Tony Jones’ curious call for schism

Tony Jones’ curious call for schism November 27, 2013
entry men and women cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward
“Entry for Men and Women” (by nakedpastor David Hayward)

I’ve used this older cartoon because of all my gender cartoons this one is by far the most popular with over 300,000 notes on Tumblr alone. You can buy a print of it HERE.

I found Tony Jones’ post It’s Time For a Schism Regarding Women in the Church a fascinating read. I’m sure you will too if you haven’t read it already. Jones is obviously passionate about the issue of women’s equality. He has certainly written enough about it in the past. I read Jones because as one of the key progressive and emergent theologians he can help me know where the action is. Since I try to draw a cartoon every day I’m always looking for material and he’s often pointed me in the direction where I can find an idea. So again he has not failed me.

I’m in an interesting but not unique position. At this time I do not go to church. But I’m very interested in and even passionate about it. I care about the church and believe in its identity, its right to exist, and the benefits it can provide. I cartoon and write about women’s equality in the church all the time. It’s because I care about women, know that we are equal, and feel that if they are a part of the church they should have the same freedoms, rights, and responsibilities as men. Not all Christians or churches think this way, so I spend my time trying to change their minds. Because even though a woman is free to leave a church and find another she is happy with, she also has the right and can take responsibility to affect change in an organization she chooses to be a part of.

For Jones’ great schism to occur, he demands that we leave churches that are not egalitarian; that ministers, pastors and leaders of non-egalitarian denominations and churches quit; that egalitarian authors not publish their books by houses that also publish complimentarians; and that if you speak at conferences without fair representation you decline the invitation. In fact, Jones radically calls those who believe in the full equality of women to break fellowship with those who do not.

What I find most curious about Jones’ call is that his vision for “a million little schisms” is already taking place. He rightly acknowledges the church is no longer a “monolithic authority” that can be protested against. I agree! The church is no longer seen by many as the only option that must be overthrown or split. It used to be an institution that was universal in its power, vast in its influence and singular in its demand for allegiance. As an institution it was omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. But not anymore.

Now, if a woman isn’t happy in a church that is not egalitarian, she has the power to simply walk away. This may not be the happiest solution, but it is one that many choose. Actually, I’d say the majority of members of The Lasting Supper, our online community, are mostly women who have left the church. They have already performed one of the million little schisms Jones calls for.

In fact, Jones’ more recent post is a letter he shares with us from Shirley Taylor, head of the Baptist Women for Equality, in his post Steps for the Schism. These “steps for the schism” aren’t about schism at all. It’s about something that has already been happening over the years. Here’s a quote:

“Because there isn’t a Baptist church anywhere near her in Texas that allows women to lead, she and her husband attend their local Methodist church, where she reports that they have been ‘welcomed with love and acceptance.'”

So, Taylor is obviously an empowered woman who has taken her destiny into her own hands. She has executed one of Jones’ million little schisms and left her church and gone to another one where she is deservedly happy. At the same time, and this has nothing to do with her “little schism” but is another strategy altogether, Taylor offers steps for the church to move toward equality… things like encourage bookstores to have a section on gender equality; hold marriage seminars that promote egalitarian leadership; target women’s ministry groups to train women to teach; approach egalitarian seminaries to get their graduates to promote equality in their churches; teach about the equality of women in Sunday School; and provide literature to youth groups that present women as equals.

These aren’t steps for schism but steps for reform. Admirably, she’s doing what so many others are already doing. She has left an organization that won’t treat her as equal while at the same time attempting to reform that same organization. Personal revolution. Universal reform. That’s her strategy! That’s the movement I’m involved in. That’s the one I’ll continue to promote. I solemnly swear three things. I will…

  1. be personally free;
  2. help others to get free;
  3. challenge institutions that resist.

Sometimes it’s swift. Sometimes it’s slow. Even though there is discouraging news daily, I hope we are making progress. Even though while we become more egalitarian those who disagree become more extreme, I have to trust that at some point this polarization will become an embarrassment to all of us. But I’m going to start with revolutionizing myself and trust that I will send ripples that affect change in this divided world we all live in along with its institutions.

So I guess I’m not sure what Jones is saying. For me his call fell on deaf ears because this has already been happening for years everywhere I look. He’s called “Charge!” when the troops have already left. If he’s trying to lead us we’re already there. But if he’s suggesting personal revolution with universal reform, I’m in!

UPDATE (Nov. 27th): Tony Jones tweeted me this morning after I posted this. This is what he tweeted:

In his post, Maybe Schism Was the Wrong Word, he shares his conversation with Sarah Cunningham who “fundamentally disagrees” with Jones’ position. Jones recants of using the word “schism”. Jones and Cunningham obviously disagree over this issue, yet he is fellowshipping and even collaborating with her at upcoming events, which goes against the words and spirit of his original post. I’m confused.

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  • Rhys McKavanagh

    This is why IMO Tony Jones is so out of touch with the egalitarian movement he purports to be a part of. From my point of view his article completely missed the point. I agree with what you said. It almost sounded like this:

    ‘let’s create a separate Church where we can pat ourselves on the back for being good progressives while failing to confront our own sexist attitudes (like for example the fact that the schism has already happened with lots of great women being at the forefront of it but we’re so self-involved and misogynistic we didn’t even notice). I call dibs on the role of white male figurehead!”

  • Thanks Rhys. You’ve obviously thought hard about this and summed up in a paragraph what I tried to explore in a page.

  • willhouk

    This is a great breakdown and reflects my thoughts well. A number of women have become the voices of egalitarianism in the last few years. I think it would be helpful for the established male voices to let them lead. Hand over their microphones to them and let them lead the discussion.

  • Fantastic post!

  • R Vogel

    I read Tony’s post and the many, many great comments. So to take the other side for a moment, is there a pont where we have to say enough? The ‘million little schisms’ you refer makes me think of slaves coming North through the underground railroad. It weakens the opposition, but it took bolder action than that to truly give the freedom to african slaves that they deserved. Would we, today, have conference with a church that continued to have african americans stand in a proscribed place in the balcony? Would we attend conferences that excluded people of color? I don’t know the answers to these questions, nor do I know how LBGT folks are left out of the equation, but I think it was a provocative proposal that people should really think about. Is there a point where breaking communion is appropriate (schism, I think, was not the correct word as you pointed out it is not even possible unless every misogynist denomination (I refuse to use the long C word) splits in two), and who has the authority to make that call? A movement is fine but it often takes a revolution to effect real change. I will give Tony this much, at least we are all now listening!

  • Digger

    It bothers me to see this framed as an “equal rights” issue. My current church is, by and large, a complementarian church. About 30% are egalitarian. The people on both sides agree that men and women are equal in God’s eyes. The people on the complementarian side believe that it would be putting women down to have them behave in a manner that is in opposition to God’s plan for them.
    But here’s the primary reason I’m uncomfortable with this being framed as an equal rights issue: Over half of the complementarians in my church are women. Same goes for my last church. Egalilarians are quick to say “us men (complementarians) are misogynists”, but what is the motivation for the women who supposedly wish to “hold back women”?

  • It is interesting. If I were to list out all the socially conservative people I have known in my life, well over 50% have been women.

  • There are many motivations, and they are described in various ways:
    “(Our understanding of) God’s plan for women”
    “Faithfulness to (our interpretation of) the Bible”
    “Conformity to the tradition (of our Church)”
    “Shared culture and values (with those like us)”
    “Fellowship and community (with those like us)”
    “Well-understood and clear-cut roles (in some areas)”
    “Gender-specific roles and responsibilities (again, in some areas)”

    These are gender-neutral motivations that may advantage one gender more, but can have perceived advantages for people of all genders. Conformity has huge advantages for those who do not wish to ask questions or change their views – and, if we are honest, we are all like that on some topics, some of the time!

  • It would appear Tony Jones is thinking out loud: he knows something serious must be done, and he’s not sure if he wants separation or collaboration.

    It appears he is advocating for one, while doing the other – maybe, like a great many things, the appropriate action is contextual.

  • I admit, I’m a bit confused by his stance. Is he choosing the particular issue of women in the ministry for a reason? Hasn’t the GLBT issue been around for about 40-50 years as well? Is the gender inclusion more pressing because it doesn’t actually affect his own position, whereas to say the same about gender identity and sexual orientation issues would require him to lay aside his own ordination? Is it just me, or is it convenient that injustice he’s chosen seems to keep him “safe” from his own call to action?

    Or am I missing something?

  • I admit I’m a bit confused by Jones’ stance. Is there a reason he chose the issue of gender inclusion? Hasn’t the GLBT issue been on the table for about 40-50 years? Could it be that the gender inclusion issue doesn’t affect his professional standing, whereas other justice issues would require him to lay aside his ordination and other credentials that identify him with an unjust institution? I can’t help but wonder if he has intentionally drawn his line in the sand so that it keeps him safe from the repercussions of his own call while others are required to take the risks.

    Or, am I missing something?

    Note: I edited this because I accidentally deleted the earlier version with an edit.

  • klhayes

    Is there only one plan for women according to God? What is she does not want to be married and/or have children? What is that doesn’t happen? What if she is a mother and wife and has a high-powered career? Is that not God’s will?

  • Digger

    1. No
    2. Then don’t get married and don’t have children.
    3. I don’t know what that is.
    4. Then she has a child, a spouse, and a job.
    5. I don’t know what God’s will is for your hypothetical woman.
    I sense that you are trying to make a point, but I have no idea what it is.

  • Digger

    But he didn’t use any curse words. I thought all of the hipster bloggers used a few curse words when writing about Christianity to show the secular world (their audience) how edgy and cool they are?!

  • Edward A. Shanklin

    I find it interesting that the day after you wrote about the evil treatment of ministers in the United Methodist Church who are in favor of marriage equality in the church, you wrote this blog on how women could affect equality within the church. As a gay member of the the United Methodist Church, I have considered some of the same actions you mention. I also find it ironic that you included the story of a Baptist woman who went with her husband to a Methodist church for this reason and they were warmly accepted. I know that the UMC is “light years” ahead of many other churches in the matter, but I think it would be interesting to see what their reception would have been had they been gay instead. I am sure that they would have been allowed to come in, but whether their reception would have been warm and welcoming would depend of the congregation. Some would not be. In spite of that, I continue to stay in the church that I feel God has called me to and work for the change that is needed.

  • klhayes

    You said “The people on the complementarian side believe that it would be putting
    women down to have them behave in a manner that is in opposition to
    God’s plan for them.”

    It makes it sounds like complementarians believe that there is only one path for women and any thing else is wrong.

    3) if* not is.

  • KatR

    “Egalilarians are quick to say “us men (complementarians) are misogynists”, but what is the motivation for the women who supposedly wish to “hold back women”?”

    Internalized sexism.

  • Sarah Raymond Cunningham

    Hey David. 🙂 I don’t know if I can lend any clarity (and, also, I can’t speak for Tony), but just in case there’s any confusion I thought I’d add this. In the post we co-created, when Tony said I “fundamentally disagree” with him, he meant I disagreed with him on calling for all his readers to schism. (He was not suggesting I disagreed with women in leadership.)

    I believed that there were other valid responses that were still supportive of growth in this area that did NOT require schism. And I asked him to consider that just because breaking fellowship might be the action that made sense to him given his experiences, that people like me might feel there is more we can do through other avenues. Not to mention, it’s rough for those who have complementarian family to be told to break fellowship with them regardless of their own experience or judgment.

    In the end, Tony backed down from calling for a wide-sweeping schism. I believe (again, we’d have to ask him), he’d still be happy to advocate for personal schisms. He just demonstrated a willingness to listen and make space for ideas he hadn’t considered. I’d like to give him some credit for investing in the conversation. Because he really did. I pushed him. And even when at times we were both tired of the back and forth, he demonstrated a ton of care and respect in seeing the conversation through over many days. And for being willing to consider other options. I hope, if you can see the merit or humility in making room for other people’s ideas, that you’ll join me in affirming Tony’s freedom to change his mind a little bit here.

    Thanks for being part of the conversation and continuing to provoke conversation about faith and culture with your work. Blessings on your week, friend.

  • I appreciate your comment Sarah. That does clear things up a bit. I’m still unsure what he’s changed his mind about. I ask for clarity and you’ve provided some. I change my mind several times an hour so I get it. We Canadians already celebrated our Thanksgiving in October. Enjoy your holiday!

  • I agree with klhayes. It is all about who, among the community of believers, has the insight on God’s plan.

    The complementarians believe that the bible states God’s plan for what ALL women should do. While not wanting to devalue women, they adopt an apartheid-like “separate but equal” stance. The complementarians then want to build a society that reinforces this sexual appartheid system. The complementarians encourage women to listen to the Holy Spirit but with the caution that the True Holy Spirit only reinforces the bible-given role for women. Any other “whisperings” that women may hear come from themselves and should be ignored. As in race relations, though, apartheid systems usually involve systemic inequities and loss of opportunities for many people, In short, the complementarians believe that God is defined by and constrained by what was written in the bible.

    The egalitarians believe that God has the capacity to have different desires for different women – that God may well not view all women as being the same and that God may not want all women to do the same things. The egalitarians believe that women should listen to the Holy Spirit without the filter of what was written in the bible or the expectations of certain segments of society. The egalitarians want to build a society where women are not pigeonholed into only being able to perform certain roles and are free to live out God’s plan for them. In short, the egalitarians by and large believe that God is not defined by and constrained by what was written in the bible.

    I write computer software for a living. I could easily replace the complementarian notion of God with a computer program – with nice predictable responses for your various requests (of the oracle). I would not be able to replace the egalitarian notion of God with a computer program.

  • Shaun G. Lynch

    Please allow me to weigh in with a Catholic perspective on this discussion. I head the lay pastoral team for my parish west of Montreal, and consider myself an extreme-left-wing Catholic (to the extent that “left” and “right” have any real relevance to definitions of Christian practice…).

    While I entirely agree with the motivations behind Tony Jones’s call to “schism,” in practice it’s a non-starter for a practicing Catholic, even a progressive one. I can’t simply choose not be Catholic. There’s too much of Catholicism that is firmly embedded in my Christian doxis and praxis. Catholicism isn’t something I belong to; it’s something I AM.

    I suspect that walking away from one’s denomination is equally unpalatable to most progressive Protestants as well. You can’t blithely abandon something that has been so central to your life for so long, even when the perceived errors are egregious (and there’s a LOT in Catholicism that I consider egregious… don’t get me started).

    As I’ve had to respond to people who consider themselves “ex-Catholics” or “lapsed Catholics” or simply non-practicing Catholics, the discussions inevitably come around to the Church’s retrograde positions on pretty much everything to do with sex and with the role of women. They can’t understand why I would stick with a church that is so out of touch with modern mores, not to mention my own personal convictions.

    However, I believe that one of our greatest conceits as humans is our tendency to expect that for change to meaningful, it must occur within the space of our own lifetimes. Revolutionary movements come about when people decide that incremental change isn’t fast enough for them. They instead provoke rapid transitions for which many if not most are unprepared. Chaos and, not infrequently, bloodshed ensues. Meanwhile, slower change might have arrived at the same outcomes, but without as much trauma. The Catholic Church today is not at all what it was 500 years ago; many today even decry the fact that it appears to be drifting slowly towards protestantism. I don’t think those changes are bad, but neither do I think the slow pace is necessarily bad.

    I see my role as that of nudging the Catholic Church gently towards a more genuinely humanistic worldview and practice. I’ve seen significant progress in that direction in my own lifetime, and I’m confident that that movement will continue long after I’m gone. As long as I continue to see that incremental movement, I’m content to stay within my own tradition.