Tim Keller, Women and Ignoring your own rules

Just in case it needs reiterating- the views represented on my blog and in this post are my own – I am not speaking on behalf of any organisation that I work for.

Why Is TGC Complementarian? from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.


If you know me a little or if you have read this blog before you know I love Tim Keller. He is one of my favourite authors and preachers. His gracious tone makes him one of a very small number of people I know of who have the capacity to take on the role of Global elder statesman in the mold of John Stott and Billy Graham (in his prime). I have had the opportunity to tell him this in person. I also had the opportunity to ask him directly about one area where I found his position puzzling. It was on the role of women. Tim was one of the founders of the Gospel Coalition whose name suggests that it is a gathering of Christians around the gospel. Indeed on the Gospel Coalition website it says “We are a fellowship of evangelical churches deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.”

Included in the Gospel Coalition’s founding documents are very clear statements around the distinctive roles of men and women in church and home:

God ordains that they assume distinctive roles which reflect the loving relationship between Christ and the church, the husband exercising headship in a way that displays the caring, sacrificial love of Christ, and the wife submitting to her husband in a way that models the love of the church for her Lord. In the ministry of the church, both men and women are encouraged to serve Christ and to be developed to their full potential in the manifold ministries of the people of God. The distinctive leadership role within the church given to qualified men is grounded in creation, fall, and redemption and must not be sidelined by appeals to cultural developments.

Now ofcourse groupings such as these have the right to include and exclude any one they like from their membership. What saddened me was that Tim Keller speaks very highly of the work of Intervarsity and IFES and in fact I have heard him talk about the fact that his theological and apologetic formation happening through such groups. IFES has always taken a clear distinguishing line between first and second order issues and never sought to make views on gender roles an issue that would exclude others from fellowship or ministry. So as one of the founders of GC I was surprised that Keller would include this in his list of entry requirements.

When I had the privilege to spend some time with Keller I asked him if he thought views on the role of women were part of the gospel, he said they weren’t but that they were very important. I came across this video recently on the GC website where along with Don Carson and John Piper he goes a lot further. To say I found this video discouraging is an understatement:

Very recently I commended Keller on some fantastic rules of engagement he had produced on how to deal with views that he didn’t agree with. Particularly:

  • Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not hold.
  • Represent your opponents’ position in its strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form.
So it was sad to hear the arguments used in this little 17 minute video. Yes I think that Keller was the person offering the most conciliatory and bridge building role in this dialogue – but he neither disagreed nor challenged those expressed by his fellow participants. Here’s what I heard being used as arguments against including egalitarians in the gospel coalition, I am open to be corrected of course.

1. Having a non-complementarian view of gender roles means you have a “loose approach to scripture.” (Keller)

This seems to transgress two of Keller’s main rules in engaging with “opponents.” As an egalitarian I have a very high view of scripture so I am being attributed a view that I don’t own. Secondly no one in this discussion has engaged with egalitarianism in its “strongest” form. Carson dismisses other views of reading Ephesians 5 and 1 Timothy 2 as reconstructionist and does not tackle any of the biblical texts or theological themes that egalitarianism at its best draws upon. Yes it is true that some egalitarians use purely cultural and sociological arguments – just as it is true that some complementarians do ( I was at a told recently that women buy more new age books than men so they obviously are not fit to teach or lead.) But again using this kind of argument is not dealing with the theological position in its strongest form.
Even when Keller tries to soften his statement by saying that “there are plenty of people” only loosen things on this issue and then “keep it tight everywhere else,” the point is still that egalitarians cannot hold to a high view of scripture and come to their conclusions – it has to involve loosening their grip on scripture at some point.
The problem with the argument that people who take a different view on the role of women are “loose with the scripture” is that it assumes that there is only one way of reading scripture on this issue. As Carson rightly notes in his opening comments – that is not how the GC understand the way that evangelicals read scripture when it relates to Baptism or Church Government. For me to argue that I have met more people that have turned away from gospel doctrines such as belief in the resurrection or the uniqueness of Christ that also held paedobaptist views – see for example the large number of self described liberal presbyterians or anglicans – would be a facile and prejudiced line of reasoning.

2. Trajectories (John Piper)

Piper’s line of reasoning here is that to take a different view on gender roles will lead to changes in view on homosexuality. This seems to contradict Keller’s rule “never attribute to your opponent a view they do not hold” or even more explicitly never “attribute to antagonist no opinion that he does not own, though it be a necessary consequence.” It is true that some egalitarians have argued that the church should change its views on the role of women and our views on the practice of homosexual sexual intercourse. But it is also true that some have argued that male headship in the home is license for domestic violence against women. Neither of these views are “necessary consequences” and so Keller is wise to argue that you shouldn’t assume the worst when engaging in conversation. But this is precisely what Piper does. As an egalitarian I believe that leadership roles are available to men and women in the church, this does not lead me to change my views on homosexual sex.

Perhaps there is a contextual issue at stake here. Perhaps things are different in the US? Two examples from the UK. The first UK denominations to ordain women were the Salvation Army (c.1870 ) and the Baptist Union of Great Britain (c.1920); neither are liberal today. (Thanks to Steve Holmes for this information). Perhaps a wider contextual awareness may help. But the bigger point is – just because some egalitarians change their minds on homosexuality -doesn’t necessitate that all will. For example just as many complementarians end up becoming AngloCatholic doesn’t mean all will.

3. Egalitarians apparently dont know the difference between men and women – we have nothing to say to 8 year old children on the issue of gender (cf John Piper).

This is a straw man/woman (!) argument. To argue that men and women both have the opportunity to lead in the church does not mean that all egalitarians see no differences between gender. It is true that we may not agree with some of gender differences that some complementarians attribute to men and women – mainly because we think that those differences owe more to culture than biblical exegesis. I have heard a number of complimentarians argue that all women want to be “rescued” and lead by strong men. But this leaves little room for biblical women role models such as Esther, Deborah or Priscilla.

4. Gender is an issue of this time ( baptists and paedobaptists used to argue but this is not the issue that is addressing our culture) (Carson)

I would love to understand how Carson understands the polyvalence of the Bible on the issue of baptism and why it is different from the role of women. I can’t believe that Carson is arguing that our willingness to believe the hermenteutical best of those who read the Bible differently to us on baptism is just an accident of history. As Keller argues your view on women is not a central gospel truth but surely your views on how someone is saved is part of the gospel. Some of my Anglican paedobaptist friends believe it is possible for someone to be saved without personal faith in Christ and that on the basis of promises made by Godparents an infant is regenerate and included into the body of Christ. To argue that this is not an important issue for our time seems to reduce the importance of the gospel. To elevate gender roles above the issue of how salvation operates seems strange to me – but I may have misunderstood Carson on this one, or it is possible he is not being entirely consistent.
I find it hard to believe that the rise of egalitarianism is seen as one of the most pressing dangers facing the church and the culture – above global poverty, gun control, the environment…

5. Confusion on Gender is part of what is at the heart of what is wrong with our culture (Carson)

It seems that Carson is arguing that the breakdown of the family in many western contexts is due to a more egalitarian view of gender roles. I would love to see the evidence for this. Isn’t it possible to argue that while the church has been predominantly complimentarian we have seen the greatest increase in family breakdown.

6. Lack of courage (Piper) “If you arent willing to stand against the tide on this issue you will cave on other issues – gospel issues.”

This doesn’t seem to be portraying egalitarians in their strongest terms. It also contradicts Keller’s fifth rule of engagement “Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing theology–because only God sees the heart.” Writing off egalitarians as cowards is hardly a theological critique. I would like to understand why Piper and Keller who participated fully at the Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization seem so completely unaware of its commitment on the issue of unity across views on gender roles:

We recognize that there are different views sincerely held by those who seek to be faithful and obedient to Scripture. Some interpret apostolic teaching to imply that women should not teach or preach, or that they may do so but not in sole authority over men. Others interpret the spiritual equality of women, the exercise of the edifying gift of prophecy by women in the New Testament church, and their hosting of churches in their homes, as implying that the spiritual gifts of leading and teaching may be received and exercised in ministry by both women and men.[96] We call upon those on different sides of the argument to:

  1. Accept one another without condemnation in relation to matters of dispute, for while we may disagree, we have no grounds for division, destructive speaking, or ungodly hostility towards one another;[97]

7. We are not listening to what scripture says on its own terms “it is not listening to what God says” to take a contrary view on this is “not to tremble at God’s word” (Carson)

Carson joins in the attack on the character of egalitarians – again contradicting Keller’s rule “Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing theology–because only God sees the heart.” Basically we are trembling at God’s word if we agree with Carson’s apparently infallible reading of the gender texts.


I contend that it is possible to have a high view of scripture and believe that women can take on leadership roles in the church.
I contend that egalitarians are not all cowards – sometimes egalitarians have faced significant opposition from conservative friends and colleagues because of where their reading of scripture have taken them.
I contend that the role of women in leadership in the church is not an unasailable division – if we have found a way to find unity in diversity on baptism surely we can on this issue.
I have benefitted greatly from the ministry of all of the men in this video, they have produced some brilliant books and materials, its such a shame this video is not up to their usual high standards.
I would like to encourage the Gospel Coalition to reconsider its position in light of Keller’s very helpful rules of engagement and consider removing this inflammatory and insulting video. I would like to suggest a dialog between evangelical complementarians and egalitarians modelled on Keller’s rules that can genuinely engage with each other’s convictions at their best and explore ways we can find unity in the gospel rather than division on this matter.

Post Script

I have been asked to provide some reading material to help read Egalitarianism at its best.
Here’s my limited list – very happy for other suggestions:
6. Women in the Church: A biblical Theology of Women in Ministry, Stanley Grenz
Here are some others recommended through social media ( I have not read them… yet)
Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters’ by Philip B Payne
Women and Authority, Ian Paul , Grove Booklets
I suffer not a woman’. Kroeger & Kroeger;
‘Women & Religion’ Clark & Richardson.

Tim Keller and Gospel Graciousness

I have enjoyed reading Tim Keller’s Center Church recently. I will publish a full review shortly. In the meantime I have always been struck by the gracious manner that Keller conducts himself. As a conservative evangelical he shares a lot of core beliefs with people like Mark Driscoll and John Piper, but the way he engages with those he disagrees with is often very different. Some of it will be due to temparement and personality i am sure, but towards the end of Center Church. Keller relates 4 guiding principles he has when engaging with other people’s views. I’d like to adopt them myself as New Year’s blogging resolutions- so feel free to hold me to account on this.

All Christian movements must be characterized by a willingness to unite around commonly held central truths and to accept differences on secondary matters that —in the view of the partners —do not negate our common belief in the biblical gospel. To maintain a healthy movement over time, we have to engage in direct discussion about any doctrinal errors we perceive. Yet in doing so, we must show respect for the other party and aim to persuade them, not punish them.

In a section marked “Gospel Polemics” Keller presents his rules of engagement:

  1. Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not hold.
  2. Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively.
  3. Represent your opponents’ position in its strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form.
  4. Seek to persuade, not antagonize–but watch your motives!
  5. Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing theology–because only God sees the heart.

It is number one that I am most interested in:

Attribute to antagonist no opinion that he does not own, though it be a necessary consequence. In other words, even if you believe that Mr A’s belief X could lead others who hold belief X to hold belief Y, do not accuse Mr A of holding belief Y if he disowns it. You may consider him inconsistent but this is not the same as insisting that he holds belief Y when he does not….A similar move happens when we imply or argue that if Mr A quotes a particular author favourably at any point then Mr A must hold all the views held by the author. If through guilt by association we hint or insist that he must hold other beliefs of that particular author then we are both alienating and misrepresenting our opponent.

This is a great piece of advice – even if I am not sure about the language of “opponent” think I would have liked to talk about familial terms like “brother or sister.”

But the demonisation and guilt by association that Keller talks about here is a big problem in the world that I live.

I have been told that to quote Rob Bell positively makes me a heretic, (indeed someone threatened to ban one of my books because I included a reference to Rob’s fine work on the sabbath. Others have said that to quote NT Wright means that I “have gone liberal.” Similarly to be positive about John Piper’s work makes me a chauvinist. Keller models in this book a willingness to quote from lots of authors that he doesn’t agree with on every point: Lesslie Newbigin, David Bosch etc. To be fair – these are acceptable “non-conservatives” to quote almost as acceptable as CS Lewis. Keller himself doesn’t quote positively from many of the “emergent” church thinkers nor from many/any? non western world thinkers (and very few women) – but that’s a point for another blog or two. In the mean time I love these proposed ways of gracious engagement, lets hope we can make good use of them.

Friendly Fire

Captain Lisa Jade Head, of the 11th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment was killed after a bomb she was trying to defuse in Helmand Province of Afghanistan exploded giving her catastrophic injuries. Its another story of a tragic loss of life in an ongoing conflict that has seen many thousands of Afghan innocent civilians lose their lives. A young woman’s life was snuffed out as she tried to keep the roads safe for supplies and people to pass through. All lives lost in conflict are hard to deal with, But when you hear about friendly fire incidents they somehow seem even more painful. To think that soldiers who are supposed to be fighting for justice and the protection of innocents end up killing eachother due to confusion or poor communication seems like a total waste of life. As I travel around the UK visiting churches, Christian Unions and Christian festivals it feels that many of the people that have dropped out of church have done so because of a friendly fire incident. It hasn’t been the big guns of Athiests like Richard Dawkins or Christtopher Hitchens that have argued people out of their faith it is people have lost faith because of an argument they have had with another Christian or the way they have been let down by the church.

The story of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, shows us that jesus is no stranger to friendly fire. One of the 12 that Jesus chose has chosen to reject him. One of the 12 men that knew Jesus best has decided to betray him. They say that those that are closest to you can hurt you the most, well the betrayal of Jesus by Judas “troubled jesus in his spirit.” For me that would have been game over. John has been very careful to tell us that Passover is approaching and it’s the time when Jesus will demonstrate the full extent of his love for us and yet one of those sharing the Passover meal with Jesus is willing to stab in the back and sell him out. This would have been the last straw for me when you are trying to do something good and all you get is betrayal its enough to throw in the towel and that’s what many people have done with the church. But Jesus doesn’t react this way. Despite being let down by the very people he’s dying to save he goes ahead and offers himself up on their behalf. Jesus laid down his life for his friends even when his friends act like enemies. Its high time we learned again what it means to follow in Jesus footsteps in our relationships.

You can listen to this as devotional reading here thanks to premier radio.

5 ways towards genuine partnership

It was a hot day and I was running late and I was lost. Not a great combination. In a sweaty, stressed and rather disjointed way I managed to ask a security guard for directions. His reply was less than helpful: “sorry mate, you can’t get there from here”. Perhaps it was when he saw the colour drain from my face, or my jaw drop that he realized the incongruity of his remark. The security guard went on to tell me that if I could just relocate myself to the other side of campus I would easily find the meeting I was running late for.

The journey from disunity to unity may seem impossible, but perhaps we just need to change our starting point a little to see that it is actually more within reach than we thought. Here are five postures that we could adopt to begin the route to unity.

1. Shared vision

The important idea that has already been raised of shoulder-to-shoulder cooperation rather than face-to-face confrontation is a really useful posture for missional partnerships. This can be difficult to achieve because often those that are the most committed to mission are often similarly and primarily committed to their own mission. I recently sat in the lounge of the national director of a very large UK mission agency only to be told 2 minutes into our hour-long appointment that his agency had written into its purpose statement that they would under no circumstances enter into any partnerships. It was a long 58 minutes in which I tried to convince him otherwise.

When partnership is seen as a distraction and a dilution of primary directives of an agency, it is virtually impossible to catalyse unity initiatives. Perhaps we need to see cooperation and partnership written into our mission statements and job descriptions as a kingdom priority, in order to challenge and change our starting points.

2. Unity in opposition

I have observed agencies and churches working happily independently until suddenly they unite in opposition to a particular person or viewpoint. Sadly this has often occurred around secondary issues such as promoting a complimentarian view of women or a literal six-day view of creation. In order to join in their coalition they then require an adherence to these views, whether or not they are made explicit in their doctrinal statement. At its worst there can exist simultaneously an explicit doctrinal statement that promises the possibility of genuine broad-spectrum unity – but also an implicit unwritten doctrinal statement that revolves around secondary issues.

It is time we recognize where and when this is occurring as unity that actually perpetuates disunity is no unity at all. However, on a positive note, when groups that have previously refused to cooperate begin to consider partnerships, there is then the potential to move forward in their thinking. Sometimes uniting because of a common enemy can be helpful. For example when agencies come together to fight the travesty of extreme poverty or take a stand against blasphemy or speak out against evil, then there is a powerful motivator for unity as the church united recognizes that the task in front of us is bigger than any one agency or tribe can tackle.

3. Generous orthodoxy

I often feel uncomfortable when I meet Christian leaders. There can be an air of suspicion, as though I was ‘guilty until proven innocent.’ As soon as I have mentioned the right conferences, the approved authors or the appropriate churches, then the barriers come down and the right hand of fellowship is offered. This “out until you are in” starting point divides Christians into the good guys and the bad guys; those who can be trusted and those who should be shunned. I have even heard this explicitly argued by a well-known speaker from Washington DC whose final point of 35 reasons why churches should not engage in social justice was that pastors should protect their flocks by discouraging the reading of books by authors who disagree with the pastor’s position. This is again a unity of the minority based on uniformity, an orthodoxy that will only become narrower and narrower.

Hearing the critique of our views from the wider church is vital for us not to end up in self-imposed ghettoes of superiority. History would have been different if in South Africa the Dutch reformed church had listened to the critique of the black church and churches outside of South Africa instead of labelling them liberal or Marxist.

When seminars about the emergent church become an exercise in ridiculing or demonizing the particular churches of people, to offer a more immediate example, only builds a dependency on figures who adopt the guru position of arbiters of orthodoxy. Instead an approach that aims for a genuine critical engagement where positives and negatives can be heard will promote the building of Christian maturity through discernment.

Although we believe in an infallible scripture we do not believe God sent us infallible interpreters. We need others to help us to strengthen our grasp on the core of the gospel, and as we do so we should build the maturity to deal with difference through engagement and discernment rather than by building a culture of censorship.

4. Kingdom not empire thinking

Although God’s kingdom will last forever our missions, agencies and even local churches are not necessarily supposed to be eternal, and sometimes we need to let things die in order for the kingdom to advance. This happened spontaneously in my experience in Albania as virtually all missionaries were evacuated for many months in 1997 during a period of extreme unrest. Arguably, this absence of agencies did more for the development of indigenous mission than the previous four years of missionary church-planting. In the UK scene, there are multiple agencies with the same aims. Whether it is working with the persecuted church, or Christian radio stations, or youth ministries, it is worth checking whether we are kingdom-building or empire-building and whether our resources could be better used.

There seems to me to be two simple options to consider in order to move forward towards unity in this scenario: they could diverge or converge. The first ‘divide and conquer’ approach would need us to find ways to segment the mission field to offer a more targeted approach based, for example on age ranges or geographic areas. The second merger option would look for ways to combine two identical fundraising strategies or two web sites or two sets of field staff into a single resource for the sake of the kingdom.

5. The chemistry of relationships

Finally often the precursor to effective partnership is simply relationship – people work well together because they are friends. This is where for all my love of digital technology there is a downside. It is all too easy to write graceless blog posts and comments that bypass personal conversation and can cause unnecessary offence and disunity. I have to ask my friends in the blogging community to hold me accountable on this score. However conferences that allow time and space for conversations can be extremely valuable. Not only can they prevent hostile confrontations, but they can allow us to make, build and deepen friendships which can lead to the possibilities of partnership.