A few years ago, I ran afoul of some pastors in my tribe for allowing a woman to teach to an audience of both women and men. According to these men, I was in clear violation of Scripture by allowing such a thing. The context where all this occurred makes it even more interesting. It wasn’t at a church service but rather at a music and Bible festival that I’m involved with annually.
For years, we held teaching seminars led by both men and women. All the seminars were attended by mixed audiences of both men and women as well.
My wife, Cheryl, was often one of the women leading a seminar, and the men would flock to hear her, loving her amazing gift to teach God’s Word.
The problems started when we moved her from the “seminar tent” to the “main stage.” That’s when mutterings of “heresy” began to spread, not just at the festival, but all around the world (with the help of social media). By the time I returned to the U.S. a few weeks later (the festival is in the UK), there was brooding and deep concern that I had gone liberal. Now just to clarify, the “main stage” upon which my wife and another woman spoke to a mixed audience was not in a church. Where was it? It was in a cowshed. Yes, that’s right, a cowshed. Our main teaching and music venue is in a cowshed, and somehow, when the ladies stepped out of the seminar tents onto the main stage, they were treading on “holy ground” and violating Scripture by teaching the Bible to a mixed audience of men and women, boys and girls … in a cowshed. Go figure.
Well, the controversy continued to build and much discussion and debate ensued. The issue is still hotly contended among many in our tribe today. And this brings me to the current controversy concerning Beth Moore. Beth, as many know, is one of the great Bible teachers of this generation and has been used by God in extraordinary ways among multitudes of women and a large number of men also. Beth doesn’t aspire to the role of pastor or overseer; she simply teaches the Bible whenever and wherever she can. But apparently, for many men in her tribe, this is now a problem. She is in clear violation of Scripture because we all know that Paul forbade women from teaching men in his first epistle to Timothy, at least that’s what some are absolutely certain of. I beg to differ but will come back to that later. One of the funny things I keep coming across in the criticism of both Beth and those who have allowed her to speak at their churches is that she was “in the pulpit on a Sunday morning,” or as one Evangelical leader put it, “the Lord’s day pulpit.”
Let’s just be clear, whatever one believes about which day of the week Christians gather to worship is traditional, not biblical.
In the New Testament, there is no mandated day given for God’s people to gather to pray, worship, and study the Bible. So when we hear of a prohibition against a woman speaking God’s Word to a mixed congregation on a Sunday morning or the “Lord’s Day” gathering, know that we are hearing someone’s tradition, not a biblical command. I find it funny because, in my own conversations with those in my tribe over the same issues, this thing about some sort of sacred time and space also kept coming up. Some pastors agreed that a woman could teach a mixed group, just not on a Sunday morning. They were happy to have them out for a midweek or a Sunday evening service, but never on a Sunday morning. Besides never occupying the pulpit on a Sunday morning, they were never to “teach doctrine.” Women could share a testimony, tell some stories of how God has worked on the mission field, etc., but God forbid that they dare try to expound a biblical text or speak on some point of “doctrine.”
Yes, how dare those women on the first Easter morning have the audacity to speak on the doctrine of the resurrection! And that naughty Priscilla daring to instruct Apollos on those aspects of doctrine he had yet to understand.
As I listened and am now hearing again these kinds of arguments against a woman ever teaching a man, the shallowness, laziness, and prejudice of those espousing these views are so blatantly obvious to me.
Shallowness: Why do I say that? They are shallow because they are leaning on tradition and church policy rather than taking a fresh, hard look at what Scripture says. Where in the Bible do we find that Sunday morning is any more sacred or sanctified than a Wednesday or Friday night or a Tuesday morning? We don’t. This is tradition. Paul says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Let each be fully persuaded in their own mind” (Romans 14:5). Or where in the Bible do we find anything like “the pulpit” being some sort of sacred space? We don’t. These are just decades-old, or in some cases even centuries-old, traditions that some have never stopped to consider or question. Most evangelically-minded people are proud to be tradition breakers, but I guess in some cases, some traditions are too sacred to break.
Laziness: I say lazy because they seem to be unwilling to take the time to consider what the text might actually be saying and are instead just depending on an interpretation that’s been handed down from generation to generation. Is Paul in 1 Timothy 2 primarily concerned about a woman teaching a man? I don’t think so. I think his primary concern is about who is called to lead the church. According to this passage, it’s the men who desire the office of the overseer and meet the qualifications who are to lead the church. "The women," or perhaps "wives" (same Greek word for both), shouldn’t be seeking to lead the church, but instead be tending to their families. When Paul speaks of not allowing a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, he’s forbidding a woman from holding the office of the overseer, which some of these ladies apparently were aspiring to do.
Every text has a context and background, and in most cases, we try to take that into consideration.
For example, when Paul says to the Corinthians that women are to keep silent in the church and if they have any questions, they are to ask their husbands at home, does anyone take that at face value and forbid women from speaking at all in church? I don’t know of anyone who does that. What we do instead is try to get behind the cultural and immediate context of the statement and understand what was happening so we can know how to properly apply the statement. Most would agree that Paul is prohibiting “disruptive speech,” not simply speaking normally in the church.
So why not ask similar questions about 1 Timothy 2:9-3:1? What is the context? What is the background to Paul’s instruction? It seems that he is addressing something Timothy knew all about. It looks like there were certain married women in the church who were being unruly and looking to control things, and Paul was telling Timothy how to deal with them. They didn’t want to take care of their homes or children; they wanted to run the church. They wanted to teach and rule over the men. My point is, this was a very specific case. In this and future similar cases, Paul was instructing Timothy and future leaders on how the church should deal with these kinds of women. It’s obvious that the application is not universal for all women simply because they are women. If that were true, then we’d have to conclude that Paul believed all women were to be married and bringing up children, which we know he didn’t believe based on 1 Corinthians 7. So a lazy approach means simply going with the assumed interpretation.
I think the text itself requires deeper consideration because, as all admit, it is a difficult passage. Out of the dozens of commentaries I’ve read over the years, no one seems to know exactly what to do with it. As we who teach the Bible know, there are quite a few difficult texts that give most Bible teachers pause when it comes to being dogmatic, and this text is certainly one of them. If you’re absolutely sure that you’ve got the final insight on this passage, and there’s no doubt in your mind that its primary message is that women are not to teach men at all, ever, under any circumstance, then it seems there must be some prejudice because your view conflicts with many other examples in Scripture.
Consider 1 Corinthians 11:5 where Paul refers to a woman praying or prophesying in the church: He does not forbid women from praying or from prophesying, just from doing so in an improper fashion, without a covering. So if a man can hear and presumably benefit from a woman prophesying, how does that differ from a woman teaching? In the next chapter, Paul tells us that prophets supersede teachers in the church (1 Corinthians 12:28). I do believe that Paul is talking about something slightly different there than I’m talking about here, nevertheless, pastors shouldn’t forget that these clear definitions and distinctions we’ve come up with, like the difference between prophecy and teaching, are not nearly as clearly distinguished in Scripture. But the question remains: Why would it be okay for women to prophesy to a mixed group but not to teach? I’ve yet to have anyone give me a good biblical answer to this. Actually, I don’t think there is a biblical answer because I don’t think there is a real distinction. The distinction is one we’ve invented by our misunderstanding of what Paul is actually saying to Timothy.
As I stated earlier, I think the correct answer as to what a woman can and can’t do in the church is found in the right understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12. “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” is a description of a woman who would essentially aspire to the spiritual oversight of the church. This is what Timothy and subsequently all generations of leaders are to prohibit. This interpretation, out of all the other interpretations (that’s what everyone’s view is), seems to make the most sense to me in light of the immediate context and the totality of Scripture.
Here I must make a confession, I used to hold to a more hard complementarian position on this and also taught that women shouldn’t teach men. What changed? I realized that I’d never really given it much thought and that my conclusions were more based on assumption than a deep consideration of the relevant text. Once I dug into the passages, I saw the weakness of my own position. I am an unashamedly complementarian and believe that God has laid out clear and distinct roles for men and women in the church. But complementarianism implies that we are working together (men and women) and complementing one another in our efforts to serve and glorify God. I don’t want to be guilty of holding back any of God’s servants in the use of their gifts for His glory, and that includes women like Beth Moore and my wife and many others who have an obvious gift to teach God’s Word and are a blessing to many, women and men alike.
As you have no doubt noticed, I’ve not really taken the time to go into the many places in Scripture where we find women prophesying, leading, instructing, co-laboring with the apostles, etc., or looked at any examples from church history that we could draw on where women have evangelized, discipled, church planted and left a glorious legacy of Christ-honoring ministry in some of the most challenging places in the world. But I want to conclude my thoughts with just one biblical example of a woman who spoke the Word of God to a king. Her name was Huldah; she was a prophet and a contemporary of Jeremiah. These are her words to Josiah, king of Judah:
“Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Behold, I will send calamity on this place and on its inhabitants … but because your heart was tender, and you humbled yourself before God when you heard his words against this place and against its inhabitants, and you humbled yourself before me, and you tore your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you,’ says the LORD. Surely I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; and your eyes shall not see all the calamity which I will bring on this place and its inhabitants” (2 Chronicles 34:22-28).
Why did Josiah seek out Huldah rather than Jeremiah?
We don’t know, but he did seek her out, and she delivered the word of the Lord. It’s clear that Josiah had no qualms about a woman speaking the word of the Lord to him and the nation. So let’s not put restrictions on God that He hasn’t put on Himself, and let’s not be guilty of quenching the Spirit by limiting what God will do in and through a person’s life, man or woman. Now I can already hear some crying, “That’s Old Testament, so it doesn’t apply.” Yet these same voices will this very Sunday call their people to give the Lord their tithe, which is also, by the way, an Old Testament idea not found in Acts or the Epistles. Let us be careful not to rush too quickly to dismiss something just because it doesn’t fit our view.
I haven’t written this with any real expectation that anyone will change their mind and agree with my view on the issue. That’s not been my goal. I’m happy to be able to disagree and still respect one another in the Lord. What I do hope is that some will read and rethink their attitudes toward their brothers and sisters in Christ. I hold a soft complementarian position, as do many other solid orthodox believers. The position is not even remotely heretical nor does it in any way deny the absolute authority of Scripture. It is an interpretation, just like those holding a hard complementarian view are interpreting the text to say what they think it says. It’s a minor family disagreement. Let’s not make it any more than that. And let’s certainly not call into question the orthodoxy of those valiant and gifted women who are being used by God to destroy the works of the devil in the lives of millions all around the world.
3. "Pastor Jane or Pastor John: Addressing Evangelical Chauvinism by Kellen Criswell" - CalvaryChapel.com
5. "4 Dangers for Complementarians by Gavin Ortlund" - The Gospel Coalition