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No, women leading is not a “secondary issue.” Why the whole matters.
I got fired up this week at the Evangelical response to Princeton rescinding the award it gave Tim Keller (successful church planter in New York City) after there was outrage about some of his positions specifically regarding women in leadership. Some Evangelical churches still misinterpret the Bible to exclude women from leading the same as men.
Nevertheless, in their effort to protect their subculture (in my opinion) and “ecumenicity,” some so-called progressives said that we shouldn’t tolerate Princeton’s “intolerance” (classic Orwellian move). The idea that boiled my blood, in particular, was a so-called “egalitarian” pastor saying that we’re wasting our time talking about secondary issues.
I’m not interested in defending Princeton, particularly. Nor am I interested in changing Keller (although I disagree with his position on women leading—and I disagree further that it’s even a “position,” it’s not, it’s just sexist). But I am more up-in-arms that the above author could essentialize the Gospel into “primary” and “secondary” beliefs. We could socially construct the Gospel to fit whatever mold we wanted to with that rationality.
What we believe about Jesus and the Gospel matters much less than who Jesus is making us and what we are doing to follow him. Some of my friends were surprised that I couldn’t simply “major in the majors,” and “minor in the minors,” so to speak. But I don’t see my faith as a series of beliefs, or even moral demands. Even if you categorized “women leading” as a “primary” issue, I don’t think you get it yet. Christianity isn’t a series of doctrines that dictate moral behavior. Jesus is transforming us and the world, not just making sure we follow the right rules and believe the right things (and then create a sort of hierarchy of importance). Moralism isn’t a path to salvation. Don’t measure me by whether I have all the right moral beliefs, rather move away from the notion that having the “right ideas” is what matters. Ideas and doctrine are helpful tools, but living a new life and receiving the claim Jesus made on your identity is more important. Who you are and what you do is what following Jesus is all about.
Jesus transforms our whole self. So, to be a little dramatic, everything matters. Everything about us matters. Jesus doesn’t compartmentalize us into parts that are good and not so good (like the Gnostics did in the early church), or parts that are important or not as important. Every part of the Body counts—in the whole Church, and in our individual ones too. That doesn’t mean I have cornered the market on what the whole looks like, I still have questions, uncertainties, and my mind can certainly be changed. And it has been changed in the past too. The things that “divide us” are worth discussing. It’s why I’m in Circle of Hope and why it saved my faith, too. I have two daughters. I don’t know if they’ll want to lead the church in the future, but if they do, and the church they choose to attend forbids them from leading, that little “divisive” issue is worth shouting about from the rooftops. It’s not just OK for me to find another church for them. It’s a problem with Christianity that we tolerate sexist practice. Like we say in Circle of Hope, women and men are co-bearers of the image of God and therefore fully gifted and responsible to lead, teach and serve.
I’m with brother John Perkins when he says a Gospel that doesn’t reconcile is no good news. It wasn’t so long ago that a church in the United States wouldn’t let a person of color lead a white congregation. I’m sure someone back then called that a “secondary” issue too. Reconciliation doesn't result in tolerance (as if we should tolerate prejudice), it results in transformation. That is the Gospel.
Christians who want to protect the ecumenicity of the church aren’t thinking about those who think the whole thing is a sham because we don’t call out bad practice and bad theology. I think it’s embarrassing. What’s worse isn’t the loud churches that are excluding women from leading, but rather the ones that are silent about it. That silence is hypocritical.
I don’t want to go around “fixing” other churches; but I won’t offer them a defense simply because we’re reading the same book or following the same God. But I want to make it clear to those searching that there are other ways of following Jesus and enacting the Gospel.