I have only ever belonged to Christian communities that identify as complementarian—that is, those supporting the idea that the Bible teaches male leadership as the will of God, and female responsiveness and submission as part of a woman’s complementary role. Women can serve in all sorts of ministries, but teaching and holding authority over men is not among them. I didn’t know I was a complementarian, because it is always presented as the clear biblical position. I thought it was just Christian, and consequently, I’ve tended to look with suspicion upon those who support the ordination of women.
However, not all of the evangelical world is convinced on this matter. There are a great many who are egalitarian and believe that a faithful reading of Scripture produces the conclusion that, in Christ, women are equal to men and free to exercise the same gifts in the same ways. I had never heard an argument for this view until shockingly recently. For some reason, this is an issue that is clearly a disputable matter (i.e. one that does not threaten the gospel in any way) and yet one that I guess everyone in the Christian circles I have known are unwilling to discuss.
So how is it that evangelicals have the same commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture, we read the same texts, and yet we disagree completely about the conclusion that we ought to reach? At least part of the answer is hermeneutics—the methods of interpretation and application that we employ.
“The Bible says it; I believe it.”
It is only the most cantankerous of fundamentalist interpreters—if such people even exist—who would argue that the Bible is self-evident in its meaning and universally applicable to all eras and all peoples. Evangelicalism, by contrast, recognises the humanity of Scripture and its rootedness in the contexts and literary standards of its day. There are many things that the Bible says that we do not do (such as the commands for women to cover their heads in church and men not to grow their hair long) because what these behaviours meant in their original setting are no longer what they mean now, and so to continue to apply them would be hollow and formal.
We do not do what the Bible says until we first understand what it meant and how that principle would be carried out in our own time and culture.
“Clear texts should interpret the unclear.”
A good hermeneutical rule is that clear texts should be used to interpret the unclear. This advice is valuable, but again, it is not without its problems. It is by no means simple to determine on what grounds a text should be considered clear.
Often we make such a judgement by privileging the commands from Jesus or the Apostles over texts (such as those in Acts) that are descriptive. The former texts, so the argument goes, exist to instruct Christ’s followers; the latter are stories about what happened, not necessarily what ought always to happen.
Take for example the clearest text in support of the complementarian position regarding women in ministry:
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.” (1 Timothy 2:11-13)
This is a straight-forward, unadorned command, and it even appeals to the order at creation. Once this is taken to be the clear text, then we are able to use it to help us ‘solve’ the difficulties presented by other texts that appear to describe women engaging in teaching ministries: the women involved must not have been doing so in the church, or their teaching must have been only for the benefit of other women.
The trouble is that no ‘clear command’ is without context, and not everything in the letters is straight-forward. Consider this passage in Timothy (only two verses later):
“But she [Eve? Women in general?] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (1 Tim 2:15)
There are a range of suggestions for what this refers to. Presumably Timothy knew when he read it, but its meaning has been lost to us. The clear texts elsewhere that lay out the actual basis of our salvation preclude any interpretations that might take what it says ‘literally’ (i.e. we know that it can’t mean that mothers get automatic entry to heaven), but that is the point. Two verses on from the ‘clear’ text about women in ministry, we have one of the least clear verses in the canon. The language is plain, but we don’t know its context or intent, and so we can do little else but deny that it means what it seems to say on the surface of it.
The context of 1 Timothy 2:11-13
And so what of the allegedly clear part? Evangelical scholars such as Gordon Fee and RT France have long pointed out that this passage is far from clear. In his book, Women in the Church’s Ministry, France makes several important points about this text:
1. It is addressed to the church in Ephesus
Ephesus was a city dominated by the cult of Artemis, which involved the worship of a goddess of fertility, and a cult presided over by eunuchs who governed male and female priests and thousands of female attendants. One must speculate, but the cultural prominence of women must surely have exerted some influence on male-female relations in the church.
2. The church was under threat by ignorant and false teachers
Paul identifies several problems threatening this particular church, including:
- Myths and endless genealogies (1:4, 4:7)
- Rejecting conscience (1:19)
- Forbidding marriage, abstinence from certain foods (4:3)
- Controversy, dispute about words (6:4)
- Profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge (6:20)
3. The teaching probably denigrated ordinary marriage roles
France suggests that evidence in the book suggests that the degradation of marriage may lie behind some of Paul’s instructions, including:
- Bishops and deacons must have a good family record (3:2-5, 12)
- Marriage is a gift of God (4:3-5)
- Timothy must be above reproach (5:2)
- Care of widows (incl concern for their record in marriage and prospects) (5:9-14)
Even the obscure verse about women being saved through childbirth perhaps might be connected to this same idea. France argues that the false teaching appears to have been denigrating womanly roles such as childbearing and rather offering women (perhaps) a super-spirituality and/or some sort of ‘liberated’ role in teaching and worship. He argues that Paul is advocating salvation within ordinary human life, as opposed to this special path offered by the false teachers.
4. Women taken in by this ignorant teaching were promoting it
Women in Ephesus also clearly had a role in promoting the false teaching that was taking place. 1 Timothy 1:6-7 accuses some would-be teachers of ignorance. 1 Timothy 5:13 speaks about women spreading “what should not be said” from house to house. The prohibition on teaching may relate to this influence of women on house churches—spreading the false teaching that has come to threaten the church in Ephesus.
5. The solution is to prohibit women from teaching until their ignorance has been addressed
France points out that authenteo (authority) is only used here in the NT. Some have argued from wider Greek usage (and particularly from the cognate noun) that it carries a pejorative sense (to usurp authority, or to bully). France says that it is an open question, but if Paul meant that women should not have authority at all, then he has chosen an obscure way of saying so.
Similarly, the word for silence is less to do with being quiet. Paul could have used sigao for silence, but instead uses esuchia, which means quietness of temperament rather than absence of noise (the opposite of authenteo if it has a pejorative sense).
It seems entirely possible that women were taking the initiative, asserting independence, becoming deceived by persuasive-but-ignorant teachers and passing on false teaching.
Craig Keener (IVP BBCNT) agrees then that the solution proposed by our ‘clear’ text has rather to do with the particular circumstances in this community. He says:
“The proper way for any novice to learn was submissively and ‘quietly’ (a closely related Greek term appears in 2:2 for all believers). Women were less likely to be literate than men, were trained in philosophy far less often than men, were trained in rhetoric almost never, and in Judaism were far less likely to be educated in the law. Given the bias against instructing women in the law, it is Paul’s advocacy of their learning the law, not his recognition that they started as novices and so had to learn quietly, that was radical and countercultural. Given women’s lack of training in the Scriptures (2:11), the heresy spreading in the Ephesian churches through ignorant teachers (1:4–7), and the false teachers’ exploitation of these women’s lack of knowledge to spread their errors (5:13; 2 Tim 3:6), Paul’s prohibition here makes good sense. His short-range solution is that these women should not teach; his long-range solution is ‘let them learn’ (2:11). The situation might be different after the women had been instructed (2:11; cf. Rom 16:1–4, 7; Phil 4:2–3).”
Of course it remains possible that Paul’s prohibition on women teaching and usurping authority may apply to Ephesus because it is a universal prohibition. However, evangelicals must also acknowledge that the contextual reading of Scripture produces a faithful reading of 1 Timothy that might mean women are perfectly entitled to teach provided that they have had the proper training (as is the case with the men). It is far from settled that this passage is the clear text with which others ought to be harmonised.
In response to the arguments just presented, some will say that the appeal to creation order in 1 Timothy 2 means that Paul’s instructions here are universal. We will examine this claim in my next post.
Some will say that the universality of these instructions is based on other texts about headship and not on this passage alone. This is true, and I do not mean to insinuate that the complementarian position is without merit. Nevertheless, France and others point out that that headship in marriage is never explicitly invoked as the pattern also for the church. The NT certainly gives instructions for the proper behaviour of married couples within the church (such as a woman still needing to recognise her husband’s authority in culturally appropriate ways—by covering her head, for example), but it does not say that man is the head of the church. On the contrary, it says that Christ is the head of the church as the husband is the head of the wife. This might easily be understood to mean that we all minister equally under Christ’s headship.
I encourage you to read the complete argument that RT France makes in this response to this objection.
As a parting shot, I would also add that it is not abundantly clear to me whether submission in marriage itself is universal or cultural. In other words, were Christians in Paul’s day to observe that order because God demands that order, or because God demands that we do not become representatives of rebellion in society? One might easily structure a marriage in partnership rather than through a hierarchy. This too will be the subject of a later post.
Clear evidence in the opposite direction?
If clear texts must interpret the unclear, then it remains an open question which texts are the clear ones governing this issue. FF Bruce suggested this one:
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28)
France (p. 91) adds: “At all points within the period of biblical history the working out of the fundamental equality expressed in Galatians 3:28 remain constrained by the realities of the time, and yet increasingly the church was rediscovering that in Christ there was the basis, indeed the imperative, for the dismantling of the sexual discrimination that had prevailed since the fall. How far along that trajectory it is appropriate and possible for the church to move at any subsequent stage in history must remain a matter for debate, as it is today. But the witness of the New Testament challenges us to question any aspect of our common life in Christ that does not give appropriate expression for our day and social context to the fundamental principle that there is ‘no longer male and female’.”
Whether this text ought to be our primary one in this debate is moot. However, there are several texts that strongly suggest that women did play an active, authoritative, and/or teaching role in the New Testament church. Here is a sample:
- 1Cor. 11:5 implies that women could prophesy publicly (provided they had their heads covered). Prophecy is identified as the primary spiritual gift in the same book and at very least included a teaching component.
- Some women converts are referred to as prominent (Acts 17:4, 12).
- John Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12ff) and Lydia are church host in Philippi and a leading member (Acts 16).
- Philip’s daughters were prophetesses (Acts 21:9).
- Priscilla and Aquila were a prominent couple, involved in hosting a church, travelling with Paul, and training Apollos. Priscilla is typically given first billing (in all but their first introduction in Acts 18:2) which implies she had a primary role.
- In Phil 4, Paul attempts to resolve a dispute between two leading women “who have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel” and whom he calls co-workers. Their conflict was sufficiently important that it represented a threat to the well-being of the whole church.
- Romans 16 lists people that Paul specifically greets in Rome; ten of the 27 are women. Some are called “workers in the Lord” or “co-workers”. Junia is called an apostle. It ends with a commendation of Phoebe who may well have been the courier of the letter to Rome. She is called a deacon and patron.
The question of whether women should be given teaching roles and positions of leadership in the church is clearly a matter of dispute, and one over which Christians have legitimate grounds to disagree and to reach different conclusions.
The purpose of this post has not been to say that egalitarianism is the correct position, but rather to say that the insistence that complementarianism is the only faithful evangelical position is false. It is often presented as the clear teaching of Scripture, but as RT France says, “It is a good rule to interpret Scripture in the light of Scripture, and to interpret the more obscure in the light of the clearer. The above discussion suggests that 1 Timothy 2:8-15… falls rather firmly into the category of the more obscure!”
Given that this issue concerns the place and the image of more than half of the Christian world, it is one that we should be careful to rule on so categorically when the evidence is so mixed.
(Note: The introduction to this post has been edited to remove reference to a specific Christian community, as the intention is to illustrate rather than to criticise, but it is hard to name names without implying criticism.)