As many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am not a cradle evangelical. I spent the first sixteen years of my life as a Roman Catholic. I had a conversion experience as a sophomore in high school and I left the Catholic church for a non-denominational Bible church. In other words, I became an evangelical.
When I converted, the word “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” meant nothing to me. I don’t think I ever met a born-again Christian until I started attending the youth group at Gilgal Bible Chapel in West Milford, New Jersey. I went from the cloistered community of a working-class Catholic upbringing (I seem to remember mostly Catholics and Jews in my public high school, although I am sure there were Protestants as well) to a similarly cloistered evangelical world. My only exposure to evangelical Christianity came through Gilgal, a church plant with an authoritarian pastor located on a multi-acre site that included a Christian camp and a conference center. (Gilgal had its own unique approach to evangelical Christianity, and its authoritarian pastor had a tragic fall from grace, but I will need to save that for another post or perhaps another book!)
My conversion was real and life-altering. I put aside a journalism career and prepared for a life in the evangelical ministry. My pastor recommended I go to Bible college. So I did. I initially thought I would be spending the next four years in residence at a place similar to a monastery, but I soon realized that most Bible college students were no different than the students who attended my public high school. They dressed the same way, had the same haircuts, listened to the same music (despite the fact they were not permitted to listen to “secular music”), drove the same cars, and had the same ambitions and vices. They baptized these traits with their “calls” to ministry and a sense of Christian piety. For some, these “calls” were real and I had much respect, and continue to have much respect, for many of my classmates. For others, I had no idea why they were in Bible college. In the end, I had a great time at Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University). I played basketball and made some great friends. It was like I was attending a four-year Christian youth retreat. But I digress…
By my senior year I realized that I wasn’t getting much of a liberal education. In the 1980s Philadelphia College of Bible was a dispensational school. Bible and theology professors taught us that God had different plans for Israel and the Church. (One professor, John McGahey, would scream at us: “ISRAEL IS NOT THE CHURCH!). The purpose of this Bible college education, if you could call it that, was to indoctrinate students in dispensational premillennialism. We were required to buy a copy of the Scofield Bible. We read books by dispensational luminaries such as Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, and J. Dwight Pentecost. We waited for the rapture–the moment when God would raise-up the true believers to meet him in the air. And our teachers made sure that we knew the rapture would come before the seven-year tribulation. All of my Bible professors had advanced degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary, the intellectual home of dispensationalism.
Upon graduation, I knew that I wanted to continue my theological education. But I did not want to go to Dallas with some of my other classmates. I enrolled at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Deerfield, Illinois. TEDS was an evangelical seminary, but it was not dispensational in orientation (although it did have a few dispensational professors). I chose TEDS because I knew that I would find evangelical professors who would expand my horizons. My goal was to pursue a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree and use my time to figure out what I might do with such a course of study. At the very least, I thought an MDiv would allow me to think theologically about the world. I had no real long-term plan. My parents helped me out with the tuition, but I also worked as a security guard at various places to get myself to graduation. I eventually fell in love with history, added an M.A. in church history to my vita, and headed off to pursue a Ph.D in American history.
When I arrived at TEDS in the late 1980s, the school prided itself on its commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible. Kenneth Kantzer, the retired dean of the seminary, had attracted some of the best evangelical theologians to TEDS for the purpose of providing an inerrancy-based alternative to Fuller Theological Seminary, the Pasadena, California school that abandoned the doctrine of inerrancy in the 1960s. (See George Marsden’s book Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism).
Some professors made a big deal about inerrancy. Others rarely mentioned it. I took Scot McKnight for a Greek refresher course. The subject of inerrancy never came up. (Nor did it come-up much in his Synpotic Gospels course). John D. Woodbridge, who taught me how to think historically and encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D in history, was a staunch defender of inerrancy. My other church history professor, Tom Nettles (who I did not know as well as Woodbridge), did not say too much about inerrancy despite the fact that he was an important historian of the doctrine during the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Church.
But what I remember most about TEDS was the theological diversity of the faculty. While some of my readers might wonder how a school that upholds biblical inerrancy could be theologically diverse, at the time I did not see it that way . TEDS was not Philadelphia College of Bible or Dallas Theological Seminary. During my three years on campus I took courses with dispensationalists (Paul Feinberg) and covenant theologians (Ray Ortlund Jr and Walter Kaiser). I took courses with faculty who opposed women’s ordination (Wayne Grudem) and those who championed women’s ordination (Walter Liefield). There were Presbyterians and Baptists, Calvinists and Arminians. I even had one professor (Murray Harris) who did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. I sat-in on courses taught by some of the founders of the neo-evangelical movement: Carl F.H. Henry, Kantzer, and Gleason Archer. I took theology with Harold O.J. Brown, the Harvard trained scholar who was one of the leading voices of the pro-life movement. I made a few visits to a class on Puritanism taught by English theologian J.I. Packer.
I don’t know how all of these professors got along in the faculty lounge, but they always modeled a spirit of conversation and debate. Evangelicals had core convictions, but what made them evangelicals was their irenic spirit and acceptance of those with whom they differed. This spirit, perhaps more than anything, was what made them “evangelicals” and not “fundamentalists.” As Marsden once put it, “a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.”
At TEDS I learned that evangelicals championed orthodox beliefs– the deity of Christ, the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, the resurrection, the inspiration of the Bible, the Holy Spirit’s role in the pursuit of holiness, and the necessity of living-out the Great Commission through evangelism. But I also learned that evangelicals differed on what my professors called the “secondary” or “minor” doctrines: the ordination of women, the proper form of church government, the proper mode of baptism, capital punishment, the relationship between God’s providence and human free will, the gifts of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy, etc.), war and peace, and the way one’s faith should manifest itself in the political sphere, to name a few.
I had classmates from every Protestant denomination imaginable–Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Anglicans, and Presbyterians. Students were preparing for ministry in evangelical denominations like the Evangelical Free Church, but they also trained for work in non-denominational megachurches and mainline Protestantism denominations.
At this particular moment in my life (it was the early 1990s), I needed a place like TEDS. I loved the fact that evangelicals could disagree on some matters of biblical interpretation. (I even co-wrote a song about it titled “So Many Views,” sung to the tune of the Monkey’s “I’m A Believer”). I learned how to think critically and theologically. I knew that there was a larger theological world out there beyond the evangelical boundaries of TEDS and my experience in Deerfield gave me the skills to navigate it.
I understood the culture at TEDS as representative of the spirit of American evangelicalism.
I have been thinking lot about my experience at TEDS as I watch the debates over the role of women in the church currently taking place within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In case you missed it, last month there was a pretty significant Twitter battle on this topic.
It all began when the bombastic Southern Baptist seminary professor Owen Strachan of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary published a piece on women in the church at his blog “Thought Life.” Here is a taste of that May 7, 2019 post:
Biblical teaching on the sexes is not bad. It is not harmful to women. It is good–thunderously good–for women and for men. If we take the Bible at its word, then we recognize that there is no way for a woman to instruct the gathered church, whether in an authoritative or “non-authoritative” way. Congregational preaching and teaching is authoritative, for the Word of God is authoritative. There is no “non-authoritative” way to preach and teach the Bible. Any who doubt this point might recall how Paul contrasts the “word of men” with the “word of God” in 1 Thessalonians 2:13. If you speak and interpret the Scripture, you speak with the weight of eternity upon you. It cannot be otherwise.
Beth Moore and J. D. Greear are two popular Southern Baptist voices. Both Moore and Greear are gifted individuals, respected within the SBC and beyond it. In recent days, I was surprised to see these two figures endorse, in the context of the church’s gathered worship service, a woman teaching and preaching to the corporate body (see here and here). This was new to me; Southern Baptists have never embraced such a view. As mentioned above, there is no New Testament precedent for a woman teaching the corporate body of Christ (Priscilla’s words in Acts 18 to Apollos came in private, not in public), nor were women called to serve as priests in the old covenant era. Christ did not appoint a woman to be an apostle, nor did any woman serve as an elder in the first-century churches spoken of in Scripture.
And here is his Strachan’s conclusion:
Though many paint women monolithically today, seeing them as instinctually feminist, there are many women in submission to God who wish for men to lead them well and preach the Word faithfully. They do not see the Bible’s teaching on womanhood as “restrictive,” nor the complementarian movement as “afraid” of womanly gifting. Rather, they approach the Word of God with great reverence and awe. They wish to know the will of God, and do it. They take no pleasure in quieting or softening the Bible; they recognize the order that God has established, and they love it. There are scores of such women in church history, in Baptist history, in the modern SBC, and in the broader evangelical world. I know they are out there; I have heard their testimony firsthand. With the whole church of God, these women gladly confess that the counsel of the Lord stands forever (Psalm 33:11), and that the law of God’s mouth “is better…than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Psalm 119:72).
There is much the Word frees women to do as mentioned above. But for the women I speak of, where the Word gives them a prohibition for God’s glory and their good, they receive that commandment with gladness. They submit to God, as we all must do (James 4:7). In our God-defying age, this posture stands out sharply. It is driven by our total confidence in the unerring mind and will of God. We think of Psalm 119:89 on this count: בַּשָּׁמָֽיִם נִצָּ֥ב דְּ֝בָרְךָ֗ יְהוָ֑ה לְעוֹלָ֥ם, “Forever, Lord, your word is fixed in the heavens.” It is not man who has “fixed” the word of God, and written it in the sky. By God’s own hand and mind, there is order in the home; there is order in the churches; there is order in the world God has made.
Let no one defy this order.
There is a lot that could be said about Strachan’s post. I disagree with him on the role of women in the church and the family, but my intention here is not to get into these theological and interpretive weeds. There are indeed a lot of denominations that do not ordain women, including the Roman Catholic Church. But I will say this: by ending his post with the words “let no one defy this order,” Strachan reveals his dogmatism on this issue. I wonder what he would think about someone who does “defy this order?” Are they living in sin? Are they outside the fold of Christian orthodoxy? Of evangelicalism? Will Strachan still have Christian fellowship with them? Should they be cast into perdition? What is at stake here?
After he wrote this piece, Strachan turned to Twitter to promote it:
It was at this point that the wildly popular evangelical preacher Beth Moore entered the fray:
Strachan initially responded politely:
But then his Twitter feed got snarky.
For example, he retweeted this:
And then his many followers and others of like mind started chiming in:
And then this week Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, added fuel to the fire with this tweet:
Those familiar with Mohler will remember that he was instrumental in making Southern Seminary a complementarian school and the Southern Baptist Convention a complementarian denomination. When one listens to Mohler and Strachan, one gets the impression that they believe their view of what the Bible teaches on the role of women in the church and the home is not a secondary issue of faith, but one that is essential to Christian orthodoxy. I honestly don’t believe that they really think this, but their rhetoric is so definitive and dogmatic that it certainly sounds like they do.
Strachan is not letting go of this position. He sees the denial of the pulpit to women such as Beth Moore and others as a non-negotiable theological view in the SBC. In other words, those who take a different position do not belong in the denomination. Here is his tweet in response to Mohler (notice how he continues to see himself in the vanguard of those who led the conservative resurgence, even going to the point of capitalizing the word “Resurgence”):
Of course the Southern Baptist Church leadership has the right to define the role of women in the church in any way they want to define it. This is what religious liberty is all about. Millions of evangelicals attend churches that do not ordain women. As noted above, the largest religious body in the world–the Catholic Church–does not ordain women. But Strachan and other Southern Baptists also like to fancy themselves as heirs to the evangelicalism that I experienced at TEDS nearly thirty years ago. Strachan writes books and edits books for conservative Christian publishers extolling people like Carl F.H. Henry, Charles Colson, and other members of the neo-evangelical movement.
My professors at TEDS had firm convictions on a whole host of issues, but they did not promote them with the fundamentalist spirit to which I see coming from Strachan and his followers. In fact, it was this very spirit–the kind of militant spirit I see in their tweets–that made fundamentalism so repulsive to people like Carl Henry, Ken Kantzer, and the other neo-evangelical leaders who broke from fundamentalist militancy in the 1940s and 1950s.
The Southern Baptist Convention can work out their issues on women in the church on their own, without my help, but if you are going to try to make complementarianism a defining and non-negotiable characteristic of SBC orthodoxy please stop writing about how much you love the neo-evangelical movement.
On the other hand, if you do want to claim the Henry/Kantzer/neo-evangelical mantle, perhaps it is time to rethink the Convention’s position on this issue and broaden the tent a bit.