Where Can Women Teach?
Eight Principles for Christian Churches
Where is the line when it comes to women teaching men? May women preach on Sunday mornings? Teach a Sunday school class? Lead a small group? Instruct a seminary course? Speak at a conference? At a couples’ retreat? On the radio? May women ever teach from Scripture when men are in the audience? Should men even be reading this article?
In short, how far does Paul’s prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 extend? If I am a woman who is gifted at teaching, at what point do I cross the line? These are questions being asked by scores of women who want to honor God’s pattern of male headship in the church while also exercising their spiritual gift of teaching.
I believe that putting together a set of rules about permitted behaviors would be both misleading and ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean anything goes. I believe women can discern how to best honor Christ with their teaching gifts by asking a different question.
As a complementarian, I believe that God wants us to honor his design for men and women by following the principle of male headship in our homes and church families. The church is God’s family and household (1 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 3:6; Galatians 6:10). The family part is key. The Bible teaches that in the nuclear family unit, as well as in our corporate church families, the father — or multiple fathers in the case of the church — has the responsibility to lovingly lead and humbly govern the family unit.
The biblical term for a church leader is elder or overseer. Churches today often call their leaders pastors. Some churches call every person on paid staff a pastor — even if that person is a female and not an elder. To avoid confusion over all the conflicting terminology, and to be clear about what I mean, I will call the men who occupy the biblical office of elder/overseer, and who govern and lead the church family, the church fathers.
“If I am a woman who is gifted at teaching, at what point do I cross the line?”
God gives us a clear boundary for how we honor the principle of male headship in the church. We honor it by letting the church fathers govern and teach the church family. Scripture indicates that women are to remain quiet when the church fathers are providing this type of authoritative family instruction: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12). That’s the boundary we must observe if we want to honor the principle of male headship.
Family on Sunday Morning
Therefore, I believe the question of how to honor Christ through the exercise of my teaching gift revolves around the issue of whether I’m acting like a church father. Am I doing something that is, or will likely be construed as, setting the doctrinal and spiritual direction for my entire church family?
Most churches gather to hear the church fathers teach and instruct the family at weekend church services, particularly Saturday evening and Sunday morning. That’s not to say that every weekend service is focused on doctrinal instruction and leading the family, or that the weekend is the only time such instruction takes place. But as a rule, in most churches, the weekend service is the context in which the official teaching and leading of the church family happens.
Because I want to honor 1 Timothy 2:12, for my good and the good of the church, and because I believe it presents a fairly clear boundary about women teaching authoritatively in the local church, I generally turn down invitations to speak on Sunday mornings. The passage indicates that the doctrinal teaching delivered in the context of the regular church meeting is the responsibility of the church dads. The way I honor and treasure God’s model of headship is to remain quiet and let the church fathers instruct the family.
I do this joyfully. I am not a church father. I am a woman and therefore a spiritual mom. I delight in the fact that God has created us male and female and wired us to be spiritual dads and moms. Arguably, because I am a gifted teacher, I could do a better job of interpreting the text and delivering the sermon than many church fathers do. But that would miss the point. It’s not about competence. God created the family and, in the family, men are supposed to be the dads and women are supposed to be the moms. It’s not a question of who is better at it or more gifted. Male-female roles are neither identical nor interchangeable.
Where Can Women Teach?
So that’s what I believe about women teaching at weekend church services. But Christians gather at many other times and in many other contexts. There’s Sunday school, small groups, prayer meetings, seminars, and conferences. What’s more, Christians often gather for religious edification and instruction with people who don’t go to their church. And they listen to podcasts, watch videos, and read books. The Bible doesn’t specifically address these contexts. As a woman, how do I decide if teaching in these other religious, coed contexts is appropriate?
“A rule-based approach to women teaching coed audiences in the church neither reflects nor honors the beauty of God’s design.”
The way I determine if teaching in a specific religious venue to a coed audience honors male headship is by trying to determine how closely that particular situation mimics the nature, role, and function of a church father in governing and providing public doctrinal instruction for the local-church family.
In particular, I try to pin down where the venue sits on the following eight continuums. The more a teaching venue leans toward the left (the first part of each pairing), the less likely it is that the venue is an appropriate one for me to provide coed instruction. The more the speaking venue leans toward the right (the second part of each pairing), the more likely it is that I might be a helpful teacher in this context.
Context: congregational (church) ⟶ non-congregational. Is this the local church, or is it not exactly church?
Nature: exegetical ⟶ testimonial/inspirational. Am I forcefully interpreting a text of Scripture or sharing from my life and experience with biblical support?
Authority: governmental (directive) ⟶ nongovernmental (nondirective). Am I establishing the official standard for the community?
Relationship: close (personal/relational) ⟶ distant (impersonal/non-relational). Am I in a community relationship with these men? Am I seeking to mentor them?
Commitment: formal ⟶ informal. Have the listeners made a formal commitment to me or to this community?
Obligation: obligatory ⟶ voluntary. Are the listeners obliged to listen to the teaching that takes place in this context? Can they be disciplined and corrected for failing to obey?
Constancy: habitual (ongoing) ⟶ occasional. Does this happen often and repetitively or infrequently?
Maturity: sister ⟶ mother. Does my age and spiritual maturity create a situation where I am speaking as a mother would to her sons?
Example: National Conference
For example, in the instance of a coed address at a national religious conference, I may regard the activity as appropriate based on the following analysis:
Context: non-congregational. National religious conferences are outside of the context of the local church (although denominational meetings may more closely resemble a congregational context).
Nature: testimonial/inspirational. Depending on the content, the message may be more testimonial/inspirational than exegetical.
Authority: nongovernmental. I have no authority or responsibility for establishing standards.
Relationship: impersonal. Normally there is no personal, ongoing relationship with the attendees at a conference. The relationship with the listeners is quite distant, like the relationship one might have reading someone’s book. As a guest speaker, I rarely even know the registrants’ names.
Commitment: informal. There is no formal covenant or commitment between myself and the listener, nor between him and the community. This is quite different from teaching in a Sunday service, when community members congregate to hear the official teaching of the church of which they are members.
Obligation: voluntary. There is no obligation on the part of the listener to attend the address; it is voluntary on his part (unlike the commitment of a church member to attend weekly church services and obey that teaching).
Constancy: occasional. A onetime address (flying into an area, teaching, and then leaving) is very different from the ongoing corporate instruction in the context of a local church body (as it would be, say, in a Sunday school class).
Maturity: mother. I have found that as I get older, I have more freedom to instruct younger men as a mother instructs her sons. A middle-aged woman instructing a group of 17-year-old men is a far different situation than a young woman instructing them.
Given my analysis of the nature of the venue using the above continuums, giving a keynote at a religious conference may not be a problem for me, whereas mentoring men by leading a mixed home-group Bible study (without a male coleader) would fall outside the realm of what I would consider appropriate.
Good and Wise Design
In the final analysis, God hasn’t given us a cut-and-dried list of what is and isn’t permissible. Trying to offer strict guidelines would be like trying to offer strict rules for a dating couple’s physical contact. It’s not advisable — or really even possible. God gives us the principle of male headship, a clear boundary, and the gift of his indwelling Holy Spirit, in faithful community, to help us figure out the rest. And when we mess up, he extends grace upon grace.
An externally focused, rule-based approach to women teaching coed audiences in the church neither reflects nor honors the beauty of God’s design. God wants us to have a grace-soaked, joyous spirit that delights in honoring headship as a beautiful aspect of his good and wise plan — one that respects and engages men and women as joint heirs and coworkers who wholeheartedly exercise their gifts together in the service of each other and the advance of the gospel.