Appointing Women to Preach


            Pressures from the Women’s Liberation Movement have caused churches to change their beliefs and practices.  I find that fact particularly disturbing since most radical feminists could care less about religion—any religion.  The truth is that many of the feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinhem are secular humanists.  Actually Betty Friedan, the mother of modern feminism, has died and is no longer a humanist.  She knows now that God exists.  But, generally speaking, radical feminists are bitter and angry opponents of all patriarchal religion, that is, any religion which honors God as Father and allows only males to be preachers, elders and deacons.  That the Bible teaches these truths has no bearing on most feminists.  They could care less about the teaching of scripture since they attribute women’s oppression to the influence of the Bible.  If you have any doubt of the feminists’ hatred for the Bible, please listen to these brief excerpts from Dr. Kate Millett’s book, Sexual Politics (New York: Avon Books, 1970): “The two leading myths of Western culture are the classical tale of Pandora’s box and the biblical story of the fall” (p. 51).  As you can plainly see, Dr. Millett puts the biblical story of the fall in the same category as the fictional tale of Pandora’s box.  Dr. Millett cannot understand the influence of what she calls the “myth of the fall.”  She expresses puzzlement at its power “over us even in a rationalist era which has long ago given up literal belief in it while maintaining its emotional assent intact” (p.52).  Not all feminists are as bitterly opposed to the Bible as is Dr. Millett, but the majority of the radical feminists seem to be.  So why should churches yield to the pressures of the Women’s Liberation Movement?  Other churches may cave in to feminism, but churches of Christ cannot afford to and by the grace of God will not.  Too much is at stake to compromise the gospel of Jesus Christ.


            Many conservative churches, though as far as I can tell none of the liberal churches, are having conflicts over appointing women to be preachers, elders and deacons.  According to an article in The Tennessean (Friday, May 19, 2000), Southern Baptists are planning to revise their statement of faith “that tells women God does not want them to be pastors.”  One woman preacher expressed sadness at the Southern Baptist’s decision.  She is no t a Southern Baptist because the Southern Baptists would not have her as a preacher.  She said she did not want to be a Southern Baptist anyway.  Mark Caldwell, a Baptist preacher, disagrees with the changes proposed by the Southern Baptist Convention.  His statement is quite revealing.  “Jesus was open to women, women served as deacons in the early church, women early on were very credible witnesses to the resurrection and the gospel.  And they are still credible witnesses, and we’ve experienced that here at Glendale” (p. 1-A).


            There are some serious problems with Mark Caldwell’s observations.  Jesus was certainly open to women, but it was one of the apostles who forbad women to teach over the man (1 Tim. 2:12).  Did Paul understand less about the mind of Christ than Mark Caldwell knows?  How does a preacher harmonize such unreasonable teaching with the Bible’s emphasis on infallibility?  Paul either spoke by the guidance of the Holy Spirit or he did not.  If he did, then his teaching is binding on the church in every age.  If he did not speak as the Holy Spirit gave him utterance, how do we decide when he was being guided by the Holy Spirit?


            Mark Caldwell asserts that women served as deacons in the early church.  It would have been helpful if he had given the passage which teaches that.  I am aware of the verse he probably had in mind, but it does not call Phebe a deacon.  Paul commended Phebe to the church in Rome.  He called her his sister and a “servant of the church in Cenchrea” (Rom. 16:1).  The Revised Standard Version translates the Greek diakonos by the word “deacon.”  The New Revised Version renders the Greek “deaconess.”  But both translations were guided by what the translators thought the text ought to say—not what it actually says.  Romans 16:1 does not call Phebe a deacon or deaconess.  It refers to her as a servant.  The word diakonos appears thirty times in the New Testament.  Do we render all of those appearances by the word “deaconess” or “deacon”?  Paul calls civil rulers ministers of God (Rom. 13:4).  Does that mean the civil rulers were deacons or deaconesses?  There is no justification for translating diakonos as deaconess in Romans 16:1.  It appears to be an attempt to impose one’s theology on the word of God.


            Mark Caldwell says that early on women were very credible witnesses to our Lord’s resurrection and to the gospel.  There is not even the slightest doubt about that, but what does that have to do with having women preachers?  There were five hundred credible witnesses to the Lord’s resurrection (1 Cor. 15:6).  Did all of them become preachers of the gospel?  Some of them may have become preachers, but we have no evidence they did.  Women can still be credible witnesses, but that does not qualify them to become preachers or elders or deacons.  We have to use the scriptures as our guide—not the emotional appeals of individuals.


            Two recent letters to the editor of The Tennessean have discussed the controversy surrounding selecting women as preachers.  The first of these letters was written by Dr. Bill Sherman who calls himself a “retired pastor of the Woodmont Baptist Church” in Nashville.  I normally do not call the names of people who write letters to The Tennessean or to any other newspaper because the letter writers are not usually professionals.  But Dr. Sherman has been an influential leader in the religious community for many years.  So I do not hesitate to refer to this distinguished Nashville leader.


            Dr. Sherman’s letter to the editor of The Tennessean has the title, “Let churches, God choose the pastors.”  Dr. Sherman opposes the Southern Baptist panel that recommended that churches not select women preachers, although he uses the word “pastors.”  He says the panel’s recommendations violate four cherished Baptist beliefs: Competency, autonomy of the local congregation, the priesthood of the believer, and the sole authority in diving calling—God (p. 10-A).  Will you think with me on these four violations of cherished Baptist beliefs?  What I am about to say is not an argument—just an observation.  There are thousands of capable Baptist preachers and millions of other Baptists who vigorously disagree with Dr. Sherman.  But who is right on the topic of women preachers?


            Dr. Sherman explains what he means by competency.  “No human authority can dictate truth, only the Holy Spirit leading in the mind and soul of the believer.  If God calls a woman, are we to place ourselves above the Almighty” (p. 10-A)?  This sounds very pious and reasonable, but it cannot be harmonized with scripture.  The Holy Spirit provides guidance on all things pertaining to life and godliness only through his word.  “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine (or teaching), for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect (or full grown), completely furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  If the scriptures furnish us unto all good works, do they not tell us who is to preach?  Paul by divine inspiration forbids a woman to teach or usurp authority over the man (1 Tim. 2:12).  The Holy Spirit will not violate his will in choosing a woman to preach when he clearly forbids it in the Bible.  If he did choose a woman to preach, he would be the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33).


            Dr. Sherman says that each congregation led by the Holy Spirit decides who should serve as pastor, not a human panel (p. 10-A).  But the Holy Spirit does not violate his own rules and regulations as given in the word of God.  And how would a church know what God wants except through divine revelation?  Is Dr. Sherman saying that God speaks extra-biblically in helping a church select a preacher?  Besides, the preacher is not a pastor, unless he is also an elder of the church.  What if a church wanted to select a preacher who denies the inspiration of the scriptures, the deity of Christ and the virgin birth of Christ, if that church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, should it be allowed to make such a selection without any objection from the Convention?


            Dr. Sherman appeals to the priesthood of all believers to criticize the panel for recommending that women not be able to serve as pastors.  Only the believer who feels called to preach should have the right to make the decision regarding becoming a preachers.  The problem with Dr. Sherman’s rationale is that the Holy Spirit has already made the determination regarding who can preach.  Women are clearly prohibited from preaching when men are present.  No person and no church has the right to make decisions contrary to the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:8-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:33-34.  If they can violate these passages, what prevents them from doing whatever they choose whenever they choose to do it?


            Dr. Sherman says God alone is the authority in who is called.  God will call whom he chooses.  He says that Pentecostals have had women preachers for years and God has used them in a wonderful way (p. 10-A).  God is the final authority regarding who is called to preach.  But he has already decided in his word that women may not teach over men (1 Tim. 2:12).  There should be no wondering about these matters.  God has spoken plainly and emphatically on the subject of women preachers.


            Dr. Sherman says he is not advocating that women should serve as pastors.  Now please listen to this troubling observation.  “For me, the real tragedy in this report is that it denies one of the things which Jesus came to do—give women equal worth, dignity, and value as men.  Will it not be an irony if, in the name of God, the truth of God is violated” (p. 10-A)?  If giving women equal worth, dignity, and value as men means women should be preachers, then how could he live with himself if he did not advocate that women should be preachers?  It is certainly unreasonable from a scriptural viewpoint to deny women’s equal worth with men just because the Bible forbids them to preach or to serve as elders and deacons.


            The second letter to the editor of The Tennessean was written by a woman who identifies herself as “Reverend Susan I. Spieth.”  Her letter has the title, “Baptists should study women in the Bible.”  Does it bother you that any person—male or female—should be so arrogant as to refer to himself or to herself as “reverend?”  It is interesting and disturbing that John Shelby Spong’s latest book, Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2000), includes a section he calls “A Statement of Koinonia.”  He signed the statement “the Right Reverend John Shelby Spong” (p. 447).  Should not the men who claim to lead God’s people be more humble than that?


            The woman who calls herself “Reverend Susan I. Spieth” says it is very disturbing that Baptists continue to find “it necessary to define the limits of a certain group” (p. 18-A).  While there are definite differences between churches of Christ and the Southern Baptist Convention, both we and they believe every church has a right—yea, an obligation—to define the limits of certain groups.  Could any group that calls itself Christian afford to include Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons and Hindus?  Would Susan Spieth fellowship the Ku Klux Klan or any other white supremacist group?  I am not comparing women to radical groups, but I am saying that all churches and other religious groups have some guidelines they have to follow.  And the scriptures specifically forbid a woman to preach or to teach over the man.


            She accuses the Baptists of using a few selective scriptures to defend their position or to attack their opposition.  She says Adrian Rogers calls the Baptists “a people of the book, who recognize no authority for faith and practice but God’s word” (p. 18-A).  Is Spieth arguing that it is illegitimate to use a “few selective scriptures to defend one’s position or to attack one’s opposition?”  How many passages in the Bible require Christians to be in subjection to civil government?  Since there are only a few verses requiring submission to civil government, does that mean we can ignore those passages?  Do we have to count the number of passages dealing with any particular topic before we can take a stand on that topic?  When the Lord speaks—even if he says something only one time—we are to listen and to obey.


            Spieth wonders how the Baptist panel would interpret passages like Romans 16:1.  She says that passage calls Phebe a deacon of the church.  She also says that Paul probably sent the Roman letter by Phebe.  I would be very reluctant to build a doctrine on such scanty information.  I have already explained that there is no evidence Phebe was a deacon.  She was a servant, but not all servants are deacons.  And how did she learn that Phebe delivered the Roman letter to the church in Rome?  That is pure speculation but speculation with a purpose.  She is attempting to justify having women preachers.  I would be ashamed to build a spiritual house with such flimsy material.  Why not build on what is known rather than engaging in endless speculations?

            She attempts to make Junia an apostle.  Paul wrote: “Salute Andronicus, and Junia, my kinsmen, and fellow-prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me” (Rom. 16:7).  Does that verse teach that Junia was an apostle?  I wonder if Spieth has bothered to learn that the name can either be Junia (feminine) or Junias (masculine)?  And does being prominent among the apostles mean Junia was an apostle?  If it could be established that she was an apostle, like Barnabas, she would not have been permitted to preach.  It would have been a violation of 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 and 1 Timothy 2:8-12.


            Spieth affirms that Priscilla because her name is mentioned first was probably a leader in the church.  Priscilla and her husband Aquila are mentioned five times in the New Testament.  Priscilla is listed first two of those times.  Can you imagine a weaker foundation on which to construct one’s beliefs about women preachers?  In the words of Jesus, she is straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel (Mt. 23:24).  But feminists and liberals are accomplished camel-swallowers.


            Spieth mentions Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 as justifying having women preachers.  Just in case you may have forgotten what Paul wrote to the Galatians, I shall read several verses from Galatians 3.  “For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-28).  Is Paul teaching in verse 28 that all distinctions between males and females are removed when they become Christians?  Is he not teaching that all human beings—Jew and Greek, bond and free, male and female—are of equal value?  Can we infer from that truth that all people have the same functions and responsibilities?  If that is what Paul means, we have some serious problems with the inspiration of the scriptures.  Paul commands wives to be in subjection to their husbands and forbids women to preach.  We are all equal in value in God’s sight, but we do not all have the same functions.


            Spieth affirms that what ticked Jesus off more than anything was the “dogmatic interpretation of the scriptures by Pharisees” (p. 18-A).  As a matter of fact, that is not what ticked Jesus off more than anything else.  If it were, why would Jesus tell his own disciples, “All therefore whatsoever the Pharisees bid you observe, that observe and do, but do not after their works: for they say and do not” (Mt. 23:1-3)?  Christ’s major objection to the Pharisees was their hypocrisy—not their dogmatic interpretation.  He also strongly objected to the Pharisees’ adding their tradition to the word of God (Mt. 15:3-9).  But any argument is just as good as any other when one has decided what the scriptures ought to teach and then sets out to find verses which confirm his or her views.  Let us, dear friends, speak only as the word of God speaks.  After all, that word will judge us in the last day.


Winford Claiborne

The International Gospel Hour

P.O. Box 118

Fayetteville, TN 37334