Many Christians think that the Bible does not allow women to be pastors. For many people, the key verse is 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (ESV throughout). Let’s start by looking at this verse in more detail.
If we look at only this one verse, we might see that it would forbid much more than being a pastor:
- “A woman cannot teach a man.” This means that women cannot be doctors, professors, or high-school teachers. The verse does not say that it is restricted to the church.
- “A woman cannot have authority over a man.” This means that a woman cannot be elected to political office, or to be a manager in a store that has male employees, or to be a principal of a school that has male teachers. The verse makes no exceptions.
- “Women are to remain quiet.” They cannot be entertainers, news reporters or have any role in mass media.
However, almost no one understands the verse in this way. Conservative Bible scholars, theologians and church leaders all say that the verse should not be understood in such a literal way. We need to understand why. This will involve a lesson about how we should read and apply the Bible.
Two lines of reasoning tell us that the verse does not prohibit women from all forms of teaching, authority, or speaking. The first is an examination of the context of the verse, and the situation in which it was written. The second is to see that God sometimes inspired women to speak, teach, and have authority over men.
The context of the verse
1 Timothy is an open letter from the apostle Paul to Timothy, giving him some public instructions about what Timothy should do in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3). Timothy would not be able to implement these instructions anywhere except in the church, so that is the focus of the letter and its instructions.
Paul is concerned about what people were teaching in Ephesus (1:3-4), and he urged that believers should pray for everyone, specifically the civil authorities (2:1-2). Paul then gives instructions about how the men should pray: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (2:8). What does Paul mean by “in every place”? Taken literally, it would mean that believers should travel throughout the city, to every building and open area, to pray. But we do not take those words literally.
Additionally, very few Christians believe that men must lift their hands when they pray. Paul may have meant for men to lift their hands, and that is what he said, but we do not take it literally. It was appropriate in his culture, but it is not necessary in ours.
Similarly, in the next verse, Paul says that “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” (2:9). Taken literally, the verse says that women should not wear their hair in braids, and should not wear gold. But few churches today think that women have to follow these rules. No one gets upset when these details are ignored. Although “costly” is hard to define, some of the clothing worn to churches today would probably violate what Paul writes.
Then Paul says that women should learn quietly, not teaching the men (2:11-12). But as we have just seen, we do not always take what Paul wrote literally. Therefore, when we come to verse 12, we have to choose: do we take it literally, or do we make allowance for cultural changes? How can we decide?
Some scholars say that we should continue Paul’s policy because he supports his policy by referring to the biblical story of sin in the Garden of Eden: “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (2:14). It is hard to follow the logic of this. If Adam was not deceived, then he sinned deliberately, out of rebellion rather than ignorance. It is difficult to argue that men should be in charge because the first man was a deliberate rebel. It seems that some people are trying to explain verse 12 by appealing to a verse that is even more difficult to understand.
Verse 15 is also puzzling, since it says that women can “be saved through childbearing,” which contradicts verses that say that salvation comes only through Christ. These puzzling verses tell us that we don’t understand the passage as well as we’d like to. Something was happening in the church in first-century Ephesus, and we presume that Paul’s instructions made sense to people in that historical context, but readers today are puzzled because we are missing part of the picture.
Paul’s policy is clear: he did not allow women to teach in the first-century church in Ephesus. However, it is not clear that we should have the same policy today. We make allowances for changes in culture when it comes to prayer posture and women’s clothing. Should we also make allowances for changes in culture when it comes to women teaching and having authority in the church?
How God has used women
One way to answer our question is to see how God has used women in the past, and we will see that God has not required women to be silent, even in a religious setting, and that he has sometimes allowed – even appointed – women to have authority over men.
An illustration of that is Deborah. “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:4-5). She had political authority, and the people respected her decisions.
Deborah had religious authority, too – in verses 6-9 she gave the Israelite general an authoritative message from God. Chapter 5 is her victory song; her words have become part of the Bible, and men have been learning from Deborah ever since (see Judges 5:7 for evidence that the song was written by Deborah).
Some have suggested that God used Deborah because all the men were incompetent or unwilling. The Bible does not say that – it just says that God was working through Deborah as a civil judge, as a spokesperson for God, and as a worship leader for his people.
When Paul says, I do not permit a woman to have authority over a man, was he giving a permanent and timeless principle from God? Apparently not, for it seems that God does not have that policy. Paul’s policy may have been appropriate for first-century Ephesus, but we have evidence in the Bible that it is not a statement about the way that God wants his people to work together at all times and in all places.
Most leaders of Israel were men, but it takes only one example to show that it is not a universal principle. The Bible never says that Deborah is an exception to what would otherwise be a rule – it just says that God worked through her. He is willing to put women in positions of authority.
Huldah is another example of a woman God used. In the time of King Josiah, as workers were cleaning the Temple, they found a scroll. “Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord’” (2 Kings 22:8). They took the scroll to the king, and he told them, “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found” (v. 13).
Where did they go to ask the Lord? They “went to Huldah the prophetess…and they talked with her” (v. 14). The text says nothing about this being unusual – it was apparently normal to go to a prophetess for a word from the Lord. God used a woman to give his words to the men of Israel (vv. 15-20).
If God saw anything improper or irregular about using a woman to teach men, he could have raised up a man to do his work. But he was apparently willing for a woman to serve in this way, and he was happy for this woman’s words to be in Scripture, and for this example to be there for our instruction. So again we see that God does not have a permanent policy against women speaking authoritative words to men.
New Testament women
In the New Testament, we again see that most of the leaders were men, but God occasionally used women to teach men, and these again indicate that God does not require all women to be silent. This does not mean that Paul was wrong in having his policy for first-century Ephesus, but it means that Paul’s policy should not be taken as a permanent rule for all churches in all places.
When Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared first to women. “Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me’” (Matthew 28:10). The women were not merely transferring information – they were delivering a command from Jesus, given to his “brothers” (apparently the apostles; see the angels’ message in v. 7) – and Jesus expected these men to obey the message delivered by the women. Jesus gave the women authority to relay his instructions to the men.
Women were an important part of Paul’s missionary work, too. Paul mentions two women, named Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and says they are “workers in the Lord” (Romans 12:12). In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul says that another two women, Euodia and Syntyche, “labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers” (Philippians 4:3). In both passages, Paul says that women were working in the gospel, apparently teaching. Women are able to teach Christian doctrine accurately and effectively.
The verses do not specifically say that the women were teaching men and women in public. Some modern commentators therefore say that it is permissible for women to be teachers, but not teach the church when it is gathered as a church.
However, this distinction between public and private teaching leads to an odd application: The commentators admit that women can be effective teachers, and that they can be spokespersons for God, but they say that it would be wrong for these women to deliver the message in church. However, we have already seen examples that show that God sometimes gives his message to a woman and wants men to learn from what she says. So, if men want to hear the message that God has given these women, then men have to go outside of the church to hear the word of God. The church is not allowed to have the whole counsel of God!
Women can write books, and men might learn from what women write, and men can quote from the female-written books (just as they can quote from the female-written parts of Scripture), but women are not allowed to deliver the message themselves. This is a distinction that is foreign to what Paul wrote.
When Paul listed various gifts of the Spirit, he did not designate any as restricted to men (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). The gifts of teaching, administration and leadership can be given to women as well as to men. When the Holy Spirit filled the disciples on the day of Pentecost, men and women were given the gift of prophecy, or inspired speaking (Acts 2:17).
Paul gave instructions to the church at Corinth for how men and women were to dress when they prayed and prophesied (1 Corinthians 11:4-10). Although Paul does not explicitly say that this was “in church,” that is the most likely place for men and women to pray and prophesy, and the most likely place for clothing styles to be important. Paul’s next instructions in this chapter are about the church participating in the Lord’s Supper (vv. 17-34), with no hint that he is talking about a different location. God was apparently inspiring women to speak in public, and if their words were from God (as Paul presumes that they were), then they were words of authority.
In Corinth, Paul allowed women to pray and prophesy. In Ephesus, he had a different policy. This change in policy was most likely due to a change in the circumstances. Paul was inspired to write this prohibition as his own policy, not as a command from God, and it is a mistake for us to take it as a command for us today. God sometimes gives authority and words to women, and he expects men to listen, learn and heed.
Considering the nature of Paul’s letter to Timothy, it is not surprising that Paul described a policy that was of temporary validity. It was written to help Timothy refute some heresies that were causing problems in Ephesus; its directives include cultural matters such as the posture of prayer and the way in which women might adorn themselves. Paul’s instructions about widows (1 Timothy 5:3-16) is not required for the church today. The letter was written for a specific situation, and we should not assume in advance that its instructions are timeless truths.
Should women be silent?
We can now discuss one more New Testament verse that is sometimes used to restrict what women can do in church. This is also in Paul’s letter to Corinth: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:33-35).
Paul’s instructions are good only for married women, because widows are unable to “ask their husbands at home.” And what about women who had unbelieving husbands? We do not have the complete picture here.
In chapter 14, Paul is dealing with the somewhat chaotic Corinthian church services, and women are not the only people he tells to be silent (vv. 26-33). People were interrupting each other, and more than one person was trying to talk at a time. Paul’s instructions here would be needed if (this is the most likely situation) women were being unruly and asking their husbands questions during the church service. So Paul tells them to stop talking, and ask their questions later.
Paul does not say to what (or whom) they should be submissive. The Law of Moses does not tell women to be submissive to their husbands (although that was probably assumed in their patriarchal society). However, the Law does say that people are to be submissive to the word of God. The word of God was being preached in Corinth, but the women were talking and not being submissive. (The Greek word for “speak” in these verses does not refer to public speaking in particular – it is the general word for talk, and it is in the present tense, which often denotes an ongoing activity.)
In chapter 11, Paul allowed women to pray and prophesy, presumably at a public meeting, but in chapter 14 he tells women to stop talking. Was Paul contradicting himself in the same letter? No matter what kind of literature we are reading, we normally want to read in such a way that the author is not contradicting himself. If there are other ways to understand what the person wrote, then we should prefer an interpretation that is not contradictory.
If this case, interpreters have a choice: either chapter 11 is about a limited situation, or chapter 14:33-35 is about a limited situation, or both passages are limited. Some interpreters choose the first, saying that the first part of chapter 11 is not about church, even though the last part of chapter 11 is.
We believe that the passage in chapter 14 is limited, because (at the minimum) it is applicable only to women who have husbands who believe in Jesus. Almost no one takes this passage literally – no one expects women to be silent during all parts of the worship service. Those who allow women to sing (for example) but not speak are allowing their own traditions to filter what Paul has written. We are being submissive to Scripture when we understand Paul to be writing about a limited situation – that of noisy, chaotic meetings – and he did not intend to make universal prohibitions on what women can do in church. If the Spirit leads a woman to prophesy, then she may do so, even if it’s in church.
Two passages in the New Testament have traditionally been used to say that women cannot speak in the church or have authority over men, and therefore cannot be pastors. But this interpretation contradicts other scriptures that show that God sometimes places women in positions of authority over men, and gives them authoritative words. Some modern scholars try to maintain the traditional interpretation by suggesting a distinction between what women can do in church and what women can do outside of church, but this leads to the improbable idea that the church cannot include all of God’s gifts.
We believe that the verses of restriction were written for specific situations, and should not be used as mandatory for all churches in all times and places. Rather, if God gives a woman abilities in speaking and leadership, then those gifts may be used in the church and if the most spiritually gifted woman in the church is a woman, then she may be a pastor, and speak and teach with authority.
- For a detailed exegetical study of 1 Tim. 2:12, see https://www.gcs.edu/mod/book/view.php?id=4261&chapterid=13
- For a detailed exegetical study of 1 Cor. 14:34, see https://www.gcs.edu/mod/book/view.php?id=4261&chapterid=12
- For a series of articles examining what the Old and Testaments say about women in leadership, see the start of the series at https://www.gcs.edu/mod/book/view.php?id=4261&chapterid=1
Author: Michael Morrison