The Bible Doesn't Prohibit Women from Preaching

But it does prohibit the arrogant and uneducated.

Only within the last one hundred and fifty years have women been ordained in churches. Today, a number of Protestant denominations have opened teaching and leadership positions to women (like TEC, ELCA, UMC, and PCUSA). However, most of Christianity--Catholicism, evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodox--still restricts these positions to men.

The rationale is based on a single passage in Paul's first letter to Timothy where he says, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man." But it gets better. Paul continues saying that man was created first and woman was deceived first. And from these three verses, the church for centuries oppressed women as inferior, both hierarchically and morally.

Tertullian called women "the devil's gateway." Thomas Aquinas said that they were "defective and misbegotten." Even the recovering sex addict, Augustine, said that women do not bear the full image of God unless they are joined to a man (unlike men who bear it regardless). 

Thus, women were told to stay home and be quiet lest they be like Eve and subvert their biblically-approved role as second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. In fairness, that's exactly how those three verses read on their own. But complementarians (Christians who emphasize complementary yet distinct gender roles) like to ignore context for the sake of preserving the plain and natural reading of a text. And while that should always be our initial approach, it must be abandoned if the text calls for it.

For example, a plain reading of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 destroys the doctrine of grace. Verse 15, in particular, explicitly states that women will be saved through childbearing (I guess those unable to conceive are out of luck). Of course, complementarian scholars have come up with numerous interpretations around this, including the ever popular "childbearing is a metonymy for a woman's domestic role" argument. But even this requires a figurative reading of the text, not a literal one.

However, figurative or not, complementarians would maintain that the important thing to note in this passage is that it applies to all women. Unlike Paul's remarks about Corinthian women being silent in church, he qualifies his reasons for not letting them teach by going back to the origin of human nature (man created first, woman deceived first). Though they're slightly kinder about it than the aforementioned church fathers, they still believe that Paul was demonstrating the primacy of men.

Using the creation order as an argument sounds compelling enough until you study how Paul employed it elsewhere. In the same letter to the Corinthians where he told their women to be quiet, he also says, "For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman." In other words, Paul doesn't see the creation order nor the "be fruitful and multiply" mandate as demonstrating hierarchy but interdependence. Men and women cannot be independent of each other.

Once we understand that this is a text that cannot be read plainly or applied universally, then we can begin to understand why Paul seemingly accused women of being gullible.

Most of the time when we read Scripture, we consider the immediate, surrounding context. While that's a good thing, we also tend to treat it like a textbook rather than a collection of writings containing a variety of genres. The genre of 1 Timothy shouldn't be difficult to guess: it's a letter. And just like any personal letter, it isn't written in a linear fashion.

Just in this one letter, Paul talks about handing people over to Satan, drinking wine for stomach issues, and managing horny young widows. None of these things seem to have anything to do with each other--they have no immediate context. But they do have context between the author and recipient. Timothy knows exactly what Paul is talking about the same way that my wife knows what I mean when I yell "Victor!" It's an inside joke. And the only way to understand an inside joke is to look beyond the immediate context.

The horny young widows three chapters later are actually the key to understanding why Paul prohibited women from teaching (you can quote me on that). The prevailing theme throughout the letter is false teachers. Paul had warned the Ephesians that they would come, and by the time of  this letter, they had begun to infiltrate the church. This explains why he's handing people (i.e. false teachers) over to Satan and why he's encouraging Timothy to drink wine (you can't survive managing God's people without it).

As for the young widows, Paul mentions that some of them have become idle, nonsense talkers and have turned away to follow Satan. Incidentally, this is the only other time Paul mentions our beloved arch-nemesis whom he previously associated with false teachers. These ladies also appear to have a connection to our contentious passage because he says they ought to get married and have children rather be horny busybodies looking for trouble (a direct allusion to that weird childbearing verse).

We might infer that when Paul says women shouldn't teach or have authority over men, he was specifically talking about these young widows who were being led astray by false teachers. Even his choice of words encourages this view because the word for "to assume authority over" is only used this one time in Scripture.

Authentein has a number of different meanings, but the two most prevalent ones used in other Greek literature are the aforementioned and the less common "to control or dominate." Complementarians, of course, argue that we should assume the most common meaning, but it's curious that Paul uses this word that has a much stronger, secondary meaning only one time. Especially when he makes frequent use of other, more common words for authority like exousiazein and kurieuein (used by him 25 and 6 times, respectively).

If young widows led astray by false teachers were trying to control the men in church, it would make sense why Paul would remind them that Eve was deceived first, not Adam. They had been deceived and were now trying to assert themselves over men. Paul's words weren't demonstrative but corrective (probably why he said "I do not allow women to..." rather than "Do not allow women to...").

Like the unlearned Corinthian women Paul told to be quiet or the conceited new believer he discourages from church leadership, the young Ephesian widows were guilty of arrogance. Paul never prohibits people from teaching; he prohibits people from teaching falsely. And in all three of these cases, the people lacked the education to teach correctly. It should be sobering how strongly Paul speaks about this when he mentions handing people over to Satan. Especially if we've ever built an entire doctrine on one single passage.

Related Posts


Like my page on Facebook for more Christian skepticism.

Photo credit: Douglas Coulter via / CC BY-NC-SA



  2. 1 Timothy 3:2 makes it clear that the belief of female pastors is anti biblical.

  3. 1 Timothy 3:2 makes it clear that the belief of female pastors is anti biblical.


Post a Comment