Authority, Submission, and Scripture

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Several years ago I found myself in a difficult conversation with some leaders in our church about women teaching and preaching in the church. Though I taught complementarianism, these men believed that the church should be more inclusive and cease its historic “oppression” against women.

I insisted that the offices of the church—elders and deacons—were restricted to men according to Scripture and that we, as believers and as a church, were called to submit ourselves to God’s Word. Each time I brought forward a passage of Scripture demonstrating my point, one of the men simply said, “I know that’s what it says. I just can’t go there. We have a difference of interpretation.”

He had fallen back on this “agree-to-disagree” mantra before. While his “agree-to-disagree” position seemed more tolerant at a surface-level, in actuality he used it in an attempt to press his own preference upon me (the pastor) and the church as a whole. So finally, I forced the issue.

“You keep saying, ‘We have a difference of interpretation,’” I said. “Can you show me what you mean? Would you read this?”

I then opened my Bible to 1 Timothy 2:12 and asked him to read through 1 Timothy 3:7.

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

I asked, “Do you agree that Paul is teaching that the teaching office is restricted to men?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Do you agree that Paul is teaching that a woman is not to hold a position of authority over a man in the church?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Do you agree that Paul is rooting his argument not in culture, but in creation? That he’s saying that this is not in response to what’s transpiring in Ephesus, but has roots as far back as Genesis and God’s created order?”

“I can see that,” he said. “But I just can’t go there.”

In that statement, he finally acknowledged the real problem.

“Then what we don’t have is a difference of interpretation,” I said.

It would be a difference of interpretation if he believed that I’ve misstated what Paul taught, or he believed that—despite Paul’s reference to Adam and Eve—Paul’s argument was based upon false teaching being spread by way of the women’s groups, or that the word for “authority” in that passage isn’t properly translated. All of these are different interpretations—even if wrong interpretations, in my opinion. But he agreed with every point in my interpretation of that passage. Whatever our difference was, it couldn’t be a difference of interpretation.

“This isn’t a matter of interpretation. This isn’t an interpretation issue. This is a submission issue.”

And this one moment of clarification—one of my last moments at this particular church—gave me a great concern for the state of the greater body of Christ. Far too often, we approach Holy Writ having already determined which areas of our lives it may and may not instruct us. Far too often, we position ourselves as the referees and feel free to blow the whistle whenever Scripture gets out of line with what we believe it to say or believe it should say.

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Sure, we’ll let God’s Word give us hope in the midst of trials. We’ll let it promise us blessings. We take comfort in knowing that believers are safe and secure in the hand of God. But we’re so quick to throw our yellow flag when it speaks to issues near and dear to our own comfort. We’re not comfortable with the subject of the tithe, or the manner in which it reveals God as Father, or the notion that the Son of God was made to suffer in the place of sinners to satisfy God’s wrath. We’re prone to dismiss that as culturally-irrelevant or (though few would say it outright) simply wrong.

But we’re not given that option.

We’re called to search out the Scriptures honestly. We’re called to discern what God has said and is saying and to submit ourselves to that. God has spoken. Do we dare shake our fist at him and tell him which areas of our life are available to his instruction? We are not given the option to decide that simply because we don’t like a particular doctrine, we are not bound to submit ourselves to it.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). There is no asterisk to provide an “out” for cases in which we don’t like what those passages teach. There is no footnote that excuses those texts that expound doctrine contrary to our own preferences.

You may disagree with my interpretation of Scripture. You wouldn’t be the first. But, if you intend to do so, please do it because you are convinced that your interpretation is the most faithful to the Bible, not because you don’t like the conclusion of my interpretation.

If we are both attempting to be submitted to the Scriptures—rather than submitting those Scriptures to our own preferences and presuppositions—it changes our posture toward one another. Instead of being combative or viewing ourselves as different factions in a doctrinal dispute, we become fellow-pilgrims on the same path, encouraging one another to grow in our understanding of and obedience to God’s Word.

It all comes down to submission.

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