The big mistake egalitarians make when they interpret Paul
Female prophecy in the Old and New Testaments is no argument in favor of female teaching or preaching.
In evangelical debates over women in ministry, two biblical texts have always stood as an obvious obstacle to the egalitarian view:
But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. (1 Timothy 2:12)
The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. (1 Corinthians 14:34)
At first blush, these two texts seem to settle the matter in favor of the complementarian position. After all, this is the sense adopted in the vast majority of English translations. How could they all be wrong? Clearly, Paul does not intend for women to be teaching or preaching within the church, right?
Egalitarians have marshaled a variety of exegetical arguments against this prima facie reading. They argue that, despite appearances, Paul doesn’t really mean to shut down women from exercising their teaching or preaching gifts in the gathered assembly. Egalitarians point out that Paul clearly understood women to be gifted teachers (e.g., Acts 18:26; Titus 2:3).
Moreover, the very same book that enjoins female silence also allows for women to prophesy to the entire church (1 Corinthians 11:5). These female prophets — along with their Old Testament counterparts like Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah — demonstrate that whatever Paul means in 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34, he can’t mean to impose a universal ban on women teaching men. He must mean something else.
Egalitarians conflate prophecy and teaching
One of the major problems with the egalitarian argument at this point is that it conflates the gifts of prophecy and teaching. For example, Gordon Fee writes:
It seems altogether likely that Paul intends “praying and prophesying” to be not exclusive of other forms of ministry but representative of ministry in general. And since “prophets” precedes “teachers” in the ranking in 1 Corinthians 12:28 and prophesying is grouped with teaching, revelation and knowledge in 1 Corinthians 14:6, one may legitimately assume that women and men together shared in all these expressions of Spirit gifting, including teaching, in the gathered assembly.
Fee’s logic here is clear. Because Paul allows women to prophesy to the gathered assembly and because prophecy is a greater gift than teaching, then certainly he would allow women to teach as well.
This account of things, however, misses the fact that Paul treats prophecy and teaching as two different gifts and that he regulates them differently in his churches. Paul never issues a blanket prohibition on female prophecy to men in any of his letters, but he does on female teaching. Why is that?
There is a key difference between prophecy and teaching
The gift of prophecy consists in spontaneous utterance inspired by the Spirit. Prophecy consists of divine revelation. The gift of teaching, however, is different. Teaching does not consist in new revelation but in instruction based on revelation that has already been given, Tom Schreiner argues.
This difference between teaching and prophecy is crucial because the gift of teaching is not merely passing along information from one person to another. The gift of teaching in Paul’s writings has a certain content and mode. The content of the gift of teaching is the authoritative apostolic deposit, which is now inscribed for us in the New Testament (Col. 2:7; 2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Tim. 4:11; 6:2; 2 Tim. 2:2), according to Douglas Moo. This teaching is done in the imperative mood. It contains explanation, but it also includes commands and prohibitions. For that reason, it is always authoritative because it instructs people what they are to believe and to do.
Command and teach these things. (1 Timothy 4:11)
Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:2)
It’s very clear that when Paul has the gift of teaching in mind, he is thinking of instruction given with imperatives and commands. As Douglas Moo further concludes, “teaching always has this restrictive sense of authoritative doctrinal instruction.”
That is why Paul issues the prohibition that he does in 1 Timothy 2:12. Women must not teach men. Why? Because of the order of creation (1 Tim. 2:13). The role of leader in the first marriage was Adam’s. His leadership was established in part on the basis that God created him first (a principle of primogeniture). The order of creation establishes male headship in marriage (cf. 1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23), and a woman teaching and exercising authority overturns this order. After all, how can a wife submit to her husband if she is telling him what to do when she preaches? Avoiding this potential conflict is the reason why Paul bases the gender norms for teaching upon the gender norms for marriage.
Why does Paul tell women to “remain silent”?
This also explains why Paul commands women to be silent in 1 Corinthians 14:34-36. Paul is not commanding absolute silence, or else he would be contradicting his allowance of female prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11:5. No, Paul is specifically commanding female silence during the judgment of prophecies, D.A. Carson argues. What happens if a husband prophesies, and his wife is a prophet as well? Is the husband supposed to be subject to his wife during the judgment of prophecies? Are husbands and wives supposed to suspend male headship during corporate worship? Paul’s answer to that question is a clear no.
Paul does not want anything to happen during corporate worship or in any other setting that would upset the headship principle that he so carefully exhorted his readers to obey in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. For that reason, Paul enjoins women to refrain from the judgment of prophecies. He’s not commanding an absolute silence on the part of women. Indeed, he expects them to be praying and prophesying. He does, however, command them to be silent whenever prophecies are being judged. And the women are to do so out of deference to male headship.
Notice that the explanation in verse 34 indicates that headship is indeed the issue: “The women . . . should be in submission . . . ” The Greek word translated as “submission” is the same one from verse 32. A woman cannot be subject to her husband while simultaneously expecting him to submit to her judgments about his prophecy. To avoid this conflict, Paul says that while women may prophesy, they may not participate in the judgment of prophecies. In this case, the judgment of prophecies is tantamount to teaching, which Paul absolutely prohibits in 1 Timothy 2:12.
What is the bottom line here? Female prophecy in the Old and New Testaments is no argument in favor of female teaching or preaching. The gifts of prophecy and teaching are distinct in Paul’s writings, and Paul regulates them differently. While Paul allows women to prophesy in the presence of men, he does not allow them to teach men (1 Tim. 2:12; 1 Cor. 14:34-36). This feature of the New Testament’s teaching about gifts and ministry is lost whenever the gifts of prophecy and teaching are conflated. This is a confusion that careful readers of Scripture should avoid.