Q. What do you think is women’s role in society in terms of positions of leadership?
I’ve devoted a series of four posts on this blog to the question of what the Bible teaches about women in leadership roles in the church. That series starts here.
Those posts are actually a summary of a longer series (17 posts, 10,000 words) that I did on the same subject for a separate blog. You can find that series here.
The bottom line for me is that there should be no restrictions within the church on what women can do, simply because they are women. And since I believe that the church is called to “live the life of the future in the present” (as Gordon Fee puts it), that is, to model the values of God’s coming kingdom even now, then I also feel that the church should help the surrounding society recognize and empower the gifts of women as well as men. This means encouraging them to fill whatever roles they can be most effective in and make the greatest contribution to the society, including leadership roles.
A reader of my recent post about the Head Covering Movement also read a similar post on the Wartburg Watch about “Head Coverings on the Rise.” It explained how certain groups are promoting head coverings in an effort to distinguish male and female identities.
My reader was concerned to see comments there by Tim Bayly, senior pastor of ClearNote Church in Bloomington, Indiana and former Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, claiming that signs of “femininity in men” included “doubting themselves, using hedge words and phrases, wearing jewelry, abdicating authority, shedding tears,” and “being vain in their appearance.” My reader asked:
Wow – disturbing to see “shedding tears” listed as a violation of men’s roles!! How can they reconcile that with Jesus??
This is an excellent question, and a response to it provides a useful illustration of how the ideas of male and female roles that some groups are promoting owe much more to cultural influences than to biblical ones. A similar study could be done of some of Bayly’s other signs of “femininity in men,” as well as of his signs of “masculinity in women.” (These include “working out”–does God not want women to be physically fit? Even the so-called Proverbs 31 Woman is praised because “her arms are strong for her tasks”!) But a single study of praiseworthy biblical men shedding tears will have to suffice here.
First, as my reader observed, Jesus himself shed tears openly. Not only did he weep over the death of his dear friend Lazarus (even though he was just about to raise him from the dead!), he wept openly when he saw Jerusalem from a distance and sensed its impending fate–destruction at the hands of the Romans.
If we consider Jesus our example, as all Christian men and women are supposed to, then he must provide an illustration for both sexes of the freedom to express godly emotions openly. Indeed, as historic hymns illustrate, the tears Jesus shed on earth have long been understood as a consolation to all who still mourn here:
Jesus wept! those tears are over,
But His heart is still the same;
Kinsman, Friend, and elder Brother,
Is His everlasting Name.
Savior, who can love like Thee,
Gracious One of Bethany?
When the pangs of trial seize us,
When the waves of sorrow roll,
I will lay my head on Jesus,
Refuge of the troubled soul.
Surely, none can feel like Thee,
Weeping One of Bethany!
But while Jesus, in his incarnation, is the supreme biblical example of a godly man, he is not the only praiseworthy man who weeps in the pages of Scripture:
• Esau, often held up as a “man’s man” in the Bible (“a skillful hunter, a man of the open country”), wept when Jacob stole his birthright, and he and Jacob wept together when they were reconciled.
• Jacob wept when he thought his favorite son Joseph had been killed. Joseph wept when he was reunited in Egypt with his brothers who had betrayed him and he discovered that they were repentant. (In fact, “he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.”)
• When David and his men–tough guys all–discovered that the Amalekites had raided their city of Ziklag and carried off their families, they “wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep.” David and his friend Jonathan “wept together” when they were forced to part because of the violent jealousy of Jonathan’s father, King Saul.
• Nehemiah wept when he heard that Jerusalem still lay in ruins.
• Peter wept when he realized that he had betrayed Jesus.
• The elders of the church in Ephesus all wept as they said goodbye to Paul for the last time. (Apparently even church elders weeping together isn’t inappropriate, according to the Bible.)
Many other examples could be given, but the point should be clear by now. To suggest that there is any Scriptural basis for arguing that godly men shouldn’t cry overlooks a broad range of positive examples throughout the Bible, including most notably Jesus himself. If we are concerned about appropriate roles and identities for men and women, we need to be informed by God’s word about this, not by cultural assumptions.
Women who wear head coverings are choosing to do something that the Bible says they should always be free to choose.
But they are not doing something that the Bible commands all women to do.
This is the conclusion of a detailed study I made some years back with Laurie C. Hurshman on Paul’s teaching about the subject of head coverings in 1 Corinthians. The study was published in Christian Ethics Today and it was later reprinted in Priscilla Papers, the journal of Christians for Biblical Equality. I will summarize it here; you can read the longer version at the link just provided.
Paul’s assertion that “a woman ought to have exousia over her head” is the key statement in his teaching about head coverings, and the meaning of the word exousia is the key to understanding this statement.
Paul uses this term frequently in 1 Corinthians in both the noun form (exousia) and in the impersonal and personal verb forms (exesti and exousiazein, respectively). Everywhere else in the epistle, the term refers to authority exercised, specifically in the sense of “being able to do what one wishes.” (In the examples below, the English translations of this term are italicized.)
– When correcting the Corinthians for going to temple prostitutes, Paul says, “I have the right to do anything” (probably quoting the Corinthians’ slogan back to them) “—but I will not be mastered by anything. More literally, “I can do whatever I wish, but I will not have anything do whatever it wishes with me.”
– In the very next section of the letter, when discussing the Corinthians’ belief that it was somehow spiritual to abstain from sexual relations in marriage, Paul writes, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” Again, more literally, “the wife does not have the right to do whatever she wishes with her own body, nor does the husband with his body, but they are to share their bodies with one another.”
– As Paul continues his discussion of marriage and addresses engaged persons, he says that the one who “is under no compulsion but has control over his own will” can postpone marriage. Once more, the reference is to one who has the freedom and the power to do what he wishes with his own will.
– When talking about food offered to idols, Paul acknowledges that those who are spiritually strong may eat this food without danger, but he immediately adds, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Exousia here means the freedom and ability to eat the food without stumbling.
– As Paul continues this discussion of food offered to idols, he uses the term exousia several times to describe his own rights as an apostle so that he can illustrate the principle of voluntarily giving up rights. He asks, “Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us? . . . If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?” But then he adds that “in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights.”
– Finally, in his discussion of the resurrection, Paul describes how Jesus will destroy every opposing “dominion, authority and power.” In this case exousia describes a being who exercises authority.
Since exousia means authority exercised consistently throughout 1 Corinthians, there’s no reason to believe that when Paul talks about head coverings, the same term means authority submitted to, without any qualifying language indicating that Paul has suddenly given it an opposite connotation.
No, Paul is saying that “a woman ought to have freedom of choice regarding her head,” as Gordon Fee translates this statement in his commentary on 1 Corinthians. In other words, she should be free to wear a head covering, or not, based on her own convictions before God.
The NIV translation is quite accurate here: “A woman ought to have authority over her own head.” By contrast, in my view, translations like the ESV, “A wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head,” badly miss the point. They turn a proclamation of freedom into a restriction. (The words “a symbol of” appear nowhere in the Greek; they have been added by the ESV translators.)
So why did this question arise in Corinth in the first place? I think it’s a reasonable deduction that if Paul is insisting on a woman’s freedom to wear a head covering if she wishes, it’s likely that the Corinthians were forbidding women to wear head coverings for some reason. (There’s a fuller discussion of one possible reason in the published version of our study and in my guide to Paul’s Journey Letters.)
But whatever the reason, since the essential point of Paul’s statement is freedom, it would be just as incorrect today for anyone to require women to wear head coverings as it was for the Corinthians to forbid this. The principle should be, as Paul wrote to the Romans about all such matters of individual conviction, “Each one should be fully convinced in her own mind.”
So if a woman feels that she is honoring God (and perhaps her husband, if she’s married) by wearing a head covering, no one should forbid or discourage this. But if a woman feels that she does not need to do this in order to honor God (or her husband), no one should require or even encourage this. But full information about the choice, based on a sound interpretation of the relevant biblical material, should be provided to all who are interested.
And then, “A woman should be free to wear a head covering, or not, based on her own convictions before God.”
One concern may remain from my argument (developed starting with this post) that Paul’s apparently broadly restrictive comments in 1 Timothy actually have a narrower, local focus—that women representing a false teaching are not to argue with or authoritatively “correct” someone who is presenting the true teaching. While this may be the original context, Paul still says that women, as women, aren’t to relate to men, as men, in a particular way. So aren’t his restrictive comments universally applicable? If he had really only wanted to stop the spread of a false teaching, wouldn’t he just have said that no one (meaning either man or woman) was to advocate this specific false teaching?
An analogy from history may be helpful here. During the First World War, the “Order of the White Feather” was founded with the aim of shaming men into enlisting for military service by getting women to present them with a white feather, symbolic of cowardice, if they were not wearing a uniform. While the concern was local (context-specific in time and place), this was still an exercise in encouraging women, as women, to relate to men, as men, in a particular way. The women considered themselves to be acting on behalf of their sex in appealing to the bravery and chivalry of men to protect them and their country.
The “Order of the White Feather” soon became controversial and unpopular. Government officials who were actively promoting the war effort, civilians in military employ, and even soldiers who were out of uniform because they were home on leave were publicly accused of cowardice by being handed white feathers. Men who were not suited for military service may well have been shamed into enlisting and ultimately killed in situations where others might have survived. Vital industries were deprived of needed workers.
So we can easily imagine a factory owner, for example, issuing an order applicable on the factory premises such as, “I do not permit a woman to give a man a white feather.” Even though a local situation is in view, the order needs to be stated in such general terms because it concerns something that women are doing, as women, in relation to men, as men.
I believe the same thing was going on in first-century Ephesus. If the belief was that women were the physical origin and source of spiritual enlightenment for men, it makes sense that they were being encouraged, as women, to re-enact the role of Zoe/Eve in bringing spiritual enlightenment to men, as men, by correcting their supposedly mistaken view of the creation order. This explains why Paul would speak to a local situation in such general terms. And it shows that his statement does have a limited local focus, even though it is worded this way.
My conclusion, once again, is that the Bible does not say women can’t be in church-wide positions of teaching and authority.
In my last post I suggested that we can best understand what Paul says he doesn’t want women to do, when writing in 1 Timothy about teaching and authority, if we appreciate as clearly as possible what he does want them to do. For that, we need to look at the words he uses.
Paul uses two forms of the same Greek root. When he says that women should “learn in quietness,” he’s using the noun form, hēsuchia. When he says that women should “be quiet,” he uses the verb form, hēsuchazō.
When we look at all the ways that hēsuchia and hēsuchazō (as well as the adjective from the same root, hēsuchios) are used in the New Testament, we discover something interesting. (You can follow the whole word study in several posts starting here.) While the root sometimes describes complete silence, the absence of speech or sound, it more often describes a person refraining from saying something they otherwise might. In other words, it signifies that a person doesn’t object, or stops arguing.
One typical example is in the book of Acts. After the apostles in Jerusalem heard Peter’s explanation of why he preached the good news to Gentiles, “they fell silent, and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life'” (ESV). Clearly this is not silence in the sense of no speech, because the apostles continue speaking. Rather, it means “they had no further objections,” as the NIV translates the phrase.
We know from Paul’s other letters that he does not want women literally to say nothing in gatherings of Jesus’ followers. He tells the Corinthians, for example, that each person in their community, without qualification, should have something to share in worship, and he specifically describes women praying and prophesying. So we need to recognize that in the passage we’re considering in 1 Timothy, and in the similar one in 1 Corinthians about women being “silent” (where Paul uses the synonymsigaō in place of hesuchazō), what Paul is actually saying is that women shouldn’t argue or object.
But what would women in particular have wanted to argue about or object to in this setting? I believe that Richard and Catherine Kroeger, in their book I Suffer Not a Woman, have correctly identified the point of dispute. It was the myth, prevalent in the Mediterranean world of Paul’s day, that the woman (Zoe or life in Greek, identified with Eve by syncretistic teachers) was created first and brought spiritual life to the man by showing him that the creator of the world was not the true, supreme God.
Paul’s comments here would be a correction of that myth. In other words, by saying “Adam was formed first,” Paul is actually countering the content of this false teaching. He’s not citing primogeniture as a reason why men should be in charge of women.
So what Paul does want women to do is “be quiet” or “not argue,” that is, not dispute this point, particularly in gatherings of the community. What he doesn’t want women to do is publicly and authoritatively “correct” a speaker, which they may have felt was a duty to their own gender. (I’ll talk about this more in my next post.)
In my view, Paul’s use here of the infinitives didaskein (“teach”) and authentein (“be in authority” [?]) together is well suited to convey the idea of public correction. The verb authentein appears only here in the New Testament, so we have no parallel uses that can confirm this is what the verb itself means. However, this kind of correction is described in Galatians, where Paul says that he “opposed Peter to his face . . . in front of them all.” The same kind of thing happens more privately when, as described in Acts, Priscilla and Aquila invite Apollos to their home and “explain the way of God to him more adequately.”
If this is really what Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy mean, then they have a specific, local focus: women representing this false teaching about the respective origins of men and women are not to argue with or authoritatively “correct” someone who is presenting the true teaching. (The example of Priscilla shows that Paul’s comments don’t even apply to women “correcting” men generally, but are limited to this specific issue.)
While many applications can be drawn for the present day from the way Paul addresses this situation in 1 Timothy, one application is not that no woman should be in a church-wide position of teaching or authority. When we understand the historical and literary context of Paul’s words, we realize that the Bible does not teach this.
In my last post I argued that we need to understand Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,” as something more than an isolated proposition. When we do pay attention to its literary and historical context, one of the first things we notice is that Paul immediately gives a reason for saying this: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”
So what? Why does it matter that Adam was formed first? Some have argued that Paul is invoking a principle of primogeniture, that is, the senior status and authority of the firstborn. Thomas Schreiner, for example, notes that Paul is alluding here to a passage in Genesis, which he says it’s one that “the Hebrew reader would be disposed to read . . . in terms of primogeniture,” implying a principle of male authority. Others have made similar arguments.
Now it is true that God establishes primogeniture as an important principle within Israelite society, which was supposed to be a model for the surrounding nations. Nevertheless, in his own inbreaking work of redemption, God repeatedly disregards this principle. For example, he chooses Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his ten older brothers, Manasseh over Ephraim, Gideon over his older brothers, David over his seven older brothers, and so forth. So why would God uphold primogeniture as a governing principle in the community of Jesus’ followers, which is the very embodiment of his inbreaking work of redemption in our world today? (Indeed, the book of Hebrews describes this community as the “church of the firstborn,” suggesting that all members share this status corporately.)
Since this initial consideration of the context doesn’t really account for Paul’s statement, I propose taking a different approach. Let’s read the entire sentence in which it appears. Our English translations don’t always bring this out, but this famous statement is not an entire sentence in itself, but part of a larger one. It’s actually a dependent clause within that sentence, not even its main point. (So it shouldn’t ever be used as an independent proposition.)
Paul says (in the NIV translation, but following the punctuation of major critical editions of the New Testament), “A woman should learn in quietness in full submission; I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” In other words, Paul is primarily asking women to do something (“learn in quietness,” “be quiet”), and he only describes what he doesn’t want them to do secondarily, to help explain what he does want them to do.
It seems to me, therefore, that we can best understand what Paul doesn’t want women to do by appreciating as clearly as possible what he does want them to do. I’ll take this up in my next post.
The prophetess Huldah answers the high priest Hilkiah’s questions about the Scriptures. Was she allowed to do this?
It’s not difficult to read between the lines of my study guides (to Paul’s Journey Letters or to Paul’s Prison Letters, for example) and recognize that I believe there should be no restrictions on what women can do in communities of Jesus’ followers. In the guides I acknowledge this as a question on which believers can legitimately differ, and I make every effort to explain both points of view so groups can discuss the issue amicably. But I think my personal sympathies are probably pretty clear.
I’d like to make them even clearer here. When a friend of mine saw this post in which Steve Holmes said that for him to defend the ministry of a woman like Phoebe Palmer “would be as ridiculous as a worm trying to defend a lion,” my friend commented how valuable it was for her to hear male biblical scholars affirming the ministry of women. And so, particularly to encourage women who feel called to ministry, I want to add my own (male) voice in support of their calling.
In recent months, at the request of some friends, I’ve been blogging privately on this topic so we could discuss it together confidentially. We’ve reached a point of resolution in our conversations, and so with their agreement, I’d now like to share my reflections publicly here. The material from this formerly private blog is too long (17 posts, nearly 10,000 words) to appear in its entirely in this venue, so I’ll summarize it instead. But I’ll provide links along the way to those fuller discussions, for those who are interested in pursuing specific points in more detail. If you’d like to see it all (except for the original participants’ comments, which have been removed), it starts with this post.
Those discussion are more wide-ranging, but in these posts I’d like to focus more narrowly on the biblical statement that is most often taken to support restrictions on what women can do. Paul writes in 1 Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” Doesn’t that settle the question?
Actually, whether it does depends on what the Bible is and what we’re supposed to do with it. If the Bible is essentially a collection of propositions, and if we’re supposed to isolate and collect these propositions in order to answer questions that we pose to the text ourselves about belief and practice, then this statement speaks pretty clearly and decisively to the question, “Should there be any restrictions on what women can do in communities of Jesus’ followers?”
Some further statements that apparently take the same position, although less explicitly, can be brought in for support (for example, “The head of every woman is man”). Other biblical statements that seem inconsistent with this working conclusion can be accounted for somehow (“Deborah . . . was leading Israel at that time . . . and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided”). But other passages aside, if we take this approach to the Bible, the statement in 1 Timothy is the definitive one that seems to settle the matter.
The problem is, the Bible is not a collection of propositions that we are supposed to isolate and collect in order to answer questions that we pose ourselves. The Bible is instead a library of complete works, of greatly varying kinds, that as a whole tell the grand story of God’s initiatives over the course of human history to redeem fallen humanity, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. (Seen in this way, the Bible has many more questions for us than we have for it, starting with, “What are you doing to join in this grand story?”)
Because this is the true character of the Bible, no biblical statement is true or valid in isolation. Each one appears in the historical and literary context of an entire work of literature, itself placed within a grand overarching story, and so no biblical statement makes sense in isolation. If we really want to understand what Paul meant by his statement in the first letter to Timothy and what its implications are for us today, we need to situate it in its historical and literary context. That is what I will seek to do starting in my next post.