In 2003, Pastor Rob Bell led Mars Hill Bible Church to amend its constitution and statement of faith in order to open all offices-including that of elder-to women. It was a high-profile egalitarian conversion of an entire church that received no little attention in the blogosphere (see here for the story). Earlier this month, a high-profile Bible Church in my own city made a similar move.
Irving Bible Church (IBC) is a large Bible Church in the Dallas area. It is one of the many Bible Churches in our city that represents an important constituency of Dallas Theological Seminary. Recently, the elders of IBC published a website explaining how they have moved away from a complementarian position on women in ministry. After over a year of looking at the issue, they have put the results of their study into a 24-page position paper that outlines the biblical and theological rationale for the change. The elders summarized their findings in five points:
1. The accounts of creation and the fall (Genesis 1-3) reveal a fundamental equality between men and women.
2. Women exercised significant ministry roles of teaching and leading with God’s blessing in both Old and New Testaments.
3. Though the role of women was historically limited, the progress of revelation indicates an ethic in progress leading to full freedom for women to exercise their giftedness in the local church.
4. Key New Testament passages restricting women’s roles were culturally and historically specific, not universal principles for all time and places.
5. Though women are free to use all of their giftedness in teaching and leading in the church, the role of elder seems to be biblically relegated to men.
Though I have had friends who are members and staff members at IBC, I am observing this whole situation as an outsider. Nevertheless, I’m reading the materials on the website with great interest. Here are a few miscellaneous reflections on what I’ve been reading there.
The Findings Are Essentially Egalitarian. With the possible exception of the last half of number 5, the findings comprise egalitarian conclusions. Unqualified phrases like a “fundamental equality” between the sexes, women’s leadership over men “with God’s blessing,” a gender “ethic in progress,” and “culturally and historically specific” limitations on gender roles reveal a thoroughgoing egalitarian perspective. The one statement that would limit the role of elder to male believers is qualified by the word “seems,” so even this statement has little weight as a complementarian affirmation. I do not see how the restriction on eldership can be maintained for very long since the elders have already conceded all of the major biblical and theological arguments to the egalitarians.
The Elders Embrace Trajectory Hermeneutics. Point number three reveals that the elders have embraced some version of trajectory hermeneutics. Trajectory hermeneutics holds that some of the Bible’s teachings fall short of God’s ideal ethic for His people. The progress of revelation reveals “redemptive movement” with respect to some ethical norms. Thus the patriarchy prescribed by Paul does not reflect God’s ultimate ethic. There is something better than the norms enjoined by Paul and the other writers of scripture.
This approach to reading the Bible was made popular by William Webb in his book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. I regard Webb’s proposal as a threat to biblical authority and therefore very harmful to the church when it is embraced. For a sound critique of this perspective, see Wayne Grudem’s “Should We Move Beyond the New Testament To a Better Ethic?” in JETS 47 (2004): 299-346. I don’t think it an overstatement when Grudem concludes: “Webb’s trajectory hermeneutic nullifies in principle the moral authority of the entire New Testament and thus contradicts the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura.” Thus it is troubling indeed that the pastors of IBC have gone down this very dangerous road. See also Tom Schreiner’s “William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women &Homosexuals: A Review Article” in SBJT 6.4 (2002): 46-64.
Connections with Dallas Theological Seminary. The website says that the church sought out counsel from three DTS professors “representing different positions on the issue.” At least one of the professors was an egalitarian and was one of my teachers when I was a student at DTSâ€”Dr. Bob Pyne. The website has a testimony from Dr. Pyne explaining “Why I Changed My Mind.” In this short essay, Dr. Pyne explains how he moved from a complementarian position to an egalitarian one. He says that he now attends a church with a female senior pastor. It is clear from his essay that he too embraces trajectory hermeneutics. Dr. Pyne no longer teaches at DTS, but I wonder how many other faculty members there might be who hold a position like his?
I’m sure there will be some discussion of these issues in the blogosphere. Indeed, I heard about all of this from readers of this blog who informed me through e-mail what was going on. It just goes to show that this particular church is too important in this city for the change to go unnoticed.