An ongoing matter of debate among Christians is over the issue of what the Bible says about the respective roles of men and women in the ministry and services of a local congregation or church. Some believe the Bible teaches no difference at all in the role or responsibility of men and women in the home or the church. Others believe that the Bible teaches the principle of male leadership in the home and in the church.
I do believe that God has given different roles and responsibilities to men and women in the church, and some believe this is an outdated and increasingly unpopular understanding of the Bible. Yet it is what I sincerely believe the Bible teaches, so it doesn’t matter much to me if it is outdated or unpopular.
That being said, the point of this article isn’t to debate that issue. Recently Brian Brodersen and I discussed these matters along with another pastor, and we thought it would be good to explain our understanding of how those different roles and responsibilities should affect the ministry and the services of the local church.
Understanding the Commands of 1 Timothy 2:11-15
For those who think that the Bible teaches no difference in the role or responsibility between men and women in the church, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is often regarded as a “problem passage.” Since I do believe the Bible does teach such a difference, I don’t regard it as a problem passage at all. Yet, as with many places in the Bible, a clear command may present challenges in how the command is carried out.
First, there are at least two commands in the passage: That a woman learn in silence, with all submission, and that women do not teach and have authority over the men of the church.
I believe the translation in the New King James Version of “silence” in 1 Timothy 2:11 and 2:12 is unfortunate. The word just as easily means “peaceable” or “without contention,” and is used in that sense just a few verses before (1 Timothy 2:2, peaceable). Paul never meant that women should be given a gag when they walk into church, but that they should not speak in ways that would bring contention, disturb the peace of the congregation, or despise the authority God has placed in the church.
The command that women should not teach or have authority over the men of the church (1 Timothy 2:12) is really one command, not two. Women should not teach in the church in a way that takes authority or replaces the authority God has ordered in the church.
The reasons for these commands are fascinating, and not based in time or culture. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul connected the reasons to the order of creation and the nature of the fall (1 Timothy 2:13-14).
1. God has gifted both men and women to understand and teach His Word, to care for others in God’s family, to organize and to lead. The only question Biblically is in what sphere those gifts are to be used. God and His church have great use for the gifts and energy of qualified women, but not in the role or responsibility of teaching or leadership over the congregation in general.
2. Being a man does not qualify anyone for leadership in God’s church. Though I believe the Scriptures teach that men are to lead in the church, no one should think that gender alone qualifies a person. The character qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 mean that many or most men in the church are not yet qualified for leadership.
3. The Bible teaches male leadership only in the home and in the church. The Bible does not command male leadership in politics, business, the academic world, the community, and in other such institutions. God has special purposes for both the family and the church that go beyond pragmatism or efficiency.
4. God’s role and responsibility for men in the family and the church are not given because men are more inherently spiritual or gifted. Again, God has special purposes for both the family and the church that go beyond pragmatism or efficiency.
Applying the Principle of 1 Timothy 2:11-15
For those who agree that women should not teach in a way that takes authority or replaces the authority God has placed in the church, there are agreements and disagreements about how the principle should be applied.
Most all would agree that women should not be given the title or offices of elder, bishop or pastor because those titles and offices presume the exercise of authoritative teaching and preaching over the congregation as a whole. It’s not that women can’t preach, teach or show shepherdly love and care. It’s that they should not do those things over the congregation in general, but only under the authority and oversight of the general leadership of the church.
Therefore, if a qualified woman teaches a ladies Bible study or leads a class of fourth graders, we shouldn’t have a problem with that.
Therefore, if a woman – even if qualified or gifted in some sense – were to regularly teach or preach at a weekly worship gathering of the general congregation, that would be a problem. It would be a problem whether she had the title pastor or elder or did not have it, because the regular teaching and preaching to the general congregation is an exercise of authority over that congregation.
Where there may be some legitimate area of disagreement is over the issue, “What exactly is authoritative teaching over the general congregation?” If a woman speaks as a one-time guest and the theme of her teaching is not to settle or speak to doctrinal controversies, is that allowed? I know some pastors who thoroughly agree to the principle of male leadership in the church who would not have a problem with that, and others that would have a problem with it. I think there is some room to agree to disagree, while still remaining true to the principle of God’s appointment of particular roles and responsibilities for qualified men in the congregation.
Some think that a woman teaching at a conference or workshop or some such situation is a violation of authoritative teaching over a congregation, and some do not. Again, I think there is some room to agree to disagree.
We can also think of some exceptions that don’t erase the principle, but are just considered to be somewhat rare exceptions.
We could say there is a “Corrie ten Boom Exception.” Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian of outstanding courage who endured concentration camps during the Second World War and had a remarkable testimony and heart for God. Pastor Chuck Smith invited Corrie ten Boom to speak on a Sunday at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa in the 1970s. It was a rare, fitting exception that didn’t undermine the recognized leadership in the congregation.
We could also say there is a “frontier missionary” exception, using the hypothetical example of a woman missionary who sees a tribe won to Christ with no trained or qualified men to teach or take leadership. The situation isn’t ideal, but sometimes the answer is to function with what we have and work towards the Biblical ideal. We could imagine a woman taking roles and responsibilities that the Bible normally appoints for trained and qualified men, and working to build up male leaders among those she serves.
One area of caution would be the use of the pastor’s wife in the pulpit. By the nature of her relationship with her husband and the natural prominence she may have, it would be easy for many in the congregation to consider her a substitute for her husband’s role and responsibility, which is exactly the wrong message to send.
Nevertheless, those exceptions are just that—rare exceptions that shouldn’t be established or regarded as regular order in the church. The principle that God has appointed qualified men to hold the roles and responsibilities of leadership is important, and even more so as it becomes less accepted by the culture at large. We need to trust that God’s order is good and to be followed, even when the fashions and opinions of our time would lead us in an opposite direction.