Should a Woman Preach Next Sunday?

Digging for the Root Difference with Andrew Wilson

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Why do Andrew Wilson (here and here) and Tom Schreiner (here) and John Piper (here) take their valuable time to write about their differences over secondary matters, when they enjoy such enormous agreement on glorious things that are more important? The most immediate answer is: because we have to decide who’s preaching next Sunday. Our attention to this issue is because we have no choice.

In other words, unlike secondary issues such as eschatological differences, the present issue simply can’t be avoided for pastors. It’s the kind of issue that immediately affects what you do in worship. And it’s the kind of issue where doing it both ways is not an option. If women are called on to preach, we are doing it Andrew’s way. If they are not called on to preach, we are doing it Tom’s and my way. We can’t have it both ways.

I wish there were no issues like this. The implications for working on the same church staff are limiting. And that is sad. Of course, there are dozens of other things we can do together, but keeping a good conscience while working on the same church leadership team would be tough.

To put it another way, the reason pastors argue about these things is because we love our people and want to do what’s best for them. That is a really good thing, but it sometimes has awkward consequences.

Two Kinds of Teaching

So, here is my little contribution to the exchange between Andrew and Tom.

“Pastors argue about these things because we love our people and want to do what’s best for them.”

My main question is: What is really the root difference between Andrew and me on this issue? In spite of the exchange so far, I’m not sure. It seems I may come at the issue slightly differently. Let’s see.

Andrew sees more than one kind of teaching in the New Testament, and one of those in particular is to be done by (all male) elders (1 Timothy 2:12), while the others are not restricted. The definition of the prohibited kind of teaching seems to be: “the definition, defense, and preservation of Christian doctrine, by the church’s accredited leaders.”

The definition of the unrestricted kind seems to be: “a catch-all term for talking about the Bible in a church meeting.” Or: “explaining the Scriptures to each other in a peer-to-peer way, according to gifting.”

Which Factor Is Decisive?

What I can’t tell from Andrew’s explanation is this: What is the decisive operative factor in making one of these activities appropriate for women in relation to men and the other inappropriate?

Judging by the phrase “definition and defense of Christian doctrine” as the mark of the prohibited teaching, my guess is that the root issue for Andrew is the elder-authority of official decision-making about doctrine. The elders decide doctrinal definitions and parameters. And thus they provide defense and protection for this truth.

Then, it seems, within those officially decided doctrinal parameters, men and women may “explain the Scriptures to each other in a peer-to-peer way.”

So, for Andrew, the dividing line between appropriate teaching and inappropriate teaching for women seems to be whether she is involved in creating a creed or affirmation of faith for the church. It seems that, as long as she is theologically and exegetically inside that elder-determined affirmation of faith, it is not relevant how she delivers her message to men.

In other words, the appropriateness of the authority she expresses is not defined by her demeanor, or forcefulness, or directness, or rebukes, or corrections, or counsels, or commands delivered to men, nor by the frequency with which she may shepherd the men of the church in this way. The decisive operative factor in differentiating appropriate and inappropriate speaking by women is how it relates to the official establishment and preservation of doctrine.

Leadership and Creation

“In all aspects of the church’s life, there is to be a spirit of humble leadership and glad support.”

So, here is a possible root difference between us. I think the decisive operative difference between teaching that is prohibited to women (1 Timothy 2:12) and the teaching that is not (e.g., Titus 2:3–4), is not primarily the doctrinal parameter-defining of the elders, but the personal dynamic of how women and men are supposed to relate to each other. To be more specific: The decisive operative factor is whether the activity involves the personal, authoritative leadership toward men.

It seems to me that, as men and women relate to each other in the church, men are to lead, on the analogy of the way a husband leads at home (Ephesians 5:22–33). In all aspects of the church’s life, there is to be a spirit — an ethos, a culture — of humble, servant-hearted leadership (headship), and glad, thoughtful, willing support for that leadership (submission).

Leadership and Preaching

Thus, when I think about how this leadership by men is expressed in the church, I see the regular preaching of the word of God in the weekly worship gathering as the heart of that leadership. By “heart” I mean the steady, life-giving lub-dub of leadership that interprets and applies the word of God, and inspires, and thrills, and rebukes, and admonishes, and corrects, and exhorts the people in the name of the Lord, and thus week after week shapes and guides the community of believers. This is the central function of the shepherding by the shepherds of the church.

That is what I think the weekly ministry of preaching should be: the steady-state lub-dub of leadership shaping the people. Anointed by the Holy Spirit, this preaching is not merely “talking about the Bible in a church meeting.” It is the authoritative expository exultation in and over and from the Bible. It has the feel of Titus 2:15, “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority.” It is the authoritative (not infallible) voice of God’s servant in the power of the Holy Spirit, authorized by and saturated by the Scriptures. It is the voice of the God-sent herald, “Hear ye! Hear ye! A word from the King!”

Root Difference

One of the reasons I look at things this way is that Paul seems to root his understanding of roles for men and women in who we are by nature; that is, by God’s design in creation. Paul traces our differences back to creation not only in 1 Timothy 2:12–15 but also Ephesians 5:31–32 and 1 Corinthians 11:7–12.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31–32)

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. (1 Corinthians 11:7–12)

“Preaching is the voice of the God-sent herald, ‘Hear ye! Hear ye! A word from the King!’”

And the creation account of Genesis 1–3 seems to lay out the leadership of the man, rooted in the primal created design of manhood and womanhood.

Therefore, when I ponder the guidelines of how women relate to men in the church, I don’t focus only on the possible acts opened by 1 Corinthians 14:26 and Colossians 3:16 and Acts 18:26, but also on how those acts become fitting (or not) in view of the deeper matters of manhood and womanhood at stake in how we relate to each other. I find the general concept of leadership (emerging from the wider biblical picture of God’s order of creation) to be the most helpful in determining which speaking roles are suitable for men and women.

I suppose, therefore, that where Andrew and I may differ, though I’m not sure, is (1) a different location of the decisive operative factor behind what is fitting and what is not, and (2) perhaps a different conception of what preaching ought to be.