Thursday, September 04, 2014

Karl Barth on Gender Relations: Complementarian, Egalitarian, or Something Else Entirely?

Photo from The Center for Barth Studies
I have been pondering the following excerpt from Barth's Dogmatics on and off for the past couple years. It is trademark Barth: He checks out both sides of an issue and then ends up taking neither (or is it both?). In this case the issue is gender relations--and while today's categories of 'complementarian' and 'egalitarian' had not yet been coined, they certainly come into view.

Were this excerpt ripped out and inserted into today's church-debates then Barth would start off sounding an awful lot like what he calls a conservative, and his concern about minimizing difference keeps him from embracing what he thinks of as feminist 'progressivism'. Indeed, his apparent appeal to nature has him lining up squarely with today's complementarian.

However, what has me returning to this text is the subversiveness of it, particularly once the sounds of christology are allowed to reverberate into and rattle the prior categories. By the end we find Barth reaching for what is increasingly being called mutual submission egalitarianism, or 'mutuality' as it is more often called.

This would be something of an anachronistic judgment, but here my interest is not so much to gloss on Barth as it is to find the best foot forward for his most pressing point. Read the excerpt carefully and then I'll give my interpretation:

Is not the community of Jesus Christ itself and as such, as adduced in Eph. 5, the model of the woman who has her κεφαλή [head or authority] in the man, and cannot really exist except in subordination to this κεφαλή [head or authority], but in this way, determined and limited in Him, is exalted above all heavens by His majesty and lowliness, in fellowship with this Head?

It is for this reason that this order cannot be broken in the community; that the relationship of man and woman established in creation, and the distinctions which it entails, cannot be regarded as transitory and accidental and abolished in Christ, as though Christ were not their meaning and origin. 
In the community this relationship cannot imperil either man or woman. It can only be their honour and joy and blessing. There is thus no cause to deny or abolish it as though it were a mere convention. On the contrary, dishonour and harm are done both to man and to woman if this clear relationship is abolished.  
It is quite ridiculous to think that progressiveness should be played off against conservatism in the matter of this relationship. If there is anything which is inwardly necessary and no mere convention, it is this relationship. Progress beyond it can only be regress to the old aeon. It is only in the world of the old aeon that the feminist question can arise.  
And for this reason the Corinthians should accept the custom. It is a symbolic recognition of the relationship, and therefore of the basis, determination and limitation which it has been given in Christ. This recognition may not be withheld. Self-evidently it might have taken a different form in a different age and place. But in Corinth and all the Christian communities of the time (v. 16) it took this form. And as it was called in question in this form it had to be protected and defended in this form, not for the sake of the form, but for the sake of what was at issue in this form.
The fact that it also conformed to natural sensibility, to φύσις [nature] (v. 14), was an additional recommendation as Paul saw it. But this statement was only incidental. The decisive point was that the enthusiasm for equality which outran the form was not particularly Christian, but that the custom should be accepted in Christ. 
We cannot say more than that it should be, for Paul was not arguing from the Law, but centrally from the Gospel. It was not the one who called the Corinthians to order who was thinking legalistically, but the Corinthians themselves, who, armed with a general, liberal, non-christological concept of humanity, thought it their duty to attack this relative and indirectly human order, as though they were all apostles, and as though an apostle were a genius (see Kierkegaard for the allusion here). 
It was as well for them that they had in Paul a real apostle able to maintain an unruffled front against their impulsive genius; and they were well-advised to accept his summons to be imitators of him as he himself tried to be of Christ (v. 1). 
Our final passage is Eph. 5:22-23, the locus classicus for the point at issue. No other passage makes the connection so emphatically. No other is so primarily concerned to make it. No other is so complete in its exposition of the two relationships. And no other refers so solemnly to Gen. 2. 
From it we can survey the whole landscape which we have traversed: the New Testament relationship of man and woman in the light of the relationship between Christ and the community, and conversely the elucidation of the relationship between Christ and His people by reference to the man-woman relationship; the Old Testament marriage between Yahweh and Israel and its reflection in the man and woman of the Song of Songs; and finally our starting-point in Genesis 2, the natural being of man as fellow-humanity, as being in the encounter of I and Thou. Should we really have the courage or find it necessary to consider all these things not only in detail but in their manifold relationships if they were not set before us so authoritatively and perspicuously in Eph. 5? 
But this is an idle question. This passage does in fact make everything clear. And we have only to apply ourselves directly to this text in which everything is set out directly and verbally in an exegetical norm for all other texts. It forms the introduction to the so-called "house-table" of Ephesians, a list of specific admonitions to wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves and masters among the members of the community, all of which stand under the overriding injunction "Be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God" (vv. 18-21). 
This basic note must be remembered if we are to understand the ensuing injunctions, and especially the first and lengthy admonition addressed to husbands and wives. Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in praise of God, not only with your lips but in your hearts, not ceasing to give thanks, and subordinating yourselves to one another as you are engaged in this thanksgiving to God. 
Humanity in the New Testament thus derives directly from the practical experience of the Gospel. And we must certainly not forget the negative beginning to this general exhortation: "Be not drunk with wine." We recall from 1 Cor. 11 that the knowledge of the true relationship between man and wife established and determined and limited by the knowledge of Jesus Christ stands in contrast to an enthusiasm for equality which will not accept the fact that they are both allotted to their distinctive place and way in the peace of God. 
Where it is not a matter of this intoxication but of the fullness of the Spirit, not of the boasting and defiance of man but of the praise of God, not of the establishment of one's own right by one's own might but of constant thanksgiving, there flows from the Gospel the necessity of the reciprocal subordination in which each gives to the other that which is proper to him.
This is the meaning of the house-table: Suum cuique [To each his own]. It has nothing really to do with patriarchalism, or with a hierarchy of domestic and civil values and powers. It does not give one control over the other, or put anyone under the dominion of the other. The ὑποτασσόμενοι [submitting] of v. 21 applies equally to all, each in his own place and in respect of his own way. 
What it demands is ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ χριστοῦ; mutual subordination in respect before the Lord. He is the Exalted but also the Lowly, the Lowly but also the Exalted, who causes each to share in His glory but also His burden, His sovereignty but also His service. And here there is only mutual subordination in full reciprocity. 
In this way order is created within the creaturely sphere, and humanity established. It is, of course, no accident that more than half of the table is devoted to the relationship of man and woman, and particularly their relationship in marriage. This relationship is typical or exemplary for the whole relationship which has to be estimated in the fear of Christ.

- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2, 312-313.
Earlier I said Barth seems to be reaching for mutual submission egalitarianism. That's not entirely accurate. Evidently Barth defends retaining a kind of complementary order between the genders--not because it is the unassailable nature of things but because it is the cultural 'form' in which they [the Corinthians and Ephesians] live.

For me the question is not whether Barth's theology demands a complementarian-patriarchal order today. I don't believe it does. For him, the 'nature of things' is defined by the Gospel, and in this it is not the cultural 'form' but the dynamic of reciprocal fellowship-in-difference that is most important. This cannot be flattened by an abstract appeal to 'equality' but must be lived in a social context.

Speaking of the 'form' our gender roles and relations take, he says 'it might have taken a different form in a different age and place.' Thus while Barth is not interested in changing the form for some some theorized un-Christian reason, given time we might well expect mutual submission out of reverence for Christ to change the form on its own terms.

Indeed, I would contend that when Barth says it is in the old aeon that the feminist question arises it is not because the feminist question belongs to it, but because the old (i.e., sinful) aeon's lack of mutual subordination and reciprocity has made feminism necessary.

That's not to say Barth is a feminist. But if push came to shove we'd see Barth is not a patriarchalist or even a complementarian either. In an increasingly egalitarian 'age and place' Barth's comment takes on a new vitality: For him 'the decisive point' is whether the enthusiasm for equality is 'particularly Christian.' Thus in this time and place it is the egalitarian custom which 'should be accepted in Christ'--that is, on the terms of mutual submission; of reciprocal self-giving love.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Before the C&MA in Canada: A Motion on Church Membership and Baptism

The 2014 General Assembly of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada carried a motion which
"Resolved that the question of membership requirements as they pertain to baptism be referred to the Board of Directors for study and process, to be brought to General Assembly 2016 with a recommendation for appropriate action."
Since it will be very easy for this to be taken in any number of tangential directions or misinterpreted as an ill-researched recommendation, I have sent the following document to the Board of Directors and President, and want to make it available for public reference here. It is the result of months of collaborative effort as well as back and forth with multiple levels of denominational governance.

What you see is the motion that was read from the floor of Assembly and then referred to the Committee on General Legislation. That committee discussed it and, for the stated (and popular) reason that it did not want to 'disrupt the unity', came back with the rather ambiguous recommendation seen above. However, this motion and the F.A.Q. below should offer more clarity as to what we are after.

Motion on Baptism and Membership


Someone wishes to transfer membership into an Alliance church from a tradition that practices infant baptism. Though willing to support the practice of believer’s baptism going forward, the person does not wish to imply that an infant baptism is invalid and must be redone. Do we?


Local church membership should not require a believer’s baptism of those who come into C&MA churches from infant-baptizing traditions, provided their baptism has followed in a public profession of faith. It should be noted that this proposal does not entail the diminishment of believer’s baptism as our normative teaching or practice.

Relevant lines in the Local Church Constitution:
  • Article V sentence 3 (Ordinances): “While other modes of believer’s baptism are recognized, baptism by immersion is taught and practiced as the scriptural mode.” 
  • Article VI.1 (Membership): “The qualifications for membership include a credible testimony of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ before members of the Board; believer’s baptism; ...” 
Recommendation and Rationale:

WHEREAS it would be preferable to recognize infant baptisms when accepting new memberships along with a “credible testimony of faith”, while still maintaining believer’s baptism as our scriptural teaching and normative practice:

  • that the word “believer’s” be removed from the membership requirements in Article VI.1; 
  • the word “believer’s” be relocated after the comma in sentence 3 of Article V.
  • Article VI.1 would then read: “The qualifications for membership include a credible testimony of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ before members of the Board; baptism...” and 
  • Article V would read: “While other modes of baptism are recognized, believer’s baptism by immersion is taught and practiced as the scriptural mode.

Frequently asked Questions: 

What if someone coming into membership wants to experience a believer’s baptism? 

Our proposal does not remove the opportunity for a local church to offer this. It simply removes the requirement that they do so.

What if an incoming member was infant baptized but never confirmed in that tradition?

Our proposal does not make a requirement of local churches in this situation, but leaves it up to them to discern the best course of action. What our proposal does do is make it possible, in the providence of God, to accept a public profession or “credible testimony of faith” as confirmation that an infant baptism has become the baptism of a believer. 

What are the advantages of this proposal for persons in local churches? 

This proposal allows a person to join the C&MA membership (and to accept its stance on baptism) without necessitating a denouncement of the tradition from which they came.

What are the advantages of this proposal to local churches and the denomination?

It makes us ecumenical not only in word (Statement of Faith) but also in deed. It takes away the opportunity for other churches with whom we would like to partner to see us as “rebaptizers”. It is interesting to note that, as it stands, the C&MA would not welcome Augustine, Luther, Calvin, JI Packer, John Stott, RC Sproul and NT Wright into membership (to name a few).

Won’t these new members soon want to practice infant baptism? 

Perhaps, but they would still be knowingly joining a church that does not practice infant baptism. This proposal does not remove the obstacles to that in our church polity. Thus they would have to take that desire up with Assembly, at which point it would be a theological matter requiring careful conversation and deliberation. If this proposal makes the eventuality of that conversation more possible, it is not a conversation to be feared.

Why does this recommendation have to be brought to next Assembly?

Thinking it might not be necessary to add to an already loaded business schedule at Assembly, we spent the last year seeking permission from the President and Board of Directors simply to interpret existing legislation in a manner that allowed us to accept confirmed infant baptisms as “believer’s baptisms”. They did not feel free to do this, advising that this matter would have to be taken up with this Assembly. Unfortunately, by the time we were informed of this we had run out of time to recommend it to the current agenda with proper prior written notice.

What if I don’t think infant baptisms should be recognized? Is there a reason to say yes? 

Yes, if you feel this an area of allowable local church freedom or diversity, within our core Christian unity. The framers of this proposal also think believer’s baptism to be more faithful to Scripture, they simply want to recognize other traditions as we work together and work it out.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Lovely Bit of Football

Yeah it's just a friendly and there is an offside but this vine catches what is still a beauty play.

Sturridge ends up keeping it in and dishing to Henderson for the goal. So if you're keeping score at home that's:

Coutinho > Sterling > Henderson > Coutinho > Sterling > Coutinho > Sturridge > Henderson > Goal

Sunday, August 03, 2014

I Might be Wrong: Confrontation in a Confessing Church [sermon excerpt]

This is an excerpt from today's sermon at Richmond Alliance Church. It'll make most sense embedded in its time and place--but can probably stand alone for the most part too. Let me know if you want to talk about it. Peace.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Bartolome Esteban Murillo
"But the danger of self-deception and self-forgiveness remains when we all do our confessing in private, never living in true Christian community. James 5:16 says 'confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.' Sounds like quite a community! A real trust-environment. A place like that would take a lot of grace and humility.

I love the title of one of Radiohead’s live recordings, named after a song called 'I might be wrong.' Why are we so afraid to say that? Sometimes I think we need to just stop everything and sing that song.

Of course, apart from an underlying hope in truth and justice this doesn’t make from a great life-motto either. We don’t want to say that no one’s right [that's rather an unhopeful perspective, perhaps contributing to the tenor of the song?].


Nonetheless, it's worth it to remember those four words, because even if I am right, refusing to entertain the possibility 'I might be wrong' is the wrong way to be right.

And it is in the hopeful context of a confessing community that Jesus gives grace and freedom to say 'I might be wrong' and together to seek the right."

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ecumenical Guidelines

At the bi-annual General Assembly of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada this summer, the following motion was brought to the floor and carried as written:
Resolution #5:
The President of The Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada provide guidelines for ecumenical cooperation that honour our heritage and Statement of Faith and submit them to General Assembly 2016 for approval.
At first this seemed a harmless, if not encouraging, resolution, but in the course of the debate it became clear that it was raised in response to Ambrose University's recent collaboration with Roman Catholics. Thus it would seem that the spirit behind it was not the promotion of ecumenical activity but its further limitation.

The resolution carried after a relatively short but nonetheless extended discussion. While people were streaming to the microphone I flipped open our Local Church Constitution to see what we already had on this; to see whether we indeed needed something more. What I found in Article 9 of our Statement of Faith was this:
 “The local church, the visible expression of the universal Church, is a body of believers in Christ who are joined together to worship God, to observe the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper, to pray, to be edified through the Word of God, to fellowship, and to testify in word and deed to the good news of salvation both locally and globally. The local church enters into relationships with other like-minded churches for accountability, encouragement and mission.” 
I'd be interested to hear what people inside and outside of my denomination think of it, but when I looked over it again I was actually rather impressed. To me it seems like a pretty good set of ecumenical guidelines. Not a full-on manifesto, mind you, but a concise and encouraging guide.

In fact it called to mind a debate that took place several Assemblies ago when it was discussed whether to have the word "believer's baptism" in there. At that time I recall we opted to leave it at just "baptism" because this was not a statement of our church's particular belief and practice (we declare ourselves a credo-baptist tradition elsewhere), but a statement of what we felt a local church to be. If we added the word "believer's" we would be implying that we did not consider paedo-baptist traditions part of the universal church.

Obviously each word of the Article is as important as what it decides not to say. That it decides not to say a whole lot means that we are fairly open, actually, when it comes to co-operation. So when it says "the local church enters into relationships with other like-minded churches for accountability, encouragement and mission," I think it places the onus for ecumenical engagement and discernment on each congregation in its locality.

That means that the definition of a church which is given in the first part of the Article serves as all the ecumenical guideline we are (formally) going to get. From there it is up to each local church to discern in each case what is the level of "like-mindedness" appropriate to the task at hand.

If local churches are co-operating in a bake sale to get a playground built they are pretty much just going to have to agree on the guiding values that got them into that project in the first place.

If local churches are co-operating on a newspaper advertisement declaring their shared beliefs to the community, then the definition of "like-mindedness" might take a bit more work and discernment. In that case if the Statement of Faith is not specific enough on some point of doctrine the local church would be free to consult further, but it would still be the case that the local church (or college) ought to be able to do that work in their locality rather than be overly regimented by national policy.

In other words, I think the ecumenical guidelines that already exist are good enough. They are appropriately succinct and specific. If there is a desire for something particular to be added, maybe we should put the onus on those making the request to specify what exactly that is--at which point we could have a much more productive discussion.