Maybe “Schism” Was the Wrong Word

Sarah Cunningham

My post from last Friday continues to generate passionate responses from all sides. I’ve gotten positive and negative feedback, both publicly and privately. The most challenging and yet generous response has come from one of my closest friends, Sarah Cunningham. Sarah is a fellow author, blogger, and event producer — we’ve worked on stuff together in the past, and we’re currently planning two events together.

Over the past few days, Sarah and I have talked at length on the phone, exchanged lengthy emails, and traded dozens of text messages. I asked her to write a guest post for this blog, and she suggested that we do it in dialogical format instead. So we started a Google Doc, but after about 2,200 words and another passionate phone call, we deleted the entire thing and started over. Where we ended up was the Sarah would state her presupposition, and then pose a series of questions/statements, to which I would respond.

Before I get to that, however, I want to say that everyone should have a friend like Sarah. She has been very tough on me in these conversations — she fundamentally disagrees with my position — but she has relentlessly stated and restated her love for me, respect for me, and friendship for me. I feel the same about her.

That being said, here is our dialogue.

Sarah: My presupposition is this: I think it is possible to be raised in a complementarian church and still be affirmed and treated lovingly and well as a woman. I believe this because it was my experience.

Tony: I would never want to imply that your experience is invalid. Of course, you and I have have met many, many women over the years whose experiences in complementarian churches and ministries were terribly damaging. And I want to be clear about two things: 1) I also think it’s possible to be raised in a complementarian church and be affirmed as a woman, but 2) I am talking about a bigger system of marginalizing women’s voices, bigger than any one congregation.

Sarah: How can a person of faith take a position in which they declare any person, group, or circumstance hopeless? (As long as there is Jesus, there is hope?)

Tony: By advocating for a “schism,” I am not saying that people on the other side are without hope. Not at all (and I’m sorry if I led you and others to believe otherwise). There is hope for every person, the hope that was incarnated in Jesus Christ. Schism is a sharp word, a harsh word. Maybe it was too harsh. On the plus side, it provoked a great deal of conversation on both sides of the women-in-the-church issue. On the minus side, it has caused consternation among you and others.

By calling for a schism, I was trying to make a point that something severe needs to be done. I think that the arguments for women’s full inclusion in every aspect of ministry have been in the public square for many years — my own denomination ordained women beginning in 1851. Anyone who is not paying heed to those arguments is willfully ignoring them.

In one comment, I referred to schism as “the nuclear option.” But now I think that language is too strong, especially after listening to your story.

Sarah: Even in cases where you feel dis-fellowshipping might be justified, it doesn’t mean that is the only or best (or most Biblical/Jesus-inspired) response. God’s grace and relationship is not brokered based on performance. Unmerited favor and self-sacrifice was the way of Jesus. I believe there is merit in trying even when situations may appear hopeless and even if it appears we’d get nothing in return.

Are you confident breaking relationship is not only the right choice for you, but it’s the right action to encourage of everyone reading…regardless of circumstance? Take people like me who had loving complementarian fathers who persistently affirmed them. Should women stop taking communion with their fathers? Really, Tony? Jesus took communion with Peter knowing he would soon deny him and with Judas knowing he would soon betray him. But women raised in complementarian settings can’t take communion with their fathers? Really?

I’m guessing that it’s true that some women, indeed, cannot take communion with their complementarian fathers. That’s a principled stand that some make. Just like others cannot take communion with their Missouri Synod Lutheran or Roman Catholic fathers, because those denominations have a closed-table fellowship. It’s not always possible to have table fellowship with those we’d wish.

Sometimes issues of principled justice demand us to take action that will lose us friends, even family. Famously, brother fought against brother and father against son in the Civil War, because some thought that ending slavery was more important than familial peace. Famously, many of Martin Luther King’s White supporters told him to back off, to be more patient, to stop the marches. And many of his Black supporters told him to stop speaking out against the Vietnam War, because it was hurting the Civil Rights cause.

Of course, this is not the Civil War, and I’m no MLK. And where I think I overshot my target was asking others to make sacrifices that are clearly more dire than any I’d have to make. No, Sarah, I wouldn’t ask you to not take communion with your father. But I would ask if, in quietly taking communion at his church, you are complicit in that church’s marginalization of women, and if you are subtly teaching that lesson to your sons. But only you can answer that question. I can’t, and I have no right to.

Sarah: I acknowledge that abuse and dismissive behavior occurs in both conservative and progressive contexts. But when someone has a mostly positive experience that does not — for example — feel like slavery to them, don’t you think there might be a more proportionate response than breaking fellowship? E.g., Since turning 18, I have worked at or attended a total of 3 churches: one non-denom, one Free Methodist, and one Wesleyan — all of which permitted women and me to preach (some with more regularity than others). I also sometimes get the opportunity to speak at other churches and conferences as a result of my books. I am able to be true to bring the things God stirs in me to expression, respectfully demonstrating I think there is valid reason for me to do so, while still validating the SBC tradition and other complementarian churches’ place in our shared church.

Tony: And I guess this is ultimately where you and I disagree. I guess I can “validate the SBC tradition” (even though its tied to slavery), but I cannot validate their current practice. I think it is unbiblical and out-of-step with the gospel.

So, let me reconsider my stance from last week. I recant my use of the word schism. In fact, as I implied in that post, I don’t even think that schism is really possible in the current church, at least in the historic sense, simply because there is no one, monolithic entity like there was in the 12th or 16th centuries. Calling for schism today is basically moot. Nevertheless, that word seemed to harsh to many readers, so I suppose it was.

While I don’t want you to skip Thanksgiving dinner with your family over women pastors, I would like us to collectively suffocate those churches and ministries that marginalize women. I’d like to deprive them of oxygen by depriving them of people. Because I think that in the coming years, men and women who value equality will leave churches that do not. People will leave, because they will find those churches to be so out-of-step with what they know in their hearts to be true.

Sadly, I worry that those people will leave these churches, and they won’t find their way into accepting, egalitarian churches. I fear that they will give up on Christianity altogether, as so many already have.

In the end, this: Women are not ontologically inferior to men. That’s what complementarians teach. Try as they might to argue otherwise, that’s their message. That message is not of Christ, and I want to eradicate that message from Christianity. I’ll do what I can in my spheres of influence, and you do what you can in yours.

Much love, and happy Thanksgiving.


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