Last week, Russell Moore interviewed the recently retired pastor Rick Warren—author of The Purpose Driven Life—on his show.
They discussed his pastoral transition and plans for the future, as well as the disfellowshipping of Saddleback Church from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) for hiring a female teaching pastor on its staff.
As the planter and former pastor of the well-known congregation, Warren shared how his views on women in church leadership changed when he re-examined certain scriptures like the Great Commission.
The following excerpt is adapted from the original audio, which can be listened to here.
Rick: I’m ready here to join in the former Southern Baptist support group with Beth Moore, with Russell Moore, and a few others. This last week I got kicked out. It’s not a surprise to me actually. I started Saddleback Church 43 years ago—I am a fourth-generation Southern Baptist, and my grandfather Chester Armstrong was related to Annie Armstrong …
My great-great-grandfather was led to Christ by Charles Spurgeon and sent to America to plant churches in the 1860s. So, I have a long Baptist background. But you know what? We’ve done so many things not by the book. [Back] in 1980 when I started the church, we didn’t put Baptist in the name—now that was unheard of 40 years ago. … It’s a different Convention than it was when we’re missing those great statesmen that used to be here….
Russell: You said you weren’t surprised. I was bowled over. Just because I would think—with all of the crises involving the treatment of women and sexual abuse within the SBC—that saying a church is giving women too much is really not the problem in the SBC [as I see it. I couldn’t believe that is what they were taking up. …]
Rick: Lemme say a word about that. It’s not an accident that the same voices that said, “We cannot protect women from abuse because of the autonomy of the local church” are the same voices that are saying, “But we can prevent them from being called pastors in the autonomy of the local church.” So, the autonomy only matters if it’s convenient for you.
In other words, they clearly think, We have a say in your church over staff titles, but it was a misnomer to say, “We can’t do anything—we’re not responsible for this abuse that’s going on because they’re all independent autonomous churches.” Nonsense.
Russell: Some of them would probably say the confession of faith says that the office of pastor [is] to be held by men [as] qualified by Scripture. And Saddleback now has women pastors. How do you see that?
Rick: Well, in the first place, Southern Baptists have always been anticredal. I grew up with the phrase, “We have no creed but Christ; we have no book but the Bible.” This is not a battle between [theological] liberals and conservatives. [The] liberals left a long time ago. Everybody in the SBC believes in the inerrancy of Scripture. Now we’re talking about difference of interpretation. Those particular passages—Titus, Timothy, and Corinthians—have hundreds, literally hundreds, of interpretations.
We should be able to expel people over sin, racism, sexual abuse, other sexual sins, things like that. But this is over … You mean, wait a minute, we can disagree over the Atonement; we can disagree over election; and we can disagree over dispensationalism; we can disagree over [the] Second Coming; we can disagree over the nature of sin; but we can’t disagree over what you name your staff?
Here’s the difference: This is the same old battle that’s been going on for a hundred years in the SBC … between conservative Baptist and fundamental Baptist. Now fundamentalism is a word that has changed meaning.
A hundred years ago, I would’ve called myself a fundamentalist. Because in the 1920s, it meant you hold the historic doctrines of the church, the blood atonement of Christ, the authority of Scripture—all of the basic cardinal doctrines of evangelical Protestantism. But that word has changed, because now we have fundamental Muslims, fundamental Buddhists. We have fundamental atheists. We have fundamental communists. We have fundamentalists who are secularists. Today, a fundamentalist means you’ve stopped listening...
So, number one, I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. I do not believe in the inerrancy of your interpretation—nor of mine for that matter. Which is why I have to say I could be wrong. We have to approach Scripture humbly, saying, “I could be wrong.” You’ll never hear a fundamentalist say that: “I could be wrong.” … A conservative Baptist believes in the inerrancy of Scripture. A fundamentalist Baptist believes in the inerrancy of their interpretation. That’s a big difference.
Russell: But you of course would agree that if Saddleback had baptized babies, for instance, that other churches would say, “Okay, we have all kinds of churches that do that, but Saddleback’s not a Baptist church if they do that.”
Rick: Exactly, yeah. Here’s the thing: I believe the church at its best was the church at its birth. And honestly, I have to say this—I wasn’t planning on talking about this with you, Russell.
First, I understand why people get upset about this because I believed the way they did until three years ago. And I actually had to change because of Scripture. Culture could not change me on this issue. Anecdotes could not change me on this issue. Pressure from other people would not change me on this issue. What changed me was when I came into confrontation with four scriptures nobody ever talked about that I felt had strong implications about women in ministry, and nobody had ever shown it to me.
I knew the Titus passage. I knew the Timothy passage. I knew 1 Corinthians, and every time people [would] say, “Why don’t you have women pastors?” I would say, “Show me a verse. [If] you gimme one verse, I’ll consider it because I’m a Bible guy.” You can’t just say, “Everybody’s doing it.” Or “I’ve been to 165 countries, and I’ve seen churches of 30-, 40-, 50,000 people led by a senior pastor who’s a woman.” That’s not enough for me. I have to have a biblical basis.
Three years ago, right after I had taken the leadership of Finishing the Task—and that’s something else I hope we can talk about later on—when COVID[-19] hit, I started reading every book I could find on the Great Commission and on church history. I read over 200 books on the Great Commission and on the history of missions, and I was asking two questions.
One, why did the church grow fastest in the first 300 years? We went from 120 people in the upper room to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in 300 years. In my library, I have a Roman denarius of 87 with Caesar on the coin, but in 320, I’ve got a picture of a denarius with a cross on the coin. That’s major cultural change.
And the church grew about 50 percent a decade for the first 300 years. And I made a list of about 25 things that they did that we’re not doing today as a church. I also made a list of the things that we have that we think we have to have [but] that they didn’t have. They didn’t have planes, trains, automobiles; they didn’t have church buildings.
There were no church buildings in the fastest period of growth of the church. For the first 300 years—I’ve been in the oldest church in Maaloula, Syria, in a small little church that seats about 50 people—they had no pulpits. The idea that one guy would stand behind a pulpit preaching—that wasn’t New Testament worship.
Paul says, “Everybody has a song; everybody has a Scripture; everybody has a teaching.” It was in a house, and everybody shared—it wasn’t one guy who sits still while I instill. That’s our cultural imposition. And so, what did they do?
They didn’t have a printing press. They didn’t have the internet. They didn’t have radio, TV, and yet they grew faster in the first 300 years than any other period of time.
Then in the next 1700 years, I was asking, what went wrong? In 1988, the IMB (International Mission Board) hired an Anglican scholar, David Barrett … And he wrote a book called the 700 Plans to [Evangelize the World] and complete the Great Commission from AD 0 to 1988.
I’ve used that book for the last three years as an index to study why we didn’t get it done, what went wrong. And it even tells you the Catholics had this many plans, and the Anabaptists had this plan, and the Lutherans and Methodists there, and you can look at them all. And I’ve seen all the things they did wrong.
Anyway, that study caused me to change my view about women. Nothing else could have [changed] it as I came upon three different scriptures. First, the Great Commission. Now Baptists—Southern Baptists—like to call ourselves “Great Commission Baptist,” and we claim that we believe the Great Commission is for everyone, [that] both men and women are to fulfill the Great Commission.
Well, not really—you don’t believe that, because it says there are four verbs in the Great Commission: “Go, make disciples, baptize, and teach.” Women are to go, women are to make disciples, women are to baptize, and women are to teach, not just men.
Now, this is one of the reasons why Saddleback has baptized more people than any church in American history: 57,000 adult baptisms in 43 years. Why? Because in our church, if you win them to Christ, you get to baptize them. So, if a mom wants to baptize her child or a wife wants to baptize her husband that she led to Christ—anybody can baptize anybody they led to Christ...
It’s the liberation, the emancipation of “every member is a minister,” that … truly, we believe in the priesthood of the priests most of the time instead of the priesthood of the believer.
Now, the Great Commission: go, make disciples, baptize, teach. You can’t say the first two are for men and women [and] the last two are only for men—or maybe just ordained men. That’s eisegesis. You got a problem.
Who authorized women to teach? Jesus. “All authority is given to me; therefore, teach. All authority is given to me; therefore, baptize.” You got a problem with the Great Commission. I had to repent when I actually looked at the Great Commission. I had to say, “It’s not just for ordained men; it’s for everybody.”
The second thing that changed my mind was the Day of Pentecost. Two things happened on that day. We know the first day of the church is its birth, is the church at its best. On that day at Pentecost, we know women were in the upper room. We know women were filled with the Holy Spirit; we know that women were preaching in languages that other people couldn’t [understand], to a mixed audience. It wasn’t just men—women were preaching on the Day of Pentecost.
How do we know that? Because Peter felt obligated to explain it. And so, in Acts chapter two, verses 17 and 18, he goes, “Hey, guys, these people aren’t drunk. What you’re seeing was foretold by Joel. It was gonna happen.” And so he explains why you’re now seeing women preaching on the very first day of the church. He explains it and he says, “This is that, that Joel predicted.”
And here’s what he says. “In the last days”—and clearly that means Peter thought the last days began with the birth of the church; we’re in the latter of the last days. Now, we don’t know how many more there will be, but the last days began with the birth of the church. Peter says, “In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” All flesh. “Your sons and daughters will prophesy.”
That’s different than the Old Testament. I’ve looked at over 300 commentaries on those verses, and it’s interesting to me that almost everybody goes, “Yep, in the church, everybody gets to pray, everybody gets to preach, everybody gets to prophesy.” And the people who don’t like that ignore that verse. John MacArthur doesn’t even cover that verse. He just skips over it.
And then the third thing that changed my mind—see, none of this had to do with culture; it had to do with Scripture—and then all of a sudden, I noticed that the very first sermon, the very first Christian sermon, the message of the gospel of Good News of the Resurrection, Jesus chose a woman to deliver it to men.
He had Mary Magdalene go and tell the disciples. Now, that clearly wasn’t an accident. It was intentional. It’s a whole new world. Now he has a woman go tell the apostles. Can a woman teach an apostle? Evidently. [Jesus] did it on the first day—he chose her to be the first preacher of the gospel.
Russell: So, you would—after the last three years—you would support men and women as elders, as senior pastor, as everything within the church?
Rick: I would. But here’s what I say—because I have to say, this is my interpretation. I have to say with humility, it doesn’t bother me if you disagree with me.
For 2,000 years, the church has debated the role of women in culture, but to make it the litmus test for “Are you a Baptist or not?” is nonsense. Because the very first Baptist confession, the 1610, says the officers of the church are elders, not pastors, and deacons and deaconesses. That’s the original Baptist confession. So, do you wanna go back to the original or not?
And so, go read the preamble of the Baptist faith message, which it says, “This is not binding on anybody.” It says it in the preamble: this is not binding on any church. But now we’re turning it—a confession—into a creed, and we’re weaponizing it. We’re starting an inquisition. And if this now falls into place, any pastor each week can stand up and say, “I wanna kick out that church because they disagree on dispensationalism.”
We should kick out churches for sin. We should kick out churches that harm the testimony of the convention. This isn’t harming the testimony of anybody. And it’s what’s a disputable issue, as Paul says in Romans 14. The problem with fundamentalists is there are no disputable, no secondary issues with them. Every one of them matters.