1st Timothy 2 verses 11-15 have often been a storm centre of debate. Proposals and counter-proposals – about ‘what Paul truly meant’ and ‘how that applies today’ – are almost beyond counting.
Given that my sermon could only cover so much, I’d like to take some extra time to answer some questions that the message might have raised. I hope this will add further depth, clarify grey areas, and direct you to some resources.
Q – You talked about ‘complementarian’ and ‘egalitarian.’ What do these terms mean? I’m actually not a huge fan of these labels, but they are commonly used in Christian circles.1 They describe the two historical positions that Christians have taken on the role of women. With regards to the church, complementarians believe that church elders, and teachers in gathered worship, should be qualified men. By contrast, egalitarians think that the Bible permits women to be elders and bible teachers in the church. The two positions affirm that men and women are equal in value and status, both in creation and redemption.
Q – Given the context of false teaching in Ephesus, couldn’t Paul simply be forbidding women from teaching false doctrine? (Therefore this wouldn’t be a blanket ban, so long as they taught faithfully). This is highly unlikely when you take time to think about it. Remember that the false teachers in Ephesus were mostly (or even entirely) men. The only false teachers named in the letter are men (1:20) and Paul feels the need to establish the qualifications for godly male elders, as if that’s where the problem lay. If Paul were only forbidding false teaching, he surely would have silenced the erring men as well as the women.
Q – Can’t we see Paul’s instruction as a ‘cultural issue’, that is no longer relevant in the 21st century? Or if it is still valid, might Paul have been influenced by the patriarchal culture of his time? No, I don’t think we can say either of those things. Firstly, Paul’s objection to women teaching with authority is that it contradicts God’s original order in creation (1 Tim 2:13). This means it wasn’t a cultural issue – but transcends all times and cultures. Secondly, Paul had a high view of women which is evidenced in all of his letters. Just look at all the women he names and commends positively! Finally, Paul was hardly afraid to reject ‘cultural norms.’ Paul was not a traditionalist, if he thought a certain view or practice contradicted the gospel (eg. Gal 5:2).
Q – If 1 Timothy 2:12 emphasises the ‘authority’ of those who teach, couldn’t a woman teach ‘under the authority of elders’ in the church’s worship gatherings? I’d say this is one of those arguments that at face value, makes logical sense. In many workplaces, for example, a boss can have an authority that they delegate to a less senior member of staff. Why not the same when it comes to male elders delegating the church’s formal teaching to women? I think the problem is threefold. First, it still doesn’t address Paul’s creational reason for insisting on headship in the church’s teaching (1 Tim 2:13). Second, it goes against the spirit of what Paul forbids. Instead of embracing his teaching, we end up trying to come up with a ‘workaround.’ Thirdly, it seems strange to me that if a woman could preach under the elder’s authority, Paul would not have felt the need to say so. His debar is so strong that he would surely have needed to add an explicit caveat: ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man – she must be silent, except in cases where she is permitted to teach under the elders.’
Q – Your view sees a strong link between teaching and authority – as if teaching in church services is an act of authority. That being the case, shouldn’t it be entirely limited to church elders? This is an understandable query, and complementarians go different ways on this question! Graham Beynon and Jane Tooher’s book Embracing Complementarianism has an excellent appendix where they lay out the yes and no arguments for elder-only preaching. My view would be that elders should be the prominent voices in a church’s teaching diet. It’s helpful to remember that I am one of the elders too, and therefore in Greenview, the vast majority of the church’s teaching is given by elders. That said, I would be highly reluctant to entirely restrict the role to elders. My argument would be that there can be sound, godly, capable men who aren’t elders for legitimate reasons (eg. retired elders, men who just don’t have the ‘capacity’ to serve as elders, elders of the future), yet who could bless the church with their gift of teaching. However, since teaching in church services is indeed an authoritative act, it is probably wise that a non-elder’s teaching should be somewhat limited.
Q – Don’t complementarians just disagree over lots of different details? It is certainly true that running a church with an egalitarian framework is simpler (though not necessarily better). That said, we should recognise that there is a lot that is agreed upon in complementarian churches. Sarah Allen has written about this in her fascinating article Complementarianism, Quo Vadis?, which examines the attitudes and practices of complementarian churches in the UK. In the churches she surveyed, she found general agreement on :
- male-only elderships
- men giving the church’s formal teaching
- women joining church staff teams
- women reading, praying and sharing verbally in other ways in church services, and
- women deacons
There was greater disagreement however in the areas of:
- women leading services
- women leading mixed-gender bible studies
- women leading seminars, or other teaching that is not part of the church’s main worship times
The three ‘disagreements’ at the bottom, as well as the question of women deacons, continue to be discussion points for us at Greenview. Yet wherever, we precisely land on these questions, there are many more avenues open to women in service, than are closed to them. With regards to teaching, Danny Rurlander is surely right when he says: “It would be wrong to open every form of teaching to women. It would also be wrong for women to not teach in some settings.”
Q – Do you think that complementarianism is responsible for creating an abusive and misogynistic culture? Some egalitarians have unhelpfully drawn a straight line from complementarian beliefs to toxic male cultures. I would say that sin is responsible for creating an abusive and misogynistic culture; not good, biblical truths that God has given for our flourishing. What the egalitarian critics should be identifying (in some sad cases) is a sinful distortion of theology, not a problem with the theology itself. To use a parallel analogy: prosperity preachers twist the Bible’s teaching on giving, and encourage you to give the last penny of your money to fund their next private jet. However, that twisted distortion should not lead us to say that Scripture has no healthy teaching on giving. An abuse of complementarianism does not mean that there isn’t a healthy counterpart, which is found in Scripture, healthy marriages and healthy churches. Furthermore, some scandals in recent decades have shown us that egalitarian structures do not in themselves prevent women from being mistreated.
Q – What are some helpful books and articles if I want to read further on these issues? John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood – sometimes known as ‘the Big Blue Book’ – was the first substantial complementarian defence to a rising wave of egalitarian arguments. I strongly disagree with some of Piper’s views on womanhood and women’s roles in wider society, but many of the biblical arguments he and others make are nonetheless sound. Kevin DeYoung’s book Men and Women in the Church is a very readable introduction to complementarianism, while Don Carson claims that Claire Smith’s book God’s Good Design is the best book for anyone to start with. On having the right culture in a complementarian church, Graham Beynon and Jane Tooher’s recent book Embracing Complementarianism is a must-read (I’ve already read it twice). Possibly the best book written from an egalitarian perspective is Andrew Bartlett’s Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts.
Q – Are there any other resources worth looking at? Yes, here’s a wee list for you:
- Different Yet the Same: Is Complementarianism Unjust? (Linda Allcock)
- Beautiful difference: The complementarity of male and female (Andrew Wilson)
- The role of women in Christian ministry (Graham Beynon)
- The presumption of complementarianism (Andrew Wilson)
- Should women teach in our churches? (Kevin DeYoung)
- May Women Teach Adult Sunday School Classes? (John Frame)
- The complementarian jigsaw: Gender, ministry and the local church (Talk 1) – Graham Beynon (youtube.com)
- The complementarian jigsaw: Gender, ministry and the local church (Talk 2) – Graham Beynon (youtube.com)
- Complementarianism in Practice (Paul Rees and Rachel Sloan)
- Is Complementarianism Abusive? (John Steven and Adrian Reynolds)
- ‘Complementarian’ emphasises that men and women are designed to ‘complement’ each other. They are similar, yet they sometimes have different roles. Complementarian is therefore a perfectly good term – however, it is often given added baggage by people who associate it with sinful expressions of misogyny. I dislike the term ‘Egalitarian’ because it suggests that it is the only position that stresses a woman’s equality with a man. In reality, complementarianism also stresses that women are fully equal with men in Creation and Redemption. ↩︎