An Interview with Phil Johnson, Part 2

Photo: GraceLife Pulpit

Yesterday I posted Part 1 of an interview with Phil Johnson, Executive Director of Grace to You, former blogger at Pyromaniacs and keeper of the online treasure trove known as The Spurgeon Archive. The first portion of the conversation found us discussing Phil’s life post-Internet as well as his thoughts on the role of discernment ministries in the church.

Today I’d like to share the second half of our conversation, wherein I asked Phil to contribute his thoughts about the growing problem of women teaching and taking authority within the evangelical church.

An issue that I think should be of growing concern among evangelicals is that of women pastors. This trend seems to be coming into the mainstream. Some would say this is a secondary issue, which tends to imply that it’s unimportant. What’s your take?

I don’t think it’s on the same level as the doctrine of justification by faith or anything like that. It is a classic example of why I don’t like dividing all doctrine up into primary and secondary issues. When I say something is a primary issue, I mean that if you don’t believe this, then I don’t think you’re a believer and I can’t embrace you as a brother or sister in Christ. If you reject the deity of Christ or the doctrine of justification by faith or the inspiration and authority of Scripture, then I don’t think you’re really a believer at all. That’s what I mean when I say something is a primary issue.

To a lot of people when you say something is a secondary issue, you’re saying, “Well, it doesn’t really matter to me what you think.” It does matter.

There are several doctrines that I wouldn’t necessarily consider primary that I nevertheless think are supremely important. Like the doctrine of Hell; I wouldn’t call that a primary issue. I mean, there have been good men, I think, men who God has clearly used to clarify important biblical doctrines who believe in conditional immortality. I think they are dead wrong. John Stott, for example, seemed to waffle on the issue of Hell. I wouldn’t say I don’t think he was a true believer, but I do think he was seriously wrong enough on the issue that it needs to be definitively rebuked and corrected.

I would put the issue of women teaching [in the same category]. Women in positions of leadership over men, that is the issue. For a woman to be in any position of leadership over men in the church is a violation of clear teaching of Scripture. If you’re willing to twist your understanding of Scripture or put enough latitude into the potential meaning of words to tolerate that, then I don’t really trust your judgment on other important issues.

So I would say that’s one of those second-tier primary issues. It’s not fundamental in the sense that you’re not a believer if you don’t believe this, but it’s a primary issue nevertheless in the sense that it’s important enough to me that I wouldn’t want to partner in ministry with someone who rejected it.

You wouldn’t take the platform with a woman pastor or with a man who affirms women pastors?

No. I wouldn’t speak in a church that I knew let women be in positions of authority over men. Once you start making accommodations and exceptions it’s only a matter of time before you’re ordaining women.

So where should the line be drawn?

What’s most unbiblical is easily boiled down to this: women are not supposed to have authority over men in the church. Whether that’s leading the choir…I went to a church for years where the pastor’s wife was the choir director. This was in my younger years and it didn’t occur to me to question that until she started using her authority to scold men in the choir who were elders in the church! She may even have been right on the issue, but here’s the pastor’s wife giving a public scolding to an elder in our church. It made me think about it.

The biblical issue is the question of authority. It’s not to say that men are smarter than women; it’s not to say that men inherently are better teachers than women, none of that is the case. It’s just the order God established for authority and it’s an issue of authority and the leadership duty in the church.

It’s for the women’s benefit as well, that men, their husbands and fathers and the men in the church, should take leadership because you can see in our culture what happens when this is reversed. When you have a woman who is the spiritual authority in her family, then the family can get out of whack. And the woman is the first one to complain, “My husband’s not being the leader he should be,” and that’s true. It’s as much a sin of the men as it is of the women.

The problem with the church and the feminization of the church is not that “pushy” women have intruded on the leadership, but that men abdicated their responsibility. That was the first problem, the heart of the problem, and if the men would be the men they’re supposed to be, this wouldn’t even be an issue.

It’s a failure of male leadership in the church. But you can’t take a pragmatic view and say, “Well, there are no men to lead so let’s let the women lead,” because then you’ve basically overthrown Scripture.

I remember having these conversations in college, in my Missions class. I went to Moody, so the classes were denominationally mixed. In those days, in the ‘70s, the evangelical climate was not in favor of female leadership in the church. But I remember having these discussions in the context of missions. What if you’re on the mission field and the only mature Christian is a woman, should she lead the church? And the general consensus in the classroom and even among some of our faculty at that time was that yes, in extraordinary circumstances it was okay for a woman to lead the church. And I think once you start making pragmatic accommodations like that, you’ve pretty much broken down a barrier that’s going to lead to the ordination of women, and that’s what’s happened.

It doesn’t boil down to something as simple as, “Should women literally keep silent and never say anything?” The issue is authority and if you take all of those texts in context, you can see that. Paul is saying men should lead the church. Qualified men should lead the church. It’s just as bad for unqualified men to lead the church as it is for women to lead the church. So it’s not a sexist thing, it’s just that this is the way that God has established order in the church. Christ is the head and He has under-shepherds who are qualified men. Both disqualified men and women who take that office have intruded into a role that God hasn’t assigned to them and that’s disobedience.

What if a woman is teaching mixed audiences outside of the context of the local church, such as at conferences or on a television show?

Teaching inherently entails the exercise of authority. If you are teaching, you are exercising authority. If you’re teaching biblical material, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the context of the local church or not, you are exercising the authority of Scripture. If you’re teaching biblical material to fellow Christians, whether it is a home Bible study or a conference somewhere, that’s still what Paul meant by “in the church.”

For the record, I agree with all that you’ve said here and I appreciate you lending a voice of authority to the issue.

Moving on, it’s clear that, ultimately, we cannot change the trajectory of the church. The state of the visible church is getting worse and we were told it would happen that way.

And it’s happened in waves. That’s why I’m not terribly discouraged. I read a lot of church history, and it has been this bad before. In fact in some ways I think it’s worse now than in Luther’s day. We’re due another Reformation. But it does seem to me that if you watch church history, the church declines and declines. It’s a long, slow process of serious decline and then something happens to revive the Gospel and revive the Church. I just hope I live to see that happen one more time…or the Lord comes back!

One of those two things has to happen, but I’m not discouraged. The gates of Hell will not prevail against the church. The visible church gets bigger and uglier, but that is exactly what Christ said would happen. He said that there would be this proliferation of false christs, false gospels and false prophets. In some ways it is exciting to be living in the midst of that and realize that we’re right on schedule. Either the Lord is going to revive the Church or the Lord is going to return. It can’t get much worse than it is, right?

It seems like it can’t, but I suspect it will!

Well the other option is, and this could happen in our lifetime too, that governments fall apart and persecution attacks the church and that would also purify the church.

I went to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe just a month after the fall of the Soviet Union. It absolutely amazed me. I’d always had this image of Russia as an atheistic nation with no believers, or maybe a few pockets of believers here and there. But it amazed me to see how healthy and vibrant and large and visible the church was as soon as the Iron Curtain fell. Here were all of these people who were healthier [in their faith] than Western Christianity.

If you think about it, the church today is most alive and most vibrant, in some ways, in what used to be the Soviet Bloc, while in Western Europe which has been “free” for all these generations, the church is utterly and totally dead. So there is a value to persecution. I don’t long for it or want to see it, but I don’t dread it either.

Well, I’ve kept you long enough. Can you offer a final word of encouragement for those who tend to take to heart the abysmal state of the church?

If I just step back and look at the spiritual state of the Church in my lifetime, I think things have actually gotten better rather than worse. Not that that’s true of the evangelical movement as a whole, which has gotten bigger and more apostate.

I spent years thinking the whole evangelical world is mad and doctrinally astray. I still think that. But as the years have gone by, I think the remnant has gotten larger. The big zoo gets bigger and crazier, but within that there’s a bigger remnant than there used to be, and I think we see that. While it’s true that the evangelical movement as a whole has gotten bigger and crazier, it’s also true that the remnant has grown bigger and stronger.

While it’s sad that men like Bill Hybels and James MacDonald and men who are enthralled with numbers and money are having the kind of influence they are, at the same time I think one of the unintended side effects of all that…maybe I shouldn’t say unintended, because I think that this is always the Lord’s design…He’s raising up a faithful remnant of people who will be stronger for the fact that they see those errors and understand those problems and they’re committed to resist those kind of things.

Christians need to be encouraged to embrace that concept; God deals with a remnant. The Lord doesn’t advance the Gospel by majority opinion or by popularity polls and we have to stop trying to use pollsters and political clout and all that as the gauge of whether we’re really being effective.

I’d like to thank Phil for taking the time to chat and discuss these important issues. Our conversation was quite edifying for me, and I pray that the reader was blessed while “listening in.”