Skip to content

Women Preaching to Mixed Adult Congregations: A detailed reading of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 in reply to John Stott’s position

The issue of women preaching to mixed adult congregations is one that has caused a lot of consternation in ‘evangelical circles’ in recent times. There is a common argument that women should preach to mixed adult congregations that proceeds along the following lines:

  1. Different scholars and respected authorities disagree on the interpretation of the relevant Bible passages (especially 1 Timothy 2:8-15)
  2. Therefore the Bible is unclear on the issue
  3. However, there are a lot of women preaching to mixed adult congregations. Not many people are bothered by this, the outside world thinks it’s a good idea, and we should be egalitarian.
  4. In the absence of any clear biblical mandate, we should go with what works.
  5. Therefore, women should preach to mixed adult congregations

John Stott can be cited as a very well-respected scholar who has added to the different ‘interpretations’ of 1 Timothy 2:8-15. I want to argue that, despite the many great things that Stott has contributed to evangelical scholarship and understanding, his explanation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is not in line with what the text actually says. I suspect this is true of a lot of ‘interpretations’ of this and other passages; and therefore that the Bible is a lot clearer than many people want to make out.

Before I begin, I’d better state my background. I have experienced much excellent and edifying gospel ministry from women. I became a Christian through a woman Scripture teacher, I am constantly amazed at the godly example and Scriptural insight of both my wife and my mother, and I have worked alongside and learned from many fabulous full-time Christian workers who are women. Their Christian ministry and biblical modelling and encouragement has been a tremendous help to me. Therefore, I don’t actually see a need for women to preach to mixed adult congregations, because there’s so much of a need for them to be getting on with other, equally important, gospel ministries, including preaching to women. So what appears to me to be the ‘plain meaning’ of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 doesn’t bother me all that much and I don’t feel the need to look for alternative interpretations. Please be aware of my background as you read this; and I also urge you to be aware of the background and motivations of any other writer who writes on this (and any other) biblical issue.

John Stott’s position on 1 Timothy 2:8-15

This is a summary of Stott’s argument in: Stott, John R. W. The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus. The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester: IVP, 1996.

On pages 73-78, Stott argues for the mediating position (between literalism and liberalism) of ‘cultural transposition’. This means that one must distinguish between essential, changeless revelation and changeable, cultural expression. Then one must ‘transpose’ the changeless revelation into our own cultural expression.

On page 78 he states (non-controversially) that both verse 8 and verses 9-10 contain easily distinguishable elements of essential revelation and cultural expression.

Then, on page 79, he states (more controversially!) that we should apply the same principle to verses 11-15:

  • ‘Submission’ is unchangeable revelation (cf 1 Cor 11:2ff),
    • expressed in that culture by ‘silence’
  • ‘Not exercising authority’ is unchangeable revelation,
    • expressed in that culture by ‘not teaching’

Page 79: ‘Some readers will doubtless respond that there is no indication of this distinction in the text itself. For verses 11 and 12 contain just two prohibitions (teaching and having authority) and two commands (silence and submission). This is true. But the same could be said about verses 8 and 9. There is nothing in the text of verse 8 which requires us to distinguish between the commands to lift up holy hands and to be rid of anger and argument. Nor is there anything in the text of verse 9 which requires us to distinguish between the commands to women to dress modestly and to avoid hair – plaiting and jewellery. Yet a Christian mind, schooled in the perspectives and presuppositions of the New Testament, knows that its ethical commands and their cultural expressions are not equally normative and must therefore be distinguished.’

Page 80: ‘May not the requirement of silence, like the requirement of veils, have been a first – century cultural symbol of masculine headship, which is not necessarily appropriate today? For silence is not an essential ingredient of submission; submission is expressed in different ways in different cultures. Similarly women teaching men does not necessarily symbolize taking authority over them.’ Examples of women teaching men, according to Stott, include prophesying (1 Cor 11:5, Acts 2:17 , 21:9) and Priscilla teaching Apollos (Acts 18:26 ).

On pages 80-81 he explains (quite persuasively) that the theological explanation from the creation narrative relates directly to the issue of submission.

On page 81 Stott states the conclusion for our time: ‘If then a woman teaches others, including men, under the authority of Scripture (not claiming any authority of her own), in a meek and quiet spirit (not throwing her weight about), and as a member of a pastoral team whose leader is a man (as a contemporary cultural symbol of masculine headship), would it not be legitimate for her to exercise such a ministry, and be commissioned (ordained) to do so, because she would not be infringing the biblical principle of masculine headship?’

A criticism of John Stott’s position

Stott’s argument is:

  1. We need to distinguish ethical commands and changeable cultural expression
  2. There is no indication in the text how we might make such a distinction
  3. Therefore we have to use common sense and general Bible knowledge to do this
  4. Then we can work out how to make the ethical commands work in our own cultural expression

I will tackle point 2 first (exegetically, i.e. from the text itself) and then point 3 (theologically, i.e. from general biblical principles)

Exegesis (from the text)

I have drawn a detailed structure and syntactical diagram of the text, below.

From this analysis, there are very good reasons in verses 8 and verses 9-10 to distinguish between changeless commands and particular cultural expressions. Namely,

  • the commands themselves are infinitival objects of the main verb: ‘I wish … men to pray … women to adorn.’,
  • while the ‘cultural expressions’ are dependent participial or prepositional phrases that follow the command: ‘raising devout hands’, ‘without anger or disputing’ (which appears to have been a particular problem for that time, as it is in our time!), ‘not by braided hair …’.
  • Those expressions which Paul sees as transcending culture are either placed before the command for emphasis (e.g. ‘in appropriate apparel’) or preceded by a universalising statement (‘as is fitting for women who profess piety, through good works’).

None of these arguments applies to verses 11-12! The infinitives (which in verses 8-10 were top-level commands) are

  • ‘to teach’ (prohibited), and
  • ‘to give orders to’ (prohibited) – i.e. exercise authority in the context of word-based teaching,
  • ‘to be in quietness’.

Theology (from general biblical principles)

  • Stott claims that ‘silence’ and ‘not teaching’ was simply a cultural expression of man-woman order just like the wearing of a veil in 1 Corinthians 11.
    • Yet theologically, those who believe in Sola Scriptura (including Stott himself, in his book I Believe in Preaching) believe that teaching is more than a cultural symbol; it is an activity right at the heart of Christian fellowship; a proper extension of the authority of the God who speaks and brings creation into being, the God who speaks and brings the dead to life in salvation.
    • Teaching God’s word implicitly carries authority with it.
    • This is strengthened by the Old Testament context of verses 12-15 (Genesis 3). The issue is God’s word and teaching; the woman is ‘deceived’ into doubting, distorting and contradicting God’s word.
  • Clearly, there are ways of speaking and edifying others in a non-authoritative way.
    • Prophesying is an activity that involves the whole congregation weighing what is said (1 Corinthians 11-14).
    • Priscilla privately exegeted the gospel (Acts 18:26), the word ‘teach’ is not used, and it was not public.
  • But this is not ‘teaching’, and it is never called such.

How should we apply this passage?

Women are not to teach adult males, in the sense of preaching the word of God and exhorting the congregation. This is not a cultural expression of biblical reality, it is biblical reality.

‘Teaching’ does not become something else when a cultural ‘symbol’, like a male congregational leadership structure, is added. Such symbols, rather, are more appropriate when other speaking activities are taking place in the congregation (1 Corinthians 11), such as sharing wise observations about life, reporting aspects of congregational life, etc. It is highly questionable whether a male congregational leadership structure is a ‘symbol’ like a veil anyway, since it is not visible at the time when teaching is taking place.


Detailed structure of the text

This is based on the basic syntactical structure of the Greek clauses and phrases.

Overview

  • 8-10 Paul’s 2 wishes
    • 8 For men: pray (in a certain manner)
    • 9-10 For women: adorn (in a certain manner)
  • 11 A command for women
    • Learn (in a certain manner)
  • 12 Paul’s 2 prohibitions (+ alternative) for women
    • To teach
    • To give orders to a man
    • (Alternative: to be in quietness)
  • 13-15 Explanation: from creation and salvation.

Details

Syntax-based English translation Grammar and Comment
So I wish Top level indicative: Paul’s desire
[for] the men in every place to pray Paul’s Desire #1: infinitive
raising devout hands Manner of prayer #1: participle
without anger or disputing Manner of prayer #2: prepositional phrase
Likewise
[for] women
in appropriate apparel Content of adornment: prepositional phrase
with modesty and good judgment Manner of adornment: prepositional phrase
to adorn themselves Paul’s Desire #2: infinitive
not
by braided hair and gold or pearls or costly clothes Prohibited means of adornment: prepositional phrase
but
(as is fitting for women who profess piety) (Explanatory comment: relative clause)
through good works Commanded means of adornment: prepositional phrase
[As for] a woman,
in quietness Manner of learning #1: prepositional phrase
Let her learn Top level imperative: command
in all subordination Manner of learning #2: prepositional phrase
But to teach Prohibition #1: infinitive
a woman (object in dative)
I do not permit Top level indicative: prohibition
Nor
to give orders to a man Prohibition #2: infinitive
But
[rather] to be in quietness Alternative to prohibition: infinitive
For Adam was first formed, then Eve Explanation: a series of indicatives
and
Adam was not deceived
but the woman became deceived in transgression
But she will be saved through [the] childbearing,
If they remain in faith and love and holiness with good judgment.
Published in1 TimothyChurchMinistry

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • Entering a tomb in PompeiiWe too: the offenders (Ephesians 2:3)
    Judgmentalism. It’s a bigger problem than we think. Judgmentalism is certainly a danger for God’s people. That’s because God’s people have God’s word. God’s word helps God’s people to see how wonderful God is, and how terrible humanity is in comparison. But Ephesians 2:3 contains two highly significant, emphatic words: “we too”. We too, says Paul, were the offenders. We, too, were the disobedient. These words aren’t talking about all those horrible people “out there”. They’re talking about God’s people. And it’s something we, too, need to hear. These words tell us something incredibly important—something that we ignore at our peril.
  • Photo by Daniel Lienert on UnsplashThe root of the problem (Ephesians 2:1–2)
    I hadn’t visited the dentist for years. Then I felt a tiny amount of pain in one of my teeth. But I ignored it. I didn’t want to bother with a dentist. Anyway, I had my own solution: I’d always brushed my teeth quite thoroughly, and was proud of it. So I just kept brushing. But after a while, the pain came back. This time, it was worse. So I finally visited the dentist. That was painful, too. The root had become so infected that I needed root canal surgery. That was a while ago. But last year, it flared up again, as these things apparently do. And yet I chose to visit the dentist again, even though I knew it might be painful. Why? Because I’d learnt something. I’ve learnt that if I have a problem that goes to the root, and if I know someone who has the solution to the problem, I shouldn’t ignore it or try to fix it myself. I should face up to the root problem, and get help. So I got help. Now, I don’t have a tooth in that spot at all. In Ephesians 2:1–2, Paul seeks to go deep, to the root of the problem. The problem Paul talks about here is incredibly serious. It can be very painful to admit. But Paul can and does admit it—because he also knows the person with the solution. According to Paul, this isn’t a problem to ignore or try to fix ourselves. It’s not something we can educate ourselves out of. This is a problem to face up to, and get help.
  • Captivated by ScriptureCaptivated by Scripture: A personal reflection on D. W. B. Robinson’s legacy for biblical studies
    What made Donald W. B. Robinson such an inspiring and influential teacher for generations of students? His commitment to being captivated by Scripture. This is a paper given by Lionel Windsor at the legacy day and launch of Donald Robinson Selected Works Volume 3: Biblical and Liturgical Studies & Volume 4: Historical Studies and Series Index. Moore Theological College, Sydney, 16 March 2019.
  • The first thing to say about church (Ephesians 1:22–23)
    Here in Ephesians 1:22–23, for the first time in his letter, the apostle Paul uses the word “church”. He’s taken quite some time to get to this point. That might make you think that the church isn’t very important to Paul. But actually, the reverse is true. This is a climactic statement. So far in Ephesians, Paul has poured out his praise to God for his blessings and plans and purposes. He has told his readers how he is praying for knowledge and hope and strength in God. Now, finally, at the highest peak of this amazing prayer, Paul names “the church”. So what is the first thing Paul has to say about the church? What is the word he associates most closely with the church? What matters most to Paul when it comes to the church? The answer is, in fact, obvious. It’s so obvious that you might think it doesn’t need to be said. You might even wonder why Paul bothers saying it, when there are so many other more practical things he could say about the church. But while it might seem obvious, it needs to be said first. Why? Because it’s so easy to assume it. Yet without it, nothing else about the church makes sense.
  • Grave of John BunyanStrength to live (Ephesians 1:19–21)
    What do we do when we feel weak in the face of the powers that be? One response might be just to shut down, close ranks and find a bitter satisfaction in our identity as victims. Another response might be to try to fight as hard as we can to exert our power and dominance over others, seeking to turn the tables so that we become the conquerors instead of the oppressors. Both of these responses involve seeking strength and power in ourselves. They are often the way that oppressed individuals and groups in our world respond to the powers that are oppressing them. But is that the way God wants his people to respond to our weakness in the face of power? In Ephesians 1:19–21, the apostle Paul gives us a far better way to respond. Paul’s response involves looking for strength. But it’s not a strength that comes from within ourselves. It’s a strength that comes from God himself.
  • Christ, the Cross and Creation Care ConferenceConference: Christ, the Cross and Creation Care
    I'll be speaking at the "Christ, the Cross and Creation Care Conference", Sydney. 8.30am to 3.30pm, Saturday 22 June 2019. A conference run by A Rocha Australia
  • Palatine Hill from Roman Forum with contrails – Black and WhiteWhat’s the point of theology? (Ephesians 1:17–18)
    The full name of the college I teach at is “Moore Theological College”. That word “Theological” says something important about who we are. It reminds us about what we're on about. Yes, the Bible is at the centre of everything we do. Yes, we seek to train people for ministry. Yes, we're driven by the worldwide mission of Jesus Christ. Yes, we're committed to learning together, and having our characters formed in loving Christian community. But our careful study of the Bible, and our pastorally-motivated ministry and mission training, and our encouragement of one another in our community, all matter because of something more basic: theology. Unfortunately, the word "theology" can be misunderstood. It sometimes gets used to mean something like “technical details about spiritual things that experts argue about and isn’t much practical use to regular people”. But that's just a caricature. It's not what theology is. Theology is something far more profound, far more life-changing, and far more fundamental—not just for people at a college, but for everyone. In Ephesians 1:17–18, Paul prays for his readers—people who have come to believe in and live for Jesus Christ. It's a prayer for more theology.
  • Youth praying, Finchale PrioryPrayer: What are we actually doing? (Ephesians 1:15–16)
    “A Muslim, a Jew and an Anglican Minister walk into a classroom”. This was the advertising blurb for a local Community College seminar I participated in a few years ago. I joined a Muslim educator and a Jewish academic (who is also a friend of mine) to give a series of presentations on different aspects of our three religions to interested people from the community. When we came to the topic of ‘prayer’, I was fascinated to hear what my co-presenters had to say. Even though we were all using the same word, ‘prayer’, the word meant very different things in the different religions. As a believer in Jesus Christ, what did I have to say about what prayer is? What would you have said? Christians, too, can often be a bit confused or unclear about what prayer actually is. That’s where the Apostle Paul really helps us. In these verses in Ephesians, Paul starts telling his readers about his own prayers for them.
  • Photo by Danielle Macinnes on UnsplashThe Holy Spirit: Our security (Ephesians 1:14)
    The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments are a favourite illustration of motivational speakers. The lesson is this: If you can learn how to delay gratification early in life, you’ll do better in later life. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, like many popular conclusions drawn from famous psychological experiments, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The more up-to-date study demonstrates something far more mundane: if you grow up in a secure home where you know there will always be food on the table, you’re more likely to be able to put off eating a marshmallow. This isn’t a particularly useful lesson for motivational speakers. But it’s a great illustration of what it means to be a child of God.
  • Mission. Photo by Ben White on UnsplashThe message is the mission (Ephesians 1:13)
    What is God’s mission? What means is God using to bring about his purposes in Christ? What does that mean for our own mission as Christians and churches?

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor