Allow me to offer a little bit of clarity about myself prior to presenting my argument: I am personally an ecclesial egalitarian. I support women and men being in the same roles of ministry in the Body of Christ. However, I came to faith in the Southern Baptist background, where women were regularly excluded from the role of preaching in the church and I held to the complementarian exegesis of various texts used in support of exclusion of women until later in college. While I ultimately found that type of exegesis and application unnecessary and woefully inconsistent with the whole Biblical witness about the ways women are in service to God, I can understand at one level why the leaders in the Southern Baptist denomination and other similar denominations read certain Biblical texts like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.6 the way they do, and I don’t morally blame them for those specific readings. Nevertheless, even if one retains a complementarian reading of those NT passages, I want to make the case that there are strong Biblical grounds to give women the opportunity to preach.
I will start by first making a distinction between an ecclesial position/office and ministerial action. In the case of the former, we refer to the identity of a person or occupation that engages in a particular action or set of actions. The most relevant for my case here is the word “preacher.” When we talk about “preacher” we talk about a person who engages in the action of preaching. This leads us to the latter concept of ministerial action; preaching, teaching (although the NT does not make a distinction between preaching and teaching), prophesying, etc are all specific actions that are performed in the Body of Christ.
Now, with positions like “preacher,” we regular define the position by the type of ministerial actions they perform. However, we can make further assumptions about this relationship between the position and action. Do only those designated as preachers preach? Or can other people who do not have that formal office preach? In the former, which I refer to as a privileged definition, the office of preacher demarcates a boundary that fundamentally separates the preachers from non-preachers in terms of the authority and space to preach. In the latter, which I refer to as a calling definition, the office of preacher directs the purposes of a specific individual to preach without excluding others from the possibility of preaching also.
It is my contention that the New Testament envisions the offices of the Body of Christ as callings that direct people towards specific purposes in building up the Body of Christ, not a privilege that automatically excludes others from engaging in similar ministry. Consider the relationship between the Apostle Paul and Apollos to the Corinthians, as discussed in 1 Corinthians. Paul designates himself as an apostle and sees himself as having a special relationship to the Corinthians as a spiritual father (1 Cor. 4.14-15). However, Paul did not envision his role as excluding other people from taking a role in guiding the Corinthian congregation. Rather, part of Paul’s purpose in 1 Corinthians is to teach the Corinthian Christians that God works through various teachers, so they shouldn’t affiliate themselves with one teacher or another. Paul’s calling to apostleship did not mean that he has a privileged status in relation to the Corinthians that others could not themselves also teach.
This becomes vital in understanding the nature of the charismatic gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. Inspired actions by the Spirit is not the provenance for any one individual, but that God variously equips people as He sees fit. Therefore, people should take their turn speaking in tongues, in interpreting, in prophesying, etc. as other people can be given the same or a similar gift. Inspired actions of the Spirit is not the exclusive privilege of any one person or individual.
However, even though various people may be equipped to engage in various inspired actions, Paul does still see a difference between positions and action. In Ephesians 4.11-13, Paul describes the five offices that God has given the church (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers) whose responsibility it is to enable all the saints to engage in ministerial action (“work of ministry”; ἔργον διακονίας). We see this similar distinction implied in 1 Corinthians 12.28, where Paul refers to specific positions by numbering them but then what follows refer to actions without numbering them. If we bring insights from Ephesians 4.11-13 and 1 Corinthians 12.28 together, we can say that there is a certain hierarchy within the church, but the purpose of the hierarchy is to lead people in the work of ministry inspired by the giftings of the Spirit. The God-given offices are not intended as zones of privilege that wall off certain types of ministerial actions from others, but are the very people that called to prepare other people to engage in work of the Body of Christ.
Now, one might suggest the offices that Paul describes do suggest specific actions are exclusive to people who hold those offices, whereas the other gifts are not designated by a specific position or office in the Body of the Christ. This is perfectly possible. If that is the case, then complementarians that take this line of thinking should have no problem with women teaching in the Body of Christ, as Paul speaks about women taking on the role of prophesying in churches in 1 Corinthians 11. And nowhere does Paul even imply that these women only preach to other women.
However, I do not believe Paul think the offices are intended to designate privilege action; for instance, I do not think all people with the gift of prophecy are to be designated as “prophets” as an office. Instead, Paul wishes everyone could share in the Spiritual gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14.5). That is to say when Paul envisions apostle, prophets, and teachers equipping the whole church to engage in ministerial actions, prophesy is one of those actions. Not only designated prophets prophesy.
Allow me to extend this logic further: not only designated apostles engaged in the apostolic proclamation about the Gospel of the crucified Jesus. Not only designated pastors provide spiritual guidance to people. Not only designated teachers are to teach other people. Rather, if the goals for those with specifically designated positions in the Body of Christ are accomplished, it would make the churches filled with various people who proclaim the Gospel, prophesy, shepherd, and teach.
I want to push a little further regarding Paul’s understanding of positions. I want to suggest that Paul’s vision for the positions of apostleship, prophet, pastors, teachers, etc. are not intended as a perpetual office for all times. Rather, God gives these positions to particular people to give a foothold to the Gospel and its power among the people. Apostolic ministry starts with apostles, it doesn’t end there. Prophetic ministry starts with the prophets, it doesn’t end there. Pastoral ministry starts with the pastor, it doesn’t end there. This is why Paul says the positions are given until there is a unity of faith and maturity. These positions in the Body of Christ are not part of a perpetual hierarchical ordering of the Church, but they are the starting places where the word and power of God can manifest themselves and become realized in other people. What God gives to apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers will also be given to other people.
So, how does this speak to allowing women to preach in churches? I would suggest all of the passages that are interpreted to exclude women from preaching and teaching is either Paul addressing concerns about specific positions, and not a limitation of ministerial action, or is not addressing the worship of the churches at all.
The qualifications in 1 Timothy 3.2 and Titus 1.6 refer to a “bishop” and “elders” as a “man of one wife.” There is a clear statement that Paul expected bishops and elders to be men, although it is not as clear if he expected this as a matter of custom or just as a matter of circumstances of the time. While I don’t think Paul does not envision excluding women from these positions, I will not contend with complementarians their interpretation of gender-exclusivity. I will simply point out that unless he has changed course Paul refers to a position within the churches, and not to specific types of ministerial actions. Nothing about these qualifications excludes women from preaching in churches.
So, allow me to state something from this. Let’s assume the complementarian reading of 1 Timothy 3.2 and Titus 1.6 is indeed the correct one. Paul is still only talking about offices in the churches, and not the ministerial actions that the whole church participates in. Rather, it would be the duty of these male teachers to lead the whole church, men and women, to live out the power the Holy Spirit has given to them to build up and serve one another. Paul never makes gendered distinctions when it comes to spiritual gifts and good works. Rather, males teachers in the church should equip everyone, including women, to also teach in worship as God empowers them to be faithful to God’s commission for apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Anything less than this changes a calling on behalf of the people into a privilege for the person.
Now, there are a couple passages one might think that suggests Paul makes a gendered distinction when it comes to teaching. 1 Timothy 2.11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14.34-36 come to mind.
1 Timothy 2.11-12 seems to be the most explicit that women should never teach men under any circumstances. However, I would contend this is a fundamentally mistaken interpretation. Firstly, the context is not describing the worship of the church, but rather the social life of men and women. In v. 8-10, Paul directs the actions of men and women to behave in a way that is counter to other people of their gender. In vs. 8, the hands of men are to be used in a holy way as part of their prayer life instead of them being used in a way to threaten others in anger. In vs. 9-10, women should address modestly so as to not bring too much attention to themselves based upon appearances, particularly the attention from the gaze of men, but rather valuing the honor that comes with doing good. However, to be clear here, Paul is not placing responsibility on the women for men’s sexual lust. Rather, Paul is encouraging women to be free from the cultural standards that are imposed upon them as women, but to instead seek to be valued based upon the good that they do.
So, when we come to vs. 11-12, Paul places limits on the counter-cultural and counter-gender behavior when it comes to the relationship of a wife to a husband. While women were to no longer identify themselves based upon their physical appearance, they were not to subvert the culture to the point that they tried to take authority over their husbands. Living in a Roman patriarchal culture where men dominated and thus excluding women from learning, women were not in a position to ignore the learning of their husbands. Hence, Paul makes reference to the story of Adam and Eve in vs. 13-15, hinting that the curse of the Fall still impacts the relationship of wives to their husbands. It is how women in faith take action in love and holiness that will allow them to experience the salvation from the curse of the Fall. In other words, Paul is reminding women that while they do not live according to the objectifying standards of men in the Roman society, they still need to keep their connections to their husbands and learn from them. Therefore, Paul is not addressing the worship of the church in 1 Timothy 2.
Then, we come to 1 Corinthians 14.34-36, which speaks of women remaining silent in the churches. We see similar instructions to 1 Timothy 2.11-12, and this time in the context of the worship of churches. However, it is important to keep in mind that it is addressed in the context of Paul saying that people should be taking turns in worship in prophesying, speaking in tongues, etc.1 Furthermore, Paul has previously recognized women praying and prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11, so far as they have a head covering that symbolizes their own possessing the authority to speak. When it comes to instructions about women speaking, it pertains to something being done that is out of order. Vs. 36 suggests some of the women had the practice of speaking out of turn. Perhaps, when someone prophesied or spoke in tongues, they did not give the space for discernment or interpretation, but just jumped in to speak themselves.
Given that Paul had clearly recognized and empowered women to prophesy in church, perhaps 1 Corinthians 14.34-36 is Paul reigning in the overexuberance of these recently empowered women so that they do not take control of worship themselves with their own giftedness and Spiritual empowerment. If their concern is to learn, they can talk to their husband about it later, but worship is a time to listen to those who the Spirit has empowered to speak. Furthermore, when Paul says “it is shameful for women to speak in church,” it is not intended as a gender-exclusive type of shame, but rather is directed towards these empowered women to learn that it is shameful to speak out of order. Silence is descriptive of how the whole church engages in worship during the times of teaching as in 1 Cor. 14.28, not just exclusively women.
In other words, in 1 Corinthians 14.34-36, Paul is addressing the realities of the women learning how to share in ministerial action. The empowerment of the Spirit did not grant women the right to speak indiscriminately, but they must learn how to rightly use the power that God has entrusted to them in an orderly and beneficial manner.
In conclusion, in no place does Paul exclude women from them engaging in the inspired actions of the Holy Spirit. Nor does Paul anywhere say “only men teach men in the church.” These type of readings of 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 are out of context.
So, in conclusion, male teachers in churches that teach only men should have the positions of pastors and teachers, remember this: your position does not provide you an exclusive privilege, but rather a mission to equip all people, including women, to engage in the work of the Body of Christ, including to teach. Even as you do find Paul describing only men in the positions of bishop and overseer in 1 Timothy and Titus respectively, you will find no place where Paul excluded women from specific ministerial actions. And if the purposes of these positions in the Church is to equip the saints for ministerial action, then male teachers, you should be teaching women to teach and give them the opportunity to do so as God empowers them. Your position is granted by God so that people throughout the whole church can learn to do what you do as God empowers them also. Or, did the word of God originate with you, male teachers? Or, are you male teachers the only ones the word of God has reached? It is God chooses what persons He will empower to represent Him and act on His behalf and gender does not serve to divide people in the Body of Christ in God’s eyes (Galatians 3.28).