Why Not to Have a Woman Preach

A Response to Andrew Wilson

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Professor, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

The specific question on the table is this: Does 1 Timothy 2:12 leave open the possibility that women are permitted to preach in the weekly gathering of a local church as an extension of the male elders of the church or as an expression under their governing authority?

John Piper says no (in Ask Pastor John episode 533).

Andrew Wilson says yes (in a response to Piper).

So who is right? And does it matter?

Piper argues that women should not preach in the local church, even under the authority of the elders, nor should they regularly teach Sunday School to a mixed audience. I will argue here, over against Wilson, that Piper is right, and his answer is well stated.

Let me say up front that I rejoice that Wilson believes, as Scripture makes plain, that women should not serve as pastors, and I have often profited from Wilson’s writings in other areas. He is a friend and colleague in the greatest cause. Still, on this matter, I think he missteps, as I will explain below.

Wilson’s Three Arguments

Wilson gives three arguments to support the notion that women may preach under the authority and permission of the elders. By the way, this is not a new view or a novel third way being disseminated. Such a view was certainly around when I was a seminary student in the 1970s and the 1980s. We are reminded that there is nothing new under the sun.

What are Wilson’s three arguments?

First, he argues that not all preaching is teaching. There are other kinds of speaking in the New Testament besides teaching, such as words of exhortation, prophecy, or evangelistic preaching. Nothing forbids women from doing this kind of speaking, says Wilson.

Second, teaching likely has a specific referent, focusing on “the preservation and transmission of the authentic apostolic witness to Jesus, in the era before the New Testament was written down.”

Third, Wilson quotes me to say that there are two different kinds of teaching. He points to passages like 1 Corinthians 14:26 and Colossians 3:16 where everyone in the church is encouraged to teach and instruct one another, and thus women would be included in this admonition. Wilson distinguishes between big-T and little-t teaching. He says,

In our context, incidentally, we work this out by asking all non-elders in our church who preach to submit their sermons to an elder, get their feedback on it, and only then deliver it publicly; that way, the speaker is doing the little-t teaching, and the elder is doing the big-T Teaching.

Two Activities Prohibited

Before considering what Wilson says, a word about 1 Timothy 2:12 is necessary. Paul says he doesn’t “permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” Andreas Köstenberger has shown in his careful analysis of this phrase that two distinct activities are prohibited: both teaching and exercising authority.

Later this year Crossway is publishing the third edition of the book Köstenberger and I co-edited, called Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15. Köstenberger’s third edition of his essay shows that his work has stood the test of time. Note that Paul doesn’t just prohibit women from inhabiting the office of elder or overseer. He also speaks functionally; women aren’t to teach men. It is a mistake to limit what Paul says here to office and then to permit the function.

Piper rightly says that if the elders allow a woman to preach, they permit what God forbids. Indeed, Piper is careful. He says that there are some contexts where women can address a mixed audience, but they should never preach, nor should they regularly teach a Sunday School class of adults where there is a mixed audience.

Wilson rightly says that there are other kinds of speech than teaching, such as prophecies or words of encouragement. But these kinds of speech don’t represent the regular, formal, and on-going instruction in God’s word. In prophecy, people give spontaneous words from God for particular occasions (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:29–32). Yes, there is informal teaching that occurs when Christians are together, where believers share insights and such from God’s word (Colossians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 14:26). Priscilla played a role in instructing Apollos privately (Acts 18:26).

But here’s the rub: This is distinct from preaching to the gathered congregation or from a woman regularly teaching the Scripture to men. That’s the very point of distinguishing between big-T Teaching and little-t teaching. In other words, I believe Wilson’s distinction actually speaks against his view.

Different Kinds of Speech

Let’s think again about the different kinds of speech in the New Testament from a different angle, and again I want to suggest that Wilson’s example contradicts his point.

Preaching, I would argue, always contains teaching. In fact, preaching probably combines together the gifts of teaching and exhortation. Hence, it isn’t plausible or convincing to say that preaching ever takes place without teaching. If there is no teaching, then it isn’t authentic biblical preaching, for preaching explains and unpacks God’s word. How can that take place without teaching?

What is fascinating is that Wilson’s example of what non-elders do when they preach supports the point. They don’t give a spontaneous word like an exhortation or prophecy. Instead, Wilson’s church requires the sermon to be prepared in advance to be scrutinized and evaluated before it is delivered. That is not little-t teaching! That is big-T Teaching, and so it is quite different from the informal kind of instruction that Paul talks about in Colossians 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 14:26.

The Role of Teaching

One of Wilson’s most curious points is about teaching itself. If I understand him correctly, he suggests teaching, rightly defined, is restricted to the period before the New Testament was written. Such a view misunderstands the nature of teaching. Teaching explicates the authoritative and public transmission of tradition about Christ and the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 12:28–29; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 3:16; James 3:1).

It is clear from the rest of the Pastoral Epistles that the teaching in view is the public transmission of authoritative material (cf. 1 Timothy 4:13, 16; 6:2; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 2:7). The elders in particular are to labor in teaching (1 Timothy 5:17) so that they can refute the false teachers who advance heresy (1 Timothy 1:3, 10; 4:1; 6:3; 2 Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:9, 11). It is crucial that the correct teaching and the apostolic deposit be passed on to the next generation (2 Timothy 1:12, 14; 2:2). Such teaching isn’t restricted to the time before the canon was completed; it is the heart and soul of the church’s ministry until the second coming of Christ.

I am thankful for the opportunity to dialogue with Wilson about this matter. He articulates his view with some tentativeness, and such friendly discussions are important as we consider how to conduct ourselves in the church. I return to where I began: John Piper’s words on this matter are wise, mature, and represent the teaching of the Scriptures.

Finally, I am not writing this because John Piper is a friend whom I want to defend. It’s also important to celebrate the many gifts God has given to women and the countless ways they minister in the church. We need to remind ourselves often that a different role says nothing about one’s significance or value. Still, the issue matters, for as churches we must order our practices in accord with the word of God and not our own wisdom. When we deviate from the biblical pattern, there are always consequences. God has given us his instructions for our flourishing and our happiness, and when we follow his instructions we show that we trust him.