Should A Woman Teach In Church?

So much of what has become Christian doctrine is based on poor exegesis of a verse or two of Scripture taken out of context. In that they are created from the mind of man, these extra-biblical doctrines clearly do not conform to the will of God as revealed in Scriptures. Sadly, many in the Body of Christ accept these false doctrines as biblical. Others, and in particular those who are in subjection to the Catholic pope, consider it sinful to violate the doctrines of man.

If only our gracious God would confer on every believer the ability and will to practice sound hermeneutics when reading the Scriptures, the false doctrines of men would soon be cast away and the Body of Christ would serve and worship God in conformance with His will. Until He does that, I can but urge my siblings in Christ to take it upon themselves to learn the basics of sound biblical interpretation in order that they might discern between doctrines of man and those of God.

In this post, my intention is to address a doctrine that men, no doubt well-meaning men, have declared to be biblical. Though the verses used to support this doctrine indeed are in the Scriptures, sound exegesis demonstrates that the man-made doctrine is not biblical. I refer to the idea that women should not teach in church.

I have been blessed to know and call friend a number of today's most brilliant theologians, from whom I have learned much. God has also placed in my path a number of gifted women, two of whom patiently tutored me in both the basics and the deeper things of our Christian faith, always insisting on careful hermeneutics and conformance to the Scriptures. Were these dear ladies wrong to take it upon themselves to help their brother in Christ to grow in knowledge and understanding of God's Word? Not from what I know from studying the Scriptures and church history.

I have selected a teaching of Ray Stedman, former pastor of the Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California. Stedman was hired right out of the Dallas Theological Seminary and remained pastor of that church until his health failed. When he died, Ray Stedman left a legacy of hundreds of written and oral teachings, many of which are available online at the PBC website.

What follows is Ray Stedman's response to the question "Should a woman teach in church?"

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The social movements of every age seem to be used by God to force Christians to re-examine (and clarify) their understanding of what the Scriptures teach. Painful as they may be, every such re-examination results ultimately in stronger and clearer statements on the subjects in question than the Church has ever had before. This is certainly the case in the matter of the woman's role in the Church. The secular Women's Liberation movement is forcing church leaders everywhere to distinguish carefully between attitudes toward women derived from customs and traditions of the past (often strongly macho-dominated) and what the Bible actually teaches and what the early Church actually did.

In the scope of this brief article it is not possible to answer all the questions which are being raised today. But we would like to examine the specific question being asked by many Christians today: Should a woman teach the Scriptures, and especially, should she teach men or when men are present?

We can say at once that the New Testament clearly indicates that both men and women receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit without distinction in regard to sex. Included among these is the gift of teaching, and other related gifts, such as prophesying (basically, preaching), exhortation, and the word of wisdom and of knowledge. Women prophets are referred to both in the Old and New Testaments and older women are instructed by the apostle Paul to teach the younger women. A somewhat oblique reference in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 suggests that both men and women were free to pray or prophesy in the open meeting of the Church, though the woman must do it in such a way as to indicate that she recognizes the headship role of her husband. If she does so, there seems to be no objection to the fact that men would be present in the congregation, or any limitation placed on her for that reason. From the viewpoint of spiritual gifts it seems clear that "in Christ there is neither male nor female" and God expects every woman to have a ministry as much as he expects every male to have one.

Though the ministry of women in the New Testament churches is not prominent in the record, nevertheless there are certain references that indicate they were frequently and widely used in various capacities. Almost all commentators agree that Priscilla and her husband Aquila were side-by-side companions of the apostle Paul in his work both in Corinth and in Ephesus, and that of the two, Priscilla was the more gifted and capable teacher, since her name is most often listed first. They were, together, the instructors of the mighty Apollos in his early preaching efforts. Here is a clear-cut case of a knowledgeable woman being used in the teaching of a man with no hint of an objection from Paul. Further, in Paul's letter to the church in Philippi he urges an unnamed fellow-worker (probably Epaphroditus) to "help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel." In the letter to the Romans he mentions other women who labored with him "in the Lord."

Perhaps no question would ever have arisen about the propriety of women's ministry were it not for two passages from Paul's hand which seem to lay severe restriction upon them. In 1 Corinthians 14 he says, "As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church." Again, in 1 Timothy 2 he says, "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent." Taken by themselves, apart from their contexts, these two passages do seem to prohibit any kind of teaching ministry for women, especially in any public way within the church.

But let us look at some guidelines of interpretation which will help us in understanding just what the apostle means.

1. Nothing in the above quoted passages can be taken in such a way as to contradict what the apostle himself permitted or referred to with approval in the practice of the church. He surely did not teach one thing and practice another. If, in 1 Corinthians 11 he speaks with approval of a woman praying or prophesying in public, as he does, then surely, in 1 Corinthians 14 he does not contradict himself by forbidding women even to open their mouths in any circumstance in the public meeting of the church. We must, therefore, read the prohibition of chapter 14 as applying to something other than the ministry of women permitted in chapter 11.

2. We must note that the immediate context of both passages quoted above has to do with the problem of disorder and even some degree of defiance in the actions of the women involved. In both passages, though widely separated as to recipients and locality, the word submission appears. In Corinth the problem was one of so conducting the meeting that edification of all present would be central. Therefore tongues were to be controlled and limited, and so was the exercise of prophesying.

Furthermore, they were to remember that "God is not a God of disorder but of peace," and then follows the warning against women speaking in the church. It is clear from this that the apostle was not concerned about women who properly exercised their gifts in prophesying or in praying, but was greatly concerned about women who disrupted the meetings with questions and comments, and perhaps even challenged the teaching of apostolic doctrine with contrary views. This is what he prohibited, as verse 27 makes crystal clear: "If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command." He then closes the whole section with the admonition, "But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way."

The word to Timothy (who was probably living at Ephesus) is similar in character. The general context in which these words about women appear is concerned with regulating the behavior of Christians at meetings, as 3:14 makes clear: "Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth." In line with this purpose, Paul tells the men how to pray (without anger or disputing) and the women how to adorn themselves (not with fine clothing but with good works) and from this he moves to the words of prohibition against a woman teaching or having authority over a man. These words cannot be taken as an absolute (no woman should ever teach a man) for if that were true Paul should have rebuked Priscilla for having a part in instructing Apollos. The words "have authority over" provide us the key to understanding this passage. Women should not be permitted the role of authoritative definers of doctrine within the church. They must not be permitted to do this, even though they may mean well, for the role of authoritative interpreters is given by the Holy Spirit to the apostles and elders, who, in the New Testament, were invariably men. This is supported by Paul's references to Adam and Eve that follows.

From this we are warranted in drawing certain conclusions to guide our conduct today.

1. Women certainly can teach. They are given the gift of teaching as freely as it is given to men, and they must exercise those gifts.

2. Women can teach within the context of church meetings. They are certainly free to teach children and other women without question, but are free to teach men as well if what they are teaching is not a challenge to the understanding of doctrine held by the elders of the church. Many godly and instructed women know far more about the Scriptures than many men and it would be both absurd and unscriptural to forbid such men to learn from such women.

3. Even the elders should recognize the often unique and godly insights of gifted women teachers and should seek their input in arriving at an understanding of the Scriptures. It is, however, the duty of elders to make the final decision of what is to be taught. No woman may participate in this.

It is my hope that this brief survey will help many in understanding the difficulties involved in answering the question with which we began. I, personally, thank God for the gifted woman teachers among us at PBC and rejoice that we have little or no problem with the question of proper authority in this matter. Catalog No. 3260 November 21, 1976

Copyright (C) 1995 Discovery Publishing, a ministry of Peninsula Bible Church. This data file is the sole property of Discovery Publishing, a ministry of Peninsula Bible Church. It may be copied only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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