Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. (1 Timothy 2:11-12, NKJ)
Last year at about this time our congregation hosted Rosaria Butterfield to speak to our community about how to love people struggling with their sexual identity in ways that honor the law of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our event was held at a large church in town, and Dr. Butterfield’s talks were well-attended. It was a challenging and edifying couple of days for the evangelical churches in our community. Notably absent from our gatherings were men from some of the more conservative churches in our community. In what I suspect was an effort to honor God’s word through Paul (quoted above), the leaders of these congregations encouraged women to attend but did not want their men coming to be taught by a woman.
While I applaud the desire to be biblically faithful, the conclusion that 1 Timothy 2:11-12 teaches that men can never be taught by women is not warranted by this text. Paul's prohibitions against women teachers have a context. They are not absolute prohibitions. For starters, reading the verses surrounding those quoted above shows us, without question, that the context of the requirement for silence is the church. Paul here is not making any comment about women teaching in schools or universities or in other settings. Paul is also not addressing whether a woman could teach men about the process of childbirth (say, in Lamaze class) or the intricacies of organic chemistry (say, in a graduate chemistry program) or the details of budgeting (say, in a personal finance class).
I have known men, who objected to women teaching adult men in ANY setting, but this is simply not what Paul is talking about. It is a perversion of this text to insist that women are never to teach men.
Ok, back to Dr. Butterfield. She was speaking in a church about spiritual issues. Does that mean her speech is prohibited if men are in the audience? Once again, we must look more closely at the context of 1 Timothy 2:11-12. It is helpful to note that Paul later writes in 1 Timothy: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Timothy 5:17, NKJ). He describes the office of elder as having a two-fold function. There is a ruling function in which elders act with the judicial and governing authority given to them by Christ as His under-shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-4) and there is an authoritative teaching function, which is especially the work of the teaching elder/pastor (2 Timothy 4:2).
In light of this description of the work of the eldership, it seems that what Paul is doing in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is excluding women from serving in the office of elder, in which they would need to have judicial authority over men and women. Paul is also excluding women from the authoritative teaching office of the church – the pulpit ministry, which is the responsibility of the eldership (Acts 20:28-31). If we allow Paul to define what he means by teaching and authority within the book of 1 Timothy, we have a clear context in which to evaluate his prohibitions against women teaching or having authority over men. What Paul is actually teaching here is that women may not serve as ruling or teaching elders in the church. What Paul is NOT doing is saying that there is an absolute prohibition against women having any responsibility within the church or being able to do any teaching within the church setting.
What do I mean? It is not a requirement for all Sunday school classes to be taught by elders. Sunday school is not the same as the authoritative teaching ministry of the pulpit. The elders are responsible for everything that is taught publicly in the church but they may delegate some teaching in non-pulpit settings to other qualified individuals in the congregation. In our church we often allow younger men, whom we think have potential to become ruling elders, to get experience teaching a Bible study or Sunday school class. This always happens under the oversight of the elders, who are ultimately responsible. In the same way, there may be circumstances when a woman has a special expertise that would make her the most qualified person to teach a class or Bible study (also under the oversight of the elders). One recent example comes to mind when we had a husband and wife team teach a class on parenting. Perhaps a woman might have expertise in financial planning or stewardship that would make her the best person to teach a class on that subject. I believe she can teach in the church (even classes with men in them) without violating what Paul is forbidding in 1 Timothy.
A number of years ago I preached a sermon series through a book of the Bible, in which I consulted a dozen commentaries. The most helpful commentary was written by a female professor of theology. We are to welcome the truth wherever we find it. I did so, and my congregation benefited from it.
I also think that women can have real responsibility (i.e., authority) in the church that does not violate 1 Timothy 2:11-12. In the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America we affirm that the office of deacon is open to women. In talking about the qualifications for the office of deacon, Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:11, “Likewise, women must be…” (literal translation). Deacons are ordained officers of the church. They serve under the authority of the elders. They have real responsibility that includes benevolence, mercy ministry, budgeting, finance, and facility maintenance (among other things). This is an authority of sorts but it is not the type of judicial/ruling authority that Paul is addressing in 1 Timothy 2:11-12.
Understanding that Paul is addressing particularly the functions of the eldership in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 will help us resist the tendency in conservative, Reformed congregations to go beyond scripture in imposing limitations on the service of women in the church and the culture. We can uphold biblical standards and resist the feminizing forces in our world without reflexively restricting Christian women in the exercise of the myriad gifts they’ve been given by our Lord. The church faces enough challenges without unnecessarily imposing limitations on her members.