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Let Her Lead Theology

What About Marriage?

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

Ancient Household Codes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He goes on to say:

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

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

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

Then Jesus came and changed everything.

How Jesus Changed Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Closer Look at Ephesians 5

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

Mutual Submission Defines Christian Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About the Word “Submit”?

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

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

Only the context can help us. We can’t deny there is likely a cultural aspect of deference to a husband’s authority since Roman cities, like Ephesus, were patriarchal. Yet, since we’ve already seen the call for mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21, we know Paul cannot be encouraging a dictatorial-type military submission.

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

Again, the societal norm was for wives to respectfully defer to their husbands. Every single wife reading this letter would have expected Paul to write what he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Husbands, Paul says, do the same.

What Does It Mean to Be the “Head”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, Paul wants husbands and wives to look at Jesus and his Church as an example of loving unity. He wants married couples to function as one because that was God’s design in the beginning, after all (v 31).

Consider this practically. It’s very difficult, I’d argue impossible, to have sincere unity in a marriage if one person makes all the decisions, always gets the final word, bears all responsibility for everyone’s spiritual growth, makes/controls all the money, or does any and all of the things complementarians claim husbands should do.

That’s not unity. At best, it’s a benevolent monarchy. At worst, it’s an abusive dictatorship.

But Do Parents Submit to Children?

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

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

Children submit by obeying their parents.

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

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

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

Paul’s Vision for Mutual Submission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

Featured image: Denny Muller on Unsplash.

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Osiek, “Household Codes.”

[7] Mowczko, “The household codes.”

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

[9] BDAG, 1042.

[10] Outline of Biblical Usage.

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

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

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

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

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

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

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

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

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

Is this another tally in the complementarian column?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cultural Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to the passage.

Verses 2-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Option 1: Source/Origin

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

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

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

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

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

Option 2: Prominence/Honor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 6

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

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

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

Verses 7-10

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

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

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

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

Listen to how Marg Mowczko puts it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does this matter?

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

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

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

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

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

What comes later is most precious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 11-12

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

“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” (NIV)

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

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

Verses 13-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Do We Apply This Today?

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

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

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

One scholar offered this wise approach:

The cultural markers for [the uniqueness of each gender] will vary widely from time-to-time and from place-to-place, but the principle endures. Although our appearance should not be dictated by the culture around us, we should be sensitive to how we appear within that context—especially regarding those to whom we minister. [26]

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

Summing It All Up

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] LSJ Online Lexicon, kephale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Ibid.

[15] LSJ Online Lexicon, doxa.

[16] Keener, “1 Corinthians 11:2-16.”

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

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

[19] Ibid., 310.

[20] Ibid., 303.

[21] Kaiser, “Correcting Caricatures.”

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

[23] Mowzcko, “A note on nature.”

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

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

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

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

1 Timothy 3:1-7: For Men Only?

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

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

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

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

How English Translations Let Us Down

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

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

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

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

There’s just one small problem.

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

Not once.[1]

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

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

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

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

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

But he never does.

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

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

Here’s what that would look and sound like:

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

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

But What About A “One Woman Man”?

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

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

No, not at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Literal Do You Want to Get?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women Can Do This Job, Too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summing It All Up

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

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

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


Notes

Feature photo: Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash.

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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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

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

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

Interlude: When is a Teaching Cultural or Transcultural?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

Prominent Women in the Life and Ministry of Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women and House Churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Woman Who Taught a Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul’s Female Co-Workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phoebe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Junia…the Apostle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summing It All Up

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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