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S. M. Hutchens on Egalitarian Christianity
Reduced to essentials, my critique (see Symposium, Touchstone 12.3, May/June 1999) of the Christian Women’s Declaration was that its call for cooperation in evangelism and church renewal was futile, or nearly so. This is because the theological and practical divide between its signatories who believe women can be ordained to the pastoral or presbyterial offices and those who don’t is too wide to accommodate cooperation in efforts requiring close agreement on what the gospel is, and what therefore success in its promulgation would look like.
I knew this assertion would sound radical and indigestible, so I summoned C. S. Lewis to my help, for this is just what he says, in so many gentle words, in his little essay “Priestesses in the Church?” There he makes it clear that a church with female presbyters does not have the appearance of being Christian at all. (His duplicity with the tiresome and unreasonable Hutchens seems to have been overlooked by my critics.) The institution, in other words, is foreign to Christianity, analogous to the substitution of a circle for the cross as its principal symbol. Those who advance it have misunderstood the gospel at a fundamental level.
In the critique I am at pains to say that cooperation is possible in many areas between people who disagree on many issues—but not here, not between those who believe in ordained women and those who don’t, not on evangelization and church renewal, not much anyway. The reason is that those who ordain women have put themselves in the anomalous position of no longer looking like the Church, so that the objections of other Christians to working with them on distinctively Christian projects is based not simply on a diverging emphasis or interpretation of a common history and canon, but on the identity of the Christian faith itself. It is not analogous to the difference between Calvinist and Arminian, Catholic and Protestant, or the Roman and Eastern Catholic. It is more like that between the orthodox Christian and the Arian or Docetist.
The Reverend Joy Moore would not agree. She holds that the line between the Christian and the non-Christian is to be drawn between radical feminist thought and that which is essentially Evangelical, and is dismayed that “Christians would be silent with the gospel message in order to invalidate the testimony of women called clergy speaking in this coalition against the menaces of society.” This is a particularly wicked way of putting it—as if those who cannot accept clergywomen are willing to see people be damned just to make their point. Her principal contention, however, is common among Evangelicals, the stock-in-trade of many of its most influential journals and institutions: It is “radical” feminism that is essentially unchristian while the friendlier, egalitarian kind, the kind that doesn’t hate men but welcomes them as different but equal partners in the reception of the grace of the Spirit, is resplendently Christian.
No, it is not Christian at all. The point we have been trying to make ad nauseam in Touchstone, and make once again here, is that this nicer brand of feminism, so attractive to enculturated Evangelicals, negates the maleness of men and the femaleness of women by making them interchangeable in offices that are inherently male in character, and is therefore just as foreign to Christianity as the more obviously unchristian kind. In the long run it will prove even more destructive, since it decorates the neutering instruments so nicely that large numbers of Evangelical men, following their intelligentsia, are lining up for the “equalization” procedure. Radical feminism, which brandishes the shears in full view, holds no such temptations.
Of course Moore is right in identifying the loss of unity as a terrible problem, but who created it? Those who, confronted with the radical novelty of female clergy, cannot validate them as true Christian pastors? Or those who press the innovation on them with an insistence that in many places has verged upon violence, especially to clergy who will not submit? We see clear evidence of the belief behind this insistence in Moore’s charge that those who will not cooperate are so desperately immoral as to be careless of the souls of the lost. Given this level of conviction, is it any wonder that even in places where “moderate” feminism is regnant, traditional opinions on the ministries of men and women are treated as something of which the Church must purify itself, and those who hold such opinions may be accused of withholding the gospel message in order to invalidate the testimony of ordained women?
The opinion on the subject found among the Touchstone senior editors, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, is based upon belief that the man, not by any merit of his own, but by virtue of his maleness, is an icon of Christ (that is, a distinctly male participation in him) that the woman, not by any demerit of her own, cannot be by virtue of her femaleness, and that this unique participation has been understood from the beginning of the Christian age, by dominical and apostolic teaching and appointment, to entail the responsibilities of “headship” in family and Church. To assert otherwise (and this is always done—most dangerously, I might add—in the name of the Holy Spirit) is to propose something alien to the faith, something that does not grow out of Christian teaching and practice, but rather is dissonant with it, requiring a secular notion of doctrinal evolution entirely foreign to the Church.
Mrs. Knippers simply does not agree that the difference is that profound. She treats it as no more or less serious than the disagreements that stand, in her example, between Calvinists and Arminians. Consequently, she is able to write off these emphatic concerns with condescending good humor. One receives the impression from her comments that when we reach her level of development we will calm down, treat the disagreement with no more alarm than it deserves, and give the revisionists appropriate credit for being honest Christian folk. The possibility of this reaction was one of the reasons I summoned C. S. Lewis to my side—he is less easy to patronize than I am. And with him I repeat the charge: female presbyters are not, and cannot reasonably be construed as, a Christian institution. Wherever they appear, the appearance of the Church is brought into radical doubt.
Which brings me to the Reverend Donna Hailson, of whose divine call to her office I am clearly skeptical, and who is the most visibly upset with me of any of the respondents. Against my notions of the pastorate or presbyterate she invokes Baptist beliefs about the priesthood of all believers. In these matters, however, we go beyond what Baptists have believed on the nature of the universal priesthood to something more elemental. If the Baptist understanding clears the way for women ministers, then why have Baptist pastors traditionally been male? Inattentiveness to the implications of their beliefs? If you asked the Baptists who raised me why they didn’t—and still don’t—have female pastors, the firm and considered answer would be that it is unbiblical. Whether or not their interpretation of the Bible, including the passages to which Hailson refers to confound me, would satisfy Baptists who ordain women is less to the point here than the beliefs about the ministry they share with those who regard their pastors as part of a male-only sacramental priesthood. (In my own writing I have always taken care not to speak of priestly, but presbyterial or pastoral ordination, signifying the common historical ground between the churches.) Each would have a different understanding of the Christian presbyterate, but would agree that only men should be pastors or presbyters—Baptists customarily call men who function as ruling elders deacons—that the Bible teaches this, the churches have always concurred, and those who see it otherwise err.
One readily grants, and is thankful for, our shared confession, but in the eyes of such as we, egalitarian Christianity is based on an error in doctrine, therefore contains a virus we would be unwilling to spread by the actions and processes that accompany united efforts in evangelization and church renewal. Those who share my convictions do not think it a small problem—a matter upon which disagreement may be placed to the side—but a mortally dangerous one that reaches quickly to the very heart of the doctrine of God, and is in high likelihood the principal heresy against which the Western Church of our own age is called to struggle. We are not assured that egalitarians mean what we do when they as evangelists preach “Christ,” for we see their defective anthropology as entailing a defective Christology as well. As for renewing the churches, we are quite certain we do not agree with them on what success in the venture would look like.
It is no small thing that Hailson is an Evangelical, still holds to the fundamental doctrines of the faith, and rejects the grosser manifestations of feminist theology such as Father/Mother language for God—even though we think, with Lewis, that this is all logically part of the same package as that containing women’s ordination. We know her as a courageous advocate for the parts of the faith we profess to hold in common, and have no intention of “vilifying” such as she, unless one equates the firm and well-elaborated refusal to accept her theology of the ministry as vilification. This, and the additional charge that denial of the pastorate to women silences or denigrates them is feminist rhetoric that must be played to some other gallery than Touchstone’s.
There are, as I indicated in my critique, things we can do together. On the other hand, we have every intention of calling the egalitarians wrong, and insisting it is the innovations they have imposed upon the churches that have made the new and stratospherically high barriers to fellowship for which they wish to blame us. These include their imposition of even greater difficulties than before for common activities like evangelism and church renewal, ignorance or dismissal of the significance of which is at the base of statements like Women of Renewal. You cannot institute a radical alteration in the Christian ministry and then expect those in whom Christian intuition or comprehensiveness of theological vision recognizes it as an attack on the doctrine of God and the very being of the Church to give smiles of easy ecumenical benignity and agree with you that it is not, after all, that important.
On this also we must eventually agree: Since Truth is One, there is no such thing as extra-fundamental truth, any more than there is an extraneous part of Christ. There is, under the sun, error that may be excused in the child and forgiven in the sinner. There is charity, humility, and forbearance that avoids presumption and premature judgment. All that is held in temporary suspension by these devolves, however, into what is true or false, what shall endure and what shall not. Recognition of “fundamentals” upon which we can believe together while disagreeing in other matters is an interim measure—desirable and necessary at present, but unable to endure in the Consummation. We must therefore press toward greater obedience to Christ, more complete identification with his Church, fuller and more intelligent acceptance of its precepts, and greater concord with the doctrine of the apostles. We shall all confront the Truth in its glory and so be led to conformance in every particular, so it is wise to agree with our adversary while we are yet in the way.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.