Should women teach in the church?
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. – 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (ESV)
Let’s just get straight to the point. Some of you are pretty offended by these words. They sound outrageous to modern ears. For many they simply reveal the most shameful gender discrimination from someone who can only be described as a misogynist.
But as with any Bible verse it has a context and it certainly won’t help us if we take this verse out of context of the bigger story of the Bible.
We know that these verses, to be consistent with what we read elsewhere, cannot be declaring women to be second-class citizens or in any way less than men.
We know that God created men and women in his image. In Genesis chapter 1 we read;
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
So whatever Paul is saying in the controversial verses of 1 Timothy, Genesis 1 along with some of Paul’s own words eg 1 Cor. 11:11, Gal.3:28 demonstrate that there is something much more sophisticated than a slur on women or a desire to suppress women and relegate their role and place in the church and society.
Women are to learn
It’s remarkably easy for us to gloss over the fact that Paul says in v.11 that women are to learn at all. In many cultures, then and now, women are given little if any opportunity to learn.
Commentators point out that in orthodox Judaism of Paul’s day there was little or no place for women learning and some strands of Islam, by their refusal to offer education to girls alongside boys, demonstrate a same degradation of women even to this day.
Women are to learn but Paul does want them to lean but in quietness. The context is most likely that of a Christian meeting where the congregation is learning together. The word quietness in this context means ‘listening quietly with deference and attentiveness to the one teaching..ie not speaking out of turn and thereby interrupting the lesson.’ It is the language of respect.
We don’t know exactly what was going on in Ephesus, the church context into which Paul is writing. Was it simply that the women were distracted, or had a divided attention, or maybe they didn’t have a particularly teachable spirit? We don’t know. But it suggests a situation in which the teaching of the word was up against distraction or interruption.
There is maybe something to be learned from the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) in which Martha is distracted from listening to Jesus whilst Mary demonstrates the very thing that is pleasing to him, adopting the position of a disciple by humbly listening to his word.
But what about the ‘s’ word!
Whatever else Paul may be saying some of us we can’t get beyond the ‘s’ word submission.
Women according to v.12 are not to teach or have authority over men.
To call upon women to submit seems exploitative and dangerous and contrary to good sense. Does it not rob women of their dignity and value?
Well, firstly, this is not a call for all women to submit to all men. This is rather a call for the women of this church to join the majority of the men in submitting to the leadership of the church.
But even then should women submit to anybody?
The Bible’s answer is that submission is a good thing for at least two reasons.
1) All Christians submit. And every Christian by virtue of their submission to God submits to others as an expression of their commitment to God. A Christian is by definition then someone who submits. We all submit to God, we submit to the ruling authorities, whilst we are children we submit to our parents, we are to submit to our boss at work, and so on.
For different people in different stages of life and in different situations we submit in different ways.
God’s ordering in the church and the family includes the principle of submission. The relationship between a husband and a wife in Ephesians 5 and the relationship between the women of the church and male leadership (see also 1 Cor. 14:33-34) is one in which God calls for an ordering of relationships.
2) Jesus submitted. Submission is a good thing only if you think you might want to be like Jesus. For as one commentator as put it ‘he knew the beauty of submission’.
God the Father and God the Son fully God are both fully God. They are fully equal in status and yet throughout the Bible we find the Son submitting to the Father and never the Father to the Son. So even in the God-head we find the principle of order amongst equals.
We shouldn’t therefore regard it as an insult to submit to our equal if we find Jesus willing to do the very same.
Prince William and Prince Harry
In 1 Timothy 3 Paul says that male leadership is rooted in creation ‘for Adam was formed first, then Eve.’ It is not that Adam is better than Eve but perhaps jsut as the Son comes from teh Father so the woman came from teh man and they are to live out at church and in the family that ordering of relationship.
We know that Prince William will one day be King and not Prince Harry. Is it because William is better? More intelligent? More deserving? No. Just that he came first. And so it is within the church.
So should women ever teach?
Again the broader context of the Bible clearly suggests that women can and will teach as they play a full role in church life.
In Titus 2:3-5 we find that they are to teach younger women and children.
We know from Acts 2:17-18 ‘your sons and daughters will prophesy’ and 1 Cor. 11:4-5 that women prayed in the gathered church and prophesied.
We know that women were deacons in the local church from Romans 16v1.
We also find in the book of Acts that Priscilla (a woman) and Aquilla (her husband) taught Apollos together, Acts 18:26.
There were many prominent women in Jesus’ own ministry. They were his disciples and we’re told that ‘these women were helping to support them out of their own means.’
In God’s plan the first to witness the resurrection and to meet the risen Lord Jesus were women.
Peter and the other apostles took their wives with them in ministry, 1 Cor. 9:5.
But there is no evidence at all for women in either the Old Testament or the New Testament holding a teaching office.
Jesus chose to appoint men and only men to the role of Apostles and nowhere do we find Paul or the other apostles appointing women to overall leadership in the local church.
Women are not to lead the church through the preaching of God’s word and nor are most of the men.
Paul isn’t saying that all men are to teach all women, nor that all women are to submit to all men.
No all women and the vast majority of men are to submit to the (male) eldership of the church.
The kind of teaching that Paul limits to a few men here is a teaching with authority
Philip Graham Ryken writes ‘Women and men may teach on a wide variety of biblical historical, and practical subjects.’
Women can write great blogs and books. They can write Bible commentaries and teach at Bible Colleges.
But where teaching is an expression of leadership ie where it is an indicator of authority it is there that God’s order within the church is to be recognised.
How does that work out at my own church
Women exercise a teaching role that stops short of a preaching with authority role.
So women regularly teach on a variety of issues eg parenting, marriage enrichment and so on.
They teach practical seminars, lead services, administer the Lord’s supper.
The Bible does not sit comfortably in any community in the world. At some point sooner or later the bible will critique the culture in which we live. In our western world the role of women is one of those clash of culture points. It is at times like this that we need to continue to humbly listen to scripture and be ready to face the challenge of the world as we witness to the God of the Bible.
May the very situations in which we submit for the sake of God to his word and his will point us all to the Christ who chose to submit even to death and death on a cross.
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