Women in Ministry: Some Preliminary Remarks

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a Bible study where the passage under consideration was 1 Timothy 2. If you’re familiar with that chapter, you know that it is particularly important — central, really — to conversations about whether women should be allowed to be pastors. The key section is verses 11-15, which read:

“A woman is to learn quietly with full submission. I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed. But she will be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with good sense.” — 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (CSB)

This is the single most debated and commented-upon paragraph in Paul’s Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) — at least in the last two centuries, when women’s rights became a major subject of public discourse. On one side, some Christians argue that these verses function as an absolute, universal command for all churches. On that reading, women are prohibited from authoritative (i.e. pastoral) leadership roles.

Conversely, other Christians assert that Paul’s words were addressing a specific, local situation in their ancient context, and therefore can only be applied to limited, analogous situations today. If that’s the case, it doesn’t prohibit capable, gifted women from serving at any level of ministry.

Now, before I dive into my explanation of this passage (which I’ll do in a follow-up post), I want to share a little bit about my own journey wrestling with the broader topic of women in ministry.

Examining My Inherited Assumptions

As a young believer growing up in socially- and religiously-conservative evangelical circles, I never really had that much exposure to women pastors or teachers other than having the occasional female Sunday School teacher, or perhaps seeing a Joyce Meyer or Beth Moore Bible study being used in some of our church’s small groups. (Speaking of Beth Moore, the recent controversy over her leadership role in the Southern Baptist Convention makes this subject all the more timely.)

In other words, my environment was decidedly complementarian. Within that camp, the Bible is understood as teaching that: 1) Men and women, while equal in worth, have different roles and must adhere to a God-ordained hierarchy; 2) Women at all times and places are not allowed to teach or have authority over men in the church (complementarians read 1 Tim 2:11-15 as an absolute), but they can teach other women or children; and 3) Women who did participate in ministry were limited from being a pastor, from preaching from the pulpit on Sundays, or from teaching men unless a male authority was involved to provide oversight and “headship.” 

Then I went off to a Christian college and then seminary, where some of my Bible and theology classes were taught by some incredibly gifted female professors. I also read books, articles, and commentaries written by female Christian scholars. And I benefited greatly from the insights these women shared (one of my favorites being the stellar commentary on 1 Peter by Karen Jobes).

The fact that I, as an adult male, was being taught Scripture by women caused me to start asking a few questions about the perspective I grew up with. Was it okay for these women to be teaching me?

After some pondering and study, the conclusion I came to was, “Well, 1 Timothy must be talking about women not teaching men in the church as pastors.” After all, the rest of that epistle deals with issues arising in the church that needed correcting, and chapter 3 goes on to list qualifications for leaders in the church.

And that is the most common complementarian explanation. Women can teach or have authority over men outside the church; they can work in education or politics, or as police officers, doctors, or military personnel. They just can’t be pastors.

Notice that this interpretation is derived from context. It isn’t necessarily a literal, face-value reading of the text as it stands. If we did take these verses in a completely straightforward, literal manner, with no regard for context, then women would never have any form of authority over any men, ever.

So my justification for being taught by female professors, or having female bosses at work, or listening to female politicians, but not supporting female pastors was from the literary context of 1 Timothy as a whole — it’s Scripture written to address only church situations.

But what I had yet to do was to take it one step further and look more at the cultural context, as well. One of my assignments in seminary was to participate in a forum-style debate with my classmates over 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and I was surprised how little I previously understood about the culture of first-century Ephesus (in which Timothy was pastoring) or the potential strength of non-complementarian readings of Scripture.

In the years since that assignment, I’ve sought to correct that weakness by studying both sides of the debate more thoroughly. We’ll talk more about that in the next post, where we’ll examine the text in more detail.

See you down the path.



Categories: Contemporary Issues/Ethics

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4 replies

  1. Isn’t it also possible that Paul was just wrong?

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    • Maybe. But this is where one’s view of the inspiration and reliability of Scripture would come into play. If you don’t consider Paul’s writings to be divinely inspired, then of course you could just write him off as outdated and wrong. I don’t take that approach. Those of us who consider his writings to be written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and part of our canon see his words as communicating truth. Thankfully, as I’ll detail in the next few posts, we have great reasons to see his words as giving the right instruction for the situations he was dealing with, when interpreted in their context.

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  2. This is well written and I’m excited to hear more. I’ve been wondering if it possible or desirable to hold to a more egalitarian position on women in church leadership while still affirming the distinctions between the genders that pre-modern people for the most part assumed. Does the acceptance of women pastors necessarily presuppose what Rene Girard calls “sexual undifferentiation.”

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  1. Women in Ministry: Parting Thoughts & Recommended Reading – Theology Pathfinder

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