Someone will occasionally ask me whether women may serve in ministry. My answer is always, “Yes, of course! All believers are called upon to serve and minster to one another.”
But I would answer differently if the question were posed more precisely: “Are there any ministry roles in which women may not serve?” I would argue that the New Testament plainly teaches that women should not serve as pastors (which the New Testament also calls overseers or elders). It is clear in the New Testament that the terms pastor, overseer, and elder refer to the same office (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7; 1 Pet. 5:1-2), and for the remainder of this essay I will use the terms “elder” and “pastor” interchangeably to designate this office.
PAUL’S PROHIBITION IN 1 TIMOTHY 2:12
The fundamental text which establishes that women should not serve as elders is 1 Timothy 2:11-15. We read in verse 12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” In this passage, Paul forbids women from engaging in two activities that characterize the elders’ ministry: teaching and exercising authority. We see this in the qualifications for the office, among other places: elders must have the ability to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Tit. 1:9; cf. Acts 20:17-34) and to lead the church (1 Tim. 3:4-5; 5:17). Women are prohibited from teaching men and from exercising authority over them, and therefore it follows that they must not serve as elders.
Is this prohibition still in force today?
But is the command that women must not teach men or exercise authority over them intended to be in force today? Many today contend that Paul prohibited women from serving as elders because women in Paul’s day were uneducated and therefore they lacked the ability to teach men well. It is also argued that women were responsible for the false teaching that was troubling the congregation to which Paul wrote in 1 Timothy (1 Tim. 1:3; 6:3). According to this reading, Paul would support women serving as pastors after they are properly educated and if they teach sound doctrine.
The prohibition is grounded in creation, not circumstances
These attempts to relativize Paul’s prohibition must be judged to be unsuccessful. Paul could have easily written, “I don’t want women to teach or exercise authority over men because they are uneducated,” or, “I don’t want women to teach or exercise authority over men because they are spreading false teaching.” Yet what reason does Paul actually give for his command in verse 12? Paul’s rationale for the command follows in the next verse: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (v. 13). Paul says nothing about lack of education or about women promulgating the false teaching. Instead, he appeals to the created order, to God’s good and perfect intention when he formed human beings. It is imperative to see that the reference to creation indicates that the command for women not to teach or exercise authority over men is a transcultural word, a prohibition that is binding on the church at all times and in all places. In giving this command, Paul does not appeal to fallen creation, to the consequences that pertain to human life as a result of sin. Rather, he grounds the prohibition in the wholly good creation that existed before sin entered into the world.
The fundamental reason that women should not serve as pastors is communicated here, and so the argument from creation cannot be dismissed as culturally limited. Moreover, the New Testament contains many similar appeals to the created order. For instance, homosexuality is not in accord with the will of God because it is “contrary to nature” (Rom. 1:26); that is, it violates what God intended when he made human beings as male and female (Gen. 1:26-27). Similarly, Jesus teaches that divorce is not the divine ideal since at creation God made one man and one woman, signifying that one man should be married to one woman “till death do us part” (Matt. 19:3-12). So, too, all food is to be received gratefully since it is a gift from God’s creative hand (1 Tim. 4:3-5).
In 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Paul specifically grounds his prohibition of women teaching and exercising authority in the order of creation, namely, that Adam was made first and then Eve (Gen. 2:4-25). The narrative in Genesis is carefully constructed, and Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, helps us see the significance of Eve being created after Adam. Critics occasionally object that the argument fails to persuade since animals were created before human beings, but this misses Paul’s point. Only human beings are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27), and therefore Paul communicates the significance of God creating man prior to the woman, namely, that the man is responsible to lead.
Paul gives a second reason why women should not teach or exercise authority over men in 1 Timothy 2:14: “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Paul’s point here is probably not that women are more prone to be deceived than men, because elsewhere he commends women as teachers of women and children (Titus 2:3; 2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14-15), which he would not recommend if women by nature were apt to be deceived. It is likely that Paul is thinking again of the creation account, for the serpent subverted the created order by deceiving Eve rather than Adam (thereby subverting male headship), even though there is evidence that Adam was with Eve when the temptation occurred (Gen. 3:6). Verse 14 does not teach that women were uneducated, for deceit is a moral category, whereas lack of education is remedied with instruction.
Eve’s deception cannot be attributed to intellectual weakness, but was due to her rebellion, her desire to be independent of God. In addition, the reference to deceit here does not indicate that the women of Ephesus played a primary role in spreading false teaching, for the false teachers named in 1 Timothy are men (1 Tim. 1:20). Indeed, if the women were banned from teaching because they were advocates of the false teaching, we have the strange and very unlikely situation where all the Christian women in Ephesus were deceived by the false teaching. Rather, Paul’s point is that Satan’s temptation of Eve instead of Adam subverted male leadership, for he deceived and tempted the woman even though Adam was present with Eve when the temptation occurred. Indeed, even though Eve was deceived first by the serpent, the primary responsibility for sin fell on Adam’s shoulders. This is evident in Genesis 3, for the Lord speaks to Adam first about the sin of the first couple, and this is confirmed by Romans 5:12-19 where the sinfulness of the human race is traced to Adam and not Eve.
In summary, 1 Timothy 2:12 forbids women from teaching or exercising authority over men in the church. This command is grounded in the order of creation and is confirmed by the reversal of roles that occurred at the fall. It is not a culturally or contextually limited prohibition that no longer applies to churches today.
CORROBORATING TESTIMONY FROM THE REST OF SCRIPTURE
What we learn about men and women’s roles from God’s creation of them
What we see of men and women’s roles in the rest of Scripture confirms this reading of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 The book of Genesis gives us six pieces of evidence that husbands have the primary responsibility of leadership in marriage: 1) God created Adam first and then Eve; 2) God gave the command not to eat of the tree to Adam rather than Eve; 3) Adam named the “woman” just as he named the animals, signifying his authority (Gen. 2:19-23); 4) Eve is designated as Adam’s “helper” (Gen. 2:18); 5) The serpent deceived Eve rather than Adam, thereby subverting male headship (Gen. 3:1-6); and 6) God came to Adam first, even though Eve sinned first (Gen. 3:9; cf. Rom. 5:12-19).
What we learn from the Bible’s teaching on marriage
Such a reading of Genesis fits with what we discover about marriage in the New Testament. Husbands have the primary responsibility of leadership, and wives are called upon to submit to the leadership of their husbands (Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Pet. 3:1-7). The call to submission for the wife is not grounded on mere cultural norms, for a wife is called upon to submit to her husband just as the church is called upon to submit to Christ (Eph. 5:22-24). Paul designates marriage as a “mystery” (Eph. 5:32), and the mystery is that marriage mirrors Christ’s relationship to the church. The mandate for men rather than women to serve as pastors, then, fits with the biblical pattern of male leadership and authority within marriage.
It is crucial to observe that a different role for women does not signify the inferiority of women. Women and men are equally created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27). They have equal access to salvation in Christ (Gal. 3:28), and they are heirs together of the great salvation which is ours in Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 3:7). The biblical writers do not cast aspersions on the dignity, intelligence, and personhood of women. We see this even more clearly when we recognize that just as Christ submits to the Father (1 Cor. 15:28), so wives are to submit to their husbands. Christ is of equal dignity and value with the Father, and so his submission cannot be understood as signaling his inferiority.
What we learn from other passages about women in the church
Nor is 1 Timothy 2:11-15 the only text that requires a different role for men and women in the church. In 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 Paul teaches that women must not speak in church. This passage does not forbid women from speaking in the assembly absolutely, for Paul encourages women to pray and prophesy in church (1 Cor. 11:5). The principle of 1 Cor. 14:33b-36 is that women should not speak in such a way that they rebel against male headship or take upon themselves unwarranted authority, and this principle accords with the notion in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 that women should not teach and exercise authority over men.
Another text that points us in the same direction is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. We have already seen in this passage that Paul allows women to pray and prophesy in the assembly. It is imperative to see that prophecy is not the same gift as teaching, for the gifts are distinguished in the New Testament (1 Cor. 12:28). Women served as prophets in the OT but never as priests. Similarly, they served as prophets in the New Testament but never as elders. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 makes it clear that as women prophesied they were to adorn themselves in such a way that they were submissive to male headship and leadership (1 Cor. 11:3). This fits with what we have seen in 1 Tim. 2:11-15. Women are not the recognized leaders of the congregation, and therefore they must not function as teachers and leaders of the congregation. The fundamental issue in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is not the adornment of women. Scholars are not sure, in any case, whether the adornment described represents a veil or wearing one’s hair up on one’s head. Such adornment was required in Paul’s day because it signified that women were submissive to male leadership. Today how a woman wears her hair or whether she wears a veil does not signify whether or not she is submissive to male leaders. Thus, we should apply the principle (though not the specific cultural practice) to today’s world: women should be submissive to male leadership, which manifests itself in not serving as pastors and teachers of men.
The scriptures clearly teach about the unique roles of women in the church and in the home. They are equal with men in dignity and value, but they have a different role during this earthly sojourn. God has given them many different gifts by which they can minister to the church and to the world, but they are not to serve as pastors. The Lord has not given his commands to punish women, but so that they can joyfully serve him according to his will.
Thomas R. Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author, most recently, of Run to Win the Prize: Perseverance in the New Testament (Crossway, 2010).
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