Women’s Ministry in the Life of the Church

woman-leader“I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” Could Paul have said anything more out of step with our modern cultural views on gender roles? Our Egalitarian culture hates this verse, and it would seem to suggest that 1 Timothy 2:12 flies in the face of much of what I have been saying over the last several weeks about learning theology from women. I agree with what this passage says and hold to it because it is in the Bible, and I submit to the Word of God. I don’t, however, agree with the broad ways in which this verse is generally applied. 1 Timothy 2:11-15 does not disqualify women from all teaching in the church, even teaching of men.

Our primary goal as students of the Bible is to let the whole of the Scriptures inform our understanding of the parts. That is to say we do not simply quote passages apart from contexts, and we do not establish principles apart from the whole Canon. So in reading a passage like 1 Timothy 2:11-15 we have to consider how these words here fit together with the other parts of Scripture. We have already seen plenty of examples in the Scriptures where women do exactly what this text forbids: they teach men. So, by way of recap, Priscilla helps in instructing Apollos (Acts 18:26), in Acts 2 Peter states that women will prophesy (v. 17), and Paul speaks women prophesying in the church (1 Cor. 11:2-16). These are teaching or instructing functions of women within the life of the church, so as we seek to faithfully address the application of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 we have to consider carefully how it fits with the rest of what the Scriptures teach. The Bible is a unit, and therefore the principles we draw must be part of that unity. So how does 1 Timothy 2:11-15 square with the aforementioned examples?

For starters we should establish what the context of the 1 Timothy passage is. There have been numerous discussions around the application of this text. Some suggest that the passage is addressing the domestic life and others suggesting that Paul is speaking to church life. The passage placed within the larger context of the book can help us to determine the proper way to think about the passage. After some careful study I think the text supports the conclusion that these verses fit within the context of the life of the church. In fact it is because he wants to address matters of the church as a whole that Paul writes this letter. So he says to Timothy:

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth. (1 Timothy 3:14-15)

Paul is writing to Timothy a letter about the matters of church conduct. Though Paul speaks of Adam and Eve in the preceding chapter their use is not to suggest principles for domestic life. Rather, as I’ll argue below, Paul is making a case from the order of creation, not for the roles in marriage. So Paul is addressing church life, but how should we understand his restriction on women in the church in light of the aforementioned examples of women teaching in the church? Again, context helps us answer the dilemma.

What aspect of church life is Paul addressing in this passage? Does he mean to address church life in total or is he limiting his thoughts to a specific element of the church? I believe this text is speaking specifically to the office of Elder, or pastor. It is not a broad condemnation of all teaching in the church, and two key words can help support this conclusion. The words “teach” and “authority” are markers of the office of an elder as used in the Pauline epistles. Though grammatically speaking there are two injunctions listed here they belong together. A number of scholars see the two as addressing the singular issue of the office of an elder. So, Bill Mounce writes that “The relationship that exists between the two is that of a principle and a specific application of that principle” (The Pastoral Epistles, 130). Other Scholars agree, H.A. Kent writes that “This has reference solely to the function of the authoritative teacher of doctrine in the church” adding that “The role of teacher in New Testament days was an authoritative office” (The Pastoral Epistles, 107-108). New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner agrees, he says:

authoritative teaching is usually a function of the elders/overseers (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17), and it is likely that Paul is thinking of them here. Thus, women are proscribed from functioning as elders/overseers. (Women in the Church, 127)

Paul is addressing specifically, then, the office of an elder here. He goes on in the immediate following verses to clarify the qualifications of an overseer, putting our present passage, then, within the context of a larger subject of eldership in the church. Teaching in this text is intimately connected with the authority of the office of a pastor. There are all kinds of examples in the contemporary church where people teach who are not functioning as elders/pastors. In that view, then, I think Paul has in mind even more specifically the task of preaching.

There are some who context, quite understandably, that Paul does not here use the word “preach” and therefore he has something broader in mind. Words, however, are not determined by mere dictionary usage. Words have a variety of usages and their meanings are dependent upon context. With that said, we could point to a few other places in the Scriptures where “teach” is used to identify something more commonly associated with “proclamation” or “preaching”. So in Matthew 7:28-29 we find the word “teaching” used to describe Jesus Sermon on the Mount. Mark 2:13 describes Jesus “teaching” beside the sea to a great crowd. In Mark 4 we have another scene where Jesus is preaching along the shore and such a great crowd comes out to greet him that he must get into a boat and push out on to the sea for space, and from there he “teaches” them (Mark 4:1-2). We find the same thing in Mark 6:34. Though we may say that “teaching” and “preaching” can describe different functions there is often much overlap, and upon occasion they may be used interchangeably. Here I believe Paul is using teach to refer to that aspect of the authoritative office of the elder commonly identified as “preaching.”

What do we make, then, of Paul’s use of Adam and Eve in the following verses. The use of the word “for” at the beginning of verse 13 is important because it serves as a grounds for the preceding clauses. That is Paul is giving a reason for the injunction. He turns to the order of creation to make the case that only men can be elders, they alone can hold the authoritative office in the church. While it is true too that Paul affirms male headship in the home this passage is not intended to address that concept. Paul’s point rather is that per God’s ordained order man came first and therefore holds an office of authority. The ordering is a reference to the concept of primogeniture, where the first-born was granted the rights of head of the family. Paul is appealing to the creation order to make the case for male headship in the church. Verse 14 demonstrates the consequences of overturning this order when Eve is deceived and becomes a transgressor. Paul is demonstrating by virtue of the negative example that women cannot take the position of authority within the church.

Having said all that I want to return then, to my initial statement. Paul is not here arguing that women can’t teach at all in the church, nor even that women can’t teach men. His goal is to address the specific office of the elder. In so doing he maintains the God ordained order of things: men alone can hold the authoritative office within the church. There are, as we have seen, plenty of examples of women teaching men, of women in some sense having authority over men, even within Paul’s writings. To fit those concepts together rightly with this passage we must see this passage as addressing specifically the office of an elder. 1 Timothy 2:11-15, then, does not restrict women from teaching in the church, only from holding the office of an elder.

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  1. […] input and what was a violation of 1 Timothy 2:12 (I offer some further thoughts on this passage here). Over time she began to believe that she had no right to offer feedback or input on any decisions […]

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