“I Suffer Not a Woman to Teach” (What Does 1 Timothy 2:12 Really Mean)

preacher-blondeThis is perhaps the most awkward blog post I have ever written.  Usually when I write blog posts it is to impart some level of knowledge, to share resources, to give a definitive “what now” response to a particular question.  However, the purpose of this blog post is slightly different.  The purpose of this blog post is to admit, I don’t have all the answers and I don’t even have all the questions.  As a theologian and children’s pastor, there are still numerous theological areas I struggle with.  Women and ministry is one of those areas.

Some of you know me personally and have read up on many articles I’ve written on this very topic, but today I want to re-iterate some of that in order to help you better understand where I am coming from.

When I was 4 years old, I used to line up my teddy bears and preach sermons to them.  Some kids play house, some play doctor, I played church.  My curiosity for the Bible was insatiable and from as early as I can remember, I was a little nerd.  One day in my kindergarten Sunday school class my teacher (the pastor’s daughter) made us go around in a circle and say what we wanted to be when we grew up.  There were the traditional responses – a mechanic, an athlete, and a singer.  And then my turn.  I boldly announced “a pastor.”  My teacher nearly fell off her chair and quietly reprimanded me “honey, women can’t be pastors.”  Well, I am not one to take no for an answer, so a few years later I left that church and went to a different one with a female pastor.

Growing up, I have always been well aware of the tension of being a woman in leadership.  On the one hand, I believe that God has specifically called me to a Christian ministry vocation.  I believe I have been affirmed in gifts such as leadership, administration, teaching, and preaching.  Many people are afraid of public speaking, but that’s where I find myself the most energized.  I also believe that God has placed in me a desire to relate well to people regardless of their age.  I am a children’s pastor because I think kids are the future of our church and to invest in them is to invest in our future.  I take this role seriously, however, I also have admitted on several occasions that I don’t want to work with kids forever.  And if I were completely honest, I would admit that I am more drawn to the traditional pastoring roles of providing pastoral care, guidance, and teaching than I am in cutting out paper hearts and crafting paper airplanes.

I am very blessed that for the most part I have grown up surrounded by people who have affirmed my calling without making a big deal of my gender.  I have seen some friends and relatives who were once dead set against female leadership now encouraging me on my own path because they want to value what God is doing in my life.  I have also had some very close friends tell me that as long as I pursued pulpit ministry, they were never going to be on my side.  This hurts deeply and I think oftentimes these people don’t understand the tension that we women in leadership deal with.  Sometimes people can be downright cruel and judgmental in their thinking.  They will make all sorts of accusations such as that the person has heard God wrong, that they are following Satan and not God, and that they are only in the ministry to prove a point or because of pride.  These people often are completely clueless about how difficult it is for a woman to be a pastor.  Female pastors will likely never be as accepted as male pastors and will often have to justify a calling that men are so likely to take for granted.

Between the ages of 18-24 I attended Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto.  I first acquired my Bachelor’s of Religious Education followed by a Master’s of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry.  Being a non-denominational school, Tyndale accepts students of both persuasions.  I have attended classes and become friends with many people who will never set foot in a church as long as I’m preaching.  I have also attended classes with many women who I believe have the “gifts and graces” of ministry and are doing incredible things in their own church for the Kingdom of God.  What interests me the most in both interactions is that in both cases these people are sold out Christians.  In both cases these people simply want to follow God’s will for their lives, and in both cases these individuals have found examples in Scripture to prove their point.

Attending Tyndale I never once felt discouraged from being a pastor.  All Tyndale professors have to agree that regardless of their own persuasions they will not penalize or discriminate against a female in their class.  Professors must accept women into all their pastoral classes including preaching if she registers.  However, even though classes are open to both genders, I was one of three women in the pastoral ministry track (and Tyndale is the largest Christian seminary in all of Canada and one of the largest in North America).

At Tyndale I also did an in-depth study on women in leadership.  Over the years my viewpoint has changed almost entirely.  I used to be very egalitarian, then turned middle-ground, and now am almost exclusively male headship.  That is to say that I still value the contributions of women in all levels of leadership and want them to freely exercise the gifts God has given them (including preaching), but have realized that for myself I would not feel right being a senior pastor.  This is not to say that I don’t think there are ever exceptions, however, I will admit it is often not the norm.

Since I’ve read up on both side  of the debate and felt comfortable as a woman behind the pulpit (in other words, I didn’t think I was somehow “sinning” against God), I was content.  But then something happened.  As I have now started thinking more about ordination I realize the process is no longer a thought, but likely will be a reality.  Currently it is a question that plagues me most nights.  Am I doing the right thing?  Is this what God really wants?  And what on earth do I do with the 1 Timothy passage (the classic proof-text)?  Is it simply enough to say that it was written at a different time, under Patriarchal influences and that it doesn’t apply the same way today and is thus a matter of interpretation (like the more egalitarian books tell us)?  Are the Biblical examples of Deborah, Miriam, Phoebe, Junia, and Priscilla (all women of extreme importance who had a vast amount of leadership within the early church – potentially even over men) enough to justify a woman behind the pulpit?  Or is the mere fact that Scripture doesn’t name these women “priests” or “pastors” enough to turn us off completely from this notion?  And if indeed we are using the argument that women can be pastors based on the cultural norms of that day, how far should we take it?

Currently, I am blessed to be part of a denomination which is the absolute best fit for me.  In the Free Methodist church we hold to conservative doctrines almost exclusively.  The Free Methodist believe entirely in traditional marriage (including between a man and a woman, the man being the head of the household, sexual expressions only allowed in marriage, and divorce as an absolute last alternative to be avoided as much as possible except in cases of abandonment, abuse, or desertion).  My church also believes in pro-life and many other things that the most conservative churches adhere to.  However, women can still be pastors (including lead pastors).  That being said, there are not many lead pastors who are female and I still believe in many ways it is not the easiest for a woman to be a lead pastor and even that certain churches within our denomination would not accept this, but the fact is – it’s still a possibility.  And so this has left me questioning, how do I best live in this tension?  How come I so easily adhere to the fact that a man is the head of the family, but not that I can’t preach behind a pulpit?  And if I want to take that verse literally, how far do I go?  Can a woman teach on Mother’s Day?  Can she be a youth pastor?  What about young adults?  Or can she only teach kids and other women?

Like I said at the beginning, I have no real answer for this, but it is a very real struggle I am currently facing.  How to stay true to  the Scripture but also how to stay true and honour God using what I believe He has called me to for years and what people have affirmed in me.  And although I cannot give you any concrete evidence one way or the other (because trust me, there are numerous opinions on this point and both sides have excellent persuasions… I have read many of them extensively), here are some things I would urge you all to keep in mind whether or not you want to see a woman behind the pulpit.

1) God has created and gifted both men and women in various ways.  Both genders must be free to express these spiritual gifts, but also must exercise caution not to abuse them.

2) Throughout the Scripture, God has utilized the gifts of women in various ways (including ways that were not popular or “the norm” at that time).  Women in the Bible have prophesied, led house churches along with their husband, taken part in the public ministry of prayer, served as deaconesses, and even served as a judge over all of Israel.  Women were (and still are) a vital part of the ministry of the church and should be affirmed for their leadership qualities.  Paul himself, the very one who said “I suffer not a woman to teach” sent special greetings to his female co-labourers and from what we see in Scripture seemed to hold them in a high regard and be genuinely thankful for their contributions.

3) Both men and women can be led astray in what they perceive to be God’s calling over their lives.  A woman may be incorrect in the fact that God is calling her to teach, but men also can feel led to be a pastor for less than pure motives.

4) Although it is not the norm, God has called women into specific senior levels of leadership over the years (both in Biblical times as well as throughout church history).  The main thing to remember is that God can use anyone and even if there is a certain preacher you do not approve of, God may still have used him or her to challenge and encourage His flock.

5) Women in leadership is a “side-hall” issue.  It is indeed divisive with high emotions on both sides of the debate.  However, ultimately it is still a grey area in many respects.  It is much better to focus on the real issues at hand (those of sin and salvation) without letting a smaller issue like this distract us from the real work that needs to be done.

Ultimately, I still stand by what I’ve said in the past.  “If God has called a woman to be a senior pastor, then she better go do it!”  Ultimately God calls who He will, when He will, for what He wills.  Our role must always be to faithfully serve Him no matter what.  In all things we must heed the voice of Christ our Master, be faithful to His calling, be understanding and humble enough to admit that we might be mistaken, and to seek Godly counsel from mature Christians to make sure we are hearing correctly.  We must apply what we think God is saying to us through the lens of Scripture and we must remember that He is the one we will ultimately all have to give an account to.  Whether you believe in women in leadership or not, I urge and encourage you to be faithful to the role God has placed you in right now and to show hospitality to all, but especially to those who are of the household of faith.

I’d love to hear the thoughts and viewpoints of those on either side of this debate.

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