A pastor writes in to ask: “Pastor John, would a pastor who uses a biblical commentary written by a woman be placing himself under the biblical instruction of a woman? If so, would this not go against Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 2:12?”
It might be. He may feel it that way. And if he does, he probably shouldn’t read it. But it doesn’t have to be experienced that way, I don’t think. And here is my reasoning.
The point of Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12, where he says, “I don’t permit a woman to teach or have authority over men,” — that is a key text, 1 Timothy 2:12 — “I don’t permit her to teach or have authority.” And those two things together, I think, constitute the eldership office: teaching and authority. And so there should be male elders in the church who are spiritual and humble and kind and loving and Christ-like in their servant heart towards the men and women in the church.
An Issue of Design, Not Competency
I think the point of that text is not to say you can never learn anything from a woman. That is just not true. It is not true biblically, and it is not true experientially. The reason for saying, “I don’t permit a woman to teach or have authority” over men is not because she is incompetent. It is not because she can’t have thoughts.
“The women in our church and your wife have many thoughts that you would do well to note and learn from.”
In fact, the women in our church and the woman you are married to have many thoughts that you would do well to note and learn from. And so the issue there is not she doesn’t have thoughts that you wouldn’t benefit from, or she can’t teach you anything.
The issue is, how does manhood and womanhood work? What is the dynamic between how men flourish and women flourish as God designed them to flourish when an act of authority is being exerted on a man from a woman?
The Drill Sergeant and the City Planner
And so I distinguish between personal, direct exercises of authority that involve manhood and womanhood, and indirect, impersonal exercises of authority which don’t concern gender. So, here is a woman, she is right there. She is woman. I am man. And I am being directly pressed on by this woman in an authoritative way. Should she be doing that? Should I be experiencing that? And my answer is, no. I think that is contrary to the way God made us.
Here would be an example of what I mean by those two words — personal and direct. A drill sergeant that gets in the face and says, “Hut, one, hut, two, keep your mouth shut, private! Get your rifle up here! Turn around like I said!” I don’t think a woman ought to be doing that to a man because it is direct, it is forceful, it is authoritative, it is compromising something about the way a man and a woman were designed by God to relate.
“I would put a woman writing a book way more in that category of ‘city planner’ than a drill sergeant.”
The opposite of personal and direct would be if she is a city planner, for example. She is sitting in an office at a desk drawing which street should be one way and which should be two way and, thus, she is going to control which way men drive all day long. That is a lot of authority and it is totally impersonal and indirect, and therefore it has no dimension of maleness or femaleness about it. And for that reason, I don’t think it contradicts anything that Paul is concerned about here.
So to get back to the question, I would put a woman writing a book way more in that category of “city planner” than a drill sergeant, so that the personal directness of it is removed and the man doesn’t feel himself and she wouldn’t feel herself in any way compromised by his reading the book and learning from the book. That is the way I have tried to think it through in society and in academic efforts and in the church.
Public Use of Women’s Writings
So that’s reading and benefiting from a woman’s exegesis in private. Would you have any reservations about quoting from that commentary by a woman in a public sermon?
I think that is just an extension of the same principle. In other words, “Here is a truth. A woman saw it. She shared it in a book, and I now quote it, because I am not having a direct, authoritative confrontation. She is not looking at me and confronting me and authoritatively directing me as a woman.”
There is this interposition of the phenomenon called book and writing that puts the woman as author out of the reader’s sight and, in a sense, takes away the dimension of her female personhood. Whereas, if she were standing right in front of me and teaching me as my shepherd, week in and week out, I couldn’t make that separation. I think the Bible says that women shouldn’t take that role in the church.