Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Women teach men

For a church that wants to follow the bible, the role of women in church is a tricky one. Looking at the New Testament for answers, the question always boils down to: when Paul was discussing worship conduct and church polity, what was cultural and what was intended as instruction for the ages?

This is one area where we are at great risk of living up to the charge, so often leveled at us from atheists, of cafeteria Christianity. Self-consistency is good. I love self-consistency. But it doesn't mean you are right, it just means you are not trivially wrong. The trivially self-consistent approach to this question is that all Paul’s teachings are normative for all times. Right down to the head coverings. That approach sidesteps all debate. If Paul said it, then it was for then and for now. And it is self-consistent. But I think it is wrong.

I try to live by one all-encompassing hermeneutical principle: the bible is supposed to be read intelligently. The simple approach described above, in my mind, violates this principle. I don’t think that Paul taught that, for now and evermore, women should cover their heads in church (just to take one example.) That one deviation sets the precedent—now we are forced to go case by case. And then we'll find, well, sometimes it is just plain difficult to read the bible intelligently. There seems to be no guiding principle as to how one command should be deemed to be cultural and temporal, while another is universal and eternal. It is beyond me, that’s for sure.

So what do I do? I sort of live with what seems reasonable. My church was deacon led, and the deacons were all men. I do not think that is the biblical model. We switched to a plurality of elders (men) and deacons (men and women). Men (primarily elders) teach adult Sunday School. On a scale of 1 to 10 at what level do I think I can defend this? I would say a 7. Not that great, but it is (in my opinion) the most defensible model. I’ll live with it. At least for now. But I couldn't prove it from scripture definitively. Contrast, say the idea of predestination. That I believe I could defend at 9.5 on a 10 point scale.

However, there is this: women not teaching men does not mean women can't teach men. They can and do, all the time. I once was in a church where an elder said something totally asinine. He related that if he turned on the radio to a Christian station when they were airing a bible lesson or devotion taught by a woman (think Elisabeth Elliott) he would turn it off, because a woman should not teach a man. Nonsense. Let us turn to the bible to see how silly his position is.
24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man,competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:24-26)
Priscilla and Aquila (wife and husband) were this remarkable couple from Rome that Paul encountered in Corinth on his second missionary journey. The bible is silent on what must have floored Paul: at that time he was the world's most far-ranging missionary, and yet he encountered two Christians from Rome. No missionary of note had yet been anywhere near Rome. How delighted and flabbergasted he must have been. But that’s another story. The point here: in the nascent church, Priscilla (w) taught Apollos (m).

It is something I think about often.


  1. One great way to avoid misunderstanding some statement in the Bible (to read intelligently!) is to take a look at the practice, as you did here.

    What did Paul say? What did Paul do? If we're interpreting what Paul said as universally prohibiting something that Paul himself did, wouldn't we be calling Paul a hypocrite?

    Good post.

  2. Henry,

    Agreed. If one's "rule" finds Paul in violation, it is time to abandon the rule. Thanks for the comment.