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Editors’ note: 

No one article can exhaust the often-misunderstood topic of gender roles within the church. For a helpful “whole-Bible” explanation, see “Beautiful Difference: The (Whole-Bible) Complementarity of Male and Female.” For more resources, see our topic page on manhood and womanhood.

Applying 1 Timothy 2:12 in the local church setting is tricky: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” What exactly does Paul not permit?

Of course, some think Paul didn’t write 1 Timothy and so conclude this statement doesn’t carry apostolic weight. Others find a contradiction with Galatians 3:28 (“there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”) and declare a person’s gender to be irrelevant for how he or she serves in the church.

But suppose a godly woman in a complementarian church (i.e., a church that ordains only qualified men as pastors) looks at 1 Timothy 2:12 and wonders, What does it mean that I’m not permitted “to teach or to exercise authority over a man”? What ought she conclude and why? It’s a good question to ask in a context where “women who profess godliness” (v. 10) are called on to learn (v. 11). This implies putting into practice what Scripture teaches.

I propose that “to teach or to exercise authority over a man” was Paul’s way of summarizing to his longtime, younger colleague Timothy the chief responsibilities of a congregation’s pastor: (1) instruction via faithful exposition of Scripture, in ways like Jesus nurtured his disciples, and (2) benevolent oversight and shepherding, in ways like Jesus cared for his followers and like early Christian leaders emulated (e.g., 1 Pet. 5:1–5).

A brief investigation of 1 Timothy 2:12’s application cannot rehearse a full exposition of the passage in its context. I’ve undertaken that elsewhere (see The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 137–89) and other articles on this site have engaged such arguments, including frequent objections from egalitarian critics. And even such an exposition might fall short of a satisfying answer to the question posed above. No single difficult passage of Scripture is likely to contain a full explanation for its rationale. What a single verse affirms will be part of a larger constellation of passages that sheds light on that verse.

What a single verse affirms will be part of a larger constellation of passages that sheds light on that verse.

From the whole-Bible context of 1 Timothy 2:12, we can see how it instructs the godly woman—meaning a woman who has responded to the gospel call to trust in Christ and is devoted to living for God’s glory. There are several things it encourages her to pursue and to avoid.

What Godly Women Are Encouraged to Pursue

On the “pursue” side are at least the following.

1. She should affirm women’s full created dignity right alongside that of men (Gen. 1:27).

2. She should affirm her sexual distinctiveness that complements the man’s (Gen. 2:18) and makes the God-willed furtherance of the human race through procreation possible (Gen. 1:28).

3. She should note the entrance of sin into the world, with punitive (yet ultimately redemptive) implications for both woman and man (Gen. 3:14–19).

4. Conscious of personal and corporate sin, she should see in Christ’s coming the same joyous tidings that her forebears in the faith like Elizabeth and Mary and Anna the prophetess saw (Luke 1–2).

5. Having repented of her sins and believed in the gospel message (Mark 1:15), she should take her place alongside Jesus’s first zealous followers like the many women who supported Jesus and the Twelve financially (Luke 8:3), witnessed Jesus’s crucifixion (Mark 15:40–41), bore the first known testimony to his resurrection despite skeptical reception by the apostles (Luke 24:10–11), and participated in the work and life of the church with diligence. (Romans 16, for example, is filled with names like Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Rufus’s mother, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Junia.) Throughout the New Testament, insights for congregational conviction and direction never originated from men in isolation from women. Rather, leaders like Jesus and Paul labored alongside women, affirmed their giftedness, and established structures that would maximize their contribution to the gospel’s effectiveness in the church and out into the world.

6. Finally, she should affirm the congregational order implied in Jesus’s selection of a dozen men and mirrored in apostolic policy (uniform throughout the New Testament) of appointing godly men, and not women, to the position of pastoral teachers-and-overseers—which leads us back to 1 Timothy 2:12.

The godly woman (2:10) is called to devote herself to learning in the worship setting (2:11). She doesn’t offer pastoral instruction (“to teach”) and oversight (“to exercise authority”). Yet godly women and wives in the church will—or at least should—have natural avenues for input into the pastoral care of the church. Ordained men occupy a particular place of responsibility in the congregation, and they benefit from the wisdom of the congregation’s women. If there are healthy relationships between the pastors and the women in the congregation, these brothers will be factoring their sisters’ concerns and input into their prayer, service, and leadership measures. In fact, they will carry them in their hearts.

When they don’t, some dysfunction is in play and adjustments are called for. These changes may involve better pastoral practices and spiritual renewal, equipping husbands and wives to pursue godly dynamics in their marriages, and other adjustments that detoxify and strengthen male-female ties throughout the church.

What Godly Women Are Encouraged to Avoid

What does 1 Timothy 2:12 encourage the godly woman to avoid? Most directly, in today’s Western setting she should avoid the urge to resent the place certain men have been called and equipped to occupy.

While she should seek to maximize her contribution to the discipleship mandate all Christians share (Matt. 28:19–20), she should avoid assignments in the church where she’d assume duties that amount to pastoral instruction, like biblical exposition and exhortation. She shouldn’t preach sermons to the gathered church. Nor should she be involved in pastoral oversight of men, whatever form that might take in her church structure. Women gifted and called to discipleship ministry (as all believing women are to an extent) will find other women who need their care and influence.

Women gifted and called to discipleship ministry . . . will find other women who need their care and influence.

This doesn’t rule out women’s leadership in congregational administration—often whole pastoral staffs are directed, logistically, by the organizational genius of a female administrator. But a church administrator is not the church’s pastoral minister—the roles may intertwine, but they shouldn’t be merged or reversed.

Overlapping, Not Identical, Spheres of Service

It’s hard, and unwise, to be too specific and sweeping in a brief discussion. Denominational practices and congregational dynamics vary widely, with thoughtful complementarians in various contexts differing on matters of application.

But from Jesus to the apostles to the New Testament churches, we see that men (however undeservedly) and not women were called to pastor congregations. Women have overlapping spheres of godly service, from their private lives extending out to their collaboration with others in the full range of a congregation’s activities and outreach. But their mandate is not identical to that of men. Glorifying God and enjoying him in personal and congregational life lies, among other things, in the sweet synergy of women’s and men’s shared walk with Christ. This pastoral-leadership model calls for promotion of the other, mutual devotion, and mutual self-sacrifice—in keeping with Christ’s precedent, direction, and mission.

Many blessings attend that way. And 1 Timothy 2:12 sheds a helpful beam of light on that path.

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