If you have been watching the church world at all in recent months, I don’t need to walk you through the brouhaha surrounding Beth Moore leaving the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) over her calling to teach, or the attempt by the SBC to remove Saddleback Church, where “America’s Pastor” Rick Warren served so faithfully for so many years, for ordaining two women to serve as pastors. Of course, this is bigger than the SBC. The back-and-forth between complementarians and egalitarians extends throughout the Christian world.
As a result, I’ve been asked by more than a few to wade into the conversation.
The debate on this largely revolves around a single passage in Paul’s first letter to Timothy: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (I Timothy 2:11-12, NIV).
Let’s unpack that, beginning with the context. Paul is giving instructions that are for everyone, everywhere. He begins this discussion, in verse eight, by saying, “In every place of worship, I want...” (I Timothy 2:8, NLT). There is, undoubtedly, a universal sense to this. He then mentions men praying in unity and lifting their hands in prayer, women not dressing immodestly and not braiding or getting fancy with their hair, and women being quiet and not assuming authority over a man.
So how should this be applied?
A few understandings must be kept in mind.
First, in this day and culture, women had no rights whatsoever. In the Jewish tradition there was even a prayer in which 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.
Second, Paul did not want 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., Deuteronomy 6:7; Proverbs 1:8; Acts 18:26; II Timothy 1:5; 3:14ff; Titus 2:3-5).
Third, Paul did not want to say that women couldn’t talk or make noise during a worship service, because in I Corinthians 11:5-6 Paul talks about what should take place when women pray or speak in public services.
Fourth, Paul did not want to say that women couldn’t lead in the church’s services, because he himself recognized the leadership of women such as Phoebe and Priscilla in places such as Romans 16.
Understanding these four things is important because it helps us let Scripture interpret Scripture (one of the most important principles of biblical interpretation) and helps us to understand what Paul was really saying by looking at everything Paul taught on this.
And don’t forget Jesus and women.
After Jesus was resurrected, the first person He talked to was a woman named Mary Magdalene. But He didn’t just talk to her. He made her the first witness to the resurrection. And not just the first witness, but also the first one to announce that He had been raised from the dead. He sent her to tell the men!
Why was that important?
Because in the ancient near-Eastern culture of that day, women held no rank in society. In fact, a woman’s testimony was not even accepted in the Jewish courts. Even the witness of multiple women was not acceptable. Yet Jesus purposefully went, first, to a woman and chose her to be that witness.
So, what was Paul after in his admonition to Timothy and the church at Ephesus?
Let’s remember another important interpretation principle, which is to consider: What was universal, and what was unique, to that cultural setting? You have two choices: first, it was all cultural, or second, it was partially cultural and partially not. I don’t know of anyone who embraces an “it’s all universal” option – at least with consistency – as that would involve mandating men to lift their hands and for women to not braid their hair.
So if part cultural and part universal, what was the heart of Paul’s universal concern? The thrust of Paul’s concern was the issue of authority. Since the Bible speaks of women in other settings being allowed to lead, teach and speak – and approves of it – you can’t say that the universal takeaway is for women to be silent and not teach. The best way to wade through this is to see the authority issue as the universal, and the particular cultural application regarding silence and teaching for the churches in Ephesus.
Just as men praying in unity is universal but the lifting of hands is cultural, and modesty in dress is universal but whether to braid your hair is cultural, so women submitting to the authority and order of the Church is universal, but teaching and silence as manifestations of that submission is cultural.
But the universal is clear: The Bible teaches that women should not have ultimate spiritual authority over a man in a church nor ultimate relational authority over a man in marriage. God has designed for there to be order implemented in society in regard to 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.
And what do we mean by submission? Let’s be clear that this is not a call to mindless slavery where someone says “jump” and another has to ask “how high?” It also has nothing to do with who is smarter, better, or stronger. For example, biblical submission in the context of the family is mutual. It is everyone submitting to everyone in the name of love (Ephesians 6). The heart of the matter, for the husband/father, is leadership. And not just any type of leadership, but a loving, servant-hearted, caring leadership that is charged to have the best interest of the family in mind.
When it comes to the Church, there is order as well, and that order – or authority – is to follow the pattern of the home. So when it comes to talking or teaching, it is not to be done in such a way that it takes away the leadership role God gave to men.
What was apparently happening in Ephesus was some women in the church were not only being less than modest in their attire but were also using their new-found freedom and equality to throw out all parameters and order. This is fleshed out by the word Paul used for “teaching”—it was not the normal Greek word for “instruction” or “leadership,” but instead a word that meant “having authority over.”
For that culture, this not only meant that kind of teaching, but also to be silent in those settings because that was the way that 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.
The application of Paul’s instruction has little to do with teaching, much less silence, but rather with authority, for that is what is universal.
So, what does this mean for women in ministry?
I share many of the conclusions espoused in John R.W. Stott’s magnificent exegesis of I Timothy, but most importantly the following two ideas: 1) It means that women can teach, lead, speak and serve in any way they are so gifted; 2) It 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 male as a contemporary symbol of God’s designed order for the Church.
If that’s in place, then there are no barriers.
As a result, we have women on staff, women in leadership, women serving as trustees, women teaching in our Meck Institute and on the weekends and yes, women as pastors. There are no barriers in light of an overarching biblical authority.
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, what to make of churches who disagree on this? Do we elevate this to a test of orthodoxy and refuse to fellowship and cooperate with churches who feel differently than we do?
I hope not. I pray not.
When churches jointly embrace the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture and sincerely seek to do justice to its exegesis and application, but come to differing conclusions that are born out of the wholehearted desire to submit to the authority of Scripture, then we must embrace that ancient maxim attributed to Augustine:
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
James Emery White
Russell Moore, “Rick Warren Reflects on His Legacy,” Christianity Today, March 8, 2023, read/listen online.
Michael Gryboski, “Rick Warren Shares 3 Bible Passages That Changed His Mind On Women Pastors,” The Christian Post, March 9, 2023, read online.
Russell Moore, “Let’s Rethink the Evangelical Gender Wars,” Christianity Today, February 13, 2023, read online.
Bob Smietana, “Since the 1880s, Southern Baptists Have Argued Over the Role of Women,” Religion News Service, March 15, 2023, read online.
Jesse T. Jackson, “Saddleback’s Andy Wood Explains Female Teaching Pastors Are Biblical, Female Elders Are Not,” Church Leaders, March 14, 2023, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/DGLimages
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president.
His latest book, After “I Believe,” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast.
Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.