When messengers from churches of the Southern Baptist Convention assemble in New Orleans for their annual meeting this week, they will consider an appeal from Saddleback Church of California to reverse its expulsion over the ordination of female ministers. (See the helpful primer and follow-up articles by Mark Wingfield).
Last week, Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback, wrote an open letter to SBC churches. In his missive, Warren advocates for theological diversity among SBC churches that are united in a shared mission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Although Warren sees collaboration despite theological differences as fundamental to the identity of the SBC, recent history betrays that doctrinal purity is what matters.
Women and the Baptist Faith and Message 2000
The debate over women in leadership relates directly to theological commitments on the biblical texts. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 begins with an entry on “The Scriptures” (“God” is the second entry). This initial section names the Bible as “a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.”
The sixth entry, “The Church,” elucidates the roles of leadership based on the scriptural texts. Take, for instance, the following statement: The church’s “scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” The BFM 2000 cites a series of texts that limit female leadership in support of these claims.
Before going further, I should state that I am not an impartial critic on the matter of women in leadership (as no one on any topic ever is). My spouse is an ordained minister. I attend a church led by a female pastor. My doctoral adviser is a woman, and one of the keenest readers of Scripture I know. I have female friends and colleagues who are far superior scholars than I am.
On topics like this, I usually assume no one needs to hear from another white guy. I recently mentioned that sentiment to my pastor and she said, “Well, there are plenty of white guys who reject women as leaders and pastors. Why should we only hear from them?” So, in the spirit of expanding the conversation, I offer the following reflections.
Theological diversity and the Scriptures
The theological diversity for which Warren argues is embedded in the Scriptures themselves. Women appear alongside male disciples in Luke 8:1–3, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and “many others.” In Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:1–41, he quotes the prophet Joel who proclaimed “in the last days” God will pour out God’s Spirit on “all flesh” and “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17). Peter continues to quote affirmingly that God will pour out God’s Spirit “even upon my slaves, both men and women … and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:18).
“The theological diversity for which Warren argues is embedded in the Scriptures themselves.”
As one who writes a good deal on Romans, I suggest we also consider Romans 16. Here Paul sends greetings at the end of the letter. This is the kind of material easily ignored but demanding closer attention.
In verse 1, the apostle commends Phoebe to those in Rome and calls her a “deacon,” one who should be welcomed “as is fitting for the saints,” and a “patron” of Paul and others (16:1) Each of these titles signal Phoebe is a significant leader among the earliest churches.
The reason Paul leads with Phoebe is that she is likely the letter-carrier, but it is also possible she is the one who reads the letter aloud in Rome and entertains the theological questions and concerns of the letter recipients. That means Phoebe, a woman, is the first interpreter, and perhaps first reader, of this famous document.
Paul goes further in Romans 16. In verse 3, he advises those in Rome to “greet Prisca and Aquila” and those who meet “in their house.” Paul names this couple “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I but also all the assemblies of the nations (or gentiles) give thanks.” Note the woman is named first here — a practice that indicates her significance. In 16:6 he notes “Mary, who has worked hard among you,” and calls attention to Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis in 16:12, all females whom Paul claims “labored” in ministry.
Paul also says, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinspeople and my fellow prisoners; they are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me” (16:7). This verse has caused much concern. The issue pertains to the feminine name “Junia” being called an “apostle.” Surely Paul meant “Junias,” a male, some say. There is no way he would call a woman “outstanding among the apostles.” One problem is that the male name “Junias” is unattested in other texts from the ancient world, and thus Paul probably greets another couple, “Andronicus and Junia,” both of whom he regards not just as apostles, but “outstanding among the apostles.”
None of these comments on Romans 16 are in any way novel. I follow many scholars who agree on the important role of Phoebe and others (see especially the helpful introductory chapter in Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s book When In Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul).
Yet these texts do not appear in the citations under “The Church” in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. We could discuss additional texts, as well, but the point is the “perfect treasure of divine instruction” is not univocal; we find differing perspectives in the Scriptures on theology and practice. But it seems the SBC cannot abide diversity of interpretation on this matter; all of it must be thoroughly consistent, and any diversity is understood as “mixture or error.”
Hearing all voices in Scripture
My worry is that the SBC has set up its theological system in such a way that allows some voices to override others. Any tension at all, any diversity of thought or opinion, any alternative voices in the Scriptures means all of it cannot stand. The system must be guarded at all costs — even human costs. It is a tall bar when every historical and theological matter in Scripture must agree without any diversity of perspective or thought.
“My worry is that the SBC has set up its theological system in such a way that allows some voices to override others.”
What is more, forcing the biblical texts into total agreement on every point is simply not an intellectually honest position. It is as if the entire theological apparatus is a house of cards: it is fragile, delicately placed together. So, you must be careful not to upset the house. Don’t shake the table. Don’t breathe too hard in the direction of the cards. And if you remove even one of those cards, the entire thing is going to fall.
There are plenty of texts in the Bible that have been weaponized against fellow human beings, including women. But we need to hear all voices in the Scriptures, including those that affirm and encourage women as leaders. Recognizing texts like Luke 8, Acts 2 or Romans 16 (among others) as essential voices in Scripture threatens to hack away at the pillar of male-only leadership. If anyone desires to adhere to the inerrancy and infallibility of the full witness of the Bible, if “all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy,” then make sure to listen to the full array of voices.
Scott C. Ryan serves as assistant professor of religion and biblical studies at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C.
An open letter to all Southern Baptists | Opinion by Rick Warren
A primer on why Southern Baptists are fighting over women in ministry once again | Analysis by Mark Wingfield