A recent survey conducted in the USA indicated that 7 out of 10 self-identified evangelicals agreed that “women should be allowed to preach on Sunday morning”. The results showed that these figures are not reduced when frequency of attendance and attitude to the Bible are taken into consideration. Three-quarters of those who claimed to believe that the Bible is literally true and attend services multiple times a week agreed with women preaching. Age did not seem to make a significant difference in people’s views either. We do not know what arguments these people consider strongest in favour of this view. Popular arguments are, however, familiar enough from the wider debate on this issue. If we claim to take the Bible as literally true, we must consider what it says on this subject. Whatever most evangelicals support we need to know what the Bible itself supports. Let us consider some of the passages that speak clearly on this matter.
Many books have been written on this subject, but shorter articles can still be useful. It is also helpful to consider how previous generations have understood Scripture in relation to this debate. Did they have clear biblical reasons for their views? It is helpful to do this because sometimes we are especially influenced by being so close to our own cultural perspective and current debates. Some want to claim that the New Testament’s assertions are merely cultural and can be bypassed. Yet who decides what is cultural and how far this approach goes? Others want to redefine what “teaching” means. A technical in-depth refutation of that kind of redefinition can be found in Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 by Andreas Köstenberger and Thomas Schreiner.
The question is not whether men are allowed to preach and teach publicly but women aren’t. The question is rather who is qualified according to Scripture to preach and teach. “Are all teachers?” (1 Corinthians 12:29) asks Paul. Clearly not. Not all men are qualified for office in the church. Only some men and not all are among those qualified and called to preach. This issue does not downgrade the important contribution of woman within the church any more than it downgrades male members who are not in office.
Arguments in favour of women preaching have been made in the past as well as in the present. In the more distant past, those who were promoting this practice were various groups and sects such as the Quakers. John Brown of Wamphray responded to these arguments and the following is an updated extract. Beginning with the passages that deal with this most explicitly he makes the following blunt observation. Some plead for women speaking or preaching in the public assemblies of the Church notwithstanding the fact that Paul has in two distinct places, expressly prohibited it.
1 Corinthians 14:34-38
One passage is 1 Corinthians 14:34 “Let your women keep silence, in the churches”. We might think, that this was indeed enough to satisfy us; but see what the apostle adds further to enforce this, “for it is not permitted unto them to speak”, i.e. in the churches. This is as if he had said “they have no permission to do so”. And as if all this were not enough, he adds all that is permitted to them i.e. to be under obedience as the law requires. By this he wants us to understand that women speaking in the churches is inconsistent with the obedience that the law of God has laid on them. He implies that speaking by teaching in the churches is an authoritative thing, and therefore not allowed to women in any way. Their proper behaviour according to the institution and law of God, is to be under obedience. He will not even permit them so much as to ask questions for the sake of learning in the churches lest this would make way for usurping authority and beginning to speak with authority. He adds in verse 35 that if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home. He adds that it was contrary to that modesty that is the ornament of women in saying that it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
What the apostle adds to confirm this injunction concerning women in the verses that follow is also notable. They may be considered along with his previous directions which he had given to regulate the abuses of that church. He asks them if the Word of God came out from them or to them alone. In other words, are you the first, last, and only Christians there are? Or must you give laws to all the churches of Christ? And must they all follow you? It is as though no previous church has had the Word of God in relation to this. In verse 37 he goes on to say that if any man thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. Those who defend women preachers must take notice of this. When they contradict this express injunction of the apostle, they declare themselves (whatever they want to say to the contrary) to be neither prophets nor spiritual.
We also see that what Paul spoke concerning this silence of women in the church was the commandment of the Lord. Therefore it is obligatory for all churches who seek to own any relation to Christ as their Lord and Head. Those who reject this commandment of the Lord renounce (in this area) their relation to the Lord as their Head and Lawgiver. The next verse (v38). “But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant” also have their own weight. It is as if he had said, if anyone still will not (despite all this) accept this let him do so. No more needs be said to convince him because he is wilfully ignorant and must remain so. Thus, we must say in this particular matter that if people will remain ignorant, we cannot help it. We must follow our rule and declare them unable of being convinced on this and so leave them to it.
1 Timothy 2:11—14
Another explicit passage against women preachers is 1 Timothy 2:11—14. This requires the women to learn in silence with all obedience and not to teach nor to usurp authority over the man. We can see from this that teaching publicly is an act of authority and that inconsistent, with the silence and obedience required from women. The apostle, as a faithful servant of Christ, will not therefore give way to it. He makes this known to Timothy so that he may suppress any such practice where it exists or hinder where people want to establish it. He adds his reasons; saying, for Adam was first formed, then Eve. By this he teaches us that such a practice is contrary to the law of creation, the law written on the Creation, and the way and method of creation which the Lord chose to follow. This made an express declaration of His will to mankind.
The apostle also adds that Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. That is, the woman being immediately and first deceived by Satan was the cause and occasion of Adam’s transgressing. Her submission to the man was further laid on her as a more grievous weight and burden, as a part of her punishment. Those who seek to have women usurping authority and teaching in the church seek to annul the sentence passed on women by the just Lord for Eve’s being the cause of Adam’s sin. Such declare in a way that that sentence was unjust; and that Eve was not the devil’s instrument to cause Adam to sin.
Some say that women can be preachers because male and female are one in Christ. “Seeing” (they say) “God gives His Spirit to one as well as to another, when the Lord moves in women by His Spirit, we do not think it unlawful in any way for them to preach in the meetings of God’s people”.
The following is the answer to this:
(1) There is neither male, nor female just as there is neither Jew nor Greek but all are one in Christ. This is true in reference to the privileges of the Covenant under the present New Testament administration. It is different from what was the case under the Old Testament. This is what Paul is speaking of in Galatians 3:28. But it does not follow from this as a consequence by any clear connection or appearance of reason that women as well as men may therefore preach in the assemblies of the church
(2) That God gives His sanctifying Spirit to women, as well as men, is very true. But that He moves them to preach is not. If the Spirit of God moves in women, He will prompt them to duty i.e. to keep silence in the Church and not teach there or usurp authority. Rather she will learn in obedience, remembering what her sex is called to by the law of God, and that punishment on all women due to Eve’s conduct.
Some think the passages we have cited out of Paul’s Epistles do not oppose their practice of women preachers. Yet a more explicit contradiction is not imaginable. They appeal to the fact that women have prophesied in the Church to counter this.
In answer to this, the Lord has indeed made use of women to be prophetesses, He is free to make use of whom He will. His rare and extraordinary acts are no rule to us, however. His Law is our rule, and we must go to the Law and to the Testimony. He is absolute and is not bound by the rules and laws, He prescribes to us,
Some point out that Peter applies Joel’s prophecy in Acts 2:17 which speaks of women prophesying. But how does Peter apply it? Were there any women preachers among the company converted through Peter? During the particular time in which Peter applies Joel’s prophecy we do not hear of the least appearance of any women preachers and this manifestly declares to the contrary.
1 Corinthians 11:5
Some say that Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 11:5 gave rules how women should conduct themselves, in their public preaching and prayers. The problem with this is that makes the apostle contradict himself in the same epistle. Is it not safer for us to say that whatever rules he gave, they were such as must be consistent with the plain, absolute and enforced prohibition of their preaching, teaching, or speaking in the public meetings of the church? But what were the rules he gave concerning women? He said that every woman that prays or prophesies with her head uncovered, dishonours her head. Some assume this refers to how they should conduct themselves when prophesying or praying publicly before others in the assembly. But the apostle is only showing what should be the conduct of both men and women when present in the public assemblies at the time of public worship. He shows how they should conduct themselves while the Word was spoken and explained and public prayers was being made, not by themselves but by others appointed for this.
Some appeal to Philippians 4:3 where Paul speaks of women that laboured with him in the gospel. The question is, in what way did they do this? Some imagine it was by public preaching in the assemblies but what grounds are there for this? What hint is given of this? Is there no labouring in the gospel, except by public preaching? Some point out that Philip had four daughters that prophesied (Acts 21:9). But where do we read that they preached in the public assemblies of the church?
Arguing from Experience
Some argue that God has converted many to Himself by the means of women and frequently comforted the minds of His sons. They say that this manifest experience puts the matter to us beyond all controversy. The following answers may, however, be made.
(1) God may make use of women in a private capacity for this effect and has often blessed their honest endeavours to this end. We most willingly acknowledge this, but the question is not about their efforts and labour in private in their particular place and capacities, but about public preaching in open and public assemblies of the church.
(2) If people mean preaching in the public assemblies when they speak about God using women, it is suspect. Such experiences, being false and falsely founded, can provide no evidence against the standing and binding laws of Christ in His Church. Otherwise we make experience our Bible from which all arguments are brought to defend all erroneous and irregular practices. It is safest to examine experiences by a standing rule; if they do not agree with this they are at best the result and acts of the power of people’s own vain imaginations. If people will steer their course by such a compass, we think it little wonder if they dash on the rocks and make shipwreck of truth.
Other points could be made but this survey of the key passages covers the main points in a concise way. Many of the arguments are not necessarily new, it is just that they are coming from a new source. There are many other treatments of this issue, some of which go into considerable depth. Yet for some the matter is settled by the clear words of Scripture themselves. If these words do not mean what they say they mean then how does that affect other clear passages? If we believe the Spirit is apparently saying something new to us about these verses then why is it so contradictory to what others have believed (1 Corinthians 14:36)? The debate on this question relates to a wider question of whether we accept the plain language of Scripture and its authority. Are we willing to let Scripture have supreme authority or is our submission to it conditional on culture or experience?
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