Should Women Preach? Can they Lead? Dealing with some of the “Tough Passages” in the Bible.

Today in my message at Toronto City Church I talked about why there are no ‘glass ceilings’ in the Kingdom of God and that women can function in any area of leadership and ministry. I shared twelve different scriptures/passages that spoke of women in ministry including pastoring, teaching, prophetic, apostolic ministry, deaconship and more.

As I mentioned I wanted to write a bit about some of the so-called ‘tough passages’ from the Bible that at first glance could seem to suggest that women should not be involved in all of these areas. I’m not a ‘buffet-Christian’ where I believe we can pick and choose what verses to believe and what ones to ignore and so it’s very important to me that we address these passages in a solid and balanced way.

There are some who would argue that anyone who believes that women can preach, teach men, lead churches and ministries is ignoring scripture and being swayed by our culture but I just do not believe this to be true. If you truly examine these passages without a pre-established bias, and in light of the larger body of scripture (and with a couple, some simple common sense) it becomes clear that they do not suggest at all what many people have claimed they do.

In my studies/learning, I have found there seem to be three main passages that are often quoted regarding these things.  I want to take time to address each one and hopefully bring some clarity to them:

Women Should Stay Silent in the Church (1 Corinthians 14:33-35)

1 Corinthians 14:33-36 (ESV) – 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

I have a number of thoughts on this passage but will answer it simply. At first glance it seems as if the Apostle Paul is commanding women to be silent in church but some further reflection would cause us to recognize there is something else going on here. First off, a general overview of the New Testament shows this could not be the case as women obviously participate in gatherings of believers and are not set on ‘mute’. The key to unlocking it is this line in verse 35: “if there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home’.

What was going on in the Corinthian Church and what Paul was addressing was the women were disrupting gatherings by asking their husbands questions during the services and Paul instructs (in the spirit of order) that they need to ask the questions at home. When you read what he is saying there is no other way to look at this passage. It has nothing to do with women not being allowed to speak in any way.

There is an interesting side discussion here as at this time in the Jewish faith women were not permitted to attend synagogue with the men. The very fact that they were in services was an indication of how Christianity was empowering women and inviting them into full participation in faith.

Finally, on just a practical note: if someone really wants to contend regarding this scripture I find it a tad disingenuous – because I have yet to find a church where women are perfectly silent. They sing. They share. They teach Sunday School (or does that not count). They pray. They talk. Perhaps there is some church out there that tries to do this but I know I would never attend it and I definitely would not subject my wife or daughter to that type of environment. It just doesn’t make any sense. So bottom line (and forgive me if I’m a little blunt): unless you are in a church where women are perfectly silent do not try and use this passage to stop them from teaching, speaking etc. That is not what it is referring to and it’s poor application of scripture to suggest that it does.

Women Cannot be Elders/Pastors (1 Timothy 3:1-7)

1 Timothy 3:1-7 (ESV) – The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

I have heard this passage used quite often to explain why a woman cannot be a pastor/leader/elder in a church. It seems quite straightforward: a leader needs to be a ‘husband of one wife’ and it says nothing about being a ‘wife of one husband’. Case closed correct? Well, not so fast. You have to take culture and context into mind when interpreting these scriptures.

I had the opportunity several years ago to travel to a church in Bogota, Colombia that was making a great impact. They were very gracious to host many international pastors who were visiting in that season. On one trip I stayed for two weeks. I don’t speak any Spanish and so my translators were my best friends and I learned some very interesting things from them. I remember one thing that stood out to me was that when the preachers were speaking they would always say “brothers, this…” and “brothers, that…”. I found this a little funny as there were many women in the audience as well, often more women than men. I realized though, that this was just a cultural norm for the men to ‘speak to men’ even though they were really speaking to men and women (there is a side conversation we could have about whether this was right or not at another time).

What is my point? Well, in the time that the Bible was written this was also a cultural norm – to speak/write to men but in reality to be speaking/writing to both men and women. My contention is this: we can assume that Paul was actually meaning in this to only speak to men, or that he was falling into the cultural context of writing in the male pronoun. I would suggest that it was the second. Paul was writing about the qualifications for leadership of both men and women but just wrote it out in the male context.

Some further proof of this? If you keep reading after the verse 7 he moves into talking about qualifications for deacons and again talks about their wives. Again, it would suggest that only men could be deacons (if you use the logic that he was only meaning to speak to men). The challenge is that in Romans 16:1 Paul addresses Phoebe who is a deacon – he literally uses that word in the Greek – many older translations put servant in there (some of the translators chickened out a bit maybe?) but the original Greek word is deacon. So why would Paul in Romans 16:1 openly address and compliment a female deacon but then in Timothy suggest that women couldn’t be deacons? It just doesn’t make any sense. What does make sense though is that for both deacons and elders he was writing in the male pronoun but in practicality clearly recognized that both men and women could fulfill that role.

Women Should Not Teach Men (1 Timothy 2:11-12)

1 Timothy 2:11-12 (ESV) – 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 

Ok, so this is the big one and is the pillar that many who believe women should be barred from many of these roles stand on. It seems to suggest that women should not teach or exercise authority over a man but should remain quiet – thus women should not be preaching, teaching,  pastoring or involved in any type of leadership where they may excerpt authority over men.

So how do we reconcile this? It is very important to remember that we need to interpret a verse in context of the passage and book it’s in, and in light of the Bible as a whole. As I explained in my message on Sunday (as found in my notes in the previous post) we see without a doubt that women were teaching, preaching and leading in the early church and that Paul himself affirmed them (see post here). So what is potentially going on here in Timothy?

One of the key themes in 1 Timothy was dealing with the confrontation of false teachers and false doctrines invading the church. It’s interesting to note that Paul was commanding women to learn and in that cultural context that was very liberating in itself.

Several thoughts on this one:

  • Some translations use the word “silence” but it is better translated ‘quietness’ (as has happened in the ESV which I have quoted here) which refers to an attitude of the heart where one focuses on themselves/their home and does not meddle in the affairs of others. As we have already addressed in 1 Corinthians 14 there is nothing in the Bible that talks about women being ‘silent’ in church.
  • The Greek word for authority has a negative connotation (instigating or perpetuating a crime) and this is the only time this word is used in the Scriptures! This is a huge point. Remember that: this is the only time this Greek word for authority is used in the entire Bible. This would suggest that when Paul says a woman is not permitted to ‘teach or exercise authority’ he is not speaking across the board but in a specific instance where woman have been teaching and exerting authority in a negative way.
  • Further developing this thought we need to remember that Ephesus was the centre of the worship of the goddess Diana and this would have had major implications for the church there.

 In their book I Suffer Not a Woman, Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger explain that “certain cultic worship practices involving female priestesses of Diana had invaded the first- century church. These priestesses promoted blasphemous ideas about sex and spirituality, and they sometimes performed rituals in which they pronounced curses on men and declared female superiority.

What Paul was most likely saying to the Ephesians was this: “I do not allow a woman to teach these cultic heresies, nor do I allow them to usurp authority from men by performing pagan rituals.” He was not saying, as some Christians have assumed, “I do not allow godly Christian women to teach the Bible.” (From: J. Lee Grady in 10 Lies the Church Tells Women)

In conclusion: at best the passage is clearly talking about women not teaching cultic heresies or assuming an ungodly authority over men and does not refer in any way to a woman teaching the Bible or being in a position of leadership. At worst, its intentions are unclear and it definitely does not warrant barring women from teaching, preaching and leadership when so many other passages clearly affirm this!

In conclusion here are some recommending resources for further reading and study:

  1. Book: Why Not Women –  Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton with Janice Rogers
  2. Book: Fashioned to Reign – Kris Vallaton
  3. Book: Powerful and Free: Confronting the Glass Ceiling for Women in the Church –  Danny Silk
  4. Book: Women of Destiny – Cindy Jacobs
  5. Book: Jesus Feminist – Sarah Bessey
  6. Book: 10 Lies the Church Tells Women – J. Lee Grady
  7. Article: 10 Lies the Church Tells Women – J. Lee Grady
  8. Article: Supporting Women in All Levels of Church Leadership – Eugene Cho
  9. Article: May Women Teach? – James Choung

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash


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