Is Affirming Women Pastors a “Made Up Controversy”? A Response to Thabiti Anyabwile

Scott Aniol

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I remember sitting at the 2008 Together for the Gospel Conference listening as Thabiti Anyabwile persuasively argued that there is only one race. I heard a few people after question his point, but it immediately struck me as biblically correct and an important corrective to ethnic tensions. Here’s how the T4G website describes Thabiti’s sermon:

The majority of people have identities and lives that have been based on assumption regarding the notion of “race.” We need to change toward a more biblical theology of ethnicity. First of all, it is important to define terms and use them properly, especially “race” versus “ethnicity.” The Christian needs to understand man’s unity in Adam, union with Christ and unity in the church.

My how Thabiti has changed since then.

Like so many high profile figures in evangelicalism, Thabiti jumped on the woke bandwagon in the wake of the Treyvon Martin and Michael Brown shootings. Instead of rejecting the world’s attempt to center identity in ethnicity and a false view of race, Thabiti wholly succumbed to the inherent divisiveness of critical race theory with its goal of building up the “oppressed” by tearing down “whites.” In a tweet on March 28, 2018, Thabiti wrote,

Don’t know how I can be more explicit than “repent of whiteness.”

A month later, he was demanding that “Whites” repent of murdering Martin Luther King, Jr., claiming that black Christians need to “affirm their ethnic selves,” and insisting that “we need a woke church.” Notice how drastically he shifted from his 2008 T4G sermon.

Here’s the thing: if you compromise with worldly ideology on one issue, other issues are soon to follow.

If you compromise with worldly ideology on one issue, other issues are soon to follow.

And so, it is not surprising that Thabiti has also shifted on the issue of gender and pastoral ministry.

Like with the issue of race, Thabiti once strongly condemned the notion of women pastors. In an August 27, 2007 article addressing the practice of a husband and wife co-pastoring, Thabiti wrote,

This approach to ministry is bankrupt because it is so consistently contrary to God’s blueprint. The couples approaching the ministry this way are placing themselves in spiritually precarious situations, and the churches they “pastor” are toeing a cliff as well. It is obvious, but it bears stating: we desperately need churches reformed according to the word of God.

And, like with the issue of race, about ten years later Thabiti signaled a shift as the winds of doctrine swirled around him. On May 3, 2018, Thabiti wrote an open letter to Beth Moore, who infamously preaches to men, promising to promote her personally.

More recently, comments Thabiti made at a Jude 3 Project gathering (apparently with women “pastors” in attendance) demonstrated a continued shift. Tom Buck tweeted a video of the comments on January 20:

In encouraging people to stay in churches with good pastors, Thabiti says,

You probably need to stay and support that pastor. Because that pastor right now, if he needs anything, or she needs anything, it’s courage and encouragement.

When challenged by Tom and Owen Strachan, Thabiti replied,

You clowns out here ravaging the Lord’s church with made up controversies and the slander of faithful Christians.

Thabiti later insisted that while male leadership is practiced in his church,

I am *not* a misogynistic, culture-warring ‘pastor’ who thinks women preaching and pastoring is ‘a gospel issue.’

Is Female Eldership1I will use pastor, elder, and overseer to refer to the same office, just as Scripture does. a “Gospel Issue”?

Now my point is not to trace Thabiti’s theological transformation per se, though those denying a liberal drift in broader evangelicalism and the SBC specifically should take note; nor is my point to rehash a recent Twitter exchange.

Rather, I’d like to examine two claims made by Thabiti in this exchange—assumptions that, if left unchallenged, will only continue to contribute to the drift.

The claims are (a) that this is a “made up controversy” and (b) that women preaching and pastoring is not a “gospel issue.” Essentially, these claims add up to the same thing—affirming female pastors is no big deal.

And, by the way, my intent is not to offer up a thorough defense of male-only eldership (though as I’ll suggest below, it doesn’t take much to offer one). I’m addressing these assumptions because they are made by one who claims to practice male-only eldership himself, and yet he still thinks concern over female pastors is a “made up controversy.”

First and Second Order Doctrines

First, let’s define some terms. Often when discussing different levels of biblical doctrine, people will use the terms “first order doctrine” and “second order doctrine.” A first order doctrine is one in which, if you change or remove the doctrine, you lose Christianity altogether. Doctrines like the trinity, the deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, and Christ’s bodily resurrection would fall into that category. Second order doctrines are important, but are not essential to Christianity itself.

When using such categories, I would quickly affirm that male-only eldership is not a first order doctrine—it does not fundamentally change the nature of Christianity.

However, it is important to recognizes (as I argue here) that just because something is a second order doctrine does not mean it is unimportant; nor does it mean that disagreements over the doctrine shouldn’t limit cooperation among Christians. Since the center of Christian unity is the whole counsel of God, all doctrine matters and affects levels of cooperation to one degree or another.

But this leads to another point: even errors in second order doctrines can harm the gospel.

Even errors in second order doctrines can harm the gospel.

This is how I would define a “gospel issue.” Ironically, I think Thabiti would agree. After insisting that women pastoring is not a gospel issue, he defends the claim by insisting,

There has not been one theologically evangelical woman in pastoral ministry who has ever been a threat to the gospel, a threat to my household, a threat to my church, or an attacker and opponent on this bird app. Not one.

In other words, a gospel issue is one in which errors in such issues could threaten the gospel.

Do Women Pastors Threaten the Gospel?

This leads, then, to the next logical question: Does error in the second order doctrine of pastoral qualifications threaten the gospel?

I agree with the T4G Affirmations and Denials (and, I assume, 2008 Thabiti). After clearly affirming that “the teaching office of the Church is assigned only to those men who are called of God in fulfillment of the biblical teachings,” the statement says,

We … deny that any Church can confuse these issues without damaging its witness to the Gospel.

Again, male eldership is not the gospel, and male eldership is not essential to the nature of Christianity. A woman claiming to be a pastor can be a Christian, and it is possible for true Christians to attend churches with women in that role.

But female eldership threatens the gospel for the following reasons:

1. Female eldership undermines the authority and clarity of Scripture.

A plain, straightforward reading of 1 Timothy 2:12 is abundantly clear:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

To take that text and somehow come to the conclusion that women can teach and exercise authority over men requires a level of exegetical, historical, and logical gymnastics that undermines the clarity and authority of Scripture. Some passages of Scripture are difficult to interpret—this is not one of them.

If there is any interpretive question from this verse, it is whether it prohibits women from teaching men in any case (which some believe) or only pastoral teaching (which others believe). Yet anywhere on that interpretive spectrum one might fall, pastoral teaching is forbidden.

I am as strong a Baptist as they come, but I’d say that this text prohibiting women from pastoral teaching is more explicitly clear than any single text that supports believer baptism.

Yes, I know there are dozens of respected evangelical scholars who have “scholarly” interpretations of this passage that allow women to pastor. But any time “scholarship” contradicts a plain reading of the text of Scripture, the “scholarship” is suspect.

“Scholarship” gave us denial of six-day creation, denial of a worldwide flood, denial of miracles, and denial of Christ’s resurrection.

I’m a PhD—I value scholarship when it helps to add clarity to a biblical, theological, philosophical, or historical issue. But when scholarship undermines the normal Christian’s confidence that he (or she) can simply open the Bible and understand what it says, we have lost the clarity of Scripture.

And if we can’t trust the plain reading of one Bible verse, can we trust any of it? Can we trust the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin? Maybe the word just meant “young woman.” Can we trust the claim that Jesus died in our place and rose victorious over sin? Can we trust that those who put their faith in Christ will be forgiven? Maybe there’s a more scholarly interpretation of those texts.

When scholarship undermines the normal Christian’s confidence that he (or she) can simply open the Bible and understand what it says, we have lost the clarity of Scripture.

2. Female eldership undermines the created order.

This, I believe, is the point of 1 Timothy 2:13–14:

For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

This verse is not an indictment or belittlement of women—it is actually an indictment on Adam’s failure to lead as God intended.

God intended for men to lead. He created Adam first, and then he created Eve out of Adam to be a helper suitable for him. Adam was complicit in Eve’s transgression because he did not fulfill his God-ordained responsibility to lead, allowing the serpent to tempt Eve rather than stepping in as her protector.

When women take leadership in the church, by definition men are not fulfilling their God-ordained responsibility, and the conditions for the original transgression are repeated.

And when men don’t stand and lead—when they sit by the sideline and shirk their God-given role as leader, defender, protector, pastor, and teacher, attacks against the gospel remain undefended, the church weakens, and the serpent wins again.

When men don’t stand and lead—when they sit by the sideline and shirk their God-given role as leader, defender, protector, pastor, and teacher, attacks against the gospel remain undefended, the church weakens, and the serpent wins again.

3. Female eldership submits the church to the spirit of the age.

While it is true that female pastors have appeared now and then through the course of church history, there has never been widespread acceptance of the practice until after the rise of secular feminism. “We are more enlightened today,” someone might claim. “Paul was a misogynist, and we’re simply updating for modern sensibilities.”

But to assume that post-feminist thinking regarding gender roles is more enlightened is begging the question. It is submitting Scripture’s teachings to the spirit of the age—what the world considers enlightened thinking.

In other words, there is nothing in the text of Scripture—or even, for sake of argument, in the historical/cultural context of Paul’s day—that would naturally lead to any conclusion other than that God through Paul forbade women from serving in the pastoral teaching office, and that this applies today with just as much authority as it did when he wrote it. It requires imposing upon the text egalitarian presuppositions derived from post-feminist secular philosophy to interpret the text any differently.

If we are willing to subject the text of Scripture to secular presuppositions, then where will we stop? What’s to stop us from subjecting the gospel to ideologies that will harm it?

Made Up Controversy?

So, made up controversy? I think not. To affirm women pastors undermines confidence in Scripture, weakens God-ordained male leadership, and bows to the spirit of the age.

And that is something that needs to be soundly defeated.

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1 I will use pastor, elder, and overseer to refer to the same office, just as Scripture does.
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Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.