Once more: congregationalism, authority, and gender

As a very young scholar, I was involved in organising a conference in honour of Colin Gunton’s sixtieth birthday. I commented to Colin over a meal in his favourite Italian restaurant after that conference that we worked in an odd field, where we assumed that the way to honour a colleague was to gather all his closest friends to tell him where he was wrong in public…

I sort-of-knew then, of course, and know much better now, that there is no higher honour anyone can give to our writing than to take it seriously, and critical engagement is the way we take each other most seriously. I have had cause this week to be grateful for a couple of deeply serious interactions with my work: Fred Sanders and Matt Jenson have begun a blog conversation about my Trinity book which is extremely generous in its appreciation (thus far…) and careful and serious in its engagement; I look forward to learning much from their readings and reflections. Fred and I also both feature in the latest edition of Credo Magazine, which is on the doctrine of the Trinity, and which also includes a lengthy article review of my Baptist Theology book by Bobby Jamieson of Nine Marks Ministries – an engagement for which I am equally grateful.

Jamieson is extremely kind in his appreciation of the book, and offers some helpful challenges (He cites statistics on open membership positions amongst SBC churches which are news to me, and which I must follow up; on the other hand, I’m sure I’m right about Spurgeon, but the point does need further defence; …). About a half of his review, however, is taken up with an extensive engagement of my suggestion in the book that Baptists – or other congregationalists – cannot, logically, accept the currently-popular version of ‘gender complementarianism’, because it relies on an account of the location of authority which congregationalism necessarily denies.

I am enormously grateful for the engagement, and find his development of a version of congregationalism which is not susceptible to the charge I make fascinating and very helpful; my instinctive suspicion is that it is something of a departure from Baptist traditions, but we would need to have that argument with recourse to many specific texts, taking each of the manifold varieties of Baptists one by one – I am certainly open to the claim that congregationalism developed differently in North America and Europe, and that I have missed that, for instance. This is real, substantive, critical work, which helps me to see the limitations of my knowledge and imagination and to have a larger view of what is possible in our shared tradition at the end. I am, genuinely, very grateful.

That said, the discussion of gender and ministry in my book ran to less than three pages – of 160pp in the book – and Jamieson is far from the first to highlight it. I will not pretend that it is not a subject I am passionate about – readers of this blog may have noticed – but the point borders on the incidental in this particular text. I knew when I wrote those few paragraphs that they would attract attention out of proportion to their length, of course; I left them there because the point is the best illustration I know of a broader theme of the book.

As Jamieson notices, I try to sketch a ‘middle way’ between maximalist and minimalist accounts of Baptist distinctiveness. The core of that ‘middle way’ is to insist that Baptists are distinctive only in our ecclesiology, but then to suggest that our ecclesiology is sufficiently different that it echoes around the whole of theology, imposing itself in surprising ways in a whole host of places. I suggested that one of those places was the currently popular defence of ‘gender complementarianism,’ which turns extensively on notions of authority. Baptists have different ideas about where authority is found, and how it operates, in the church, I suggested, and so many of these recent arguments, which work perfectly well in presbyterian and episcopal polities, cannot work for congregationalists like Baptists.

In this I assumed a piece of work I have begun to do, but not yet published, concerning shifting evangelical justifications for ‘complementarian’ positions. the ‘headship-authority’ defence is, I think, actually very new – a couple of decades or so old. There were several identifiable waves of previous defences, which all worked much better within a Baptist ecclesiology. So my point, and I hope I made it clear, was never that Baptists could not be ‘complementarians’ – I think we should not, but that is a different argument – rather, I sought to argue that the currently-popular form of ‘complementarianism’ was not available to Baptists, and that this was interesting not in itself, but because it illustrated the way our particular ecclesiological commitments have far-reaching theological implications.

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