The following article is reproduced from Ordained Servant, the quarterly publication of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Vol. 10, No. 1 (January, 2001), pp. 10-13.

The Concept of “Authoritative Teaching” and the Role of Women in Congregational Worship

R. Fowler White, Ph.D.

Professor of NT, Knox Theological Seminary

Introduction.  The recently coined phrase “authoritative teaching” and similar terminology are current among some PCA pastors when they discuss the propriety of women teaching (preaching) in the gathered church under the oversight of elders.  The expression derives from the position advocated in works like Susan T. Foh’s Women & the Word of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1979) and James B. Hurley’s Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981).  At the center of the discussion is their exegesis of 1 Tim 2:12 (see Foh, pp. 122-28, 246-58; Hurley, pp. 201, 224-29).  In my judgment, the concept of “authoritative teaching” is exegetically untenable and ought to be given no weight in deciding the role of women in the church.  Consider the following points.

The distinction between authoritative and non-authoritative teaching.  We need first to get a clarification of the distinction between authoritative and non-authoritative teaching in this discussion.  Basically, the difference is this:  “authoritative teaching” is teaching done while holding the elder office, and “non-authoritative teaching” is teaching done while not holding the elder office. Foh and Hurley and their followers take this distinction to mean that qualified women as well as qualified men may teach the church while not holding eldership.  The need for sound argumentation at this point arises because the differentiation is crucial, even necessary, to maintaining the position that would permit women to teach the gathered church under the oversight of elders.  What, then, is the basis of the distinction?

The “one activity” exegesis of 1 Tim 2:12.  The distinction between “authoritative teaching” and “non-authoritative teaching” has its roots in a particular exegesis of 1 Tim 2:12.  The interpretive question is, In 1 Tim 2:12 is Paul restricting women with regard to two activities (functions) or one?  That is, does Paul mean to forbid women “to teach authoritatively” (one activity/function), or “neither to teach nor to exercise authority” (two activities/functions)?  According to Foh (pp. 125-26) and Hurley (p. 201), Paul is not talking about teaching on the one hand and exercising authority on the other; rather, he is talking about teaching authoritatively, about assuming the office of teacher, about engaging in the habitual teaching function of an elder.  Thus, Foh and Hurley speak of “authoritative teaching” or of “the office of teacher/elder.”

Problems with the “one activity” exegesis of 1 Tim 2:12.  As we look elsewhere at the citations of 1 Tim 2:12 by Foh and Hurley, however, we discover that they are not consistent in their interpretation of that text.  To be sure, the “one activity” view of 1 Tim 2:12 dominates their thinking, but the “two activities” view surfaces in their denial that eldership is open to women.  Look first at Foh.  In her discussion of 1 Timothy 2 on pp. 125-26, she argues for the “one activity” view, connecting Paul’s prohibitions to women occupying the office of teacher/elder.  Yet later, when she argues against women’s ordination on pp. 238-40, she presumes a “two activities” view, asserting that 1 Tim 2:12 “means that the teaching and ruling office(s) of the church are not accessible to women” (p. 239).  Her inconsistency is patent.  Hurley is similarly equivocal.  After taking a “one activity” view on p. 201, he refers again to 1 Timothy 2 on p. 226, but there writes of elders having tasks in the “areas [my emphasis; note the plural] of ‘teaching and exercising authority over men.’”  These “two activities” statements by Foh and Hurley are plainly at odds with their “one activity” exegesis of 1 Tim 2:12.  Regrettably, this diplopia occurs precisely where they must be clear.

A second problem with the Foh-Hurley concept of authoritative teaching is their treatment of the syntax in 1 Tim 2:12 (which forms the basis of the concept).  They make no effort to prove that their exegesis of the text’s syntax is even within the range of known usage.  On this point, see the recent essay by Andreas J. Köstenberger, “A Complex Sentence Structure in 1 Timothy 2:12,” in A. J. Köstenberger /T. R. Schreiner/H. S. Baldwin, eds., Women in the Church (Baker, 1995), pp. 81-103 (note especially pp. 90-91).  He has shown that the “one activity” view has no basis in the syntactical evidence.  Alternatively, there is ample support for the “two activities” view.  Similarly, see the essay by Douglas Moo, “What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority over Men? 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” in J. Piper/W. Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Grand Rapids: Crossway, 1992), pp. 179-93.  Though Moo makes his case differently than Köstenberger, he has argued with both clarity and accuracy that 1 Tim 2:12 refers to two activities, not one.  In short, there is strong evidence favoring the “two activities” view; on the other hand, there is no syntactical evidence to support the claim that 1 Tim 2:12 speaks only of the official teaching function of the elder.

Third, Foh and Hurley affirm that the teaching eldership and the ruling eldership are not open to women.  I agree, but I do so because, among other things, I am persuaded that Paul’s references both to teaching and to exercising authority find expression in, respectively, the teaching eldership and the ruling eldership of the church (1 Tim 2:12 with 1 Tim 5:17).  (These activities also find expression outside the office of elder [e.g., teaching, Col 3:16; ruling, 1 Tim 3:4-5].)  However, if I rely on the “one activity” view of 1 Tim 2:12 to reach that conclusion, I deprive myself of a crucial piece of biblical evidence on which my position rests.  On the “one activity” exegesis, Paul excludes women from only one activity, namely, from the authoritative teaching function of an elder.  On this same exegesis, Paul does not exclude women from a second activity, that is, from the ruling function of an elder.  Only if we take the teaching and exercising authority in 1 Tim 2:12 as two activities do we have any explicit biblical basis for limiting the teaching eldership and the ruling eldership to men.  Presuming the Foh-Hurley exegesis, the text gives no grounds for excluding women from both the teaching and the ruling offices; at least ostensibly, the ruling office remains open to them.

In sum, the biblical basis for permitting women to teach the assembled church under the oversight of elders has not been established.  The “one activity” exegesis of 1 Tim 2:12 on which this practice has been based is simply not tenable.  Apart from this exegesis, no biblical basis has been put forth for prohibiting women from teaching the assembled church authoritatively while permitting them to teach the assembled church non-authoritatively.  The syntactical evidence, which supports the “two activities” view, has been neither examined nor refuted.  There is therefore good reason to object to the position and practice of those who have cited the Foh-Hurley exegesis of 1 Tim 2:12 to justify permitting women to teach the church in a non-official capacity. Whether their teaching occurs while in an office or not, whether under the oversight of elders or not, women should not be permitted to teach the gathered church.  This conclusion dovetails with the following point.

The analogy of women prophets.  Following Foh and Hurley (among others), the claim is frequently made that women prophets were permitted to address the assembled church, and therefore women teachers should also be permitted to do so. Let me offer only a brief commentary on this consideration.

Unless I’m missing something, the Hurley-Foh view of women and speaking gifts in the NT gives us a church in which the teaching gift was exercised according to a different set of principles and regulations than the prophetic and tongue-speaking gifts.  As a result, women could prophesy to the assembled church but they could not teach the assembled church (at least not officially).

Against Hurley and Foh I would argue that the same principles and regulations governed all speaking gifts (prophecy, teaching, etc.) given to the church.  Observe that the principles and regulations presented in 1 Timothy 2 and 5 (1 Tim 5:2; 3:11; 5:9-10, 14; see also Titus 2:3-5; and 2 Tim 1:5) are also cited and applied in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 (1 Cor 11:5 and 14:26-35).  We will return to the principles and regulations of 1 Timothy 5 below, but for now notice two points.  First, notice that the family-church analogy is at work in all four chapters.  Second, consider that in each chapter the point Paul urges is that the distinct roles assigned to men and women in marriage and family should carry over into the distinct roles assumable by men and women in the church.  If this interpretation is right, it would mean that female teachers and prophets participated freely in the meetings of God’s household when it came to praying, singing, giving thanks, and the like (1 Cor 11:5 with 14:15-19; cf. Acts 1:14; 2:17-18); but when it came to giving instruction to the gathered church via the exercise of their gifts, they were at least ostensibly to be silent (1 Cor 14:19 with 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:12).  At the same time, as “mothers” in God’s household, women with speaking gifts (or without) instructed other women, even as Paul’s directives to Titus indicate (Titus 2:3-5).

The “one another” commands and the episode in Acts 18:26.  Some might say something like this:  “In light of all the ‘one-another’ commands in the NT and the example of Priscilla teaching Apollos (Acts 18:26), it is clear that women can teach the church collectively or its men specifically as long as it takes place under the oversight of elders.”  But the appeals to the “one another” commands and to the Priscilla-Apollos episode do not make matters as clear as advocates suggest they should.

First of all, we have to question whether the instance of Priscilla teaching Apollos really constitutes a ground for permitting a woman to teach in the church as any unordained man might.  The two situations are clearly not identical and only problematically analogous.  For example, Priscilla’s words to Apollos were part of an explanation to which her husband Aquila contributed as well, and at that they were spoken in a private meeting between the three of them.  Certainly, unlike Apollos, Priscilla is not portrayed as speaking in the meeting of the synagogue.  Luke in fact contrasts Apollos’ “speaking out boldly in the synagogue” (18:26; cf. 18:28, “in public debate”) with Priscilla’s and Aquila’s “inviting him to their home [NIV; NASB and NKJV, “taking him aside”] to explain the way of God more accurately to Apollos.  In my opinion, if we are looking for the best analogy between the Priscilla-Aquila-Apollos episode and something relevant for the church, we would do better to look to Paul’s words concerning women speaking at home vis-à-vis in church (1 Cor 14:34-35).

Second, certain “one another” commands might be cited as constituting a ground for permitting women to teach non-authoritatively in the meetings of the church.  But if we are going to use this kind of argumentation, someone could with equal justification cite the “submit to one another” command in Eph 5:21 and argue that it provides a ground for permitting women to exercise authority over the church and thus for having the church submitting to women in the role of at least ruling elders.  To be sure, we could cite 1 Tim 2:12 to counter this argument, but only if we adopt the “two activities” view of that text.  Consider also the relevance of 1 Tim 5:1-2 for understanding the application of the “one another” commands, as summarized below.

The analogy of family and church.  In the give and take that characterizes all biblical interpretation, exegesis is inevitably and decisively influenced by existing commitments and larger frameworks of understanding.  Trying to identify and address these controlling factors is an equally necessary and potentially more profitable way to work at resolving the issues in dispute among us.  In this last section, let me explore what I believe is one of those controlling factors.  Though he is not responsible for my application of his thought, I am indebted to Vern Poythress’s essay in Piper/Grudem, “The Church as Family,” pp. 233-47, for what follows.

I have come to believe that the differences among us are due in large measure to an inconsistent application of the principle that the distinct roles assigned to men and women in marriage and family carry over into the distinct roles assumable by men and women in the church.  According to Paul, the fundamental principles governing relationships in human households are applicable to the church as God’s household (1 Tim 3:15; 5:1-2; cf. 3:4-5).  His point is that, in God’s household, as the members relate to one another, they are obligated to take into account whether their fellow members are men or women, young or old (1 Tim 5:1-2).  The application of Paul’s principles would go something like this.  A woman, as capable and gifted as she may be, can never function as a father in a human household.  Likewise, a woman, as capable and gifted as she may be, may never function as a “father” in God’s household.  She may indeed function as a “mother” in God’s household (cf. Sarah, 1 Pet 3:6), and exercise the roles indicated in 1 Tim 5:2; 3:11; 5:9-10, 14; Titus 2:3-5; and 2 Tim 1:5.  But, just as the roles of men and women are not interchangeable in human families, so they are not in the church family.

Based on the preceding argumentation, Paul’s restrictions on women’s roles in 1 Tim 2:12 are a natural outcome of the analogy between the church and the human family.  Likewise, we should interpret and apply the “one another” commands of Scripture according to the principle of 1 Tim 5:1-2.  In addition, as I suggested above, we should interpret and apply the Acts 18:26 episode in terms of 1 Tim 5:1-2 (as well as 1 Cor 14:34-35).  As I see it, the view that would permit women to teach the gathered church loses sight of Paul’s analogy between the church and the family, and it results in permitting a woman to function as a “father” in God’s household in every way but the name.  This view is therefore a departure from the fundamental principles that govern relationships between men and women in the church.

Conclusions.  The text of 1 Tim 2:12 places restrictions on two activities (teaching and ruling), not one (teaching authoritatively).  As such, the text does not support the concept of “authoritative teaching” often derived from it.  Moreover, Paul’s principial instructions in 1 Tim 5:1-2 bring clarity to our understanding of women’s speaking roles in general, the “one another” commands, and the relevance of Acts 18:26.

The emerging frequency with which some churches are allowing women to teach (preach) under the oversight of elders is creating a class of de facto women elders.  If the practice continues, gifted women who teach the church will almost certainly teach as often as, and possibly even more often than, any ruling elders, and yet we still have to maintain that they are not teaching elders.  Let me state my point differently:  all things being equal, by permitting women to teach in a non-official capacity, such permission is, in effect, creating a class of teachers who function as teaching elders and “fathers” in God’s household, though they are “mothers” in God’s household and lack the name and the official authority.  What Scripture denies to women de jure is being granted to them de facto.  These things ought not to be.

The Speaker’s words in Eccles 3:7b sum up Paul’s doctrine in 1 Tim 2:12 and related verses:  when it comes to giving instruction, there is a time for women to be silent, and a time for them to speak.  Accordingly, let us affirm women, especially those with speaking gifts, as “mothers” in God’s household, encourage their teaching ministries to other women, and thereby uphold the principles that should govern church and home alike.