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Women Teaching Men in the Church

Donna Morley, Ph.D.

Years ago while sitting through a university course on textiles, I had a lot of time to consider why some people should definitely not be teachers. At the beginning of class, the teacher’s face would disappear into the course textbook. She would read every word without coming up for air until the class was over. Three times a week for an hour and fifteen minutes, she read line by line, chapter by chapter, never stopping, never explaining. It didn’t help matters that she read in a monotone voice and was obviously bored with the subject matter herself. Once the class period started, we felt that only a major earthquake could bring us relief. We could have saved ourselves the time and a lot of tuition money if we had been allowed to stay home during class and read the book ourselves.

Teaching is so much more than reciting from a book. It can involve explaining, making the subject vivid, and motivating people to do the right thing. A teacher should be an example of right belief and behavior as she forms a bridge between the subject (in this case, God’s Word) and people. Because of their great influence, God holds Christian teachers to a high standard. To emphasize the seriousness of this gift, James warns that teachers will receive “stricter judgment” (James 3:1).

A teacher must be diligent to know the subject, to communicate well, and to be an example herself. And although some gifted teachers are effective despite a monotonous voice, it helps if they, like the great preacher Jonathan Edwards (who by the way, had a monotonous voice), have passion—passion for truth, passion for God, and passionate love for people.

All of this requires sacrifice in order to have enough time to study and to be an example. It requires spiritual discipline and alertness so as not to leave openings for Satan’s schemes. But developing the gift of teaching requires much more. A teacher must be a good listener, alert to what God is saying, and she must be a good follower of God. She is to probe, search, compare, apply, and diligently examine the Word of God that she may effectively minister to others around her.

Are there limits to this gift? Paul says yes. He told Timothy, “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12). However, women should teach women (Titus 2:3-4). Pastor John MacArthur affirms the place of women teachers: “God has gifted women in marvelous ways. Many of them have the gifts of teaching and proclaiming God’s Word. But they are not to exercise those particular gifts in the mixed assembly of the church when it comes together.”

Though all women can appreciate part of Pastor MacArthur’s comment, some would disagree with him about women teaching Scripture authoritatively (this is key) to men. What do you think about this emotion-laden topic? There are definately two sides here, if not more. Some very knowledgeable women believe that they can teach men because they take Paul’s prohibition against it as applicable only to the culture of his day, like his requirement that women wear head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:5).

The opposing view is that in the Timothy passage, Paul bases his point on the creation of Adam and Eve—and their creation certainly was not a part of the culture of Paul’s day!

Another popular view is that Paul’s prohibition against women teaching men applies only to women teachers who are ill-prepared and influenced by false teachers. According to this view, Eve (1 Timothy 2:13-14) is an example of someone who “taught” Adam without adequate preparation. In this view, then, women can teach men as long as they are well-prepared to do so.

The other camp gives a few reasons why this view, too, is inadequate: 1) Paul says nothing about Eve being a teacher of Adam; 2) There is no evidence that women were teaching false doctrines; 3) Paul points out that Eve was deceived because she took the initiative over the man whom God had appointed to be with her and care for her. Women today can make the same mistake as Eve if they try to become independent of those whom God has appointed over them. Paul’s comment about Eve does not imply that all women are more susceptible to doctrinal error. Nothing in the Genesis passage suggests that they are. If that were the case, then women would not be able to teach anyone.

Paul appeals to the order of creation. Man was created first, then Eve. The point is that the man has headship because he was created first (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:3-10). That headship is violated if women teach doctrine or exercise authority over men. By linking the issue to creation, Paul shows that this view of women’s roles is not just for the local situation or for a limited time. The prohibition is an enduring principle.

The last view I will mention (though there are many others) is the belief that Paul’s statement, “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12), does not forbid a woman to teach men. She is only forbidden to teach or exercise authority over her husband. Opponents of this view ask, if Paul meant “husband,” why do translators always use the word man? In the Greek, it turns out that the word Paul used, aner, can mean either “man as opposed to woman” or “husband.” Therefore, the context must tell us which meaning Paul intended.

Had Paul been referring to a woman’s husband, we would expect that he would have said “her” husband. In this verse, there is no possessive pronounce or definite article with man. Elsewhere Paul uses such words: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands....” (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18).

Looking at the broader context of the Timothy passage, we see that just prior to Paul’s saying that he doesn’t allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, he said the following: “I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments; but rather by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness. Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:9-12).

Paul uses the plural “women” as a class—single and married alike. He uses the singular “a woman” to refer to any woman, not just “a wife.” Then in the same breath, while speaking to married and single women, he uses the term in question, aner (v. 12). Therefore, that term cannot mean “husband.” No wonder it is always translated “man” rather than “husband.”

Searching the New Testament to find a woman who held anything like the position of preacher, religious teacher, or leader of men, I came across many women with various gifts who had been instrumental in the cause of the Gospel. Yet I could not find one woman who had an authoritative position over men as a preacher, Bible teacher, or spiritual leader.

Well, you might ask, “What about Priscilla?” Both she and her husband Aquila instructed Apollos” (Acts 18:26). Yes, that is true, but it was done in private and not before an entire assembly of men and women.

Then what about the five Old Testament prophetesses—Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, and the wife of Isaiah? Though I don’t want to minimize the great role some of these women had, for the sake of the question about women’s roles, we have to take a close look at their position in ministry.

Miriam was a prophetess who led the women of Israel in a great hymn of praise to the Lord (Exodus 15:20-21). We know that she had an important role because in the book of Micah, God says He led the children of Israel through Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (6:4). But we don’t know how much prophecy was a part of her ministry nor what relationship her prophesying had to the authority of her brothers Moses and Aaron. We do know that God chastened her severely for attempting to usurp Moses’ authority as a prophet (Numbers 12:2,9).

Deborah was a judge and prophetess during a wicked time in Israel (Judges 4:1). The book of Judges shows that God used a variety of people to confront wickedness. Remember how he used Samson’s strength (Judges 13-16) and Ehud’s treachery (Judges 3)? God used Deborah to confront evil, not with power and might, but with wisdom, acting as a civil judge who decided court cases (Judges 4:4). And Deborah’s influence went beyond judging. She spoke for God when she assisted Barak, the military leader (Judges 4:6-14).

Deborah was Barak’s “right hand” as she prophesied to him about Israel’s coming victory (Judges 4:9), as she encouraged him with God’s presence (Judges 4:14), and as she accompanied him in a song of praise (Judges 5:1-31).

If Deborah’s unique role was larger, such as having authority over thousands of men or being a priest, we don’t know about it. Certainly we can speculate about what she might have done. Yet to be fair to the text, we must look only at what we have been given. In any case, there’s no question that Deborah is highly unusual in Scripture.

Huldah, a “keeper of the wardrobe,” was held in some regard for her prophetic gift. Scripture reveals a direct revelation Huldah gave to eighteen-year-old King Josiah through his messengers (2 Kings 22:13-14; 2 Chronicles 34:22). The importance of this incident cannot be underestimated. Huldah’s prophetic ministry brought spiritual awakening to a king. King Josiah made a new covenant with God, and from that day forward, he was able to lead the nation spiritually (2 Kings 12).

Noadiah’s “ministry” was that of a false prophetess (Nehemiah 6:14), so we needn’t say much about her. And the only recorded revelation we have of Isaiah’s wife was of her prophesying through her son’s name (Isaiah 8:3).

In summary, Scripture clearly shows that Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Isaiah’s wife had spiritual influence. They were prophetesses. God gave them on occassion authority to say, “Thus saith the Lord.” What a high honor for these women—the few who were used in a prophetic way. As we know, God used men almost exclusively, and once He used even a donkey (Numbers 22:22-30)!

Some of you may be wondering, “well, what about today? Aren’t there women being used, uniquely, by God?” Absolutely! All we have to do is mention the name, Joni Eareckson Tada, and we can all affirm how the Lord uses her to (1) reach men and women for Christ, as an evangelist; (2) provide words of encouragement to the downtrodden, world-wide; and (3) graciously provide, through her ministry, wheelchairs to those in great need.

I have personally heard Joni Eareckson speak to the entire male/female congregation at Grace Community Church (Dr. John MacArthur’s church). Does this make Pastor MacArthur a hypocrite, after his above quote? No, not at all. Joni wasn’t usurping authority over the men nor was she speaking authoritatively. She was lifting others up spiritually, through encouragement, rather than by exegetically teaching scripture.

Also, you may be questioning, what about the book, O Worship the King, that Joni wrote with John MacArthur and the husband and wife team, Robert and Bobbie Wolgemuth? Isn’t she (along with Bobbie) usurping authority over men? No, not at all. If you read the book you would see that the Wolgemuth’s share the circumstances behind the writing of each hymn; John MacArthur examines the hymns, doctrinally; and Joni provides an experience in which each hymn has influenced her life. Clearly, these women aren’t teaching men, authoritatively.

In my own writing ministry, I put myself under the authority of my husband (a professor of Biblical Studies) as well as the pastors at my church. Also, I try to acknowledge in practical ways that I am not in that place of final authority (even when writing just to women). For instance, in my book, “What Do I Say to Mormon Friends and Missionaries?,” I speak in the area of Mormonism’s false doctrine and approach it evangelistically, speaking directly to the Mormon—under the heading, “Mormon Friend—Please Consider.” Any explanation of a scripture verse in the book such as Acts 2:38, I do not explain the meaning. I allow F.F. Bruce to explain it. Acts 22:16 is explained by New Testament scholar Bruce Demarest; John MacArthur explains Hebrews 1:8, etc. Therefore, when it comes to explaining any particular scripture verse, that a Christian man might read, the Biblical way for me to handle this issue is to not only put myself under my own husband’s authority, and that of my pastors, but also, to put myself under the authority of deep thinking exegetes and scholars. Where a scripture verse or term needs explaining I refer to the scholars. Thus, the readers are being taught by those men, rather than by me.

It’s clear Paul isn’t saying that women should never teach men on any subject, otherwise, Christian women shouldn’t pursue teaching positions, of men, from junior high to college. I’m quite sure, if John MacArthur held to such a view (which he doesn’t), I wouldn’t be hired to teach in the Communications department (to both male and female students) at The Master’s College. Again, the issue isn’t that women can’t teach men, on any subject—they just aren’t to usurp authority over Christian men, teaching them scripturally, doctrinally or exegetically—offering an explanation or interpretation of a text—thus, acting in the role of a pastor, or elder. Scripture clearly makes mention of these roles only being held by godly men (1 Timothy 3:1-6)

 If you believe you have the gift of teaching, it is up to you to honestly discern what the Scriptures say. For further study here are some resources, with some views I don’t endorse:

Women at the Crossroads by Kari Torjesen Malcolm

Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences by Stephen B. Clark

Man and Woman in Christian Perspective by Werner Neuer

Women and the Word of God: A Response to Biblical Feminism by Susan T. Foh

Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem

While to some women the biblical restrictions may seem unfair, God’s role for women in the church is anything but insignificant. If it weren’t for two women named Lois and Eunice, Timothy wouldn’t have had an early knowledge of Scripture (2 Timothy 1:5). If it weren’t for godly mothers throughout the ages, the church would have never been blessed with zealous Christians impacting the world. If it weren’t for the women of the past, of the present, and of the future—touching lives for Christ as Sunday school teachers, missionaries, evangelists, counselors, educators, writers, musicians, singers, and so on—the church would be greatly weakened or in shambles. It’s unfortunate that the focus of discussion in the church these days is almost entirely on whether women can or can’t teach men. Little is said about the need for women to teach women.

When women do teach other women, it must be done from Scripture otherwise, something else becomes the authority. Illustrations and stories are important, but we cannot fail to use Scripture.

So should a woman speak with authority when teaching women? As I see it, a woman’s authority (or a man’s) has to come from Scripture. And if I understand what Paul says about women not being in the place of ultimate authority when teaching (1 Timothy 2:12), it means being under the authority of a man in such a position—a pastor, elder, Bible professor, or even a godly husband.

The above is modified from an excerpt in Donna’s Morley’s book,

Choices That Lead to Godliness (p. 114-120)

© Donna Morley 1999, 2009