This is part 1 of 2 in Andrew Bartlett’s and Terran Williams’ response to the confirmed expulsion of Saddleback Church by the Southern Baptist Convention despite Rick Warren’s plea.

Part 2 is here. Listen to the Holy Post podcast discussion on this article at 32:20 here.

(Image of Rick Warren by SBC Stand)

An Issue of Biblical Authority?

By a large margin, the Southern Baptist Convention is the biggest Protestant denomination in the USA.

In June 2023 the SBC “messengers” (delegates) voted to confirm the expulsion of churches from the Convention for having woman pastors – Fern Creek Baptist Church (a church of modest size in Louisville, Kentucky) and Saddleback Church (of Lake Forest, California, one of the largest churches in the USA).

In the brief debate, Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, forcefully urged the messengers to uphold the expulsions. He asserted that the vote was on “an issue of fundamental biblical authority”, of “biblical commitment”, of “commitment to the Scripture.”

Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback, didn’t see it that way. Like Mohler, he believes in the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. He used to believe, with Mohler, that the Bible placed restrictions on women’s ministry. But when he studied the Bible more carefully, he changed his mind. He saw that his interpretation had been based more on traditional cultural norms than on what the text actually said. He issued an apology on Twitter, expressing his regret that he hadn’t done that careful study 50 years sooner.

That’s like Terran’s own experience in South Africa. Terran helped to build up a church that grew into thousands. His fellow pastors asked him to contribute to a better defense of their restrictions on women’s ministry. He took much time to study Scripture and write up his findings. Like Warren, he changed his mind. He apologized.

In an earlier interview with Russell Moore, Warren explained:

“I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, I do not believe in the inerrancy of your interpretation, nor of mine for that matter. Which is why I have to say I could be wrong. We have to approach Scripture humbly saying, ‘I could be wrong.’ You’ll never hear a fundamentalist say, ‘I could be wrong.’ A conservative Baptist believes in the inerrancy of Scripture; a fundamentalist Baptist believes in inerrancy of their interpretation. That’s a big difference.”

Even hardline complementarians formerly acknowledged this difference. Here are John Piper and Wayne Grudem writing in 1991, in their Preface to Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, about egalitarian, evangelical scholars:

“… these authors differ from secular feminists because they do not reject the Bible’s authority or truthfulness, but rather give new interpretations of the Bible to support their claims. … … by personal commitment to Jesus Christ and by profession of belief in the total truthfulness of Scripture they still identify themselves very clearly with evangelicalism. Their arguments have been detailed, earnest, and persuasive to many Christians.”

Piper and Grudem clearly understood that the difference of view was a question of interpretation. In a chapter headed “Charity, Clarity, and Hope”, they added:

“we [both complementarians and egalitarians] share a common passion … to be obedient to Biblical truth. … … we stand together on the authority of God’s Word, the Bible.”

Mohler must know how Warren sees the issue. It’s not about the authority of Scripture. The authority of Scripture is something they are both agreed on. It’s about a difference of interpretation. So, how did it come about that Mohler urged the messengers to uphold the expulsions on the basis of a myth – that it was an issue of fundamental biblical authority – even though it wasn’t?

Why the Myth?

Why the myth? How was it possible for Mohler to present the issue to the messengers as a question of commitment to the authority of Scripture?

Is Mohler too stupid to know the difference between rejecting the authority of Scripture and disagreeing with someone’s interpretation of Scripture? No, we feel sure it wasn’t stupidity. He’s a learned man.

Was Mohler deliberately lying to the messengers, in order to uphold the status quo? No, we feel sure he didn’t speak deliberate lies. We believe him to be a person of integrity, a genuine brother in Christ.

Believing the best of him, we can only think that this is a case of partisan blindness.

In other words, he is so firmly partisan on the question of women’s ministry, and so sure that he is right, and the people around him are similarly so partisan and so sure, that they suffer from a sort of mental blindness.

If they were to acknowledge that the issue involves only a difference of interpretation, they would be admitting that there is room for differing opinions, which would mean effectively acknowledging that they might be wrong. So, the myth must be maintained that disagreement involves not a mere difference of view but rejection of the Bible.

Mohler’s myth is not new. As long ago as 1992, Randy Stinson and David Kotter (respectively, the then President and Executive Director of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood or CBMW) wrote in the Foreword to Fifty Crucial Questions: An Overview of Central Concerns about Manhood and Womanhood:

“This debate is about whether or not the people of God will submit to the Word of God.”

This is the myth that binds Southern Baptists. It binds them together and it binds them in captivity to restrictions on women’s use of their God-given spiritual gifts.

It binds and also blinds. For anyone outside the partisan bubble, Mohler’s myth is obviously false. But to those within the bubble it appears true.

What rationalizations are offered, which enable people to keep on believing the myth?

In social media comments, the common rationalization is: the Bible is so clear in banning woman pastors that any disagreement with the ban is a disagreement with Scripture.

This common rationalization is a live option only for people who do not know what the Bible text actually says. In most English versions, the term “pastor” appears just once, in Ephesians 4:11, where there is no indication whatever that pastors are only men. 

In the ESV, the term “pastor” does not occur at all, but there are two Bible passages which state qualifications for “overseers” (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). And some people equate “overseers” with “pastors”. But prominent complementarian scholars such as Douglas Moo and Tom Schreiner, who understand New Testament Greek, acknowledge that in the original language the wording of those passages does not clearly exclude women. 

In reality, the restriction on woman pastors depends upon joining the dots of controversial interpretations of several different passages to construct a ban that is nowhere stated plainly.

For those who have some knowledge of the Bible, the myth needs a more scholarly rationalization. They know that the ban is nowhere plainly stated. So, how do they persuade themselves that the real issue is the authority of Scripture rather than a question of interpretation?

The more scholarly rationalization goes like this:

  • There is only one route by which a scholar, who claims to believe in the authority of Scripture, can arrive at the egalitarian conclusion that Scripture allows women to be pastors. That route is to adopt unsound methods of interpretation which have the effect of freeing the reader from any unwanted teaching. So, egalitarian protestations about upholding the authority of Scripture are mere lip-service, rather than reality. 

In Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (2004), Wayne Grudem showed the way. He not only asserted the regular myth that upholding restrictions on women was a watershed issue because it was “a matter of obedience to the Bible” (chapter 1, section 1.5), but he also went further. He devotes a whole chapter to criticizing methods of interpretation used by some egalitarian scholars, especially the so-called “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” and similar approaches, on the grounds that they invalidate the authority of the Bible (chapter 9).

The more scholarly rationalization was articulated with great clarity in 2019, in an article by Colin Smothers (the current Executive Director of CBMW), published by 9Marks: “Is the Slippery Slope Actually Slippery? Egalitarianism and the Open-and-Affirming Position”.1 He argued that there was a slippery slope from “embracing egalitarianism” to “endorsing homosexuality”, and this slippery slope proved the unsoundness of the “hermeneutical method” used by egalitarians:

“At the outset, we should acknowledge that many egalitarians don’t believe the Bible condones homosexuality. But generally speaking, the ability to maintain those commitments is more a function of doctrinal precommitments, not hermeneutics. While defending their position, many egalitarians employ the same hermeneutical method used to affirm same-sex relationships.” [emphasis added]

Smothers discusses methods of interpretation used by egalitarian scholars. He says their common appeal is “cultural trajectory”. He claims that their method-

“ostensibly allows the interpreter to avoid contradicting outright the plain meaning of the text. Instead, the interpreter is able to seal-off the text from contemporary application as a non-binding vestige of patriarchal culture.”

In other words, the original plain meaning of the text is acknowledged, but the methods of egalitarian interpreters enable them say that it is no longer binding

It is easy to see why complementarians are suspicious of cultural-trajectory approaches and regard them as undermining the authority of Scripture. We agree that some of those criticisms are justified. But do those criticisms of some particular scholars actually provide sound support for Mohler’s myth?

They don’t. The reason they don’t is that the case for women’s full ministry stands on Scripture without using any suspect methods of interpretation.

Allow us to explain.

To live under the authority of Scripture usually requires two steps: 

  • Step (1): ascertain what the text originally meant.2Sometimes Step (1) must be modified. It follows from belief in God’s inspiration of Scripture that an early scripture may sometimes be seen, in the light of later scriptures, to have a fuller significance of which the original author may have been unaware. But that possibility does not bear significantly on the present topic of debate.
  • Step (2): ascertain its relevance for today and how it should be applied.

Smothers argues that egalitarian interpreters go wrong at Step (2) when they claim that, because of cultural changes, what was said does not apply today. So, it appears that they are effectively denying the authority of Scripture for the lives of faithful believers.

But Smothers’ rationalization, like the social media claim that Scripture clearly prohibits women pastors, is not soundly based.

While Smothers is correct that some egalitarian scholars have sometimes adopted unsatisfactory cultural-trajectory approaches to interpreting Scripture, he does not address the fact that many have not. Many egalitarian scholars do not “seal-off the text from contemporary application”. On the contrary, they insist on contemporary application. Their main disagreement with complementarians is at Step (1) – they say that complementarians are not perceiving what the text originally meant! To be obedient to Scripture as originally meant requires that women’s ministry be affirmed and enabled today.

This is argued both by Andrew in his book Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts (2019) and by Terran in his book How God Sees Women: The End of Patriarchy (2022). Andrew’s book even contains a detailed explanation of the methods of interpretation which he uses (Appendix 1); they do not include any cultural-trajectory hermeneutics.

Let’s take care not to get confused about the relevance of culture. 

In order to ascertain what the text originally meant, it is often necessary to pay close attention to the culture in which and to which it was written. That helps us to understand the intention, because though the Bible was written for us, it was not written to us. But that is not a cultural-trajectory hermeneutic.

Complementarian interpreters too often overlook that Step (1) is a central part of the discussion. It is central because complementarian scholars tend to adopt a proof-texting approach. That is an approach where verses are taken out of context and, consequently, are interpreted in a sense that the original writer would not have imagined. (For a critique of that approach, see Appendix 6 of Andrew’s book.) For example:

  • In Ephesians 5, Paul does not affirm men as rulers of their wives but subverts that culturally-derived arrangement. That’s what we discover when we pay close attention to the context, to his train of thought and to his actual words. Paul does not say anywhere that husbands ought to exercise authority over their wives. In 1 Corinthians 7, he plainly regards husband and wife as having equal authority. See here.
  • In 1 Timothy 2, Paul is not discussing which sex should exercise authority in the gathered church but is giving Timothy instructions for dealing with some false teachers, as we should see if we start from 1:3 and follow his train of thought and his actual words. The complementarian translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 (“exercise authority”) does not have even one clear example from 1,000 years of Greek literature, from 700 BC to 300 AD, to back it up. There are many more reasons to reject this translation.

But such inconvenient thoughts are not perceived by Al Mohler or the SBC messengers or the CBMW, because they are committed to the great myth, the belief that to disagree with them is to disagree with Scripture itself.

Our brothers and sisters are in grievous bondage to the power of a myth that binds and blinds. May the Lord deliver them.

Part 2 is here. Listen to the Holy Post podcast discussion on this article at 32:20 here.

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