Here Comes A Resolution
This week I have sought to unpack (for myself, as much as anyone else) why the Kellers’ book The Meaning of Marriage disappointed me. On Monday I praised the good aspects, on Tuesday I introduced the core problem of complementarianism, on Wednesday I tried to show how this argument rests on natural theology and yesterday I picked at the big issue, which is how this form of complementarianism runs a risky game with an unusual reading of the Trinity.
Today I want to turn to consider a different book entirely, that I read at the same time. Equal to Rule (published in Dublin by Columba Press but available everywhere at a brilliantly low price on Kindle) is written by the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Trevor Morrow.
I should begin by clarifying that just as Keller has had a huge, formative, positive influence on me, I have learned vast amounts from Morrow. Different from Keller, Trevor Morrow is a personal friend. I became a Christian listening to his sermons at Lucan Presbyterian Church and I am lucky to count him as a mentor who has guided me through my faith since then, encouraged me into preaching and then into ministry and came round to my house one cold January day in 2010, when I had two broken arms, to tell me that I needed to think about doing a Theology PhD.
So the clarification is that I am biased in favour of the book I’m about to discuss. I got to talk it through with Trevor over coffee before it was ever written and I got to read preliminary copies and I even get thanked on the Acknowledgements page. But if you think that means I will automatically like what he has to say, I remind you that my devotion to Keller is such that I once went on an expensive pilgrimage to hear him give two talks on how to preach, flying to London to learn from him in person. I appreciate both of these guys, who enrich and serve the church in significant ways. I think there are problems with the Kellers’ marriage book and I think that Morrow’s book is a much better approach. So let me explain how.
How To Decide Who Reads Gooder?
There has been one line of inquiry notably absent from my critique of the Kellers’ and that is Scriptural discussion. Whatever reference I have made to their reading of Scripture has been positive. The book can be read as an extended reflection on Ephesians 5 and the reading that it offers, apart from jumping off into complementarianism, is superb. It doesn’t offer extended treatments of the contentious passages. This is one of the reasons that the Kellers manage to espouse the doctrine in so winsome a fashion – they consciously avoid getting bogged down in defending “Biblical doctrine”.
The doctrine is defended Biblically by citing the passages in the New Testament that refer to gender issues (verses from 1 Timothy and 1 Peter are especially important to them). Only the most unfair of students would look at the complementarian interpretation of Scripture and deny that it has internal coherence (their Trinitarian theology might not pass such a test!). Yet on the “egalitarian” side, they have a strong and internally consistent set of readings for the verses that are at the centre of the debate.
How do we get out of this textual logjam? Christians have numerous ways of shaping tensions towards health. We might have an authority that declares the right way to read the texts, like the Roman Magisterium. Or we might have a big ecumenical council of all the bishops and they might issue some guidance (harder since the Orthodox schism and the European Reformation!). Or we might agree to live together and seek to embody our positions with grace.
This is the position that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland came to in 1973. We ordain women to eldership and to ministry and we still welcome people whose conscience doesn’t land in the same place. And in Equal to Rule, Trevor Morrow lays out the rationale behind why this decision was reached and why we maintain this decision. The sad fact is that the influence of American evangelical culture means that complementarians are increasingly influential in the denomination and they are perhaps more strident than old fashioned conservatives (although what do I know – I no longer even live in Ireland!).
A Diminutive Book With A Powerful Punch
So Morrow’s book is the rarest of thing. It is a churchman, explaining the position of a church, for the sake of church-members. This isn’t just of interest to people who are a part of my tiny denomination however. There are three factors that make it especially worthwhile.
Firstly, it is an excellent example of a Christ-focused interpretation of Scripture. He reads the Bible with Jesus as the controlling factor in interpretation. What does that mean? It means that Morrow reads the rest of Scripture informed by what Jesus, the best reader of Scripture ever, says first. He is “particularly concerned that women will experience in reading this the love and acceptance which Jesus brings in restoring them to be co-rulers with men over the new creation.” (8) In support of this he quotes this lovely bit from Dorothy Sayers, talking about how around Jesus women were:
first at the Cradle and the last at the Cross. They had never known a man like Jesus – there never has been such another. A prophet and a teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend.
– Trevor Morrow Equal to Rule, 9-10.
Jesus was taught the Scriptures by a woman and he was witnessed in his glory by women, he taught women after Easter Sunday and sent them as his apostles and through his Spirit he gifts them today to lead and guide the church. This simple prioritising of Jesus clarifies a great deal.
Secondly, Morrow reads the wide narrative of Scripture. Of course, this is what all Christians with skill in reading the Bible do. The Bible interprets the Bible and Keller is as good at this as anyone I know. This is why the doctrinal reference to speculative inner hierarchies within Trinity is so disappointing. The dots that Morrow connects are not tenuous or arcane. You begin in Genesis 1 and 2 with equality. In Genesis 3 there is Fall and the distortion of gender identity that produces, among all the other chaos, misogyny and the rest of the sin that we bear. But from that point onwards the culture-transcending revelation of God pierces through with judges and prophets and poets and saints that direct our attention to the restoration of creation’s goodness. This comes to fruition in Jesus, and Morrow reads the succeeding letters of the New Testament as part of the real-time working-out of what the Kingdom means for worshipping communities. Figuring out what it means for gender is why we have the passages over which people battle. But Morrow is able to draw on as many fine resources as anyone else to justify the evangelical and Reformed position Irish Presbyterians took.
Thirdly, this is all achieved with a brevity and clarity that is sort of amazing. I sat down to write a quick word here about how Morrow’s book is a useful rejoinder to Keller’s. Now I’ve written over 1270 words. But Morrow gets this entire argument, an extensive set of practical advice for how to encourage women into leadership and pointers to further resources in 106 pages. He does it without using the words like “the epistemic relations within the hypostatic union”. I could leave out the line-drawings that head up sections, but my admiration for how straightforward this book is just grows.
My Experience Of the Egalitarianism of the Gospel
Morrow is an outstanding preacher, but when I was first considering Christianity he shared his pulpit with two younger ministers, one of whom was a South African woman. Lorraine Kennedy Ritchie would preach from the Old Testament and have me on the edge of my seat. She would cry in the pulpit, so moved by the words she was called to expound upon and so overwhelmed by the task that she had to fulfill.
In the congregation were women who are now leaders, evangelists, elders, ministers or in training to be ministers. These friends of mine had the same transformative experience, not just of Trevor’s gift for preaching, but the Gospel’s gift of community. Men and women were gathered by the Spirit into this little band of folk lit up from the inside by the goodness and beauty of God. I met one of my dearest friends in the world one Sunday in that church and she is now in leadership in a church plant in middle England. Her roommate is finishing off training for ordination. Her friend is the minister in inner city Galway. My wife runs an intervention programme for children in Aberdeen and preaches in the local churches. There are probably 10 women who are elders in the Presbyterian Church who I met in that relatively tiny congregation.
But the men went into leadership as well, to an extent unparalleled anywhere I know of. Men who are now ministers all over the island and as far afield as Switzerland were members at Lucan at some stage. They come under the influence of Lucan, where the practical steps of discovering and cultivating gifts in men and women were taken seriously, and they found a joyous call to dedicate their life to prayer and preaching, eucharist and baptism.
This is not down to Trevor Morrow, as much as I revere the man. It is down to the Gospel. Lorraine Kennedy Ritchie didn’t cry in that pulpit because she is a woman and my argument isn’t “Well don’t women bring something to the task that men can’t!” I know this because I cry in that pulpit. I cried in Lorraine’s pulpit when she had me preach there the week before I moved to Scotland. I cry in every pulpit because I, like Lorraine, am a human being incapable of comprehending just how glorious a thing God has done.
At the final stage for selection for ordination, I had to give a short sermon in front of a panel of ministers and elders. I broke down in tears there too, trying to explain how the older brother in Luke 15 couldn’t get past himself to see what his Father had for him (see how deeply Keller influences me!). As I remember it, in that slightly embarrassed quiet as I sought to control my sobs, Rev. Cheryl Meban reassurred me with a smile and encouraged me to take my time. In that moment of extreme vulnerability, I didn’t find myself grateful that there were women who were ministers. I found myself grateful that there were ministers who could pastor me. It was God’s choice to gift her the way He did, and gift me in a similar way.
Conclusion: Where we Stand
The brutish effect of careless complementarianism will leave men afraid to be human and women disbarred from being human. The Kellers don’t come anywhere close to that kind of machismo and princess-fascism, but nonetheless their argumentation is out of character, over-extended and highly problematic. The content of the good news is new creation. Man and woman are called to partake in it.
They become citizens of the Kingdom on the same terms. They are gifted on the same terms. They should be welcomed on the same terms.
Your Correspondent, Always finishes on a sexist joke