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  • Writer's pictureBrian Fuller

Madam Pastor?



Kathy Keller (Kristy), wife of the late Tim Keller, after coming to faith in Christ, and then having grown up in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which ordained women as pastors, was on track to be ordained as a pastor herself. That's until Kathy and Tim took a class in the 1972 spring semester at Gordon-Conwell taught by Elizabeth Elliot entitled, "Christian Expression in Speech, Writing and Behavior." Kathy later recounts that Elliot"was the first person to help me understand gender roles as a gift from God instead of an embarrassment and curse." This was no small shift.


understand gender roles as a gift from God instead of an embarrassment and curse."

Kathy entered Gordon-Conwell under the oversight of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, which at one point, had been the largest presbytery in the world. Because Kathy was on the ordination trajectory when she entered Gordon, she was required to give public notice, on the floor of the presbytery, that she had changed her mind. When Kathy appeared before the 350 board participants, she stated with conviction that the Bible did not allow for women's ordination. In reaction, Kathy received audible boos and hisses from at least half of the 300+ participants. The year was 1972.


Five decades later, the words of Scripture that restrict women from being pastors are exponentially more counter-cultural. In our current world, they sound insensitive at best and misogynistic at worst. The Apostle Paul apparently had no filter for "trigger words."


He wrote:


"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." ( I Timothy 2:11-12)

Really?! It's 2023.


Isn't this an example of a relic of first-century cultural manners that expired centuries ago? Couldn't regulations like this one be categorized with other ancient expressions of etiquette like "greeting one another with a holy kiss" and foot-washing? And, who can forget that Paul admonished the Corinthian sisters to cover their heads with headgear of some sort during worship like all the other churches were doing? But very few churches insist on head coverings on ladies today.


"Isn't this an example of a relic of first-century cultural manners that expired centuries ago?"

So, how can we be sure that this restriction is cross-cultural, cross-generational and remains a restriction for the church today? Below are four reasons.


First, the restriction of women from being pastors or preaching for gathered worship is tethered to creation and not first-century culture. With the little connector word "for" Paul traces this restriction back to the sixth day of creation. "For Adam was formed first, then Eve..." (v.13a) The primary reason given in Scripture for women being disallowed as pastors, then, is the order of creation. God made Adam before Eve. We should not gather from this statement that first is necessarily better. If being created first is key to value, then raccoons, ostriches, and snails would be superior because they were created before Adam or Eve. Rather, we have in this passage another affirmation of the original design by the Creator demonstrated during those 144 hours of creation.


While both men and women were created equally in the image of God in dignity and worth, they were also created differently biologically (gender) and functionally. (roles) The order of creation places Adam, and Eve, in their respective positions in the home, as well as the church, according to this and other passages. Adam is created from the dust of the ground, and placed in the garden as a priest, provider, and protector. Eve is taken from Adam's side (his rib) and created within the garden to support and help Adam. It's been said that "all good theology begins in Genesis." Certainly, all Biblical theology begins in Genesis. Interestingly, when Jesus or Paul spoke about marriage, or men's and women's gender and roles, they consistently went back to Genesis. (Mark 10:6; I Cor. 11:8-9; Ephesians 5:31) We should too. When attempting to separate cultural elements from ongoing principles for life as followers of Christ, a good sieve is to look for the "Genesis Connector."


...when Jesus or Paul spoke about marriage, or men's and women's gender and roles, they consistently went back to Genesis. We should too.

Secondly, the restriction of women from being pastors or preaching for gathered worship is the clear, plain teaching of the passage. Perhaps you've heard the home-spun, hermeneutical law: "If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense."? The plainness of this Scripture is not in question. Actually, it's the clarity of the passage that is the problem. At first reading, it definitely sounds like a sexist, put-down. In Australian New Testament scholar Claire S. Smith's excellent book God's Good Design, she tells of a new Christian who was in college who was in an ethnic-based church who read I Timothy 2:11-14 for the first time. When asked whether she found it difficult, she replied, “No, it’s easy. Paul is saying women shouldn’t teach in church because that’s the way God wants it.” Is it possible that the reason we find this passage most difficult is because our present culture and personal experiences have shaped us rather than the text itself?


“No, it’s easy. Paul is saying women shouldn’t teach in church because that’s the way God wants it.”


The first letter to Timothy, where these verses are found, is part of a three-book, genre of Scripture called the pastoral epistles. They are primarily filled with instructions on how to worship, govern and behave in church. In chapter two of I Timothy, Paul regulates the public prayers for the Lord's Day gathering and admonishes men to come to worship ready to worship in the beauty of holiness instead of being distracted by aggressiveness and combativeness. He then instructs the women to not be distracted by being consumed by their appearance and to not distract others in worship by immodesty. Finally, he transitions into the character qualifications of the elder, by restricting the position (pastor) and the function (preaching) to the male-only.


I appreciate this expanded translation of verses 11 and 12 which includes the broader context of chapter 2.


“Let a woman at worship concentrate quietly on her calling as a disciple to learn—fully intent on what God has to teach her. That is to say, I do not want that woman to teach and exercise oversight over a man (that is your job as a pastoral leader, Timothy, as well as men whom you and the church vet and appoint), but as I said, to have a quiet space for learning preserved for her when she is at worship.”

Third, the restriction of women from being pastors or preaching for gathered worship is the consistent teaching of all of the relevant passages. Another principle of Scripture interpretation is called the analogy of faith or as the Reformers named it, the analogy of Scripture. It is popularly understood as "Scripture interprets Scripture" or "Scripture interprets itself." In this case, is it possible that we have misinterpreted even the plain reading of I Timothy 2:11-12 as prohibiting women from pastoring and preaching because other passages of Scripture say something much different? It's an important audit for all of us in our interpretation of the Bible. What we discover, however, when we compare other New Testament passages, is that the consistent, teaching of the New Testament is that women are restricted from being pastors or preaching for gathered worship. (cf. I Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:33-35; Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 4:18; I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; I Peter 3:1-6) It's important for us to note that I Timothy 2:11-12, as controversial as it may be, is not a one-off passage or some sort of outlier from other Scriptures. Instead, it echoes and reiterates the teaching of the other verses that speak to the topic of women's ordination and preaching.


"What we discover is that the consistent, teaching of the New Testament is that women are restricted from being pastors or preaching for gathered worship."

Finally, the restriction of women from being pastors or preaching for gathered worship applies the complementary teaching of the genders taught in the Scripture to the church. From the outset of creation, we see a complementarity, nearly everywhere. There is light and darkness, morning and evening, sea and dry land, and male and female. Complementarianism is the belief that the Scriptures teach that not only do the genders (sex) complement and complete each other but so do the roles of masculinity and femininity. Further, a complementarian view sees these roles prescribed primarily it two arenas: the home and the church. The man is called to leadership, self-sacrificial, loving service, protection, and provision. The woman is called to help, submission, and nurturing.


God's prohibition of women being pastors in a local church or preaching for gathered worship does not communicate inferiority and superiority. In fact, there are many occasions in which women may know the Scriptures better and can communicate the Bible clearer than a man. Our submission to these regulations for life in the church communicates our trust in our Creator God who always regulates our lives for human flourishing.


Consider these words from a lecture from Elizabeth Elliott, the wife of Jim Elliott, as she walked down the aisles of Gordon listing her qualifications to be ordained:


"I am better versed in Hebrew and Greek than any of you, as well as multiple other languages. I have more communication skills than do any of you, male or female. I am comfortable speaking in front of large crowds and skillful in one-to-one conversations. I have a depth of understanding of God born of suffering that few of you will match. My giftedness is far beyond most of you. And yet God has not called me to use those gifts in an ordained capacity. Does that mean they are of less worth? I know that not to be true. Calling is different than giftedness or even desire." 

Smith, Claire. God's Good Design. Matthias Media. 2012.

DeYoung, Kevin. Men and Women in the Church .Crossway. 2021

Fuller, Brian. Can Women Serve as Deacons?, 2022









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chrisbutchkoski
Nov 05, 2023

“The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”

Matthew Henry

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Dmitriy Spatarel
Dmitriy Spatarel
Oct 05, 2023

Great post! It's important that the church not give ground on this issue but rather continue to labor in word and deed to demonstrate God's great wisdom and goodness in these differing roles and duties of both men and women. I think it also to be a matter of necessity for pastors to teach on the wonders, goodness, purposefulness, and glory of the role of women. A lot of women naively entertain the idea of ordained ministry because they have wrongly assumed that their God given role isn't actually valuable enough, purposeful enough, or good enough for the church and the world.

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walravendan
Jul 17, 2023

Clear, but what a hornet's nest you've stirred, Brian. I'm sure you knew that going into the writing of this piece.

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