Council limits pastoral roles to men

TORONTO, ON-Roy Matheson has been one of the most vocal opponents of a move by conservatives within one of Canada's largest evangelical denominations, the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada (FEBCC), to make male leadership a test of membership in the denomination. This fall, Matheson may pay the price for his beliefs by having to walk out of the denomination at the FEBCC's conference November 3-6 in Toronto.

The senior pastor at Chartwell Baptist Church in Oakville, Ontario, does not believe Scripture prohibits women from serving in his church as a deacon, elder or pastor. That puts him at odds with the FEBCC's National Council and a vocal group of traditionalist pastors determined to ensure "egalitarians" like Matheson tow the line or leave.

"I'm not exactly sure exactly what motivates this," says Matheson. "The Council is probably fearful that the denomination will split. They likely fear the next step-ordaining women as senior pastors."

The denomination's National Council is asking delegates to approve the following motion:

"In the New Testament, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is gender specific. Therefore, in Fellowship Baptist churches, this office is for qualified men recognized by the local church for oversight of the doctrine and practice of the church."

Should the motion receive the required two-thirds approval needed to pass, it will require Fellowship churches to adhere to a "complementarian" position-which limits "governing ministries" to men while allowing women to serve in ministries outside these areas (egalitarians would open up governing ministries to women).

"The motion will for all intents and purposes put us out of the denomination," says Matheson.

FEBCC president Terry Cuthbert acknowledges that a number of Fellowship churches are not happy with the motion, particularly some urban churches and those in more liberal British Columbia, but feels the denomination needs to bring some sort of closure to the issue.

"Whether we want to or not, we must go through this step. It's inevitable," he says.

Unlike last year's conference, where a motion to require all 496 member churches to adhere to limiting the governing offices to "qualified men" as a prerequisite for membership received less than 60 per cent support, this year's motion was drafted following extensive consultations with member churches by Cuthbert and Council chair Dan Shurr.

The two conducted meetings at six regional conferences and the motion was sent to all member churches for input. Cuthbert says this consultation process allowed for dialogue and helped the governing body finalize a recommendation it feels reflects the view of the majority of FEBCC members.

Cuthbert stresses that the vast majority of Fellowship churches are complementarian and that the motion distinguishes between practice and conscience. The Fellowship would require churches to put the complementarian view into practice but not require church leaders to believe strictly complementarian views.

Darryl Dash, senior pastor at Richview Baptist Church in Toronto, believes the National Council is making a mistake in pushing the issue and listening to a small group of strict complementarians who are threatening a split that would likely involve many more churches than a split involving egalitarian churches.

"A small group is pushing us toward a precipice," he says. "Scripture is not clear enough to demand unanimity."

Dash, who worked with several other Toronto area pastors to defer the issue for a year for further study, wonders "what's worth splitting over and drawing lines in the sand." He also worries the issue will contribute to FEBCC churches losing their significance in today's "post-Christian" society.

"We need to address missional questions in a society that doesn't care what churches think (about the role of women)," he says. "We need to accept ambiguity and allow diversity. Unfortunately, this is not the Council's view."

Not about titles

Opponents of the motion argue that complementarians seem to be fixated with titles-that a woman can do pastoral work provided she is not called a pastor or elder. But according to a leading complementarian, the question isn't about titles but about "biblical faithfulness."

"The Council has shown discernment and leadership. Biblical faithfulness has prevailed," says Rene Frey, pastor of Eglise Baptiste Evangélique de Rosemont in Montréal.

Frey maintains that while he does not wish to see churches leave the denomination, the divide is there and the Bible is clear on how churches are to be governed.

"The Apostle says, 'I do not permit' when it comes to the role of women in churches," says Frey, a reference to 1 Timothy 2:12 where Paul states, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent."

Frey believes he and other complementarians behind last year's failed motion "bit off more than we could chew" by trying to address not only the practices of churches but also the "philosophy" behind the motion. His group put the National Council on notice that they would bring a strict complementarian motion to this year's conference but now fully support the Council's own motion.

It wasn't until the early 1950s that Protestant churches in North America started to wrestle with the role as women in church leadership, according to Edmonton-based author Mary Kassian, whose book The Feminist Gospel looks at the relationship between the Feminist Movement and Christianity during the last century.

Default setting

Kassian says mainline denominations started opening up leadership positions to women during the 1950s and '60s. However, most evangelical churches remained complementarian until the 1980s and '90s. Now, the "default setting" for many people in mainline and evangelical churches, especially those under 40, is egalitarian, she says.

"The next generation is egalitarian. You must prove to these people the complementarian view," says Kassian. However, Kassian, who was raised in a Fellowship church and whose husband (currently the chaplain for the Edmonton Eskimos football team) at one time pastored a Fellowship church, doesn't believe having debate over the role of women in the church is a bad thing.

"It's a very necessary thing. Far too few denominations take doctrine seriously. Churches can split over the colour of the carpet," she says.

But whether the FEBCC has done enough studying on the issue is something professor Stan Fowler of Heritage College and Seminary in Cambridge, Ontario, questions.

"I pressed the point with Terry Cuthbert and the Council to do a study before going forward. The majority of the Council doesn't think we need further study," says Fowler. That's why Heritage, a major feeder of ministry personnel to the FEBCC, is hosting its own one-day conference on the issue in October, before the FEBCC conference.

While the FEBCC is heavily emphasizing its conference as a celebration of its founding 50 years ago, Fowler predicts the issue of women in leadership will make the conference a "muted celebration."

Still, Cuthbert hopes the motion passes and his denomination can move on to other things. "I hope it goes to the backburner so I can get on with ministry," he says.

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