I Do Not Permit a Woman to Teach

The ancient Near East, in both the Hebrew and Greek biblical cultures, is "a male-dominated culture in which, therefore, women were marginalized and treated more or less as property."1 Property, by definition, is an object that is owned, possessed, over which is claimed as a right. For example, when Ruth visits the grounds of a kinsman redeemer, Boaz asks: "To whom does this young woman belong?" (Ruth 2:5 NRSV) This deplorable view of women is a result of the fall. In the Garden, both the man and the woman are equals, ruling all of life together (emphases added): "let them have dominion" (cf. Gen. 1:26); to both is said: "fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over ... every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Gen. 1:28); "and they become one" (Gen. 2:24). Equality prior to the fall is unmistakable.

As a result of yet-unredeemed sin, men and women will vie for controlling each other, as God says to Eve: "yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." (Gen. 3:16) In Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers we find: "Among the heathen the punishment was made very bitter by the degradation to which woman was reduced; among the Jews the wife, though she never sank so low, was nevertheless purchased of her father, was liable to divorce at the husband's will, and was treated as in all respects his inferior." This sad affair, however, is reversed and corrected in Christ: "In Christ the whole penalty, as St. Paul teaches, has been abrogated (Galatians 3:28), and the Christian woman is no more inferior to the man than is the Gentile to the Jew, or the bondman to the free." (link) Reading complementarian literature, however, one would never understand what Christ has accomplished in this matter.

For example, late second-century Church father Tertullian writes of women as though still under the curse in the Garden, demanding that they submit to their husbands in order to be "sufficiently adorned": "Busy your hands with spinning. Keep your feet at home, and you will please better than by dressing yourselves in gold. Clothe yourselves with the silk of uprightness, the fine linen of holiness, and the purple of modesty. If you are adorned in this manner, you will have God as your Lover!"2 In other words, stay active at home, barefoot and pregnant. This is a mild statement from Tertullian (see the previous post). But he also insists that St Paul "instructs women to be silent in the church, not speaking for the mere sake of learning." He continues: "It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church, nor to teach, baptize, offer, or to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, not to mention the priestly office."3

I find Tertullian not merely mistaken but also rather inconsistent here. As history informs us, Tertullian becomes a member of the Montanist fanatics, a group of zealously-eschatological Charismatics in which Montanus and two females, Maximilla and Prisca, believe themselves to be "prophesying," receiving direct revelation from the Holy Spirit.4 So much for women remaining silent in the church! Tertullian, though, qualifies his "silencing of women," suggesting, "However, when he [St Paul] veils the woman who prophesies [cf. 1 Cor. 11:5, 13, 15], he demonstrates that even they have the right of prophesying."5 So, as long as a woman wears a veil, she is granted the privilege of speaking in the church, but that is all. The implication of St Paul at 1 Corinthians 11, however, is that all women should wear a head-covering and not merely women who are gifted to prophesy. (1 Cor. 11:6) All women, then, are not to remain silent in church.

Still, the matter of head-coverings seems to be a local custom, as the author concludes: "But if anyone is disposed to be contentious [about the matter] -- we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God." (1 Cor. 11:16) While the New American Standard Bible reads, "we have no other practice," i.e., no other than the one mentioned above, that all women should wear a head-covering, other translations choose to translate τοιαύτην (such, such as this, other, similar) as "such custom" (cf. ASV, CEB, ESV, ISV, KJV, LEB, Mounce, NKJV, WEB, YLT). This "custom" of head-coverings could have been one particular to Corinth; the apostle may have been granting them guidelines to the use of the custom. What is obvious from the text, though, is that complementarians who argue from this passage that the husband is the "head" (ruler) of the wife are also obligated to the enforcement of their wives wearing head-coverings. That so few do is telling: such allow themselves the privilege to cherry-pick what to believe and what not to believe -- what to implement and what not to implement. (My aim here is not to exhaust this passage.)

Cultural practices and traditions weigh greatly within the pages of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. To ignore historical context of any passage is detrimental to a proper understanding of any biblical author. Mentioned within this Corinthian passage is length of hair (cf. 1 Cor. 11:6, 14, 15). The "head-coverings" may be a metaphorical reference to hair: that the style of a male's hair should not resemble the style of a female and vice versa.6 The apostle clearly states: "For her hair is given to her for a covering." (1 Cor. 11:15, emphasis added) The earlier statement of cultural shame attached to the shaving of a woman's head (1 Cor. 11:6), coupled with this statement about her long hair being a covering, should answer the question of head-coverings. Calvinists such as R.C. Sproul and the Head-Covering movement -- yes, there is an entire modern Christian movement regarding the wearing of head covers -- disagree. (link) I think what we have here is a cultural custom of first-century Greece that has no bearing on us in the twenty-first century West. This is a most significant fact when considering the following.

When writing to a young pastor named Timothy, he states, "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent." (1 Tim. 2:12) Why the qualifying statement, "I permit"? This appears a mere opinion of Paul. When writing to the Corinthian believers Paul renders the following (emphases added): "To the married I give this command -- not I but the Lord" (1 Cor. 7:10); and he follows that statement with, "To the rest I say -- I and not the Lord" (1 Cor. 7:12). A typical consensus concludes that Paul has revelation from the Lord in the former statement but not the latter. To single people he has no direct revelation from the Lord, but is giving his opinion on the matter, as he later clearly admits: "Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy." (1 Cor. 7:25; cf. 1 Cor. 7:40; 2 Cor. 8:10) We have, in the letter to Timothy, a similar vein: I, not the Lord, but I permit no woman to teach. What occasions this alleged proscription?

We are forced into this question in light of what we already know about women thus far: such are given the Holy Spirit, just like men, and women shall also prophesy -- προφητεύσουσιν, to foretell, to tell forth, to set forth matters of divine teaching (link) -- as equals with men (Acts 2:17, 18); we know that Philip has four virgin daughters who prophesy (Acts 21:9); and we know that the apostle Paul acknowledges that women both pray and prophesy in the church worship meetings (1 Cor. 11:5). From the same apostle we also learn of the single female deacon of the Church, Phoebe, as she is commended by him to those in Rome (Rom. 16:1-2).

PAINTED ROOD SCREEN PANELS, BARTON TURF, NORFOLK. PHOTO: HOLMES GARDEN PHOTOS / ALAMY

The Greek word for deacon, διάκονον, is the same word used at 1 Timothy 3:8, an office which complementarians insist belongs to males only. If so, then we have found an overt and explicit contradiction in Scripture. Many scholars are convinced that the office of deacon describes a ministry of God's word. Note one of Paul's qualifications for the deacon: "they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience." (1 Tim. 3:9) Dr. Scot McKnight concludes: "At some level Phoebe was a 'minister.' She was also significant. When Paul asks the church at Rome to 'receive her,' he surely has in mind that they are to roll out a red carpet of hospitality -- the way they do for 'saints.'"7 Most think that Phoebe is a courier for this letter to the believers at Rome; and, since the couriers are responsible for reading and explaining the letter to the churches, she most likely performs this task -- a task which includes her teaching men.

Having instructed the men in young Timothy's church to pray (1 Tim. 2:1-8), "the 'also' of verse 9 indicates that women no less than men participate in the praying church's continuation of the mediator's work in reclaiming the earth for God,"8 he then instructs the women to "dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God." (1 Tim. 2:9, 10) Odd how so many complementarians insist on the alleged proscription of women teaching men (1 Tim. 2:12), in a pastoral setting, while ignoring the commands on how women are to present themselves (1 Tim. 2:9, 10). Why is this so? In my opinion this is because many complementarian families are functional egalitarians: they claim to believe that wives should submit to their husbands but fail miserably to consistently live out this belief. Whatever the cause, my task is to demonstrate that the apostle is addressing a local problem, and not contradicting his own beliefs by a supposed forbiddance of women ministers.

The key to properly understanding Paul at 1 Timothy 2:12 actually begins at 1 Timothy 2:9. In Timothy's provenance of Ephesus there exists a cult that believes Eve is the "Great Mother" -- an incarnation of the goddess. "They also associated Adam with the goddess' love, Attis, and taught that he received the gift of life from her. In addition, the gnostics who worshiped Eve also revered the snake, and they believed that she and the serpent shared a mystical union."9 Add to this the fact that women throughout the Roman Empire are "gaining economic independence, assuming greater roles in the public sector, and overthrowing traditional sexual taboos and domestic arrangements (including practicing contraception and abortion),"10 women are beginning the attempt at maintaining authority over men. But St Paul already instructs us, at Galatians 3:28, that in Christ we are all equal: no one has immediate authority over the other (cf. Matt. 20:25).

Moreover, these New Roman women are adorning themselves in costly jewels, exaggerated or elaborate hairstyles, all toward sensuality and promotion of prominence and dominance. Therefore the apostle wants godly women to set themselves apart from the new cultural norm for women: the avoidance of overt sensuality and seeking to perpetuate authority over men. Instead, writes Paul, "a woman [should] learn in silence with full submission." (1 Tim. 2:11) The fact that the apostle wants women to learn is radical in and of itself. Women were traditionally not granted license to learn. The fact that he adds "in silence with full submission" is in no sense demeaning, as such is "a readily understandable requirement for all students of the Word -- male as well as female."11 The women are not to assume that they already know what is needed to know; they are to sit in silence, with full submission to their teachers, as they learn (cf. 1 Tim. 2:12b: "she is to keep silent," i.e., in order to learn from her teachers).

He then writes: "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man." The latter is addressed here already: women are not to lord authority over men12 and men are not to lord authority over women (Gal. 3:28; cf. Matt. 20:25). The New Roman women are vying to lord authority over men and that is a counter-cultural position for the Christian. But when Paul states, "I permit no woman to teach," lit. "I am currently permitting [ἐπιτρέπω] no woman to teach," as ἐπιτρέπω is a present active indicative, such hearkens back to the previous verse: "Let a woman learn in silence with full submission." In other words, the proscription of verse 12 corroborates with verse 11: the woman is not supposed to be teaching while she is learning. First she is to learn and then she may teach. (The notion of female pastors at 1 Timothy 3 will follow this post.)

Dr. Craig Keener highlights a point that is most helpful: "What is most significant about the wording of this passage, however, is that Paul does not assume Timothy already knows this rule. Had this rule been established and universal, is it possible that Timothy, who had worked many years with Paul, would not have known it already?"13 This adds to the weight of cultural relevance: Paul is not universally forbidding women from ministry but is addressing a pressing cultural problem among women in Ephesus (see footnote 12).

THE GREAT WINDOW: VASSAR COLLEGE LIBRARIES: FIRST DOCTORATE AFFORDED TO A WOMAN 1678

The apostle then pens some rather peculiar words regarding Adam being formed first, and then Eve, and that Eve was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Tim. 2:13, 14). He concludes: "Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty." (1 Tim. 2:15) J. Lee Grady, regarding the gnostic-like cult of Eve in Ephesus (cf. 1 Tim. 6:20: the phrase "what is falsely called knowledge" is most certainly a reference to gnosticism) mentioned above -- that taught the fables that Eve gave birth to Adam, that Adam was deceived, and that Eve was enlightened -- helps us understand the words of Paul here:

  • "It was Adam who was first created" (v. 13). In other words, Eve was not created first, nor was she a "goddess mother." The gnostic idea that she gave life to Adam is a myth.
  • "It was not Adam who was deceived" (v. 14). Some gnostics believed that Adam was the "bad guy" in the story because he didn't want to join Eve at first when she listened to the serpent. But Paul dispelled this notion.
  • "But the woman, being quite deceived, fell into transgression" (v. 14). Paul made it clear here that Eve was not "enlightened" when she listened to [the Ephesian-revered serpent14] the devil. She made a sinful choice.15

Once historical context is allowed its proper place, we avoid excess, as well as misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Incidentally, the "saved through childbearing" section of v. 15 is explained as follows: In the Ephesus cult, the belief was that the false goddess would protect her devotees from dying while giving birth. The death rate from giving birth to children in that century was rather high. In a sense, then, Paul is using a cultural custom and turning it on its head: Through Christ and faith in Christ shall a woman be "saved" through childbearing -- not any false god. The "salvation" referred to here is a deliverance from danger and not saving from sin.

When engaging any historical text, we must always ask ourselves why an author is conveying a certain message, and what occasions that worldview. With a proper hermeneutic for interpreting such passages, not only could the error of complementarianism have been avoided, and women have been encouraged in their Spirit-giftedness, but misogyny within Christian circles could also have been dodged entirely. Continuing to expound upon the historical context of Ephesus, as such relates to women in Timothy's church, Grady writes:
It is likely that women were involved in spreading these dangerous doctrines in Ephesus, a city that was dominated by the cult worship of the goddess. The cult promoted ritual prostitution, and its followers believed that spiritual revelations could be obtained through sexual activity. Quite possibly some women who had been involved in this cult were now visiting the infant Christian church in Ephesus, and some of them were demanding [authoritatively] to teach their views when they had no business teaching anyone.16
Consider this as well: "when the concept of original sin is discussed in detail in Paul's epistle to the Romans, be blames Adam, not Eve."17 Dr. Keener adds: "If we read Paul's injunction here as applying to all women in all churches, then this passage must be understood to mean, 'Eve was deceived, so all women are more easily deceived than all men [a notion that is actually, sadly, perpetuated by some complementarians throughout Church history].'"18 But he argues that there is a better way to understand this contextually-local passage:
He [Paul] often applies biblical examples just to analogous groups within particular local congregations in his own day (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:1-12). In this case, Paul is drawing an analogy between the easily deceived Eve and the easily deceived women in Ephesus. Since Paul elsewhere uses Eve as an analogy for the gullibility of the whole Corinthian church (2 Cor. 11:3) -- the men no less than the women -- it is clear that he does not simply regard Eve as a standard symbol for women, any more than the consequences of Adam's fall apply only to men in other Pauline passages (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:45-49).19 (emphasis added)
The conclusion of this matter should be obvious: "After all, if someone else [in the future] read the letter [to Timothy], Paul would assume that they would be smart enough to recognize that he was addressing his letter to a situation in Ephesus, as the letter as a whole claims to do."20 (cf. 1 Tim. 1:2, 3, 4, 5, 6; 6:20, 21) This is, disappointingly, not how complementarians read this passage. In the very place where the author is treating a specialized and local problem is exactly where complementarians imagine that a proscription of females as teachers of men is evident. They neglect context and, inevitably, conclude with error -- error that has stifled women for centuries.

So, when we egalitarians insist that complementarians misread, misunderstand and misinterpret this passage, we do so on the grounds of historical context, which absolutely must be neglected and ignored in order to substantiate complementarian claims. Spiritual gifts, every one of them listed, are for men and women. If any author intended to restrict certain spiritual gifts only to men then they failed to do so. Since many hold to a strict view of biblical inerrancy, then such neglect can be laid at the feet of the Holy Spirit, a charge I trust none of us is bold enough to render.

The apostle, then, is instructing young Timothy to urge his people, both men and women, toward praying for everyone: for "kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity." (1 Tim. 2:1, 2, 8, 9) The women are not to imitate the sensuality and domineering attitudes of the New Roman women in their culture, attempting to assume authority over men; instead, they should reverently learn humbly from their teachers and pay no attention to myths relating to Adam and Eve that contradict what the Bible explicitly teaches. The apostle then grants guidelines for the office of Bishop (or, as some suggest, Elder, or perhaps Pastor), as well as Deacon, which is the subject of the following post.

__________

1 The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Tremper Longman III (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 1721.

2 A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003), 690.

3 Ibid., 694.

4 Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003), 66.

5 Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 694.

6 James A. Davis, "1 Corinthians," in The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, eds. Gary M. Burge and Andrew E. Hill (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 1296-97; Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible: Key Insights into God's Word, NASB, ed. Spiros Zodhiates, Warren Baker, and Joel Kletzing (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2008), 1519-20.

7 Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 183.

8 Reggie M. Kidd, "1 Timothy," in The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, 1459.

9 J. Lee Grady, 10 Lies the Church Tells Women: How the Bible Has Been Misused to Keep Women in Spiritual Bondage (Lake Mary: Charisma House, 2006), 140.

10 Kidd, 1459. This is learned, notes Kidd, from the literature of Seneca, Plutarch, Epictetus, and Philo. Also taken into consideration are statues, frescoes, and coins.

11 Ibid., 1450.

12 "In either case, we should notice that Paul did not employ his usual term for 'the normal exercise of authority' (exousia). He chose an unusual word (authenteō) that could carry negative connotations such as 'to usurp or misappropriate authority' or 'to domineer.' The unusual term probably signifies an unusual situation. In the Ephesian context at least, women had misappropriated authority by taking upon themselves the role of teacher." Philip H. Towner, 1-2 Timothy and Titus: The IVP New Testament Commentary Series; ed. Grant R. Osborne (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1994), 77. This Greek word is treated in fuller detail in Kroeger and Kroeger, 87-98.

13 Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women's Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 112.

14 Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 161-70.

15 Grady, 140. See also Kroeger and Kroger, 153-60.

16 Grady, 140.

17 Ibid., 142.

18 Keener, 116.

19 Ibid., 117.

20 Ibid.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.