In my previous post I argued that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (often viewed as the strongest biblical passage against female pastors) is not a universal, absolute prohibition against women having authority in the church. Rather, it was addressing a particular, local situation in Ephesus at the time it was written.
But of course, having been brought up to assume that complementarianism was the only possible view, there were still a number of important theological questions I had to work through before I could go from saying, “1 Timothy 2 isn’t a universal prohibition,” to saying, “Women can be pastors, too.”
My goal in these next two posts is to briefly address what I personally saw as the biggest objections to affirming women at all levels of ministry. In this one we’ll focus on problems arising from specific passages of Scripture; in the next we’ll move on to theological and historical questions.
I’ll start by answering some common arguments against my proposed reading of 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Then we’ll look at some other key passages of Scripture that pertain to the issue, like 1 Corinthians 14, Ephesians 5, and others.
Additional Questions About 1 Timothy and Women in Ministry
Doesn’t Paul’s use of Adam and Eve in 1 Tim 2:13-15 constitute a timeless principle about how men and women were created in hierarchy?
We touched on this last time, but it deserves a bit more attention. It’s commonly asserted that when Paul says “Adam was formed first, then Eve,” he is setting that up as a basis for a male-dominated hierarchy intended by God at creation. This relates to the ancient idea of “primogeniture,” which is basically the concept that the firstborn had more rights, authority, and inheritance than their younger siblings/peers. Adam was made first, therefore he had authority over Eve.
But think about this: Even though Adam is given dominion over the animals in Genesis 2 and names them all to show his authority over them, he doesn’t give Eve a name until Genesis 3:20 — after they’ve sinned and God announces that now the man will “rule over” the woman (Gen 3:16). Prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve are entirely equal. She is taken from his side to be his “helper,” a term used elsewhere of military reinforcements and even of God himself (she is hardly man’s subordinate!). And at the very beginning, Genesis 1:27 stresses that “male and female” were both made equally in the image of God to co-rule over creation. It seems pretty apparent, then, that any idea of hierarchy between the sexes is foreign to the context of Genesis 1-2.
Think about this, too: Throughout the book of Genesis, a common trend we see over and over is God’s choosing of the younger to inherit the covenant blessings instead of the firstborn (Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; Judah and Joseph over their older brothers)! In other words, the concept of “primogeniture” is constantly turned on its head throughout the Old Testament, to highlight the fact that God’s ways are different than the ways of worldly society. All the more reason not to read it into Genesis 1-2 or 1 Timothy 2:13-15.
If Paul is trying to counter the beliefs of the Artemis cult in Ephesus, why doesn’t he come out and say so explicitly?
Perhaps a lot of confusion could have been avoided if Paul had simply mentioned Artemis outright. Then again, though, it’s precarious for us to cast judgment on what we today think an ancient author could or should have said. We’re talking about letters — and in the case of 1 Timothy, a very personal letter!
We have only one side of a conversation that took place between two people who were already intimately acquainted with the pressing issues going on at the time of writing. It’s like we’re listening to just one half of a telephone conversation — of course there are going to be bits and pieces of the context that we have to piece together ourselves. This is how good interpretation works, with any ancient text — even Scripture.
It would have been nice if Paul had spelled out in more detail the kind of false teaching he was arguing against in Colossians, too, for example. Or if the epistle of Hebrews mentioned who wrote it. Or if John told us exactly what the “sin that leads to death” was (1 John 5:16). It would save us a lot of guesswork. But as it is, we have to do the work of piecing together the context as best we can, using the text before us and the insights we can glean from archaeology and historiography.
How was I supposed to understand 1 Timothy correctly if I didn’t have access to any of this cultural-background information?
Don’t get me wrong — I believe anyone who is a believer in Christ and has the Holy Spirit guiding them can understand the basic truths of Scripture without having to be an expert in the ancient culture of Ephesus. At the same time, though, remember that it was me looking at how Scripture holds up women in leadership in other passages that made me reexamine whether I was understanding 1 Timothy 2 correctly.
Not only does Scripture help us interpret Scripture, but part of how Christ builds his church up to maturity is by gifting certain Christians to be teachers, to learn how to interpret the Bible and study the ancient context so they can help other Christians understand it. You don’t have to be an expert, but you can and should avail yourself of resources that go more in-depth for you. That’s what us teachers are for, we who invest our lives in studying Scripture with a view to enriching the life of the church.
Why does 1 Timothy 3 go on to say that overseers should be “the husband of one wife”? Doesn’t that rule out female overseers?
It’s true that 1 Timothy 3:2 (CSB) says “An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…” etc. But again, I see 1 Timothy as primarily addressing some serious cultural problems that were arising in the church at Ephesus at the time Paul was writing — problems like the Artemis cult, or false teachers arguing that marriage was forbidden (see 1 Tim 4:3).
We’ve already seen how Paul’s words in 1 Tim 2 suggest that the women in Timothy’s church in particular were in no shape to be overseers just yet, since they first needed to be taught. Also, we should ask why Paul lists “husband of one wife” before other qualifications you’d think would be even more important — like being self-controlled and able to teach. Obviously there were some serious issues going on concerning marriage in Ephesus.
Some interpreters even see in Paul’s statement here a suggestion that some of the men in Ephesus were beginning to practice polygamy. But most take Paul’s words to be a generic way of saying that overseers (pastors or elders today) should be faithful to the spouse they have (which is how I interpret it).
Other Bible Passages Concerning the Roles of Men and Women
Doesn’t Paul also command women to be silent in church in 1 Corinthians 14:33-36?
Here’s the passage:
“As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but are to submit themselves, as the law also says. 35 If they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home, since it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. 36 Or did the word of God originate from you, or did it come to you only?”
This is another passage that, like 1 Tim 2:11-15, seems pretty straightforward (and pretty harsh!) at first glance. But believe it or not, this is a passage where even more interpreters are convinced Paul was addressing a cultural issue limited to his time period!
That’s because shortly before this, in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, Paul gives instructions about how women are to pray and prophesy in the church. His instructions in chapter 14, therefore, have to do with something besides the ordinary exercise of ministry. I should point out that the Greek word for “woman” is also the word used for “wife” (gyne), and the mention of asking “their own husbands” in verse 35 points to seeing only the married women in Paul’s congregations being addressed here.
The focus, then, is on wives not disrupting the service to ask their husbands questions (or perhaps to challenge their husbands when they prophesy, bringing dishonor on them in public). The fact that women of the time were typically less educated is probably at play again here. Paul’s overarching, universal point is that church services are to be orderly and not clamorous. He was correcting a specific problem that was common at the time, rather than stifling all female speakers forever (otherwise, how could he commend female church leaders like Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia elsewhere in his writings?).
What about the passages that command for wives to be submissive to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1-7)?
This concept doesn’t necessarily rule out women from serving as pastors, since a woman can be a pastor and still be submissive to her husband. As an analogy, consider that a male pastor could have governing officials in his congregation. The pastor gets to preach the word of God authoritatively to them and shepherd them, but he must still submit to their governing authority in a societal sense. I would imagine a female pastor’s relationship to her husband could function quite well just the same.
But consider, too, that while Paul does command “submission” in the home, he qualifies it (in Ephesians 5, at least) in a context of “mutual submission” (Eph 5:21). All the commands after verse 21 are grammatically connected to the initial commands to “be filled with the Spirit” (5:18) and to submit to fellow believers. The wives are to respect their husbands as part of their obedience to Christ (“as to the Lord,” v. 22), and the husbands are to “submit” (in a sense) to their wives by loving them sacrificially and nurturing them as they would their own body (5:25-33). This is a remarkably egalitarian family model for the time Paul was writing.
Even in Colossians 3:18-19 and 1 Peter 3:1-7, where the language of mutual submission is absent, the fact that Paul and Peter give commands to husbands to love their wives was counter-cultural for the time. There is more that could be said on this, but again, the role of husbands and wives in the home doesn’t really have the kind of direct bearing on the topic of women in ministry that some complementarians claim it does.
For my more egalitarian brothers and sisters in Christ, these may be questions you’ve already considered. But for me, coming from the church background that I did, reading these kinds of verses stirred up so much confusion when I first began this journey. Thankfully, I now see far more continuity with the whole of scripture.
I’ve landed in quite a different spot than where I began, and hopefully these posts help you to understand why.
But we’re not done yet! After all, if Scripture doesn’t forbid women ministers, then why is it that women have traditionally been excluded from the pastorate/clergy for the majority of church history?
We’ll look at that next time!
See you down the path.
 I didn’t come up with this analogy myself, but I was unable to track down where I first came across it.