Should Women Teach? Thoughts on Function, Office, and 1 Timothy 2:12

Article
12.10.2019

The #MeToo movement has rippled in many directions. As a consequence, many conservative evangelicals, even those sympathetic to complementarianism, have revived the question about what speaking and leading roles are open for women in our churches. Of course, in many respects, these have been common questions for years. Still, these questions are asked today with a fresh urgency, and some, even within our circles, are asking if we have been too restrictive. New situations raise new questions, old questions reemerge in new settings, and we should be open to reexamining the Scriptures.

Complementarians don’t want to set up arbitrary restrictions on women. We want to follow the Scriptures, and thus we want to encourage women in the many ministries in which they can engage. We want to draw boundaries where the Bible draws them. Since our culture and even our churches often proclaim that there are no boundaries, we often need to talk about where those boundaries are (an issue I will address shortly).

But it’s also important to say up front that there are many contexts for women to learn, study, and teach, and thus we should also be proactive in encouraging and speaking about the contexts in which women can and should minister. Paul’s commendation of many women for serving the Lord in Romans 16 highlights this point, showing that he highly valued the contribution of women in ministry.

We shouldn’t only be known for where we draw lines for women in ministry but also for encouraging women to minister, learn, and teach in appropriate contexts. We can lose the battle by being too lax and by being too strict, and thus we need the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures in every season of our lives. We have not arrived at a perfect understanding, and we need to be open to reshaping our thinking and practice in accord with the Scriptures.

ON HATCHETS, MEAT CLEAVERS, AND SCALPELS

When we face questions of what is permitted and what is forbidden, we immediately face the danger of writing a new Mishnah—establishing rules for every conceivable situation which may arise in our churches. We all recognize that there are gray areas, and that those who agree on the interpretation of the biblical text may differ on how to apply the text to a particular situation.

In our zeal we may exclude someone from our circle with whom we have substantial agreement. In doing so, we may be guilty of becoming excessively harsh, rigidly dogmatic, and even divisive in how we apply certain texts to our situation. I am reminded of what Roger Nicole said to me once about another subject. We may think we are Calvin or Luther leading the charge for orthodoxy when in fact the situation calls for a Bucer who makes peace instead of war. In any case, we need to watch our spirit in controversy and to refrain from being harsh and from attacking others, even if those on the other side aren’t showing the same restraint.

Let me put it another way, and perhaps more to the point given our current complementarian controversies. Our culture today is given to extremes, to denunciations with thunder and lightning that come from Mount Sinai. Sometimes it seems—at least on social media—that there are demons and angels and nothing in between. I thought we believed insimul iustus peccator, but it seems that for many it is either iustus or peccator.

But life is much more complicated than that. We can be grateful for the ministry of a person, and yet maintain significant reservations about some things they teach and some things they feel free to do. Simply put, we need to be more charitable, more discriminating, and more subtle. Some engage in discussions with a hatchet or a meat cleaver when we need a scalpel. Charity and disagreement aren’t opposed to one another, and one area we can probably all improve is the tone of our discussions. I’m not addressing any particular group in saying such, for these words need to be heeded by everyone involved in the conversation.

WHAT DOES SCRIPTURE FORBID? EXAMINING OFFICE AND FUNCTION IN 1 TIMOTHY 2:12

Still, churches need to answer the questions being asked today. We shouldn’t write a new Mishnah, but we have to make decisions about what is permitted when we gather as the people of God. Even churches that refrain from enunciating any rules—churches that say they’re only led by the Spirit—will find that the Spirit leads them in particular way when they gather. We have to make decisions about what is permitted or forbidden, and so it’s right to reflect on this issue.

Many complementarians today argue that Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:12—“I don’t permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man”—refer exclusively to office but not to function. The notion that Paul refers exclusively to office has some strengths. First of all, Paul immediately turns to discuss the office of elders/overseers (which I think is the same office) and deacons in the next text (1 Tim. 3:1–13). So it would make sense to say he has office in view in 1 Timothy 2:12. Second, two requirements distinguish elders from deacons. Elders must have the ability to teach and to correct those who are in error, and they bear particular responsibility for guiding and leading the church (Acts 20:28­–32; 1 Tim. 3:2, 4–5; 5:17; Titus 1:9). The two requirements for elders (teaching and leading) match remarkably well with what’s prohibited for women.

We can add a third argument that could support the idea that Paul only thinks of office in 1 Timothy 2:12. We have a number of texts in Scripture where women have a ministry of speaking. For instance, Paul tells us that women may prophesy and pray if they are properly adorned in 1 Corinthians 11:5, and such prophesying was almost certainly in the assembly. Huldah proclaimed the word of the Lord to the leaders of Israel in 2 Kings 22:14–20. Since women were prophets, presumably there were contexts where they encouraged both men and women with a message of some kind. Additionally, Priscilla along with Aquila instructed Apollos more accurately in the truth (Acts 18:26). Further, Paul encourages women to teach other women and children as well (Titus 2:4). Thus, most complementarians would agree that there are some contexts in which women can address both men and women, though finding agreement about what contexts are fitting is debatable.

But let’s circle back to 1 Timothy 2:12. It’s true that the two things prohibited for women match what distinguishes elders from deacons. Putting the verses together with what Paul says about elders means that women should not occupy the office of elder, that they should not serve as pastors.

Still, I want to ask the question about the way Paul formulated his prohibition against women teaching and exercising authority over a man. Is the form and manner in which the command is given significant? Many say no, arguing that the verse is just another way of saying that women can’t hold the pastoral office. But I am not so sure. Paul could have easily written, “I don’t permit a woman to serve as pastors, as overseers, and as elders.” Biblical interpreters recognize that the form in which something is written is significant. When we read 1 Timothy 2:12, it doesn’t directly speak to the issue of office; it addresses the matter of function, prohibiting women from teaching and exercising authority over a man. I glean from this point that office isn’t the only thing in Paul’s mind; the function is important to him as well. In fact, the verse speaks directly to the issue of function and says nothing about the office per se. It is interesting, therefore, that many seem to turn the verse around by allowing the functions, but denying the office.

Paul is almost certainly thinking of the gathered church context, and thus I take the verse to mean that a woman should not exercise the function of preaching and teaching men in the gathered congregation. [1]

CAN WOMEN PREACH UNDER THE AUTHORITY OF THE ELDERS?

Some advocates of the “office not function” position say women can preach as long as they do so “under the elders’ authority.” Here we see one manifestation of limiting the prohibition to office. The notion that women can preach if the elders allow it is interesting. Those who endorse this position think they are following 1 Timothy 2:12 because women only preach and teach under the authority of the elders. It seems to me, however, that we end up or at least could end up in a very strange place with this line of logic.

For example, if the elders allow a woman to preach sometimes—in other words, if the function itself is permissible—then I don’t see any logical reason why the elders could not grant such permission every week. For those who support such a practice, 1 Timothy 2:12 would not be violated since the woman preaching does so under the authority of the elders. This line of reasoning is convincing to some, but it nullifies the Pauline admonition. Paul says a woman can’t teach or exercise authority over a man, but some end up saying that a woman can do so whenever the elders think it is appropriate. Paul says women can’t teach or exercise authority over a man, but on this reading the Pauline admonition is muffled and overturned by a clever hermeneutical move.

Consider this matter even further. Imagine that the elders of a church allow a woman to preach on some occasions. One of the elders at this church then engages in a discussion with an evangelical feminist about his church’s practice. Perhaps the complementarian believes he is rather open-minded and progressive because he allows women to preach occasionally in his church. Still, he doesn’t think women should preach regularly or every week because that would violate 1 Timothy 2:12. How would the evangelical feminist respond?

The evangelical feminists I know would likely find this conviction inconsistent and a power move—just one more example of men refusing to release the reins of preaching entirely to women for fear of losing power in the church. I think the evangelical feminist argument is spot-on at this point. Some complementarians who allow women to preach may believe they are open, generous, tolerant, and broad-minded, but they’re actually—given their position—arbitrarily restricting women from preaching every week. Many feminists will see this as men holding onto the reins of authority while merely appearing generous. This halfway position—where women can preach occasionally but not most of the time—is unstable, and I predict succeeding generations will spy out the contradiction.

We’re reminded yet again why it’s important to see that 1 Timothy 2:12 doesn’t just speak to office but also to function. The only consistent position is allowing women to preach or disallowing them, and Paul says we should not allow it.

NOMINALIST COMPLEMENTARIANISM

But there’s another dimension to the argument. The office-only interpretation is in danger of falling prey to a nominalist reading.

Let me explain. On a nominalist reading, Paul prohibits women from serving in the office of elder/pastor. But those who allow a woman to preach locate the ground for women not serving as an elder in the divine will alone. Why does God give the command that women should not serve as elder? They may say that reason for the command goes back to creation, but at the end of the day the reason women can’t serve in the office is because of the divine will. They don’t see a corresponding or deeper rationale for the command in the nature of men and women. The office-only reading explains why women preaching occasionally is no problem, for there is nothing intrinsically wrong with women exercising their gifts. Such a view is possible of course. The Lord may forbid women from teaching and exercising authority based on his will alone. God’s authority as Creator should be enough for us. If God gives a command, we are responsible to obey it, even if we don’t understand the reason for the command, and even if there is no deeper reason for the injunction.

Still, most interpreters throughout church history and most observers of human nature have discerned a correspondence between the command and differences between men and women. Some, unfortunately, have gone too far sometimes in enunciating the differences between men and women, and we should reject those who overemphasize the distinctions between us. Still, the main problem is that our culture is ripping away the differences between men and women, showing that many are massively confused about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.

Since theological retrieval is popular today, I suggest we retrieve the historic view of the church on the roles of men and women (without accepting all that our ancestors said). I suggest we recognize that there is correspondence and coherence between the command and what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.

In case the main point of what I’m saying is lost, I’m arguing that in the gathered congregation a woman should not teach or exercise authority over a man. Thus preaching for a woman is prohibited.

The same principle applies to elders’ meetings. When the elders meet, it should consist exclusively of men. In these meetings, elders make decisions regarding the governance of the church. Elders exercise their authority both in teaching and in setting the direction for the church. Limiting such meetings to men isn’t chauvinism or patriarchalism; it’s obeying the scriptural word that teaching and exercising authority are reserved for men.

It doesn’t make sense, then, to have an elder council of men and then have women present regularly for consultation during the meetings. There might be occasions where women are brought into a meeting for consultation and discussion. The purpose would not be to have them lead, but for the men to ask advice so that they might lead wisely. Yet including women as a regular feature of the meetings violates what Paul commands since then women would, along with the men, make decisions as leaders about the future direction of the church. Once again, this is nominal complementarianism, and it’s similar to what happens when women are allowed to preach. It’s a clever way of sidestepping what Paul teaches by including women in elder meetings but not calling them elders. These women are de facto elders, so we shouldn’t assume we are obeying Scripture if we don’t call them elders.

A FINAL ENCOURAGEMENT

As I said, my goal in this article isn’t to write the Mishnah. Thus this article doesn’t discuss whether women should teach in seminaries or a Sunday School class made up of both men and women, though it’s important even in these situations to maintain the biblical pattern of male leadership in the people of God. Christians also differ on whether a woman should facilitate or lead group Bible Studies or lead in worship.

Whether a woman should teach in seminary is reserved typically for denominations or for boards that run a seminary. The other issues listed are matters for local churches. Since I’m a Baptist, I’m happy to say that the elders and congregation of various churches have the final say. We don’t want the complementarian movement to be reserved for those who have the most conservative view on every issue. We recognize that people of good will in our movement disagree on how to apply the biblical text to various situations. Since there are some contexts in which women can address men and women, we realize that it isn’t always easy to discern which contexts are fitting.

Still, I hope complementarians can come to an agreement on what should be done when the congregation gathers together for worship, and that we don’t capitulate to cultural forces which are battering our ship. Paul doesn’t merely say that women should not serve as elders. He also says that they should not preach and teach when the church gathers.


[1] We don’t have time to provide a thorough analysis of 1 Timothy 2:11–15. Andreas Kostenberger and I have now edited three editions of a book on 1 Timothy 2:9–15 ( Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 ) which makes this case in exhaustive, maybe exhausting, detail.

By:
Thomas R. Schreiner

Thomas R. Schreiner is a Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Pastor of Preaching at Clifton Baptist Church. You can find him on Twitter at @DrTomSchreiner.