Why let women lead Bible studies?

In my own mind I’m clear that the Bible prohibits women from running and preaching in churches (1 Timothy 2). I know not every Christian agrees with me. Not even every evangelical would sign up to that. I think I’m right in saying that my old Theological College Principal allowed women to preach in church. But this post isn’t about that.

This is about the supposed inconsistency that people like me demonstrate when we encourage our women to lead Bible studies. I don’t think that women should exercise authority in a church by preaching; which is why there are no female names on our preaching programme. But we have female co-leaders for our small groups. Why do we do that? If we’re clear that women must not exercise authority over men by teaching them the Bible in the mixed congregation why would we encourage them to do that in a mixed small group? It does look inconsistent, doesn’t it?

These are the four reasons why we let it happen.

1. We do it because we want to train our women

Preparing and leading Bible studies provides a tremendous opportunity to train our women in ministry. Of course, that’s not a sufficiently good reason to overturn a clear biblical command but it does at least highlight the value of helping our women. I suppose we could avoid this by having single sex Bible studies. There’s a place for that. But churches ought to have mixed gender small groups because it’s so good for community life. It’s healthy to have smaller groups where people can feel that they belong. These small groups are supposed to be places where we apply the Bible to life, where we can encourage one another and where we can pray for one another. In those contexts men and women learn from each other.

2. We do it because small groups aren’t the mixed congregation

I guess this is an obvious point. But small groups aren’t church. They’re simply not the same thing. And so 1 Timothy 2 does not apply directly to small groups, which is not to say that it doesn’t have anything to say but it does mean that there’s not a one for one correspondence.They’re discussion groups where the emphasis is more on the application of God’s word to our lives. In that sense the contribution made by participants and leaders is more akin to the prophetic ministry mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14. And in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul permitted women to prophesy.

3. We do it because there’s biblical precedent for cross gender instruction

In Acts 18:26 Luke explains that Priscilla and Aquila took the gifted young preacher evangelist Apollos to one side and put him on the straight and narrow. Aquila is a man, but Priscilla was his wife. In other words a woman taught and man and wasn’t chastised for it. It’s normal for there to be times in Christian discipleship when a woman encourages a man. In Colossians 3:16 Paul expects it.

4. We do it because the women aren’t leading with authority

We encourage our women to lead in a way that’s closer to facilitation than instruction. It’s clear in the way that the groups are established that they lead under authority. They attend a prep session at which one of the male staff takes them through the biblical material, they receive prep notes which provide an understanding of the passage and suggest questions and they lead in such a way that they defer to the male leader. In addition we encourage the women not to lead in a way that could be interpreted as exercising authority. I think they get that right. The male leaders can help in this by leading the group even when they’re not leading the study. If they ‘top and tail’ the study and introduce the female co-leader it all helps her settle into her role and helps the group feel comfortable.

I hope we’re not selling out to the ‘feministas’! I don’t think we are. And so we encourage our fabulous women to co-lead our small group Bible studies. And church life is the better for it.

7 thoughts on “Why let women lead Bible studies?

  1. Lauri September 23, 2009 / 3:59 pm

    I should preface this reply by saying that (a) I am agnostic as to the role of women in Church leadership. By this I don’t mean that it doesn’t matter, I just mean that it is something which I have not read much about and so have not come to a solid conclusion on the matter, and (b) my wife noticed the blog post and we talked about it together, and some of what I am writing comes from a discussion with her. (I guess from a traditionalist perspective on male headship I am doing the right thing in speaking for both of us?)

    The following is mostly related to point 4, but does relate somewhat to point 3. I agree with the other points and am glad we have women co-leading small groups.

    I am confused. What do you mean in this blog post when you say “authority” and what do you mean by leading without authority?

    It seems like you use the word authority specifically to relate only to teaching the bible from the front in a church service, but the Pauline text you cite does not refer to preaching it refers to the whole time of worship, breads and ear-rings not withstanding, and not to leave men out, our hands should be up in the air when we pray.

    But then you also say that it is ok for women to exercise authority in other areas of life, presumably a good example might be a woman exercising authority as a doctor. No doubt the academic rigor it requires to become a doctor, and given that women are capable of becoming GPs also would mean that they are capable of instruction in relation to the biblical passage we read in small group, if they are so gifted. (I am currently reading Marylinne Robinsons, The Death of Adam, which is equal if not better than Orthodoxy by Chesterton. I would love to sit under her teaching at the university of Iowas writing school…)

    Perhaps I am being persnickety about word usage but good ordered facilitation does lead to instruction. Hence I don’t really understand what leadership without authority means. Other than perhaps the perceived reserved, non-initiative taking culture specific understanding of what it means to be a ‘good’ woman, which I am not sure the Timothy text does say.

    I also don’t see how, if the women are in fact leading small group even without authority, the expectation is that deferral to the male leader is necessary. How does that relate to leadership and specifically teaching.

    In parallel to my previous point, why do you mention leading the group, but not leading the study, when your stated main concern with woman and authority in church was precisely related to bible teaching and not, as it were, “leading” the church.

    Perhaps there are assumptions being made in the post about how men relate to women which did not make it into the blog post proper. I would be grateful if you would point me in the direction of other blog posts you may have written which address my questions.

    On the other hand, I think the first 2 points justify the perceived incongruity between women preaching and women teaching in small groups very well and am thankful for your initiative in outlining why we do what we do.

  2. joe May 18, 2012 / 12:40 am

    I disagree

    1. If the small groups are a training ground, so is having a woman speak occasionally at main stage on Sunday morning service as well. In both situations, she is not a pastor or elder and has no authority according to you. So, you open the door to that kind of result. However, I Tim 2 says that she is not to teach over men in ANY SITUATION, regardless of how you might think it serves the church.

    2. If you believe that small groups aren’t church, I’m confused…..for according to the Scriptures, church is the Body of Christ, which is all saved believers. “Where two or three are gathered, there will I be…” When the Body meets, the rule applies.

    3. Acts 18 actually says “showed” in some versions. This could mean Paul was just watching their example, and no words were even ever stated. The word in Acts 18 is not “teach”, nor comes close in the Greek to the word used in I Timothy 2.

    4. The elders (pastors) are given the authority to teach the church, by God’s nomination of them through the Body. They are tasked with teaching the church. If they delegate out that responsibility, they are by omission delegating out their authority….giving their authority to the one speaking in their place.

  3. Stuart July 7, 2012 / 10:08 pm

    I know not every Christian agrees with me. Not even every evangelical would sign up to that
    perhaps rather more than ‘not every’ which can of makes it sound like 99 out of 100. This is one of these subjects where I am so glad that the CoE is a broad church even on the evangelical side.

  4. Stuart July 10, 2012 / 9:56 pm

    Actually just reading of the activities of a missionary at my church – doesn’t the above more or less, in effect, rule out women being missionaries since surely they are bound to be involved in preaching and teaching to men (unless they are deployed only to deal with women – but even reading about some of the classic female missionaries in China etc they appear to have been involved in situations where they preached etc to whole communities – not just the women)

  5. Timothy M Gosselin September 25, 2016 / 2:37 pm

    I disagree with point 4. I believe referencing 1 Cor 11, 1 Cor 14 takes those scriptures out of context and is being misunderstood. Cor 3:16 doesn’t speak of women so in view is not relevant. In Acts yes the wife may have taught, but she was doing so under the guidance and direction of the husband who is the head of her because 1 Cor 14:40 God is a God of order and wants things done properly.

    In closing woman should not teach men without being under the authority of a man regardless if it is a church or home. But women can certainly teach other women and children, but not men. The church started in residential homes initially.

    Blessings in Jesus name!

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