The author of The Purpose Driven Life reveals the Bible verses that convinced him to ordain female leaders at Saddleback church
Most people think that if you change your mind on the issue of women in church leadership you must be caving in to culture. You must be becoming a liberal. You must not believe the Bible anymore.
None of those things are true of me. I have had pressure to change my theology for years. I’ve travelled to countries where women lead churches that have 40,000 people in them – far bigger than anything in the UK or America. That didn’t change my mind. What changed my mind was scripture.
The Great Commission
In 2018, I became the leader of the Finishing The Task coalition, which is about 2,000 denominations, mission agencies and organisations all around the world committed to fulfilling the Great Commission in our lifetime – by AD 2033.
In preparation for that, I started studying the Great Commission in detail. When Covid-19 hit and churches closed I had more time to read. I read over 200 books on the Great Commission, but what really influenced me was three specific passages in the Bible.
First, in Matthew 28:18 Jesus says: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
There are four verbs in the Great Commission: go, make disciples, baptise and teach. Men and women are to do all four things. Women are to go, women are to make disciples. Women are to baptise and women are to teach. You can’t say: “Well, the first two are for men and women, but the second two are only for men.” The Great Commission was given to every person; not just men and not just ordained people.
Secondly, on the day of Pentecost we know that women were in the Upper Room. It wasn’t just men who received the Holy Spirit. Women were preaching on the very first day of the Church, to that huge crowd that had come from all over the world.
How do we know women were preaching to men on the very first day of the Church? Because Peter felt obligated to explain it (Acts 2:16-21). It was so different from the Old Testament, where only ordained men from the tribe of Levi got to be priests, that Peter explained it as the coming of the prophecy in the Book of Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below.”
Now everybody gets the Holy Spirit: sons and daughters, young and old, men and women. Nobody gets left out.
Finally, you go back to the resurrection. On Easter morning, Jesus tells a woman to preach the message of the good news. The first Christian sermon was preached by a woman; she preached it to the apostles, an all-male group (John 20:17). Not only did that happen when Jesus died, but also when he was born. God tells Anna, who is a prophetess in the temple, about the baby Jesus (Luke 2:36-29), and she starts preaching to everybody that the Messiah is here.
Why did God choose a woman to announce the incarnation? And why did God choose a woman to announce the resurrection? These are verses everybody else wants to ignore, but they are the verses that changed my mind on the subject of women leaders.
Saddleback Church has baptised more new believers than any church in American history. In the 43 years I was pastor there, we baptised 57,000 new believers. That’s unheard of.
How did we baptise so many? Because in our church, if you lead someone to Christ you get to baptise them. If a wife leads her husband to Christ, she gets to baptise him. If a parent leads their child, or a friend leads a friend to Christ, they get to baptise them.
That’s what the Church did in its first 300 years. There was no clergy/laity split; it was everybody taking hold of the Great Commission. That was the fastest period of growth for the Church. It grew about 50 per cent a decade for 300 years. It went from 140 people in the Upper Room to the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman denarius in 7 AD has a picture of Caesar on it, and in about 350 AD, the Roman denarius has a cross on it. That’s culture change.
I believe the Church at its birth is the Church at its best, and if we go back and do it the way the New Testament Christians did it, we’ll win all the UK and Europe and the rest of the world to Christ.