A Cautionary Tale: Tony Jones’ Demand for a Schism

On November 22nd Emergent Christianity leader Tony Jones boldly declared that it’s time for a schism within the Protestant church.  If you don’t know who Tony Jones is, he’s a prominent figure within the Emergent Christian tribe.  He’s very smart and thoughtful and always provides an interesting perspective to the mix.  Don’t know what a “schism” is?  It’s when you willfully and intentionally break off (i.e. divorce) from a group on the grounds that you hold beliefs that are so radically opposed to each other that fellowship is simply not possible.

In his post he wrote the following:

The time has come for a schism regarding the issue of women in the church. Those of us who know that women should be accorded full participation in every aspect of church life need to visibly and forcefully separate ourselves from those who do not. Their subjugation of women is anti-Christian, and it should be tolerated no longer.

That means:

  • If you attend a church that does not let women preach or hold positions of ecclesial authority, you need to leave that church.
  • If you work for a ministry that does not affirm women in ecclesial leadership, you need to leave that ministry.
  • If you write for a publishing house that also prints books by “complementarians,” you need to take your books to another publishing house.
  • If you speak at conferences, you need to withdraw from all events that do not affirm women as speakers, teachers, and leaders.

That is, we who believe in the full equality of women need to break fellowship with those who do not.

**deep breath***

Ok, I need to be honest and say that the following thoughts are neither carefully thought out or overly prepared/edited.  I don’t have time to carefully address everything I’d like to within Tony’s post (or the Emergent church more broadly speaking).  So I’m going to throw down some visceral reactions and hope they are helpful as a word (or two) of caution.

Big Picture: I get that Tony Jones is passionate about the issue of women and church leadership.  It’s a very important issue.  It’s so important, I can’t imagine anyone (regardless of where they fall on the egalitarian/complementarian spectrum) being dispassionate about it.  However, it’s genuinely sad to see someone’s passion override common sense and basic Christian charity towards their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Here are some scattered thoughts and reactions:

1.  I’ve done my homework on the egalitarian/complementarian debate, and while I hold to strong egalitarian convictions, issuing a clarion call for schism (i.e. an intentional act of division) from churches and other Christians who don’t not hold the same conviction is shamefully short-sighted, self-serving, and ungracious.  Doubly so when you throw around terms like “misogyny” and “subjugation” which are words that do nothing but build upon a caricature of the complementarian position.

2.  If you’re going to call for a schism from a large section of the church, you better know what and who you’re dividing from.

“Having grown up in a church that ordained women, allowed women to lead, and had women preachers, it is honestly shocking to me to continue to run into so-called “complementarians.” I don’t meet them in real life — I just see them in the blogosphere, on Facebook and Twitter. And friends of mine like Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey assure me that they exist.”

Let’s divide from a group of people who I have little to no contact with relationally, simply because their views strike me as “obviously” dumb and anchored in hate and ignorance.  Talk about an unwise and totally uncharitable posture towards other Christians who hold differing convictions to you.

3. Be very wary of anyone who upholds a core value of Jesus, only to immediately sidestep its radical and difficult implication.

“I very much take Jesus’ prayer for unity in the Fourth Gospel seriously…But…”  

Many people reading  Tony’s post would have been justified in closing the tab on their browser after that second sentence.  Especially after the rest of the post shows no willingness to work towards unity with complementarians.

4.  Think (deeply) before you declare.

“I don’t know what a schism looks like in the 21st century.”

Don’t call for a schism when you haven’t thought through what–exactly–you’re inviting people into.  If you don’t have a handle on the shape a schism would/should take, then don’t call for one, because you evidently haven’t thought through any systemic ramifications.  That’s immature and reactionary, not mature and visionary.  Throughout Tony’s post I was haunted by the wisdom of Richard Rohr: ” It’s so much easier to be over and against something than to be in love with something.”

5.  When you disagree with the convictions of another Christian, don’t resort to caricatures of their position that demean, dismiss, or ridicule.  Tony Jones’s post is laced with language (e.g. “subjugation,” “mysogony,” “archaic”) that is designed to frame the entire complementarian camp as anti-women and hate-fueled.  It’s profoundly disappointing to see a thoughtful leader like Tony Jones resort to that kind of tactic.  Then again, if he would have actually listened to the best arguments from complementarians (and maybe spent more time in dialogue with them–see point #2!), he’d realize most complementarians are neither anti-woman nor driven by hate.

**deep breathe**

Let me reiterate: I do not agree with the biblical convictions complementarians reach.  I am, like Tony Jones, passionate about my convictions.  However, I do believe that I can hold to my convictions passionately while extending respect and grace to those Christians–male and female–who hold to the complementarian position due to their desire to love and honour God.  I don’t think that is too much to expect from other Christian leaders.  It’s certain what I would have expected from Tony Jones.

For more thoughtful and robust reactions to Tony’s call for schism (and his subsequent back track), check out the following:

“Are your really calling for schism Tony Jones?” by Billy Kangas

“Tony Jones’ curious call for schism” by David Hayward

“This schism was cancelled” by John Mark Reynolds




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