We have reached part six (part 5 is here), and we are closing in on the finish line. We have reached our Rubicon River, the place where once we cross we can never go back to our former lives. Well, not really, but we are hitting two of the most used, and some would say abused, verses regarding the roles of women in church. The question before us is, in what capacity women should be allowed to teach or preach in the church gathering? Those from a non-Christian background may find this question a bit ridiculous, but it is by no means so. There are verses that appear to limit the scope of a woman’s role in teaching, and for that matter speaking in the church assembly. How we understand these two verses that address this subject directly, will go a long way in determining what limitations we must impose on women teaching.
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. 15 But she will be delivered through childbearing, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with self-control. I Timothy 2:9-15.
the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. 35 If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. I Corinthians 14:34-35
These two verses are THE verses that shut the door to establishing women as teachers in the local church. We are going to look at them together because they basically say the same thing (I Corinthians 14 with a little more rhetorical flourish). What does Paul say in these passages: women should be silent, women should be submissive when learning, women should not have authority over men, women speaking is a disgrace in church, and that women are saved by childbirth. Now we know that Paul does not literally mean that having a child is the redemptive price of women (or kiss Ephesians 2:8-9 goodbye), so we have to keep that in mind in understanding the argument Paul is making in I Timothy 2:9-16, as it establishes the idea that he is arguing against local heresy and not teaching a timeless practice. We might say the same thing about I Corinthians where we see Paul instructing them in their aberrant practices of Christianity as well.
Does Paul actually call for women to be silent? We know that is not a universal command because Paul gave instruction on how women should pray and prophecy in the local assembly in I Corinthians 11:2-16. While some scholars suggest that Paul actually changed his mind between I Corinthians 11 and I Corinthians 14 (and didn’t go back and change it), we can conclude that absolute silence in church is not what Paul has in mind. If we look closer at I Timothy 2:11-13, we get a picture not of silence, but of a quiet spirit. Paul wants these women to learn without being proud, boastful, or spreading their poisonous heresy. This is why he adds the call to submissiveness. This doesn’t mean “doormat to men,” it means be submissive to the people who are teaching God’s truth, something they were not doing. The cure for bad doctrine is good doctrine, and Paul wants the women to learn it. In addition, we have to remember that women in this time period were not educated, and considered property. In most cases, they would be unqualified to teach, and that is probably one of the reasons they were led into the heresy they were promoting. That helps us understand I Timothy, but what about I Corinthians 14 which says it is disgraceful for a women to teach. I would argue that this very well might have been true in Corinth (especially after what we saw in I Corinthians 11:2-16), but it does not mean women speaking should be thought of as always disgraceful (or why give the instruction for them speaking in the same letter?). I would also say, there is a pretty convincing argument that I Corinthians 14:34-35 is an interpolation, and not actually in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians making it non-authoratative for believers (see note at bottom).
Paul also says that women should not have any authority over men. The word translated as authority is extremely difficult to translate. The Greek word αὐθεντέω occurs only once in the Bible (this is called a hapax legomenon), and it is a very uncommon word in the extra biblical writing of the day, so establishing exactly what Paul meant is difficult. The best English rendering of this word is probably close to the KJV, which stated women should not usurp authority from men. Give the context, this makes sense. As women were spreading heresy, they were usurping authority they did not have. The were not qualified or designated to proclaim the truth of God’s word. Paul would not have them taking the authority away from the men in whom it rested to proclaim their false doctrine. In general, we should be very careful to conclude anything too rigid from an interpretation based largely on a hapax legomenon, especially when there is an equally valid interpretation that does not require a dogmatic conclusion. While this may yield some uncertainty, it prevents us from using a wrong conclusion that we like better.
What conclusions should we draw from these two passages then? Well the principles we can clearly derive without much debate are that those who are unqualified should not teach. A man that is a novice or not able to divide the Word properly should be barred from teaching, just as a woman in the same predicament should be. We also can conclude that anyone who teaches heretical or false doctrine should be barred from teaching: corrupting the Scripture is not allowed. There is an old adage that says if you find someone teaching something completely new and original from the Scripture run far away from that person. This applies to both men and women. I think we can also conclude that Paul wanted us to guard the teaching ministry and not allow those who were not willing to learn and be under others authority to hold sway over local assemblies. Beyond that, concluding that women are barred from all teaching is a stretch that we do not have to make based on the exegesis of these passages, and that if we do make could harm the church in its impact and influence.
In reality, Complementarians know this to be true. All we have to do is look at how many ways Complementarian church leaders disobey these commands. Have you ever been in a church where women were not allowed to speak? That talking or asking a question was seen as disgraceful? “Now Jim, you are being too rigid…Paul obviously thought women could say hello others!” That, unfortunately, is not a conclusion you get to draw from this passage if you believe we have to take it literally. If Complementarians believe that Paul meant women should not speak, THEY SHOULD NOT SPEAK AT ALL. The same can be said of teaching. I have yet to go to a church where a woman was not teaching in the children’s ministry, or leading women’s bible studies. If Complementarians believe that women should never teach, then it is gross sin to allow them to teach our most impressionable (children) and our must gullible (women by their conclusions, not mine). I have also been to many Complementarian churches that have women serving as “directors” of ministries that have men under their leadership. Another violation of this passage. In reality, Complementarians tell us they don’t believe these passages are as clear as they make them out to be by how they do ministry in their assembly. Jesus said that we will know them (false teachers, I am not calling Complementarians false teachers…I don’t believe that either side of this issue rises to the level of heresy, I believe they are inconsistent teachers) by their fruit, meaning we know what people really believe by what they do. If the passage was meant to bar all women for all time from teaching, then those who believed that would do it and not equivocate.
In most cases, I believe that Complementarians restrict women from teaching based on these verses in an effort to be biblical. I think the idea that individuals want to suppress women is overstated, and in most cases is absolutely a sinful argument to make. I also believe that much of this belief system is based on traditional conclusions. These conclusions derive from practices from an era where qualified women would just not have existed. The culture was extremely patriarchal, and our practice in this area is one where context has been ignored. This has systematical denied women the ability to teach in the church. This is one of the reasons I wanted to write this series to challenge us to hold true to the Reformation ideal of getting the text right, and practicing the principles we find in context.
I am as conservative as they come when it comes to Biblical interpretation, but I am also not a traditionalist. I try not carry the weight of traditional argumentation into my exegesis, and I try to be objective. I hope that you can see my love for the text of the Scripture in these posts.
In our penultimate post we are going to examine what restrictions we find for the two Biblical offices of the local church: elder and deacon. I am really thankful to those who read these and I am thankful that we can understand together, and can agree and disagree together in the Body of Christ!