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Let Her Lead Theology

1 Corinthians 14:34-35: Should Women Be Silent in Church?

We’re almost at the end of our biblical exploration of what the Bible has to say about gender roles in ministry. This post will be the last on that topic. Then in just one post, I’ll address what gender roles, if any, should be held in the family. Finally, I’ll close out this series with a few posts on application and personal reflection as I’ve journeyed through this process of changing my view.

One of the most controversial passages from Paul on gender comes in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Here it is in the ESV:

[T]he women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

This seems so harsh of Paul, doesn’t it? What in the world is going on here? Let’s dig in.

Two Verses, So Many Possibilities

When we look around at how Christians have interpreted these words, we find that there are no less than seven major interpretations on verses 34-35![1] Seven!

Any time a verse or passage has that many possibilities, it’s a big clue that we shouldn’t build a doctrine or practice on that passage. Christians can “agree to disagree” on this text.

Let’s get one thing clear right away, however: Paul cannot be saying that women are not allowed to speak in church. Why? Because 1 Corinthians 11:5 implies that Paul expects women will pray and prophesy in church! Paul wouldn’t contradict himself.

Whatever 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is saying, we can be sure it’s not a timeless prohibition against women speaking in church. So what does it mean?

A Common Complementarian View

One of the more common views among leading complementarians goes like this: Paul means that women are to be silent in reference to the evaluation of prophecy.[2]

I believe complementarians need to interpret this passage this way in order to maintain their practice of not allowing women to “exercise authority over men.” Is the complementarian view accurate though? I think it fails to take into consideration several things:

  1. While Paul mentioned weighing prophecies in verse 29, that’s not in close proximity to verses 34-35. Would the Corinthians have made the connection between verses 29 and verses 34-35?
  2. If women can prophesy (11:5; 14:26, 31), why wouldn’t they be allowed to judge a prophecy?
  3. The women in quesiton are not in a place to evaluate prophecies. Paul words clearly call them to learn at home by asking their husbands. It seems they don’t understand what’s going on in the worship gathering at all!
  4. The larger theme in chapter 14 is order-disorder in worship. If women did evaluate prophecies, that would actually contribute to order. The issue must be some other kind of disruptive speech.

I believe there are at least two better interpretive options for Christians who want to be faithful to the text of Scripture. Let’s look at both of those options.

Option 1: Purposeful Silence For Undistrubed Worship

Paul’s priority in chapter 14 is to help the Corinthians understand that disorder in the worship gathering keeps people from being edified. Put positively, well-ordered worship benefits everyone because then everyone can understand what’s going on.

First-century worship gatherings were much more participatory than ours today. There was plenty of opportunity for confusion and chaos to break out because everyone–not just one man on stage–was involved in speaking, teaching, and, yes, even leading. Hence the call for silence on certain occasions.

The word “silent” (Gk sigaō) occurs in verse 34 and two other times in this chapter:

  • In verse 28, someone speaking in another language must be silent if no one can interpret for everyone else to understand.
  • In verse 30, if multiple people want to prophesy, the prophet who has already spoken should be silent when another is ready to speak.
  • In verse 34, if women want to learn something, they are to be silent during the gathering and ask their husbands at home.

Any kind of speech that disturbs worship should stop until it is appropriate.

Each of these occurrences of sigaō is in the present, active indicative. By using this verb form, Paul calls for particular individuals to pause speaking for a specific reason at a specific time–not for all time. Any kind of speech that disturbs worship should stop until it is appropriate.

Sigaō is only used ten times in the New Testament. It is never used in a way to command silence forever. It’s always immediate and occasional.

Bill Rudd writes, “By addressing these groups, Paul did not assume that every tongues-speaker, prophet, or woman was part of the problem. It is likely that these three parallel scenarios involved a few people who needed to stop speaking so others could participate.”[3]

The female prophets referred to in chapter 11 are not called to stop prophesying![4] After all, they don’t need to learn something from their husbands at home. They are actually the ones doing the instructing alongside male prophets![5]

Why does Paul emphasize female silence? What about men? Is this where we see Paul the Middle Eastern chauvinist rear his ugly head? I don’t think so.

As we’ve discussed before, it’s a well-known fact that women in the first century were not as educated as men. Women didn’t enjoy the same social and business opportunities, and their understanding of Greek and other local languages was less refined than men because of it. Simply, women were at an extreme disadvantage in any social setting, including in the church.[6]

Add to all this the fact that Corinth was one of the most diverse cities in the Roman Empire.[7] This is why Paul spends an entire chapter addressing “languages” (aka “tongues,” i.e. languages other than Greek) and interpreting those languages for the benefit of everyone.

If the entire point of chapter 14 is the intelligibility of speech in the worship gathering, doesn’t it seem likely that there were some women who were confused at what was being said during worship? Isn’t it plausible, even probable, that some women started to interrupt with questions or chat among themselves as humans often do when they’re unengaged?

Kenneth Bailey paraphrases Paul’s message to the Corinthian women:

[Women,] I know your Greek is limited. But your husbands have learned a bit more Greek than you have managed to absorb. They have to in order to function on the job. You have not had this chance and it is not your fault. But things have gotten out of hand on a number of levels. Please be helpful and put your questions to your husbands after you return home. I have just told the speakers when to be quiet. This is a situation in which you also need to listen quietly even if you can’t follow what is said.[8]

Understood this way in the Corinthians’ context, we begin to see Paul as a compassionate and gracious friend willing to guide the Corinthians as they learn how to worship together.

Option 2: Paul Refutes a Corinthian Quotation

The second possibility is that Paul quotes a Corinthian belief and then refutes it. He does this often throughout the letter (6:12; 7:1-2; 8:1; 8:22-23; 10:23).

Verses 33b-35 is the Corinthian quotation; verses 36-38 is the refutation.[9]

I’ve heard the argument that this quote is “too long” to be an actual quote. Why? Because the other quotations Paul cites (see above) aren’t that long.

My response: haven’t you ever read an article with long and short quotes?

Who’s to say Paul can’t cite a four-word quote here and a four-sentence quote somewhere else? Why do we think we’re the arbiter of what Paul can and can’t do?

Is it a quote or not? We have good reasons to believe it is.

First, the end of verse 34 includes something odd. It says that women are to be in submission/subject “as the law also says.” But there is not one place in the Old Testament where women are told to be silent or to be submissive to men.

There is not one place in the Old Testament where women are told to be silent or to be submissive to men.

Complementarians argue that Paul refers to the Old Testament in general or Genesis 2 where Adam is the “firstborn.”[10]

But this doesn’t make the best sense of “the Law” (capital L for Torah Law), especially as Paul uses it in his letters.

This must be referring to some other law entirely.

Beth Allison Barr, in her book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, suggests an interesting possibility.[11] Barr says that the Oppian Law (in effect from 215-195 BC) is likely the background here. The Oppian Law was designed to limit female freedom, particularly their public displays of wealth.

Now, 195 BC is over two centuries before Paul writes to the Corinthians. That’s quite the distance in time! But Barr shows that even during the first century AD, the Oppian Law had left its mark on Roman society. Cato the Elder, who opposed repealing the law, gave a speech about the danger of women’s freedom. In that speech he said,

I walked through a band of women…I should have said, “What kind of behavior is this? Running around in public, blocking streets, and speaking to other women’s husbands! Could you not have asked your own husbands the same thing at home? Are you more charming in public with others’ husbands than at home with your own?” (my emphasis).[12]

You can hear an echo of this reflected in 1 Corinthians 14 (see italics). What if the Corinthians, in an effort to bolster their position on limiting female freedom, particularly when it comes to speaking gifts, used a defunct Roman law as their foundation? Anything is possible for a church that believed sex between married couples was bad (see chapter 7) and getting drunk at communion was good (see chapter 11).

I’m very intrigued by this possibility. However, there’s another option available to us. It’s possible that “the law” is a reference to the Jewish oral law. Not the written Torah (the first five books of our Old Testament), but rather the oral rabbinic tradition–God’s law (according to the rabbis) that was not written down. The Mishnah, one of the major collections of the oral law, states that it’s sinful for a woman to speak with a man in the worship gathering.[13]

It’s pretty likely that the diverse Corinthian church would have dealt with a Jewish faction that impressed aspects of the oral law on it. We have reason to believe this happened to almost every church in the New Testament! These orals laws circulated among the house churches (“as in all the churches,” v. 33b), negatively influencing their behavior.

Second, in verse 36, Paul uses “Or…Or” as a signifier that he is refuting what he just wrote (verses 33b-35). In other quote refutations, Paul uses the words “but” instead (see

Taking these two points into consideration, we now read Paul’s words in a different light. Consider this possible translation, which is almost identical to the NRSV. I have added the quotation marks to help us see what is likely the Corinthians’ quotation.

“As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you men the only ones it has reached? Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. 

You may have noticed the addition of “men” in the second “or” phrase (“Or are you [men] the only ones…”). The reason for this is that Paul uses a masculine plural pronoun here rather than a female one.

He chides the men, reminding them that they haven’t cornered the market on God’s word.

If he was correcting women in verses 34-35 for speaking during worship, then we’d expect him to use a female plural pronoun. But he doesn’t. On the other hand, if verses 34-35 is a quote the Corinthian men used to silence women, then it makes sense for Paul to address them directly in his correction.

Understood this way, we see that Paul refutes a false Corinthian belief that women are not allowed to speak up in the assembly. He chides the men, reminding them that they haven’t cornered the market on God’s word.[14]

Do you see the ironic twist? Complemetnarians have taken a passage meant to encourage women’s participation in the gathered church and instead used it against them.

Summing it All Up

Paul may be calling for a temporary silence on a select group of women who chatting or asking nuisance questions during worship. Or Paul may actually be correcting the Corinthian men who were trying to silence women.

At this point, if I had to choose one option, I’d probably lean toward option 2. But there’s also the possibility that verses 34-35 aren’t original to Paul and were added later on.[15]

Whatever option we go with, we know that Paul does not silence all women for all time in the church’s worship. He had just encouraged female participation in chapter 11 and never limited women in his discussion of spiritual gifts (chapter 12).

Both options are reasonable and don’t require playing fast and loose with Scripture to make it say something it doesn’t. These options, in my opinion, make better sense than the traditional patriarchal explanation.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Paul ends the chapter by encouraging both genders to use their speaking gifts: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (vv 39-40).


Notes

Feature photo: Kristina Flour on Unsplash.

[1] Marg Mowczko, “Interpretations and Applications of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35,” 7/9/2011.

[2] This is the view of complementarians like D.A Carson, Wayne Grudem, and John Piper. See D.A. Carson, “Silent in the Churches,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 179-197, which represents this view. Carson writes, “Paul’s point here…is that [women] may not participate in the oral weighing of such prophecies.”

[3] Bill Rudd, “Context and Words Matter: Reexamining 1 Corinthians 14,” CBE blog, 9/29/2021.

[4] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2011), 415.

[5] Notice the connection between prophecy and instruction/teaching/learning in 14:6, 19, and 31. Because of these verses, I try not to draw too thick of a line between “prophecy” and “teaching.” In Paul’s mind, it seems to me, there is quite a bit of overlap. But that’s for another post.

[6] Again, these are generalities. Priscilla, a member of the Corinthian church, was obviously a highly educated person who traveled with her husband. Lydia, a successful businesswoman in Philippi, likely didn’t face these obstacles. The point is that the typical first-century woman was at a tremendous disadvantage compared to the typical first-century man.

[7] Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 412.

[8] Ibid, 416.

[9] Kirk MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 14:33b-38 as a Pauline Quotation-Refutation Device,” Priscilla Papers 23/1, 2018.

[10] See Mowczko, “Interpretations and Applications,” for more on Grudem.

[11] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001), 56-61.

[12] Quoted in ibid., 59.

[13] MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 14:33b-38.”

[14] For more on this, see MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 14:33b-38.”

[15] There is some evidence that this passage is not original to Paul and was added by a scribe later on. In fact, if you take out verses 33b-35 and jump from verse 33a to verse 36, the text still makes perfect sense. If youi’re curious about this, see Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 2009, 216-268; and Gordon D. Fee, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 2014, 699-708.

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

1 Timothy 2:11-15: Dealing with Deception in the Church

In my previous post, I looked at the context of Ephesus, the city where Timothy ministered. The church there was in a vulnerable position because of both the Artemis cult and pre-Gnostic teachings. You’ll want to read that post before this one.

This post will be a commentary on 1 Timothy 2:11-15. My goal isn’t to provide watertight arguments for everything in this passage. Instead, I’ll provide interpretive options that are still faithful to the text and take into account the cultural/religious context of ancient Ephesus.

I hope after reading this, you’ll realize that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is not as straightforward as complementarians claim.

Commentary: 1 Timothy 2:11-15

Here’s the full text of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in the NIV. (Click the link to see the NIV and ESV side-by-side.)

11A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

I’ll introduce the commentary on each verse below with my own translation. The goal of my translation is not to be “as literal as possible” but to provide the sense (in English) of what Timothy would have heard and understood as he read it in the original language (Greek).

Verse 11

11A woman must learn with a teachable heart, with a submissive demeanor [before God].

Let Her Learn

The revolutionary idea in this passage is that Paul commands that a woman should learn Christian theology. In the first century, Jews and Greeks did not permit women to be educated in any discipline, much less theology.

But Paul picks up where Master Jesus left off: women are welcomed as full-fledged disciples.

This was as radical for Paul to write as it was for Jesus to let Mary sit at his feet. This gets overlooked in our conversations about what women are “allowed to do” in churches.

The revolutionary idea in this passage is that Paul commands that a woman should learn Christian theology.

Verse 11 contains the only command (called an “imperative”) in the entire section: manthanetō (translated “should learn,” NIV). The full phrase can be translated as “Let a woman learn” or “a woman must/should learn.”

The entire letter of 1 Timothy is about dealing with false teachers and deception. This is the problem Paul wants to avoid (cf. v 14). Learning is the antidote to deception and Paul commands it as the long-range solution for this problem. His concern is not to restrict this woman/all women forever but equip them to avoid deception.

While we overlook the significance of this in our modern debates, equipping women is another way the early church flipped the world’s values upside down.

All Women or a Woman?

Verses 11, 12, and 15 force us to deal with an interesting question: is Paul talking about one woman or all women? There are good reasons to believe that Paul is writing about one particular woman. I was first introduced to this idea by Marg Mowczko.[1] I think it’s likely this is the case for two reasons.

First, Paul uses the singular gynē (which can mean “woman” or “wife”) in verses 11 and 12. In verse 15, he uses the singular pronoun “she.”[2] Likewise, he uses the singular andros (which can mean “man” or “husband”) in verse 12.

If Paul wanted to keep all women from teaching and exercising authority over all men, why didn’t he use the plural form of these words? There are people on both sides of the debate that have argued “woman” (singular) may be used in general to represent all women. That may be so. But then why use “she” in verse 15? That seems like an odd way to refer to all women.

Second, recall that in the verses immediately preceding 2:11-15, Paul deals with specific problems in the Ephesian church. In verse 8, Paul addresses particular men who ought to pray without anger or disputing.[3] In verses 9-10, Paul addresses particular women who were flaunting their wealth in the worship gathering.

Wouldn’t it make sense for the logical flow of the passage to lead to another specific situation in verses 11-15? It’s possible.

I can’t be 100% positive that Paul’s only talking about one woman. But the needle tips that way for me if for no other reason than the grammar. So I’ll continue to refer to “the woman” in the rest of the post.

The Goal: A Humble, Teachable Spirit

Strict complementarians have argued that the word “quietness/quiet” (vv 11-12, NIV) suggest that women are not allowed to teach in public worship. Some compare this with Paul’s apparent call for female silence in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

But the Greek word here doesn’t mean verbal silence at all. The word is hēsychia and it has more to do with a humble, teachable spirit.[4] It describes someone who doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others. It’s the opposite of disruption, and it suggests serious learning so that a person will eventually be able to teach.[5]

A better “literal” translation (if that’s possible) would be “stillness,” since “quiet” in English means not speaking or making noise.

The implication is that when this woman has learned and demonstrated humility, she would be eligible to teach.

What hēsychia means is important. So is where it’s placed in the sentence. It’s the third word in Greek in verse 11; and then it occurs again at the very end of verse 12 (see above). This is called an inclusio–a literary device that uses a word or phrase like brackets to mark out an important point.

It’s likely Paul put the spotlight on a particular woman who had been disruptive and divisive. But notice that he doesn’t say, “She shouldn’t teach because she’s female.” Instead, the inclusio highlights the problem. “She’s disruptive–so be still / learn with a teachable spirit.”

Submission to Whom?

The woman is to learn humbly and also “with complete submission.” Traditionally, this has been understood to mean that women must learn in submission to men. At least, that’s how I understood it as a complementarian.

But the text does not say that.

“Submission” here relates to how this woman must learn sound doctrine before God and in her faith community. She must not be arrogant, pushy, or domineering (see v 12 below), but with humility first before God, and then before those serving as ministers in the church. This squares with the call to be “in stillness,” or, to have a teachable spirit.

Verse 11 Summary: Paul commands a woman to learn with a humble, reverent posture before God and the faith community. This was revolutionary in the ancient world. It’s also consistent with how Paul treated women throughout his ministry. This is his long-range solution to dealing with deception due to false teaching.

Verse 12

12I am not currently allowing a woman to teach or domineer a man, but she must remain with a teachable heart.

No Teaching…Forever?

The first word in verse 12 in Greek is didaskein (“to teach”). Complementarians argue that didaskein is always used positively in the New Testament, in the sense of teaching the apostolic faith in contrast to false teaching.[6] Therefore, they argue, Paul forbids women from teaching doctrine to men.

But as a matter of fact, didaskein is used negatively sometimes. In Titus 1:10-11, Paul points out there are people in Crete who teach things they should not and are full of deception (sound familiar?). In Matthew 5:19, Jesus says that those who set aside God’s commands and teach others accordingly are least in the Kingdom.

The context must help us know if the author has good or bad teaching in mind. We just saw that Paul commands a woman to learn with a humble posture. Paul’s concern is on what’s being taught and how the teaching occurs. The next section will make this even more clear.

The restriction on this woman seems especially forceful in English. It sounds command-like, which has also led many complementarians to say we must take the text “at face value” and therefore prohibit women from teaching men.

But the force we feel in English isn’t there in Greek. This verb for “permit” is epitrepō. It’s variously translated as “allow, permit, let” in the New Testament.

If Paul wanted to be forceful, he had other words available to him. He regularly uses the words translated as “charge” or “urge” throughout the letter to tell Timothy to do something (see 1:3, 5; 4:11; 5:7; 6:13, 17, 18).[7]

But he doesn’t use those words here.

In verse 12, epitrepō is a present, active indicative verb. For the grammar geeks out there, you know that the indicative mood states a fact. What you may not know is that the present, active voice is reserved for immediate or short duration situations. Philip Payne has shown that in the New Testament, a present, active verb never has the force of continuous, universal facts or application.[8]

An understanding of the right mood and voice can make a big difference. A better translation would be, “I am not [currently] allowing a woman to teach…”

For those who hold to the complementarian position, how would your view change if verse 12 was translated this way?

What Kind of Authority?

There’s something even more significant in verse 12 that leads me to believe Paul does not forbid all women for all time from teaching and leading (or from “authoritative teaching,” depending on how these two activities relate in the text).[9] What is it?

The word he uses for “authority.”

First Timothy 2:12a in the ESV says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…” The Greek word translated “exercise authority” is authentein.

For me, this word is the most important word in the entire passage. What does this word mean?

Word studies can be tricky. You can’t just use any sort of definition you find in a dictionary.

Yet, with authentein, we must rely on definitions because this word is so rare.

How rare?

It only occurs once in the New Testament. Yes, just once. Right here. And it’s only found a total of eight times in ancient documents before the fourth century AD![10] We don’t have a lot to work with.

Complementarians have understood this word to mean that Paul does not allow women to have legitimate, positive authority over a man (such as being a pastor/elder). They argue that because “to teach” is positive (see above) then authentein must be positive since the words are grammatically connected. So it’s “exercise [legitimate] authority” or something like “authority as an officer” in the church. Either way, it’s positive. Nearly every complementarian I know of translates this word this way.[11]

The problem is that authentein does not mean exercising positive or legitimate authority at all. There seems to be consensus among scholars that “the root meaning involves the concept of authority.”[12] The big question is, “What kind of authority?”

Every ancient Greek lexicon (dictionary) defines authentein as a negative use of authority. Very negative, in fact! Here’s how two of the most authoritative Greek lexicons define it:

  • “To assume a stance of independent authority, give orders to, dictate to.”[13]
  • “To have full power or authority over; to commit a murder.”[14]

If Paul wanted to forbid women from legitimate, positive church leadership, then authentein was an incredibly poor choice.

In fact, there is not one Greek-English lexicon that defines authentein in terms of a legitimate, positive, exercise of authority. Linda Belleville says that there is “no first-century warrant translating…authentein as ‘to exercise authority.'”[15]

It’s also worth mentioning that the noun form of this word means “murderer.”[16]

If Paul wanted to forbid women from legitimate, positive church leadership, then authentein was an incredibly poor choice. No male in the church should have authentein!

Paul could have used exousia or epitagēs, the common New Testament words for “authority.” But he did not. Why?

This rare word comes from a word group with the prefix autos, which means “self” (e.g. autobiography). Paul probably chose this word because this woman had been acting in a self-serving, self-exalting, self-aggrandizing, and self-authenticating manner.

Belleville points out that Paul wanted to communicate this specific nuance. One way she translates authentein is “to get one’s way.”[17] In modern-day terms, the Ephesian woman was an abusive bully who dictated to a man, “I’m the boss now.”

The problem wasn’t that a woman was teaching or leading per se. It’s that she was teaching in a domineering manner that attempted to “put a man in his place.” This likely included teaching false doctrines (or at least advocating for them), evidenced by seizing authority that was not rightfully hers.[18]

All of this makes good sense when we consider Paul’s goal: to learn with a humble, teachable spirit.

Whatever side of the conversation we’re on, we must admit that Paul is not restricting a woman who’s teaching sound doctrine with a humble posture. He’s restricting someone who’s seeking to dominate others.

Verse 12 Summary: Paul’s short-range solution to confronting false teaching was to not allow this woman to teach in the gathering. While her teaching was likely heretical (she did need to learn), the manner in which she taught was the biggest problem–she was domineering or “self”-authenticating. She needed to learn with a humble posture.

Verses 13-14

13[Now] Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not deceived; but the woman, being deceived, became a transgressor.

Paul then gives a summary of the Adam and Eve story. At first glance, it seems a bit out of place. Complementarians say this is Paul’s reason why women can’t teach or lead men. They claim it’s due to the “order of creation.”[19] Some also believe Paul’s words imply Eve’s transgression was a refusal to submit to her husband.[20]

Is that what Paul means or implies? It’s possible. But is that our only option? I don’t think it has to be.

Paul on Created Order

Let’s start with the idea of “created order.” Paul has already told us what he thinks about this in 1 Corinthians 11 (written before 1 Timothy).

Would the same Paul who honored Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Lydia, and other women really say women can’t teach or lead because they were created second?

It’s a difficult passage to understand that I’ll address it in a future post. But he seems clear when he writes, “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” (1 Cor 11:11-12).

Yes, the first woman came from a man. But every other man in the history of the world has come from a woman! Ultimately, everything comes from God, so which human came first doesn’t seem to matter to Paul all that much.[21]

I don’t think Paul would contradict himself in 1 Timothy 2. Because of this, not to mention the evidence in my other posts on Paul, this likely is not a universal (transcultural) restriction.

Would the same Paul who honored Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Lydia, and other women really say women can’t teach or lead because they were created second?

Let’s look at other possibilities for verses 13-14 that are still faithful to the text.

Conjunction, What’s Your Function?

The word “for” is a small conjunction with big implications.[22] It’s the Greek word gar and it can sometimes suggest a cause/reason. Other times it can be used to introduce background information or clarify something.[23] Sometimes, it’s even left untranslated.[24] (See note #24 for examples.)

Why is translating this small word important? Because it shows that translators have to make choices. And how a word is translated into English influences how we understand a verse.

What if “for” was left untranslated in 1 Timothy 2:13? What if it was translated “now” or “indeed”? What if verses 13-14 were put in parentheses?

Any of these options would change how we’d understand verses 13-14. We’d see them as an explanation or clarification of what came before, rather than a cause or reason.

What could Paul be explaining or clarifying?

Clarifying Orthodox Belief

Considering the Gnostic influence in Ephesus and the heretical version of the Adam and Eve story within Gnosticism (see previous post), it’s reasonable to believe that Paul is clarifying an orthodox understanding of Adam and Eve. If “for” was translated “now” or left untranslated, or if translators put theses verses in parentheses, we’d see this more clearly in English.

They aren’t to bully their way to the top and make men play second fiddle. Why? Eve was not created to be Adam’s boss but his partner.

If Gnosticism was as rampant in Ephesus as I think it was, not to mention the goddess Artemis cult, it makes sense for Paul to do this. Perhaps the woman in Ephesus was persuaded by the false teachers and/or Artemis worship to assert herself in unhealthy and damaging ways to gain an advantage over her husband (or other men).

This woman (or women) aren’t to teach men in a domineering manner. They aren’t to bully their way to the top and make men play second fiddle. Why? Eve was not created to be Adam’s boss but his partner.[25] That is God’s creative ideal.

Belleville puts it this way:

If the Ephesian women were being encouraged as the superior sex to assume the role of teacher over men, this would go a long way toward explaining verses 13-14. The relationship between the sexes was not intended to be one of female domination and male subordination.[26]

She goes on to say, “Neither was [the relationship between the sexes] intended to be one of male domination and female subordination. Such thinking is native to a fallen creation order (Gen. 3:16).”[27]

This way of understanding verses 13-14 accounts for the religious cultural situation in Ephesus and keeps us from making Genesis 1-2 say something it does not say or imply (i.e. that Eve was subordinate to Adam).[28]

Deception, Eve, and Women

For most of its history, the church has held that women are more easily deceived than men. This was a common belief for the church fathers. Most complementarians, thankfully, have abandoned this view, but not until recently.[29]

Modern social-scientific research proves, of course, that gender is not a factor that influences how gullible someone is. What does? Things like understanding of a culture, financial literacy, age, experiences, socialization, intelligence, education, and even personality all play a part.[30]

In the first century, women probably were more easily deceived due to the vast difference between them and men in these areas. It’s possible that Paul has that mind.

Yet Paul doesn’t explicitly say this. Someone must interpret Paul’s words to make that claim. The irony is that the only two false teachers Paul mentions by name in this letter (who were deceived and are now deceiving others) aren’t women but men–Alexander and Hymenaeus (see 1:18-20).

Eve’s deception comes up in the New Testament one other time. In 2 Corinthians 11:3. There, Paul warns the whole church–both men and women–not to be led away from Christ.[31]

It’s apparent he uses Eve as an example for each church’s particular situation. And in the case of 1 Timothy, he’s not making a universal pronouncement about the gullibility of all women. If we make that case, we’d have to say the same about men because of the 1 Corinthians passage.

Putting the Pieces Together

How might we understand all of 2:11-14? Here’s how I would flesh it, admittedly adding some interpretative statements to help to connect the dots:

This woman should learn in stillness, with a teachable heart and in full submission to God. No more self-authenticating disruption! I’m not allowing her to teach a man in a domineering way, trying to prove women are the superior sex. In God’s kingdom, women aren’t bullies like the false teachers say they are (and that Artemis would have them be!). Remember that women aren’t superior to men. Adam was formed first, after all! Eve was created second to be a corresponding strength him, his partner, fully equal before God. Eve was not his boss! And Eve wasn’t Adam’s teacher either. She was actively deceived and became a transgressor!

This is a completely reasonable way to interpret verses 11-14, in light of the false teachers seeking to deceive people, which is the main reason why Paul left Timothy in Ephesus and why he wrote this letter.

Verses 13-14 Summary: Paul corrects a false teaching spreading in Ephesus that Eve was Adam’s superior and teacher. It was Adam who was made first and Eve wasn’t the teacher, but the one deceived. Paul thus clarifies that Eve was created to be Adam’s partner, not his boss. Females should not dominate men. (But neither should men dominate women!) Creation shows God’s ideal of partnership.

Verse 15

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

If you only read the NIV, you’ll miss that verse 15 does not actually say “Women will be saved through childbearing.” The original language says, “She will be saved…” The ESV translates this correctly, by the way.

This is a significant difference with huge implications. Taking this into account, however we interpret this verse, it still must fit with the rest of Paul’s logic.

A Common Complementarian View

Denny Burk, president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, represents many, but not all, complementarians when he writes:

A wife’s fulfillment of this [chilbearing] role will be one of the evidences of perseverance in the faith. Salvation is future in this verse: “She will be saved.” Thus it is not entry into salvation that is in view but the future consummation of salvation. Women who embrace their God-ordained role while continuing in the Christian virtues of “faith and love and holiness, with self-control” will find themselves saved on the last day.[32]

Burk says that is if a married woman professes Christ but does not embrace her “God-ordained role” of caring for children in the home, she will not find salvation on judgment day.

Think about the implications of that for a second.

Andreas Köstenberger, who’s written quite a bit on gender roles, puts it differently, but still focuses on a woman’s role at home:

My conclusion: in 1 Timothy 2:15 Paul says that women will be spiritually preserved (from Satan) by adhering to their God-ordained role related to family and the home. This is contrasted with Eve, who transgressed those boundaries and fell into temptation (v. 14)…In v. 15, Paul addresses the question, “How can women today avoid the mistake made by Eve?” The answer: by adhering to their God-given boundaries and tending to their God-given responsibilities.”[33]

There are at least three problems with these views:

  1. 1 Timothy 2 says nothing about traditional roles for a wife and mother. That’s an interpretation.
  2. They ignore the context of the letter which is false teaching. The immediate context of the passage deals with deception, and, most importantly, domineering behavior. We might add anger and wealth-flaunting, if we include verses 8-10.
  3. Genesis 1-2 never suggests there were God-ordained roles Eve crossed in Genesis 3.[34] The central focus of Genesis 3 is not that Eve shirked her wifely duties but rather that she disobeyed God’s command. The curse of Genesis 3 also shows sin brought male dominance into the world. It was never God’s creative intention for one sex to rule over the other.[35]

These complementarian views don’t fit with the logic of verses 11-15, and verses 8-15 as a whole.

Three Interpretive Options

When we remember the the cultural context of Ephesus, the pieces start to fit together. We have at least three options that are in stark contrast to the traditional patriarchal views.

Option 1: Look to Jesus, not Artemis
Ephesus was home to Artemis, the virgin goddess and protector of women in childbirth. Pregnancy, labor, and delivery were dangerous in the ancient world. It’s conceivable that Christian women who came from the Artemis cult were tempted to look to her, rather than Jesus, for protection in the childbirth process. (The Greek word for “save” can sometimes mean holistic well-being, not just spiritual deliverance.)

Option 2: Sex and Childbirth Don’t Jeopardize Salvation
In its ascetic form, Gnosticism discouraged engaging in physical pleasure because the material world was evil–perhaps even not “real.” Paul could be refuting this false teaching and encouraging the woman in her faith in Jesus.

The gist of the false teaching was: if you had sex, you indulge the material world and therefore cannot be saved. This sounds over-the-top prude for us modern people. But if we take into account Greek philosophy, Gnosticism, and the Artemis cult, it’s not so far-fetched.

So Paul assures this women that if she renounced the Gnostic teaching of celibacy, had sex, and then became pregnant, she “will be saved” on judgment day.

In the first century, sexual intercourse was primarily for reproduction, and we have evidence Christians in Corinth thought abstaining from sex was good.[36] The problem woman in Ephesus may have been encouraged by false teachers to instruct her husband in false doctrine in a domineering fashion. A part of her dominating authority may have been to withhold sex and refuse to procreate.

So Paul assures this woman that if she renounced the Gnostic teaching of celibacy, had sex, and then became pregnant, she will still have salvation on judgment day.[37]

This may be the exact reason why Paul encourages widows to get married and bear children later in 5:14. The material world (which includes marriage, sex, childbirth, etc.) is not evil, but good because God created it.

Sidebar: Why the switch from “she’ to “they”?
In a somewhat puzzling move, Paul switches from singular to plural in the middle of verse 15 (“she” to “they”). He could have in mind the woman and her husband or the women flaunting their wealth in verses 9-10 or all the women in Ephesus.

It would be irresponsible for anyone to say with absolute certainty who “they” refers to here. But I’m inclined to think it refers to the women mentioned in vv 9-10 or any other women in Ephesus who are drawn to the false doctrine and behavior of domineering teaching.

These virtues are in stark contrast to the domineering attitude Paul wants to snuff out. Faith, love, and holiness–not authentein–is what characterizes a believer. This is another piece of evidence that leads me to believe Paul’s not calling all women to embrace their wifely role. These are necessary ingredients for anyone to have if they want to persevere til the end. The pushy, me-first posture must be put off, and love, faith, and self-control must be put on.

Option 3: Eve’s Offspring Brings Salvation
Some scholars believe Paul continues his thought on Adam and Eve into verse 15 and that there is a subtle reference to Jesus here.

The argument goes like this. The definite article “the” before childbearing signifies a specific childbirth–the birth of Messiah. This birth will reverse the curse Eve helped usher into the world. When Paul says Eve “will be saved” he’s referring to the salvation she will receive on the last day, still to come. It’s through Christ, Eve’s offspring, that women experience salvation “if they continue in faith, love, and self-control” (2:15).

This is how egalitarians like Philip Payne and Ben Witherington understand verse 15.[38] Even some complementarians hold to this view.[39]

I’m not convinced for a couple reasons:

  1. In the rest of his writings, whenever Paul refers to the work of Christ that brings salvation, it’s never his birth but always his life, death, and resurrection.
  2. The way Paul ends verse 15 with “if they continue…” is odd if he’s talking about Eve at the beginning. Yes, Eve awaits her salvation on the last day (“will be saved” is future-oriented). We’re all waiting for that! But the salvation mentioned in verse 15 is contingent on something (“if they continue in faith, love, and self-control”). How can Eve’s final salvation be dependent on someone else continuing in these virtues?

It’s not my first choice, but it’s one option available to us.

Personally, I believe verse 15 is best explained by option #1 or #2, or a combination of both.

Both options make more sense than the complementarian explanation considering the cultural situation in Ephesus. They’re also better explanations given the grammar and flow of the entire passage (including vv 8-10).

Verse 15 Summary: Paul encourages the woman that her salvation will not be lost if she rejects Gnostic teaching (or that her life won’t be in danger if she rejects Artemis). She must continue in the virtues of love, faith, and self-control/holiness, which fits well with the idea of not being domineering (“self-authenticating”). Rather than teach false doctrine and dominate, she must exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Summing It All Up

It’s reasonable to conclude that there was a woman (or multiple women) at Ephesus who was trying to domineer her husband (or a man or all the men). She was likely teaching heretical doctrines, but the bigger point appears to be her demeanor/posture before God and the faith community.

An aspect of this domineering behavior may have been to withhold sex and reproduction due to Gnostic teaching and/or Artemis mythology (suggested by v 15).

Paul’s solution is to not allow her to teach or act in a self-authenticating/domineering way. Instead, she must learn with a humble heart.

I haven’t said everything there is to say about 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and I didn’t provide a water-tight argument for every detail in the text. That was by design. My commentary shows the passage isn’t as straightforward as some would have us believe. The options I’ve provided make just as much sense considering the biblical and cultural context, if not more, than the traditional complementarian view.

As always, if you have questions on anything I’ve written–or if you have ideas I didn’t mention–I’d be happy to discuss those in the comments below.

There will be one more post on this text. I’ll share several brief reflections on how we can apply it in the church today.


Notes

Feature photo: Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.

[1] Marg Mowczko, “3 reasons why it’s a woman, not all women, in 1 Timothy 2:12,” 8/28/2019.

[2] The NIV mistranslates v 15 as “But women will be saved…” though in the footnotes they indicate that in Greek it says “she.”

[3] We should not assume that in every church, everywhere in the Roman Empire men are going into worship angry and ready to argue! When Paul says “I want the men everywhere…” he means everywhere in Ephesus. Also, recall that churches met in homes throughout the city so there would have been multiple church gatherings in Ephesus.

[4] Taking into account Paul’s rabbinic background, we’re reminded that this humble posture was required of men training to be rabbis, too. It’s what we’d want today for anyone preparing for ministry. See Walter Liefeld, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), on BibleGateway.com.

[5] Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 311, 323.

[6] See Andreas Köstenberger, Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995), 81-103; and “Was I wrong on 1 Timothy 2:12?,” Biblical Foundations blog.

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

[8] Philip Payne comments, “Every occurrence of epitrepō in the Greek OT refers to a specific situation, never to a universally applicable permission. Similarly, the vast majority of the NT occurrences of ἐπιτρέπω clearly refers to a specific time or for a short or limited time duration only.” Payne adds that the grammar Paul uses cannot carry the weight of church tradition for all time. Even Doug Moo, a complementarian scholar, admits, “It must be admitted that the verb [epitrepō] is not often used in Scripture of universally applicable commandments.” See Payne, Man and Woman, 320-321 for both quotes.

[9] I recognize there is a lot of debate on the connecting word “or” (Gk oude) in verse 12 and how that affects whether we see “teaching” and “authority” as separate or joined. I’m not going to get into all that here. For what it’s worth, I think Paul joins two elements with the word “or” to communicate one idea: teaching with authority.

[10] Jamin Hübner, “Translating αὐθεντέω (authenteō) in 1 Timothy 2:12a,” Priscilla Papers 29/2 (Spring 2015).

[11] Here are two non-academic examples of how complementarians view the word “authority” in 1 Tim 2:12: Denny Burk, “Women in Ministry and 1 Timothy 2:12,” Denny Burk blog, 1/21/2012; John Piper, “Manhood, Womanhood, and the Freedom to Minister,” Desiring God, 6/18/1989.

[12] Hübner, “Translating.”

[13] BDAG Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, definition found here.

[14] LSJ Greek-English Lexicon, authenteo.

[15] Linda Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies in Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:11–15: Evaluating the text with contextual, lexical, grammatical, and cultural information,” Priscilla Papers 17/3 (2003), 3-11.

[16] If you’re interested in further reading, see Hübner, “Translating”; Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies”; Marg Mowczko, “The meaning of authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12, with a brief history of authent– words,” 6/29/2017; Philip Payne, Man and Woman, 361-398; and A. C. Perriman, “What Eve Did, What Women Shouldn’t Do: The Meaning of Authentein in 1 Timoth 2:12,” Tyndale Bulletin 44/1 (1993), 129-142.

[17] Ibid.

[18] So what is Paul not allowing? A particular woman (or all women) who is unlearned in Christian doctrine and domineering is not permitted to teach. This would be true of anyone in Ephesus, or any church for that matter! Thus the abstract principle is: Those who are uneducated in Christian doctrine or self-serving should not teach. Paul’s concern has nothing to do with gender. At least not yet. It’s interesting, however, to note that later, in chapter 3, Paul states that “anyone” (singular gender neutral pronoun) may aspire to be an overseer (3:1) and they “must be able to teach” (3:2). Why the emphasis on teaching and not other pastoral gifts? Precisely because the problem at hand in Ephesus is false teaching. I’ll talk more about 1 Timothy 3 in a future post.

[19] See for example Denny Burk, 5 Evidences of Complementarian Gender Roles in Genesis 1-2, TGC Blog, 3/5/2014. For a much longer version, see Raymond Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” in John Piper and Wayne A. Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, ), 119-142.

[20] Ibid., Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies.”

[21] I’ve also shown that the Bible in general has little regard for who comes first. See question #5 here.

[22] Marg Mowczko, “1 Timothy 2:13: Another reason 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seems,” 8/6/2016. Once again, I’m standing on Marg’s shoulders here.

[23] Ibid.; see also Strongs Exhaustive Concordance, 1063 gar.

[24] In 1 Tim 2:5, gar provides additional information about intercessory prayer. In John 4:44, gar is translated as “now” in the NIV. The ESV goes with “for,” but the verse is in parentheses to show thats it’s an explanation. In Heb 2:5, the ESV translates gar as “for” to clarify what was just said, not give a reason. Distinguished Greek scholar William Mounce translates gar as “indeed” in 1 Cor 14:2. In other places, gar is even left untranslated! Both the ESV and NIV do this in Acts 16:37. In 2 Cor 9:1, the NIV leaves it untranslated, but the ESV translates it “now” since a new topic is introduced.

[25] Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies.”

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Some complementarians read gender hierarchy back into Genesis 2 based on verses 13-14. I’ve already shown in my post on Genesis 2 (as well as on Genesis 1) that the idea of hierarchy is foreign to Genesis 1-2 and was introduced after the Fall.

[29] In 1995, Thomas Schreiner wrote, “Generally speaking, women are more relational and nurturing and men are more given to rational analysis and objectivity. Women are less prone than men to see the importance of doctrinal formulations, especially when it comes to the issue of identifying heresy and making a stand for truth. Appointing women to the teaching office is prohibited because they are less likely to draw a line on doctrinal non-negotiables, and thus deception and false teaching will more easily enter the church” (his emphasis). See Thomas R. Schreiner, “An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15: A Dialogue with Scholarship,” in Women in the Church, in Andreas J. Köstenberger, Thomas Schreiner, H. Scott Baldwin, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 145-146. That’s quite the whopper of a quote! Thankfully, Schreiner changed his view in the 2005 edition of the book, saying that God’s good design would be called into question if this were true. For more on how complementarian positions have changed over the years, see Jamin Hübner, “The Evolution of Complementarian Exegesis,” Priscilla Papers 29/1 (Winter 2015), 11-13.

[30] You can find this research summarized in William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 269-274. This book is twenty years old and I doubt these findings are any different. Also, note that in 2 Timothy 3:6, Paul reminds Timothy that women were especially susceptible to deception and it is likely due to the factors Webb mentions.

[31] Liefeld, 1-2 Timothy, on BibleGateway.com. Paul even uses this same analogy of Eve falling prey to the deception of the serpent for the Corinthians as a whole (2 Corinthians 11:3). And it had nothing to do with gender there. This shows sometimes the New Testament authors use Old Testament passages for applicational/pastoral reasons and are not making absolute claims about a text.

[32] Denny Burk, “What Does It Mean that Women Will be Saved Through Childbearing?” Crossway blog, 10/7/2018. Burk believes that “childbearing” is a synecdoche, which is a figure of speech in which the part stands for the whole. So “childbearing” equates to “caring for children as a mother.”

[33] Andreas J. Köstenberger, “What Does 1 Timothy 2:15 Mean? Will Women Be Saved by Childbearing?” Biblical Foundations blog.

[34] Ortlund, “Male-Female,” 138, also makes the argument that Genesis says Eve crossed a boundary. He argues that Adam abandoned his headship (that is, authority over his wife) by “listening to the voice of [his] wife” (see Gen 3:17). But surely the point isn’t that Adam abandoned his headship (which is not stated in the passage) but that he listened to the false teaching of his wife who was deceived by the serpent. This understanding also fits better with Paul’s description of what happened in the garden in light of the them of 1 Timothy.

[35] Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies.”

[36] Ideas about sexual intercourse were complicated in the first century church, and some were flat-out wrong. Paul confronts a wrong belief that sex is bad in 1 Corinthians 7. Since we know this false teaching about sex was present in Corinth, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to say it was present in Ephesus. And it provides a perfectly legitimate explanation for verse 15. See also Marg Mowczko, “Chastity, Salvation, and 1 Timothy 2:15,” 1/27/2016, “Paul’s teaching about marriage and having children in 1 Timothy 2:154:3-4 and 5:11-15 (cf. Tit. 2:4-5) is distinctly different from the teaching attributed to him in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. And it is the antithesis of the teaching found in many Christian documents that circulated widely in the second century, documents that strongly promoted virginity and chastity as saving virtues.”

[37] Ibid.

[38] If you want to dig into this option more, see Payne, Man and Woman, 416-442. See also Ben Witherington, “Why Arguments Against Women in Ministry Aren’t Biblical,” Patheos: Bible & Culture blog, 6/2/2015.

[39] Jared M. August, “What Must She Do to Be Saved? A Theological Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:15,” Themelios 45/1 (April 2020).

Categories
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.

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

The Difference of Pentecost

We come to Pentecost in Acts 2. It is, without a doubt, one of the most electrifying, motivating, and mystifying passages in the New Testament. 

It also helps us make sense of gender roles in the post-resurrection era of the Kingdom of God.

Think of this post as a sequel to the last two on Jesus and women. In those, we looked at how Jesus’ interactions with women changed the game on gender in the first century. Now, we’ll see how Jesus begins to carry on his work through his people, including women, by his Spirit.

What Happened at Pentecost?

Pentecost was a Jewish feast to celebrate the first-fruits of harvest. Because it was a religious observance, thousands of faithful Jews from other parts of the world made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God during the festival.

There were about 120 believers gathered together for prayer on the day of Pentecost. The group included both men and women (see Acts 1:14). Luke, the author, writes while they were praying a mighty wind rushed upon them. Something like “tongues of fire” came to rest above their heads and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.

The disciples began sharing “the wonders of God,” and everyone heard what they said in their native language. The crowd was quite confused. Some even said that they were drunk.[1]

Joel foretold of a day when God would pour out his Spirit on all who believe without regard to status, ethnicity, or gender.

But Peter stood up to explain that they weren’t drunk. (It was only 9am!) This was the fulfillment of what the prophet Joel had written centuries before. His speech is found in Acts 2:14-36. His opening words in Acts 2:17-18 (quoting Joel 2:28-30) are the most important for our discussion. Here it is in the NIV:

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.

In the Old Testament, God poured out his Spirit for certain occasions and on particular people. No longer. Joel foretold of a day when God would pour out his Spirit on all who believe without regard to status, ethnicity, or gender (cf. Acts 2:39).

At Pentecost, that day had finally come. God now lives in and with his people–men and women–for good.

What Does Pentecost Mean?

Pentecost means a whole lot. As it relates to gender roles, I’ll mention three important take-aways:

1. Pentecost means God has come to dwell with both men and women, equally.  

This was the goal of creation all along. In the beginning, God dwelt with humanity in perfect fellowship. The story of the Old Testament is God’s pursuit of his people Israel to dwell with them in spite of their sin. Nothing is a permanent solution. 

Until Jesus. 

All who believe in him become the place where God’s presence dwells on earth. We are God’s temple—his sacred space.

Jesus is God’s sacred space—the “place” where God dwells. He calls himself the temple to prove the point (John 2:19-21). He is where heaven and earth meet. 

And through his life, death, and resurrection, he reconciles people back to God and gives them his Spirit. Now, all who believe in him become the place where God’s presence dwells on earth. We are God’s temple—his sacred space.[2] 

This is a major theme in the New Testament, and it was foundational for the early Church’s understanding of what it meant to be God’s people. (see 1 Cor 6:18; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21-22; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 2:5). 

This has nothing to do with worshiping in a building or particular liturgies or churches operating as organizations. It has everything to do with being a people-movement energized and empowered by God’s Spirit for a specific identify and function: being with God as his people and being his witnesses to the rest of the world.

2. Pentecost means men and women are both his authoritative witnesses to the world.

Because God now dwells in us, we represent him to the world. This was, again, God’s intention from the beginning. He created man and woman in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-28), meaning they represented God in their activity in the world.

Sin did not entirely remove God’s image from humanity. But it brought destructive effects so that we sought to rule ourselves, rather than joyfully represent God as we were created to. 

Women, along with men, are authoritative witnesses for God because they, like men, have the Spirit.

Pentecost reverses this curse. The indwelling Spirit brings redemption and restoration to whoever believes in Jesus. Revelation 1:6 and 5:10 call the Church “a kingdom…and priests to our God,” echoing the language of image and likeness from Genesis.[3] Believers in Jesus can now fulfill humanity’s original intent.

Peter’s choice of the Joel passage especially highlights the mutuality between men and women in this new era of the Spirit. To prophesy in the context of Pentecost means to speak on God’s behalf with his authority. Women, along with men, are authoritative witnesses for God because they, like men, have the Spirit.[4]

There’s no hierarchy here. There’s no male-only leadership. The Kingdom of God, through the event of Pentecost, ushers in a new ministry paradigm in which men and women labor side-by-side in the work of the gospel.

3. Pentecost means the Church previews the world to come.

Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated the new creation. But it didn’t end with him. He is called the “firstborn” of a new creation (Col 1:15-20; cf. Rev 1:5). Now, whoever has the Spirit dwelling in them is “in Christ” and is, therefore, a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).[5] This will take its full effect when we are with Christ and receive our resurrected bodies in the new creation. 

As “new creation” beings, we are a “sneak peak” of the “coming attraction.” We’re a preview of what it will be like when we will reign with Jesus in the new heavens and new earth.

We do this in many ways, don’t we? We fight sin, pursue Christ-centered community, give justice to the disadvantaged and oppressed, care for the environment, bring hope to the hopeless, healing to the hurting, food to the hungry, and so on.

All of these are a faint whisper of life without sin, brokenness, and death.

In other words, we fight the curse.

Why wouldn’t we do the same with gender hierarchy? 

If men and women will live together in a redeemed world serving God equally as a kingdom and priests, shouldn’t we align our beliefs and practices with that reality now? Shouldn’t our ministries reflect the equality and mutuality God gave men and women at creation and in redemption?[6]

For me, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

If men and women will live together in a redeemed world serving God equally as a kingdom and priests, shouldn’t we align our beliefs and practices with that reality now?

What’s Next?

Now, on to Paul. In the next post, we’ll look at how Paul included women in gospel ministry. We’ll also consider some of his general teaching that should help us set a “baseline” for how Paul would think about women in ministry.

After that, we’ll start to dive in to the specific, controversial texts by Paul on women’s roles in the Church.


Notes

[1] For our purposes, what this language phenomenon actually was isn’t important. I have my own take. But that’s for another post. 

[2] If the concept of “sacred space” is new to you, please read my previous posts on Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 for context. 

[3] This is a major theme in 1 Peter. I’ll also show in the next post on Paul, that it’s a significant reason for his focus on the entire body of Christ contributing to its growth through spiritual gifts. Which, as we know, are not gendered.

[4] Of course, Peter, a man, takes the lead in his Pentecost speech. But as I’ve shown previously, we can’t overlook the fact that Jesus’ closest disciples were male for cultural reasons. Jesus accommodated himself to the culture he came to live in.

[5] A literal translation of 2 Corinthians 5:17 goes something like this, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ—new creation!” (2 For 5:17). There is no gendered pronoun in the verse. When a committee translates this passage as “he is a new creation,” we may know that Paul is talking about a generic person, but the gender bias damage has already been done. The focus of the verse is not “he” but “anyone” (Gk tis). Why is this text important for gender roles? Because it’s in a section where Paul talks about the ministry of reconciliation. If anyone is in Christ and is therefore a new creation, Paul writes, they have the distinct role of being his ambassador—to preach the message of Christ to a lost world. This ministry is for men and women. The theology of Acts 2 is no doubt in the forefront of Paul’s mind as he writes these words to the Corinthians. We have to ask ourselves: why would any woman be able to have this high identity and calling of “ambassador of Christ” to the world and yet not be a local church elder/pastor?

[6] I have heard some complementarians argue that there will be gendered hierarchy in the new heavens and new earth, based on the fact that there was a hierarchy built into the original creation. I have not found an actual article or book that explains the idea of “gender roles” in the new creation, however. Still, I remain unconvinced by this argument based on my conviction that Genesis 1-2 does not teach men are inherently “over” women as leaders. If there was no hierarchy in the Garden, it doesn’t make sense to me that there would be in the new creation. See my posts on Genesis 1, 2, and 3 for more on this. Other complementarians may argue that if a gender hierarchy is the result of the fall, that’s “just the way world is” and we should live with it. I may write an interlude post soon responding to the issue of birth order and whether or not we should fight against the curse.