‘Egalitarianism’ as a slippery slope?

Posted on August 31, 2012

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I have heard or read a number of people recently arguing that an ‘egalitarian’ (hate the term…) position is to be rejected by evangelicals because it necessarily involves an approach to the the Bible which tends towards the erosion of Scriptural authority. This argument comes in two forms, one which has a degree of prima facie plausibility but is weak, and one which would be powerful but is in fact simply implausible. The plausible/weak form is based on hypotheticals: ‘someone who treats 1Tim 2 or Eph 5 like egalitarians do must therefore …’ The problem with this is the hidden premise in the argument is the theological (exegetical/hermeneutical) imagination of the one making the argument: in fact what is being said is ‘I cannot imagine a way of responsibly understanding Scripture that allows these conclusions…’ The limits of my, or anyone else’s, imagination are not particularly interesting theological data; historical reality (how have people who take this view in fact dealt with Scripture?) is far more interesting, which brings us to the second form of the argument.

This involves an assertion that it is a matter of historical fact that someone who accepts an ‘egalitarian’ position will probably – not necessarily, but probably – soon cease to be evangelical because they have lost any adequate account of the authority of Scripture. An acceptance of the ministry of women is a/the first step on a slippery slope to liberalism, and that can be shown by historical example. This would be a strong argument if it were plausible. Any serious student of evangelical history can point to positions that do seem generally to correlate with a later loss of evangelical faith – the most obvious would be the refusal (on solid grounds of Biblical authority, usually) to use traditional but non-Scriptural language in talking about the Trinity. If it could be shown historically that there is in fact a correlation between the acceptance of the ministry of women and a later denial of Biblical authority then that would be a telling point.

There is only one problem: there is no historical support whatsoever for this position; in fact, I would argue that there is a significant body of historical data pointing in precisely the opposite direction. Since the Reformation, there has been a broad correlation between a high view of Scriptural authority and an acceptance of the ministry of women.

Those who advance the ‘egalitarianism as slippery slope’ position often rely on assertions drawn from personal experience: ‘I have seen this over and over again'; ‘in three decades of ministry it has become clear to me'; ‘I, sadly, can think of many former friends who…’. There is a place for personal reminiscence in forming historical argument, but it is a carefully delimited one. Responsible scholarship knows the extent to which our narration of our own experiences tends to be conformed to what we think we should have observed. I am sure Christian pastors and scholars who say things like the above are honestly reflecting what they think they have experienced, but I am equally sure that, were we able to test their narratives against the facts of their life, we would find the intrusion of a considerable amount of unconscious bias. What is needed is proper historical scholarship: in the case of the Trinitarian language issue above, there is a classic case (drawn from older Dissenting history rather than evangelicalism): the Salters’ Hall synod of 1619. We have lists of those who subscribed to a traditional confession of faith, and of those who refused on grounds of fidelity to Scripture; we can trace their future careers, or the later denominational alignment of their churches; the correlation is easy to demonstrate on the basis not of imperfect recollection, but documented historical evidence.

Where is the equivalent detailed historical work that shows that those who embrace the ministry of women tend to fall from a conviction of the authority of Scripture? It is just not there. I submit that there is a good reason it is not there: there is no available historical evidence to support assertions that ‘egalitarians’ tend to cease being evangelical. Such assertions are, when tested against historical evidence, simply fantasies.

More than this: as any student of evangelical history knows, until the second half of the twentieth century, evangelicalism was more consistently hospitable to the teaching and leading ministry of women than any other Christian tradition except the Quakers. (And the change in the C20th was generally other traditions becoming more hospitable, not evangelicals becoming less so.) Major evangelical leaders have often accepted the ministry of women: Wesley and Booth stand out, but there are many, many others. And major evangelical traditions have rejoiced in, and benefited from, the ministry of women, from Primitive Methodism through the Salvation Army and the holiness movements into Pentecostalism. Evangelicals in historic denominations that were slow to embrace the ministry of women have repeatedly shown themselves in practice to be more open to women’s ministry than their denominations ever really allowed them to be. (There is a delightful vignette in Tim Larsen’s Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals concerning Hannah Whitall Smith’s preaching at the famous 1875 Brighton Convention: ‘[t]he most popular sessions … were those in which Hannah preached … to audiences of 5,000 or more, mostly clergymen [of the Church of England] who were theologically opposed to the preaching ministry of women.’ This is hardly an unusual narrative in evangelical history.)

(And all this without even considering the contribution of women’s preaching and leadership to the evangelical missionary movement, which is defining for evangelical identity through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries …)

I think I know the history of evangelicalism moderately well, but I am very happy to acknowledge that there are others who know the field far better. Indeed, we are blessed to live in an age of several truly great historians of evangelicalism. So I ask very simply: where, in any of the works of any of these historians – David Bebbington; Mark Noll; George Marsden; Timothy Larsen; … – where is there a single suggestion that there is a correlation in evangelical history between an acceptance of the ministry of women and a loss of evangelical conviction? Can those who trumpet this ‘slippery slope’ argument so loudly point to one single reference from a credible historian? I am confident that the answer is no.

If we expand our gaze from evangelicalism to Protestantism more generally, there is in fact an observable broad correlation between views of Biblical authority and views of the ministry of women: those who accept the ministry of women tend, prior to the second half of the twentieth century, to be those with the highest accounts of Biblical authority. Of course, prior to the rise of higher criticism, an account of the authority of Scripture was common to all strands of the church, and so this is not about ‘Bible believing’ vs ‘liberal'; rather it is about how the authority of Scripture is lined up against respect for the (subordinate) authority of tradition. It is, repeatedly, those who are most insistent in repudiating the tradition who are most ready to accept the ministry of women. To throw out only the very obvious examples: Baptists and Quakers in the seventeenth century; evangelicals in the eighteenth; Primitive Methodists in the nineteenth; Pentecostals in the twentieth; … Prior to the 1950s almost every denomination which embraced the ministry of women did so on the basis that they believed the authority of Scripture trumped cultural norms.

Of course, the correlation is only approximate – the Brethren would be an obvious counter-example, in that they fit into this pattern of radical counter-cultural Biblicism but refuse the teaching ministry to women. Further, obviously correlation is not cause, and the observed correlation stands in need of historical explanation, but the first point is simply to note that it is there – and its being there already suggests very strongly that the ‘egalitarianism is a slippery slope to liberalism’ argument is without foundation.

(What is the explanation? My version would go something like this: there are various theological positions that seem easy to find in the Biblical text but that have been difficult to hold because (Western) host-cultures have found them dangerous. These include (inter alia) separation of church and state; a thoroughgoing commitment to religious liberty; pacifism, or something rather close to it; believers’ baptism; communal possession of goods; the refusal to swear oaths; and the full ministry of women. Groups that deny the authority of tradition and see their commitment to Biblical authority as being essentially counter-cultural will find it easier to embrace some or all of these positions.)

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