Tag Archives: women in ministry

Finding the Right Hills to Die On: Gavin Ortlund’s Case for Theological Triage

Do you know how to diagnose theological controversy, and treat it well? Author Gavin Ortlund helps us to figure this out.

Wearing masks in church? Vaccinations? What about critical race theory? Racism? QAnon? The Election!! I try to be optimistic, but it seems like Christians have had a lot of opportunities to divide over many different issues in 2021, many of them with theological underpinnings (The challenges of trying to do “online church” for over a year has not helped matters). Finding the right hill(s) to die on is not easy. I have my own story to tell about theological controversy, but it goes back a few years.

However, before I jump into that, I need to issue a disclaimer: It is very tempting, in the face of intractable theological disputes (or political disputes among Christians) to either run off into a corner, and cut yourself off from other people, and double-down on your viewpoint. It is also tempting to try to “church hop,” in order to find another expression of Christian faith that suits you better…. only to find that your new church has a lot of the same problems as your old church did, just framed in a different way.

Yet perhaps the most difficult temptation is to become cynical, and simply get disgusted when theological controversy arises, over a matter that you find to be somewhat trivial, over-hyped, or perhaps destructive, or even downright stupid, but that someone else considers to be super-important. Of course, there is the other side to this: someone ELSE might strongly disagree with YOU, because they think the issue is really super-important, and they find it frustrating that you do not seem to understand the gravity of the issue! After all, the same Jesus who loves the whole world is also the same Jesus who threw the money-changers out of the Temple, challenging the complacent! So, maybe you SHOULD be more concerned about the issue being discussed!!

An extreme example of the temptation to become cynical can be found in Abraham Piper’s recent TikTok videos. Abraham Piper is a son of John Piper, one of evangelicalism’s most well-known pastors. At age 19, Abraham was excommunicated from his church, then tried to return later, only eventually to walk away from the faith. In the meantime, Abraham Piper has since become a multi-millionaire making jigsaw puzzles. He also has a TikTok page, with over 900 thousand followers, (compare that to his famous pastor/father, who has a 1 million Twitter followers) where a number of Abraham’s videos flesh out how he has deconstructed his faith on subjects ranging from “Almost nobody believes in a literal hell,” “If you’ve ever quit a religion, did you become something else?”, “If you still live with evangelical parents,” and “Three times Jesus stole stuff from people.”

Provocative stuff, for sure. But pretty sad in the end.

By the grace of God, I have not gone to such major extremes, with any of these temptations, and I certainly would not encourage them in others. When Christians double-down on their beliefs, or church-hop to get away from other Christians who do not see things exactly the same way, or who walk away completely and give into cynicism, the result is usually bitterness and resentment towards others, and that is never healthy. However, I can see how a lack of honest conversation, preventing people from expressing their questions and doubts in a non-confrontational way, can drive people to go to certain extremes. Finding the right hills to die on is not a very easy thing to figure out. Raising questions and doubts can sound scary when theological controversy surfaces, but they need not prompt conversation partners to automatically go into “freak out” mode when controversy arises. I would like to share my own brief story, and offer a positive resource I have found for working through such difficulties.

Why Splits in Churches and/or Other Christian Fellowships Can Be Nerve-Racking

Perhaps this will sound like a rant, but it is a pet peeve of mine: There are certainly times where Christians do need to separate from church bodies and/or other Christian fellowships, when they have lost their way spiritually or morally, drifting into theological error. However, there are other times when Christians can divide over matters that during the time of crisis seemed all-important and ultra-critical. However, looking back on the controversies months or years later, we realize that such controversies were far too overblown, doing more harm than good.

Here is my story: It was the 1980s and I was a campus leader in my small college Christian fellowship group. The charismatic movement swept through my group and I was caught right in the middle. Two of my dearest friends, who both helped to disciple me, took opposing perspectives in the controversy.

One of them, who later married a wonderful gal I had dated in college, had taken me to a charismatic prayer meeting. For a guy like me, growing up in a liberal mainstream Protestant background, I was dumbfounded when people started to speak in tongues all around me. My friend helped to establish me in having a regular “quiet time” with the Lord, using the Dake Annotated Bible, a popular Pentecostal study Bible in those days (Though I must confess I found myself buried more often in reading Finis Jennings Dake’s notes, as opposed to just focusing on the text of Scripture itself… but that is another topic for another time).

My other friend, who helped to answer a lot of my spiritual questions while I did my laundry, was one of the most passionate defenders of biblical inerrancy… a real stickler for clinging to the text of the Bible. He had been kicked out of a charismatic Bible study, for asking too many questions, and was told never to come back. To say that he “disliked” the “charismatic movement” would be an understatement. He firmly believed that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased to operate after the last of the first century apostles had died. Once the New Testament was completed, the church had no more need for such miraculous gifts. In his mind, speaking in tongues in our modern era has continued to be all about promoting deception in the church.

Both of my friends truly sought to love Jesus, but they had a difficult time getting along with one another. Trying to find common ground between my two friends was like trying to get my dog to get along with another neighbor’s dog. It was exceedingly difficult. And the rancor disturbed our whole fellowship group. Most people simply tried to stay on the sidelines, adopting more of a “stick-your-head-in-the-sand” approach, but that did not go over very well either.

After my friends both graduated from my school, the controversy erupted among the followers my two friends left behind. As a campus Christian leader, I was simultaneously accused of “quenching the Spirit” by one party and of “smuggling charismatic deception” into the group, by another party. Weeks of meeting with people who had gotten their perspectives out of joint eventually produced some good fruit, and many relationships were eventually restored. We got through the crisis, but this was not terribly unlike the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” parties that have divided churches in the era of the coronavirus pandemic.

I really hated being in the middle of this theological controversy, which was also a controversy of different personalities. Nevertheless, theological controversy is just something that Christians, particularly Protestant evangelicals, simply do and have from time to time. The question is how do we navigate such treacherous waters. Trying to figure out which battles to fight and which battles to lay aside requires gaining a lot of wisdom, a process that I must honestly (and personally) admit can be pretty hard to discern.

Gavin Ortlund’s Helpful Resource for Doing Theological Triage

That is why I took a great interest in Gavin Ortlund’s Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, put out by the Gospel Coalition and Crossway books. It is a pretty short yet powerfully succinct book, that elaborates on Al Mohler’s theological triage model, discussed in a previous Veracity blog post. Another helpful resource in this category is Andy Naselli’s and J.D. Crowley’s book on the Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, also reviewed here on Veracity.

Gavin Ortlund outlines, as I would frame it, basically four orders of theological issues, faced by Christians:

  • First rank issues:  These would be theological issues that are “essential to the gospel.” For example, if someone denies the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus, or the necessity of believing that Jesus died for our sins, then these would be issues serious enough for a Christian to leave a church and seek a new fellowship.
  • Second rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).
  • Third rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “important for Christian doctrine (but not essential to the gospel or necessarily urgent for the church.”
  • Fourth rank issues: These would be teachings that are “indifferent (they are theologically unimportant).

The ranking system that Ortlund uses is reasonable enough. The problem comes in trying to figure out what doctrines fit in which ranking. This is where the “triage” part comes in, where being able to diagnose which issues belong in which category requires some wisdom and forethought.

Starting from the bottom up is easiest for me to process. A good example of a fourth rank issue is about where the Apostle Paul wrote his letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians from. My lead pastor holds the view that Paul wrote these letters while in a prison in Rome. This is the predominant view among many scholars as well. But I disagree with my pastor on this one, as I find the case for Paul having been in an Ephesian jail, when writing these letters, as more convincing. But is this dispute weighty enough for me to leave the church? No, of course not. The average Christian probably might yawn, and say, “Who cares?“, and for the most part, they would be right. The theological ramifications involved are in the category of indifferent.

However, there are other issues that are important, but neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church. Like Gavin Ortlund believes, issues such as the age of the earth, and the timing sequence of events surrounding the Second Coming of Jesus, including the nature of millennium, are surely important, but they are neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church.

It is the second rank category that most troubles me. Yes, there are issues that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).” But I find that the category of urgent is far more elusive and slippery than what counts as essential and non-essential. For example, Gavin Ortlund is a credo-baptist, believing that believer’s baptism for adults should be a doctrinal standard for the church, while generally accepting previous receivers of infant baptism as members in his church; that is, infant baptism is “improper, yet valid.”

Ortlund therefore places the nature of baptism in the category of a second rank issue. It is urgent for the church, and it has an impact on how a local church governs itself.

But as someone in an interdenominational church, who values the diversity of different church backgrounds, I am not convinced that baptism necessarily belongs in that second rank category. As I experienced in my college years, I found it valuable to look for common ground, and cling to that, for the sake of the unity of the fellowship, while honoring that a subset of the group, or particular individuals, might hold to one particular perspective rather strongly. To that end, I find it worth it to try to keep the category of second rank issues as small as possible, and move as many issues as possible down into the third rank category. Ideally, I would hope that the second rank category can be squeezed down to basically nothing….However, that is not always practical.

The issue of baptism, to me, can fit within a third rank category, as long as there is a genuine commitment to find common ground. For example, both proponents of credo-baptism (adult believers baptism) and paedo-baptism (infant baptism) can agree that adults can be baptized. So, it surely makes sense that you can have adult, believer’s baptisms in a Sunday morning worship service.

But it is also reasonable NOT to have infant baptism performed during a Sunday morning worship service, lest you disturb the consciences of those credo-baptists, who do not find paedo-baptism to be legitimate. Instead, if someone wants to have their infant child baptized, then why not have a private, at-home service, or part of a small group experience, as long as a pastor is willing to perform such a baptism?

Such a solution sounds acceptable to me, but this may not satisfy the need for clarity that a pastor like Gavin Ortlund would have for a local congregation. Being content with having a “common-ground” solution, with allowances for practices that fit an individual’s or a small group’s consciences, may not satisfy a local church’s desire for consistent doctrine and practice across the entire church fellowship.  There are those for whom a “common-ground” solution would not be good enough, coming across to some as being too restrictive and over-emphasizing conformity, while others would protest that not enough uniformity in church doctrine and practice can lead to other problems in the life of the local church.

The two areas that stick out for me, where this would be most problematic, is in the charismatic movement controversy, as exemplified by the introductory anecdote from my years in college; and in the complementarian/egalitarian controversy, particularly regarding whether or not women should serve as elders in a local church, in terms of governance of the church.

Some local churches do have a commitment to look for “common-ground,” while honoring issues of conscience, whereas other churches will find certain conflicting applications of conscience to be unworkable, in a local church. For example, speaking in tongues in a corporate worship service, in an interdenominational church, is not a workable solution, as that would not be pursuing a “common-ground” approach, though it might be very permissible to allow speaking in tongues in a small group Bible study, in the same church.

The various complexities surrounding the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” debates have taught me over the last year that the quest for unity can often be elusive when dealing with “urgent” matters, where the coronavirus controversies do fit within that second-rank category. Compound all of this with seemingly endless controversies regarding critical race theory and racism on the left, and nutty QAnon conspiracy theorizing on the right, have left many churches struggling for maintaining bonds of fellowship and unity. The craziness of 2020 led apologist Natasha Crain to call this “disagreement fatigue,” and I think that is a good way to put it. Finding “common-ground” is not always easily found.

For example, I know of Christians who refuse to wear masks and/or refuse to get vaccinated, based on some moral principle. They will cite their “freedom in Christ” as a reason why they should follow their conscience on this matter. But if someone is in church leadership, and they hold to this position, they also need to realize that their exercise of freedom is not beneficial to those other believers, whom for whatever reason, are unable to take the vaccine. Such vulnerable persons will likely not feel safe to stay in such a church. If the exercise of someone’s “freedom in Christ,” particularly in leadership, causes another fellow believer in Jesus to feel like the only path they can reasonably take is out the exit of the church door, then that tells me that such a church needs to rethink what it means to truly follow one’s conscience. If there is one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has taught me, is that I have a greater appreciation now for why some churches implement theological triage that includes the value of second-rank categories of controversy.

I just wish we did not have to be so distracted by such second-rank category issues, as I believe they keep us from focusing on fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission, to make disciples of all of the nations. But alas, that is just the nature of things, in our social media driven world today.

Gavin Ortlund has a helpful YouTube channel, where he tries put of lot his theological triage philosophy into practice, by in particular inviting Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox persons into conversations, in an attempt to find common ground with his own Protestant evangelical tradition, and the other major historic Christian faith movements. It is worth taking a look at the Truth Unites channel to see how he does it.

In the following video, Gavin Ortlund applies some of the insights from Finding the Right Hills to Die On to the discussion of the millennium, making the case that the millennium is a third-rank doctrine, and not a first or second-rank doctrine. So, I appreciate Gavin’s graciousness towards others, even in areas of disagreement, which is a big reason I consider Finding the Right Hills to Die On to be an excellent resource for working through issues of Christian conscience, within the context of a local church.

 


Women Should Keep Silent in Church? : A Corinthian Conundrum Considered

Should “women keep silent in the churches,” as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35? Is it really “shameful for a woman to speak in church?” This is one of those more difficult passages in the Bible, for several reasons.

Some critics of the Christian faith read these verses from Paul, and they therefore conclude that Christianity is hopelessly misogynistic. A few cases in church history have shown that there is a grain of truth here, so the church does need to take this on the chin, to a certain extent.

Various Christians leaders, ranging from Tertullian to Thomas Aquinas, believed from these verses that women should not sing or pray out loud, when men were present. Some Presbyterians up through the late 19th century restricted women from singing in church worship services.

The #MeToo movement today has led many to believe that the church still silences the voices of women…. in ways that go much beyond women’s participation in a worship service, with more perverse consequences. The well-publicized moral failure of evangelist/apologist Ravi Zacharias, accused of sexually abusing other women, sadly reminds us of this. Compounding this, I learned a few days before publishing this post, that Beth Moore, a popular women’s Bible study leader, and a sexual abuse survivor, has left her denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, saying that her denomination has not done enough to listen to the voices of women who have suffered sexual abuse in that Protestant tradition.

Other liberal-minded, or “progressive” Christians, will point out that Jesus was definitely NOT misogynistic, but will claim that Paul probably was, based on certain Bible passages like what we read in 1 Corinthians 14. Some so-called “Red-Letter Christians,” simply take Jesus over Paul, when it comes to teaching regarding women. Others might merely comment on Paul’s inconsistency of thought, when elsewhere in Galatians 3:28, he says that there is neither “male [nor] female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.Galatians 3:28 then becomes the paradigm by which we can throwout other verses of the Bible that trouble us. So, we just have to put up with the rest of Paul’s lingering misogyny, when we find it here and there, and thus roll our eyes when we get to such passages as found in 1 Corinthians 14.

While these progressivist approaches are meant to somehow salvage Christian faith, it all comes across as rather desperate, and does not lend itself to give us a great deal of confidence in the Bible as God’s inspired word. After all, if Jesus really did select Paul to be his representative voice to the Gentiles (Galatians 1:1), as Paul repeatedly claims, then if Paul failed at the job, this would also reflect poorly upon Jesus. Do any genuine Christians really believe that Jesus royally messed up when he picked out Paul to be his great ambassador to the Gentiles? I would certainly hope not!

When Christians default to this kind of thinking, we end up with a faith that merely picks and chooses verses of the Bible we do like, and reject the rest, a “cafeteria” approach to Christianity, which is really no Christian faith at all. However, a closer look at the Scriptural evidence shows that there are better approaches to this difficult passage, that do not demand the reader to adopt some extremist viewpoint, whether it be on the progressive or traditionalist end of the controversy.

When I wrote my multi-part blog series on “women in ministry” two years ago, I purposely avoided discussing this passage because of its complexity, as I will show in this current blog post. There are basically three different approaches that Bible scholars propose, to try to resolve the difficulty in 1 Corinthians 14: (1) Paul is addressing a particular situation in the early Christian church, that we are largely unfamiliar with today, (2) Paul never actually wrote this passage in his letter. It was inserted by a later copyist into the text of 1 Corinthians, or (3) Paul is quoting a Corinthian objection to women speaking in church, with the purpose of refuting their argument. Let us examine each proposal in turn.

Is Paul Addressing a Particular, Cultural Situation, That Would Require Women to Remain Silent in Church?

No matter where you land in the “women in ministry” debate, often referred to by theologians as the “complementarian/egalitarian controversy,” 1 Corinthians 14:34-45 presents difficulties that extend far beyond the claims of misogyny in the Bible.

The most pressing issue is that 1 Corinthians 11 is actually encouraging women to pray and prophesy in church worship settings. Paul specifically urges women to wear a head covering, but he certainly allows women to speak in church, through prayer and/or prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:5).1  Paul’s climatic verse honoring male and female equally, Galatians 3:28, only raises the stakes higher.2 So, if Paul allows for women to speak in 1 Corinthians 11, but then forbids women to speak in 1 Corinthians 14, just three chapters later, that would indicate that Paul was contradicting himself, or that he said one thing at first, only to change his mind later in the letter. Having this type of in-your-face contradiction is not suitable for something claiming to be the Word of God.

But if you follow the time-honored principle of Scripture-interpreting-Scripture, you can look at a parallel passage to get a hint at what is going on. 1 Timothy 2:11-12 includes these phrases that can remind the reader of 1 Corinthians 14:3

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness…. she is to remain quiet”

Readers often focus on the “she is to remain quiet” part. Some might run off in a huff and mutter, “There goes that misogynistic Paul again!” But what is typically missed is that Paul wants women to “learn.” Why might that be an important cultural clue that students of the Bible should notice?

In contemporary Western culture, we regularly take for granted that both men and women should be properly educated. However, in the first century Greco-Roman society, the education of women was the exception, rather than the norm.

Imagine yourself in an elementary or middle school classroom today, and a substitute teacher comes in, but they show little ability to keep control of the classroom. If left to their own devices, the students will talk amongst themselves, resulting in chaos, and no learning occurs in the classroom.

Since women in the first century rarely participated in classroom-type settings, they would be very prone to be disruptive in instructional situations, including church services. The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, believed that the ministry of teaching was essential to the mission of the church, and he firmly believed that order was necessary to allow for learning to take place. But what was so radical about Paul is that he specifically encouraged women to learn the Scriptures, along with the men. In doing so, Paul was widely out of step with the dominant culture, that saw no reason for educating women. Our current day Western culture, which evidently values the education of both men and women, is in many ways the multi-century product of the Apostle Paul’s radical vision completely overturning a fully misogynist society, in Greco-Roman times (Just consider historian Tom Holland’s view of Christian history).

Therefore, far from being a misogynist, one could safely argue that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 follows the same pattern as 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Paul wants women to learn, but he wants them to learn within the context of an orderly learning environment, where there are not constant interruptions, and people are actively listening. Here are the two controversial verses from 1 Corinthians, in full:

34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

The advantage of this approach is that it modifies Paul’s encouragement for women to actively participate in various ways during the worship service, in 1 Corinthians 11, for a legitimate cultural purpose. For the sake of preserving order within the church, in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul follows the same pattern as taught also in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Because of this, the general tone of consistency across all of the passages of Scripture involved, and the weight of tradition down through the ages, many if not most Christians find this proposal to be most likely and acceptable.4

The downside to this approach is that such a cultural modification may not satisfy all critics of this proposal. Some might still say that the while the in-your-face contradiction is removed in this interpretation, it is not wholly removed. It is merely muted.

Furthermore, supporters of this proposal will often note that women “are not permitted to speak, and should be in submission, as the Law also says.” So, where does “the Law” say that women are not to speak, out of submission? Supporters of this view contend that the Old Testament in general teaches this principle. But detractors against this view observe that there is no specific Old Testament passage, in the Law of Moses, which requires women to be silent, within the context of submission. Male headership? Yes. But the silence of women? Not explicitly. You will search the Old Testament in vain to try to find such a prooftext.

We do find instances of women being asked to remain silent in the oral tradition of the Jewish law. However, Jesus frequently rejected the oral tradition of the Pharisees, arguing that the oral law of the Pharisees would often nullify the commands of the written law, as found in our Old Testament (see Matthew 15:1-6). Therefore, according to critics of this view, if we understand that Jesus rejected the oral tradition of the Pharisees, it seems highly unlikely that Paul would be commending the oral tradition here. Nevertheless, supporters of this view contend that the Old Testament; that is, “the Law,”  implicitly instructs for women to be silent in worship, out of submission.

A close variation of this particular proposal notes that 1 Corinthians 14 includes a lengthy discussion of the proper order in a church worship setting, where people offer a “tongue” or prophetic word. In this view, the prohibition against women speaking in church is not absolute. Rather, it is intended to be a prohibition against women evaluating prophecy, specifically. Again, Paul is most concerned about establishing order within a church worship service; thereby necessitating his command that uneducated women should behave in an orderly fashion in a church worship service. Again, the concept of what “the Law also says” is a broad appeal to order within the practice of corporate worship, in opposition to having confusion distorting that practice. For example:

29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

We then get to Paul’s principle that addresses how women are to behave in church. This Pauline ruling emphasizes the universal extent of this teaching, “as in all the churches of the saints” (v.33b), with the concluding admonition that “all things should be done decently and in order.”

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.5

Paul does not want women to look foolish or be shamed in church, so he seeks to honor women, who have received less education than the men. But this call for order, between the sexes, is not something Paul merely wants. He reminds his readers that this call for order is also a command from the Lord. In other words, there is a timeless principle involved, which has a particular application in this 1st century church situation.

Did an Unknown Copyist Insert Verses 34-35 Into 1 Corinthians 14?

This second particular approach is very interesting, in that it dives into the nitty-gritty of how the Bible got to be English Bible we have today. In the days of the early church, they had neither computers nor Xerox copying machines to preserve written documents. Instead, the church relied on copyists to continually copy the Bible over and over again, for each new generation of readers, as written materials tended to decay over time.

In the vast majority of cases, the New Testament copyists did exceedingly well in preserving the ancient text, that would eventually become the basis for our English Bibles today. However, there were times when mistakes were made, and textual critics are needed to step in and analyze where such mistakes were made, in order to correct them.

Nevertheless, there are certain cases where even the finest textual critical scholars are not in complete agreement regarding the authenticity of certain, small portions of the New Testament.  A classic example of such controversy is regarding Mark 16:9-20. Most English Bibles today will note that some of the earliest manuscripts do not include Mark 16:9-20.  Opinion is divided as to what to make of Mark 16:9-20, but many scholars contend that Mark 16:9-20 was not original to the Gospel of Mark, because of the big differences among the manuscripts.

This becomes important because there are some churches that will use Mark 16:18 as the basis for snake handling in church, “they will pick up serpents with their hands,” and they will not get hurt by those snakes … Uh… I will go with the scholarly majority on this one. How about that? 😉

Interesting, there are some textual critical scholars who put 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in the same category. The larger majority of English translations follow the standard order for these verses, but this verse ordering is following only one particular tradition.

The “Western” tradition of manuscripts, and a few other variations put these verses after the very end of the chapter, after verse 40. It would read like this (we can start with verse 33, to get a feel for it):

33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order…. .34 The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

So, where do these two verses really go? Between verses 33 and 36, as found in most Bibles today? Or after verse 40?

Some scholars conclude that the confusion over where to put these verses may indicate that this passage is an example of what scholars call an “interpolation,” where something of a different nature is inserted into something else. In other words, some scribal copyist may have inserted these two verses into the text, merely as a side commentary in the margins, and then this got copied into the main body of the text by later copyists, who never detected the illegitimate insertion.6

The advantage of this approach is that it raises enough suspicion about the precise nature of these two verses, such that it would warrant any Christian to proceed with caution, and not make a whole doctrine out of these two verses, in the event we eventually learn that these two verses were wrongly inserted into the New Testament, not by Paul himself, but rather, by a later copyist.

The downside to the proposal is that we have zero New Testament documents that omit these two verses. So, in this particular case of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, it does not match up exactly with the situation we have with Mark 16:9-20, where there are certain early manuscripts that omit those verses altogether.

Was Paul Quoting a Corinthian Saying, For the Purpose of Refuting It?

This last major approach to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 actually turns the whole idea of Paul approving of the idea found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 on its head. This proposal suggests that what Paul is doing here is quoting from a Corinthian saying, that would prohibit women from speaking in church, for the purpose of utterly refuting it. A little background is in order to understand this.

First, when the New Testament was originally written, and copied by copyists later, down through the centuries, there were no quotation marks in those ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. This tradition of not having quotation marks available, to aid the reader, was even extended to the popular English version of the Bible, the King James Version. You will not find quotation marks in the King James Bible, but you will find them in more modern translations, as scholars have been able to detect where a New Testament author was quoting from some other source, as opposed to where they were not quoting from an outside source.

Next, it is important to know that there were other letters involving Paul, aside from 1 and 2 Corinthians, which are not available to us in our Bibles. 1 Corinthians should probably be called “2 Corinthians” instead, because Paul has already mentioned a previous letter he wrote to the church of Corinth, which is now lost (1 Corinthians 5:9). Evidently, Paul is writing our traditionally called “1 Corinthians,” found in our Bibles, partly to respond to another letter sent by the Corinthians to him. This letter from Corinth, was probably written in response to Paul’s first, now lost letter to the Corinthian church:  “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (1 Corinthians 7:1).

In answering the Corinthians previous letter to him, Paul quotes certain sections of that letter, and then he responds to those concerns. For example, read the opening of chapter 7 in full:

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.

The quoted Corinthian saying is highlighted above. The Corinthians, in this particular quotation, were saying that celibacy is the only appropriate calling of the Christian, whereas Paul rejects that argument and affirms the validity of marriage as a genuine calling for the Christian, where sexual relations should rightly take place.

Paul makes rhetorical use of the Greek word translated into English as “or” in order to argue against the Corinthian position (1 Corinthians 1:13; 6:16; 9:6, 8, 10; 11:22), or to reject a particular practice at Corinth ( 1 Corinthians 6:2; 9, 19; 10:22; 11:13).

One particular case shows how Paul’s rhetorical skill works: In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul first lays out the Corinthian quoted sayings, with some brief responses interspersed (in this instance). Paul’s purpose here is to rebuke the Corinthian mindset, which was allowing certain unethical conduct to continue on unchecked:

12 All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.13 Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

Note the highlighted phrases, which are quotes from the Corinthians. Then Paul unloads on his original readers by interjecting his rhetorical “or” to refute the thinking of the Corinthians fully (see the highlights in verses 16 and 19):

14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

This same type of pattern has been recognized by various scholars in our 1 Corinthian 14 passage under review (note the quoted part, that I have highlighted, for verses 34-35, as well as the rhetorical “or” language in verse 36):

33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints,
34 The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers and sisters, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.
Verse 36 could also be translated as follows, substituting the acceptable English exclamation “what” for the rhetorical use of “or”:   “What!!? Was it from you that the word of God came? What!? Are you the only ones it has reached?” 

The point here is that Paul is quoting a Corinthian saying, in verses 34-35, for the purposes of refuting it, starting with Paul’s mockery of the Corinthians in verse 36.

The more substantial argument for this interpretation relies on the gender implied by the language used in this entire passage, noted above. The idea that women should remain silent, is part of the Corinthian logic. Yet Paul specifically uses masculine language in verse 36. In New Testament Greek, as in many other gendered languages, masculine language can refer to “men only” or “men and women.” But in this case, since women are being specifically addressed in verses 34-35, and the fact that the “from you” and the “only ones” mentioned in verse 36, are masculine, it would consistently indicate that Paul is addressing “men only” in this verse. For if Paul had intended his rebuke against the women of Corinth specifically, Paul would have used feminine language in verse 36, which he has not. Therefore, this would indicate Paul’s rebuke is directed against the men in Corinth, who are promoting this false teaching.

A reinforcement of this interpretation comes from observing that “the Law” referenced in verses 34-35 probably comes from the oral law, and not the written law, associated with the New Testament. In other words, it would make sense for Paul to rebuke the Judaizers in Corinth, who wish for the Christians to hold to the oral Jewish law.

Paying attention to the gender of the language, verse 36 could more accurately be translated as follows:

What!!? Was it from you men that the word of God came? What!? Are you men the only ones it has reached?”

Far from approving of the “silence of women,” Paul is actually reinforcing his argument from 1 Corinthians 11 that women should be encouraged to participate in the church worship service, through the exercise of prayer and prophesy, just as the men do. As long as things are done in an orderly fashion, Paul is encouraging men and women to worship together.

A fully reconstructed reading of the passage might look like this, with all of the important contextual differences highlighted :

33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints.
34 The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
36 What!!? Was it from you men that the word of God came?  What!?  Are you men the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers and sisters, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.

The advantage of this approach is that it completely removes all possible contradictions between 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14, thus serving an apologetic purpose for defending Scripture better than other approaches. It also has a great deal of supportive, contextual evidence, as it extends a well known pattern of how Paul interacts with the quotations of the Corinthians, in this letter, to make this particular difficult passage exceedingly less difficult.7

The downside to this proposal is that it completely flips a great deal of traditional teaching regarding this passage. Has this more contextualized approach met the burden of proof to sufficiently overcome more traditional interpretations of this passage?

Clearing Up Confusion over a Corinthian Conundrum

Which proposal to resolving this Bible difficulty is best? You be the judge based on the evidence, knowing that this blog post is but a brief exposition of the main ideas and points of evidence available.

My own conclusion at this point is that the final proposal, that of this being a quotation/refutation device used by Paul to support his teaching that women should participate fully and NOT be silent in church, has the greatest amount of explanatory power. The clincher for me is that I am very skeptical of the idea the Paul would approvingly cite a portion of the Jewish oral law, as binding on the Corinthian church, particularly when Jesus makes such a big deal about how the oral traditions of the Pharisees have led them to fail to see the truth of the Gospel. The idea that Paul would knowingly leave a potential contradiction like this in one of his letters, without any clarifying explanation, is unbecoming to the character of sacred Scripture, in my mind. Nor am I convinced that some later Christian scribe would insert a similar reference to the Jewish oral law, centuries later into the New Testament. However, the other two positions are still acceptable, given the assumptions they carry, so I have no reason to be dogmatic here. The point is that we need not “bring back the patriarchy” in order to have a fully authentic Scriptural faith that properly incorporates 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. But neither do we need to throw certain passages of Paul out, simply because we do not like the taste of them.

It is important to note that Paul nevertheless affirms a principle of order, when it comes to the practice of Christian corporate worship. He also acknowledges that there are real differences between men and women, and that such differences should be honored and upheld by all of the churches of God. In particular, men and women are not interchangeable in the mind of Paul, as expressed through the Scriptures, as it is clearly taught in 1 Corinthians, particularly in 1 Corinthians 11. As London-based pastor and author, Andrew Wilson, puts it, there is a “beautiful difference” between male and female, a complementarity in how men relate to women, and vice-versa, and this is something that the New Testament calls all Christians to celebrate.

Notably, 1 Corinthians makes absolutely zero mention of elders and/or overseers in the church at Corinth. Paul is primarily concerned about how the entire local church body functions, men and women together, giving honor and glory to God. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is not interested in addressing how the church should be governed, nor is he making any special plea regarding how the sheep are to be shepherded, by those entrusted to their care. Paul leaves the discussion of such other matters, particularly with respect to church elders and/or overseers, to the Pastoral Letters, with a particular focus found in 1 Timothy.

For more reflection on the centrality of 1 Timothy for articulating a sacramentalist approach to honoring the distinction of male and female, within the context of a local church, please explore the “women in ministry” blog series, linked here.

 

Notes:

1. The head covering issue is troubling for many as well, as most American Christian women, aside from certain traditions like the Mennonites, do not use head coverings. But the whole topic of head coverings is fascinating, that deserves separate attention. I urge readers to get a copy of Michael Heiser’s Angels, to dig into the nitty gritty of what is going on with head coverings, in a way that will probably surprise you. I reviewed Angels in 2020, and wrote about it here.  ALSO: in this blog post, I am mainly quoting from the ESV translation of the Bible.

2. Please note that Galatians 3:28 is getting abused more and more in the current Western culture climate. To learn about this, see this blog post from 2020.  

3. 1 Timothy 2:12 is probably one of, if not the most, controversial verses in the New Testament today. I address the central concerns in other blog posts (#1, #2, #3). But in this blog post, only the women being “quiet” part is being addressed.  

4. Some even say that the supposed contradiction (according to Sam Storms), between 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14, is way overstated. Some contend that 1 Corinthians 11:5, “but every wife (or woman) who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven,” is really a conditional statement. It should be read as “if a woman were to pray or prophesy with an uncovered head, it would be disgraceful.”  Paul only rejects the whole practice of women praying or prophesying in church until 1 Corinthians 14. But this type of translation appears to be a case of special pleading, as I know of no other English translation that tries to translate 1 Corinthians 11:5 in this matter. A variation of this view suggests that 1 Corinthians 11 teaches that a married woman should wear a head covering, when around their marriage husbands, in a private setting, and this practice has nothing to do with a public, corporate act of worship. But 1 Corinthians 11:16 refutes this idea, as this practice is applicable in all of “the churches of God,” which would indicate a public, worship setting. I only mention this perspective as there are only tiny minorities of Christians who hold to such views.  

5. Note that the word “brothers” highlighted here generally means “brothers and sisters,” when in the plural form. Other translations, such as the NIV specifically spell out that both men and women, “brothers and sisters” are addressed here. While the majority of complementarian scholars accept this particular proposal, a number of egalitarian scholars are open to some variation of this proposal as well, such as Marg Mowcko, a prominent egalitarians blogger, whom I used for reference for doing research for this blog post. Complementarian Denny Burk takes the alternative view described in this section of the blog post, staying within the scope of this particular proposal. Author Aimee Byrd takes a position midway between Mowcko and Burk. Burk takes the position that women are only being restricting from judging prophecies. Yet for some very Reformed interpreters, even this solution is going too far

6. The most notable proponent of this “interpolation” view is made by Gordon Fee, in his New International Commentary of the New Testament, on First Corinthians.

7. Kirk MacGregor is a very articulate, persuasive proponent for the “quotation-refutation device” rhetorical proposal. I have tried to summarize MacGregor’s argument in this blog post. 


Does the Bible Teach That Women Should Never Wear Braided Hair or Jewelry?

Hairstyling among Rome’s cultural elite, during the mid-1st century.

Many readers of the Bible are puzzled, or even embarrassed, by a statement made by the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy, that suggests that women should never wear braided hair, or jewelry. But is this flat prohibition against the wearing of braided hair or jewelry something that the Bible actually proscribes? Let us take a closer look, reading Scripture in context.

In 1 Timothy 2:8-10 we read:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” (ESV).

A similar passage comes from the words of Peter, at 1 Peter 3:3-4. At first glance, the negative, specific references to “braided hair” and “gold or pearls” would appear that the Apostles Paul and Peter sound like legalists at best, or even, misogynists at worst!

When we read puzzling passages like this, it is important to look at what the whole of Scripture teaches on the matter, and not focus on one or two isolated verses. Since both Paul and Peter were Jewish, and looked to their Hebrew Scriptures, as their written authority, it might help to look at what the Old Testament has to say about the wearing of jewelry, etc.

There are occasions when the Old Testament takes a negative view towards the wearing of jewelry, but such instances are within the context of accenting a woman’s sexual attractiveness for the purposes of manipulation, as when the wicked queen Jezebel “painted her eyes and adorned her head,” when Jehu came to confront her of her sin (2 Kings 9:30).

However, the Old Testament does not dismiss the wearing of jewelry outright:

Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold
    is a wise reprover to a listening ear.
 (Proverbs 25:12 ESV).

Here in Proverbs, jewelry has a positive value, being directly compared to the situation when someone gives wise counsel or correction to someone else, and that someone else receives such counsel or correction willingly.

When the Song of Solomon extolls the beauty of a woman, such beauty is positively related to the value of jewelry:

How beautiful are your feet in sandals,
    O noble daughter!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels,
    the work of a master hand.
 (Song of Solomon 7:1 ESV).

As Jews, both Paul and Peter would have taken similar views towards the wearing of jewelry. They would have accepted the modest display of jewelry as perfectly acceptable, but would find the extravagant display of jewelry to be inappropriate and inconsistent with the godly behavior of a Christian woman.

Focusing on the 1 Timothy passage, carefully notice how the Apostle Paul specifically finds a modest level of jewelry wearing to be wholly appropriate: “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel.” Rather, Paul is contending against the flaunting of a woman’s beauty, by the excessive use of make up and jewelry, as this would distract others from seeing the real, inward beauty of a Christian woman, her “godliness.”

It is important not to confuse the principle of modesty, with respect to jewelry wearing, with the specific cultural application in Paul’s first century, Roman empire context. For example, some might be troubled by Paul’s restriction regarding the wearing of “braided hair.” So, does Paul really have some type of weird hangup regarding “braided hair?”

Again, a careful reading of the text shows that it is the combination of “braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,” not “braided hair” by itself. The inclusion of “costly attire” should be evidence that there is a big difference between a modest set of ear rings, versus showing up at church with a $25,000 necklace, combined with some over-the-top hairstyling.

New Testament scholar Steven Baugh notes that by the mid-first-century, “women’s hairstyles had developed into elaborate curls, braids, high wigs, pins, and hair ornaments that were quickly copied by the well-to-do throughout the empire.” The historical evidence shows that wealthy women were following the same fashionable trends of the Roman cultural elite, as a means of flaunting their wealth. Paul would have been consistently applying the Scriptural principle of modest dress, by condemning such flaunting of wealth, in Timothy’s church in Ephesus. The flaunting of wealth inevitably shames those believers, who do not possess great wealth, the type of messaging that the Apostle Paul strongly sought to discourage. Baugh concludes: “Today, it is the equivalent of warning Christians away from imitating styles set by promiscuous pop singers or actresses. How one dresses can convey rebellious or ungodly messages whether intended or not.1

Remember this, too: The focus should be on how we ourselves understand what makes someone beautiful. This is not an excuse to cast a condescending eye on others.

Far from being a psychologically prudish hangup, on the part of the Apostle Paul, Paul’s instructions to Timothy, advocating the modesty of women’s external appearance, is a specific application of a timeless Scripture principle. Should Christians today be embarrassed by what Scripture says here? Absolutely not. While a 21st century Christian might apply the principle differently, according to the fashions of our day, the principle remains the same. The Bible consistently seeks to accentuate the inward beauty of a believer, while warning against the display of external extravagance, designed to shame others or to be inappropriately sexually provocative.2

Notes:

1. Steven Baugh, “A Foreign World: Ephesus in the First Century,” p. 54-55, in Women and the Church, 3rd Edition

2. For more detail, please consult chapter 36, of David A. Croteau, Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions, on “Women Should Not Wear Jewelry,” p. 210-214.. 


Do We Still Have Apostles Today, in the Church?

Did the gift of “apostleship” cease by the end 1st century? The answer is yes… and no. But I need to unpack this to explain.

We know that there were apostles running around the Roman Empire, during the 1st century, when the New Testament was written. Folks like the Apostle Paul, the Apostle Peter, and the Apostle James come to mind, right away. But what about today? Are there still apostles? Well, it all comes down to what the New Testament means by the term “apostle.”

“Apostles” versus “apostles”??

The Greek word apostolos is used a number of times within the New Testament. The term generally means “one sent as a messenger.”  This more generic sense of “messenger,” “representative,” or “envoy” is found in 2 Corinthians 8:23. But it also has a more specific sense, that of being one of the divinely appointed founders of the Christian church. That latter, more specific sense, most probably refers to those who had seen the Risen Christ, and who were charged by Jesus Himself to authoritatively articulate the message of the Gospel, to that first century world. Think of the original twelve disciples, minus Judas (Acts 1:2, 1:26), as well as Paul, based on his encounter with the Risen Jesus, on the road to Damascus.

A lot of Christians are very leery about acknowledging the presence of “apostles” in 21st century Christianity, and for a very good reason. The “big” apostles, like Paul, Peter, and James were accepted as being authorized to write the books of the New Testament. Only such apostles, or those who lived within that early apostolic circle, were recognized as legitimate writers of Holy Scripture. For example, Mark was not among the group of the named “big” apostles, but he knew Peter, who is the primary source for how we got the Gospel of Mark. Likewise, Luke moved around in that same, original apostolic circle, and thereby wrote the Gospel that bears his name, as well as Acts.

But we do not have writers of Scripture today. Contrary to what folks like the Mormons believe, there is no case to be made that there are to be any extra revealed books of the Bible, aside from what we already have in the Old and New Testaments. So, when you hear about movements like the New Apostolic Reformation, or other movements, commonly associated with some varieties of Pentecostalism, most evangelical Christians today are correct to cast a skeptical eye on such claims of apostleship. In this sense, there are no, capital “A” Apostles running around our churches today.

There are cases where Paul gives us some examples of capital “A” Apostles in the early church. For example, he includes himself in 1 Corinthians 15:9. There is also James, the brother of Jesus, who is called an apostle in Galatians 1:19, who was also the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and the author of one our books in the New Testament.

However, the New Testament does indicate that there were others in New Testament, who were described as apostles, but who lack that special sense of designated authority. For example, the Apostle Paul had several traveling companions or co-workers who were called “apostles,” either explicitly, or perhaps implied. Barnabas is explicitly mentioned as being one (Acts 14:14). Then there is Epaphroditus, who is called a “messenger” in Philippians 2:25, which is the same Greek word for “apostle.” Likewise, there are those like Apollos, Silas, and Timothy who served right alongside Paul in his ministry.

Yet we have no reason to believe any of these Christians ever had a post-Resurrection encounter with Jesus, in the same manner like Paul or Peter did. Then we have the case of a notable woman, Junia, who was considered “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7 NIV), according to Paul. Paul even names two other women Euodia and Syntyche, as co-workers, contending along Paul’s side, “in the cause of the Gospel” (Philippians 4:2-3). So, were all of these people, men and women alike, apostles?

At the very least, you could say that all of these co-workers of Paul, male and female, were what we would call today “church-planters,” which is consistent with the practice continued today, by many churches, to “send out” missionaries to go plant churches, as “messengers” of the Gospel, which is consistent with how the New Testament uses that Greek term, apostolos. In other words, they were little-a “apostles,” as opposed to being big-A “Apostles,” like Paul.

The argument from Scripture, therefore, indicates that we no longer have big-A “Apostles” today in the church. However, this should not be construed to rule out the existence of small-a “apostles.”

Surely, some will be concerned that the line between Apostle and apostle could become blurred, some twenty centuries after the New Testament was written. No one can write Scripture today. No one can supersede folks like the Apostle Paul, and claim the mantle of their authority. But most Christians I know surely acknowledge the presence of many, many gifted church planters today, who have been sent out as messengers, for the sake of spreading the Gospel, just as you read about them in the New Testament.

Simply put, you can not plant churches without church planters. Church planters exercise the gift of being “apostles,” in that they are sent out by Christian communities as messengers of the Gospel.

Therefore, some might feel more comfortable with speaking of such “lower case a” apostles as being “church planters” instead, in order to avoid confusion. In my mind, that is just quibbling with words, but I get the point. A distinction needs to be made. So be it. If refusing to call anyone today an “apostle” causes you grief, then go right ahead and come up with your own word. But the principle should be clear. In addition to the heavyweights, like Paul and Peter, the church of the New Testament had “lower case a” apostles, who were sent out to plant churches, built on the message of the Gospel. We still have those in that second category of “apostles” today.

Insight Into Yet Another, Thorny Issue That Divides the Church?

As a parallel, this distinction might help those who struggle with the whole question of having women preach or teach, in the local church. Many understand the Apostle Paul to say that women should not serve as teachers in the church, particularly where there are men present, according to 1 Timothy 2:12. Paul goes on to explain what he means by this in 1 Timothy 3, in describing the qualification for “overseers,” whom Paul calls “elders” in Acts 20.

But this directive of Paul’s should also be considered along with yet another directive of Paul, whereby men and women are to teach and admonish one another, in the local church, according to Colossians 3:16. In Colossians, Paul is specifically addressing his message to both men and women, and there is nothing that indicates that this message was limited to that particular church, in that particular time (Colossians 3:15-19). That all believers, including men and women, are encouraged to teach one another, is an idea that has universal scope and application.

The first type of “Teaching,” commonly associated with the authority of elders, or overseers, refers to the work of guarding against the infiltration of false doctrine, into the local church. This ties into the concept of “big-A” Apostleship, as the primary task of “big-T” Teachers ; that is, the elders of the church, is to make sure that the doctrine being propagated in the local church is in alignment with what was laid down by those first century “big-A” Apostles, who are responsible for our New Testament. As I have argued elsewhere, I would call this big-T “Teaching.”

The second type of “teaching,” such as is in the leading of Bible studies, giving an exhortation in a corporate worship service, under the supervision of the elders of the church, does not necessarily bear with it the sense of authority, generally attributed to elders. But it does recognize that there are specific gifts of teaching, that the Holy Spirit can give to men and women, that can be used under the oversight function of local church elders.

Some may object to the language of calling women as “teachers,” preferring other language such as calling women as “preachers.” But even the notion of women “preaching” might be too much for some. Others would prefer the terminology of the “passing on of information,” just as the Lord Jesus gave Mary Magdalene information to pass onto the male disciples, after the Resurrection. But despite whatever terminology is preferred, the principle remains the same, that both big-T “Teaching” and little-t “teaching” are part of every growing community of believers today.

Granted, this is a controversial idea for many in our #MeToo era, who bristle at even the thought of discrimination against women, when it comes to the office of elder and/or pastor in a local church. On the other side, many other Christians believe such little-t “teaching” can only be appropriate in an occasional or informal setting, and rarely, if ever, from a pulpit, or even an ongoing, adult Sunday school class, where men and women are both present.

Many evangelical Christians are divided over such issues.1  I would be hopelessly foolish to insist on being dogmatic. At the same time, it grieves me to think how we are quickly dividing the Body of Christ, when there is a modest, moderating alternative to the crisis of how churches should be governed, in evangelical circles.

Here I am suggesting a possible third-way through this impasse. It might be helpful to draw this parallel together, as I have done here, of contrasting big-A “Apostles” and little-a “apostles,” along with big-T “teaching” and little-t “teaching,” to give us a more thoughtful understanding of how we can see the gifts of apostleship and teaching at work today, in the contemporary church.2

Notes:

1. Southern California pastor John MacArthur set off a firestorm of criticism in October, 2019, at a conference, where he was asked to give a one or two word response to the name “Beth Moore,” a popular women’s Bible study teacher, in the Southern Baptist convention. He recommended that Beth Moore “go home,” which lit up the world of evangelical Twitter on fire. Pastor MacArthur explains his views here, in a sermon delivered shortly after the flair up.  MacArthur’s biggest exegetical error in this sermon, starting at the 54:23 mark, is by treating the topic of women praying and prophesying, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, as NOT applicable to the context public, corporate worship, whereas Paul’s teaching later in the same letter, that “women are to remain silent,” in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, is clearly applicable to the context of public corporate worship. The problem is that BOTH passages refer to the corporate worship life of the church, whether we like that or not, and we must deal with this tension accordingly. In 1 Corinthians 11:16, Paul declares that the orderly praying and prophesying by women IS within the context of public, corporate worship. To go against this is contrary to church practice. “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.”  The “churches” here, is from the Greek ekklesia, which specifically means the “assembly.” Nevertheless, like the perennial topic that persists and persists, and never goes away, there have been those on the other side of this, like on egalitarian theologian Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, who are greatly aggravated by MacArthur’s statements. Equally, on the more rigid complementarian side, bloggers like Grayson Gilbert have come to MacArthur’s defense.  A more, measured video response by International House of Prayer leader, Mike Bickle, can be found here. (For a slightly different view, that suggests that a complementarian can affirm women as a “pastor,” and not an “elder,” read Sam Storms here). On the other hand, I appreciate the more thoughtful, irenic dialogue between two different complementarian voices, Kevin DeYoung and John Dickson, regarding the topic of “women preaching.” The practice of those, like Tim Challies, who only allows men to read Scripture publicly in church, seems really over the top to me, and without sufficient grounding in the Bible. But other areas are more dicey, and less certain. My own response to those like Kevin DeYoung, who would not allow for women to lead adult Sunday school classes, on a regular basis, where men and women are present, even operating under the oversight of an all-male eldership, is for those who might be troubled by such practice can simply refrain from attending that particular Sunday school class, and attend a different class, assuming one is available. My main concern is that Christians should not interfere with the consciences with other believers, who hold to “disputable matters” that have brought about unnecessary division within our churches. The last thing we need is for yet another reason for churches to needlessly split, with egalitarian Christians on one side, and complementarian Christians on the other, or even a third-split, with yet moderate complementarians dividing from more extreme complementarians. Enough already!! We need to balance out the concerns of those who fear the increase of worldly feminism into our churches, while acknowledging the giftedness of women, as also taught in Scripture. For those interested in a more in-depth look at the “women in ministry” issue, see my 19-part blog post series, beginning with this post

2. I greatly appreciate the measured, irenic work of London-based pastor Andrew Wilson on the topic of “Apostles” versus “apostles”(see here and here). Wilson is thoughtfully consistent, principled, without being needlessly rigid, and fully rooted in God’s Word.  


On Baptism: Why I Want to Worship at an Interdenominational Church

Some might think my view on baptism is quirky, but I have it for a good reason. I was baptized as an infant, and in 6th grade, I went through a confirmation process, that was, frankly, rather lame. So, when I finally came to a genuine awareness of having faith in Christ in high school, and I started attending a Baptist church, I really was not sure what to do with baptism.

My Baptist friends kept telling me, “Now that you are a believer in Jesus, you really should get baptized as an adult.” They would cite to me passages like Acts 2:38, arguing that those who came to faith in Jesus at Pentecost were told by Peter to become baptized. Heartfelt faith and water baptism go together. The practice of being baptized as a believing adult is known as credobaptism.

That made a lot of sense, when I first heard it.

But it also confused me, too, the more I thought about it. After all, I still had the certificate that my parents gave me, telling me that I was already baptized as a child.  The Bible clearly stated that “there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). If I was already baptized as a infant, a practice known as paedobaptism, then to get “re-baptized” as an adult essentially served to de-legitimize my first baptism. There are not two baptisms for a Christian. Only one. “Re-baptism” would effectively make my infant baptism improper at best, or false, at worst, …. and that really bothered me.

After all, for most of church history, paedobaptism has been the standard practice throughout the centuries, for those raised in Christian churches. It has only been within the past few hundred years that there has been a shift towards credobaptism, among evangelical, Bible-believing people. Does this really mean that for the bulk of church history, that most Christians growing up in Christian families; that is, millions of them, received a “false” baptism? Perhaps my own baptism as an infant was “improper,” just as the disciples of Apollos in Ephesus needed to be properly baptized by Paul (Acts 19:1-7), but I could not bring myself to think of my baptism as a baby as “false.”

I went back and forth on the question for years.

Coming to Grips Personally With the Baptism Controversy, In Evangelical Christianity

When I had an opportunity to go to the Holy Land, and a really good friend, who was a Baptist pastor, was going to go with me, it seemed like this was the breakthrough I needed. So, I asked my Baptist friend if he would baptize me, as a thirty-some year old adult, in the Jordan River. He felt really honored to do that, and I felt privileged that he would participate. It would be an act of obedience, resolving to follow the teachings of the Bible, as best as I knew how. I had a peace in my heart and mind about that decision.

I remember talking with another companion on that Holy Land trip, relaying the above story to him, of my theological struggle with baptism, along with my decision to go ahead and get baptized as an adult. I told him that I was not completely sure about the validity of my infant baptism, but out of an act of obedience, though I did not understand it all, I would go forward with an adult believer’s baptism.

My companion’s response shocked me. He was quite honest to tell me that my reasons for getting baptized in the Jordan River were “rather lame.” In his view, my reasoning was theologically unsound.

Well, I have to admit that I did have some bizarre, inappropriate expectation that it would be some cool, spooky experience to be baptized in the Jordan River. After all, Jesus Himself was baptized there!

If you have been to Israel/Palestine, you will probably know the spot where most baptisms in the Jordan are performed, for American visitors to the area. It was indeed a special moment in my life. Any anxiety about not being properly baptized before was removed, at least at that moment. But it was not all that spooky. Experientially, nothing spectacular happened, as far as I could tell. The water in the Jordan River was just as wet as it is in any American baptismal pool or river.

The popular baptismal site at Yardenit, along the Jordan River, where I was baptized as an adult in 1994 (credit: Maranatha Tours)

When I got back to the States, after the trip, I got some chagrined looks on the faces of my paedobaptist friends, when I told them I got “re-baptized.” For those paedobaptists, baptism is a sign that signals identification with the New Covenant in Christ, just as circumcision has been a sign that signals identification with the Old Covenant. Just as circumcision was for infant males under the Old Covenant, so is baptism for infant male and females, under the New Covenant (Acts 2:39). Infant baptism does not automatically lead to faith, anymore than circumcision necessarily leads to the inward circumcision of a person’s heart, though that is what these outward signs point inwardly towards. I had never understood that before.

Mmmm. Had I done the right thing? I still was not completely sure. My friend’s judgment, that my decision to be baptized was “rather lame,” and theologically unsound, stuck in my head. As a result, I began to have doubts. Nevertheless, it was all water over the bridge now. At that point, the deed was done.

Sometime later, I began thinking about some of my credobaptist friends, who were baptized as older children, through a form of believer’s baptism. They later on fell away from the faith, only to come back to faith years later as older adults. Some of them wanted to get re-baptized, because now their faith really meant something. They simply had no idea what they were doing being baptized at 9-years-old. Therefore, now they wanted to get baptized… for real.

I know a few credobaptist pastors who would gladly baptize (re-baptize?) someone who was baptized as an infant. Why? Because that infant baptism was either improper or not a genuine baptism, since there was no genuine faith exercised by that infant. But I have to ask such credobaptist pastors a followup question: What would you do if a credobaptist person, baptized at age 9, were to come to you years later, perhaps at about age 20-30, saying that now they really understand what faith is about, and requesting re-baptism? Would you perform the baptism?

To make it even more complicated, what if that person had also been baptized as an infant? Would her baptism be a third baptism, or would her latest baptism cancel the previous two “improper” baptisms?

Is there some statute of limitations involved as to how many times you can get rebaptized? How do you distinguish between an improper or proper baptism, or even a false versus genuine baptism? Where is the cutoff on the age limit, if there is one, and who decides, and on what basis?

When such analysis extends down to this level, it all gets rather silly, if you ask me.

Baptism and the Conscience of the Christian

These are thorny questions that lead me to think that the question of baptism is one that is best reserved to take place between the person requesting baptism (or re-baptism), and the pastor or other person performing the baptism, or between parents, with their newborn, with their pastor. If families are already members of a particular church, that takes a definite stand on the issue, then they should naturally follow with what that church teaches.

But what if, like me, you are not so sure about all of this? Perhaps you lean a particular way, but you do not want to exclude being in fellowship with another believer who thinks differently? Perhaps you do have a strong conviction, but that you are trusting the work of the Holy Spirit that the Spirit might change the hearts and minds of your fellow believers, and that God might be calling you to be in a community of faith, as an instrument of change, where such introspective reflection is deemed permissible. In other words, while we can surely affirm that there is but one baptism, publicly signaling our initiation into Christian faith, the particular manner of one’s baptism, its mode, and its timing should be a matter of conscience.

Water baptism is the outward expression corresponding to the inward reality of a heart washed by the cleansing blood of Christ. Stressing out too much over exactly when someone really first experiences that inward reality and when you should get baptized can be counterproductive to spiritual growth. The timing of baptism with respect to when someone comes to actual faith is a matter of prayer, the study of Scripture, and having a sense of peace in your mind and heart.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of churches that take partisan approaches to baptism, that are not particularly helpful. Though I have never seen this personally, I have heard of some paedobaptist churches that look down judgmentally upon someone who was baptized as an infant, but then re-baptized as an adult. Perhaps such re-baptisms are improper, upon further reflection, but this is ultimately a matter of standing alone before God.

More often, there are credobaptist churches that will refuse membership to a person, if they only received infant baptism. Moreover, such churches might even allow a paedobaptist preacher to speak at their church, but then refuse them to become members. Even more extreme are those credobaptist churches that would refuse to serve communion to a paedobaptist. Some credobaptist churches, in some branches of the Churches of Christ tradition, even teach a kind of “baptismal regeneration” doctrine, insisting that unless you have been water baptized as an adult, you can not even be saved.

Some of this type of thinking just seems insane, if not outright wrong.

This is why I desire to worship in an interdenominational church, that takes an “agree-to-disagree” posture on the question of baptism. In a biblically-balanced, interdenominational church fellowship, the question of what constitutes genuine baptism is left as a conversation between the one with their question and their pastor, with Bibles open and hearts open with prayer.

Baptism was originally meant in the Bible to publicly signify our identification with Christ, and our profession of faith, a sign of unity of the one, true faith we have in Jesus. It is sad to see how so many churches mistreat baptism as a cause for division, instead of seeing it as a cause for rejoicing for the unity we have in Christ. Some believe that being a part of an interdenominational church, that stresses the principle of “agree to disagree” on non-essential issues of faith, is simply an excuse to avoid “taking a stand” on important issues facing the church.

I view it differently.

It is more about recognizing the complexity of how growing Christians develop in their understanding of Scripture, even changing their views over time, like I have. There is but one baptism, and one faith, not separate paedobaptist and credobaptist faiths, or baptisms, plural. Nevertheless, different Christians can approach issues, like baptism, and come to different conclusions, all under the supervision of Scripture. What matters most is the meaning of baptism, not the mode or timing.

We have come a long way from the early debates over baptism in the 16th century, among Protestant evangelicals. In those years, Protestants sought to settle these debates by actually putting to death the lives of those who held different viewpoints on baptism. I am so glad that those days are behind us. Thankfully, in our day and age, we can rely on a robust theology of conscience, to help us navigate what can be a confusing issue for at least some Christians. Thank the Lord!!

Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, by Andy Naselli & J.D. Crowley, is a great book that I am currently reading, to work through difficult questions, like the “proper” understanding of baptism.

Addendum: Applying a Theology of Conscience to Other “Disputable Matters” 

If I had enough good sense, I would have ended this post at the previous paragraph. But in view of a lot of things that I have been thinking about, this past year, I need to tie up some loose ends.

Specifically, the inner questions of how baptism works should fit within the category of “disputable matters,” that the Apostle Paul addresses in Romans 14. As an example, I see a parallel here between the question of “women in ministry” and baptism (I could also add topics like the age of the earth, specific views of the “End Times,” the gifts of the Holy Spirit, etc., but for this discussion, I will just stick with the “women in ministry,” question that seems so utterly divisive among believers today). As I wrote about in my 20-post series on “women in ministry,” there is a sacramental character about church eldership, as well as baptism, whereby we have a physical act, that serves as a visible reminder of an invisible reality.

God has mercy towards us humans, who need physical, visible reminders of spiritual realities. With respect to “women in ministry,” the church needs to exhibit a physical, visible reminder of the invisible differences between men and women, in the corporate life in the church. Likewise, water baptism serves as a physical, visible reminder of what in means to be invisibly washed clean inwardly, by the precious blood of Jesus.

In that 20-post series, I made the case that an all-male eldership, exercising spiritual authority within a local church (as opposed to an eldership mixed with men and women), serves as that outward, sacramental reminder of the differences between male and female. Secular society today is very confused about gender; that is, we continually debate as to whether being male or female is essentially a characteristic defined at birth, or is it merely a social construct? In response, Christians who hold to an historic view of orthodox faith need to bear witness to the invisible reality that being male and female is more than just biology. Admittedly controversial for some, I contend that an all-male eldership, committed to listen to and serve men and women in a local church, empowering women to use of all of their God-given gifts for service in God’s Kingdom, has been a remarkably consistent expression of that spiritual reality, for 2,000 years of church history.

Why we need sacramental reminders, like all-male eldership and water baptism, is a great mystery. But God knows why we need these things. The problem is that we often get hung up, as Christians, on the physical, visible characteristics of the spiritual realities, which can dangerously obscure the precious inward meaning of those spiritual realities.

One more thing about this idea of conscience, with respect to baptism, and its connection to the “women in ministry” issue: We must be careful not to impose something that violates the sensitive conscience, of other Christians, in these matters.

In other words, if someone is being compelled to believe that women should not serve as elders or pastors in a church, when they are not convinced by this, then that would be a violation of conscience to impose such a belief, through something like a church doctrinal statement, to that effect. Likewise, to compel a person to submit to an eldership community, where women exercise spiritual authority, when such a person does not believe that the Scripture allows for such practice, would be a violation of their conscience.

Likewise, with baptism, having a good conscience, for me, is essential. Compelling a person to get re-baptized (??) as an adult, when the person believes that their baptism as an infant was perfectly valid, now that they have a professing faith, seems to me to be a violation of conscience. Furthermore, compelling a Christian to have a particular view of baptism, whether that be paedobaptist or credobaptist, when someone does not hold such a particular view, is also a violation of conscience.

Of course, there are plenty of churches that take definite theological positions on “women in ministry,” and baptism, that further divides the Body of Christ into particular factions. If a Christian can accept such a definite theological position, with a clean conscience, then surely, they should become (or remain) members of such a church (or churches). At the same time, such a Christian should be aware that a defined theological position, in such an area, puts one at risk of being isolated from other believers, to a certain degree, in the Body of Christ.

Yet if a person is not completely persuaded as to what they believe is the most biblically faithful view on such matters as “women in ministry” and/or baptism, then being in a community, where there is the freedom to “agree to disagree,” where one is given the freedom to work out the theological difficulties, in their own heart and mind, is a good and proper thing, that demonstrates the respect of a person’s conscience.

The surrounding secular culture, that seems so divided today, needs to see churches that display this type of community, where the principle of “agree to disagree” is lived out, where love for one another is paramount.

Nevertheless, could I worship in a church that takes a “hard line” on a particular stand about baptism? Well, it depends, but I would hope so. That is something that I would have to discuss with the elders of that church, if I am not personally convinced of that church’s view. Otherwise, I would have to register the view that I have, due to my conscience, that I am just not completely sure of the proper mode and/or timing of baptism, and see if the elders of that church would still find me as an acceptable candidate for membership in that church, if God were to lead me, in that direction.

In the end, issues like these come down to maintaining a posture of theological humility, in the Body of Christ. It is also this respect for the conscience of others, who do not necessarily accept my views. And this posture of theological humility, and respect for conscience, are things worth striving for.

That is why I desire to worship in an interdenominational church, if such an interdenominational church really exists.

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For more on baptism, see these other blog posts.


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