Women Preaching

Reposted from The Cripplegate.

Women are a great gift of God. I love the four I get to live with. My daughters are showing me up in skiing and soccer. My wife was a gymnast for years, and can do backflips on a four-inch wide balance beam four feet off the ground. I’m still working on somersaults. And she is smarter than me in every area of life. But that’s just a small sampling of the great ways God has skilled and gifted the ladies in my life. And the list would get long if I also mentioned the skills and giftedness of the women in the local church I get to serve.

God created women for his glory. In fact, his word has the highest view of women compared to any and every religion, ideology, spirituality, or philosophy out there. But, that does not mean that God has men and women share every task and role. That’s part of his glory; the ways in which men and women complement one another.

The issue of women preachers has again arisen to the forefront of evangelicalism. One position holds that Scripture forbids women from preaching to congregations where men are present in the local church. Another (egalitarianism, “soft complementarianism”) hold that Scripture does not forbid women to preach, or permits it under certain circumstances. This article will consider a few matters concerning the debate.

1. Humility and a good hermeneutic go a long way.

As it concerns Bible-believing Christians, this is a chiefly a hermeneutical issue. It’s simply about the correct approach to understanding Scripture. We are not asking, “What does the culture approve of as it concerns women preaching?”, but, “What does the Bible teach?” Those who embrace Scripture for what it is—the inspired, inerrant word of God—are not asking, “What position am I comfortable with?”, but, “What has God said?”

Bible-believing Christians understand that God’s authoritative, binding word is not confined to the red letters, but all 66 books of Scripture. Thus, we do not restrict the argument to Jesus’ words, but we carefully look at all pertinent passages in their proper grammatical, historical, and linguistic context. Further, we must exercise a hermeneutic of humility. That is, we must bring ourselves under the authorial intent of a given passage. Doing so embraces our position as humans and God’s position as God.

Finally, culture is to be understood in light of the Bible. The Bible is not to be understood in light of culture.

2. A few things we observe in the Bible concerning women.

Scripture often places women in a light that went against the depraved culture of the day. This is clear from the lives of individuals like Rahab (Jos. 2), Hannah (1 Sam. 2), Ruth, Esther, and Mary. Though culture may have disdained them, God exalted them. Others like Priscilla, Phoebe, Lydia, Junias, and Rufus’ mother also played key roles in the early church.

Jesus necessarily took a positive, countercultural approach towards women. He crossed boundaries, for example, by ministering to the Samaritan woman (John 4), extended abundant grace to flagrantly immoral women (Luke 7:36-50), and had women who regularly ministered to him and the disciples (Luke 8:2-3).

Further, the NT teaching on spiritual gifts indicate that women possess spiritual gifts and thus play a critical role in the local church (1 Cor. 12:7, Titus 2:4-5, 1 Pet. 4:10-11).

3. We must maintain a distinction between the descriptive and prescriptive.

We cannot make a descriptive passage determine faith and practice over and above the prescriptive. Many such passages are used to support the egalitarian or soft complementarian view. Four are especially common.

Miriam and Exodus 15

Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. 21 And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exod. 15:20-21)

This passages is often used in support. However, Miriam leads the women in singing and dancing. Nothing is said of Yahweh sanctioning her to preach before a mixed congregation. Interestingly, however, there was a time when Miriam asserted her authority over Moses. In Numbers 12, both Aaron and Miriam contend with Moses both on the grounds that he married a Cushite and they disliked his position of leadership over them and the congregation (“’Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?’ And the LORD heard it”, Num. 12:2). Yahweh rebukes Miriam and Aaron on the grounds of usurping Moses’ authority and punishes Miriam with leprosy (v. 10). All that to say, Miriam cannot be used as support for the egalitarian or soft complementarian position.

Deborah and Judges 4-5

This is a popular one for proponents of women preachers. Deborah the prophetess served as one of Israel’s judges (Judg. 4:4). We can infer that she would have adjudicated decisions involving men and women. However, can we then conclude that NT churches can permit women preaching to a mixed congregation?

Doing so is a large, impermissible leap. Recall that in Judges 4-5, we are not instructed or prescribed rules for faith and practice. Instead, we are given a description of what happened. Description does not equal prescription. What happened is not necessarily to be what is. Such is the case, for example, concerning the common misconception that the Bible approves of polygamy. Descriptive passages of polygamy do not equal prescriptions for polygamy.

Furthermore, let’s keep in mind that Judges 4-5 is in the book of Judges. The book narrates Israel’s days of utter moral carnage. As such, it was that time when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). Judges is the last place you want to go to support your position. It’s best not to make any rule of faith and practice from Judges except to avoid just about all of what happened in Judges.

Aquila and Priscilla in Acts 18:26

He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:26)

Some use this text to demonstrate that a woman can exercise authority over a man through teaching. After all, Priscilla taught Apollos the more accurate way. At least two responses are needed. First, Priscilla is not preaching to a congregation of men and women in a local assembly. Instead, this would be like a guy and his wife sitting down at the donut shop graciously telling Apollos about the gospel and New Covenant baptism. Second, Acts tells the story of what happened. It is descriptive, not prescriptive. As Acts documents the birth and maturation of the early church, there are many things which occur that are unique to that time, in the same way that there are many unique things which occur in the birth and subsequent growth of a human newborn. We must consult the epistles to understand what in Acts is to be imitated.

Women prophesying and 1 Corinthians 11:5

[B]ut every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. (1 Cor. 11:5)

The mention of women who prophesy is often cited as grounds for women preaching to mixed congregations. This will be dealt with below. Suffice it to say that Paul is not giving instruction for the corporate gathering, but describing the occurrence of women who prophesy. He makes no mention of where and in what context they do so. And, keep in mind the context. We’re talking about the Corinthian Church—First Church of Carnage. This was a church who had to be corrected on things like drunkenness at communion, prostitution, trances, failure to practice church discipline, inner-church lawsuits, and a guy committing incest. First Corinthians is sort of like the Judges of the NT. So, it’s probably best to distance ourselves from arguing for a position based upon what happened in Corinth.

The danger of using the above passages to support a position is clear. Descriptive passages cannot override prescriptive passages. What happened in Scripture is not to be determinative for faith in practice. What is commanded or instructed is.

Along with descriptive passages, we must avoid using historical figures to support our position. The question here is not whether or not individuals (including those greatly use of God) such as Amy Carmichael and Lottie Moon may have preached to mixed audiences in local churches and reported good results, but what Scripture teaches.

4. Various New Testament leadership.

We could also observe the practice of both Jesus and the apostles in appointing leadership in the NT. When Jesus chose the chief heads and leaders of the NT movement, he chose men (Matt. 10:1-4). And, when those men, uniquely gifted by the Spirit, appointed local church leaders in their place, they also appointed men (1 Tim. 1:2, 3:1; Titus 1:4-6). Further, the command for an elder/pastor/overseer in the NT to be the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2, Titus 1:6) limits this office to men. In the NT, there is no such thing as a woman elder/pastor. On its own, this does not close the case, but it is telling.

Finally, not once in the NT do we see a woman preaching and teaching to a mixed audience in a local assembly.

5. A consideration of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

A few remarks about each passage are given.

1 Timothy 2:11-12

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (1 Tim. 2:11-14)

The context features Paul’s instruction for order within the local church.

In more recent days, the passage has experienced a number of interpretive issues. A few are addressed.

First, much hinges on the meaning of the word αὐθεντεῖν (“exercise authority”) in v. 12. Al Wolters has performed an exhaustive study of all known occurrences of the word in ancient Greek, showing that, contrary to some contemporary opinions, the word does not have a pejorative (i.e. “domineer”) or ingressive sense (i.e. “assume authority”). Thus, Paul is not prohibiting, for example, a woman teaching in a domineering way. Instead, women are not to exercise authority over men in the church, teaching included.

Second, some have argued that the lack of a definite article before the word “woman” in the Greek means it’s possible that Paul refers to “this” woman (thus, perhaps a particular woman/circumstance and not women in general). However, this is highly questionable at best. Of the 93 occurrences of the phrase “this man/woman” in the NT, not one of them is anarthrous in Greek as in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. In every occurrence there is a pronoun. Instead, the anarthrous term “woman” in the Greek (v. 11) functions as a generic noun (Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 254). And, the fact that Paul grounds the command in the man-woman created order in vv. 13-14 eliminates the possibility of a specific instance. The reference is to all women in all churches.

Third, some question the meaning of “teach” in v. 12. To what context of teaching is Paul referring? And what kind of teaching? J.D. Greear, president of the SBC, wrote that Paul means that women “should not teach as elders or in elder-like ways.” He admits that this “creates a gray area” and thus “we must be willing to insist on the principle and allow each congregation to determine how best to apply it.” The problems with this position are significant. First, Scripture does not delineate teaching that is elder-like and non-elder-like. Implicit to teaching is exercising authority. Propositions are spoken. Truth is to be believed. People are to be doers of the word. The word “teach” has the idea of a teacher/instructor instructing and imparting information to another (who assumes the student/disciple posture). Instructors, by virtue of instructing, exercise authority. Further, the Greek word translated “or” in v. 12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…”) usually functions to link two closely related terms in a sentence. Teaching and exercising authority are closely related. That is, in part, implicit in the fact that Paul follows the statement, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness” in v. 11 with the prohibition of teaching and exercising in authority in v. 12. Teaching and exercising authority in the assembly are closely related, which further explains the command in v. 11 to learn quietly in the corporate gathering. Also, the command is not speaking to particular kind of teaching. Again, Paul does not delineate kinds of teaching in the church. The word “exercise authority” stands on its own and does not modify the type of teaching (i.e. “teach in a domineering way”).

One argument says that Paul prohibits teaching error, not teaching in general. However, there are words which Paul uses earlier in 1 Timothy 1:3-4 in reference to teaching error and they are not used here. Further, the timeless grounds in vv. 13-14 would not be necessary in that case. The context of the letter, combined with the instruction from 1 Timothy 3:14–15 (“…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…”) indicates that Paul refers to all churches at all times.

It is curious why we would get into such controversy, asking questions like, “What kind of teaching?” Likely, we avoid doing that with other commands to teach. It might be understandable to do so if v. 11 and vv. 13-14 were absent. But, the command to “learn quietly with all submissiveness,” the timeless man-woman relationship in creation, and the context of the gathered local church make it clear that God prohibits women from teaching and preaching to a mixed audience in the local church.

Fourth, the prescription concerning women preachers is general not particular. In other words, Paul does not say, “I do not allow women in Ephesus to teach or exercise authority over a man,” or, as some have asserted, “…over the elders,” or, “…over the older men.” There are Greek words used in the NT to specify such things and they are not used here. Paul uses the general word for “men.” We can safely infer that if there were such qualifiers for an important issue as this, in Ephesus and now, Paul would have specified. Rather, the sense is, “Women, in general, are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men in general, in the church, in general.” Further, the prescription of vv. 11-12 is grounded in the permanent, theological order of the general man-woman relationship in vv. 13-14, thus eliminating the possibility of a restricted circumstance.

Fifth, some argue that Paul prohibits women only from the pastoral or elder office, but they are permitted to preach to a mixed congregation. While 1 Timothy 3 is clear that he does prohibit women from the pastoral office, the prescription in vv. 11-12 speak more to function. Paul prohibits women from functioning in the office of elder/overseer/pastor and from teaching men in the church.

More could be said. But it is clear that from 1 Timothy 2:11-12, God prohibits women from preaching and teaching to a mixed congregation in the local church.

1 Corinthians 14:34-35

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 34 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. 35 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. 36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 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. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40But all things should be done decently and in order. (1 Cor. 14:33–40)

What is the context? Lack of God’s kind of orderliness during corporate worship in the Corinthian church, which in turn hindered edification. Paul is giving instruction as to bring about orderliness.

What is the command? “The women should keep silent in the churches” (v. 34). There is debate as to whether the sentence begins in v. 33 or v. 34 (ESV begins in v. 33, “As in all the churches…”; the NIV gives the option for both; the NASB begins in v. 34). In either case, the command does not change because it applies to “the churches.” In context, “the churches” would apply to churches in general since there is no qualifier restricting the command circumstantially. Lest there be confusion about the prescription, Paul follows it up with, “they are not permitted to speak” and “let them ask their husbands at home, for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (vv. 34-35).

Like 1 Timothy 2:11-12, this passage is relatively straightforward. No qualifications are given as to a particular context. Paul does not specify things like what kind of women are to keep silent/not speak or on what occasion they are to keep silent/not speak. The original text clearly indicates women in general and in the church in general. The principle is so important that Scripture teaches “it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (v. 35). This could not be clearer.

Some like N.T. Wright have said that women were causing a disturbance in the corporate gathering, as they were eager to learn and speaking out to their husbands, prompting Paul to command them to be silent while others spoke and to wait until returning home to ask questions. Whether or not that was the case, the general nature of the prescription (“in the churches … as the Law says … it is shameful for a woman to speak in church”) do not allow for a circumstantial view.

If we were to interview the apostle Paul as to whether it was permissible for women to preach and teach to a mixed congregation, he would say: “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.” Taken in a straight-forward manner, the command is clear.

Does this mean that women cannot utter a sound in church? Obviously not. Again, the context is disorder in the local assembly and corporate worship. First Timothy 2:11-12gives additional clarity to that. They may teach children and other women (critically important and exalted tasks, Titus 2:4-5), but not men. This obviously includes the corporate gathering and things like Sunday school classes.

As a side, Gorden Fee (a writer from whom I have benefited) says that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 was not inspired by the Spirit but was added later (NICNT: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 705). But there are no objective grounds for doing so, as, for example, the passage is present in Codex Sinaiticus. Fee admits, “[F]inding a viable solution to their meaning [is] so difficult, that it seems best to view them as an interpolation…one must assume that the words were first written as a gloss in the margin.” The reasoning is suspicious.

What about 1 Corinthians 11:5?

Now, the question is often posed: “In 1 Corinthians 11:5, we read that women can prophesy. How do we reconcile that with the prohibition in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35?”

But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. (1 Cor. 11:5).

Does this contradict 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, thus permitting women to preach to a mixed congregation in the church? First, we know that we will not discover an exegetical T or I which God forgot to cross or dot. He will be consistent with, and not contradictory to, himself. Second, we know from basic logic and hermeneutics that a less clear text is to be understood in terms of a more clear text which speak on a similar issue. Thus 1 Corinthians 11:5 is to be understood in light of 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12. While some assert that it is too unclear, it has been demonstrated above that such is not the case. So, whatever 1 Corinthians 11:5 means, it does not mean that women are to preach and teach to mixed congregation. Further, 11:5 does not give permission to prophesy in a mixed congregation. So, Paul would stick with what he said in 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2. Perhaps women in Corinth were preaching. If so, 11:5 is not approval of such, but comment on her doing so with her head uncovered. That’s it. Or, perhaps Paul refers to a situation where women were speaking outside of the local church like witnessing. Or maybe he refers to prophesying among women and children or something else. But 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are abundantly clear that he is not permitting a woman to preach and teach in a mixed congregation.

To digress, imagine for a moment that you were a woman living in a rural town somewhere on the planet today. You didn’t know about the technical arguments concerning these passages. You didn’t have Twitter, the internet, or TV. Then, you just opened to these passages and started reading in a straight-forward way. What would you conclude?

The passages are some of the clearer prescriptions in the NT. Not only is the instruction clearly general in nature, they are grounded in timeless theological principle. There need not be confusion here. Culturally, there may be plenty to cause an interpreter pause regarding 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Exegetically and biblically, however, there is not. They do not permit a woman to preach to mixed congregations in the church.

6. Additional objections and questions.

Many objections and questions exist on the issue.

First, and most common is the concern that the prohibition to preach means Scripture sees women as inferior in worth to men. Notwithstanding the cultural reasoning, this is simply not true. Nothing in Scripture supports the inferiority of women. Men and women are created equal by virtue of both being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). The idea that different roles means different worth is utterly foreign to God’s word.

Second, egalitarian and soft complementarian arguments often feature statements like, “A woman’s worth extends outside of the home and raising children.” On the one hand, obviously that’s true. A woman’s worth is in possessing the image of God. On the other hand, we need to ask, “Why the frequency of that qualifier, ‘Her worth isn’t just in the home’”? What lies underneath the impulse to say that so often? What are these lines of reasoning saying about the dignity of womanhood? It’s almost as if they are saying, “Ministry in the home and raising children is good, but not as good as things outside of the home. The former is inferior to the latter. Women are not inferior, therefore, they most certainly can do anything that includes the latter, including preach to men,” or something. The need for the “not-just-the-home” qualifier seems to come from cultural infection, rather than biblical values.

Third, if it is not wrong for women to preach, why do many egalitarian and soft complementarians limit women preaching? Many such churches limit a woman preaching to things like Mother’s Day and occasions where a well-known woman evangelical is present. But, if she is gifted and it’s not insubordination to Scripture, then why not allow women to preach regularly? The practice of limiting appears to be an inconsistency between profession and practice.

Fourth, the position of this article does not conclude, “Men have nothing to learn from women.” Scripture says no such thing, nor is that a permissible implication from 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 or 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Faithful, well-known complementarians do not take that view. And every married guy I know in the local church I serve sees himself as having much to learn from his wife.

Fifth, we do well to avoid ad hominem approaches here. Certainly we can do better than stacking up ‘ism terms upon someone who disagrees with us. We maintain dignity by detouring labeling, emotional-based arguments, and experience-based arguments (e.g. “I know a woman greatly used by God, therefore women should preach…”), and instead, sticking to the biblical and hermeneutical technicalities of the argument.

Conclusion

The position which permits women preaching to mixed congregations cannot be supported from Scripture. Common descriptive biblical passages do not support the position. First Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 are the two prescriptive passages in the NT on the issue. Thus, they are the authority on the matter. Exegetically, both passages clearly forbid women from preaching and teaching to men in the local church. Therefore, NT churches must conduct themselves accordingly if they are going to be in obedience to Christ, the blessed Lord of the church.

Eric Davis Bio


Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. He has been married for 15 years and has 3 children.

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