Rick Warren has done it now, if you listen to some of the current leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention. While I appreciate much of what current president J.D. Greear has tried to do to guide the SBC through the pandemic and the many politically tumultuous issues that have occurred in the past year, I do not support Greear’s view that Saddleback Church’s ordination of three women pastors is “disappointing,” because Scripture “clearly reserves the office of pastor . . . for qualified men.” Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and candidate for SBC President in 2021, sees this action as going against the “codified . . . convictional issues” of the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000, which he calls a “clear” statement several times in his blog. I do not doubt he considers it clear, since he was its primary architect (according to a 2000 letter I received from Adrian Rogers, the BFM chair, directing me to Mohler when I asked why the criterion of faith statement had been removed). Another presidential candidate, Mike Stone, says SBC churches do not have to adhere to every point of the BFM (2000), but he does support removing the SBC’s second largest congregation from the convention because of this issue. It appears Stone views the ordination of women as a doctrine of the first order, on par with denial of the triunity of God or the deity of Jesus.

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These men appeal to the Bible for the view that men only may hold the title of pastor, primarily 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Mohler connects this issue to 1) liberal theology, 2) liberation theology, 3) “second wave” feminism, and 4) LGBTQ issues, assuming that one or more of these underlies the motives of any Baptist who, though holding a high view of Scripture, comes away with a different reading of the text. While Mohler is clearly driven by a cultural war mentality prevalent in many sectors of American Evangelical Christianity, Greear seems more open to engagement with contemporary culture in his blog and position paper. Yet both Mohler and Greear come to similar views, making a distinction between “minister” (which both men and women can hold as a title) and “pastor” (which may only apply to men). They do not mean only the “senior pastor,” as Mohler articulates in his blog (saying that is an unbiblical term). They mean that a woman may be called a “youth minister” but not a “youth pastor.” The latter implies “authority” while the former indicates you are “under” some elder or pastor’s direction. In Greear’s position paper, he creates non-biblical categories of “general teaching” and “special teaching” (which he also calls “elder teaching”). Women can do the first with both men and women present, but they cannot do the latter. For instance, the position paper says women cannot preach the “weekend sermon” because that implies the woman’s speech “functionally acts with the authority of an elder.” (Interestingly, the paper cites Lottie Moon’s work in China to men and women positively but assumes it was not “preaching” or “elder teaching.” This is strange when Kevin Howard on SBC Voices stands against Moon’s teaching men as part of her mission work in China.) Mohler completely dismisses any Christian who wrestles with the whole of Scripture when he thinks his selected proof-texts settle the issue. “Simply put, the only way to affirm women serving in the pastoral role is to reject the authority and sufficiency of biblical texts such as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2.”

This is disingenuous. Its black and white approach ignores the multicolored world of Baptist life. The Baptist Standard noted that some Southern Baptist churches clearly had a different perspective on women preaching from the pulpit. It noted Anne Graham Lotz spoke at Second Baptist, Houston, the SBC’s largest congregation. (Billy Graham called his daughter “the best preacher I’ve ever heard,” not son Franklin.) Beth Moore and Kay Warren preached at other SBC churches on Mother’s Day.

Baptist scholar E. Earle Ellis, deceased professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and renowned in his day as a premier New Testament scholar, argued 1 Corinthians 14 was not about all women but was narrowly focused on the wife of a husband when both were prophets within the congregation (The Making of the New Testament Documents). Ellis, a complementarian like Mohler and Greear, noted the injunction for women to be silent is in a chapter on the proper use of gifts within orderly worship and immediately follows instructions to prophets to speak one at a time while the other prophets weigh the prophecy being uttered. Ellis said Paul’s emphasis was that the spirits giving rise to prophecy were “under the control” of the prophets (so they could speak or not speak as appropriate to the situation), and this applied to a wife “weighing in” on the prophetic speech of her husband. If the husband stood to prophesy, the wife should not speak in public regarding her husband’s prophecy, whether for or against its authenticity, as part of her official ministry to test the spirits (a role she was expected to play with any other member of the community and which sounds surprisingly like “elder teaching” which Greear says women should not do). In other words, she shouldn’t create a public spectacle by disagreeing (perhaps out of an emotional flareup about a pre-service disagreement on some other matter, according to Ellis’s in-class commentary) nor should she attest to the truth of his prophecy (when it could be planned collusion somewhat akin to the Ananias and Sapphira story, again based on Ellis’s in-class commentary). Ellis viewed 1 Timothy 2 as a pre-formed tradition based on the 1 Corinthians 14 passage and so applying in the same limited scope. (I personally find the 1 Timothy 2 passage the more problematic one, as there doesn’t seem to be a clear context that provides explanation for his injunction.)

Ellis’s reading of the text is but one of several ways to understand the context for 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 as a temporal prohibition on women’s speech that might not be an eternal mandate or prohibition from the role of pastor. (For example, some see the prohibition as referencing the general lack of educational opportunities for women in the first century. They shouldn’t ask questions during the service but wait and ask in private afterwards. If that were the case, then universal education in twenty-first century America should not create the same barrier for pastoral leadership.)

Now, to the point of this blog’s title. There is the curious status of Phoebe in the letter to the Romans. She is mentioned at the start of the final chapter. Without mentioning her by name, Greear’s position paper takes account of Phoebe’s role as a deacon of Cenchreae in its allowance that women might serve in Summit Church as deacons. But Phoebe is only standing before the Roman church as the letter is first read (and thus in need of introduction to the church within the letter) because she was the letter’s carrier. As Baptist scholar E. Randolph Richards notes in his chapter on Paul’s use of letter carriers (Paul and First-Century Letter Writing), Paul did not consider the role of letter carrier lightly. Whether it was Timothy, Titus, Tychicus–or Phoebe!–the letter carrier was Paul’s envoy to the church. The letter carrier was trained before going in how to perform the letter before the community. (Many scholars prefer the term “perform” to “read” because there would have been rhetorical flourishes intended as one read the text in public.) Once the letter was read, Paul expected the letter carrier to be able to answer any questions about Paul’s meaning within the letter. Do you see the issue that results if Phoebe was the letter carrier? She read the Scripture to the whole congregation–both men and women. She stood in the place of Paul as his representative. She likely did this on the Lord’s Day (during what Greear calls the “weekend sermon” from which women are prohibited in his church). When she answered questions about the letter, she spoke with the authority of Paul himself (using what Greear refers to as “special teaching” or “elder teaching”–speaking with the authority of the elder Paul, one of the four primary leaders of the early Christian movement). She authoritatively taught men and women the truth of the gospel.

So what do you do when one Scripture (Rom 16:1-2) seems to contradict another Scripture (1 Tim 2:12-14)? Many scholars and pastors would say that you have to listen to the arc of the entire biblical narrative. What is the trajectory of the biblical witness? What is the direction toward which it is pointing that would allow continued movement beyond the written text of any specific passage? As Baptist E.Y. Mullins used to say, the Bible didn’t create the community. The Bible came into being within the community (The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression) and the community continues to grow and develop beyond the writings of the Bible but always under its direction. Phoebe (and Priscilla and others) seem to indicate that, while there certainly is a prohibitive statement about wives being quiet in church, there were exceptions to this rule that were setting us on the trajectory that “you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It appears Mohler rejects this Biblical trajectory approach to the Bible, that there can be a hermeneutical arc that points in the direction of a specific position that lies beyond what is literally stated in the text. Mohler asserts, “the Holy Scriptures have not changed and cannot change.” Yet this concept is found within the biblical community itself. (For example, the Jerusalem Council tells Gentiles to avoid meat offered to idols yet Paul later gives some caveats to this prohibition when they do not fall within religious contexts.) Without this arc of biblical narrative premise, how could Baptists develop a doctrine of the sanctity of the unborn? There is not a specific text about abortion. Instead, the sanctity of the unborn is argued as the logical conclusion to a biblical arc of passages affirming the sanctity of life of the born and the sacred mystery of God’s work in the womb.

Mohler labels any attempt to interpret statements like 1 Cor 14 or 1 Tim 2 on the basis of textual or historical contexts “revisionist arguments” and “biblical subversion.” Certainly such condemnations were made of Martin Luther when he re-read the doctrine of justification in a new way and launched the Reformation movement. He also appeals to the long history within the Christian tradition as evidence that ordination of women as pastors is wrong. The same thing was said about the Anabaptists and Baptists when they rejected infant baptism after a millennium of such practice. Baptist and Protestant theology is based on the belief that we are unable to read the text from an omniscient or untainted vantage point, knowing we cannot read without error. This is why the churches of the Reformation are the churches which are always reforming, though our basis of faith must always be the God-breathed Scriptures as we read within the Body of Christ through the empowering work of the Sprit.

To look at the issue from another perspective, why do Greear and Mohler take Paul literally to say that women can never at any time teach or have authority over a man yet they do not take the next injunction literally, that women are only and ever saved through childbearing? Certainly they do not assert such a position (as it would mean single and barren women could not be saved). The point is that we all pick and choose what is “literal” and what is to be interpreted, what to foreground and what to recede into the background. In reality, all Scripture must be interpreted.

It is certainly understandable for Greear, Mohler, and Stone to come to a position that the biblical witness is against women holding the role of pastor. There is a case to be made from the Scripture for that view and history backs it up. It is not acceptable, however, for Mohler or Stone to assert that those who come to a different position automatically do so because they are not committed to the authority of the Bible. This is a complicated issue without as clear a statement within the Bible as some might wish to claim. One thing the New Testament is not ambiguous about, however, is the importance of seeking unity within the Body of Christ. Therefore, we should all be very careful about a desire to incite division between two groups that both seek to honor Christ and to be led by his Spirit simply because each arrives at a different understanding of the same Scripture they both affirm as divinely inspired.

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