On a Journey to Women’s Ordination and Beyond?
Worthy: Celebrating the Value of Women, Elyse Fitzpatrick and Eric Schumacher. Bloomington: Bethany House, 2020. Softcover, 301 pages.
Jesus & Gender: Living as Sisters & Brothers in Christ, Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Eric Schumacher. Bellingham: Kirkdale Press, 2022. Hardcover, 282 pages.
In October 2021 I attended our biannual pastors’ conference in Western Australia. A talk by two pastors’ wives was the highlight. Amanda Poppe and Kristen Alkema spoke about domestic abuse in the church. They shared real-life stories of CanRC and FRCA women who’d been raped by their husbands, physically battered, psychologically controlled or manipulated, and emotionally beaten down. It was eye-opening and deeply disturbing. After this conference, I read Darby Strickland’s book Is It Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims. Amanda, Kristen, and Darby convinced me we have to do better in our churches with how we view women and how we treat women.
I used to subscribe to the Journal of Biblical Counselling, so I was familiar with the name of Elyse Fitzpatrick. In the early 2000s, she wrote several wise and insightful articles. So, when I saw that she’d recently co-authored these two books with Baptist pastor Eric Schumacher, I was expecting good things. Perhaps these books would be helpful for steering us in a better direction. Sadly, the authors let me (and you) down.
Worthy, the earlier of these two books, was written to answer two questions: “Where is the value of women seen in the Bible? And, seeing the value of women there, how do we celebrate it?” Those are good questions to ask and, broadly speaking, I have an appreciation for how the authors answer. Throughout the book, the authors identify various firsts involving women. For example, “The first recorded words of faith were spoken by Eve (Genesis 4:1).” And “The daughters of Zelophehad were the first people God declares as ‘right’ in their request and judgment (Numbers 27:7).”
The authors also provide numerous anecdotes of how women have been undervalued and mistreated in churches. “For instance, I (Elyse) personally know of numbers of circumstances in which a wife came to elders for help with an abusive husband, only to have the elders end up disciplining her for not being submissive enough” (p.101).” That’s heinous. The authors state: “…there is no getting around the fact that much harm has been done to women in the name of ‘Christianity’” (p.242). Reformed churches aren’t exempt.
Regrettably, what could have been a recommended read is sullied by some missteps in proposing solutions. In Worthy, Fitzpatrick and Schumacher insist several times that they believe that only men can serve as pastors and elders. However, they do believe women can and should serve as deacons. They assert that women should be leading prayer and doing Scripture readings in worship (p.88). What about deacons being “the husband of one wife,” as in 1 Tim. 3:12? This book doesn’t answer that. What about “the women should keep silent in the churches” in 1 Cor. 14:34? The authors argue that this isn’t an absolute prohibition, because earlier in 1 Cor. 11:5, Paul speaks about women praying. However, is Paul speaking there about the church gathered in public worship? I don’t believe so.
What’s most concerning in Worthy is the dismissal of complementarianism as an issue worth taking a stand on. Complementarianism is the idea that men and women have different, complementary — yet equally valuable — roles in the family and in church. Opposed to that is egalitarianism, which argues that men and women should be equal in every respect, including filling roles of church leadership. According to one pastor they quote, complementarianism shouldn’t be “a litmus test of orthodoxy.” The authors agree and say that doing so is “idolatry masked as discernment” (p.216).
Even More Concerning
This issue returns with greater force in Jesus & Gender. I wanted to like this book. It aims to take a gospel-centered, Christ-centered approach to the roles of men and women — a great idea. However, along the way, the authors actually endanger and undermine the gospel.
Every author is on a journey. At the beginning of Jesus & Gender, Fitzpatrick writes about a book she authored in 2003, Helper by Design: God’s Perfect Plan for Women in Marriage. Without going into detail she says she now repudiates some of that book. Fair enough. Everyone should strive to move forward in knowledge and understanding. But between Worthy and Jesus & Gender, I sense the authors are on a journey somewhere unbiblical.
The affirmations of complementarianism have vanished in Jesus & Gender. Instead, there’s mystery. They deliberately won’t tell us where they stand. I want to be charitable, but they’re making it hard. It’s made even harder by the endorsement of a female pastor on the cover (of the edition I received). Christine Caine is an ordained minister of the prosperity-gospel preaching Hillsong Church. Not only did she endorse the book, but the book endorses her and her Propel Women ministry (pp.131-132). Propel Women supports women in ordained pastoral ministry. If you’re a complementarian, how can you give that a pat on the back?
My biggest concern is hermeneutical. Hermeneutics is the science of Bible interpretation. There are different approaches to hermeneutics. There is an approach undergirding the conclusion that women can be ordained. Our authors argue that this is unimportant; that it’s secondary to the gospel. They can’t understand situations like this: “A cessationist, congregational, Baptist church gladly joins elder-ruled, paedo-baptist, and continuationist churches in a city-wide evangelism campaign. It will not, however, partner with or invite the church that has a female pastor” (p.39). The doctrine of gender roles has become a “functional test of orthodoxy.” Should it be this way?
What if we were to instead use the example of a church with an openly gay or lesbian pastor? This church says they hold to the gospel. They believe in God’s Word. Are we going to make one’s beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity a “functional test of orthodoxy”?
Or what about the church that teaches theistic macro-evolution? They believe the universe is billions of years old and God created through the natural processes of macro-evolution. Yet they also say they believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Are we going to make our view on creation “a functional test of orthodoxy”?
Yes, yes, and yes. But not for the reason you might think. All these issues are symptoms of a deeper problem. It’s a problem with hermeneutics. This is a problem that jeopardizes the gospel. In 1991, during the debates about women’s ordination in the Christian Reformed Church, Mid-America Reformed Seminary published a booklet entitled A Cause of Division: The Hermeneutic of Women’s Ordination (still available online here). They wrote of an “idealist hermeneutic of autonomy.” Idealist because it’s “preoccupied with the general principle or idea at the expense of the concrete and the particular.” Autonomy because the abstract concept of gender equality is filled with one’s own content, “rather than allowing the whole teaching of the Bible to provide this content.” When one adopts this hermeneutic, one inevitably drifts away from historic Christian orthodoxy both in terms of ethics and doctrine. Ultimately, the gospel itself is threatened by this hermeneutic. It’s no coincidence that so many female pastors are gospel-deniers, either theologically liberal or prosperity-gospel peddlers. The debate about complementarianism versus egalitarianism isn’t just about men and women. The biblical gospel itself is at stake further downstream. Your hermeneutics are foundational for everything else. Therefore, the authors are dangerously wrong to assert that women in office shouldn’t be a litmus test.
I have more concerns in Jesus & Gender, far too many to mention in this review. Let me just briefly mention three. The authors apparently discount anything the Old Testament teaches about parenting, and since “the New Testament is nearly silent about parenting, we should be careful not to add to it” (p.161). The doctrine of the church found on page 175 is distinctly Baptist, not Reformed. One only enters membership of the church through personal faith. Finally, Photine is a mythical figure from Eastern Orthodox tradition. She’s alleged to be the woman from the well in Samaria in John 4. As the story goes, she became a Christian preacher in Africa, martyred for her faith in AD 66. Though there’s no historical basis for this tradition, Fitzpatrick and Schumacher write about her as if there is (p.122).
I share the burden of these authors to see women respected and honoured more. Sadly, these books, especially Jesus & Gender, are leaning too far the other way. While there are some helpful bits, they’re overshadowed by the hazardous direction being navigated. Intentionally or not, Fitzpatrick and Schumacher are tilling the soil for thorns that will choke out gospel seed.
Originally published in Clarion 71.24 (Nov. 25, 2022).