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Women Teaching with Authority

I have thought for years of doing a series on hard passages in the Bible in regards to women and gender issues. But other things distracted me, and I didn’t take the time to follow through. I’m feeling suitably inspired to tackle it now. Last week, I addressed some passages from the Old Testament. Today I’m thinking about 1 Timothy 2.

11 A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. 13 For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.

As I mentioned in my last post on this subject, I don’t write as an authority for others. This series on understanding Scripture reflects how the Spirit has convicted me through the Word. And I can’t convict you. But if this study for myself is helpful to others, then that is great. Ultimately, each of us needs to wrestle with the Spirit and the Word on our own before personal conviction really settles in.

I certainly can not do this passage from I Timothy justice in a single blog post. I will deal right now only with verse 12 – Paul not allowing a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. There are two major ways to approach I Timothy 2. One way does not view the Bible as a connected, coherent whole. In this view, Paul is instructing in something new that contradicts previous passages in Scripture and is relative to only the particular context in which Paul is teaching. This view would limit our ability to extrapolate from this passage to our modern context. The other view reflects my personal conviction about Scripture as a connected, coherent whole in which each progression in God’s story reflects on both the past and the future. In this view, Paul was reinforcing something long believed and taught from Scripture which is still relevant for today, in which case we can use the rest of Scripture to reflect on this verse so that we know what he does and does not mean. Since Paul in this passage refers back to Genesis, it seems that he is presenting this as something that reflects a coherent, consistent teaching from Scripture.

In this second view, the Bible is the best commentary on what this passage does and does not mean. When I survey Scripture for women affirmed by God, I note a variety of situations that give me helpful perspective.

*Deborah was one of the judges of Israel. Judges exercised martial and military leadership in Israel before the kings. They were distinct from the prophets, who spoke the words of God according to Deut. 18:18.

*Junias is mentioned in Romans 16:7.

7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.

Outstanding as used in the Greek could mean “a well-known apostle” or someone “well known by the apostles.” Regardless, the office of apostles in the New Testament seems distinct from that of the elders which are established later in the New Testament. Prophets (and prophetesses) in the Old Testament and Apostles in the New Testament spoke God’s words before the cannon of Scripture was set. A lot of debate remains in the Church today about whether the office of Apostle remains a position in the Church. My personal conviction is that this office ended after the canon of Scripture was set. Regardless, Junias is not clearly an apostle, though she was at least well known among them. 

*Priscilla discipled men, in cohort with her husband.

Acts 18:26 and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.

*Phoebe is a deacon according to Romans 16:1.

I keep those women in mind when reflecting on I Timothy 2.

The Greek word for exercise authority in v. 12 is only used in this one instance in the New Testament. The Greek word for teach is used many times, and it pretty much means teach. This passage can not mean that women were not to speak in church at all since Acts 18:26, 21:9, and 1 Corinthians 11:5 make it clear that women did speak in church settings without rebuke. This verse can’t mean that women shouldn’t informally teach/disciple, because Priscilla clearly did that. It can’t mean that a woman is never to be a civil authority, for then Deborah would have been in violation of this passage. 1 Timothy 2:12 does mean something, though. If I write it off entirely, I stand to lose a lot more in Scripture than I gain in my view of women’s rights.

The words teach and exercise authority in verse 12 seem to modify each other. This passage is written in the context of New Testament church authority structures, and the instructions in I Timothy 2 bleed neatly into those on elders and deacons in I Timothy 3. In that context, the idea of this being about teaching with authority makes sense. When I let Scripture give commentary on itself, it seems to me that this restriction on “teaching or exercising authority” reflects on the authoritative church office of elder. That view makes sense when I read the flow of the passage starting in chapter 2 verse 12 on into chapter 3.

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. It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.

(Overseer/elder is one office spoken of in interchangeable terms in the New Testament.)

My views of church authority structures play into the application here. By conviction, I follow a presbyterian view of church authority, where elders are those with teaching authority and deacons are those called to serve the needs of the Church.

In many conservative churches with a presbyterian type elder/deacon authority structure, women do anything a qualified, non-ordained man can do in the church. And that is my conviction. Personally, I’ve been asked by the elders at my last two churches to teach classes of adult men and women. I am glad to do that though I don’t seek it out on my own. I see a clear difference in facilitating learning in either Sunday school or at the community college where I teach math and the authoritative position of elder that Paul discusses in I Timothy 3. Women teach Sunday School, lead prayer, read Scripture, lead worship, and so forth, and this is consistent with the roles women played in the Church throughout Scripture. By conviction, I do not seek the office of elder which I believe is reserved for qualified males. I do not feel threatened or diminished by this limitation. I think that there is something good and beautiful about the distinctions Scripture makes by way of gender (when we do not overstep and/or add to these limitations).

I hope something there is helpful to you. Again, this is how the Spirit has worked in my heart as I’ve wrestled with Him in the Word to understand and apply Scripture. I trust God will give you confidence as you wrestle with Him through your own prayer and Bible study.

26 Responses to Women Teaching with Authority

  1. Luma Simms May 14, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    Well done, Wendy.

  2. Hannah Anderson May 14, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    Allowing the passage to flow naturally into ch. 3 is what clarified this text for me too. When I was studying it a year or two ago, the contrast between a woman seeking authority and a man seeking authority as an elder unlocked the whole issue. It's almost as if Paul is setting up a boundary from women taking that role, but then to clarify, he says, “But if a MAN desires this office, that's a noble task.”

    I also think that a lot of the confusion surrounding whether or not a woman can teach publicly is rooted in our incomplete understanding of ordination and office. Historically, the Church has recognized authority as invested in the office not the person holding the office (Donatist Controversy). But church traditions with less clear parameters for ordination begin to confuse the culturally identifying marks of ordination–speaking behind a pulpit, teaching adults, reading the Scripture etc.–with the office itself. And so to be faithful to what they read in Scripture, they begin to limit women from these activities because they have confused those activity with ruling authority.

  3. EMSoliDeoGloria May 14, 2013 at 7:16 pm #

    Sounds like where I am at on the role of elder. I also like to point out that at the time of the writing, “let the women learn” would have been controversial – at least to some.

  4. mamaluke May 14, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

    Really helpful, thank you. And hannah your comment about office struck a chord.

  5. Janna May 14, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    Wendy thank you for articulating what I believe the Bible teaches regarding teaching with authority in the church. A friend of mine and I were just discussing this topic on Sunday and you expressed it much more clearly than I did.

    One thing I am currently struggling with a bit is that the (OPC) church I'm currently attending has a much more conservative definition of teaching. Therefore, women are not permitted to be coed small group leaders or to teach a coed Sunday School. Some small groups do not even allow women to lead the discussion of the group! We also do not have women deacons. While I love my church and see that the Gospel is clearly and graciously preached and practiced out, it is still a struggle for me, more right now than it has been in the past and I'm not quite sure why that is.

    Anyway, thanks again.

  6. undecided May 14, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

    Thanks for the post.

    Was hoping for some clarification on the post where you mention

    “In many conservative churches with a presbyterian type elder/deacon authority structure, women do anything a qualified, non-ordained man can do in the church. And that is my conviction”

    Does that mean elders can only be qualified ordained men?
    And by ordination does that mean some kind of seminary-like training and certification?

    My reason for asking is what I feel is a lack of spiritually qualified men who have secular (for lack of a better word) jobs in church eldership or leadership.

  7. TammyIsBlessed May 15, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    Where do you think women missionaries fit in to this? Is the only difference between a missionary and an elder the fact that an elder is the official leader of the church, even though a missionary started it?

  8. TammyIsBlessed May 15, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    Forgot to check off the “email follow-up comments” box, so here's my comment to do that. 😉

  9. becky May 15, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    “My views of church authority structures play into the application here.”

    I think this is an important point…I've never been in a church organized the way you describe. I've spent most of my adult life in complementarian nondenominational churches. There's a pastor and a group of men (sometimes called a board, sometimes called elders). These board members or elders, whatever you want to call them, never did any authoritative teaching. At least, nothing more than anybody else in the congregation did (sunday school, children's church, a man fill in for the pastor when he's away, etc).

    So perhaps what you're calling an elder would be what I would call a pastor? We currently attend a Christian & Missionary Alliance church (a bit more organized than the nondenominationals) and the only ordained person who teaches authoritatively in a way that no one else in the congregation does would be the pastor. The CMA allows women in any role except that of pastor. (and for this reason I cannot, in good conscience, become a member of this church, though I love the people dearly! This issue is still too unsettled for me.)

    Just as you pointed out in your post on the Old Testament, we have to keep in mind the civilization to which the Bible was written, which in case of Paul's letters would include the particular cities and cultures he was addressing. In addition I never want let the letter of the law to become more important than the spirit behind it (I learned the hard way on this one). With these things in mind (and when you add in cognitive dissonance!) it's hard for me to say that women ought to be restricted from any position, office or activity in the church. But this restriction on women is a belief I've held my entire life so it's hard for me to let it go without a fight. And so the prayers and the studying continue 🙂

  10. Monnie May 16, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Hello! Thanks for your post. Thought this little booklet might be of interest to you – Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles by Kathy Keller.

    http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Justice-Gender-Roles-ebook/dp/B00A695EL0/

  11. Pia May 16, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    Wendy, thanks for the post. My favorite line is your last: I trust God will give you confidence as you wrestle with Him through your own prayer and Bible study.
    This topic isn't at the top of the list of things I think about, although interesting and enlightened reading. However, I do have LOTS of topics I do wrestle with God about and this is a super encouragement to continue to do so!

  12. Ros Barrett May 17, 2013 at 11:08 am #

    Hi you may find the following book really useful for dealing with hard passages….”God's good design: What the Bible really says about men and women” by Claire Smith (2012).

  13. sevennotesofgrace.com May 17, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    Another great book to check out on tricky passages is by Claire Smith (2012) “God's Good Design: What the Bible really says about men and women”. A challenging read!

  14. Wendy May 17, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I actually reviewed God's Good Design here. I struggled with the tone of Claire's book because she and I disagree on the root problem as taught by Genesis 3:16. Our diagnosis of the root problem effects our understanding of the gospel's solution.

  15. kbonikowsky May 17, 2013 at 3:02 pm #

    I see you have a lot of book suggestions here, so I'll add one: What's With Paul and Women? by Jon Zens. This book TRANSFORMED my understanding of this passage. The cultural element of Ephesus cannot be ignored to properly understand what the heck Paul is talking about.

    My take on this passage is that Timothy was dealing with a particularly nasty woman who was using Ephesian “norms” to declare her superiority of women over men.

    – Is a man ever allowed to authenteo? Or is that type of leadership dominance off limits to all genders possible hinting Timothy was struggling with a particular problem of woman domineering the local assembly? (There are hints of this with Paul's plural/singular switches: woman/women.)

    – Taking the Bible as a whole, which is what you recommend, is there any other passage that limits the gifting/calling of women in the church? Or is this passage unique, in your mind?

    – If you interpret this passage as a limiting of women's “authority”, how then does that blend with Jesus' teaching the first shall be last, and if you wish to be great, serve? And likewise if Jesus told us not to call each other Teacher, Master or Father (Mat 23), but siblings… why should this issue of church authority even be put on the level of gender? Why is “Who's in charge?” even being discussed?

    Okay, got kids bugging me for food. Can't finish now. But that should give you something to reply to! 🙂

  16. Wendy May 17, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    Thanks, Kay! I'll add that book to my list.

  17. You said that the other view of interpreting this passage holds to the belief that the Scriptures are not a connected, coherent whole. I would respectfully say that I don't think that is necessarily true. I believe that all the Scriptures can be understood as a whole and while they may seem to contradict at times at first glance, that isn't necessarily the case. It was actually my belief in the coherency of Scripture that made me question some of the complementarian teachings because those teachings seemed inconsistent with other passages of Scripture.

    I don't know if you are familiar with Wade Burleson, but he has many thought-provoking posts on topics related to women in the church. He is a Baptist pastor in Oklahoma. This post on the background to 1 Timothy 2 is fascinating. It is lengthy but so good.

    The Apostle Paul and the Oracle of Delphi

  18. Sallie @ A Woman's Freedom in Christ May 19, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    My apologies. I linked to the wrong post. I had a couple of tabs open and linked to the wrong one. This is the one I meant to link to.

    Artemis and the End of Us: Evangelical Errors Regarding Women

  19. Wendy May 19, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    Sallie, thanks for sharing that link. I like Wade a lot and agree with many of his statements. The question remains if Paul was talking about 1 single woman forbidden to teach with authority in Ephesus or did it apply beyond that. I Timothy 2 flows neatly into I Timothy 3, so the question goes past just the woman teaching into the church governing structure described in I Timothy 3. Many church groups are returning to a consistent understanding of both chapters and the conclusion that I drew, that this limitation on women was particularly about the office of elder. It's hard to hold that position with a straight face though if your church does not also embrace the elder/deacon authority structure described in the next chapter in which elders are limited to men but deacons can be both men and women.

    I disagree with Wade and Rachel Held Evans who say without qualification that Junia was an apostle. The wording of that passage is most certainly not definitive. Phoebe however is clearly spoken of using the word for deacon.

  20. Sallie @ A Woman's Freedom in Christ May 19, 2013 at 10:51 pm #

    Wendy,

    Marg has an interesting article on Junia and the apostle issue for any of your readers who might be interested. While I understand why people might not be 100% certain Junia was an apostle, I do believe the evidence leans heavily in that direction.

    Junia and the ESV

    Part of what has driven me to try to understand this issue is my desire to not see anyone limited by man-made rules. All of my life I have been conservative by nature. My default mode of thinking was to lean toward the law rather than grace and freedom. Even just exploring these issues was a big step for me.

    I once had someone tell me that the reason he requires his wife to wear a headcovering is because he would rather get to heaven and have God tell him it wasn't necessary than get to heaven and find out she should have been doing it. I don't want to live my life in fear like that.

    I don't want to get to heaven and have Jesus say to me, “Sallie, I gave you all these gifts and you didn't use them out of fear of man.” I don't want my sisters in Christ to hear that either. I would rather err on the side of freedom and grace rather than fear of making a mistake. Will women who preach and lead get to heaven and hear Jesus say, “I really appreciate your efforts and I know you meant well, but you really should not have been preaching the gospel and ministering to people in an official capacity. While I love you and you are my child, I'm really disappointed that you did those things.” I just don't see it. Not with the way Jesus (and Paul) interacted with women here on earth.

    My two cents. Your mileage may vary. 🙂

  21. Kristen May 20, 2013 at 3:19 am #

    I appreciate this balanced complementarian approach, even though I'm an egalitarian. I wonder if it would be ok for me to post a somewhat off-topic link to a post I've written on my own blog that I especially want gracious complementarians like yourself to read? I'm trying to foster more common ground and respectful conversations between egalitarians and complementarians.

    Sanctified Sexism

  22. Lisa Robinson May 22, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

    Wendy, you have well articulated my own position. This is why I find Piper's classifications unhelpful and inconsistent with the application to church authority.

  23. Monnie May 22, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    Hello! I love your blog! Thank you so much for taking time to write. I just found out that R.C. Sproul's Critical Questions series is now free. Each ebook is like a little booklet. Thought you'd be as excited as I am about this.

    http://www.ligonier.org/blog/rc-sprouls-crucial-questions-ebooks-now-free/

    Enjoy!

  24. Chimae Goncalves May 25, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

    Well said Wendy, Monnie I read Kathy s book as well a while ago and found it extremely helpful. It was such a release for me. I do want to teach and I do want to preach but to have ordained authority as a woman over men in terms of discipline and governance no problem to hand it over! I find such freedom in being able to do what an unordained man can do!

  25. anne June 11, 2013 at 6:18 am #

    Wendy, someone posted this on my blog, asking what I think.

    what do you think? (and in an early comment, he lists his sources)

    http://www.wadeburleson.org/2013/02/artemus-and-end-of-us-evangelical.html

  26. Henna December 27, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Wendy, I keep on coming back to this post as I face the question “women as elders”. I find your views very helpful in finding a way to articulate what I have always believed as Biblical model: the church should be led by a group of elders who are men. Thank you for your teaching!