The strict application of the complementarian reading of 1 Timothy 2:12 does not allow women to teach men in the church. Many churches will not allow women to teach in small groups, or in prayer meetings, and certainly not in weekly worship gatherings. Some do not even allow women to read the Bible in the service. John Piper does not support females lecturing men in ministerial and theological training (though he does endorse female theologians writing, because this “puts the woman as author out of the reader’s sight and, in a sense, takes away the dimension of her female personhood.” ).
Still, some soft complementarian scholars seek to find a way to allow women to teach in the church. Here are the three ways they do so: First, some allow women to teach men outside of worship gatherings. In special classes and courses, women may teach men, but not in the main Sunday meeting. The way they justify this is to argue that Paul speaks specifically about the church meeting in 1 Timothy 2, and therefore his prohibition is limited to that setting.
Second, some allow women to teach under the authority of the elders or pastors, and within the doctrinal parameters they set. To use an analogy, a conductor and a violin player “interpret” Beethoven. The violin player merely delivers the interpretation, but under the oversight and direction of someone else. In the same way, senior pastoral leaders define the doctrine, while others, including women, may deliver the doctrine.
Third, some allow women to “prophesy” and “exhort” in a sermon but not “teach.” They define “teaching” as “laying down the core apostolic doctrines.” Not all contemporary sermons are “teaching” in this sense, they say. Paul himself distinguishes between “exhorting,” “prophesying,” and “teaching.” Paul expects women to “prophesy” in the congregation, and never forbade women to “exhort” the congregation, so we should find a way for women to do that.
As much as I commend these three well-meaning attempts to justify females teaching men, they are contorted attempts to sidestep their own misinterpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12. This is why complementarian scholars keep on refuting them. But once we abandon the complementarian reading of 1 Timothy 2:12 however, we can tackle the topic in a much better way. We can then ask: Who, according to the Pastoral Epistles, should not teach? and What clear Scriptures about women teaching might enable us to better interpret the cloudy passage of 1 Timothy 2:12?
As for the first question, there are three kinds of people who should not teach. First, false teachers should not teach. Paul tells Titus that “they must be silenced, because they are … teaching things they ought not to teach.” Second, unteachable and unChristlike people should not teach. As I argued in chapter 7 of How God Sees Women: The End of Patriarchy, we should probably interpret 1 Timothy 2:12 as forbidding groups of people impacted by warped teaching to have proud, independent, self-asserting or domineering attitudes to others. What these kinds of people need is a fresh dose of humbly sitting under God’s word and being taught.
Third, untaught people should not teach. Paul tells Timothy, “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Having taught Timothy the apostolic doctrines, Paul asks him to teach them to others, so they in turn can teach it to yet more people. Note that these trainee-teachers are “people” not men—Paul uses the generic anthropoi, thereby including men and women. Although Paul envisions elders doing much of the teaching, he never limits the ministry of teaching to them alone. Likewise, the writer of Hebrews wishes that the entire community, men and women, based on their good doctrine and spiritual maturity, would be fit for the ministry of teaching when he says, “By this time you ought to be teachers, but now you need to be taught the elementary truths once again.” By the way, this verse gives us hope that even the Ephesian women may be restored to being able to teach in the future.
What clear Scriptures about women teaching might enable us to better interpret the cloudy passage of 1 Timothy 2:12? There are many: Paul commands both men and women to use their gifts of teaching; to teach and admonish each other when gathered for worship; and to bring a word of teaching in church meetings. All these passages use the Greek word didaskein that is also used in 1 Timothy 2:12. All of this, for example, fits with the Samaritan woman evangelising men, many doctrine-rich passages of Scripture crafted by women, and the account of Priscilla and Aquila who, after inviting Apollos to their home, “explained to him the way of God more adequately.”
As for Priscilla’s teaching ministry, the word “explained” (Greek: etitheto) is synonymous with the word “teach” and is used to describe Paul’s ministry in Rome where “from morning till evening” he was “explaining about the kingdom of God.” Yet, complementarian scholars obfuscate the straightforward meaning of Priscilla’s teaching of Apollos to fit with the Procrustean Bed of their wrong interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12, which they believe disallows a woman from authoritatively teaching a man in church. Her teaching was private and informal, not public and formal, they claim. This assertion fails to recognize that the Ephesian church meetings happened in the very same home, and (unless we try to import much later church practices back into the mid-first century) were almost certainly intimate and informal.
As for the argument that her kind of teaching has nothing to do with the kind of “official” or “authoritative” teaching Paul mentions in his Pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus, in reality Priscilla is a perfect example of the teaching ministry Paul tells Timothy to multiply in “reliable people who [are] qualified to teach others.” Priscilla was not merely sharing devotional thoughts—having been taught by Paul, she was engaged in a potent kind of teaching, instructing Apollos in doctrine and correcting his faulty and inadequate ideas. And notice the fruit of her teaching: Apollos, having received her teaching ministry, was later sent out, fully equipped, to be one of the great teachers in the early church era.
To sum up, according to a whole-Bible interpretation of Scripture, should women be allowed to teach and preach in churches today? Yes, absolutely. But on three conditions, which apply to men too: they must be reliable people who, having been taught, are now qualified to teach others; they must have the gift of teaching; and (we thank 1 Timothy 2:12 for this carefully excavated insight) they must do so in a way that is not coercive or controlling.
Adding strength to the conclusion that females can preach to men is the fact that the New Testament celebrates female prophets in the church, a declarative ministry which overlapped with the function of teaching, and was given even higher strategic importance than teaching. It makes no sense therefore to exclude women from the pulpit today.