In this post I will outline my position on the very controversial topic of the role of women in regards to preaching in church. This is an issue which draws ongoing debate amongst evangelical Christians. We need to recognise that though this is not an all important issue, it is nevertheless significant for several reasons. To many it matters greatly as a matter of justice and opportunity for women to use their God-given gifts, while to others it matters greatly as a significant test case on our willingness to follow scriptural injunctions rather than cultural trends.
As will be explained, I take a conservative point of view on this issue, and the purpose of this post will be to explain why. Many theologians and church leaders I respect hold to an egalitarian position on this issue, such as John Dickson, Mike Bird and Craig Keener. It appears to me that the conservative position is not the “flavour of the month”, and more and more Christian people are openly critical of it. For what it is worth, there are many prominent theologians who do hold to substantially the same position as mine, such as Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Tom Schreiner, and DA Carson. It is a distinctive of conservative evangelical denominations and church movements such as Sydney Anglicans, evangelical Presbyterians, and Acts 29 churches. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, it is our responsibility to study the scriptures ourselves and come to our own convictions about them, rather than just following what other churches or people do.
The majority of this post will be taken up with responding to the most common arguments for women preaching (the “egalitarian” case). While people of different persuasions rarely change their minds on these sorts of issues, my goal in writing this is to at least express why I believe most arguments encouraging an egalitarian view fail, and to hopefully cause other people to understand and wrestle with this issue in a fresh light.
To begin, let me immediately respond to a few possible misconceptions. I acknowledge that women can probably preach just as effectively as men. I also acknowledge that not allowing women to preach effectively cuts your pool of preachers in two which doesn’t appear to be a very strategic move to encourage growth in churches. I also can only imagine that there must be a very significant degree of frustration and even anger commonly felt by gifted women who are restricted in their involvement in some churches on this issue. I acknowledge that to a younger generation not acquainted with this topic, my position must seem increasingly bizarre and totally antiquated.
I acknowledge the force of all of these arguments, and yet I still maintain that in fact women should have a restricted role in regards to the delivery of sermons in churches. Why? Simply because I’m unconvinced by all of the many arguments which respond to two key scriptural passages which appear to restrict the public teaching of women in church. The Bible must be our final guide, whether we like it or not, and whether we think it’s a good idea or not. This issue for me comes down to the matter of biblical authority, and is a challenging test in whether we are led by culture or led by God’s word.
Here are the two passages in question.
1 Corinthians 14:33-38.
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.
1 Timothy 2:11-15
11 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.15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
It is worthwhile simply citing the texts in question here, because these are the verses at the centre of this discussion, and often there is distraction from the issue by focussing at great length on many other verses which do not directly deal with the issue and only briefly touching on the main verses in question. I will defend the conservative position simply by responding to the most common six counter-arguments made by egalitarians on why in fact women should indeed lead in preaching.
- Women in the Bible did something. Therefore they should be allowed to do everything.
This is a very common argument made for why women should be allowed to preach. We are pointed to the examples of Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla’s role in teaching Apollos, and Philip’s daughters prophesying (Judges 4-5, 2 Kings 22:14, Acts 18:26, Acts 21:9). But this argument does not follow. Just because women are reported doing something in the Bible doesn’t mean they are authorised to do everything- especially when there are other passages which do restrict them from doing something. No one is saying that women are not allowed to do anything. It is clear that women are allowed in certain contexts to do some activities, such as prophesying, yet there are also restrictions in some activities given. The examples of Deborah and Priscilla are both particularly poor as examples of women having equal authority to men. Deborah clearly urges Barak to take the lead; in his weakness he insists that Deborah come with him to bolster his confidence. This is not a clear example of a woman’s equality to a man in leadership. Rather, it is an example of a woman stepping up to assist a man in his lack of public leadership. Priscilla seems to have been the prominent influence in teaching Apollos, but she is rarely separated from her husband’s side. The passage would be far more indicative of her authority if she was mentioned on her own, but this is exactly what is not done. Furthermore, this is obviously a case of private counsel being given to Apollos; it is clearly not a public teaching role. Just because women are described doing something in the Bible does not mean they are encouraged to do everything.
- Women today are allowed to do something. Therefore they should be allowed to do everything.
This second argument is exactly the same as the first, except the appeal is made from current activities which women are involved in, instead of scriptural examples. For example, arguments are frequently made that since women are allowed to teach Sunday School, or lead secular companies, or lead worship, that therefore they should be allowed to preach as well. How does one draw the line between the “teaching” in a sermon, and the “teaching” in a testimony for example? It is a good question which will always be present in some way when you do try to make a restriction in some way. Where the line will be drawn will always be somewhat subjective, and open to charges of inconsistency. Yet, if the Bible is teaching that there should be a restriction in some contexts, then there will have to be a line drawn somewhere, and a church leadership will have to make a decision on what they believe to be an appropriate application of the biblical injunction in their cultural setting. To use this argument as justification for there to be no restrictions whatever in spite of the biblical teaching of course will lead just to the Bible being ignored when it gives these restrictions. Because women are allowed to do something in church today is not a justification for why they must be allowed to do everything.
- We must interpret the unclear passages in the light of the clear passages.
Here the two passages in question (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2) are labelled as “unclear” passages, and others, such as Galatians 3:28, Romans 16:7, and Acts 2:18 are labelled as “clear” passages. However, it is difficult to see how that decision is made. The two passages in question appear to be very clear in their explicit discussion of a woman’s public involvement in a church service, whereas none of the other passages are specifically in reference to a church service at all. Furthermore, there are numerous passages which speak in some way of a submission of women to men in some way- such as 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 18-19, 1 Peter 3:1-7. 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 are not two passages which are exceptions to the rule of what scriptures teach elsewhere. Rather, they are specific applications of a principle of female submission in the context of church life. It is clear that Jesus also followed this pattern in his selection of 12 male disciples. The other passages are rather the unclear ones which need to be considered in light of these clear ones.
- Paul’s restrictions relate to a specific cultural situation, not a timeless ongoing pattern.
Clearly there is a cultural context for these two passages. 1 Timothy 2:9 for example, immediately before one of the passages in question, tells women to “dress modestly. with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds”. There is undoubtedly a cultural situation also influencing Paul’s instructions for women not to teach.
I think this objection is valid, but insufficient in itself to dismiss the instruction from having relevance to us today. Every single passage in the New Testament is influenced by first century culture; this does not mean that they all have no relevance to us today. What makes it difficult however to completely dismiss Paul’s restrictions for us today though is the nature of his appeals. He makes his argument in 1 Timothy 2 on the basis of the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of the fall. It is not simply a case of “this is culturally dishonourable”. He argues- “13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” There is a symbolic meaning in both creation and the doctrine of the fall which is applied in a timeless way to leadership roles in church life. I personally think that the way we apply these instructions in our culture may well be different to the way they were applied in the first century, in a similar way that our views on appropriate hairstyles or jewellery might be different in our culture than what they were in the first century. The whole structure of our church service with a modern sermon is probably quite different to what was practiced in a first century church service. However, it is our requirement now to interpret and apply these biblical instructions in a way which are most appropriate for our cultural setting.
So the question might be- are Paul’s instructions restricting women from teaching (or speaking in 1 Corinthians 14) applicable to a sermon? At some point, a church leadership will need to determine how they will apply these instructions- whether they apply to teaching a Sunday School class or leading a small group, or to preaching a sermon in a gathered congregation. I would suggest that if they do not apply to a sermon, they do not really apply to anything at all in actual modern church life. Sermons are clearly the space of authoritative public teaching in the modern church, and so this is the most reasonable application of Paul’s instruction.
A further argument for the application of Paul’s instruction beyond a specific cultural setting of the first century is the strength of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14. Immediately before his statement on women’s role in church, he includes these words: “As in all churches of the saints”. This would appear to make the following statements apply to all churches no matter what their cultural setting. Furthermore, immediately after restricting women from speaking in the church service, he includes these forceful words: “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.” These are strong words, and I find them hard to dismiss with the lack of consideration which is commonly given to them.
- Junia was an apostle. Therefore, she would have been allowed to preach.
Romans 16:7 is considered by many egalitarians as an extremely important verse for their case. “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I.” The argument is that Junias was most probably a female, and she is said to be an apostle. Therefore, she must have been accepted as a church leader, and surely allowed to preach.
I find it strange that such a verse should be the key verse which dominates the whole discussion. There are at least two big problems which throw doubt on the use made of this verse by egalitarians. Firstly, the key phrase “outstanding among the apostles” (NIV) is translated as “They are well known to the apostles” (ESV), or, “They are of note among the apostles” (KJV). Clearly, the phrase is ambiguous in its meaning. Given that Jesus appointed only male apostles, it is queer to make a strong argument from this incidental verse that Paul instituted a new policy of appointing female apostles. Secondly, there are different senses of the word “apostle”. It can be used in the sense of a “messenger”, as seen in Philippians 2:25 and 2 Corinthians 8:23. Again, the case would be stronger also if Junias was mentioned clearly as an apostle apart from Andronicus who was probably her husband. Even if Junias was an “Apostle”, this still does not say anything about her role in a public church service. There are many women missionaries today who serve solo in traditional societies who take roles of leadership and yet honour the cultural setting by not taking a public role in a gathered church service.
- Women can preach if they are given authority to preach.
A final argument I will respond to is this common response that if an eldership empowers a woman to preach, then it is no longer an issue of authority. However, the problem is that this is exactly what Paul says we are not to do! Imagine how Paul would respond if Timothy was to write a letter back to Paul and say the following: “We note Paul that you said we were not to allow a women to teach or have authority over a man in our church service. We have decided to put this into practice by giving them authority to preach because we would like to have them preaching”. This would just be at best ignoring Paul’s instructions or at worst disobeying them. Compare the topic of sex being limited to marriage. The biblical requirement is that sex should be limited to a marriage relationship. However, if a church wanted to get around this, they could say that really the issue is one of commitment, and if a couple are committed to one another, then the church will grant them permission to have a sexual relationship before marriage. Of course, this is just changing the Bible’s requirements of marriage to suit our own standards of commitment, for the Bible’s standard of commitment is in fact marriage. Similarly, to say that we’re not going to treat teaching as an act of authority is simply changing Paul’s instructions for he appears to be saying that it is indeed an act of authority which should not be allowed.
Much more could be said on this topic. It is not the most important issue which confronts the church, nevertheless I believe it’s an important test case on our submission to scripture. It seems to me that the six arguments I have responded to above provide a very weak foundation for a case for women to be allowed to preach, yet these six arguments are frequently presented as providing sufficient reason. The conservative position will not be a popular one and as our society slides further into a secular worldview, it will be more and more subject to ridicule. However, I contend that the conservative position on this topic is more faithful to the guidance of scripture and therefore should be followed, even at the cost of the misunderstanding and disappointment of many who find it hard to agree with.