Last week, the Methodist Conference voted to change its position on marriage. The decision was that:
The Methodist Church believes that marriage is given by God to be a particular channel of God’s grace, and that it is in accord with God’s purposes when a marriage is a life-long union in body, mind and spirit of two people who freely enter it. Within the Methodist Church this is understood in two ways: that marriage can only be between a man and a woman; that marriage can be between any two people. The Methodist Church affirms both understandings and makes provision in its Standing Orders for them.
You will notice that the official position now is in effect to hold two conflicting and indeed mutually contradictory positions within the same church, that marriage can only be between a man and woman and that marriage isn’t only between a man and woman. Quite how you square such things is anyone’s guess. However, eagle eyed readers will observe that this approach in some ways seeks to mimic the Church of England’s position on female ordination, the “two integrities” which allow people who will accept women vicars and bishops to coexist in a denomination alongside those who consider this Biblically impossible. It is questionable as to how long such a position can hold.
When I noted this point on twitter, it prompted this response from Steve Kneale.
Not everyone was happy with such a suggestion including a number of Christians who hold to an egalitarian position on ministry and marriage or belong to church networks that do so. Now, whilst I would want to qualify and nuance, Steve’s provocative tweet, I agree with the overall thrust and so I wanted to set out why here.
First of all let’s nuance the generalisation made by Steve by making the two following important points.
- Not every egalitarian church or denomination has moved towards a position of accepting same-sex marriage.
- Not every egalitarian uses exactly the same hermeneutic to reach a conclusion on marriage.
However, as a generalised point, the egalitarian view that elders and/or ordained ministers in the church can be either male or female tends to rely on the assumption that the Biblical passages where such matters are discussed are primarily occasional instructions to specific contexts and that therefore their application is limited to that context. In a world where women did not have the same teaching as men, were seen as second-class citizens and where society was suspicious of revolutionary change, Paul and Peter encouraged the church to stay within the status quo of the culture on this matter for the sake of the Gospel.
The exemplar model for this approach is found in William Webb’s book “Slaves, Women and Homosexuals.” In that book, he argued for an approach known as a Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic. His position was that the advice given in the New Testament on ethical matters is often context specific, cultural rather than transcultural so that it cannot be applied directly to our society today. He argued that those who wanted to see slavery abolished could not simply go to Scripture and apply its teaching on slavery transculturally because the Bible supported slave ownership. Therefore, what they had to do was to find clues in the text that there was a trajectory or momentum in Scripture, in line with redemption and freedom that projected forward and informed by later ethical and scientific discoveries supported the abolition of the slave trade.
Webb argued that this same approach could be applied to questions about headship in marriage and ordination in the church. Although Paul calls on wives to submit to their husbands and does not permit women to have authority over men, his call on men to love their wives is a clue that Scripture’s trajectory of redemption meaning that we are all one in Christ Jesus points to a day when all such distinctions must fall away.
Interestingly Webb did not think that this could be applied to homosexuality because he could not find such a trajectory in Scripture and he thought that the traditional position on sexuality weas protected by the firm statements in the New Testament meaning the trajectory was away from acceptance on this issue not towards it.
I was not convinced by his argument at the time and I notice that plenty of people have followed his type of hermeneutic to push for recognition of same sex relationships. Why is this? Well, it’s because at root, Webb was doing something even more radical than he realised. The Evangelical understanding of Scripture, in line with 2 Timothy 3:16 is that it is God’s Word because God breathes or speaks it. Scripture is from God and therefore is true and reliable. It is not only that Scripture is without error but also because it is from the eternal God, it is relevant to all ages. God is able to speak across the cultures.
Webb was shifting the view from Scripture being God’s Word because it is directly from him to it being God’s Word because it was about him and included words from him. The implications of such a shift have been most explicitly argued in recent times by people like Steve Chalke who insists that Scripture is about a conversation concerning and sometimes with God that we can join in with. It therefore contains human, fallible attempts to understand God’s character, actions, will and purpose. It is no longer God’s final authority.
Such a view gives us permission to disagree with Scripture. Notice the change of authority here. The traditional evangelical position is that we must give Scripture permission to disagree with us. Scripture then has authority in the relationship. When God’s Word disagrees with me then the responsibility is on me to get in line with what it says. However, this approach means that if I and my culture disagree with Scripture then we now have authority to decide that the Bible is wrong on the matter and to either re-interpret it or to set it aside.
This is the crucial hermeneutical assumption that leads to Steve’s assertion. If we believe that the Bible is fallible and culturally bound, further, if we consider our culture to be superior to the culture in which Scripture was written then we now have permission to disagree with Scripture. And we no longer have the tools and framework to argue back with those who say “We must accommodate to the prevailing culture” because we have already ceded the ground. Of course, at its absolute worst, such a hermeneutic also left the German church powerless to respond to fascism in the 1930s.
Now you may be reading this and thinking “but I don’t agree with that hermeneutic” that’s not how I personally reached the position of supporting female ordination. As I stated above, not all egalitarians follow the same hermeneutic. Some for example would argue that the word “head” when used in the New Testament does not refer to authority but simply to husbands as the source. Others will argue that the reference to elders in 1 Timothy 3 is gender neutral and still others have concluded that the application of male eldership was culturally specific in Paul’s day whilst rotted in more timeless principles that can be found in the relevant passages.
My point here is that the most robust and consistent argument for egalitarianism depends upon the change in hermeneutic. But also we need to remember that we are not just talking about individuals here but about churches, networks and denominations. It is no use me personally reaching a conclusion using one set or arguments if the majority of others have reached it using a different process and believe that I have too. My acceptance of the outcome is seen by them as acceptance of the method. And when the denomination approaches further issues, it will do so on the basis of that majority assumed hermeneutic.
Now, I write from a complementarian position but my aim in this article is not to argue that egalitarians must conform to my view on female elders out of fear of some slippery slope descent. All I am asking is that you take care not to make use of a hermeneutic that appears to deliver a favourable answer here but may open you up to trouble on other issues. I also want to encourage you to be alert to who our co-belligerents are on this issue and the implications of aligning with them without being clear not just that you disagree with their ethical conclusions but also how they get there.
 This in fact was not a new position to Webb but I would suggest that it was significant to see this type of approach significantly incorporated into Evangelical thinking.
 And to make it absolutely clear, I am not claiming that every church that supports egalitarianism will end up supporting fascism and antisemitism but I am saying that if we lose Scripture’s ability to disagree with us and challenge our culture then we are going to find ourselves defenceless and silent in the face of whatever ethical challenges that our society throws at us in the future.
 I know this because I’ve known individual Methodists who would have happily accepted their position on women preachers and ministers in the past but would be horrified at where their denomination has ended up today.
 Incidentally the same appeal applies to conservative evangelicals who have aligned themselves with Anglo-Catholicism on the issue of ordination.