Can Women Teach Under the Authority of Elders?
In case you’re just tuning in, a good in-house conversation among complementarians is going on between John Piper, Thomas Schreiner, and Andrew Wilson over whether or not women can teach in a church gathering under the authority of the elders. In order, see Piper here, Wilson here, Schreiner here, Wilson here, and Piper again here. Previously, Tim Keller has also presented Wilson’s side of things here, while John Frame has offered that same side here. (I’ve been told this conversation at Mere O is good, but I haven’t listened to it.)
Everyone agrees that there are times when women will open their Bibles and instruct men, as Pricilla does with her husband Aquilla when instructing Apollos (Acts 18:26). And everyone agrees that there is a certain kind of teaching that women must not do, based on 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.”
The question is, what are the criteria for saying when we are in the first domain versus the second domain? What’s the fence between one side and the other?
There are two things I hope to contribute here. First, I’d like to offer the simple observation that what seems to be driving the different approaches to 1 Timothy 2:12 are Presbyterian versus congregationalist conceptions of teaching and authority. And any congregationalist who agrees with Wilson or Tim Keller or John Frame is relying upon a Presbyterian understanding of teaching and authority (which is not to say a Presbyterian must adopt Wilson’s position). Second, I’d like to offer a more congregationalist distinction between authoritative teaching that occurs in the context of the gathered church, and teaching that occurs outside it.
WHAT THE PLAYERS HAVE SAID
Andrew Wilson distinguishes the two domains described above by distinguishing two different kinds of teaching—what Wilson calls big-T versus little-t teaching. Big-T teaching involves “the definition, defense, and preservation of Christian doctrine, by the church’s accredited leaders.” Little-t teaching is “a catch-all term for talking about the Bible in a church meeting.” Or: “explaining the Scriptures to each other in a peer-to-peer way, according to gifts.”
Wilson’s theological distinction between two different kinds of teaching is hardly unique. He’s backed up by no less than luminaries Tim Keller and John Frame.
Elders are leaders who admit or dismiss people from the church, and they do “quality control” of members’ doctrine. These are the only things that elders exclusively can do. Others can teach, disciple, serve, witness…We do not believe that 1 Timothy 2:11 or 1 Corinthians 14:35-36 precludes women teaching the Bible to men or speaking publicly. To ‘teach with authority’ (1 Timothy 2:11) refers to disciplinary authority over the doctrine of someone. For example, when an elder says to a member: ‘You are telling everyone that they must be circumcised in order to be saved—that is a destructive, non-Biblical teaching which is hurting people spiritually. You must desist from it or you will have to leave the church.’ That is ‘teaching authority’—it belongs only to the elders.
And Frame writes,
Reformed theology has often distinguished between the special teaching office, which consists of the ordained elders, and the general teaching office, which includes all believers…Your committee unanimously holds that scripture excludes women from the special teaching office. Scripture plainly teaches this limitation in I Cor. 14:33-35 and in I Tim. 2:11-15. But scripture says with equal plainness that women are not excluded from the general teaching office…Paul in [1 Cor. 14:33-35] essentially forbids to women the exercise of the special office….I Tim. 2:11-12 also limits the teaching of women, but…here too Paul has in mind the special office rather than the general.
Schreiner, on the other hand, says teaching is teaching is teaching. He writes,
Teaching explicates the authoritative and public transmission of tradition about Christ and the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 12:28–29; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 3:16; James 3:1)… it is the heart and soul of the church’s ministry until the second coming of Christ.”
Piper’s distinction between the two domains is, honestly, a bit vague for me. He writes,
It seems to me that, as men and women relate to each other in the church, men are to lead, on the analogy of the way a husband leads at home (Ephesians 5:22–33)…Thus when I think about how this leadership by men is expressed in the church, I see the regular preaching of the word of God in the weekly worship gathering as the heart of that leadership.
To risk reading into Piper (and in a direction favorable to my own view!), he is saying that teaching is exercising authority, and that in the church’s gathering only men should teach because teaching is an exercise of authority.
TWO KINDS OF TEACHING VS. TWO KINDS OF SETTINGS
To summarize the two sides, Wilson, Keller, and Frame distinguish two kinds of teaching. Wilson calls it big-T versus little-T teaching; Keller calls it authoritative versus non-authoritative teaching; and Frame calls special versus general teaching. The point is, the teaching of an elder is somehow more authoritative than the teaching of any other church member. So you have more authoritative teaching and less authoritative teaching. (In one sentence in his essay, Frame says that what’s at stake is the “occasion” of teaching. But nothing else in his article fills out this idea. Everything else he says distinguishes not between occasions but between kinds of teaching.)
When this side turns to 1 Tim. 2:12, they might either argue that “to teach and to exercise authority” is a hendiadys (reading two words as saying one thing, like “nice and cozy”)—in spite of Kostenberger’s fairly thorough refutation of this position. Or they might say that the context of chapter 3 suggests Paul has a special category of authoritative teaching in mind here.
Schreiner and Piper don’t quite say this, but best I can tell (and, once again, to put my words in their mouths), it’s not so much two different kinds of teaching that are in view. Teaching is teaching. Rather, they perceive a distinction between the occasions for that teaching. You have teaching when the church is gathered, and you have teaching when it is not gathered.
Or to put it another way, Schreiner and Piper may admit of a distinction between big-T Bible teaching and little-t Bible teaching. Pricilla, we can say, was doing little-T teaching, as are women teaching women. But the criteria for this distinction depends upon the whole church gathered versus not gathered. The different kinds of teaching are the different settings: church gathered teaching versus not-gathered teaching.
When this side turns to 1 Timothy 2:12, they believe Paul is referring to teaching that occurs in the context of the church’s gathering. It’s not so much different kinds of teaching, then. To teach Bible is to teach Bible. It’s to open the Bible and explain it. And anyone can do that outside the church’s gathering. Paul’s interest in 1 Timothy 2 and 3 is how “one ought to behave in the household of God” (3:15).
CAN WE BE MORE SPECIFIC, PLEASE?
The challenge for either view is further specifying its criteria. What exactly is authoritative versus less authoritative? Can someone please explain to me how Bible teaching is ever less than fully authoritative? And when can we say the church is actually gathered—the main service? A Sunday School? A Tuesday night small group? Where’s the line?
Of anyone contributing to the conversation so far, Keller, in my mind, has done the best job of clarifying his position and explaining the distinctions he’s relying upon. Recall, he said that “Elders are leaders who admit or dismiss people from the church, and they do ‘quality control’ of members’ doctrine. These are the only things that elders exclusively can do. Others can teach, disciple, serve, witness…To ‘teach with authority’ (1 Timothy 2:11) refers to disciplinary authority over the doctrine of someone.”
Okay, there we go. That’s the kind of clarity I’m looking for. What Keller calls “authoritative teaching” (or Wilson calls “big-T teaching” and Frame calls “special teaching”) is teaching that specifically affirms what the church must believe as a matter of membership and discipline. When someone stands up and says, “You must believe X to be a member of this church, else we will exclude you or not permit you to enter in the first place,” he is teaching with authority.
I’m not sure Wilson is saying the same thing when he refers to “the definition, defense, and preservation of Christian doctrine.” This is just too vague. All teaching should define, defend, and preserve Christian doctrine, shouldn’t it? I mean, that’s what Pricilla and Aquilla were doing with Apollos, no? What Keller helpfully does is tie the concept of authoritative teaching to conditions for membership and discipline. It’s teaching, you might say, that writes the church’s statement of faith or book of order.
For our purposes here, I’m going to assume that Keller is doing the best job of articulating what Wilson and Frame also mean. If they mean something different, perhaps they can clarify.
WILSON’S VIEW EFFECTIVELY A PRESBYTERIAN ONE
And finally, after all that, we come to the first point I mean to make in this article. I don’t know what form of church government Wilson adopts, but Frame and Keller are Presbyterians, and they are thinking and talking like Presbyterians. I’m not saying their view of women teaching is inevitable within a Presbyterian framework of church government. I’m saying it’s consistent with a Presbyterian framework. I’d also say it’s out of sync with a congregationalist framework.
You might say, “Fine, so it’s Presbyterian. So what?”
So nothing. I’m not a Presbyterian but I love Presbyterians. I’m just saying it’s Presbyterian, that’s all. Know what your team believes. I will say, this view undermines the priesthood of all believers, which is the very thing that congregationalists like me go on and on about.
Let me explain. In a Presbyterian (and episcopalian) framework, the church officers hold the keys of the kingdom. They possess the authority to assess and make judgments upon doctrine and membership. Keller one more time: “Elders are leaders who admit or dismiss people from the church, and they do ‘quality control’ of members’ doctrine. These are the only things that elders exclusively can do.”
So when a Presbyterian refers to “authoritative teaching” or “special teaching,” he doesn’t just mean standing up, opening up the Bible, and speaking. He is combining that activity together with the activity of rendering judgment on doctrine and membership, like a judge renders judgment when he pounds a gavel. Authoritative teaching, as he defines it, is someone standing up and making the one-time announcement of what the church will henceforth believe on matter x. And it’s when someone stands up and says so-and-so is (or is not) a member by virtue of their adherence (or lack thereof) to our beliefs. It combines teaching as we ordinarily think of it and judgment.
When Keller says “authoritative teaching,” I would say he actually means “binding and loosing” from Matthew 16 and 18.
In this framework, we can say that the apostles and elders taught authoritatively in Acts 15 when they made a decision on circumcision and church membership. The Council of Nicaea taught authoritatively on homoousious insofar as that understanding of the Trinity became a condition of membership. The Council of Trent taught authoritatively when it anathematized believers in sola fide. The City Church in San Francisco taught authoritatively when it informed the church that “the church” now accepted homosexuality. And my own church taught authoritatively when it removed the requirement for abstinence from alcohol from our church’s statement of faith. All of these teaching moments, whether legitimate or not, combined teaching with an act of judgment about what must be believed as a condition of membership.
And to say it again: Presbyterians (and episcopalians) believe that only the officers have this kind of authority (with some qualifications which I don’t need to get into here). If I understand them correctly, then, this is the kind of authority that Keller and Frame and Wilson would restrict to men.
CONGREGATIONALISM AND PRIESTHOOD OF BELIEVERS
Here then is a great irony: I’ve heard a number of Baptists and congregationalists employing these brothers’ arguments to defend how women can preach and teach in a church setting. They argue that, so long as a woman teaches under the elders’ authority, she is working within Paul’s framework. Actually, it’s not Paul’s framework, it’s a Presbyterian framework they are relying upon.
In a congregationalist framework, both men and women possess the authority of the keys, which is to say, the authority of collectively rendering judgments upon doctrine and membership. This, right here, is the very heart of a priesthood of all believers:
And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord (Jer. 31:34).
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers (Matt. 23:8).
And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual (1 Cor. 2:13; cf. vv. 10-16).
But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. (1 John 2:27)
D. A. Carson explains that the concept of “teaching” in Jeremiah 31 is not just about information transfer. It’s not that these people will never have teachers. Rather, “in the context, it foresees a time of no mediators, because the entire covenant community will have a personal knowledge of God.” Each of them will possess the ability to judge between true doctrine and false. And this Holy-Spirit-given competence to judge belongs to every believer, male and female.
Within a congregationalist system, moreover, every believer, male and female, possesses not only the Holy-Spirit-given competence to judge true doctrine from false, but the Jesus-given collective authority to separate true doctrine from false for the purposes of membership in the church.
Now, I’m not making the case for congregationalism here. I’m simply observing that the authoritative space that Keller, Frame, and Wilson are trying to preserve for men, congregationalists would explicitly argue belongs to men and women in their collective capacity because men and women can be believers!
Keller says, “Elders are leaders who admit or dismiss people from the church, and they do ‘quality control’ of members’ doctrine. These are the only things that elders exclusively can do.”
Replace the word “elders” for “congregationalism” and you have a congregationalist’s view: “The whole church admits or dismisses people from the church, and the whole church does ‘quality control’ of members’ doctrine.”
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE GATHERING
A congregationalist also grants that there are two different kinds of teaching—call it big-T and small-t, if you like. And a congregationalist is even willing to say is one kind is “more authoritative” than the other.
But the distinction rests upon the church gathered and not-gathered. What makes big-T teaching authoritative is the fact of the gathering: where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there (Matt. 18:20). Within a congregationalist framework, the gathering itself possesses a kind of authoritative voice. We don’t exercise excommunication, for instance, when scattered (see 1 Cor. 5:4).
Now, the whole congregation—men and women—exercise the judgment of the keys in those gathered settings (say, through church discipline). But Bible teaching should not be confused with that word of judgment. Teaching is still teaching—opening the Bible and explaining it. And any Bible teaching that occurs within the context of that gathering, whether it’s performed by an elder or not, possesses an additional kind of oomph behind it. Yes, I said oomph. What I mean is, Bible teaching defines righteousness and binds consciences, always, because the Bible defines righteousness and binds consciences. That doesn’t mean people cannot second-guess someone’s teaching. It just means that one of the Bible’s purposes is to define righteousness and bind the conscience. Bible teaching inside and outside the church does this. But when a biblical word of instruction is given in the assembly, it will be tentatively treated as conscience-binding and righteousness-defining for the whole assembly, whether an elder is speaking or not. It possesses a kind of corporate endorsement of “This is what we believe,” at least until the assembly decides to exercise its corporate authority and throw out a false teacher. The assembly says to the neighborhood and the watching world and to every member, “Hey, we’re speaking for Jesus here. And this teaching is what we think Jesus is saying to all of us. ”
Even if a news reporter or visiting neighbor is not theologically astute, she or he probably has some inkling that what’s said in the pulpit on Sunday is more significant than what’s said from the pastor’s desk on Tuesday. The former is more an expression of the whole church—again, because the fact of the gathering is existentially, theologically, and exegetically significant: “where two or three are gathered”; “when you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4); “when you come together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18).
So the authority of men and women gathered in Jesus’ name as a group of believers makes the gathering or assembly authoritatively significant. Which means, I cannot separate big-T and small-t teaching in the manner that Keller, Frame, and Wilson do. What distinguishes the two kinds of teaching is the assembly. Within the context of that assembly, all Bible teaching possesses an extra kind of conscience-binding, righteousness-defining authority. Notice, I did not say teaching “on church history,” or “sharing about my recent missions trip,” or even “my perspectives as a mom on biblical parenting.” I just said Bible teaching. All Bible-teaching in the context of the authoritative assembly is authoritative teaching, or big-T teaching, no matter who does it. Any Bible teaching outside of the authoritative assembly is little-t teaching.
There are two ironies in all of this. First, it’s the collective authority of men and women together in the gathering of the church that makes teaching in the gathering specially authoritative. But then God restricts this kind of teaching to men. That’s the first irony. But second, since the final veto belongs to the whole church, yes, women collectively share the highest authority in the church together with the men. Presbyterians do not say that.
SUNDAY SCHOOLS AND SMALL GROUPS?
What about a Sunday School? Is a 9 a.m. Sunday School with 1/10 of the church’s membership qualify as the church gathered? It does not, but I would say it’s still operating within the scope (or force field) of the gathered church’s authority. People will give the Sunday School teacher’s voice almost as much authority as they give the preacher’s voice. To put it another way, the Sunday school is an expression of the teaching ministry of the church as a whole. It is oriented to the whole church, aimed at the whole church, and is overseen in principle by the elders. It extends their teaching authority.
That said, I will concede this setting of Sunday School places us one step away from the center. We’re starting to move along a spectrum.
And then small groups? Again, we’re taking a further step away from the center and along that spectrum. To some extent, small group leaders are expected to teach with the authoritative voice of the gathered church. They, too, extend the elder’s teaching ministry. But surely the force of that authority is attenuated another step or two. And at some point, yes, we need to make a judgment call concerning when the church is no longer gathered, or when it’s no longer speaking with the authority of the gathered church. This is a matter of wisdom, and we may disagree about where wisdom places the line. What’s more, just because something is not formally “the church gathered,” like a small group, prudence may suggest restricting teaching to men because people perceive it as speaking with the authoritative voice of the church gathered.
But wherever we place the line, the basic principle remains: teachers teaching within the context of the gathered church, or teachers teaching with the authority of the gathered church, possess an extra measure of conscience-binding, righteousness-defining authority. And this is the kind of teaching that God, according to his always good and sometimes inscrutable purposes, reserves for men.
Ultimately, a congregationalist should not assume he can adopt Presbyterian distinctions wholesale, such as the way in which Keller separates authoritative teaching from non-authoritative teaching, or Frame separates the special and general teaching offices.
A congregationalist will distinguish between two kinds of teaching around the exegtically concrete and very real-life concept of the gathering. Teaching that occurs there is different than teaching that occurs outside of it. Teaching inside the gathering has the authority of the whole church (men and women) behind it, even if it’s given by just men. Teaching outside the church does not speak for the whole church in the same way.
Insofar as the concept of church as gathering has been blurred by our multi-site and multi-service world, it’s not surprising to me that some congregationalists might challenge the distinction I’m relying upon. After all, they have already omitted or dramatically downplayed the concept of gathering from what constitutes a church since all the campuses or services don’t need to gather and can still be a church (this, too, is consistent with presbyterianism or episcopalisanism, e.g. the “Presbyterian CHURCH of America”).
But that’s another conversation for another day!