Once again, I am indebted to a guest author for this very welcome piece about the various strands of Evangelicalism in the Church of England. The Revd Jody Stowell untwists the strands for us:
I found myself reading Fr Andrew Cain’s guest post on this same blog with increasing resonance and gratitude for his clear and generous articulation of his tradition and also of those within his tradition with whom he does not agree. I can only hope that I am able to do the same for my own tradition.
However, I am only too aware that there are some differences in how Evangelicalism experiences its own spectrum, compared with Anglo-Catholicism. This sometimes means that for someone like me, who is very much from within an Open Evangelicalism, I often see more ‘family resemblance’ with those who identify as Liberal Catholics, than I might with those who are Conservative Evangelicals.
Whilst we all find ourselves ‘born’ into a particular tradition, I believe that the particular ‘hue’ of that tradition which we will gravitate towards is much more to do with our personality type, our upbringing, our culture, than perhaps our outworked theology. Our theology can come tripping along behind us and give vocabulary to how we are experiencing God and faith and Church within the tradition that we have, often accidentally, found ourselves in. I happen to have found faith in a place that was ‘middle of the road’ Evangelical Anglican, a place which became very Conservative Evangelical and thus formed my own world in a way that I now describe myself as Open Evangelical. However, had I found myself in a more Catholic Anglican tradition, I have no doubt that my journey would have taken me to a Liberal Catholic expression.
I say all this to give a little background to the person writing this post – inevitably coloured and biased by my experiences – and also to be utterly clear that, although I am an Evangelical, it is not a label that I hold defensively. I am an Evangelical and there are some things I am grateful for, but the type of Evangelicalism that I hold has, as part of its DNA, a recognition of the value of ‘that which is not like me’. Thus my flavour of Evangelicalism will inevitably always have me flittering about around the edges of my own tradition.
What’s an Evangelical anyway?
Thus is can be somewhat nebulous to write something on what ‘Evangelicals’ think…on anything! However, I will attempt to draw a map for you. Over the years there have been many attempts to define what it means to be Evangelical, the most lingering of these being David Bebbington’s marks of Evangelicalism: Crucicentrism, Biblicism, Conversionism and Activism. I think that probably, for most Evangelicals of all hues, the reality is that Biblicism is the primary marker to which all the others defer. Our view of Biblical authority gives us our ethical and doctrinal understanding of the Cross, personal relationship with Jesus and Social Action. If there is anything that joins the differing streams of Evangelicalism together it is our agreement on the love of Scripture. This is not to say that other traditions do not hold Scripture highly, as I know they do, but to say that this is a mark which will be found amongst all who call themselves Evangelical.
Therefore, it is our view of and therefore treatment of Scripture which would be the primary paradigm in which Evangelicals will make decisions about the compatibility, or otherwise, with the Christian faith, of particular modes of human community.
Whilst we agree on the importance of Scripture, however, our treatment of it does vary. And this is where we may tread murky waters. The three streams of Evangelicalism discussed in this article by Graham Kings, continue to disagree exactly what their own markers are. However I do think that Graham gives some helpful brush strokes for us to work with. The three streams described in the article are Conservative, Charismatic and Open. Our understanding of the interaction of Scripture with Tradition and Culture leads to the particular distinctiveness apparent in our Evangelicalism. These distinctives will express themselves in particular when in conversation with what it means to say that the Bible is ‘The Word of God’.
Evangelicals and the Word of God
Broadly speaking, Conservative Evangelicals (CEs) will have a, more or less, literal or ‘plain-speaking’ understanding of Scripture. The Bible is literally ‘God’s Word to us’. Its main emphasis is transcendent. Scripture is to be untouched, uncontaminated by mere human vagaries. CEs approach Scripture as something which has been given to us by God and which God, in God’s power, can make plain in the translation to each generation and culture. Contrary to some caricatures, CEs can and do make use of contemporary methods of hermeneutics and understand Biblical Scholarship as significant for the good ‘handling’ of Scripture. However, their understanding of the Bible as The Word of God in a literal and strict sense, means that often the plain-speaking of Scripture is seen to outweigh any other ‘voices’ that might speak to its meaning. CEs who are not also Charismatic Evangelicals (there is of course not a strict boundary between the streams), are often also Cessationists. This is consistent with their view of the Bible as the only source of God’s interaction with us. The reason that the Sacraments have the significance that they do, is because they are documented in Scripture, for example. It is their presence in Scripture that gives them weight, rather than their Dominical foundation per se. For CEs it is very important that Scripture is untouched by the cultural mores of the day. Only in Scripture’s unchanging nature, given once, with one meaning, is the power and proof that it is given from God.
Charismatic Evangelicals (ChEs), in comparison, tend to understand Scripture as the Word of God to God’s people immanently. Scripture as God’s Word means that it is living, because God is living. The living nature of Scripture means it is primarily to be understood, and made relevant to humanity, in the present context. The point of Biblical Scholarship for ChEs is to be able most faithfully to interpret Scripture for our contemporary society. God’s Kingdom is here on Earth now, God is present now and God’s Word is for now. This means that the conversation Scripture is to have with Tradition and Culture is of the utmost importance. For ChEs, Tradition has sadly often been demonised as being irrelevant and solely about keeping things the same. Whilst ChEs have a high view of Scripture, and often their theology remains the same as more Conservative Evangelicals, their view of the Bible as the living Word of God means that their ethics may appear more ‘liberal’. Often ChEs appeal to ‘Grace over Law’ and if they see a dissonance between what might be a ‘Biblical’ precedent and what seems right in the Holy Spirit for today’s Church, they would be likely to see that precedent as culturally bound and thus not necessarily an ethic for all time and all places. Where a ChE draws the line between Scripture and culture will determine whether they are an Open ChE or a Conservative ChE. However, because Charismatic Evanglicalism has grown out of a more Conservative Evangelicalism, ChEs are still often Conservative in theology and there appears to be much more cross-over between Conservative and Charismatic expressions of Evangelicalism than between Conservative and Open, and even between Open and Charismatic.
Open Evangelicals (OEs) are often formed by their story of encounter with more Conservative Evangelicalism. We are close to those who have left Evangelicalism completely, such as the Post-Evangelicals described by Dave Tomlinson. However, Open Evangelicals recognise that their story is inextricably formed by Evangelicalism and that their identity rests in and from that tribe. Nevertheless we have found that our position on certain issues of faith and doctrine have been formed in the crucible of defining what we are ‘not’. Hence often OEs will feel uncomfortable about calling the Bible ‘The Word of God’. Although there are ways of interpreting this concept in a way that is not Bibliolatrous, we associate the term with a divinisation of the Bible that is both unbiblical and damaging pastorally. OEs will be quick to tell you that it is Jesus who is the Word of God. This is not to say that other Evangelicals do not believe this, but that for OEs our primary engagement with Scripture is as inspired, reliable, authoritative story. The narrative of God, the bigger picture and the whole story of God with humanity, are ways that OEs will read Scripture. In common with ChEs, we will see Scripture as a living organic story which ‘comes to life’ when read in partnership with the Holy Spirit. We will also defend our biblical credentials quite ferociously. We tend towards Biblical Scholarship which deals with the canon as a whole and recognises it as One Book, and whilst understanding issues of genre and biblical world, is more interested in the continuous narrative that runs through the whole.
Having given you a brief explanation of different ways that the Evangelical spectrum engage with Scripture, this inevitably leads to reasons why our different tribes come to slightly different views on Women and their place in God.
All of our views will come from what we understand Scripture to say.
For CEs there will be particular texts which, in a ‘plain-speaking’ view of Scripture, are difficult to overcome. Such texts as 1 Cor 14:34-35, 1 Tim 2:11-12. These texts speak of the place of women in Church order. Women should not speak in Church and should defer to their husbands. These texts come with some translation issues. However, taking this into account, for CEs they speak plainly enough and should be obeyed. Often, if pressed, they will link these texts together with Genesis and Ephesians 5 and thus link both with the ‘obvious’ creation order, in which men are placed in authority over women. This connection with an obvious creation order, means that for CEs the order must remain in place over all times and cultures. For CEs any attempt to explain away these passages results in ‘hermeneutical gymnastics’ which is unfaithful to their belief in Scripture as the literal Word of God.
As ChEs have an orientation towards the present relevance of Scripture, they have understood these texts in the context of the time. Whilst their instinct is still towards the ‘problem passages’ mentioned above, and having to ‘deal’ with these in order to permit women to teach, they will see them as time- and culturally- bound. ChEs will tend to think that, whilst the texts probably do put a prohibition on women at that time, this is a restriction which is lifted in the contemporary context. 1 Tim 2 will be understood as a response by Paul to a context where Diana worship was rife and women were dominating men because of this. In that context it was in order to create a healthy balance that Paul instituted this boundary. We are no longer in that situation and so the restriction is no longer relevant. Whilst the 1 Cor text is more problematic, it is often read alongside 1 Cor 11, where women are clearly speaking in Church and so recognised that a ‘plain-speaking’ understanding of the text leads to a contradiction within the same Pauline letter. It is assumed that ‘it cannot mean what it plainly says’. For ChEs the presence in God’s Church of women who are clearly gifted in teaching, leading and preaching, is also a significant hermeneutic through which they will interpret Scripture. It is important for ChEs that the reality of contemporary context is taken into account when reading the Bible.
As is consistent with OEs primary view of Scripture as one narrative, we do not have quite the same emphasis on individual texts, although we would deal with these problematic texts because this is the conversation that other Evangelicals are having. Our approach to these particular texts are within the story as a whole and are seen as rather minimal in that context. For OEs the story of God and Women begins in Genesis and the equal place of women alongside men as the Image of God. This relationship breaks in Genesis 3 and any domination then present is seen as a result of disobedience and not as part of the eternal creative order. Our reading of further Biblical evidence tends to be with these lenses and we will read the stories of women in the OT seeing God at work to re-establish the place of women as equals. For instance the story of God rescuing Sarai from Egypt when Abram sells her to Pharoah in Genesis, is a significant message from God that she was as much part of the promise of blessing that Abram was given. We see the presence of Deborah as judge in response to the statement that ‘Israel cried out to God’, as telling us that God has a place for women alongside men in the leadership of God’s people. As the story continues in the NT, we see women highly valued and specially treated by Jesus as equal – Mary’s better choice to be educated being endorsed by Jesus, the woman caught in adultery being liberated to choose a different life, the Samaritan woman being the first missionary to the Gentiles, Jesus’ choice of Mary as the first Apostle and so on.
The story through the Old Testament and on into the New Testament is, for Open Evangelicals, so generously weighted towards equality of gender that the focus on 4 or 5 proof texts that seem to contradict the majority of the Biblical story, sometimes bemuses us.
This is a brief explanation of why different Evangelicals come to different views on women.
Hopefully it will explain the reasons why the seemingly same love of Scripture can have some very different outworkings.
Welcome to my world!
The main illustration is by George Muresan via Shutterstock. The picture of the author is taken from her parish website.
The hyperlinks of bible extracts take you to the New Revised Standard Version on the Oremus website.