This was the response of American pastor John MacArthur to “Beth Moore” as a prompt in a word association game during his church’s 2019 Truth Matters Conference. He went on to elaborate: “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion.”
MacArthur’s confident assertion is the latest salvo in an ongoing debate about whether women can minister and teach in church. His words vividly demonstrate that it is the biblical perspective that is frequently the debate’s main battleground. While it is beyond the scope of this article to mount a comprehensive response to MacArthur, it will seek to address some common objections to female leadership in ministry arising from several key biblical texts.
1 Corinthians 11:2–26
What does Paul mean by “head” in verse 3, when he writes that “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife (or “woman” as in the NIV, since the same Greek word is used for both) is her husband (or “man” as in the NIV, again since the same Greek work is used for both), and the head of Christ is God”?
Some argue in favour of “authority” in a hierarchical sense. This interpretation seems to be supported by verse 10, which in some versions reads “a woman ought to have a symbol of authority over her head”. Furthermore, Paul uses “head” to mean “authority” in other texts such as Colossians 2:10, and arguably, Ephesians 5:23.
An alternative interpretation of “head” is “source” in terms of “source of life or origin”. Those who support such a view argue that it is consistent with the wording of verses 8, 9 and 12, which make explicit reference to the Creation story where woman was made from man. Moreover, verse 10 refers to the woman’s own authority rather than that of man’s authority over her. In fact, the words “a symbol of” are not in the original Greek and were likely added to reflect the hierarchical view that women should wear a head covering, presumably as a sign of man’s authority over her. Verse 11 supports the view that verse 10 refers to a woman’s own authority by explicitly qualifying her exercise of it by reminding her that she is not independent of man.
The above argument illustrates Gordon Fee’s advice that it is good biblical interpretative practice to look first to the word’s function in the present passage to discern its meaning, rather than import its meaning from its usage in other biblical texts or extra-biblical sources.
Paul’s main aim in this passage is less about defining “headship”, and more about maintaining gender differentiation in worship practice. It is likely that women were forgoing accepted cultural codes of dress and hair in an unbridled display of their new-found freedom in Christ, thus blurring the lines between male and female. Paul therefore engages in wordplay, using “head” metaphorically to address appropriate uncovering or covering of literal “heads” of men and women while praying and prophesying during worship.
Cultural norms are obviously different now. We do not literally obey Paul’s injunction that women cover their heads in worship. To seek to obey this passage by enforcing the subordination of women to men, however, is going beyond what this passage can support.
1 Corinthians 14:34–35
The first contentious issue in this passage is that in verse 34, Paul seems to command women to “keep silent in the churches”. However, it is clear that Paul does not mean women are never to utter a word in church, since in 1 Corinthians 11 he detailed the appropriate manner of adornment when women pray and prophesy during worship.
As some scholars have pointed out, the problem Paul is addressing is not one of women teaching or speaking, but one of women learning—too loudly. As seen in verse 40, Paul’s central concern is for decency and order in worship. Whether it was an issue of threatening the church’s witness with the cultural impropriety of women asking questions publicly or because it was considered rude for novices—women in the Greco-Roman world were generally less educated than their male counterparts—to ask unlearned questions, it is reasonable to posit that Paul is writing against the chaos women created during worship by their questions.
The second issue is what Paul means by women “should be in submission, as the law also says”. Some read it as submission to men, be it to their husbands or to leave the exercise of pastoral authority to men in general.
As in the case of 1 Corinthians 11, we should look to the immediate textual context for clues. The Greek word for “submission” is also used in verse 32 to state that the spirits of prophets are “subject” to prophets, which allows them to keep silent when another prophet receives a revelation (verse 30). Therefore, it is plausible that submission in verse 34 is also related to controlling one’s tongue and being silent, rather than being in submission to another. It should be noted that there is no scholarly consensus on what “law” Paul refers to. If Roman sanctions, Paul does not usually use this word to refer to them. If Old Testament law, nowhere does it command women to be silent in worship, although there is an enjoining of submission and silence in some contexts as a mark of respect for God (e.g. Hab 2:20).
The difficulty of literal obedience to the biblical text is as pertinent for this passage as it is for 1 Corinthians 11. Most Christians would not literally obey Paul’s commands for prophesying and speaking in tongues as spelt out in verses 27–31, citing cultural reasons. So why should the one command in verse 34 be followed literally as applicable in all contexts and for all time?
1 Timothy 2:11–15
We come now to the fundamental text in the argument against women in ministry leadership.
No one insists on a strict following of verse 11, that is, forcing a woman to “learn quietly” without making a sound. While the focus tends to be on “quietly”, Paul is also commanding that a woman be allowed to study and learn rather than being restrained from doing so: “let a woman learn quietly”.
The critical issue is with how a woman is to learn. What does “with all submissiveness” mean? Whom or what is a woman to be submissive to? Some assume that it is to men, referencing verse 12. However, the context of learning and the fact that Paul elsewhere never commands submission of all women to all men suggest that Paul is writing about the learner’s attitude of obedience to God, the gospel, the instructor or the instructional setting.
Verse 12 is the crucial verse in the debate. The point of contention is what exactly Paul means by forbidding a woman “to teach” and “to exercise authority.” The latter phrase is particularly difficult to translate as the Greek word it is based on is found nowhere else in the New Testament and rarely in extra-biblical Greek literature. Its possible meaning ranges from the neutral “to have authority over” to the negative “domineer, usurp or abuse authority.” Those arguing against female leadership assume the neutral meaning for both, i.e. Paul forbids teaching and exercising authority over men. On the other hand, those arguing for female leadership argue for the negative meaning, i.e. what is forbidden is teaching false doctrines and dominating over men or teaching in order to dominate.
As is the case for verse 11, no one insists on strict adherence to the literal meaning of women not teaching at all. Rather, they nuance it by whom the women are not allowed to teach or in what setting. For example, one scholar, looking ahead to 1 Timothy 3:2, which states that overseers should be able to teach, and 1 Timothy 3:15, which sets the discussion in the “household of God”, speculates that women are not to teach overseers or men in authority in the public assembly of the church.
Verse 13 is often used as the lynchpin in the argument against female leadership. Paul is interpreted as grounding his prohibition in verses 11 and 12 on the order of Adam being created first, and Eve second. The problem with this argument is that although the rationale for forbidding women from teaching and exercising authority over men is based on a general and enduring principle—women are somehow by nature inferior or subordinate to men—it is not applied as such. As mentioned earlier, it is applied to specific situations (e.g. not teaching men in authority in the public assembly of the church) rather than in a general way (e.g. forbidding all women from teaching all men).
What then, could be the reason for Paul’s commands in verses 11 and 12 and invoking of the Creation story in verses 13 and 14? One possible reason is that in Ephesus at that time, the main religion was the cult worship of Artemis (see Acts 19:24–35) in which all priests were female. Furthermore, this cult promoted the false teaching that Eve was first-born and enlightened. It would therefore make sense that Paul would combat this heresy by pointing out that Eve was formed after Adam and not before him, and that far from being enlightened, she was deceived by the serpent. Paul’s command in verses 11 and 12 then, was to encourage women to learn with the right attitude, and to specify that he was not, through this encouragement, giving the wrong impression that he was training women in the way of the cult of Artemis, one where women dominated over men.
The biblical case against a woman preacher is based on a reading of key texts that insufficiently takes into account the fact that Paul’s letters are occasional in nature. They were originally written for a specific occasion: for a specific audience, at a specific point in time, about specific matters. This is not to discount the applicability of Scripture to us today, but it does imply that the serious reader of Scripture should seek to discern the main point the original author was trying to convey to his original readers before trying to apply it to the here and now. A useful resource for lay readers in this respect is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.
The views expressed in this article are personal and might not necessarily reflect the official position of The Methodist Church in Singapore. This version of the article has been edited for brevity. The full article can be found here.
Pastor Tay Li Ping is Assistant Pastor at Christ Methodist Church. She entered ministry as a Member-on-Trial with Trinity Annual Conference in August 2019.