The question whether women may serve as pastors or elders is one that hits home for many Christians. Believers have seen this issue embroil and even divide their churches. In taking up such a critical and sensitive matter, it is important to turn to the Bible. What light does the Word of God shed on this controversial topic?
In 1 Timothy 2:8–15, the Apostle Paul provides the clear direction that the church needs to order its life in a way that is pleasing to God. In this letter, Paul writes to Timothy, his younger colleague in the ministry. Timothy was serving the church in Ephesus at a difficult time. He was facing problems of false teaching (1 Tim. 1:3–11; 6:2–10) and confusion in worship (1 Tim. 2:1–15). The church also needed clear guidance on the qualifications and task of its officers, the elders and the deacons (1 Tim. 3:1–5:25).
After giving Timothy instructions about the work of prayer in Christian worship (1 Tim. 2:1–7), Paul turns to give specific counsel to men and women as they participate in the public worship of God (1 Tim. 2:8–15). In these verses, he addresses sins that tend to particularly plague each gender. Men must pray “without anger or quarreling” (1 Tim. 2:8). Women must prioritize godliness over glamour (1 Tim. 2:9–10).
Paul takes up a further concern relating to women’s participation in public worship. Paul first positively outlines God’s calling to women—“let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness” (1 Tim. 2:11). The Apostle affirms the right of women to be present in the worship of the church and to learn, alongside the men, the Word of God as it is read and proclaimed. In this respect, female disciples of Jesus are in every way the equal of male disciples of Jesus.
Paul then forbids women “to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12). They are, rather, “to remain quiet.” Women are to occupy themselves with what God has called them to do—to be quiet learners. They are not to take up the forbidden pursuits outlined in verse 12.
What are these pursuits? Paul mentions two. The first is teaching. The context is important here. Paul does not forbid women from any and all teaching activities, even within the church. Rather, Paul forbids women from the public preaching and teaching of the Word of God when the church is assembled in public worship. This work belongs to the elders of the church (see 1 Tim. 3:2; 4:11–16). The second is the exercise of authority over men. In the following chapter, Paul will entrust spiritual authority to the church’s elders, qualified men who have demonstrated themselves to be competent managers of their own families (see 1 Tim. 3:5). We may summarize Paul’s prohibition in verse 12 in this way: women are not permitted to hold the office or to exercise the functions of an elder in the church.