If we think something is secondary we must treat it as secondary

An issue has broken out regarding complementarianism. Some on Twitter have accused Thabiti Anyabwile of affirming female pastors and denying the biblical order for church leadership. Tom Buck tweeted this:

With Denny Burk shortly after asserting:

Owen Strachan added his two penneth:

Thabiti responded clearly to the comments this way:

He also elsewhere explained that the clip was taken out of context. There was a question to which he was responding and there was a mixed audience to whom he was trying to be sensitive. However, some have taken a single pronoun and built an entire set of assumptions upon it. It was not a pretty picture but I think Thabiti has been totally clear that he remains committed to the Bible’s teaching on this issue.

Nevertheless, some have taken his clarifications and written further responses. Denny Burk has blogged about it here. And Scott Aniol has written here, making an almost identical argument. Both, despite Anyabwile’s clear statement on the matter, have decided to take a slightly different tack. They now insist that regarding this as a second-order issue, or not a gospel issue, is tantamount to saying that the matter is entirely unimportant.

But, of course, Anyabwile hasn’t said that. He nowhere said the matter is unimportant. He has said it is not a gospel issue. It is a second order matter. And, given that both blog posts from Burk and Aniol agree that it is a second order issue on which complementarians agree, you would think that would be the end of the matter. But it isn’t because they are insisting that Anyabwile claims the issue doesn’t matter (which, once again, he hasn’t actually said).

I am a complementarian and also affirm the Bible’s teaching of eldership in the local church. And I also agree that this is very much a second order issue. But given that it is a second order issue – and not a gospel issue – means that we should treat it as such.

If we take baptism as a counter-example, this too is a second order issue. Nobody (I think) would accuse me of considering baptism unimportant. It is a significant thing and it really does affect matters within the local church. Nevertheless, most agree that – despite perhaps struggling to sit together within the same local church – baptism is not an issue that would impede us working together in the gospel at an intra-church level. We can recognise that there are genuine believers with whom we can work in Christ who differ to us on this issue.

If we are being consistent, and we really do think complementarianism is a second order issue – the same should hold. It may well be difficult for us to sit in the same church if we differ on that issue, but there shouldn’t be any reason we could not work together at an intra-church level in the gospel if we do share the same core gospel commitments.

The argument has come back is that egalitarian positions do endanger the gospel. There certainly are those who deny inerrancy and who affirm all manner of sin because of the particular hermeneutics they use to justify their position. However, if we take theological triage seriously, we would refuse to work with such people in the gospel specifically because of the gospel issues they now reject or deny. The issue, so far as our gospel work goes, is not their stance on a secondary (albeit important) matter. The issue, so far as our gospel work goes, is their specific stance on the particular gospel issues that matter in gospel work.

Again, the issue of baptism is a helpful contrast. We wouldn’t assume that different views on baptism mean, a priori, that we couldn’t work together in the gospel. But there are some views on baptism that would change the gospel itself that would perhaps cause us to think again. I would find it particularly difficult, for example, to do gospel work with somebody who affirms baptismal regeneration because it (minimally) is inconsistent with a belief in salvation by faith alone. The issue isn’t the different position on baptism per se – because I would gladly work with an evangelical Anglican or Presbyterian in the gospel – but the specific view that undercuts the gospel itself. It is not the second order issue that is the problem, but the first order issue that causes the problem.

In the same way, the issue of egalitarian ought to be treated the same way. If it is a second order issue, then it shouldn’t necessarily stop us working in the gospel with those who hold different views to us on that question. It should only stop us working in the gospel with somebody who differs to us on that question if that same person also happens to reject first order gospel issues. Whilst their egalitarianism may have led to the first order issues, it is the first order matters that ought to concern us.

And so, should we work together with those who deny complementarianism? I don’t think we can answer that question if it is put baldly that way. The bottom line, it depends whether that position has actually affected other things they believe and it depends exactly what they are asking you to do with them. I don’t think that is saying the issue doesn’t matter. I don’t think it is trying to brush it under the carpet and pretend we don’t need to worry about it. But it does seek to rightly apply theological triage unlike those who, seemingly, want to take an awful lot of second order issues (especially this one) and make them first order matters.

The mistake of liberalism is that it reduces everything to tertiary issues. The problem of fundamentalism is that everything is treated as thought it is first order. If we are serious are theological triage, we really need to do better than that.