Recently there has been a lot of talk about the importance of focusing on the church’s mission. That’s good as far as it goes—we’ve been given a mission by Jesus to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19), and so we ought to continually commit to that mission and find ways to join with others as we seek to fulfill that mission together.
However, the specific talk about the importance of mission I’m referring to comes from Rick Warren. In light of his personal change of view regarding women pastors and Saddleback church ordaining women to pastoral ministry and being disfellowshiped by the SBC, Warren is on his own mission to convince the SBC not to divide over something so “secondary” to the mission as women preachers. As he stated in his now infamous speech on the floor of the SBC last year, “Are we going to keep bickering about secondary issues, or are we going to keep the main thing the main thing? We need to finish the task, and that will make God smile.”
“From the start,” Warren argued in a recent open letter, “our unity has always been based on a common mission, not a common confession.”
So should we focus on our mission instead of “bickering” over a secondary issue like women pastors?
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 recognize 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 in our mission.
Jesus himself made this clear when he prayed to his Father for unity among his followers “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21). The unity of Christians does help us to accomplish our mission.
However, what is also clear from Jesus’s prayer, and what Warren is ignoring, is that this unity is not without boundaries. Jesus himself says that the unity of his followers will be sanctified by the truth of his Word (Jn 17:17). Christian unity is not, as many practice today, a minimization of doctrine so that we can all get along and reach the world. On the contrary, our unity that will reach the world is based on being distinct from the world and set apart by the truth of the Word.
What this means, then, is that there is a boundary around Christian unity. There can be no unity with those who do not believe the gospel; Christian fellowship is impossible with those who deny the fundamentals of the gospel, including the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, and justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. This is what John emphasized in his second epistle, when he wrote, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 Jn 1:10). The gospel is the boundary of Christian unity.
Over the last fifteen years or so, conservative evangelicals have talked a lot about the gospel as the center of Christian unity—it is what brings us together; it is what we unite around. All other doctrinal issues should be set aside, they say, in order for us to be unified around what is really important—the gospel.
But this thinking actually has it backward. Contrary to these popular evangelical movements, the gospel is not the center of Christian unity; the gospel is the boundary of Christian unity. The gospel does unify believers, but it does so in that it separates us from those who do not believe the gospel.
The center of Christian unity is the truth of God’s Word—all of it. The gospel is the boundary of Christian unity, but the center of Christian unity is the whole counsel of God, all of the truth contained in his inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient Word.
All of God’s truth matters; all of God’s truth affects Christian unity to one degree or another. The Christian faith is more than just the gospel—it is the whole counsel of God. Doctrinal matters beyond the fundamentals of the gospel like baptism, ecclesiology, hermeneutics, eschatology, and so much more are secondary to the gospel—they’re not the boundary—but they are important and affect the degree to which we can unify and cooperate with other Christians.
In other words, Christian unity necessarily has two levels: unity within the boundary of the gospel, and unity centered on other important biblical doctrines and practices. The more agreement I have with someone in these other matters, the more unity I can have with him. Conversely, just because I might affirm that someone is a Christian who is inside the boundary of the gospel does not mean that I will be able to unify with him on every level. Disagreements over other “secondary” doctrines necessarily affect levels of Christian unity and cooperation, especially church planting and church membership.
Levels of Christian Unity
True Christian unity can be achieved only by the truth of God’s Word, within the boundaries of gospel essentials, and centered in the whole council of God. Minimization of any of God’s truth inevitably leads to the erosion of doctrine and the ultimate dissolution of true Christian unity.
Therefore, 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.
This is how I would define a “gospel issue.” 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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
Bickering about Secondary Issues?
To affirm women pastors undermines confidence in Scripture, weakens God-ordained male leadership, and bows to the spirit of the age.
And that harms our mission.