Can Women Teach in the Church?
In the coming weeks, our elders plan to roll out our official position paper regarding women in ministry. I have long been eager to share that document, and I am praying it inspires many more of our women to use the gifts God has given them for the work of the ministry. In the meantime, below is our placeholder statement, originally written after we invited Elyse Fitzpatrick for an interview during weekend services in 2015.
Introduction of the Issue
In 1 Timothy 2:12 the Apostle Paul commands that a woman is forbidden to “teach or to exercise authority over a man” in the church. Some suggest that Paul had only Timothy’s immediate context in mind, because the women in Ephesus were particularly unruly. But the reasoning Paul uses—that man was created first, then Eve, and that she was deceived first while he overtly rebelled first—excludes such a possibility. Paul bases his rule for Timothy’s church in the created order, which means it applies to all churches.
The grammar Paul uses indicates that he has in mind two things he wishes to forbid, teaching and authority (We find Andreas Köstenberger’s grammatical analysis compelling here). In other words, Paul was not only saying that a woman could not rule as an elder, but that there is a certain kind of teaching she must not do in the assembled church.
But it is clear, however, that women are given the gift and responsibility to teach in God’s kingdom. Certainly, as Paul commands in Titus, they are to teach other women (Titus 2:3–5). Throughout the Bible, however, we see women instructing and exhorting mixed audiences also, both publicly and privately. In the Old Testament, Deborah dispensed wisdom to Israel by her tree (Judges 4:4), and both Miriam’s and Deborah’s songs were given publicly to instruct and edify Israel (Exodus 15; Judges 5). In the New Testament, Priscilla, together with her husband, tutored Apollos (Acts 18:26). Women prophesied publicly in the New Testament church (Acts 2:11, 17; 1 Corinthians 11:5; 14:26), and the whole congregation, men included, learned from those prophecies (1 Cor 14:31; Romans 15:14). Furthermore, Paul commands the congregation to admonish and teach one another, and these “one another” commands are given without gender distinction (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19–20; 1 Cor 14:28).
Thus, almost all complementarians concede that women can and should “teach” in the church in some way—that is, if “teach” is defined as the explanation of gospel content or exhortations to believe and obey it. It is only a certain kind of teaching that is forbidden to women. For example, John Piper, who is among the most conservative of complementarians, says, “In context, I think [1 Tim 2:12] means that women shouldn’t be the authoritative teachers of the church, i.e. they shouldn’t be elders.” Piper goes on to say, however, that women like Beth Moore and Elisabeth Elliot should be free to write, speak and teach publicly, and that men can and should learn from them—he himself has. About the ministry of Elisabeth Elliot, whom he calls the “Beth Moore” of his generation, he says, “I love it! Sock it to them Elisabeth! She was so in your face about laying your life down and being radically obedient and totally committed.”
Other conservative complementarians permit a woman to give a testimony in church, even during the Sunday service, and even if her address is filled with the explanation of gospel content and exhortations to obey to that content. However, as one pastor told me recently, she should not do so “in or as the sermon.” Women can, and should, however, he says, admonish others in church–even other men–to obey (Romans 15:14).
What Kind of Teaching is Reserved Only for Men in the Church?
What kind of teaching, then, is forbidden to women? Here are three possible answers:
Answer 1: Any Public Teaching in the Church
In this view, women can teach informally, as Priscilla did with Apollos, or in the context of group discussion (as might occur in a small group). Her “teaching” must never, however, happen in the formal setting of the church assembled or in the public ministry of the church.
The problem with this answer is that Scripture presents us with so many women publicly explaining, exhorting, and edifying God’s people. The substance of what they shared can only be called “teaching.” Their public addresses were filled with explanations of content and exhortations to repent and believe. For example, both Miriam and Deborah instructed and exhorted through prophetic lyric. The women in the Corinthian church gave prophecies, hymns, lessons, or revelations in worship services from which men could learn (1 Cor 11:4–5; 14:26–32).
Some complementarians (like Wayne Grudem) insist that the public prophecies Paul permits to women in 1 Cor 11 and 14 consist only of spontaneous revelations. Paul’s allowance would not, he contends, include her preparing in advance remarks on a passage of Scripture. While we respect Grudem’s interpretation and find his exegesis illuminating, we believe that this perspective on prophecy fails to adequately account for the fullness of its occurrence in the New Testament. Evangelicals have long recognized that “prophecy” includes both “foretelling” (Agabus’ prediction of Paul’s looming troubles, Acts 21:10) and “forthtelling” (declaring the mighty works of God, as clearly practiced in Acts 2:11, 16). The latter includes proclaiming what God has done, explaining its significance, and admonishing the hearers to live differently in light of it.
Furthermore, not every prophetic utterance in the Corinthian church appears to be spontaneous. Paul expects believers to come to the worship service with a “hymn, lesson or revelation,” indicating that God may have put it on their heart throughout the week (1 Cor 14:26). In each sermon I prepare I ask God to help me speak “prophetically,” which includes trusting him both to bring ideas to mind spontaneously while I preach the sermon, and also to guide me during my study to specific and timely words of testimony and application for our congregation. Thus, we believe 1 Corinthians 11 means that women can be given “words” of instruction and exhortation for the church at large in their personal study as well. And they must be given space to share those words with the body of Christ.
A blanket prohibition on women teaching publicly would also, we believe, have to extend to a small group or Sunday School class. These may not be an assembly of the entire church, but they are official, instructive assemblies of the church. If Paul’s intention was to disallow women from any public teaching in the church, it is hard to see how his prohibition would not extend to any gathering done in the name of the church. This would mean that they should not share insights into Scripture or admonitions to obey it in any mixed gathering of the church.
Other generally accepted practices become problematic by this view, too. If it is true that women should not teach or preach to men in any public capacity in the church, then it must follow that a pastor should never recommend a book to his entire church written by a woman. Nor should a woman be allowed to give a testimony in church that includes explanation of scriptural content or exhorts the hearers to obey, if some of those hearers are men. If she is forthtelling of the mighty works of God (as in Acts 2), and along the way she intentionally explains gospel content, she has sinned. Neither should a woman ever lead in song in church, since song lyrics too have both teaching and exhorting capacity.
Finally, by this rubric, it is difficult to understand why God appointed the songs of certain women (Miriam and Deborah) to publicly edify Israel during the Exodus and the time of the Judges. Even in extraordinary times, would God overturn his created order?
Answer 2: The “Sermon”
Some complementarians are comfortable with a woman explaining and admonishing in the public gathering of the church, so long as her “teaching” does not take the place during “the sermon.” A stark distinction exists, they believe, between what Paul commands of Timothy, “Preach the word (2 Tim 4:2)” and what he encourages for the whole church, “able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14).
The challenge here is that “the sermon” as such is never defined for us in the Bible. If anything, 1 Corinthians 14:26–32 seems to imply a number of speakers in a New Testament worship service, not an official, specific single-voice slot that occupies the last half of the service in which one man teaches through a given passage. The book of Acts records several of the Apostles’ messages, but we are never given an example of one given in the space of a worship service. Furthermore, nothing in the context of Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 2 Tim 4:2 suggests that he has in mind only the 30 minute exposition occurring in the latter half of our worship services, or that 2 Tim 4:2 has no applications for women.
This is not to downplay the importance of the sermon in the church, or to suggest that the kind of teaching Paul has in mind in 1 Tim 2:12 does not occur most naturally during what we call “the sermon.” The sermon is the centerpiece of our worship services at The Summit Church, and we see it as the most crucial component in fulfilling Jesus’ admonition to “teach all things he has commanded” and Paul’s to “preach the word.” We agree with John Piper that “preaching (i.e. the sermon) is the heart of church leadership.” But because the Bible never gives a proper definition of a sermon (or even uses the word), or formally distinguishes “preaching” from “teaching” (i.e. when does exhortation, which women can do, become preaching, which they cannot?) we believe that there is a better way to classify the kind of teaching Paul forbids to women. (For example, if a woman shares a five-minute reflection on Scripture with admonishments to hear and obey between worship songs, what keeps that from qualifying as “preaching?” If it lasts 50 minutes would it become “preaching”?)
Thus, building a hard and fast distinction between “preaching” and “teaching,” or between the 30-minute exposition in the latter half of our worship service and every other explanation and admonition moment in the church, is to impose a category on Scripture not introduced by Scripture.
We believe it is unwise to build a rule entirely off of something never defined in Scripture. Thus, we need a more consistent, and more biblical, classification of the kind of teaching forbidden to women in the church.
Answer 3: The “Special Office” of Teaching in the Church
By this view, the kind of teaching Paul has in mind in 1 Timothy 2:12, which he restricts to men, is the official, specially recognized office of teaching in church, which bears the authority of the church and fulfills the church’s official responsibility to preserve and pass on the faith from generation to generation (Jude 3).
John Frame and Vern Poythress explain that Reformed churches have long recognized a distinction between “general” and “special” teaching in the church. General teaching is explanation of content and exhortations to obey, and they believe that women can—and should—do this kind of teaching even during formal, public worship services or in mixed audiences of the church (like a Sunday School class). “Special” teaching is that teaching in a local church that bears the authority of the church, fulfills its responsibility to preserve the faith, and which God calls people to submit to or be removed from that church (Hebrews 3:7, 17).
When Paul says that women are not to teach or have authority over a man in the church (1 Tim 2:12), or that they should be silent in the worship services (1 Cor 14:34), it is this “special” or official teaching capacity he has in mind. He couldn’t be speaking of the general capacity for teaching, because Scripture encourages—commands—women in too many other places to teach in those ways.
While we believe that “teach” and “have authority” are two separate ideas for Paul, the context of Paul’s statement makes clear that the kind of teaching he is forbidding is the teaching that most naturally accords with the office of elder. Consider this: What exactly is “authority” in the church? It cannot mean unquestioned allegiance to what is taught, since Scripture encourages the congregation to evaluate any teaching in the church, even that done by elders, in light of other Scriptures (Acts 17:11). “Authoritative teaching” in a church is (1) teaching that is binding for that particular congregation and (2) the teaching body that comprises that church’s fulfillment of its responsibility to pass on the faith to the next generation. The elders have the “authority” to remove from that local covenant community (under the consent of the congregation as a whole) those that reject this official teaching of the church (Titus 3:10–11).
This is why “teaching” and “authority” come together most formally in the office of elder. Paul’s instruction about elders in 1 Tim 3:1–7 is the natural outflow of Paul’s command in 2:12 (especially considering that there was no “chapter break” in Paul’s original letter; these sections were part of the same instructive unit). The elders bear the responsibility to preserve the integrity of the faith in the congregation, as well as to propagate it into the world.
Women are not to occupy that special, authoritative role of teacher in the church, either formally or functionally. That’s why Paul’s distinction of “teaching” and “authority” as two distinct things in 1 Tim 2:12 is significant. He is not saying that women can be the primary teachers in the church, so long as they do so as non-elders. He is saying they should not teach as elders or in elder-like ways. To teach like an elder, even if not officially an elder, is to go against the spirit of the order Paul expounds in 1 Tim 2:12-14.
Admittedly, “not teaching in an elder-like way” creates a gray area. But if we are committed to go no further in our restrictions than the Bible does, we must be willing to insist on the principle and allow each congregation to determine how best to apply it. We don’t believe it honors God to erect hedges about the law, however well intentioned these hedges may be. We want to be clear where the Bible is clear, and leave undefined what it leaves undefined.
We at The Summit Church believe this rubric to be the most consistent with biblical, and in particular, evangelical, history. Throughout history God has raised up women with incredible teaching and prophetic gifts—in recent years, women like Elisabeth Elliot, Elyse Fitzpatrick, and Beth Moore—who have contributed much to the body of Christ. While these women should never teach as elders or in elder-like ways in the church, their public ministries should be encouraged.
Based on this conclusion, three practical question present themselves:
1. At The Summit Church, can a woman teach in a formal church setting, like a large Sunday School class or an evening Bible study?
Yes, but not if she does so in a way that “mimics” the teaching authority of an elder. Perceptions are important, and if some in the church begin to look to a woman-teacher as their primary shepherd-leader, both she and they have gone into error. Thus, where small groups and Sunday School classes mimic the pastoral functions of the church (responsibility for shepherding, the beginning stages of discipline), we believed mixed-gender groups should be led (or at least co-led) by men.
2. Can a woman teach during the time traditionally called “the sermon” at one of our weekend services?
No. As we have said, we believe a woman should not teach in a way that mimics the authority of an elder, and we believe that in our context the sermon is seen as primary and authoritative teaching platform of the church. Thus, we have chosen not to allow the women to supply, by herself, the primary teaching component of a weekend service. While we have had a woman on stage to give testimony, offer insight, and speak encouragement, we are zealous to ensure that it is done in a way that communicates that she does not bear the official teaching authority of the church.
My recent interview of Elyse Fitzpatrick is a good example of how we attempt to accomplish this. I (as a teaching elder) set the context, invited Elyse up to ask her a series of questions, and then wrapped up the service by applying her words specifically to The Summit Church. My introduction, presence on stage, and application at the end “officialized” the explanation and exhortation given by her for The Summit Church, and made clear she was not teaching as an elder of our church. She explained some incredible Christian truths, but we, the Summit elders, bore the weight of responsibility for her teaching.
In our context, and maybe all contexts, the sermon time is inextricably associated with elder authority, so we have not allowed a woman to occupy the sermon slot in the weekend services.
3. Can a man work for a woman within the church?
Yes. We do not believe that Paul’s prohibition forbids women from supervising men in certain departments in our church. Such departments work under the authority of the elders, and the elders bear the responsibilities of pastoral authority in those departments.
We also do not believe Paul’s instructions mean that women are to be submissive to all men everywhere, or that Paul’s prohibition in 1 Tim 2:12 prohibits women being authorities over men in the workplace, classroom, or political office. We believe Paul’s admonition in 1 Tim 2:12 only applies to the church. While the creative order exists outside the church, we must stop where Scripture stops.
The Summit Church is unashamedly and uncompromisingly complementarian. We affirm without qualification the Danvers Statement on gender roles in the kingdom of God.
We are concerned to avoid two errors in regards to women’s role in ministry. On the one hand, we do not want to encourage women to do what God has forbidden to them (1 Tim 2:15; Titus 2:3–6). On the other, we must not discourage women from legitimate opportunities God has opened to them in the kingdom of God. Many complementarians seem only concerned about the former. They want to ensure that women do not do something they shouldn’t do, but do not seem concerned with discouraging women from what they can and should do. As Jen Wilkin says, many women in the church are “fighting to be seen as necessary beyond children’s ministry and women’s ministry. They are fighting to contribute more than hospitality or a soft voice on the praise team. They are looking for leadership trajectories for women in the local church and finding virtually nothing. They watch their brothers receive advocacy and wonder who will invite them and equip them to lead well.” Since more than half of professing believers are women, we want to see them unleashed and empowered to serve in the kingdom of God, while respecting a loving and wise God’s gracious boundaries.
Finally, we want to champion the importance of the role that God has given only to women: mother. Those women whom God has blessed with this role find themselves at the very heart of God’s plan of redemption, fulfilling a role that no man has been given the privilege to share, a role with greater impact on the kingdom of God than perhaps any other (1 Tim 2:13). My mother, a college biology professor, chose to stay home with my sister and me during our grade school years, and she was the most significant factor in the shaping of my faith from childhood. My own wife, who graduated with honors from the University of Virginia, has chosen to stay home with our four children. We have never regretted that decision. We know that by exalting motherhood and teaching a distinction of roles we put ourselves starkly out of step with our culture, but we believe God’s Word is true, given for our good, and to be trusted in every generation.
As a dad of three very capable daughters, and as a pastor of a church where the majority are women (and the single largest demographic breakdown is single women), I long to see women raised up to serve in the body of Christ and unleashed in the mission of God to their full potential. We believe God gives to women every spiritual gift, endows them with their own spiritual authority, and makes them equal partners in the progress of the mission of God into the world.
As in all things, we believe that a disposition of charity toward those who parse these distinctions differently than we do is in order. On this issue, we can agree on principles even where we differ in applications. Above all, we believe that God’s Word is good and trustworthy, and that his design for the church will stand throughout time and prosper the church, now and always.
 In Eph 5, Paul is about to go into one of the clearest explanations of gender distinction in the Bible. His admonition to address one another is vv. 19–20 comes before he makes that distinction.