My Journey to Affirming the Ordination of Women (Part VIII)

There were at least three phases (overlapping) of my change of perspective on women’s ordination.

First, I found that if male headship is not taken as a prior commitment, there are other responsible ways to systematize biblical teaching on this issue, which preserve the integrity and authority of Scripture. I discovered biblical scholars and theologians who are “otherwise” conservative who gave compelling arguments for women’s ordination that did not lead to liberalism or compromise clear biblical teaching on sexual ethics.

Second, after stepping outside of the complementarian bubble, I realized that “complementarianism” is not actually a unified concept, and that its premise–that leadership in the home and in the church should be male exclusively–cannot be applied coherently or consistently without undermining its claim that men and women are equal in worth before God.

Third, I discovered that the premise of complementarianism–even though men and women are of equal worth and value before God, positions of authority are nevertheless reserved for men–is not actually the historic position of the church.

It is the second phase that I tackle in this post.


As I have recounted, until recently my Christian life has been lived in churches that did not ordain women as pastors. A complementarian reading of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 was always taken as a given.

However, this prohibition was applied in many different ways. I’ve been in churches that permitted women to be part of a “board of elders” which held more of a representative/advisory role than one of authority. Other churches permitted women to share missions reports/testimonials, but not preach. The Alliance church I attended in my teens lost some members when the pastor and elders permitted a woman (with theological training) to preach with the understanding that her sermon was “under their authority” (though I don’t think she sent it to them for prior review). Some churches permit women to teach Sunday School classes but not preach in a church service.

What precisely does “to teach or exercise authority over a man” mean? Is the emphasis on teaching, or authority? At what age does one become a man–may a woman teach teenage boys, or college-age young men? Does this apply only to a wife and husband, or to all women and men?

If you are a complementarian, I invite you consider the following scenarios, decide whether you think they would be permissible per 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and determine the principles behind your evaluation.

Should a woman:

  • Speak in a church building at all?
  • Ask questions at church?
  • Speak during a Sunday service? What about a Wednesday service, or some other less-official or informal gathering of the church?
  • Pray during a Sunday service?
  • Lead worship (i.e., pray and direct the congregation between songs and other liturgical elements) during a Sunday service?
  • Read from the Scriptures during a Sunday service?
  • Administer communion?
  • Preach the gospel to unbelieving men? Serve as a missionary to men and women?
  • Preach to teenage males? College-age males?
  • Teach the Scriptures to her teenage sons? Lead a family Bible study with her husband present?
  • Advise her pastor/elder husband on how to teach or preach the Bible?
  • Serve as an interpreter for a man preaching in a language other than that of the congregation?
  • Preach primarily to women, but within earshot of men? What if the teaching is posted online so that men can hear?
  • Preach in a worship service, but only a sermon preäpproved by male elders?
  • Teach the Bible or theology in a Christian university? What about a secular university?
  • Teach in a seminary (to men and women)?
  • Write books for male pastors to read?
  • Plant a church? If so, should a woman continue to lead the church in its infancy, or must she immediately concede authority to men who are new converts and uneducated in the Scriptures?

Some of these seem open-and-shut to most, including complementarians–for example, should a woman ask questions in church. But I know personally or know of complementarians or complementarian churches on both sides of many of these questions. Some churches have formal rules on these points, but others are governed by informal understandings which remain unstated until someone suggests something new–cue church split or mass exodus.

The problem is that the complementarian must draw a line somewhere, but it must be arbitrary because Paul does not thoroughly explain what he means by “teach or αὐθεντεῖν” in 1 Tim 2:12 and how that verse relates to his other teaching which seems to permit women to speak authoritatively (e.g., 1 Cor 11:2-16). As Hübner explains in the article that I quoted previously, there is no single complementarian reading of this passage.

A prohibition based on gender forces complementarians into some applications that do not seem consistent with the notion that women are equal to men in reflecting the image of God–equal in worth and intellect. John Piper offers a mostly consistent application of complementarian logic when he answers the question, “Do you use Bible commentaries written by women?” Unfortunately, in doing so, he creates a distinction between two types of authority–one of which is incompatible with Protestant doctrines of Scripture and of the church. I have quoted the relevant section in full to be fair to his argument, and because I’m paid by the word on this blog:

I distinguish between personal, direct exercises of authority that involve manhood and womanhood, and indirect, impersonal exercises of authority which don’t concern gender. So, here is a woman, she is right there. She is woman. I am man. And I am being directly pressed on by this woman in an authoritative way. Should she be doing that? Should I be experiencing that? And my answer is, no. I think that is contrary to the way God made us.

Here would be an example of what I mean by those two words — personal and direct. A drill sergeant that gets in the face and says, “Hut, one, hut, two, keep your mouth shut, private! Get your rifle up here! Turn around like I said!” I don’t think a woman ought to be doing that to a man because it is direct, it is forceful, it is authoritative, it is compromising something about the way a man and a woman were designed by God to relate.

The opposite of personal and direct would be if she is a city planner, for example. She is sitting in an office at a desk drawing which street should be one way and which should be two way and, thus, she is going to control which way men drive all day long. That is a lot of authority and it is totally impersonal and indirect, and therefore it has no dimension of maleness or femaleness about it. And for that reason, I don’t think it contradicts anything that Paul is concerned about here.

So to get back to the question, I would put a woman writing a book way more in that category of “city planner” than a drill sergeant, so that the personal directness of it is removed and the man doesn’t feel himself and she wouldn’t feel herself in any way compromised by his reading the book and learning from the book. That is the way I have tried to think it through in society and in academic efforts and in the church.

Piper (quite rightly) wants to benefit from the insights of wise women (his wife, women in the church, female theologians/biblical scholars) in his teaching and preaching. But he recognizes that there is little difference between a female pastor teaching from the pulpit and a male pastor presenting the insights of a female commentator from the pulpit. So he constructs two types of authority: a strict dictatorial voice, and a mentoring/guiding/advisory voice.

But only one of these kinds of authority is biblical. Should any pastor or elder, male or female, exert the sort of dictatorial authority that he describes? Isn’t each believer responsible to listen to everything a pastor says and judge it according to Scripture? The “drill sergeant” model of biblical authority sounds like the extremes of medieval Roman Catholicism that the Reformers sought to correct.

Some might accuse me of making a straw man, or choosing the most extreme position to critique. But John Piper is a well-known conservative theologian with a German doctorate–no crackpot. I don’t believe Piper hates women. He has taken what he believes Scripture teaches–women should not have authority over men–to its logical end. It takes him to a very strange conclusion:

There is this interposition of the phenomenon called book and writing that puts the woman as author out of the reader’s sight and, in a sense, takes away the dimension of her female personhood. Whereas, if she were standing right in front of me and teaching me as my shepherd, week in and week out, I couldn’t make that separation. I think the Bible says that women shouldn’t take that role in the church.

Piper stumbles over the “female personhood” of the woman preacher as she presents insights from God’s Word. But why should the gender of the person interpreting God’s Word change the way I as a congregant assess the interpretation? I’m not saying that gender plays no role in interpretation–it certainly may, and male teachers would be wise to listen to women. But the attitude of the believer listening to authoritative teaching (humble, discerning, teachable, prayerful) must be the same no matter the gender of the teacher. The “maleness” of a male pastor does not excuse him if he teaches what is contrary to the Word of God, nor does it grant him “drill-sergeant” authority in the church. As a Protestant, particularly one who believes in plural authority in councils (sessions and presbyteries) rather than episcopacy, I don’t believe anyone should have that sort of authority–it’s not healthy, and it’s not a biblical model.

In my next post, I will discuss the problem of church history, and women’s ordination as it relates to the ongoing crisis of authority in evangelicalism.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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