While teaching a series currently about women in the Bible, I’m mindful that the notion that women empowered by God to lead in settings where there are men isn’t a concept on which all good people of faith agree. Someone recently wrote me who is clearly a student of the Bible, conversant in original languages and texts. She draws a dramatically different conclusion from mine. As I shared last week in my preaching about women in leadership, my views on the matter aren’t a matter of cultural convenience; they’re a matter of submission to my understanding of the Biblical witness. To explain what I mean, I’d like to address my understanding of a highly controversial passage from I Timothy 2:12. (It’s so controversial it has its own Wikipedia post) Here’s how it reads: I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man. She must be quiet.
On the surface of things, it appears simple enough right? Women can’t teach or have authority over men. Done.
On the other hand. The obvious interpretation isn’t always necessarily the most accurate interpretation, especially when:
1. We don’t apply the next section literally – ever.
2. The literal interpretation conflicts with Paul’s own teaching, since he assumes women are prophesying here.
So we need to dig deeper and ask some questions:
1. Why does Paul move from plural in earlier verses to singular in this passage? He’s telling Timothy some things that apply to all women, using the plural pronoun in v9,10, and then he suddenly shifts to the singular when he writes (v11,12), “but I do not permit a woman to teach, or have authority over a man”. This is a highly unusual shift in grammar, often made as a move from a universal principle to a specific situation.
2. Why does Paul use the word he does for what we translate “authority” – One scholar writes: The most problematic issue is the rendering of the verb authentein as a simply “authority”, implying it has to do with normative relationships in the church or marriage. This unusual Greek verb is found only here in scripture and rarely in extrabiblical texts, where it is associated with aggression. Authentein is translated as “domineer” in the Latin Vulgate and New English Bible and as “usurp authority” in the Geneva and King James Bibles.
A study of Paul’s letters shows that he regularly used a different word (“exousia”) when referring to the use of authority in the church (see 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 9:4-6, 9:12, 11:10, 2 Cor 2:8, 10:8, 13:10, Col. 1:13, 2 Thess 3:12, Rom 6:15, 9:21). So it is strange that many versions translate “authentein” simply as “authority”. Considering the context of I Timothy 2:12, it is likely that Paul was objecting to some sort of abusive authority. One scholar notes, regarding the use of “authentein”: “The verb authenteō refers to a range of actions that … involve an imposition of the subject’s will, ranging from dishonour to lethal force”, which is a very different conversation than “Who gets to preach this Sunday?”
3. Why does Paul, in v15, say that a woman will be saved through childbirth? Those who appeal to v12 as applicable today (I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man) never apply v13-15 literally, for it would mean that infertile women are not saved, a ludicrous and shameful notion.
4. Why, in spite of this word, do women have, authority over men in the Bible? Why is Junia, a woman, named as notable among the Apostles if women can’t have authority over men? Why is Huldah, the prophetess, the one who Josiah seeks out for interpretation from God regarding God’s word? Why do Priscilla and Aquila, both women, correct Apollos, a man, in Acts 18? All of these are clear instances of violating I Timothy 2:12 if it’s an absolute injunction against women having authority over men.
The answers to these questions lead to a seemingly more plausible conclusion:
1. I Timothy 2:12 is writing about a particular woman in a particular congregation. Timothy was dealing with some specific heresies in the Ephesian church and Paul is writing in order to address them.
2. The region of Ephesus was party to a feminist movement which marginalized men and reduced them to slaves. This is precisely the kind of authority Paul is referring to in this passage. Historians Ferguson and Farnell write about the religious traditions of a female-dominated culture that worshiped “the mother of the gods,” whose oldest name was Cybele. When the Greeks immigrated to Ephesus in Asia Minor, they began to call her by the name of one of their own deities; Artemis. The hierarchy of her priesthood was dominated by women. Men could become priests, but only if they first renounced their masculinity, through the act of ritual castration. These men also were required to abstain from certain foods and, of course, could not marry. Interestingly, Paul addresses all these ascetic practices as heresy in his first letter to Timothy, because Timothy was a leader of the church in Ephesus. (1 Timothy 1:3-7, 4:1-5, 6:20-21).
3. Paul is writing to prevent the abusive “authority by force” because false women teachers requiring male castration as a precondition for leadership, as was happening in the Artemis cult, would qualify as “authentein” – abusive authority.
4. Paul, in the same text, is writing to remind people of the true nature of salvation. As one scholar declares: In the religious culture of Ephesus, life had its origin in Cybele, a woman, and sin originated with various male gods, including Cybele’s unfaithful consort, Attis. There is evidence that by the second century A.D. these beliefs had begun to distort the creation narrative in some faith communities. So Paul reminds the church that Adam–the first man–was also a source of life; and that Eve–the first woman–also played a role in humanity’s downfall. What’s more, women who worshiped Artemis called upon her to “save them in childbirth.” For centuries, the church has wrestled with Paul’s reference to being “saved in child-bearing” in 1 Timothy 2:15. Understanding the language and context of Paul’s letter sheds light on this mystery.
Conclusion: These texts are interpreted in various ways and divide the church for a reason. The most obvious literal reading of I Timothy 2:12 leads to a conclusion which has been reinforced in both the Roman Catholic church and most of Protestantism for nearly 2000 years: Women are not allowed to teach or lead.
The reason there’s division though, is because of the unanswered questions surrounding the literal reading, for it is clear that the Bible isn’t always to be taken at literal face value. Literal application has led to the justification of slavery, genocide, and colonialism, all of which have become scars on church history. There are times to challenge the literal meaning, and without questioning the faith of good people who disagree, I’d suggest that this text is one of those times.
Jesus’ treatment of women, the fact that the first evangelist was a woman, and that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women both point to the fact that Jesus has no problem allowing women to be voices of hope, instruction, correction, or authority. Neither should we.