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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

The Context of 1 Timothy 2

For many Christians, the entire conversation on gender roles hinges on Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. The headliner is verse 12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.”

I know this is true because this passage shaped everything I used to believe about gender roles.

And I’ve heard the same from other complementarians.

At the beginning of this series, a visitor to my website left a comment on the first post: “Looking forward to 1 Timothy 2:12 :).”

Another person told me that most complementarians have decided before hand what they think about the rest of the biblical evidence because of 1 Timothy 2:12.

A well known reformed evangelical preacher once quipped, “If you can get ‘I do not permit’ to say ‘I do permit’ then you can get the Bible to say anything you want.”

But can an entire theological position stand or fall on one verse? Many answer, “Yes!” Still, others would point to a broader theme of “male headship” throughout the Bible.

In this series, however, I’ve shown that the larger narrative of Scripture, not to mention specific women in prominent roles, should inform how we understand and interpret 1 Timothy 2:12. Not the other way around.

I do not believe that the Bible would contradict itself (and neither would Paul). That means that though 1 Timothy 2:11-15 does restrict women in some sense, it must be doing something other than restricting all women from teaching and leading for all time.

This post and the next is about figuring out what that “something” is.

How Should We Approach 1 Timothy 2?

This passage has been dissected and debated for decades.[1] So, I want to approach it with an extra dose of humility and caution, and resist being dogmatic.

I’d ask the same of you.

I hope that what you’ll find is that the options I present make just as much sense, if not more, than the traditional complementarian explanations.

In light of that, let me be clear: I will not provide my own definitive answer for every single thing in the passage. Approaching this passage with humility and caution leads me to approach it with openness. Instead of giving you the egalitarian interpretation, I want to propose some interpretive options. These options will account for:

  1. The actual words Paul uses;
  2. The context of what Paul’s doing 1 Timothy;
  3. The cultural situation in Ephesus (where Timothy ministered); and
  4. The larger narrative of Scripture which has clearly revealed women do teach, minister, and lead at various times throughout the history of God’s people (see a summary in my previous posts).

We can’t say there are multiple paths to salvation. But with a non-salvation issue like gender roles, we can say with confidence that options are acceptable to Christians

I hope that what you’ll find is that the options I present make just as much sense, if not more, than the traditional complementarian explanations.

This post will examine the context of the Ephesian church which will help us understand Paul’s words. The next post will be a commentary on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 that fleshes out my summary post from earlier this week.

Biblical Context: Ephesus in the New Testament

Ephesus was the most prominent city in the region of Ionia (in modern day Turkey) and a major port on the Mediterranean. Estimates indicate it had a population of 250,000 in the first century. In the New Testament, we’re introduced to Ephesus in Acts 19. Paul spent two years reasoning with Jews in the synagogue (vv 8-10).[2] He spent a total of three years teaching and making disciples in Ephesus (20:31).

Some local idol craftsmen protested Paul’s ministry (19:25-27). Worshiping Jesus, not idols, was bad for business. A large crowd had gathered to join the protest, but most had no idea why they were there (19:32).

From its founding in Acts 19 to the end of the biblical story, the Ephesian church continually fought against false teaching.

The crowd was dispersed after a few hours of shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (19:34). Ephesus, we find out, was the global hub for this false goddess (Acts 19:35). More on Artemis in the next section.

In Acts 20, Paul leaves Ephesus. He encouraged the elders to watch out for false teachers who would try to come in and ravage the church (20:28-31).

Later, Paul wrote a letter to these same Ephesians. Many consider it the of “charter of the church,” particularly because of its great themes of cosmic redemption and unity in the body of Christ.

Paul sent two more letters to Ephesus–his personal correspondence with Timothy, a young minister. Timothy was commissioned by Paul to stay in Ephesus to keep people from teaching false doctrines (1 Tim 1:3).

Ephesus then makes an appearance at the end of the Bible, in Revelation 2:1-7. John wrote Revelation some thirty years after Paul’s wrote Ephesians. Jesus speaks to the Ephesians. He commends them for their endurance and rejection of false apostles. But they are also called to repent because they had forsaken their first love (vv 4-5, probably referring to Jesus).

Finally, Jesus says, “You have this in your favor: you hate the practice of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (v 6). We don’t know anything about this group, but it’s obvious they’re a heretical movement that threatened the doctrine and devotion of the Ephesian church.

From its founding in Acts 19 to the end of the biblical story, the Ephesian church continually fought against false teaching.

Timothy’s Context: Problems in the Ephesian Church

When we zoom into what’s going on in Ephesus while Timothy ministered there, we find a mess. The main reason Paul wrote to Timothy is to encourage him in the work he was commissioned to do: “command certain people not to teach false doctrines” (1 Tim 1:3).

Paul spends the entire first chapter fleshing out this charge. He concludes by specifically naming two individuals who were ring-leaders of this heretical movement in the church: Hymenaeus and Alexander, who have been excommunicated from the Ephesian fellowship (see 1:20).

In chapter 2, Paul begins to address problems that Timothy has been dealing with. First, he gives a general command (“I urge” in NIV) that prayer be made for everyone (vv 1-2). Then reflects on Christ as mediator (see below for more on why I think he does this).

In verses 8-10, Paul talks about two specific problems: angry men (v 8) and wealthy women (vv 9-10). Paul wants the men to pray with the hands lifted up without anger or disputing. He wants the women not to flaunt their wealth by their external attire, but to be adorned with good deeds. The end of verse 9 shows that the issue is not showing a lot of skin, like our modern purity culture would have us think. The problem was flaunting wealth: “not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.”

In verses 11-12, Paul then moves to another problem in the church: a woman is teaching and assuming authority she ought not to have. Paul shifts from two general concerns in Ephesus in verses 8-10, to one specific concern regarding a woman and a man (her husband?) in verses 11-12. The use of the singular (“woman,” “man” in vv 11-12 and “she” in v 15) is one reason I think this is likely the case, but we can’t know for sure. Of course, I’ll explain more in the next post.

Cultural Context: False Teaching in Ephesus

Everything we’ve looked at so far comes from within the Scripture itself. But what about the wider context of Ephesus and 1 Timothy? Knowing something of the cultural and religious context in and around Ephesus will lead us in the right direction and, I believe, better prepare us to understand Paul’s words.

Artemis of the Ephesians

Ephesus was the epicenter of the Artemis cult, home to the Temple of Artemis. It was one of the seven great wonders of the ancient world.[3] The feature photo is a model of what experts think the temple looked like.

Artemis was the Greek goddess of wild animals, the hunt, vegetation, chastity, and childbirth.[4] Unlike other goddesses, she was a virgin and childless. Incredibly protective of her sexual purity, she punished any man who attempted to dishonor her.[5]

Being a virgin in Greek mythology may have meant someone who has never had sex. Artemis fit that definition. But virginity also had the connotation of being strong, independent, and untouched by the influence of another, especially a man. Artemis was the fullest representation of these characteristics.

Any Christian community will deal with the false gods and goddesses of the non-Christian culture that surrounds it.

Though childless, Artemis was a caregiver to women and babies. In one legend, Artemis was born a day before her twin brother, Apollo. And she helped her mother give birth to him. This began her role as the protector of women in childbirth. Ironically, she was also the goddess of disease and sudden death of infants and children.[6]

Finally, she was well known for her elaborate attire. In her temple, both male priests and female priestesses served her. Interestingly, there’s some evidence that only eunuchs (castrated males) were allowed to serve.[7]

While we can’t be sure how much influence the Artemis cult had on Christians in Ephesus, it’s safe to say some was inevitable. Any Christian community will deal with the false gods and goddesses of the non-Christian culture that surrounds it. This is still the case today, even for idols that aren’t physically made by human hands.

Gnosticism in Ephesus

As troublesome as Artemis may have been for the Ephesians, there may have been something even more dangerous because of its subtlety. The text of 1 Timothy itself seems to suggest that the nature of the false teaching that concerned Paul was an early form of Gnosticism.

What is Gnosticism?
Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which is translated “knowledge.” This system of belief was based on the idea of secret knowledge that could be discovered by personal experience.

Built upon various ideas from Greek philosophy, Gnosticism ramped up in the first century, then found significant momentum in the second through fourth centuries. Paul’s letter to Timothy was written sometime in the mid AD 60s. If there was a Gnostic influence (and I’ll show below I think it’s reasonable to say there was), it was in primitive form.

There wasn’t a single gnostic movement. There were varieties and each gnostic leader/group had their own particular beliefs. Gnosticism as a whole, however, had three foundational beliefs:[8]

  1. God is transcendent but not immanent. God is not intimately involved in creation in any way. He only interacts with humanity through good and evil intermediaries. Christ was considered a “good” intermediary.
  2. Salvation is enlightenment. To be saved means to ascend to a specialized knowledge only available to a select few. Salvation is freedom from enslavement to the defiled, material body and deliverance into a pure spiritual existence. Obtaining gnosis means you are a member of the spiritual elite. These people are related via an endless string of divine genealogy.[9]
  3. Life is defined by dualism. The spiritual is good; all material is evil. Gnostics believed that the material universe was not created by God but by another, lesser being. They’d argue that the physical body was not their “real self.” Thus some excused indulging in all physical pleasures. But others practiced asceticism (avoidance of pleasure) because they believe they were liberated from material life into pure spiritual consciousness.

This false teaching snuck into the church in various forms and the apostles dealt with it in various letters. Many of the church fathers refuted Gnostic teaching.

Gnosticism doesn’t seem so subtle to us today. It’s quite obvious it’s false! But we’ve had 2,000 of history to work out our theology. You can buy any systematic theology book you want on Amazon right now. The first and second generations of Christians didn’t have this luxury. False doctrines spread easily then. But does Paul refute Gnosticism in 1 Timothy?

Let’s find out.

Does Paul Refute Gnosticism in 1 Timothy?
You may think all of this is fascinating information but nothing more than a clever way to distract from those boldfaced words, “I do not permit…” I assure you I’m not trying to distract you in the least. The religious context of the first century will help us better understand our passage.

It seems clear to me that the text of 1 Timothy reveals Paul is dealing with an early form of Gnostic heresy.

It seems clear to me that the text of 1 Timothy reveals Paul is dealing with an early form of Gnostic heresy. His emphasis on combatting this false teaching stretches across the letter and should inform how we interpret everything.

Paul mentions five problems in 1 Timothy 1:3-7 that would come to represent later Gnostic belief: false teaching, myths/genealogies, causing people to leave the faith, meaningless/vain talk, and misuse of the law.[10]

In 1 Timothy 2:5, Paul writes, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” Why does he point this out? Yes, because he’s talking about prayer. But is it perhaps because Christ is not simply a “good intermediary,” as the Gnostics taught? He’s not one of numerous aeons.[11] He is the one mediator who connects humanity to God.

In 3:16, Paul records an early credal formation. He affirms the incarnation and Jesus’ vindication by the spirit (probably a reference to his baptism). Then what of his reference to angels? To modern eyes, this is so random. But against the backdrop of pre-Gnostic beliefs threatening the church, it makes perfect sense. Paul affirms the goodness of the material world (Jesus came in the flesh) and affirms angels are witnesses–not divine intermediaries–of the one Mediator, the God-Man Jesus Christ.[12]

In 4:1-8, we see the most obvious defense against Gnostic belief. Paul says “deceiving spirits” are leading people astray (v 1). The false teachers advocated for asceticism by forbidding marriage and ordering the abstention of certain foods (v 3). They also spread myths to the gullible (v 7). These are classic marks of Gnostic belief and practice.

Paul rejects all this and affirms God created everything good. The material world can be received with thanksgiving (v 4). He later reiterates that creation is for our enjoyment in 6:17. Creation is not sanctified, and thus enjoyed, by secret knowledge; humans don’t need to escape it either. It can be received and enjoyed through the word of God and prayer (4:5).

In this same section, Paul reminds Timothy to be trained in godliness–in opposition to the Gnostic’s “spiritual knowledge.” Interestingly, Paul also affirms some value in physical training (v 8). It’s not the focus of the verse. But that’s a strange thing to include in a letter when ink and papyrus were at a premium, unless there were false teachers who preached that the physical body wasn’t real or important. Could that be why Paul mentioned it?

Finally, Paul ends his letter with the most explicit clue. In 6:20-21, he writes, “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge [Gk gnosis], which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith.”

This early Christian heresy wasn’t known as the full-fledged system “Gnosticism.” But clearly people were susceptible to a “secret spiritual knowledge.” Paul’s concern for Timothy’s own salvation (see 4:16) probably shows the pervasiveness of this false teaching.[13]

All of this leads me to believe there is a significant probability that Gnosticism was the heresy that plagued the Ephesian church.[14]

But what does all this have to do with Paul prohibiting women from teaching and leading?

The Gnostic Adam and Eve
In 1945, dozens of Gnostic texts were discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Several contain alternative details of the Adam and Eve narrative.[15] This is relevant because Paul’s summarizes their story in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 (and possibly v 15, according to some people).

To Gnostics, Eve is superior to Adam. She is powerful while Adam is passive and, it seems, quite clueless. Eve gives life to Adam, and she is the one who teaches him.

In these Gnostic texts, Adam and Eve were not historical figures but representative of different human realities. The soul, represented by Adam, was the embodiment of personality. The spirit, represented by Eve, was the capacity for spiritual consciousness. Since the material world was evil, the soul was inferior to the spirit.

Thus to Gnostics, Eve is superior to Adam.[16] She is powerful while Adam is passive and, it seems, quite clueless. Eve gives life to Adam,[17] and she is the one who teaches him.[18]

These Gnostic texts were written well after Paul’s lifetime. Could these these ideas have been in the minds of Ephesians in AD 65? Yes, since religious systems take time to develop. It’s almost certain that the beliefs and stories in these texts were circulating in primitive form well before they were written down.

Because Paul was probably refuting Gnostic teaching in 1 Timothy, I think we have reason to believe what Paul spoke against also included the Gnostic versions of Adam and Eve. I’ll come back to this in my commentary in the next post.

Summing It All Up

The first-generation Christian community in Ephesus was vulnerable as false teachers tried to cloud orthodox teaching with false worship and heretical ideas. I’ve tried to show that both the worship of Artemis and pre-Gnostic teaching were major obstacles for the Ephesian church.

While Artemis isn’t mentioned by name in 1 Timothy, we know from Acts and secular history that Ephesus was the global hub for her cult. Though Gnostic teaching wasn’t fully developed as a system until the second through fourth centuries, many of its core beliefs are directly refuted throughout Paul’s letter.

Paul didn’t need to spell these things out specifically because both he and Timothy would have understood the cultural issues in their personal correspondence. We are the ones who have to work to put these pieces together.

Knowing this history is vital if we want to make sense of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 without doing some kind of interpretive gymnastics. The next post will be a commentary on the text that takes these cultural clues into consideration.


Notes

Feature photo: A model of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

[1] Not only has the passage been debated, but so has the entire book of 1 Timothy. For those who haven’t done formal study of theology, you may not know that there are some people who do not believe Paul wrote 1 Timothy. Some of the vocabulary and phrasing is different than in Paul’s other letters. I do believe he wrote it, but that he probably used a scribe he trusted and to whom he gave a lot of freedom in choosing what to say. Luke would be a good candidate for this. But that’s beyond this post, and we’ll have to set that matter aside for now.

[2] Acts 19-20 suggest that Ephesus had a large Jewish population. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus later confirmed this, see Against Apion 2.4.

[3] “Artemis,” Encyclopaedia Britannica; “Artemis,” World History Encyclopedia.

[4] “The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus,” World History Encyclopedia.

[5] Musing on how she received her name, Plato, Cratylus 400d & 406a, writes, “Let us inquire what thought men had in giving them [the gods] their names…possibly, too, that she hates sexual intercourse (aroton misei) of man and woman.” Found here.

[6] See many quotes from Homer about this here. Here’s one example: “Zeus has made you [Artemis] a lion among women, and given you leave to kill any at your pleasure.” Homer, Iliad 21, 480.

[7] James O. Smith, “The High Priests of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus,” Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M.J. Vermaseren (New York: Leiden, 1996), 323ff.

[8] The term Gnosticism was first used in the 1600s by philosopher Henry More. See “Gnosticism,” Encyclopedia Britannica. For a very helpful summary of gnosticism, see Gervase N. Charmley, “Gnosticism,” Banner of Truth, 3/22/2016.

[9] Edward Moore, “Gnosticism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[10] Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009),, 298.

[11] In Gnostic thought, an aeon is a being from the order of spirits that emanated from the Godhead. Paul’s word about Christ as the Mediator between God and humanity squashes any teaching about him being “one of” many in a divine order of spirits.

[12] Compare Peter’s words about angels in 1 Pet 1:12.

[13] Marg Mowczko, “The Consensus and Context of 1 Timothy 2:12,” 7/2/2014.

[14] It’s also fascinating to note that 1 John, which scholars almost unanimously agree was written to combat Gnosticism, was written from Ephesus to churches in and around Ephesus. See Donald W. Burdick, 1 John, NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), on BibleGateway.com.

[15] For a very helpful summary with links to all of these texts see Marg Mowczko, “Adam and Eve in Ancient Gnostic Literature and 1 Timothy 2:13-14,” 3/9/2015. I’m thankful for Marg’s work here and I’m standing on her shoulders.

[16] Stephan A. Hoeller, “The Genesis Factor,” Quest (September 1997). Hoeller is an ordained priest in the Gnostic church.

[17] The Hypostasis of the Archons, “And the spirit-endowed woman came to him and spoke with him, saying, “Arise, Adam.” And when he saw her, he said, “It is you who have given me life; you will be called ‘mother of the living’.” On the Origin of the World, “After the day of rest, Sophia sent her daughter Zoe, being called Eve, as an instructor, in order that she might make Adam, who had no soul, arise, so that those whom he should engender might become containers of light. When Eve saw her male counterpart prostrate, she had pity upon him, and she said, ‘Adam! Become alive! Arise upon the earth!’ Immediately her word became accomplished fact. For Adam, having arisen, suddenly opened his eyes. When he saw her, he said, ‘You shall be called ‘Mother of the Living’. For it is you who have given me life.'”

[18] Apocalypse of Adam, “She taught me [Adam] a word of knowledge of the eternal God. And we resembled the great eternal angels, for we were higher than the god who had created us and the powers with him, whom we did not know.” See also the Apocryphon of John, “[S]he assists the whole creature, by toiling with him and by restoring him to his fullness and by teaching him about the descent of his seed (and) by teaching him about the way of ascent, (which is) the way he came down.” In the Apocryphon of John, Eve is called “Zoe.” Both names mean “life.”

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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

Why 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Isn’t a Universal Restriction on Women in the Church

A lengthy and detailed post is coming on 1 Timothy 2:11-15–the most controversial in the conversation text on women’s roles in the church. It will probably be the longest post yet in the series.

Because it could be overwhelming to read all at once, here’s a short outline of the reasons why I believe 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is not a transcultural restriction on woman. I hope seeing a summary beforehand helps you digest the longer post.

Maybe some of you prefer the bullet point style anyway. If that’s you, enjoy.

I have seven reasons from the text itself, followed by five big-picture questions to consider.

7 Reasons 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Is Not a Transcultural Restriction on Women

  1. The only command in the entire section is in verse 11 when Paul says, “A woman should learn” or “Let a woman learn.” We tend to focus on the prohibition (the short-term solution). But Paul’s long-term solution is on learning to avoid deception (the problem in Ephesus). The implication is once the woman has learned properly, she would be eligible to teach.
  2. The woman ought to be humble and teachable as she learns. That’s what the Greek word translated “quietness” (v 11) and “quiet” (v 12) means. It has nothing to do with verbal silence. This aligns well with point #3.
  3. The Greek word authentein (“exercise authority,” v 12 ESV) is not a legitimate, positive use of authority. It is rather a misuse of authority, better translated as “dominate” or “domineer.” The problem was likely a woman who was teaching in a domineering way or with the intent to dominate a man (probably her husband).
  4. Epitrepō, the verb Paul uses for “I do not permit” (ESV, NIV), is a present, active, indicative, which never has the force of universal applications in the NT. It would be better translated, “I am not [currently] allowing.”
  5. Epitrepō is not a forceful word used to make a command. Paul uses other words to command/urge/charge Timothy in other parts of the letter.
  6. The use of the singular “a woman” and “a man” (vv 11, 12) and “she” (v 15) in Greek suggest the possibility that Paul writes about one particular woman who is being domineering and disruptive in Ephesus.
  7. Verses 13-14 do not “root Paul’s argument in the order of creation,” as complementarians argue. Instead, I believe Paul corrects false gnostic teaching that Eve was created first and Adam was the first sinner. Possibly, the problem woman was spreading and/or believing this lie. (See also question #3 below.) Verse 15 is also related to correcting false teaching. (You will want to read the next post for more on why I think this!)

5 Big Picture Questions to Consider

Some of these have been mentioned in previous posts, but are worth reconsidering.

  1. Are we prepared to say that the other statements from Paul about church behavior in 1 Timothy 2 are also normative for all time (i.e. transcultural)? Must all men lift their hands when praying (v 8)? Are women not allowed to wear jewelry or expensive clothes (vv 9-10)?
  2. Related to #1, Paul often tells other churches/people to do things that are not binding on all other churches. Why is 1 Tim 2 different than any other situation, especially considering the textual evidence above?
  3. If complementarians maintain verses 13-14 prove “order of creation” is the foundation for specific gender roles in ministry, what do we make of Jesus’ words “the first shall be last and the last first?” What also are we to make of the countless times the Bible overturns the created order (Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his brothers, David over his brothers, Jacob blessing Manasseh over Ephraim, Paul pointing out man’s dependence on woman in 1 Cor 11:11-12, etc.)? “Order of creation” is not a value God seems to care about all that much.
  4. If Paul did not allow any women to exercise any legitimate authority over men, what do we make of Priscilla (who taught Apollos), Junia (who was called an apostle), Phoebe (who was a deacon/minister), and the many other women Paul worked alongside? Are we really to believe Phoebe, a deacon (Rom 16:1), held no authority of any kind over any man?
  5. If a woman today was not domineering, but humble, mature, and had the knowledge and ability to teach and lead in a local church, how would the cause of the gospel be harmed if she actually taught and led?

You probably have questions. Maybe even a hundred. I’ll have a lot more to say in the next post and will do my best to fill in the gaps. For now, I hope this whets your appetite and prepares you to process the forthcoming (complete) post on 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

Interlude: When is a Teaching Cultural or Transcultural?

It seems like a good time to address the question, “How do we know if a command applies to all Christians for all time or just to the original situation?”

You’ll see shades of this in my post on 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Watch out for that in the next day or so.

First things first: 1 Timothy is a personal letter from Paul to his protégé Timothy. Paul’s goal is to encourage Timothy to combat false teaching and preach the true gospel. He also wants to help this young minister work through some tough situations. Chapter 2 tells us about a few of them.

Because of the personal nature of the letter, we should hesitate to see any specific instructions as binding for all cultures in all times simply because it’s in the New Testament.

Beyond this, here are a few principles that can help us know if this section (or any Bible passage) is culture-bound (limited to the original audience) or transcultural (meaning a text is applicable to all cultures for all time). New Testament scholar Grant Osborne helps us out here. I’ll summarize a few points from his article, “Hermeneutics and Women in the Church,” quoting him to begin each point:[1]

  1. “Teaching that transcends the cultural biases of the author and his readers will be normative.” In other words, if a teaching stands in opposition to the wider culture, it’s likely transcultural. In 1 Timothy 2, the restriction on women reflects the cultural norms of the day. So, we’ll need to look at the context to ask ourselves why this restriction is put in place.
  2. “If a command is wholly tied to a cultural situation that is not timeless in itself, it will probably be a temporary application rather than eternal norm.” I’ll make the case in my post that Timothy was dealing with a specific, cultural situation (false teaching in Ephesus) and a disruptive woman causing problems in the church. His specific situation isn’t the same as every minister’s, so it’s likely that Paul’s command is also specific to Timothy.
  3. “Those commands that have proven detrimental to the cause of Christ in later cultures must be reinterpreted.” This doesn’t mean we neglect a command because the present culture opposes it! But it does means we must look closer at the abstract principle embedded within the practice of the original culture.

Related to number three, in his book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, William Webb (see note 1) talks a lot about the “ladder of abstraction.” By that, he means every text expresses itself in the original culture in concrete terms. But the further away we are from that situation and culture, we need to “move up” the ladder of abstraction to find the abstract principle that’s behind the concrete expression.

Let’s take a neutral example: “Greet each other with a holy kiss” (2 Cor 13:12). Kissing as a greeting, even for men, was common in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. In fact, it’s still common today in parts of the world.

The concrete expression of kissing is rooted in the abstract principle of being welcoming to each other. Thus every community of faith must answer for themselves, “How can we concretely express a warm welcome to each other?”

I’d argue that to literally obey 1 Corinthians 13:12 (that is, kiss the people who walk into your church) would actually mean you violate the text. If you actually greeted people with a kiss, no one would feel welcome and they would not stick around for the worship service! Why? It’s repulsive in our Western culture today. (Not to mention Covid-19.)

Now that’s a silly example we’d all agree on. But I hope it gives you some insight into how culture influences biblical application. Not to mention why application isn’t as simple as your Bible app devo makes it out to be.


Notes

[1] Grant R. Osborne, “Hermeneutics and Women in the Church,” JETS 20 (1977), 339-340. You should know that Osborne taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, an Evangelical Free Church seminary, a conservative denomination. The “Free Church,” as it’s been called, is devoted to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Osborne could hardly be labeled as a “liberal scholar” who’s unfaithful to the Bible. See also William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 161ff. If you are interested in the issue of gender roles in Scripture, Webb is a must-read.

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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

Prominent Women in the Life and Ministry of Paul

Like Jesus, Paul made it a point to include women in his ministry. He worked alongside them. He acknowledged them in his letters. He even commended their leadership to others. This post will be an overview of those women.

The goal of this post is simple. I want to show that Paul’s ministry alongside women should be the starting point for our discussion of gender roles rather than the restrictive passages. After all, there are only two such passages: 1 Tim 2:11-15 and 1 Cor 14:34-35. And the next two posts will cover those texts.

I am convinced that when we start with how Paul ministered with women and how he actually talked about them, we will be able to see the restrictive passages in a different light.

To put it differently: when we start with Paul’s endorsement of women in leadership, we can acknowledge that he may mean something other than an absolute, universal restriction of women teaching and leading men.

When we start with how Paul ministered with women and how he actually talked about them, we will be able to see the restrictive passages in a different light.

If we start with the restrictive passages, we will need to explain away the fact that Paul endorses and commends women in leadership throughout his letters.

Women and House Churches

Paul mentions several women who hosted churches in their homes.[1] Here’s a rundown:

  • Lydia, in Philippi, started following Jesus after hearing Paul preach (Acts 16:13-15). She hosted Paul and his missionary team in her home after converting. Later in that same chapter, we find her hosting a church in her home (Acts 16:40).
  • In 1 Corinthians 1:11, Paul writes, “My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.” The phrase “Chloe’s household” (or “Chloe’s people,” ESV) probably indicates Chloe hosted a house church in Corinth.
  • Paul sends the Corinthians greetings from Priscilla and her husband Aquilla “and so does the church that meets at their house” (1 Cor 16:19). See the next section for more on Priscilla.
  • Paul asks the Colossians to greet “Nympha and the church in her house” (Col 4:15).
  • In his letter to Philemon, Paul also addresses the letter “to Apphia, our sister” (Phm 2) along with a man named Archippus. Some scholars speculate that Apphia may have been Philemon’s wife. Whatever the case, Paul recognized her publicly in the church that met in Philemon’s house.

What does hosting a house church have to do with women in leadership? A lot actually.

In the ancient world, a distinction was made between the public sphere and the home.[2] Men ruled the public sphere; women ruled the home sphere. Women were in charge of the home’s general oversight, managing the finances, raising children, and directing and disciplining servants and slaves. This structure existed in Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures.

In a patriarchal world, we’d expect these new Christian churches to meet outside the home, where men ruled. It was quite revolutionary–and risky–to meet in the woman’s domain. What would outsiders think? It didn’t matter; the gospel leveled the playing field. This was one way the early church gave credibility and authority to women.[3]

When Paul mentions these women who hosted house churches, he does not call them pastors or elders or bishops. But he never does that with the men who host churches, either.

Just because someone hosted a church in their home did not make them a “pastor.” Nor did it automatically mean they were a leader of some kind. The New Testament doesn’t give us these details.

But in the cultural context, it’s unlikely that those who were “heads of household” and hosted a community in their home would not be a recognized leader that community.[4] These “hosts” would have been seen as overseers, organizers, patrons (financial providers), and, yes, teachers and leaders.[5]

Paul doesn’t need to label them because it would have been understood that they were one of the leaders in that community (remember all early church leadership was plural). They were a significant part of the gospel expanding through the Empire and that’s why Paul mentions them by name in his letters. So significant that he calls many of them his “co-workers” (e.g. Priscilla in Rom 16:3).

While these female hosts are never called “elders,” there is reason to believe that in his earlier letters Paul referred to them as “those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you” (1 Thes 5:12). It wasn’t until his later letters that Paul began calling house church hosts “overseers” or “bishops” (see Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3:1).[6]

The Woman Who Taught a Man

Let’s zoom in on Priscilla, one of the house church leaders. In the six times Priscilla and her husband Aquila’s names are paired together (Acts 18:18, 19, 26; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19), Priscilla’s name is first five times. This may mean she was the recognized or more natural leader or the more prominent speaker. We can’t know for sure.

Either way, Paul considered this woman an astounding minister of the gospel, even calling her his “co-worker” (Rom 16:3) a term he used for men like Timothy (1 Thess 3:2) and Titus (2 Cor 8:23).

Priscilla is most well-known for being the one woman in the New Testament who explicitly taught a man Christian theology.

Priscilla and her husband met a gifted missionary named Apollos. After hearing him preach, they noticed he needed further instruction to understand the way of Jesus more accurately (Acts 18:26). Apollos knew Jesus but had not heard of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. So the couple taught him privately to fill in the gaps.

It’s safe to say this was not the only time Priscilla did this kind of thing.

If Paul were so concerned that a woman should never teach a man, why wouldn’t he have corrected Priscilla? If Paul were concerned that Aquila, the man, was not leading his wife properly, why didn’t Paul call him out?

The three of them were together frequently, even building and selling tents together (see Acts 18:3). Because they’re mentioned so often in Paul’s letters, it’s clear they were dear friends. Surely there was opportunity to discuss this issue! 

What’s more, if gender roles were so important to the New Testament authors, especially Paul, wouldn’t that conversation have made it into a book–at some point–to clear up the matter? Paul’s confrontation of Peter’s ethnic discrimination makes it in (see Gal 2). Why not this?

Priscilla was living-out her God-given role as a teacher in the church.

Scripture never records anything because Paul never corrected Priscilla and Aquila. They were never in violation of any universal rule about gender roles in ministry. In teaching a man, Priscilla was doing exactly what God had called and gifted her to do.

Here’s the complementarian objection: But Priscilla taught Apollos privately, not in corporate worship! I used to argue this way. But now I see things differently.

If gender roles are grounded in “creation order,” as the complementarian argument goes, then does it really matter if the teaching is public or private?

Why did Priscilla and Aquila instruct Apollos privately? It was so that this fantastic, young preacher would not be publicly shamed or discouraged. It also kept his audience from doubting his character, ability, or giftedness.

Priscilla was living out her God-given role as a teacher in the church. Apollos benefited and continued his itinerant ministry of spreading the gospel to those who needed it (see Acts 18:27-28)

Paul’s Female Co-Workers

There are other women Paul refers to in his letters. While he uses different titles or descriptions for them, it’s obvious that they have some leadership in the church.

In Philippians, Paul wanted two women leaders named Euodia and Synteche to restore their fractured relationship (Phil 4:2-3). He said “have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers” (my emphasis).

Whatever role these women had, Paul bestowed on them the precious title of “co-workers” in ministry.

Then there’s Romans 16, the chapter that commends more women in ministry than any other.

Romans is often considered Paul’s greatest and most significant epistle. His magnum opus, if you will. The thing about Romans that gets overlooked is Paul’s devotion to bridging the divide between Jews and Gentiles. It’s probably not a coincidence that in Romans 16, as Paul ended his letter, he included a hefty roll call of twenty-nine Jewish and Gentile co-workers.

It’s also not an accident, in my opinion, that there are nine women mentioned in Romans 16.[7] This is yet another subversive way that Paul upended the patriarchal structures found in Jewish and Greek/Roman cultures.

I’m going to spotlight two of these women: Phoebe and Junia. I’ll provide a summary of my perspective and relevant observations, though both women deserve chapter-length posts on their own.

Phoebe

The first woman in the list is Phoebe. Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, [who is] a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me” (Rom 16:1-2, NIV).

In just two verses, Phoebe is identified as a deacon, a courier, and a benefactor. That’s some resume! What’s the significance of these terms?

Wouldn’t calling Phoebe a “minister” (or “deacon”) change the way you view her?

First, Phoebe was a deacon. The Greek word diakonon (the female form for “servant” or “deacon” in English) could be a general term for a Christian worker, which Paul sometimes used for himself and others (e.g. Col 1:7; 4:7).

But there’s a translation issue. The ESV translates diakonon as “servant” here in Romans 16:1. But in Colossians 4:7, when referring to Tychicus (a man) who delivered Paul’s letter to the Colossians, the ESV translates the exact same word as “minister.”[8]

Wouldn’t calling Phoebe a “minister” (or “deacon”) change the way you view her?

Furthermore, because this word diakonon is paired with the Greek verb eimi (translated “who is” in the brackets above), it’s probably a formal title denoting an official leadership role.

So she is “Minister Phoebe,” or “Deaconness Phoebe,” if you prefer.

Second, she was a courier. This word isn’t in the text, but Paul’s commendation of Phoebe is his way of saying, “I’m sending my letter with Phoebe and I trust you’ll receive her as you’d receive me.”

In the ancient world, couriers were more than our modern postal workers (no offense USPS!). Not only did couriers brave long and dangerous journeys to deliver important documents. They also had the role of answering questions about the letter they carried so the recipients understood it.

If couriers did not function as teachers or expositors, they were at least “authoritative interpreters” of the author’s intent and meaning.[9]

This means Paul entrusted a woman to help the Romans understand his magnum opus. That’d be mind-blowing in his day.

So Phoebe serves as Paul’s interpreter to the Roman church.

Finally, she was a benefactor. Paul used the Greek word prostatis to describe Phoebe. The word can mean “patron”–someone who helps fund a strategic project.

But this word also has clear leadership connotations. Its verbal form is used to describe church leader activity in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 and 1 Timothy 5:17. It carries the meaning of guardianship or even “to be over” others.

Phoebe is likely a church leader and a wealthy businesswoman who helped fund Paul’s ministry and the early Christian movement in general.

So Phoebe is a leader, guardian, and financial supporter of the movement.

It seems far-fetched to imagine that the same Paul who commended Minister Phoebe to the Romans would also say that all women everywhere cannot teach or lead men.

Junia…the Apostle?

Junia is a mystery of sorts, and has been the center of much debate for a while now.

In verse 7, Paul writes, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (NIV).

Paul asks the Roman church to pass on his greetings to two people, likely a married couple, who are “outstanding among the apostles.”

Some complementarians argue that Junia was actually a man–that her name was actually the masculine Junias.[10] But the male name Junias is not found in any ancient document–not one![11] Kenneth Bailey, an expert in Middle Eastern culture, comments, “The male name Junias first appeared in the Middle East in 1860!”[12]

Most of the early church fathers took the name Junia to be a woman. Marg Mowckzo has compiled a helpful list of what the fathers said about Junia.[13]

One of the more clear explanations is from John Chrysostom, the fourth century, Greek-speaking father. He believed Junia was a woman and an apostle: “To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been, that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.”[14]

For all these reasons, despite some complementarian pushback, the majority of scholars today believe Junia was a woman.

Now, was Chrysostom right about Junia being an apostle? The NIV says, “They are outstanding among the apostles.” Translated this way, she’s “one of” the apostles. It’s like saying, “Among the quarterbacks on the team, he’s the strongest.”

But we have another translation issue. The very small word that sparks a very big problem is the Greek word en: “They are outstanding among (Gk en) the apostles.”

The ESV obscures this meaning by translating en differently. It says, “They are well to the apostles.” This obviously would mean Junia was not an apostle, but that the apostles were well-acquainted with her.

En occurs over 2,000 times in the New Testament! It’s a flexible Greek preposition that can be translated into many English words. But complementarian scholar Doug Moo says that the most likely translation is “among.”[15] The renowned New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce says the same.[16]

Marg Mowczko points out that Paul connects Andronicus and Junia to himself three times: 1) they are fellow Jews; 2) they’ve been imprisoned with him; 3) they were in Christ before him. It makes sense to see Paul connecting the couple to himself again by saying they are well-known “among the apostles,” which includes himself. But well-known “to the apostles…sounds as though the couple is known to a group of apostles or missionaries who are somewhat distant.”[17]

I’m comfortable affirming that Junia, a woman, was an apostle.

When I consider all this along with how Chrysostom and other church fathers saw Junia (see note 14), I’m comfortable affirming that Junia, a woman, was an apostle.

Now, what kind of an apostle was she? The Greek word apostolos generically means “messenger.” But when used in relation to a person, it always refers to eyewitnesses to the resurrection who had received a commission from him.[18] Since Andronicus and Junia were Jews who were believers before Paul, we have every reason to believe they were apostles in this sense.

We should not underestimate the significance of Paul identifying this woman as an apostle.

But we shouldn’t overestimate it either. It doesn’t settle the whole gender debate. It’s a major data point. But it’s just one. Rena Pederson is right about Junia when she says, “Her story is not some kind of ‘magic bullet’ to resolve all differences about women’s roles in the church, but it is certainly one more good reason to challenge the status quo.”[19]

One goal of this entire project is to help you feel the freedom to challenge the status quo.

Summing It All Up

None of these women is a magic bullet. They aren’t objects to be used to advance an agenda–even a worthy one. Men have been using women to advance agendas for far too long. Instead, taken together, the stories of these women are a beautiful tapestry that reveals how progressive early Christianity really was against its cultural backdrop.

We’ve looked at many prominent women who crossed paths with Paul. Paul welcomed women to partner with him as servants of the Lord Jesus, often calling them his “co-workers,” as he did male counterparts. He was consistent in speaking about women in celebratory, uplifting ways.

In the patriarchal world of the first century, we should expect Paul’s male co-workers like Timothy, Barnabas, Silas, and Titus to be more visible throughout the New Testament. But the simple fact that there were women who worked with and were commended by Paul should cause us to rethink our own patriarchal biases in the church today.

It’s easy to prioritize the restrictive passages from Paul. But how he interacted with and spoke about women should be the starting point for our conversation on gender roles.

Now, you may be wondering, Why haven’t I heard about all these women before? A part of that answer surely has to be that complementarians wouldn’t benefit from drawing attention to them. To give women the same status and authority these New Testament women had would cause upheaval in many evangelical churches.

With the last two posts in mind, I’ll now tackle the most controversial passage on gender roles, 1 Timothy 2:11-15.


Notes

Feature photo: “St. Paul Staying in the House of Aquila and His Wife Priscillaengraving by J. Sadeler after Jodocus Winghe (c. 1544-1603).

[1] We don’t know much about what house churches were like because the New Testament just assumes that’s the normal form of church. It’s likely that many churches, including the ones in this list, were hosted in the homes of wealthier people because of the size needed to gather. Even the largest homes could probably only hold between 20-50 people. A poorer household would simply not be able to fit that many people. Because of a home environment, wide participation would have been encouraged. There would not have been one man standing in front of this small group to deliver a 45-minute sermon. As Kevin Giles points out, it would have been quite awkward for someone to be “out in front” leading a group of 20 people! See my last post for more on this. For a very insightful article on house churches and women, see Kevin Giles, “House Churches,” Priscilla Papers 24/1, 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Women were especially drawn to Christianity because if offered them a life that was so greatly superior to the life they otherwise would have led.” See Rodney Stark, The Triumph Of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 122.

[4] “Female house church leaders, it is important to add, were the counterparts of male house church leaders. They had the same social standing, they were accorded the same respect at home, and their leadership was of the same kind. It is simply not possible in that society that, when the church met, these women were subordinated to the men present, most or all of whom would have been of lesser social standing and wealth than they were, and some of them their servants and slaves.” See Giles, “House Churches.”

[5] For more on this, read “House Churches” by Giles. See also Marg Mowczko, “Must Manage His Own Household Well (1 Timothy 3:4-5),” Marg Mowczko blog, 6/23/2018; and Marg Mowczko, “Chrysostom on 5 Women Church Leaders in the NT,” Marg Mowczko blog, 6/10/2020.

[6] This is a theory proposed by Giles. It makes sense if we consider the timing of Paul’s writings. Remember that even Paul worked out his ecclesiology (“doctrine of the church”) progressively. Not everything was sorted out that day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. We lose sight of this when we read the Bible in our modern, non-chronological format.

[7] This list in Romans 16 deserves a post all its own. Thankfully, Marg Mowczko has already written it. See Marg Mowczko, “A List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1-16,” Marg Mowczko blog (5/18/20190).

[8] Why the difference in translating diakonon? What’s gained by using different words about two people who both delivered letters of Paul? I believe there is a reason and I hope to include an interlude post soon about the ESV’s gender translation problems.

[9] Ian Paul, “Phoebe, carrier of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians,” Psephizo blog, 12/1/2012.

[10] Thank link will take you to Kevin DeYoung, “Let Us Reason Together About Complementarianism,” TGC Blog, 5/26/2021. DeYoung has become one of the more vocal complementarian voices recently. In an earlier article, I talked about how complementarians don’t so much believe in biblical inerrancy as much as the inerrancy of their interpretations. We see this clearly in DeYoung’s introduction: “[W]e want to be humble before the Lord and before each other, acknowledging that we can make interpretive mistakes. On the other hand, we don’t want to undermine practical biblical authority by declaring that all we have are ‘interpretations.'” Framing his article this way puts the reader in a tough spot. If I disagree with something he says, I’m “undermining practical biblical authority” because I see an issue (a secondary issue, mind you) differently than he does. Unfortunately, this is how complementarians have argued for decades, causing Christians to fear even the thought that there may be other viable options for a Christian understanding gender roles.

[11] Marg Mowczko, “Junias and Junia in Early Commentaries of Romans 16:7,” Marg Mowczko blog, 4/2/2010.

[12] Kenneth E. Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” Theology Matters 6/1 (2000), 4. 

[13] Marg Mowczko, “Junia in Romans 16:7,” Marg Mowczko blog, 4/2/2010.

[14] John Chrysostom, Homily 31 on Romans.” Chrysostom’s native language was Greek and even though he limited women in some settings, he certainly understood Paul’s words to mean that Junia was an apostle. Also, Craig Keener, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), on BibleGateway.com, notes, that Junia was a “feminine Latin name that normally belonged to Roman citizens. (Against some, it cannot be a contraction of the masculine ‘Junianus’; not only is this contraction not attested, but it does not work for Latin names. Thus ancient interpreters understood her as a woman.” See also, “Who was Junia?” The Junia Project, which notes, “More recently, scholars have overwhelmingly acknowledged that the name is definitively feminine.”

[15] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 923. “With a plural object, en often means ‘among’; and if Paul had wanted to say that Andronicus and Junia were esteemed ‘by’ the apostles, we would have expected him to use a simple dative or hupo with the genitive.”

[16] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 272.

[17] Marg Mowczko, “Was Junia well known ‘to’ the apostles?,” Marg Mowczko blog, 11/29/2019

[18] Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” comments that because the Twelve disciples, Barnabas (Acts 14:14), and Paul are the only ones who are called apostles in the New Testament, “[T]he title of apostle (as applied to Junia) cannot be seen as a casual reference to an insignificant early Christian witness.”

[19] Rena Pederson, “Paul Praises a Woman Apostle,” CBE International Academic Articles.

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

How Paul Helped Elevate the Status of Women

Few people, outside of Jesus, are more celebrated, dissected, and scoffed at than the Apostle Paul. When it comes to gender roles in the church, this is especially true. Historian Beth Allison Barr, in her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, notes many of her students often say, “I hate Paul!”[1] because of how Christians have understood his take on women. 

But what if Paul wasn’t anti-woman, but very much pro-woman? What if he didn’t seek to restrict women, but free them? What if he didn’t seek to silence them but to empower them to speak the wonders of the gospel? What if he partnered with them, as he did with men, to get to the gospel to the ends of the earth? 

This post begins a series of posts on Paul and specific texts he wrote that deal with women. In the first two posts, I’ll give an overview of how Paul viewed and interacted with women. This post will look at the environment Paul ministered in and how two elements of his theology elevated women. The next will highlight several of the women we meet in Paul’s ministry and letters.

The goal is to help us see that Paul was not universally restrictive of women, contrary to what most complementarian theologians teach. In certain places, it sure seems like Paul was quite hard on women! I will address those texts specifically. But when we look at the bigger picture of Paul’s theology and ministry we’ll see a different story.

What if Paul wasn’t anti-woman, but very much pro-woman?

Let’s start with a glance at Paul’s environment and its view of women. 

An Open Door for the Liberation of Women

Paul lived in the Roman Empire in the middle of the first century AD. Roman culture and its philosophy was “thoroughly grounded in the tradition of Greek philosophy.”[2] Aristotle (d. 322 BC) was one of the most influential philosophers. 

In Politics, he suggests a sociological structure for the state. And he has quite a bit to say about women. In one place, he writes, “[T]he relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled.” A bit later, “The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.”[3]

It’s impossible to know if Aristotle’s words were floating around in the minds of the average Roman citizen in the first century. But his influence goes without saying. It’s more than likely that these degrading ideas about women permeated Roman thought. 

As a friend of mine (a PhD in philosophy) commented recently, “Greek philosophy, in general, was in the drinking water of the [Roman] culture.”

Even with this Greek influence, a woman’s place in the Roman world was a mixed bag. Yes, they were often mistreated, abused, and given in marriage far too young (and without choice).[4] To the Romans, a woman’s role was to support her husband, birth babies, and manage the home.[5] 

But there were positive developments. Roman women had much more freedom than Greek women. They were not meant to be invisible and completely relegated to the domestic sphere (like in Greece).[6] They could own property or a business, inherit an estate, make a will, and even buy and sell slaves. 

By God’s sovereign design, this subtle, positive shift served as a launching pad for the church to give prominence and authority to women unlike anything before.

Two Key Values that Elevated Women 

The Roman context opened up the door for the church to elevate women. In this section, let’s focus on two key elements in Paul’s theology that set women free and give them equal status with men. To use a modern category, you can think of these elements as Paul’s ministry “values.”

In Christ: The Gospel Levels the Playing Field

I’ll call the first value “in Christ.” Anyone who has read Paul understands that this is one of his favorite phrases. The reality of being “in Christ” for Paul is foundational to everything else. Life, virtue, ministry, and anything good flows from being “in Christ.” 

What does it have to do with women in ministry?

One passage that egalitarians are quick to point to is Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Complementarians argue that the context is about salvation. I agree, and so do egalitarians. But does Galatians 3:28 have any sociological implications?[7]

There are two other passages that use the “in Christ” phrase that look and sound a lot like Galatians 3:28. 

  • “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor 12:13).
  • “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col 3:11).

There’s also Ephesians 2:15, which is similar: 

  • “By setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two [Jew and Gentile], thus making peace…”

These three passages are representative of each other and probably interchangeable.[8] Paul is looking at areas of social inequality and showing how the gospel brings a new identity “in Christ” that levels the social playing field. In the Kingdom of God, there are no second-class citizens.[9]

If Christianity were to spread across the globe, the Jew-Gentile problem was especially important to address. Jews needed to embrace Gentiles and vice versa. Otherwise, the news of Jesus would not have left Jerusalem!

If the church believed that being “in Christ” had social implications for Gentiles and slaves, why wouldn’t it mean the same for women?

This is part of Paul’s genius. Yes, he was a deeply spiritual missionary. But he was also strategic. That’s why he tackled the ethnicity problem in almost all his letters. 

The church eventually “caught sight of the social ramifications of the Jew-Gentile equality”[10]. The proof is that Christianity spread across the entire Roman Empire. 

Later, Christians saw equality for slaves and worked out the implications over the course of church history. William Wilberforce in England is the most famous example of an abolitionist who believed slavery was at odds with the gospel.

If the church believed that being “in Christ” had social implications for Gentiles and slaves, why wouldn’t it mean the same for women?

To me, the issue here is urgency. In his short lifetime, what would Paul choose to focus on? He had a holy sense of urgency to get the Jew-Gentile problem corrected because of his desire to get to gospel to the entire known world. 

He chose not to press the women and slaves issue. Looking back on history, it’s easy to see how social/practical (not spiritual) liberation for these groups would have actually hurt the spread of the gospel. Society, as a whole, wasn’t ready for it yet, even if Christians were.[11]

But Paul still cared about women being elevated and valued in the church. His approach to this wasn’t as explicit as the gender issue. It was more subversive. His understanding and application of spiritual gifts help us see this.

Mutual Participation: Everyone Contributes in the Church

The second value is “mutual participation” in the church through spiritual gifts. Paul taught that everyone in the church has a part to play—even women. All who are “in Christ” share in the Spirit. This means everyone has spiritual gifts to contribute to the church’s well-being (see 1 Cor 12-14; Rom 12:3-8; Eph 4:11-16).[12]

The point here is that spiritual gifts are not “gendered.” Instead, the Spirit gives gifts to each person as he desires (1 Cor 12:11). And when everyone does their part, the body builds itself up in love (Eph 4:16). Everyone in the body is now an “ambassador,” speaking for Christ wherever they go (2 Cor. 5:20).[13] 

The unique thing about first-century churches is that they met in homes. Churches were more informal and participatory than our churches today. Gathering to hear one man speak for 45-50 minutes was unheard of.[14] 

Paul expected each person to show up to a church meeting with something to minister to others. People weren’t to only consume. They were to contribute. We get a glimpse of this in 1 Corinthians 14:26 when Paul says, “Each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”

When Paul corrected the Corinthians in this same chapter about their worship gathering, he didn’t chide women for using a particular gift or even leading. We actually see women prophesying (a leadership activity) back in 1 Corinthians 11. Instead, he’s worried about the manner of how the gifts were being used.

The value of mutual participation is also seen in the “one another” references sprinkled throughout his letters. Love one another. Encourage one another. Forgive one another. Correct one another. And so on.

Paul expected not only that women would teach men, but that it was completely acceptable in this environment for them to do so.

Consider Colossians 3:16: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (my emphasis).

This is about living in community together. But these things would happen within a worship service context. It begs the question. Why would Paul tell the whole church to “teach and admonish one another” if women could not teach men?

It seems obvious to me that he expected not only that women would teach men, but that it was completely acceptable in this environment for them to do so.

One more thought. Paul says that the word of Christ will dwell in us when we teach and admonish through “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” Paul knew then what science proved much later: music is a powerful medium for memory.[15]

My wife (the musician in our family) has said that most Christians learn more theology through songs than sermons. I agree.

If songs can teach in a way that helps the message of Jesus get into the hearts and minds of Christians, why would Paul encourage women to sing, if they were not allowed to teach? 

Consider the implications for us today. Taken to the extreme, the restriction “women cannot teach men” (from 1 Tim 2:12) would mean that a woman cannot lead musical worship. It would also imply that all women cannot sing out loud during a congregational meeting, since, in Paul’s mind, singing is a communal activity for mutual edification.[16] 

Paul wants believers to minister to one another, without regard for gender. It makes the most sense that Paul encouraged and expected women, like men, to use their spiritual gifts, including teaching, for the benefit of everyone in the early house churches.[17] 

Summing It Up

Paul lived during a major turning point in history. While still falling short of what we’d hope for today, female Roman citizens enjoyed more rights than previous cultures. This opened a unique opportunity for the Church to elevate women to an equal status with men. Paul’s teaching on being “in Christ” and the mutual participation of believers through spiritual gifts were foundational for the Church to treat everyone equally, including women.

The next post will show how Paul lived this out, as we do a brief fly over of his ministry relationships with women.

Paul wants believers to minister to one another, without regard for gender.


Notes

Feature photo: “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles” by Valentin de Boulogne (c. 1618-20).

[1] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001), 39.

[2] See “Roman Philosophy,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part V.

[4] Girls were often betrothed by age 10 and married in the late adolescent or early teen years, although some girls were married by 10 or 11. Mary Beard writes that Atticus sought out a potential husband for his daughter when she was only 6 years old. See Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright & Company, 2015), 311.

[5] Ibid., 304.

[6] Ibid., 307. 

[7] The general idea for this section comes from William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 85-87.  

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 48.

[10] Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, 86.

[11] When I have more time, I’d like to research how the Roman Empire and the Jewish Diaspora paved the way for a solution to the Jew-Gentile problem. In AD 70, when the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, it forced the entire population of that city to find new meaning and identity as a displaced people. But even earlier than that, in Acts 2, we saw that Jews were living all over the known world and would come back to Jerusalem for feasts. The Roman Empire was sympathetic to other religions—as long as they didn’t revolt. (That’s why Jerusalem was burned down!) The Roman road system also allowed for “interstate travel” (as we’d call it today). People were continually crossing paths with others who were different from them. In a nutshell, the Empire was a step toward a more global, multi-ethnic community. While advances were made for women, it was nothing in comparison to this. Women were still second-class citizens (with slaves beneath them).

[12] Spiritual gifts are ministries, activities, functions, etc. that edify and build up others people in the church. See 1 Cor 12:4-6.

[13] The word “ambassador” is connected to the idea of “image and likeness” from Genesis. An ambassador is someone who represents a greater authority, just like an “image” did in the ancient world. Earlier in 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul wrote, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Paul’s building an argument to help the Corinthians see that the ministry of Spirit is to transform believers into the image of Jesus and, therefore, serve as his ambassadors. It is a “new creation refresh” on the original creation account. Women share in this equally with men.

[14] Even in the Jewish synagogue context, one man would not lecture for the entire meeting. Instead, synagogue meetings were much more interactive and discussion-oriented. Consider the scene in Luke 4:14-30, where Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, read from Isaiah, made a very brief comment and sat down. Then the discussion continued (about him, of course!). The goal was communal learning and experience, not top-down communication. 

[15] On my blog and in sermons I’ve shared about the Psalms being what I call “felt theology.” In other words, the Psalms make the truth about God and life come alive in the emotions of the human heart. This is what Paul’s getting at in Colossians 3:16. 

[16] There are some traditions that do not permit women to lead musical worship. I hardly think any would forbid all women from singing out loud.

[17] Craig Blomberg (in a lecture I could not locate if I tried) talked about the importance of song for the oral transmission of the Gospels. Because singing helps humans memorize easily, Blomberg suggested that much of the oral tradition was passed down through song. It’s a fascinating thing to consider. Particularly because several scholars believe two of the most famous passages in the New Testament about Jesus (Col 1:15-20 and Phil 2:6-11) were actually hymns.