Women preachers and apostles have been the popular topic of Christian debate for centuries. On one hand, we have the famous passage, 1 Timothy 2:9-15, telling us that women shouldn’t even speak in church, let alone teach men. On the other hand, we have passages like Acts 18:26 and Romans 16 showing us that Apostle Paul approves of women holding church leadership positions and teaching men.
When merely read on surface-level without proper exegesis (that is, the critical interpretation of Scriptures based on its historical, situational, and cultural significance), it’s easy to point out the inconsistencies in Apostle Paul’s letters. My purpose of writing this response to Desiring God is to provide a deeper analysis of Paul’s letters, in light of what was happening in Ephesus when he wrote to Timothy. I know that Desiring God and its founder, John Piper, has earned an incredible amount of respect and influence over both new and seasoned Christians alike. My hope is that by addressing this “half” of the story, the men and women who follow Piper and Desiring God will give women a chance at pursuing the same vocational callings as men.
The Modern Church Mothers
There are incredible female pastors, church planters, deacons, and apostles who have lived out their vocational callings by the anointing and favor of God—with or without the approval of men. Some of whom include Christine Caine, the Hillsong pastor and founder of the A21 Campaign, Aimee Semple McPherson, the founder of Foursquare Church, Laura Lentz, Serita Jakes, Susan Norris Fitkin, and a great host of other anointed female individuals who operated from a place of faithfulness. We can measure their anointing by the quality of the fruit that they bear. God and God alone qualified these women, not their skills, intellect, womanhood, or anything else that might contribute to their long-held positions. My heart is that we can learn to acknowledge these women as called and qualified by God, rather than dismissing them as rebellious or confused about their callings. From the Godly impact that they bore and continue to bear, we have more than enough evidence to see God’s anointing in their lives.
Examples from Piper’s Blog
However, based on my understanding of Desiring God, the blog would highly disagree and disapprove of the women above. When asked whether women should preach, Piper reasoned, “I find the general concept of leadership (emerging from the wider biblical picture of God’s order of creation) to be the most helpful in determining which speaking roles are suitable for men and women.” In other words, he believes that it would be healthier for the church if men were to lead from the pulpit and women were to support his leadership instead. His views on biblical manhood and womanhood don’t just apply to church positions, but also to societal vocations. When asked if women should be police officers, he replied, “If a woman’s job involves a good deal of directives toward men, they will need to be non-personal in general, or men and women won’t flourish in the long run in that relationship without compromising profound biblical and psychological issues.” While I agree (and science supports) that men and women have stark psychological differences in the way we give and receive information, some vocations require the breakdown of personal boundaries. Say, if a man were to rob a home and he is caught by a female officer, it wouldn’t matter whether or not she violates his manhood by cuffing him or even tackling him. He’s simply not in the position to complain. If the officer were to be a man, that male officer would certainly be attacking the robber’s manhood as well. So, the point isn’t manhood or womanhood, but simply doing the right thing according to your vocational calling. When the uniform comes on, so to speak, the responsibilities overshadow the person’s gender. How silly would it be for a woman to not pursue her call to justice because she is afraid of harming a bad man’s ego?
Here are a few more instances where Desiring God authors answer “no” to women apostles and preachers:
It should be noted that with this response, I don’t wish to condemn or divide; rather, I simply want to provide more understanding. I noticed that all of these articles used 1 Timothy 2 to support their arguments, but none of them provided any insight as to what 1 Timothy is, why it was written, and who it was written for. If an uninformed Christian were to read these articles, they would think that 1 Timothy was a book directed towards all readers, across all cultures and generations. To provide more clarity, we will dissect 1 Timothy according to its genre, intent, and setting.
A Brief Background on 1 Timothy
1. The genre: 1 Timothy is an epistle, which means it’s a letter from an Apostle.
2. The intent: Paul wrote the letter to Timothy to thoroughly guide him on how to handle the uproar of false teachings at Timothy’s church in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3-4).
3. The setting: Ephesus is a large city in Asia Minor, well known for their female cults who worshipped the goddess of fertility, Artemis. In fact, the goddess was known as “Artemis of the Ephesians” both in secular works and in Acts 19:28. The female-dominated cults often had high priestesses reigning in large temples. These cults and cult leaders would spread false beliefs and idolatrous worldviews to the citizens of Ephesus. The whole passage of Acts 19:23-41 tells us that there was a riot in Ephesus when Christianity began to spread because the influence of Christ had become a threat to their worship of Artemis.
In addition, Gnosticism also largely influenced the people of Ephesus. Gnosticism taught that Eve existed first and was innately superior to Adam because she represented the spirit, whereas Adam represented the ego. Gnosticism separated the spirit from the mind—the former being transcendent over the latter. (Sources: TheRoot, Gnosis.org)
4. The state of the church: There were false teachers (1 Timothy 1:3-4) who borrowed teachings from Christianity but were not spreading God’s truth (1 Timothy 1:7), and there were lawlessness and sexual immorality (1 Timothy 1:8-11). This is congruent with what we know about Artemis worship and Gnostic teachings.
A Closer Reading of 1 Timothy 2:8-15
Now, knowing that Timothy’s church was negatively influenced by these two blasphemous false teachings, and that Ephesus had many female cult leaders and occultists, let’s explore 1 Timothy 2:8-15:
“In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy.
And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes. For women who claim to be devoted to God should make themselves attractive by the good things they do.
Women should learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly. For God made Adam first, and afterward he made Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived by Satan. The woman was deceived, and sin was the result. But women will be saved through childbearing, assuming they continue to live in faith, love, holiness, and modesty.”
In this passage we see Paul correcting several Artemistic and Gnostic influences. First is the emphasis on how women should dress in the church settings. Ephesus, being overrun by so much moral corruption, economic boom and spiritual downfall, was a place where men and women focused much on their appearances and not their inward characters. Paul wanted the women to steer their focus on the right things, since they were highly influenced by the culture of debauchery.
Next, we see Paul telling Timothy how to fix the issue of having rampant false teachers: he says to simply “not let women teach men nor have authority over them.” Still, he doesn’t tell Timothy to excommunicate the false teachers. He allows them to still “learn quietly and submissively.” These women were still allowed to learn even though they had been spreading idolatrous teachings and negatively influencing the church.
Then, Paul corrects a popular Gnostic teaching by stating that Adam was born first, not Eve. Paul was not saying Adam was born first and was therefore more authoritative and bore more responsibilities than Eve; he was correcting the Gnostic belief that Eve was transcendent over Adam. If Paul were truly saying that the order of creation implies a given hierarchy, then the animals would surely have the most authority of all since they were created before us. However, based on the context, hierarchal authority was not the point that Paul was trying to make to Timothy. He was just correcting a string of false Gnostic teachings.
In the next section called, “Leaders in the Church,” Paul describes church leadership roles in depth, addressing the importance of self-control, restraint from debauchery, and teaching capabilities for male leaders (1 Timothy 3:2-3). Paul uses only the “he” pronoun, understandably, because the last thing the church of Ephesus needed was more falsely-led women assuming more leadership roles. The influenced women already created enough chaos within the church. Paul was directing Timothy on how to reestablish a sense of order.
Knowing that Paul’s intent was to reestablish order to the chaotic church in Ephesus, I’m convinced that he was not making a blanket statement for all of women everywhere. Desiring God’s blanket-statement conclusion does not make sense in the context of Paul’s letter to Timothy. If we exegete the situation of the church and the cultural context of Ephesus, we can see that Paul was not telling all women everywhere to stay quiet in church settings. The women in Ephesus were spreading false teachings—they were lucky they were not excommunicated, but still allowed to learn in silence.
Paul’s “Shout Outs”
To truly see Paul’s stance towards women, the best way is to compare Paul’s letter with his other writings. Let’s take it from the same author.
In Romans 16:1, Paul begins by commending Phoebe, “who is a deacon in the church of Cenchrea.” He explains that she was “worthy of honor among God’s people” (Romans 16:2). Next, in Romans 16:3, he sends his greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, his “co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus.” We learn that Priscilla and Aquila are a ministry couple, and in Acts 18:26, we even see the couple correcting false theology together. Furthermore, in Romans 16:7, Paul sends his greetings to Andronicus and Junia, who are debatable apostles. Due to the vague Greek, we’re still unsure whether or not they were highly regarded apostles or highly regarded by apostles. Either way, based on this incredible commencement of female teachers, deacons, and leaders, we can get a better picture of Paul’s attitude towards women in church leadership positions.
His stance and tone were completely different from what we observed in his letter to Timothy—precisely because Romans was written for a completely different cause to a completely different audience. In 1 Timothy, where Paul discourages women from leading or even speaking, Paul was addressing very specific problems in Timothy’s church. In Romans 16, Paul clearly did not think it wise for all women everywhere to “learn quietly and submissively,” or to not “teach men or have authority over them,” as he stated in 1 Timothy. Priscilla was recorded in Acts to have corrected a man’s understanding of God. The other women Paul mentioned—well, we have good evidence to assume that they didn’t stay quiet, either.
Paul’s Conclusion on the Power of Grace
Aside from Acts and Romans, Paul also emphasizes on the significance of Christ for Christians who are operating in the world and in the church. In Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, which was influenced by Jewish traditions, he hammered on the idea that God’s grace makes us all new. Therefore, in Christ, societal hierarchies are meaningless. We are all one in Christ.
Unfortunately, the Galatians began placing the laws above everything else, even above the grace of God through Christ (Galatians 2:14-21). In Galatians 3:25-28, Paul says, plainly, “And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian. For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Emphasis made by me).
Certainly, one could look at this and say, “Paul was merely talking about our intrinsic worth and salvation in Christ. Both men and women are equal in worth and are saved in Christ alone, we know that.” However, if the person simply dismisses Paul’s claim to total freedom and equality as only referring to salvation, not church vocations or roles, then that would be grossly undermining the power of Christ. Through Christ, all ungodly societal norms are abolished.
In Genesis 3:16, God set a consequence for all women when Eve sinned. He said, “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth. And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.” In Christ, we don’t have to choose to live under the consequences of the fall, but we can live life to the abundance; life as God intended. Eve was created to be Adam’s helper, and the word “helper” in the original language was ezer kenegdo. God used this same word to describe Himself in relation to us 16 times in the Old Testament, and God Almighty isn’t just our sidekick. He is our counselor, provider, friend, and so much more. Similarly, Eve—Adam’s ezer kenegdo—wasn’t subordinate to him in her role as his helper. She was his friend, his other half—his equal. They shared responsibilities. They enjoyed life without worrying about who should lead who because they were both led by God. After they sinned, however, they exposed themselves to an everlasting power struggle.
If we were to truly heed to the consequences of the fall rather than heed to the grace provided to us by Jesus, would we not be like the Christ-dismissing Galatians? Paul states, very clearly and determinately, that we do not have to live under the consequences of the fall anymore. In Christ, we are all one: equal in giftings (as we see Paul suggesting by naming the multiple leading women in Romans), equal in worth, and diverse in nature.
Paul’s recounts of the great leading women in the early church, along with our knowledge of the Prophetess and Judge, Deborah, the entrepreneur who funded Paul’s ministry, Lydia, and countless other instances where God and Christ abolished gender norms for the sake of His glory (Luke 10:38-42, John 4, Joshua 2), it is unreasonable to continue taking 1 Timothy 2 out of context and reserve a church position—any church position—to be only for men. If a modern woman, such as Aimee Semple McPherson or Christine Caine, can do such great works from a place of faithfulness for the glory of God, shall we not spur her on and recognize her as a church leader/planter who was called by God?
Based on the all-redeeming power of Christ, the second birth who saves creation from the consequences of sin, we can safely assume that the Lord calls both men and women to carry out a variety of leadership roles in the church—and He would be the one to qualify them, not their behaviors, great knowledge, or sex.
What are your genuine thoughts on the topic of women pastors and apostles?