Can Women Exercise Authority in the Church?
by John MacArthur
In our discussion of male leadership in the church, we walked phrase by phrase through the text of 1 Timothy 2:8-15. We will do the same as we discuss God’s design for women. The biblical model is highly controversial in today’s culture. But if Christians are to reflect God’s nature, they must live by His wisdom rather than the world’s.
In 1 Timothy 2, Paul addresses women in the Ephesian assembly who wanted to take over teaching roles. He wrote, “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:11–12). Paul here defines women as learners during the worship service. They are not to be teachers in that context, but neither are they to be shut out of the learning process.
While it may seem obvious to us that women should be taught God’s Word, that was not true for those (like some at Ephesus, cf. 1 Timothy 1:7) who came from a Jewish background. First-century Judaism did not esteem women. Although they were not barred from attending synagogue, neither were they encouraged to learn. Most ancient religions—and even some religions today—perceive women as unworthy of participating in religious life. Unfortunately, that historical treatment of women continues to incite modern feminism.
The traditional treatment of women in Ephesus partially explains why some of them in the church overreacted to their suppression by seeking a dominant position. Paul rebukes them for that. Before he does, however, he affirms their right to learn.
In 1 Timothy 2:11 Paul qualifies the way in which women are to be learners: They are to “quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.” “Submissiveness” translates hupotagē, the noun form of hupotassō, which means “to line up under.” In the context of the worship service, then, women are to be quiet and be subject to the church leadership.
Some have tried to evade the plain meaning of the text by arguing that “quietly” refers to a woman’s meek and quiet spirit. Women, they contend, can preach or teach as long as they do it with the proper attitude. Others go to the opposite extreme and use this text to prohibit women from ever talking in church under any circumstance—even to the person she is sitting next to! Neither of those options is valid, however. The context makes the meaning of “quietly” quite clear.
In verse 12, Paul defines what he meant: “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” Women are to keep quiet in the sense of not teaching, and they are to demonstrate submission by not usurping authority.
The Greek word translated “allow,” epitrepō, is always used in the New Testament to speak of permitting people to do what they want. Paul’s choice of words implies that some women in Ephesus desired to teach and have authority. In today’s church, as in Ephesus, some women are dissatisfied with their God-given roles. They want prominent positions, including opportunities to exercise authority over men. There is only one biblical way to handle those situations for the good of everyone concerned, and that is to do what Paul did. He directly forbade women from taking the authoritative pastor-teacher roles in the church.
Paul also forbids women from exercising “authority over a man.” The Greek word translated “exercise authority over,” authentein, appears only here in the New Testament. Some have attempted to evade the force of Paul’s prohibition by arguing that authentein refers to abusive or destructive authority. Women, according to this view, can both teach and exercise authority over men so long as it is not abusive or destructive. (Aida Besancon Spencer, Beyond the Curse [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1989], 87-88) Others claim it carries the idea of “author” or “originator,” thus Paul is actually saying, “I do not allow a woman to teach or proclaim herself author of man.” (R.C. Kroeger and C.C. Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992], 192)
In a study of the extrabiblical uses of authentein, however, Dr. George Knight concludes that the common meaning is “to have authority over.” (The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text [Grand Rapids, MA: Eerdmans, 1992], 141-42) Paul, then, forbids women from exercising any type of authority over men in the church, including teaching.
These instructions to Timothy echo what Paul earlier commanded the Corinthians: “As in all the churches of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says . . . it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:33–35, NIV). Many claim Paul was addressing a cultural issue in Corinth—nothing that ought to concern our contemporary culture. But they fail to let the text speak for itself: “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches” (vv. 33–34, NIV). That isn’t a cultural issue; it is God’s standard for all churches.
The context implies that the silence Paul commands is not intended to preclude women from speaking at all but to prevent them from speaking in tongues and preaching in the church. As in Ephesus, certain women in Corinth were seeking prominent positions in the church, particularly by abusing the gifts of speaking in tongues and prophesying. Yet these women, who joined in the chaotic self-expression Paul had been condemning, should not have been speaking at all. In God’s order for the church, women should “subject themselves, just as the Law also says” (v. 34).
Women may be highly gifted teachers and leaders, but those gifts are not to be exercised over men in the context of the church. That is true not because women are spiritually inferior to men but because God’s law commands it. He has ordained order in His creation—an order that reflects His own nature and therefore should be reflected in His church. Anyone ignoring or rejecting God’s order, then, weakens the church and dishonors Him.
Next time, we’ll look at what a woman’s submission looks like in action.
(Adapted from Divine Design. All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, unless otherwise indicated.)
#1 Posted by
Kristen Fox | Thursday, August 29, 2013at
I think it comes down to my heart. Do I, as a woman, honor Him and His Word, or do I seek to honor myself?
I see a similarity to The Fall. God said "yes" abundantly, but "no" to the one tree. There are so many ways to contribute to the body of Christ, but as a female, there is a "no" of having authority to teach over men.
Do we as women trust Him and His Word?
#4 Posted by
Mike Dwyer | Thursday, August 29, 2013at
I was hoping there would be guidance here on women teaching women in the church. Can a discipleship team/small group/cell composed of women only be led by one of them? More to the point, would her leadership position be treated as identical to the leadership position of the men in male-only and mixed groups?
#5 Posted by
John Hunter | Thursday, August 29, 2013at
Does this mean a woman leading a Precepts class of adult men and women at her home is in violation of this Scripture? When John says "in the context of the church" does that mean "at the church as part of the programs offered by the church" or does "in the context of the church" mean anytime/anywhere believers are together whether at church or in private homes. That part is not clear to me.
#6 Posted by
Elmarie Swart | Thursday, August 29, 2013at
Thank you !! I have a question or 2 if I may please.
What about women on the internet/blogs/Facebook/Radio ect ? Some would say it is a different or separate issue ? Are we not to act the same always as Christian women ?
Thank you for your consideration and awaiting your reply.
#7 Posted by
Franklyn Beasley | Thursday, August 29, 2013at
Maybe this is something MacArthur will address next time on this topic, but I wanted to respond to the "loop hole" questions that people are asking.
No woman shall have spiritual authority over men...period. Either in home, radio, group, blog, etc.
I hear this even from my all-women Bible study group I teach. They ask the same "loop hole" questions that women on here are asking. Since, secret or voiceful, trying to find a way around these blessed verses.
If you don't have a teacher/pastor around, then pray for one to come around. Now, that doesn't mean that women can't do anything as far as ministering (i.e. Phoebe, Mary Magdelene, etc.) because that would go against the Great Commission that Christ Jesus commanded us to do.
Women can talk to people about Christ, but no spiritual authority over men. You can talk without leading.
#8 Posted by
Mike Dwyer | Thursday, August 29, 2013at
Franklin, do I understand your position to be that an "all-women Bible study group" would be wrong to organize themselves with one of the women as their study leader?
[That's not a challenge; that's asking for clarification. Because that is ultimately the question I have directed to Dr. MacArthur.]
#9 Posted by
Mimi Moake | Thursday, August 29, 2013at
I would like to add a little note and say that having a man as Head of the Church is biblical and not only that, it makes sense.This spiritual command or leading is actually a protection for marriage, I mean really, to have a woman pastor talk with your husband/son about personal issues or counseling? This would be awkward and a probable cause/exposure for a man to have sinful thoughts, actions ect.
This structure provided by God's Love is meant for the good of the Church and not to demean women in any way. It is in their D.N.A to protect , provide, and lead/guide. Just pray and think about it...
#10 Posted by
Laura Chin | Thursday, August 29, 2013at
This is to my fellow Sisters in the Lord who struggle with the issues of submission, learning in quietness and not exerting authority over men by teaching them.
1. There is immense safety in submission. Had Eve been content under the covering of Adam, she would have been protected from succumbing to the lies of Satan. But she despised that covering and did whatever she felt. And thus, the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. I am grateful for the covering of my husband.
2. God's design and order do not translate to inferiority! I find that many women who struggle with these issues feel inferior to men. We are both made in the image of God. Christ's atonement is sufficient for women as it is for men. Together, men and women make up the Bride of Christ! Let us be content in the order and design God has set for His Church.
#11 Posted by
Pedro Mendozaluna | Thursday, August 29, 2013at
Let us NOT think as the world culture does (Rom12:2) but let's adopt a WHOLE Bible culture and mindset. It is clear what God has commanded. Let us now obey in love and submission to our God and Saviour. Women have a place in the church: to utilize their spiritual gifts to bless and edify it.
#12 Posted by
Josh Kittinger | Thursday, August 29, 2013at
I'm sure that neither Mike or Dr. MacArthur would have a problem with a woman leading a bible study class for women. I've never heard of anyone holding that position.
#13 Posted by
Joyce Wilson | Thursday, August 29, 2013at
The passage about being quiet in the church seems to be speaking to married women, since not every woman has a husband. Might Paul have been addressing wives who were whispering questions to their husbands (or other women's husbands) in the church, perhaps because they were seated in the back while their husbands had the closer rows? He said, "ask your own husbands at home." And only a wife would be whispering and talking to her husband to find out more on a topic. That would be embarrassing and disruptive. In fact, noise of any kind in a church can be disruptive and embarrassing, including speaking in foreign tongues with no interpretations, by men or women--Paul addressed "brothers and sisters" on this point (some people even find crying babies to be disruptive). Paul may have been addressing a very specific problem of noisiness.
But regardless, I believe women shouldn't teach men. God made women to be the physical nurturers of children, and men are to be the spiritual nurturers. Men can't have babies, so don't physically nurture as in breastfeed, etc., But can and should spiritually nurture and lead.
Questions: How is Esther viewed? Would you say she lead Mordecai to have the people fast and pray or simply encouraged him to have the people fast and pray? Or, would Mordecai still be considered the leader and Ester simply one who made a request of him, like one would an elder? What roles have women played in the bible?
#14 Posted by
Tami Pate | Friday, August 30, 2013at
I have the same question as Mike Dwyer & John Hunter. What is the scriptural directive in regard to women leading Precept & other Bible studies for women only? In addition to that I would also ask about women participating on music praise & worship teams. Clear instruction on what a woman's role is & is not in the church is very much needed.
God has brought several mentors into my life who have lead me to study God 's Word in depth. This is secondary to the formal teaching I receive from my pastor. I have also led these studies, for women only. My understanding of the 1Timothy passage is that women do not teach or have authority over men. That is not confusing. To my knowledge this particular question, women leading women, has not been addressed.
We are, as wives & mothers are instructed to " speak with wisdom and faithful instruction is on her tongue" Proverbs 31:26 Being a constant Biblical learner/student is necessary to speak with wisdom & instruct faithfully. I take this very seriously & would never want violate God's standards intentionally or out of ignorance.
Biblical insight on this matter would be very much appreciated.
#15 Posted by
Franklyn Beasley | Friday, August 30, 2013at
@Mike, thanks for the question. Maybe I should better clarify. Reason I said "all-women..." is because its been nothing but all women that attended Bible study. Men are welcome too, but you know how earthly, "I-know-it-all" men can be (although I was blessed that one man did come down with a Bible in hand, ready to ask question...LOVE IT, lol).
Interesting story about how this class came about. I'm an layman of God's word (dubbed an apologist by some). A bunch of women, including my mom, hear me answering what seem to me a myriad of questions about the Bible, what the Bible say about..., etc, etc. So, one day, the women asked my mom if I can construct a class that ask questions about the Bible. Reason being is because, regretfully, the pastors that do visit to teach Bible study (their words) will not answer questions about the Bible and other questions. Which I find as a dereliction of duty as a pastor.
So, with deep prayer (even wrote a letter to Grace To You for guidance as a leader and prayer in my journey with God and with my pastor's guidance) on building this class. Next week, will be our 42nd week of going through the whole Bible (42nd book of the Bible is the book of Luke, our next study).
But, as you can see, the women asked (probably prayed) for a leader to come. For whatever reason, God chose me to do it, lol. Haven't looked back since. And now, God has me to start teaching at my church this Fall, September 8th.
So, women can organize and everything, but no spiritual authority over men (i.e. women pastors/preachers). I think the problem with people who are asking these questions is NOT knowing the role of the pastor (which MacArthur addressed in sermon's past). I think we need to revisit that and that would make things a whole lot clearer than this.
#16 Posted by
Franklyn Beasley | Friday, August 30, 2013at
I don't understand the whole thing about Men/Women only Bible studies. Why? Is there sections of the Bible that is only men can read and women can't and vise versa? Why the separation? I think its because of feminism/chauvinism.
We all see that 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is INCLUDING both sexes, so why study apart? Weird to me, so I don't see/think that men/women only Bible studies are warranted.
#17 Posted by
Brad Kennedy | Friday, August 30, 2013at
Franklyn, please clarify if you are a man or a woman. It is a reasonable request based on your comments.
#18 Posted by
Kathryn Taylor | Friday, August 30, 2013at
There really needs to be some clarification here. What about women teaching a children's Sunday School class, or teaching an all women's class, or, as mentioned above, leading an all women's Bible Study? Is a woman allowed to teach children with little boys who are future men. Clarification is definitely needed.
#19 Posted by
Jeremiah Johnson | Friday, August 30, 2013at
For those of you asking for clarification about the specific ways women are biblically able to serve in the church, let me assure you that John will tackle those issues in his blog posts next week. I hope you'll all stay tuned.
#20 Posted by
Franklyn Beasley | Friday, August 30, 2013at
@Brad. I have no idea what you are asking. Based on my comments (which is clearly over your head) is too advanced for you to comprehend. Understood, but I will leave the gender-verification question for you to answer.
Everyone else is getting it apparently, so be patience in Christ and wait for MacArthur to clear up any confusion you are currently going through.
Thanks and God bless.
#21 Posted by
Franklyn Beasley | Friday, August 30, 2013at
@Kathryn, thanks for you inquiry. Teaching children is in 1 Timothy 2:15. So, women can do that, even with little boys. Now, don't get the word "childbearing" wrong. "Childbearing" is not the giving of birth as most people believe, but it is of raising or rearing of a child, you know, teaching the the rights and wrongs of life in Christ, etc, etc.
As for teaching other women (or even men in a Bible study), I wouldn't usurp authority as of a pastor over that. These verses that we are discussing is of church-shepherding. Again, women are not prohibited from teaching/evangelizing, but from being pastors over a church or exercising spiritual authority over men. Allow me to give some examples:
1. Deborah. She was a judge in the book of Judges (which are military leaders), not priest over the temple/congregation.
2. Phoebe. (Romans 16: 1-2) She was a trusted servant of Paul and her trust in Christ made her an excellent example of being a missionary (again, not a leadership position over a church)
3. Mary Magdalene. Seems to me, she is the first female evangelist after the resurrection. After talking with Christ at the tomb, the first thing she did was run and told the Disciples. That's evangelism (again, not a church leadership position). And;
4. The Great Commission. God command all of us to go out into the world and spread the gospel. (Again, not a church leadership position)
So you see, God has an AMAZING calling for women in the church. However, not to hold the position of a pastor/preacher in a church setting. I like to use the example of a parent/child relationship (though not perfect because parents can be wrong, but the authority is there). Sometimes, you do it because your parents said so. Why can't this be the same for God? But God even gave you a reason (He didn't have too) in 1 Tim. 2:13-14.
So, yes, women can teach, evangelize, and minister, but can't usurp authority as one that is of a pastor, in a Bible study or all women's group (again, I don't see the reason for gender-specific Bible studies; Bible study is Bible study, no matter the gender.)
As I stated in previous comments, the ROLE of the pastor needs to be revisited and I believe that will clear up all the confusion and bring in clarity.
#22 Posted by
Mike Nemmers | Saturday, August 31, 2013at
Laura, Thank you for your gentle and sweet spirited response to John's message on women's role as it pertains to leadership over men.
#23 Posted by
Julo Deleon | Saturday, August 31, 2013at
The pastors wife in my church preached and all she talk about seemed to be based on the bible.Can someone tell me how to approach the pastor in my church regarding this issue. Thank u
God bless everyone.
#26 Posted by
Diana Brown | Sunday, September 01, 2013at
Concerning the issue of women leading other women, that concept is encouraged and Biblical. Though we are not to lead men, we can most definitely and should teach/mentor other women (See Titus 2:3-5). Being a women's ministry leader at my church we very much encourage women-to-women mentoring and women's Bible study. The purpose of occasionally separating sexes to do Bible study and to be in fellowship, and using women to teach others, is simply for one: women can relate to one another in a way that men cannot (likewise for men), and two: married women have no business being mentored by a man without their spouses involved. So, if a women wishes to study scripture in fellowship independent of her husband she has the option to do so.
#28 Posted by
Holly Helm | Monday, September 02, 2013at
Thank you so much for all your diligence in teaching the word. I have a difficult question concerning the roles of women in church. I have done lots of searching to try to understand, and have listened to several of your sermons on the roles of women but I still feel confused.
What is a woman's role in regards to leading praise songs in church? Where are the boundaries? I know that women can be a part of teams and such but what specifically should/shouldn't women do? Can we read scripture? Pray? Can we lead the congregation into corporate praises? (It might seems silly since I know I am saying the words "lead") I would just really appreciate any insight you or anyone else can give me, biblically, to describe specific responsibilities and limitations.
What if a pastor specifically asks you to lead and it isn't out of trying to usurp authority or anything?
I am assuming that women can lead women without question. I would really love some help I am honestly just trying to please the Lord in everything that I do.
Thank you so much, and God bless you for this amazing ministry and for your obedience to Him.
#29 Posted by
Ron Morales | Monday, September 02, 2013at
I,too would like to hear what Dr. MacArthur say about the women only bible study(small groups). I don't see anything that would forbid this in the bible. I will wait for the next blog from Dr. MacArthur.
@franklyn We have several small groups at our church that meet at one's home.There are different groups you can join:Married,Single, Married w/children,women,men youth etc... I don't think it has anything to do with feminism/chauvinism franklyn I myself belong to a men's group and also study with my wife.
God bless you all
I love this blog!!!
#30 Posted by
Ron Morales | Monday, September 02, 2013at
I don't think your remark to brad about his question was necessary and probably could've been handled with kindness and gentleness. I think his question was reasonable.
God bless you
#34 Posted by
Brad Kennedy | Tuesday, September 03, 2013at
Thanks Ron. To my own shame (and dismay), I think the response I received from Franklyn (20) is justified.
I am sorry that I became a stumbling block to Beasley.
Proverbs 9:8, Proverbs 21:24, and Proverbs 24:9
#35 Posted by
Franklyn Beasley | Tuesday, September 03, 2013at
@Brad. No problems, Brad. Just with a name like "Franklyn" would be a dead giveaway, so you are no where near a stumbling block to me.
Thanks and God bless.
#37 Posted by
Valerie Lanham | Wednesday, September 04, 2013at
I believe Mr. John MacArthur is right and addresses the meat of this topic. Aren't further questions either a picking apart because you disagree or because you may be less mature in your faith/walk? I remember I did this with the topic of divorce at one time. I was newly born again and wanted to do everything right to the nth degree. I suffered internally by dwelling on it so much. It seems to be an issue of obedience to me. Once you are aware of a truth you should obey. I don't like the fact that women cannot teach because I want to publish my Christian materials that I feel led to write. But, I often don't even answer a teacher-led question in my couples Sunday School class because I feel it is not my place especially often and even though the men do not speak up. If we re-read John M.'s post we find 'because God's law commands it'. It seems most bloggers understand and appreciate the submissive aspect and that we are not to 'exercise authority' in the church. That doesn't mean we don't have a unique, active role. The most important one being a disciple- a follower of Jesus-obedient and hopefully accountable and transparent. A disciple is a learner, and yet we disciple others.
Today's world there are as many doubts as there are media options. You can argue forever on what is adding to or taking away from the Bible for example. I don't feel that you can get more of an answer than John's. You can change churches or religion but there isn't much wiggle room on a dissected, historical, translated, in context, explanation of scripture, by a noted theologian. What about interpretations of titles or words. Should a woman be called a facilitator or instructor as they do connot slightly different meanings (all learners though). It is definitely okay for a woman to head up a Titus 3 group or single mother class, etc. that is outside of the usual worship service and combined groups. We have many roles to play outside of this. Like a visiting group of two women and one man who led a man to Christ at his front door. If a man just finished reading "Twelve Ordinary Men" in the library and next to it sat a copy of Eugenia Price's book "Just As I Am" and in reading it he subconsciously kept a concept or his heart smiled about a known truth of scripture - is that not okay? The song "Just As I Am" was written by Charlotte Elliott 1789-1871 and we sing it at the end of our worship service. Have men thus been taught by a woman?
Will you read and learn something from a book that is biblical, sensible, worthy, even though it is written by a woman? What if you come across my blog or my tract of godly wisdom but you did not know that it was by a woman because I used initials or there was no photo? Am I teaching or sharing. Even here I have gotten away from the subject but I have not exercised prominent authority or usurped authority in the church. So, I read and take away what I need and pray over it, even asking elders in my own church for further help if needed.