RPM, Volume 19, Number 41, October 8 to October 14, 2017

Can Women Teach in the Church?

By Justin Huffman

Women play a vital role in the Bible story in general, and in the New Testament church specifically. However, it is a role that — in the church, as in the home — is distinctly different than that of men. It is the purpose of this paper to consider, in a Western culture that is purposefully dissolving any distinction between men and women, what the Bible teaches concerning women as teachers. As Douglas Moo observes,

"The New Testament makes it plain that Christian women, like men, have been given spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). Women, like men, are to use these gifts to minister to the body of Christ (1 Peter 4:10); their ministries are indispensible to the life and growth of the church (1 Corinthians 12:12-26)… To be true to the New Testament, then, the contemporary church needs to honor those varied ministries of women and encourage women to pursue them. But does the New Testament place any restrictions on the ministry of women? From the earliest days of the apostolic church, most orthodox Christians have thought so." 1

Although men and women are essentially and gloriously equal, both created in the image of God, there are distinctive characteristics and roles and gifts for men and women within the church. One area in which these distinctive roles becomes immediately apparent is in the question of whether women should be teachers in the church.

Can Women Teach At All?

Before delving into the women's role specifically in the corporate worship setting, it is important to set a backdrop concerning the role of women in general, as seen in the New Testament setting. Is it appropriate for women to teach at all? One helpful way of considering this topic might be to simply do some clear, pointed "Q & A" with God's Word as a whole in relation to the role of women in the kingdom of Christ:

Question: Is it appropriate for a woman to teach other women?

Answer: Not only is it permitted, but women are commanded to do so. In Titus 2:1-4 Paul tells the young minister Titus to "teach what accords with sound doctrine", which includes that the older women should "be reverent in behavior… to teach what is good, and so train the young women…"

Question: Is it permitted for a woman to teach children? (Some say the wife only has authority under the man—even if it is in the home with the children—not even allowing the wife to administer discipline).

Answer: Timothy, the young preacher to whom Paul wrote two epistles, apparently came to know and embrace the gospel through his mother and grandmother's teaching because his father was a Greek unbeliever. And the book of Proverbs speaks as much about the mother's instruction as it does about the father's (1:8; 6:20; 15:20; 29:15; 31:1). The apostle Paul, in Ephesians, commands children to obey their "parents," which includes both the father and mother.

Question: Is it ever acceptable for a woman to teach a preacher?

Answer: Priscilla did, and as a result the church as a whole was edified. Acts 18:24-27 describes her ministry to the preacher Apollos, along with her husband Aquila. Of course, it is not the normal pattern for preachers to be trained by women (2 Timothy 2:2); but in this instance of an error made from the pulpit, Priscilla and Aquila were knowledgeable of the Scriptures and cared enough about Apollos to take him aside and disciple him discretely in the privacy of their home.

Question: Are all women under the authority of all men?

Answer: Paul seven times in his letters specifically emphasizes that wives are to follow the leadership of their "own" husbands, never all men in the church (Ephesians 5:22, 24; Colossians 3:18; 1 Timothy 3:12; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1, 5). All women are not subordinate to all men. One man's wife is not obligated to submit to another man. The church is not a male cult.

Question: Do women have a vital, active, influential role to play in the kingdom of Christ, through (but not limited to) their godly homes?

Answer: The women at the tomb were the first to go and spread the word that Jesus had risen from the dead. Certainly that same testimony is still appropriate today. The houses of Lydia and Priscilla served as a headquarters and meeting house for the church plants in their cities. The writer of Hebrews rebukes his whole congregation (both men and women), "though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God" (5:12). All Christian believers, regardless of gender, ought to be ready/able to teach the Word of God (1 Peter 3:15).

Some critics have accused Paul of being against women, but no man ever did more to emancipate women from heathen bondage and dignify them in the manner God intended from the beginning. Paul teaches that women have a special and important place in the ministry of the local church (Romans 16:1-4). In writing to the church at Rome, Paul says, "Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you" (16:6). In fact, nine women are mentioned in this chapter: Phoebe (v.1); Priscilla (v.3); Mary (v.6); Tryphena (v.12); Tryphosa (v.12); Persis (v.12); the mother of Rufus (v.13), who Paul says was like a mother to him; Julia (v.15); and the sister of Nereus (v.15). And Paul writes in Philippians 4:3, "Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life."

Are Women To Be Absolutely Silent In Church?

Immediately before the instruction on marriage in Ephesians (so Paul's audience includes both men and women), Paul tells the whole church to be "addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart" (5:19). Women clearly are to participate verbally in the public worship service. Again, in speaking to the "one body" of believers (both men and women), Paul commands in Colossians 3:16, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." While the teaching and admonishing here, as in Ephesians, is in the context of the song service, it is clear that women are to participate in this public, mutual exhortation of the body during corporate worship.

In 1 Corinthians 11:5 Paul gives instruction for women as they pray and prophesy in the public worship service. D.A. Carson helpfully relates possible objections to the force of 1 Corinthians 11, but points out how inconsistent they end up being in order to explain away the plain implication of the passage. Carson addresses the primary objection that is raised: that perhaps 1 Corinthians 11 is not a public worship service, while 1 Corinthians 14 is. 2 Carson points out:

"Some continue to see the demand for silence as an absolute rule… several seek to escape the tension between 11:2-16 and 14:33b-36 by arguing that only the latter passage has reference to the public assembly; the former deals only with the home or with small group gatherings… This interpretation does not seem very likely, for: (a) Paul thinks of prophecy primarily as revelation from God delivered through believers in the context of the church, where the prophecy may be evaluated (14:23-29). (b) Distinctions between "smaller house groups" and "church" may not have been all that intelligible to the first Christians, who commonly met in private homes…" 3

Carson goes on to list five more reasons why this argument will not hold water. Unless one is willing to strain the context and flow of the entire epistle, it seems evident that Paul is instructing, or at the very least allowing for, women to speak in the corporate worship service by way of prayer and prophecy. Paul is instructing the church on how women should pray and prophesy, and it is unthinkable that he would then completely contradict himself a few chapters later.

In Acts 19:8-10, the method Paul used to share the gospel with unbelievers, and then to also disciple believers for two years, was that of "reasoning"; this word, in the Greek, is the same from which we get the English word "dialogue." This was the beginning of the church at Ephesus. There is no reason to assume that this was a male-only church, or that men were the only ones who took part in this directed, persuasive dialogue that Paul led.

It is no surprise, then, that Christians have almost universally understood that the silence commanded of women in 1 Timothy 2:11-13 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is not an absolute silence. What, then, is the meaning of these passages?

She Is To Remain Quiet

"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. For Adam was formed first, then Eve" (1 Timothy 2:11-13).

As already seen, the command to "learn quietly" and "remain quiet" is not a command to absolute silence. Paul does not contradict himself in writing one thing to Ephesus (Ephesians 5:19) and Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:5), and then something different to Timothy. Thus, we must ask of the text and its context, "What sort of silence is being commanded, since it is not an absolute silence?" The very next verse (v.12) specifies that this is a silencing of women in relation to the role of teacher. As Calvin comments, "First he bids them learn quietly… This he immediately explains more clearly, by forbidding them to teach." 4

The word quiet used in 2:11-12 is the same word used in verse 2: "lead a peaceful and quiet life." It means "rest, quietness, peacefulness." It seems clearly not to be an absolute silence by women commanded here, but "a gentle and quiet [same root] spirit" (1 Peter 3:4) displayed in the corporate worship service.

Paul also clarifies in verse 12, by focusing on two specific elements of this quietness: 1) teaching in the public worship service, and 2) exercising authority in the church. Removing man-made chapter breaks, the very next verses speak of the qualifications for an elder in the church. Paul contrasts the exact same concepts there: 1) public teaching, and 2) authority. So Paul seems clearly to be limiting women to non-teaching roles in the church, and specifically excluding women from the office of elder. "Not that he takes from them the charge of instructing their family, but only excludes them from the office of teaching, which God has committed to men only." 5

The reference to the creation order in verse 13 draws an analogy from the well-established leadership and authority of the husband in the home. Just as the home is led by the husband, the church is to be led by male elders. Far from suggesting that absolute silence is being enjoined upon all women in this passage, the parallel being drawn with the Christian home suggests an environment of mutual love and communication and exchange of ideas — under the authority of the male leadership.

Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-13 is saying women are not to be elders in the church or engaged in teaching in the public, corporate worship of the church; women are not to be teaching men or being in authority over men. As Moo helpfully summarizes, "We think 1 Timothy 2:8-15 imposes two restrictions on the ministry of women: they are not to teach Christian doctrine to men and they are not to exercise authority directly over men in the church." 6

They Are Not Permitted to Speak

"The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church" (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).

We are, in this paper, assuming that the Bible (including Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) does not contradict itself. Therefore, again, it seems evident that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, is not requiring an absolute silence of women in the corporate worship service. As we have noted before, Paul in this very same letter gives instruction for how women are to pray and prophesy in the public worship service (1 Corinthians 11:5). Certainly he is not saying women should pray and prophesy in public worship at one point in his letter, and then directly contradicting this instruction just a few chapters later. As David Prior succinctly puts it: "Whatever this section is teaching, it is not telling women to keep quiet in church. In 11:5, Paul has already referred to women praying and prophesying." 7

While some Christians have construed 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 to be obligating women to utter silence in the worship service, the passage itself would be proving more than that if taken literally and without regard to context. If we take this passage without consideration of its context and seek to make it a universal rule for women, then it would be wrong for women to ever seek instruction or clarification outside of their homes or from anyone besides their husbands: "If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home." Taken as a rule unto itself, without consideration of context, not only would this be contradicting other passages of Scripture but it would also mean that it is wrong for women in the church to seek biblical counsel from their pastors. Also, it would condemn single women and women married to unbelievers to scriptural ignorance, because the only and exclusive remedy for questions commanded in this text is women learning from husbands in the home.

What, then, is Paul's point here? "The Law" to which Paul refers could be either 1) the creation order in Genesis 2:20b-24 since it is to this passage that Paul explicitly turns on two other occasions to discuss female roles (1 Corinthians 11:8, 9; 2 Timothy 2:13) 8, or 2) the submission of wives suggested in Genesis 3:16. Either way, there is no indication he is making up a brand new law that all women are to be in obedience to all men. That the law is already saying this is the thrust of Paul's argument.

The immediate context, both before and after verses 34-35, is plainly that of prophesying and speaking with tongues; therefore, to consider the passage outside of that obvious context is to ignore sound rules of biblical interpretation. Specifically, instruction is being given regarding how tongues are to be interpreted and how prophesy is to be judged (vv.26-33). These supernatural gifts were being abused and practiced chaotically in the public worship service (v.26). Paul prohibits them from prophesying or speaking in tongues all at once. Instead he commands them to do so a few at a time. He also commands that allowance be made for the appropriate people to either interpret the tongues (v.27) or judge the veracity of the prophecy (v.29).

We must keep in mind that women were among those speaking prophecies (1 Corinthians 11:5; Acts 2:16-18; 21:9). Clearly, then, Paul was not commanding the women not to speak at all in the public worship service. While it is impossible to know all the specifics of the problematic situation Paul is addressing here, it seems that perhaps the issue was that women were seeking to "interpret" and "judge" their husbands—in front of the entire church in the public worship service—which Paul is saying is contrary to the principle of wives being submissive to their husbands. Paul seems to be instructing the women not to question their husbands in front of the whole congregation; rather, if they have any doubts about the veracity of their husband's prophecy or tongue they are to limit their questioning to the privacy of the family at home.

In verse 37, Paul writes "If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord." The words translated "anyone" and "he" are actually gender-neutral terms in the original language and literally mean "anyone" — not just men. Again, Paul is not contradicting the instruction he gave in chapter 11 for the women to prophesy, but rather is saying anyone who is truly gifted to prophesy (including women) will recognize the wisdom of being orderly and appropriate in the public worship service.

In verse 39, the address to "my brothers" is typical of Paul's addressing the whole congregation, and in effect is almost never used to limit his address to only the males in the church (Romans 1:13; 7:1, 4; 1Cor 1:10, 11; 2:1; 3:1; 6:5; 7:24; 10:1; 12:1; 15:1, 6, 58; 16:20). As Simon Kistemaker points out, "Paul speaks pastorally by calling the members of the Corinthian church 'my brothers,' a designation that includes the sisters (compare vv. 6,20,26)." 9

It seems, then, that Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is prohibiting women from participating in the "judging" of prophesies. While verses 34-35 is an admittedly difficult passage of Scripture, as always we must interpret the difficult by the plain. The plain teaching of Scripture is that women were not expected to be absolutely silent in the public worship, that women were even "praying and prophesying," and that women were only commanded to "obedience" in relation to their own husbands.

Thus we conclude that the instruction to the women to ask their husbands at home is addressing a specific problem within the context of speaking tongues and prophesying. To avoid the impropriety of women usurping authority over the male leadership in the church, or wives questioning their husband's leadership in front of the congregation, Paul prohibits them from participating in the judging of prophecies.

Of course, the question of what is meant by "prophesying" and by "tongues"—and whether these gifts are still in use today—is a matter of disagreement among many Christians, and we will not try to settle that question in this brief paper. Yet, even for those churches who do not now speak in tongues or exercise words of prophesy in their public worship services, some basic principles from this passage still apply today: namely, 1) that wives are to respect their husbands and display a spirit of submission to them even when exercising their God-given talents in public; and, 2) that women are not to usurp the God-given authority of the male leadership in the church.

Conclusion

The answer to the question, "Can women teach in the church?" must be given resoundingly in both the negative and the affirmative. Older women are specifically given responsibility to teach and train younger women, and all Christian women are exhorted to be knowledgeable of the Scriptures, ready to defend the faith, and able to admonish others within the body. Yet, women plainly should not be elders in the church, teaching in the corporate worship service, or undermining the male leadership of the church or of their home. As Thomas Schreiner concludes, "The ministries women do become involved in…should be complementary and supportive of the male leadership in the church." 10

To the Christian, the concept of "submission" cannot possibly have a bad connotation in and of itself. Jesus Christ, the Son of God and second person of the Trinity, voluntarily submitted himself to the Father to accomplish their mutual goal; the church is subject to Christ as our head; and we see government as rulers that God has set over us. Likewise, wives reflect the beautiful, mutual love between Christ and the church as they submit joyfully to the leadership of their husbands, godly or not, in the home. And the whole church body reflects their respect for the authority of Jesus and his Word as each one in the church supports, helps, and, yes, submits to the authority of the men God has given as elders to preach and lead in the church.

Notes:

  1. Moo, Douglas. "What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men?," in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 179.
  2. This argument is used, for instance, by Charles Hodge, while no exegetical argument is presented as to why 1 Corinthians 11 should be taken as private, while 1 Corinthians 14 should be understood as public. Charles Hodge, 1 & 2 Corinthians (TGSC; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1964) 305.
  3. Carson, D.A. "Silent In the Churches," in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 145.
  4. Calvin, Commentaries on the First Epistle to Timothy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 67.
  5. Calvin, 67.
  6. Moo, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 180.
  7. David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians (BST; Liecester: Inter-Varsity, 1985) 251-252.
  8. This is Carson's conclusion, although he recognizes that referring to Genesis 3:16 is perhaps a more common interpretation. Carson, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 152.
  9. Simon Kistemaker, 1 Corinthians (NTC; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002) 517.
  10. Schreiner, Thomas. "The Ministries of Women in the Context of Male Leadership," in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 222.
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