Can Women Teach?

Introduction

I’m having this conversation more and more. DTS Houston held a special panel entitled “Rediscovering God’s Vision for Male/Female Partnerships in Ministry.” It was Moderated by Dr. Sandra Glahn, and filled with various people, half DTS profs, and half friends of the seminary.

Since that panel happened I’ve had the conversation about the question of “women pastors” about 20 times, and I think the time has come for a blog post about it.

It’s a big one in conservative Christian culture. It’s coming to a head, and the times, they are a changing.

I will address it this way: (1) Sketch of the two sides (usually called “egalitarianism” and “complementarianism”) (2) State my position (3) Explain why that is my position (4) Address common questions or rebuttals (5) Give some guiding questions and advice for your thoughts moving forward.

Sketch of the Two Sides

Egalitarianism

Egalitarianism: Usually this refers to the view that men and women are viewed the same in the eyes of God, and so any distinctions that existed in previous cultures are no longer valid in the current culture. Therefore, all roles, offices, gifts, and responsibilities within the church are equally applied and available to men and women.

Generally speaking Egalitarians will answer the following questions in this way:

“Can women be pastors?” Yes.
“Can women be elders?” Yes.
“Can men be home-makers?” Yes.
“Can women do anything men can?” Yes.
“Can men do anything women can?” Well, obviously not the stuff they are biologically unable to do.

Not surprisingly, the rise in an Egalitarian understanding of the Bible coincides with the rise in feminism from the late nineteenth century onward, and becoming steadily more popular as second and third-wave feminism came about.

Egalitarian comes from the French root egal meaning “equal.” Most commonly in evangelical circles, it is short-hand for “women can be pastors,” and egalitarians usually get characterized by complementarians as “liberal intellectuals who don’t care what the Bible says.”

Some prominent egalitarians in evangelicalism are F.F. Bruce, Ben Witherington III, Stanley Grenz, Roger Olson, Caroll Osburn, Scot McKnight, Craig Keener, and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis.

Complementarianism

Complementarianism: Usually this refers to the view that men and women are equal in value, but distinct in design, and some of the distinctions present in previous cultures are still valid in the current culture. Therefore, there are some roles, offices, gifts, and responsibilities within the church which are not equally applied or available to men and women.

Generally speaking Complementarians will answer the following questions in this way:

“Can women be pastors?” No.
“Can women be elders?” No.
“Can men be home-makers?” Not really.
“Can women do anything men can?” No.
“Can men do anything women can?” No.

Not surprisingly, complementarianism has been the assumed and orthodox view within Christianity for about 2,000 years (though not always by that name).

Complementarian comes from the Latin root complementum meaning “complete.” Most commonly in evangelical circles, it is short-hand for “women can’t be pastors,” and complementarians usually get characterized by egalitarians as “regressive misogynists who hate women.”

Some prominent complementarians in evangelical circles are John Piper, John Mac Arthur, Timothy Keller, Matt Chandler, Albert Mohler, Wayne Grudem, J.I. Packer, Ligon Duncan, Rosaria Butterfield, Russell Moore… this list is much, much, longer than the previous.

Stating My Position

I don’t use either term, because I think they are largely becoming meaningless. They have turned into clubs with which each side batters its opponents, or else a label one secretly applies to oneself but then changes it slightly. For example, I’ve known people who called themselves “egalitarians” who thought women could be elders, but not pastors (and it’s arguable there is even a distinction between the two!). I’ve known people who called themselves “complementarians” who believed women could fill any role in the church but didn’t like the idea of being in a church where a woman was the “senior pastor.”

I just don’t think they are useful terms anymore. Instead, I prefer to ask and answer specific questions to communicate my view on this issue, instead of put a label on it.

So here is my view with a single phrase, addressing the question in the title of this post: I do not think a woman should teach or exercise authority over a man in a church setting.

That wording might seem familiar to you; that’s because it’s almost exactly what the apostle Paul said in 1 Timothy 2. I add, “In a church setting” because of two reasons: (1) the intentional gathering of the church for the worship of God is what Paul is addressing in the context of 1 Timothy 2, (2) there are examples in the Bible in which women teach men privately, outside the church setting, and it is portrayed as good.

Let’s look at the passage (this is in the NASB):  1 Tim 2:8-15

“Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension. Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness. A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.”

Explaining Why That is My Position

How Support Works in an Argument

I, as a person who tries to take the Bible at its word, think that this instruction is still valid, and here’s a brief explanation of why:

When making an argument (or a “case”) one makes “points” and then gives “support” for those points.

If I say, “You should eat dark chocolate, because dark chocolate tastes good, has antioxidants, and will not rot your teeth.” My “point” is: you should each dark chocolate, and my “support” is the bit about taste, antioxidants, and tooth decay. Whether my point is a good one, or my support is weak, are secondary issues, that’s just the structure of an argument.

So, when I’m reading the Bible and I’m trying to determine if a point is still valid in an argument today, if it is still applicable for me, the 21st century Christian, one of the things I ask is, “what is the support?”

There are 3 basic categories a point might fall into:

  • A point is made with no support.
  • A point is made with specifically cultural or temporal support.
  • A point is made with non-cultural or non-temporal support.

The same is true with instructions to his readers. Many times, a New Testament author will instruct the reader (in the second person) to do something and we wonder if that instruction is also applicable to us, or just to his actual audience, at the time, in the first century.

Example of Each Type of Support

  • An instruction is given with no support. – 2 Examples here. (1) 1 Tim 4:13 “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” Obviously we would all say, “That’s not for us to follow.” But what about (2) 1 Thess 5:26 “Greet the brothers with a holy kiss.” No further reasoning or explanation is given for this instruction… so do we need to be kissing upon greetings?
  • An instruction is given with specifically cultural or temporal support. – 1 Tim 5:23 “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.”  The instruction? “stop drinking only water, and use a little wine” The support? Because you (timothy in the 1st century) had a frequent stomach illness which Paul supposes wine would cure. The vast majority of biblical instructions fall in this category.
  • An instruction is given with non-cultural or non-temporal support. – 1 Cor 6:18 “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” The instruction? “Flee sexual immorality.” The support? Because of the internal self-inflicting nature of the sin.

If an instruction has no support given, we can argue about whether or not it needs to be practiced.  Perhaps a case can be made that it is still in effect for us today, perhaps there is no case.

If an instruction is given with specifically cultural support, we can argue about whether or not it needs to be practiced. Perhaps a case can be made that it is still in effect for us today, perhaps there is no case.

If an instruction is given with non-cultural or non-temporal support, we CAN argue about whether or not it needs to be practiced. Perhaps it does, and perhaps it doesn’t. HOWEVER, a case CANNOT be made that it need not be practiced because it is merely a “cultural” or “temporal” instruction. THAT case cannot be made.

The Support in 1 Timothy 2

And herein lies my reason for believing 1 Timothy 2:12 is just as relevant and directly applicable today as it was back then. Paul makes a point and then gives support for his point, and his support is specifically non-temporal and non-cultural. The point? A woman shouldn’t teach or exercise authority over a man. The support? Adam and Eve, and the order of creation and the fall.

Whatever else you wish to say, you can’t explain away this instruction citing “1st century cultural norms.” Paul doesn’t cite 1st century cultural norms, he cites the actual 1st century, day 8 of creation. He says that the reason women shouldn’t teach men has something to do with Eve being deceived by the serpent and leading her husband astray. He does not say “Women shouldn’t teach men because that’s how we do things in our culture.”

There may be other arguments for why this particular instruction shouldn’t be binding or apply in the current age, but I haven’t yet heard a convincing one, and so I must conclude that it is an instruction we are to follow.

(*aside* The verses following the support about “women will be preserved through child bearing” is actually easily explained by the fact that your bibles do a terrible job of translating that sentence. A much better translation would be “but SHE will be SAVED through THE child birth, if THEY continue…” What then is Paul saying? First of all, he’s still talking about Eve being saved, not “women” in general. The fact that all of your bibles make that future verb (“will be saved”) into a plural instead of a singular is ridiculous. Second, he’s talking about Eve being saved through the birth of the Messiah, exactly what was promised her in Genesis 3:15 and following. Third, the “they” refers, not to women, but to either the believing remnant of Israel or to the church as a whole. This verse is by no means saying that a female’s salvation is dependent on having kids, and it’s a completely avoidable misunderstanding if your translators would just translate the actual text instead of trying to “fix” if for you to “make more sense” because they always end up making less sense… but I digress…)

Addressing Common Questions/Rebuttals

There are a lot of very legitimate follow-up arguments and discussions once my answer is on the table. Definitions of terms like “exercise authority over” and “teach” and “man.” There are tons of questions, and I’m happy to address any you send me, but I can’t address them all right now. I’ve just pulled the top questions I often get once I’ve explained where I stand, and I find these questions, and their rebuttals, help to “sort through the weeds” a bit.

“Why would God give women a gift for preaching and teaching if they weren’t meant to use it?”  They are meant to use it! But, in certain contexts to certain people. In the same letter, Paul instructs Timothy to have his older women teach younger women. The instruction in chapter 2 says “teach or exercise authority over a man.” You can argue about “when does a boy become a man,” and I have pretty much settled on the age 13 since that was probably how Paul would have defined it, but an easy way to avoid confusion is for females to teach females and not to teach males. I personally don’t think there is any problem or conflict in this verse with a woman teaching a male child (under 13), but there definitely isn’t any problem or conflict in this verse with a woman teaching other women. So, why would God give women a gift for preaching and teaching? So that they can preach and teach other women how to grow in godliness, humility, faith, and love.

“Why would God give women a desire to pastor if they aren’t supposed to do so?” This question actually reveals many underlying theological problems I see in MANY churches, having to do with the nature and role of a “pastor” but one issue that can be more easily addressed here can be revealed by my answer in the form of a question. My answer can sound quite dismissive, and I don’t intend it to be, but my answer is, “Who says God gave you that desire?” A theology that says we are supposed to “follow our dreams” “fulfill our desires” “be happy” and “do what we want” is a bad theology, if that is the supreme guide. Desires are quite often bad. In fact, I see many places in the Bible where the word “desire” is used in the context of “lust.” Your question should not be, “Why wouldn’t God let me do what I want?” but “What does God want me to do?”

“What about women wearing head coverings in 1 Cor 11, or everyone not wearing different types of fabric or eating pork from Leviticus? Why only hold to this instruction but not the others?” First of all, I do think women should wear head coverings in church and I think men specifically should not, but that’s another post for another time. But second, the commands in Leviticus are largely fulfilled, and/or specifically intended for the nation of Israel. I believe there is an important distinction within the church between “Israel” and “everyone else” and that distinction persists even today, and again that’s another post for another time… But this question is best addressed with a simple “If you’re not going to read the whole book, I need not respond to your problem with chapter 3.”

“What is it that makes a woman so incapable of teaching men, in your view?” I don’t think women are incapable of teaching men. I think they should not teach men because the scripture clearly states it… but to get at the heart of this question/rebuttal: Honestly, I don’t fully know. I don’t FULLY understand WHY Paul gave this instruction. I know that the reason women are not to teach men in the church has something to do with the fall, because that’s what Paul says. His reason is not culturally bound, it is SPECIFICALLY cross cultural, he crosses into the very first culture. So, I can’t agree with an argument that says we can disregard this section of the Bible on cultural grounds. He does not leave that option open to us. But, I say again, I don’t FULLY understand EXACTLY why he gave the instruction in the first place. I think this question reveals something else that needs addressing. You see, my prime concern is being faithful to the teaching of the Bible, as I believe should be the prime concern of all Christians in this age. I think an okay rule of thumb is this: if you have passages in the Bible you submit to, not because you’re particularly jazzed about the idea, but because you know that’s what the Bible teaches, there’s a good chance you are taking the Bible seriously. If, on the other hand, EVERY passage you aren’t really jazzed about following, you have a clever little dodge so that it “doesn’t really apply to you,” then you might need to rethink whether you take the Bible as seriously as you claim to.

“Well, you should know that the church in Ephesus, where Timothy was, had a few particular women who were causing a problem and because they worshiped Artemis there… so it was actually about idolatry, so this instruction was not meant for the universal church to follow, it was meant for that particular church, at that particular time.” I specifically phrased this incoherently, because that’s how it’s often put to me, but in answer: (1) Where does he add any of the stipulations you just added? (2) Why does he give this instruction in a general third person (a woman) instead of a direct second person (you women who…) or a direct third person (those women who…)? (3) What hermeneutical principles do you follow in isolating this one passage to be read in a radically different way than the words plainly state? Do you follow that hermeneutic faithfully through the whole Bible? (4) Why does he support his argument with Adam and Eve, instead of Artemis worshipers, or some other idolatry incident in the history of Israel, of which there were plenty?

“There was a time when people used the Bible to condone and promote slavery, but we moved on and read those passages differently now. What if you’re doing the same thing and harming millions of women as a result?” (1) IF I am doing that, I will answer to God for it. I fully realize that is a possibility, and I pray for mercy from God if it is the case. (2) Just because one generation reads the Bible incorrectly in one area (our forefathers reading on slavery) doesn’t mean they were wrong in other areas (the role of women in the church), nor does it justify the next generation in reading it incorrectly also (our generation reading the role of women). (3) You would be hard-pressed to make a case that a woman is actually “harmed” by “not teaching a man.” At worst, you might be able to prove that a woman doesn’t get to do something she wants to do. Just because someone wants to do something, or their feelings might get hurt if they are prevented from doing something, doesn’t mean they have a right to do that thing, nor does it make that thing right. I sort of read that and say, “If your faith in God rests in him letting you teach whoever you want whenever you want, your faith does not seem to be in God, but in yourself.” Is it really so harmful to your psyche to not teach some people? That’s the line you draw with God? Not understanding His instruction but remaining faithful to it anyway is, by far, the more honorable action all throughout the Bible. Why not here also?

“Why do you put so much weight on a single passage?” What is the minimum number of passages, properly interpreted, for the word of God to be binding on our lives? I think one is enough. If the Bible clearly states it, and if it still stands when you finish reading the book, it should be held to strongly.

Some Guiding Questions and Thoughts

I don’t want anyone to agree with me (or disagree with me) simply because I’m the one saying it. Of course I want you to agree with me (otherwise I wouldn’t be making my case right now), but I want you to believe something because the Bible clearly says it, and because you have good reasons to believe it. I want your agreement with me to be incidental to the truth. If you are not convinced of my view (it is a difficult view to hold fast to in this day and age) please don’t pretend to be, and please ask questions! To that end, here are a few questions to get you going:

 

  • What does the bible say about this issue? Are there opposing passages to the one Stephen went through?
  • What is MY responsibility as relates to this passage? (For example, I, as a man, do not have the responsibility of “not teaching men” but I do have the responsibility of “not allowing a woman to teach or exercise authority over me” but to do so in a gentle, humble, and loving way. I have come to the conclusion that it means quietly removing myself from situations where I am presented with a woman teaching or exercising authority over me in a church setting. ) The point is, you only have control over your own actions, not the actions of others, so it does not do much good to belligerently be telling people what they are supposed to be doing. Instead, simply DO what YOU are supposed to be doing. Contend for the truth when you can, but be primarily concerned with your own actions, not the actions of others.
  • What is the benefit or detriment of each view? Set up some If… then… scenarios and play them out in your head. If it is sinful for a woman to teach men and she teaches men, what is the moral outcome? If it is not sinful for a woman to teach men and she doesn’t teach men, what is the moral outcome? Those are just two examples.
  • Always approach powder kegs without a torch. Don’t go charging into this topic, guns blazing. Don’t avoid the topic when it comes up, but learn to graciously explain what you believe and give REASONS for what you believe.

 

Conclusion

This post is getting beyond long, so I will leave it there. Please know that if you are a woman reading, I ultimately want what is best for you, and I am firmly convinced that for most humans, most times, myself especially, what I want for myself is rarely what is best for myself. I, as a man, and as a teacher of the Bible, have a heavy responsibility to explain what this book means carefully and truthfully. I need to be careful not to add to, nor subtract from, the Bible, and that’s what I’m trying to do with this post, and with this difficult teaching. Please, talk to me about what you think! I am still open to hearing arguments for and against my view and others.

A final encouragement, if you’ll allow me to rip a bible verse out of context and ruthlessly apply it to my own, “Come now, let us reason together.”

 

 

10 thoughts on “Can Women Teach?

  1. Very thorough and I like that you pointed out that Paul wasn’t basing his statement on contemporary issues, but on the very creation of man and woman.

    A question to your answer is how do you define a church setting? Specifically in the walls of the church? Specifically for sermons? What about with small groups? Or Sunday school? Discipleship (this may have moral considerations, but is it sin in regards to what you’re addressing here)?

    I’m not trying to instigate, but rather genuinely have asked myself these questions and would be glad to see what you think.

    • Thanks man!

      I think that’s a great question, and it’s been pointed out to me a few times since I wrote this, so I think I need to go back and actually edit the post, but here’s the clarification I would give.

      When I say “in a church setting” what I mean is: when a group of believers unified under the authority of a set of local elders (aka. members of a local church body), is gathered for worship, exhortation, administration of ordinances, and/or training on the word of God, you are in a “church setting.”

      When I use the phrase, it’s definitely not about the building, it’s about the gathering of people and the purpose of that gathering. So if it’s taking place as a meeting of the local body for the purpose of training, exhortation, ordinances or worship of God, then I think you’re in a “church setting” (and I think that’s true of the definition of “church” in general, not just on this question of “women teaching.”)

      So to address your particular examples: Not necessarily in the walls of the church, yes for sunday morning sermons, usually yes in small groups (depending on the purpose of the group meeting), yes in sunday school (assuming we’re teaching bible/theology and not calculus), Yes in discipleship.

      I totally know you’re just probing for clarity, not trying to get a rise out of me! Haha. The vast majority of the time the same goes. 😉

  2. Hey Stephen! What about deaconesses (1 Tim 3:11)? Would complementarians yay or nay those?
    Also, as an aside………..why do our english bibles continue to translate 1 Tim 2:15 as they do? Why not just say “Eve”?

    • Hey Lynn!
      the “complementarian” camp would be split, some say yes some say no. Myself, I am not yet decided. I think if you have the proper definition for the role of “deacon” (as in, it’s their job to take care of the poor and widows… do the hands-on “service” kind of stuff, but it’s not their job to teach) then I don’t see a big problem with it.

      There are 4 big differences between the deacon’s description and the elder’s description, two of which argue one way, and two of which argue the other way. One, arguing for deaconesses you mentioned, the specific address to “women” in verse 11 while speaking of the role, and two, he omits the descriptor “able to teach.” To my mind, those argue for the possibility of female deacons. However, two other things he mentions that argue against it are the words “likewise” in verse 8, drawing a parallel between the two roles, and the description “husband of one wife” in v12.

      Something many will point out is verse 8 and 10 where it says (in the NASB) “men of dignity” and “these men”, but those are both masculine plurals (one an adjective and the other a pronoun). When describing group of men in greek, you use a masculine plural, or when describing a group of men and women, you use a masculine plural, so it’s not quite correct to claim that the group of “deacons” Paul has in mind must be all men, based on those two verses. You’d have to make your case elsewhere.

      As for your aside, I know why… 2 main reasons, (1) the translator doesn’t really understand the argument paul is making, so he’s confused, (2) translation tradition sticks, certain verses get translated the exact same way in each new translation because there would be a revolt if you “changed” it. Example, The lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:-9ff. Why on earth do the NIV, NASB, and ESV, all translate the second phrase “Hallowed be your name”? When was the last time in “new american standard” english you said the word “hallowed”? No… if they applied their actual translation philosophy to that verse, they would’ve rendered it “let your name be holy.” but they don’t because we’ve all learned to repeat this whole prayer in iambic pentameter.

      Anyway… those are the reasons why they don’t translate it as “she” instead of “women”… the aren’t good reasons though.

  3. Good thoughts Stephen. How do the experiences of Priscilla and Aquila instructing Apollos and the women at Pentecost speaking the wonders of God in a mixed audience as a fulfillment of Joel 2 integrate with your thinking? These passages seem to speak to the issue as examples of ways God works also. I am interested in your thoughts. Thanks for thinking through difficult issues biblically.

    • Hey Dr. Brooks!

      Great questions. I think Priscilla and Aquila instructing Apollos is no problem at all because it was done in private. And then, as a cessationist, I think that the gift of prophecy operated (and will operate) differently than teaching/exercising authority, so I have no issue with prophetesses we see in the Bible using that gift, as stated in Joel 2/Acts 2, and the daughters of Philip. (And I think the operation of the gift of prophecy in churches is the issue being addressed in 1 Cor 14, which is why it isn’t much of a factor in my view on the issue in this post). I also think that females preaching the gospel (evangelizing) is a wonderful thing, because evangelism is a thing that takes place outside of the gathering. I very much link this passage with ecclesiology, and the operation of the local church, because that seems to be the context he is discussing in the whole book (phrases in the immediate context like “In every place” (2:8) “the church of God” (3:5) strengthen that aspect, I think.)

      To try and get a little more specific, I THINK the phrase, “exercise authority” has something to do with expositing scripture in the local church gathering. It’s literally “self-command” or “self-work”. αυθεντεω only occurs here, so it’s tricky to understand, and I think it’s part of the key to this whole thing. I am fairly comfortable with the idea that this word is linking it directly with the office of elder, which is the very next topic he addresses. Just not totally convinced of that yet…

      Thanks for commenting. I’d love to know your thoughts as well!

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