Seven Habits of Highly Effective Churches, #2

Values Its Theological Diversity

July 20, 1997

Comedian Emo Philips tells this story:

In conversation with a person I had recently met, I asked, "Are you Protestant or Catholic?"

My new acquaintance replied, "Protestant."

I said, "Me too! What franchise?"

He answered, "Baptist."

"Me too!" I said. "Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"

"Northern Baptist," he replied.

"Me too!" I shouted.

We continued to go back and forth. Finally I asked, "Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879 or Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great lakes Region, Council of 1912?"

He replied, "Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great lakes Region, Council of 1912."

I said, "Die, heretic!"

Ouch! That’s far too close to home to be funny for some of us. We were raised on the "principle of exclusion" and defined our identity as faithful Christians by the number of other believers we rejected. Some of us were taught to fear — no, eliminate — all vestiges of theological diversity. That spirit resulted in drawing the circle ever tighter. Sometimes it was so tight that one could not get himself or herself completely in it while standing flat-footed. And standing tip-toe on one foot in order to pretend to be in that tiny circle was terribly uncomfortable.

Is there no way to live with fellow-Christians with whom one has disagreements? Must every disagreement result in division? In order to have unity, must all distinctive points of view be abandoned? To the contrary, one of the features of a highly effective church is its ability to deal with theological diversity.

A Call to Biblical Tolerance

My primary concern is to challenge us to be about things that are biblical. So let’s look at a text of Scripture that addresses the issue at stake here. My comments will be based on Romans 14:1 — 15:13. This section of Paul's most sublime epistle deals with doctrinal differences among baptized believers.

Maybe hearing these verses from a fresh, contemporary paraphrase will make them emphatic to all of us:

Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don't see things the way you do. And don't jump all over them every time they do or say something you don't agree with — even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently. . . .

None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It's God we are answerable to — all the way from life to death and everything in between — not each other. That's why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.

So where does that leave you when you criticize a brother? And where does that leave you when you condescend to a sister? I'd say it leaves you looking pretty silly — or worse. Eventually, we're all going to end up kneeling side by side in the place of judgment, facing God. Your critical and condescending ways aren't going to improve your position there one bit. . . .

Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don't impose it on others. You're fortunate if your behavior and your belief are coherent. But if you're not sure, if you notice that you are acting in ways inconsistent with what you believe — some days trying to impose your opinions on others, other days just trying to please them — then you know that you're out of line. If the way you live isn't consistent with what you believe, then it's wrong. . . .

So reach out and welcome one another to God's glory. Jesus did it; now you do it! (Rom. 14:1, 7-10, 22-23; 15:7, The Message).1

Because of these appeals from the Word of God, there are three biblical actions that I believe men and women of good will are obligated to take. These three biblical actions are deeds of acceptance, reconciliation, and unity.

First, we must accept one another — even though we disagree on a number of theological issues — as brothers beloved of God. "Accept one another, then," pleaded Paul, "just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God" (Rom. 15:7).

Second, we must not only acknowledge one another to be brothers in Christ but be reconciled to one another. We are free to hold and practice our different points of view, but we are not free to judge one another. We must love one another sincerely.

Third, we must begin to practice unity within and among our churches. We can love one another and join with each other at various times to give a shared witness to the world about the foundational elements of our faith in Christ Jesus.

Today’s Sticky Issue: The Role of Women

The "hot topic" for discussion in churches right now seems to be the issue of male and female leadership roles in local churches. Again, following the counsel of Romans 14, individuals will have to face the issue, study the biblical material carefully, and draw their personal conclusions. When those conclusions have been drawn, we will have to resist the temptation to sit in judgment on those who come to different interpretations.

In congregational life, someone will have to make a judgment as to what position that church will take on female participation in the life of that body. That is the role of elder-shepherds for each local church. Different congregations will have different "policies" on the matter. Then it becomes the duty of churches to treat each other with the respect and deference individuals are called to exercise. One church cannot condemn another or excommunicate it for drawing a different conclusion and living a different policy without violating the express mandate of Scripture.

This church adopts a more open policy for female participation in church life than many congregations in the Church of Christ. Yet we are more prohibitive than some. For the sake of letting you know why we do what we do — and this particularly for the sake of new or prospective members — this is probably a good time to state our policy and the reasoning behind it.

In the discussion of a woman's role in the church, there is very little disagreement on some fundamental matters. It is clear, for example, that the early Christians had no question about admitting women to "full membership" in the church (cf. Acts 1:14; 8:3; 9:2, et al.). Women are "heirs with [men] of the gracious gift of life" (1 Pet. 3:7b). The conversion of a woman named Lydia — the first convert known to us in Europe — is even one of the special cases of conversion recorded in Acts (Acts 16:14ff).

The interpretive and practical rub comes when we move out of the area of the church's primary works of compassion, charity, and service to standing up and/or speaking out in a church's plenary assembly or in Bible classes where adult males are present. The two critical texts that can be cited in connection with this issue are both from Paul.

1 Corinthians 14:33b-35

The first passage that must be examined is this: "As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church."

Taken at face value and without qualification, this text requires more than anyone has been willing to demand.

The verb translated "remain silent" is an imperative form of the Greek verb sigao. It means "a. say nothing, keep silent ... b. stop speaking, become silent ... c. hold one's tongue, keep someth. (a) secret."2 Its corresponding noun (sige) means "silence, quiet in the sense of the absence of all noise, whether made by speaking or by anything else."3 This word means that in whatever situation was in view by Paul in this text, females were not allowed to open their mouths. They couldn't make a sound. They had to wait until the service was over even to ask a question about what had happened.

I repeat: Taken at face value and without qualification, this text requires more than anyone has been willing to demand. If this verse governs the conduct of Christian women in church assemblies, then females can't confess their faith in Christ publicly or sing praise to the Lord! Furthermore, if this is a prohibition of all speaking by women in all Christian assemblies, Paul has contradicted his own instruction earlier in the same epistle (11:5). Is there an obvious qualification to this requirement of absolute silence?

A fundamental rule of biblical interpretation has to do with context. Every statement of Scripture must be read within its setting and not yanked out to serve as a free-standing pronouncement. The larger environment of Paul's strict demand for silence was his discussion of assemblies in which supernatural gifts such as tongues and prophecy were supplied by the Holy Spirit. The immediate context of his statement is the authoritative review and interpretation of the songs, tongues, and prophecies that have been offered in a particular assembly of that type. "Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said" (11:29).

The issue for the sisters in those assemblies, then, was not confessing Christ or singing — or even, in these Spirit-driven services, praying aloud or prophesying -- but presiding over these services and/or authoritative pronouncements about things that had transpired during them.

The authority to preside over a church's meetings and to render decisions about its affairs was vested in its male leaders at Corinth; it was in these leader-authority roles that women were to defer to their Christian brothers and "remain silent in the churches."

1 Timothy 2:8-12

The second critical passage is found in the Pastoral Epistles: "I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent."

First, this text does not enjoin a tight-lipped ban against women speaking in church assemblies. The word translated "quietness" (v.11) or "silent" (v.12) is not sigao but hesukia. It refers less to a person's speech than to his or her spirit of inner peace and ability to live in peace and harmony with others.4 For example, Paul has already used the same word in verse two of the "peaceful and quiet lives" Christians pray to live in the larger society. Believers want to live in harmony with others and with proper regard for "all those in authority," but this implies nothing about restraint from oral expression.

Second, this text is apparently the general rule for male and female relationships in Christ. As opposed to the special circumstances of Corinth, this is a broad outline of how the two sexes relate to each other in the churches of Christ. There is no contextual indication that it applies only with some degree of qualification or to assemblies of a unique type. To the contrary, verses 13-15 appear to ground this rule in creation and the fall. Thus its source is not custom but trans-cultural events.

Third, it does not question a woman's right to confess Christ or sing to the Lord. It does not prohibit her speaking, testifying, or raising questions in the assembly. It does not preclude her teaching mixed groups such as classes or small-group Bible studies. It says nothing against her right to articulate her prayers aloud in a family setting, study group, or devotional.

The text at hand almost incidentally reminds women of their responsibility of submission while nudging the men of the church to take their leadership role seriously. "I want men (Gk, aner = males as opposed to females) to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing." Since the lifting up of holy hands seems to imply a public posture that signifies a call to prayer, my opinion is that this text refers to a church in plenary session rather than devotionals or small groups. Consistent with the particular application of this principle at Corinth, Paul reminds everyone that the overriding issue is leadership-submission. "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man."

Before leaving this issue of a woman having authority over a man, let me address a point of confusion I seem to bump into at every turn. Having or "usurping" (KJV) authority has nothing to do with standing up! Now this could be a sore point with some, and I don’t mean to be pouring salt into that wound. But I would encourage those among us who are bothered by praise teams with female members or women testifying in assemblies to separate the concepts of authority and leadership from the matter of bodily posture. Will you sing in a worship assembly that has a solitary male leader in front of the group? Will you sing in that assembly if not only that lone male but six others — three males and three females — are microphoned and sitting on the front seat during the singing? What difference is made by having all those people miked, standing, and facing the audience? Is sitting facing south scriptural and standing facing north unscriptural? There is absolutely no difference at all with regard to leadership and authority.

What about a solo by a woman or a female ensemble? We’ve always had them in the Church of Christ. Until you reach the chorus, "Angry Words" is sung by female voices only. "Holy, Holy, Holy" is often sung by the addition of parts and harmonies on successive lines. So females sing the first and second verses, with males joining on the third and fourth. There are several songs of the same nature that we have used for decades without anyone questioning or protesting their use. If the difference now is that the woman or group of women is standing rather than sitting, then there is no difference whatever — no difference, that is, that matters.

But there is one more objection that could still be made with legitimacy. "If there is no real difference, then why do it at all?" asks someone. First, it should be done for the sake of allowing women to whom God has given spiritual gifts to use them — not just in "secular" settings but for the glory of the Lord in his church. Second, it should be done for the sake of communicating to non-Christians that the church is not sexist and unwilling to permit women to function in ways that are biblically approved. Third, it is just as wrong to impose a prohibition where God has given liberty as it is to ignore a prohibition God has put in place.


I need the experience of living in healthy tension with people around me whose points of view challenge my own, whose thinking is not a carbon copy of my own, but whose love for God and Scripture is as emphatic as my own. I need brothers and sisters around me to challenge my view about divorce and remarriage, the role of women, or the value of certain ministries. As iron sharpens iron, our vigorous and respectful challenges to one another’s points of view will keep us intellectually honest and spiritually sensitive.

The late Francis Schaeffer wrote of "two principles which at first seem to work against each other: (1) the principle of the practice of the purity of the visible church in regard to doctrine and life and (2) the principle of the practice of an observable love and oneness among all true Christians." Those two principles are, of course, the same as the first and second traits of a highly effective church that are being traced here. They are not antithetical. Indeed, they are ideals toward which we must strive — for the unity of the church and for the salvation of a watching world.


1Eugene Peterson, The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993).

2Bauer, Gingrich, and Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, 2nd ed., p. 749.

3Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, pp. 749-750.

4Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, p. 349.

5Francis A. Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the 20th Century (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1970), p. 149.

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