I do not personally know Beth Moore. I only know that I intuitively like her from a distance and greatly respect her teaching ministry and love for the Scriptures. She has been in the news of late, largely because of a contingent of Christians who do not believe she should be platformed at churches to teach. Why? Because she is a woman, and that means she would be teaching men.
This is what the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (I Timothy 2:11-12).
I believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, so I accept that verse to the core of my being as authoritative and true.
I also celebrate that half of our upcoming summer teaching team will be women, and that half of our ministerial/pastoral staff are women, including campus directors, Meck Institute teachers and directors, and more. Women also play a prominent role on our board of Trustees.
There are two primary views when it comes to women in ministry. The Egalitarian view that wants to see, in one form or another, equality—no distinctions, a level playing field. Then there is the Complementarian view that sees women as equal in God’s sight as His children, but with differing roles.
My views on the matter please neither side. But I am convinced (not belligerently, but humbly) that it is the biblical perspective, otherwise I wouldn’t hold to it.
Let’s return to Paul’s admonition to his younger apprentice. There are four important considerations to keep in mind when reading his words:
In that day and culture, women had virtually no rights whatsoever. In fact, in the Jewish tradition there was a prayer where men thanked God they were not a slave, a Gentile or a woman. Christianity freed women from these sexist ideas, and taught that women were human beings who were not second-class citizens.
Paul clearly did not mean to say that women could not teach in the church because women were involved in teaching, including the teaching of men, throughout the Bible (e.g., Deut. 6:7; Proverbs 1:8; Acts 18:26; II Tim. 1:5; 3:14ff; Titus 2:3-5).
Paul also did not intend to say that women couldn’t talk or make noise during a worship service, because in another of his letters he talks about what should take place when women pray or speak in public services (see I Cor. 11:5-6).
- Paul did not want to say that women couldn’t lead in the church’s services, because he himself recognized the leadership of such women as Phoebe and Priscilla (see Romans 16).
These four things are decisive to understand, because they uphold the important dynamic of letting Scripture help interpret Scripture. In other words, the importance of taking the full context of the canon into account when interpreting the meaning of any one passage, much less verse.
So what was Paul after?
As with much of the Bible, we must sort out what was intended to be “universal,” and what was meant to be “cultural” or unique to that particular setting. To say it is all cultural is a disservice to the text, and to say that it is all universal is equally wooden.
It’s clear that the thrust of Paul’s concern was the issue of authority, and that would be the “universal” part of the matter. Since the Bible speaks approvingly of women in other settings being allowed to lead, teach and speak, women being silent or not teaching was clearly a “cultural” aspect unique to the Ephesus situation (where Timothy was serving in leadership at the time).
(By the way, if you do not embrace a cultural dynamic to this section of Scripture, along with women never teaching, you will also have to insist that men always lift up their hands when they pray (v. 8), and women must never braid their hair or wear jewelry (v.9).)
But the universal is clear: the Bible teaches that women should not have spiritual authority over a man or relational authority over a man in marriage.
God has designed for there to be order implemented in society regarding government, the church and the home. Having order implies submission. To submit simply means to acknowledge or recognize your place within the God-given order of things, and to accept the authority that God has instituted. The word submit is not a call to mindless obedience. It also doesn’t have anything to do with who is smarter, better or stronger.
It’s about leadership. And submitting is very conditional on the leadership being Christ-centered
When it comes to order in the family, God says that there needs to be a leader. And not just any leader, but a loving, servant-hearted, caring leader who is charged to have the best interests of the family in mind. In essence, God says to the wife in the family, “I’d like that leader to be your husband. Not because you can’t lead, or you are inferior, or because I love you less, but because it needs to be settled. I’ve made the call, and I’m asking him to lead. And for the sake of the family, I’m asking you to accept it and follow.”
When it comes to the church, there is order as well, and that order – that authority – is to follow the pattern of the home. So when it comes to talking or teaching, it is not to be done by women in such a way that it takes away the leadership role God gave to men.
Apparently some women in the early church to which Paul wrote were not only going a little loose with how they dressed, but they were also using their newfound freedom and equality through Christ to throw out all parameters and order. This is fleshed out by the word Paul used for the “teaching” he did not want them to embrace. It was not the normal Greek word for “instruction” or “leadership” – both of which were fine – but it was a word that meant doing it in way as to “have authority over.”
Paul wanted them to stop it and, for that culture, that not only meant stopping that kind of teaching, but to be silent in those settings, because that was the way that particular culture understood submission and the acknowledgement of authority and order. For them, to teach or to talk in those settings claimed authority.
But that’s not what violates authority for us today.
So the key for today’s Christian in contemporary Western culture doesn’t have to do with either teaching or silence, but authority, because that’s what is the “universal.”
So what does this mean for women in ministry?
I share many of the conclusions espoused by John R.W. Stott’s magnificent commentary on I Timothy, but most importantly the following two ideas:
It means that women can teach, lead, speak and serve in any way they are so gifted.
It also means that whatever is done must not violate God’s order in the church. For that reason, Mecklenburg Community Church is led by a male senior pastor. It doesn’t mean a woman can’t serve in a pastoral role, or even be ordained to ministry. The key is whether they serve under the authority of Scripture and as a member of a pastoral team whose leader is a man as a contemporary symbol of God’s designed order for the church. If that’s in place, then there are no barriers.
Or as Stott himself put it:
“Why should it be thought inappropriate for women to exercise such servant leadership? They have done so throughout biblical history…. The New Testament is now complete, and all Christian teachers are called to teach humbly under its authority. If then a woman teaches others, including men, under the authority of Scriptures (not claiming any authority of her own), in a meek and quiet spirit (not throwing her weight about), and as a member of a pastoral team whose leader is a man (as a contemporary cultural symbol of masculine headship), would it not be legitimate for her to exercise such a ministry, and be commissioned (ordained) to do so, because she would not be infringing the biblical principles of masculine headship?”
So I would not only welcome Beth Moore to teach/preach at Meck, I would be in the front row, taking notes.
James Emery White
“Beth Moore Takes a Theologian to Task About Why Women Can and Should Preach in Church,” Relevant Magazine, May 13, 2019, read online.
John Stott, Guard the Truth: The Message of I Timothy and Titus.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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