Is it wrong for women to preach in church or be a pastor?

I have been working my way through dozens of Bible and theology questions which people have submitted through that “ask a question” area in the sidebar. Here is one that was sent in about whether or not women can preach in church.

Is it biblical for the woman to preach in the congregation?

Along with this question about whether or not it is wrong for a woman to preach, I will also briefly address the issue of women pastors.

wrong for women to preach in church

This question has split some churches, which I find odd. Of all the things that can create division within the church, why is it the ones that only have a verse or two one way or the other which seem to be the most divisive? I suppose if there were scores of verses the issue would be more cut and dry, but when there are only a couple verses dealing with an issue, people are more likely to fight over it, especially when the verses are a little vague …

So let’s briefly look at some of the key passages which seem to address the issue of whether or not it is wrong for women to preach in church, and then I will provide one short and simple suggestion for how this whole issue can easily be dealt with.

Bible Passages about Women Preaching in Church

Though there are a variety of passages which people on both sides of the debate appeal to regarding whether or not it is okay for women to preach in church (e.g., various female “preachers” in the Old Testament like Miriam and Deborah and the female prophetesses in Acts 21:9, and the female apostle in Romans 16:7), two of the main texts in this debate about women preachers and female pastors are 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34.

Let us look briefly at each.

1 Timothy 2:12 and Women Preachers in Church

In 1 Timothy 2:11-12, Paul writes this:

Let a woman learn in silence and with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.

Initially, 1 Timothy 2:12  seems pretty clear, but with a little bit of study, it quickly becomes obvious that the text is not so clear after all.

First, there are numerous times in the book of Acts and in some of Paul’s other letters where women appear to be speaking in the gatherings of the church with the approval of others, so whatever Paul is saying here, it does not seem to be a rule which he himself universally followed (Acts 16:14-15; Acts 18:26).

Second, even if Paul himself did require all women to remain silent in church gatherings, there is some debate about whether Paul was describing his own preference and practice, or whether he was giving instructions for all churches everywhere throughout time to follow as well.  That is, this verse in 1 Timothy was written to a specific person about a specific situation at a specific time. Does that it mean it can be universally applied? Paul even says, “I do not permit …” which is different than “you should not permit …” (though 1 Corinthians 14:34 does phrase it this way).

Most importantly, however, it is critical to understand what Paul means by the terms “silence and submission” and “teach or to have authority.” To understand this, we not only need to study the words in their contexts, but we also need to understand that cultural and historical background for what was going on among this group of believers in Ephesus where Timothy lived.

So, based on these three considerations, a text like 1 Timothy 2:12 is not so clear as some believe about the issue or women preaching in church.  The same is true for 1 Corinthians 14:34.

1 Corinthians 14:34 and Women Preachers in Church

Paul says something similar in his letter to the Corinthians as he wrote in his letter to Timothy. 1 Corinthians 14:34 says this:

Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.

We have a lot of similar issues with 1 Corinthians 14:34 as we have with 1 Timothy 2:12. There are numerous cultural, historical, grammatical, and contextual issues that must be researched if we are going to understand what Paul is saying and why.

womanpreachingOne of the main differences here is that Paul does seem to be giving instructions to the church about what to do rather than just stating what he himself does (as with 1 Timothy 2:12 above). Yet even this does not mean we have a hard and fast rule for every church around the world and throughout time. After all, the Corinthians church was full of problems, and so not everything Paul writes to them can be applied to every church.

Furthermore, few churches who use 1 Corinthians 14:34 to defend the idea that it is wrong for women to preach in church also apply Paul’s instructions that women should wear head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:2-10).

I could go on and on about more of the arguments surrounding this text, but let’s leave it aside for now.  (If you want to read more, here are two good books which lay out the issues: Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Beyond Sex Roles.)

The Simple Solution to Women Preaching in Church

Most of Christianity’s debates have a simple solution. Did you know that? 

More often than not, when two (or more) groups of Christians are hotly debating an issue (and calling each other heretics in the process), it is because both groups have incorrectly framed the issue, and are arguing about something that should not be an issue at all.

This issue about whether it is wrong from women to preach in church or be a pastor is one of the greatest examples.

The simple solution to the problem is to recognize that the only groups who really argue about this issue are groups of Christians who meet in buildings on Sunday morning and have paid pastors who do most of the preaching.

This issue of whether or not women can preach in church and be pastors is almost never an issue when groups of believers meet in homes, in coffee shops, or at the local park to encourage one another, to edify one another, or to just hang out. In such organic gatherings of the church, it would be unthinkable to tell the women to remain silent. I have often learned more from the women in these gatherings than from the men.

Look, if you attend a traditional-style church service on Sunday morning, it is possible that you also attend a Sunday school class or a weeknight Bible study. Let me ask you, these gatherings also are part of the church. Does it ever occur to you to raise the question about whether or not women should remain silent in your Sunday school class or in your Wednesday night home group Bible study? Of course not! It’s unthinkable!

The only place this issue comes up today is in this strange way we have come to “do church” where everybody sits in rows and watches a performance on stage in which songs are sung and one person gives a 30-40 minute lecture.

(Which raises the question … songs also are a form of teaching, are they not? How many of these churches who condemn female pastors and women preachers have female worship leaders? I would be interested to know what the difference is between teaching through words put to music and teaching through words not put to music?)

So Is it Wrong for Women to Preach in Church?

In the debate about women preaching in church, the primary problem is not found in how we understand preaching or authority over men or what Paul means in 1 Timothy 2:12 or 1 Corinthains14:34. No, the problem is in how we define “church.”

This issue, which has caused so much division within the church, is based almost 100% on a faulty definition and understanding of “the church.” Once we understand what the church is, this debate about whether or not women can preach in church completely disappears and becomes a non-issue. (This is why a definition of the church is so critical … see my book Skeleton Church).

Sure, we still have to figure out why Paul wrote what he wrote To Timothy and to Corinth (for the churches in Ephesus and Corinth too were meeting in homes as well). But since nobody (rightfully so!) is going to tell women to remain silent in home groups and any other gathering of the church. Also, in such gatherings, there are almost never questions about who gets to be called “pastor.” (Or at least, there shouldn’t be.)

So here is my final answer: I believe women can speak and teach in church, because I understand the church to be the people of God who follow Jesus into the world, and so a gathering of the church occurs whenever and wherever believers gather, whether it is two or three around a dinner table, five or six in a living room, seven or eight at a coffee shop, or larger gatherings in some other building.

For those who think that it is wrong for women to preach in church, I would ask them this: “Is it wrong for women to speak in Sunday school or home group Bible studies?”

If not, why not? These also are gatherings of the church, are they not? Men are usually present at these gatherings, right? Why can women speak and teach in one context, but not in others (especially when this other large-group context is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible)?

Once we understand the definition of “church” the whole debate about whether or not it is wrong for women to preach in church or be a “pastor” fades away into insignificance. It becomes a non-issue.

So … comments are open! On your mark, get set, GO! (*Please be nice*)

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