When I listened to the back and forth between Aimee, Todd, and Carl over at The Mortification of Spin, on the issue of women teaching men, I noticed something. From my perspective, the conversation began at the wrong end of the stick as so many issues do these days. The end of this particular stick is the structure in which the teaching itself took place. This led the group to spend most of its time focusing on women either teaching men in Sunday School or outside the formal worship service. The purpose of this post is to try and provide some clarity around how the Bible directs us to think regarding this subject. And the best place to start, the right end of the stick that is, is the Bible itself. So, to the Bible, I shall turn.
One text that is often employed to support or justify women teaching to mixed audiences is located in Acts 18:26 where Pricilla and Aquila pulled Apollos aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. The problem with this text is that it is not very precise. One could say that Priscilla and Aquila pulled Apollos aside and taught him but that is actually what is likely is that they both pulled him aside while it was Aquila who did the instructing. In fact, it is very likely and extremely reasonable to think that this is exactly what happened. At best, Acts 18:26 is an extremely weak example of mixed teaching outside the formal worship setting. If one is going to advocate for women teaching mixed audiences, this is not the text you would want to make your case.
Another text that may seem to indicate that the Bible teaches us that women can preach to mixed audiences is Acts 21:9. Phillip the Evangelist had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses. The actual word used in this case is the participle, and so it should read, “who prophesied.” Indeed, the use of the present participle prophēteuousai in 21:9 suggests that an ongoing ministry rather than an office is in view here. [Peterson] Bruce tells us, “The daughters lived to a great age, and were highly esteemed as informants on persons and events belonging to the early years of Judaean Christianity.” [Bruce, The Book of Acts] Calvin contends that Luke called attention to this fact in order to point out the importance of Phillip and surely he is correct. The prophesying virgins were important to Luke for historical reasons. It is readily acknowledged that prophecy accompanied the ushering in of the New Covenant and especially the New Community, it is also admitted that this phenomenon was only temporal and specifically for that end. In addition, to declare something is not the same as teaching. Second, there is nothing here to suggest that Phillip’s daughters were teaching men. Finally, the book of Acts reflects a period of transition from the inception of the Church and moving toward the completion of divine revelation. We should not read ourselves into the stories. It follows that if the gift of prophecy was temporary as the revelation was coming to completion, it is a moot point to attempt to use this situation to support women preaching and/or teaching gender-mixed audiences. In conclusion, we would say that Acts 21:9 does not seem to offer good support for the idea that women can teach mixed audiences.
If Acts 18:26 and 21:9 do not support the argument for women teaching men, then perhaps 1 Corinthians 11:5 provides what the other texts do not. First of all, this text is not dealing with prophecy as its main subject. The issue here concerned the cultural issue of women’s attire in the public square and Roman law. The wearing of an appropriate head covering (such as a hood) denoted respect and respectability. Within the semiotic clothing code of first-century Roman society (see above on Roland Barthes) “a veil or hood constituted a warning: it signified that the wearer was a respectable woman and that no man dare approach her,” i.e., as one potentially or actually sexually “available” (my italics). [Thiselton] It seems rather obvious that Paul is not concerned with women prophesying to mixed audiences, but is instead dealing with an issue specific to the Corinthian culture and to Roman law. The context of 1 Corinthians 11:1-17 has nothing in its immediate context touching on our question. This makes 1 Cor. 11:5 a very poor candidate in the argument for women teachers of men.
Now, I wish to my original point that the MoS team focused on the wrong end of the stick. In her follow post to this discussion, Aimee Byrd jumps on the idea that women are only forbidden to teach men within the structure of the formal worship service and that when it comes to Sunday School, all bets are off. Is she right or has she found a loophole? Is Aimee genuinely seeking to understand Scripture from a neutral position or is she allowing her own desires to drive how she handles the issue? Aimee asks the question, “While I don’t think all Sunday schools in every church need to have the same set-up, the way that we present it does matter. So that raises a lot of questions. Is a Sunday school class equivalent to a worship service?” Well, before we answer Aimee’s question, we should turn to Paul’s instructions and the text in question to determine if Paul was as strict in his instructions as Aimee and others seem to think he was.
Paul says that a woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. And in parallel to this, he says not only are the women to learn with entire submissiveness, but they are also not permitted to rule or to teach men. Nearly all scholars admit that this prohibition is confined to the public square. Women are not to teach men in the gatherings. Anytime the church is gathered together is what Paul has in mind. Admittedly, I was appalled to hear some on the MoS team considering that if the church gathered together “informally” on a day other than the first day of the week, then this would provide the sort of support their argument needs to carry the day. Two exceptions seem to surface on the MoS podcast: A woman may be able to teach men in a Sunday School class and a woman may be allowed to teach men in any setting outside the formal, weekly, worship service. However, I would suggest that Paul did not have in mind some formal, once-a-week gathering when he issued his instructions. The fact that he referenced the creation account seems to indicate as much. Paul would surely have considered his instructions to apply to any sort of collection of the body under any circumstances. To argue that it only applies to a formal, weekly worship service is somewhat anachronistic from my perspective. While there is a difference between a husband and a wife team, in the privacy of their own home, providing instructions to Apollos, as the husband surely led in that teaching, and worship gathering, there is little difference between a worship gathering on Sunday morning and a worship gathering on Friday night. Additionally, a group is a group is a group. The size of the group and the day of its meeting cannot be counted as criteria for when a woman may be able to lead the teaching and when she may not. There is simply no biblical precedent for such a position.
Women are instructed to teach, but it is the older women who are instructed to teach the younger women. (Titus 2:3-4) And they were to teach the younger women specifically, to love their husbands, and their children, to be sensible, pure, not lazy in managing the home, kind, and to be subject to their husbands. All this was so that the Word of God would not be blasphemed. Now, compare and contrast these instructions with what young women are being taught in Western, American culture. I think we all have to ask the question of just how much of my thinking on this issue is infected with the disease of American individualism.
It is my conclusion that the Mortification of Spin podcast on this question very likely introduces more confusion than necessary. It raises more questions than it answers. And the reason it does so is that it grabs the wrong end of the stick. It begins with the presupposition that Paul had in mind a 21st-century structure and arbitrarily imposes certain principles that likely did not exist in Paul’s mind as he penned his letter to young Timothy. It assumes that Paul would have made a distinction between the “weekly gathering” and other gatherings. It assumes Paul may have even made a difference between the “weekly gathering” and the number of people gathering, for example, in small groups. It assumes Paul would have looked at these differently. We must understand that there is nothing special about a weekly gathering on a particular day or a particular number. What makes the gathering special are the i) participants, ii) the exhortation from Scripture, and iii) the communion of those saints in fellowship together in the name of Christ. And I would suggest that every time we gather together, even the fewest of us, for the purpose of exhortation and fellowship, Paul’s instructions must govern the gathering. In other words, sorry Aimee, Todd, and Carl: as much as I love your work and agree with almost all that you say, I think to one degree or another, you got it wrong on this one.