Sunday School, Teaching, and Church Authority
May 20, 2016
Well, well, well. Carl and Aimee really thought they had me. It was an all-out ambush. And while I did take a few arrows I nevertheless was left unpersuaded by their argument.
If you are wondering what I am referring to then take a listen to the latest Mortification of Spin podcast. In short, our disagreement is over the nature of teaching the Bible in Sunday School. Specifically, whether or not teaching the Bible in Sunday School is an exercise of Spiritual authority. I believe it is. My friends disagree depending of the circumstances involved.
Aimee has followed-up our discussion with a post going into greater detail and raising some good questions along the way.
I state at the outset that Carl, Aimee and I agree that the office-bearers of the church are clearly to be men and that the tasks of preaching and administering the sacraments are to be carried out by the church’s elders. We also agree that there is some pretty goofy stuff being written and taught under the umbrella of “complementarianism.” Our concern is that complementarianism seems to be morphing into patriarchy in some cases. We get worried when we hear complementarianism nearly equated with the gospel itself. Carl and I agree that the Danvers Statement is a proper reflection upon the Scripture’s instructions regarding gender roles. I am unaware of where Aimee stands in regard to Danvers.
I can also tell you that for anyone out there who believes that Carl and Aimee are falling into the slough of liberalism then you don’t know them well. You may disagree with them about Sunday School and teaching but don’t accuse them of being liberals. They certainly are not. Our disagreement is not about what the Bible teaches in regard to leadership in the church. Our disagreement has to do with a specific area of application.
As I understand their position, Carl and Aimee believe that teaching the Bible in Sunday School is not necessarily an exercise of spiritual leadership and therefore presents no problem to male headship. I point that out because some of what I write in this post is not in response to things Carl and Aimee have suggested but rather to place my position in its broader biblical context. Our disagreement is over the specific application of male leadership in the context of Sunday School.
No Inconsistency Here
If you listened to the podcast then you heard that my cohosts believed me to be inconsistent in my position given that my church had recently hosted Rosaria Butterfield for a weekend event (Friday women’s banquet / Saturday address). “Was that not a woman teaching and therefore exercising authority over men?” they pleaded. But I maintain that there is a clear difference between, for instance, a former radical feminist and university professor addressing a mixed gathering on a Saturday event and women teaching men the Bible on the Lord’s Day.
I understand that different churches are going to apply the Bible’s restrictions in 1 Timothy 2 in different ways. For instance, there are some churches that would not have allowed Mrs. Butterfield to have addressed a mixed congregation on Saturday or any other day. But I am not embarrassed to exercise a certain level of sanctified common sense. I believe people understand the difference between a special event on a Saturday and the regular ministry of the Word on the Lord’s Day.
Too Bold a Line
Throughout the history of the church the ministry of the Word has extended beyond preaching on the Lord’s Day gatherings. This seems to be the case with the very first church (Acts 2:42ff). So, the fact that Sunday School is a relatively recent development in the history of the church has little if anything to do with how the ministry of the Word functions during that hour on the Lord’s Day. In other words, the relative newness of Sunday School does not alter the fact that the exhortation from God’s Word is typically an authoritative act.
Not surprisingly I believe that the line Carl and Aimee draw between the worship service and Sunday School is too bold. Don’t misunderstand. I agree with them that the service of Word and Sacrament is different from Sunday School. We don’t administer the sacraments nor do we preach sermons in a Sunday School class. But in Sunday School the Word of God is most certainly taught and for the purpose of exhortation. I do not see how teaching the Scriptures in such a setting on the Lord’s Day is not an act of spiritual leadership.
In my communication with Aimee she has presented a paradigm which is helpful and certainly allays some of my concerns. But I remain unconvinced.
The connection between authority and teaching
1 Timothy 2:11-14 – “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
In his indispensable commentary on the Pastoral Epistles William Mounce writes the following in his comments on 1 Timothy 2:11: “The historical reading of the text sees Paul limiting the scope of women’s ministry and grounding that prohibition in the creation of Adam and Eve before the curse of the Fall. If it could be proven that elsewhere Paul allows women to teach overseers (i.e., men) authoritatively within the context of the household of God (1 Timothy 3:15), then it would have to be concluded that Paul is inconsistent or that vv 11-14 have been misunderstood” (p. 117).
Paul’s use in verses 11 and 12 of hasukia (“quiet” or “quietness”) almost certainly does not mean that women must remain silent in the congregation. It most likely refers to a “quiet” or gentle spirit being willing to learn and follow the leadership of the church’s overseers. On this my cohosts and I agree probably agree.
It is clear that spiritual leadership in the church is a task given by God to men. In the church women are prohibited from exercising spiritual authority over a man. And, as the text demands, this prohibition extends to teaching. It is difficult, I believe, to make the case that didaskein (“to teach”) is meant only to apply to preaching sermons in Lord’s Day worship services.
We do know that this is not a blanket prohibition against women teaching. Indeed, the church desperately needs qualified women teachers. For instance older women are to teach younger women (Titus 2:3-4). Timothy was no doubt instructed by his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5). Aquila was accompanied by his wife Priscilla in instructing Apollos (Acts 18:26). So Paul does not seem to be prohibiting a woman from assisting her husband in giving instruction in some cases. Again we must exercise a certain level of sanctified common sense in our application of this principle.
What is clear is that Paul links teaching directly to the exercise of authority. It seems to me that the burden of proof is upon those who suggest that didaskein (to teach) applies only to preaching sermons on the Lord’s Day.
Not once in the New Testament is there an example of a woman called to or assigned the task of biblical exhortation or spiritual leadership over men. The role of spiritual leadership via exhortation from the Scriptures is given to men solely.
I agree with Aimee’s concern about the “err on the safe side” principle. I cringe when I hear that. I also agree that on whichever side we land in this debate it is important that we not sow confusion about leadership in the church. Carl and Aimee believe that women may teach men in Sunday School in such a way that confusion over leadership will not result. Again, I am not convinced.
I am thankful for the back-and-forth on this topic. I believe it is a very healthy discussion that is actually shedding more light on the nature of church leadership. One of the concerns that I share with Carl and Aimee is that often times the most prominent voices on the subject are those which lean into patriarchy on the one side or Rachel Held Evans on the other side. One of the reasons I do not have heartburn over the fact that we disagree is because I know Carl and Aimee’s commitment to the inerrancy and authority of the Scriptures. I also know their commitment to affirming the leadership of qualified elders over the household of God. May we enter this discussion with hearts and minds willingly subject to God’s Word and quick to assume the best about those with whom we disagree.
* Regarding the picture of Aimee Semple McPherson - I just couldn't help myself.