One day I flew to Texas and I met a cute girl. I asked her to dinner, and that night, my whole life changed. That was the night I learned about Jesus. I’d grown up in a Christian church, but I’d never heard about a Jesus like this. Her Jesus was alive and real and revolutionary and transformative. Her Jesus didn’t nibble around the edges of your life; he was pervasive through the entire thing. That night she spoke words into me that breathed with life like nothing I’d never known before.
Was she wrong? Should she have done that? Many churches quote scripture that says “I do not permit a woman to teach, or to have authority over a man.” So should she have simply left me where I was for fear of teaching me something?
In reality, most Christians would quote other scriptures to limit, restrict, or reinterpret this verse and make an exception for this case. So why not a larger exception? Why not allow our society’s many well educated, gifted, female writers and speakers an unrestricted hall pass to teach what they know? As a high schooler, best-selling author Rachel Held Evans was once told, “‘Rachel you’re such a great speaker; it’s too bad you’re a girl.” Blogger Jory Micah was told, at age 18, that her desire to serve God as a pastor was sinful.
On the question, “Should a woman preach?” I would submit that such answers :
- Result more from evangelical culture than Biblical truth
- Are inconsistent with our practice, even in the most conservative of congregations
- May turn a blind eye to the actual reality of what God is doing
Culture vs. Truth
The Bible is long, and there’s a lot in there. How do we choose which parts of it to talk about the most? Ideally, our discussion of topics from the Bible would be in exact proportion the the frequency of those topics within the text itself. To do otherwise is to risk a distortion of the actual Biblical message. Christ himself addresses this tendency when he says, “What sorrow awaits you. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23:23). We can fall into sin, even in perfect obedience to God’s law, when obsessive legalism leads us away from the real point.
Yet this is the reality of our time. We attack certain topics with an energy and enthusiasm out of all proportion with the Bible’s text, yet remain oddly silent on other topics of greater Biblical importance. If the need to suppress women’s teaching gifts were an important doctrine, then why— with just the one mention in 1 Timothy— does the Bible devote only 0.016% of its verses to the topic? That would work out to a full Sunday sermon a little less than once a century. Some argue that the particular obsessions of American culture require more frequent responses from Christians in those areas. Yet in this, too, we Christians reveal our cultural biases by what we omit from such scrutiny: everything from covering women’s hair to honoring our leaders to refraining from anger.
Practicing what we preach?
The fact is, even in conservative congregations that would never hire a female pastor, women are teaching men every week. Just walk into the Sunday school.
The injunction in 1 Timothy explains Paul’s resistance to women teaching on the grounds that Eve was deceived, and sin was the result. In Paul’s eyes, we may conclude, a female teacher is more likely to lead us into sin. Yet if we are to protect ourselves from deceptiveness, who is more vulnerable than a young child? If our genuine concern were for sound doctrine, the Sunday school should be the first line of defense. That it is not reveals a different motivation is at work.
The same inconsistency appears in other areas as well. Of the same church where her potential as a teacher was so casually dismissed, Rachel Held Evans writes, “The only time women spoke in church was when they were missionaries. I didn’t understand why that was allowed, but teaching from the pulpit was not.” Again, if our true concern were the validity of what women have to say, should we not be equally passionate for the protection of men abroad?
Rather, it seems to me, our insistence on male pastors results more from simple bias against women in certain roles than from some kind of principled stand on Biblical truth.
Which side is which?
What emerges again and again from women in ministry is the conviction that they are called to it by God, that the scriptures used to dissuade them have somehow been misunderstood. What if they are right?
Misunderstanding scripture is possible. While scripture is infallible, we are not, and in the history of the Church, conventional wisdom has often been wrong. That can happen to us as well. For a non-controversial example, it would be a gross error to read 1 Timothy 4:12 as a blanket negation of the need to respect our elders; in fact, many other places in scripture urge us to respect our elders. What if we have made the same mistake in using 1 Timothy 2:12 to overrule all the many Biblical teachings about the importance of recognizing our gifts and putting them to work for the kingdom?
Consider this thought experiment: imagine a God who might break out of expectations (that has happened before), who might choose a vessel for his message that confounds conventional wisdom (that has happened before too). Imagine that messenger is sent among a people who refuse to listen (also has happened). What would God’s judgment on those people be for their failure to listen and receive? When someone claims she has a message from God, if we dismiss her out of hand because she doesn’t match our expectations, we do so only at our own mortal peril. She may be right; we may even find ourselves fighting against God.
“Not for myself, may I be one for Jesus; not divided, may we be one for Jesus.”