Note: I first wrote this essay in May of this year. I’ve let it hang — for obvious reasons, I’m not looking forward to the criticism I’ll likely get — but recent comments about Beth Moore (again) caused me to reconsider. So here it is. – ZH
My whole life — preschool to now — has been shaped by women teaching me things.
My mother taught me how to read. My elementary school teachers, two women, helped me learn math and writing and history. I had female English, history, science and math teachers throughout middle and high school that were key in my learning.
Ms. Boado helped me in my writing development. Ms. Coates challenged my tendency toward careless errors — I learned that phrase from her — in math. Ms. Epling helped me understand some basic scientific concepts I still remember. Ms. Morcom taught me Spanish, a small chunk of which I can still recall thanks to her, and she was a genuinely nice person.
Ms. Wolferman encouraged my passion for history and research. Ms. Chernin made 12th grade English a blast and was a special person to a lot of us in her class for her attitude toward us goofy seniors, and introduced us to the musical Camelot and nether purses (that’s from Canterbury Tales, by the way). Ms. McElwain wrote me up for talking in class for the first time ever, but also tolerated my semi-apathy to science and math enough to teach me some things.
Note: I may have misspelled or misremembered some of those names, and for that I’m sorry, but for some of them, it’s been 15 years since I’ve been in their classrooms.
I had fewer female professors in college, but a couple were instrumental in my education in various ways. Janna Anderson helped craft my journalism skills and served as a great encouragement. Maureen Melita, my Italian professor who I didn’t really care for at the time, showed great patience and forbearance with this guy who didn’t take the classes in the proper way and struggled with languages.
But in church, women have been virtually absent from my spiritual education since elementary school. The churches I’ve attended have, nearly universally, selected women to serve as the bakers and cooks, entertainers and singers.
I don’t think it was ever done out of sexism, at least not intentionally. And many of those women, if not all of them, took to those roles joyfully and excellently.
But as I’ve gotten older and matured in my understanding of faith and the Bible, I’ve come to believe something radical: women can and should preach in front of men and women. There’s no biblical reason for all women to be relegated to those other roles.
Timothy and the Corinthians
The most oft-cited passages regarding women teaching and preaching are 1 Timothy 2:12-14 and 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35. I’ll take these individually, respectively.
“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; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
In these verses, Paul seems to indicate that “a woman,” in contrast to the “women” that he refers to earlier in this section, should not be allowed to teach or exercise authority over a man, at least in his places. Instead, she’s to be quiet, silent.
“…As in all the churches of the saints, 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.”
This seems pretty straightforward to me that women should keep silent in the churches, that it’s “shameful” for them to speak in church.
I walk away from these passages, on the surface, and get frustrated. It’s incredibly sexist. And this is the problem we get when we take the Bible out of context and apply certain verses universally and uniform without understanding the full meaning.
So as I move forward, I want to stress that I’m going to be using the Bible not as a smooth rod, but a stick that has edges and contours, something that doesn’t always say the same thing but has different meanings to different people at different times. After all, it’s 66 books by several authors written at different times to different people.
Teaching and Exercising Authority
In this second section of 1 Timothy 2, Paul is discussing attitude and action within the church service. In v. 8, he says that “the men should pray…in every place.” Also, women should be dressing “with modesty and self-control,” according to v. 9.
Then there’s the transition to women learning quietly and not teaching or exercising authority. Here are my problems with the modern application of 1 Timothy 2:12-14:
There is no indication that this is his practice in all the churches, something he indicates elsewhere about other practices and principles.
We don’t know exactly what Paul was referring to here. It could have been a specific woman, a specific group, a specific instance or a universal reality. But there are times where Paul does say something applies universally. He does in the 1 Corinthians 14 passage, “as in all the churches of the saints.” In v. 8-9 of this passage, he says that he desires “in every place” for men to pray and women to dress “in respectable apparel.” If he was speaking the inspired word of God, wouldn’t he be careful to say this is a universal application.
The second indicator of this is his transition from “women” to “a woman,” and “they” to “she.” Instead of continuing the original train of thought to apply teaching to all of a sex, Paul shifts to an individual. This could be an individual case to Timothy. We don’t know. He then returns to plural “they” in v. 15, which could be the children of the woman to which he is referring.
Third, the verb epitrepō, translated “I do permit,” is in the present tense. This is a sign that he is speaking presently, in his current time, and thus does not necessarily mean universally for all time future. He could just have easily said, “I will never allow women to teach men.” This could be just Paul’s rules and understandings for this church in particular.
The words translated “teach” and “exercise authority” may not mean those things so simply.
I want to key in specifically on the exercise authority part. The word authentein is used just once in Scripture — like the word for “God-breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16 — so we have little context for how it has been used. However, the HELPS Word-studies gives some good help here.
The Greek non-conjugated word authentéō is derived from the stems autós, meaning “self” and entea, meaning “arms, armor.” So its literal translation is to arm yourself. The HELPS Word-studies continues: “Properly, to unilaterally take up arms, i.e. acting as an autocrat — literally, self-appointed (acting without submission.” So really, if we’re to take this word literally, the translation should be that a woman should not exert authority on her own accord over a man. That does not preclude her from earning it the right way.
Next, I want to cite Gail Wallace of the Junia Project: “There is also the possibility that the verb didaskein (to teach) is linked here to the verb authentein in what is called a hendiadys (two words joined by a conjunction to make a single point). ‘Don’t eat and run’ would be a modern example. So a better interpretation might be ‘don’t teach in a domineering way.’”
I think that’s a good example for both women and men: don’t teach people in a domineering way, taking authority on for yourself unilaterally.
Additionally, as Wallace also writes, the Greek verb exousia is used in multiple other contexts when speaking of authority in church. Why wouldn’t Paul just use the same verb here if he meant the same thing?
There just might be a context and specific application for this instruction for that time period, that group, that people.
Paul instructs Timothy earlier in the letter to “remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to maths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:3-4). So there seems to be an indication that either Timothy reached out to Paul with this problem, or Paul knew there was an issue and wanted to address it.
Then Paul strangely introduces an idea of Adam and Eve and who was deceived and transgressed. Paul’s written about Adam before, when he wrote about sin in Romans 5. Paul wrote, “…just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come” (v. 12-14).
So Paul saying in v. 13-14 — “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” — can’t be a contradiction of what he said before in Romans, but a further context. It does not have to be an explanation as to why women or this woman was to remain quiet. Maybe she was to remain quiet because she was saying things incorrectly, and Paul was writing this sentence to give the correction.
Shameful to Speak?
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul kicks off by instructing his readers to “pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” He says that he wants “all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy” (v. 5). He does not restrict that to men or women, as he seems to have the ability to do in other passages.
The rest of the chapter is directed toward, mostly, the right way to speak in tongues and understand it and prophesy. He then continues to say that “the women should keep silent in the churches,” in this context. To apply this one instruction universally is a little confusing for a few reasons.
In this very letter, Paul doesn’t restrict women as a whole from prophesying.
Just a few chapters earlier, Paul writes, “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her heard, since it is the same as if her head were shaven” (1 Cor. 11:4-5). He speaks almost as if it’s a given that women prophesy, something that usually happened in a group context.
So this seems to me to be a contradiction, unless the 1 Corinthians 14 passage is designed to speak to a specific group of people. It could be that the women in that church were being disruptive and needed to be silent.
The culture of the time could have precluded thorough understanding, something Paul would likely address in a section about orderly worship.
At the Junia Project website, Mark Kuno quotes Kenneth Bailey, who put together what’s termed a “reconstruction” of what it could have looked like.
“The Corinthian church was perhaps the most diverse in composition – including those fluent in Greek and those with just enough to get by. Some of those speaking during worship may have had strong accents of a non-native Greek speaker, making understanding difficult for some hearers. So they might ask those around them to explain what they were hearing. Due to their cultural upbringing, women were handicapped with a very short attention span, as short as fifteen seconds. When they were not being directly addressed and/or didn’t understand what was being said, they would quickly begin chatting amongst themselves. Men and women may have sat separately. If this was the case, wives may have shouted across the divide to their husbands to ask them to explain. Therefore, the wives are instructed to respect the others in worship and remain silent and ask questions once at home.”
As Marg Mowczko puts it, “If the intent of verses 34-35 was to silence women who were disrupting congregational meetings with inconsiderate chatter, then these verses cannot be used to silence women who have a valid speaking ministry.”
Why would Paul use a word like “shameful” for something so innocent as women speaking in church when he’s clearly not opposed to it on other occasions?
The Greek for shameful here is aischron, which means “shameful.” The verb form is aischunó, which means “to dishonor, make shamed.” It seems outside the character of Paul and even Jesus to say such a thing about women in general speaking in church. If they were to act dishonorably or to disrupt the order of the service, then that would imply shame. But simply speaking doesn’t indicate, to me at least, universal sin or disobedience.
The Problems with Saying No
As I’ve said previously, I’ve grown up in a Christian culture that excludes women from teaching the whole church.
It’s something I just went along with for a long time. Like many things growing up in a Christian culture, you hear something that is supposedly from the Bible and you accept it. But as you get older, and you learn how to read the Bible for yourself, you may start to question some of the general teachings you grew up with and think differently.
Going public with this will undoubtedly cause people to think I don’t trust the authority of the Bible, that I’m just a liberal giving into my feelings and, at worst, that I’m not a Christian. This leads me to two problems I have with this culture of saying no to women when it comes to preaching to all, including men.
There is real sexism and misogyny accompanied with the conversation, and that is not Christ-like.
Beth Moore is a Southern Baptist, evangelical Bible teacher who ticks most of the boxes for belonging to the “right tribe,” but she’s not been on board with the way these teachings have been handled. In a recent tweet thread, she wrote that what she wants is for people to “grapple with the entire text from Mt [Matthew] 1 thru Rev(elvation) 22 on every matter concerning women,” to tackle Paul’s words in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians 14 “alongside other words Paul wrote, equally inspired & make sense of the many women he served alongside.”
But most eye-opening to me was the next message, sent across two tweets.
“I had the eye opening experience of my life in 2016. A fog cleared for me that was the most disturbing, terrifying thing I’d ever seen. All these years I’d given the benefit of the doubt that these men were the way they were because they were trying to be obedient to Scripture…Then I realized it was not over Scripture at all. It was over sin. It was over power. It was over misogyny. Sexism. It was about arrogance. About protecting systems. It involved covering abuses & misuses of power. Shepherds guarding other shepherds instead of guarding the sheep.”
This is someone who would know what misogyny looks like far better than I ever will. This is someone who knows the Bible better than I do, who has been a Christian longer than I have. And she’s seeing misogyny in how this is being handled?
Nowhere in the Bible, and never in the life of Jesus, do we see negative treatment of women because of their gender as Christ-like. And unfortunately, for some, this conversation does include that kind of treatment.
This issue reveals a lack of understanding of what the Bible is.
Many men who preach the complementarian gospel will say that it is not a matter of gifting or quality of women. It’s simply the created order and what God says.
I have a lot of qualms with that, mainly that the created order doesn’t say that. The created order says that animals came first, and then Adam, the man, followed. Then Eve, the woman, followed him, because, as the Genesis 2 account records, “it is not good that the man should be alone” (v. 18).
If we take what the Bible says seriously — and we should, whether this story is recorded history or a tale told to educate us on creation and the origins of humanity — we should understand that we cannot do what we’re supposed to do as humanity without women. That does not exclude her from being in our pulpits.
Also, in a pure order standpoint, if man came after animals, but man was called to rule over animals, wouldn’t woman coming after man indicate that she was to rule over him? That’s a side track though.
The Bible is a series of letters and stories and poems and wisdom literature written thousands of years ago in a diverse land by a diverse people in different languages. To apply them directly to our context without taking into account what was happening at that time is irresponsible. If your mother said back in 2000 that you needed to hang up the landline before getting on the Internet, you’d do that. But you wouldn’t give that same advice now. It’s unnecessary and inapplicable.
That’s not to say the whole Bible is like that. There are plenty of amazing and wonderful passages where we can apply the wisdom and words shown directly to our circumstances, or we can take the concepts of what it means to follow God and consider our lives in light of them.
And that’s not to say we can’t learn anything from these passages about women in church. It’s good and right for us, men and women, to not be chatty and distracting in church. And it’s good and right for us to be respectful of the service, of the people who spend the time planning and executing worship for us to participate in. But to make direct application is to ignore what I believe the Bible really is: a diverse book designed to show us people’s experiences with Jesus, and sometimes, we get some really good wisdom from it.
Why Complementarianism Isn’t All Bad, Sometimes
While I feel that complementarianism has definite theological and social flaws, I have seen instances where it’s been put into action as a concept but not in an oppressive and sexist way.
At my parents’ church, which I attend for several years, women regularly get up to share their testimonies during revivals and other special services. My mother and father have co-taught mixed-gender Sunday school classes on parenting and marriage. At another church I’ve attended, women have given devotionals on Sunday mornings, and a few participated in a panel on mental health in front of the church in a definite educational and teaching environment.
After sending this piece in its first form to my mother, she reminded me of a church I went to growing up. A woman was the children’s minister and actually preached a sermon on Sunday one time when the pastor was out, “at (his) request, of course; she didn’t just sneak in there,” my mom wrote. Another woman served as a deacon.
But the hardcore complementarians, I’ve seen, leave no room for things like that. What I believe was one of the main thrusts for Beth Moore’s tweets was an article by Owen Strachan, a theologian at the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, written a few days before. It name-dropped Moore and J.D. Greear (incorrectly, I might add) as “two popular Southern Baptist voices” that “endorse(d), in the context of the church’s gathered worship service, a woman teaching and preaching to the corporate body”.
Along with saying women do have a place in the church — “women are free, gloriously free, to evangelize, witness to the glory of God in the secular workplace, and serve on the mission field (ideally on teams populated by men who can serve as pastors)” — Strachan said “women should not preach or offer public teaching in the gathered worship service in local churches.” Like many complementarians, he wrote that the stance wasn’t about women’s competency, abilities or knowledge, but simply about the created order.
“Elders must not allow such a sinful practice; to do so is to bring the church body into disobedience against God. Southern Baptists have no such historic practice; John Piper has encouraged no such practice, nor has any leading complementarian affiliated with the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood; the early Baptists, Reformers, Puritans, Edwardseans, and confessional Presbyterians and Anglicans never made such a move.”
I have a few problems with this — I’ve already outlined most of them — but the argument that all these people and denominations have not advocated for women preaching and that’s why it shouldn’t happen is a faulty argument. Martin Luther was an anti-Semite (at least late in his life), Jonathan Edwards was evicted from his church for publicly shaming people and mishandling money, and sections of Christians over the years have supported slavery, segregation and more horrendous things we’d never endorse.
Speaking of John Piper, he’s written multiple times against women preaching. On the idea itself, he said 1 Timothy 2:12 simply contradicts the idea of women preaching.
“A woman teaching men with authority — week in and week out or every other week or regularly in an adult Sunday school class or whatever — a woman teaching men with authority under the elders is not under the authority of the New Testament. She may be under the authority of the elders, but she is not under the authority of the New Testament, and neither would they be for putting her in that situation.”
Piper extended the concept to women teaching men within the seminary environment, since “the proper demand on the seminary teacher is to be an example, a mentor, a guide, an embodiment of the pastoral office in preparing men to fill the pastoral office.”
Not all women feel oppressed or wronged by this approach. And I’m not saying that it is always lived out practically as sexist and misogynist. But some have clearly had experiences where it has been that, and we need to hear those stories.
The Benefits of Saying ‘Yes’
I don’t know if some of us fully capture how impactful women were on the history of the Christian religion.
It starts with the Old Testament. The prophetess Deborah — yes, a prophetess, someone speaking God’s words — was called a judge of Israel in Judges 4:4, and “the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (v. 5). This was at a time when Israel did not have a king, but judges who led them in making decisions.
There’s the stories of Esther and Ruth, recorded in Hebrew Scripture. Esther was a Hebrew girl who was brought into the house of King Ahasuerus and saved her people from genocide by being a leader. Watch the Veggie Tales version, it’s actually pretty good. Ruth was a foreign woman whose example of faithfulness and hard work was so strong — leading by example, at least to me — that she was plucked from poverty by Boaz and became a forerunner of David and Jesus.
The Samaritan woman at the well became an evangelist and taught men and women about who Jesus was. Priscilla and her husband Aquila corrected Apollos’ teaching in Acts 18 and led a house church. Phoebe served Paul by delivering the letter to the Romans and was referred to as a deaconess by Paul at the end of that missive.
The Bible is full of women who served and led and taught in a culture that relegated women to second class most of the time, and the Christian church, while undoubtedly led by men, was kickstarted by women faithful to Jesus who went to tell the dejected disciples about the Savior’s resurrection.
The benefits of saying “yes” to women are many. We get to continue this rich biblical tradition of letting women be as much a part of the church culture as men. We shake the bonds of veiled sexism and misogyny that we call being “faithful.” We get to learn from women, some of whom have been silenced by well-meaning but misguided theology, who have a lot to offer. We get to show the world that we, like Jesus, value the women who have been discarded and miscast by society.
Women can, and should, preach and teach in church. Who knows what we’ll learn when we let them in?