Dale Coulter’s argument that evangelicals should repudiate “masculine Christianity” begins with an important omission. His opening paragraph recounts the turmoil swirling in the Southern Baptist Convention over indefensible comments and behavior from (former) Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson. He submits both Patterson and “the authoritarian leadership structure” that supported him as exhibits A and A1 as to why evangelicalism must throw off the noxious, fundamentalist idea that only men should be teaching pastors in the church. At surface glance, this feels like a logical move. Wouldn’t opening the pulpit to women graft them more fully into the fabric of the church, thereby cutting off sinful attitudes like the one Patterson expressed?
But has professor Coulter already forgotten about Bill Hybels? Hybels was, until recently, the founding pastor of Willow Creek church in Chicago, one of the biggest and most influential evangelical churches in the entire world. Hybels resigned from his pastorate amidst a growing chorus of accusations of sexual harassment, including accusations from women whom Hybels had empowered in roles of leadership in his ministry (he has denied most of the allegations, though he did confess to being in “situations that would have been far wiser to avoid”). Hybels is an outspoken gender egalitarian, and Willow Creek quickly named Heather Larson as their new senior pastor.
I understand why professor Coulter would not incorporate Hybels’ scandal into his analysis. For one thing, the coverage of and conversation about the Willow Creek accusations has paled in comparison to the ink that’s been spilled about Paige Patterson. For another, the evangelical response to the two situations has been notably different. Even before evidence emerged that Patterson had tried to conceal a rape at Southeastern Seminary from police, Southern Baptists and other evangelicals used controversy over his pastoral counsel to a victim of domestic abuse as an opportunity for soul-searching. Patterson’s troubling comments warranted some hard self-examination among conservative evangelicals about gender dynamics and whether our churches and institutions were more concerned about waging a culture war than protecting and cherishing women. Because Patterson is a traditionalist on gender, many evangelicals—rightly—took his seemingly cavalier attitude toward abuse as an indication that something was deeply broken in their wider traditionalist culture.
Interestingly, the allegations around Bill Hybels didn’t seem to provoke an analogous self-examination for those on the other side of the theological fence. In fact, it almost did the opposite. In the wake of the Hybels story, both Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren and evangelical writer Aimee Byrd published pieces, at Christianity Today and First Things, respectively, rebuking not Hybels but conservative evangelicals who were practicing “the Billy Graham rule” of not being alone with a member of the opposite sex. On May 23, before Patterson was ultimately fired by the seminary’s trustee board, the evangelical magazine Relevant published an essay by Tyler Hucakbee titled “Paige Patterson’s Non-Punishment Shows the Church Is Not Prepared for True Repentance.” A search on their archives for “Bill Hybels” shows several news items reporting on the allegations, but not a single piece of analysis similar to the Patterson one.
My point is not that a pinch of hypocrisy proves anything. It doesn’t. Nor is my point that the Patterson and Hybels situations are totally equivalent. They aren’t. My point is rather that the straight line that many seem to want to draw from Patterson’s Southern Baptist convictions on gender to his apparent low regard for vulnerable women is a far more complicated matter than they assume. If our national #MeToo moment has proved anything, it’s that no one ideological camp has a monopoly on destructiveness. Whether it’s the self-described feminist and progressive Harvey Weinstein, the elder conservative culture critic Bill Cosby, or two ministers on opposite ends of the theological spectrum, sin, selfishness, and abuse are equal opportunity forces. Healthy change in any of these represented subcultures must begin with a penitent acknowledgment that no one is inherently better than their opposing tribe. All have sinned and fallen short.
With this acknowledgment in hand, evangelicals would do well to heed some of professor Coulter’s admonishment. He’s right that many evangelicals have little to no coherent vision for the role women should play in the life of the church. Coulter’s counsel is to fix this by heading straightway to church history and appropriating the perspectives especially of the Pentecostal movement. But while church history and tradition are certainly vital for evangelicalism, Scripture matters more. Grounding our doctrine of gender and polity in the Bible should take priority over picking and choosing from a smorgasbord of theological movements to assuage our #MeToo guilt.
Of course, this brings us back to very old debates about the meaning of passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man”) and wider theological questions such as the parallelism between the church and family, among many others. These are arguments worth having, and worth having well. But evangelicals cannot assume that their institutions will be magically reformed when it comes to hearing and protecting women simply by yelling “Fundamentalist!” and running as fast as possible the other direction. Without grounding our theology of gender firmly in Scripture, we are not merely being unfaithful; we are setting the stage for future exposures.
While urging evangelicals to throw off “masculine Christianity” may feel reasonable in the cultural moment, this kind of mantra does more harm than good. It conflates masculinity with misogyny (something that’s difficult if we take 1 Corinthians 16:13 as inspired Scripture). It obscures the beautifully gendered worldview of Scripture, which, far from flattening sexual distinctiveness, exults in it. And it inadvertently relieves men of their moral responsibility toward others and puts it on depersonalized systems and populism.
For theological conservatives, holding a dogmatic line on female pastors while equivocating on domestic abuse and sexual harassment has proven to be a catastrophic formula. Coulter is absolutely right to call us to sincere repentance. But he’s wrong to frame the choice as one between complementarian practice and Christian compassion. Coulter strangely suggests that recovering a tradition of female preachers and teachers would not “require complementarians to violate their consciences with respect to the Word of God.” Well, yes, it would. But complementarian consciences are not in the end that important. What’s far more important is the church of Jesus Christ, built upon the foundation of the life-changing, culture-transforming Scriptures.
We don’t have to ignore the hard, counter-cultural sayings of the Bible in order to hold the line against any and all forms of sexual abuse. The same apostle who wrote that he didn’t permit women to be pastors also commanded Timothy to see the women of the church as mothers and sisters, and to treat them “in all purity:” not as objects to be used, or temptresses to be fled, or strangers to be ignored, but as family.
Lord, make it so.