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.
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