I remember the first time I knew I wanted to be a pastor. I was in eighth grade, just returning from a mission trip. The youth pastor asked for a student volunteer to speak in front of the congregation about the trip. I was shocked to recognize my own hand in the air and yet, I felt compelled to seize the opportunity. He agreed, qualifying that I could speak only during the first hour, the less attended 8 o’clock service. I knew it showed his lack of belief in me, but I didn’t care. I was thrilled!
My church believed that women were not allowed to teach the Bible in front of the congregation, a conviction they based heavily on 1 Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (1 Tim. 2:12). However, they were allowed to give their testimonies in front of the church. The time finally came and with shaking knees, I climbed up the steps to the podium. But after that first sentence, the nerves left. I spoke with clarity about the way my life had been irreversibly change by the trip. I even “broke the rules” unknowingly, by reciting and interpreting Scripture of the church. That was the moment I knew I was born to teach the word of God.
However, my church taught that my dreams went against the Bible and were not proper for a woman. I learned about verses like 1 Timothy 2 and others such as, “women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission.” (1 Cor. 14:34). The few times that I boldly shared my dream of leading a church with my male pastors, I was met with reasons why those dreams were inappropriate.
One particular conversation stands out. I asked one pastor, “Why is it unbiblical for women to become pastors? Are women not as intelligent as men?” “Yes, but the Bible says they are the weaker vessel,” the pastor responded. Then, I asked, “So, because we aren’t as strong as men, we can’t teach the word?” “Well no,” he said, “that’s not quite it. It’s just that men cover women and are responsible for them.” “But it doesn’t make sense,” I insisted. “Well it’s just what the Bible says. We have a high view of Scripture,” he answered. I was left confused and shut down, afraid to ask any more questions for fear of being seen as someone who didn’t value Scripture. I walked away from that conversation hating that I was born a woman!
It took years for me to go back and start researching on my own. I continued to question whether I truly believed that women were not permitted to teach. The more I read, the more I discovered a major split between theologians regarding this topic. And yet, there are many theological issues churches disagree on. So I had to ask myself–why did leaders like D.A. Carson, John Piper, and Tim Keller believe that an egalitarian stance hindered the gospel? To me, the arguments against female leadership did not make sense.
Finally, I started reading commentaries written by what my church deemed “liberal” theologians and Christians. I discovered that verses that seemed to limit women to certain roles in the church could be read in a different light! I began to wonder if maybe Paul wrote those verses in the context of his letters to those specific churches. Maybe they weren’t permanent commands, but merely temporary rules to ensure an orderly church service.
Eventually, I left my home to get a MA in counseling at Reformed Theological Seminary. The program was extremely tough, both physically and emotionally. A huge part of the program called for me to face the demons of my past. Surrounded by classmates who loved and supported me, I finally found the freedom to break with some Christians’ narrow beliefs on the role of women. I could finally believe that women were allowed to preach the word. I now saw these old verses from a new perspective.
I started with the toughest verse regarding women’s inability to teach in front of a congregation: 1 Timothy 2:12. It seemed straightforward, when read without the verses that appear before and after it. But, look at the rest of the verses leading up to verse twelve, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control…with what is proper for women who profess godliness–with good works.” (1 Tim. 2:8-10). Many scholars now argue that Paul may be correcting the disorderly practices of a specific church.
Another contradiction I noticed is that this is the only verse that limits women from teaching; Paul did not emphasize this in his letters to other churches. In fact, I believe the verses in Romans 12:6-8 reveal how the gift of teaching isn’t just appropriated to men. In verses 6 and 7, Paul urges, “Having gifts that differ…let us use them…if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching.” The gifts of the Spirit are handed out to men and women alike. The narratives of biblical heroes like Deborah, Junia, Lydia, and Priscilla confirm this statement on gifts and even more revealingly, Paul himself named ten significant female contributors beside whom he worked.
What should we do with these contradictions? Just ignore the reality of women who are called by the Holy Spirit to teach? It’s easy for men who are not barred from any church office to refuse to grapple with these verses. But for women like me, these verses can leave us feeling powerless and hopeless. At least they did, until I finally gave myself the freedom to push back and study hard to find the Scripture’s true meaning.