Is my friend on the slippery slope?

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My friend Steve Kneale wrote this article the other day arguing that if we are encouraging and offering theological training for men in the church, then we should also offer it for women too.  Men and women should have equal access to this kind of training and education.

All of that at first glance seemed straight forward and obvious to me.  It didn’t seem particularly controversial.  However, it did provoke some reaction on social media.   One person argued this.

The implication was that Steve’s position was taking us on a slippery road, the same road followed by egalitarians of the past and it would end up in the same place for those who consider themselves complementarian today, that Steve was falling into the same trap and the consequence was that complementarian churches would abandon the position of male only eldership.

In a further tweet, he went on to say:

Now, having known Steve for some while, the idea that he is some kind of Trojan horse egalitarian came as a bit of a shock to me and no doubt will be a surprise to him as well as anyone who knows him or has followed his blog for some time.  I rather suspect that, whilst the slippery road argument can be true that the exchange showed why it needs to be deployed sparingly and carefully.  It’s worth stepping back and talking through the specific issues in a bit more detail to show why.

Quibell’s thesis seems to be as follows:

  1. Theological training specifically and exclusively refers to formal seminary training.
  2. Such training is solely for the purpose of training those called to the office of pastor.
  3. If we go down this route, then we are pursing something novel. The church didn’t offer this kind of training to women in the past.
  4. Women who receive this kind of training will want to be pastors too.

The starting point for my response is first that when we talk about theological training, we are not only talking about formal seminary training for pastoral ministry. There’s more than one way to train and teach people, there’s more than one reason for training them.

There are some important clues that when Steve talks about theological training, he doesn’t just have in mind theological colleges training people to be pastors. The first clue is that Steve is someone, who along with me has long argued that for many people, seminaries do not equip them to be pastors.  Our position would be that theological colleges and academic training simply are not accessible to many Christians due to cost and due to an expectation of prior secondary and higher education.  We would also argue that in any case, much of what is required for ministry training happens best through vocational, in context training rather than classroom lectures, exams and essays. 

Because of this, I think that most people would generally agree that what we offer as formal theological training via seminaries is not pastoral ministry training. Some might argue that it is a useful, essential even, component but that is very different from saying that it is sufficient for training.  That’s why many pastors will also have experienced, pre theological college ministry training schemes, church placements as theological students and an assistantship post theological college.  It’s why the Anglican Church require ordinands to also acquire a certificate in ministry as part of their training and why theological colleges like Oak Hill have offered a more informal but similar stream for independent students seeking to go into the pastorate.

Now, I recognise that not everyone reading the article would know Steve’s wider position. Though, before we jump to conclusions about people and their positions, it is helpful to seek out some context.  However, there were also some important clues in his article.  Steve doesn’t write about training pastors and then say “we should train women in the same way.” His focus is not on “who should go to theological college”.  Rather, he is looking at how we best teach and equip our congregations so that the whole church family grow in Christ.

Steve writes as the pastor of his church and says that, as the pastor, he considers it helpful for the church if there are others as well as him in the congregation who have engaged in some form of theological training or education.  That theological training could be through attending a residential theological college programme, though I note that it doesn’t have to. There are numerous ways in which men and women can access a level of theological training including:

  • Studying for a certificate, diploma or degree with an accredited college
  • Pursuing some form of distance learning course such as Crosslands, Union (via Learning Communities), Emmaus or the Moore Course.
  •  Informal opportunities for engagement, including in house training and teaching.  For example, I know that Steve’s church run a weekly “theological breakfast” whilst Faithroots was primarily set up to offer a level of accessible training and teaching.
  • Self-taught options by encouraging people to pick up theological books and start reading (for those who enjoy reading and are not looking for a certificate at the end, there is a lot to commend this approach).

The important thing is this, that most of the men in our churches accessing most of those options are not aspiring to be pastors.  Why then would we assume that this would be why women seek out such training?  It should be clear from the content of the article that Steve is talking about something different to training people to be pastors in churches.

Now, it is important to recognise at this stage, that there are lots of options and opportunities open to both men and women in terms of how they study theology today, that weren’t there in the past.  Not only that but education itself has evolved.  To be sure, go back several hundred years and women were not studying as part of a Theological College’s learning community alongside men and they weren’t receiving qualifications.

However, that would be true of all education.  Things evolved, first men went up to University, then women were given the opportunity to study, segregated from men but not receive a degree, then in about 1920, women were offered degrees too. Finally, we saw a move to genuinely integrated co-education.  So, to say that women did not study for theology degrees alongside men 500 years ago is pretty meaningless, unless one wishes to argue that women shouldn’t be studying alongside men in any aspect of life.

And, there is a crucial subpoint.  Adam’s argument is that the version of complementarianism which focuses only on the questions of marriage relationships and church roles, is built on egalitarian assumptions.  He seems to be pushing a view that there is something intrinsically hierarchical between men and women generally.  Now, there are people who hold to such a view. They’d argue that women should not be involved in public life, in the workplace, in any form of leadership, in politics, in voting. They’d argue that this is not about diminishing women in terms of their nature, they are equally made in God’s image but yes, there is a basic hierarchy to society.  It’s important to remember that early Christian conversations about the role of men and women in church and marriage rested on a hierarchical view.  Men and women alike had a specific station and status in society based on class and heritage.  That gives some context to writing that places women, as homemakers somewhere in that hierarchy. However, I would argue that Scripture itself does not presume such a hierarchy and the complementarian understanding of men and women’s roles is not dependent on it.

In any case going back to the question of whether the idea that we train and equip women is novel.  My argument would be first, that historically, whilst women may not have attended seminaries or been awarded Theology Degrees, you can still trace examples of women engaging seriously with theology and being encouraged to do so.

This goes right back to Scripture.  What do we find in the New Testament? We find that women are involved in being taught/equipped.  Mary sits at the feet of Jesus with the disciples, she belongs there, not in the kitchen, serving the men whilst they study.  The women are there at the tomb and meet with Jesus, itself a distinctive and unique form of theological education. Women are included in Paul’s letters and they also have a role in proclamation and teaching too, whether it’s Philips’ daughters prophesying, Priscilla teaching Apollos with Aquilla, Junias being “outstanding among the apostles”, women prophesying with an appropriate sign of authority (1 Corinthians 11) and older women instructing younger women(Titus 2). The idea that women were just meant to pick up the second hand left overs from their husbands, seems to me to be a rather confused misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 14 which requires us to ignore the rest of that Biblical context.

Finally, I suggested in my responses, that not only, as per Steve’s argument would theologically trained women be able to engage with and understand and affirm the complementarian position but they would also be able to distinguish it from arguments that are nothing to do with Biblical complementarianism but rather seem to treat women with suspicion and fear.  Now, perhaps that was a little cheeky, Adam certainly took offence and suggested that I was impugning his motives and accusing of misogyny. Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that those who argue in this way are misogynists, though sadly I’ve seen plenty of overtly misogynistic treatment of women, especial on social media and we should be troubled by this.  I also am not in the business of second guessing motives.  However, I am not sure how else to describe a “slippery slope argument. If we believe that theologically trained women will usurp our roles as pastors, doesn’t that come from a place of fear and suspicion.  This goes beyond the argument that women should not train, that the education isn’t intended for them to suspicion that there is something about women, a weakness in character, a questionable agenda that will not only make the theological education offered unnecessary but will make it dangerous.

My friend Steve is obviously not heading down some slippery slope and it’s nonsensical and insulting to suggest he is. Now, I doubt anyone will take the accusations too seriously, however, whilst the kinds of arguments I saw deployed are perhaps rare in the UK, it actually reflects from my observations a broader take in other parts of the world, especially within the US context.  That’s why I wanted to take the opportunity here to flesh out my response a little because it matters.

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