One recurring question regarding women in the church goes something like this: “What does the Bible say about women teaching and prophesying?” The follow-up question is usually, “And what does that mean for us now?”
But let’s start with a couple of definitions:
Teaching: Imparting truth to another person. The truth can be spiritual in nature, explaining things of God, but also practical in applying God’s word to life.
Prophecy: A direct message from God, mediated through an individual and directed at a person or group, intended to elicit a specific response. As the spokesperson of God, a prophet held great spiritual authority with the people.
Foretelling: Predicting a future event, typically as a warning.
Forthtelling: Exhorting the audience to obey God, encouraging them that God would save and provide for them.
In the Old Testament, prophets were truth-tellers, often blended their speeches with foretelling and forthtelling. In the New Testament, prophecy is listed as one of the most desired spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12) and is generally understood to include forthtelling—a prophet in the church can interpret God’s word, then speak into a particular situation with truth and exhort believers to holiness.
So, with those basic definitions, let’s look at what the Bible says about women as teachers and prophets. Does God allow it? If so, in what capacities? If only in certain capacities, what are they? If not at all, why not (or at least, where do we see that command)?
The Bible never comes right out and says, “Women can be prophets.” But, it doesn’t say that about men, either. Rather, the writers of the sacred text included stories of prophets, and several women are among that group. So we know they existed, with the blessing of their community, and left enough of a legacy to be included in Scripture. The most prominent women prophets in the Old Testament were Deborah and Huldah.
Deborah, whose story is found in Judges 4–5, also served as a judge (one of the Israelite political and judicial leaders before the monarchy was established). In Judges 4:5, her job as judge included “settling disputes” among the people who traveled to see her at her headquarters. In verse 6, her prophetic voice is heard when she summons a general from the northern area of Israel, Barak, and tells him, “Has not the Lord, God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go …?” Because of her authority as prophet, show in the formulaic “Has not the Lord, God of Israel, commanded you…”, Barak and the army welcomed her leadership and obeyed her words. It’s a fantastic story—go read the whole thing.
Huldah served in the royal courts of Judah during King Josiah’s reign (2 Kings 22:14). When the king ordered the temple to be cleaned out, his men discovered a scroll. Seeking to verify its validity, the king had it sent to Huldah. The scroll she verified traditionally has been understood as the Torah (Jewish tradition) or the book of Deuteronomy (Christian tradition). Huldah is considered the first person to declare a text “holy scripture,” and the early church included her (along with Miriam, Anna, and Deborah) as evidence of the Spirit’s power in women.
In the New Testament, we read of Anna in the temple, Pentecost, Philip’s daughters, and passages such as 1 Cor 11 in which women and prophecy are discussed.
Shortly after Jesus’s birth, Anna the prophetess spoke about him in the temple “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).
On the Day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter declared that the coming of the Holy Spirit was the beginning of the “last days” spoken of by the prophet Joel.
… I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days (Acts 2:17–18, quoting Joel 2:28, 29).
During the apostle Paul’s journeys, he met up with Philip the evangelist, who “had four daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:9).
When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he gave instructions on the appropriate apparel of “every man who prays or prophesies” and “every woman who prays or prophesies” (1 Cor. 11:4–5). Paul’s words reveal that he assumed women would be prophesying. He then listed out some of the Spirit’s gifts, including wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, etc. (1 Cor 12) and urged each listener (reader) to contribute to the health of the entire body of Christ by using the gifts given by the Spirit. He closes chapter 12 with a short list of people serving the church, presumably in leadership roles: “God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues” (v 28). He closes his section on gifts by introducing “the most excellent way” (v 30): love.
To teach is to impart truth. The biblical text gives ample evidence that women were empowered and allowed to offer God’s truth—to men as well as to other women.
Abigail exhorted David (yes, that one) with wise advice that saved his reputation (1 Sam 25). ,
The Proverbs 31 woman “speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue” (Prov 31:26).
Mary (Luke 2) spoke truth in her song of praise to Elizabeth, known as the Magnificat.
The woman at the well spoke truth to her townspeople when she ran to tell them about Jesus. They responded to her testimony and welcomed Jesus (John 4).
The examples above show informal occasions that happen as a normal part of life. People teach others things—and women are no different from men in that regard. In a more formal setting, we find Paul encouraging women to teach in church: 1 Corinthians 14:26 states, “whenever you come together, each one”—which includes men and women—“has a … teaching (didakē)….” Likewise, Colossians 3:16 encourages all believers (cf. v. 11), “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.”
In his letter to Timothy, in which he instructs him to hold the doctrinal line against false teaching in Ephesus, Paul encourages him to “let a woman learn” (1 Tim 2:11) but to not allow a woman to teach a man (v. 12). Scholars note that the Artemis cult in Ephesus was dominated by women. As they converted to Christianity, they needed to learn correct doctrine and not jump in to start teaching as if they were experts already. Many have understood this passage to prohibit women from exercising any sort of teaching authority over men at any time (some argue “in any place or circumstance” as well) in the history of the church. The debate continues to rage: was Paul laying down a universal principle of male domination in teaching Scripture, or was he giving instructions specific to the church in Ephesus at the time? One person in Paul’s life hints at his perspective.
Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, worked alongside Paul to establish churches in Corinth (Acts 18:1–11; 1 Cor 16:19–20), Ephesus (Acts 18:19; 2 Tim 4:19), and Rome (Rom 16:3–5). Her name appears both in Acts and in Paul’s letters. She is widely regarded as an early church leader. On one particular occasion, she and Aquila came alongside a young preacher named Apollos who, though very learned, did not understand the gospel in its fullest sense. “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.”
Paul had no problems partnering with women (see Romans 16 for a list of ten women he commended), whether they were serving, giving, or teaching. As we weigh our understanding of 1 Tim 2:11–12, we must view it in light of the whole of Scripture, not isolated in a proof-texting way. If Paul did not allow women to teach men—ever—why does he willingly partner with Priscilla in particular? Why does he make no distinction between men and women when discussing spiritual gifts of teaching?
The gifts of teaching and prophesying are given to both male and female believers as the Holy Spirit wills, to be used in encouraging, correcting, and instructing the church. What does that mean for you? If you know you are gifted to teach Scripture, teach. Work with your faith community to find avenues to serve through your gifts. This applies to all gifts, of course! But do not let one verse hold you back.
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15).