“Suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man”

The Friendly Atheist recently posted an the results of a survey on women in the church, and was shocked to find that some churches don’t allow women to teach men. Frankly, I was surprised that the number was so low – only 3%. Because, well, growing up that was just how things were.

I remember that there was a woman who wanted to teach my high school AWANA group at a fundamentalist church across town. Thing is, there were, well, teenage boys in the class. The elders had to discuss whether it was appropriate for a woman to teach high school boys like that. Just girls, that would have been fine. Elementary boys, also fine. But a mixed class of high school girls and boys? Definitely iffy. In the end, they let her teach, but only as co-instructor with a man.

As with many large churches, the evangelical megachurch I attended broke the congregation down into “small groups” which met in people’s homes. My dad led our small group. He was male. The idea that a woman could lead a small group wouldn’t have occurred to any of them. Now sure, a woman could lead a female Bible study, that happened all the time. But not a mixed group. A woman couldn’t teach men.

Our church had a women’s ministry, and women could be hired there, and they could also work in the administrative staff as secretaries. Women ran the preschool program. Women were the majority of Sunday School teachers. Women ran many operations of the church like taking food to those who were sick or running the phone chain. But women were not eligible to be elders or pastors or even to be ushers. The church had a lot of classes – missions classes, Bible classes, classes that went through devotional books, etc. – and women were allowed to be co-leaders of those classes if they taught alongside a male colleague. A woman couldn’t simply run a class on, say, young earth creationism on her own.

If you didn’t grow up this way, you may be wondering why. Well, it comes from this passage (KJV):

I Timothy 2: 11-15

11 Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.

12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.

13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve.

14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.

15 Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.

And as is the modus operendi for evangelicals or fundamentalists, the Bible says it, so that’s that.

(Although the ironic thing is that the passage immediately before this passage – “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array” – is taken much less literally.)

So in churches like the ones I grew up involved in, women bringing casseroles was a-okay, but women teaching men was absolutely not.

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