The Case For “Occasional” Women Preachers: A Response to Ozark Christian College

(This article was co-authored with Dr. Jack Cottrell, Professor of Theology at Cincinnati Christian University.)

In the March 2014 issue of Christian Standard, Matt Proctor, the president of Ozark Christian College, presented OCC’s attempt to set forth a Biblical case for allowing women to teach and/or preach in church meetings “on occasion.”  (See Proctor’s article here.)

We do very much appreciate the College’s firm commitment to the authority of Scripture, and its desire to be Biblical in every way.  We also rejoice in OCC’s stand against unqualified feminism (also known as egalitarianism) regarding gender roles.  We agree with the first two of the general conclusions worded on page 40, and we commend the College for its commitment to them.  They are as follows:  “1.  Beginning with creation, God has hard-wired male spiritual leadership into the system, and God is calling men to step up as the primary leaders in his church.  2.  The regular teachers and leaders in any congregation, then, are to be the elders—a role reserved for men.  This includes the role of ‘the preacher’ in a local church.”

Nevertheless, we take strong issue with the third conclusion, namely, “3.  The New Testament does also allow for women, on occasion, to preach and teach in church—from a posture of submission to the elders’ ultimate authority.”  (This explains the use of the word “regular” in statement #2.)  The reason we disagree with this position is quite simple:  the arguments or premises upon which this view is based are false.  There are two such faulty premises; we will discuss them and show why we think they are false.

Argument 1:  “The New Testament Teaching about Prophecy Applies to Preaching Today.”

The first premise on which Proctor and OCC conclude that women ought to be allowed to preach “occasionally” is based on the assumption that what the NT says about women and prophesying leads to the conclusion that women are allowed to preach today.

This argument has two parts.  First is the assumption that “prophesying” is equivalent to and applies to preaching as it is usually practiced today.  As Proctor says, prophecy “was much like what we call preaching today” (p. 39).  To argue this, he refers to what Joel says about “daughters” prophesying, as quoted in Acts 2:17, and applies it to women preaching today. He comments, “The church’s daughters can prophesy/preach” (p. 39).

The second part of the argument is the belief that the NT specifically says that women were prophesying “in church.”  Proctor bases this belief on one text, 1 Cor. 11:5, where it is said that “Paul tells us that women prophesied in the New Testament church’s worship assembly” (p. 39).

From these two ideas Proctor concludes that whatever 1 Timothy 2:12 means, it does not absolutely forbid women to preach in church services today, since they were obviously prophesying/preaching in the days of the apostles.

Although this argument appears to be well intended and a genuine engagement with the biblical text, it must be rejected. The reason is because the assertions about women and “prophesying” are false.  First, it is simply not the case that “prophesying” and “preaching” are so similar that what is said about the former (“prophesying”) must apply to the latter (“preaching”).  For one thing, the fact that Biblical prophesying was mostly proclamation (as is preaching) is completely irrelevant.  There is still a qualitative difference between them. What makes these two practices qualitatively different is that “prophesying” was one of the supernatural or miraculous spiritual gifts given in Bible times but not throughout church history.  A prophet was someone who spoke an inspired message from God, under the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit.  The message was not the prophet’s own (see 2 Pet. 1:20-21).

In fact, if it is true that biblical “prophesying” is equivalent to “preaching” today, then we must be prepared to argue that sermons given in our pulpits today are direct messages given by God to ministers. But it seems to us that not many (we would hope) would be brazen enough to claim that their sermons are a “thus saith the Lord” proclamation. The main point is that “prophesying” throughout the Bible was a proclamation of a message given to individuals directly by God in some way; “preaching” today is the proclamation by a minister of a message that has already been given, namely, in Scripture. To say it another way, ministers are not prophets.

In my book Power from on High: What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit (408), I (Cottrell) give examples of the view here endorsed by Proctor and OCC that “prophecy” is just “the gift of preaching, of proclaiming the Word of God” (to cite John MacArthur).  My comments there are as follows:

In my judgment this view simply does not conform to the biblical concept of a prophet, a concept established by its extensive OT use.  As [Craig] Keener rightly observes, ‘Those who think that prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is merely preaching must treat as irrelevant the Old Testament use of the term (the background Paul shared with his Christian readers), the use in Acts, and the use in the text itself” (Three Crucial Questions About the Holy Spirit, Baker 1996, p. 116). . . .  The significance of prophecy was second only to the apostleship itself (1Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11), and Paul links prophets with apostles with respect to the foundational function of their teaching authority (Eph 2:20; 3:5).  It was never intended to be given to all Christians, not even in the early church (1Cor 12:29). 

Thus we must conclude that the gift of prophecy was a miraculous spiritual gift in the same category as apostles.  What a prophet proclaimed was ‘inspired speech, words given as from “without” (by the Spirit) and not consciously formulated by the mind’ (James Dunn, Romans, Word 1988, 2:727). . . .  As [John R. W.] Stott says, the biblical prophet is ‘the mouthpiece of God, the organ of fresh revelation’ (Baptism and Fullness, IVP 1979, p. 102).  This is the most generally accepted view, and it should be insisted upon.

In support of this view, note that in the lists of spiritual gifts, the Bible distinguishes “prophets” and “prophesying” from other gifts of speaking, including “evangelists,” “pastors,” “teachers,” and “exhortation” (Rom. 12:6ff.; Eph. 4:11; 1 Cor. 12:28-29).  In 1 Cor. 12:8ff. “prophecy” is included in a list of mostly miraculous or supernatural gifts.

The other part of this argument–the idea that the NT actually says that women “prophesied” in the public assembly in apostolic times–is based on an incorrect interpretation of 1 Cor. 11:5.  The fact is that this text is not talking about what goes on in the public assembly.  In 1 Cor. 11:1-16 Paul is talking about the general relationship between men and women.  He does not begin to give instructions about order in church services until vv. 17-18, specifically in v. 18 where he says, “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church . . . .”

I (Cottrell) have discussed this in another of my books, Headship, Submission, and the Bible:  Gender Roles in the Home, p. 238. In this source I cite the Church of Christ scholar, Everett Ferguson, who says that “1 Corinthians 11:17 seems to mark a transition from commendation to rebuke and to a new setting, ‘when you come together.’ . . .  Praying and prophesying could be in a group or in ‘public’ but not in an assembly of the church” (The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, Eerdmans 1996, p. 342).

I go on to make the following point: “My view is the same as Ferguson’s, and I base it on at least three considerations.  First, as Ferguson also says, in verses 17-18 Paul specifically states that he is now ready to give instructions concerning the public assembly . . . , and he indicates that this is the first instruction of that nature (‘in the first place’).  Second, there is no reference in verses 2-16 to public worship.  But beginning in verse 17, through the end of chapter 14, Paul says several times that he is referring to the gathered church (11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34; 14:19, 23, 26, 28, 35).  Third, if verses 2-16 are not referring to public worship, then there is no difficulty harmonizing 11:5 with 14:34-35.  Women may pray and prophesy in other contexts, but not ‘in church’ (14:35).”

This last point is important.  In 1 Cor. 14:34 Paul specifically says, “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.”  The verb “to speak” is being used in this context to refer to the use of miraculous (supernatural) spiritual gifts such as tongues and prophesying (vv. 26-40).  To limit it only to “the authoritative teaching function of weighing prophecy in the assembly,” as does Proctor (p. 40, fn. 2), does not do justice to the context as a whole.  The proper understanding is that women were not allowed to prophesy (among other things) in the church assemblies, contrary to the OCC interpretation of 1 Cor. 11:5.

This is the basis of our negative judgment regarding OCC’s first reason for concluding that women may at least “on occasion” preach and teach in church services today.  Now we turn to the other faulty premise, the one that appeals to a certain rule of Greek grammar.

Argument 2:  “The Greek Grammar of 1 Timothy 2:12 Allows Women to Preach on Occasion.”

The second argument used to defend “occasional” preaching by women before the entire congregation appeals to the grammatical form of the two Greek infinitives in 1 Tim. 2:12.  In this verse the Apostle Paul says that he (by apostolic authority; see v. 7) does not allow women to do two things:  (1) “to teach” men, and (2) “to exercise authority over” men.  The two Greek infinitives are didaskein (“to teach”) and authentein (“to exercise authority over”).  These infinitives are in the present tense form, rather than in the aorist tense form (a kind of past tense).  The fact that these infinitives are present tense, says the OCC faculty, opens the door to women preaching and teaching “occasionally” in church gatherings.  It does prohibit them, however, from holding an ongoing position of preacher or elder in a local congregation.

This distinction is based on the common understanding of the difference between the present and the aorist forms of the Greek infinitive.  The distinction is that the aorist tense is seen to refer to an immediate, specific activity, while the present tense is seen to refer to ongoing, continuing activity.  As Proctor describes it, “The aorist tense is a close-up photographic snapshot of an action, picturing as little as one particular occurrence.  The present tense is a wide-angle movie camera shot of an action, picturing a continuous, habitual, ongoing condition—a state of being.”  Since what Paul is forbidding is in the present tense, the conclusion is that “he is saying that a woman should not be the continuous, ongoing, habitual teacher.  That’s the implication of the Greek grammar.”  But “he is not saying she can never teach on any given occasion in church” (p. 39).

Does this understanding of the Greek infinitive stand up under closer scrutiny? We believe it does not. First of all, practically all beginning Greek grammar textbooks highlight the fact that the aorist tense indicates an undefined action. In other words, it says nothing about duration. The context and other factors in which the aorist verb is used must determine the duration of the action. Ironically, the textbook from which the OCC faculty presumably borrowed (and misused) the “snapshot” metaphor even states as such:

Many NT students see a particular category usage . . . as underlying the entire [aorist] tense usage (aspect). This is the error of saying too much. Statements such as “the aorist means once-for-all action” are of this sort. It is true that the aorist may, under certain circumstances, describe an event that is, in reality, momentary. But we run into danger when we say that this is the aorist’s unaffected meaning, for then we force it on the text in an artificial way. We then tend to ignore such aorists that disprove our view (and they can be found in virtually every chapter of the NT) and proclaim loudly the “once-for-all” aorists when they suit us (Daniel B. Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax, 240).

To see that this is certainly the case, consider just three examples of three synonymous Greek verbs used in the NT usually followed by infinitives: epitrepō, which is used in 1 Tim. 2:12 when Paul says “I do not allow [ouk epitrepō] a woman to teach or to have authority over a man”; eaō [pronounced eh-AH-oh], used with the infinitive to mean “permit”; aphiēmi, which is also used to mean “permit.” Although this small analysis may be somewhat difficult to follow, we ask the reader to follow closely for it clearly supports the above comments.

To begin, the bottom line of Proctor’s argument is that, generally speaking, the aorist form is usually used to refer to immediate (and thus perhaps one-time) circumstances, while the present tense is usually used to refer to ongoing activity.  But the fact is, as indicated by Wallace’s quote above, that this distinction is not consistently followed in the NT.  For the 16 uses of the verb epitrepō, 11 are aorist and five are present tense.  Of the 11 aorist, in nine cases the reference is to immediate circumstances:  Matt. 8:21 (2), Mark 10:4 (2); Luke 8:32; 9:59, 61; Acts 21:39; 27:3.  But in two cases, the aorist tense seems to be referring to ongoing activity:  Matt. 19:8, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives”; and 1 Cor. 16:7, where the infinitive is indirectly related to epitrepō, “I hope to remain with you for some time if the Lord permits.”  The aorist infinitive is “to remain,” and it refers to ongoing activity and not just to a “given occasion,” contra Proctor.

On the other hand, epitrepō is followed by present infinitives five times, two of which are in 1 Tim. 2:12.  One of the other three (Acts 28:16) is clearly a continuing activity, but another is quite clearly referring to a one-time event.  It is Acts 26:1, where King Agrippa said to Paul, “You are permitted to speak for yourself.”   “To speak” is a present tense infinitive (legein), but it has the same time sense as the aorist tense infinitive in Acts 21:39.

The last of the five uses of epitrepō with a present infinitive is 1 Cor. 14:34, where Paul says that women “are not permitted to speak.”  As we explained above, the “speaking” which is forbidden to women here is the use of spiritual gifts of miraculous speech (e.g., tongues, prophesying) in the church service.  Now we should consider this fact:  the Greek grammar in this prohibition is the same as that in 1 Tim. 2:12, i.e., present tense infinitive.  If we apply the logic OCC uses in 1 Tim. 2:12 to the infinitive in 1 Cor. 14:34, we would have to say that Paul is here forbidding women only to have an ongoing, regular role of miraculous speaking in the church, but it would be OK if the Holy Spirit comes upon them “occasionally” during worship services.  Would anyone be comfortable with this?

The results of the analysis of the other two Greek verbs for “permit” are similar to the above.  The verb eaō, used altogether seven times in the NT, is used three times with aorist infinitives, two of which seem occasional and one of which (contrary to what would be expected) seems ongoing (1 Cor. 10:13).  It is used four times with present infinitives, only one of which seems ongoing (Acts 14:16), while the other three (contrary to what would be expected) seem to be specific or occasional (Luke 4:41; Acts 23:32; 28:4).

The same inconsistency is found in the use of aphiēmi.  Of its 14 uses, three are in parallel texts in the gospels (Matt. 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16), with Matthew using an aorist infinitive while Mark and Luke use a present infinitive—all for the same event (which seems like a one-time event).  Of the other 11 uses of this verb, eight have aorist infinitives, two of which refer to ongoing activity; and three of them have present tense infinitives, two of which refer to one-time acts (Mark 1:34; John 18:8).

The above data are very detailed and probably somewhat confusing, but the point is this: a very serious conclusion regarding gender roles has been drawn by the OCC faculty, based on a certain general observation about the distinction between two kinds of infinitives.  One can either simply accept the stated observation as a consistent rule, or one can actually examine the Biblical text to see if the so-called rule is always consistently applied.  We have taken the latter course, and we have seen that the “rule” is not consistently applied.  Thus the second of the main arguments for “occasional” women teachers, speakers, or preachers in Christian assemblies is considerably weakened. In fact, such an argument should be known to be false after taking one semester of Greek at seminary, considering Greek textbooks warn students not to make such a mistake.

A Faulty Interpretation of the Essence of the Greek Present Infinitive

We want to make one more point, which we believe reveals the most serious problem with the OCC rationale regarding occasional women preachers.  It deals with the OCC interpretation of the essence of the present tense of the Greek infinitive.  As cited above, the OCC interpretation uses the analogy of an up-close photograph of a single event to represent the aorist tense, and a running wide-angle movie camera filming “a continuous, habitual, ongoing condition” to represent the present tense of the infinitive.  Then the latter is further interpreted as applying only to an “ongoing condition—a state of being,” or, as in the case of didaskein (“to teach”), as applying only to “the continuous, ongoing, habitual teacher” and not to individual and occasional acts of teaching by someone who does not occupy such an ongoing role or position.

Is there any real grammatical basis for this sincerely-made distinction?  After further consideration of actual examples of present infinitives, our conclusion is that there is no basis for this idea whatsoever.  It would appear to be born more of theological expediency than grammatical reality.  The problem is not whether the present infinitive may refer to continuous states or ongoing roles (e.g., of preacher, teacher or elder), but whether it does not refer to individual or occasional actions of such kind.  The latter point, just on the surface of it, seems irrational; and the fact is, based on the way the present tense infinitive is actually used, that the present infinitive can refer to both ongoing states and ongoing series of individual acts.  (This is true, of course, when it is in fact referring to something ongoing at all.  We saw in the previous section that it does sometimes refer to individual, immediate situations—exactly as the aorist infinitive does.)

When taking a closer look at the NT’s use of the infinitive, we find numerous examples of present infinitives that do not refer to an ongoing, steady progression of something but rather refer to indefinite series of individual instances.  Consider the following examples:

  1. 1 Cor. 14:34 – In church services the women “are not permitted to speak [lalein], but are to subject themselves.”  Since this is referring to the Holy-Spirit initiated gifts of tongues and prophecy, it is obviously a prohibition of individual events of this kind.  The grammatical details re exactly the same as in 1 Tim. 2:12.
  2. Acts 4:18 – The Jewish authorities “commanded the apostles not to speak [phtheggesthai] or teach [didaskein] at all in the name of Jesus.”
  3. Acts 5:28 – After being arrested for doing this anyway, the apostles were told by these same authorities, “We gave you strict orders not to teach [didaskein] in this name” (NIV).
  4. Acts 5:40 – After beating the apostles these authorities again “ordered them not to speak [lalein] in the name of Jesus.”  (One might ask those at OCC whether these authorities, by using the present tense infinitive, were implying that it would be OK to speak in Jesus’ name “on occasion,” as long as they did not do it on a regular basis.)
  5. 1 Cor. 14:5 – Paul says, “Now I wish that you all spoke [lalein] in tongues.”
  6. 1 Tim. 1:3 – Paul urges Timothy to “instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines [heterodidaskalein].”  This is the same general grammatical form as 1 Tim. 2:12.  Shall we say that Paul’s use of the present tense infinitive in 1 Tim. 1:3 allows these men to teach false doctrine “on occasion,” as long as they do not make a habit of it?  The OCC logic would seem to justify this conclusion.

These and many other examples demonstrate the fallacy of saying that present infinitives, such as those in 1 Tim. 2:12, refer to habitual, continuous states or conditions but not to individual instances of the same activity.  The fact is that this kind of infinitive can refer to either or both, depending on the context and the kind of activity in view.

We ought to make one more observation concerning present infinitives. The Christian Standard article is devoted almost entirely to one of the two present infinitives in 1 Tim. 2:12, namely, didaskein (“to teach”).  But let us not forget that Paul also says he does not allow women “to exercise authority” [authentein] over men.  Since the grammatical form of these two infinitives is the same, should not the significance of the grammatical form be the same for both?  Thus if we say that the present tense of didaskein allows for occasional exceptions to the prohibition, should we not also say that the present tense of authentein allows for occasional exceptions to this prohibition also?  Should we not say, then, that women should be allowed to have authority over men “occasionally?” Is this not where consistency would lead?

Some Final Issues

There are other issues in the article that could be addressed. We will not deal thoroughly with them here, but we ought to mention them briefly. First and foremost, even if the biblical text allowed for women to preach and teach men (which it does not), what does allowing them to do it “occasionally” look like? Twice a month? Three times? One entire year out of three?  When does one go beyond “occasional” to the point of disobeying Scripture and no longer being in submission to the elders?  The term “occasionally” is very vague and subjective. What does OCC have in mind here exactly?

Second, Proctor and OCC seem to believe there is a connection between Mary and Mary Magdalene’s reporting about the resurrection and the role of preachers and teachers in the church. Exactly what is the connection? We fail to see how Mary and Mary Magdalene have anything to do with eldership and preaching in the church. Were they elders and preachers in a church? It seems that any connection of these two women and preaching is what I (Cottrell) refer to as “feminist hyperexegesis” in my book Gender Roles and the Bible (181-184).

Third, what about Phoebe? Should she be called a “deacon” as Proctor suggests? And even if she is a deacon in the sense of a “deaconess,” does this really go against the prohibition in 1 Tim. 2:9-14 (see Cottrell’s commentary on Romans (2005 ed.), p.539)? We think not on both accounts.

Fourth, how does the fact that Priscilla “taught Apollos privately” relate to 1 Tim. 2:12? Does it really violate Paul’s prohibition?

Finally, do elders have the authority to permit women to do something in the church gathering that the Apostle Paul has forbidden? (See Cottrell’s essay “May Women Preach if the Elders Authorize It” here.)

The point, of course, is that there are numerous problems with what OCC has concluded “along the way” in its study of women in the church. In this essay, however, we have primarily limited ourselves to the main argument, namely, that the NT does not forbid women to preach or teach “on occasion.”  Our conclusion is that the evidence cited to support this view is not just inadequate but is seriously faulty.

Grace,

Peter Jay Rasor II & Jack W. Cottrell

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7 Responses to The Case For “Occasional” Women Preachers: A Response to Ozark Christian College

  1. Terry Steiner says:

    Thank you very much gentlemen, for defending this position that many of us believe and adhere to. We just do not have the ability to explain this Biblical perspective, in an educated way, that another apologist with a more liberal viewpoint would accept.

  2. Albert V. Amos, Jr. says:

    Thank you Jack for this tremendous insight into God’s Word. When I read the item I was totally blown away. It is with regret that I see this approach come out from OCC since they have such a great influence in Oklahoma and the Mid-west. Since I am already considered a rebel by OCC and not recommended by them, anything I would say would be on closed ears. I pray they read, pray, and listen to what they have said and ask the Lord to direct the Holy Spirit in the manner they should follow.
    May the Lord continue to bless and keep you. Your brother in Christ.

  3. Phil & Harriette Holder says:

    We appreciate your answer and use of Scripture in the right context. We intend to share this.

  4. David Sowers says:

    Thanks for the good theological reasoning and the in-depth grammatical discussion. My hope is that many will read and seriously consider what you have written.

  5. Dan McDonald says:

    Excellent treatment of the aorist infinitive and the semantic range and field of didaskien. An excellent source of precise teaching, its just like sitting in grad class.

  6. Richard Wilson says:

    Thank you for this in-depth discussion. Many evangelists (preachers) have only an introductory knowledge of Greek and its grammar (and rarely continue their study after Bible college and/or seminary) this type of analysis and exegesis is badly needed.

  7. Timothy Villa says:

    While I understand from the way Proctor wrote the article that it appears he speaks on behalf of all of the OCC faculty, please note that he does not and that there is no unanimity on this matter among them any more than one would expect to find at any of our Bible colleges on such a controversial issue. A number of the faculty received much of their seminary training from Dr. Cottrell, and a number of others have been heavily influenced by his writings. Conservatism on this matter and others is not dead at OCC even though it may not at the present time be in the ascendancy.

    Timothy Villa