I don't claim to be as plugged in to the Protestant Christian blogosphere as I could be. Many other people know what's up there, and I often don't. This by way of apology for errors in what follows.
As I understand it, the Gospel Coalition is a reformed-leaning, orthodox, evangelical parachurch organization that provides resources to pastors and churches in an attempt to reform and stabilize the evangelical church in America and worldwide.
As it happens, TGC has as part of its statement of faith the concept which has become known as "complementarianism"--in brief, the notion that God made men and women different and meant for them to have different roles in the family and in the church. Of particular relevance to what follows is that complementarianism is opposed to women's ordination and to women's preaching in a role of authority over men. Its opposite in theological circles, which some would call feminism, is known as "egalitarianism."
Recently TGC put up a thoughtful round-table discussion among TGC leaders D.A. Carson, Tim Keller, and John Piper on the question of why TGC is complementarian. If you are interested in this subject at all, I encourage you to watch it, even though it's about seventeen minutes long (which is longer than I usually have patience for when it comes to videos on-line).
The video went up on August 15, and apparently in response, on August 24, Carl Trueman, who teaches Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, put up on his blog a series of posts in which he argues that, though he himself is a complementarian, a parachurch organization like TGC should not make complementarianism a foundational part of its identity by putting that position into its confessional statement. His posts can be found here and here.
At first when I read Trueman's posts and saw the video, I hadn't noted the dates, so I wondered whether he had actually seen the video. It's rather puzzling to realize, based on the dates and his own passing allusion at the beginning of his first post ("Given that the issue of complementarianism is raising its head over at The Gospel Coalition") that he must have done so and that he apparently intends in some measure to be responding to it. Yet his posts are unresponsive to a number of excellent points made in the video, and one wonders why. He's the one asking the questions. The men in the video have obviously heard something like them before and are attempting to answer them. Yet Trueman writes as though they have been neither answered nor even really considered. From the perspective of academic types, it's generally more satisfactory to say, "The folks over at such-and-such group have attempted to answer a question that has often bothered me, and they do address it at some length and from various angles, but here is why I find their answers unpersuasive..." following this up with a point-by-point discussion of what was actually said. Trueman doesn't even try to do anything like this, even briefly. As far as I can tell, he addresses only one of the points that TGC leaders made. He does so twice, and does so unsatisfactorily both times. This is the point made by Tim Keller to the effect that egalitarianism reflects a sadly lacking hermeneutic, an attempt to make Scripture say something different from what it obviously is saying at multiple points. Such an egregious hermeneutical problem is likely to have more wide-ranging effects.To this, Trueman responds,
One answer is that egalitarianism as a position is usually accompanied by lower views of scripture and the presence of other, more serious errors and heterodoxies. That might well be true in some, perhaps even many, cases but it is not necessarily so, any more than it is true that all complementarians are thoroughly orthodox on all other issues or hold the position for biblical reasons. I have known quite a few complementarians who seem to be such less because of the Bible and more because they apparently watched Conan the Barbarian a few too many times in their early teenage years.
Still, it is true: I have indeed come across those who argue for women's ordination on the grounds that Paul was simply wrong; but I have also met those who think we have simply moved on from Paul's time, that he was right then but that his teaching cannot be applied directly to the twenty-first century context. Further, I have met those who profess to hold to inerrancy and who think that the relevant texts are authoritative but that the complementarian understanding of them is wrong. The latter two classes of people seem to me to be raising primarily hermeneutical issues; and the last group in particular does not seem, on the face of it, to be advocating a necessarily low view of scripture in the typical sense of the phrase. Indeed, I see no reason why one could not be an egalitarian and an inerrantist. And if it is a hermeneutical difference, how does one decide that this particular difference among inerrantists is more egregious than, say, those between Baptists and Paedobaptists or Dispensationalists and Amillennialists?
First, while I appreciate - and indeed sympathise with - the slippery slope argument (for example, that egalitarians today are committed to a hermeneutic which in the next generation leaves no basis for resisting the legitimation of homosexuality), I am not sure that that is a primary concern of a parachurch group in the present. The church, not the parachurch, is God's means of preserving the gospel. For the full range of Christian truth to be preserved, one needs not only a commitment to orthodox doctrine but also a biblical structure for its maintenance and preservation. That certainly seems to be Paul's perspective in the Pastorals. If the track record of egalitarians holding to orthodoxy in the second and third generations is poor, one has to say that that of parachurch groups driven by big personalities without transparent accountability structures and rooted in tending-to-minimal common ground statements of faith, rather than full-blown historic confessions, is equally suspect on this score. If one is going to make complementarianism a gospel issue on the grounds that this is necessary for preserving the faith, then one must also make ecclesiology a gospel issue by the same token. And that brings us back to a point I have made repeatedly over the last year: if the purpose of your parachurch is just to provide resources to help churches preach the gospel, that is fine but then just major on the gospel; if your ambitions are greater, then you need to come clean, be a church and be accountable as a church.
The first of these responses is a poor one because it rests on the unspoken assumption that various hermeneutical issues, if they can be cast that way, are all equally easy or difficult to assess. Hence, as long as one gives lip service to inerrancy or some similarly high view of Scripture, Trueman appears to think that the actual things one interprets Scripture as saying, however implausible, should be written down as merely "interpretive differences" and put on a par with infant baptism or differing views about the end times. This is obviously false. Biblical teaching on the subject of women's ordination and the differences between the sexes is repeated, unequivocal, and deeply tied into the very warp and woof of a biblical view of mankind. The same is not even close to being true regarding these other issues. It is difficult to believe that Trueman is not culpable either for not realizing this or for pretending that he doesn't realize this, especially since he is, he says, a complementarian himself. The answer to his question, "[H]ow does one decide that this particular difference among inerrantists is more egregious than, say, those between Baptists and Paedobaptists or Dispensationalists and Amillennialists?" is so easy that it shouldn't need to be stated.
The second response is strange indeed. What it seems to amount to is saying that if you run a parachurch organization and lack all the gifts and graces of an actual church, then you are in such hot water already that you might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb when it comes to doctrinal problems, you have no business bringing anything into your statement of faith that is not strictly necessary to be believed for salvation, and you have no business worrying ("worrying," that is, officially as an organization) more about feminism than about ecclesiology, even though the former is obviously and blatantly destroying the entire society around you while the latter is not.
I find it difficult to know how to respond to this weird argument except to wonder why anyone should think any such thing. In fact, if a parachurch organization has, as Trueman implies, special problems keeping itself doctrinally on the straight and narrow, is this not a reason for being especially vigilant in opposing the spirit of the age which seeks to corrupt the truth of Scripture and to lead man away from a Christian view of the world?
But except for that one mention of homosexuality, which might be taken as a reference to some of John Piper's remarks, these are the only places where I see Trueman actually responding to what TGC leaders actually said, which was itself intended to be a response to the very question he raises about the relative importance of complementarianism and views of baptism. In fact, Piper makes a knock-down pragmatic point at the end of the video concerning the very comparison (which they've obviously heard a number of times) to infant baptism: He points out that there is not a practical problem with having both credobaptists and pedobaptists in the same organization, because no one is going to press for baptizing infants at a TGC conference. On the other hand, if they have egalitarians as members of the organization in full and good standing, there will undeniably be pressure to have women preach at the conferences as part of acknowledging the equality of the egalitarian members with the complementarian members. And as Piper points out, this makes the organization functionally egalitarian!
This seems like the kind of thing Trueman might have said something about, but he doesn't bother to. Given his desire to tangle everything up with church polity, I suppose he might try to respond by saying that this is the very problem with a parachurch organization--that its members are all deemed to be on a par with one another, so that the members' beliefs are supposed to be represented in the organization's practice. Hence, he might well say, the local church is better because it has more of a distinction between laity and clergy. This allows the laity to have some views that are at odds with the official position of the church without having this cause a major problem, since they aren't the ones who make the majority of the decisions about how things are run, and the church doesn't owe it to them to act on all of their personal theological opinions.
Okay, well, fine, but TGC isn't going to shut down tomorrow, and neither are all the other parachurch organizations in the world, and if we're going to bother to discuss what it should be doing since it does exist, which Trueman evidently wants to do, then the question arises: Given the difference just described between a church and a parachurch organization, especially one like TGC which evidently has a very active and intellectual (and perhaps pushy?) membership, doesn't this naturally and legitimately lead to exactly the sorts of differences that seem to bother Trueman? Trueman is much exercised (see the posts) by the fact that TGC's inclusion of complementarianism goes beyond what most Baptist churches require for membership or for taking Communion. But why should that be a problem? Since, as Trueman ought to be the first to admit, comparing a parachurch organization to a church is something of an apples-to-oranges endeavor, why demand that they operate by the same practical rules or demand that practice and doctrine intersect in the same way in TGC that they do in a church?
We can go even farther than that, though: It makes a pretty good rule of thumb that, where there isn't a sharp clergy-laity distinction, it becomes likely that you will need a longer and more detailed statement on matters of faith and practice in order to prevent the very nature of the organization (or, for that matter, of the church) from being warped by the inclusion of influential dissenting members. This might, in fact, explain the fact that Baptist churches, which are congregationalist in their form of governance, have more detailed confessional requirements for full church membership than do some hierarchical churches.
Trueman seems to consider it some kind of reductio to imagine that any church might exclude people from membership on the grounds of their being egalitarians:
If that is the case, then churches presumably need to start disciplining even those members who may believe in egalitarianism too.
I don't know about "disciplining." Do churches always "discipline" those members who are found, after becoming members, to be out of step on this point or that with the church's confessional statement, even if they are not committing some other sin worthy of church discipline? Should churches always do so? It's not obvious that they always should and would seem to depend on a host of factors. But churches might well screen people carefully on their theological views if they want to teach Sunday School. In fact, I think churches should do so. If your church rejects women's ordination, I don't think you should want someone teaching a Sunday School class on the book of, say, Ephesians or on the pastoral epistles who is a defender of women's ordination or who is a feminist in general. And if the problem became acute enough, especially in a church with a congregationalist governing system, you might well include complementarianism in your statement of faith and screen prospective members by means of it before giving them the status of full members in the first place. So even if it did follow, which it doesn't, from the inclusion of complementarianism in TGC's statement of faith that adherence to complementarianism should be required for church members in some church, this wouldn't constitute the reductio Trueman envisages.
Trueman doesn't attempt to address the comments by D.A. Carson about the biblical view of God. The fact that the Bible chooses to call God "father" rather than "mother" ought to be relevant to our view of human fathers. If there is no deep difference between human fathers and mothers, why should it be important to retain a concept of God as our Father in heaven? Is it not understandable that this should be a more important issue than premillenialism?
John Piper also makes excellent comments about raising children, to which Trueman's columns are unresponsive. Piper points out that it is very difficult for an egalitarian to answer a question from a boy as to what it will mean for him to grow up to be a man, per se, as opposed to a woman, a father, specifically, rather than a mother. These are questions that go straight to the nature of man and, hence, the good of man and the good of the Christians to which churches minister. Again, it is entirely understandable that they should be considered to be more urgent than opposition to (or promotion of) pedobaptism.
Let's return for a moment to Trueman's brief mention of homosexuality. He says, first, that he has some sympathy for the argument that "egalitarians today are committed to a hermeneutic which in the next generation leaves no basis for resisting the legitimation of homosexuality." Actually, I would say that egalitarians today are committed to a hermeneutic which right now leaves no basis for resisting the legitimation of homosexuality. Why wait until the next generation? But more than that, I notice that metaphysics seems to be out of the picture altogether. Let's be clear about this: If you reject the premise that there exists a deep metaphysical difference between man and woman, a difference created and intended by God, which makes them complementary to one another, you have problems ginning up a theological and metaphysical basis for resisting the legitimation of homosexuality! Of course, you can always fall back on a kind of bare divine command theory: "Men and women are really fungible, but God says that homosexual acts are wrong, so, egalitarian theory to the contrary notwithstanding, it turns out that that fungibility doesn't extend to the morality of sexual acts." Good luck with that. Somehow I don't find that very compelling, and, while it may stand the test of time in the case of some individual, it's extremely unlikely to do so in the church (or parachurch) as a whole.
Moreover, it won't help you very much in influencing society at large with an alternative view of the human person, a view grounded in the natural law. And here is where we come to a huge lacuna in Trueman's entire approach, a lacuna which I believe was filled by implication in the video but which should be brought out a bit more explicitly: Trueman appears to be insisting that no parachurch ministry can ever exist, even partially, for purposes of affecting things like worldview and for equipping the church to speak to society at large about the problems that are currently destructive in society. In fact, he comes very close to disparaging such goals:
Because as soon as you decide that issues such as baptism are not part of your centre-bounded set but complementarianism is, you will find yourself vulnerable to criticism -- from both right and left -- that you are allowing a little bit of the culture war or your own pet concerns and tastes to intrude into what you deem to be the most basic biblical priorities.
Heaven forbid that we should allow even a little bit of the culture war to intrude into our priorities!
But could it not be that the culture war is called that for a reason? Suppose that there really is a culture war and that we need to fight it? What if the culture is becoming increasingly unnatural and destructive? And what if those unnatural, destructive, and unbiblical modes of thought are coming into our churches, so that our churches are coming to be conformed to this world rather than being transformed by the renewing of our minds? Could it not then be a legitimate goal of a parachurch organization to address those issues and to strengthen the churches at those very points? To these questions Trueman has no cogent answer. He just doesn't like parachurch organizations that join co-belligerents across denominational lines (which will involve having members who disagree on issues like infant baptism) and that engage with the church and with the culture on issues that are not bare, minimal matters of saving faith.
Perhaps Trueman would have less rhetorical purchase if TGC had some other name. As things are, the issue keeps being framed as "Is complementarianism a Gospel issue?" Now, any philosopher will cry, "Distinguo!" at this point. It should go without saying that it depends on how one defines "gospel." Was abolition a gospel issue? Is abortion? What about wife-beating? One could make an argument that they are "gospel issues" on one definition, and one can easily imagine legitimate non-church Christian organizations that come together around those issues in cultures where the issues are current and relevant. If anything, one could argue that complementarianism is more intimately bound up than those issues are with the church's own faithfulness to God's plan for its own activities. It would be impossible in this day and age for any parachurch organization to convey a broad vision of church ministry without addressing the issue of women's ordination. And it is entirely understandable that an organization that exists to help churches : "[reform their] ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures" and that opposes "theological and moral relativism," as TGC's "about" statement says, should end up addressing the effects of egalitarianism/feminism in both the church and the home.
Three cheers for TGC for supporting the important and fundamental notion that God created man as male and female, and that He did so for a reason. The organization is obviously under some pressure to regard this truth as of only marginal importance to their mission, or to what others think their mission should be. It's therefore good to see that they aren't backing down, and it's to be hoped that that strong-mindedness on the subject will continue for the entire future of the organization.