In recent weeks the discussion around women teaching/preaching in the church has captured many online discussions. Along the way there have been some people who have confused the situation, so let me first set the record straight. The debate has not been about whether or not women can be elders. The Bible is clear that only men can hold the position of elder in the church. The debate has been about whether or not women can teach/preach sometimes in the church worship gathering or even in mixed gender adult Sunday school classes—if what she is teaching has been evaluated by the elders, meaning her speaking is under the authority of men (elders). This debate has ebbed and flowed throughout the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), but most recently, over the past few months, it has been aimed specifically at Beth Moore.
Before we dive in, I want to make four things clear. First, I am addressing “why” Paul says what he says in 1 Timothy. Second, teaching and preaching are not biblically the same. I will not defend that idea here, however, I will use teaching/preaching language throughout this text but let the reader know I do not think they are synonymous. Third, when discussing this subject many make an error. The error is insisting we need to go outside the logical bounds of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 to other texts of Scripture to understand what Paul is saying. It is an error because in Paul’s mind the reader has been provided the specific reasons “why” he gives the mandate. In other words, if you want to understand why Paul gives the prohibition then understand his reasons; Paul’s argument stands on its own. If someone found a ripped-out page of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 on a beach they would have all the logic needed to understand Paul’s thinking. That person wouldn’t even need to know about the large creation story because Paul explains the two reasons from the story that grounds his argument. That point is often missed, and it is critical as we think about the “why” behind this topic. Finally, this isn’t an argument of what woman cannot do as much as it is an argument that men must do. If Godly men who are biblically faithful and biblically wise stand up and fulfill what God has ordained then both sexes will flourish and freedom in Christ will abound in the local church.
The question of whether a woman can sometimes teach/preach on Sunday, as defended by R.C. Sproul (NOTE: R.C. Sproul’s ministry removed this teaching and it is no longer available) some years ago and by Pastor Dwight McKissic in the most recent June 2019 SBC annual meeting, is an important one to answer. But first we must understand what Paul is saying. The passage typically brought up in this discussion is 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Let’s look at what Paul says: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”
In these verses, Paul gives three mandates:
- A woman cannot teach
- A woman cannot exercise authority over a man
- A woman is to remain quiet (this reinforces the first)
- Plus, he gives two reasons why: Adam was created first, then Eve
- Eve was deceived
1 Timothy 2:11-15:
When Paul said that Adam was created first, he was not being trite. Paul was not holding it over Eve’s head that Adam won the “firstborn prize.”. So, then, why did he say this? What about Adam qualifies his firstborn status as a reason for why women cannot teach while having juridical authority over men (more on juridical authority below)? There are a few things in play, but the primary reason is biology. A first-born son had the birth right in Jewish culture, that is, at a minimum, all authority over his siblings. The prominence of the firstborn male in Jewish history isn’t prescribed by God, without some reason. One reason is the biological traits of maleness. Men have different desires than women, and those differences are driven by biological factors. I will mention some of them in a moment, but my warrant for seeing Paul’s argument from a biological standpoint is because of his emphasis on Adam being formed first, Eve being deceived and Eve being “saved through childbearing.” Paul is connecting Adam’s firstborn status to Eve’s biological gift of childbearing. Look at the parallels:
13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve
15A Yet she will be saved through childbearing
15B If they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
What does Adam’s biological makeup have to do with women not having juridical authority over a man? That is a great question and the connection can be found in an example documented in the psychological data.
Jordan Peterson and What We Know About Men and Women
Today, we have two millennia of scientific research and discovery that readers in the first century didn’t have. Because of this we can sometimes see truths in Scripture more vividly. To be clear, I am not saying science changes the meaning of Scripture; nor am I suggesting the Holy Spirit did not allow Paul this same robust understanding. It is likely Paul understood the specifics into “why” he gave the mandate. But those of us who are not apostolically enlightened like Paul, which is all of us, can use scientific knowledge to enable us to see the truth of Scripture in a more robust way. Scripture truths are true with or without science however, God’s second book called nature can confirm his explicit word; this is the case here.
I was listening on YouTube to the famed clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, and he explained that social sciences have discovered two main reasons that men and women differ in temperament:
- Environmental reasons
- Biological reasons
Some people think biology plays no part; they are called social constructionists. They believe men and women are only different in temperament because of environmental reasons. For instance, they think boys like to fight because dads teach them to fight. They dismiss the idea that there is a battle instinct driving them. The social constructionist hypothesis is this: eliminate environmental variations, and the differences between men and women would disappear or become minimal. But Jordan explained how the biological differences in temperament between men and women are significant, not trivial, and he also touched on how these differences maximize in societies that move toward egalitarian states. This is often through laws which provide more opportunity for women to choose what fields they want to pursue. He went on to explain that the countries that were the most egalitarian (Scandinavian countries)—those that eliminated the environmental variations—saw the biological variations maximize. This has been demonstrated in the psychological scientific literature for over four decades and was devastating to the social constructionist hypothesis. But even with this evidence social constructionists still think biology plays no part. To make my point plain I will say it like this: If you eliminate environmental reasons men and women do what they do, then the biological ones will become more robust. They manifest because they are no longer kept in check by laws. This is because how we are wired as male and female drives our desires toward what we like and do.
For instance, the biggest known difference is that men have an intrest in things over people and women have an intrest in people over things. Another known difference is women tend to be, on average, more agreeable than men. Given this information I will try and put the pieces together regarding how Paul is thinking.
Juridical Authority in the Church
In R.C. Sproul’s teaching called “The Role of Women in the Church,” he uses the 1 Tim. 2 text and argues that Paul is speaking only to juridical authority. He shows where judgements on doctrinal issues within a church context are prohibited by women. He goes on to say that women can teach on a Sunday if she is under the leadership of the elders and is not making juridical pronouncements while teaching. What he says she cannot do is be an elder, because an elder holds juridical authority. Summed up, women are forbidden to rule on final doctrines within the body of Christ (the church). I will not restate the reasons why juridical authority is what Paul is referencing, but I encourage everyone to listen to the audio teaching because I cannot argue it better than Dr. Sproul and it is key to understanding Paul’s logic.
When Paul said the reason women cannot have juridical authority over a man is because Adam was born first, he is saying authority is tied to the biological makeup of Adam. To ground his argument Paul points to the primary (first) biological specimen of humans, Adam. We know that a trait of male biology is a war instinct to protect. In fact, in Jude 1:3 the author says to “contend” for the faith. The word “contend” is the Greek word ἐπαγωνίζομαι which has its root in the word fight. Paul doesn’t explain if the Holy Spirit reveled to him, what we would call scientifically, that men have a war instinct and women are biologically wired on average to be more agreeable than men, but at least in experience he recognized this.
Paul then points out that Adam, the first human biological specimen, who was pre-wired to protect things, wasn’t deceived. Rather, it was Eve, the one who was not biologically wired to war to protect things. Knowing that women are more agreeable than men and that women value relationships over things we can see the key that unlocks Paul’s logic. Paul, in dealing with how to pass down the knowledge of God to generation after generation, explains men are biologically wired to do this. He demonstrates this by showing when Eve tried to exert juridical authority over Adam—by asserting herself trying to war against the temptations of Satan—she failed. She didn’t fail because she was stupid, she failed because the desire to keep the peace (agreeableness), overrode her desire to war with someone. Meaning, underneath the justification of seeing the food was good and could make one wise was this biological drive which justified those conclusions. In order not to slight women Paul then speaks about her God given biological role. Paul cuts the pride of man at its root when he points to Eve’s biological gift. He points out that life itself is biologically wired within Eve. He is showing that even though she isn’t, on average, wired the way necessary to war against false doctrines, which involves juridical pronouncements in the local church, she is wired to produce life and that “saves her.” Meaning, that is a biologically rooted reality that men have no access to. It seems Paul is trying to level the playing field by saying men are biologically wired to protect and war to keep doctrine even at the expense of relationships (think Martin Luther) and women are not less than men, but they are biologically different. Paul demonstrates her ability to birth life is her redeeming quality, and oh what a quality it is.
Failure of Men to Fulfill Their Juridical Role
One test to see if this exegesis is correct, is to look at all the mainline denominations where men have failed to fulfill Paul’s mandate and women have been placed in elder/juridical roles. How is the doctrinal health of that church going? Although I am not a church historian, it seems many churches over time are not doing well contending for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. Often, acceptance and “love” supersede the truth of what the Scriptures teach. Women are biologically wired to value people over and above anything else, so we should not be surprised they don’t want to war over doctrine like Adam, they are not biologically built to do that. But how does this biology argument come together using Paul’s logic?
1 Timothy 2:11-15 Explained
Given all we have seen, I will now go through the text to make what I have already said, explicit.
At its core, the church is egalitarian. What I mean by that is there are very little environmental commands from the bible placed on those who have been justified. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Remember what Jordan Peterson said the scientific data has shown, if the environmental factors are eliminated then the biological factors maximize. Emphasizing again, what we see most often where women are pastors and elders are denominations where the biological wiring pushes for more agreeableness and relationships over the wanting to war to protect doctrine, because it would be at the expense of those biological driven goals;
“14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”
This should be no surprise, after all,
“13Adam was formed first, then Eve.”
Adam is the one who is biologically driven to protect things like the handing down of the words of God. Women elders are on average more agreeable and would rather not war to protect the “things” within doctrine at the expense of a relationship. Paul then knowing by the Holy Spirit that the church has very little mandates specific to men and women, other than we are all in Christ, invokes an environmental command.
“12 Woman cannot teach or have Juridical authority over men.”
Paul must ensure that in the church the God given biological roles are fulfilled. Therefore, he gives the command in the egalitarian church that women cannot have juridical authority over men. We can see the practical nature of this mandate in implementing church discipline. Church discipline requires elders to sometimes sever relationships if there is a lack of repentance and that person claims Christ, in order to save their soul (1Cor.5). This is hard to do when underneath the facts lies a biological driver that pushes subtly toward not removing a person from fellowship.
Knowing how the pride of men can be puffed up, he points out that women have a different role that is also biologically driven which men share no part and that is the ability to create life and the curse does not have power over them.
“15 yet she will be saved through childbearing If they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control”.
The following explanation is from John Piper “How Are Women Saved Through Childbearing.”
“Henry Alford notices that being saved “through” something does not have to mean being saved “by” it, but may mean being saved through it as through a danger. He also notices that Paul does combine the two words (“being saved” and “through”) this way in 1 Corinthians 3:15. “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
Could “She will be saved through childbearing,” mean “She will be saved, not by means of, but through (that is, in spite of) the engulfing pains of childbirth”?
Alford draws our attention to the fact that in Genesis 3:16, after the fall, when God was appointing the devil and woman and man to their distinctive experiences of the curse, “bearing children” was the very point where God’s curse lands on the woman. “To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.’”
Pause and feel the weight of this for women in the centuries before modern medicine. No hygiene, no spinal blocks, no episiotomies, no sutures, no caesarians, no antibiotics, no painkillers, and often, no recovery. Untold numbers of women died in childbirth and countless more suffered the rest of their lives from wounds that prevented childbirth, or any kind of normal sexual life.
In other words, even more than today, there were aspects of childbearing that felt like a curse from God — and often that burden lasted a lifetime, not just in the moment of birth. How easy it would have been for women to despair and feel that God was against them. He was their curser, not their savior.
To this sense of despair Paul responds with the hope of the gospel. No to the curse! The pains of childbearing — even if they last a lifetime — are not God’s final word to women. God intends to save women. He intends for her to be a fellow heir with man of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7).
Henry Alford sums up his interpretation like this:
The curse on the woman for her “transgression” was, “in pains you will bear children” (Genesis 3:16). Her “childbearing” is that in which the curse finds its operation. What then is here promised her? Not only exemption from that curse in its worst and heaviest effects: not merely that she shall safely bear children: but the Apostle uses the word “will be saved” purposely for its higher meaning [eternal salvation], and the construction of the sentence is precisely as [in] 1 Corinthians 3:15 — “he will be saved, yet though as through fire.”
Just as that man should be saved through, as passing through, fire which is his trial, his hindrance in his way, in spite of which he escapes — so she shall be saved, through, as passing through, her child-bearing, which is her trial, her curse, her (not means of salvation, but) hindrance in the way of it. (Alford, H. . Alford’s Greek Testament: an exegetical and critical commentary [Vol. 3, 320]. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software)”
I have argued that Paul gives this mandate because men are biologically created by God to protect the handing down of the Word of God and perform juridical decisions within the role of elder that are in keeping with how men are biologically constructed. I came to this understanding because of the two reasons Paul provides for why he gives the mandate. There is an innate desire in men to protect the ideas of God in the church over and above all else, even risking relationships, thus warring to do it. Intellectual issues between the sexes are not in play here, it is biology 101.
Now what about women sometimes teaching/preaching on Sunday or in a mixed gendered adult Sunday school class? Could a woman at times teach/preach on a Sunday like R.C. Sproul and Dwight McKissic argue? That is the next question that needs to be addressed. This article wasn’t written to conclude one way or the other. I will say, it is not an easy answer if one is thinking carefully about the text and how we conduct church in America. Therefore, I will reserve my thoughts on that for another post. May I encourage all of us to think and pray carefully about the truth of Scripture and let God’s word be our guide. It is his name we live to glorify and in his ways we strive to live.
 R.C. Sproul, “The Role of Women in the Church”, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/series/role_of_women_in_the_church/role-of-women-in-the-church/