“I Do Not Permit…” Is Only the Beginning
by Kristi Meyer
A woman should learn in a quiet manner with full submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. Instead, she is to continue in a quiet manner. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but it was the woman who was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Timothy 2:11-14, EHV).
I love math. My dad is a civil engineer and my mom is an accountant, so math has always been part of my life. I remember going on family vacations and begging my dad to give me another math problem during a long day of driving. When considering my future career, I knew I wanted to teach math—but after a semester of student teaching, I decided the high school classroom wasn’t the place for me. Instead, I went to graduate school in hopes of being able to teach math at the college level.
After five years of grad school, I finished up my Ph.D. and accepted a call back to Wisconsin Lutheran College (my alma mater) to serve as a mathematics professor. I’ve taught there for 15 years and have also chaired the mathematics department for the past several years. It’s been a wonderful journey, and I am blessed to be in a confessional Lutheran environment—an environment where I can both teach mathematical content and act as a Christian role model for my students.
I don’t blame you if you’re a bit confused at this point. This is supposed to be a devotion on the unique callings of men and women, and here I am talking about math. What’s the connection?
It’s a thought that never crossed my mind when I was considering my career choice, but it has in recent years: as a female college professor teaching male students, as a female serving as department chair, am I violating 1 Timothy 2:11-14?
I think many of us would immediately answer “No, of course not!” Why not, though? How can we be so sure? And since both Martin Luther College and Wisconsin Lutheran College have female professors—professors teaching males whom we recognize as being of legal age—then what does Paul prohibit in today’s section of Scripture?
It’s important to consider the context of Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Timothy 2. Biblical section headings are not inspired, but they often provide us with valuable information and reminders on the section of Scripture being read. The EHV heading for this chapter is “Instructions About Worship”—a section heading that helps us see that Paul is writing these words to Timothy in the context of worship and of the church. Therefore, we should take care not to extend Paul’s words farther than he intended.
Paul is writing these words to Timothy in the context of worship and of the church. Therefore, we should take care not to extend Paul’s words farther than he intended.
We also need to return to the original language when considering exactly what Paul meant by prohibiting a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. The Greek word that Paul uses in verse 12—the word translated as “teach”—is a form of the verb didasko. This verb is also related to the noun didaskolos: “teacher.” In the New Testament, didaskolos and didasko are most often used to refer to Jesus: to his role as teacher and to his teaching ministry. The kind of teaching encompassed by these words is the kind of teaching done by someone who has been called by God to teach with authority; it is the teaching that instructs disciples in the truths of God’s Word.
In the church today, we can clearly see authoritative teaching in the role of pastor. A pastor is a shepherd, a spiritual leader, one entrusted by God to instruct those God has placed under his care. And although it is not teaching, we can also see authority exercised in other ways in the church: for example, in carrying out church discipline or in extending pastor, teacher, or staff minister calls. These functions, then, are rightly entrusted to the men of our congregations in accordance with the biblical principle of headship.
Authority Is Not…
As discussed in a previous week, however, it is extremely important not to conflate authority with leadership. Some earlier papers written by WELS pastors—papers generally, although not entirely, written before the mid-1980s—use “leadership” and “authority” synonymously. Some positions of leadership are also imbued with authority, but other positions are not. Therefore, it is possible for women to hold positions of leadership without assuming authority over men or violating the principle of headship.
It certainly would be easier to say “Women cannot serve as principals of WELS grade schools” or “Women cannot serve as WELS college professors” and be done with the matter. But such a blanket prohibition is both an unjustifiable reading of Paul’s words and an unnecessary restriction on women, particularly women who have been blessed with gifts of leadership.
Not every leadership position is the same, and care must be exercised to determine whether a woman holding a leadership position is also in a position of inappropriately overruling male headship. At the same time, Christian love must be exercised in situations where congregations view leadership roles differently.
If the WELS congregation down the road or in the next town has a female principal—and there are WELS congregations that do—we ought not immediately assume they are ignoring or reinterpreting the unique callings of men and women.
If the WELS congregation down the road or in the next town has a female principal—and there are WELS congregations that do—we ought not immediately assume they are ignoring or reinterpreting the unique callings of men and women. Similarly, that WELS congregation has a responsibility to attempt to lovingly explain—as best as they can—why their structure does not in fact violate headship. Conversations are key—conversations with those directly involved that attempt to take everyone’s words and actions in the kindest possible way.
Authority in the World
In the secular world, there are once again multiple biblical principles at play. We are no longer always blessed to be working together with fellow believers; we often deal with unbelievers, with a society that does not conform to God’s will for men and women. We are called to spread the gospel, to carry out the Great Commission, and to be lights in a sin-darkened world when interacting with those around us. And while these Great-Commission actions are not in conflict with our unique callings, they will no doubt shape and inform how we live out our unique callings.
Special care needs to be taken, then, not to make blanket allowances for nor blanket prohibitions against women serving in leadership positions. Not every Christian will be led to act the same way in every situation. It is entirely possible that two Christians will make different decisions—both made for godly reasons, both correct decisions for their situations, both decisions that are in keeping with God’s Word.
Special care needs to be taken, then, not to make blanket allowances for nor blanket prohibitions against women serving in leadership positions. Not every Christian will be led to act the same way in every situation.
As in the church, Christian love is paramount in worldly situations where the actions of believers differ. We must take care not to bind consciences by making rules where God has not, and we must be careful not to act in ways that could give the appearance of disregard for God’s timeless commands. Rather than judging a woman who is comfortable serving in a secular position of leadership, give thanks that she is able to lead those under her with Christian care and concern. Rather than judging a woman who is not comfortable serving in a secular position of leadership, give thanks that she is able to serve those above her joyfully and wholeheartedly.
We live in a world where women have never had more freedom or opportunities, and moving from that world to a church where I cannot vote or serve on a board is difficult and constraining at times. As a modern woman—one who is most definitely opinionated and chafes under virtually any restrictions imposed on me—it is tempting to dismiss Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:11-14 as merely cultural and no longer applicable today. A proper understanding of this text does not permit such an interpretation.
But when we talk about what it means to exercise authority, we must do more than simply quote 1 Timothy 2:11-14. We must differentiate between biblical principles and applications. We must remember that the unique callings of men and women were established by God to bestow blessings on his people. We must emphasize that the role of helper is not a mark of inferiority and is not primarily intended to limit how women can serve in the church. And we must always use the gifts God has given us to the best of our ability. When Christian men and women live within the unique callings God established, we are freed to serve him by working together in the church as the body of Christ and freed to bring glory to his name.
For Further Reflection
- In your congregation, what other positions besides those mentioned above would constitute having authority or teaching authoritatively? What about these positions causes them to be imbued with authority?
- In your congregation, what leadership positions exist that are not imbued with authority? Does your congregation make it clear that women can serve in these positions? If not, how could that be better communicated?
- What is your own particular comfort level with assuming leadership positions in a secular society? How can you use this comfort level to faithfully serve those around you and bring glory to God?
Lord God, we thank you for those called to teach and instruct us. Bless them as they shepherd your flock, and help us to support and encourage them in whatever ways we can. Help us also to be mindful of our role in your kingdom: to spread the gospel and witness the reason for the hope that we have to a world so desperately in need of a Savior. Amen.