Can a woman teach in church?

Can a woman teach in church?


It should come as no surprise that some of the best teachers I know are women.

In fact, in terms of pure communication ability, I’ve wondered on more than a few occasions if women (on average) surpass men.

Of the churches I know, most all of them have women doing some sort of teaching–e.g., teaching children (in Sunday school or in “children’s church”) or possibly teaching other women.  But many churches in America even today, in the 21st century, still do not allow women to teach in the same way that a man might teach.

To many, both inside and outside the church, this is not merely confusing but deeply disconcerting.

If women are just as capable as men at teaching, why is this?  Why in one fell swoop would a church both devalue gifted women and deprive needy congregations of great teaching?

How is this a win for anyone?

If a member of the body of Christ has a particular ability such as teaching, it is commonly (and rightly) described as a “spiritual gift.”  Exploring how the New Testament conceives of these gifts–and how they relate to the community of faith–will help us not only to unravel this contested issue but also explain why it has most unfortunately been so hotly contested in–and costly for–the Church.

Nowhere does the New Testament feel the need to provide a comprehensive account of either the precise nature or number of spiritual gifts.  If we conceive of these gifts as the New Testament on several occasions does–namely, as an activity (or “function” – praxis, πρᾶξις – see Rom. 12.4), there is simply no indication that these gifts are gendered (or sex-typed):  importantly, in Romans 12 the gifts of service, giving and mercy are intermingled with prophecy, encouragement, and teaching.

Pentecost by Jean II Restout (1692-1768)

Further discouraging the idea that teaching is gender-specific is the following imperative, which Paul gives while exhorting the Colossian Christians with respect to their corporate worship life:

“Let the message about Christ dwell among you richly, teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom” (3.16).

Undeniably, this is a gender-inclusive exhortation, found alongside imperatives to “give thanks” and “to sing songs, hymns and songs from the Spirit.”

And yet this undeniably gender-inclusive exhortation must be placed alongside several other statements that Paul makes:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man. She must be quiet.” (1 Tim. 2.12)

“Women should keep silent in the churches. They are not permitted to speak, but must be in full submission, as the Law says.” (1 Cor. 14.23)

Wow. Okay.  (That Paul was quite a character, wasn’t he?)

Before we attempt to synthesize these texts and arrive at a coherent summary of Paul’s statements on teaching, I think it’s important to say the following:

If we take all of the above statements from the Apostle Paul seriously (which isn’t to say, simplistically, naively, non-contextually or anachronistically), we are inescapably confronted with important critiques for all interlocutors in this debate, whether egalitarian or hierarchical.

I’ll pose these critiques here as questions:

To those proponents of the various forms of hierarchalism, who wrongly use 1 Timothy 2 as a trump card, is it not beyond dispute (from Rom. 12; and Col. 3) that there is a certain kind of teaching that both women and men are clearly gifted and instructed to offer “to one another” (i.e., both to women and men) in corporate contexts?  In light of this unambiguous gifting and instruction, what explanation can be given for preventing a woman gifted in teaching and mature in her faith from blessing the body of Christ in this way?  How is this not an act of disobedience to God, an act of disdain toward such women, and an act of disregard for the edification of God’s people?

Andronicus & Junia          Romans 16.7

To those proponents of some version of egalitarianism, who often and, I think, unwisely lean upon Galatians 3.28, is it not beyond dispute (from 1 Tim. 2) that there is a certain kind of teaching that women are clearly not permitted to do?  In light of the unambiguous association made in 1 Timothy 2 between teaching and the exercise of authority (as well as the prohibition found in 1 Cor. 14), what rational explanation can be given for investing a woman with this particular kind of authority?  How is this not an act of disobedience to God and an act of capitulation toward the deceptive sirens of Western liberalism, whose thoughts on gender relations are more confused and conflicted than ever (indeed, consider where the discourses of “equality” and “reproductive rights” have taken Western culture in the past 40 years)?

There are a number of ways to respond to Paul’s statements above–e.g., we could deny Pauline authorship; or we could simply say that Paul is inconsistent or even contradictory (or, at the very least, undecided); or we could argue that Paul’s prohibitions are exclusively circumstantial, applicable only to their specific contexts.  But all of these options range from being fairly problematic to deeply problematic.  (Perhaps the least problematic is to argue that Paul’s prohibitions are exclusively circumstantial. For a few thoughts on why I think this option isn’t viable, see “Is Christianity hierarchical or egalitarian?”)

There’s a better way forward.

Above we said that the way that the New Testament conceives of spiritual gifts will prove illuminating for the matter at hand.  For not only does the New Testament conceive of these gifts as activities; it also conceives of (at least some of them) as offices.  And this is certainly true for the gift of teaching:  we’ve already seen Paul describe teaching as an activity (in Col. 3 and Rom. 12), but he can also speak of it as an office, as he does here in Ephesians 4:

“He [that is, the resurrected, reigning Christ] appointed some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” (See also 1 Tim. 5.17; Acts 14.23)

This distinction between a spiritual gift as an activity and as an office is (among other things) a distinction between execution and responsibility.  It is the difference–an absolutely crucial difference often neglected by proponents of both hierarchalism and egalitarianism–between who can teach the church and who must ensure that the church is taught.

Holy Women at the Tomb by Annibale Carracci, 16th-century

In and of itself this distinction has absolutely nothing to do with ability, and everything to do with responsibility.

In terms of the spiritual gift at hand–namely, teaching, it’s the difference between (what we’ll call) lower-case ‘t’ teaching, like that found in Col. 3.16, and upper-case ‘T’ Teaching, like that found in 1 Tim. 2.12–i.e., between teaching that has authority and teaching which does not.

This teaching / Teaching distinction is clearly made within Colossians itself.

In 3.16 Paul (as we’ve already seen) exhorts God’s people to “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.”  This is teaching (and, we could add, admonishing:  yes, God’s people are actually called to warn each other–whoa!).  But earlier, in 1.28, Paul, when describing his own very unique role as a “servant” (diakonos) of the universal Church, states that he proclaims Christ, “admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom.”  Undoubtedly, this is Teaching (and Admonishing).  The Greek is identical; the gifting is identical.  But the nature of the gift is not:  the former is an activity; the latter an office; the former entails only execution; the latter, primarily responsibility.

And it’s worth saying:  the former (i.e., teaching) might conceivably entail suffering (though in Col. 3 it does not); but the latter (i.e., Teaching) most certainly does;  remember, Paul is writing to the Colossians from prison.

This should give us all–both proponents of egalitarianism and hierarchalism–pause:  who would want to have been the Apostle Paul?  Who would want his office?  In Acts 9 the resurrected Christ growls at a hesitant Ananias regarding the newly converted Paul/Saul of Tarsus, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles . . . . I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

Paul on Trial Before Agrippa, Nikolai Bodarevsky, 1875

This is not to confuse Paul’s own (unique) office (nor the office of apostle or prophet) with the teaching office that we have today, which in my own (Presbyterian) tradition we call an elder (or pastor).  Rather, it’s to say two things:

First, while it is undoubtedly true that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3.12), it is also true that those who serve in the teaching “office” are summoned to greater suffering:  Paul addresses Timothy neither as a generic follower of Jesus (as he does, say, Philemon) nor as a fellow apostle (as he would, say, Peter), but rather as a church leader–probably an “elder” or “pastor” (the subscript to 2 Timothy, dated much later, refers to Timothy as the “elder [episkopos, ἐπίσκοπος] of the church of the Ephesians”).  Writing to the young “elder” Timothy, Paul says, “Join with me in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Tim. 1.8).  In sum, the office (vs. the activity) involves greater suffering–i.e., more hardship and more humiliation.

Second, in my previous post, we discovered how the New Testament, in its teaching on community, nowhere idealizes, or even make an invitation to, equality.  Quite the opposite.  Both Jesus and Paul call members of the community of Christ to (what I called) a dynamic selfless inequality, in which all are to regard others as having greater social value / worth than the other–e.g., Gal. 5.13:  “Brothers and sisters, . . . use your freedom . . .  [to] be a slave to one another in love.”  As we saw, this principle of dynamic selfless inequality is extended to (and intensified for) a church’s leaders:  if community members are to be “slaves of one another,” community leaders are to be “slaves of all.”

So, then, in the teaching “office” (vs. the teaching “activity”), there is no “privilege” or special benefits.  There is only greater responsibility.  Why?  Because the office is an extension (and intensification) of the principle of dynamic selfless inequality.

Reclining master with slave holding writing tablet, 4th-century

Now in the ancient world it went without saying that a slave would be held accountable:  they must prove faithful to the task given them (see Mt. 25.21; Lk. 19.17; 1 Cor. 4.2; Rom. 14.4 for examples of this principle).  And so it is that if community members are slaves to one another, and if leaders are slaves to all, both are accountable but leaders even more.  But regularly, and tragically, in the North American evangelical church, leaders (and laity) are almost completely unaccountable (they are, as one leader said, “conversion-easy but commitment-proof”), and the result is both the massive wounding of sheep by leaders (and vice versa) and the slander of Christ’s name in the world, not to mention countless church splits.

Undoubtedly, accountability isn’t the only ingredient in a healthy church. But it’s an essential one.

The principle of dynamic selfless inequality, when combined with its accompanying accountability, ensures that those to whom Christ gives the teaching “office” construe their “authority” exclusively in terms of responsibility.  That is, those whom God calls “to teach and to have authority over” others are to understand their “authority over” as “responsibility for.”

About a year ago I was talking with a pastor and his wife.  Both of them had a divinity degree from a seminary, but only he went on to be ordained in pastoral ministry.  In my opinion, she is probably more intelligent and (over all) more gifted; she is an excellent thinker and communicator (she’s helped me to think through issues on a number of occasions).

I asked her if she was ever jealous of her husband’s teaching / pastoral opportunities.  She said, “When you get a front-row seat to pastoral ministry, you see pretty quickly that it’s not glamorous–at all.  I absolutely honor the office he holds, but it’s just so hard.  Pretty much all that he ‘gets to do’ by virtue of his office is stuff that I’m glad I don’t have to do.”

When walking faithfully, those called to the teaching office may at times be admired, but they’re rarely envied.

Quite probably this distinction between activity and office, between execution and responsibility, will awaken fears within parties on all sides of the debate:  for hierarchalists, fears of confusion (“We won’t be able to tell the difference!  It’s a slippery slope to heresy!”); for egalitarians, fears of oppression (“Women won’t be able to have influence!  It’s a slippery slope to misogyny!”).


Who can deny that both heresy and misogyny are very real, and devastating, realities within the church’s story?  But who can possibly affirm that fear of being faithful to Scripture will prevent either one?

(I used to think that there is more fear on the hierarchical side and maybe that’s true, but I wonder if there is a roughly equal–!–amount of fear on all sides:  those favoring a form of hierarchicalism usually fear letting a woman do anything approaching teaching [e.g., a Scripture reading or testimony], because “it’s a slippery slope,” and women will want to take over; those favoring a form of egalitarianism usually fear letting only men assume responsibility, because “it’s a slippery slope,” and men will want to domineer and exploit.  But such “slippery slope” alarmism on all sides is based on fear–i.e. the absence of faith–and rooted in a fundamentalist epistemology of pride/cynicism utterly foreign to Scripture.)

Now wherever the church has failed to make the distinction between execution and responsibility, it has hindered growth and brought harm to churches, churches who hold to perspectives on all sides of this debate:

If it is true that teaching, along with the other continuing spiritual gifts, is not gender-specific, it follows that all church members gifted in teaching can participate in the execution of the church’s obligation to teach.  But that hardly means that all such persons are responsible for making sure that the church receives good teaching, nor even that all those persons are equipped and mature enough to use their gifts.

In my judgment many churches whose pastoral leaders are proponents of some form of hierarchalism, in failing to make this distinction between execution and responsibility, have all too often quenched the Spirit by preventing Spirit-gifted persons from assisting in the execution of incredibly essential and helpful ministry:  due to unwarranted fear, personal insecurity, a thirst for control, or simple ignorance (because of improper instruction), pastors have left unutilized persons, but overwhelmingly women, who may well be better gifted or more suitably gifted to meet various ministry needs.  Nowhere in Scripture does ecclesial (or, we should hasten to add, marital) authority /  responsibility presuppose greater gifting.  On the contrary, authority rightly used proactively identifies, eagerly enlists, equips and unleashes persons more gifted than itself to fulfill the mission for which it alone is responsible.

At the same time, many churches whose pastoral leaders are proponents of some form of egalitarianism have also failed to make this distinction:  all are welcome to execute, but who is actually responsible and held responsible?  Within mainline churches, egalitarianism has led not to men and women co-laboring side by side, but to the withdrawal of men from both execution of and responsibility for the mission.  Within much egalitarian literature, far more “air time” is given to the (very real) tragedy of male abuse of authority than to the (just as real and far more pervasive) tragedy of male abdication of (or withdrawal from) authority.  Leading scholarship on trauma within the home maintains that neglect is at least as damaging as abuse but probably more so (see, e.g., The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, van der Kolk, 296ff).


A final word regarding “effectiveness.”

Within much egalitarian literature (and from my own personal discussions) the following concern is regularly expressed:  if a woman is incredibly “gifted” and highly effective, why would anyone prevent her from assuming an authority / responsibility that could unleash her full potential, the very same authority that Paul explicitly prohibits her from having?  What was Paul thinking?

Let me be blunt.

This objection is rank with American pragmatism and invested with values that have in mind not the things of God but the things of men (should we say “men” as in males?  I can’t say that I would object).

The two greatest commandments–those which our Creator, Redeemer, and Judge regard as the weightiest and most important–have absolutely nothing to do with “gifting.”  Therein lies their beauty:  they can be fulfilled by the (supposedly) “greatest” and “least” among us.

We American Christians, with our strategies and metrics, actually think that we know what is most strategic and are utterly persuaded that real “impact” comes primarily, if not exclusively, through inhabiting the seats of formal ecclesial (as well as political and cultural) power.

The ministries of Jesus and Paul, when evaluated by these criteria, are complete failures.

Like the Corinthian church (who rejected Paul), the American church is enthralled with “giftedness” and “effectiveness.”  And Paul would say to the American church what he also told the Corinthian church:  from among all the gifts with which the Corinthians are so pre-occupied, only “these three remain:  faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Is what I do as a pastor more “effective” than what I do as a husband or father?  Is what a woman does by not “settling” to be “just a wife and mom” and “getting out there and making a difference” by “using her spiritual gift of X”–does this really make her more effective?

How could one possibly answer that unless they were using very short-term, highly visible metrics?

Undoubtedly, we need to evaluate our faithfulness to our Lord (as leaders and as laity), but are these the right criteria?

Is not our obsession with the “effectiveness” and “giftedness” of certain women a not-so-subtle slap in the face to the countless throng of women who don’t have these (supposedly) special gifts–i.e., to all those women who are not “super-apostles”?

We must ask ourselves:  when Jesus sat down with his disciples near where the crowds were putting their offerings into the temple treasury, who was more “effective”–the “many rich people who threw in large amounts,” or the poor widow who “put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents”?

Jesus changed the world through love.  He changed the world by embracing what it meant for him to be the son of God–the very thing that Lent is all about:  there in the desert He learned that his sonship meant sacrifice (going without sustenance); it meant insignificance (going without status or “impact”); and it meant full submission (going without a say in his future).

True power is the ability to sacrifice, the ability to be insignificant, the ability to submit even when we have no answers and no allies.  It is also true love.

And true love needs no title.

At least not in this present age.

Priscilla and Aquila

2 thoughts on “Can a woman teach in church?

  1. WOW! Your timing is amazing. An ex-PCA member/attorney and I were just discussing this.

    I really loved the abdication part – having been in the Episcopal church that was a glaring problem.

    Thank you sir!

    Paul Stafford mobile & text: 406-208-6575


Add your thoughts...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s