Women Preaching: A Grateful Response to Tom Schreiner image

Women Preaching: A Grateful Response to Tom Schreiner

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I’m so grateful to Tom Schreiner for engaging with my recent article on women preaching sermons. People often say things like that, but I really am: I have long respected him as a New Testament scholar and outstanding exegete, and it is an honour to be critiqued and poked by him. (It is also – and I say this as someone who has had the experience of being critiqued and poked on many occasions, not always helpfully – a wonderful example of how to engage an argument you disagree with, and would be worth reading for that alone.) If you’re just joining us, the story so far is: someone asked John Piper whether 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibited women preaching sermons under the authority of local church elders; he explained why his answer was yes; I said that his answer begged the original question somewhat, and explained why I disagree; and Schreiner responded, defending Piper’s answer and explaining that I had made some mis-steps in my argument. With me so far?

Responses to responses to responses can quickly become a hopeless tangle. So I thought the best thing might be to highlight all the things we (that is, Piper, Schreiner and I) agree on, before zeroing in on the one thing we don’t. Other than the obvious things – the Nicene Creed and so on – we agree (I think):

1. That Scripture is divinely inspired, authoritative and good, whether or not it is popular. The question is not whether or not we should obey Scripture; the question is what Scripture means. That’s a good start.
2. That, whatever 1 Timothy 2:12 means, we should seek to apply it in church life today. (That is, we disagree with the view that it was an instruction that only applied in Ephesus in the first century, not least because of the creational argument Paul makes in 2:13-14.)
3. That two related, but not identical, functions are prohibited in 2:12: teaching and having authority. (The volume to which Schreiner refers in his article, Women in the Church, has some excellent linguistic and grammatical studies which defend both this point and this translation of authentein; Al Wolters’ essay in particular is now the benchmark for future studies.) We agree that teaching in this sense is not simply a first century activity, but one which continues today (although I admit that my original article, in citing John Dickson’s reason to disagree with Piper, may have made it look like I was a cessationist on this point - may it never be!)
4. That, given #1-3, women should not teach or have authority over a man, in the sense Paul uses those two words in 1 Timothy.
5. That Paul, and the New Testament more broadly, use “teaching” language to refer to two somewhat different activities, one of which is open to the whole church (Col 3:16; 1 Cor 14:26; Rom 12:7?; Heb 5:12?), and one of which is only open to accredited leaders, and specifically, in our view, male elders (1 Tim 2:12 and frequently in the Pastorals; Jas 3:1). For the sake of clarity, I call these teaching (with a little-t) and Teaching (with a big-T), respectively.
6. That, defined this way, women can and should participate in teaching, but are restricted (along with all who are not elders) from Teaching.
7. That, as Piper puts it in another episode of the podcast, it is not a problem for a man to listen to Beth Moore, Elisabeth Elliot, or any woman giving a talk at a conference, as long as she is not functioning as his pastor – because this does not contravene 1 Timothy 2:12. (I assume that Schreiner agrees with this too, because it is an important point which he didn’t object to either me or Piper making, although I am happy to be corrected here; if he doesn’t, however, then both his argument and his view of 1 Timothy 2:12 are different from Piper’s in an important way.)
8. That there is no problem with women teaching men in a private context, as per Acts 18:26.
9. That there are various kinds of public speaking – prophecy, words of encouragement, wisdom and knowledge, teaching, and so on – which take place in the context of church meetings.
10. That, based on #5 and #7, not all teaching in Christian meetings is off-limits to women (including, in Schreiner’s language, “informal teaching which occurs when Christians are together, when believers share insights and such from God’s word”).

As far as I know, we agree on all that. So where do we disagree? We disagree on whether preaching a sermon in a Sunday meeting necessarily involves Teaching (that which 1 Timothy 2:12 restricts), rather than merely teaching (that which 1 Corinthians 14:26, Colossians 3:16 and others allow, and in fact encourage). Piper and Schreiner think it does. As things stand, I don’t. That’s what the debate is about.

The key question, then, is how we are to distinguish between Teaching and teaching (or, if you find my terminology annoying, the-sort-of-teaching-that-only-elders-do and the-sort-of-teaching-that-all-can-do). There are several ways of doing this, although they are not mutually exclusive, and there may be others as well:
a) Informal and spontaneous teaching vs formal and prepared teaching. Schreiner argues for this in his article, although I presume it cannot be Piper’s view (unless Beth Moore and Elisabeth Elliot don’t prepare in advance!)
b) Occasional teaching vs regular teaching. Schreiner mentions this, too, although it would obviously not be an argument for a woman never preaching a sermon; it would simply be an argument for a woman not preaching a sermon too frequently.
c) Sunday, gathered church teaching vs midweek, conference or Sunday school teaching. Practically, lots of churches operate with something like this distinction, including in many Newfrontiers churches that I know of.
d) Defining what is believed vs delivering what is believed. This is the view I have articulated for a while, and accounts for why, despite Schreiner’s response, I maintain that all the non-elders who preach in our church, when they submit their message to us and shape it accordingly, are engaged in little-t teaching: the authority to define doctrine for the church rests with the elders.
e) Preserving the apostolic witness to Jesus vs instructing one another from the Bible. This is the distinction made by John Dickson in Hearing Her Voice.

Of these five, only two – a) and c) – would lead to the conclusion that women should never preach sermons on Sundays. The most compelling argument against c) is that 1 Corinthians 14:26 is clearly talking about corporate gatherings of the church: “when you come together, everyone has ...” This makes it very difficult to argue that the Sunday gathering is what makes the difference, since the assumption of the text is that the church are gathered together, with men and women worshipping alongside one another, on a Sunday (cf. also 11:2-16, 18-22; 14:19, 23, 31; 16:2).

Schreiner, as I say, opts for a mixture of a) and b): “regular, formal, and on-going instruction in God’s word” which is “prepared in advance”, as opposed to “a spontaneous word like an exhortation or prophecy.” His basis for this distinction, drawn from 1 Corinthians 14:26-31, is the fact that little-t teaching is listed alongside prophecy, and since we know that prophecy is spontaneous, little-t teaching must be too. The problem here is threefold: firstly, the fact that prophecy can be spontaneous (as appears to be the case in 14:30) certainly does not prove that it is always spontaneous, as Anthony Thiselton and others have shown; secondly, it would imply that there is no such thing as a spontaneous yet authoritative sermon, despite Peter, Stephen, and apparently others; and thirdly, 1 Corinthians 14:26 also mentions “hymns”, which we surely cannot be saying were always spontaneous. As such, although it is clearly obvious to Schreiner that teaching is spontaneous and occasional whereas Teaching is formal and prepared, I don’t think this distinction emerges from the relevant texts.

To be fair, I am not claiming that any texts explicitly prove d) either. All the five options above are inferences drawn from the various passages, and some simply do a better job accounting for the evidence than others. Obviously, I believe the view that I have defended previously – and that I defend in an upcoming episode of Mere Fidelity, while being critiqued by two of the sharpest friends I know – is a more compelling explanation for the apparent difference between Teaching in the Pastorals (where preserving and defining the church’s doctrine in the face of false teaching is at issue) and teaching in the general letters (where the spiritual gift of teaching, and the requirement to instruct one another, predominate) than the alternatives. But my main aim here is not to argue for that, particularly – there is still a decent chance I’m wrong, and I found the Mere Fi episode especially helpful in exploring the subject – but rather to explain why, despite Schreiner’s helpful and very gracious critique, I think my original response to John Piper is still broadly correct.

One final question, then, to those for whom Sunday sermons are exclusively for male elders (which, as I hope goes without saying, includes a huge number of friends of mine!) Do you provide contexts in gathered church meetings on Sundays in which women, as well as men, can teach the congregation, as envisaged in 1 Corinthians 14:26 (and possibly, I suggest, other texts including Col 3:16, Rom 12:8 and so on)? If not, why not? And if so, what does that look like? Answers on a tweet, if possible ...

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