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Can broad and narrow complementarians coexist in the SBC?

Tom Schreiner is a world class New Testament scholar who has published extensively about complementarianism and egalitarianism. He’s also a Southern Baptist pastor with decades of experience in church ministry. Today, he weighed-in on the intramural debate that Southern Baptists are having about women preaching. I think what he argues here really gets to the heart of the issue. Schreiner writes:

Some complementarians read 1 Tim 2.12 (I don’t allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man) to say that women can’t serve as pastors or elders. I agree that the verse means that women can’t serve as elders, pastors, overseers (the same office), and there is a parting of ways with egalitarians here. Complementarians have significant agreement here, and we should rejoice in our agreement.

On the other hand, 1 Tim. 2:12 doesn’t speak directly to eldership but to function, and the command is rooted in God’s good creation (1 Tim 2.13)–in Adam being created before Eve. So I think the function of a woman teaching/preaching scripture in a sermon or a mixed Sunday School class is also prohibited.

Notice that the verse speaks to function directly, not the issue of office. Our view of office is a conclusion we draw from the functions that are disallowed. So, those who allow the function but ban from the office are not heeding, in my opinion, what Paul says. In fact, such a view seems quite inconsistent. Why can a woman engage in the functions without occupying the office? Is that just males holding onto power?

But if Paul disallows the function and the office, his view says something about what it means to be a man and a woman. His view on men and women isn’t nominalism; it accords with the created order. To put it another way: the rule isn’t arbitrary. It reflects a profound understanding of what it means to be male and female.

I taught a Sunday School class for many years when I wasn’t an elder. Because of my teaching I had more authority in practice than some of the elders. That is entirely natural and accords with 1 Tim. 2.12.

Of course good people who are evangelicals disagree! I am not saying that anyone who disagrees with me isn’t a complementarian, even if I am worried about their view and its consequences for the future.

I worked and studied in schools for 17 years where I was a minority as a complementarian. I thank God for evangelical egalitarians! And I thank God for complementarians who I think are slipping a bit. Still, what we do in churches is important, and I don’t want to say it doesn’t matter. It does matter, and I am concerned about the next generation. But we can love those who disagree and rejoice that we believe in the same gospel.

The cultural forces are incredibly strong, and our society in my judgment overemphasizes freedom and equality, and doesn’t value sufficiently authority, obedience, and submission. Are complementarians like me too strong sometimes? Do we make mistakes in how we present our view? Of course! Simul iustus et peccator! But it doesn’t follow from this that the view itself is wrong.

Do we alter our view to fit in or so that others who are our friends will like us? I am not saying all do this who disagree with me! But I know the temptation of my own heart. I want to be liked. It is not fun to say ‘no’ to people.

Since I am throwing things out there, I don’t think it makes sense for women to be present in any regular way at elders’ meeting as advisors, as those who give feedback on the spot to the elders. That reminds me of churches who have elders, but then have an executive board that makes decisions. The cases aren’t exactly the same, but we put in place an extra-biblical structure, which plays a role in making decisions. Having women on such a committee in practice makes them part of the elders in my judgment.

Obviously, there are gray areas, and we can’t or shouldn’t write a Mishnah. But churches have to decide what to do. Either women will preach sometimes on Sundays or they won’t. Either they will be present at elders’ meetings or they won’t. And if a woman can in principle preach in church Sunday morning sometimes, then why not all the time?

Many egalitarians (remember I am a complementarian) would say that allowing such only sometimes is inconsistent. I think egalitarians spot an inconsistency here.

As we think about the implications of Schreiner’s words, it’s important to remember that people can be faithful to The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 (BF&M) while having differences about what contexts might be appropriate or inappropriate for a woman to teach. The fact is that our confessional statement doesn’t address the issue explicitly. The BF&M only addresses the office of pastor, and it says that pastors must be qualified men. That is why you are not hearing me raise this as an issue of cooperation. Southern Baptists are all over the place on this issue because it’s not something we’ve stipulated in the BF&M. Everyone needs to recognize that fact in discussions about this, and the rhetoric needs to reflect that confessional reality.

Having said that, I still believe that it is good for Southern Baptists to debate and discuss the issue. Why? Because the Bible does address the issue explicitly even if the BF&M doesn’t, and our duty before God is to encourage one another to be faithful to scripture as God’s word (Heb. 3:13). These differences matter even if we aren’t going to suspend our cooperation with each other as we work through them. We also need to remind each other of unhealthy cultural forces and the theological trajectories that they precipitate.

I would hope that we can foster a healthy enough environment within the SBC to reason with one another from scripture and even to try and persuade one another about what the scriptures teach. We live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, even those words which are controversial in our particular moment (Matt. 4:4). So let us reason together charitably and in good faith, and let’s be humble enough to let our consciences to be persuaded by scripture.

That is the spirit in which Tom Schreiner offers his comments above. It is also in that spirit that I want to affirm the issues he raises in his thread. First Timothy 2:12 is addressing the functions of a pastor (teaching and exercising authority) and only addresses the office of pastor by way of implication. The office isn’t treated explicitly until 1 Timothy 3 and 5.

In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul prohibits women from two functions—teaching and exercising authority over men. And yet, narrow complementarians1 often argue that it’s only the office of pastor that Paul means to prohibit. The result is that they believe that a woman can do whatever an unordained man can do in the church’s teaching ministry (e.g., Kathy Keller’s view). This view is problematic for two reasons. Not only does it depart from Paul’s actual words, it also makes Paul’s gender-based command seem arbitrary. As Kevin DeYoung has argued:

If men and women are different by creational design, then we can’t simply quarantine “ordination” and say that manhood and womanhood have no bearing on church ministry or church roles so long as the pastors and elders are men. The issue is not mainly titles or labels or the laying on of hands. The issue is about function. To be sure, complementarians may not agree on where to draw all the lines concerning home groups and Sunday school classes and public worship, but as a starting place for these discussions we have to remember we are talking about the flourishing of divine design, not adhering to a set of narrow and seemingly arbitrary rules.

Jonathan Leeman likewise writes:

When churches hesitate to say what distinguishes men and women, God’s explicit precepts for the church and home begin to look arbitrary, even a little embarrassing. You can hear the Sunday school lesson now: “The Bible teaches that women should not be elders, but here’s what I really want you to hear: women can do everything else a man can do.” The tone or subtext is, “No, these commands don’t make a lot of sense because we all know men and women are basically the same. But he is God, sooo…”

The whole enterprise becomes a minimization project. We minimize our created differences and we minimize the reach and significance of what the Bible does explicitly command.

“Minimization” happens whenever narrow complementarians restrict the application to eldership but allow what the apostle forbids in 1 Timothy 2:12. God’s commands are not arbitrary. They align with his design in creation. What is best for us is what aligns with his design for us as male and female. And a part of that design relates to the church’s teaching ministry. Paul grounds his prohibition in that divine design—”For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve” (1 Tim. 2:13). To miss this is not only to miss the point of God’s word. It is also to miss what will advance our own good and flourishing.

Schreiner raises questions that I don’t think the narrow complementarians can answer well:

Why can a woman engage in the functions without occupying the office? Is that just males holding onto power?

If a woman can in principle preach in church Sunday morning sometimes, then why not all the time?

These questions expose weaknesses in the narrow complementarian perspective that will eventually be exploited by those who want to move more fully in the direction of egalitarianism. I am not saying that all “narrow” complementarians are closet egalitarians. I don’t believe that. Nevertheless, I am saying that severing function from office is a weakness in their view whether they acknowledge it or not. The disciples of today’s narrow complementarians will eventually see the inconsistency and will push the boundaries even further toward full blown egalitarianism. It is only a matter of time. When that happens, the boundaries marked out by the BF&M will be in jeopardy.

I love my brothers and sisters in the SBC who are narrow complementarians and who disagree with me about these things. I am challenged by them to think more clearly about how to incorporate gifted women into the ministries of my own church. I am grateful for our unity in the gospel as it is framed in the Baptist Faith & Message. The churches of the SBC will never be monolithic on these issues. There will always be some variability. Nevertheless, my hope and prayer are that we can reason with each other in good faith and perhaps learn and sharpen one another even as we disagree. If we love and care for each other as we ought, then we will be able to do this. I’m confident we can.


1 “Narrow Complementarianism” teaches that headship applies narrowly to ordination and to marriage. “Broad Complementarianism” teaches that headship reflects a comprehensive set of differences between male and female that have broad implications for our lives together in the church, in the home, and in society at large.

The so-called “pastoral accommodation” of homosexuality is actually complete acceptance of it

Some evangelical churches that profess to hold a biblical view of homosexuality are nevertheless accepting practicing homosexuals into membership based on an approach called “pastoral accommodation.” In a recently posted paper, Lee Irons describes this approach and argues against it. Here’s his description of the problem:

With the increasing recognition that same-sex attraction is typically unchosen, evangelicals are wrestling with how to the church ought to treat same-sex attracted Christians. A shift toward greater openness is taking place among some evangelical churches committed to the authority of Scripture as the only infallible rule of doctrine and life. A small but growing number of evangelical pastors and congregations have shifted from holding that same-sex activity is irreconcilable with commitment to Christ, to allowing committed same-sex relationships within their membership.

It remains to be seen how these evangelicals will answer further questions such as whether such relationships can be blessed as a “marriage” by the church and whether such individuals are eligible for ordained office in the church. Progressive evangelical churches could accept them as members, but hold the line there and reject gay ordination and same-sex wedding ceremonies. Presumably, if they wish to remain Bible-believing evangelicals, they would still want to maintain that same-sex relationships fall short of God’s creation ideal for sexuality and cannot be called “marriage” as the Bible defines it—a male-female one-flesh union. They would thus be pastorally accommodating same-sex relationships rather than treating them as true marriages fully blessed by God and endorsed by the church.

Irons then provides a solid exposition of 1 Corinthians 5-6 and argues that Paul’s instructions there do not allow any sort of “pastoral accommodation” of homosexual practice. He concludes:

At the end of the day, pastoral accommodation appears to be an unstable half-way house. It cannot last long. The logical endpoint is an affirming stance that views these unions as equivalent to real marriage, that is, as bestowing a mantle of moral legitimacy on same-sex relations just as real marriage does on opposite-sex relations. Pastoral accommodation, in spite of its claim to be an evangelical position that respects Scripture, recasts the traditional sexual ethic and inevitably redefines marriage itself.

Irons is absolutely correct about this. There is no “in-between” approach to this issue. A church will either affirm the Bible’s sexual ethic or deny it. And its affirmation or denial of scripture will be born out in who they allow to be members, who they discipline (or don’t discipline), and who they allow to the Lord’s Table. Churches will have to make a decision about this issue one way or they other. There is no middle ground. The ground of “pastoral accommodation” is quicksand.

Read the rest of Irons’ paper here: “Pastoral Accommodation of Same-Sex Relationships: A Critique in Light of 1 Corinthians 5–6.”

Why it is important not to conflate prophecy and teaching in discussions about women preaching

In evangelical debates over women in ministry, two biblical texts have always stood as a prima facie obstacle to the egalitarian view:

1 Timothy 2:12 “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.”
1 Corinthians 14:34 “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.”

At first blush, these two texts seem to settle the matter in favor of the complementarian position. After all, this is the sense adopted in the vast majority of English translations. How could they all be wrong? Clearly Paul does not intend for women to be teaching/preaching within the church, right?

Egalitarians have marshaled a variety of exegetical arguments against this prima facie reading. They argue that, despite appearances, Paul doesn’t really mean to shut down women from exercising their teaching/preaching gifts in the gathered assembly. Egalitarians point out that Paul clearly understood women to be gifted teachers (e.g., Acts 18:26; Titus 2:3). Moreover, the very same book that enjoins female silence also allows for women to prophesy to the entire church (1 Corinthians 11:5). These female prophets—along with their Old Testament counterparts like Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah—demonstrate that whatever Paul means in 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34, he can’t mean to impose a universal ban on women teaching men. He must mean something else. Continue Reading →

Albert Mohler answers: “Should women preach in church?”

Albert Mohler weighs-in to current conversations about roles of women and men in ministry. In this episode of “Ask Anything Live,” he answers three key questions:

  • “Should women preach in church?”
  • “What is the progression from rejecting biblical teaching about women to accepting LGBTQ revolution?”
  • “Can a woman serve as president of the Southern Baptist Convention?”

He answers the first and third questions with a “no.” He says, “If you look at the denominations where women do the preaching, they’re also the denominations where people do the leaving.”

On the second question, he outlines the progression as we have seen it historically in the mainlines. The hermeneutic that leads one to affirm female ordination will usually lead one to affirm LGBTQ identities.

This is a really helpful contribution from Dr. Mohler, and I encourage you to listen to it.

Should churches allow women to preach to men?

Yesterday, Owen Strachan weighed-in on a long-standing conversation evangelicals have been having about the role of women in ministry. Strachan addresses in particular an intra-complementarian debate about whether women should preach to the gathered congregation. This particular angle is occasioned by recent remarks from Southern Baptist women indicating that they plan to be preaching Sunday morning worship services on Mother’s Day. Strachan concludes:

Women should not preach or offer public teaching in the gathered worship service in local churches. The call to local church leadership is not dependent upon gifting or talent; it is based on the creation order of almighty God. For a woman to teach and preach to adult men is to defy God’s Word and God’s design.

On other side of this particular dispute are not those who self-identify as egalitarian but as complementarian. One popular expression of this view appears in Kathy Keller’s short book Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry (Zondervan 2012). Keller makes the case that while women should not be ordained as elders, they should be allowed to do “anything that an unordained man is allowed to do” (p. 21). In this case, that means that if an unordained man is allowed to preach to the entire church, then so should a woman. If an unordained man is allowed to lead other men in the church, then so should a woman. The key issue is ordination, which is restricted to men. Keller writes: Continue Reading →

All Flesh Is Like Grass

I received news of Rachel Held Evans’ death on Saturday morning. Ironically, I was sitting in a session of our CBMW west coast conference when the text came from my wife. We had been praying for Rachel and her family for the last couple weeks. Nevertheless, I was stunned. Immediately after receiving the news and before the next session was to begin, we led the entire CBMW conference in prayer for Rachel’s husband and children. 

The news really was a punch in the gut for me. Rachel and I never met each other in person, but we were not strangers. The New York Times obituary includes these lines:

Ms. Evans fearlessly challenged traditional authority structures, which were often conservative and male. She would spar with evangelical men on Twitter, brazenly and publicly challenging their views of everything from human sexuality to politics to Biblical inerrancy.

That was us. We had countless online interactions and debates over the years. I did a search Saturday night on my twitter feed and read through some of the old threads. I had forgotten about so many of them. They were direct and concerned fundamental issues of the faith. We were often at loggerheads. Continue Reading →

What the Gospel Is

Evangelicals sometimes have ways of speaking and communicating that actually leave out crucial aspects of the gospel. Perhaps the following scenario will be familiar to you.

A parent comes to me and says, “Pastor, my 8-year old child wants to meet with you about getting baptized.” We agree to meet, I sit down with the parent and with the child, and I say, “Johnny, why do you want to get baptized?” He replies, “Because I don’t want to go to hell.” I clarify, “Yes, but Johnny, getting baptized doesn’t save you. You have to accept Jesus into your heart in order to be saved.” Johnny askes, “How do I do that?” I reply, “All you have to do is ask Him to forgive you of your sins, and then ask Him to come into your heart.” And so we kneel and pray, and Johnny asks Jesus to forgive him of his sins and to come and live in his heart. We make arrangements for his baptism on the very next Sunday, and all’s well that ends well, right?

Wrong. What do I fail to mention in my “gospel” presentation to Johnny? I never mentioned anything about the death and resurrection of Jesus, and neither did Johnny. Perhaps I was assuming that he already understood all that. But that is precisely the problem. We cannot make assumptions that people know the gospel—especially the part about the death and resurrection of Jesus for sinners. If you leave that out, you are leaving out the very thing that Paul says is of “first importance” in his gospel preaching. You would be leaving out the part of the message that actually accomplishes our salvation. Continue Reading →

Critical Theory, Social Justice, and Christianity: Are They Compatible?

Neil Shenvi is a scientist with a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry from Berkley, but in recent years he has become a budding Christian apologist. He is a member of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina (where JD Greear is pastor) and has been putting out some really insightful, accessible material critiquing critical theory and social justice.

At a conference earlier this year, he delivered a message titled “Critical Theory, Social Justice, and Christianity: Are They Compatible?” Shenvi shows that critical theory (along with its larger social justice project) is an alternative worldview that is incompatible with Christianity. It is really well done, thorough, and devastating to the claims of critical theory. Continue Reading →

The Innermost Meaning of the Cross

“But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.”
-Isaiah 53:10

“God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation in His blood through faith, in order to demonstrate His righteousness.”
-Romans 3:25

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us– for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’”
-Galatians 3:13 Continue Reading →

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