Women Cannot Teach Men…Well, Except When They Can

Apostles: Junia (right) with Andronicus (left)

In this series on gender roles in the church, we’ve finally come to what has been called
“the 1 Timothy 2 proof-text bomb.” There is so much to be said about these few verses! They’ve been used as primary justification for the gender-based restraints many churches have placed upon female teachers and for the limitations upon the kinds of leadership roles women may hold. This is serious business; if gifted, anointed, and equipped women are being incorrectly restricted in how they minister, that’s a grave problem, just as women going outside of God’s design for female ministry would be. There are faithful, God-fearing, Bible-believing, eminent theologians on both sides of this debate, so we need to approach our question with the utmost humility and willingness to grow in understanding.
That is my prayer for myself, especially. I have skin in the game, obviously, but I have long and fervently prayed for Holy Spirit guidance on this, and I shall continue. 

1 Timothy is a letter from Paul to his protégé, Timothy, who is ministering in Ephesus. Paul is, first and foremost, concerned with some false doctrine that is circulating among the believers and threatening the area churches. Having dealt with that, he begins chapter 2 by offering instructions to the Christian community for godly conduct. He speaks about the discipline of prayer before turning to a few gender-related instructions. 

Before I go any further, let’s take a look at the passage:

So I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute. Likewise the women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty and self-control. Their adornment must not be with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothing, 10 but with good deeds, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11 A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first and then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived, fell into transgression.

“See!” many argue, “The plain, natural reading of I Timothy 2 is unmistakably clear: women are to never teach men or have any position of authority over men!”

While it is true that the “plain, natural reading” of Scripture is our default approach, there are times when it leads to an incorrect understanding. It can be too simplistic, causing us to overlook key linguistic, literary, and/or cultural complexities that could be involved. (Think about all the ridiculous trouble a “plain, natural reading” of passages such as Psalm 104:5 caused for Galileo, who argued that the earth actually moves.)

Now, our burning question about 1 Timothy 2 is whether Paul’s instructions are somehow specific to the Ephesian Christian community during the time of Timothy’s ministry, or if Christians of all subsequent times and in all places are supposed to view these instructions as normative for Christian living. In other words, were there unique conditions in Timothy’s community that made Paul’s prohibitions necessary for its health and growth, or are these prohibitions on women in the Christian community always and everywhere binding

As I’ve been writing this series on gender roles in the church, I’ve thought more and
more about the importance of understanding the full logical outworking of the different views. 
I have observed pervasive inconsistency among those holding the view that these verses should be taken at pure face value and applied to all women in the Christian community forevermore and everywhere.

Case in point: starting with verse 9, we see that Christian women are commanded to not braid their hair, wear expensive clothes, or wear gold or pearl jewelry. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen plenty of nice clothing, gold and pearl jewelry, and many a braided head of hair in churches that prohibit women from teaching men. The fact of the matter is that there’s no ground for saying that verse 9 is metaphorical, or only applicable to a specific culture and time, but that verses 11 and 12 are for all Christian women everywhere forever. We must apply our hermeneutic evenly. Remember how I pointed out this same issue with the head coverings and hair lengths mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11 at the end of my previous post? Funny how we don’t hear sermons about head scarves and hairstyles, don’t you think? (By the way, did you know that 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 are major reasons Amish women don’t cut their hair, cover their heads with caps, and don’t wear jewelry–not even wedding rings?)

And for that matter, why don’t we see raging debates about whether or not men should
be raising their hands in the air every time they pray in every place? The “plain, natural reading” of Paul’s words say they should be doing so.

Moreover, if we’re going to say that the teaching prohibitions in verses 11 and 12 apply to all Christian women today, we can’t simply pick and choose the situations where they are relevant. Paul never explicitly says that he is talking about what goes on during a formal corporate worship gathering. If the verses are taken “plainly and naturally,” he seems to be merely referring to living within the Christian community. Carson and Moo explain that these verses are about “the way women should dress and live” (see p. 571 of their reference book, An Introduction to the New Testament); they do not say anything indicating that Paul is instructing women on how to behave in a worship service or other kinds of regular church gatherings. (We might pause to ask here how we are to define “the church,” or “worship service.”) 

So, if all Christian women in all times and places are never to teach men, then that would rule out female Bible professors at Christian universities or seminaries, female Bible teachers at Christian high schools teaching teenage males, women leading a Bible study to a mixed group in their dorm room or home, women teaching Christian doctrine to mixed audiences in the mission field (domestic or foreign), women speaking at Christian conferences where men are present, or females serving as youth leaders. It would also rule out mothers instructing their sons in the faith after the sons reach a certain age. It could arguably mean that women shouldn’t write theological books or articles if men will read and learn from them, and that women shouldn’t record their teaching, because men might listen to the recording. 

John Piper has cited 1 Timothy 2 when arguing that “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…is not under the authority of the New Testament.” Knowing this, I was a bit awestruck by an article a friend sent to me recently. It was a piece written a little over a year ago, and in it Piper quotes this passage from his private journal: 

This morning, as I jogged and listened to a message by Elisabeth Elliot which she had given in Kansas City, I was deeply moved concerning my own inability to suffer magnanimously and without pouting. She was vintage Elliot and the message was the same as ever: Don’t get in touch with your feelings, submit radically to God, and do what is right no matter what. Put your love life on the altar and keep it there until God takes it off. Suffering is normal. Have you no scars, no wounds, with Jesus on the Calvary road?

What? I thought to myself. He listened to a message by a woman, was “deeply moved” by it, and seems to have learned something of spiritual value from it? Does the fact that it was pre-recorded somehow exempt it from Paul’s command (as Piper understands it)? What if Piper listened to the same message as it was delivered live in a church classroom or <gasp!> from a pulpit? What is the fundamental difference other than time and space? Is it an issue of frequency? Is there a certain amount of female teaching that is acceptable for a man to hear in a given time period, and if so, what is the limit? I truly see an inconsistency here. From what I’ve read of Piper’s view, I think he would say that it’s within the framework of the weekly gathering of believers that Paul’s restriction holds, but as I noted above, Paul doesn’t say anything about his instructions being for the weekly Sunday gatherings. In fact, if you back up to verse 8, where he exhorts the men to pray while lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument, he uses the phrase “in every place” not “in the church gathering.” It really seems to me Paul is talking about any and all activity going on in the Christian community. That would include being taught through a woman’s sermon on your iPod…wouldn’t it?

Here’s an interesting note. We know from Acts 16:1 that Timothy had a Christian mother, but a Greek unbeliever for a father. In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul says to Timothy, “I recall your sincere faith that was alive first in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice, and I am sure is in you.” This tells us that Timothy was discipled in the faith by his Christian mother and grandmother. Timothy’s preparatory ministry training came from women. 

The bottom line here is that individuals who take the 1 Timothy 2 passage in its “plain, natural reading” are not consistent in what parts of it they apply to today’s women (and men) and in their views about what contexts require the teaching restrictions. That should tell us that something is amiss. Should we all strive to GET consistent, on the clothing, jewelry, haircuts, head coverings, and hand-raising, as well as in applying the teaching restrictions as broadly as possible? Or, should we view that virtually impossible task as an indicator that something quite different may be going on with the text rather than what the “plain, natural reading” suggests?

A point I made in my last post is also pertinent here. If we take Paul’s words about women being quiet at face value, they contradict his affirmation that women can prophesy and pray out loud in the church setting. This disharmony must be rectified.

In my next installment in this series, I’ll be presenting the alternative interpretations of 1Timothy 2. I plan to unashamedly cheat on that one, using excerpts from the work of widely respected New Testament scholars including Dr. Craig Keener, author of Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul.  Stay tuned. 

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