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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

1 Corinthians 11:2-16: Hairstyles, Head Coverings, and…Authority?

For modern readers like you and me, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is one of the more difficult passages to interpret and understand in the New Testament.

It’s often been a proof text for complementarians who believe men (specifically, husbands) are designed by God to be in authority over their wives. Verses 9-10, specifically, are levied against women: “Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. This is why a wife ought to have a symbol authority on her head” (ESV).

There it is, women were created for men and men are in authority over women.

Is this another tally in the complementarian column?

It’s not that cut and dry. Arguing this way ignores other details in the text and Paul’s overall concern for a specific problem in Corinth.

I’ll work through the passage a few verses at a time. Here’s what I hope you’ll see. The issue is not who can lead in the church’s worship but how those leading present themselves.

Most interpreters believe this passage is about women wearing a literal head covering–a hijab (headscarf) something similar. But the end of the passage gives us a big clue that the issue has more to do with hairstyles.

In verses 14-15, Paul writes, “Does not the very nature of things [Gk physis] teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.”

Paul isn’t concerned with gender subordination, but with gender distinction.

As Paul summarizes his whole argument, he seems to indicate that a woman doesn’t need to wear anything on her head. He literally says, “Her long hair is the covering!” We must keep this in mind whenever we see the word “cover” or “uncover” in the text.

Paul desires, then, for men to look like men and women to look like women, in that particular culture. He isn’t concerned with gender subordination, but with gender distinction.[1]

We’ll come back to Paul’s conclusion later on in the post.

Now, let’s take a look at the cultural background of the passage before getting to the commentary.

The Cultural Context

Corinth was a multiethnic metropolis. The church there, like most other churches in the Roman Empire, consisted of both Jews and Gentiles. In this first-century context, women wore their hair up and covered, while men wore it short and uncovered. In worship gatherings, Roman men and women often covered their heads. Jewish (non-Christian) men also covered their heads with a tallit.[2]

For Jewish women, head coverings were a matter of propriety outside the home. If a woman’s hair or head was exposed, it was deemed immodest and inappropriate. The rabbis put it this way: “A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as [the Scripture] says, ‘Thy hair is a flock of goats.”[3]

Wealthy Roman women, on the other hand, often wore elaborate hairstyles and were less likely to cover their hair in public (see 1 Timothy 2:9-10 and 1 Peter 3:3).

Consider also that nearly all historians believe that ancient prostitutes did not cover their heads, precisely because a woman’s hair was seen as an enticement. Prostitutes, including those in temples, were common throughout the Empire.

Some Corinthian women may have used their freedom in Christ to dress however they wanted in worship, not realizing it may not be beneficial for everone (see 6:12; 10:23). Others may have taken Paul’s mantra “In Christ…there is no male or female” to an improper extreme. Perhaps the way they wore their hair or coverings was an attempt to blur any gender distinctions.

Now, consider that churches met in homes, where any woman, Jew or Gentile, could leave their hair uncovered for their husbands and family to see. This may have caused a lot of confusion for many of the Corinthian Christians meeting in those homes.[4]

As a collectivist culture, how the Corinthians conducted and presented themselves publicly–including the style of dress and headwear–would bring honor or shame to their family and community. You see hints of this as Paul uses words like “dishonor” or “disgrace” and “glory.”

The problem could be stated like this: “We are in someone’s home. BUT this is a community gathering, basically open to the public. Should her hair really be exposed like that? That’s basically a come-on! She’s bringing shame on her family! On herself! What do we do?!”[5]

Paul doesn’t want anything–even hairstyles–to bring disrepute on the faith community and the gospel itself.

Put this way, it’s easy to see that the Corinthians had very real problems in their context.

Paul cares about hairstyles (or head coverings) because, as Marg Mowczko writes, “[He] did not want the Corinthian men and women to wear hairstyles that were sexually or morally confusing.”[6]

The issue isn’t that women are leading and they need to stand down and submit to men. It’s that Paul doesn’t want anything–even hairstyles–to bring disrepute on the faith community and the gospel itself.

Because of these real-life problems, the Corinthians needed real-life solutions.

On to the passage.

Verses 2-5

Verse 2 is introductory, so I’m going to start with verse 3 because that’s where much of the controversy lies. Verse 3 contains the word “head,” which is kephale in Greek. In the passage, kephale occurs 14 times.

Complementarians claim that this word kephale means “authority” or to be “in authority over.” This is how we often use “head” metaphorically in English (“She is the head of a company”). So, complementarians say, men/husbands are the authority over women/wives. And that settles the issue.

But is “authority” the best way to understand kephale? I don’t belive it is.

Almost exclusively, kephale means the literal, physical head of a body. And in antiquity, it rarely ever meant “authority/in authority over.” In fact, the Liddel-Scott-Jones Lexicon (LSJ), one of the most authoritative Greek-English lexicons, doesn’t list “authority” as a possible meaning for kephale.[7]

In our short passage, every time kephale occurs it refers to the literal, physical head of a person, except for each occurrence in verse 3: “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”

How should we understand kephale here? I think we have two options that work better than “authority.”

Option 1: Source/Origin

First, we could understand it in the sense of source or origin.[8] Man was created by God. Woman comes from man. The Christ (Messiah) comes from God.

But if kephale means source or origin, wouldn’t we be guilty of the Arian heresy that claimed Christ was created by God the Father?[9]

Of course, Jesus was not created! But “source” doesn’t only have the connotation of “beginning.” As Richard Cervin writes, “[T]he English words origin and beginning are not always equivalent. The origin of a book, movie, or play is not the same thing as its beginning.”[10]

Instead, we have the option to understand “source” as meaning “to come from.” The Son is begotten of the Father. The Son was sent by the Father. The Messiah (Christ) is most definitely from God.

This idea is clearly articulated later in the Nicene Creed, written about 300 years after 1 Corinthians: Messiah Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light…begotten, not made.”[11]

Option 2: Prominence/Honor

Kephale can also have the sense of “prominence” or “honor.” LSJ offers “the noblest part” as one possible meaning.

As I mentioned above, the Corinthians, like the Jews, were a collectivist, honor-shame culture. Women did not have their own honor. Their honor was connected to and derived from a male relative (usually a husband or father).[12] Yet women could bring shame and disrepute upon their family.

This is the likely backdrop to Paul’s words in verses 4-5:

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. (NIV)

Notice the language of shame Paul uses in those verses: dishonors (twice) and shaved (a symbol of shame in the ancient world).

I’m inclined to think “head” must mean source/origin or prominence/honor precisely because verses 4-5 make clear that both men and women are praying and prophesying!

I’m inclined to think “head” must mean source/origin or prominence/honor precisely because verses 4-5 make clear that both men and women are praying and prophesying!

This is something patriarchal commentators often miss. The passage cannot possibly be used to restrict women’s leadership activity because both genders are exercising their God-given spiritual gifts in the Corinthian congregation.

Paul assumes both genders will pray and prophesy–both leadership activities in the first-century–when the church comes together. He never says, “Men, you need to step up and lead! And, oh ladies, please submit and let the men do all the talking!”

So what’s Paul’s point? He wants to prevent women (or wives) from bringing shame/dishonor on the men (or their husbands) in the church becuase of their hairstyle or lack of head covering.

Whichever option we choose, both fit the cultural context much better than the complementarian view that focuses on men being in charge.

Verse 6

Paul’s solution to all this was very simple: Ladies, cover your hair. If you don’t want to do that, why don’t you shave it all off? (see v 6).[13] Of course, Paul knows a shaved head reeks of shame. That’s why he essentially says at the end of verse 6, “Just cover your head.”

He’s not putting women “in their place” here. As the Apostle of the heart set free, he never treated women that way. Ever! Indeed, the high-status women he met on his missionary journeys would have never joined the Jesus movement if they weren’t treated as equals.[14]

Paul helps the Corinthians understand how the church ought to conduct itself in the midst of a society that has certain norms and expectations for men and women. Yes, they have freedom in Christ. Praise God for freedom! But using your freedom is not always beneficial (cf. Gal 5:1).

Verses 7-10

While women must cover their heads, Paul writes in verse 7, “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.”

Notice that he does not say that “woman is the image of man” but the glory of man. The word for glory here is doxa (think “doxology”). It does usually mean “glory” but it can carry the meaning of “good repute or honor.”[15]

Considering that Paul talks about disgrace/dishonor throughout, it’s reasonable to conclude “glory” relates to the honor/shame dynamic (see verses 14-15 as well). Complementarian Craig Blomberg concedes, “In both places [glory] probably carries the sense of ‘honor.'”[16]

What’s Paul saying then? A Christian man’s behavior affects how people view God. He can bring honor, glory, a good reputation to God’s name. Similarly, a first-century woman’s behavior can affect her husband or family’s honor and reputation.

Listen to how Marg Mowczko puts it:

In honour-shame cultures, it can be difficult for a woman to attain honour for herself. Rather, women protect the reputation and honour of the men in their family by being discreet and socially respectable. This respectability usually has a heavy emphasis on being, and appearing to be, sexually chaste. In such societies, family members, especially women, who display aberrant behaviour or loose morals bring dishonour on the whole family, but especially on the senior male.[17

What about the “created order” in verses 8-9? Complementarians teach that a wife exists to serve and support her husband and his calling based on who was created first.

It shouldn’t take someone being an egalitarian, however, to see that this is outside the scope of the passage. Again, Paul’s not saying anything about gender roles. They would need to be read into the passage. Instead, Paul’s talking about one’s physical appearance in a worship gathering to prevent bringing shame upon oneself and family.

Verses 8-10 bring up an interesting translation dilemma. Look at the ESV:

8For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9Neither was man created for [dia] woman, but woman for [dia] man. 10That is why [dia] a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of [dia] the angels.

You can see from the brackets that the word “for” is the Greek word dia. It’s one of those elastic Greek pronouns that can be translated many different ways. The ESV choose to translate dia as “for” verse 9. Curiously, it’s translated as “That is why” at the beginning of verse 10 and then as “because of” at the end. (The NIV is almost identical to this, by the way.)

It’s perfectly reasonable to translate dia as “because of” every time, however. In fact, “for” is not a common translation for dia. With a word occurring four times this closely, there’s no reason to translate it differently if one translation makes good sense for every occurrence. “Because of” works quite well all four times:

8For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9Neither was man created because of woman, but woman because of man. 10Because of this, a wife ought to have [a symbol of] authority on her head, because of the angels.

Why does this matter?

Remember back to our discussion of Genesis 2? There we saw that the woman was created so that the man would not be alone. Not mainly that he’d have a romantic partner (though that’s part of it, I’m sure). In the context, he needed someone to help him work and keep the Garden. The man was needy. God sent him help. The man finally found his “corresponding strength” (‘ezer kenegedo in Hebrew) in the woman.[18]

Seen this way, Paul reminds the Corinthians that “women…are placed by God in the human scene as the strong who come to help/save the needy (the men). In this reading of the text, Paul the Middle Eastern male chauvinist disappears.”[19]

The crescendo of Genesis 2 is the formation of the woman. Humanity, indeed all of creation, has reached its apex when she enters the story.

Yet some complementarian somewhere is still shouting, “BUT THE CREATED ORDER!”

The problem with “created order,” as Kenneth Bailey points out, is that if we want to give priority to what’s first, then the empty void at the beginning would take the cake. But creation moves from lower forms of life to higher ones.[20]

What comes later is most precious.

The crescendo of Genesis 2 is the formation of the woman. Humanity, indeed all of creation, has reached its apex when she enters the story.

Now, what about verse 10? I should have mentioned at the beginning that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a chiasm. This is a literary structure in the shape of an X (chi = X in the Greek alphabet). A chiasm is used to emphasize a particular point. In the case of our passage, verse 10 is at the center of the chiasm. This means that while we may debate about what Paul meant here or there, we can be sure that verse 10 was his “big take away.”

Verse 10 in the ESV says, “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”

Having “a symbol of authority” (a passive activity) would mean women are subjugated to men, evidenced by their head coverings.

Walter Kaiser calls this “one of the weirdest twists in translation history.”[21] Why?

The word for “a symbol of authority” in Greek is exousia. It’s just the typical Greek word translated “authority,” It’s never used in a passive sense, but always active. In other words, authority is not something done to you, it’s something you have or do.

The NIV gets it right: “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head.”

Paul wants the Corinthians women to know they have authority to pray and prophesy in the gathering so long as they present themselves in culturally acceptable ways.[22]

Verses 11-12

If you are still unconvinced at this point, listen to verses 11-12. These two verses reveal Paul has little regard for “created order” when it comes to gender roles.

“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.” (NIV)

So what if the first woman came from a man? Every man since has come from a woman (aka his mom!). Much more importantly, everything comes from God.

He meticulously expresses the interdependence and partnership of both genders under God, without elevating one over the other.

Verses 13-16

Paul ends this discussion by appealing to nature. “Does not the very nature of things [Gk physis] teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him?” This word physis can be understood as “naturally” or “what’s natural” to you.[23]

Paul’s usage here suggest that women do not need to wear anything on their head. Their appropriate hairstyle is sufficient!

In other words, Paul expected men to wear their hair short and women to wear their hair long because that is what humans naturally do. Of course, hairstyles have deviated from this at times in certain cultures. But we can all agree that for the most part, this has been humanity’s norm.

Then, as I mentioned in the introduction, Paul says something that helps us make sense of the whole passage: “For long hair is given to her as a covering.” The word “covering” here is different than the word Paul uses for “cover/covered” (vv 4, 6, 7) and “uncovered” (v 5, 13). It means something like “cloth, clothing, robe.”

But Paul’s usage here suggest that women do not need to wear anything on their head. Their appropriate hairstyle is sufficient! Biblical scholar Philip Payne agrees:

“This implies that Paul did not require women to wear any item of clothing on top of their modestly-done-up hair. After all, why would Paul end his argument by stating that a woman has been given long hair as a covering if his point all along was to require a garment head covering?”[24]

In the end, the issue isn’t authority, but how men and women distinguish themselves in worship by their appearances–namely their hairstyles.[25]

How Do We Apply This Today?

As we read more and more of the biblical text, we begin to see that we can’t always make one-to-one applications. That’s the case for this text! In many Western contexts today, women can wear short hair and men can wear long hair and no one is confused or offended by that.

Complementarians, who think the passage is about authority structures, will apply this passage by saying women who participate in worship need to wear a wedding ring as a sign that they are under their husband’s authority.[26] But this passage is not about which gender has authority, so that application is completely off base.

To apply the text, we start with the abstract principle: don’t present yourself in a way that is sexually or morally confusing. Getting to the concrete expression will vary from place to place.

One scholar offered this wise approach:

The cultural markers for [the uniqueness of each gender] will vary widely from time-to-time and from place-to-place, but the principle endures. Although our appearance should not be dictated by the culture around us, we should be sensitive to how we appear within that context—especially regarding those to whom we minister.

In other words, be free, but do not use your freedom as a cover up for evil (see Gal 5:1).

Summing It All Up

Once again, we see that a passage traditionally held to favor complementarians can easily be explained another way that is faithful the cultural context and takes into consideration all that Paul has to say about women.

First Corinthians 11:2-16 isn’t about gender roles or gender subordination. It’s about gender distinction in worship. Men and women both led worship in Corinth and Paul knew this. He never told women to stop leading because it wasn’t wrong for them to do so. His aim was to remind the women not to ignore cultural gender norms so that they did not distract others from worshiping God.

Now, let’s tackle the final controversial text on women in the church: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.


Notes

[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2011), 300.

[2] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” Pricilla Papers 19/2, 2005, writes that Paul may desire that men stop the practice of covering their heads because of the Jewish tallit, mainly because it symbolized the law (and thus the guilt that comes with failing to uphold the law). Because there is no condemnation in Christ (Rom 8:1), why should men continue to cover their heads?

[3] Quoted in ibid., 305. See Babylonian Talmud, Berakot 14a for original quote. It is very unclear to me how a flock of goats can be an illustration for a sexual enticement. Alas, I am not an ancient Jew. And I never will be.

[4] Craig Keener, “1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), on BibleGateway.com..

[5] Remember 14:24 which suggests the possibility that anyone may enter the gathering at any time, even unbelievers.

[6] Marg Mowczko, “A note on nature and hairstyles in 1 Cor. 11:14-15,” 9/2/2021. “Sexually” doesn’t mean “She’s trying to be sexy.” Instead, it’s related to the physical makeup of an individual (e.g. is this person male or female?)–what the ancients called a person’s “constitution.”

[7] LSJ Online Lexicon, kephale.

[8] Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 301.

[9] Craig L. Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), on BibleGateway.com.

[10] Richard Cervin, “On the Significance of Kephalē (“Head”): A Study of the Abuse of One Greek Word,” Priscilla Papers 30/1, April 30, 2016. In this case, the text would mean something like 1) the origin of every man is Christ since Christ is the agent of God in creation; 2) the origin of woman is the man (Adam) since the woman was “taken out of man” (see Gen 2:21-23); 3) the origin of Christ is God since the Christ (i.e. not Jesus’ last name but literally “the Messiah”) comes from God. See Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 302.

[11] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Colorado Springs: Lewis and Roth, 2003), 61-63 also uses the Nicene Creed to prove his point that Jesus is equal but subordinate to the Father. But the authors of the Nicene Creed were surely not trying to show that Jesus was subordinate to the Father. They wanted to be clear he was equal to the Father. While complementarians may be uncomfortable with this “source” language, it makes me equally uncomfortable to say that the authority of Christ is God! If Jesus is “of the same essence of the Father,” then isn’t he of the same authority? It’s true that Jesus says he can only do what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19). But he can also say that no one can take his life from him and he has authority to lay it down (John 10:18). Something has to give. So while Jesus does submit to his Father, we should be very careful to argue that Jesus was always subordinate to his Father or continues to be lest we begin to sound like we’re saying he is “not quite as much God” as God the Father. This, too, is straight from the Arian playbook.

[12] Marg Mowczko, “1 Corinthians 11:2-16, in a Nutshell,” 8/10/21.

[13] Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 306.

[14] Ibid.

[15] LSJ Online Lexicon, doxa.

[16] Keener, “1 Corinthians 11:2-16.”

[17] Marg Mowczko, “Man and woman as the image and glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:7),” August 7, 2018.

[18] Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 311.

[19] Ibid., 310.

[20] Ibid., 303.

[21] Kaiser, “Correcting Caricatures.”

[22] What’s the deal with the angels? The word for “angels” is a generic word that can also be translated as “messengers.” We don’t need to understand this word to mean angelic beings. There may have been messengers who were spying on the Corinthian church, hence the reason Paul is so concerned about how they dress in the gathering. This same word is translated “spies” in James 2:25. For more on this, see Mowczko, “Man and woman as the image and glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:7),” and “1 Corinthians 11:2-16, in a Nutshell.”

[23] Mowzcko, “A note on nature.”

[24] Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 205.

[25] The ESV Study Bible, “1 Corinthians 11:14,” (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 2008, a complementarian work, says, “Paul’s point is that men should look like men in that culture, and women should look like women in that culture, rather than seeking to deny or disparage the God-given differences between the sexes.”

[26] Jeremy Gardiner, “Can Wedding Rings Replace Head Coverings?” critiques the typical complemetnarian application. This is a very interesting perspective because the author founded the “Head Covering Movement.” Yes, there is such a thing. And of course it would be a man who leads it.

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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

1 Timothy 3:1-7: For Men Only?

One of the most convincing pieces of biblical evidence against women in leadership seems to be Paul’s list of qualifications for overseer/elder in 1 Timothy 3:1-8. The terms for these people that we’re more familiar with are pastors, ministers, bishops, etc. I’ll use the terms elder and overseer synonymously in this post.

Even if my interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 were true–that Paul is not laying down an absolute, universal restriction on women–surely the very next chapter in 1 Timothy does confirm Paul would not allow women to lead. Right?

In this (much shorter and much less technical) post, we’ll look at 1 Timothy 3:1-8, and take a few glances at a similar passage from Paul in Titus 1:5-9.

Surprisingly, we’ll see that Paul actually never limits oversight/eldership to men. Instead, he encourages anyone who aspires to this noble task.

How English Translations Let Us Down

Almost every English translation of 1 Timothy 3:1-8 implies that a local church elder is male. Take a look at the beginning of the passage in several translations (my emphasis):

  • NLT: This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be a church leader, he desires an honorable position.” So a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife.
  • NIV: Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife
  • ESV: The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife
  • NASB: It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife

The masculine pronoun “he” doesn’t occur in the Greek text of 1 Timothy 3:1-8 at all.

Pretty cut and dry, right? When we read 1 Timothy 3:1-8 in English, we think, “Well, even if 1 Timothy 2 doesn’t restrict women from teaching and leading, 1 Timothy 3 says elders are men! He is all over the place. He! He! He!”

There’s just one small problem.

The masculine pronoun “he” doesn’t occur in the Greek text of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 at all.

Not once.[1]

It doesn’t occur in the elder qualification list in Titus 1:5-8 either.[2]

Yet the word “he” occurs six times in the NASB, NIV, and ESV. The NASB also inserts the word “man” in verse 1 though it’s not in the original language. How about the NLT? “He” finds its way in there nine times; “man” is also in there once. (Read the whole passage in just about every English translation.)

These mistranslations influence how we understand Paul’s instructions. He seems to have intentionally left out the masculine pronoun for the express purpose of making it clear that women are eligible to serve as elders, too. (I say “seems” because we cannot know with 100% certainty why he did this.)

In verse 1, Paul uses the phrase ei tis, which should be translated “if anyone.” (The ESV gets it right here.) If Paul wanted to be explicit about which gender can serve, he could have used the masculine pronoun at one point or many.

He seems to have intentionally left out the masculine pronoun for the express purpose of making it clear that women are eligible to serve as elders, too.

But he never does.

Unlike English, Greek does not require the use of a pronoun with a verb. So a third-person singular verb (like “aspires” in verse 1) isn’t connected to “he,” but to “anyone.” Anyone (male or female) is who Paul had in mind.

So what’s the best translation? It may seem sacrilege to the grammar purist, but we can’t do better in English than the singular “they.”[3] Yes, “they” should be used as a singular plural pronoun in cases where “anyone” (or “someone”) is the subject.

Here’s what that would look and sound like:

The saying is trustworthy: if anyone aspires to the work of overseeing, they desire a good work. Therefore, the overseer/bishop must be above reproach, a man of one woman, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not drunk, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy, managing their own house well with all dignity, keeping their children obedient, for if someone doesn’t know how to manage their own home how will they care for God’s church? They must not be a recent convert or they may become conceited and fall into the devil’s condemnation. Moreover, they must have a good witness with outsiders, so that they will not fall into disgrace and the devil’s snare.

How would this translation change the conversation about the gender of elders? How would it change your perspective?

But What About A “One Woman Man”?

If we go with my suggested translation, it seems that Paul includes the possibility that women can serve as elders in a church. But even this position has a problem. What about that little phrase “a husband of one wife”? It’s often translated “faithful to his wife” or something similar in both 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6.

Doesn’t that mean that all leaders in a church must be men?

No, not at all.

The literal translation is “a man of one woman.” Some believe Paul is excluding from church leadership men who are divorced or even struggling with lust. But that’s not exactly what he said. That’s an interpretation.

Considering his first-century context, Paul is most likely excluding polygamists (men who have more than one wife) from church oversight.

This is how John Chrysostom (a third-century church father) understood Paul’s words: “This he does not lay down as a rule, as if [an overseer] must not be without [a wife], but as prohibiting his having more than one.”[4] Chrysostom spoke Greek and knew Paul’s culture better than we do. We should take his interpretation seriously.

Someone might ask, though, why didn’t Paul prohibit the opposite: women with multiple husbands (“polyandry”)?

The reality is that polyandry was incredibly rare in the ancient world if practiced at all.[5] For most of world history men have had the advantage in social status, financial security, formal education, and so on. That’s probably why Paul didn’t include “a woman of one man.”

There’s one more possibility for “a man of one woman.” More like an additional layer: Paul may also have in mind active, male adulterers who are unfaithful to their wives.[6] Of course, women did commit adultery. And Paul would not have allowed a female adulteress to serve as an elder either! But female adultery was probably less common because of the potential for severe consequences under Roman law.[7]

If Paul means something more than excluding polygamists, we might say “faithful in marriage” (regardless of gender) gets close to what he had in mind.

How Literal Do You Want to Get?

Complementarian teaching can go further, however. Since Paul included the phrase “a man of one woman,” I was taught that this implies only men can be overseers/elders. Otherwise, why would this qualification be here? Why else would it be phrased this way?

That is a very literal reading and application of the text. If we make that argument, couldn’t we then say that Paul excludes single men from being an overseer/elder? (See Chrysostom’s quote above.) Of course, that would mean Paul himself, not to mention Jesus, wouldn’t be able to serve as an overseer in Ephesus. And that’s just nonsense.

The slippery slope of a literal reading continues. Does managing a household well so that [supposedly his] children obey (v 4) mean that the overseer must be married and have children? Does it mean that the person must also be a head of a household? Is Paul excluding slaves or freedmen or general employees who do not have a household to manage?

Bridging the gap to our day, this would mean only wealthy, married businessmen with children can serve as elders! I don’t know of anyone who wants to make that case.

Paul provides a non-exhaustive list that generally represents what an elder should look like. One’s gender isn’t a requirement.

Paul is saying that if a man is married, he needs to only have one wife; if someone has children (he never says father/man/he, etc.), the children must be obedient/submissive.

When we consider that the lists in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are not carbon copies of each other, it should be apparent that these lists are descriptive, not prescriptive. Much like his spiritual gift lists, Paul provides a non-exhaustive list that generally represents what an elder should look like. One’s gender isn’t a requirement.

Women Can Do This Job, Too

The one ministry skill in the list of qualifications is being able to teach. (But let’s not forget that managing one’s house is also a skill!) Since Paul encouraged women to learn (2:11), the expectation was that they would be able to teach at some point!

Looking at the rest of the qualifications, notice that, again like spiritual gifts, none of them are gender-specific–other than “a man of one wife” (which I explained above).

The qualifications are actually pretty unremarkable things that should be true of all Christians! But it’s fascinating that throughout the letter, Paul encourages and commands women to fulfill many of these qualifications.

The table below shows that Paul used at least nine of the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 in reference to women at other points in the letter.[8]

In Reference to Overseers/Elders (3:1-7)In Reference to Women
Desire a good workDevoted to good works (5:10)
Above reproachAbove reproach (5:7)
Sober-mindedSober-minded (3:11)
Self-controlled Self-control (2:9)
RespectableWear respectable apparel (2:9)
HospitableShowing hospitality (5:10)
Well thought of by outsidersWell-known for good deeds (5:10)
Manage household wellManage household (5:14)
Avoid the devil’s condemnationSome have incurred condemnation (5:12)

It seems Paul believes women can and will take on oversight responsibilities. Why else would he encourage women to pursue these things in the exact same letter where he describes a godly leader? I don’t believe Paul would dangle a carrot in front of a woman’s face only to say, “Oh, wait. You can’t have that role because you’re a woman.”

I don’t believe Paul would dangle a carrot in front of a woman’s face only to say, “Oh, wait. You can’t have that role because you’re a woman.”

Back to the point about these qualities being true of every Christian. Since that’s true, it makes perfect sense for Paul to say anyone can aspire to this role. The Holy Spirit empowers women, just as much as he does men, to reflect the qualities Paul mentions. And because the Spirit dwells in men and women, both genders represent and speak for the risen, authoritative Jesus.

Doesn’t it seem wise for an entire faith community (which is made up of men and women, by the way) to have both genders serving as examples and shepherding the flock? Our churches today are more likely to flourish spiritually, emotionally, and socially when both genders are represented in leadership.

Summing It All Up

The overseer qualifications that Paul lays out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 should not be used to prevent women from serving as elders in a church. Paul never says or implies that they must only be men.

Despite what our English Bibles say, neither of Paul’s lists uses a masculine pronoun in the original language. He says that “anyone” who aspires to serve desires a good thing. And they may serve, as long as they have godly character and are able to teach. In 1 Timothy, it’s also clear that Paul wants women to pursue the same qualities required of elders, implying that they can lead when they’re ready.

Now that we’ve dealt with 1 Timothy 2-3, we’ll shift to the two controversial texts in 1 Corinthians on women’s roles in the church.


Notes

Feature photo: Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash.

[1] “He” also doesn’t occur in the section on deacons in 3:9-13.

[2] Titus 1:6 says, “If anyone…” (ei tis), just like 1 Timothy 3:1 does.

[3] The link will take you to an APA article about the singular “they” in English. “Singular ‘They,'” APA Style, September 2019.

[4] Quoted in Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 425.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (New York: Liverlight, 2016), 308, notes that there is some evidence that the execution of a wife caught in adultery was within the husband’s legal power. Of course, there was no comparable law for adulterous husbands.

[8] This is essentially an English version of the Greek table in Payne, Man and Woman, 447-453.

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

How Should We Apply 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Today?

In light of my commentary, I want to reflect briefly on how we might apply 1 Timothy 2:11-15 today. I’ll mention two big-picture principles, though I’m sure we could mention more. Then I want to do a thought experiment with you.

Prioritize Learning Christian Doctrine

False teaching was the big obstacle for the church in Ephesus. As it spread, the result was that people were being deceived. In the case of our passage, a woman or many women were deceived into believing they could dominate a man/all men (in my interpretation). False doctrine led to wicked behavior.

Paul’s short-range solution was simply to say no teaching or domineering. His long-range solution was to command that this woman/women learn with a teachable heart. He actually mentions the long-range solution first. The implication is that once someone demonstrates knowledge, humility, and self-control, they’d be eligible to teach.

The broad, abstract principle for us is that in order to combat false teaching, in any form, and avoid deception we must train and equip people in the church to know the truth. The concrete expression in Ephesus was to let this woman learn but, in the meantime, not teach because of her domineering manner.

The concrete expression in our churches may be very different.

Additionally, we must not put people in positions of leadership who are easily deceived due to lack of training, whether they are male or female. Someone who has not been educated is more susceptible to false teaching.

Formal education isn’t the point; knowledge is. In order to detect false teaching and avoid deception, you need to know the difference between truth and falsehood.

So, let’s teach people the Scriptures!

Prioritize a Humble Posture

Learning is not all. It must come with a humble posture, in full submission to God. That was Paul’s concern. Also, remember the call to “continue in love, faith, and self-control” in verse 15. Whether the person is new to learning or actively leading, the fruit of the Spirit, not authentein, is what should characterize them.

This is what we’d want for any student, male or female, who studies any discipline, right? How much more in theology?

We need men and women who are ready and willing to learn, not to push their way to the top of the church org chart, but to serve and lay down their life for others.

Competence is important, but competence in the hands of someone without character is a dumpster fire.

Anyone who has been a leader for a while knows this because we remember what we were like when we were young leaders! I’ll be the first to admit it was ugly.

We should remember though that 1 Timothy 2 says nothing about leadership! We read that into the passage, and we’re influenced by our English translations of authentein.

But the question remains: What about domineering leaders?

In Ephesus, the problem was that someone who did not have legitimate authority was trying to seize it. In the United States today, we have people (mostly men, by the way) who have been given legitimate authority in the church and are abusing it.

Simply, some of our churches (it’s hard to know how many) have bullies for leaders.

You know the famous names and churches. Perhaps you’ve even experienced it yourself. The problem is that it gets defended and justified with spiritual-sounding lines like,

  • “You’re being insubordinate to pastoral authority.”
  • “You’re causing division in the body.”
  • “You shouldn’t talk about your pastor’s attitude or behavior. Even if you think it’s abusive. That’s gossip!”
  • “His heart is in the right place.”
  • “Well, we need to give him grace.”

And on and on.

These “leaders” are authentein-ing their way through ministry. To authentein is to be full of yourself (remember the prefix “autos” in the last post?). Yet Jesus emptied himself. He didn’t come to lord it over. He became a servant who washed feet. And he calls us to do the same.

So, let’s prioritize character before calling, gifts, or ministry fruit when training someone or entrusting them with any level of leadership.

A Thought Experiment

If you’re a complementarian, I want to invite you to a brief thought experiment. It may not change your view, but I hope it makes you question your assumptions.

Experiment #1. Let’s assume that my interpretation is correct in that Paul is not talking about exercising positive, legitimate authority. Let’s assume authentein means domineering or seizing of authority, making it illegitimate. It’s not something anyone, male or female, should do or have, right?

So then consider: what if a man in your church was doing what Paul describes in 1 Timothy 2?

How would you handle it or expect the leaders to handle it?

I hope that little reversal helps you see that the problem here is not one’s gender but one’s heart. It’s why Paul calls for stillness (twice), submission, and love, faith, and self-control.

Isn’t the heart, not the appearance, what God looks at? Isn’t that what biblical application is all about?

I’ll grant that you may be stuck on Paul’s mention of Adam and Eve in verses 13-14. That may be why it’s so hard to not think gender is the central issue. But consider he may be 1) clarifying orthodoxy, or 2) clarifying that Eve was not Adam’s boss but his partner.

Experiment #2. What if the church in Ephesus was actually walking together in love, faith, and self-control. What if Timothy fought against false teaching but it wasn’t destroying the church from within? What if that woman wasn’t authentein-ing but living in humility and doing what Paul told the church to do in Colossians 3:12-17?

Then Paul would have never written those words. If that were the case, we would not have one explicit passage in the entire New Testament that restricts women from teaching men.

The overseer qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 may mean that only men can be elders/overseers. (I have my doubts on that, too, and I’ll try to show that in the next post.) But that text does not preclude women or non-elders or anyone else from teaching in the church. Many complementarian churches today will allow males who are non-elders or not even members of the church (e.g. a guest speaker for the weekend) to preach in a worship service.

Why not allow women to do this, too? Well, 1 Timothy 2:12, complementarians argue.

But without 1 Timothy 2:12, there is no support in the entire Bible for keeping a woman from teaching a man.

Well-known blogger (and complementarian) Tim Challies writes, “What the Bible teaches in one place it cannot refute in another.”[1]

We do see evidence of women teaching and leading in other parts of Scripture, Old and New Testament. (Check out the many posts I’ve written on this here.)

Paul tells the churches in Corinth and Colossae that they will teach one another. He expects it. And he doesn’t parse gender lines in those letters. Why? It’s likely because he wasn’t making a universal rule in 1 Timothy.

It begs the question, can we really use this one verse to nullify all those other instances?

This is the reason why Bill Mounce, a complementarian scholar, says that “the context thus limits the universal application [of 1 Timothy 2:12] to some extent.”[2]

I’m not trying to undermine the authority of 1 Timothy 2:12. Instead, I’m trying to show (quite outrageously, I admit) that to build an entire theology and practice on one verse despite quite a bit of evidence to the contrary is probably not a good idea.

Summing It Up

I hope these thought experiments help you see that Paul’s solution was specific to a problem in Ephesus while Timothy was there, not something every church in every culture in every generation deals with.

We’d do well to focus on the two principles I mentioned above and work out, in our own contexts, how to concretely express them.


Notes

[1] Tim Challies, “The Five Tests of False Doctrine,” 2/6/2017.

[2] Mounce is quoted in Michael F. Bird, Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012). I found the quote here.

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.