The other week I managed to avoid saying much about the General Synod's discussion of woman bishops. At the time my attitude was rather along the lines of “it's not my communion, so it's not my place to comment”. But now it seems that the discussion is no longer confined to the communion of the Church of England. The anger of social media has now turned it's attention from the bastion of the establishment (think royal appointments, membership of the House of Lords and invitations to present Thought for the Day), to a group of undergraduates (about as far away from all of the above as you can possibly get).

And I feel for the undergraduates. I've been involved in CU. I know what it's like. Thankfully though, my involvement in CU was before the days of twitter! Now, a decade older and a church leader (hence, well used to criticism), I don't know how I'd cope with the barrage of criticism to which those poor student leaders are being subjected. When I was in CU, our goal was “to make Jesus known to students in Cambridge.” Substituting the relevant place name, I imagine that's why most people get involved in CU. And at the moment, many Christians in the world of social media seem intent both on making that task harder and on distracting the CUs from their true purpose. Pray for the CU in question and for UCCF in general, that God would keep their eyes fixed on Jesus and use them mightily in the spread of the gospel and the salvation of souls.

But, I'm not writing today about said CU. If that we're the only issue, I'd rather leave it alone and pray. However, what's been going on in the criticism levelled at one CU has shown itself to be something more. The twitter critics very quickly turned their attention to theology. For that is what is indeed at the heart of the matter.

The tweets got nasty last night. The Bishop of Willesdon proclaimed that complementarianism is “poisonous”. Of course, this is a bishop known for ridiculous social media pronouncements (yes, he's the one of royal engagement fame/infamy). But nevertheless, he's still a bishop, and, for those of us outside the Church of England, he's the chairman of Spring Harvest. And he wasn't alone. Vicky Beeching spoke of “theologies which marginalise and damage people”. And those were just two of the more prominent (and thus presumably more careful) egalitarians. Others wrote of “bad theology” and compared complementarianism to apartheid!

Now, in the wake of the General Synod, criticisms of complementarianism were made in the press and even in the House of Commons. But these were criticisms coming from outside the church, and often from those with little interest in Christianity. But now, this week, the criticisms are coming from within the church. And +Willesdon's “complementarianism poisonous” is much much harsher than than the Prime Minister's “get with the programme”.

I am a complementarian. It's not that strange a thing. The Apostolic Church, the FIEC, Newfrontiers, the Free Church of Scotland, the Reformed Presbyterian Church are all complementarian church bodies (i.e. they believe that the Bible teaches that eldership is male). And those are just the ones that I can think of off the top of my head. Most, if not all, Brethren assemblies would fit into that category too, as would many large conservative evangelical parishes in the Church of England. And if you want to look beyond Protestantism, then there's the whole of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In fact, it was also the position of all Protestant churches until relatively recently in church history. In other words, this has been the majority position in the church throughout history — it is not some strange new sect.

What exactly is complementarianism? It's the doctrine that men and women are equal yet different. Men and women alike are image bearers of the Triune God and equal in their personhood. As such, they are also equal in their sin (i.e. sinful nature), and equal in salvation. Men and women are saved in the same way (by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone), and saved men and women have an equal standing before God and are equal recipients of His love. However, men continue to be men, and women continue to be women, and so they are equal in personhood and different in role. (Here's Mary Kassian's short explanation of what complementarianism is and what it isn't.)

In the family and the home, that difference in roles is quite clear. It's impossible for a man to be a mother or a woman to be a father. In the church, the difference in roles must be governed by the Word of God. That means that “gender roles” in the church are not to be a social construct. They are not supposed to be decided by people, but rather revealed by God in His Word.

That means that discussion of woman's ordination must, at the end of the day, be a biblical discussion. And that's what alarms me at the moment. When complementarians are accused straight off of being “poisonous” or of marginalising and damaging people, that shuts down the opportunity for biblical discussion of the issues involved. The discussion is steered away from biblical texts and straight into the realms of rights and of feelings. The question is no longer allowed to be “What has God said?”, but is instead transformed into “How do I feel?” And, as a result, the locus of authority is shifted from God to man.

I'm quite happy to have a biblical discussion on the issue with egalitarian friends. But I'm not happy when people suddenly decide that, rather than being a biblical issue, it's “a justice issue”. Why? Because that means that a certain human conception of justice is being elevated to a higher authority than the Word of God. And with that, goodbye Sola Scripture!

Some countries are further down the line on this issue than others. The Church of Sweden won't accept a man for ordination if he doesn't agree with women's ordination. That means that conservative evangelical complementarians are effectively banned from the Church of Sweden. Back in the UK, the vote in the House of Bishops at the General Synod was interesting; has agreement with women's ordination (and consecration) become an unofficial qualification for bishops in the CofE? (Interestingly, one of the speeches at Synod pointed out that there hasn't been a single conservative evangelical appointed as a bishop in the last 15 years.)

And so perhaps you can see why the social media shouting down of complementarians and their being caricatured as bad and dangerous theologians concerns me. This is, after all, what was believed “everywhere, always, by all” (the very definition of the catholic [with a small c] faith) until roughly the mid-twentieth century. 

Now I realise I've got this far without any proper biblical discussion. So, consider this a prologue, with some Biblical theology to come... (hopefully tomorrow!)...