In the last post, I wrote about a certain angst I sometimes feel when the subject of complementarity is discussed, and more importantly when things turn from discussion to practice.  The angst is fueled by the sense that our practice of complementarity too often fails at affirming a big, biblical, essential, positive role for women in the church and the home.  There’s a “Christian” species of “women’s work” that reduces women to second-string players or second-class citizens.  The failure, imo, comes from emphasizing defense of right things (male headship, for example) to the detriment of promoting other right things for women.  When that happens, we at least limit our sisters and often hurt them.

One area where I think this happens is in the area of teaching.  In fact, squabbles over the role of women in teaching ministries is the third rail on the complementarity issue.  On one side, egalitarians argue that there is no role that men play that women can’t play.  So, they make an illegitimate play for female leadership in the church, including the pastorate and preaching.  Meanwhile, among some complementarians there is such a defensive reaction that the pendelum swings toward “women should never open their Bibles in public, and if they do they must read silently without moving their lips.”  Some of my brothers can be like Eli accusing Hannah of impropriety because she prayed publicly (before a man), lips moving.  I once had a lovely brother tell me that because the culture has swung so far toward obliterating gender distinctions and roles the church must swing far in the other direction to hold the line.  But that kind of over-reaction fuels the egalitarian instinct in so many people, and fails to demonstrate why complementarity is not only bibilical and right but beautiful, balanced and empowering too.  If we’re defensive reactionaries we reinforce caricatures and stereotypes and we hurt our sisters.

So, what about this issue of women teaching and being taught?  What meaningful role may women play, if any?

As I said, this is the third rail, or at least the flash point for much of the debate about gender roles.  Many fine works have been written giving fuller treatments of this issue.  And nothing I say here is meant in any way to undermine qualified male leadership in the church.  If you leave this post thinking I’m trying to undermine the biblical pattern for gender roles, either you’ve read me wrong or I’ve written poorly.  I’m a complementarian.  But…

I think the Bible teaches the necessity of both teaching women and of having women teach.  In this post, I want to (1) perhaps shift the locus of conversation a bit, (2) discuss the necessity of women being taught, and (3) suggest ways women should teach and be fully encouraged to do so.

Shifting the Focus a Bit

Usually the issue of whether women can teach gets debated from 1 Tim. 2:11-12.  “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” My complementarian comrades (I’m a complementarian) move to this passage in a defensive posture.  We may become zealous for making sure no woman ever instructs any man in any setting.  We make of Paul’s words a strong citadel guarding the throne room of church leadership and teaching authority.  And it is good, right, biblical, holy and beautiful that we should see in these words God’s design for men and women in the local church, delegating the teaching authority of the church to select qualified men.

But perhaps we should add something to this prohibition.  What if we also discussed women teaching in the broader context of Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission or Missionary Mandate?  Then, the discussion is not simply a negation or defense but also an affirmation opening positive and necessary roles for our sisters.  Unless we imagine Matt. 28:18-20 only applies to men (a manifestly untenable position), we’re forced to see that all our sister disciples must experience and complete what Jesus demands in Matt. 28:19.  In other words, women are meant to play a central role in fulfilling the Great Commission, working to make others what they now are: disciples.

That means, women must be taught and they must teach.  Women must be taught and must teach “everything Jesus commands,” which necessarily means women must be serious students, understanding biblical texts, systematic theology, and biblical theology to start.  Otherwise, there’s no way to appropriately teach what Jesus commands.  I could not agree more with Piper’s comments at the True Woman conference a couple years back: “Wimpy theology makes wimpy women.”  Or the visionary aside he shared at T4G 2008, when he called for churches filled with women sages, mighty oaks, to whom women of the church streamed.  (I think he said he could marry them all; but I’ll stick with the one strong woman the Lord has blessed me with! :-))

The basic point is this: If we put this discussion in the context of the Great Commission, then we must envision a critical and meaningful ministry of the word in which our sisters vigorously participate, being discipled and discipling others.  Which means women must be taught.

Women Must Be Taught

This simply flows from Jesus’ words in Matthew 28.  And it’s explicitly stated by Paul himself in 1 Tim. 2:11–“Let a woman learn….”  Because of our defensive instinct in complementarian circles, we tend to hear the second half of the sentence most clearly: “Let a woman learn with all submissiveness.”  We emphasize “she is to remain quiet” (v. 12b).  But I think the radical part of the sentence in Paul’s day and our own is the first part: Let a woman learn.  Submissiveness must certainly be her heart’s posture, but she must positively be a learner, a disciple.

A woman’s learning is taken for granted in most developed western nations today.  But in most of the ancient world and in many parts of today’s world, female education could not be taken for granted.  Indeed, in most of the religious world today (Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.), teaching women is not a spiritual priority.

So when Paul writes these words he ignites an explosive, counter-cultural charge right at the foundations of so much male-female inequality.  Though Paul’s comments in 1 Tim. 2 preserve God’s complementarian design, his words actually create equal opportunity to learn for both men and women.  One wonders why Paul’s words should now be counter-cultural inside many of the congregations so fiercely Pauline in their theology!

Paul’s charge to Titus makes teaching women a pastoral responsibility.  “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. … Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine” (v. 1, 3).  Note carefully: Titus the pastor must teach older women sound doctrine and how to live lives as older women that adorn the gospel.  This makes women, and older women in particular, a primary target audience for a pastor’s teaching ministry.  If we haven’t figured out how to do that well, we’re failing at a basic charge that affects the entire disicple-making ministry and mission of the church.  “We ought to have an intentional, deliberate approach to female discipleship because men and women are different, and these differences need to be recognized, taken into account, and addressed in the course of Christian discipleship” (Duncan and Hunt, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, p. 40).

It is a sinful neglect to relegate older women uninstructed to a basement corner of the church building to work on quilts while “the real ministry” goes on elsewhere.  There is absolutely no grounds or basis for a pastor saying (as one commenter recounted), “I don’t teach the women of my church; I go straight for the men.”  Or a pastor being disinterested in what their ladies are studying, as though it’s “women’s stuff.”  Or a pastor, appropriately wanting to be watchful of his life, shying completely away from the women of his church.  We can be appropriate, sensitive, and watchful without neglecting the spiritual teaching needs of our sisters.

As far as I can tell, the Bible emphasizes the necessity of women learning the whole counsel of God.  This means, brother pastor, we must consider and include our sisters as a primary audience in our teaching.  And, sister, this means you should eagerly come to the teaching table with mouths wide open and eyes fixed on being theologically sound, biblically faithful, joyful and eager students in the school of Christ.  Our complementarian vision must include a picture of women who are well-taught theologians, women who know their God and know His word.

Women Must Teach

We must envision a church filled with well-taught women because we need a church full of women who in turn teach.  To fulfill the Great Commission women must teach.

This is  where the angst begins for my complementarian brothers who care about being faithful to the Bible’s ordering of our congregations and worship.  Part of the problem, however, stems from opting to protect male leadership by severely limiting the ministry of the word by women.  Which reveals another problem we sometimes face: a narrow understanding of “the ministry of the word” as pulpit ministry only.

The Bible records a range of teaching activities undertaken by women in the church.  We see older women trained to “teach what is good” (Titus 2:3-4), women discipling their children at home (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14), women praying and prophesying in church services with men being edified (1 Cor. 11:5; 14:31), Priscilla helping in the discipleship of Apollos (Acts 18:26), and women teaching along with the entire congregation during congregational singing (Col. 3:16).  That’s actually a wide field of teaching activity with a wide vision for “the ministry of the word” in a local body.  A woman’s teaching role is not limited to the creche or VBS.

If we don’t take this view, then  1 Cor. 11:2-16 becomes most problematic for a complementarian view that severely limits women in this area.  In that passage–admittedly filled with difficult things to interpret like head coverings and “because of the angels” (v. 10)–Paul states two things clearly: (1) the headship of men in the church is grounded in the creation order and reflects the authority of Christ over the church, and (2) women indeed prayed and prophesied in the public meetings at Corinth.  Paul maintains a strong understanding of complementary gender relationships with male headship or authority.  But read that passage slowly several times and you’ll notice something astounding.  The man who does not allow women to teach or have authority over a man (1 Tim. 2:11-12) does not bat an eye at women prophesying in Corinth!  In a letter filled with correction after correction, Paul corrects the Corinthians’ poor understanding of headship but does not disallow women prophesying.

How do we hold 1 Cor. 11:2-16 together with 1 Tim. 2:11-12?  The passages are friends, not enemies.  There are two possible solutions depending on how one defines prophesying.

One solution is to argue that the prophesying in 1 Cor. 11 is something other than teaching.  One writer suggests that the women’s prophesying activity finds its closest analogy in the public reading of Scripture in today’s church.  I deeply respect that scholar, as much for his godliness as for his scholarship.  But if we define prophesying that way in 1 Cor. 11, it’s difficult to see how that same brother defines prophesying in 1 Cor. 14 as spontaneous revelation from God spoken in the assembly.  Whether you define prophesy as foretelling, forthtelling, or spontaneous but fallible revelation, there’s no escaping (a) the edifying effect of such prophesy (1 Cor. 14:31), (b) that the content of such prophesy necessarily teaches or else it could not edify, and (c) that women prophesy in the early NT assembly.  Distinctions between prepared sermons and spontaneous utterances, though plausible, don’t really solve the problem.  For, pragmatically, one could make the case that we’d rather a woman prepare thoroughly before speaking in any forum than that she should in the name of Spirit-given spontaneity stand up and say unprepared things.

The second solution might be to make a distinction between function and office, activity and authority.  For example, one can “do the work of an evangelist” and not hold the office of evangelist.  Or, one can “practice hospitality” and not be an elder, who must be hospitable.  A person can be an apostle in the ordinary sense of taking the message to unbelievers, and not be an apostle in the unique sense of the twelve.  Function or activity may be divided from formal office and authority.  That’s no less true of teaching or prophesying in the local church.

To use another example: I’ll have a guest preacher visit FBC in a couple months.  He’ll expound the Scriptures.  And his teaching will convey the authority inherent in the word (God’s authority).  But he will not have any authority or position in this local congregation. All that he proclaims will be superintended by the elders here.  My people will be under the authority of the word itself as it’s rightly proclaimed, but they will not be called to submit to our guest preacher in a Hebrews 13:17 manner as they would with the elders.  Activity and authority will be safely separated.  Function and office will be distinct.  The word will have an authority of its own, but the brother preaching will have none in the ongoing life of this local church.

Might the same be said of the prophesying and teaching of women in the local church?  Might we also safely distinguish between the general activity of teaching in the local church and the specific authority and teaching of church leadership, restricting the latter to qualified men and opening up the former for enhanced roles for gifted sisters in the church under the authority of the elders?  One dear brother writes compellingly about the structure of authority and the role of men and women in 1 Cor. 11:2-16 when he states:

God is honored when the women pray and prophesy in such a way that they display their submission to male authority. God is also honored when the men pray and prophesy in such a way that they show both that they have authority over the women and that Christ has authority over them. Observing these gender roles to the honor of Christ honors God.

Women may–and I would argue inescapably must–convey the teaching of the scripture without usurping leadership or headship authority in the church.   There must be a way to do this wherein each gender uniquely honors God in the use of every freedom and privilege Christ gives.

Here, we should respond to one frequent objection: the slippery slope.  Some will certainly feel that widening “the ministry of the word” to include women would be to embark on the path to egalitarianism.  And, indeed, it has been the case that the Bible’s teaching on gender roles has been eroded in the church and home by what seems like a series of smaller concessions leading to a great departure.  Even so, the fear of the slippery slope should not hinder us from placing our feet on every patch of ground the Bible allows us.  For the freedoms the Bible grants are not the slippery slope.  Our task is to hold all truths in tension and equilibrium.  By God’s grace, we’re able to affirm complementarity while simultaneously encouraging robust lives of faith and service for women as disciples.  It’s the only way to make complementarity big and beautiful, rather than peevish and burdensome.  Don’t fear the slippery slope, brothers.  Endeavor to stand on the whole counsel of God, then your feet will be sure.


What am I arguing for in this post?  Preservation of male headship, authority, and leadership in the local church consistent with the complementarian vision of the Bible, along with a wider understanding of how women may serve the church in the Great Commission under the authority of the elders by using their teaching gifts perhaps more widely than is sometimes allowed in complementarian circles.  I think we’d be healthier churches and our sisters would have healthier experiences in our churches if we could envision a wider field of usefulness for women that includes teaching in appropriate settings and does not view every instance of teaching as a threat to male headship.  I’m a complementarian, but the Bible teaches that there’s more women can and should do in this area without overturning the structure of authority also plainly taught in the Bible.

I’m happy to hear feedback pro and con.  Please sharpen this where it needs it.

Some Additional Resources:

J. Ligon Duncan and Susan Hunt, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church

Grudem and Piper, “Are You Saying It’s Alright for Women to Teach Men Under Some Circumstances?

CBMW articles and resources on “prophesying”