WOMEN IN CHURCH LEADERSHIP
Examining With Paul’s Prohibitions
Over the last two weeks, we have noted the women mentioned in the Bible whom God called into various types of leadership amongst his people. These included Junia (a female Apostle), Deborah (who led Israel) and several women described as having a teaching ministry (Euodia, Syntyche and Priscilla). Negating these clear scriptural examples requires major hermeneutical gymnastics.
There remain, however, some statements by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament that seem severely prohibitive regarding the role of women in the church. What are we to make of these?
HOW SHOULD WE INTERPRET PAUL’S SEEMINGLY PROHIBITIVE STATEMENTS?
1 TIMOTHY 2:11-14
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. “
Much of the debate concerning the role of women in the church centres around this strongly worded injunction by Paul. What are we to make of it? Firstly, we must affirm that this is indeed God’s Word. We cannot dismiss it, as some try to, as uninspired and therefore unauthoritative. Secondly, it is not just teaching with authority that is prohibited (as if there can be any other form of teaching!), but any and all teaching; for “teaching” and “authority” are completely separate elements of this sentence in the Greek text. This is correctly rendered in our English translations “teach OR have authority“ (rather than “teach with authority”).
The word used here for “authority” is not one of the more common Greek words for authority (exousia, epitage, huperoche, or dunastes), but the more unusual word “authentein“. This means to usurp authority; to domineer (in an ungodly way). It cannot, therefore, be taken to prohibit the general exercise of authority, but seems to imply the wrongful use of authority in a manner which lords it over others.
The prohibition against a woman teaching a man, however, cannot be explained as easily. Historically, scholars are convinced that there was, at this time in Ephesus, a false teaching with a Gnostic flavour being spread throughout the church, and that much of it was being spread via the women in the church. In that culture, the uneducated women seem to have provided the network that the false teachers could use to spread their falsehoods throughout the congregation. (see 1 Tim 5:13 and 2 Tim 3:6-7). For this reason, some biblical scholars interpret Paul’s prohibition against a woman teaching a man (in 1 Tim 2:12) to be applicable only to that church at that specific time.
Paul actually provides us with his reasons for this prohibition in verses 13 and 14, and at first glance it seems to negate this “cultural” interpretation and propose a universal application:
“For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”
Many argue that Paul is proposing that the ministry subordination of women is a part of God’s created order for mankind. Yet this directly contradicts the clear Biblical examples of women in authoritative ministry and leadership among God’s people that we have seen elsewhere. Is there any other way of interpreting verses 13 and 14, which respects the inspired nature of the text and does not contradict the clear examples of the leadership role of women elsewhere in the scriptures?
The “for” can be understood either as the reason for the prohibition against women teaching men or as an illustration of it. If we take it as an illustration rather than a cause, Paul could simply be drawing an analogy rather than making a universal statement.
Paul refers to two important facts in the creation narrative: that Eve was created second, and that she was the one deceived, not Adam. Paul’s argument here could well be that he intends to connect these two facts; that she was not present when God gave the commandment and was therefore dependent on Adam for the teaching. In other words, she was inadequately educated – like the women in Ephesus – and more likely to be led astray. This kind of analogy is not uncommon in Paul’s writings. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 11:3, he uses this same story of Eve’s deception by the serpent as an illustration of the gullibility of the whole church at Corinth (not as a cause of their gullibility).
This interpretation of verses 13 and 14 still supports the inspired nature of the text, is consistent with Paul’s style elsewhere, and fits with the events in the church at Ephesus at the time of writing. It also provides an interpretation which accords with the evidence of women in teaching roles elsewhere in scripture. We must always interpret scripture with scripture. To interpret this passage as being a universal prohibition would be to directly contradict the clear Biblical examples elsewhere of women in teaching and leadership ministry.
But 1 Timothy 2:11-14 is not the only difficult, and seemingly prohibitive, passage flowing from Paul’s quill. Stay tuned next week!