Answering Complementarian Questions: An interview with Carmen Fowler Laberge

June 15, 2015 at 4:39 pm

(RNS1-dec17) Carmen Fowler LaBerge is president and executive editor of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. For use with RNS-LABERGE-COLUMN, transmitted on December 17, 2014, Photo courtesy of Presbyterian Lay Committee

Carmen Fowler LaBerge is the President of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and Executive Editor of its digital publication. She is a keynote speaker at The Truth for a New Generation national apologetics conference and serves as chairperson of Common Ground Christian Network as well as a member of the board of the National Association of Evangelicals. She will be preaching on June 26th at the EPC’s 35th  General Assembly in Orlando, FL. Carmen is a colleague and fellow writer for A Christian Manifesto and was gracious enough to allow me to interview her in regards to her thoughts on complementarian and egalitarian perspectives on female leadership in the church.  This is part two of the discussion that first appeared HERE last week. 

  1. How have your own views on the complementarian/egalitarian conversation developed over time?

It comes down to figuring out how, as a Christian woman, I live as a demonstration of the Gospel, full of grace and truth, with beauty and strength, in full submission to Christ. And now, as a married woman, in joyful submission to my husband. In a culture where the strident pro-choice feminist advocates make theologically conservative people instantly suspicious of strong women, it is a continual challenge.

Marriage is the reality where all of this literally comes home. My husband’s answers to these questions would be interesting to hear. We are mutually submitted to Jesus Christ and yes, I am submitted to Jim. We have talked about the need for folks to understand how that works – when two people who are wild about Jesus commit their marriage to be a redemptive witness to the world where God’s design is so misunderstood.

But back to your question: I didn’t even know until I arrived at seminary that this was a debate. I grew up in a home with a professional mom and in a Presbyterian church with women in leadership. I came into ministry through Young Life which is egalitarian in its approach. I was discipled by men and women who affirmed my gifts and encouraged me to pursue ordination. At seminary I was exposed to those with complementarian convictions. Because I take God seriously and take the study of His Word seriously, I took their concerns seriously. I still do.

  1. You were ordained from 1993-2011 as a Minister of the Word or Sacrament or Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), but you asked to have your ordination set aside. Why did you do that and how do you see the issue of LGBT ordination as distinct from women’s ordination?

That is “the” question, isn’t it? Ok, first of all, I asked that the presbytery of which I was a member, to remove me from the ordered ministry – or as you described it, set aside my ordination – after the PC(USA) removed the requirement that ordained officers “live in fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” Ordination is an act of the whole church and those who lay their physical hands on an ordinand do so on behalf of God. All ordained officers are understood to be spiritually present and participating even if they are not physically in attendance. I could not do that. I could not passively participate in what God clearly defines as sexual sin.

How is that distinct from women’s ordination, you ask. The Scriptures affirm that God created men and women in His image. He called that design and those forms “good.” The Scriptures also affirm that God defines that which He considers contrary to good. We call it sin – those attitudes, thoughts, words, deeds, actions that run afoul of God’s holiness and what He knows is best for us. We are not at liberty to move things from the sin list to the blessed list. We are not at liberty to redefine what God has defined. They are not just words, they are not just cultural mores, I’m not repressed and I am not obsessed with this subject. I am, however, unwilling to move a stake that God has set as if He could have been wrong, inadequately informed, or insufficiently gracious when He bore testimony to the Truth in His Word. We are mutable, God is immutable. That’s being turned on its head in the LGBT debate, but the Truth remains.

  1. You serve on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Evangelicals, most of whom are complementarians. You also serve as the Chairman of an ecumenical movement called Common Ground Christian Network which includes many complementarians as well. How is it that those men are willing to serve with you in those contexts without compromising their own theological convictions?

My hope is that I’m a demonstration of grace and truth; a faithful representative of Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, utilizing the gifts God has given me in accomplishing the good work He has prepared in advance for me to do. It’s not my life, it’s His life. It’s not my time, it’s His time. I think the people with whom I am privileged to serve in many varieties of ministry see that. They know that I don’t need one more thing to do but they also know that if there’s a promise of advancing God’s Kingdom purposes in our generation, I’m in! Fully. That willingness results in being asked to serve in leadership. Why? Maybe because others look at their plate and see it as too full to do one more thing – I look to God for a bigger plate.

To answer your question directly, you’d have to ask the guys to whom you refer. I hope they’d say something like, “she doesn’t make her gender an issue. Jesus is the issue and she’s totally committed to whatever advances His Kingdom.”

  1. You know from your experiences serving on the EPC New Wineskins task force that there are both convictional complementarians and convictional egalitarians in the EPC. You have also chronicled the migration of many hundreds of congregations from the PCUSA into the EPC in your role at The Layman. Reflect for a moment on the EPC’s position that women’s ordination is a non-essential. What have you observed and experienced?

I have never had an experience in an organization quite like my experience over time with the EPC. This is the most gracious, welcoming, affirming, hospitable, joyful, God-honoring, mission focused group of Presbyterians I’ve ever encountered. God is taken at His Word and God’s people are called and sent into the world as agents of truth and grace.

Almost ten years ago I was invited to a meeting that I know now included a number of complementarians. It was not the subject of our time together. It was a joint meeting of those of us who comprised the New Wineskins leadership team with the EPC Long Range Planning Task Force. It was humbling to sit with them and it was spiritually invigorating to work with them. As the vision for a path for New Wineskins congregations to be received transitionally into the EPC on a pathway to full inclusion was being worked out, Dean Weaver and Gerrit Dawson said to the guys in the EPC, “Just to be clear, we’re bringing our women.”

Hundreds of churches have now traversed the bridge we built. I have walked with many of them to the point that someone on the EPC could take them by the hand and walk the remainder of the way. God continues to call me to serve largely outside of this body, but I feel like this is my denominational home. I concur that women’s ordination is a non-essential. And in saying that, I recognize that for complementarians, any corporate environment where a woman is preaching a mixed group of men and women is contrary to their understanding of God’s Word. There’s a serious rub for them, I get that. I have talked with them about it. I don’t know if it helps that I’m no longer formally ordained. But for some that seems to alleviate some of the tension.

I have witnessed as the EPC has worked hard to balance the concerns of both egalitarians and complementarians. And I recognize the challenge that my preaching at the General Assembly presents for complementarians. I’m not in the world to change their convictions – I’m here to faithfully keep the divine appointments that God has set.