Beth Moore

7 reasons women may not preach, period

Although the Bible does not specifically comment on women preaching in every setting, this is not because God is indifferent on the matter. Rather, it is because the shapes and patterns of Scripture and creation so strongly draw women away from this role, that no specific command should be necessary.

Thanks to Beth Moore, we are being treated to a technicolor, widescreen viewing of how badly conservative evangelicals have lost the ability to read the shape of revelation—assuming, of course, that shape offends modern sensibilities.

While complementarians rightly point out that women cannot preach to men (because 1 Timothy 2:12 explicitly prohibits it), and Owen Strachan has even gone as far as to appeal to creational patterns (for which we honor him), they are hamstrung in continuing to condemn the practice once the men leave the room. There’s just no passage that plainly prohibits a woman from preaching—so even if it seems weird, it must be permissible. After all, if God didn’t like it, he would have given us a verse to say so!

they have forsaken me and have made this an alien place and have burned sacrifices in it to other gods…a thing which I never commanded or spoke of, nor did it ever enter my mind… (Jeremiah 19:4–5)

It is true that the Bible does not explicitly condemn women preaching. Yet it is also true that it does not explicitly condemn more serious sexual perversions, like polygamy and pedophilia. And just as we can read the whole shape of God’s revelations to confidently infer that polygamy and pedophilia are wrong, we can do the same with women preaching.

Doing this involves asking three questions, and aggregating—as it were—the responses:

  1. What patterns or principles are revealed by Scripture? This is how the sons of Israel had to interpret and apply their case law; it is how the authors of the New Testament interpreted and applied the whole of Torah; and it is certainly then how we need to interpret and apply the scriptures. What does God’s word tell us about the broader expectations he has for us? What do the hard edges reveal about the shapes underneath?
  2. What patterns or principles are revealed in creation? There are certain things which are clichés or stereotypes for a reason. Boys want to be firemen and astronauts when they grow up; girls want to be nurses and princesses. Children who learn about dogs and cats often think the former are male and the latter are female. Men want beautiful women and women want successful men. The way God designed things to be is the way they tend to end up being. What does the design tell us about men’s roles as compared to women’s, and how does that illuminate the question of women preaching?
  3. What does our own gut tell us after having become comfortable with Scripture and creation? If we are conversant in the patterns and principles God has revealed, then we should have intuitions that are at least conditioned enough by these to give us a general direction to head when assessing questions of sexual roles—from sodomy (e.g. Rom 1:26–27; 2:14–15), to polygamy (e.g. Matthew 19:4–6; cf. Ex 21:10), to yes, even the ecclesiastical transgenderism of women preaching.

Cats barking

Let’s start with point 3, because our sexuality is embodied—and speaking to this first will help us to not treat the patterns of God’s revelations as abstract when we work backwards to points 1 and 2.

Our roles as men and women are meant to be understood through living them rather than merely theorizing about them. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this, given the evangelical neo-Gnostic impulse combined with the modern obsession for play-acting. Today’s Christian is very likely to regard the body as essentially superfluous to identity; and has been further conditioned by pervasive media to replace experience with depiction.

To take a pertinent example, modern complementarians are generally quite comfortable with women in combat, despite Scripture’s clear teaching on this. They are able to theorize this away because they have replaced the embodied experience of women warriors—which is singularly ugly and throws them in a bad light—with a glamorized depiction of women warriors—which, when passively consumed, is titillating and throws them in a flattering, if entirely artificial studio light.

As with much of life, embodied experience puts a rude and abrupt end to fanciful theories. The real experience of a woman fighting in battle overturns the assumptions conditioned into us by idealized feminist depictions, producing the immediate knowledge that a square peg is being pounded into a round hole. The fact of the embodied matter is plain: a woman playing a warrior is playing a man. As C. S. Lewis put it, battles are ugly when women fight.

In the same way, hearing a woman preach has a profoundly more immediate effect than theorizing about the permissibility of her doing so. It is like the difference between theorizing about whether a cat can bark, and hearing it happen. Even if we cannot tell you the name of the condition, or explain the nature of feline vocal biology, to experience it is to know that something is amiss.

Now, it is true that many people in the church are so given up to the spirit of the age that they either cannot have this reaction any longer, or cannot admit it. Many in the church cannot even admit their natural revulsion of sodomy, and indeed invert it into glee (we use the word advisedly). If they are so able to suppress and twist their reaction to greater sexual perversion, who is surprised that they suppress and twist their reaction to lesser sexual perversion?

Nonetheless, being unable to recognize the shape of creation (and of Scripture) is a sign of judgment; not a justification for overturning God’s design. This shape, this design, is quite clear—as we will now argue.

The patterns of Scripture and creation

Hopefully you now understand why we are not going to prooftext our position on women preaching. The issue simply doesn’t arise in Scripture, because it didn’t arise in the early church the way it has now—so pretending that any passage is meant to directly address it is foolishness.

We are rather going to follow the hermeneutic that Scripture itself models, and outline seven patterns that capture the shape of both general and special revelation. These suggest that the reason the issue didn’t arise is because the notion of women preaching was so alien and absurd to the worldview of the Bible’s authors that they simply failed to anticipate it.

1. Men are oriented outward to wield power

Man subdues, divides, and builds. He is oriented outward, toward the world, to conquer it and make it productive; to extend his household into it. He naturally forms hierarchies with other men, so each can exercise his own strengths in pursuing the common mission. He protects and provides; guards and divides. Wielding power and waging war are built into him.

It is entirely consonant with this pattern that men are charged with wielding the power of the Word, and waging war against sin and error. This is exemplified in the pastoral office: rightly dividing the word of truth (in the Greek, literally something like cutting a straight road; cf. LXX). Preaching the word in season and out of season is paradigmatic to the pastoral office. Paul explicitly likens pastors to soldiers—an exclusively masculine occupation (cf. Dt 22:5):

…and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 2:2–3)

If the pastoral office is the exemplification of the masculine pattern, then it is an antipattern for women; thus, a woman conforming to that pattern is playing the man.

2. Women are oriented inward to nurture people

This is corroborated by looking specifically to feminine patterns. Woman fills, knits together, and comforts. She is oriented inward, toward the home; serving her husband, nurturing her children, and working in community with other women around her—which is why Titus 2:3–5 speaks of these things:

Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored. (Titus 2:3–5)

It is entirely consonant with this pattern that she teach her children, and other women, as she becomes wise and virtuous. The pattern informs the context of her teaching. But it rubs utterly against the grain of this pattern for her to then step out of the home, effectively leaving it behind in order to build a ministry, a platform for her teaching (even only within a local church). That is a fundamentally masculine pattern. And this is tacitly confirmed by women themselves—even the feminists who push for women preachers—when they exhort women to get out of their comfort zones. Take as evidence this recent, excruciating promotional video in which notably young women wax effusive about becoming pastors-by-another-name:

3. Women aren’t built for preaching

Points 1 and 2 are aptly demonstrated in the sexual dimorphism of men and women. Men are tall and have deep voices; women are shorter and have higher voices. These attributes are not an accidental curiosity, as if they could have been switched without consequence when God made us. The spiritual images the physical, so just as the design of the male and female sexual organs reflect the points above, so does the design of our physical presence, and our voices for speaking.

Women, with their smaller, softer, bodies, are not physically designed to stand over others, to be imposing, to represent the authority of God revealed in his word. Similarly, with their higher, softer voices, they are not physically designed to preach, to declare powerfully, to speak on behalf of the mighty God whom we serve. This is self-evident, and thus deceptively simple; if you feel we ought to offer more justification, we would ask that you spend time dwelling on it. When you understand the principle of the physical imaging the spiritual, asking for further justification is like asking us to justify trumpets sounding triumphant, or violins sounding sad.

It also leads naturally into our next point:

4. Women are supposed to avoid the limelight

Due to the fall, men are prone to passivity—yet are supposed to actively take the lead. Women, by contrast, are prone to want to play the man (Gen 3:16), but are supposed to be quiet and deferent (cf. 1 Peter 3). Due to this “curse-swapping,” in our day we see a striking desire from women to become preachers—and a striking passivity among men in saying, “No, that’s our job.”

Consider the pattern laid out by Paul—read the whole thing instead of skipping to the “bad bits”:

Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness. 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. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint. (1 Timothy 2:9–15)

Evangelicals, conditioned by feminism, automatically give all their attention to the parts of this passage that require the most apology, and so fail to notice the broader pattern established throughout which is even more offensive to modern sensibilities: that women in the church are not to draw attention to themselves in any way. They are not to seek to stand over others, whether through their clothing or their speech or their will. Rather, they are to remain meek and modest, quiet and self-restrained, “entirely submissive.” In this way, we would argue, women image the Holy Spirit, just as men image the Son.

But if the pattern for women is complete quietness and modesty, entire submissiveness and self-restraint, then the antipattern would be for women to place attention on themselves by preaching loudly with all authority—which is, after all, actively standing over others, even if only other women.

Surely this is the point of Paul’s disjunction between quiet learning, on the one hand, and teaching on the other, in 1 Timothy 2:11–12. Look at the structure of the ideas; at how they are “rhymed”:

  1. A woman must quietly receive instruction
  2. with entire submissiveness.
  3. But I do not allow a woman to teach
  4. or exercise authority over a man,
  5. but to remain quiet.
  6. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.
  7. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.

Learning does not preclude teaching, for Paul commands older women to teach womanly virtue (Titus 2:3–5). However, the pattern of womanly virtue is a pattern of quietness and submissiveness—which also creates a pattern of quiet and submissive womanly learning, and precludes certain kinds of teaching. Learning silently is here set as a kind of antithetical parallelism to the kind of teaching Paul is talking about, just as being in subjection is set in parallel to exercising authority. This corresponds to the patterns in Genesis: Adam’s being formed first explains why women are not to have authority over men; Eve’s being deceived explains why women are not to teach.

In other words, it is not so much who women are teaching that Paul is here concerned about—he deals with that under the question of authority—but rather how they are teaching. It is inappropriate to a woman’s station, he says, for her to teach in the way of a man in the church. Indeed, to do so is in some sense a recapitulation of the fall.

5. Women and deception are linked

A major justification Paul gives here for women not teaching is that Eve was deceived (v. 14). Complementarians today are anxious to argue that he did not mean to imply that Eve’s deception is indicative of a general weakness in women. So, for instance, Piper and Grudem:

Historically this has usually been taken to mean that women are more gullible or deceivable than men and therefore less fit for the doctrinal oversight of the church. This may be true…however, we are attracted to another understanding of Paul’s argument. We think that Satan’s main target was not Eve’s peculiar gullibility (if she had one), but rather Adam’s headship as the one ordained by God to be responsible for the life of the garden. Satan’s subtlety is that he knew the created order God had ordained for the good of the family, and he deliberately defied it by ignoring the man and taking up his dealings with the woman. Satan put her in the position of spokesman, leader, and defender. At that moment both the man and the woman slipped from their innocence and let themselves be drawn into a pattern of relating that to this day has proved destructive.

If this is the proper understanding, then what Paul meant in 1 Timothy 2:14 was this: “Adam was not deceived (that is, Adam was not approached by the deceiver and did not carry on direct dealings with the deceiver), but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (that is, she was the one who took up dealings with the deceiver and was led through her direct interaction with him into deception and transgression).” (John Piper & Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 66)

If this seems like weaseling in the face of the obvious meaning of Paul’s words—obvious in the sense that Piper and Grudem admit it was the usual understanding until feminism—we think so too. Paul was certainly not afraid to make broad demographic statements. The people of Crete, he said, were always liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons (Titus 1:12–13). And women should not teach because it was a woman’s being deceived that led to the fall: “in the most important situation in which she was ever placed she had shown that she was not qualified to take the lead. She had evinced a readiness to yield to temptation; a feebleness of resistance; a pliancy of character, which showed that she was not adapted to the situation of headship” (Albert Barnes). We know from modern studies that this is at least partly because women consistently score higher for agreeableness than men.

About Eve’s deception, Gill aptly comments:

She really thought the serpent spoke truth, that she and her husband should not die, if they ate of the fruit; but that it was good to make them wise; and that, upon eating it, they should be as gods, knowing good and evil; and under this deception she fell into the transgression, and was the cause and means, by her persuasions and example, of bringing her husband into the same sin; which involved him and all his posterity in ruin and destruction. (John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible, 1 Timothy 2:14)

It is ironic that in the above quote, the woman, the fruit, her husband, and their posterity could truthfully be replaced with women, their preaching, their pastors, and the congregation. They really think that churches will not die if women preach; that it is good to make them wise, and will not end in ruin and destruction (cf. Revelation 2:20–23).

To deny women’s tendency to credulity in spiritual matters is really to deny the experience of every culture throughout history, including our own. It isn’t that men are not given to believing foolish things; rather, women are especially given to it, because they reason differently to men. Men tend to decide how they feel based on what they know; women tend to decide what they know based on how they feel. This is part and parcel with women having greater emotional sensitivity—increased receptivity to social cues, heightened awareness of non-propositional communication. When it comes to conveying information to others, and interpreting it from them in turn, men are overt; women are covert. Men are natural straight-talkers; women are natural diplomats. Men are course; women are subtle. Men think logically—they are good at reasoning about abstract concepts, mechanics, and principles. They tend to work out the meaning, then decide how they should feel. Women think emotionally—they are good at reasoning about social dynamics, people, and experiences. They tend to feel, then decide what it should mean.

This is why if you ever get told that someone in church has “received a word” about you, it will almost always be a woman. This is why you seldom hear men in ministry claiming that God has revealed some path to them—but you hear it from women all the time. It is why astrologers and fortune-tellers are stereotypically women, and why the horoscopes are dominated by women readers. It is why if you search YouTube for Reiki or crystals or natural healing, you will be hard-pressed to find a video made by a man. It is why the masculine noun for witch is unknown to many people, and even why the Vikings had their women do math—it was considered too much like sorcery to be men’s work.

As Bengel put it, “more easily deceived, she more easily deceives.” Indeed, Scripture traces a repeating pattern of feminine deception, starting with the fall—where Eve was deceived while Adam was not—and continuing in ironic reversals throughout the history of redemption, as the seed of the serpent is repeatedly thwarted through the deceptions and subtlety of women (Rebekah, Rachel, Shiprah and Puah, Esther, etc). It is the reason that when we ask you to fill in “________ wiles,” the word you naturally reach for is the opposite of masculine.

Given all of these characteristics, women are poorly suited to interpreting and proclaiming Scripture, to guarding doctrine and enforcing orthodoxy—but they are very well-suited to relaying, in a communal context, the meaning of Scripture which they themselves have been taught and learned to practice. Men, by contrast, are well-suited to publicly interpreting, proclaiming, defending, enforcing—but would be well-advised to enlist women in more social contexts with other women.

Though women in the modern church may feel that preaching will fulfill them, bless others, and glorify God, Barnes’ remark on 1 Timothy 2:14 serves as chilling warning:

She was made to suppose that the fruit would not injure her, but would make her wise, and that God would not fulfil his threatening of death. Sin, from the beginning, has been a process of delusion. Every man or woman who violates the law of God is deceived as to the happiness which is expected from the violation, and as to the consequences which will follow it.

6. The NT pattern of covenantal authority rubs against women preaching on the basis of social authority

Worship in house churches during the early church era was not entirely like our worship. There was no notion of a professional pastor; not just one man preached, but any man was permitted to speak under the oversight of the congregation’s officers (1 Corinthians 14:26ff). It was, in that respect, much more like a modern mixed Bible study; yet in that context, with rare exceptions, women were not permitted to speak at all. They were rather required to learn from the men in authority over them; the officers during worship, and their husbands when they went home.

Obviously this process of learning is prerequisite to them teaching in any form. To teach, they must first learn, and to learn they must be entirely silent and submissive. Given this pattern, how extraordinary would it be for a woman to swing from the one extreme of quietly learning from men, to the other extreme of authoritatively preaching to women—on the mere provision that all the men left the room?

The clear asymmetry between the authority of men and women makes the idea of women preaching, even to other women, exceedingly awkward. Older women teaching younger women does not stand on the same level of authority as husbands teaching their wives. Rather, when a Titus 2 woman teaches a young mother to act in purity and to fear her husband, she is bringing to bear an authority that primarily derives from her social weight, rather than a covenantal weight. She is saying, in effect, “This is what Scripture says you should do, and you see me doing it, and what I do matters to you given our relationship—but if you doubt it, ask your husband or your pastor.” The teaching of a Titus 2 woman is relational teaching; a bringing to bear of right conduct in the life of another, according to the organic relationships that develop as women live together in community.

This is a very different thing than interpreting and expounding Scripture as if from the pulpit, which is primarily a bringing to bear of covenantal authority—and is what women today want to be doing. God does not give it to women to stand up and exercise covenantal authority to expound and apply his Word, even over other women, even if they are in the same congregation, and even if they are genuinely old enough and well-taught enough to be bringing such wisdom to bear. (In the modern day, all these conditions are flouted brazenly.)

7. Even if the men leave, the angels don’t

We have left the most difficult point for modern ears until last. Preaching doesn’t just take place on earth, because when we worship we enter the heavenly court. This is surprisingly clear in Scripture once you become aware of how the idea is expressed. The Bible presupposes that when we gather together in worship, the Lord Jesus and his elect angels are present as well (Mt 18:20; 1 Tim 5:21; 1 Cor 11:10; Heb 12:22–24; 13:1–2; Rev 1:20).

This is as strange to Western ears as it is damning to women preachers. A woman preaching is a woman leading worship in the heavenly court. She isn’t just leading women; she is leading angels. So whether she is preaching exclusively to women here on earth or not, it remains utterly inappropriate and shameful. Even when women pray in the congregation, or are explicitly empowered by God to prophesy, they are required to wear coverings on their heads to hide their glory (i.e., their hair) and to signal their subjection to the men over them (1 Cor 11:3–16). It is otherwise scandalous for them to be present (1 Cor 14:35; see point #3).

Why? Because they are made as the glory of man, while man is made as the glory of God (1 Cor 11:7). And the purpose of assembling for worship is to glorify God. William Mouser explains:

In that context, the humans are not only giving glory, they are someone else’s glory. Man is God’s glory, woman is man’s glory, and (this is key to avoid confusion), the woman’s long hair is her glory. In the assembly there are three glories present: God’s, man’s, and the woman’s.

But, if the purpose of the assembly is to give glory only to God, then God’s glory should be unveiled, and others’ glory should be veiled. The veil on the woman’s head covers two glories. She veils herself (because she is man’s glory), and simultaneously it veils her long hair (because it is her own glory). The man remains unveiled, because he alone is God’s glory, and so it is appropriate for him to remain unveiled. (Bill Mouser, Hair and Worship)

It is glorious for a man to preach because he directly reflects God’s glory, being made to represent his word and his name. But it is equally inglorious for a woman to preach, because she does not directly reflect God’s glory; rather, she reflects her husband’s glory, and is made to represent his word and his name. To have someone else’s glory on display in the heavenly court besides God’s is embodied blasphemy; to have her then appropriating the role of reflecting God’s glory—though she is not made for that purpose—is to celebrate ignominy. And it is impudence upon ignominy upon blasphemy when she presumes to preach among the angels, who, being male, are over her.

If a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head because of the angels (1 Cor 11:10) even when speaking lawfully in the congregation, how much worse for her to be flaunting her bare head—name a modern woman preacher who does not—as she preaches unlawfully? It is obscene, as all sexual perversions are.

There is much more to say on this point, but we will leave that to a post dedicated to veiling. Until then, these seven reasons allow no room for women preaching, period.