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How Al Mohler Gets the Bible Wrong About Women Preaching

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It seems the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is still dealing with the “problem” of women in the church.

The present dust-up started with famed SBC figure, Beth Moore, tweeting that she would be preaching at a certain church on Mother’s Day.

Now, Moore is not an advocate for women as pastors, but she does believe women can preach to the gathered church when authorized by the pastor (male pastor, of course).

For SBC life, that seems quite logical and acceptable. But the blow back to Moore’s tweet that she would be preaching was fast and furious.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has made his own views clear on this issue: Women should not preach to the gathered church.

In a podcast, where Mohler is responding to this very question, he sets forth his scriptural and theological basis for excluding women from the activity of preaching.

Of course, Mohler refers to the “plain teaching of Scripture” and the “authority of Scripture” in referencing and using the Bible.

This language is not surprising given Mohler’s commitment to biblical inerrancy. What is surprising, however, is how much he actually gets wrong about the Bible in this podcast.

Now to be fair, Mohler is responding live to a question submitted by a listener. In such situations, we all can misspeak or confuse a fact simply because of the spontaneous nature of the event.

But Mohler speaks with such confidence and certainty, one gets the impression there is no doubt about his knowledge of the Bible. For the sake of clarity, I would like to correct some of his statements about the biblical text.

In defending the banning of women from preaching, Mohler cites and comments on 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11.

First Timothy 2 states, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (1 Timothy 2:11-12).

Clear enough, right? Mohler, however, needing to ground this Scripture passage as a universal principle and practice, goes further and states that 1 Timothy “is not just written to one place at one time. The very fact that he’s writing to Timothy in a general epistle means that this is clearly for the entire church.”

A general epistle? The phrase “general epistle” is usually associated with texts like Hebrews, 1 Peter and James, which are collected together under the actual category of General Letters – letters written to a general, Christian audience.

Paul’s letters are different. Every student in a beginner’s Bible class learns that Paul’s letters are occasional, meaning that his letters are written to specific churches at specific times about specific issues.

And this occasional nature of his letters must be taken into account when interpreting his letters.

First Timothy is no different. The occasion that prompts the writing of 1 Timothy is the threat of false teachers in the church at Ephesus.

It’s the first thing we read (after the salutation): “I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3).

Even the SBC-sanctioned and inerrancy affirming New American Commentary describes the occasional and contingent nature of 1 Timothy, and the possible implications of this context for interpreting 1 Timothy 2.

The commentary ultimately does interpret the passage as having universal applicability, but at least it acknowledges the interpretative issues involved.

Mohler is simply wrong. First Timothy is not a general letter. It is occasional, and therefore, it is a legitimate, interpretative question to ask, does the occasion of 1 Timothy (the threat of false teaching) have anything to do with the particular prohibition of women teaching in 1 Timothy 2? Many interpreters think so.

Mohler’s comments on 1 Corinthians 11 are even more mind-boggling. Interestingly, Mohler only mentions 1 Corinthians 14 in passing (another passage that states women are to be silent) but does not comment on it.

For Mohler, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 describes God’s order of creation and subsequent authority that limits a woman’s role and puts her under the authority of a man. (The passage could also be read as referring to the husband/wife relationship.)

Because of this order of creation, Mohler infers that women cannot preach or teach to the gathered church.

As a matter of fact, he makes the eyebrow-raising comment, “I just think that there’s something about the created order – and I will cite Scripture on that – that God intends for the preaching voice to be a male voice.”

But here’s the fact about 1 Corinthians 11: Paul uses the order of creation to actually argue how women can speak to the gathered church!

1 Corinthians 11 addresses a situation where men and women are “praying or prophesying” in the church gathered.

Paul simply wants the women who “pray or prophesy” to have a head covering when doing so, and the order of creation (1 Corinthians 11:3, 8-16) provides the basis for his counsel.

For Paul, it is not, can a woman prophesy? It is, in what manner should she prophesy? She should have a head covering as dictated by the order of creation.

And what is prophecy? In 1 Corinthians, Paul goes on to describe those who prophesy as second only to apostles (1 Corinthians 12:28) and their function is to teach and encourage the gathered church (1 Corinthians 14:26, 31).

So, the very argument that Paul used to allow women to “pray or prophesy” in the gathered church Mohler actually uses to silence women.

Again, to be fair, Mohler does affirm that women can speak in church but only in activities like “praying and reading Scripture.”

It is telling, however, that his comment about “praying and reading Scripture” is certainly a rewording of 1 Corinthians’ “praying or prophesying” (it is in the context of his comments on 1 Corinthians 11).

His rewording seems deceptively intentional. In any case, Mohler’s application of 1 Corinthians 11 simply goes against the “plain reading of Scripture.”

I won’t say that Mohler was flippant with the Bible in his podcast. As a matter of fact, I believe Mohler is very serious about the Bible, which in turn perhaps makes his errors even more problematic.

Derek S. Dodson

Derek S. Dodson is a senior lecturer in the Department of Religion at Baylor University.