Where and What, But Not Who?

It has become common, even among conservative Christians, to hold that the restrictions on women teaching and having authority over men in I Timothy 2:11-12 are limited to preaching and in some cases church discipline. Mixed Sunday school classes, small group studies, and church conferences can all have women teaching men and not be in violation of this passage. Pastor Philip Ryken argues this in his commentary on I Timothy 2:11-15. He bases this on the use of the Greek word διδάσκω, which means to teach. Here are some quotes from his commentary on I Timothy 2:12. By the way he titles this section of his commentary “But Not to Preach.”

He says the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:17-18 means that all “God’s sons and daughters exercise prophetic ministry” which makes “it clear that at least certain kinds of teaching are to be carried out universally within the church.” He does not explain what he means by this, which is odd because in principle no one disagrees. The question is not can women teach in the church. The question is can they teach men. He then notes that Priscilla taught a man and thus it must be okay for women to teach men at least in some circumstances (Acts 18:24-26). Again no clear indication of what these circumstances are.

Then he says (all bold is mine):

There is at least one place where it is not appropriate for women to teach however:in the authoritative proclamation of God’s Word in the context of the public worship of the church…What he [Paul] writes is not intended to govern men and women in every situation, but applies especially to those occasions when the church gathers for the preaching of the Word of God...What the Holy Spirit does not permit women to do is to transmit apostolic doctrine publicly and officially. To put it more simply, the main thing God forbids women to do is preach (or to exercise the doctrinal and disciplinary authority that is tied to the preaching ministry). 

Ryken goes on to link “authority” with teaching, thus restricting the entire phrase “to teach or have authority” to:

Writing of creeds and confessions that summarize Christian doctrine, and also the formulation of church policy on theological issues. The word authentein [authority] hints that church discipline also may be in view. These things are the exclusive work of the elders of the church….to preach is to exercise teaching authority.  

Depending on the discretion of the elders in the church, some other teaching situations may fall under the category of teaching with authority. The training of elders, for example, or classes on fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. But elders are by no means required to teach every  Bible study and Sunday school class in the church. Women and men who are not ordained may teach a wide variety of biblical, historical, and practical subjects (although they should not, in my view, teach confessional doctrine).

Perhaps this is the best place to emphasize that beyond this one biblical restriction, women are at liberty to use their spiritual gifts to their fullest extent in the church.  

Why He is Wrong
“At least one place where it is inappropriate…the main thing God forbids women to do is preach…beyond this one biblical restriction.”

Ryken believes Paul’s restriction on women in I Timothy 2:11-12 is about where they teach (worship) and what they teach (fundamental doctrines), but not who they teach. They can teach mixed Sunday School, Bible studies, and small groups, but what they cannot do is preach at the regular gathering of the saints and they cannot pass on apostolic doctrine in any official way. Ryken’s interpretation falls flats for several reasons.

First, in the text the key is not where they are teaching or what they are teaching, but who they are teaching. Women cannot teach men in the church, which is the subject of Paul’s letter (I Timothy 3:15). Ryken’s commentary on this section of Scripture is a classic exercise in trying to get around in any way possible what the text actually says.

Second, Ryken wants didasko (the Greek word for teach) to mean preaching, as in Sunday morning in the pulpit. But unfortunately for him the word and its derivatives have a wide variety of meanings including teaching from house to house (Acts 20:20), all Christians teaching all Christians (Col. 3:18), older women teaching younger women (Titus 2:3), the whole teaching ministry of the apostles ( Col. 1:28, 2:7),  and what nature teaches us about men having long hair (I Cor. 11:14).  Didasko cannot be restricted to official preaching on Sunday morning. It can include that of course, but it also includes other teaching as well.  More than likely, Paul here is talking about the entire teaching ministry of the church. There is no reason in the passage, I Timothy, or in the use of the word to restrict this the Sunday morning preaching.

Third, Ryken wants the content of the teaching to be “apostolic doctrine,” “confessional doctrine,” “church policy on theological issues,” and possibly church discipline. Ryken is not clear about what he means here. Obviously, the whole New Testament is apostolic. But Ryken does not mean that women cannot teach men the Bible. He says later that women can teach men “on a wide variety of biblical, historical, and practical subjects.” According to Ryken, women can teach men the Bible in a public setting. It just can’t be Sunday morning. And they cannot teach the fundamentals of the faith.

However, the word didasko is not limited to fundamental doctrines. Paul’s teaching covers a whole host of “Biblical and practical” subjects that are not creedal or confessional in nature. In I Timothy Paul encourages Timothy to “teach (didasko)” on things like sex, marriage, food, and exercise (I Timothy 4:1-11) and how slaves are supposed to react to masters (I Timothy 6:2).  In Titus, there are false teachers who are “teaching things they ought not to” (Titus 1:11). In response to these false teachers, Paul encourages Titus to  “Speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).” The word “doctrine” is a derivative of didasko. Paul then tells Titus to teach older men, older women, younger women, and younger men about things like wise speech, loving their husbands, being reverent in behavior, being sober minded, and not drinking too much wine.  In other words, sound doctrine includes a lot of practical stuff (Titus 2:1-10). This section ends with an appeal to slaves to be faithful so the doctrine, again a derivative of didasko, of our God may be adorned (Titus 2:10). Some form of the word for teaching is used in Titus 1:9, 11, 2:1, 7, 10.  Paul does not encourage his pastors, Timothy or Titus, to restrict their teaching to the fundamental doctrines of the faith. In other words, teaching includes “Biblical and practical subjects” and therefore Ryken’s assertion that didasko is limited to key doctrines is wrong. I Timothy 2:11-12 does not mean women shouldn’t teach men the fundamentals of the faith. It  means, in the church, women should not teach men at all, whether the subject is fundamental doctrine, other Biblical subjects, or practical subjects.

Ryken’s position has become popular over the years. The restrictions on women teaching men in the church have become lax. We don’t let them in pulpit…just yet. But anywhere else in the church it is often fine for women to teach men.

Ironically Ryken goes on in the next section to say this:

The preceding explanation of I Timothy 2:11-12 (or something close to it) has been the nearly universal understanding of the Christian church. Only in the late twentieth century did it come under relentless attack…The liberal strategy has been to deny the authority of these verses. 

Ryken counts himself among the conservative interpreters. But he isn’t. He is just a softer liberal than the evangelical feminists he mentions later, but his interpretation will eventually gets us in the same mess.The way he limits I Timothy 2:11-12 is exegetically untenable. His restriction of the word didasko is unnecessary and strips the passage of its force. His failure to be clear on what he means provides the necessary wiggle room to look conservative while not sounding too harsh on the fairer sex. This is an interpretative and pastoral failure right at the point where the barbarians are storming the gates. Ryken believes he is preserving the church from the forces of liberal, feminist, Christians. But the reality is he has cracked open the door just enough for them to slip in.

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Why a Conservative Interpretation of I Timothy 2:11-12 is Not Enough