So good to hear from you my friend and thanks for your question. I am not surprised to hear that this has come up on a number of occasions, it is certainly a sensitive issue that many churches and Christians are having to consider carefully and lovingly.
I have done my utmost to keep this short, but too be honest it was too difficult to stop myself from laying out as much of a coherent argument as possible. I hope you are able to make a cup of tea and work through this at your leisure
A Point of Authority?
Let me start off by saying that in the evangelical complementarian/ egalitarian discussion, what is not up for debate is the authority of Scripture as the standard reference point for life and doctrine. In fact, in Zondervan’s “Counterpoints Series” Two Views of Women in Ministry (2nded., 2005) all four authors agreed to the following statement: “We believe one can build a credible case within the bounds of orthodoxy and a commitment to inerrancy for either one of the two major views we address in this volume, although all of us view our own positions on the matter as stronger and more compelling” (p. 15).
So it is not so much about Bible or no , but how to read the Bible. What interpretive, narrative and linguistic and contextual decisions are made with what is provided in Scripture. That is where this debate is located.
Is Context a Cop-Out?
A major bone of contention along these lines for most people is the question of context – how ought we to account for the first-century context in our reading of the NT?
I think it is essential to understand that, as eminent scholar Richard Hays points out, when we approach the NT canon, we are quite literally reading “somebody else’s mail.” More than this, we are reading it 2000 years removed. The ANE expert and biblical scholar John Walton says that while the Bible was written for us, it was not written to us. It is in my view inexcusable to appeal to context as a lazy dismissal of an opinion you don’t like, yet citing context is not a cop-out. In fact, it is the primary indicator that enables understanding of what the writings meant in their original context to the original recipients , so that we might rightly apply them to our context . This is a hermeneutical necessity. If this is not settled in the minds of those engaged in this discussion, moving forward is likely not achievable.
Zooming Out: The Big Picture
I think Amy Orr-Ewing in her writings and speaking has approached this in a helpful way: we could start our analysis by zooming out to get the big picture of God and then zooming in to the ministry of Jesus and NT texts. All of this will help us answer the question: how do men and women fit into God’s story? And, therefore, what respective roles are they given?
1. The Beginning: Creation
Of course, it is critical to go back to the beginning and see how things operated before things went wrong at the Fall. What was God’s original design, his blueprint for humanity?
In the first creation account of Genesis (ch 1):
God creates man and woman in his image: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27).
· This is the language of ontological equality: men and women as co-image bearers .
God gives the creation/ Edenic mandate to both: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…” (1:28).
· This seems to be the language of functional equality: both are given the mandate to rule on God’s behalf in God’s world.
· Here, we have men and women as co-labourers .
One argument given for original subordination of women is: Adam was created first and Eve later, so his primacy is an indication of his leadership significance/ role.
· In the first creation account, however, the animals precede Adam; does this mean they are more significant? Moreover, the account seems to imply increased significance at each stage of creation (culminating in perfection and rest), which would put Eve as more significant as she is made later.
· Gordon Fee notes: “no hint in the Genesis narrative that the sequence of their creation has theological meaning” ( Discovering Biblical Equality , p. 252).
In the second creation account of Genesis (ch 2):
None of the above is undermined, despite the attempts of some to argue to the contrary.
Another argument is to say that Eve was made from Adam’s side, and so she is ‘secondary’.
· Again, John Walton’s analysis in The Lost World of Adam and Eve is crucial : “ontological equality is absolutely clear” in this text, he argues.
I think we come away from Genesis 1-2 with an overwhelming sense of a unity and equality of beings: both are called to bear God’s image and steward God’s world.
2. The End: New Creation
At the end of the Bible, in John’s apocalyptic vision, we see a vision of how things will go once all is put right. It is our trajectory as a church.
It is clear that men and women are together worshiping God, and together inheriting the reward of his presence and kingdom (e.g. 5:9-10; 7:9-10; 21:1-4).
- Here, we have men and women as co-inheritors .
So, we see that at the beginning (before the Fall) and at the end (after the Fall has been fully resolved) men and women are co-image bearers , co-labourers and co-inheritors .
3. The Middle: Jesus and Women
So much for the beginning and the end, what about the middle part of Scripture? Do we see something different?
Well, Jesus is truly the full revelation of God that we have, as the author to the Hebrews has said (Heb 1:1-3), and to see him is to see the Father himself (Jn 14:9). So to look at his ministry, to consider how he treats and speaks to women especially is telling with regards what God would say to the place of women in his story.
i. Some of the most spectacular elements of Jesus’ ministry were witnessed/ reported by women.
His birth: the miraculous conception of Jesus is revealed first to Mary (Lk 1:26-38).
His death: After the disciples deserted Jesus, the women remained at the cross and saw his death (Mk 15:40; Mat 27:55-56; Jn 19:25).
His resurrection: the first to encounter the risen Jesus is Mary Magdalene (Mk 16:9-11; Mat 28:1-9; Jn 20:11-18).
· Thus, Mary is properly an ‘apostle’ (i.e. an eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus and sent to proclaim its truth).
ii. Both men and women were his disciples
They followed him; and some women even provided financially for him (Lk 8:1-3).
Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet” (Lk 10:39).
· The same words used of Saul wrt his relationship to Gamaliel: it is a formulation indicating a disciple learning from the master (Acts 22:3).
· Mary was learning with the intention to teach , as was fitting of a trainee/ disciple.
iii. Both men and women were present at Pentecost
Luke records that the Eleven were “together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:12-14; cf. 2:1-4, 14-18).
· They were all awaiting the fulfilment of Christ’s command re the Spirit (Acts 1:8).
I think it is most likely that the women were likewise baptised in the Spirit at Pentecost and compelled into the streets to proclaim the wonders of God.
· This would also make sense of Peter’s quotation of Joel, which includes the Spirit being poured out on both men and women.
iv. Both men and women are filled, gifted and empowered by the Spirit
The apostle Peter here leads the way by quoting Joel and applying his prophecy to the Pentecost phenomena: “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…” (Acts 2:16-21; cf. Joel 2:28-32).
Whereas under the Old Covenant of Moses only men could receive the sign of the covenant on behalf of the family (circumcision), now in the New Covenant the Spirit is the seal or sign (of which both males and females bear).
· It is Spirit-gifting that takes priority of place in the New Covenant people of God (see Gordon Fee, Discovering Biblical Equality, ch. 14).
v. Both men and women are active in speech and leadership roles in the early church.
- While I will say a bit more about this below, it is clear that women also occupied various roles in the early church, for example:
- · Prophet (e.g. Phillip’s four daughters in Acts 21:8-9).
- · Instructor and active clarifier of God’s word (e.g. Priscilla in Acts 18:26).
- · Deacon (e.g. Phoebe in the church at Rome, Romans 16:1).
- · Apostle (e.g. Junia, Romans 16:7).
- · Benefactor (e.g. Phoebe in Romans 16:1 and Joanna in Luke 8:3).
- · Leader (e.g. Chloe in her house church, 1 Corinthians 1:11).
- · Fellow worker with Paul (e.g. Euodia and Syntyche in Phil 4:3).
Zooming In: The Tricky Text(s)
Zooming out helps to get a big picture, one that is uniformly affirming of the place of men and women together in God’s story of creation and redemption. I am inclined to think many would be happy in principle with most (if not all) of what I have laid out so far. (Though I do not think we apply this position nearly so well in the practice of our relationships and church community). However, I think the real differences emerge when we discuss certain NT texts and their interpretation.
Linda Bellville has written extensively in this area and has noted that there are usually two texts referenced to advocate for the restrictive interpretation, i.e. 1 Cor 14:33-34 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15. However, as she and others recognise: “1 Timothy 2:8-15… is the only passage in the entire Bible explicitly forbidding or limiting women’s teaching role” (CraigKeener, Paul, Women and Wives , pp. 17-18; cf. Bellville, Discovering Biblical Equality, ch. 12).
Let’s be clear: there are different words to indicate many different speech acts in the NT: teaching, exhorting, prophesying, evangelising, reading etc. The only speech act that seems to be explicitly restricted to men is ‘teaching’. Further, as John Dickson notes in his book Hearing Her Voice , whatever 1 Tim 2 means, it is “not forbidding women to speak God’s truth to men in all circumstances” (Dickson, 2012; p. 10). The word didasko (teach) in 1 Tim 2 is not Paul’s catch-all phrase for ‘speech act,’ otherwise it would directly contradict his other statements regarding women prophesying and praying etc. (e.g. 1 Cor 11).
In fact, Dickson makes an interesting argument in this book: ‘teach’ is a specialised gift, he says, related solely to “preserving and laying down the traditions handed on by the apostles” (p. 3). However, seeing as the Bible has codified this oral apostolic tradition, there is nothing akin to teaching today as it was meant in the apostolic era (see Dickson, esp. pp. 48-52). Even if one doesn’t follow Dickson’s argument through to its conclusion,at the very least, even if a conservative view is taken of the texts, there are many acts clearly open to men and women in a ministry capacity.
On this point and in my opinion, we as church must do a lot better with encouraging our sisters in Christ to participate in Bible/ doctrine-related conversations, church meetings and Sunday gatherings… a lot better. Our churches will be worse off if dominated by male voices and perspectives. Women must feel empowered in their families, vocations and churches to identify, develop and deploy their gifts, with the help of their community and the witness of the Spirit. As must men.
Back to 1 Timothy 2…
Does it restrict this particular speech act or not? Is it only men given to public authoritative proclamation of the Gospel?
- This is where context comes into the equation again: into what situation is Paul writing and what did he mean?
- · This section of 1 Timothy 2 is about instructions in prayer/ worship: first to the men (2:8) and then a longer section to the women (2:9-15). The section to the women is longer, because they at the time of writing were apparently causing greater disturbance. Paul provides two categories of exhortation to the women in his response: (1) concerning dress codes and (2) concerning teaching (see Keener, Paul, Women and Wives , pp. 102, 107-13).
- o Of the second, the ‘silence’ (2:11) Paul enjoins has more to do with a quiet disposition appropriate for a novice whilst learning than it does a universal injunction to silence all women in all churches (would that not contradict flatly his instructions in 1 Cor 11:4-5?). It is to this same quiet disposition the whole church is called to in 1 Tim 2:2, which leads us to believe Paul is speaking of an attitude, not a muzzling.
- o The word ‘authority’ in 2:12 comes from the Greek authenteo , which lexicographers argue carries the meaning of ‘to dominate’ (see standard academic lexicons BDAG, Thayer’s and Liddell-Scott for a consensus on this).
- § The issue here is not ‘authority’ in the sense of delegated mandate to speak, but the manner in which speaking is undertaken: domineering.
- § Belleville argues for a better way to understand this verse: “I do not permit a woman to teach so as to gain mastery over a man” or “I do not permit a woman to teach with a view to dominating a man” ( Discovering Biblical Equality , p. 219).
- o The best way to read 2:13-14 is as an analogy. Since much of the false teaching at Ephesus was spread through the women in the congregation (1 Tim 5:13; 2 Tim 3:6-7), Paul draws an analogy between the easily deceived Eve and the easily deceived women in the Ephesian church (cf. 2 Cor 11:3; Keener, p. 117).
We must remember: Paul is writing about women in this particular context, so we should not universalise what he has particularised.
My current conviction remains in the direction that what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy does not exclude women from public authoritative proclamation gifts.
- · So I follow Keener’s conclusion: “If Paul does not want the women to teach in some sense, it is not because they are women, but because they are unlearned. His principle here is that those who do not understand the Scriptures and are not able to teach them accurately should not be permitted to teach others ” (p. 119, bold mine).
- · Accordingly, women ought to be encouraged to seek the Spirit’s leading in the gifts they have been given, including proclamation gifts, to the glory of God.
This is a stupendously long response, so let me summarise:
- (1) An essential hermeneutic principle is to engage the cultural context of NT writings to consider authorial intention and meaning.
- (2) The arc of Scripture, in which we see God’s blueprint for male/ female dynamics, points to equality in ontology, vocation and inheritance. (Of course, we are not saying men and women are the same – equality does not equal sameness .)
- (3) Jesus radically dignified women in a male-centric culture; they played a crucial role in the Gospels and early church as disciples, leaders, missionaries, prophets, apostles, benefactors etc.
- (4) The one text that seems explicitly to deny women authority to proclaim the Gospel turns out to encourage a learning process that enables unlearned women in the Ephesian community to perform that very act.
Books for further consultation:
(1) Amy Orr-Ewing, Why Trust the Bible? (IVP, 2006)
(2) Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1992).
(3) John Dickson, Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).
(4) John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Editors), Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Biblical Feminism (Illinois: Crossway, 1991).
(5) Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (Editors), Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy (Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, Second Edition, 2005).
(6) Zondervan “Counterpoints Series”, Two Views of Women in Ministry (2nded., 2005).