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“Hey, could you help me put together some key verses about women in leadership in the church, and maybe too, how to answer some of ‘their’ verses? A complementarian guy I know wants to debate.”


My mind spun trying access files last used in 1985, now erased or corrupted or simply not compatible with my current brain operating system.

“You know,” I said, “that’s really not where I dwell much anymore.” Was that a nice way of saying that I’m getting old and forgetful?

“I haven’t had those debates since the early 80’s. I’m afraid I’m not going to be much help without doing a lot of refesher work.” If pressed, I suppose I could still do some good counter-punching on the so-called “clobber passages” in the LGBTQ debate, but even that seems so tedious, so 2005.

Then I added, “Jeremy, you know, I’m not really convinced these sorts of Bible debates do anything, change anyone.”

As those words came out of my mouth, I was a bit surprised at myself, maybe a bit disappointed, maybe a bit relieved.

I’ve always considered myself a good reformed sola-scriptura guy. I still do. Scripture alone, even as the nuances of what that means continue to develop.

Maybe it is also our current cultural situation. Everything polarized. Everything controversial. Everything provokes a fight, or at least some snarky comments. I’ve grown debate-averse. Nothing is accomplished. Nothing changes.

You changed my mind

In the first congregation Sophie and I served there was a young man who was opposed to “women preachers.” He said it was unscriptural, and I don’t want to deny his sincerity. But I would suggest that his reluctance also had something to do with the fact that he simply was unfamiliar, uncomfortable in ways he couldn’t quite express. I suspect we all have similar unexpressed, almost unknown reluctances about any variety of things.

But this young man wasn’t hostile. He continued to come to worship regularly. He didn’t stir the pot. Seven years later, when we left that congregation he said, “Pastor Sophie, you changed my mind about women preachers. I heard the Word of God through you.”

Had he changed the way he read scripture? Had he gone back and revised the way he interpreted some of Paul’s remarks, for example? I doubt it. And that’s okay.

The Quadrilateral

For years when I taught “Introduction to Christian Ethics,” the book we used began with what is often referred to as “Wesley’s Quadrilateral”–after John Wesley of Methodist fame. (Whether or not it actually originated with Wesley is another matter. Anyway…)

Wesley’s quadrilateral suggests four sources for Christian ethics–scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Exactly how those four are balanced or which takes priority are matters of debate, of course.

I would contend that a Reformed sola-scriptura view is not fully compatible with the quadrilateral. The quadrilateral may be a tool that helpfully evokes some of the other voices that augment and influence the way we read the Bible. Still scripture is preeminent, the matter at hand.

Looking back, I’ll now confess that when I taught I was especially hard on the fourth quadrant of the quadrilateral–“experience.” I’d suggest that it was the wide-open barn door that let anything into the debate. Young Steve was probably a bit disdainful of this quadrant as soft, mushy, a bunch of irrational “I feel…” statements that really couldn’t be countered. I think I once referred to it as the “Oprah argument.” Yet I also recognized it was often the only entree point for the marginalized and the outsiders who don’t have the credentials to play in the other three quadrants.

The Incarnation Principle

I’ve come to realize that meeting a person–liking them, trusting them, being familiar with them– is often the most powerful argument, the most dynamic change agent. The young man who changed his mind about women in church leadership as he came to know Sophie. The conservative woman who comes to appreciate and support her gay hairstylist. The young man who meets a gentle, trustworthy police officer. The Democrat who meets a fair and generous Republican. So much of the world that is hoping to meet a merciful, refreshing Christian.

I’ve dubbed it the “incarnation principle.” An encounter in the flesh, knowing a real person, is more compelling than any argument, any scripture passage, any tradition. I might add that the Holy Trinity seems to concur. Jesus’s detractors could have “won” many debates based on scripture and tradition. Still, there was something more truthful about this prophet from Nazareth.

The incarnation principle may look like it is experience or feelings that changed us. But it is more profound and permeating than that.

Sola Scriptura Still?

How I read the Bible has also changed slowly, even if I still want to say I’m about sola-scriptura. But that doesn’t mean lobbing Bible verses at each other like grenades.

In the debate about welcoming LGBTQ persons in the church both sides claim the Bible. The progressive side is often accused of bending scripture to fit their preconceived notions of justice or compassion. Possibly, but no more so than the traditional side is led by misbegotten natural law, unfamiliarity, and their own feelings of ick.

Two or three times in my own Reformed Church in America, we’ve sent small and diverse groups of people off to study and reflect and pray about the place of LGBTQ people in the church. Seemingly each time the incarnation principle worked. Not that every disagreement was overcome, but trust, respect, and the ability to hang together formed in the small group. But in a stuffy college field house filled with 350 delegates for five days (aka General Synod) the accord could not hold. The incarnation principle seems to work on the micro-level but come undone in larger groups. Can it ever sway an assembly, let alone a nation?

Of course, there is a need for serious and rigorous Bible study. But the Bible is never some object that if we just study the original languages enough, if we unravel a bit more about the historical context, we can then extract “the meaning,” like we once might have extracted the liver of a dead frog we were dissecting in tenth grade biology.

There may even be an occasional place to “look at key biblical passages” on any number of controversial topics. Perhaps it gives some lay of the land, some sort of timeworn introduction for college frosh. At the same time, we are conveying such an awful model of how to read scripture–cherry-picking verses, thinking the side with the most verses “wins,” not reading in context, not looking at overarching themes and frameworks.

I’m not ready to place “experience” from the quadrilateral on par with scripture. But that incarnation is the best or most effective way to convey a message, to soften a heart? I’m warming up to this.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • mstair says:

    Really like these insights:
    “I’m not really convinced these sorts of Bible debates do anything, change anyone.”

    “I would contend that a Reformed sola-scriptura view is not fully compatible with the quadrilateral. “
    As a practicing United Methodist I can definitely say … it’s not.

    “sola-scriptura. But that doesn’t mean lobbing Bible verses at each other like grenades.”

    Even the most rigid John MacArthur-sola-scripturian would have to agree in the theological apprehension re: the gulf of non-understanding between the Infinite Creator and the finite creation – that there’s always going to be some mystery remaining in serving an All Encompassing Living God because nothing, even His Word as it is written on finite material/digital light&darkness cannot fully explain Him.

    Your “incarnation principle” ; The Holy Spirit ministering between and amongst us presents and reveals insights to the mysteries of Our faith.

    • Jeff Carpenter says:

      Thank you both, Steve for the powerful, enlightening, and encouraging article, and “mstair” for your reply, adding the mystery and the connection of the H.S. with the incarnation principle. Also, I had never encountered the JWesley quadrant; my immediate thought is that throughout life and experience, those quadrants don’t remain equilateral, but take turns to swell and diminish, throwing the others out of balance—if balance among the four is the desired thing. Raised a fundamentalist Baptist, converted (?) to Reformed via college/marriage/assimilation, I have observed the shifts and interplays among the four quadrants in my life as growth, less a struggle. Thanks again—

  • Allan Janssen says:

    I think it was Phillips Brooks who coined the phrase “truth through personality” when talking about preachers.

  • Wonderful (as usual). Thank you.

  • Nicely said. Rings true for me too.

  • Johannus Sociologicus says:

    Gordon Allport‘S contact hypothesis isn’t exactly your incarnation principle, but it feels like it lives in the same neighborhood. Here’s a link:

  • RLG says:

    Hey Steve, I think you are onto something. Your idea could be a college course, even a Christian college course, called, “How to Present a Convincing Argument” or “How to Win an Argument.” Certainly this “incarnation principle” could be at the center of a Christian apologetics course. We can win our arguments and debates by being nice and compassionate. Showing a little empathy goes a long way to softening hearts.

    But you are right, that such an approach doesn’t have a great effect with large groups. This incarnation principle’s effectiveness is seen especially one on one. With larger groups you need to appeal to facts, unless you have the charisma of a cult leader. So at Synod the appeal will be to Scripture and who can present the most convincing argument from Scripture.

    For Christians, the appeal will be to the Bible (sola scriptura) and to Muslims, the appeal will be to the Koran (sola scriptura). All religions believe their Scriptures are divinely inspired. So the appeal to the Bible works only among Christians and is less than convincing to those outside of the Christian religion.

    To those outside of Christian circles or even religious circles, the appeal will be to common sense and reason. Women in leadership makes common sense, in spite of what you try to make the Bible say. Maybe, Steve, you should add common sense to your incarnation principle for a winning argument. Thanks for the article.

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