There is perhaps no more hotly debated issue in the church today than the issue of women serving as pastors/preachers. As a result, it is very important to not see this issue as men versus women. There are women who believe women should not serve as pastors and that the Bible places restrictions on the ministry of women, and there are men who believe women can serve as preachers and that there are no restrictions on women in ministry. This is not an issue of chauvinism or discrimination. It is an issue of biblical interpretation.
The Word of God proclaims, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (1 Timothy 2:11-12). In the church, God assigns different roles to men and women. This is a result of the way mankind was created and the way in which sin entered the world (1 Timothy 2:13-14). God, through the apostle Paul, restricts women from serving in roles of teaching and/or having spiritual authority over men. This precludes women from serving as pastors, which definitely includes preaching to, teaching, and having spiritual authority over men.
There are many “objections” to this view of women in ministry. A common one is that Paul restricts women from teaching because in the first century, women were typically uneducated. However, 1 Timothy 2:11-14 nowhere mentions educational status. If education were a qualification for ministry, the majority of Jesus’ disciples would not have been qualified. A second common objection is that Paul only restricted the women of Ephesus from teaching (1 Timothy was written to Timothy, who was the pastor of the church in Ephesus). The city of Ephesus was known for its temple to Artemis, a false Greek/Roman goddess. Women were the authority in the worship of Artemis. However, the book of 1 Timothy nowhere mentions Artemis, nor does Paul mention Artemis worship as a reason for the restrictions in 1 Timothy 2:11-12.
A third common objection is that Paul is only referring to husbands and wives, not men and women in general. The Greek words in the passage could refer to husbands and wives; however, the basic meaning of the words refers to men and women. Further, the same Greek words are used in verses 8-10. Are only husbands to lift up holy hands in prayer without anger and disputing (verse 8)? Are only wives to dress modestly, have good deeds, and worship God (verses 9-10)? Of course not. Verses 8-10 clearly refer to all men and women, not only husbands and wives. There is nothing in the context that would indicate a switch to husbands and wives in verses 11-14.
Yet another frequent objection to this interpretation of women in ministry is in relation to women who held positions of leadership in the Bible, specifically Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah in the Old Testament. This objection fails to note some significant factors. First, Deborah was the only female judge among 13 male judges. Huldah was the only female prophet among dozens of male prophets mentioned in the Bible. Miriam’s only connection to leadership was being the sister of Moses and Aaron. The two most prominent women in the times of the Kings were Athaliah and Jezebel—hardly examples of godly female leadership. Most significantly, though, the authority of women in the Old Testament is not relevant to the issue. The book of 1 Timothy and the other Pastoral Epistles present a new paradigm for the church—the body of Christ—and that paradigm involves the authority structure for the church, not for the nation of Israel or any other Old Testament entity.
Similar arguments are made using Priscilla and Phoebe in the New Testament. In Acts 18, Priscilla and Aquila are presented as faithful ministers for Christ. Priscilla’s name is mentioned first, perhaps indicating that she was more “prominent” in ministry than her husband. However, Priscilla is nowhere described as participating in a ministry activity that is in contradiction to 1 Timothy 2:11-14. Priscilla and Aquila brought Apollos into their home and they both discipled him, explaining the Word of God to him more accurately (Acts 18:26).
In Romans 16:1, even if Phoebe is considered a “deaconess” instead of a “servant,” that does not indicate that Phoebe was a teacher in the church. “Able to teach” is given as a qualification for elders, but not deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:6-9). Elders/bishops/deacons are described as the “husband of one wife,” “a man whose children believe,” and “men worthy of respect.” Clearly the indication is that these qualifications refer to men. In addition, in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:6-9, masculine pronouns are used exclusively to refer to elders/bishops/deacons.
The structure of 1 Timothy 2:11-14 makes the “reason” perfectly clear. Verse 13 begins with “for” and gives the “cause” of Paul’s statement in verses 11-12. Why should women not teach or have authority over men? Because “Adam was created first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived.” God created Adam first and then created Eve to be a “helper” for Adam. This order of creation has universal application in the family (Ephesians 5:22-33) and the church. The fact that Eve was deceived is also given as a reason for women not serving as pastors or having spiritual authority over men. This leads some to believe that women should not teach because they are more easily deceived. That concept is debatable, but if women are more easily deceived, why should they be allowed to teach children (who are easily deceived) and other women (who are supposedly more easily deceived)? That is not what the text says. Women are not to teach men or have spiritual authority over men because Eve was deceived. As a result, God has given men the primary teaching authority in the church.
Many women excel in gifts of hospitality, mercy, teaching, and helps. Much of the ministry of the local church depends on women. Women in the church are not restricted from public praying or prophesying (1 Corinthians 11:5), only from having spiritual teaching authority over men. The Bible nowhere restricts women from exercising the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12). Women, just as much as men, are called to minister to others, to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), and to proclaim the gospel to the lost (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 1 Peter 3:15).
God has ordained that only men are to serve in positions of spiritual teaching authority in the church. This is not because men are necessarily better teachers, or because women are inferior or less intelligent (which is not the case). It is simply the way God designed the church to function. Men are to set the example in spiritual leadership—in their lives and through their words. Women are to take a less authoritative role. Women are encouraged to teach other women (Titus 2:3-5). The Bible also does not restrict women from teaching children. The only activity women are restricted from is teaching men or having spiritual authority over them. This logically would preclude women from serving as pastors/preachers. This does not make women less important, by any means, but rather gives them a ministry focus more in agreement with God’s plan and His gifting of them.
John MacArthur: The Bible Absolutely Says No to Women Pastors!
Today I’d like to share the second half of our conversation, wherein I asked Phil to contribute his thoughts about the growing problem of women teaching and taking authority within the evangelical church.
An issue that I think should be of growing concern among evangelicals is that of women pastors. This trend seems to be coming into the mainstream. Some would say this is a secondary issue, which tends to imply that it’s unimportant. What’s your take?
I don’t think it’s on the same level as the doctrine of justification by faith or anything like that. It is a classic example of why I don’t like dividing all doctrine up into primary and secondary issues. When I say something is a primary issue, I mean that if you don’t believe this, then I don’t think you’re a believer and I can’t embrace you as a brother or sister in Christ. If you reject the deity of Christ or the doctrine of justification by faith or the inspiration and authority of Scripture, then I don’t think you’re really a believer at all. That’s what I mean when I say something is a primary issue.
To a lot of people when you say something is a secondary issue, you’re saying, “Well, it doesn’t really matter to me what you think.” It does matter.
There are several doctrines that I wouldn’t necessarily consider primary that I nevertheless think are supremely important. Like the doctrine of Hell; I wouldn’t call that a primary issue. I mean, there have been good men, I think, men who God has clearly used to clarify important biblical doctrines who believe in conditional immortality. I think they are dead wrong. John Stott, for example, seemed to waffle on the issue of Hell. I wouldn’t say I don’t think he was a true believer, but I do think he was seriously wrong enough on the issue that it needs to be definitively rebuked and corrected.
I would put the issue of women teaching [in the same category]. Women in positions of leadership over men, that is the issue. For a woman to be in any position of leadership over men in the church is a violation of clear teaching of Scripture. If you’re willing to twist your understanding of Scripture or put enough latitude into the potential meaning of words to tolerate that, then I don’t really trust your judgment on other important issues.
So I would say that’s one of those second-tier primary issues. It’s not fundamental in the sense that you’re not a believer if you don’t believe this, but it’s a primary issue nevertheless in the sense that it’s important enough to me that I wouldn’t want to partner in ministry with someone who rejected it.
You wouldn’t take the platform with a woman pastor or with a man who affirms women pastors?
No. I wouldn’t speak in a church that I knew let women be in positions of authority over men. Once you start making accommodations and exceptions it’s only a matter of time before you’re ordaining women.
So where should the line be drawn?
What’s most unbiblical is easily boiled down to this: women are not supposed to have authority over men in the church. Whether that’s leading the choir…I went to a church for years where the pastor’s wife was the choir director. This was in my younger years and it didn’t occur to me to question that until she started using her authority to scold men in the choir who were elders in the church! She may even have been right on the issue, but here’s the pastor’s wife giving a public scolding to an elder in our church. It made me think about it.
The biblical issue is the question of authority. It’s not to say that men are smarter than women; it’s not to say that men inherently are better teachers than women, none of that is the case. It’s just the order God established for authority and it’s an issue of authority and the leadership duty in the church.
It’s for the women’s benefit as well, that men, their husbands and fathers and the men in the church, should take leadership because you can see in our culture what happens when this is reversed. When you have a woman who is the spiritual authority in her family, then the family can get out of whack. And the woman is the first one to complain, “My husband’s not being the leader he should be,” and that’s true. It’s as much a sin of the men as it is of the women.
The problem with the church and the feminization of the church is not that “pushy” women have intruded on the leadership, but that men abdicated their responsibility. That was the first problem, the heart of the problem, and if the men would be the men they’re supposed to be, this wouldn’t even be an issue.
It’s a failure of male leadership in the church. But you can’t take a pragmatic view and say, “Well, there are no men to lead so let’s let the women lead,” because then you’ve basically overthrown Scripture.
I remember having these conversations in college, in my Missions class. I went to Moody, so the classes were denominationally mixed. In those days, in the ‘70s, the evangelical climate was not in favor of female leadership in the church. But I remember having these discussions in the context of missions. What if you’re on the mission field and the only mature Christian is a woman, should she lead the church? And the general consensus in the classroom and even among some of our faculty at that time was that yes, in extraordinary circumstances it was okay for a woman to lead the church. And I think once you start making pragmatic accommodations like that, you’ve pretty much broken down a barrier that’s going to lead to the ordination of women, and that’s what’s happened.
It doesn’t boil down to something as simple as, “Should women literally keep silent and never say anything?” The issue is authority and if you take all of those texts in context, you can see that. Paul is saying men should lead the church. Qualified men should lead the church. It’s just as bad for unqualified men to lead the church as it is for women to lead the church. So it’s not a sexist thing, it’s just that this is the way that God has established order in the church. Christ is the head and He has under-shepherds who are qualified men. Both disqualified men and women who take that office have intruded into a role that God hasn’t assigned to them and that’s disobedience.
What if a woman is teaching mixed audiences outside of the context of the local church, such as at conferences or on a television show?
Teaching inherently entails the exercise of authority. If you are teaching, you are exercising authority. If you’re teaching biblical material, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the context of the local church or not, you are exercising the authority of Scripture. If you’re teaching biblical material to fellow Christians, whether it is a home Bible study or a conference somewhere, that’s still what Paul meant by “in the church.”
For the record, I agree with all that you’ve said here and I appreciate you lending a voice of authority to the issue.