What Do Timothy Keller and Don Carson Say About Women Preachers? (Not Much)

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The “Progressive” movement within Christianity has a motto: “Did God really say…?”

Any group that speaks in this way should not rightly be called progressive, nor Christian. The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is a prime example. A recent TGC video (see below) featured founders Timothy Keller and Don Carson asking what Paul meant by “I do not permit a woman to teach.”

The question is poorly stated, because it wrongly suggests that Paul’s basic meaning is unclear. Perhaps they ought to have asked, “How do we apply Paul’s command to women in 1 Timothy 2?”

I watched the Keller and Carson video, so you don’t have to.

But, by all means, do watch the video, if you can stand the sight of grown men outdoing each other in the skill of indirect speech.


Don Carson and Tim Keller | What Did Paul Mean by ‘I Do Not Permit a Woman to Teach’? | TGC Q&A

Since the title suggests there is something unclear in 1 Timothy 2:12, you would think these public intellectuals would know to offer some indication of what it is that they find unclear, or what the correct sense of this purportedly unclear passage would be. You would be disappointed.

You would think these men would also bring 1 Timothy 2:11 into the discussion in order to provide context for 1 Timothy 2:12. And you would think they would share the words of verses 13 through 15, because they are part of the same thought. But Keller and Carson choose to refer to these important verses without reading them.

Here is the most relevant passage:

11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.

12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve;

14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

1 Timothy 2:12–15, ESV

A Troubling Beginning

To start out the apparent game of who can be most roundabout, Keller points out that 1 Timothy 2 is “such a controversial passage.” He says he is glad to have a New Testament scholar (Carson) there, because Keller considers himself an amateur. Keller may indeed be an amateur in this context, but, by framing the discussion in this way, Keller has suggested an untruth: that the passage is difficult for a common person to understand and to know how to apply. It’s not.

After mentioning his Bible commentary of choice for this passage (Yarbrough), Carson points out that in this verse Paul is referring to two things: teaching and having authority. Keller and Carson generally agree that, in the context of the New Testament church, to have authority would be the same as to teach. “Authority” would be the authority to teach people in the church gathering what the Scripture says and means. They are correct.

Keller says: “Paul is forbidding something here, and I’m open to anybody who may have a different opinion from me what that is or how that works itself out.” Keller is right in his first claim, but his second claim gives ground to those who would disobey the Bible. Paul is not forbidding just “something.” At bare minimum, Paul is forbidding women from teaching men in the church and from having authority over men in the church.

Keller’s summary falls short, because someone could say, as many Southern Baptist Churches do say: “This passage only means that every church’s lead pastor must be a man. But, of course, we can have a woman preach or teach as a guest on Sunday mornings. And, of course, a woman can lead a mixed gender Bible study, because she is under the authority of the male lead pastor.”


They Get Some Important Things Right.

Keller says he is not open to somebody saying: There isn’t anything he’s forbidding. Or: That was not a transcultural statement — and, therefore, it doesn’t bind us anymore. Here he is right.

Keller and Carson discuss the question of how to know a command is transcultural vs. limited to a specific cultural context. (As compared with what seems to be the more culturally limited instruction to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” for instance.) The two men agree that there has to be a high bar for anyone who would seek to establish that a command is limited to one culture. They agree that the onus of proof is on the person making this kind of limiting claim.

Carson offers one argument for why the command is transcultural, and it is a good one: In verses 13-14, Paul grounds his argument in: 1) the order of the creation and 2) the order of the fall. Those are pre-cultural facts, therefore, they are transcultural facts. Paul seems to think that his reasoning would apply to all people throughout all times.

Then the Video Ends.

Keller and Carson do not really answer the question of what Paul meant by “I do not permit a woman to teach.” They talked about the question. They gave helpful background. They answered some objections to the common sense reading. But they assumed the viewer would know how to work out the details.

Keller and Carson gave ground for a variety of ways these principles could be applied, given the different approaches to ecclesiology across denominations. They did not speak at all about specifically how to apply Paul’s command in a worship service, nor how to know the difference between a church that is obeying the command vs. not obeying it.

They did not comment on whether Paul is forbidding women from all teaching of the Bible to all mixed groups in all church contexts — or whether there are some exceptions.

They did not address additional contexts such as seminaries. They did not address women “leading” or “facilitating” mixed gender Sunday School classes in which the Bible is simply discussed among all participants, which is the question many churches are dealing with.

They did not comment on whether a woman should be the president of a religious denomination, or be instructing (and opining) to thousands of men at TGC’s own conferences.

Whoever produced this video considers the job done, apparently. Keller and Carson have communicated three main things:

  1. We know how to act like we take the Bible seriously.
  2. We agree with the Bible.
  3. We find this very uncomfortable, and we want to be done talking about it as soon as possible.

A generation raised up by these men will be the last generation to give lip service to God’s authority.


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