What does the Bible say about women preaching?

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
(Genesis 2:18-25)

***

You would be hard pressed to find a more divisive issue in the twenty-first century Sydney Church than women preaching. Of course, this is hardly surprising given that gender and sexuality are broadly speaking, the most divisive topics in western culture.

Because of its divisiveness, it has become popular to present views on women preaching open handedly. Ministers are encouraged to present all opinions in a balanced way, and allow people to take the view that they find most appealing. This approach to doctrine and teaching should raise alarm bells for mature Christians. We might recall that Micah rebuked Israel for choosing their prophets based on whether they prophesied things that sounded good to them.

“If a liar and deceiver comes and says, ‘I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,’ that would be just the prophet for this people!”
(Micah 2:11)

We find this to be a problem for people today and throughout the whole Bible. People prefer to choose prophets that fit their hearts desires, rather than change their hearts and set them on God. Yet you will not find in the whole of scripture a single prophet of God who holds out doctrine as a matter of opinion. Nowhere in the Bible does a Godly preacher present a range of opinions and invite their hearers to decide for themselves. Nowhere does a prophet follow up “thus speaketh the LORD”, with “now what are your thoughts on the matter?”

What the Bible says, God says; and God never speaks just to make small-talk. We should not be content with significant disagreement over what the Bible teaches. Together we need to honestly and carefully challenge our “interpretations” against the literal sense of the page in front of us.

However, this is only the first step. It is not enough for us to agree with Biblical viewpoints. The Christian should aspire to do much more than “agree” with God’s word, they should love it. If we believe that God really does know best, then we should trust as men and women that obeying God’s word will do us no harm. We need to trust that as we seek to apply the scriptures to our lives and community, we will be richer for it. But we need first to be humble, and to ask God to change us. Our goal is never to find teaching that fits our hearts, but to change our hearts to fit God’s teaching.

Nonetheless, while the Bible provides a radically different portrait of gendered relationship than our default twenty-first century western culture; sometimes different is better. God’s word is good news for women and men and it always has been. Whether or not women should preach is only one small part of the Bible’s bigger picture for gendered order and while for some of us it seems out of place, we need to trust God (he is trustworthy!) that every detail of his plan for our community serves the ultimate goal of His glory and our greatest satisfaction.

***

So what does the Bible actually say about women preaching? The primary passages which address this question directly are 1 Corinthians 11:2-5, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Titus 2:3-5, 1 Timothy 2:11-15. There are others I will relate after addressing these, but these are the most directly relevant texts. I will also supply a short interpretation of each passage to answer common questions as we go.

“I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.”
(1 Corinthians 11:2-5)

Head coverings were worn in the first century by women in the Church as a sign of modesty, but also as a sign of headship. Our customs of showing femininity in the western world have changed, but head coverings remain to this day in many non-western cultures. Put that aside for a moment though; this passage highlights a couple of useful things.

Firstly, it is clear from this passage that headship and authority are separate from dignity and worth. God the Father is the “head” of Christ, that is to say he leads Christ like a head leads a body and yet the Father and Christ are perfect equals. This forms a particularly Christian principle that worth has nothing to do with authority or power. Our world tells us that to be equal, you need to have equal power. We assume naturally that those who are strong or in control are greater than those they lead.

For this reason, our cultures best solution to the oppression of women is to put women in power. In our culture women are encouraged to pursue career over family, to marry and have children later, and to derive value from success and self-empowerment. To attain the status that men are perceived to have in patriarchal society, women are encouraged to imitate patriarchs. “Why should all of the violent action heroes be men?” Our society asks. Then instead of questioning whether men should have such violent role-models, we set about creating violent role models for women. In an equal opportunity world, women should be able to punch their problems into submission just like men do.

Our world is sinful and broken. Its solutions are just as tainted by sin and brokenness as its problems are.

On the other hand, the Bible clearly teaches an order between men and women that mirrors the order between the Father and Jesus. The Father is the “head” of Jesus and he leads him, but his leadership is characterized by love. The Father seeks Jesus’ glory above his own, and directs all creation to worship his Son. The Bible also teaches us that power is accountable to God and that we will be judged for how he we use it (James 3:1), and that God gives it to us so that we can serve others (Ephesians 5, Philippians 2). This is why we call our Church leaders “ministers”, which is the Latin word for servant. This is not a secular western principle, it comes from the Bible.

The word “headship” is used to describe male/female order in the Church, to remind us that while men are called to lead, they are not greater. A head is useless and dead without a body. A body is lost without a head. Both are one, and yet distinct. Both are necessary and precious, but not interchangeable.

Secondly Paul rebukes women who “pray or prophesy” in Church without their heads covered, that is without reference to headship. Notice that Paul does not rebuke the act of women publicly praying or prophesying, which involves speaking God’s word to God’s people. We should assume then that Paul approved of women occupying certain offices of word-based public ministry, within the parameters of headship. In our Church we have many avenues for women to speak God’s word publicly, and to teach others.

We have an order in how we do this, and this involves setting aside congregational preaching as a male role. But! It is not as though women are discouraged from teaching the Bible publicly in other ways. The principle of this passage in Corinthians, is that while men and women are both encouraged towards public Bible teaching, they each have distinct roles. I will explain this later in the essay.

***

“Women should remain silent in the assembly. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in the assembly.”
(1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

Assembly here is often translated as Church. The word “ecclesia” (ἐκκλησίᾳ) refers literally to a gathering, but does often take a specific meaning in scripture. In this case it doesn’t refer to a building, or to every gathering of Christians, or even the whole Church service. If it did, how else could women prophesy or pray in Church? But it must refer to something.

Most probably it refers to the time of preaching and discerning. That is to say, women are commended not to interrogate the preaching of elders in the gathering, which is something that male elders are encouraged to do (Acts 17:11, 1 Cor 14:29). One of the primary roles of male eldership in the early Church was to preach and publicly critique false teaching (1 Timothy 1). This particular role in the Church is not given to women, just as some roles are not given to men.

Some well meaning commentators want to suggest that this no longer applies. They claim that Paul gives this instruction because women in the first century were more rowdy and less educated than the men. This is toxic and derogatory. Women in Church history were valuable and intelligent contributors to the life of the Church, just like today. Women through all of history have had intelligent things to say, and to claim that first century women without formalized education, had nothing positive to contribute in the way of wisdom and insight to the scriptures is an insult to the Godly women who went before us… many of whom died for the faith. They were wise and Godly saints, not bickering hens.

First century women were encouraged to teach and lead others in the Church (Titus 2). Paul praises many of them as worthy servants of the gospel (Romans 16:1-2, Acts 18:26, Philippians 4:2-3, Romans 16:7). Paul does not order the women such because he thinks that women are rowdy or stupid. Rather the Church has a theological mandate to embody the full image of God, which consists in the asymmetrical but equal union of men and women. We order ourselves in a way that emphasizes the particular strengths of each. Men are called to model fatherly strength and bold certainty in teaching, while women bring maternal stewardship and deeply empathetic wisdom to the life of the Church.

***

“Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.”
(Titus 2:3-5)

Mature women here are commended to “teach what is good”, which shows us clearly that Paul envisioned women to have responsibility for teaching and leading in the Church. Furthermore this close, discipleship oriented teaching of younger women is a role that is not given to men.

On this principle, we have structured a youth leadership program at St. Stephen’s that ensures our younger women all have female leaders, and that any of our mixed gender bible study groups contain both male and female leadership. The primary spiritual responsibility for leading and discipling women, is given to women. Furthermore, mature women should occupy positions of authority and be recognized and respected within the Church.

***

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (1 Timothy 2:11-15)

This passage makes a similar point to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. For this reason it cannot be referring only to a very specific context in Timothy’s home Church. The same instruction is given to Corinth, a long way away. Furthermore, Paul gives his explanation. The reason why women are not permitted to preach (that is teach authoritatively), has to do with God’s ordering of man and woman in creation.

There is reference here to the special role that women have in Christian community as mothers. I am referring to the covenant with Eve in Genesis 3, “you will be saved through childbearing”. Mothers being leaders of households, who are equal to Fathers in value and necessity but have a different role. Some people object here that not all women are mothers rendering the division unfair. But then all men aren’t preachers either; in fact very few are. There is much more that could be said about this but we should recall that God’s plan for salvation came through a mother, Mary.

In any case, Paul frequently refers to the Church as a family, and mentions motherhood to describe the maternal leadership that all mature women have in the Church. In the same letter he encourages Timothy to “treat mature women as mothers” (1 Timothy 5:2), to say that they have a place of honor and dignity as different leaders alongside the fatherly male eldership.

To make one final point from 1 Timothy, people commonly object to the traditional interpretation because the passage uses the word “authentein” (αὐθεντεῖν) to refer to “assuming authority”. This is the only time that this word is used in the Bible, and because of this some people claim we cannot reliably understand it or form doctrine based on it.

I would suggest that even if you remove this word from the passage the meaning remains clear enough, but you don’t need to go this far. The word is not hard to understand and has a clear meaning in other Greek texts from the time this letter was written. It has a negative connotation and commonly means something like “usurp” or “take authority which isn’t yours”. Authentein is the word we would use to describe somebody taking a particular leadership role which is prohibited from them. It is exactly the word we would expect Paul to use if he were prohibiting women from preaching over men in public assembly.

***

The above obviously isn’t a complete treatment of what the Bible says about women in ministry. There are for instance, many more passages that positively encourage women into teaching the Bible than the couple I did include. With that said, we don’t have much trouble agreeing with those bits. In our post-gender Western context, we struggle with why God’s word would withhold any kind of leadership from women at all.

How can any rule which limits the freedom of an individual on the basis of gender be a good thing?

But God’s word is good. And his rules are wise.

The position we hold when it comes to what the Bible says about men and women is loosely referred to as “complementarianism”. That’s a big word I know. It confuses people because it sounds like “compliment” which means, saying something nice. Actually the word comes from “complete”. The Biblical view of gender is called “complementarianism” because it teaches that while men and women are different, they each bring different strengths and deficiencies so that only together are they complete. The differences between women are therefore not something to be minimized or rejected, but to be celebrated and embraced.

This is why I opened this short essay with Genesis 2. The question of whether women should preach over men is only one small part of God’s much larger plan for men and women as different equals. A real complementarian theology is as much about embracing what women uniquely bring to Church life as what men do. For this reason it is fitting to begin our theology of gender in the way that the Bible does: “It is not good for man to be alone”.

It is worth, at this point mentioning that in all areas of youth and young adult ministry at St. Stephen’s, women are involved, proactive, and indispensable. Of our young adults, we have just as many women as men serving regularly in various ministry areas ranging from leadership over youth and children, to singing, to service leading, to hospitality and welcoming.

We have women on staff in various roles ranging from kids ministry, to pastoral care, to administration. We have young women being encouraged to consider paid vocational ministry, and being trained and equipped to do it. We have young women preaching to youth and children most weeks between Fixes and Impact youth ministries.

Women bring invaluable contributions both to our public, up-front services as they lead in various ways. 7pm in focus ensures that every week, we have women involved in up-front ministries to actively model men and women leading together. We also have a multitude of women serving in volunteer capacities behind the scenes doing everything from internet admin to preparing bible study content. Without the contributions and proactive involvement of women serving in ministry, St. Stephen’s would quickly wilt to a pale shadow of its present thriving self. Without my wife, my female co-workers, and my female volunteer co-leaders I would be unable to do anything of much use.

***

Our Church is the richer for the active involvement of its women. Without them our ministries and teams, both staff and volunteer, would be inadequate and deficient examples of the body of Christ, which is only made whole when men and women partner together. We are not the same because God did not make us the same. At various points the scriptures ask different things of us that we might each make the most of our differences.

Our prayer should not be that we would be the same, but rather that our differences as men and women would make us stronger together.

To say that because women don’t preach at our Sunday services, that women are held back or not encouraged in ministry, you would have to be attending blindfolded or seriously under-valuing the ministry which many women are actively doing. Yet we do take seriously what the Bible says about how we order ourselves as men and women. The charge that women *should* pray and prophesy publicly is taken seriously in this Church, and there are no shortage of women involved in speaking both in Sunday services and various other settings through the week. But the roles we take and the way we order is distinct, the preaching of a male eldership is one small part of that distinction.

If you are a woman at St. Stephen’s, and you want further opportunities to serve in ministry and grow in your gifts, you don’t have to look far. Come talk to the ministry team and see.

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