The Episcopal Church has been making headlines because of the move by traditionalist congregations to separate themselves from the main body of the church and create a separate synod.
The focus of the traditionists’ ire is the ordination of women priests, something the Episcopal church has been doing since 1974, but which it recently has become more insistent about. Similar splits occurred in the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA), over the ordination of women elders a few years ago. I find these splits fascinating.
Within the Episcopal, PCUSA, and other mainline churches, there has been for years a diversity of views of the Christian faith. For most of this century, the leadership, seminaries, and many members have held to liberal views of Christianity, including a Bible which is not inerrant (i.e., without errors), as well as views of God, Jesus, salvation, etc. which are significantly different from the historic orthodox position. Yet the conservative elements within these churches managed to tolerate all these deviations from traditional orthodoxy, and stay within their denominations. Only with the liberalization of the church’s view of women have the limits of toleration finally been overreached, and these conservatives have left with a flurry of publicity about the destruction of the church. Why?
For most evangelicals, including myself, a high view of the inerrancy and authority of the Bible is a critical belief. That is, my view of the world, my standards for morality, my guide for living are all ultimately and immediately based on the teachings of Scripture, which is believed to be God’s Word to us. Yet the conservatives in these denominations managed to compromise and coexist for years with leadership that denied this fundamental tenet of the Christian faith. Only when faced with the press for women in leadership did these people feel it necessary to withdraw from fellowship. It is therefore an interesting question: How could these conservatives tolerate and compromise on the central doctrine of Scripture, but leave because of the women’s issue, which might be perceived as a more peripheral doctrine?
The answer lies in part with the way the women’s issue touches people’s lives. When we raise questions about the roles of men and women in the home, church and society, we ask questions about the fundamental nature of men and women. This touches our self-concept, our egos or souls if you will. We are asking people to make fundamental changes in the way they view themselves and die way they relate to those around them. This is a lot harder than adjusting to accommodate intellectually a variety of other doctrines.
It also is threatening to open the doors to women. This immediately doubles the number of individuals one has to compete with for ministry opportunities. It threatens the power, prestige, and privilege of those who in the past viewed themselves as automatically superior to half the human race. We know from watching the political process both here and around the world that giving up positions of power, prestige, and privilege is never done easily and hardly ever done graciously.
A study of history reveals the Christian church growing in an awareness that the gospel of Jesus Christ is one of freedom and equality. At each critical point, some visionary Christian leaders have understood that proclamation of the gospel includes the proclamation that in Christ, we are all one, and the distinctions that used to separate us are no longer valid.
In the first century this was represented by the inclusion of non-Jews into a predominantly Jewish church. In the last century, this was reflected in the debate over abolition. More recently, it has been evident in the problem of racial prejudice and die civil rights movement. These leaders recognized that was evident in Paul’s life, as he labored for the gospel side by side with both men and women, encouraging the churches to accept and follow his example. In the Church, the model is mat each person is to use his or her God-given gifts for the encouragement of the whole church, regardless of race, sex or social class.
It is very difficult for any of us, however, to live up to an ideal. This ideal is particularly difficult because it asks so much of us. One can only hope that the Holy Spirit can break through the emotional reaction of these conservative groups and lead them to understand the full openness of the gospel and all its implications.