"Plain and Clear" Teaching?

by Nicholas Colby Watson Wolfe | December 29, 2010
image

Many churches do not allow women to preach from behind the pulpit because of passages such as 1 Timothy 2:11-12, "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet" (TNIV). People who hold this view often rely upon the so-called "plain and clear" teachings of the Bible, yet many churches are inconsistent in their application of the plain and clear interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

If we were to read every verse in 1 Timothy and apply them as a clear command, then women would be prohibited from teaching and leading in any areas of the church. However, in many churches we observe women teaching children's Sunday school, leading worship, administering communion, and serving on the missions field. (Churches recognize that woman can capably serve, and are biblically permitted to serve the church in these areas.) Church services often include hymns written by women like Fanny Crosby. If women suddenly became silent and quiet, what would happen to church ministries?

Further inconsistency arises as we recognize the positive impact of women teaching in the lives of men and women throughout history. Men's knowledge and faith are, and have been, greatly influenced by the teaching of women. Women who teach children's Sunday school provide a biblical foundation of faith for children to grow and mature in their belief. I know many people who gratefully acknowledge the importance of learning the Word as a child from women. Moreover, it is likely that male pastors acquired important aspects of Christianity, and benefited significantly, from the wisdom of female professors in their college and seminary education.

It is also common, though inconsistent to a plain reading of Scripture, to observe churches allowing women to teach, just not from behind the pulpit. Delivering a sermon from behind the pulpit alone does not encompass biblical authority (as T. Scott Womble explains in his recent Arise article, "An Unsuspecting Preacher"). Biblically, authority and teaching certainly include ministries that women have successfully led throughout history, like evangelism on the mission field--where an expected activity is teaching and preaching the gospel. To be consistent in interpreting 1 Timothy 2:11-12 as a clear command, a church should never send women to evangelize as missionaries because it would violate the plain teaching of this passage. But in many cases women are permitted to teach, as long as they teach from at least one foot to the left or right of the podium. Standing behind a podium is not a biblical definition of authority.

If we insist upon the clear and plain teachings of 1 Timothy 2:11-12, then what about the rest of the chapter? Why do we not also read the verses just before and after this passage in the same literal way? 1 Timothy 2:9 reads, "I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes" (TNIV). Yet we permit women to wear their wedding rings in church. Reading on, we are told that a deacon must be faithful to his wife (3:2), yet we do not insist that deacons must be married. We understand by the context of these verses that 2:9 is a message on the importance of modesty, and that 3:2 focuses on the character of an overseer or deacon (see Arise article by Mimi Haddad, "Qualities of a Leader"). Why not apply this hermeneutical method to 2:11-12?

It is inconsistent for churches to allow women to teach, preach, and exercise authority in so many areas except from behind the pulpit. Furthermore, it is inconsistent to call this a "clear" teaching, but fail to interpret the entire chapter in the same way--at face value. Women are proven to be gifted teachers from Sunday school to seminary institutions, throughout history and in Scripture itself. Noting the inconsistencies in this argument, the view that 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is a clear command should be rejected. Realizing that these inconsistencies exist, why should churches not accept women teachers and include them as ordained preachers behind the pulpit?

I am very grateful for my time interning at CBE. Engaging in the theology of biblical equality had an incredible effect on me. Biblical equality can be just as necessary for the spiritual vitality of men as it is for women. I ask you to make a generous contribution to CBE to make it possible for other students to serve as paid interns and benefit from CBE as I have.