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Some Reflections on the Role of Women in the Church: Pragmatic Issues

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A thoughtful individual wrote to me recently about the role of women in the church. He was torn as to what view to accept (i.e., either women are in some sense restricted in their ministries today or they are not). He mentioned some pragmatic arguments for egalitarianism: women missionaries, books on theology written by women, women in church choirs or doing solos as a form of teaching. I thought his questions were insightful, and are among the most difficult questions that complementarians have to deal with. Below is what I wrote him.

These are not easy things for complementarians to think about. And I must confess: attitudinally, I am an egalitarian. I find what scripture says on these matters very difficult to swallow at times. However, I am positionally a complementarian because I can’t go against my conscience. For me at least, to read these passages in an egalitarian way is to do some exegetical gymnastics in which one twists and turns the text to conform it to their views. I may not be comfortable with my complementarian position, but I am unwilling to twist scripture into something that it does not say. (I’m not saying that those who take an egalitarian position on this passage are willing to twist the scriptures! But I am saying that I think they are, in effect, probably doing this just the same.)

By the way, I think that Doug Moo’s articles on 1 Tim 2.11-15, posted at bible.org, should be a great summary of the exegetical reasons for a complementarian view of that passage. He has done perhaps the best exegesis of this passage in print.

As for your questions, I too would think that it’s inconsistent for women to be missionaries if they are not allowed to preach at home. For this reason, I urge men to go to the mission field. Not that I don’t want women there! But the men should lead the way, as historically they usually have. It is to our shame that women in the church are often taking the most dangerous and risky jobs while the men sit back home in a more comfortable setting. Another approach that some complementarians hold about women missionaries in the lead is that these women are permitted by scripture to do this, but their act of bravery and self-sacrifice should cause men to realize that they are not doing their job. (The model is Deborah in Judges 4-5.) In other words, women leading on the mission field should shame men, and God will use plan B if the men aren’t doing what they’re supposed to. If such an interpretation is correct, then it would certainly not be wrong for women to go to the mission field and to start churches and preach in them. But it would be wrong for men to sit idly by and think that the Great Commission should be fulfilled just by women!

As for singing in a choir or doing a solo, no, I don’t regard this as teaching. The words are already set, and the focus is to cause us to worship God, not think about the implications of a biblical passage for life.

Regarding women teaching children, I find that to be no problem whatsoever. In fact, I would say that women teaching biblical truths in college is no problem. The reason is that what is prohibited is women teaching adult males (what the word ‘men’ in 1 Tim 2:12 essentially means). By adult male, I take it that the idea has to do with those who are economically, physically, and emotionally separated from their parents. College students, by and large, don’t qualify on all three fronts. To be sure, there are always exceptions in college, but the principle taught in 1 Tim 2:12 is focusing on the norm. It is not meant to be worked out by focusing on the exceptions, which should be rare.

As for women writing books that expound the scriptures, my view is that this is also not teaching in the way that preaching in church would be. The dynamic of speaking before a community of believers, in which everyone listening is seeing one’s authoritative demeanor and hearing one’s authoritative voice, is a different dynamic than a book. Books can be picked up and put down, read, interacted with, discussed, debated, written and written against. Sermons don’t fit into that same kind of genre entirely. But I admit this is a difficult call, and some good scholars would say that there is no difference between the two.

At bottom, there are three reasons why I hold to a complementarian viewpoint in 1 Tim 2. First is exegetical. I won’t go into the details of this, since it’s been covered quite adequately elsewhere. (And, as I mentioned, I largely agree with Doug Moo’s exegesis of the passage.)

Second, the strongest arguments against complementarianism are pragmatic, not exegetical. You have raised some of the strongest arguments that are traditionally used. But it raises a significant question: if 1 Tim 2:12 can be overturned by the pragmatic outworking of ministry by women, then does it mean nothing? Those who start with the pragmatic view tend not to address the exegetical issue. (The most inconsistent position, in fact, is one that affirms that 1 Tim 2 is a normative prohibition and yet finds so many pragmatic exceptions that the text becomes meaningless.) And even for those who do address it, their starting point is almost always the pragmatic side of things. To me, this is no better an argument than saying that speaking in tongues is a legitimate manifestation of the Spirit today because most Christians are charismatic, or that since most people never hear the name of Christ, God will save them on the basis of their works. It’s the “50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong” argument.

Third, I have found an interesting sociological phenomenon regarding 1 Tim 2:12. If I may use a term inappropriately here since it is painting with too broad of a brush, let’s say that those who reject the authenticity of the Pastorals are ‘liberal’ and those who believe Paul wrote these letters are conservative. (The broad brush, by the way, concerns calling one ‘liberal’; what makes a theological liberal a liberal is, I believe, a denial of bodily resurrection of the Son of God, not a denial of Paul’s authorship of 1-2 Timothy and Titus.) Now what’s interesting to note is this: both conservatives and ‘liberals’ have historically tended to view this passage as prohibiting women from teaching men. They have viewed it as a normative command, meant for application beyond the confines of Ephesus or the first century. The difference is that conservatives have agreed to abide by this interpretation while ‘liberals’ have simply said, ‘Well, that’s not Paul.’ In more recent years, ‘liberal’ scholarship has even moved in the direction of saying that the real Paul also would agree with this restriction on women. Either that or they now excise parts of Paul’s letters that seem to conform to 1 Tim 2:12 (I’m thinking specifically of 1 Cor 14:34-35), even though there is not a single manuscript that omits these verses. All this makes evangelical egalitarians the odd man out: it is this group, and historically almost exclusively this group, that has affirmed Pauline authorship of the Pastorals yet interprets 1 Tim 2:12 in an egalitarian way. I am always leery of a particular group that has an explicit agenda being virtually the only group to promote a certain viewpoint that is somehow connected with that agenda. It is this group, by the way, that championed the excision of 1 Cor 14:34-35. And the obvious connection between regarding the Pastorals as authentic but affirming an egalitarian viewpoint and regarding 1 Cor 14:34-35 as inauthentic because it gets in the way of this egalitarian viewpoint is striking.

In the end, however, my desire is to be both charitable and biblical. That’s why I like Bruce Barron’s article, “Putting Women in their Place.” As an egalitarian, he distinguished between position and attitude. In attitude, I am egalitarian. And I have pushed on the boundaries of complementarianism for a long time. I have had women interns at Dallas Seminary. Three of them have earned the New Testament award for doing the best work in the NT among graduating seniors. The work was based on their master’s theses. And yes, they taught in those theses and taught well. Specifically, they have taught me some things! I have endorsed women for all sorts of ministries, including ministries that I would be uncomfortable with them doing. But since they are ministering in churches that are egalitarian, I would rather have these women ministering there than some others who may not be as well trained, as godly, as devoted to the scriptures and to Christ.

Again, as I mentioned early on, I have problems with the complementarian position. I am sometimes embarrassed to be a complementarian. It would be a whole lot easier if I weren’t! But I can’t go against my conscience. And my conscience tells me that after all the exegetical dust has settled, to deny some sort of normative principle to 1 Tim 2:12 is probably a misunderstanding of this text.

Sincerely in Christ,

Dan Wallace

Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry