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.