In my last post I shared two reasons why I began reexamining my initial complementarian position on women in ministry — first, the ways female Bible teachers helped me grow spiritually, and second, the challenging points raised by my seminary classmates who were egalitarian.
In this post, I’ll be sharing two even bigger reasons why I’ve dug into this subject more — the first being the examples the Bible itself gives of women in positive leadership positions, and the second being a greater awareness of the cultural context of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, which has traditionally been considered the strongest passage against women pastors.
[Disclaimer: This will be a lengthier post than I normally write, but there are a lot of important details to cover, and I thought it best to keep it together rather than dividing it into multiple posts, so please bear with me!]
First, the text under consideration:
“11 A woman is to learn quietly with full submission. 12 I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed. 15 But she will be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with good sense.” — 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (CSB)
Here’s how I would summarize the complementarian understanding of the passage: The Apostle Paul is laying down a timeless rule for all women to only be in a submissive role in the church. They can’t hold authority as pastors, because God has ordained that the men are to be the heads, the authority. Paul then grounds this command in the pattern set all the way back at creation: Adam was made first (to be the leader), and women — like Eve — are in danger of falling prey to deception and sin if they violate this hierarchy. They should accept their God-given role as women (here exemplified in childbearing and providing nurture in the home).
Maybe this is how you understand it, too. Maybe you’ve heard some influential evangelical leaders champion this view (guys like John Piper, Wayne Grudem, or John MacArthur). And maybe you’ve been told that any alternative interpretation isn’t really motivated by a sincere desire to submit to the truth of Scripture, but is driven by the liberal, hyper-feminist spirit of our postmodern age.
I want to make as clear as I can that such statements as that last one are patently false and unnecessarily alarmist.
It may be true in some cases, but the reality is that there is a substantial number of godly Bible scholars, pastors, and theologians, with the utmost regard for the truth of Scripture, who are convinced that this is the wrong way to read 1 Tim 2:11-15 — people like Gordon Fee, Scot McKnight, Craig Keener, and N. T. Wright, among others.
For my part, the concern that drives me is a concern to be completely faithful to God’s truth as revealed in Scripture, to handle it rightly, and to not take it out of context. And it is that concern — not feminism or conservatism; not political correctness or chauvinism; not personal gain (I’m not, myself, a woman, after all!) — that has driven me to take a close, hard look at whether the complementarian reading is correct.
And what really threw me for a loop was the realization of just how frequently Scripture itself holds up women in leadership roles as positive examples.
Within the Old Testament:
The prophet Micah ranks Miriam alongside Moses and Aaron as the leaders of Israel (Micah 6:4).
Deborah served as Israel’s judge and as a prophetess — in other words, she held civil and spiritual authority as God’s spokeswoman in Israel (Judges 4-5).
Huldah was a prophetess who taught King Josiah about the Torah (2 Kings 22).
Turning to Paul’s own writings:
He lists Priscilla as one of his ministry coworkers (Romans 16:3). Acts 18:24-26 mentions that she helped teach Apollos (a male Christian leader).
Paul says that Junia was “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7). Some interpreters/translations have tried to see this as saying she was considered noteworthy by the apostles, but this is seriously unlikely — the early church fathers (who spoke Greek) took the statement to mean Junia was a female apostle, and many NT scholars today are also convinced (for more detail, see this post by one).
And Phoebe was a deaconess of the church in Cenchreae (Romans 16:1-2). Some interpreters try to say that she was merely a “servant” of the church, but the Greek word (diakonos) is the same one used in 1 Tim 3:8-13 to designate a formal leadership role. The fact that Paul also calls her a “benefactor” in v. 2 further implies that she was, indeed, a person of significant authority in the church.
So, however we interpret 1 Timothy 2:11-15, it has to square with the fact that not all women in all times/places were prevented from having authoritative, spiritual leadership roles over men in biblical times! (Subsequent church tradition is a separate matter.) That fact alone gave me serious pause when approaching 1 Tim 2:11-15 from my initial perspective.
With that in mind, here are four other important interpretive/contextual factors to consider when it comes to understanding why Paul says what he does in 1 Tim 2:11-15.
Four Important Factors for Interpreting 1 Tim 2:11-15
#1: “Quietness” in verse 12 doesn’t mean absolute silence (contrary to translations like the KJV/NKJV).
This is because the same Greek term is used a few verses earlier, in 1 Tim 2:2, to describe the condition all Christians should seek to live in. So unless we want to say all Christians (male and female) are never to speak, teach, share the gospel, etc., we should see it as referring to an attitude of calmness and harmony (compare also 2 Thessalonians 3:12).
#2: Paul allowing women to learn as students was actually fairly radical for his time.
Women were typically excluded from education in Jewish and Greco-Roman society. So while we tend to focus on the negative tone of this passage, Paul was actually giving Timothy a positive instruction to let the Ephesian women learn the true gospel.
This was especially vital because the spread of false teaching is a constant concern in these letters. The women of Ephesus needed to be taught the truth so that they would be prepared against distortions. This implies that these women in particular weren’t ready to be teachers because they first needed to be taught. One may reasonably assume that once Timothy’s female congregants got up to speed, they could then teach if so gifted.
Also, “quietness and submission” were the qualities expected of good students in the Roman world. The submissiveness Paul calls for is submission to the content being taught, not submission to men in general.
#3: The word Paul uses for “having authority over” men is a bizarre term.
The Greek word is “authentein,” and it only shows up here in the New Testament. It has sparked all manner of debate, but a growing number of scholars see it as having a very negative overtone, in the sense of “domineering over” or “usurping authority.” In fact, this is how the word was interpreted in many ancient and medieval translations of 1 Timothy (see this article for much more detail).
The fact that Paul uses this obscure word and not one of the more common words for “authority” he uses elsewhere suggests that he is not talking about the regular exercise of teaching authority in the church, but something more insidious.
So why does Paul issue this command for the women to learn and not teach or “usurp authority” over the men? I’ve already mentioned the likelihood that Timothy’s female congregants were deficient in their understanding of God’s word because of the lack of education for women at the time, and thus they weren’t qualified.
But there’s also another reason — one that not only explains Paul’s concern that the women might try to usurp the men, but also explains why Paul brings up Adam and Eve the way he does. And this reason has to do with the culture of Ephesus at the time.
#4: Paul’s use of the Adam & Eve story makes perfect sense when understood as a counterpoint to the beliefs of the Artemis cult in Ephesus.
Worship of the Greek goddess Artemis was a dominant feature of Ephesian culture (see Acts 19:23-41). Among the many myths pertaining to Artemis, three features stand out as pertinent to 1 Timothy 2:11-15:
1) Artemis was worshiped by a cult of female priestesses;
2) Her worshipers believed that she was created before her male consort (from which they assumed women had superiority over men).
And 3) she was often appealed to as a deliverer for women during childbirth. Mortality rates during childbirth were very high in the ancient Roman world, which made Artemis a very popular deity (for more detail on Artemis’ role in childbirth, see this post by one of my seminary professors).
This cultural background helps explain so much that is potentially puzzling about Paul’s use of the Adam & Eve story. It would mean that Paul was using the true creation story not as a basis for patriarchy, but as a corrective to the false mythology rampant in the Ephesian culture Timothy was ministering in.
It also explains the bizarre reference to women being “saved through childbirth,” which always confused me before I was made aware of this context. At the time this letter was written, Christian women may have felt pressure from the cultural climate around them to avoid marriage and childbirth, or to rely on Artemis for safety (which the false teachers may have leveraged for influence). Paul dismantles these myths with the truth of Scripture to prevent female churchgoers from being led astray or promoting disorder.
Paul’s overarching goal in these letters to Timothy was to safeguard the apostolic gospel and ensure it was passed on accurately to the next generation. Along with that was a concern to preserve order and harmony so that the church could have a good witness to outsiders. Both of these goals would have been thwarted if the unlearned women in Ephesus usurped authority from the men after the manner of the Artemis cult.
The fact that the women in Ephesus in particular were susceptible to the false teaching going around is evident from 2 Timothy 3:6-7. All of this points us toward seeing Paul’s instructions as addressing a very specific cultural situation. Not all women at all times and places share the same lack of education that allows them to fall prey to false teaching (unless we want to assert that all women are inherently more gullible or less intelligent than men, which is simply not true — we’ll talk more about that idea in a future post, since it factors in to discussions of later church traditions!).
Drawing Some Conclusions
We’ve looked at the cultural context of 1 Timothy, the unusual vocabulary Paul uses in his instructions to women, and the fact that Scripture elsewhere commends women in high levels of ministry leadership.
Putting all these factors together points us to the conclusion that in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Paul was addressing a specific, local situation rather than giving universal, timeless instruction.
Here’s how I now understand Paul’s words in this passage: Paul wants the women in Timothy’s congregations to be allowed to learn God’s word so that they will be prepared against falsehood. They are to learn with a respectful attitude, and not be disruptive. Because of their lack of education they shouldn’t be teaching yet, much less usurping authority over the men (after the manner of Artemis’ followers). This danger prompts Paul to cite the story of Adam and Eve as a corrective — Woman wasn’t made first; Adam was. The first woman was actually deceived, serving as an archetype for any woman who gives in to false teaching. And the Ephesian Christian women who stayed faithful to living out the gospel could be assured of protection through childbirth — no need to go back to a false religion for help.
The implication of all this is that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 should not be used as a proof-text for prohibiting gifted, mature Christian women from serving in any level of ministry.
This was not a conclusion I came to flippantly, nor was it because of any “hidden agenda” or desire for political correctness. It was the result of prayerful study, patient dialogue with other Jesus-loving believers, and most of all just me paying more attention to how Scripture holds up women as equal to men in Christ (see Galatians 3:28) and mentions them serving as apostles and deaconesses!
Perhaps you disagree. There are a lot of other important questions and objections that might be coming to your mind; questions like: How does all of this pertain to the roles of husbands and wives? What about other passages that talk about women’s roles? Why did Christ only appoint men to be his twelve apostles? Are we sure there wasn’t hierarchy before the Fall of humanity?
I had to wrestle with these questions myself, so I do want to address them. But this post has gone on long enough, so that will be my focus in the next one!
In the meantime, though, my hope is that all of this will encourage you to keep looking at the text of Scripture and keep seeking God’s heart on the matter. Don’t just take my word for it.
See you down the path.