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…
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.
It doesn’t occur in the elder qualification list in Titus 1:5-8 either.
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.
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.” 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.” 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. 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. 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.
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 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.
In Reference to Overseers/Elders (3:1-7)
In Reference to Women
Desire a good work
Devoted to good works (5:10)
Above reproach (5:7)
Wear respectable apparel (2:9)
Showing hospitality (5:10)
Well thought of by outsiders
Well-known for good deeds (5:10)
Manage household well
Manage household (5:14)
Avoid the devil’s condemnation
Some 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.”
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.
 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.
 This is essentially an English version of the Greek table in Payne, Man and Woman, 447-453.
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).
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 awoman 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.
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. 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.” 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. 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. 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.
A better “literal” translation (if that’s possible) would be “stillness,” since “quiet” in English means not speaking or making noise.
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.
12I am not currently allowing a woman to teach or domineer a man, but she must remain with a teachable heart.
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. 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 teachothers 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).
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, activevoice 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.
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). 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 exerciseauthority 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.
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! 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.
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.” 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.”
“To have full power or authority over; to commit a murder.”
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.'”
It’s also worth mentioning that the noun form of this word means “murderer.”
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 wordcomes 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.” 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.
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.
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.” Some also believe Paul’s words imply Eve’s transgression was a refusal to submit to her husband.
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).
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.
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. 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. Sometimes, it’s even left untranslated. (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.
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. 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.
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).”
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 notsay or imply (i.e. that Eve was subordinate to Adam).
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.
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.
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 twofalse 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.
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.
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.
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.”
There are at least three problems with these views:
1 Timothy 2 says nothing about traditional roles for a wife and mother. That’s an interpretation.
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.
Genesis 1-2 never suggests there were God-ordained roles Eve crossed in Genesis 3. 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.
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.
In the first century, sexual intercourse was primarily for reproduction, and we have evidence Christians in Corinth thought abstaining from sex was good. 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.
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. Even some complementarians hold to this view.
I’m not convinced for a couple reasons:
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.
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.
 The NIV mistranslates v 15 as “But women will be saved…” though in the footnotes they indicate that in Greek it says “she.”
 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 inEphesus. Also, recall that churches met in homes throughout the city so there would have been multiple church gatherings in Ephesus.
 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.
 Mowczko, “The Consensus and Context of 1 Timothy 2:12.”
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Ibid.; see also Strongs Exhaustive Concordance, 1063 gar.
 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.
 Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies.”
 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.
 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 changedhis 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies.”
 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 2:15, 4:3-4 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.”
For many Christians, the entire conversation on gender roles hinges on Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. The headliner is verse 12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.”
I know this is true because this passage shaped everything I used to believe about gender roles.
And I’ve heard the same from other complementarians.
At the beginning of this series, a visitor to my website left a comment on the first post: “Looking forward to 1 Timothy 2:12 :).”
Another person told me that most complementarians have decided before hand what they think about the rest of the biblical evidence because of 1 Timothy 2:12.
A well known reformed evangelical preacher once quipped, “If you can get ‘I do not permit’ to say ‘I do permit’ then you can get the Bible to say anything you want.”
But can an entire theological position stand or fall on one verse? Many answer, “Yes!” Still, others would point to a broader theme of “male headship” throughout the Bible.
In this series, however, I’ve shown that the larger narrative of Scripture, not to mention specific women in prominent roles, should inform how we understand and interpret 1 Timothy 2:12. Not the other way around.
I do not believe that the Bible would contradict itself (and neither would Paul). That means that though 1 Timothy 2:11-15 does restrict women in some sense, it must be doing something other than restricting all women from teaching and leading for all time.
This post and the next is about figuring out what that “something”is.
How Should We Approach 1 Timothy 2?
This passage has been dissected and debated for decades. So, I want to approach it with an extra dose of humility and caution, and resist being dogmatic.
I’d ask the same of you.
In light of that, let me be clear: I will not provide my own definitive answer for every single thing in the passage. Approaching this passage with humility and caution leads me to approach it with openness. Instead of giving you the egalitarianinterpretation, I want to propose some interpretiveoptions. These options will account for:
The actual words Paul uses;
The context of what Paul’s doing 1 Timothy;
The cultural situation in Ephesus (where Timothy ministered); and
The larger narrative of Scripture which has clearly revealed women do teach, minister, and lead at various times throughout the history of God’s people (see a summary in my previous posts).
We can’t say there are multiple paths to salvation. But with a non-salvation issue like gender roles, we can say with confidence that options are acceptable to Christians
I hope that what you’ll find is that the options I present make just as much sense, if not more, than the traditional complementarian explanations.
This post will examine the context of the Ephesian church which will help us understand Paul’s words. The next post will be a commentary on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 that fleshes out my summary post from earlier this week.
Biblical Context: Ephesus in the New Testament
Ephesus was the most prominent city in the region of Ionia (in modern day Turkey) and a major port on the Mediterranean. Estimates indicate it had a population of 250,000 in the first century. In the New Testament, we’re introduced to Ephesus in Acts 19. Paul spent two years reasoning with Jews in the synagogue (vv 8-10). He spent a total of three years teaching and making disciples in Ephesus (20:31).
Some local idol craftsmen protested Paul’s ministry (19:25-27). Worshiping Jesus, not idols, was bad for business. A large crowd had gathered to join the protest, but most had no idea why they were there (19:32).
The crowd was dispersed after a few hours of shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (19:34). Ephesus, we find out, was the global hub for this false goddess (Acts 19:35). More on Artemis in the next section.
In Acts 20, Paul leaves Ephesus. He encouraged the elders to watch out for false teachers who would try to come in and ravage the church (20:28-31).
Later, Paul wrote a letter to these same Ephesians. Many consider it the of “charter of the church,” particularly because of its great themes of cosmic redemption and unity in the body of Christ.
Paul sent two more letters to Ephesus–his personal correspondence with Timothy, a young minister. Timothy was commissioned by Paul to stay in Ephesus to keep people from teaching false doctrines (1 Tim 1:3).
Ephesus then makes an appearance at the end of the Bible, in Revelation 2:1-7. John wrote Revelation some thirty years after Paul’s wrote Ephesians. Jesus speaks to the Ephesians. He commends them for their endurance and rejection of false apostles. But they are also called to repent because they had forsaken their first love (vv 4-5, probably referring to Jesus).
Finally, Jesus says, “You have this in your favor: you hate the practice of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (v 6). We don’t know anything about this group, but it’s obvious they’re a heretical movement that threatened the doctrine and devotion of the Ephesian church.
From its founding in Acts 19 to the end of the biblical story, the Ephesian church continually fought against false teaching.
Timothy’s Context: Problems in the Ephesian Church
When we zoom into what’s going on in Ephesus while Timothy ministered there, we find a mess. The main reason Paul wrote to Timothy is to encourage him in the work he was commissioned to do: “command certain people not to teach false doctrines” (1 Tim 1:3).
Paul spends the entire first chapter fleshing out this charge. He concludes by specifically naming two individuals who were ring-leaders of this heretical movement in the church: Hymenaeus and Alexander, who have been excommunicated from the Ephesian fellowship (see 1:20).
In chapter 2, Paul begins to address problems that Timothy has been dealing with. First, he gives a general command (“I urge” in NIV) that prayer be made for everyone (vv 1-2). Then reflects on Christ as mediator (see below for more on why I think he does this).
In verses 8-10, Paul talks about two specific problems: angry men (v 8) and wealthy women (vv 9-10). Paul wants the men to pray with the hands lifted up without anger or disputing. He wants the women not to flaunt their wealth by their external attire, but to be adorned with good deeds. The end of verse 9 shows that the issue is not showing a lot of skin, like our modern purity culture would have us think. The problem was flaunting wealth: “not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.”
In verses 11-12, Paul then moves to another problem in the church: a woman is teaching and assuming authority she ought not to have. Paul shifts from two general concerns in Ephesus in verses 8-10, to onespecific concern regarding a woman and a man (her husband?) in verses 11-12. The use of the singular (“woman,” “man” in vv 11-12 and “she” in v 15) is one reason I think this is likely the case, but we can’t know for sure. Of course, I’ll explain more in the next post.
Cultural Context: False Teaching in Ephesus
Everything we’ve looked at so far comes from within the Scripture itself. But what about the wider context of Ephesus and 1 Timothy? Knowing something of the cultural and religious context in and around Ephesus will lead us in the right direction and, I believe, better prepare us to understand Paul’s words.
Artemis of the Ephesians
Ephesus was the epicenter of the Artemis cult, home to the Temple of Artemis. It was one of the seven great wonders of the ancient world. The feature photo is a model of what experts think the temple looked like.
Artemis was the Greek goddess of wild animals, the hunt, vegetation, chastity, and childbirth. Unlike other goddesses, she was a virgin and childless. Incredibly protective of her sexual purity, she punished any man who attempted to dishonor her.
Being a virgin in Greek mythology may have meant someone who has never had sex. Artemis fit that definition. But virginity also had the connotation of being strong, independent, and untouched by the influence of another, especially a man. Artemis was the fullest representation of these characteristics.
Though childless, Artemis was a caregiver to women and babies. In one legend, Artemis was born a day before her twin brother, Apollo. And she helped her mother give birth to him. This began her role as the protector of women in childbirth. Ironically, she was also the goddess of disease and sudden death of infants and children.
Finally, she was well known for her elaborate attire. In her temple, both male priests and female priestesses served her. Interestingly, there’s some evidence that only eunuchs (castrated males) were allowed to serve.
While we can’t be sure how much influence the Artemis cult had on Christians in Ephesus, it’s safe to say some was inevitable. Any Christian community will deal with the false gods and goddesses of the non-Christian culture that surrounds it. This is still the case today, even for idols that aren’t physically made by human hands.
Gnosticism in Ephesus
As troublesome as Artemis may have been for the Ephesians, there may have been something even more dangerous because of its subtlety. The text of 1 Timothy itself seems to suggest that the nature of the false teaching that concerned Paul was an early form of Gnosticism.
What is Gnosticism? Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which is translated “knowledge.” This system of belief was based on the idea of secret knowledge that could be discovered by personal experience.
Built upon various ideas from Greek philosophy, Gnosticism ramped up in the first century, then found significant momentum in the second through fourth centuries. Paul’s letter to Timothy was written sometime in the mid AD 60s. If there was a Gnostic influence (and I’ll show below I think it’s reasonable to say there was), it was in primitive form.
There wasn’t a single gnostic movement. There were varieties and each gnostic leader/group had their own particular beliefs. Gnosticism as a whole, however, had three foundational beliefs:
God is transcendent but not immanent. God is not intimately involved in creation in any way. He only interacts with humanity through good and evil intermediaries. Christ was considered a “good” intermediary.
Salvation is enlightenment. To be saved means to ascend to a specialized knowledge only available to a select few. Salvation is freedom from enslavement to the defiled, material body and deliverance into a pure spiritual existence. Obtaining gnosis means you are a member of the spiritual elite. These people are related via an endless string of divine genealogy.
Life is defined by dualism. The spiritual is good; all material is evil. Gnostics believed that the material universe was not created by God but by another, lesser being. They’d argue that the physical body was not their “real self.” Thus some excused indulging in all physical pleasures. But others practiced asceticism (avoidance of pleasure) because they believe they were liberated from material life into pure spiritual consciousness.
This false teaching snuck into the church in various forms and the apostles dealt with it in various letters. Many of the church fathers refuted Gnostic teaching.
Gnosticism doesn’t seem so subtle to us today. It’s quite obvious it’s false! But we’ve had 2,000 of history to work out our theology. You can buy any systematic theology book you want on Amazon right now. The first and second generations of Christians didn’t have this luxury. False doctrines spread easily then. But does Paul refute Gnosticism in 1 Timothy?
Let’s find out.
Does Paul Refute Gnosticism in 1 Timothy? You may think all of this is fascinating information but nothing more than a clever way to distract from those boldfaced words, “I do not permit…” I assure you I’m not trying to distract you in the least. The religious context of the first century will help us better understand our passage.
It seems clear to me that the text of 1 Timothy reveals Paul is dealing with an early form of Gnostic heresy. His emphasis on combatting this false teaching stretches across the letter and should inform how we interpret everything.
Paul mentions five problems in 1 Timothy 1:3-7 that would come to represent later Gnostic belief: false teaching, myths/genealogies, causing people to leave the faith, meaningless/vain talk, and misuse of the law.
In 1 Timothy 2:5, Paul writes, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” Why does he point this out? Yes, because he’s talking about prayer. But is it perhaps because Christ is not simply a “good intermediary,” as the Gnostics taught? He’s not one of numerous aeons. He is the one mediator who connects humanity to God.
In 3:16, Paul records an early credal formation. He affirms the incarnation and Jesus’ vindication by the spirit (probably a reference to his baptism). Then what of his reference to angels? To modern eyes, this is so random. But against the backdrop of pre-Gnostic beliefs threatening the church, it makes perfect sense. Paul affirms the goodness of the material world (Jesus came in the flesh) and affirms angels are witnesses–not divine intermediaries–of the one Mediator, the God-Man Jesus Christ.
In 4:1-8, we see the most obvious defense against Gnostic belief. Paul says “deceiving spirits” are leading people astray (v 1). The false teachers advocated for asceticism by forbidding marriage and ordering the abstention of certain foods (v 3). They also spread myths to the gullible (v 7). These are classic marks of Gnostic belief and practice.
Paul rejects all this and affirms God created everything good. The material world can be received with thanksgiving (v 4). He later reiterates that creation is for our enjoyment in 6:17. Creation is not sanctified, and thus enjoyed, by secret knowledge; humans don’t need to escape it either. It can be received and enjoyed through the word of God and prayer (4:5).
In this same section, Paul reminds Timothy to be trained in godliness–in opposition to the Gnostic’s “spiritual knowledge.” Interestingly, Paul also affirms some value in physical training (v 8). It’s not the focus of the verse. But that’s a strange thing to include in a letter when ink and papyrus were at a premium, unless there were false teachers who preached that the physical body wasn’t real or important. Could that be why Paul mentioned it?
Finally, Paul ends his letter with the most explicit clue. In 6:20-21, he writes, “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely calledknowledge [Gk gnosis], which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith.”
This early Christian heresy wasn’t known as the full-fledged system “Gnosticism.” But clearly people were susceptible to a “secret spiritual knowledge.” Paul’s concern for Timothy’s own salvation (see 4:16) probably shows the pervasiveness of this false teaching.
All of this leads me to believe there is a significant probability that Gnosticism was the heresy that plagued the Ephesian church.
But what does all this have to do with Paul prohibiting women from teaching and leading?
The Gnostic Adam and Eve In 1945, dozens of Gnostic texts were discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Several contain alternative details of the Adam and Eve narrative. This is relevant because Paul’s summarizes their story in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 (and possibly v 15, according to some people).
In these Gnostic texts, Adam and Eve were not historical figures but representative of different human realities. The soul, represented by Adam, was the embodiment of personality. The spirit, represented by Eve, was the capacity for spiritual consciousness. Since the material world was evil, the soul was inferior to the spirit.
Thus to Gnostics, Eve is superior to Adam. She is powerful while Adam is passive and, it seems, quite clueless. Eve gives life to Adam, and she is the one who teaches him.
These Gnostic texts were written well after Paul’s lifetime. Could these these ideas have been in the minds of Ephesians in AD 65? Yes, since religious systems take time to develop. It’s almost certain that the beliefs and stories in these texts were circulating in primitive form well before they were written down.
Because Paul was probably refuting Gnostic teaching in 1 Timothy, I think we have reason to believe what Paul spoke against also included the Gnostic versions of Adam and Eve. I’ll come back to this in my commentary in the next post.
Summing It All Up
The first-generation Christian community in Ephesus was vulnerable as false teachers tried to cloud orthodox teaching with false worship and heretical ideas. I’ve tried to show that both the worship of Artemis and pre-Gnostic teaching were major obstacles for the Ephesian church.
While Artemis isn’t mentioned by name in 1 Timothy, we know from Acts and secular history that Ephesus was the global hub for her cult. Though Gnostic teaching wasn’t fully developed as a system until the second through fourth centuries, many of its core beliefs are directly refuted throughout Paul’s letter.
Paul didn’t need to spell these things out specifically because both he and Timothy would have understood the cultural issues in their personal correspondence. We are the ones who have to work to put these pieces together.
Knowing this history is vital if we want to make sense of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 without doing some kind of interpretive gymnastics. The next post will be a commentary on the text that takes these cultural clues into consideration.
 Not only has the passage been debated, but so has the entire book of 1 Timothy. For those who haven’t done formal study of theology, you may not know that there are some people who do not believe Paul wrote 1 Timothy. Some of the vocabulary and phrasing is different than in Paul’s other letters. I do believe he wrote it, but that he probably used a scribe he trusted and to whom he gave a lot of freedom in choosing what to say. Luke would be a good candidate for this. But that’s beyond this post, and we’ll have to set that matter aside for now.
 Acts 19-20 suggest that Ephesus had a large Jewish population. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus later confirmed this, see Against Apion 2.4.
 Musing on how she received her name, Plato, Cratylus 400d & 406a, writes, “Let us inquire what thought men had in giving them [the gods] their names…possibly, too, that she hates sexual intercourse (aroton misei) of man and woman.” Found here.
 See many quotes from Homer about this here. Here’s one example: “Zeus has made you [Artemis] a lion among women, and given you leave to kill any at your pleasure.” Homer, Iliad 21, 480.
 The term Gnosticism was first used in the 1600s by philosopher Henry More. See “Gnosticism,”Encyclopedia Britannica. For a very helpful summary of gnosticism, see Gervase N. Charmley, “Gnosticism,” Banner of Truth, 3/22/2016.
 Edward Moore, “Gnosticism,”Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
 In Gnostic thought, an aeon is a being from the order of spirits that emanated from the Godhead. Paul’s word about Christ as the Mediator between God and humanity squashes any teaching about him being “one of” many in a divine order of spirits.
 Compare Peter’s words about angels in 1 Pet 1:12.
 It’s also fascinating to note that 1 John, which scholars almost unanimously agree was written to combat Gnosticism, was written from Ephesus to churches in and around Ephesus. See Donald W. Burdick, 1 John, NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), on BibleGateway.com.
 The Hypostasis of the Archons, “And the spirit-endowed woman came to him and spoke with him, saying, “Arise, Adam.” And when he saw her, he said, “It is you who have given me life; you will be called ‘mother of the living’.” On the Origin of the World, “After the day of rest, Sophia sent her daughter Zoe, being called Eve, as an instructor, in order that she might make Adam, who had no soul, arise, so that those whom he should engender might become containers of light. When Eve saw her male counterpart prostrate, she had pity upon him, and she said, ‘Adam! Become alive! Arise upon the earth!’ Immediately her word became accomplished fact. For Adam, having arisen, suddenly opened his eyes. When he saw her, he said, ‘You shall be called ‘Mother of the Living’. For it is you who have given me life.'”
 Apocalypse of Adam, “She taught me [Adam] a word of knowledge of the eternal God. And we resembled the great eternal angels, for we were higher than the god who had created us and the powers with him, whom we did not know.” See also the Apocryphon of John, “[S]he assists the whole creature, by toiling with him and by restoring him to his fullness and by teaching him about the descent of his seed (and) by teaching him about the way of ascent, (which is) the way he came down.” In the Apocryphon of John, Eve is called “Zoe.” Both names mean “life.”
In this second post on Jesus and women, I’ll focus on three specific interactions Jesus had with women: the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syrophoenician woman, and the women at the empty tomb.
I’ll provide a brief commentary on each of these passages. My goal is to help us see the cultural implications these stories reveal. Then, I’ll offer summary statements to help us consider how these interactions should influence gender roles today.
Here’s what we’ll see:
Jesus violated the cultural expectation of how women were to be treated to pave the way for their full inclusion in the life and leadership of the church.
We’re going to cover a lot of ground. To keep this post at a reasonable length, my commentary will be selective. I assume you are familiar with these stories (at least at a basic level). If you aren’t, I encourage you to first read the passages in their entirety.
The Samaritan Woman
The story of Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4 is one of the most well-known and beloved in Scripture. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well after a long journey. He initiates conversation by asking her for a drink. By the end of the story, the woman is the one who’s had a soul-quenching drink of living water.
Jesus shatters all the norms in this passage. First, he talks to a woman. Recall from my last post that self-respecting rabbis did not talk to women in public. Not even to their wives! We see the disciples’ surprise in after they return from getting food. “Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ Or ‘Why are you talking with her?’” (4:27, NIV, my emphasis).
The disciples don’t have the guts to say what they were thinking. But John, the author, was there and is likely recalling the group’s disposition.
The first question has the connotation of, “Would you like us to get rid of her for you?” Disciples were like Secret Service detail for their rabbis. They’d defend him at any cost.
The second question exposes the disciples prejudice. Like us, they were products of their culture. Jesus conversing with a woman was not only a waste of time. It was wrong and scandalous.
Second, Jesus asks a Samaritan for a drink. Jews did not interact with Samaritans because of “smoldering tensions” that began 500 years before due partly to race, religion, and politics. To uphold the expected norm, both Jesus and the woman should not have acknowledged each other’s existence. The woman expresses her shock that Jesus asks her, a Samaritan woman, for a drink (v 9).
John helps his readers understand the context with a parenthetical note, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (v 9b). The Greek word translated “do not associate” in NIV (or “no dealings,” ESV) is sygchraomai. It can also mean “to share a vessel in common”–like a cup or dish.
Late in the conversation, the woman recognizes Jesus is a prophet. She asks him a question about the true place of worship (vv 19-20). Jesus doesn’t debate. Instead, he completely rejects the notion of location-centric worship. True worship about who is worshiped and the manner of worship. (vv 23-24). He reveals himself to be the Messiah (v 26), placing himself at the center of true worship.
As the disciples return to find them speaking, the woman abruptly leaves. Jesus’ word about his messianic identity struck a nerve in her. She runs to tell her whole village about Jesus. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (v 30).
Her testimony resonates with the villagers. The people begin to make their way to Jesus. This would have startled the original readers. That Jesus uses a woman, not a man, to bring the truth about Messiah to this Gentile village was unthinkable. A woman’s testimony was not allowed in a first-century Jewish court. Yet Jesus believes she is a trustworthy witness.
We find out that “many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (v 39). They urge Jesus to stay with them for two more days and, in that time, more Samaritans come to believe in Messiah.
This Samaritan woman–we don’t even know her name–is the first female Christian preacher in history.
The Syrophoenician Woman
The second snapshot is Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30. On the surface, the story seems to disprove everything I’m arguing for. Jesus comes across as misogynistic and ethnocentric. But when we understand the cultural context, we discover the complete opposite.
This time it’s a Gentile woman—a Syrophoenician, according to Mark—who violates social custom by initiating with Jesus. She calls him “Son of David” (v 22), showing she has familiarity with Jewish messianic expectations. Her daughter is sick and she knows Jesus can help. Mark tells us she asks Jesus to drive out a demon (Mk 7:26). Matthew notes that she asks Jesus to have mercy on her (Matt 15:22).
Our western eyes focus on the woman as an individual with a need. But we must remember that Middle Eastern rabbinic contexts are communal. Jesus will deal with the woman. But he also interacts with his disciples, who are present (v 23). He’s ready to administer a rabbinic exam to test the woman’s faith. And he will expose the deeply rooted misogyny and ethnocentrism of the disciples.
As a rabbi, Jesus knows he’s not supposed to respond to this woman’s plea in public. So he “did not answer a word” (v 23a). The disciples encourage Jesus to send her away (v 23b). This is reminiscent of their unspoken question in John 4 (see above).
Jesus finally speaks, but only because the disciples are the ones who demand, “Send her away! She won’t leave us alone.” Jesus plays their game and pretends to send her away, pointing out he has only come for Israel (v 24). It doesn’t drive her out; it draws her in. She begs, “Lord, help me!” (v 25).
Jesus could have given in to her request and helped. But remember the cultural context. He’s still dealing with his disciples. They believe this woman isn’t worth the time of day because of her ethnicity and gender. Jesus says what they are thinking: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (v 26).
That’s a horrific statement. Why did Jesus say this? Listen to Kenneth Bailey:
Jesus here gives concrete expression to the theology of his narrow-minded disciples who want the Canaanite woman dismissed. The verbalization is authentic to their attitudes and feelings, but shocking when put into words and thrown in the face of a desperate, kneeling woman pleading for the sanity of her daughters. It is acutely embarrassing to hear and see one’s deepest prejudices verbalized and demonstrated.
Jesus simultaneously tests the woman’s faith with an insult and exposes his disciples’ sin. She acknowledges the insult but has the courage to respond despite the mounting shame. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v 27).
What an answer! She passes the test. She knows Jesus is the Savior of the Jews, but she also trusts his compassion is endless. He has come for all people. There is enough left over for her—a “little dog” in the eyes of Jews, even Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus acknowledged her great faith and granted her request. She goes on her way transformed. The disciples were rebuked and corrected. But their story is not over. “An enormous amount of sophisticated spiritual formation is taking place” in their hearts, too. The story of the early church after Jesus’ ascension proves this.
The Women at the Empty Tomb
The final snapshot is from the first Easter morning. At the end of every Gospel, we see women, not men, who meet Jesus at the empty tomb (Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18). The men, afraid because their leader was just executed publicly by Rome, are hiding. The women face the risk and go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.
They don’t find Jesus’ corpse. They find the stone rolled away and an angel who’s as bright as lightning. After the initial shock and fear that followed, they meet the resurrected Jesus. It changes everything.
Jesus says to the women, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. They will see me there” (Matt 28:10). John’s account spotlights Jesus’ interaction with Mary Magdalene. Jesus tells her, “Go…to my brothers and tell them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary obeys and has the privilege of being the first person to say, “I have seen the [risen] Lord!” (20:18).
But the men don’t believe the women (Lk 24:11). This isn’t surprising given their context. Remember that a woman’s testimony was not considered legitimate at that time. Knowing this, we would expect Jesus to appear to men so that they would be the first witnesses of the resurrection.
Not so. Jesus flips the world’s values upside down again. A woman becomes the first apostle of the resurrection.
What Does All This Mean?
I’ve done my best to give you a brief synopsis of the cultural significance of these three interactions Jesus had with women. But what does it all mean for us today?
Three themes stand out to me. I alluded to them in my commentary, but here I’ll provide a summary statement with an explanation for each.
1. Jesus breaks down the social barriers of gender and ethnicity.
That Jesus crossed both gender and ethnic barriers at the same time is significant. It reveals how closely they are related in Jesus’ mind.
Jesus confronts the disciples’ prejudices in the first two interactions above. He isn’t harsh with them. He understands the water they swim in is dark. But he confronts them nonetheless.
Why didn’t Jesus simply say, “Let’s end our patriarchy today” or “Women are equal footing in ministry with men”? That would have been more clear to us. Giving formal, propositional statements to make a point, however, is a very modern and westernized expectation. If we demand this of Jesus, we’d be asking him to be someone he wasn’t when he lived in this world.
Instead, Jesus confronts them as a Jewish rabbi would–through modeling, interactive teaching, and communal learning. He overcomes the social barriers not by ameliorating institutional norms or statutes (which he did not have the opportunity to do anyway). Instead, he embodies a new kingdom norm in how he treats and talks to women and Gentiles.
Jesus also goes further than just breaking norms. He’s forming his disciples in a new, better way. A Kingdom of God way. He lays the foundation for the early church to embrace the truth that in Christ there is neither “Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female” (see Gal 3:28; cf. Col 3:11).
Objection:Of course we should overcome misogyny and ethnocentrism to respect women and people who are different than us. But that doesn’t mean women should be leaders/pastors, etc. in the church.
My response: There are many complementarians who respect women, of course. But Jesus didn’t elevate women so they’d be “respected,” important as that is. To me, it seems he goes much further (as I argue in my last post). His is goal was to redeem and restore women to their original purpose: serving God as his representatives equally alongside men. The next theme reveals why I think this.
2. Jesus empowered women to be his authoritative witnesses.
No matter how we slice it, the Samaritan woman and the women at the empty tomb were preachers and missionaries. In fact, Mary Magdalene holds the prestigious status of being “apostle to the apostles,” as she’s known in some traditions.
In the world’s eyes, Jesus should have first appeared to men to give credibility to his fledgling movement. But reason he appeared to women was to bolsterthe reliability of the message. It’s astonishing that women would be given this honor in the context. The account is even more credible–no man would have written this unless it actually happened.
But there’s more. I also think it was a profound display of the reversal of the curse. Women are now on equal standing with men in the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not buy in the argument that women were unreliable witnesses. He rejected it in full. To Jesus, what qualified someone to speak and minister on his behalf was not gender, but their connection to him. The testimonies of the Samaritan woman and Mary prove this.
Objection:This has nothing to do with women being pastors in local churches.
My response: That is true…to an extent. But Jesus did not come to start an organization with a hierarchical structure. (In his kingdom, the first are last and the last are first. Jesus’ elevation of women is one example of that value.) Instead, he came to inaugurate his Kingdom—a people-movement empowered by his Spirit to continue his work until he returns. If Jesus can launch his movement by sending a woman to preach to his male disciples, why can’t he send a woman to preach to men and women in churches today? I’m going to make the case in the coming posts that we cannot use 1 Timothy 2:12 as a reason.
3. Jesus ushers men and women into the presence of God.
This point may be one of the most important. It’s most obvious in the John 4 passage, but resurrection implies it, too.
On the surface, I assume most Christians would agree to this statement no matter their position on gender roles. But I want to go much deeper. So let me rephrase it: Jesus is God’s sacred space and, when people are connected to him, they become God’s sacred space.
Deep breath. Hang with me.
Think back to my posts on Genesis 1 and 2. I made the case that in the Garden, God set up his sacred space. In the ancient world, sacred space is the place where the divine dwells with his people who, as image bearers, represent him to the world.
Sacred space is temple space. In the Garden, Adam and Even functioned as priests. In whatever they did, they mediated God’s presence to the world.
Sin and the curse destroyed this. The rest of the Old Testament–from Abraham to tabernacle to temple–is the story of God pursuing a people for his own possession so that he might dwell with them.
Then Jesus comes as God in the flesh. Quite literally, he is God’s sacred space, the place where God’s very presence and glory dwells (see John 1:1-14). He represents God, speaks for God, and acts on God’s behalf. He is the true image of God (cf. Col 1:15; Heb 1:1-3). Those who saw Jesus saw the Father (John 14:9).
In the story of the women at the well, a fascinating development takes place. Jesus reveals to the woman that geography is irrelevant when it comes to worship. Worship isn’t based on a place but in the Person of Messiah. True worship happens when we are connected to Messiah.
When Mary meets Jesus after his resurrection, he has inaugurated the new creation in himself. He is the first of a new creation (see Col 1:18). Now, he’s about to continue his new creation project of radically restoring men and women to their original function as representatives in his world. Whoever is in Christ participates in the new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Mary encounters the risen Messiah; she is face-to-face with the new creation sacred space.
The New Testament will make it clear that God’s people are now the temple of God because God dwells in them by his Spirit (see 1 Cor 6:18; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21-22; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 2:5). God’s people represent him on earth. Paul will use the word “ambassador” to communicate this (see 2 Cor 5:20, NIV). Believers in Jesus do not live or worship in sacred space. We are sacred space because his Spirit lives in us.
When we see Jesus’ words in John 4 to the Samaritan woman in light of this larger work he accomplished, the pieces fall into place. His interactions with women are a part of a bigger reclamation project. He undoes the effects of the curse and raises women up to their original status, function, and authority as God’s representatives.
Objection: This seems like quite the stretch.
My response: You may not be wrong. Please read my next post when I unpack this by talking about how Pentecost changes everything for women (and men) in the church.
After that, we’ll get to Paul (finally!). I know that’s what you’ve been waiting for.
Feature photo: “Christ and the Samaritan Woman” by Henryk Siemiradzki (1890).
 As I mentioned last time, Kenneth E. Bailey, who lived and taught in the Middle East for 40 years has been extremely helpful to me as I’ve learned about Jesus’ cultural context. I highly recommend reading his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 208-209.
 Gary M. Burge, “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman,” John, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), on BibleGateway.com.
 The Old Testament says nothing about the qualifications of a witness. See “Witness” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (2008). However, Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian born a few years after Jesus’ death, summarized the common belief of the day: “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 4:219.
 Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, 212-213.
 Ibid., 220.
 Ibid., 219.
 Ibid., 220-221.
 Ibid., 223.
 Ibid., 225.
 Before Mark’s “extended ending” in 16:9-10 (which is probably not original to the text), the story leaves us hanging with the women’s unresolved fear. This doesn’t need to be in contradiction to other Gospel accounts. Bailey notes that Mark begins his Gospel by telling his readers he’s writing “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah” and Mark closes with “the end of the beginning.” The insightful reader knows that the women are not paralyzed by the initial shock. They overcome their fears. Matthew, Luke, and John reveal, tell the men about the resurrection at some point that day. See Bailey, JesusThrough Middle Eastern Eyes, 197. I should also note that Mark’s Gospel was likely the earliest written and it leaves out details that the others, especially Matthew, include. I had a college professor who once quipped that Mark is the “Reader’s Digest” version of Matthew.
 It’s ironic that this title for Mary is most often used by the Roman Catholic Church since it does not allow the ordination of women as priests.
Our experiences powerfully shape our understanding of the Scriptures. As I said in my first post, the truth of the Bible does not change, but our understanding and applications of it do depending on our culture, community, and circumstances.
How can we be sure this is true? Here are several obvious examples.
If you have never spent much time with the poor, much of Jesus’ ministry and teaching may not impact you all that much (it also may make little sense). But if you take a month, a week, or even a day to live among the poor, your eyes will probably be enlightened to what was already there, but you had missed. Jesus’ words will likely land on you with the force he originally intended.
Or say you have a strong conviction about what a worship service should look and sound like. But then you visit a worship gathering in another culture where people obviously love Jesus and want to honor the Scriptures. Hopefully, going forward, you will read those passages about corporate worship with a little more flexibility and less conviction about your own culture’s way of doing things.
Many of us (myself included), last summer, began to see the call for justice throughout the Scriptures quite differently in light of George Floyd’s death and the conversations on race and injustice that followed.
If you see the Bible in accord with a particular denomination, chances are you grew up in that denomination or the people welcomed you and were nice to you at a critical juncture in your life. If not, you wouldn’t be a part of that church!
If nothing else, we can understand this simply because we mature both chronologically and spiritually. Parts of the Bible hit us differently at various stages of life. We hear it all the time: I’ve never noticed this before but since becoming a parent…a widow…a foreigner…etc.
The Scriptures never change. But we do. And that’s the point I’m making. Can we agree on that?
Not having certain experiences and therefore not seeing all Scripture “evenly” doesn’t make us rotten people who are actively rebelling against God. It’s just part of being human.
I believe that God is compassionate and the he accommodates us. We’ll talk about “accommodation” in a future post, but in a nutshell, it means God meets us where we’re at. Isn’t that the whole point of him becoming human? And he’s bringing us along on a journey. Isn’t that the whole point of spiritual growth?
Our experiences in the world are the “lenses” we look through to interpret the Bible. Right or wrong. But that’s not the only lens we wear. Our experience and familiarity with the world of the biblical authors (or lack thereof) also helps (or hinders) us in understanding and applying the Bible.
Our experiences in the world are the “lenses” we look through to interpret the Bible.
In this post and the next one (or two), I want to share how God graciously provided me with experiences and observations to help me see the passages about women’s roles in a fresh way. My experiences weren’t the conclusive evidence. They just opened the door to a new possibility.
After these posts on my story, and before getting into specific Bible passages, I’ll talk about how knowing the world of the biblical authors can help us, particularly as it relates to women’s roles.
Forgive me in advance for the length. I want to share as much as possible as quickly as possible so we can get on to considering what the Bible has to say.
Complementarianism: Case Closed?
As a white, middle-class, Midwestern kid who grew up in North American megachurch culture, I didn’t give much thought to gender roles in ministry.
There was never a debate to be had.
The church I grew up in was a part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) denomination. Our church only had male leaders (pastors/elders).
Every Sunday, a male pastor preached from the Bible. Our church also only had male music leaders/directors. Women did serve in a number other capacities, most notably women’s and children’s ministries. I assume this is similar, if not identical, to the experience of most people reading.
Growing up, I simply assumed that men did the “big church leading” and that women taught other women and kids.
I lived in a male-dominated church world.
It didn’t feel wrong. It just was.
I assumed this was the correct stance not only because of our church’s practice, but also because of how I was taught to read the Bible: it is literal in what it says. I don’t mean that the Bible is literally true. That’s a different thing–which I believe. What I mean is that from home to church to private school, I was taught that we believe the words as they exist on the page.
I was in this church–and don’t get me wrong, it was a good church–until I went to college.
One memory from this church stands out that, perhaps, planted a seed of doubt that the issue was actually closed. It certainly added a level of complexity, if not inconsistency, to the male-only paradigm. Every year, our church had a missions conference. Missionaries came back home to share what God had been doing in the mission field. Every year an older, single woman came back to share about God’s work in the small West African country where she ministered. Her name was Mary.
I’m not sure what her ministry specifically involved, and I didn’t give it much thought then. But recently, I’ve wondered, as I’m sure some of you are wondering right now: Was Mary able to preach the gospel to a mixed group? Did she ever share Jesus with men? Did she ever teach new Christian men how to study the Bible and pray?
I have to believe she did. At least once, right?
There are countless stories of faithful women who served as missionaries throughout church history, just like Mary. They were likely doing the exact kind of ministry overseas they were not permitted to do at home.
Mary wasn’t called “pastor” or “elder.” But she was (probably) doing the job of one.
The One Passage I Couldn’t Avoid
My first eighteen years of life in this church weren’t very formative theologically speaking. (I got bored with Jesus in middle school, but that’s another story entirely.) Instead, it was during college, then serving with a parachurch ministry in Nebraska and South Africa after graduation, and finally during seminary that I really started to establish myself theologically.
To make a long story short, I listened to and read just about every Reformed, complementarian pastor, author, and blogger there was. You name him, and I knew everything about him. Like so many other millennial Christian men, I wanted to be a strong, godly leader. So complementarianism was the obvious place to pitch my tent.
My position was simple. And it all hinged on one, precious verse. I once heard a well-known complementarian pastor and theologian quip: “If you can get the Bible to say, ‘I do permit’ when it says, ‘I do not permit,’ then you can get it to say whatever you want.”
He was talking about 1 Timothy 2:12, of course: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (NIV).
I identified with what he said, but not mainly because of the gender issue, as important as that was for me. I wanted to be a “strong, godly leader.” But even more, I wanted to take the Bible seriously. What I found in Reformed complementarianism was a group of (male) teachers who did that. So I grasped on to everything they taught–lock, stock, and barrel.
I had been converted to Jesus. Now, I was being converted to biblical literalism. I became convinced that if someone doubted the straightforward, literal reading of 1 Timothy 2:12, they were on a slippery slope toward rejecting the authority of the Bible and, eventually, Jesus himself.
Granted, I didn’t personally know anyone who believed in female church leadership. But if I ever meet someone who does, how can I be sure they won’t twist other Scriptures if they can’t see what Paul is OBVIOUSLY saying in 1 Timothy 2:12?!
I knew there were other passages in the New Testament that seemed to suggest that local church leaders should be men. But, for me, everything hung on 1 Timothy 2:12.
To me, it seemed like a watertight argument.
Pastoring Among Female Spiritual Giants
Ironically, it was my experience as a pastor in a non-denominational, evangelical, complementarian church in Upstate New York, that paved the way for me to consider the egalitarian / co-laborer position.
Early in the interview process for the role of associate pastor, I was asked to articulate my position on women in ministry. I explained that I believed the office of elder/pastor was reserved for men, only men could preach during a formal worship gathering of the whole church, but that women could exercise their gifts in any other capacity.
Check. Passed with flying colors.
The church did not have an official position on women’s roles in ministry that I knew of. In tradition and practice, however, the church subscribed to complementarianism.
Here’s how it played out for this church:
Only men were permitted to serve as elders.
Only men were allowed to give the sermon on a Sunday morning.
Only men could formally teach the Bible/theology in an adult education class (i.e. Sunday school).
Women could lead worship, read Scripture, pray, give the call to worship, and even give biblical reflections during special services.
In terms of ministry activities, this looks a lot like “soft complementarianism.” The other side of the coin is the leadership’s attitude toward women. That is so much harder to quantify than what ministry activities women can do/lead! I’ll discuss the general dynamics of that in the next post.
Once I was immersed in the life of this church, I started to realize how fuzzy things really got when it came to gender roles.
When you minister to a church you’ve never been a part of before, it doesn’t take long to find out who the spiritual giants are–those people everyone else looks up to and wants to be like.
This church had a lot of these people.
And many, many, many of them were women.
These women had an insatiable hunger to know Jesus and his word. They explained Bible passages and Christian theology with passion and ease. They shared the gospel with non-Christians. They served the poor. They welcomed foreigners into their homes. They prayed–oh, did they pray! They were honest, gracious, compassionate, and patient.
They were (and still are) women of whom the world was not worthy.
And there I was, 30-something, first-time, male pastor, leading among these female spiritual giants. I went in thinking I needed to teach them. I left realizing how much they had taught me.
The women in our church never demanded a female elder. They never demanded that a woman preach a sermon. Their vision was simpler–and grander–than that. They wanted their voice, their gifts, their passions, their person, their womanhood to matter. They didn’t want to be ignored, silenced, or marginalized.
An older, retired pastor befriended and mentored me while we lived in New York. We spent Wednesday mornings at IHOP talking ministry and drinking bad coffee. He constantly nudged me toward including and empowering our women without ever trying to convince me of one theological position or the other.
His counsel, time after time, was to recognize and celebrate the spiritual gifts of women by actually letting them use their gifts, and, most importantly, ask for and listen to their insights, opinions, and preferences on church matters.
“If you want to see ‘church’ become a movement,” he’d always say, “you need women.”
Even as a complementarian, I recognized this and wanted it. I knew women were not second-class kingdom citizens and they had amazing things to offer.
The bigger question was, How does this fit in my theological framework?
That Time A Woman Preached
Over several months, I worked with many of these women on various things. Women even helped lead teams, and our elders had started a women’s advisory group that met with some of our elders to share their thoughts and concerns about the church.
We were making progress. But the progress was primarily behind the scenes. Women still did not have much of a voice when it came to big picture leadership or discipleship issues, including, of course, proclaiming God’s word to the whole congregation.
But I sensed a change on Good Friday 2015, during a Tenebrae service. In this type of worship gathering, various people prepare brief reflections on the sayings of Jesus from the cross. In a “hard complementarian” church, this would be reserved for men only. But we had a mixture of men and women give what truly was a “sermonette.”
Angst shot out from her face while she whispered as if her lips were dry, cracked, and bleeding, “I’m thirsty!” Reciting the psalmist’s searching cry in Psalm 63, she showed that Jesus fulfilled that ancient song in his statement from the cross. Jesus didn’t simply need physical water, she pointed out. He wanted–needed–his Father. That’s who he was thirsty for. Jesus died of (spiritual) thirst.
It was the one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.
And I knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was preaching. Everyone in the room knew she was preaching.
And she was preaching like she was born to do it.
I can’t remember if I felt conflicted in the moment. (I hope I wasn’t debating the legitimacy of it–it was Good Friday!) Besides, everyone seemed edified because of what she said.
Whatever I thought about the role of women that night didn’t matter at all.
What mattered is that I wanted to know Jesus, love Jesus, and be like Jesus more because of what she said during that beautiful, dark, haunting Tenebrae service.
“What About Sunday School?”
Months later in late 2015, I had transitioned to interim pastor after our senior pastor had resigned. Discussions on the precise roles of women continued to increase. By spring 2016, our elder team had to deal with the most significant theological and practical question during my years as a pastor: can a woman teach and lead a Sunday school adult education class?
Prior to this, the church had an unwritten rule that only men could teach the Bible or theology proper. But we had capable, knowledgeable, and willing women who wanted to teach on various topics, particularly books of the Bible, theology, or spiritual formation. They wanted to know if that was an acceptable way to use their gifts.
We (the elder team) had to answer in a way that 1) honored these women, and 2) upheld our complementarian framework. Our position was not up for debate–we weren’t all of a sudden going to have women elders or a woman preach to the whole church on a Sunday morning. But the application of our position wasn’t set in stone.
I spent weeks studying and praying about this issue. I read and re-read the Scriptures and consumed just about every article and opinion you could find online. I agonized over it.
I came to the conclusion that there was nothing in the Scripture that prevented a woman from teaching mixed groups in a “Sunday School-like” setting. I believed, as some complementarian churches do, if the person teaching and what is being taught are under elder oversight, it would be acceptable. I shared my view with the other elders and after many conversations, we agreed to start allowing women to teach adults the Bible and theology.
Feeling the Foundation Crumble
What I’ve shared in this post is a tiny glimpse into the people and events God used opened my eyes to the value of women in the church, which then allowed me to see Scripture in a different light. Obviously, I don’t have the space to share every experience that deeply influenced me–private conversations, email exchanges, prayer times, planning sessions. I wish I did.
Ironically, while I was a complementarian pastor, my complementarian foundation began to crumble. By the time I stepped down as a pastor of the church my heart had ripened enough to at least be open to other options. After all, my wife and I were both transitioning to work with Cru as campus ministers together.
Carly, my wife, is tremendously gifted and, while I was a pastor, desired to use her gifts for the good of the church, too. But how could she use her gifts of teaching, wisdom, and discernment as the wife of a complementarian pastor in a complementarian church? How could we co-labor to serve both genders together? It seemed impossible.
In the next post, I’ll share more of our story, focusing on my wife’s influence on my journey and our experience together in the church as we started to notice the major blind spots of complementarianism.
 I’m not talking about the politics of race. I’m talking about Christian empathy, compassion, justice, and God’s heart for all people groups, especially marginalized ones, which, as we’ll see, relates to the issue of women in the church.
 I recognize that some people join a church or denomination based on doctrine or the “statement of faith” alone. But I’d be willing to bet my retirement account those people are by far the exception.
 In Christian theology, the term for this is “sanctification.” Sanctification comes from the Latin word sanctus which means “to make holy, to set apart.”
 The CMA has a long history of empowering women in ministry. However, their current position is still that only men can serve as local church elders. Their website states: “Women may fulfill any function in the local church which the senior pastor and elders may choose to delegate to them…and may properly engage in any kind of ministry except that which involves elder authority.” However, just two weeks ago Christianity Today reported that the CMA is reconsidering their position. CMA President John Stumbo said, “It’s become clear to me that some of our policies unnecessarily restrict otherwise called and qualified ministers. This grieves me.”
 Different churches have different names for their leaders: elders or pastors are most common in North American churches. In some baptist churches, “deacon” is used for the men who lead the church. Biblically speaking, however, “deacon” can refer to someone who is a minister-at-large (see Rom 16:1-2) or someone in a specific local church who helps with more practical, material needs (see Acts 6).
 For my friends and family who grew up in Pentecostal traditions, they are much more likely to have experienced female leadership in some capacity. The official position of the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination, is that women are not restricted in any sense: “We conclude that we cannot find convincing evidence that the ministry of women is restricted according to some sacred or immutable principle.”
 “Biblical Literalism is the method of interpreting Scripture that holds that, except in places where the text is obviously allegorical, poetic, or figurative, it should be taken literally.” GotQuestions.org, “What is biblical literalism?”
 Essentially every major English Bible translation says the same thing for 1 Tim 2:12. See the comparisons.
 “Theology proper” in our church’s context would be something like the content of our statement of faith, which primarily covered the essential doctrines of Christianity (the Trinity, atonement, salvation by faith, etc.). A parenting class, for example, would deal with aspects of theology, but would not be “theology proper,” therefore a woman would be allowed to teach it.
 You might be asking, “What happened next?!” About 5-6 months later , we announced that we’d be joining staff with Cru. We left the following spring. So, I can’t add much because my part in this church’s story came to an end.