Go Back Further: An Appeal Regarding a Recent Controversy over Women’s Roles in the Church

If you follow the news surrounding the religious community, you may have heard of a recent controversy between Rick Warren and the Saddleback Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention has historically stood against women serving as what they call “teaching pastors,” so when Saddleback appointed women to this position, they were ousted from the national convention. Warren made an appeal to the SBC to reconsider, but a vote on June 14, 2023 upheld the decision. In an interview afterwards, Warren said the following:  

There are people who want to take the SBC backwards. Some people want to take it back to the 1950s. That’s their golden age for the church – the 1950s – when basically white men rule supreme and a woman’s place is in the home and there’s not a whole lot of diversity… There are others who want to take the Southern Baptist back 500 years to the Reformation. OK, fine, I say, I agree with you. Let’s take the church backwards, but you’re just not going back far enough. We need to go back to the first century. The church at its best was the church at its birth; the church at its birth was the church at its best. [1]

Telling people to “go back to the first century” to discover “the church at its best” is something that I do all the time as a Gospel preacher, so it’s incredibly encouraging to hear someone that has Warren’s profile saying that. The problem is that he’s saying it in defense of his church’s practice rather than the practice of the first century church.

In his interview, Warren upheld Saddleback Church’s decision based on two passages of Scripture which he believes have been misused or ignored. First, he discussed 1 Timothy 2:12 and focused on the term “authority.” He claims that since the term isn’t found elsewhere in the Bible, it should be understood in light of its usage in Greek literature. According to Warren, the term originally meant “to murder” or “to murder kin” and thus was something that neither man nor woman should be doing. Second, he said that Peter’s use of Joel’s prophecy in Acts 2:17-18 proves that there were women preaching on the day of Pentecost. In looking at both passages he uses, I’d argue that he needs to follow his own advice and go back further.

Before explaining myself, allow me to address the word “authority” for a moment. While Warren is right in pointing out that the verb translated “to have authority” is found only in that passage in the New Testament, he’s incorrect in saying that the term ought to be understood as referring to murder. While 19th century lexicographers like Joseph Henry Thayer suggested there was an etymological link between this Greek word and another one often translated as murder, lexicographers such as James Moulton and George Milligan debunked this idea as early as 1930. Modern resources such as the widely regarded A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature by Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich don’t even list “to murder” as a possible meaning of the word.

Without questioning the logic of reading Paul here as personally forbidding females from murdering men (as Warren also makes the point in the interview that Paul says “I do not permit” rather than “The Lord does not permit”), I’d suggest that there are two ways Warren and others who view the text as he does need to go back. First, instead of finding an exception in the text through a supposed meaning of “to have authority,” I’d argue he should have just gone back to the verb before it in 1 Timothy 2:12: “to teach.” Is that something that both men and women shouldn’t do “over a man”? Of course not, and yet this is what is being forbidden for women along with “to have authority.” Second, the text itself calls us all to go back all the way to creation to find the authority and reasoning for this instruction. The next verse reads: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Timothy 2:13). Rather than being an instruction rooted in Timothy’s specific ministry as Warren believes it to be, 1 Timothy 2:12 is an instruction rooted in creation.

So, what about Acts 2:17-18? Warren argues this verse proves that there were women who 1) received the gift of tongues in Acts 2:1-4 and 2) were preaching on Pentecost. And yet, once again, if we go backwards in the context of this statement, we’ll see that this simply isn’t the case. Now, to be fair, Warren’s comments in his interview make it clear that he did go back to chapter one and observe that there were women among the disciples described there. However, he overlooks that the chapter concludes with a reference to “Matthias” and “the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:26). The Bible then says, “they were all with one accord in one place” and that “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues” (Acts 2:1, 4). So, who were “they”? Rather than going back to the 120 disciples in Acts 1:15, we should go back to the pronoun’s nearest antecedent in Acts 1:26. The proof of this in Acts 2:14, just before the quote from Joel, which says that Peter was standing up “with the eleven,” i.e., the apostles of Acts 1:26.

Joel also said that the Spirit would be poured out “on all flesh” just before he said it would be poured out upon daughters and maidservants (Acts 2:17). While “all flesh,” i.e., Jews, Gentiles, women, men, young and old, slave and free, would eventually benefit from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s power, there’s no contextual reason to believe that this happened in Acts 2:1-4 or that representatives of all these kinds of people were preachers alongside the Apostles. Further, it stands to reason that the Spirit’s power would have to be used in keeping with the Spirit’s inspired instructions. As we’ve already seen, Paul, writing the commandments of the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:37), delivered by inspiration of the Holy Spirit the prohibition against women teaching over a mixed assembly in 1 Timothy 2:12.

Going back to the church of the first century is a wonderful goal; Rick Warren had it absolutely right when he said, “The church at its best was the church at its birth; the church at its birth was the church at its best.” However, I want to make this plea both to him and to all others in closing: To find that first century church, let’s go back in time, to a time long before the Saddleback Church or the Southern Baptist Convention was created or even conceived. Let’s go back to the pages of the Bible, and in doing so, let’s examine statements in the light of their full context. And, when God allows us to see His reasoning for certain instructions as He does through Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12-13, let’s back away from the temptation to view those instructions as arising from other considerations.

While it’s an incredibly difficult message in today’s world, neither Acts 2:17 nor 1 Timothy 2:12 nor any other Bible passage provides justification for “women pastors” or women as preachers or teachers in public, mixed gender settings. May God give Christians the strength to fully embrace this countercultural truth alongside of all the truths that laid the foundation for the first century church.  
-Patrick Swayne  
[1] The full interview is currently hosted on Rick Warren’s YouTube channel and can be found here: https://youtu.be/m9Y8wP2VTvU






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