How to Turn Conservative Evangelicals Into Egalitarians


Women-at-Tomb

by John Ellis

Upon the announcement that Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has hired Dr. Karen Swallow Prior as a research professor of English and Christianity & Culture, my Twitter feed exploded. The initial responses were congratulatory messages for Dr. Prior intermingled with tweets lauding SEBTS for the hire. It didn’t take long, though, for tweets of disproval to trickle into my thread from those upset that a conservative seminary would hire a woman as a professor. Shaking my head at the vitriol and slander being publicly heaped on a sister in Christ, I thought to myself, “It’s no wonder that many young evangelicals are becoming egalitarians.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Dr. Prior, I commend her books to you (and her wonderful Twitter account). As a longtime English professor at Liberty University, she has carved out the reputation as a lover of Jesus who also loves stories and understands their immense value within the Christian worldview. Even in disagreement with her, which isn’t often, I have found Dr. Prior thoughtful, humble, and charitable. One thing that has become evident to me is that during moments of disagreement, those who simply dismiss her as “wrong” because she’s a “feminist,” or whatever other ad hominem boogeyman they can concoct, reveal far more about their lack of intellectual (and theological) acumen than they realize. Her mind and aesthetic sensibilities are a gift to Christ’s Church and are being used by God for the furtherance of His Kingdom. Because, regardless of whatever points of disagreements she and I may have, which, again, isn’t much, her love for Jesus and her commitment to his gospel, her compassion for others, and her devotion to the protection of the unborn are unassailable. Sadly, her slanderous critics would have you believe otherwise. The question is, I think, are her critics revealing the fear that they are losing whatever little power and control they have to women who are smarter and more capable than they are?

The answer to that has been playing out in front of us. And it’s an answer that is being used by Satan to draw folks away from Truth.

Bringing shame and reproach upon the name of Christ, the angry responses over SEBTS’s hiring of Dr. Prior are not a one-off event. Gender issues are roiling conservative evangelicalism. A civil war, of sorts, is being waged among complementarians. Strict complementarian definitions and rules are bandied about and often used as rhetorical bludgeons to expose the “other side’s” lack of doctrinal fidelity. While standing on social media’s steps, men proudly trot out their strict adherence to the so-called Billy Graham Rules and declare for all to hear, “I thank God that I’m never alone with a woman who is not my wife, unlike those other compromising men.”

In recent weeks, this conservative evangelical “civil war” has found itself in the midst of a pitched battle kicked off by the ill-timed and uncharitable comments made by John MacArthur and Phil Johnson about noted Bible teacher Beth Moore. Combined with the mocking responses from many attending the conference, MacArthur’s patronizing command to Moore to “go home” started an avalanche of online hatred directed at those who are deemed less complementarian than they should be. The mocking. The insults. The unintentionally ironic ex-cathedra pronouncements of anathema and excommunication of those who dare to be less complementarian than what is deemed acceptable. All of it. Grown men should be embarrassed at the fever pitch their fury over Beth Moore has reached. Embarrassed to the point of repentance, in fact.[1]

Within all of that is the specter of guilt by association. In a blog post calling John MacArthur, Phil Johnson, and others to repent of their uncharitable words and responses to Beth Moore, pastor and theologian Dr. Sam Storms confessed, “I am a complementarian, but I fear in making known my convictions I may be linked with those who claim the same label and yet speak unkindly and in snarky, snide soundbites of our Christian sisters.”

I empathize.

Let’s be honest, the anger, spite, and rancor are mostly one-sided. To the point where, like Dr. Storms, I hesitate to openly label myself a complementarian, even though I am one. Over the last several months, pastor friends and I have commented on how even those times when we agree with organizations like Founders Ministry or Grace to You, we are unable to voice assent because of the acerbic, uncharitable manner in which the truth has been packaged. Not to mention that those truths are often part of a larger system that demeans women and oversteps the boundaries of the Bible’s instructions on women’s roles. Articulating thoughts that I’ve had, one Twitter user wrote, “I’m a complementarian – but wow. Seeing the deep suspicion so many evangelical men feel about a woman’s voice has been eye opening. No wonder so many women are sexually abused in churches. These men dehumanize us. There’s nothing of the heart of Biblical complementarianism in them.”

Over these last few months, I’ve resisted publicly speaking out in defense of my sisters in Christ because these are issues that require a lot of nuance and caveats. For example, by adding my voice to that of Dr. Storms in calling John MacArthur and others to repent, it will undoubtedly be assumed that I agree with everything that Beth Moore says and does. I will be labeled a soft-egalitarian. Except I don’t, and I’m not.

I’ve also resisted adding my voice to the debates because these discussions aren’t merely abstract for me. While the larger civil war has raged among conservative evangelicals, I have fought in my own localized skirmishes. I’ve seen how the idols of hyper-complementarianism bring out the worst in people. I’ve had accusations thrown in my face by those who haven’t been willing to hear me out. Almost helplessly, I’ve watched women struggle under the unjust burdens created by contra-Biblical views on women and gender roles. On the most personal of levels, I’ve seen my wife deeply wounded by hyper-complementarians who have demeaned her and sinfully slandered her. Wounds she still carries, owing, in part, to my cowardice at the time.

Except, now, as I watch Dr. Prior (and Beth Moore) handle the uncharitable and even slanderous comments directed their way with grace and humility, I realize that it’s a sin to fail to publicly stand beside my sisters in Christ. Most especially, I’ve sinned in failing my wife. I’ve also realized that refusing to speak out makes me culpable in the exodus from complementarianism and, by extension, conservative evangelicalism by people sickened by the misogynistic impulses emanating from some of our loudest voices. And that exodus is something that I empathize with, too. To be clear, while my empathy with Dr. Storms’ statement caused me to add my voice to his, by God’s grace, my empathy with those tempted to leave complementarianism has not resulted in my abandonment of Christian orthodoxy. I have felt the tug of temptation, though.

Moving to Orlando, my family’s search for a new church family has not gone as planned (or hoped), at all. As we prayed and agonized over which church family the Holy Spirit has prepared for us, friends wanting to be helpful offered recommendations. Inevitably, the two churches recommended the most were two churches that my wife and I had already discussed, prayed about, and decided that we could not join before even moving here.[2]

While aligning well with our hermeneutics, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology, my wife and I concluded that we would be unable to insert our family into the rhythms of the church life without being divisive. Our views on what the Bible teaches about things like race/racism, mercy ministries, and gender roles, specifically what we believe is the best interpretation of Titus 2, put us at odds with those whom we could otherwise share a statement of faith with. Sadly, I believe that reformed Baptist distinctives have been highjacked by those hungry for power and fame.

In the irony of ironies, because my wife is a complementarian, she looked to me to make the final decision about what church our family will covenant in membership with; she willingly submits to me in the matter. I concluded that I would not be loving my wife by asking her to submit to the ecclesiastical authority of those whom I believe are not safe for women.

That, however, left open the question of which church. Furthermore, the angst and hurt from recent “fights” over gender issues and the awareness that I failed to protect my wife combined with few doctrinally robust baptistic churches in the Orlando area tempted me to consider compromising my theological standards. Truth warred against truth in my heart, because in much of broader conservative evangelicalism Biblical truths are incorrectly held at odds with each other. In my weakest moments, tempted to compensate for my past failures, I must confess that I dared entertain the thought of joining churches that are problematic on the other side of the spectrum. Because of my family’s experience with angry, slanderous complementarians combined with the vitriolic noise dominating my social media newsfeeds by those unwilling to surrender Victorian ideals and bad anthropological assumptions under the false guise of “Biblical fidelity,” I was tempted to sinfully abandon what I believe to be the Truth.

My point in revealing that isn’t to articulate some form of false humility. Nor is it to paint myself as an example or even a counterexample. It’s to point out that if we’re not proactive in standing up against error, Satan will use this harmful evangelical civil war over gender issues (and social justice issues) to deceive people.

You want to know how to turn a complementarian into an egalitarian? Slander women like Dr. Karen Swallow Prior. Speak uncharitably about women like Beth Moore. Attack the bravery of women like Rachael Denhollander. Dismiss concerns about sexual abuse and assault in conservative churches as a “witch hunt.” Ignore the Houston Chronicle’s report. Defend famous evangelical men who have belittled sexual assault survivors. Treat women as lesser than while couching your language in complementarian buzzwords. Deny the fact that women are equally created in the Image of God by denying that women have edifying and useful things to say about God and God’s creation and that men would do well to listen to them and, yes, to learn from them.

Several months ago, I started writing an article tentatively titled “Raising a STEM Daughter In a Complementarian Context.” Because of certain events and my position at the time, I didn’t finish it. I wish I had. My wife is as good of an example of a Proverbs 31 woman as can be found. Her faith is stronger than mine. The misogynistic foolishness of others might hurt her, but she’s not at any risk of abandoning her faith. Our daughter, though, is young and searching and, like most young teenagers, easily angered and discouraged. It’s one thing for me to have failed my wife; she’s stronger than my failings. It’s another thing for me to fail to nurture our daughter by allowing the misogyny coursing through certain parts of conservative evangelicalism to exist in her life unchallenged by me.

Extending beyond my responsibility to my own daughter, the Bible commands me to love and serve all my sisters in Christ. Like my wife, many of them are stronger than my failings. Voices of support from brothers in Christ, though, are an encouragement. For other women (and men), that support is needed to help combat the temptations of Satan built on misogynistic lies to abandon Truth. Our sisters in Christ need to know that they are valued for far more than just Victorian defined gender ideals that are largely false, to begin with. Our sisters in Christ need to know that our churches will not dismiss and demean them, but will listen to them, protect them, and serve them. Sadly, the way some conservative evangelical leaders talk about and treat women is being used by Satan to turn many away from the Truth and to embrace error on the opposite side. Egalitarians exist, in large part, due to the failure of conservative Christians to adequately love, serve, and value women.

Soli Deo Gloria

*edit: Several friends have contacted me expressing sorrow that we haven’t found a church in Orlando yet and letting me know that they’re praying for us. First, prayers are always appreciated. Secondly, by God’s grace, we believe that we have found a church. Reading back over the article, I can see how that’s not clear. Frankly, I don’t know how to insert this edit into the body of the article without disrupting the flow. 


[1] I know very little about Beth Moore outside of what I read about her online. She’s been called a heretic by some. She’s been commended for her love for Jesus and his Word by others. Not only is it impossible to get a clear picture of who she is and what she believes based on the YouTube snippets and pull-quotes bandied about, attempting to do so would be a very poor methodology. To that end, and to satisfy my own curiosity, I’ve ordered several of her books. I’ll find out for myself if she’s a “dangerous wolf” as some claim or if she’s a blessing to Christ’s Church as others claim. Or, most likely, and like most of us, somewhere in the middle of the online hyperbole. Regardless of the conclusions I reach after reading her books, the scorn and vitriol heaped on her are not Christ-like.

[2] I’m not giving any specifics about what caused us to conclude that in order to not reveal which two churches I’m talking about.

20 thoughts on “How to Turn Conservative Evangelicals Into Egalitarians

  1. Well, I think one should always be cautious in how we speak. I have blurted out my biases thoughtlessly and ignorantly too often.

    However… If you don’t really know anything about Beth Moore, do you think it is wise to rush to her defense? Wouldn’t be better to get it right first, then speak? Otherwise this sounds simply like a rant, full of indignation, but not much substance.

    You cite a tweet by Rebeccah someone as if it is authoritative and conclusive. Is it even logical? Isn’t it rather one sided, reactionary,and propagandistic itself? If it has any value it reflects a feeling, but is it true?

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    Like

  2. I’d say
    1) He is not defending Beth Moore as much as he is speaking out (not ranting) about the unloving, mocking attack on her by a panel of men in front of a jeering, applauding roomful of men.
    2) Rebecca’s tweet is not being offered as “authoritative’. It’s being quoted as indicative and an example of how women feel (These men dehumanize us) when we see #1.

    Please reconsider your response…I don’t think you recognize how you model what Mr. Ellis laments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I considered whether I should reply or not, I’m really not looking for a fight!

      I thought I should mention that John and I are friends and I am sincerely curious why he wrote this without having a better handle on the subject.

      I also thought I should respond on the tweet – surely you are not saying that we should base our theological positions simply on our feelings, are you? If that’s the basis, our theology is pretty shallow.

      Anyway, as I said, I’m interested in finding out more about what John is thinking here and hope he’ll give me more.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

      Like

      • Don, I’ve waited to respond because I’m perplexed by your comment. At first, I thought maybe I didn’t communicate what I intended. After rereading it, and recognizing that there are points I could’ve communicated better, I’m still perplexed.

        I didn’t defend Beth Moore, nor did I condemn her. I responded to what I believe is a harsh and condescending tone towards her. That tone is reflective of a larger tone I’m increasingly seeing towards women in general who “don’t stay in their lane.”

        Of course, the tweet isn’t authoritative. I didn’t say it was. In fact, I stated my reason for including it – I found it to be an interesting articulation of my own thoughts and feelings. And, Don, you’re right, feelings are not a good basis for our theology, which is my broader point in the article.

        This isn’t a scholarly article, nor is it the articulation for why I hold to certain theological positions. It’s the exposure of my heart, my feelings, my thoughts, my own temptations/struggles (that are minor compared to many others) in the hopes that people will be more charitable and that those who are hurting won’t allow their hurt to drive their theological positions.

        Thank you for reading and for your comments.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi John,

        Fair enough on these points: you aren’t defending Beth Moore, you aren’t citing the tweet as an authority, rather using it as an example. Am I getting that correctly?

        However, in your reply you are saying that your article is your heart, feelings, etc. I guess that’s what I don’t get. What’s the point? Sometimes people say things in a way that isn’t the best, even if they are correct. It seems like that’s not allowed in our culture. If we are offended, we scold, and we might be convinced to change our theology as a result. (Not saying that’s you exactly, but that’s what the tweet says.)

        I guess more than anything, the tweet offended me, with the incredible logic jump that since Christians can be blunt speakers, no wonder women are abused in churches. What? How does that follow?

        I guess that’s all. I enjoy reading your material, but I was scratching my head at this one.

        Maranatha!
        Don Johnson
        Jer 33.3

        Like

      • I don’t think that moving from the realization that many Christians (not all, maybe not even most) display a low view of women to it being one of the causes for the abuse of women is an unrealistic logical jump. I could write a really long article just on the anecdotal evidence that I’ve witnessed in my own life of the mistreatment and dishonoring of women by professing Christians. And that anecdotal evidence matches the experiences of others.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s not exactly what the tweet said, though. It didn’t start with “a low view of women” … here it is again:

        Seeing the deep suspicion so many evangelical men feel about a woman’s voice has been eye opening. No wonder so many women are sexually abused in churches. These men dehumanize us. There’s nothing of the heart of Biblical complementarianism in them

        “deep suspicion” of “a woman’s voice” is followed by “sexually abused in churches”

        What it says is that what JM was doing is some kind of foundation for sexual abuse. I really don’t think that’s true. It just seems to really ratchet up the atmosphere of discussion. If you defend JM in this, now you are suspect as at best an enabler of abuse. I don’t think that’s fair discourse.

        Ok, I will leave it at that. I just came off a night shift from my other job and need to get some sleep. TTYL

        Maranatha!
        Don Johnson
        Jer 33.3

        Like

      • That “deep suspicion of women’s voices” reflects a low view of women. JMac himself might not be personally guilty of encouraging abuse, but his rhetoric is being used by many to justify a culture that does promote (even if unwittingly) abuse of women. We are responsible for what we say, public figures more so.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Mr. Ellis – “conservative” and “complimentarian” are not interchangeable or synonymous. If refusing to continue to “struggle under the unjust burdens created by contra-Biblical views on women and gender roles.” and rejecting “the misogyny coursing through certain parts of conservative evangelicalism” makes one an egalitarian, then there are many conservative egalitarians.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for your words of reason. I, too, am very conservative in my theology, but I cannot stand by and watch men like John MacArthur spew forth hateful comments about people who are doing God’s work. Sure, Beth Moore has some theological gaps, but who among us does not? And some of the criticisms levied against her are based on hyper-sensitive assessments of comments made “in the moment.” Again, who among us has not at one time or another said something from the pulpit or in teaching that might be construed as less than orthodox, not because we harbor some sinister unorthodoxy, but simply because we fell prey to a slip of the tongue or “loose” theological explanation? Please see my recent blog for more details on my perspective: https://www.inquiry4today.com/post/is-john-macarthur-dead.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks for speaking, John. It makes me realize I’m not alone or crazy. I’m sad for all the ways Christ’s name is demeaned because men and women, who claim Him, speak so uncharitably and unkindly towards those with whom they disagree.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. After telling Beth Moore “Go home”, Pastor MacArthur said: “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preaching; period, paragraph, end of discussion.” Absolute, unrealistic statements of this kind make it difficult for faithful Christians to advance in mutual understanding on this topic. I am in a complementarian church. When I looked into it for my recent book (Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts), I found there was a considerable case to be made, requiring careful assessment, and that the complementarian position had weaker biblical support than I had expected. I now think the central question is whether one reads 1 Tim 2:8-15 fully in context or without full regard to the context.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great article, great analysis… then at the end you say,
    “Egalitarians exist, in large part, due to the failure of conservative Christians to adequately love, serve, and value women.”

    NO. NO. NO. Egalitarians “exist in large part” because Egalitarians of both genders have searched the Scriptures, prayed, sought after the wisdom of their spiritual elders, and listened to the Holy Spirit.

    The failures you speak of may be a catalyst, but you insult both our intelligence and our spiritual maturity with that sweeping conclusion.

    Liked by 2 people

    • YES this comment is spot on. I am egalitarian because I believe that it represents the absolute best understanding of biblical texts. Leaving complementarian theology was difficult. It took decades of study, it cost me friendships, it has required I be on the receiving end of plenty of vitriol. Even more, it required the death dreams and ideals about relationships between men and women, and what I as a woman was both called to and responsible for. It required I lean heavy on the Spirit for wisdom, patience, and faith when I had no clear way forward.

      So please do not persist in this notion that had women merely been treated better we would have maintained complementarian notions. I repeat, for many — maybe even most of us — it was the testimony of Scripture plus the witness of the Spirit that required us to leave comfortable, tribal spaces and step out in faith.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. Man this is a great article. I feel the same way about my 4 sons experiencing micro and macro racist aggressions in the church. Also how that will affect them believing in Christ. Especially when others seem to have everything together and seem to be so loving then BAM! It’s amazing how many people that aren’t black or women feel they can determine what is or shouldn’t be offensive without consultation concerning the topic of racism and misogyny in the church.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thank you for this John. I’ve been watching actions like you describe for a long time and I’m coming to the conclusion that many of the critics may be a bit insecure in their own manhood. (That’s better than the phrase I would use in private conversation.😇😉) I’ve seen men accuse women of usurping authority over men for insignificant things that made me laugh.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I have to applaud this post. We tend to gripe about “too little, too late,” but there is so much pressure to stay quiet and “in line” with the big boys of evangelicalism that speaking out, even late, is worthy of approval. That you pushed past the fear and went ahead is commendable.

    That being said, I have to concur with Jane and Karen. As a baptist-seminary-trained former complementarian, I currently affirm the inerrancy and authority of scripture. It was primarily a high view of scripture that led to changing my views.

    Careful evaluation of the complementarian position showed many holes and leaps not supported by the context and languages of the main proof texts. I found that every proof text used as a battering ram for complementarianism had equally valid (and sometimes clearer) interpretations that offered no support to the complementarian view or even supported the egalitarian view.

    At the same time I found many passages of scripture clearly teaching the equality of men and women in God’s Image, saw the consistent example of Paul’s treatment of women, as well as the clear arc towards equality in scripture.

    You are welcome to disagree with me/egalitarians on the basis of interpretation. I/we are certainly not infallible. I consider you a godly brother and someone worth listening to. However, you are incorrect to draw a distinction between evangelical and egalitarian – unless by “conservative evangelicalism” you mean the machine and not the faith. If the machine, then I hope the exodus will continue.

    Liked by 2 people

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