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.
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.”
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.
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.
 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.
 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.