Women Teaching Men
(Should women be permitted to teach a mixed group of men and women?)

QUESTION: [Referring to First Timothy 2:12] Is it biblically correct for a woman to "facilitate" a Sunday School discussion group of mixed male and female attendants? Is there really a difference between teaching and facilitating, or is it just renaming sin to make compromise more attractive?

ANSWER: It sounds like a semantical attempt to have one's cake and eat it too--like describing a woman speaker in a church service as "sharing," rather than preaching.

However, having said that, I'm not sure I would object too strenuously--though some feel much more strongly about it than I do. The key is whether or not the one "facilitating" is understood (by her, and the membership) to be under the authority of the elders. Then, it might be possible to allow it, though I don't feel it's ideal.

I commend you for your zeal, and for your desire to do what's right. But perhaps it will be helpful to take a closer look at the Scriptures involved, and at the nature of your personal stand. I realize there are many who would agree with you. But there are also many who would not. That suggests it may not be quite the "black and white" issue you suppose. Here are a few thoughts.

I believe the church should adhere to the fundamental (foundational) doctrines of the apostolic faith. We are to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3). As to what those fundamentals are, they certainly include: the divine inspiration of the Scriptures; the deity and virgin birth of Christ; His death for our sins and His bodily resurrection; and salvation by the grace of God, through faith in Christ, apart from any works.

I would not feel right identifying myself with or supporting a church that denies the doctrines of the Word of God at this level. To do so would, I believe, violate the principle of separation given to us in Second Corinthians 6:14. The question is whether having a woman teach a mixed Sunday School class is an issue of the same magnitude as (for example) defending the deity of Christ. I don't believe it is.

That's not to say it's unimportant. But if we put every single truth in the Word of God on the same level, and determine that we will not have fellowship with anyone who does not agree with us on every single point, we will never find a church to satisfy us. And if every Christian were to live by the same code, the fellowship of the people of God would become hopelessly fragmented, and the fulfilment of the Great Commission severely hindered.

I'm not saying we should surrender our personal convictions. But there have to be some limits on those things for which we'll "go to the wall." It's possible to have good fellowship with a group of people without being in complete agreement with them. However, let me add, it's not healthy to join a group for the purpose of undermining their beliefs or policies, launching a campaign to argue them into agreement with us. That creates a very divisive spirit.

Now, let's take a look at First Timothy 2:12.

Does it absolutely, and without any question, rule out having a woman teach an adult Sunday School class made up of men and women? Does it mean that, without question, to do so would be a sin? And should we conclude, therefore, that it would involve a sinful compromise to attend any church that allows it? It sounds as though you'd answer "Yes," to each of these questions, but I'm not so sure that's a valid conclusion.

Were there situations in the early church where women taught men? Sure there were. We know, for example, that Priscilla was involved, with her husband Aquila, in teaching Apollos (Acts 18:26). And, of course, few would oppose having women teach other women, or children (cf. II Tim. 1:5; 3:14-15; Tit. 2:3-5).

Then, there was the gift of prophecy exercised by women. That gift involved the communication of inspired truth, in the days before the written Word of God was completed. By its very nature, it seems to imply teaching men, not just women. Yet four daughters of Philip were prophetesses (Acts 21:8-9). And Paul seemed to accept women prophesying, as long as they wore a head covering–symbolizing, in that day, their submission to God and His appointed leaders in the church (I Cor. 11:5).

As to the First Timothy text, there is some evidence that Paul is dealing narrowly with women taking the position of an authoritative teaching elder, something which he, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says is unacceptable. It is certainly out of place for a woman to take the lead in settling questions of doctrine or practice in the church.

Here are the views of several Bible commentators concerning the text in question.

Charles Ryrie. "Women may teach as long as they do not usurp the place of leadership and authority of men in the church."

Kenneth Wuest. "I do not permit a woman to be a teacher [in an official position exercising authority over the man in matters of church doctrine or discipline]" (Expanded Translation).

Gleason Archer. "Women workers, no matter how gifted and talented, are not to have ecclesiastical authority over men....They are not to have the authority of ordained minsters or pastors in the leadership of the work of the local church." 

John MacArthur. "Paul is forbidding women from filling the office and role of the pastor or teacher."

This seems to fit the meaning of the text that I suggested as at least a possibility. That what is being prohibited is women taking inappropriate authority, teaching in an authoritarian way, without the proper submission to the elders who have the oversight and rule of the local church (I Tim. 3:1; Heb. 13:7, 17).

The Lord provides gifted men to serve in the local church. The same individuals are called three different things in the New Testament. They are "elders" (Greek presbuteros), not necessarily elderly, but experienced and mature. They are pastors (Greek poimen)--meaning shepherds of the flock. And they are bishops or overseers (Greek episkopos).

And one further note on the use of the word "pastors" in Ephesians 4:11. A number of commentators believe "pastors and teachers" describes not two gifts but one, indicating the officially appointed pastor-teachers of the congregation.

The three descriptors are used interchangeably (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; I Tim. 3:1; 5:17; Tit. 1:5, 7; I Pet. 5:1, 2). These are mature men called of God and confirmed by the congregation. They are given overseeing authority in administration, and in preserving and protecting the church's doctrines and policies. These men should have the final say as to who teaches, and what they teach.

It's well to keep in mind that (as far as we know) the early church had no such thing as a graded Sunday School program. Staffing such an agency may, in fact, raise questions that never came up in the early days. But if it's permissible for a woman to teach a mixed adult Sunday School class, it should be understood that she is under the authority of the elders. If they rule that she is teaching error, they must take action, either to correct or remove her.

Now, am I saying that the interpretation I've suggested for the verse in First Timothy is the one and only possible one? No. But there is certainly enough support for it among conservative evangelical scholars that I'd hesitate to insist on another view being the one and only. I'm not convinced it's a "sin," for a woman to teach a mixed adult class, but that it's one of those areas where good people differ, and we should avoid offense wherever possible.

None of us has a corner on the truth. I've tried for over fifty years to study God's Word and interpret it correctly. But I still do so each day with humility, realizing that I may have missed something. I continue to learn, and I encourage you to do the same. Some day we'll know. For now, we're learning and seeking more knowledge as we go along.