Does a woman have authority to teach from the Bible, and if so, where and under what circumstances?
These are questions which are emotionally charged, especially now in the UK when women are seeking equal pay and equal working conditions with men. We must remember, however, that the Church is not the world. It is in the world, but not of the world.
In the time of the early Church, women had little status, and socially and positionally they came under the authority of men. The new found ‘freedom’ enjoyed by female followers of Christ would have brought controversy, and possibly hostility from unbelievers – especially men.
A large proportion of Christ’s followers were women. They gave time and money to supporting Him and His disciples (Mark 15:41; Luke 8:2, 3). As we examine the role they played we see some were quite prominent. There were Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche, Junia, Priscilla, and the four prophesying daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9).
Paul the Apostle had much to say about how these women were to conduct themselves within the Church. He wrote about these matters in epistles such as Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy and Titus. There’s also relevant material in Acts.
So let us look at some of the texts to see if they are appropriate for our times. Did Paul write guidance for specific churches in certain circumstance and did he give universal guidance for all time to all churches? I believe both. The problem is sorting out which is which. Some of Paul’s writings are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16), and people twist them, as they do other Scriptures.
It seems from Acts 2:15-18 that the pouring out of the Spirit was on both men and women – both would prophesy. Indeed, Philip the evangelist had four virgin daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:8, 9). The promise of the Holy Spirit was for ‘all’ whom the Lord would call (Acts 2:17, 18, 39). There’s no getting around this, men and women would ‘prophesy’. They had identical roles.
In Colossians 3:15-17 we find Paul emphasising that the church is ‘one body’ whose members are to teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. By way of Paul’s teaching here, it would appear that women, even though submissive to men, can admonish both men and women. Previously in verses 10 and 11 Paul stated, ‘there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.’ This is complete equality in Christ for all time.
There are some tricky passages however; what about I Corinthians 14:34, 35? Paul says, ‘Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.’
Context is king, and this passage comes in a section devoted to maintaining order in church (1 Corinthians 14:26). Everything done in a meeting was for the church’s ‘edification’ (v 26). Prior to that the gist of the text was about desiring ‘spiritual gifts’ (v 1), and prophesy was one of those gifts, as was speaking in a tongue. However, Paul went on to say that it was better to speak five words with understanding than ten thousand words in a tongue (v 18). Why? For the edification of the church (v 17).
In verse 37 Paul qualifies his statements by saying they are,‘the commandments of the Lord’ . So he spoke with the authority of the Lord.
So how do we resolve what appears to be a contradiction? Women could admonish both men and women (Colossians 3:16), but they were to keep silent in the churches (1 Corinthians 14:34). The answer would appear to be that the women were able to admonish men, but not when assembled as a church, for the reason of good order (1 Corinthians 14:40), and in this context the women were to be silent. With this view it all makes sense.
When it comes to ‘prophesy’ today, there is none, because all prophecy ceased with the completion of Scripture (Revelation 22:18). Some would argue, however, that reading the Scriptures during an assembly of the church is prophesying, because many biblical prophesies have yet to be fulfilled. Therefore teaching and expounding the Scriptures may be thought of as prophesying.
Unlike the early church, which generally met in the homes of believers, most modern churches meet in purpose-built buildings. And, unlike the early church assemblies, teaching normally takes place during the preaching of a sermon, or at separate bible study meetings.
In a biblical church which has the Bible as its authority, teaching elders and deacons will all be men, in line with Paul’s letter 1 Timothy: 3: 1-13. Since men will lead in all teaching at general assemblies, women assume a passive role.
However, it is also common practice to hold meetings where children and young people are taught apart from the main morning or evening assemblies, and ladies often take leading roles at such meetings. This brings us to a less than clearcut situation, but some would argue that these meetings are not church assemblies; therefore women may teach at them – just as they would teach their own children, friends’ children, or anybody for that matter, except during church assemblies.
It is also common practice for women to meet exclusively with other women when often there is a teaching input. As they are not teaching men, questions of authority or submission do not apply.
There is nothing to stop a woman from writing a book which gives her interpretation of the Scriptures; indeed, quite a few women have blogs and websites expressing their views on the Bible. If these women are members of a biblical church, they may find themselves being held to account by the elders who may challenge their interpretations if they deem them to be incorrect.
Note this passage from Acts: ‘Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. When Aquila and Priscilla heard of him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately’ (Acts 18:24-26). They both taught him, but not in the setting of a church assembly.
So, as I see it, both men and women may teach from the Scriptures, while both must be subject to the authority of the Scriptures. Each have their parts to play.