A post is making its way around my circles of Christian conservatism, and I’ve had many friends concerned by it. It’s titled Women Preaching: It’s Not a Secondary Doctrinal Issue. My response is not intended to be a defense of women preaching. My conviction is that a woman can hold the church office of a deacon but not of an elder/overseer. I hope instead to show how the author violated good principles of Biblical interpretation and convinced a troubling number of readers of her point. Poor interpretation of Scripture is certainly not just a liberal problem. And all of those who submit to the authority of Scripture should take that very, very seriously.
The author says this:
Since the publication of Dr. Mohler’s article (and perhaps as a result of others teaching the same thing) the idea of the violation of 1 Timothy 2:12 being a “secondary doctrine” has spread in a most unhelpful way, leading many Christians to treat the issue in a c’est la vie, “We can just agree to disagree on this,” manner.
No, we cannot.
We would not say, “We can agree to disagree,” on lying or adultery or homosexuality or abortion, and we cannot say it about women preaching, teaching men, or holding unbiblical authority, either.
Here, the author equates Paul’s instructions in I Tim. 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet,” with the Ten Commandments. But there are multiple problems with her approach. First, by writing this article which has been shared and approved by numerous men on the internet, she is violating her own reasoning. She is not remaining quiet. Now, why do good Bible interpreters not extrapolate from I Tim. 2:12 that women can’t write instructional content on the internet? Because we look at other instructions in Scripture that give clarity to this. Women were regularly named as prophetesses in Scripture. The first woman was created as an ezer/helper in the image of God. And Paul himself allowed for women speaking in church services in I Cor. 11:5. The vast majority of conservative, reformed Christians regularly mitigate Paul’s instructions on women, whether we realize it or not. When we use other Scripture, and not human reasoning, to do this, we are doing responsible Bible interpretation. The Bible is the best commentary on itself, and don’t let anyone guilt you away from cross referencing Scripture to better understand an isolated verse.
Second, does the author of the original post believe that women with short hair are sinning in the same way that someone who murders is? I Cor. 11:5-6 says a woman should have her head covered when she prays. Following this author’s line of reasoning, women who pray without their heads covered should be put under church discipline. Before I understood tools for Bible interpretation, I was convicted by I Cor. 11 and grew my hair out since the passage ends by saying a woman’s hair is given her for a covering. But years later, I recognized that the Bible talks about men’s and women’s hair in several passages that give clarity to this one verse. No, you shouldn’t be church disciplined if you pray without your head covered or grow your hair long as a man, but it takes a mature knowledge of Scripture to understand that (see also Deut. 21, Judges 13:5).
[I talk about this a lot in Chapters 7 and 8 of Is the Bible Good for Women?]
Third, the author creates an arbitrary distinction between sin and doctrine. Teaching false doctrine IS sin. Teaching false doctrine IS a behavior. Her reasoning around a secondary doctrine on which we can disagree as opposed to a sin for which we exercise church discipline is fundamentally flawed. We discipline over violations of doctrine all the time (at least in my denomination).
For those who are convicted from Scripture that the office of elder is restricted to qualified men, we have to be honest about why we have that conviction. We also must be discerning with those who disagree with us for Scripturally principled reasons. Do some disagree because they think Christianity as a whole is a misogynous religion? Sure. Do some disagree because they simply don’t want to submit to Scripture? I imagine so. But some disagree because of how they read Galatians 3:28 projected onto I Timothy 2. And though I disagree with their conclusion, I recognize that I and Michelle Lesley, the author of the original post, use I Cor. 11:5 to mitigate I Timothy 2 as well as we both write instructional blogs read by men in the church. Neither she nor I are being particularly silent. And it’s disingenuous to allow for our own teaching while not recognizing the methods of Scriptural interpretation that get us here.
As we put these things together, we recognize why Dr. Mohler was right to label the ordination of women as a secondary doctrinal issue. If someone pursues female ordination in a denomination in which it is prohibited, then they would be subject to church discipline. But I imagine most would find a denomination in which they could be ordained. To label those who have come to that conviction by principled reasoning from Scripture and submission to their own church denominational structure (I’m thinking particularly of the many thoughtful, submitted Anglicans that I know) as sinning like a murderer, liar, or abortionist is frankly irresponsible. If you have been persuaded by the author’s reasoning, I hope this post gives you some hermeneutical tools to refute it.