In my last post on this subject, I listed some of the areas where women are given opportunities for teaching in a Christian context. Since then I have thought of another one. Certainly evangelism is a form of teaching, and all believers are called to this: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
But now I’d like to address the stickier subject of just what kind of teaching is biblically excluded for women. 1 Timothy 2:12 is our main text: “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.”
Before trying to apply this verse, I’d like to look at the overall context of Paul’s letter to Timothy. Paul is laying out instructions on how to be a good pastor and a faithful teacher. He gives detailed instructions on many church-related topics: church government, prayer, church leadership, qualifications of church officers, what to teach, how to treat the church members of different ages, and specific instructions regarding men, women, widows, elders, slaves, and the rich.
The recurring theme in this letter is the central duty for a minister: faithful teaching. Paul addresses Timothy repeatedly about this: “If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ…” (4:6); “These things command and teach” (4:11); and in 6:2, “Teach and exhort these things.”
Backing up to the opening chapter, we see that Paul had given Timothy directions earlier (1:1-7) regarding appointing others to teach: “…that you may charge some that they teach…”
Paul identifies himself (2:7) as “appointed a preacher and an apostle….a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth,” and related to this is his grave concern regarding false teachers and false doctrine in the church (chapters 1, 4, and 6). Seeing this thematic background to the letter (Paul’s dual concerns about faithful teaching and guarding against false teaching) will help us as we look at his strong stance against women teaching and having authority in the church. But first let’s look at the references to teaching, both faithful and false.
In 3:2, the rulers of the church (a bishop or overseer) must be “able to teach.” These are the men (we know they are men because they must be “the husband of one wife”) who are given authority in the church. They must be qualified, appointed, and able to teach. This is important. Paul has instructed Timothy previously on this topic (1:3) and he is laying out more details in this letter on appointing qualified men.
In chapter 4:6 Paul shows Timothy how to be a good teacher: “If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed.”
This exhortation to instruct the brethren is sandwiched between a description of the bad doctrine of those who have departed from the faith (4:1-2) and of profane and old wives’ fables (4:7).
Those who have left the faith are now “giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (4:1-3). Sounds like these guys were, first, eager to get the microphone; second, they assumed authority by “commanding” others; and third, they had an agenda (doctrines of demons). They taught false things with false authority.
In 4:7 Paul says to “reject profane and old wives’ fables.” This is similar to 1:4 where Timothy is to charge those who are teachers not to “give heed to fables and endless genealogies which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.”
These false teachers (1:5-7) are hungry to teach with authority from the law: “…some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm.” These guys are idle and have no idea what they are talking about.
Paul gives instructions on how to handle these false teachers: “If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself” (6:3-5).
So I hope you see now that this is a letter devoted to guarding both the office of teacher and the purity of the content of the teaching. This is Paul’s central concern for the church.
Given the context, when we look at his directions regarding women, we can see it is not just a random verse dangling out of nowhere. Paul wants good order and faithful teaching. He wants the women to dress in a way that is consistent with their profession of Christ, and he wants them to be learners, not authoritative teachers “over a man.” His justification for this is the creation order (Adam being formed first) and Eve’s vulnerability to deception.
Now remember that the church had been hassled with false teaching. Some of the young widows in the church (5:12) had learned to be idle busybodies, which would set them up to be misled by false teachers: “For some have already turned aside after Satan” (5:15).
If we look at Paul’s second letter to Timothy, we see that some of the women have been deceived by false teachers. (Read verses 2-5 to get a description of these bad guys.) They are the kind “who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:6-7).
Timothy had his hands full, and in 2 Tim. 3:13-15, Paul tells him it’s just going to get worse: “But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from who you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (I referred to this verse in my last post in which I pointed out that Timothy’s mother and grandmother had instructed him in the faith.)
It seems to me that forbidding the women to teach or have authority over the men is a safeguard for Timothy. It’s bad enough having male false teachers running around, and it’s likely that some women must have also been teaching bad doctrine with false authority, or why would Paul address this so directly? Add to this that the women need protection because they are more vulnerable to deception.
Because these are directions for a pastoral ministry, I don’t think it’s a leap to assume that it covers all the general teaching activities of the church community. The men who are targeting weak women by creeping into households are not leading a Sunday school class before worship. They are out and about, looking for takers. The message of the “profane and idle” (2 Tim. 2:16-17) “will increase to more ungodliness” and “spread like cancer.” So this does not look like Paul is only concerned for church sponsored events and Wednesday night Bible studies.
When we read these instructions, we obviously have to use wisdom to interpret our own application of them. Do false teachers set up blogs? Yes. Do false teachers write books, teach conferences, and send out mass emails? Yes. Pastors should be warning their congregations against such things. How? By using blogs, writing books, teaching conferences, and sending out mass emails. And of course they can use their pulpit for such things as well.
Can women teach? I’ve already devoted a whole article to the many opportunities open to us for teaching. Do I put up posters downtown announcing that I’m going to teach Philippians to anyone and everyone? No. Not my job. Do I lead a parish Bible study where we go over the Sunday sermon? Nope. We have elders who do that. Do I speak to mixed groups? Sometimes, depending on the topic and the setting. Is it always crystal clear? No. I often need to think about it, pray for wisdom, and talk it over with my husband first. Then we make a decision, taking into account the authority of 1 Timothy 2:12, and having no problem whatsoever with 1 Timothy 2:12.