Categories
Let Her Lead Theology

What About Marriage?

On a few occasions, after telling someone that I believe women should not be restricted from any leadership in the church, I’ve been asked, Well, what about marriage?

Perhaps you’re okay with women leading in the church, but equal authority in marriage makes you uncomfortable. After all, doesn’t the Bible say wives should submit to their husbands in everything?

When I had a complementarian framework, I believed this (obviously). Even then, I wondered how it worked practically. Oddly enough, the New Testament doesn’t get as specific as the “biblical manhood and womanhood” movement.

Why?

I believe it’s because we’ve missed the point of these passages, reading them through a lens of power and authority rather than service and sacrifice.

Let’s try to look at them with fresh eyes.

Ancient Household Codes

There are three passages where wives are told to submit to their husbands in the New Testament: Ephesians 5-6, Colossians 3, and 1 Peter 3.

These sections reflect secular ancient household codes. Plato, one of the first to articulate this, taught that women, children, and slaves ought to be ruled over because they belonged to the “mob of motley appetites and pleasures and pains.”[1]

Aristotle, Plato’s student, took the codes to a new level. He created the three-fold structure of husbands-wives, parents-children, and slaves-masters that we find in Ephesians and Colossians.

For Aristotle, a well-ordered home was the cornerstone of society. But a household was only as stable as its patriarchal rule.

For Aristotle, a well-ordered home was the cornerstone of society. But a household was only as stable as its patriarchal rule.[2]

His codes addressed men only and taught how men were to treat their subordinates. Aristotle believed men had all the agency in relationships.

“The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior,” he wrote. “The one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.”[3]

He goes on to say:

A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.[4]

Women, as Aristotle saw it, were destined to be ruled by men simply because they’re female. That’s what “a constitutional rule” means.

Aristotle was certainly sexist. Most of the ancient world was. But these codes weren’t mainly about gender (though that was a significant part of it), but power. They were designed to keep certain groups of people in power and other groups far away from it.[5]

Then Jesus came and changed everything.

How Jesus Changed Everything

In the New Testament’s version of household codes, a dramatic shift takes place.

Paul and Peter address both parties, rather than men only. The Apostles believed the subordinate person also has agency in their relationships. What’s more, the “inferior” party is addressed first: wives then husbands; children then parents; slaves then masters.[6]

The New Testament shows how Jesus brings redemption to human institutions and relationships.

As for those in power? They are never called to lord it over, but to love. The gospel leads them to divest themselves of power, deny their worldly status, and serve.

In other words, the New Testament shows how Jesus brings redemption to human institutions and relationships.

Yet, the New Testament also stops short of prescribing social revolution. Why? Mowczko reminds us, “Christian teaching that blatantly undermined or openly subverted the social structures of the day could have been disastrous for the new Jesus movement.”[7]

Rome was suspicious of any religious group that threatened the Roman way of life. The Apostles were careful with their words.

Besides, they couldn’t have imagined a world in which women had equal rights and slavery would be abolished.

When the opportunity did come, though, Christians took on those social causes.

A Closer Look at Ephesians 5

Now let’s zoom in on Paul’s largest section on household codes, Ephesians 5:21-6:9.

Mutual Submission Defines Christian Community

Before getting to specific relationships within the house, Paul encases the entire discussion with mutual submission. He writes, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). Everything else in the section should be read through this framework.

Then to end the section, he makes what I think is the most radical statement of all: “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way” (6:9).[8]

Can you imagine how many jaws hit the floor? Paul flips the power dynamic of the ancient world on its head.

Men are never told to rule or make all the decisions or make all the money. Instead, husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives (5:25), fathers to not provoke their children (6:4), and masters to treat slaves as fellow servants (6:9).

This reflects Jesus, of course. Jesus did not come to be served but to serve and give up his life (Mark 10:45). He washed his disciples’ feet and invited them to do the same to each other. He said the first shall be last and the last first.

When an entire community lives this way, it’s called “mutual submission.”

What About the Word “Submit”?

When we read the word “submit” in English we think that it means that someone is in charge and everyone else is subordinate to that person. It can mean that in Greek, too. There was a military usage that meant “to arrange under the command of a leader.”

But two Greek lexicons show that it has a broader, non-militaristic meaning. It can mean “voluntary yielding in love.”[9] or “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.”[10]

Only the context can help us. And since we’ve already seen the call for mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21, we know it cannot be a dictatorial-type military submission.

In verse 22, where Paul begins his instructions to wives, the Greek word for “submit” isn’t there. It has to be carried over from verse 21.

The societal norm was for wives to submit to their husbands. Every single wife reading this letter would have expected Paul to write what he did.

The societal norm was for wives to submit to their husbands. Every single wife reading this letter would have expected Paul to write what he did.

But while he affirms this expectation, he frames it through the lens of the gospel: submit, but only as the church submits to Jesus. (So, never to an abusive husband, for example.)

Paul shows wives (and children and slaves) dignity by starting with them. But he saves most of his words for husbands, who had the upper hand in the relationship.

If verse 21 commands mutual submission, we have to ask, “How should husbands submit to their wives?”

Verse 25 gives us the answer. Husbands are not to use their power to their advantage, but love their wives and lay down their own lives, like Jesus.

It was Jesus, after all, who “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (Phil 2:6). He voluntarily laid his life down for the good of others.

Husbands, Paul says, do the same.

What Does It Mean to Be the “Head”?

Verse 23 says that the husband is the “head” of the wife. When we use the word “head” as a metaphor in English, we use it to mean an authority figure. But that wasn’t the natural Greek meaning for “head.”[11].

I’ve shown in another post that the Greek word for “head” can mean source. In Ephesians, Paul is using it in the sense of a source that provides connectedness and nourishment.[12] The focus on Christ’s “headship” stresses his love, sacrifice, and cleansing of the church–not his “authority.”

One mistake Christians often make–and I will be the first to admit I’ve made it–is that we say, “Marriages are to be a picture of the gospel.”

Where do we get that? Not Ephesians 5. Paul never says this. It’s actually Christ and the Church that is the picture to emulate.

Roman husbands had the power and legal right to treat their wives however they pleased. This was the case for nearly all societies throughout history. Even if a husband wanted to buck the trend and love his wife, he didn’t have an alternative option to follow.

Paul uses Christ and the Church as an analogy to show husbands what it’s like to love their wives, be united to their wives, and nourish them rather than harm them. That’s what a “head” does for its “body.”

Most marriages in our country today, religious or secular, actually encourage both people to love and nourish each other. I hope we’d all agree this is a good thing!

We need to remember that this was not on a Roman man’s radar in the first century. Men were not taught to love a woman. Paul’s instructions to husbands were radical. Even unheard of.

Paul uses Christ and the Church as an analogy to show husbands what it’s like to love their wives, be united with their wives, and nourish them.

Like all divine analogies for human behavior, however, it breaks down at some point.

In verses 26-27, Paul talks about how Jesus treats his church. But husbands don’t cleanse their wives of sin or sanctify them (even though I’ve heard pastors at weddings say they do).

He comes back to husbands in verse 28 and tells them to love their wives “in this same way.” Paul’s point isn’t that they become Savior 2.0.

It’s that husbands must obey the Golden Rule even in marriage. If husbands are commanded to love their neighbor as themselves, how could they do anything less for their nearest neighbor?

Because Christians (myself included) have read this passage through a lens of patriarchal power, we’ve entirely missed the point.

It has nothing to do with a husband’s leadership and a wife’s subjugation. It has everything to do with the gospel’s transforming work. The powerful become meek to bring unity with and nourishment to those society deems inferior.

But Do Parents Submit to Children?

Is it crazy to claim children and parents mutually submit to each other? Maybe you think my view doesn’t hold water because this is where the dam bursts. Everyone has an authority to submit to, James!

Yet in their own unique way, parents do submit to children (gasp!).

Children submit by obeying their parents.

Parents–specifically fathers here–are commanded to not exasperate their kids. This is how the one with power “mutually submits.” Parents are still responsible to raise their children. But because of the gospel, fathers voluntarily give up whatever “right” their culture says they have just for being a parent.

Finally, it’s interesting to me that Paul writes that children obeying parents in the Lord “is right” (6:1). But he doesn’t say that about wives or slaves submitting. Paul accommodates the general cultural expectation for wives and slaves without commenting on its ethics.

Remember, too, that Paul never tells wives to obey their husbands.[13]

Paul’s Vision for Mutual Submission

All this may not convince you. But perhaps 1 Corinthians 7 will.

Paul covers a lot of ground here, his longest discussion on marriage. If there was any place we’d expect him to assert in the clearest terms possible that husbands are in authority over their wives, this would be this place.

But he doesn’t. In fact, he does the exact opposite as he paints a beautiful picture of equality.

The context at the beginning of this chapter is sex. Some of the Corinthians were duped into believing abstinence in marriage was a good thing. Paul refutes their false belief. Listen to verses 3-4.

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.

WHAT?! He tells husbands and wives they have authority over each other in the bedroom. Equality. Dignity. Servanthood. Sacrifice. Mutual submission. For both partners.

To first-century ears, this would have been absolutely astonishing.

To first-century ears, this would have been absolutely astonishing.

If Paul believed that husbands were to be the leaders in marriage (that they have “headship,” as the biblical manhood/womanhood movement says) and that their decision was always final, why wouldn’t he have taken this perfect opportunity to clearly articulate that view?

If you’re thinking that maybe women should submit in everything except sex, then you haven’t read many evangelical books on sex lately. Or ever.

Paul said wives’ have authority over their husbands’ bodies because he believed in and taught mutual submission in marriage (again, see Ephesians 5:21). He applies that principle here to sex.

This vision is unparalleled in the ancient world.[14] But it was the foundation for a “new way” to do marriage.

When we dig a bit deeper into the Scriptures and look beyond our own cultural biases, we see that a Christian vision for equality in marriage is not far-fetched or the product of a liberal agenda. Its source is the very life and mission of Jesus.


Notes

Featured image: Denny Muller on Unsplash.

[1] Plato, Republic, 4.431b-c.

[2] Carolyn Osiek, “Household Codes,” Bible Odyssey.

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

[4] Ibid., Book 1, Park XII.

[5] Marg Mowczko, “The household codes are about power, not gender,” 2/17/19. We know these codes were primarily about power because a female master had power over her male slave and a mother had power over her male child. Nevertheless, gender and power were (and still are) intertwined because it was men who had all the power in the ancient world! Still, the ancients believed men were more powerful by nature. Unfortunately, some Christians still believe this today!

[6] Osiek, “Household Codes.”

[7] Mowczko, “The household codes.”

[8] Craig Keener, “The Case for Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5,” CBE Blog, 6/1/2016. What does Paul mean when he says “in the same way”? Earlier he told salves to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear…obey them…serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord” (vv 5-7). So he means that masters ought to obey and serve their slaves! In other words, mutual submission.

[9] BDAG, 1042.

[10] Outline of Biblical Usage.

[11] Philip B. Payne, “What About Headship? From Hierarchy to Equality,” Mutual by Design: A Better Model for Christian Marriage, CBE International (2017), 151.

[12] In Ephesians 4:15-16, Paul calls Christ “the head” of the Church, but emphasizes the nourishing role Christ has with his church.

[13] You might be thinking, “Ah! But Peter does!” In 1 Peter 3, Peter does tell wives to submit to their own husbands and uses Sarah as an example of obedience. Notice two things: 1) Peter never actually tells wives to obey, and 2) he is only talking to wives who have unsaved husbands (see v 1). Peter’s instruction has a very practical, missional emphasis. It’s like he’s saying, “Wives, don’t abuse your freedom, become preachy, and push your unsaved husbands further away from Jesus!”

[14]. Richard Hays says, “Paul offers a paradigm-shattering vision of marriage as a relationship in which the partners are bonded together in submission to one another.” Quoted in Philip B. Payne, “What About Headship?”, 146.

Categories
Let Her Lead Theology

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

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

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

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

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

Two Verses, So Many Possibilities

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

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

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

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

A Common Complementarian View

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

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

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

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

Option 1: Purposeful Silence For Undistrubed Worship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Option 2: Paul Refutes a Corinthian Quotation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This must be referring to some other law entirely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second, in verse 36, Paul uses “Or…Or” as a signifier that he is refuting what he just wrote (verses 33b-35). In other quote refutations, Paul uses the words “but” instead (see 6:12-13; 7:1; 8:1, 8; 10:23-24).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summing it All Up

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

Feature photo: Kristina Flour on Unsplash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid, 416.

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

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

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

[12] Quoted in ibid., 59.

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

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

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

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

1 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.

Categories
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? And isn’t the heart 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.