When woman can teach

I believe that it is good and right for women to teach in church.

I hold this view not because I don’t value what the Bible says, but precisely because I value it so dearly. My high view of the authority of the Bible compels me to do more than honor Scripture with my interpretation. I must press for both an interpretation and an application that honor it.

Why bring this up? Because of a recent web-post by a prominent preacher who has long been vocal about how unbiblical it is for women to preach in church. He was asked, “Would a pastor who uses a biblical commentary written by a woman be placing himself under the instruction of a woman?” His answer demonstrates the strain of of his position:

It might be, he may feel it that way, and if he does, he probably shouldn’t read it. It doesn’t have to be experienced that way…

I distinguish between personal, direct, exercises of authority that involve man and woman. Being it’s personal she’s right there, she’s woman, I’m man, and I’m being directly pressed on by a woman in this way… Those two words, personal and direct.

Here would be an example of what I mean. A drill sergeant that gets in the face of his soldiers… I don’t think a woman ought to be doing that to a man. It’s direct, it’s forceful, authoritative, it’s compromising something about the way a woman and man were designed by God to relate.

The opposite would be where she is a city planner. She’s sitting in an office at a desk, drawing which streets should be one-way and which street should be two-way, and thus she’s going to control which way men drive all day long. That’s a lot of authority, and it’s totally impersonal and indirect, and therefore has no dimension of maleness or femaleness about it.

 I would put a woman writing a book way more in that category of city planner than of a drill sergent.

(Listen to the entire interview on the speaker’s website here)

This pastor’s entire application has little to do with what Paul said about teaching and authority (1 Timothy 2:12). His interpretation has less to do Paul’s injunction against women teaching men than his own personal views about how God hardwired men and women. He refuses to consider cultural implications in his interpretation, even as he cannot avoid cultural considerations in his application. Thus he chains his interpretation to the context of the Sunday morning pulpit even as he strains his application to accommodate the rest of his Evangelical worldview.

He operates (as we all do) in a world where Christian women write books, lead ministries, and teach and sit on boards of seminaries and Bible colleges. And yet virtually no one cites verses like 1 Timothy 2:12 to say they should not.

His application (with its far-reaching consequences) has less to do with the issue of teaching and authority, and instead focuses on something else entirely: physical proximity. His interpretation isn’t that a woman can’t teach a man, but that a woman can teach a man (or exercise authority over him) unless she is standing in front of him.

In the words of Tina Fey (not that we’d let her say it from a pulpit): “What the what?!”

When our applications grow increasingly contorted, we must ask ourselves if our interpretations run the risk of belittling the very Scripture we seek to honor.

It is not enough for our interpretation to honor Scripture; our application must as well.



About Tim Owens

I'm a husband, father, and Christ follower. I also live in Albany, NY, where I work as a pastor.
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16 Responses to When woman can teach

  1. alnjulie2009 says:

    Excellent essay , Tim!! I love your perspective on things!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I feel like this doesn’t exegete scripture either. It seems more like your own opinion that upholding God’s holy word. I feel this needs more explanation of how you feel Scripture actually teaches that women should teach men and have authority over them. I am not opposed to your idea, I am concerned that this essay mentions the Scripture reference (without even writing the Scripture) one time, which is not much different than the preacher you are disagreeing with. It seems as though you are talking in circles giving your (humble?) opinion. Also it appears anyone who holds a different view than you does not hold the Scriptures as high as you do. I think this is completely prideful and wrong.

  3. Faith says:

    I like what Pastor Rex says about it. this was well written Tim!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Clarification…it appears that I am saying I think your article is completely prideful and wrong, but I was actually saying the idea that someone who holds a different view doesn’t hold the Scripture as highly as you is prideful and wrong.

  5. Tim Owens says:

    These are some good points! For the sake of clarity, I don’t at all mean that anyone who holds a different view doesn’t hold Scripture highly. I made my comments in light of the reality that people who hold my position are generally accused of not valuing Scripture–after all, we clearly don’t do exactly what the words on the page say.

    I didn’t write the post to exegete the scripture, but rather to introduce the idea that our application matters as much as our interpretation. Still you raise a good question, so I’ll share a few quick thoughts. Here’s a super quick exegesis:

    “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” 1 Tim 2:12

    Textual: Written within the context of how women should dress, how men should pray, and the role childbirth plays in a woman’s journey of faith. Also, the word for exercise authority (αὐθεντεῖν) does not appear anywhere else in the Bible. Its lexical definition is “to assume a stance of independent authority.”

    NT Context: It seems Priscilla and Aquilla taught Apollos (Acts 18:26). Junia was either well known to or among the apostles (Rom 16:7). Phoebe was a deacon who carried Paul’s letter we know as Romans, which also means she would have been the first person in history to explain it. (Rom 16:1). Women are referenced throughout Paul’s letters as playing an influential role in the church. Women were the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. It’s also worth noting that 2 Tim 2 is paralleled by 1 Cor 14.

    Cultural Context: In this culture (both Ephesus and Corinth) most women were uneducated and existed within pretty restrictive gender roles. However, there was also a social movement in which women of higher social standing began throwing aside gender norms, seizing sexual and marital independence (google ‘new roman women’). Scholars have long been struck by the parallels between 2:9-10 and 1st century descriptions of this new class of women.

    Conclusion: While this is incredibly brief, I employ the same hermeneutic here that everyone I know has used for the NT passages on slavery. Paul endorsed slavery, Paul told women to be silent. However, Paul also taught a new attitude towards slaves, an attitude of better treatment and brotherhood. He also taught a new attitude towards women: one of empowerment through education (teach them at home) and inclusion in the work of the gospel (evidenced by how many women he credited as contributing to the work of the gospel). Just as people have understood that the endorsement of slavery was culturally bound, so I understand that the limitation of women teaching in church was culturally bound.

    Again, this is brief to the point of being dangerous, but hopefully it’s still helpful.

    • Philip Sanders says:

      Hey Tim!

      Always fun to jump in here on this one. I know we were able to talk about this topic a couple years ago, and the online forum is obviously not the place to be able to go super in-depth on it, but reading your exegesis, I just wanted to bring up one point regarding the claim that Paul was culturally bound in his instruction here to women and slaves.

      It seems that the verses immediately following Paul’s instruction here need to be examined: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” So, Paul, gives the reason for his instruction that women not exercise authority over a man, and he ties it to the creation order and the Fall…so Paul’s explicit reason for giving this instruction seems to be not the cultural norms of his day, but a theological understanding he had from God’s work concerning creation and the fall of man.

      I know your exegesis was short, but wondered if you had any insights on that part.

      • Tim Owens says:

        Hey Phil! Good to hear from you! And, since we’ve got the context of having discussed this face to face, I’ll be a bit tongue in cheek:

        I’ll make you a deal. I’ll prevent women from speaking in church if you prevent them from walking in wearing expensive clothes, gold, pearls, and elaborate hairstyles. I’ll also apply Paul’s primogeniture logic if you are willing to enter into a culture, like Paul’s, where the firstborn has greater honor in all things. I’ll also bar women from teaching if we can all agree that women are simply easier deceived than men. And, lastly, I’ll keep women from teaching as long as you add bearing children as a requirement for their salvation.

        I’m obviously being silly! Ha! But my point is real: if we’re going to make some of this transcultural, we need to make it all transcultural. I’m pretty passionate that we need to obey the Bible. If we really interpret it to say that women can’t teach men, period, then we need to stop playing games. Forget personal and direct: we need to stop reading books by women, listening to them teach the Bible in any context, and perhaps not accept any instance of a woman exercising authority over a man. It doesn’t help us to interpret it one way, and then find applications that contradict our interpretation.

        The quote in the above post is a great example of this. Rather than enforcing Paul’s simple directive that women can’t teach men, his application actually said the opposite: he declared that women CAN teach men, just as long as it’s not in person. So, this pastor and I agree: neither of us interprets Paul as saying a woman can never teach a man. We both agree that a woman can teach a man on any Biblical topic, and she can teach a boy, a man, an elder, or even a sr pastor. The only difference between us is that this pastor made up a distinction based on physical proximity.

      • Philip Sanders says:

        Appreciate the comments! I always enjoy reading your blog-makes me think through some things from a different perspective than I normally would.
        Just a few thoughts in response:
        I appreciate the attention on the application along with interpretation; it is essential-if doctrine doesn’t lead to right living then we haven’t truly learned it. It is a danger that needs to be addressed. But I think another danger that we all face in interpretation is to leave doctrine too quickly for application. And when disagreements come up on application, we must run back to doctrine as the only legitimate source of defining it.
        So I understand your point, and I understand that consistency in application is key, but before applications are argued, I think the interpretation must be reexamined. Applications, however inconsistent they may seem, cannot be allowed to drive interpretation. And it doesn’t seem that attributing the entire passage to simply being culturally bound is really fair to the text, and to keep this post from being too length (it probably already is!), I’ll just list a couple of reasons:

        1. I would say that parts of this text are cultural expressions, namely, the “braided hair, pearls, and expensive clothing.” And I don’t think it’s unfair to separate these as cultural expressions, because in the context, Paul is urging primarily what it means to “profess reverence for God” or to be “godly.” And Paul is primarily concerned with the attitude-the inner life-rather than the external life (i.e. modestly, discreetly, making a claim to godliness–these are all internal, heart-level entities, rather than simply external rules), of which these external things are evidences. So Paul himself seems to be making applications to his audience of the principle that he is teaching. But to then assume that because parts of the text are cultural, the entire thing must be culturally bound seems too much of a stretch on the text.

        2. The strongest point of disagreement comes, again, I think in the verses immediately following (13-14) in which Paul provides a specific reason for his instruction, which he explicitly attributes not to cultural expressions, but to his theological understandings.

        The text has to drive our understanding, and the text has to drive our application. And as this is a public forum, I don’t want anyone to misconstrue my point here-it is not to challenge your allegiance to the text, or your regard for God’s Word. I obviously disagree with where you have landed on this text, but I know you have studied this text, and want to honor what you see there. I know it wasn’t your point to exegete the passage, but if we’re going to question application (legitimate or not), especially in a public forum, we must allow the text to drive, or else we all simply spout our own opinions.

      • Tim Owens says:

        (this is the only place I can ‘reply,’ not sure if it’ll post the comment out of order or not.)

        For anyone who’s following along (and I can’t imagine that’s a very large number), I’m going to be pretty concise due to time. Please know that Phil and I have been friends for a couple of years; we like, respect, and love each other. I’m not going to to fill this comment with tons of caveats; i’m just assuming Phil knows I respect him, and that I appreciate his insightful pushback)

        First of all, I consider this one of the trouble passages of the NT. An example of another one would be 1 John 5:16,17. When it comes down to it, no one really knows what John was saying there. As a result, we haven’t created a binding category of sins which we shouldn’t pray for.

        Why do I consider it troublesome? Because no one knows what it means. Take Piper’s comments in this post. Like I’ve pointed out, his ultimate interpretation of “I do not permit a woman to teach” is “any woman can teach any man as long as they aren’t in the same room.” If Piper, who is brilliant and dedicated to a literal hermeneutic, has that much trouble interpreting it, I’m comfortable considering it a trouble passage.

        Exegesis: The Greek word for ‘quietness’ is used instead of ‘silence.’ Also, the Greek behind ‘i do not permit’ doesn’t imply an infinite extension of the refusal to permit. Rather, it’s better understood as ‘I am not presently permitting,’ or ‘currently.’ And, like I mentioned before, ‘authenteo’ is a rare word better translated as usurping authority than exercising it.

        There’s not much in the greek that adds insight to 2:13-15.

        Very quickly, I’ll again mention the social context Paul was writing to. Uneducated women, influenced by the new Roman woman culture, were speaking out of turn throughout Ephesus, not only in the church. I interpret Paul’s appeal to the creation account not as a binding universal, but simply a reference to a well-known example of another time when men were ‘educated’ and women were not, and the disastrous results that occurred because of it. I suspect that is also his intent with the childbearing line, that he is referring to the example of Mary bearing Jesus.

        Now the question of Paul’s intent? There is nothing in the text that clearly says Paul was making a statement about how God designed men and women, or that teaching could in some way compromise God’s design. All such comments are read into the text, just as my assumptions that Paul’s prohibitions are localized are read into the text. What is specifically in the text is that Paul was concerned that those who had not been instructed become instructors, and that Paul was clearly intent on increasing the status of women.

        We miss much when we read this in our context (just as we do when we read of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well). But no on in Paul’s context would have missed his radical instruction to empower women by instructing them at home. I am hesitant to take what was clearly part of Paul’s intent (expand the role of women and include them through instruction at home) and turn it into something prohibitive in our day (preclude women from teaching, even if they have years more formal training than some men around them). {as an aside, before discounting formal training, as yourself who wrote most of the Bible. You’ll get names like Paul, Moses, Daniel. Hard to argue against formal training. But that’s another post!!! 🙂 }

        Lastly, a good friend of mine once taught me that you need to not ask what does 1 Tim 2, or 1 Cor 11, or 1 Cor 14 say about women, but what does the entire Bible say about women? When studied from that light, the results are startling–in the Law, in the historical accounts, in the gospels, and in the epistles, women are consistently and radically empowered as compared to their local ANE contexts. This has to be a part of our exegesis of 1 Tim 2.

        Lastly, for a long time I was nervous about making this jump, about moving away from the clear reading of the text due to the significant amount of cultural implications. What finally reassured me to do so was that everyone I respected was doing the same. Again, Piper’s comments in this post are incredibly reassuring to me–he obviously doesn’t believe Paul said women can’t teach men either. Piper just made up a weird category of physical presence to allow him to protect his interpretation that limits Paul’s words to the sunday morning pulpit, (as you put it, spouting our own opinions). Which, when you consider Paul’s context, is hard to reconcile. Paul had no formally trained pastors, had no churches as we know of them, had no parachurch, had no publishing houses, had no sunday school, had no house churches. All he had was the church. If he meant for the prohibition that women couldn’t teach men to be universal, then there is no way he could have drawn the distinctions we draw today: they did not exist in his context.

        again, hard to be concise here, and i’m just typing off the top of my head. perhaps i’d clean it up if i had time, but i think this is certainly enough to communicate some of how i’m allowing the text to drive my conclusions, and even a bit of how I fear that my complementarian friends in our modern context are actually ignoring the text (at least their interpretation of it) with their application.

  6. Jenna says:

    this was really helpful, thank you.

  7. This has the vaguest link to your topic, but I am going about asking people about Titus 1 12-13. 12 One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’[c] 13 This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith

    If I met someone from Crete I would ignore that completely. What would you do? What value has that passage?

  8. Paul Fekete says:

    Thanks for bringing up this issue and sharing your post. I am concerned about the following comment made by pastor Tim “Piper just made up a weird category of physical presence to allow him to protect his interpretation that limits Paul’s words to the sunday morning pulpit, (as you put it, spouting our own opinions). “
    1.) I believe the context of 1 Tim 2:8-15 is a physical location (“in every place” – 1 Tim 2:8) where men and women are interacting in the faith in close enough proximity that men can notice how women are dressed (1 Tim 2:9). So I am not sure why you think John Piper “made up a weird category of physical presence” when it seems to me that John Piper is simply applying the text to the exact same context that we find in 1 Tim 2:8-15 (men and women gathered together in close proximity when praying, teaching, and learning is taking place).
    2.) I am not sure you are representing John Piper’s position accurately when you say that “his interpretation is to limit Paul’s words to Sunday morning pulpit”. A journal article called “Younger Evangelicals and Women in Ministry: A Sketch of the Spectrum of Opinion” from 2007 posted here (http://cbmw.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/12-2.pdf#page=26) states that Piper’s position is that women are excluded from teaching in the pulpit and they are excluded from teaching men in all the different ministries in the church (small groups, Bible class, etc.) Page 28 of the article states “In Piper’s own church (Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota) male headship is manifested both in ordination and in the various ministries of the church. Only qualified men are ordained to the pastoral office, and women do not teach Christian doctrine to men”
    I agree that making up man made rules for when women, while in physical proximity to men, can and cannot teach Biblical doctrine to men does not seem to be a Biblically consistent interpretation. However, the scenario of men reading Theological Books written by women is not directly addressed in the scriptures, which could be why John Piper says he personally does not see an issue with the practice. Thanks again for raising up this issue. Over time my hope is that the Holy Spirit brings unity to the Evangelical Church in how to properly interpret 1 Tim 2:8-15 regardless of how offensive if may or may not be to the culture we live in.

  9. Tim Owens says:

    Paul, thanks so much for the comments! Great to have the dialogue. Those were very helpful links. Some I’d seen/read, others were new. Thanks for the Dever links as well–one of my good friends has worked with Mark for the last 5 years or so, and he and I have had some great conversations about this very topic! I’ve also been reading and listening to Piper since I was 16–he’s been an incredibly formative influence for me.

    I have a lot of respect for the complementarian position, even though I ascribe to a different view. And I generally have a lot of respect for what Piper says and how he presents his views. I wrote this post because I think that one of the most important thing we can do as Christians is to continuously evaluate our approach to the Bible, both in terms of our hermenuetic and our application.

    You were right that my line about Piper limiting his views to the Sunday morning pulpit wasn’t clear. I’m pretty familiar with bethlehem baptist’s policies. I was referring to the conversation about a woman writing a theological volume, and Piper’s view that it was good for her to write it, and good for a man to read it, but it might not be good for a man to read it from the pulpit.

    I also think my use of the word ‘weird’ in describing Piper’s application was a poor choice. “weird” sounds pejorative, which I didn’t intend. I think a better word would be… new, as in “Piper created a new category of physical proximity that can’t be found in the original text.” I understand your point about physical proximity being part of Paul’s message, since physical proximity is a necessary component of the gathering of believers (no time here to talk about internet campuses!! 🙂 ). But, while that’s true, it doesn’t seem valid to make physical proximity the fulcrum on which Paul’s instructions hinge. Again, Piper’s use of the drill sergeant and city planner seem to say that a woman can exercise authority, just not ‘in your face authority.’ By this same measure, should we infer that Paul’s earlier instructions to women about dressing modestly and discreetly when they are in church were limited to times of physical proximity to other Christian men? If a woman can exercise authority when she’s not physically present, can she jettison modesty when she’s not physically present?

    Yes, physical proximity is part of the context of Paul’s instructions. But nowhere does Paul make proximity the condition on which his commands rest.

    And as much as I love Piper, I think we do ourselves a disservice when we create new categorical rules that aren’t found in scripture.

    • Paul Fekete says:

      Pastor Tim, Thanks for responding and considering my comments/posted links. It’s good to hear that you have read the full teaching that John Piper and others have given on the complementarian position. I am sure you would agree that when evaluating a theological position presented by someone that it is best to provide the full teaching on that topic verses just a small clip of what that person has taught on the subject. To try and address your questions: The context of 1 Tim 2:8-12 as I see it is:
      1.) Men and Women are meeting in a physical place (“in every place” – 1 Tim 2:8)
      2.) Men and Women are close enough to each other that the men could notice how the women are dressed
      3.) Men and women are interacting in their faith in Jesus (prayer and Biblical teaching and learning are taking place)
      I agree that women dressing modestly and discreetly applies beyond the context seen in 1 Tim 2: 8-12. However why create a rule that because one instruction (that women should dress modestly) applies beyond that context, that all the instructions given in 1 Tim 2: 8-12 must also apply beyond that context? The Apostle Paul does refer back to Genesis in verses 13 and 14, but could the reason be to support the instructions he just gave to the specific context of 1 Tim 2: 8-12 that I defined above? While complementarians may not apply 1 Tim 2: 8-12 in all the same ways in the local church, almost all the complementarian sermons and statements limit the application of the instructions in 1 Tim 2: 8-12 to the functions of the local church. For example the sermon I posted by Mark Dever makes that point very clear. The point being that outside the context of the local church women can teach and exercise authority over men at places like the workplace, in math class, at a marketing seminar, etc. I agree that John Piper using the drill sergeant example may not have been the best choice. I could be wrong, but I am not sure John Piper was saying that a woman is disobeying 1 Tim 2:12 if she is a drill sergeant and leads men in the military. My opinion is that John Piper was using the drill Sergeant Example to illustrate why women should not exercise authority over men as an elder in the context of the local church. Thanks again for responding and posting on this topic. On a final note, you mentioned that you do not agree with the complementarian position…Does this also mean that husbands are not called to be the servant leaders of their home and that marriage does not need an appointed leader that lovingly leads and serves the family? Do you hold to the egalitarian position in both the context of marriage and in church leadership? Or do you just think women can teach from the pulpit under the auspices of the male elders in a local church gathering?

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