LifeWay Christian Resources is a Southern Baptist agency, meaning that, as a company, they hold to the same theological convictions and beliefs as Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches. As a company, they are self-sustaining and take no funding from the churches. So they determine what is published, distributed and marketed within their stores.
But despite the company’s ties to the SBC, their business decisions may not necessarily line up with their beliefs on a consistent basis. In 2000, the churches collectively affirmed a conservative stance on women’s roles in the church (in a nutshell, that God requires male leadership in the home and church; check out I Tim. 2 and Eph. 5), which is why I was surprised to learn that among the company’s newly published authors, Heather Zempel of Washington, D.C., is a female pastor of discipleship.
While her role could be described as a “director of education,” Zempel is specifically labeled a “pastor” and occasionally preaches at her church. (Incidentally, Zempel’s church makes the distinction in titles between “pastor” and “director” when referring to women on their staff.) In addition to being marketed on LifeWay’s website as a “pastor of discipleship,” Zempel also toured as a speaker with LifeWay’s “Connect Conferences,” during September 2009.
After emailing Zempel, she directed me to a two-year-old post written on her blog explaining her position on women’s roles within the church and her personal journey toward reconciling Biblical passages on church order with her role as a female pastor. Zempel understands Biblical passages outlining male leadership in the church to be culturally limited to the first century. Therefore, I Tim. 2:12 (I do not allow a woman to teach or have authority over men …) would not apply to us today. Zempel also justifies her pastoral and preaching role within her church by the fact that she is sanctioned by her (male) senior pastor.
My personal correspondence with Zempel has been warm and receptive. No doubt, she is a gifted individual who loves the Lord and wants to serve Him. While her understanding of women’s leadership in the church differs from a more conservative interpretation, her heart for ministry is certainly not in question. Her relationship to LifeWay does, however, suggest an inconsistency between the convictions of the corporation and the integrity with which it affiliates itself with those that don’t agree with those convictions. In fact, it can communicate to people like you and me that it’s “no big deal,” for a woman to be a pastor or that it is just another “gray area” in our culture that doesn’t apply today, despite Scripture’s clear teaching on the subject.
Jim Johnston, Director of LifeWay’s Young Adults division, affirmed that LifeWay believes the pastoral role to be reserved for men. He gave this explanation: “When we decided to publish Heather’s resource, “Sacred Roads,” we were not as informed as we should have been. We discovered more about Heather’s understanding of her calling, gifting and role in preaching in her church. If we had known this in advance, we would have known that LifeWay was not the best publisher for her.”
And yet this is perhaps even more concerning: not only did a theologically conservative company publish and market an author who disagrees with a critical aspect of their convictions, but they neglected to fully discover the views and ministry of that author before initiating the business relationship (a deficiency that could have been easily corrected by thoroughly interviewing Zempel or simply perusing her blog). Yet despite this, perhaps LifeWay’s awareness of their inconsistency can be seen in comparing two of their websites. The trendy, target-audience marketed threadsmedia.com lists Zempel as a pastor, while on their more mainstream – and no doubt more heavily frequented – lifewaystores.com, the company simply labels her “on staff.” Even more alarming is the fact that the company sells female clergy attire in their catalogue.
I’m thankful for companies like LifeWay and their mission to provide churches with teaching materials. But they seem to have looked the other way when it comes to endorsing women as pastors and that, for LifeWay, is the wrong way.
Before we purchase and implement the newest product from even a solidly Christian company we must use discernment. I Thessalonians 5:21 commands us to examine everything and hold fast to what is good. The word “examine” comes from a Greek word “dokimazete” meaning “to test, prove, and scrutinize” to see whether a thing is genuine or not. Interestingly, the word used for “good” here is not the more common “agathos,” meaning “useful, pleasant or agreeable.” Instead, the verse uses the word “kalon,” meaning “excellent, beautiful or praiseworthy.” “Scrutinize everything to determine whether it is genuine and hold on to what is excellent.” Even Bible studies and Christian organizations must be tested to see whether they are genuinely rooted in the Word of God and praiseworthy.
For organizations such as LifeWay Christian Resources, endorsing a female pastor risks giving others a reason to doubt the literal truth of God’s Word and how it applies to us today. So as benign as these details may seem – just a job title, just a female pastor, just a female clergy uniform – it’s the quiet indication of a slow drift that, with time and distance, will lead us farther from the shoreline of the truth than we ever intended to float.
The “Battle for the Bible” was last fought a generation ago, by the 45,000 people – some of whom camped out in their cars overnight – at the 1985 Southern Baptist Convention who were contending for their belief in the inerrancy of God’s Word. They did it for the preservation of truth, and, ultimately, the salvation of souls and the glory of Jesus Christ. Their stand brought the churches and seminaries back to the Bible and today, amidst these small, seemingly trivial compromises, it is our generation’s time to examine everything and hold fast to what is excellent.
Will we hold fast to the Word of God, as culturally inconvenient and socially unacceptable as it may be? Will we anchor our lives, our churches – and our businesses – in the bedrock of the Bible, or will we shift with sands of our society?
So which way for LifeWay? Which way for our way? May all of our ways be unwaveringly fixed on God’s unchanging Word.
If you would like to contact LifeWay and express your concerns or questions, please email Thom Rainer (email@example.com) or Jim Johnston (Jim.Johnston@LifeWay.com). (Katie McCoy is from St. Louis and is a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Ft. Worth, Texas.)