Questions and Answers on Women’s Ministry

David Burchard Christian Ethics, Doctrine, Exposition, Local Church Leave a Comment

Bible passages:

1 Timothy 2:11-14

Let a woman learn in silence with complete submissiveness. But to teach I do not permit a woman, nor to exercise authority over a man, but to remain silent. For Adam was first formed, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived hath fallen into transgression

1 Corinthians 14:33b-36

As in all the churches of the saints, 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. 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. Did the word of God begin with you, or did it come to you alone?


 

A few comments on these two passages before getting into the questions. Much ink has been spilled over these verses in commentaries, but here is the deal. There are some places in the Bible that are hard to understand. These passages are not two of those places. Here, Paul speaks as plainly as a man from Appalachia. If you read a commentator who evidently is trying really hard to explain these passages away, stop paying attention to him. He is caving. There is space for disagreement between courageous Christians who faithfully are looking to apply obedience to their various situations, knowing that none of us live in the ideal world. But explaining the passages away, or being cute, is an embarrassment.

  1. What he says here is for all of us, based on the created order, the fall, and the apostolic tradition for all the churches. So if I am a created human, then this applies to me. If I am a fallen human, then this applies to me. If I am a Christian human, then this applies to me. Only if I am an enlightened and evolved human do I get to ignore these passages. Only if I am a slick, well-paid pastor, do I get to explain them away or explain them in such a narrow way that they have no impact on living.
  2. God made Adam first, then Eve (for Adam). And so women are not to exercise authority over men. To do so is dehumanizing and a retardant to human flourishing. It is necessarily authoritative for a woman to be in the position of telling men, “Believe this. Do this.”
  3. Eve was deceived, not Adam. And Paul doesn’t think this is a mere historical observation. He thinks, and so God thinks, that it demonstrates a truth for all humanity. Women are more susceptible to deception and so shouldn’t be teachers. God provided men to mankind as teachers.

This prohibition doesn’t forbid women from all teaching. All of your life teaches, with what you say, what you do, how you carry yourself, how you react to certain situations. Every conversation teaches, even conversations with men (Apollos’ errors are corrected by a husband and wife dynamic duo). And the Bible expects women to participate in the teaching/training of children. The prohibition does rule out women from public teaching ministry. It calls them away from public, formal, authoritative, masculine teaching, and calls them to private, informal, non-authoritative, feminine teaching (so a woman being a man’s shrink is bad, and Priscilla is great). It calls them away from preaching, and calls them to motherly, womanly comportment.

John Gill, with a few comments:

But I suffer not a woman to teach, They may teach in private, in their own houses and families; they are to be teachers of good things, Titus 2:3. They are to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord; nor is the law or doctrine of a mother to be forsaken, any more than the instruction of a father; see Proverbs 1:8. Timothy, no doubt, received much advantage, from the private teachings and instructions of his mother Eunice, and grandmother Lois; but then women are not to teach in the church; for that is an act of power and authority, and supposes the persons that teach to be of a superior degree, and in a superior office, and to have superior abilities to those who are taught by them:

nor to usurp authority over the man; as not in civil and political things, or in things relating to civil government; and in things domestic, or the affairs of the family; so not in things ecclesiastical, or what relate to the church and government of it; for one part of rule is to feed the church with knowledge and understanding; and for a woman to take upon her to do this, is to usurp an authority over the man: this therefore she ought not to do,

but to be in silence; to sit and hear quietly and silently, and learn, and not teach, as in 1 Timothy 2:11.

Henry Milewski, on women teaching:

“I think the distinction between whether public teaching is ‘doctrinal’ or ‘practical’ is artificial and the average man in the pew doesn’t get it, nor do feminists. The Apostle’s command concerning a woman ‘not to teach or exercise authority over a man’ is rooted in creation. There is something unseemly about it everywhere [wherever man is man and woman is woman]. I think that would include a woman teaching and exercising authority over a man as a university lecturer (of a non-theological subject). As Calvin comments on 1Tim2:12: “the very reason why they are forbidden to teach, is, that it is not permitted by their condition. They are subject, and to teach implies the rank of power or authority.”

Finally, 3 creation-grounded verses and a comment: “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.” “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.”

It is hard to grasp, after enjoining this creation-grounded submissive feminine spirit on Sunday morning, that an equally appropriate application of these verses is to bid our sisters sail forth and (ordinarily) teach men in the public square the rest of the week. In my view the dissonance is quite large. Might Calvin or Edwards or Knox be looking askance?

Women should teach men in some contexts, as we see this in Scripture. I think the line is implicitly drawn between public/formal vs private/informal. We see women do the latter all over Scripture, and the context of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is public. The grey area is where public/formal becomes private/informal—and judgement calls must be made.”

  1. God expects women to be silent in formal gatherings of believers. While this doesn’t preclude singing, amening the corporate prayers, etc., it does rule out the woman providing her voice in a singular way. The corporate voice together is called for (she and he are to sing in the congregation). The singular voice is to be silent (she is not to pronounce to he in the congregation).

    “Others lay stress on the word ‘church’ or ‘churches,’ and hold that the apostle means a formal public meeting, as distinguished from what we call a social meeting, such as a prayer meeting, or the like. Applying a purely modern distinction, they say that a woman is forbidden to speak in ‘church;’ but that does not forbid her speaking in a prayer-meeting. The answer is that the New Testament knows no such distinction. In fact, the very abuses in public worship which the apostle seeks in 1 Corinthians chapter 12 and chapter 14 to correct, are such as could only have arisen in an informal meeting, where everyone thought himself at liberty to rise and speak. Moreover, the same word ‘church’ (the Greek meaning an assembly) is applied to meetings in private houses, as that of Aquila and Priscilla, or that of Philemon and Apphia. So this distinction also fails.”—John Broadus

  2. If a woman is in a public gathering and has a question, she should wait until she gets home and then ask her husband. This brings with it a commandment to husbands to be well-studied, diligently studying theologians. If a woman is not married, she is still under her father. If he is a believer, he should be a well-studied, diligently studying theologian and she should present her question to him. Additionally, God has provided pastors and other godly men in the church to receive her questions. Paul speaks of husbands specifically in 1 Corinthians because of the husband’s covenant responsibility to his wife.

Where should unmarried and childless women serve in the church?

Let me start with saying that the normal ministry for women is motherhood:

“O dear mothers, you have a very sacred trust reposed in you by God! He hath in effect said to you, “Take this child and nurse it for Me, and I will give thee thy wages.” You are called to equip the future man of God, that he may be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. If God spares you, you may live to hear that pretty boy speak to thousands, and you will have the sweet reflection in your heart that the quiet teachings of the nursery led the man to love his God and serve Him. Those who think that a woman detained at home by her little family is doing nothing, think the reverse of what is true. Scarcely can the godly mother quit her home for a place of worship; but dream not that she is lost to the work of the church; far from it, she is doing the best possible service for her Lord. Mothers, the godly training of your offspring is your first and most pressing duty.”—Charles Spurgeon

What about unmarried and childless women?

  1. Such a woman is responsible to live a godly life through faith, which will teach all who see her by example and gift to them rare beauty and grace.
  2. Such a woman should learn all she can about her God and his will with quiet submissiveness.
  3. Such a woman should encourage the men in their godly living and their teaching/leading provision.
  4. Such a woman should teach younger women, and those women newer in the faith, to be righteously womanly.
  5. Such a woman should have a focus on evangelizing women, calling them to repent and believe according to God’s Word.
  6. As fathers lead their families to fear God and keep his commandments, with the daily help of mothers, single women who have learned well are free and encouraged to help parents in the training of their children. This is a good thing and a sweet blessing to parents and children.

Can a woman, under the authority of a man, be a teacher of God’s word?

Under the authority of a man, guarded against her natural susceptibility to deception, she is to teach much in her life, in a private/informal context.

Henry Milewski:

“Different forms of teaching happen all the time e.g. every private conversation. If a group of women informally gather for coffee and start talking about the Bible…It’s hard to see that as the kind of thing the Apostle Paul had in mind (see below), but this is not very different than what happens in many Bible studies.

I think probably what the Apostle has in view is more along the lines of public/formal exposition of scripture that leads the church (contra Beth Moore) or teaching that is un-tethered to any kind of male oversight. This may bear on some bible studies, but not all. I think this view can take account of the ‘vulnerability to deception’ principle (1Tim2:14) whilst at the same time giving place to the informal teaching by women that is everywhere granted in Scripture, for example:

Woman of Samaria (John 4:28-30)
Women teaching their children (Proverbs, 2Tim1:5 with 3:15)
Paul’s female fellow-workers (Romans 16 / Phil 4:2-3)
Priscilla and Aquila with Apollos (Acts 18:26)

Note that from the earliest accounts we have, such as Clement of Alexandria, it seems the apostles took women fellow workers along to evangelize the women’s quarters which they could do without arousing suspicion (cf. p79-80 in Stephen Clark’s book, Man and Woman in Christ). It’s difficult to find the Bible drawing a hard line between ‘evangelistic truths’ and other truths in the Bible because evangelism involves a call to repentance which can involve dealing with much of the content of Scripture—which is one long call to repentance.

This view would stand against Beth Moore (aside from the fact she preaches to mixed audiences) but not women’s conferences with Titus 2 curriculum [a curriculum focused on being a godly housewife, based on the Bible]. That’s how I try and give place to the whole variety of Scripture.”

Should a woman teach a young children’s Sunday school class when men are present?

This contains a series of questions within it that makes it difficult for me to answer well; but I will at least convey some thoughts. You’ll notice that I start my sentences with, “I think”, and end a sentence with, “seems odd”. That’s because I’m trying to apply things I know I believe with consistency to the question, but am unsure about how this has historically been answered/thought through.

  1. May a woman teach young children’s Sunday school? I think my point 6 above gives the theological basis for women teaching Sunday school, as long as it is explicitly couched in the context of point 6.
  2. What curriculum should she use in teaching the young children? I think it is best if the curriculum is developed by a man, or at least under the close authority of a man, because Eve was deceived, not Adam. There are many catechisms and Bible study guides that men of the church have developed for teaching children simply and clearly. Historically, such tools developed by godly men have been used by families to instruct their children in the truths of God.
  3. Should a woman teach young children’s Sunday school when men are present? My first response is simply to ask: If men are there, assuming they are not there in an observational/assessment capacity, why wouldn’t they teach? Wouldn’t it be their joy to do so, and consistent with their responsibility to lead and provide? Not having the manpower for the task is one thing, but having them and not using them seems odd. In fact, let me explain why my goal would be to have that male church member taking the lead on teaching, instead of the woman. I’m assuming that more times than not, she will be the better communicator. And her womanly comportment will connect well with children, especially younger children. But if the male church member is married, it is his job to be leading the way in teaching his children at home. And it is his job to be teaching his wife. If she is responsible to be silent in the formal meetings of the church and ask him her questions at home, then he is responsible to be a deep student of the Word who is competent to know, or know how to find, the answers, and then communicate them clearly and faithfully. Every opportunity he has to teach then is an opportunity to grow in this difficult skill, to act as a man in taking the lead in spiritual provision for his church family. If he is not married, he either will be married and therefore needs to be trained in communicating truths to his future children, or he will not be married but will still be a man in the society of faith, responsible to carry the load in leading in the right way, providing good instruction and encouragement in the truth, and protecting others from false doctrine. Because of these observations, I want men teaching when possible. Now, all of this is written focused on the situation of men being present in the class. If a man simply lacks the ability to communicate truth with clarity in public, then he can better serve in other areas and doesn’t need to be present. Nor do I want someone to read this and think I’m saying men must be present. Women are given by God a natural, motherly impulse to care for especially younger children (pre-schools are so full of male workers, right?). Women gravitate to caring for the young; and as long as my answer to the curriculum question is applied, then I don’t presently think there should be an issue with expecting most Sunday school classes for young children to not have men present.

Should a woman run an evangelistic youth group?

Henry Milewski:

“It would be best to have a man on board for the sake of the boys, as well as a woman for the girls. In terms of her role, it depends on the nature of the work. Does it involve giving a mini-sermon? If so, and especially if it involves young adolescent men (i.e. teenage boys), it would be good to seek/pray for God to provide a man to do that part if it is on the public/formal side of teaching. Private/informal conversations with the boys is fine, taking account of the impropriety of being directive towards them. Feminine deference is a beautiful thing; and she should seek to model that to both the boys and the girls, as they won’t see it anywhere else in this world. If it just involves general helps and facilitating, it is maybe less of an issue, though to the degree where she must exercise leadership over [adolescents] it becomes contrary to nature. These boys, if not men, are becoming men, and should increasingly be treated and taught to bear themselves as such, which involves being led by men, not women. But at all times, I would want to give a bit of latitude where there is desire to bring things in conformity to God’s word but not the ability to do so with immediate effect. Sometimes reform takes time and that’s ok.”

Should women share their testimonies that often have Scripture, or share what God has been teaching them using Scripture, to a mixed audience?

The principles established by Paul regarding how women should conduct themselves in formal meetings that shape my answer are:

  1. “Let a woman learn in silence with complete submissiveness.”
  2. “the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak”

Paul’s expectation for how women conduct themselves in the meetings of the church is silence. As stated above, this does not prohibit their participation in corporate verbal events, such as saying amen and singing. But it does prohibit them from being the speaker to the gathered crowd. It is hard to be both silent and give your testimony in that context.

Also, I am unsure of the use of a testimony that doesn’t say, “This is true about our God. Let’s respond in the right way” (even implicitly). Saying those two things doesn’t only happen when the testimony giver hijacks the moment as a preaching opportunity, as I’m prone to do, but it happens whenever we speak truthfully of what God has done.

The formal/public v. informal/private distinction is important here. A regularly scheduled meeting, like a midweek Bible study or prayer meeting, would be formal and public. It is a public, scheduled meeting, and the testimony giver is recognized as the speaker. Conversation with church members around a campfire would be informal and private. So would conversation around a church member’s dinner table. It is good and godly to speak of what God is doing and teaching us when we are spending informal time with our friends and family (again, not in the preachy way I do it, but in a Biblically saturated, Christian way).

When does the formal/public, informal/private line get crossed? I don’t know. That probably requires a lot of wisdom. In a lot of situational ethics questions, I have a set of principles I’m clear about, and then am left to asking for wisdom in how to apply them to the specific situation at hand.


Helpful distinctions to keep in mind in thinking through different situations:

Formal v. informal—I was formally the designated speaker at a Bible study last week. I informally taught a kid when I explained to him what he should do with his fists after he hit his pal.

“When Boswell told Johnson one day that he had heard a woman preach that morning at a Quaker’s meeting, Johnson replied, “Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” We will add that our surprise is all the greater when women of piety mount the pulpit, for they are acting in plain defiance of the command of the Holy Spirit, written by the pen of the apostle Paul.”—Charles Spurgeon

Public v. private—Apollos taught publicly. My sister teaches me privately when she tells me I’ve sinned against her.

“It seems to be to be one of the peculiar gifts of the Christian Sisterhood to be the means of holding the entire fabric of the Christian Church in sacred love! And though in our belief they ought not to do this by public speech, yet by quiet conversation, active sympathy and the patient endurance and holy tenacity of affection, they may help to keep the Church well bolted together. Happy is the Church that abounds in Christian matrons and younger women willing to be serviceable for Christ!”—Charles Spurgeon

“You women, who would not be in your right place if you began to preach in the streets, you can make your husbands happy and comfortable when they come home, and that will make them preach all the better!”—Charles Spurgeon

“There a woman must be completely quiet, because she should remain a hearer and not become a teacher. She is not to be the spokesman among the people. She should refrain from teaching, from praying in public.”—Martin Luther

“If the daughters of Philip prophesied, at least they did not speak in the assemblies; for we do not find this fact in evidence in the Acts of the Apostles. Much less in the Old Testament. It is said that Deborah was a prophetess … There is no evidence that Deborah delivered speeches to the people, as did Jeremiah and Isaiah. Huldah, who was a prophetess, did not speak to the people, but only to a man, who consulted her at home. The gospel itself mentions a prophetess Anna … but she did not speak publicly. Even if it is granted to a woman to show the sign of prophecy, she is nevertheless not permitted to speak in an assembly. When Miriam the prophetess spoke, she was leading a choir of women … For [as Paul declares] “I do not permit a woman to teach,” and even less “to tell a man what to do.”—Origen

Authoritative v. non-authoritative—This wording might have a better alternative, but what I mean is, “Come to the table.” v. “It would be great if you could take the trash out./Would you mind getting the bins to the curb?”

“When private Christians, that are no more than mere brethren, exhort and admonish one another, it ought to be in a humble manner, rather by way of entreaty, than with authority; and the more, according as the station of persons is lower. Thus it becomes women and those that are young, ordinarily to be at a greater distance from any appearance of authority in speaking than others: thus much at least is evident by that in 1 Timothy 2:9, 1 Timothy 2:11–12.”—Jonathan Edwards

Masculine v. feminine—think initiative and commanding vs. encouragement and invitation, etc.

“Women are best when they are quiet. I share the apostle Paul’s feelings when he bade women to be silent in the assembly. Yet there is work for holy women, and we read of Peter’s wife’s mother that she arose and ministered to Christ. She did what she could and what she should. She arose and ministered to him. Some people can do nothing that they are allowed to do, but waste their energies in lamenting that they are not called on to do other people’s work.”—Charles Spurgeon

“In like manner, you Christian people who cannot talk, —the women especially, —I mean that you cannot preach, you are not allowed to preach, —I want you to shine.”—Charles Spurgeon

 

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