Do you have to be Male to Preach?
By Dr. Henry Lederle
The church in the U.S. has had a longstanding debate on ordaining women to pastoral ministry. It is my desire in this article to make a contribution to this discussion from the perspective of favoring the removal of any restrictions on women to follow the call and giftings they have received from the Holy Spirit for the practice of Christian ministry. Simply put, I am convinced that preaching is founded on God’s calling and not in any way dependent on gender.
At first, I shall make some ‘common sense’ remarks. The significant changes in the role that females play in society has a lot to do with practical matters such as culture, economics, and education. For centuries men played the pre-eminent role in society, especially outside the domestic sphere. Within the home, women’s lives were dominated by the crucial task of bearing and rearing children, as well as preparing meals and cleaning. These demands were so time-consuming that there was little attention given to the formal education of young girls in most cultures.
Of course, there were always exceptions – personal wealth, undeniable aptitude, and seasons of prosperity sometimes allowed for situations where female leadership was enabled. There were memorable queens in Egypt and Britain, occasionally female fighters of exceptional ability and bravery, as well as wise women who advised, made legal decisions, and taught others with distinction. Susan Hylan writes in Biblical Archeology Review that some women exercised leadership in classical times, such as holding civic offices and religious positions as priests. Ancient Greece and Rome produced some female philosophers and teachers of rhetoric. In the era of Paul, some women in Asia Minor even headed up Jewish synagogues. Nevertheless, these occurrences were all very exceptional. In biblical times female literacy in Mediterranean cultures was only around ten percent. A tiny proportion of women were recognized for their intellectual giftedness while most women were basically considered gullible and easily led astray by their emotions. This traditional patriarchal prejudice has lingered for centuries, even well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Before the 1920s women did not have the right to vote in political elections – something we all take for granted today.
After the Second World War family life in the Western world was strongly impacted by a steep increase in women joining the workforce in public spheres such as business, law and entertainment. Fast-forward to the present day. We find that female students have gained equality in the academy. It even bears noting that the annual statistics on university campuses in the U.S. often show female graduates outstripping the number of males on bachelor and masters’ degree levels.
Women are increasingly getting involved in the political realm, some even attaining top leadership positions such as becoming presidents, prime ministers, and cabinet ministers in countries across the globe. Germany, Britain, Finland, Israel, India, Canada, and New Zealand come to mind. It was to be expected that these societal changes would also impact church life.
The first opening up of pastoral leadership to women in modern times pre-dates the advent of contemporary feminism and secular women’s liberation movements. What started in Friends (Quaker) and Methodist circles in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries spilled over into Evangelical Free, Pentecostal, Salvation Army, American Baptist, Nazarene, and Cumberland Presbyterian circles by the 1930s. The recognition of female leadership also characterized the early stage of the Moody Bible Institute.
Next, there followed a number of backlashes — a swing of the pendulum back to more patriarchal positions. This was caused by factors such as the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy in American Christianity, the Stokes trial concerning the teaching of evolution, and the cultural upheavals of the sixties. Eventually by the 1980s and 1990s most mainline Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, and Presbyterian churches were accepting women in ordained leadership, while Southern Baptists and smaller and more conservative denominations still resisted this trend.
Today top positions in Christian ministry are open to women in most Protestant denominations while there seems little change afoot in Roman Catholicism and no movement at all in Eastern (and Oriental) Orthodoxy.
However, the Bible is far more important than any cultural trends for serious theological consideration of this matter. So, we now turn to a survey of material from Scripture. I would like to explore this matter by noting first three major biblical epochs each related to the Persons of the Trinity. I will outline this history with broad brushstrokes for the sake of brevity.
In the Old Testament, the Creator God of the covenant included both male and female in his making of humanity in his own image: “in the image of God He created them, male and female He created them” Genesis 1:27. Nevertheless, there is a preponderance of male leadership throughout the Old Covenant. Male circumcision was the sign of entry into this relationship and women were included only indirectly via their husbands or fathers. In the book of Genesis, the male patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph played the significant roles. In Exodus we find Miriam portrayed as a leader with her brothers, Aaron and Moses, but it is Moses who dominated the scene. A lesser role, but much chutzpah (spirited audacity), was displayed by the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Joshua and the other judges are all men except for the remarkable contribution of Deborah. She was both commander-in-chief of the Israelite troops and a prophet. In 2 Kings 22:14 we encounter the female prophet Huldah who was highly regarded. In the era of the kings we encounter Saul, David, and Solomon as well as the numerous kings of the divided realms of Israel and Judah – all male. The prophets are mostly men, both those who wrote the books of the Bible, as well as those who performed miracles such as Elijah and Elisha. With minor exceptions such as Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah, the Old Testament era of patriarchs, judges, priests, Levites and prophets shows us a pattern of male leadership.
The next major epoch of biblical history is the time of Jesus. Here things are somewhat different. Male patriarchal leadership is still dominant in society but there is some movement. Jesus chooses twelve men as his apostles but it is noteworthy that He honors and pays much attention to women in unexpected ways. We see this especially in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus conversed openly with women despite the traditions of first-century Judaism. He speaks to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and tells her He is the Messiah. He befriends Mary and Martha of Bethany. At the beginning of his Gospel Luke gives special attention to the roles of the prophet Anna, and Elizabeth. Jesus honors his mother Mary and even while He is on the cross He arranges for her well-being. He counted women among his disciples and allowed a number of women to travel with Him and the apostles. The risen Jesus sent women first to bear the news of his resurrection even though they were not considered as valid witnesses in Roman courts. In this second era Jesus challenged the patriarchal traditions of his time through his deeds, but this issue was not the focus of his ministry. The more significant changes in the role of women are foreshadowed and found mostly in the third epoch – that of the Holy Spirit.
But before we leave the Gospels it is necessary to note how different the rabbi from Nazareth was with regard to women. The Jewish traditions of Mishnah and Talmud form a stark contrast. Women were even forbidden to study the Torah (the first five books traditionally believed to be written by Moses). One well-known rabbi even proclaimed that the words of the Torah should rather be burned than entrusted to a woman! Women were considered intellectually inferior to men and their legal testimony worthless. (One wonders if the rabbis had forgotten that both men and women were created in the image of God?)
This Jewish context gives new meaning to the common Western interpretation of the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. Martha was concentrating on the female role of hospitality and caring about the arrival of perhaps thirteen guests (Jesus and his disciples) in their home. Usually we tend to sympathize with her impatience with her sister “sitting at the feet of Jesus” to listen to his every word instead of helping her. The renowned British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out that Mary was actually adopting the position of a male disciple by listening to Jesus as a student. Sitting at his feet is an idiom meaning to study with a rabbi — mostly in order to prepare to become a teacher as well. That becomes clear when we recall that Paul was described as “trained at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). The other disciples probably noticed this and wondered what Jesus would do. His words to Martha were unexpected in a first-century context. He chided Martha about being so concerned about serving. He said, “only one thing is necessary.” Some commentators believe this to refer to only one dish at the meal being sufficient. But He goes on to affirm Mary in her choice to study the truth of his teaching, stating that this good thing shall not be taken away from her. In one fell swoop Jesus dismisses centuries of male prejudice and affirms the right of women to study and be taught together with men!
The third era is that of the Holy Spirit. On the Day of Pentecost when Peter preached the news of God’s redemption through the death of the Messiah, he chooses to explain the miraculous signs of that day with a quotation from the prophet Joel. He states that it is not drunkenness that has caused the disciples to speak in many tongues or languages, declaring the wonders of God. It is the start of the fulfillment to which Joel was referring:
“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.” Acts 2:17-18
We do not usually sense the momentous impact that these words must have had on first- century ears. Prophetic gifts are the essence of Israelite faith and the Jews both from the time of Joel and those of Jesus’ day must have been astounded to hear that daughters would prophesy, as well as maidservants! Barriers of gender and class came tumbling down because the Lord was pouring out his Spirit on all flesh.
We see the seismic shift beginning to take shape in the early church. During his final instructions to his disciples in John 16: 12-13 Jesus declared, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth…”
One wonders what these “hard to bear” things would include? In all likelihood, we would expect them to refer to the inclusion of Gentile believers in the church without their first complying with Jewish dietary laws and the ritual of circumcision. That became apparent at the council meeting of Acts 15. In the book of Philemon, we receive “little hints” that slavery may not be just but it took Western Christianity almost eighteen centuries before this morally reprehensible and unjust practice was officially ended (though it still continues underground to this day, especially in some Asian and African societies).
I think it is quite likely that another thing that first-century disciples could not easily bear at that time would be the full acceptance of women into all leadership roles in the church. On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit was poured out in the Upper Room on both men and women in fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. Furthermore, the apostle Paul had clearly paved the way for the equality in the church of ethnic and societal groups as well as men and women by stating in his letter to the Galatians:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).
This entails a wide-reaching relativizing of the natural distinctions of ethnicity and gender. N.T. Wright explains that the significance of there being an “and” between male and female, rather than “or”, is that Paul is alluding to Genesis 1:27 where we read that male and female are both created in the image of God. This approach stands in stark contrast to the attitude of the troublesome Judaizers in the early church who would sympathize with the synagogue prayer of a male who thanks God that He has not made him “a Gentile, a slave, or a woman”. Surprisingly it also clashes with the more pagan Gnosticism of the so-called Gospel of Thomas which concludes with the suggestion that “Mary will be saved if she makes herself male”.
The passage about head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 will not be discussed here since it addresses a secondary matter of still maintaining gender differentiation between the sexes during worship as expressed in hair and clothing styles. I also consider the complex issue of headship to be more relevant to family structure than to leadership in the church, but I would like to point out that the idea of a male headship as lording it over women makes absolutely no sense. The last phrase of 1 Corinthians 11:3 states that “the head of Christ is God”. If taken as “sovereignty over” it would torpedo the whole doctrine of the co-equal Persons of the Trinity! This context would argue for the alternative meaning of headship as “source of”. Nevertheless, the significance of 1 Corinthians 11 for our argument is that it already illustrates that women were involved in praying and prophesying in church assemblies (verses 4 and 5). Leadership in congregations, I have argued, does not depend on human gender but on divine calling and spiritual gifts or charisms of the Holy Spirit.
As we follow the development of the early church in the book of Acts, we see a strong recognition of the giftings of women in the church. The list is quite remarkable compared to the previous two epochs of Scripture.
The well-known Presbyterian Middle Eastern scholar, Dr. Kenneth Bailey, cites women in the following roles in the Early Church: disciples, teachers of theology, deacons, prophets, elders, and at least one apostle.
In Acts 9:36 we read of Tabitha (or Dorcas in Greek) who was specifically called a disciple. The same could be said of the women who traveled with Jesus and the twelve, as well as Mary of Bethany, referred to above.
Prisca (also called Priscilla) is seen as a teacher of theology in Acts 18:24-26. She team-taught doctrine to the male preacher, Apollos, together with her husband Aquila. They explained the “way of God” to him more accurately. Her teaching a man who was described as learned, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures (verse 24), was remarkable although doing it tactfully in their own home made it culturally more acceptable. In this context Paul and Luke list Priscilla before Aquila which is unusual. This seems to be the case when the reference is to them as a ministry team but when their occupation of tent-makers comes up the traditional order Aquila and Priscilla is used. The fourth-century biblical exegete, John Chrysostom, comments that the wife must have had greater piety than her husband.
Ken Bailey also makes a case that Mary, the mother of Jesus, instructed the readers of Luke through her prophecy in Luke 1:46-55 (known as the Magnificat).
In Romans 16:1-2 Paul calls Phoebe a deacon (not deaconess) of the church at Cenchrea (the eastern port town on the Isthmus of Corinth). She seems to be a wealthy benefactor and also a minister of the Gospel of some sort, holding an office of congregational responsibility. In his commentary on Romans, John Calvin says that, “she exercised a very honorable and holy office in the Church.”
There were also female prophets mentioned in both testaments. Even though Greek culture discouraged women from speaking in public they permitted women to speak by divine inspiration. In Acts 21:9 reference is made to the four daughters of the evangelist Philip who were prophets. The term used for them probably indicates that they were in their teens or younger – an illustration of Joel’s prophecy that, “your daughters will prophesy.” In commenting on them,’ theologian Karen King conjectures that their roles would have included ecstatic public speech, preaching, teaching, and leading prayers.
Women are also described as leaders of house churches, e.g. Mary, the mother of Mark (Acts 12:21), Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), Apphia (Philemon 2), and Nympha (Col. 4:15) which could approximate to the office of elder. This is also the case with the ‘elect woman’ to whom 2 John was addressed where she is referred to as an elder or overseer. New Testament scholar and theologian Kirk MacGregor makes a detailed argument for this interpretation.
Paul describes Euodia and Syntyche as his fellow-workers (despite their relational disharmony) in Philippians 4:2-3. In Romans 16 Paul praises four women – Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis – for their labors in the church without referring to something like an office. Mary and Persis are seen as having worked very hard. Tryphena and Tryphosa – probably twins – are described as “the hard-workers” which may perhaps give the impression of something more permanent. MacGregor believes they held positions of authority in the church at Rome, perhaps even as preaching or teaching elders — basing this on the idea that “elders who rule well are worthy of double honor, especially those who work in preaching and teaching” 1 Timothy 5:17.
The most solid case for women elders in the New Testament however, is found in 1 Timothy 5. The issue is whether the term ‘presbyteras’ should be translated as “older women” or as “female elders”. Ken Bailey, Presbyterian, and Leonard Swidler, Roman Catholic, both argue here for the possibility of women presbyters or overseers. There is indeed a contrast made between the older and younger men and women in this passage. However, MacGregor reasons that here the words for younger persons refer to people young in the faith rather than in age. He points out that presbyter in Pauline usage is universally considered as the title of the ecclesiastical office of “elder”. He furthermore claims that the natural opposites to young man and young woman are not forms of the word ‘presbyter’, but the Greek words ‘genos’ and ‘genas’ respectively. In 1 Timothy 5:17-21 the translation elder reappears (concerning accusations against an elder) so the context seems to support the argument outlined above which might give some backing to the existence of female elders in both the Ephesian and Cretan churches.
To complete this part of the discussion we now refer to the single insistence of a female apostle, Junia. Along with her husband and fellow apostle, Andronicus, they are described by Paul in Romans 16:7 as fellow Jews and fellow prisoners. They were believers in Jesus before Paul. Ranked as “outstanding among the apostles” underscores that Junia clearly held the highest church office in the Early Church and entails that she and her husband were eyewitnesses to the fact of the resurrection of Jesus. (In the sense of eyewitnesses to the resurrection Mary Magdalene and the other women were also apostles.) 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 relates that Jesus was seen “by the twelve” and later “by all the apostles,” clearly indicating that there were more apostles in the church than the initial twelve. Paul, himself, comes last of all and sees the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. Together Junia, Andronicus and Paul would lay the foundation for the churches at Rome and be able to testify personally as eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Christ.
There is now a growing consensus among biblical scholars that “Junia” indeed is a female name. For the first thirteen centuries of church history there was unanimity that we are dealing with a husband-and-wife team, but due to rising patriarchal prejudice in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries attempts were made to “masculinize” the name Junia to Junias. The word in the text is the accusative Junian. With the more recent discovery of thousands of koine Greek manuscripts we now have more than 250 references to the female name ‘Junia’ from the first century, without a single insistence of a masculine variant! There is indeed no Greek male name Junias at all – it actually is just the genitive form of the feminine Junia. Unfortunately, it was the influential Authorized Version of 1611, a.k.a. the King James Version, that popularized this myth of a male Junias soon after the Protestant Reformation.
When surveying all of the Pauline greetings in his letters we find 54 men and 13 women, amounting, according to New Testament scholar Gary Burge of Wheaton, to 24% female references which is very significant considering the basic patriarchal nature of societies in the first century. There can be no doubt that Paul approved of and valued women as leaders and co-workers in Christian ministry. The era of the Spirit moved the church from male-dominated beginnings to a clear endorsement of women in all forms of ecclesiastical ministry. There can be little doubt that there is an increasing trend throughout the Bible toward a greater role for women — from Old Testament beginnings through the Gospels culminating in Acts and the Epistles.
We turn now to the two so-called “problem” texts in which the leadership role of women in ministry seems to be questioned or clearly rejected. I refer to 1 Corinthians 14:33-40 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15.
The passage from 1 Corinthians 14 actually comes from a broader context in which Paul’s regulates charismatic gifts in the congregation; but before we dive into the detailed exegesis (interpretation) a brief introduction may be helpful.
It is important to realize that ancient Greek manuscripts were handwritten in block capital letters with no punctuation and orthographic signs such as our question marks, periods, commas, colons, parentheses, quotation marks, etc. which we now so easily take for granted. It is hard to imagine how difficult it must have been to read texts with no spaces between the words and no certainty when the sentence or even paragraph was complete. So much depended on the material content and context to determine whether we were dealing with a statement, a question or a wish, whether this was a citation, or whether the words were meant with irony or sarcasm, etc.
History relates that the first thorough attempt to introduce orthographic signs and punctuation in Europe date from around the year 800 AD when Emperor Charlemagne requested the aid of the English scholar and cleric, Alcuin of York, to teach him to read.
A stark illustration of how the content and context of written literary texts vividly influence translation and interpretation to this very day this is found in the Old Testament reference in Isaiah 45:11 in which the Lord addresses his people. The King James Version renders the second part of the verse: “Command ye Me.” These words are indeed startling to human ears and several of the commentators and well-known devotional writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries went to great pains to put some parameters around this statement and yet maintained that in his great mercy the Lord actually allows us to give Him instructions. (One wonders whether the contemporary aberration of “Name it and claim it”- thinking has roots in this misunderstanding?) In all modern and contemporary translations however, the translators have understood that this clause is a question – in fact, an indignant one! The NIV translates, “Do you give me orders?” — the implied answer is, of course, negative. It is the context that supplies the insight that God is not asking us to tell Him what to do but is ironically asking if we think we can do that! In fact, this understanding is the exact opposite of the older interpretation. The Lord is not saying to his people: Command ye me, but rather: Do you really think you can command me? Who do you think you are??? In the context we see the Lord proclaiming woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, and asking if the clay says to the potter, “What are you making?” (verse 9). In verse 12 the Lord proclaims, “It is I who made the earth and created humankind on it”. There can be little doubt that a question like “You don’t think you can command me, do you?” fits better into the context than the enigmatic, “Command ye me”. Despite the lack of a question mark the tone of the whole argument makes it obvious that the meaning is ironic. This general lack of orthographic signs is found throughout the earliest manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments and this fact may now help us grasp some of the rather odd verses to which we now turn.
First Corinthians 14:33-40
Together with a number of contemporary interpreters I would submit that part of our first passage, namely 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35, is missing the necessary quotations marks. Here is the passage:
“Women/wives should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home: for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
At first sight these words seem to be a clinching argument against female leaders in church. In fact, quite the opposite is true!
As is generally known, in the letter of 1 Corinthians Paul is dealing with some written questions sent to him in a letter from the congregation in Corinth. We see this in several places in the letter, e.g. 7:1
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” This is then followed by Paul’s response or comment.
Other examples are found in chapters 6:12-13, 8:1-6, 10:23. Because the readers would probably remember the questions that they had sent, Paul does not always preface his replies to their questions by introductory words such as “Concerning what you wrote”.
In 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35 Paul is actually citing their question and then proceeds with a response or refutation as found in verses 36-40.
There are several good reasons to favor this interpretation of the whole pericope or passage.
First, as pointed out above, it aligns with what Paul has said in 1 Corinthians 11 where we see that women are already praying and prophesying in the church and he is addressing the issue of their head-coverings. Why would he bother with regulating their speech if he did not allow them to speak in the churches at all?
Second, the pronoun for ‘you’ in verse 36 is masculine –referring to the men who are asking this question.
Third, verse 36 is key to understanding the context. It reads: “Or did the word of God originate with you (men)? Or are you the only people it has reached?”
Where does this unusual tone come from? These words drip with sarcasm. Paul is visibly angry about this arrogant question, reprimanding the men by asking if they think God’s word came forth from them or reached them only? Implied answer: it most certainly did not! It seems as if Paul expects that the men would already know this.
A blunter, modern paraphrase might read: Do you imagine that you are a holy and exclusive source for determining what’s right or wrong? Do you think everything revolves around you guys?
Fourth, the biblical interpreters who accept verses 34-35 as being not from Paul but a quotation from the congregational letter he is answering as I argue above, include several well-known scholars such as C.K. Barrett, H. Conzelmann, L. Keck, J. Murphy -O’Connor and, with some caution, also A. Thiselton. Lucy Peppiatt develops this argument at length in a doctoral research project Women and Worship in Corinth.
Kirk MacGregor argues along similar lines and offers an explanation for the basis on which the men’s question rested. It is found in their own words, “For they (the women) … should be in submission to the (Jewish) law.” Paul will go on in 1 Corinthians 15:56 to remark that “the power of sin is the law.” Paul is surely not linking the moral law such as found in Exodus 20 with the power of sin, but rather the ceremonial law of the Torah that is worked out in great detail in the traditional 613 “mitzvot” or rabbinical commandments. In Galatians Paul contrasts the works of the law with receiving the Spirit by faith in the Gospel. With regard to insisting on circumcision for believing Gentiles, Paul calls that the abolishing of the offense of the cross and in exasperation expresses the desire that the Judaizers would emasculate themselves (5:11-12)!
In his spirited rejection of the question by the men, probably those of the faction of Cephas (Peter), Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:37 that the things he is writing to them are a command (not of the law) but of the Lord!
To conclude this discussion, I will now illustrate this new interpretation by adding in the citation marks which indicate the question sent to Paul in the letter of the Corinthian men representing the Judaizing or circumcision party who would silence women in the churches as they are silenced in the synagogues, and I also providing some introductory explanations.
First Corinthians 14:33-40
- For God is not a God of disorderly confusion but of peace.
(In your letter you maintain) “As in all the churches of the saints, 34. the women/ wives should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
- (Do you really think) it was from you that the word of God originated? Or are you the only ones it has reached?
- If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritually gifted, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38. If anyone does not recognize this, he is to be ignored.
- So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40. But everything should be done in an appropriately inclusive and orderly way.
To be clear: the words in Italics indicate the thoughts of the Corinthians to whom Paul then responds. The words in parentheses are my additions.
First Timothy 2:8-15
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 (or comprehend) in quietness and full submission (to God or the teaching of the church leaders she is receiving—H.I.L.). 12 I do not permit a woman/wife to teach or to assume authority over (or be domineering 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/wives will be saved through (or kept safe during) childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
Together with the NIV translation given above — to which I have added a few alternative translations in parentheses, — most translations use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ in this passage, but linguistic experts now assert that a strong case can be made that ‘husbands’ and ‘wives’ is the correct rendering. Whereas the feminine noun ‘gyne’ is used for both ‘woman’ and ‘wife’ the male form or counterpart distinguishes between ‘anthropos’ (man) and ‘aner’ (husband). Greek semantics regularly require that when these nouns for both sexes are used together the meaning is determined by the choice made between ‘anthropos’ or ‘aner’. In this passage it is ‘aner’ that is consistently used with ‘gyne’, indicating that the correct translation is probably ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. The new discovery of thousands of koine Greek papyri universally supports this rendering. Consequently, it is the married couples and their behavior in church that is in focus in this whole section – contrary to many current translations.
Furthermore, new scholarship has produced a wealth of cultural background information that has contributed to a better understanding of this hotly debated passage. Sharon Hodgin Gritz has added much to our understanding of the cultural and religious contexts of the worship of Artemis as a hybrid between the virginal Greek Olympian huntress and the Anatolian and Phrygian Earth Mother deity in the first century in her study, Paul, Women Teachers, and the Mother Goddess at Ephesus. She has also unearthed much salient information about the cult of the goddess Artemis which functioned as a Hellenistic mystery religion and this brings us closer to grasping some of the more problematic parts of our passage from 1 Timothy 2. Paradoxically the cult of Artemis presented a challenge to Christian teaching by both ascetic (forbidding marriage) and immoral behaviors.
Another recent revealing study is Wealth in Ancient Ephesus and the First Letter to Timothy by Gary Hoag. In it he shares cultural insights from Ephesus, based on a first-century ‘love story’ about a prominent young Ephesian couple, Anthia and Habrocomes. He is sixteen and she fourteen – both very wealthy and very beautiful. The special relevance of this ancient novel, Ephesiaca, by Xenophon of Ephesus, is that it is dated in the very same time period as Paul’s letter to Timothy and there is considerable overlap in vocabulary between them. Ephesiaca also contributes much to our knowledge of the cultural background of this whole era and is therefore crucial in understanding some exegetical issues.
We start with a picture of this cultural background. Ephesus, the city where Timothy was working in the Christian congregations, was a large and prominent metropolis in Asia Minor. It housed the famous temple of the goddess Artemis (Diana in Roman mythology). The temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The traditional culture of Ephesus was decidedly matriarchal and as a result the local Anatolian fertility or ‘Earth Mother’ goddess had become integrated and, as alluded to above, fused with one of the Greek Olympic goddesses, namely Artemis. Although Artemis (sister of Apollo) was worshipped in many cities, only in Ephesus was she the primary deity. She was universally revered as a virgin huntress with bow and arrow, quiver, javelins, and hunting dogs, but in Ephesus she had in addition taken on the realm of fertility, motherhood and childbearing. As the proverbial ‘Great Mother Goddess’, (Magna Mater in Latin) she played a similar role as Cybele in Phrygia, Demeter in Greece, Ishtar in Babylon, Isis in Egypt, and the Canaanite goddess of fertility and fecundity, Astarte, Asherah, or Ashtaroth.
The ancient geographer and historian, Strabo, shares the legend that the Ephesians believed that a community of women, called the Amazons, had founded the temple of Artemis. They were powerful fighters, especially archers, and there was a myth that they even severed their right breasts in order to enable them to use their bows more skillfully. Other ancient tales portrayed Artemis as very aggressive and vengeful when countered. Her depiction as a hunter of wild animals positioned her in a traditional occupation of males, thereby presenting her as a challenge to the leading male gods of Mount Olympus such as Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes, and Apollo.
In Ephesus the goddess Artemis was believed to exercise strict control over her female devotees. She dictated their worship and behavior – particularly in the realm of childbearing. She was said to help women in the pangs of childbirth. All young maidens were initiated into her cult at puberty. They imitated her dress and coiffure which entailed hair braided or platted with pearls and gold. In the mystery religion they were encouraged to become the dominant partners in their marriages, displaying the mastery and control that Artemis had exhibited over the males in the mythical narratives about her life. Young wives were also taught to instruct, correct, and chastise their husbands, gaining power over them. As could be expected this would lead to anger and marital strife between the sexes. In the light of Aristophanes’ hilarious comedy, Lysistrata, which was popular in Greek theatres it is probable that such domineering attitudes by female worshippers of Artemis led to their manipulating their husbands by means of intermittently withholding marital privileges from them.
Artemis was worshipped in her impressive seven-story temple in Ephesus to which, some maintained, only females and eunuchs had access. This pagan worship included prayers, sacrifices and libations, administered by the many priestesses who labored there – some serving as temple prostitutes. Everything was exclusively controlled by women. There were, however, some men who played a role, but they were eunuchs who had emasculated themselves by a voluntary self-castration. Such men were deemed to have become female and they even wore women’s clothing and jewelry. The Megabyzus (or chief priest) was such a eunuch.
In the realm of fertility Artemis also called the shots and threatened pregnant females who were lax in their worship and dedication to her that they might die in childbirth. In the ancient world there was a high incidence of such deaths.
It is noteworthy that in the passage from 1 Timothy 2, to which we now turn in detail, Paul admonishes the husbands in verse 8 to pray without anger or quarreling. Is it possible to see here some signs of the proverbial ‘battle of the sexes’ unleashed by the clash of the cult of Artemis with the broader patriarchal traditions of Greek society, as well as the biblical pattern for Christian households found e.g. in Ephesians 5?
Next, Paul addresses wives at greater length. He warns against ostentatious dress and adornments. Wives should rather dress with modesty, clothing themselves with good deeds and godliness. In his study, Hoag finds evidence that the description of female apparel may in fact not only refer to hairstyles and jewelry fashionable among the wealthier women at that time but specifically to that which some women wore in imitation of the goddess Artemis. It is clear that Paul would caution against such styles. Gritz mentions that the sensuous clothing of some women probably caused male worshippers to stumble.
In the opening scene from the Ephesiaca we encounter the youthful Anthia portrayed like the goddess of the hunt, her hair adorned with gold in imitation of Artemis. The same style is also portrayed in archeological finds of small terracotta figurines of Artemis from the first century.
In verse 11 Paul goes on to speak of women or wives quietly studying or learning to comprehend (their new Christian faith?) in full submissiveness to God. N.T. Wright translates, “They must study undisturbed”. This attitude would be decidedly countercultural to the pagan religious patterns outside the church where the goddess desired the wives to instruct and lord it over their husbands.
Paul continues in verse 12 that he – certainly in the Ephesian context! – does not permit a wife to teach or domineer her husband. The rare Greek verb ‘authentein’ (exercising authority), found only here in the New Testament, has received a lot of attention from biblical commentators. MacGregor makes a case that when the verb: to teach (didaskein) is used with another term expressing authority it does not refer to teaching in the general sense of teaching but to a top-down master-disciple relationship. The idea of ‘authentein’ is accordingly well rendered by ‘dominate’. It is used here in the sense of ‘exerting authority over’. It is a word with forceful connotations. In the Septuagint translation of the apocryphal book, the Wisdom of Solomon, it is even used for ‘murder’. The idea of wives having authority over their husbands would be unheard of in both Jewish and most Gentile cultures in the Roman Empire of the first century AD — except, of course, in Ephesus and other matriarchal societies.
The well-known Greek lexicographers, Louw and Nida, list the semantic field of ‘authentein’ as “control, restrain, and domineer.” New Testament scholar Linda Belleville did extensive research on this term in numerous Bible translations and shows there is an unbroken usage from the earliest translations until the 1940s that ‘authentein’ is translated as “domineering or usurping authority.” It seems clear that Paul is not merely referring to teaching as a regular activity in the church.
The interpretation of the last three verses of this passage, verses 13-15, are no less complicated than the preceding ones. In verse 13 Paul supports his position that wives should not teach in a domineering way and seek control over their husbands by referring to the chronological birth order of Adam and Eve in a rather puzzling ad hoc manner. This reference to Genesis is considered by those opposing the ordination of women as supplying a valuable creation ordinance and thereby providing strong support for exclusive male leadership in the church.
Let us explore this a little more deeply. The letter of 1 Timothy gives a lot of attention to the matter of false teaching, but unfortunately Paul never specifically mentions what the content of this teaching is. He seems more concerned about the immoral behavior and lack of character exhibited by the false teachers. He vaguely refers to false doctrines, myths, and genealogies (1 Tim 1:4). It is to be presumed that through prior knowledge and personal experience Timothy would already be well aware of the nature of the problem. There are indications that women may have played a large role in spreading these teachings. It is true that in general they were more likely to be illiterate than their husbands, and very often younger and less mature too.
1 Timothy 4:7 warns against “godless myths and old wives’ tales.” New Testament scholar, Cynthia Long Westfall, in her book Paul and Gender refers to an early recorded myth that reversed the roles of male and female in the biblical order of creation and the fall into sin. These views would be seen more clearly in later gnostic literature, based on oral traditions.
The argument regarding the birth order of Adam first and Eve second may be Paul’s way of setting this false myth straight rather than providing the basis for any permanent exclusion of women on the grounds of primogeniture (the right of the firstborn). Genesis 1:27 actually has Adam and Eve being created together on the same day – the sixth day – both in the image and likeness of God. In the second creation narrative where there is no sequence of days Adam is created in Genesis 2:7 and Eve in verse 22.
Furthermore, in the narratives of Genesis the ancient principle of primogeniture is often reversed or subverted. Examples abound: although Cain was born first Abel is the Lord’s favored one. The twins, Jacob and Esau, experience the same reversal. Even if Esau was technically born first it is Jacob that in the end receives favor and blessing. Reuben is the first born of Jacob’s children, but the line to Jesus goes instead through Judah. Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, once more experience this same switch when grandfather Jacob crosses his arms to grant priority to the younger, Ephraim, in his formal blessing. It is in the realm of regulating inheritance between offspring that the rest of the Old Testament and neighboring Near Eastern cultures emphasize primogeniture. It seems that the formation of Adam before Eve may not be providing a timeless creation principle after all.
Some would still maintain that the emphasis may rest on the next verse: “And Adam was not deceived: it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (verse 14). Paul is here arguing in a common rabbinical manner, using what is known as a ‘Midrash’ –a simple “elaboration” in which biblical words and references are often linked together more on face value without regard to logical context as is customary in Western literary practice. In Romans 5, in a more doctrinal mode, Paul actually reverses the statement that the woman was the one who was deceived and emphasizes that Adam was the transgressor. Romans 5:12 states clearly that sin entered the world through one man and the reference is to Adam. Verse 5:14 speaks of Adam’s transgression, and the passage then leads to grace and righteousness coming through the one man, Jesus Christ, the Messiah who is seen as the Second Adam.
I believe that Paul is arguing against the matriarchal dominance of men by women in Ephesus, bolstered by the pagan mystery cult of Artemis, and that in common rabbinical fashion Paul is referring to the fact that Adam was formed first and that Eve was deceived first in order to argue against the very specific heretical teaching being spread there by rumor in that city. The church was probably being challenged by syncretism (where different religions are mixed and fused together) and perhaps also by proto-gnostic myths and old wives’ tales which were trying at that time to subvert and change the biblical narratives of creation and fall in order to align them more closely with the matriarchal prejudice of the Artemis cult.
The final verse of this passage or pericope is surely the most interesting – and confusing – if not viewed against the cultural background.
In the first half of verse 15 Paul literally states, “But she (woman/wife) shall be saved through the (her) childbearing.” I have added explanatory words in parentheses.
Instead of taking time to explore the logical questions that immediately arise such as: What about women who never have offspring? or Does this mean that women are not saved by grace through faith in the cross of Christ? I will here propose a different translation.
The sentence above which I translated very literally, can also be rendered, “But women (she) shall be preserved/kept alive during/throughout their(her) childbearing/pregnancy.” Given the threat of the Artemis cult that those who neglect the worship of the goddess may die in childbirth these words would be very relevant and comforting to young mothers in the church.
[In an aside, I cannot resist the temptation to note that the new translation I came up with above later received prominent support when I came across the following translation of N.T. Wright in his publication The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation:
“She will, however, be kept safe through the process of childbirth, if she continues in faith, love, and holiness with prudence”.]
The last words of verse 15 in the NIV read: “if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” The idea here is not to make safety in childbirth dependent on performance and meritorious behavior, but merely to encourage perseverance and the fruit of a righteous life. Pregnant women may have been especially tempted to return to paganism and idolatry. Paul here wishes to comfort and encourage these new female believers. There is a switch in this last part of verse 15 from singular to plural (they). This could refer either to the plural “wives” (more likely) or to ‘husband and wife’ as a couple. Wright opted to use the singular.
Although it seems to have captured the imagination of several interpreters, I do not accept the conjecture that the enigmatic reference to “women being saved by childbearing” somehow refers to the birth of Jesus. It raises too many objections: male and female being saved in starkly different ways and the fact that doctrinally it is the death – not the birth – of Christ that brings salvation. The Greek verb ‘sozein’ that is usually translated as ‘to save’ has a broad semantic domain (sphere of meaning) and is commonly used for salvation, physical healing, safety, and preservation of life. The Greek preposition ‘dia’ can mean both ‘by’ – instrumentally – and ‘during’ – temporally, rendering the translation ‘she shall be preserved during pregnancy’ which I proposed above, entirely possible.
Finally summing up, it has been argued in this paper that there is a clear threefold progression within Scripture from almost exclusive male leadership, to the limited participation of women, and then finally to a broader occurrence of women in ministry even to the highest level of apostolic leadership, correlating to what has been called the eras of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the next section the multiple forms of women in pastoral leadership in the Early Church as outlined in the book of Acts and the New Testament letters were discussed and outlined.
This exposition then concluded with a more detailed analysis of the two biblical pericopes or sections which seem contrary to the flow of the above argumentation. With regard to 1 Corinthians 14:33-38 the rhetorical contention was advanced that in the portion that censures female participation we are not dealing with Paul’s position but that of the male Judaizers in the church who have sent this question to Paul for his answer. His unequivocal response is to reject this position and support women in ministry, maintaining that what he is advocating is the Lord’s command.
Similarly, the pericope 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is deeply contextual and occasional. Its meaning becomes clearer when the Ephesian context and strong cultural background of the worship of the goddess Artemis is taken into account. From clothing and hairstyles, to a matriarchal style of domination, and fear of death during childbirth, one gains insights to interpret this passage afresh.
In neither of these two pericopes can any biblical support be found to object to the full participation in pastoral leadership of both men and women. Coupled with the positive evidence for female leadership evidenced in the New Testament church the time has surely come for the full partnership of men and women within God’s kingdom – a call for true complementarity without hierarchy.
Let it be said, however, that in this dispensation we all still see darkly as a reflection in a mirror. I look forward to seeing face to face and consider all theological conclusions reached here below to be tentative until that glorious revelation when the Lord will make all things new and He may be all in all.
Submitted sincerely for evaluation,
Henry I. Lederle, Th.D. (Unisa)
Retired Teaching Elder,
Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Wichita, KS.
Brief Selected Bibliography
Bailey, Kenneth E. Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View. Theology Matters. Vol 6 No. 1, Jan/Feb 2000, pp 1-11.
Gritz, Sharon Hodgin Paul, Women Teachers, and the Mother Goddess at Ephesus: A Study of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 in Light of the Religious and Cultural Milieu of the First Century. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991.
Hoag, Gary G. Wealth in Ancient Ephesus and the First Letter to Timothy: Fresh Insights from Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015.
Hylen, Susan E. 5 Myths about Women in the New Testament Period. Biblical Archeology Review. Vol.46 No.1, Jan/Feb 2020, pp 55-56.
Kroeger, Richard C. & Catherine C. I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1Timothy 2: 11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992.
MacGregor, Kirk R. A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2007.
Mathews, Alice. Gender Roles and the People of God: Rethinking What We Were Taught about Men and Women in the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017.
Peppiatt, Lucy. Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015.
Pierce, Ronald W. and Rebecca M. Groothuis (General editors). Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy. Second edition. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005.
Schmeling, Gareth L. Xenophon of Ephesus. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1980.
Westfall, Cynthia L. Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016.
Wright, N.T. Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014.
________ . The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011.