If I speak in human or angelic tongues, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Cor. 13:1)
Many of us have become embroiled in arguments when the discussion turns to women and the Church. One friend confessed that, to her own surprise, she found herself confronting a complete stranger who had espoused gender hierarchy in the Church. For nearly an hour they pressed their perspectives on each other. Afterwards my friend felt embarrassed by her candid remarks so she apologized. Her acquaintance thanked her for her apology and said, “No need to apologize. You really made me think.”
How many of us have found ourselves in similar situations with less positive results? Even when our responses are discerning and judicious, and we listen attentively and even pray as we dialogue, we are often frustrated by the tenor and incivility that can surround the gender debate. I write this article to complement what I wrote in the last issue of Mutuality, where I suggested we remain vigilant in our prophetic challenge to the Church, even when our words of dissent create tension and conflict.
To assist our members, CBE promotes the book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, by Richard Mouw. Mouw observes that those who exhibit civility in dialogue often lack moral conviction, and those who demonstrate moral passion can sometimes be disrespectful when expressing their views. What is needed, he proposes, are people with strong moral convictions who also exhibit humility and respect when expressing their ideals. But can we combine both passion and civility?
Our zeal for biblical equality and justice may cause us to overlook the importance of respect, humility, and patience in our style of communicating, even though these qualities lend credibility to our service as egalitarian prophets.
For some of us, raising a prophetic voice is not the challenge. The challenge is to be realistic about promoting our cause, and vigilant in respecting those who disagree with us. If we raise a prophetic voice that is not rooted in respect, civility, and love, we lose our prophetic witness, the very call many of us have received! Despite the elegance of egalitarian theology and the integrity of our biblical scholarship, if we fail to truly honor all people, we become clanging bells that cannot be heard or even tolerated for long.
It is easy to fall into this sort of useless dialogue. We are often goaded by some who ascribe ill motives to our scholarship, and to our dedication to God and Scripture. In these circumstances, the better part of wisdom is probably silence (something I’m learning only too slowly!). In most cases, however, we encounter Christians who are simply ill-informed. They do not support gift-based ministry because they have never heard the egalitarian message, a message that some have associated with radical feminism. Some are therefore nervous about associating with us.
Part of our outreach clearly involves a lifestyle witness because folks are watching us closely to see if we are the kind of people with whom they wish to associate. I am convinced that some people become egalitarians because they like what they see in our hearts. Thus the burden of proof is on us. People want to understand our message not only intellectually, but also personally. The cause is advanced not solely through logic, but also through our sincere commitment to respect and love those with whom we disagree. Easy to say, hard to do!
Yet, CBE’s membership is filled with people who joined us not only because they identify with our theological and biblical convictions, but also because of the way we communicate our message. They may not agree with us 100% on all issues, but when our voice is respectful, they often join our ranks. As C.S. Lewis said, most people prefer civility to barbarism.
Before I hop off my soap box, let me also suggest that turning the Church around so that it releases all people to use their gifts will probably take many more years. CBE founders remind us how much we have accomplished during the last two decades. Yet the road ahead of egalitarian reformers and prophets remains long, arduous, and fraught with disappointment. Though the journey will require vigilance, it is the only path for those who have seen the promised land from afar.
Meanwhile, in our journey together, let’s remember we can only accomplish a little in each discussion. Even while we cannot convince people in one hour, or one day, or even one year, God is faithful and can accomplish more than we might dream or imagine possible. Let’s prophetically engage neighbors, pastors, family, friends, and strangers, in ways that honor them. The tenor of our speech enhances the content of our message.
May our prophetic message be filled with God’s grace, and may we edify even while we challenge. Like St. Francis, let’s preach the Gospel, even using words when necessary.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. John 13:35