The Biblical Mandate for Women Preaching
Updated: Mar 16
Last week on Tuesday (2/21/2023) the Executive Committee of the SBC approved a recommendation from the credentials committee to dis-fellowship Saddleback Church. The committee’s action was not regarding accusations that arose last summer against Andy Wood for abusive intimidation toward church staff. This action was regarding his wife Stacie Wood being a “teaching pastor.”
Confessions: I love the SBC and am fully engaged in cooperating with it locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally for the work of the gospel. I am for the credentials committee as a tool to thwart ministry predators, prohibit heresy, and manage ecclesiastical cooperation. I am no fan of the ministry of Rick Warren. I believe his Purpose Driven Church was one of the worst things to happen to the 20th-century church. On the other hand, I have also found his Celebrate Recovery to be a very helpful tool.
For me, last week’s action by the executive committee is problematic on many levels, not the least is that it elevates a secondary issue to primary status and is inconsistent with SBC behavior and practice.
Unlike the biblical offices of elder and bishop found in the Epistles, the term pastor, unless referring to Jesus, with only one exception, is a verb denoting action, not a noun designating title.
Jesus is appointed to ‘shepherd his people Israel.” Jesus asked Peter to “shepherd his sheep.” Peter exhorted the elders to “shepherd the flock of God” so that when the “Chief Shepherd” appeared they would be rewarded. And, in the one noun case, Paul told the Ephesians that Jesus gave the church “shepherds to equip the saints.”
The polity most commonly implied in the New Testament was one of multiple elders—no one elder being in authority over the others but each being one among equals. Historically this was the polity of many Southern Baptist Churches and was taught by its first president. However, in the early 20th century SBC churches moved away from this form to a more pragmatic one of the local church being led by a single “pastor” and deacons. This progression can be seen in the 3 versions of the BF&M, and I believe partially contributes to our current denominational (for lack of a better word) disagreement. Compare:
1925 “Its Scriptural officers are bishops, or elders, and deacons.”
1963 “Its Scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.”
2000 “Its Scriptural officers are pastor and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of the pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Last week’s action was based upon a strict and legal application of this one point of the 2000 BF&M by the credentials and Executive committees, that the office of pastor is limited only to men.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with someone being called ‘pastor,’ I am. But to infuse this word with biblical weight that it does not carry is less than accurate. Yet, I accept that we have chosen to use it this way, and doing so is not a violation of scripture any more than using the term Trinity.
I wonder (with tongue in cheek) does this mean that although women can’t be pastors, they could be elders and bishops? As they say in social media, “asking for a friend.”
The argumentative response to my humor will be, “Pastors and elders are different terms used for the same office.” I agree, but the BF&M 2000 doesn’t say this. It says the officers of the church are “pastors and deacons” and male exclusivity is pastor specific. It does not limit the office of deacon to men and there is no mention at all of elders or bishops.
In Baptist life a broad brush has been used to gloss over this whole subject matter resulting in this unspoken consensus: “Only men can be pastors, elders, bishops, deacons, teachers of adults, or preach.”
Now here is where I could lose friends, or at least a degree of respect among some friends who have elevated this point to an essential of the faith.
I want to say something but please hear me out before passing judgment. “The highlighted statement above in its entirety is unbiblical and contrary to scripture.”
I want to particularly address the idea that the Bible forbids women from preaching. My disagreement with this may cause some to think that I am no longer a conservative, which would be untrue. Others might distance themselves from me for fear of guilt by association. I get it.
The reflex of one-dimensional thinking is to conclude that if someone takes a position on any of the many social/theological/moral issues of the day, by virtue of that position, they must therefore of necessity be in the same camp regarding all other social/theological/moral issues. This is what has happened regarding women preaching. “They are liberal, so they are for women preaching, they are conservative, so they are against women preaching.”
Let’s not be one-dimensional. The question is not whether one is liberal or conservative, complementarian, or egalitarian. What does the Bible teach without contradiction? That is the question. Rather than loyalty and alignment with personalities, peer groups, and parties, we should make the conscious decision to honestly address each issue based on its own merits from the Bible.
So, is the act of women preaching a violation of scripture? Two passages are often cited to support this conclusion. The first is in 1 Corinthians.
The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. (1 Cor. 14:34-35 NAU)
If this passage is interpreted in a vacuum without the whole of scripture, including the historical record of Acts, one could conclude, “women must not speak in the church.” Those are the exact words in the isolated text, and in some SBC circles, this is the interpretation. But in all honesty, we only apply this interpretation in regard to women preaching, no one is shushing women in the seats or foyer.
However, if you step away from the micro text you can see in the larger context that this is a letter written to a church in Corinth—a reestablished Roman colony which as such was quite diverse ethnically and linguistically.
Worship of that day would have included either a sermon or the reading of a letter from Paul or some other apostle. It would have most likely been in the popular language largely understood by those involved in business day to day. However, mothers particularly, who by necessity stayed at home, would not have been as familiar with that language, and at best certain popular or idiomatic expressions could have seemed nonsensical.
Imagine a room with people who want to know more about Jesus and the work of redemption. From time to time as the minister spoke of “things that were hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16) the level of inquiry in the minds of the listeners would have incrementally increased. If everyone started asking questions for clarity the result would have been a confusing cacophony of questions and as such the worship would have descended into chaos. (Which apparently was a problem in Corinth.)
In the same way that attendees at graduations are encouraged to hold their applause until the end as a way of maintaining order, Paul says, "wait until you get home to ask your questions."
Additionally, this text cannot possibly be a prohibition against women preaching because that interpretation would be in direct conflict with 1 Cor. 11:5 where Paul gives instructions for how women are supposed to present themselves when preaching.
The passage in 1 Corinthians is not about the subjugation or silencing of women but rather an appeal for order in worship.
The second text often cited as a prohibition against women preaching is found in 1 Timothy.
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. (1 Tim. 2:11-12 NAU)
Paul is writing to Timothy who, at that time, was an elder in the church at Ephesus. We know from the book of Acts that the main religion of the city of Ephesus was the female cult of Artemas (Diana). One in which women dominated, all the priests were women and only women.
One of the challenges Paul faced in spreading the gospel into the pagan world was that new converts often brought elements from their former pagan religious experiences into Christianity. In the church of Corinth, one of those past experiences was the practice of ecstatic utterances or languages. This is mainly what Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians 14.
In Ephesus, this challenge came from the female-dominated religion of Artemas. Past practice, if we are not careful, can direct present behavior. So, Paul writes to Timothy, for him to remind the church in Ephesus to remember that the worship of Christ is different from the worship of Artemas.
Women, like men, must submit to God’s instruction, and practice mutual submission toward one another.
In verse 12 Paul is not establishing the authority of men over women but instead warning them against bringing pagan idolatrous practices from their former religion into Christianity. Paul is reiterating that Christianity is different, women do not have authority over men. The ground at the foot of the cross, and in the body of Christ, is level.
This passage in 1 Timothy is not a prohibition against women preaching but a warning against gender domination.
In Paul’s writings, he is continually emphasizing the reality of two genders and the uniqueness of each without differing valuations. A common thread that runs throughout his letters is that this distinctness should be maintained.
In 1 Timothy Paul speaks specifically to men that they should pray without anger and in 1 Corinthians maintain the cultural distinctiveness of uncovering their heads. Regarding women, Paul writes in 1 Timothy that they are to dress in a way that identifies them in their culture as women. In 1 Corinthians he adds that they should avoid looking like the temple prostitutes. Gender specificity and appropriateness are important to Paul.
Gender is not a non-issue. It is in fact, the issue. God in His sovereign wisdom and will has intentionally made us unique. Women bring gifts and perspectives to preaching which are very different from the gifts and perspectives that men bring. However, both are essential to the spreading of the gospel. This is exactly why the Great Commission to “preach the gospel” and “teach all nations” is given to every believer, everywhere, not just one age, one ethnicity, or one gender.
Jesus chose 12 disciples, and they were all men. Some would cite this and say, “see only men.” I would propose that the choice of only men as disciples was of necessity to accomplish a very specific mission in a very specific cultural and religious context. In the same way, Jesus not choosing women for this role was equally necessary for a specific mission in a very specific cultural and religious context.
Before the resurrection of Christ women were seen as a second-class, non-threatening citizenry. In times of conflict, women could still come and go without much fear, almost invisible to the political and military authorities. This served the cause of Christ well.
At the crucifixion of Jesus, all the disciples ran away and hid because of fear. They were Jesus’ disciples and they were men and therefore seen as a threat.
Guess who didn’t have to run away and hide? Guess who was free to come and go and therefore were the first ones at the tomb? The women were the first to see the resurrected Christ and because of this, they were given the wonderful privilege of carrying the good news to the disciples.
God made and used both men and women in specific ways to accomplish His work and He now sends us both to preach the gospel and make disciples.
Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila, explained the way of God more accurately to Apollos. In Romans 16, Paul calls Junia an apostle. In Luke 2:36 Anna is called a prophetess. In Acts 2:17 we are reminded that our “sons and daughters shall prophesy.” In Acts 9:2 Paul was arresting “any found belonging to the way, both men and women” because in the New Testament church men and women were seen as leaders in the Christian community and therefore viewed as a threat.
Either we believe in a literal non-contradictory interpretation of scripture, or we don’t—which is it?
By the way, as Southern Baptists, what did we think that Elizabeth Elliot, Anne Graham Lotz, Fanny Crosby, Elizabeth Prentiss, Lottie Moon, and Annie Armstrong were doing all this time.
Jesus’ command to teach and preach the gospel is simply a command to be obeyed by everyone, in every place, and at every time. How dare we moderate the commands of our Savior and limit His influence on the earth!