“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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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://bunnystuff.wordpress.com/ Jaimie

    Some of the churches I attended were strict about this and we didn’t stay long. Others offered many more leadership opportunities to women. However, all displayed serious gender bias of some kind or another. I finally couldn’t take it anymore and decided to leave the church entirely.
    This is the thing I look back on and shake my head in disbelief at myself. How could I have put up with being treated like a second class citizen for so long? After a while, the fault for staying and letting myself be discriminated against lay only with me. How could I be loyal to a god that thought I was less than just because of my gender? I told myself that he didn’t but church structure just hadn’t caught up with the times.
    But does that make it any better? No. I was an idiot.
    Some women know the problems exist but stay to try to “change it on the inside”. I think most of them, like me, were just afraid to leave. That leaving church is somehow a wrong thing to do. But allowing yourself to be discriminated against, bringing up your daughters in that same system, and sons to perpetrate it…..that is wrong. At the time it seemed strange that leaving the religious community was the moral and ethical thing to do. Looking at it from the outside, it’s pretty obvious.

  • Rosie

    I’m also surprised that the number is so low. That’s also “just how things are” in the churches I grew up in. Women could be secretaries, bookkeepers, pianists, music ministers, Sunday School teachers, even youth ministers (not sure if it was necessary to have a male colleague for that one, but they mostly did), but never preachers, deacons, or ushers (who were the deacons in our small-town church, iirc). That’s not why I left the church (at least not consciously), but it’s certainly one of the big reasons I’ve never considered going back.

  • Christine

    Friends of ours, when they got married, picked what church they would attend by sitting down and making a list. It wasn’t too difficult for them to pick though, because the list was nice and short. They were only considering denominations which ordain women.

  • Jenna

    I would have thought it would be much higher than 3%. I definitely went to a more laid back church and I think there were some sunday school classes led by women. There was even a woman on staff who finished seminary so they let her get ordained as “Minister of Community life” or some bullshit title like that which was a big controversy with the denomination. Of course she would have never been considered for a “real” pastor job.

  • Anne Helen

    The Wisconsin Synod Lutheran church (WELS) has a very legalistic booklet called Men and Women in God’s World, which lists women are allowed to do in the church. In summary, women cannot do anything which requires them to have authority over or give direction to a man, including voting. Because even minor leadership roles require people to make decisions, basically women are not allowed to do anything except teach Sunday school to the lower grades, work in the kitchen and take care of the altar. Women cannot even speak before the men who vote because they may influence how the men decide to vote, which WELS interprets as exercising leadership.

    There is a lot of hypocrisy in how the doctrine of women subordination is enforced. A few musically gifted women whose husbands were pastors or elders were given a lot of authority to lead the choir and plan the liturgy. But equally musical women who did not have a prominant husband were not allowed to contribute. As a widow with no husband, I was simply invisible and many men would not even return my greeting.

    The pastor held a three month Bible study on environmentalism and the Bible. Even though I am getting a PhD in the physical sciences and have 20 years of experience in the environmental field, I was not asked to contribute. Given the pastor’s lack of interest in presenting accurate information, I did not attend the Bible study because I feared ugly confrontations with the pastor if I tried to correct him. Because only men are allowed to speak, the church flew in another PhD student to talk about science, faith and reason with the college group. Because this student was so condescending to me, I had fun grilling him and discovered that he was studying materials science and knew little about evolution/creationsim.

    I was allowed to usher, but only for the offering. Ushering people to communion was considered a leadership position. But it was ok for teenage boys under 18 to lead people to communion. After several years of feeling insulted every communion Sunday, I quit ushering. Like Jamie, I am now shaking my head in disbelief that I took this disrespectful treatment for so long. The major reason I stayed for so long was my need for a parking permit, because the church is near my university. This semester I am set to graduate.

    • Noelle

      And yet, in the Missouri synod and ELCA Lutheran Churches, it is not uncommon to find women pastors. My daughter was baptized by a woman pastor at a Missouri synod church. My sister was married and had all 3 of her kids baptized at an ELCA church by the same woman pastor.

      • Elizabeth

        Noelle, that’s strange that your daughter was baptized by a woman pastor at an LCMS church. Officially, the LCMS does not ordain women, and that has long been one of the differences between them and other Lutheran denominations. In fact, I believe they officially discourage women serving in other roles in worship, like distributing communion and reading lessons, as well.

      • Noelle

        Maybe this church missed the memo.

      • Noelle

        Maybe this church missed the memo. I checked online again to make sure, and they’re listed Missouri Synod.

        I was at best agnostic when she was baptized. My husband had been atheist as long as I’d known him. His father was a pastor in an RCA church in a different state. My husband wanted his kids baptized because his family has this heirloom baptismal gown from the 1800s, and he thought it would be cool to use it with our kids. My family were members at a Lutheran church in the town we were living, and that’s how we ended up there.

        If the church were to insist on male pastors only, they would likely close. There aren’t enough to go around, and it would be a shame to not take advantage of hiring the other half of the population.

  • Nurse Bee

    Never attended a church where a woman could not be a teacher or an elder/deacon, etc. Our current denomination (Assemblies of God) ordains women. There are women deacons in our church (and a guy runs the nursery/preschool program). And I wouldn’t categorize any of the churches I’ve attended/been a member of as particularly liberal.

    • Christine

      The Catholic church, which is very hardline on women as priests and deacons, has women teaching. They’ll bring in women for special lecture series. There isn’t really Sunday School, the closest would be the children’s Liturgy which happens during mass, but that’s only for children. Women can lead adult baptism classes (teaching and spiritual direction). Heck, some churches even have female pastoral staff (not pastors or associate pastors, but members of the pastoral team).

      A church really does not have to be liberal at all to let women teach.

    • Nurse Bee

      You have to remember that you and many of your readers are coming out of rather extreme denominations whose practices shock and sadden Christians like myself.

      • http://Patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        Although to be fair, the largest Christian denominations in the country do not allow women to be pastors. So you can’t pretend this is some rare thing in Christianity. It’s not that uncommon at all.

      • Christine

        Out of curiosity, Libby, what are the largest denominations in the US? I know in Canada, once you get past self-identified Catholics, the largest groups are self-identified Anglicans and United Church members, so this surprises me. (I also know that the Catholic church outnumbers the next two, but it’s still 2/3 of the largest denominations.) This is by the census numbers, not just by what it looks like if you count the number of churches. I know that the numbers are dated, because we don’t really have a census anymore, but I’m fairly sure that those are still the largest three.

      • kisekileia

        @Christine, what complicates the issue of denomination size in Canada is that people who identify as Catholic, Anglican, or United Church on the census are probably a lot less likely to go to church regularly than people who identify as evangelical. The Barna survey required church attendance outside of holidays within the past six months, which would knock out a lot of Catholic/Anglican/United Church members in Canada.

      • Christine

        @kisekileia, the survey isn’t the greatest representation either though, because it’s looking at perception, and whether women feel included. For example: a church that doesn’t ordain women may still allow women on the pastoral staff. So women who internalize a complimentarian mindset will report that their church is quite egalitarian.

        I agree that self-reported Evangelicals are most likely to be actually attending church, but it really gets into the definition of how you define “largest” There might be more practicing Evangelicals than practicing Anglicans, but the public perception is an issue too here. (FTR, there were only 780,450 people falling into the category of other Christian on the last census we had, which is more than just Evangelicals, and 549,205 in other Protestant. I know that was more than 10 years ago but it’s still not that many, compared to more than 2.5 million self-reported Anglicans. )

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        Here’s a link. According to it, the top five – and this is a combination of US and Canada – are:

        1. The Catholic Church 68,202,492, [ranked 1 in 2011] , down 0.44 percent.
        2. Southern Baptist Convention 16,136,044, [ranked 2 in 2011] , down 0.15 percent.
        3. The United Methodist Church 7,679,850, [ranked 3 in 2011] , down 1.22 percent.
        4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 6,157,238, [ranked 4 in 2011] , up 1.62 percent.
        5. The Church of God in Christ 5,499,875, [ranked 5 in 2011] , no update reported.

        Of these five, only one – the United Methodist Church – ordains women as ministers.

      • Christine

        Thank you Libby. I knew it had to be different, but I didn’t realise how much. This blog is a wonderful, and never-ending source of culture shock for me.

      • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

        Lumping Canadian stats in with American rather buries the former ;-). In both countries, the RCC is the single biggest, but after then it diverges wildly. In the US, #2 is the Southern Baptists — evangelical to start with, and the victim of a takeover in recent years by hard-line reactionaries. In Canada, it’s the liberal United Church, which ordains not only women but (gasp!) out gays — the current Moderator is gay!

        #3, the Anglicans, ordain women, and seem to be currently having an internal debate over LGBT issues (ie. some all for gays and same-sex marriage, and some dead against it).

        We do religion differently up here ;-).

      • Christine

        I think a slightly more relevant fact about the liberalness of the United Church would be that they forced the same-sex marriage debate to take place – by marrying two same-sex couples using the loophole of reading the banns instead of getting a marriage license. (That and some of the lawn signs that they’ve been distributing in elections, but those are easier to explain if you know the local politics well)

  • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

    There is a book out, and I can’t remember the name of the author, entitled “Why Men Hate Going to Church.” His thesis is that while many conservative churches do not allow women to occupy leadership positions, women usually make up the majority of the congregations, and pretty much run the church from behind the scenes. The result: most churches are structured to meet the emotional needs of women, and men are turned off. Going to church is like going to a baby shower. That’s why men don’t bother.

    • Noelle

      the book’s author wouldn’t be the only one to belabor that point. The same argument is used by many patriarchal churches to justify why the ladies couldn’t possibly be put in charge or all the menz would leave. I don’t buy that. Most men I know like women very much. Health care is run predominately by women, and men still show up as patients and to train to work in the field. Most teachers are women, and they get plenty of boys as students.

      • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

        The book’s author was David Murrow, and his point is that the “menz” have already left, although he did suggest different ways to try to get them back, some of them kind of silly. My point is that it is disingenuous for women to complain about being second class citizens in the church when they pretty much run the show already.

      • Noelle

        If they run the show already, why not just ordain them and be done with it?

  • kisekileia

    I wonder what definition of “women not being allowed teach men” is being used here, and whether it excludes churches where women only lead in worship. I notice that “pastoral staff” doesn’t specify what types of pastor–there may be women saying “yes” to that who go to churches where the only female pastor is in charge of women’s and/or children’s ministries. However, it’s also possible that churches are softening on this, and/or women are leaving the ones that haven’t.

  • Attackfish

    See, this is something that always felt so foreign to me about Christianity. I over somewhere between Reform and Conservative Jewish, and my first Rabbi was a woman. My particular interest in languages, law, and religious studies, has been causing other Jewish people to tell me I should become a Rabbi since I first started practicing my Judaism at 13. Orthodox Jews don’t think women should be Rabbis (though I’m told it’s a matter of serious debate within the community) which is part of the reason the rest of the Jewish population, which is the vast majority of Jewish people, doesn’t get along well with Orthodox Judaism.

    • Hilary

      No kidding. I am proudly a Reform Jew, because my lapsed Catholic mother told my non-affiliated Jewish father that she was going to raise me Jewish so that if I wanted to be a Rabbi, I could. Thanks John Paul II, I love being Jewish with women leading as Rabbi’s and Cantors. Oh, and Reform Judaism is very GLBT friendly, too.


  • http://www.brooksandsparrow.com Angelia Sparrow

    My mother-in-law is an ordained Methodist minister. This caused several fights with my fundamentalist husband who took 2 Timothy seriously. He’s still not sure about her, because he’s been to a few of her services. She takes a more Social Justic approach to the Gospels and he considers it heresy.

    Oddly, he has no problem with me being a pagan priestess, because my gods haven’t specifically told women to sit down and shut up.

  • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot JW


    The above is a blog I follow and I found this article rather interesting especially in light of the Libby’s blog article as well as the struggle going on within the church.

    See what you think

    • machintelligence

      That is an interesting post. He did not originate the concept of ideas (memes) being parasitic “viruses of the mind”, but I would hardly expect him to quote Richard Dawkins. For an interesting discussion of this I recommend the TED talk “Dangerous Memes” by Daniel Dennett.

  • Mary

    Where I grew up, getting baptized made a boy into a man. So a woman could teach elementary age boys, but if one was baptized (even as young as 8 or 9) she could no longer teach him.

  • Marianne

    @Mary — It was the same with the church I grew up in. I remember being very confused and couldn’t understand how simply being baptized could suddenly make a child superior to an adult woman.

  • Carl

    If you don’t want to submit to the Word (that became flesh) then you aren’t a disciple. Lord of all, or not Lord at all. Luther had to correct the course the Catholics had morphed the Church into. It is our corrupt nature to compromise the Word of God and turn His Church into something putrid. God is right and if you are going to His house, lose the rebellion.

    • Ibis3

      Your repugnant, self-absorbed, morally bankrupt god can get his lazy ass over here and bite me.
      I’m sure you can figure out what his sycophants can do.