Why we need room for a variety of positions on women in the SBC
The discussion began as many contemporary theological discussions do: a back-and-forth on Twitter.
Owen Strachan, Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary tweeted the following:
The essay would probably have passed without much notice if it hadn’t been for two references made by Strachan: he essentially said two Southern Baptist Convention heavy-hitters were out of step with the Bible. He called out Beth Moore and JD Greear by name — Moore for preaching in her SBC church on Mother’s Day and Greear for allowing Elyse Fitzpatrick to be interviewed from the platform during a recent worship service at his church — Summit Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. In his mind, this crossed a theological/Scriptural line.
I don’t follow Strachan on Twitter but became aware of this because I *do* follow Beth Moore. (Disclaimer: She lives nearby and was a consistent source of encouragement to our church after we were flooded by Hurricane Harvey.) She tweeted this response to Strachan, and it popped up in my timeline:
What’s the problem? Strachan (and many in SBC leadership) hold an interpretation of the Bible in which women cannot preach to men or teach men. This position is on one end of the spectrum of a theological position called complementarianism — in which men and women hold complementary positions in church and home. The point of contention, however, is that Moore attends a church that is also complementarian — just in a way that is “softer” than that which Strachan teaches. And so, once a year, the elders of the church ask Moore to preach to the congregation on Sunday mornings — on Mother’s Day. Given Moore’s vast following and ministry of history, this might seem like a no-brainer to many. But to strict complementarians, this is tantamount to heresy, or, at least, to egalitarianism — a doctrine denies the complementary roles of men and women.
Hence the disagreement.
In this (far too long, yet not nearly long enough) essay, I want to explain why, simply put, the SBC needs to make room for “soft” complementarian churches. The reasoning is straightforward — the Bible can reasonably be interpreted as such, and the SBC is a denomination that values the Scripture. Neither Moore nor Greear are heretics, and to cast them as such is unproductive and divisive.
So how would a “soft” complementarian church read the Bible? Let’s jump in:
I. The Big Picture
The Bible begins with a Garden. In the Garden men and women are created both in the image of God. Adam is created first, and then Eve — from his side. The choice of creating Eve from Adam’s side demonstrates that she is an equal, not one to be domineered. Additionally, when Eve is created, she is called an ezer (typically translated as “helper” in English). The term ezer is used 21 times throughout the Bible, and the term is always used as an individual that provides vital help or rescue. Point being: Eve is not merely a helper in raising children at her creation, as there are are no children at this point in the biblical narrative. She is instead one that is — if the term ezer is used here as in the rest of the Bible — essential to the success of Adam. Will this include child raising? Yes, of course. But is it limited to such activity? Nothing in the text explicitly says so.
Before the Fall, Adam and Eve are the complementary image of God demonstrating different aspects of God’s character — but this is not yet tied to children, as they are not introduced into the world until after the Fall. The command to multiply was given before the Fall. Childbearing is not evil; it is part of the original command. But it is important to note that Eve is part of the subduing command, as well. This is the task of the ezer, as well. In other words, in the Paradise-like setting of the Garden, women are given a divine mandate to cultivate creation, to be part of subduing creation, hand-in-hand with Adam.
The Bible ends with the Heavenly City — the new Heaven and the new Earth. And, as best we can tell from reading, the women are part of the work of the Heavenly City in its glorifying the Lamb on the throne, but also of doing the eternal task of making Heaven more and more glorious — apparently the eternal vision of the ezer role here. Women are part of the Heavenly Throng mentioned in Revelation, and they are not eternally married, at least not to an earthly husband, instead, they are the Bride of Christ into eternity. As Jesus says in Mathew 22:30, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” This is important, for it means that the eternal purpose of women is not to be a childbearer (a la Mormonism), but is instead to be the ezer, the one helping in the subduing of creation — albeit now the New Earth — in the increase of the glory of the Lamb.
If the role of women before the Fall and after the return of Christ is to be that of ezer, carrying out the divine mandate of filling the world with the glory of the Lord, then it makes sense that women in the church are to do the same thing. They are, after all, living in the space between Garden and City, and the curse of the Fall has been broken by the blood of Jesus. Part of that broken curse is the picture given in marriage. Ephesians 5 asks men to love their wives as Jesus loved the church (willing to die), and women to submit to this sacrificial love. This is, as the end of Ephesians 4 says, a way that they submit to one another. More ezer idea is present here; women are helping increase the glory of God in the picture of the love that Jesus has for the church in marriage.
This, however, is not a universal application. Not every woman is married. The New Testament extols the virtue of women who pursue singleness for the sake of serving Christ. Consequently, the role of ezer may include marriage and childrearing, but it cannot be limited exclusively to marriage.
Scripture seems to teach that the big picture of women is to live the role of ezer in the church as they will do so in Heaven. Of course there are many aspects of life in the church that do not exist in Heaven (sex, childbearing, marriage), but the trajectory is more or less clear — the life of the Garden is deeply similar to the life in the Heavenly City, and both of those lives are lives lived under the ideal and perfect rule of Jesus. Here and now, we as believers are to attempt to live that life. And, as best we can tell, men and women will be doing this together, not in a master/subservient relationship, but in an ezer relationship. This matters, because if we attempt to embody this relationship in the church as a merely subservient one, then we are not being faithful to the big picture of the Scripture — one of helper in the Garden and co-laborer in the Heavenly City. So we must read all texts through that ezer lens.
To my knowledge, nothing I’ve said thus far is controversial. Moore — and others like her — would be on strong biblical footing thus far.
II. Jesus and Women
When we examine the way Jesus responded to women in his day, he certainly was not one to push women into a lesser class, but instead to lift them to places of respect. Examples abound in the gospels. With the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus commissions one who has a somewhat scandalous reputation to become an evangelist for her village. With the woman caught in adultery (historical textual issues notwithstanding), Jesus brings dignity to a woman who had been found guilty of a moral crime and publicly shamed. With Mary and Martha, Jesus allows Mary to assume the position of a disciple, sitting at his feet rather than chiding her for not assuming household duties. With the sinful woman who washes his feet and/or anoints his head (depending on your gospel harmony), Jesus does not reject her touch and care but accepts it. With the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, Jesus allowed this “unclean” person to touch him. With Mary at the tomb, Jesus commissions her to proclaim the resurrection to the apostles. Women were part of his entourage and his supporters.
Bottom line: Jesus elevated and valued women as disciples.
However, when it came time to appoint apostles, Jesus only appointed men. There were Twelve, and they were all male. Why? I couldn’t say definitively, but it’s worthy of mention. Perhaps it was because of cultural issues. Some have hypothesized that female members of The Twelve would have cost Jesus credibility. Or perhaps there are sex/gender issues that Jesus was teaching and reinforcing by appointing only men to The Twelve. Hard to know for certain. If we are to do the text justice, we must notice that when Jesus appointed those in his inner circle, those who would be at the forefront of the creation of churches and the spread of the faith in Jesus on the worldwide scale, he appointed men.
So Jesus elevated women but also held certain positions for men. Women are valued as ezer, but there seems to be some limitation with regard to the role of The Twelve, although the reasons are not clear.
Again, nothing I’ve said so far would be controversial — at least not in SBC circles. While there is debate about the practical application of what it means that Jesus chose only men for The Twelve, there is no serious disagreement here. Women are elevated, but some practices are reserved for men.
III. The Early Church and Women
In the days after the Resurrection, as the church was formed, the New Testament is clear — women were integral. Women were the ones to discover the empty tomb, and, therefore, the first to preach the gospel. We read that Philip’s daughters prophesied. We read that the Spirit falling at Pentecost was a fulfillment of Joel’s prediction that sons and daughters would prophesy. We read that, in Christ, there is neither male nor female — there are no categories of salvation in Jesus. We read that Phoebe is a diakonos of the church — a word usually translated as “deacon.” We read that Junia is “highly esteemed among the apostles,” which means that either a) Junia was a woman highly respected by the apostles or, b) that Junia was a woman who was a highly respected apostle (but not one of the Twelve). We read that Lydia hosted a church in her home. We read that Priscilla helped disciple Apollos — a popular early Christian teacher.
Bottom line: women were gifted and allowed to use those gifts in the early church.
As with Jesus, there appear to be some limitations in the New Testament with regard to women. As best we can tell from Titus: the role of presbuteros (elder/bishop/overseer) was reserved for men. Again, women are valued, but, again, there seems to be some sort of limitation (here the role of presbuteros), and, again, the reasons are not entirely clear. Strachan would argue that this positional limitation is an outworking of the divine created order — men first, then women. Perhaps. But, at least with regard to Titus, this is not made explicit in the text.
Again, women are elevated, valued, and looked at as partners (ezers?) in ministry.
IV. Two Other Important New Testament Texts
Thus far we have looked at the vast majority of texts regarding women in the church. We have seen that — repeatedly and with emphasis — women are elevated to a position of respect and ministry in line with gifting. They are valued in the Garden; they are valued in Heaven; and that value is not limited simply to a ministry in the home. This is important to note, for there are two texts in the New Testament that stand out with a seemingly different voice. Perhaps they sound different because of our modern sensibilities. Or perhaps we lack context. Nevertheless, they are in Scripture, so Baptists must grapple with these two passages — albeit in light of what has been seen thus far.
This is not the place to give a full-blown exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:11-ff., or 1 Corinthians 14:33–34, but they are essential to this discussion.
Both 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians contain sections where Paul says that women are to be silent in the church. Some, like Strachan, take this to mean that a woman cannot preach to men under any circumstance. Others, however, see these texts differently. Without going into all of the interpretive issues at play, it is worth noting that neither text is as simple as it seems on the surface.
In 1 Timothy the interpretive issues are aplenty: the word for “authority” (authentain) is often a term used in ancient Greek literature for the withholding of sex, seeming to indicate that this could be a specific woman acting in a manner unbecoming the gospel and her husband, not a universal command to all women in all churches. Additionally, there is no definite article before “woman” when Paul makes this statement, meaning in the original Koine Greek it could be translated to say “a” woman, but it could also be translated to read “this” woman. Either is grammatically correct in Koine Greek. Further, there is a change in singular/plural referring to women in one section and then later, it seems, just one woman. There is enough there to at least cause an interpreter pause. This is all after Paul says, “I do not allow…” to begin this passage. Is Paul talking of a specific limitation that he personally places that is not intended to be universal? Or should his personal commands be taken as such, like when he says, “I want men everywhere to lift holy hands in prayer,” (1 Tim 2:8)? There are plenty of interpretive opinions on this passage by both strict and soft complementarians, but, to my knowledge, none of them are attempts to undermine the Bible. To the contrary, they want to take the Bible seriously and apply it to their churches. They have simply come to different conclusions.
Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 14 we do read that women are to learn in silence. But we also read that women can prophesy. How to reconcile those two? Some have argued (i.e., Lucy Peppiatt) that Paul is employing an ancient rhetorical device — quoting his opposition and then stating his opinion immediately thereafter in order to prove his opposition wrong. This is difficult to decipher, since there are no quotation marks in Koine Greek. Others, like NT Wright, have said that women were so excited to have the privilege to learn that they were being disruptive in worship, leading Paul to command them to be silent while others were speaking and to wait until returning home to ask questions. Both of these interpretations, for example, are held by individuals attempting to take the text seriously, and both would allow women to teach/preach men while simultaneously making sense of the command for women to be silent.
Bottom line here: both texts seem to place some sort of limitation on women, but to say that this is a clear “open and shut” case meaning that women cannot preach is, in my opinion, either intellectually dishonest or painfully ignorant, particularly when read in light of the preponderance of other New Testament texts regarding women. There are so many interpretive issues in both of these passages that it only makes sense that a group taking the Bible seriously would provide room for there to be disagreement about how best to interpret. To be sure, one could take all of these interpretive difficulties and still conclude that women are not to preach, like Strachan and the strict complementarians do, but to argue this interpretation must become normative and prescriptive on other churches is a stretch. These “soft” complementarian churches are not undermining the text. They are grappling with the text in good faith and are reaching different conclusions than Strachan. I believe this is what Baptists do — they disagree, yet they choose to cooperate.
So, can Strachan, in good conscience make his argument? Certainly. It is an argument that has been made by many others before him, and I am certain many others will make the same argument into the future. But can Strachan use this argument to force the churches Moore and Greear are part of into conformity where no female ever speaks on a Sunday morning to their entire church? I don’t think so.
Why? Because the preponderance of the texts we have seen thus far are immensely liberating for women in the ancient near East. Women are elevated in the Garden, in the Heavenly City, by Jesus, and in the roles of the early church. So, yes, it may mean that women cannot teach because of created order — but that is not the only way to read these texts, and we must be careful to say that good people who love the Lord Jesus and his church might disagree over how best to apply these texts. Some might think that they are to be read in such a way that women can, indeed, teach and preach to men. And I think that is a reasonable way to read those texts.
To put it simply: If “soft” complementarians cannot read and apply the Scripture on an issue that is secondary or tertiary without fear of being publicly reprimanded, then the SBC has a much larger issue at hand than women preachers.
The vast majority of biblical texts are about valuing, elevating, and employing the gifting of women in their role of ezer — period. Any texts that are used to push against that overarching biblical perspective, must do so with clear interpretation and explanation.
Further: The Southern Baptist Convention, while broadly complementarian in its theology and practice, has commissioned women to preach and lead at times. Lottie Moon, arguably the most famous Southern Baptist of all time, was the first SBC missionary to China. What did she do there? Did she only talk to women? Obviously not. Certainly, she preached, and she certainly preached to men. We know because Moon said so. “I hope you won’t think me desperately unfeminine,” she wrote, “but I spoke to them all, men, women and children, pleading with them to turn…to the true and living God.”
If the preaching of Moon was sinful, then the entire Convention was complicit in sin, and, if so, we remain unrepentant, as we have an annual offering for International Missions named after her. This practice remains common today — women are often commissioned by the SBC to help start churches in other nations, and I know that many of them preach on Sundays.
Personally, I have always been a member of SBC churches, and, along the way I have seen women speak from the platform. I have seen them preach. I have seen them teach men. It did not happen often, but it did happen, much like Moore preaching at her church on Mother’s Day. These churches were not unhealthy, nor were they unbiblical, nor is Moore’s church unhealthy or unbiblical. The churches where I was a member during these episodes were active members of the SBC. The SBC did (and still does) receive their funds for their ministries. Even the SBC’s own doctrinal statement does not explicitly state that women cannot preach, simply that the role of pastor is reserved for men. Most SBC pastors I know interpret this to be Lead Pastors, not all staff members. And, for those who are unaware, the SBC is a denomination built on voluntary cooperation around a broad theological statement and a passion for sharing the gospel. There has always been some doctrinal disagreement in the SBC on secondary and tertiary issues. And the SBC has thrived with the arrangement. In short, this issue is not — as some would have you believe — a shortcut on the slippery slope to theological liberalism. Additionally, it is not a path to declaring that women and men do not have differences, in my opinion, as the roles of elder continue to be reserved for men in the New Testament. It is simply a way where Baptists have a tent large enough for disagreement. Strachan does not have to “capitulate,” as he puts it. But he should not expect others to do so, either.
In other words, to interpret these passages to definitively (without qualm) say that women cannot preach in any circumstances would be a reading that would overlook a number of churches who have been — and continue to be — good faith, cooperating SBC churches. Again, such a reading is not a necessarily incorrect way to interpret these texts, but it is, in my opinion, impossible to say that these texts must be read as such. There is room for disagreement here without compromising the gospel.
This is an issue where we would do well to be charitable rather than dogmatic. We see roles that seem to be reserved for men, and yet we also see women elevated and using their gifts in the life of the church. It is not always completely easy to decipher. It certainly is not so cut and dried that one could say Beth Moore and JD Greear are in the wrong to allow women to preach and teach in a manner their elders have deemed biblical and appropriate, particularly when their lives bear clear witness to the gospel and Scriptural fidelity.
This is, in my opinion, one of those issues where the church must be willing to cooperate with those who are different and who are reading the text within the boundaries of orthodoxy and doing so in good faith.
That is, after all, when the SBC is at her best.
I hope that Strachan — and those like him — will see that and will choose to accept them, even if there is disagreement.
It seems counterproductive to argue against a gifted woman using her gifts under the direction of her elders. It seems counterproductive to argue against the SBC President using a careful method of teaching using women. She has a history of faithful ministry. He has demonstrated great faithfulness and leadership. Let Moore use her gifts; let her elders interpret and apply Scripture in their church, and let us continue to cooperate for the greater good of spreading the gospel. Let Greear do the same. They are not undermining the Bible. To the contrary, they are working diligently to honor it.