November 9, 1997
Submission and the role of women in church leadership are hot topics of debate, even among Christians. Alistair Begg examines these sensitive issues from a biblical perspective, using both Old and New Testament references. God assigns men and women equal but complementary roles to promote order and completeness in service, not to create competition for status.
Sermon Transcript: Print
If you were present this morning, you know that we’re going to return to 1 Timothy 2, where we left off somewhat abruptly in the middle of what we were discovering. And if you’re here visiting this evening, then we are turning to 1 Timothy 2, and we are sort of halfway through our study of this morning. I apologize for the abruptness of its conclusion and therefore the somewhat ragged commencement this evening.
We had begun to notice the fact that Paul’s clear instructions in 11 and 12 were not grounded in any cultural or pragmatic concerns that he was espousing but rather were grounded in the doctrine of creation, in foundational elements that had to do with the way God had set things up from the very beginning of time, and that, on account of this, we could be very clear concerning the timelessness of his instruction—in other words, that there was no way that we could sidestep what he was saying by suggesting that somehow or another he was lost in a cultural time warp and that, had he been living today, he would not have written as he did.
In verse 14, Paul is referring to the tragic consequences of woman breaking out of the pattern that God had established, insofar as she led rather than she followed. And that’s his point of emphasis here. She should have been following, and she took the position of leadership. And consequently, sin entered the world through a reversal of God-given roles. Paul is not absolving Adam from responsibility—far from it. Eve was deceived, but Adam, as we noted, sinned willfully; he sinned with his eyes wide open.
Now, there are basic, fundamental truths in these first three chapters of Genesis, and they will repay your careful study. Amongst them we notice this: that although she was created second, the woman sinned first. Although she was intended as a helper for her husband, she instead led him into sin. And besides being responsible for his own disobedience, Adam failed insofar as he failed to take the lead in doing what was right. He abrogated his responsibilities just as much as Eve superseded hers. And the consequences of this are chronicled for us in the verses that we read in Genesis 3. There are implications which immediately came to man (and I use the word generically there: “man,” men and women) as a result of the fall of man into sin.
Prior to the fall—and it’s important to understand that it was prior to the fall—woman’s principal task was childbearing and the care of her family. There will be people who’ll come to you and say, “The only reason that it is the way it is, is because of sin. But if there hadn’t been sin, then it wouldn’t have been this way.” Just read your Bible, and you’ll be able to respond to that. Prior to the fall, the primary task and responsibility, burden, given to woman is to bear children and to care for her family. And the primary task given to man, prior to the fall, is to work, is to be a provider for his wife and in turn his family, and is to nurture and care for them.
Now, when the fall takes place, recorded for us in Genesis 3, there are immediate implications. That is why God says to Adam, “Now, in light of your sinful rebellion against me, you will still work, but your work is going to be a whole lot more difficult than it would have been. It will be marked by difficulty, it will be marked by drudgery, it will be marked by toil, by thorns and by thistles, and there will be all these negative elements which accompany your fulfilling of your God-ordained task.” In the same way, after the fall, for a woman to bear children will be more difficult than it was before, and there will be pain which attaches itself to the bearing of children. Also, in place of understanding, and in place of intelligent submission to her husband, the wife’s submission after the fall is going to be characterized by one of two things, or a combination of the two: either by a desire on her part to reverse the roles or by being subjected to a wrongful kind of subjugation on the part of her husband on account of human perversity.
That is, I think, the significance of the word “desire.” It’s always intrigued me, that verse. I wonder if you’ve found the same thing in Genesis 3:16, where God says, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” If you allow your eyes to scan 4:7, you will find the verb being used again there—that is, the verb “desire”—where God speaks to Cain, and he says, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you.” And the desire of sin for Cain is a desire to master and control him. And I think that is exactly what the inference and the reference is here in Genesis 3:16—that the desire of a woman for her husband is not that she desires him on account of his affection or of her undying devotion but that it is, as a result of the fall, she desires to master and control him.
Now, as we said this morning, this interpretation of things is certainly not politically correct, but it does have a ring of truth to it. Instead of headship being a matter of love and submission as God intended, it now becomes a matter of struggle and conflict. Prior to the fall, the relationship enjoyed between man and woman was perfection, and the God-given roles were engaged in with absolute clarity and without any sense of interference or a desire for any other thing. Their same relationship before God was marked by the same purity and clarity: they talked with God in the cool of the day, they lived in nakedness, and they were without shame. But suddenly, all of that changes, and the God-intended roles are now marked by a stickiness, marked by a difficulty, marked by a spirit of rebellion and cantankerousness that runs right through into the family rooms of contemporary America.
By taking the initiative in eating the fruit—and this, again, is the reference here in 1 Timothy 2:14—by taking the initiative in eating the fruit, the woman in effect assumed the leadership role; and, of course, she did so with disastrous results. And that’s the point that he’s making. “It is imperative,” he says, “that a woman learns that in the context of public worship, her unique calling is not to fulfill the role of a teaching, authoritative position but rather is to be a learner—a significant learner, but a learner nonetheless.” And the reason for this, he says, is because “Adam was formed first,” and “then Eve.” In other words, this is God’s order of things. It was not by happenstance. It was purposeful. And when Eve took a leadership role in responding to the initiative of the serpent, all chaos and disaster descended.
Now, the emphasis is clear: there is profound significance in the order of creation for determining the proper relationship between the sexes. And that is why men and women today can’t do anything with the relationship between the sexes: because they reject the whole notion of creation. You think about it. Darwinian evolution has had implications far beyond the chemistry lab, far beyond the realm of nuclear physics. Far more significant is the impact of that nonsense in the hearts and lives and homes of men and women ever since, because they have no doctrine of God; they have no doctrine of creation; they have no doctrine of man; therefore, they have no explanation for who they are, what they are, why they exist, or how they relate! And whenever anyone would stand to say, “Have you ever considered this?” they say, “Oh, away with that nonsense! We’re not going to read that silly stuff! We’re not going to believe that crazy business!” And still the Hubble Telescope goes deeper and deeper and further and further and confounds them. And yet, in the great refusal, they choose to worship things that creep and crawl and fly rather than the glory of an immortal creator God.
Man has the priority, as from creation, not in the sense that he is superior to the woman but because God has ordained man to be the leader and the provider. (It sounds anachronistic, does it not? Sounds old-fashioned—Little House on the Prairie sort of stuff, The Waltons.) Men and women are not to view themselves, consequently, as rivals but as complementary, as needing one another for completeness. And Paul is arguing from the creative plan of God in order to ensure that things will be done properly within the church so that in the matter of public worship, in the presentation of the truth of God’s Word, the general principle would hold true that man is to lead, and the woman is to follow.
Now this, loved ones, is the universally normative regulation that prohibits woman from ruling and teaching men in the church. And this passage and the correlative passages in 1 Corinthians are not illustrations. They’re not cultural anecdotes. They are commands. And they are commands which are not grounded in time-bound, culturally relative circumstances that applied only to Paul’s day and age, but they are commands which are grounded in the way in which God created men and women to relate to one another. And consequently, to dismiss the role relationships in the church’s ruling function as something that is simply cultural carries with it the dismissal of the analogous role relationship within the structure of the home. And that is exactly what feminism does. And those who call themselves biblical feminists—for example, Scanzoni, and Hardesty, and Jewett, and Roberta Hestenes, and some of the others—all do this, and shamefacedly do it. And they would argue, clearly, that complementarity, complementariness, within the home means total equality in everything—that men and women are identical—when, as we saw this morning, they are equal, but they are different.
Now, I hope that this is dawning on you. I would add maybe just one further thing to it, and that is the argument, if you like, from the history of the church. It is surely not insignificant that Jesus, having made such a dramatic impact on women in his earthly ministry, chose only twelve men to be his disciples and chose only men to be his apostles. And it is a great disservice to Christ that verges on blasphemy to suggest that Jesus himself, the incarnate God, was trapped in some cultural time warp. Knowing as he did what the twentieth century would bring, you would assume that if he had planned for women to reverse the roles, as is being done today, he would have given a pattern for that in his own earthly ministry. You would expect that the early church pattern, which was continued through the centuries as they were guided by the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, would be marked, then, by this change or shift in paradigm.
For me, it’s very hard to imagine, as I’m supposed to believe by my friends, that God kept the church in the dark for so long, despite the fact that he intended all along for women to be pastors and teachers and elders and leaders and rulers in the church. That’s what my friends ask me to believe: that we’ve all been locked in a closet somewhere in terms of our theological understanding, and that God has had this wonderful secret, as it were, waiting for us finally to discover the true meaning of Greek syntax, waiting for us finally to open up to a dawning awareness of the truth that for two thousand years the church has missed, and then we’ll be ready to put it into practice. Now, do you want to believe that? Or do you want to believe that there’s a direct correlation between the phenomenal pressure of the culture of our day and the expressions of feminism on the hearts and minds and knees of weak-willed characters who are prepared to capitulate to the spirit of the age and marry it and—trust me—become a widower in the next generation? A loss of confidence in the Scriptures and the pressure of feminism has been the stimulus for change, not on account of a discovery or a rediscovery of God’s truth.
Now we’re at verse 15, you’ll be pleased to know: “But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”
What are we to do with this most awkward verse? Well, first of all acknowledge that it is quite an awkward verse, insofar as there is no parallel statement to this anywhere else in the Bible. Now, that in itself should be a warning to us when we seek to interpret it. Because we do know that God tends to enforce and reinforce truth that is of vital significance in relationship to the understanding of his people. I actually believe that to be true in relation to some other significant events that appear only once in the Bible, but I’ll leave that aside for the moment. One day, we will come to it—very shortly before I leave. But for now, we’ll leave it there.
I’m tempted to say, “Just read the commentaries,” because there are lots of verses and chapters and books of all sort where people explain that they have now definitively understood 1 Timothy 2:15. The ink has not dried on the page till somebody rises up and explains it in a totally different way. Let me give you two shots at it, and that’s all. You can find the other forty-seven for yourself. These are probably the best two, if you like.
The first interpretation is that in verse 15, when it says “but women”—and you will see a footnote which says, “[In the] Greek she”: “But she will be saved through childbearing.” Who, then, is the subject? Well, the subject from verse 13 and 14 is Eve. Okay? So one way of viewing this verse is that what we have here in verse 15 is a specific reference to Eve and then beyond Eve. Now, what could it possibly mean that “she will be saved through childbearing”? What was the promise that was given to Eve in Genesis 3? It was the promise that the seed of woman would ultimately bruise the head of the serpent—namely, that there would come one from woman who would be the great liberator from sin and from the dominion of enmity against God.
And so the hope of the Old Testament all the way through is for this one who is going to come, who will be born of a woman. And the prophets looked forward to this individual, and Isaiah speaks of a virgin who will be with child and will bring forth a son and will call his name Jesus. And as a result of this, the woman, as well as the man, will be saved by this unique childbearing event, for the Savior is born through her. And therefore, according to this interpretation, the woman’s role in God’s plan of salvation has been vital, because she, Eve, as with all males and females who follow, will be saved as a result of the childbearing which comes about in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
That, to me, is a hard one. It’s not impossible, but it seems you’ve got to really reach around for that. But that has been traditionally held for a long, long time.
For myself, there is great appeal in the suggestion that the reference to her being saved in verse 15 has to do with women—woman, women—being kept safe from wrongly seizing men’s roles by embracing a unique women’s role, so that you will be saved from usurping the authority of man if you embrace wholeheartedly the unique prerogative of woman—namely, to be a childbearer, to be a mother, and to fulfill the God-intended role for you. And that, then, will be accompanied by the evidences of Christian character like “faith” and “love and holiness with propriety.” So one interpretation sees it as an expression of the incarnation, if you like; another simply says that the salvation being referred to here is not actually salvation from sin, but it is woman being restored from the position of usurping the authority of man by embracing her God-given role and living life as a woman rather than as someone who bucks the authority of man.
Now, I don’t want to say any more about that, and indeed, I’ve said probably more than enough. But I want to make just one or two correlative statements in conclusion to all of this. At least in my mind, they tie in.
I think that part of the problem in this whole discussion, especially for women, is that there is a wrong view of authority and leadership in the church per se, and it goes like this: “Authority or leadership in the church is about status.” But when you read the New Testament, what do you discover? Authority and leadership in the church is about service.
Now, that’s what John 13 is all about. That’s what staggered the disciples when Jesus, noticing the fact that none of them were prepared to wash each other’s feet, takes a bowl and water and a towel and establishes a pattern of servant leadership by washing the dirty feet of his own disciples. And he gives an example that we might follow in his steps.
You see, when people think of ministry—particularly the preaching ministry—or of the eldership responsibilities within the local church in terms of status, then it is immediately considered wrong that women should be denied the opportunity to apply for the same jobs. See? They transfer… “Well, it’s okay for men to be doctors; therefore, it’s okay for women to be doctors. It’s okay for men to fly planes; therefore, it’s okay for women to fly planes.” And so they argue. And that is fine! We can follow that line through. But it does not transfer into the realm of leadership within the church, no more than that same logic reverses the roles of leadership within the home and the relationship between husband and wife.
Leadership does inevitably carry a measure of authority. There is no question of that. But the authority is not a matter of status in the body of Christ. That’s why when you read the lists—for example, in Romans 12—leadership is not the top of the list, because leadership is not a higher status. The significance in leadership has to do with the dimension of service. And in 1 Corinthians 12, for example, Paul reminds us that the members of the body of Christ don’t all have the same task or have the same function. Not all men in the local church are called to teach or rule. That in no way implies their inferiority to those who are called to teach and rule. Agreed?
You’re going to have to think about that, you see. Because you’re smitten with the idea that this is about status. It’s not about status! It’s about service. And if you are not called to rule or to teach, you are not therefore inferior within the structure and plan of God’s complementary purpose within the body. That’s the whole point! That’s why the toe can’t say to the finger, “I don’t need you,” why the nose can’t say to the eye, “I have no part of you.”
And you see, when you think that through, then, in the same way, women are not inferior because their particular task is not to rule or to teach men. If the men are not inferior who don’t do it, why would the women be inferior? If anybody was going to feel inferior, it ought to be the men! It ought to be them saying, “Hey! I’m a teacher! I’m a ruler! I’m a leader! I want the status! I want to have those stripes!” They say, “Yeah, we’ll give you stripes okay, but the stripes will be on your back.”
If you’re thinking “status,” think again, because it’s not status; it’s service. Because of that warped thinking, it therefore translates to a curious preoccupation on the part of women to say, “Listen, if we really are equal, we’ve got to do everything that you can do.” No. Everybody knows that women are better than men—at being women! And that men are better than women at being men! Now, this is not rocket science. Loved ones, it is because of the pressure of a godless age in which we live that we have so much jitterbugging over this issue.
Although women’s tasks in some instances are different from those of men, their tasks are equally necessary to the well-being of the body. The objection of some to the restrictions that are placed on women is that this makes women seem less important than men. Absolutely not! But even if we were to concede that, in relationship to 1 Corinthians 12, it’s pretty interesting.
Let’s concede for a moment that this makes women seem less important than men. Then we’ll go to 1 Corinthians 12:22, and what will we read? “[These] parts of the body that seem to be [the] weaker are indispensable.” So even if you were to concede the idea—which I don’t!—if you concede it, you’re still left with the emphasis of Scripture, which says, “And you think that these things, because they are not as significant in your mind, are not really there? Let me tell you: they’re absolutely indispensable.” So whether we are male or female, we should not, if we are in a non-leadership function, be envious of those who are in such positions, and we certainly ought not to feel ourselves inferior. Our functions are complementary. That’s the first thing: we’ve got to settle that status business once and for all.
Second correlative statement is this: while affirming what Paul says here in terms of restricting the opportunity of women and prohibiting them from pastoral rule, we must affirm the role of women in pastoral care. Because a woman doesn’t rule, it doesn’t mean she cannot care. And Paul’s own ministry is littered with women functioning within the rippling concentric circles of his ministry at every point along the journey.
I don’t have time to belabor the point tonight. You should be grateful for that. But the whole dimension of pastoral care—where, for example, a lady came to me this morning and broke her heart telling me of a circumstance in her home. And sure, I am the pastor—a pastor—sure, I am a shepherd; and sure, I have something to say. But as I stood and listened to her, I said, “It’s not me that should listen to this; it is another woman who should listen to this! This is a place for a woman to be involved in pastoral care.” And therefore, our women need to be trained in pastoral care, they need to be recognized in pastoral care, and I believe we have a phenomenal untapped resource in relationship to that.
Also, while we recognize what Paul has said here, prohibiting women from rule and from the teaching function in the mixed congregation of the fellowship of God’s people, we need to affirm the woman’s role in pastoral administration. In pastoral administration. Where would we be, where are we, without the wisdom, abilities, and giftedness of women? Men, we are in total chaos. And it is the worst form of male chauvinism to suggest anything other than that. We are not able on our own, we are not equipped on our own, we are not supposed to be on our own, and we live in need of that complementary dimension. The fact that because people are afraid of women in rule makes them run a thousand miles from women in anything is no excuse for a local fellowship not thinking it out and getting it right. And I’m not suggesting to you that we already got it right. I am suggesting to you that it is a journey upon which we need to continue to move, and we will, as we continue, get it right.
While also affirming the prohibition of women in the role of a teaching pastor or of a ruling elder, we recognize also the role of women as teachers. Because the prohibition is governed by the word “men,” and it is governed by the context. It doesn’t mean that women can’t teach anywhere, anytime, anyhow. And again, the New Testament is littered with women in teaching roles. First Timothy 2 makes reference of it. First Corinthians  does.
And one of the chestnuts that always comes up—and we won’t have time for questions, you’ll be relieved to know (he said to himself)—one of the chestnuts that always comes up and says, “Well, you did that thing on 1 Timothy 2, and then you had Helen Roseveare come to the church. Na-na-na-na-na-na! And she spoke on a Sunday morning, and she’s not allowed to speak on Sunday mornings because of 1 Timothy 2.” Yes she’s allowed to speak on Sunday morning—if the elders determine that we’d like her to. She’s not going to speak as the pastor and the teacher. She is not going to speak in a position of rule and authority. But she has something to say, and we’d like to hear it. There are women who have unique abilities in relationship to, for example, dealing with bereavement. And if that woman has something to share with the fellowship in the context of the Lord’s Day worship, then she can come and share it—providing it does not negate all that we have said.
In other words, loved ones, we can’t take a principle and make a law out of it. And legalists always make laws out of principles, because it is far more comfortable. Then you can always have it cut and dried. But principles must be principles, and laws remain laws. Think it out. Because if you think also—while my pulpit, this pulpit, is my primary place for teaching, it’s not the only place teaching takes place. It takes place one-on-one. It takes place in small groups. It takes place all over the place. And the same is true for women. Titus 2: women teaching women. Titus 2: women in the home, teaching their children, teaching other young women the responsibilities and privileges of parenthood, and so on.
What about new Christian groups, where you have young couples that are coming together, and they’ve recently professed faith in Jesus Christ, and the opportunity for a husband and wife to be teaching that discipleship group? And for the wife, for the lady, in that context to be able to speak concerning the nature of things from a feminine perspective? There is nothing that negates that in the Bible. There is nothing that prevents, in that context, the males going in one room, the females going in another room, and the lady in the context going to the ladies and the girls and saying, “Let me tell you about the implications of Christian living in the matter of sexuality, or in the matter of being a wife, or in the matter of being a single girl.” That is the right place for that to happen—not some loose-fired cannon pastor who’s confronted by all these attractive women in a room trying to explain to them the nature of human sexuality. They’ve tried that. A bad idea.
The principle, then, loved ones, is not to be applied like a law. For example, where men are not available, can women teach the Bible? Hands up: yes. Okay. Hands up: no. Ah, you bunch of cowards, the lot of you! No, sorry. That was very unkind. You’re waiting for the truth to dawn, and then you’ll make your decision. All right.
I only once went to Urbana. It was 1984. The lady was there from Wycliffe Bible Translators. She explained how she and a fellow colleague had gone to a remote tribe somewhere in South America. They had gone there with the purpose of translation. They began to translate 2 Timothy, as it turned out—or 1 Timothy, actually, as it turned out. And they had a man who was the translator from the village. And in the course of translation and in the course of doing certain things, they shared their faith as best they could, and they worshipped as best they could, albeit in this very, very limited context. And this man who was the translator before long came to trust in Christ. And as he trusted in Christ, he continued now to translate the New Testament. And when he came to this section in 1 Timothy 2 and translated it, he said to the female missionaries, “Now you must stop, and I must start.” And they did stop, and he did start. But were they supposed to sit there and do nothing because they were waiting for a man to come along? No! In other words, the principle that God’s people be fed is more important than the identity of those who feed—in that context. You’re not going to turn that into a law either. Take it in the way I’m saying it.
Loved ones, I think our objective should be to ask God to turn Parkside Church into a sphere in which the true complementarity of men and women is displayed—to turn us into a church that will uphold the dignity of marriage, the rightness of male leadership, the correctness of female submission in a true understanding of “equal but complementary”—and that, recognizing the volatile nature of what is represented in this, even when we form our convictions and hold them firmly, we need to recognize that this is an area in which genuine, professing believers disagree, and therefore, it is an area that demands of us humility and charity, recognizing that one day, when we get to heaven, what now we see only “through a glass, darkly,” we will see with absolute clarity. And to that day I personally look forward, especially in relationship to this, with great anticipation.
I want to thank you for your patience.
Let us pray:
Father, we want to be men and women of your Word. We don’t want to fiddle with the text. We don’t want to maneuver it to suit our own preoccupations. We don’t want to be cowards in our culture. We want to be ruthless in being what you intend for us to be as men and women within the home, in the realm of singleness, and in the context of church leadership. Save us, therefore, from error. Save us, too, Lord, from turning principles into laws—from elevating this issue, which is a crucial issue, to a level that it doesn’t really deserve. Help us at the same time, though, to see beyond the discussion to the real discussion, which is a discussion about the authority of the Bible, which must always be a fundamental, primary, crucial issue. I pray you would help us as elders, pastors, to clear our minds of any notions of status and to think in terms of service, and that we might serve Christ as we serve one another.
Thank you for this day, for the privilege of worship, for the joy of fellowship, for the opportunity of prayer, for the hearing of your Word. And now, as we walk into a new day and to a new week, may we do so in your power and with your grace and help. For we ask these things commending one another into your care and keeping. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 Genesis 3:17–19 (paraphrased).
 See Genesis 3:16.
 See Genesis 2:25; 3:8.
 See 1 Corinthians 11:2–16; 14:34–35.
 See Genesis 3:15.
 See Isaiah 7:14.
 See Romans 12:4–8.
 See Titus 2:3–5.
 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.