Women in the Church: Why I am an Egalitarian
Today’s post is the first of three that will address key New Testament texts often cited by complementarians to restrict or prohibit women from certain ministries in the church, such as teaching, preaching, and leadership.
Perhaps the most frequently cited text used to restrict or prohibit women from ministry and leadership in the church is 1 Timothy 2:8-15. It reads as follows:
8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
11 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. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
A surface-level reading suggests that women in general ought to dress modestly, learn in quietness and full submission, and refrain from teaching and assuming authority over men. The “reason” given is that Adam was formed first, while Eve was formed second and was deceived . . . but (seeming jump in reasoning here) women will be saved through childbearing if they continue in faithfulness. On the basis of this, it is easy to see why complementarians believe that women should not be placed in positions of authority over men or participate in activities that assume such authority (e.g., teaching, leading).
There are several problems and/or questions that arise immediately with such a surface-level reading. Briefly listed, some of these include:
First, such a reading does not account for the context of the passage. Notice that the passage begins with the word ‘therefore.’ I remember hearing somewhere that when we see a ‘therefore’ we need to ask ourselves “what is it there for?” In other words, the context within which this instruction arises is given in what comes before. What comes before? Going back to 1:3-7 and 1:18-19, we see that Paul has given Timothy a command to root out false teachers that are causing problems in the church. We don’t know much about these false teachings, other than that they involved “myths and genealogies” likely imported from local pagan religions.
Second, a surface-level reading that simply takes the text at face value without probing deeper theologically runs into problems in verses 14-15. Paul here blames the woman for being deceived, whereas elsewhere he blames Adam without even mentioning Eve (Romans 5). This is not a contradiction, as both Adam and Eve were at fault, but it points to the contextual nature of Paul’s instructions and shows that he appeals to the creation texts somewhat pragmatically in order to guide his congregation pastorally. Another theological problem with a surface reading of the text is how to account for the comments about childbearing. Are not women saved by grace through faith, as Paul says all believers are in Eph. 2:8-10?
Third, there are logical problems with a surface level reading of this text. Paul tells women to learn in quietness and full submission in the worship service, thus refraining from teaching. Elsewhere he expects that women will prophecy during worship— yet prophecy is both vocal and includes a teaching component (see 1 Cor. 11:5; 14:1-18). How can a woman prophecy, and so edify others publically, when she is also expected to remain quiet? This indicates that Paul’s instructions are not universal and absolute, but contextual and time-bound. An additional logical problem is that Paul seems to blame Eve, who was deceived, more than Adam who was not deceived but evidently disobeyed with full knowledge of what he was doing. Why is it worse to be deceived than to disobey blatantly? Are mistaken teachers worse than corrupt ones? Again, something is going on here, beneath the surface of the text, that Paul is doing when he draws on the creation account in Genesis. Finally, is Paul here suggesting that women in general are more naïve, more easily deceived, than men? I hope not. That’s a testable hypothesis and one, it seems to me, that does not fit evidence and experience. (My guess is that women, in general, score at least as high if not higher in emotional intelligence than men). Women are not inherently more easily deceived.
Truly, 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is a troubling and confusing text on a number of levels. In saying this, I am by no means suggesting that it is less inspired or less authoritative for Christians than any other biblical text. I’m simply suggesting that understanding its meaning and significance takes some work. And, given the interpretive and exegetical issues involved, one must remain humble about one’s views about this text. I’ll push a little further: one should probably not make this text the foundation of one’s theology of women in relation to ministry. Rather, it makes sense to interpret difficult texts, such as this one, in light of clearer texts, individual parts in light of clear patterns, developments, insights, and teachings that we observe from reading the entire Bible (I’ve sketched some of these in previous posts).
Here’s what I suggest is going on beneath the surface of 1 Timothy 2:8-15, and here I am drawing on the work of biblical scholars such as Ben Witherington III and Cynthia Long Westfall.1
Paul is not here writing a general, universal treatise on women in the church. Rather, he is giving particular, context-based instructions to the women in Ephesus (the location of Timothy’s church) in order to address a larger issue (or set of issues). That larger issue is his main concern and purpose for writing. The immediate context for Paul’s instructions involves two important details: (1) the presence of false teaching (and false teachers) in the church, leading to (2) problems arising in the church’s worship gathering leading to division and other harmful consequences. Both men and women are contributing to the problem (see v. 8, where Paul instructs men to pray without anger or disputing), but there seems to be something especially problematic about the behaviour of the women, given the space allotted to Paul’s instructions concerning them.
Ben Witherington makes several helpful observations about Paul’s instructions to women in this text:
- Paul says nothing here about women simply being subordinate to men in a general sense. Witherington writes, “What vs. 11 speaks about is learning quietly and so being in submission to the teaching and what is being required of the listener” (emphasis added). The main problem is the false teaching, not the gender of the person doing the teaching. It is very likely that there were women in the Ephesian church who were voicing false teachings. They are being instructed to be quiet and listen to the authoritative teaching of the church and its gospel.
- The women Paul is addressing are likely high-status Gentile women who have recently become Christians and members of the Ephesian church. Notice that verses 9-10, concerning modest dress for women, assume that these women have the means to adorn themselves with “elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” Some of these high profile and wealthy women may have formerly been priestesses and/or prophetesses in their former pagan religion. At least some were educated and had skills in rhetoric. Given their background, they may have assumed that they should naturally take leadership and teaching roles within the church, without having first been adequately trained biblically/theologically, mentored/discipled, and spiritually formed through Christian worship and spiritual disciplines in the context of the Christian community. We still encounter this kind of problem today, though it surfaces in different ways. A CEO of a large corporation becomes a Christian and assumes his business skills and experience are adequate to qualify him for leadership in the Church. A high school English teacher thinks that his evident teaching skills automatically qualify him for the ministry of preaching. The point is that entering into teaching and leadership ministries in the church requires prior preparation through biblical and theological instruction, mentoring/discipling, and immersion in Christian practices and community. The women in Ephesus were being banned from teaching and leadership not because they were women, but because they were not ready, not adequately trained for the job. And given their status (used to being people of influence) and values (it is important to be rich and to appear affluent), it seems that they lacked both knowledge of the Christian faith and the humility and self-awareness to recognize their lack. Many of these high-status women probably had male slaves/servants who were now worshipping with them in the Christian church (see Westfall, p. 172). The kind of ‘authority’ they were used to exercising over them was no longer fitting in the context of Christian worship and community (again, Westfall).
- Witherington suggests that the identity of these women (as outlined in point 2) helps us make sense of Paul’s application of the creation texts. He argues that the reference to Eve being ‘deceived’ makes sense in a context in which those without adequate training, and who were in fact deceived by non-Christian teachings, were asserting their authority to teach others. Paul alludes to the story of the Fall in Genesis 3, perhaps somewhat pragmatically, in order to press the point that when one who is deceived (as Eve was by the serpent) leads and teaches others, big problems result. Witherington also points to the rabbinic tradition. Some early Jewish commentators noticed that God’s initial instructions not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are given first to Adam (and directly to him only), as Eve had not been created yet (see Gen. 2:16-17). The rabbis reasoned that Eve was vulnerable to deception by the serpent because Adam had not instructed her well enough concerning the ban. Gen. 3:2-3 might lend support to this theory, because it records Eve misquoting the original ban when speaking to the serpent. So, in light of this, Witherington suggests that Paul’s point in citing the Fall story is that people who are not adequately trained and taught should not be put in a position to lead and teach others. The women in Ephesus, therefore, whom Paul bans from teaching are not banned because they are women, but because they are deceived by false thinking due to their lack of Christian education and training.
- Witherington points out that Paul does not say “I never permit” a woman to teach or have authority over a man (though many complementarians seem to read the passage this way); he simply says “I am not permitting.” (Witherington is here making an argument based on the tense and force of the Greek verb translated ‘permit’.) Thus, the Greek construction of the text suggests a temporary and contextual ban, not a permanent and universal one.
- The word that Paul uses in this passage for ‘authority’ is an unusual word. In fact, it’s the only time the New Testament uses this particular word (athentein). When Scripture speaks of having or exercising authority, it characteristically uses other commonly used Greek words. Many translations of the passage have given a neutral sense to the term, for example they render it “have authority” or “assume authority.” However, recent research has shown, through thorough and detailed analysis of the term as it occurs in its various contexts in ancient literature, that it often carries a negative tone, judgement, or connotation (especially when one person is performing this action toward another).2 In light of this, combined with point 4, the first part of verse 12 should probably be translated loosely as follows: “I do not (presently) permit a woman to teach or exercise her authority inappropriately over a man”. Interestingly, the situation in Ephesus looks like an inverted manifestation of the curse in Genesis 3: “your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.” In our fallenness, we have a propensity to attempt to use and control one another. Cultural power dynamics often determine who the winner of that contest will be (often men, but in the case of ancient Ephesus, women). But Christians should be different. Both men and women are called to submit themselves to Christ and his gospel, and to one another in mutual service under Christ.
In conclusion, this passage is not a general ban prohibiting women from teaching and having authority in the church. Paul is writing a letter to a particular congregation, in a particular place (Ephesus), at a particular time (the ancient world), and for a particular set of reasons (to address false teachings and harmful, worldly power dynamics taking place in the church).