Women Teaching in Complementarian Churches


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It’s no surprise that women would preach in egalitarian churches—this is the logical outworking of erasing role distinctions for men and women. But what about women preaching in avowedly complementarian churches? Dizzying distinctions have been used to justify the practice. And adding to the confusion, some public figures have affirmed it in the past but then quietly retracted it. This has made it very difficult for many to understand the issue or to come to a firm conviction about it. However, in this essay I want to show that this practice actually transgresses the Word of God and strikes at the heart of God’s design for the local church.

To show this, I will look at three things: (1) how various Christians have justified women preaching in complementarian churches, (2) how we should understand their reasoning, (3) and why we should reject this practice. 

A Recent History of this Phenomenon

Let’s start with a high-level, historical sketch of how complementarians have justified women preaching in the past few decades. You’ll see that much of the reasoning depends squarely upon how one interprets Paul’s prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”

J. I. Packer

In 1988, J. I. Packer made a presentation to a conference sponsored by the six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention, entitled “The Challenge of Biblical Interpretation: Women.” In this presentation Packer affirms a male-only presbytery[1]—but with a major qualifier on 1 Timothy 2:12 and its prohibition of women teaching men.[2]

1. A presbytery is a body of elders, and a presbyter is an elder in a local church. While Packer said “I have a total lack of enthusiasm for women presbyters,” he followed that up by saying: “I don’t find myself able to say from Scripture that making women presbyters is explicitly forbidden, although I do think it plain that a women in the order of God would not be sole pastor of a congregation.” See The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Interpretation, 106. His traditional view on this issue is seen in his article in Christianity Today a few years later called, “Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters.”

2. While much can be gleaned from Packer’s treatment, he admits from the outset the “discussion of how to find and harness women’s gifts in ministry unfortunately gets snarled up and skewed by being confused with the world’s call for compassion.” This is a perceptive point, yet one that I’m afraid Packer doesn’t altogether escape himself. The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Interpretation, 104.

According to Packer, “Teaching then was characterized by an authorized, apostolic representative (like Timothy) who would transmit the unwritten teaching of the apostles, as well as the written Old Testament Scriptures to the church. For such a serious task there was required a kind of personal authority (presumably by apostolic commendation) that exercised careful judgment over these sources of revelation.

On the other hand, “Teaching now” requires no such personal authority, since, in this epoch of history, a full canon has been delivered to a literate church (in North America, at least)—a church who is, in large part, able to follow along with the public teaching ministry and to judge the teaching for itself according to the divinely revealed word. Distinguishing between “teaching then” and “teaching now” led Packer to conclude that “the prohibition on women preaching and teaching need not apply. We need not regard the apostle as having forbidden it if in our church situations it is thought good to do it.”[3]

Thus, here we find Packer, in the 1980s, endorsing women preaching while denying women’s ordination—(with no small irony) at a conference hosted by the SBC seminaries! It was his very conclusion at this conference that has undoubtedly encouraged similar responses to this question of women preaching. One such response is that of theologian John Dickson.

3. The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Interpretation, 115. The phrases “teaching then” and “teaching now” are my summaries of Packer’s categories, even though he does not use that exact language.

John Dickson

Almost three decades later, utilizing a distinction similar to Packer’s, John Dickson wrote Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons. This small book made no small impact in the complementarian world. Even Kevin DeYoung recognized that Dickson offers the best argument for women preaching (even though DeYoung disagrees).

4. John Dickson. Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons. Revised Edition, 34.

Dickson explicitly picks up on Packer’s distinction regarding the definition of teaching from 1 Timothy 2:12 and develops it. According to Dickson, “Teaching for Paul means preserving and laying down the fixed traditions of and about Jesus as handed on by the apostles.”[4] Indeed, this is not much different than Packer’s definition of “teaching then,” which “involved a very careful judgment not to go beyond what the apostles had been heard to teach.”[5] For Packer and Dickson, this is an activity no longer necessary today since the canon is closed.[6]

5. The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Interpretation, 114.

Thus according to Dickson, “teaching now” could consist of a variety of speaking gifts present in Scripture, namely prophecy, exhortation, and instruction. But Dickson surpasses Packer by proposing that the modern sermon is best classified as “exhortation” and not teaching, given that “teaching” is an activity no longer active with the closing of the canon. Despite some differences, there is a fundamental point of agreement: both Packer and Dickson permit a woman to teach or preach in our present epoch because the teaching prohibited in 1 Timothy 2:12 has been rendered obsolete.

6. John Dickson. Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons. Revised Edition, 34.

Andrew Wilson and Kathy Keller

In 2015, this issue of women preaching in complementarian churches was finally forced upon the Reformed evangelical consciousness through an online kerfuffle. This debate coincided with a larger symphonic movement in Reformed evangelicalism toward a more permissive approach that resembled the conclusions of Packer and Dickson taken from a slightly different angle.After John Piper denied the possibility of women validly preaching under the authority of the elders, Andrew Wilson (a well-known evangelical pastor in the UK) offered three arguments disagreeing with Piper, noting the possibility—and even the benefit—of having women preach to his congregation.

While Wilson retains a similar emphasis to Dickson and Packer in his first two arguments, his  third argument offers an interpretive bridge from the ancient to the modern. Wilson shifts the emphasis on the historical difference of “teaching” (i.e. “teaching then” to “teaching now”) to a difference in kind (big-T teaching and little-T teaching). According to Wilson

Paul uses the word didaskein [“to teach”] in two subtly different ways, which I have called big-T and little-t teaching: sometimes he encourages everyone to participate in teaching each other (which I take to mean “explaining the Scriptures to each other in a peer-to-peer way, according to gift”), and sometimes, notably in the Pastorals, he is talking about Teaching (which is more like “the definition and defence of Christian doctrine, by the church’s accredited leaders”).

7. Interestingly, Blomberg offers Dickson an enthusiastic endorsement of his book, praising: “John Dickson . . . has convincingly demonstrated that even a conservative complementarian has no exegetically based grounds for preventing women from delivering sermons. . . . That many complementarians continue to controvert it demonstrates the extent to which, however unwittingly, they are bound to the ‘traditions of men’ rather than to the Word of God!”

At the bottom of this big-T/little-T distinction is the issue of authority, which we find clearly laid out in Kathy Keller’s Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles (2012), published the same year as Wilson’s first article on the issue (albeit independent from him). In Kathy Keller’s short treatment on 1 Timothy 2:12, she cites Craig Blomberg[7] to argue that Paul prohibits not women teaching per se, but women teaching authoritatively. “Authoritative teaching” is “some kind of teaching that carries with it an authority not found in other allowable forms of oral discourse” or, put simply: “teaching with teeth in it.” Thus, according to Wilson and Keller, women are essentially only prohibited from the office of overseer and the governing function inherent in that office. As a result, there is no problem in permitting a women to teach or preach a sermon, so long as it is made clear to the congregation that she is teaching in a little-T way. She is teaching non-authoritatively under the permission and oversight of the elders.[8]

8. As Jonathan Leeman has pointed out, the distinction merges well with the Presbyterian notions of special and general teaching office. John Frame, a Presbyterian himself, also points out this distinction in an article about women teaching Sunday school.

In Summary: Two Major Interpretations 

So what are we to make of all this? Two distinct interpretations emerge from a close look at the historical survey on women preaching in avowedly complementarian churches.

First, we have what we’ll call the “epochonly” interpretation from Packer and Dickson. This interpretation understands the “teaching” prohibited in 1 Timothy 2:12 as a form of teaching that no longer exists today because the canon is closed. The activity of “teaching” Paul prohibited to women was an activity that had a specific purpose only for that particular apostolic epoch.[9]This effectively renders Paul’s prohibition obsolete for today, opening up the possibility of women to fulfill all kinds of public speaking and preaching gifts before the congregation.

9. This reasoning is similar to the cessationist argument regarding spiritual gifts, namely, that the extraordinary gifts (e.g. prophecy and tongues) had a specific purpose for that particular apostolic epoch in the church’s history that it no longer has today.

Second, we have what is called the office-only” interpretation from Andrew Wilson and Kathy Keller.[10] This perspective assigns the Big-T “authoritative teaching” of 1 Timothy 2:12 exclusively to male elders/overseers (1 Tim. 3:2, Tit. 1:6). These elders are called to leverage their unique Big-T authority to define doctrine, guard the deposit, and bind the consciences of their people to the word of God and sound doctrine, that is, to “teach authoritatively.” However, women are free to do any kind of little-T teaching that does not cross the line into Big-T teaching.

10. This term is taken from Thomas Schreiner (who opposes Keller and Wilson’s interpretation) in his article “Should Women Teach? Thoughts on Function, Office, and 1 Timothy 2:12.”

Together, the “epoch-only” and “office-only” interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:12 demonstrate two justifications that evangelical leaders in professedly complementarian churches have utilized to insist on the appropriateness and goodness of women preaching. 

Interpretations that Lead to Doctrinal Destruction

Sadly, permitting women to preach under the auspices of these two interpretations only works if other biblical categories are confused beyond recognition. Here are three major problems we meet if we utilize either the “epoch-only” or “office-only” interpretations:

It is Not What Paul Meant

The “office-only” and variations of the “epoch-only”[11] argument hinge on merging into one Paul’s two prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2:12a, “I do not [1] permit a woman to teach or [2] to exercise authority over a man.”[12]

11. There is ambiguity in Packer’s view, but he likely saw the two ideas as almost synonymous, for he said: “And certainly, we should get it out of our minds the thought that in our preaching from the Bible [today] we are claiming any personal authority at all.” This implies that “teaching then,” unlike today, required the “exercising” of a personal authority. The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Interpretation, 115. Dickson on the other hand, while explicitly embracing the hendiadys interpretation, does say that it is not necessary to his argument.

12. See John Dickson. Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons. Revised Edition, 89n12; and Kathy Keller, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles, 20. This rhetorical merger is called a hendiadys—a figure of speech that merges two ideas together to form one single idea, rather than emphasizing two separate things (i.e. “sick and tired,” “rough and tough,” etc.).

13. See Andreas Köstenberger, “A Complex Sentence: The Syntax of 1 Timothy 2:12,” In Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 (Third Edition).

14. Blomberg leverages a two-step process to establish his view regarding “authoritative teaching.” Interestingly, he first appeals to Köstenberger to establish that both activities prohibited must either both be negative (e.g., false teaching and usurping authority) or both positive (e.g., faithful teaching and proper/god-ordained exercise of authority). He rightly (and with Köstenberger) affirms the latter. But then Blomberg makes a dramatic shift to a citation from egalitarian Philip Payne, claiming that Payne demonstrates that the οὐδὲ “that connects the two key verbs in verse 12 regularly joins together expressions that in some sense are mutually defining.” He concludes then by saying that these two, positive infinitives (Köstenberger) must be understood as one (Payne), which he renders “authoritative teaching.” Amazingly, even though he cites Köstenberger to establish his first point, he doesn’t acknowledge the rest of his argument which explicitly rejects Payne’s reasoning. see Two Views on Women in Ministry, 168-169.

However, Andreas Köstenberger has formidably demonstrated that we cannot justify rendering Paul’s prohibition this way.[13] Briefly, according to Köstenberger’s rigorous syntactical analysis of 1 Timothy 2:12a, oude—the negative Greek conjunction linking the infinitives “to teach” (didaskein) and “exercise authority” (authentein)—is not the proper conjunction for achieving a “single idea” interpretation of these two positive activities. He establishes his conclusion through an extensive survey of the New Testament and Greco-Roman literature, a thorough exegetical and logical refutation of Philip Payne’s view (who Keller cites through Craig Blomberg), and a discourse analysis that demonstrates Paul’s coherent message within the surrounding context of the prohibition.[14] As a result, while “teaching” and “exercising authority” are related, Paul is prohibiting two related yet positive activities: teaching and exercising authority. So the first issue here is that a single prohibition is not what Paul meant. Collapsing these two concepts into one is almost always the starting point for modern complementarian compromise.

It Undermines the Authority of Scripture

Faithful teaching of Scripture is authoritative teachingUnder the “office-only” interpretation, a church must classify all public teaching ministries of women as non-authoritative—teaching that, according to Keller, does not have teeth in it. But this is an unhelpful and improper distinction when we consider what is being taught or preached, namely the God-breathed Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Pet. 1:21)! A sword remains a sword no matter who wields it. How could one preach in a way that intentionally does not define doctrine, guard the deposit, and bind the consciences? 

When my wife teaches my children the Bible, it is authoritative. When Priscilla and Aquila instructed Apollos regarding the Scriptures, it was authoritative. When Timothy proclaimed the gospel to his congregation, it was authoritative. This authority doesn’t derive from the person, our gender, or even a given office. All authority from teaching derives from the Word inspired by the divine author—the Triune God himself. Who are we to say that anyone faithfully teaching his authoritative word isn’t teaching it with authority? 

It Undermines Baptist Confessionalism

More specifically, for a Baptist to embrace either the “epoch-only” or “office-only” interpretations risks contradicting our confessional heritage in two ways. If one adopts the “office-only” interpretation, he or she embraces an ecclesiological presupposition which undermines elder-led congregationalism. The judicial, governing role belongs to the congregation, not the elders (Matt. 18:18-20). As we’ve seen, the Big-T authoritative teaching distinction is more judicial than pedagogical, more “binding and loosing” than information transfer, and frankly, more Presbyterian. Indeed, it is not congregationalism. Jonathan Leeman perceptively notes this problem:

Here then is a great irony: I’ve heard a number of Baptists and congregationalists employing these brothers’ arguments to defend how women can preach and teach in a church setting. They argue that, so long as a woman teaches under the elders’ authority, she is working within Paul’s framework. Actually, it’s not Paul’s framework, it’s a Presbyterian framework they are relying upon. In a congregationalist framework, both men and women possess the authority of the keys, which is to say, the authority of collectively rendering judgments upon doctrine and membership.

If one adopts the “epoch-only” interpretation, one is susceptible to disfiguring the precious truth of the priesthood of all believers and rending asunder a “proper theology of spiritual gifts.”[15] One may seek to permit women preachers by recognizing congregational authority while embracing the obsolescence of Paul’s prohibition. But our priestly status in union with Christ does not erase important gender distinctions and roles within the church, which are found explicitly in 1 Timothy 2 itself. The context of Paul’s prohibition is the congregation—the household of God (1 Tim. 2:1–11, 3:15). And the reason for Paul’s prohibition is the created-order. Thus, for a woman to preach before the congregation of men and women is not a proper exercise of a spiritual gift, but is an act of authority over men and thus overturning the created order.

15. See Sam Emadi’s helpful treatment on this issue, “The Conversation Behind the Conversation: How Ecclesiological Assumptions Shape Our Complementarianism.”


My hope is that by surveying and refuting the two most fundamental justifications for women preaching in professed complementarian churches, you’ll be better equipped to both identify and address these issues if they emerge in your local church. May it be that the Lord would move churches back to a consensus that the strange phenomenon of women preaching in avowedly complementarian churches would become unthinkable—not because men can’t stand to surrender power or because they don’t value women’s voices, but because we are all bound to the word of Christ and the good of his Church.

Robert Lyon

Robert Lyon

Robert Lyon is a PhD student in Systematic Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky. For the past decade he has worked as an engineer in the manufacturing industry. He holds a Master of Divinity from SBTS, as well as undergraduate degrees in Computer Science and Mathematics from Indiana University. Robert is married with three children and a member of Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church.