Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Scripture We Like To Ignore: I Timothy 2:9-15, Women in Church Leadership

Christians don’t ignore I Timothy 2:9-15 in the same way that we ignore the others I’ve been writing about. Quite the opposite – most Christians know about these verses and have strong feelings about them. Instead, this passage is the elephant in the room – we ignore it because no one wants to cause dissention by talking about their views on the issue.

People on both sides of the debate over women in church leadership tend to dismiss the other side’s beliefs and write them off as less Christian – either because they are “suppressing the work of the Holy Spirit” and “oppressing women” or are “not taking the Word seriously” and are sinning by “being too worldly” and “refusing to submit.” Few people are willing to have an open discussion about whether the Bible does, indeed, prohibit women from being leaders in the church.

When discussing this topic in a religion class at my Christian college, my favorite professor gave us a general guideline for interpreting Scripture. If the passage in question is still an issue in our culture, we should interpret it literally. If it is not an issue, the principles can be applied to similar situations. So, for example, the passages that tell us not to lie or murder are literal and timeless, while those about eating meat sacrificed to idols were meant for first-century Christians and can be applied to things like drinking alcohol today.

The question is, into which category does I Timothy 2:9-15 fall? Many contemporary Christians say the passage, particularly verse 13 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”[ NIV]) was meant for a specific time, but the appeal to Adam and Eve in verses 14-15 makes me think that this particular command is a timeless one. By contrast, verses 9-10, which prohibit gold jewelry and braided hair, are examples to illustrate the original command of verse 9 to dress modestly. Gold jewelry and braided hair are no longer considered immodest, so I could apply the overall command to today’s standards and avoid wearing tight micro-minis and low-cut crop tops.

Supporters of women in leadership often point to the deaconesses mentioned in the Bible. What about them? For one, the term “deaconess” does not appear in any of the most common Bible translations. I have little to support this argument, but I believe that the women mentioned in Scripture whom some call “deaconesses” were not necessarily church leaders but played other vital roles in the church’s ministry.

So, if I am correct that women still should not “teach or have authority over a man,” how does that play out? I would understand it to mean that women should not be in any positions where they might be able to make decisions by which men must abide and should not be preaching from the pulpit or teaching adult Sunday school classes. Following this idea logically, I still have some uncertainty about the application of the verses in other circumstances:

What about women in charge of a church’s children’s program, where their main purpose would be leading and teaching children but they may be required to hold authority over male teachers?

What about small group leaders? In our current small group, it is a woman who “leads” by asking questions from a book. But is she really teaching , or is she enabling a discussion? Should the book itself be considered the teacher? If so, does that limit what kinds of books Christian women can write?

What does it mean for a woman to “be silent” in church? Can she sing? Can she pray out loud? Can she offer her opinion in group discussions?

What about parachurch organizations? Can a woman be the director of a pregnancy care center? I believe that women could hold some of those positions, but only if the rest of the staff members are women. So does that require reverse discrimination, in which men are not hired for lower positions because they would be working under a woman?

What about secular roles of leadership and authority in business or education? I personally struggled with this issue when I taught at two local post-secondary schools and had men as students. Should Christian women avoid taking jobs that put them in charge of men, and should Christian men refuse to work under women in secular businesses? If so, should men quit existing jobs if women are hired as their bosses and women quit if men are hired to work under them?

Maybe I am splitting hairs, but I believe that it is important to understand how we should apply Scripture to our lives on a practical level. I would love to hear your opinions. If you believe women should lead alongside men, how do you interpret the referral to Adam and Eve? If you believe that it is not biblical for women to be in church leadership, how would you answer some of the questions above?

I am writing a series of posts about Bible passages Christians tend to overlook or underemphasize. If you have any suggestions for any ignored Scriptures to include, please let me know!


  1. I agree with you. I do believe that what is written in these verses was meant to be taken literally.
    However, I don't believe that they are a good fit for today's society. Maybe God needs to release Bible 1.2 :)
    There are a lot of women in leadership roles in the church that have brought many people to Christ and are committed to a life of ministry as pastors. Are they committing sin (going against) God by doing this work for him? Many of the women fill a void in the church where there are no men to take leadership roles.
    My parents have been members of two churches (that have followed these verses) and have had to close, partially due to the fact that there weren't enough men to take on deacon and elder leadership roles.
    That is a good question that you bring forth about the secular world. Because our lives as Christians shouldn't be separated into two, church and secular, I would say that the literal meaning should apply here also.

  2. Excellent post - thought provoking to be sure!
    I have believed the scriptures pertained to the church, not in the work world, but now I will have to search in more depth. I tend to be a "black & white" person, and many times can find what comes under the new covenant as opposed to the old. This is an area where I find usually people have a harder time justifying biblically rather than with modern equality arguments. More research to come :)

  3. I think what needs to be remembered is that God did not create guilt & punishment - Satan did. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and God voiced their consequences to them, they doomed themselves and allowed the knowledge of good & evil come to this world. When God questioned them, they ended up blaming each other - sound familiar to todays society? God is not the one who carried out the consequences, He prophecized what was going to happen and then allowed Satan to carry that out. Thus, the battle of the sexes begun!

    To me, God did not want us to take on rolls, because Adam & Eve choose to sin and allowed the knowledge of good and evil into the world, now women feel guilty. That is not what God intended, in my humble opionion.

    I stand firm in my belief that God created men and women to be equals - to be friends. Women are better in handling certain situations, and men in others. But, all God cares is that we keep trying to work on our relationships and strengthen them.

    If a woman is called to leadership - praise be to God. It's what God called her to do, to show and teach people about Him. Women have a more nuturing and loving demeanor about them, why would God want us to suppress those qualities?

  4. Also, whatever your beliefs are - I do believe pertain to your entire life - outside of church and inside of church. You can't have it just one way or another.

  5. Thanks for offering a different view -- I love to have some healthy debate!

    I agree that women's "lesser" role is, indeed, a result of sin, but I'm not sure I can agree that the consequences of that sin have been revoked. After all, the passage in I Timothy was written after the Fall, and Christian women -- who have been made righteous through Christ -- do still have pain in childbirth (another curse given to Eve in Genesis).

    I also agree that we need to live consistently both in and out of church, but there are some guidelines in the Bible that are intended just for the church -- for corporate worship -- and I wonder if this verse is one of them. For example, we aren't likely to follow the guidelines for interpreting tongues (another passage I plan to write on soon) in the secular world, but we shouldn't disregard that passage in church life.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly that the curses have not been revoked, that's why we're having this conversation and a difference of opinion! There's still, even though we've had the "women's lib" movement a lot of debate about gender issues in today's society.

    What would you say about women who choose to have pain relief with childbirth? There are so many options now, compared to even 30 years ago...perhaps it's God's way of compromising with us, after all there is a lot more pain and suffering with women now having to help go out and work to feed their families (the mens curse) and seemingly needing to choose to give up spending time with their kids and feeding them.

    Times have changed, and I'd be willing to bet in about 10 years from now that these "gender issues" will no longer be issues to anyone in our culture, I'm sure there are many people who would believe that this isn't even an issue in our culture NOW.

    I'll have to respectfully agree to disagree on the life is different than church life. To me, if you can't incorporate something to all areas of your life, perhaps you are looking at it in the wrong way. I think religion (any religion) should come first and foremost in everyone's life, and if people are acting/saying one thing in church, but not outside of church - what does that say about them?

  7. I do have to say though, that I LOVE reading your blogs!!! I look forward to them. :)

  8. Glad you're enjoying the blog -- words of encouragement from the few readers I have are what keeps me writing!

    At any rate, your idea about painkillers for childbirth as a sign of God's willingness to compromise is one worth considering. I'm not sure what I think of that. I personally took some painkillers when I had my son, but the nurses cut me off for the worst part of it -- the three hours of pushing -- so I still experienced the effects of the curse!

    I also think we agree that there shouldn't be a disconnection between our spiritual lives and our "regular" lives. That's probably why I struggle with this issue: I think the Bible seems clear that women shouldn't be in leadership, but I'm not sure how to apply that practically in the secular world.


Thanks for your comments! Agree or disagree, but please comment respectfully.