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Newsletter #78: Big Eva Says Out with Complementarianism, In with Anti-Fundamentalism
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The term “Big Eva,” short for big evangelicalism, was coined, I believe, by the theologian Carl Trueman, who has been using it since at least 2014. It’s a catchall term for evangelical elites and powerbrokers, mostly referring to the leadership of the New Calvinist movement and adjacent spaces.
New Calvinism is but one faction of the evangelical world, but is disproportionately influential, particularly in enforcing doctrinal boundaries. As sociologist Brad Vermurlen noted in his academic study of the movement, its influence is far greater than its numbers. Hence what these leaders do is highly consequential for evangelicalism as a whole. As he put it, “New Calvinist leaders’ symbolic capital (recognition or esteem) translates into symbolic power as the authority to define legitimacy and membership in the field.”
New Calvinism, along with the rest of the evangelical field, is facing a rapidly shifting landscape as a result of the transition to the negative world. The dawn of the negative world - one in which for the first time in the 400 year history of the United States, secular society views Christianity negatively - has produced significant intra-evangelical conflict, realignment, and even deformation in some cases. As Vermurlen put it:
Evangelicalism in America writ large can no longer properly be considered a unified Christian movement but instead is a heterogeneous arena of conflict and contestation—that is, a field. It is not merely diverse; it is divided.
For New Calvinism in particular, its leaders face additional challenges. First, the movement, while far from dead, is past its peak in terms of energy and influence, something Vermurlen also notes. Secondly, the leading lights of this movement were baby boomer or older figures who are retired (John Piper), have died (Tim Keller), or soon will no longer be active. The movement today needs to take steps to reinvigorate itself.
In this newsletter I will explain a core element of how some of them are planning to reposition themselves for the future by redefining “legitimacy and membership.” This strategy is to redraw the boundaries of the movement by eliminating complementarianism and replacing it with anti-fundamentalism.
Complementarianism is the gender theology that says only men can be pastors and that husbands are the head of the home. Big Eva has been firmly complementarian, treating that not as a first order matter necessary for salvation, but defining part of the boundary that defined their own community as instantiated in organizations like the Gospel Coalition. In the proposed strategic change, complementarianism would be downgraded further as becoming more a matter of personal conscience that does not function as a community boundary. (The alternative to complementarianism is egalitarianism, where women can be pastors and husbands and wives hold equal leadership weight in the home).
In other words, as New Calvinism loses traction - and comes under increasing attacks from the right of a variety and intensity previously unseen - this strategy says the movement should responds by shifting left, acquiring new allies among more conservative leaning egalitarians. Rather than a solidly conservative movement, as New Calvinism had previously been, this new alliance would be much more of a self-consciously centrist movement (possibly under new branding).
Brad Isbell, who hosts a podcast called Presbycast, has suggested an additional reason to make this move. He points to the ongoing split in the United Methodist Church, in which over 6,000 conservative leaning churches have departed the denomination. Methodist theology long ago led to an acceptance of female pastors. So creating space to ally with egalitarians creates the potential for finding new allies among this large block of Methodists (although Methodism is theologically very different from Calvinism, so it’s not clear what that would look like).
Tim Keller’s Strategy for Renewing the American Church
This new strategy was explicitly outlined by Tim Keller, arguably the most respected and influential New Calvinist leader. He wrote a four part series on the decline and renewal of the American church in 2021 and 2022. Then he consolidated these installments and added a lot of new material, publishing a consolidated version late last year.
This consolidated strategy for the future of the church was released about the same time as his final book Forgive. He had terminal cancer at the time, and died six months after its publication. The fact that this was in essence his final publication shows how important he obviously thought it was. While he cannot drive its implementation, given his intellect, thoughtfulness, track record of success, and wide respect, this strategy will and should receive significant attention from evangelical leaders. There’s a lot of good material in there and I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
Keller divides evangelicalism into four zones ranging from conservative to liberal. On his graphic of this, conservatives are to the left and liberals are to the right.
He defines Zone 1 as Fundamentalism, Zone 2 as Conservative Evangelicalism (complementarian), Zone 3 as Egalitarian Evangelicalism, and Zone 4 as Ex- or Post-Evangelicalism. He further divides Zones 2 and 3 into subregions A and B. A key difference between these sub-zones are a willingness to work with people in the other zone. So Zone 2b are complementarians willing to work with egalitarians, and Zone 3a are egalitarians willing to work with complementarians.
The fact that his “zone of renewal” spans 2b and 3a shows that he is explicitly dissolving any boundary between complementarianism and egalitarianism. Now, Keller himself has long been willing to work with egalitarians as far as I know. At the same time, he co-founded the Gospel Coalition, the key New Calvinist hub, as an explicitly complementarian organization, showing that he previously put something of a high value on this distinction.
As the chart indicates, he proposes to divide from Zone 1 fundamentalism, saying, “Something like the evangelical-fundamentalist split of the 1940s may need to happen (or is happening) again.” He calls this “dividing with tears and grace.” Then he wants a new movement that combines both complementarian and egalitarian elements.
He sums up the strategy as:
Generally speaking—the way forward is to (a) divide from Zones 1 and 4 in different ways, and (b) bring both individuals, and leaders and some older institutions most likely from the ‘right half’ of Zone 2 and the ‘left half’ of Zone 3 into a new Zone 5. (c) Then: do the strategic initiatives, launch the mission projects, and start new institutions.
This is about as clear as it gets. He wants to eliminate complementarianism as a movement boundary and replace it with anti-fundamentalism (New Calvinism having already divided from Zone 4 ex-vangelicalism). So when I say this is the strategy, I’m not making something up that’s not really there. It’s explicit.
Russell Moore Puts the Plan Into Action
Keller’s strategy could be viewed as little more than an academic exercise were it not for the fact that we see various elements of the evangelical world starting to put it into practice.
One of the key leaders doing this is Russell Moore. Moore is a former Southern Baptist leader and Gospel Coalition council member who is now the editor of Christianity Today magazine. The mere fact that he’s now the editor there shows something is afoot, given that Moore was historically strongly complementarian and Christianity Today has long been egalitarian.
As I noted in a previous post, Moore wrote a column in March of this year saying that evangelicals needed to rethink their gender wars. Though obviously in a Moore style rather than a Keller one, it is an almost perfect instantiation of Keller’s framework and strategy. He cleaves complementarianism into two halves, one analogous to Keller’s Zone 1 types holding to a dangerous form of de facto fundamentalism:
More importantly, recent scandals have demonstrated that the slippery-slope arguments of egalitarians were at least partially right—by pointing out that, for some, what lay behind a zeal for “male headship” was not responsibility before God but a psychologically stunted loathing of women or, worse, a cover for the sadistic silencing of women and girls…Whatever one might think of the “servant leadership” rhetoric of Promise Keepers a generation ago, we should agree that it’s quite a fall from that to today’s “theobro” vision of opposing such allegedly feminizing attributes as empathy and kindness. Turns out, there really was more John Wayne than Jesus, more Joe Rogan than the apostle Paul, in a lot of what’s been said to be “biblical.”
Moore himself once had publicly written, “Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy.” So in the piece he repents of the old “theobro” style Russell Moore and moves himself to the left into what seems to be Keller’s Zone 2b, where the “good” complementarians live.
At the same time, he draws a distinction between egalitarians, between, in essence, Keller’s Zones 3 and 4. He writes:
Many evangelical egalitarians have found themselves “homeless” too. They’ve been labeled in progressive circles as not “real feminists” precisely because, for them, the issue is how best to interpret inspired, authoritative Scripture—including Paul’s letters—not to deconstruct it. Today, when there really is a slippery slope of gender ideology that challenges the male-female binary, evangelical egalitarians spend more of their time in the outside world defending the idea that there is a complementarity of male and female, just not of the patriarchal sort.
Note his use of the term “deconstruct” here to align his distinction with Zone 4 ex-vangelicalism.
After having created his own version of the four zone framework - “good” and “bad” complementarians, and “good” and “bad” egalitarians - he then posits a new alliance in the center:
Many of us are rethinking who we once classified as “enemy” and as “ally.” Maybe the lines of division were in the wrong places all along. Those who hold to believer’s baptism, for example, have more in common with evangelicals who practice infant baptism than with Latter-day Saints who immerse adults. Those who disagree on how Galatians 3:28 fits with Ephesians 5 but who want to see men and women fully engaged in the Great Commission have more in common with each other than with those who would make gender either everything or nothing.
A new generation of Christian men and women is coming. When it comes to teaching them how to stand together, and how to equip one another to teach and lead, I trust Beth Moore much more than 2004 Russell Moore to show them the way.
Again, this sounds remarkably like the Keller strategy, which Moore very likely read or even talked to Keller about. As the head of a major evangelical institution, Moore is very well positioned to advance this vision.
Southern Baptist Gender Debates
There are also intimations of this new strategic shift in the recent gender debates roiling the Southern Baptist Convention. Calvinism is a minority position in the SBC. So while there are a number of key New Calvinist leaders in the SBC, I would describe most of the denomination as adjacent to the movement. Baptists also hold to local congregational autonomy. So the SBC is quite different from other denominations. It is more of a cooperative association of independent churches than a governing structure.
The SBC is also not a confessional church in the sense of Presbyterians or Lutherans. At the same time, the SBC does have a statement of faith called the Baptist Faith and Message, the most recent version of which was issued in 2000 and is explicitly complementarian. Also, the SBC has to have some guidelines around which churches are allowed to participate. There has been a movement towards tightening these up, such as kicking out churches deemed to have insufficiently addressed allegations of abuse.
It turned out that there were a number of SBC churches that had women pastors. This came to the fore especially when superstar pastor Rick Warren (not Calvinist), whose Saddleback Church was part of the SBC, ordained three female pastors. Warren himself explicitly affirmed that he had changed his mind on women’s ordination. The SBC then moved to disfellowship - kick out - Saddleback. Warren then led a very high profile effort to have this move overturned at the recent annual convention of the SBC. His view was that whether or not churches have female elders should not be a barrier to cooperating in ministry. He was overwhelmingly defeated and Saddleback was disfellowshipped.
While Saddleback grabbed the headlines, there was another effort around female pastors at the recent SBC meeting. A pastor named Mike Law put forth an amendment that would change the SBC’s constitution to explicitly prohibit churches with female pastors from being in fellowship. The leadership committee of the SBC forwarded this to a vote, but with a No recommendation. However, it passed comfortably. It would need to pass again next year to take effect.
While the Law amendment did pass, as indicated by their No recommendation, it’s clear that the SBC’s leadership does not want to explicitly prohibit all churches with female pastors from being part of the SBC. Another motion put forward by big name SBC pastor James Merritt would create a “broadly representative” committee to study the matter of how the denomination should defined what should be required to remain in fellowship with the denomination. The motion to create this committee, which was supported by roster of major SBC figures like former presidents Ed Litton and J.D. Greear, passed. This committee provides a potential vehicle for a possible counter-proposal that would be put forth as an alternative Law’s amendment that appears to accomplish the same ends while actually leaving the door open to female pastors. Greear in particular, who says he affirms complementarianism, has nevertheless been very critical of the Law amendment. Interestingly, he also implies he’s on board with the “anti-fundamentalist” plank, saying about those who strongly support the Law amendment, “In fact, I’d suggest that for those to whom it does feel right, perhaps they are the ones who aren’t ‘closely identified’ with us.”
It seems that while a majority of the SBC remains strongly complementarian, a segment of denominational leaders and elites want the door to remain open to churches with female pastors to be included. The mere fact that gender roles have come back to the fore as a controversy shows that the state of complementariansim in the SBC is once again an open question. Next year’s annual meeting will be very interesting to say the least.
It is too early yet to know whether or not these moves will take, and whether the New Calvinist centered Big Eva world will actually eliminate complementariansim as a community boundary or add anti-fundamentalism. However, the fact that Tim Keller explicitly called for this means that it will be taken seriously by a lot of people. As he noted in his essay, this might not involve a wholesale adoption of this position by the current New Calvinist leadership and organizations, but possibly some crackup with new alliances and institutions being formed around the new position.
This is definitely one to keep an eye one. I know some people will disagree strongly with this approach because they substantively disagree with the position, but from a purely strategic perspective, it is a valid way to respond to recent developments.
I have some additional observations about how I see this plan being put into place, particularly in terms of anti-fundamentalism, but I will save these for a future newsletter.
A social sphere or field—(e.g. religious, artistic, business, the professions, the academic fields)—are places where individuals, groups, and organizations compete for influence, that is for all forms of capital. All fields are basically hierarchical, with some who have more capital and become gatekeepers of the field and others who are more marginal. Newcomers are never welcome—all other groups will seek to paint them as illegitimate and will seek to define them in ways that will make it difficult for them to acquire influence (capital).
We should not be blinded by inspirational terms like “being a new movement” and promoting “spiritual renewal.” The moment we begin, we will unavoidably be in a competition for power. We will ‘leverage our social capital’ to reach a wider audience.  We will present ourselves as being more able to address the church’s problems than other ‘zones’ and church movements.  We will present ourselves as being more able to address culture’s questions and objections than other religious communities.  We will present ourselves as offering a model of cultural engagement that avoids the dangers of assimilation, withdrawal, or domination.  We will make strong efforts to define ourselves and not let others “name” us, but that means describing ourselves in contrast to—and over against—other groups. Frankly, others will have to decrease if we are to increase. There is no use in protesting that we will be above competition. We should not be naïve here. We will inevitably enter a competitive social field in which the rules of the game are quite opposed to these words of Jesus:
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)
The real question is—how will we do this? Will we “compete” through our use of the Bible, through making decisive, compelling arguments based on exegesis? Will we represent the views of opponents in ways they recognize and affirm, or—will we put up caricatures that are easy to knock down? Will we seek to accrue capital through stoking fear and anger? Will we engage in ad hominem arguments, imputing motives and charging all opponents with bad character? Will we just shame, antagonize, or “own” opponents rather than trying to persuade them? The answer to all these questions must be a resounding “no.”
- Tim Keller, “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church”