Tag Archives: egalitarian

The 1 Timothy 2:12 Conundrum: I Do Not Permit a Woman to … (????) AUTHORITY….

12th in a series.

This one is a bit tricky. So bear with me.

Compare how two different Bible translations translate 1 Timothy 2:12(a):

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…. (ESV).
I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man…. (NIV).

So, which is better? Which is more correct? To “exercise authority” or to “assume authority?” The first has a rather positive view of authority. The second? Well, I am not sure.

It could be “assume authority” in the sense of what is rightfully yours to have. In other words, “authority” is a good thing. However, it could also mean to “assume authority” in the sense of what is not rightfully yours, to “have your own way over somebody else,” by force or trickery perhaps, something that is quite negative. Either way, Paul does not want a woman to possess that kind of authority, whether that kind of authority be positive or negative.

But which kind of authority is it? Positive or negative?

If it is positive, then that pretty much rules out any legitimate case whereby a woman can have authority over a man. If it is negative, then it means that a woman should not exercise authority in a wrong, or otherwise overbearing manner. But is the reverse true, that there might be a case where a woman is permitted to exercise authority in a good and positive way, over a man?


Why is this idea of authority, so…. well, uh…. vague, when you compare these two translations? As it turns out, the Greek word behind our English “authority” is this controversial word: authenteo. It looks sort of like the word for “authority” in English, but when the Bible normally talks about “authority,” in the most positive sense possible, you find different Greek words, like exousia, that clearly has a positive connotation, and exousia is used multiple times in the Bible.

But when it comes to authenteo, many Bible scholars get stuck. The reason is because authenteo only appears this one, single time in the whole of the Bible (authenteo is a verb, authentein is the noun). So, to figure out what it means, Bible scholars have to search through Greek writings, outside of the Bible, for how to properly translate it. This is where the current debate flairs up.

What follows is a little tour through Bible translation history, as it shows just how difficult it has been to translate this unique word. This might be a bit difficult to follow, so do not stress out too much, if you get lost here. This is mainly a prelude for something that needs to be said, towards the end of this post…So you can just skim down towards the end, if you find yourself scratching your head too much….

Saint Jerome (347-420 A.D.). Translator of the Latin Vulgate.

In Search of the Authentic “Authenteo!”

Back in about the late 4th century, the early church father and Bible translator, Jerome, used the Latin word dominare, when translating this word in this verse, in the Latin Vulgate.  The Latin Vulgate translation has pretty much been the most well-known and authoritative Bible translation in the Western world, until the time of the Protestant Reformation, and has remained highly influential among Roman Catholics, until the last few decades. In the Latin Vulgate translation of 1 Timothy 2:12, this dominare typically has a rather positive meaning, as in to “exercise authority,” though in some admittedly limited contexts, it has a negative meaning.

At the start of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic scholastic Bible translator, Erasmus, used the Latin word usurpare, instead of dominare, according to the Latin dictionary he used, when translating this verse. This usurpare is what eventually made its way into the classic King James Version (KJV) of the Bible:

But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man… (1 Timothy 2:12a KJV).

In other words, Erasmus, and consequently, the KJV translators who followed him, gave us a translation that delivers a different sense of the meaning of the text. Many would say that “authority,” rightly belongs solely to the man. Therefore, for a woman to make a claim of “authority” would be an usurpation of true and proper authority.

On the other hand, women preachers, and those who supported them, over the past few hundred of years, who knew nothing but the King James, often interpreted the passage something like this:

” Well, I am teaching/preaching, but I am not doing so in a manner that ‘usurps authority,’ since the whole idea of ‘usurping authority’ is a bad thing, and teaching/preaching the Gospel is always a good thing! To usurp authority is to try take something that really does not belong to you. Of course, Paul would condemn that. But if God gives the gift of preaching to a woman, this is not the usurpation of authority, but rather, the granting of genuine, good, and proper authority.”

Okay. So, what does this word authenteo really mean?

You would have to go back further than either Erasmus or Jerome to figure that out, back to the world of the New Testament, as close as possible. Unfortunately, the examples of its usage in classical Greek texts, within a few hundred years of when the New Testament was written, shows a wide variety of meanings.

For example, one possible, though somewhat rare meaning, is that of to “murder” someone. Okay. Let us try that out, in this passage:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to murder a man…. 

Wow! That is pretty pejorative!! I am so glad that Paul would condemn that.

Well, the context really does not work for that here, but the wealth of alternatives requires biblical scholars to dig deep into finding out the most viable, responsible answer.

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), by Holbein. Influential scholar of medieval Christian humanism (credit: Wikipedia)

Complementarian and egalitarian scholars, who know Greek literature of the New Testament period and surrounding, land on different sides of the debate, once they have done all of the lexical analysis. The discussion among scholars in recent years appears to be favoring a complementarian approach, though egalitarians beg to differ.

The egalitarians think that Erasmus largely got it right, but that Erasmus did not go far enough in demonstrating that authenteo/authentein is primarily a negative concept. Paul was instructing women not to usurp authority that was not properly hers. But it did mean that women can, in the right circumstances, have authority in an appropriate way. What are those “right circumstances” for us today? For most egalitarians, the same circumstances would apply equally to men as well as women.

Complementarians tend to side with Jerome. Paul did not intend for women to exercise authority at all. Only men designated as overseers, or elders, can do that (though some say that men more generally exercise such authority, but this distinction is heavily debated among complementarians themselves).1

A lot folks are probably somewhere in between.

An Illustration to Consider

If you got lost following anything above, you can tune back in now…..

Let me take a moment to get to the real meat here, and highlight an illustration that parallels something I said in the previous blog post about “teaching,.” This is something that really needs to be focused on, for complementarians to think about, and for which might help some egalitarians out.

It has to do with what follows 1 Timothy 2, for in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul specifically lays out the qualifications for elders, or overseers. It would be reasonable to conclude that what Paul means by “authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12 has to deal with the office of elders, or overseers, and not just about any joe-shmo guy who strolls into church any Sunday morning.

Yet some complementarians believe that 1 Timothy 2:12 argues that women should not be in any church leadership position, where they might be giving direction to a man. It does not matter who this man is, nor who the woman is. This reasoning assumes that such leadership implies the exercise of “authority,” which would be pretty much along the same lines as the idea, that women should never be in a position, whereby they are “teaching” in a mixed setting; that is, when men are present.

There is a problem with this thinking that needs some critical analysis. Consider a military analogy. Suppose an army general tells his field commander, to get the troops together, to “take that hill to the north.” Then the field commander gets the troops out there, but then decides, “You know, I want to change tactics, and take that hill to the south instead.”

If the field commander does this, he could be charged with insubordination, and acting on his own authority. But if the field commander follows the instructions of the general, and takes the north hill, then that field commander is not acting on his own authority, but rather on the authority of the general, the field commander’s elder.

Likewise, if a man or woman in church leadership, who is not an elder, acts in a manner contrary to the teaching and/or authority of the elders, then that man or woman is acting on their own authority, and should be disciplined. However, if that man or woman in church leadership, who is not an elder, executes their talents in a manner consistent with the authoritative direction of the elders, then they are acting on the authority of the elders, and not on their own authority.

Is this not true? I know many complementarians who might argue against the point of my illustration, but it might be worth rethinking their objection. If it is the elders, who ultimately hold the spiritual authority in a local church, then should we not be grateful for those men and women who faithfully serve under that spiritual authority, with their many gifts and talents, and leadership gifts? To assume that a woman, who is being faithful as a leader in the church, under the authority of the elders, is somehow acting out on their “own authority,” whenever men are present…. well…. that just seems like a really strange way of reading 1 Timothy 2:12.

Can someone convince me otherwise that I am in error?

You see, this stuff can get really complicated, which is why we need to show a lot charity with one another in our discussions.

Over the last few blog posts, we have examined three of the most difficult words in just one verse, 1 Timothy 2:12. But the real clincher, depending on how you look at it, deals with why Paul makes this statement, in this verse. We find his reasoning in the following few verses of this passage, which we will examine next time….


1. The whole debate centers around a person’s understanding of “authority,” which can be an exceedingly elusive topic to nail down, which is quite reminiscent of the discussion of what constitutes “teaching,” also addressed in 1 Timothy 2:12. For the egalitarian, the way to resolve the debate over “authority” is by saying that 1 Timothy is only addressing a particular, unique situation in Ephesus, that is not applicable for today, namely that women were misusing their authority to promote false teaching within that particular church in Ephesus. Therefore, anyone, male or female, can exercise authority in the church, as long as it is not overbearing, etc. For the complementarian, the discussion is a lot more complicated. Who is it then who exercises authority in a local church? For Daniel Wallace, whom I highly esteem and respect, men in general exercise authority,  and women simply do not. A woman may teach only women, or they may teach a mixed group of young people. A woman may even teach a group of college students. But beyond the age of college students, a woman may not teach any older men. Well, how does one exactly determine the cut off, as to what is the appropriate age? Why the college age? On what grounds? We hear the same type of argument promoted by pastor John Piper. For Piper, even if the elders affirm a woman’s teaching gift, they are not to use it in a mixed setting (men and women) in a church. British pastor Andrew Wilson disagrees, arguing that Scripture allows for cases whereby a woman may address a mixed gathering, to exhort the people, as long as the elders bestow their blessing. Southern Baptist theologian Tom Schreiner offers two different responses, one whereby he endorses the idea of women addressing a mixed-group, on occasion, and another response, whereby he favors John Piper’s approach contra Andrew Wilson. Wilson then responds and summarizes the issues at stake. Complementarians are not in agreement. So, what is “teaching?” And what is “authority?” Elusive topics indeed. 

The 1 Timothy 2:12 Conundrum: I Do Not Permit a Woman to TEACH…..

11th in a series.

Let us examine another word in verse 12, to discover why this verse is so controversial:

I do not permit a woman to teach teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

So, what does Paul have in mind when it comes to the word “teach?”

Here is the problem. If you take a common complementarian argument, that insists that under no circumstances should a woman be permitted to “teach,” when a man is present, then you run into some severe difficulties with other passages of Scripture.

Jesus said to her [Mary Magdalene] , “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her. (John 20:17-18 ESV)

So, when Mary Magadelene went and announced to the disciples, was she “teaching” them?

Here is another passage from the apostle Paul, encouraging the church in Colossae:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16 ESV).

Paul is encouraging all believers to be “teaching” one another, thus including men and women. In particular, men and women should be “teaching” one another, within the context of corporate worship. Does your church do this?

Some maybe willing to live with such cognitive dissonance. But it might be better to suggest a different disposition in this matter. Scripture is rich in diversity but it is not self-contradicting. A high view of Scripture requires that the interpreter of Scripture view the message of the Bible to be presenting a coherent and consistent perspective.

There is also the incident whereby Priscilla, along with her husband, Aquila, expounded the Scriptures to Apollos, a man (Acts 18:26 ESV). Many complementarians will interject at this point that Priscilla was not ministering to Apollos by herself. She had her husband with her.

But such a solution does not neatly address the case of Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection, tasked by the Lord Jesus Himself, to tell the guys about the promised ascension of Jesus. She had no male figure accompanying her. She was pretty much operating solo. But she did act under the direct authority of Jesus, who, just in case you might have missed it, was indeed a male.

I know some people who balk at calling what Mary Magdalene did “teaching.” Some might simply call what Mary Magdalene did the “passing on of information.” Fair enough. Nevertheless, it drives us back the question raised in 1 Timothy 2:12, as to what Paul means by “teaching.”

The Gift of Prophecy vs. The Gift of Teaching?

We also see a persistent problem when it comes to the exercise of the gift of prophecy in the church. There is no doubt that there were women prophets in the New Testament.  Philip had four unmarried daughters, all of whom were prophets (Acts 21:8-9). Women prophecied in corporate worship in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). Anna was a prophet (Luke 2:36). Luke also states that the prophecy of Joel, that both the sons and daughters of Israel might prophecy, was fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:16-17).

What are we to make of all this? How is “prophecy” different from that of “teaching?” In what way are they similar? Both involve speaking and have a public mode of expression, but surely Paul had something in mind when in distinguishing “prophecy” from “teaching.” It all leads us back to how the prohibition against women “teaching” in 1 Timothy can be squared with what we read elsewhere in the New Testament.

Most egalitarian scholars seek to resolve the tension raised by 1 Timothy 2:12, by appealing to what appears to be a rather pejorative or negative view of “teaching,” that Paul might have in mind here. Based on the evidence available, egalitarian scholars draw on the premise that Paul’s letter to Timothy is particularly concerned about the problem of false teaching, being propagated in the church in Ephesus, primarily by women, of some sort. They contend that the type of  “teaching” Paul has in mind in 1 Timothy 2:12 is actually heretical or false teaching. For example, some egalitarians might translate this portion of 1 Timothy 2:12 as “I do not permit a woman to teach false doctrine,” or something like that.

The advantage of this interpretation is that it completely removes the possibility of a there being a contradiction in Scripture at this point. But are egalitarians trying too hard to resolve the tension?

A complementarian scholar would respond that if Paul really had this in mind, he would have specifically made such a statement. He could have said, “I do not permit a woman to propagate false teaching in the church.” But he did not. The egalitarian is therefore making an assumption that is difficult to prove with much certainty.1

Complementarians, on the more aggressive side, will then conclude that women can have no public role of teaching, wherever men are present. No women adult Sunday school teachers, in mixed settings. No women Bible study leading in a mixed group, unless a man supervises. Some even go so far as to prohibit women from leading certain aspects of the worship service, such as song leading, or corporate prayer.

But such complementarian thinking does not walk away with total victory so easily. Are such complementarians trying too hard to resolve the Scriptural tension, in their own way?

As with the egalitarians, the more strict complementarians have to explain a lot of the New Testament, that would contend against their view. Such complementarians must still explain how Paul can make such a binding statement prohibiting women from teaching in 2 Timothy 2:12, while at the same time, encouraging all believers, men and women, to teach one another, and to prophecy. How then does the whole counsel of God in Scripture accommodate these passages where women appear to be “teaching,” at least in some sense?2

“Big-T” versus “Little-t” Teaching

I find the “big-T” versus “little-T” teaching distinction articulated by British pastor-scholar Andrew Wilson to be immensely helpful. “Big-T” teaching has to do with the expounding and definition of godly Scriptural doctrine, while opposing and refuting false doctrine. “Big-T” teaching inherent implies the exercise of spiritual authority, as the proper domain of elders/pastors in a local church setting.

“Little-T” ( or “Little-t”) teaching has to do with the teaching all of us as believers are called to do, at countless levels within the corporate life of the church. You can think of it as the conveying of information, as approved by the elders of the church, if you like, but it is still “teaching.”

For example, when I am in a Bible study, and someone in the group shares what they have been learning, that is in alignment with sound doctrine, whether they be male or female, then those persons are “teaching” me, and now I am learning. If a woman, in public or private setting, offers me a word of encouragement or a word of admonishment, that is still “teaching.”

In my view, this would also include times when some particular person is leading a particular Bible study or group, under the oversight (episcopos, from 1 Timothy 3:1) of the elder-led leadership of the local church, whether that person be a man or a woman. It would also include occasional times of exhortation or testimony by a woman from the pulpit, just as it would apply to a man sharing an exhortation or testimony from the pulpit, if that man were not an elder of the church.

This would also include all activities of those who hold a “servant” office in the church (or deacon, from 1 Timothy 3:8-13), who along with others, submit to the oversight of the elders. Such servants, or deacons, would include men and women (some may protest at this point, but I have sought to answer this objection elsewhere).

This would also suggest that women, along with men, should be encouraged to pursue Christian education, even at the level of obtaining theological and biblical studies masters degrees and doctorates, so that such men and women, under the protective covering of a local church eldership, can convey their learning to others, and further equip the body of Christ.


An Objection to the “Big-T” vs. “Little-T” Teaching Distinction

More aggressive complementarians will, of course, object at this point, claiming that if a woman is speaking in front of any mixed group of men and women, then this is not permitted, by Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy. This view makes the assumption that if a man or woman, under the authority of elders, takes upon the role of teaching, then they are automatically exercising their own spiritual authority.

But is this a valid assumption?

Is this not a confused way of looking at it, since it confuses this notion of “little-T” teaching with “big-T” teaching? For if you take such a view to the extreme, it would result in only allowing the women to occupy relatively “menial” roles within church life, robbing the church of half of its spiritual workforce, to build God’s Kingdom. Granted, no jobs within the church are “menial,” but we often treat anything within the realm of “teaching” in a different manner.

Such a confused way of looking at the matter also elevates spiritually immature men over more spiritually mature women, thus disrupting the order of the church.

Here is a better way to approach this: Those who teach in a “little-T” teaching context are not teaching under their own, independent authority. At least they should not. If they are doing so, then you have a deeper problem within that church body.

Rather, such “little-T” teachers are teaching under the authority of the elders, which is the proper domain of “big-T” teaching. If it so happens that a “little-T” teacher subverts the authority of the elders, then such a “little-T” teacher needs to be reigned in, whether they be male or female. So if a dispute arises, as to what a “little-T” teacher is saying, take the matter to the elders, and let it be settled there.

Bad teaching in the church only undermines the work of discipleship, regardless of gender. If the elders and pastors are really doing their job in training and equipping the sheep, then you will not have “little-T” teachers going off the deep end, and having others shave their heads, walking on their hands upside down, sacrificing baby chickens, or whatever. If the elders and pastors are fulfilling their calling, then there is no need to micro manage those who are serving. Therefore, a “little-T” teacher, who seeks to affirm the authority of the elders, should be encouraged to use their teaching gifts to the fullest extent possible, whether they be a man or woman. In turn, the elders of the church are responsible to provide protection for those who earnestly seek to use their gifts.

A Missionary Strategy?

I am reminded of something I heard at an InterVarsity Urbana missions conference from years ago. It may have been Helen Roseveare, but I will just call this woman, “the missionary.” When “the missionary” went out to plant a church in an African village, she became quite skilled in handling the word of God. But it would eventually prove frustrating for her, as it was difficult for those villagers to take the responsibility of teaching themselves the Scriptures. She was such a gifted teacher, that the men of the village would feel intimidated by her. It was like a “no-win” situation for the missionary.

So then, the missionary then read 1 Timothy 2:12 to her followers. The men read the passage and sought to rebuke the missionary! Ah, this was the break that she needed. The men pledged themselves to be obedient, and then took it upon themselves, to designate elders, and the church was able to grow, without the missionary’s presence. This freed the missionary to move onto the next village, and repeat the process.

Now, that is a brilliant church growth strategy!!!

Nevertheless, the 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibition against women teaching is not the only thing that raises questions, in this verse of Scripture. See you next time in the next post….


1. Complementarians are claiming that egalitarians are adding something to Scripture here, namely saying that Paul is not permitting a woman to “teach false doctrine,” when the text simply says “teach.”  But I always find it ironic that many complementarians will do the same thing with Genesis 3:16 (NIV), by saying, regarding Eve, that “Your desire will be to rule over [for] your husband, and he will rule over you,” when text only says, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Such complementarians have added the phrase to “to rule over,” with respect to Eve’s position towards the man.  

2. What complementarians have to contend with concerns this: if women are not to teach men, then what are the qualifications of teaching in general? Does this mean that any man can teach, or only some? If only some, is this only the elders? Views on these questions among complementarians vary widely. 

The 1 Timothy 2:12 Conundrum: I Do Not PERMIT a Woman….

10th in a series.

Get your Bible study hat on! 1 Timothy 2:12 is the classic prooftext for saying that women should not serve as either elders or pastors. I will include verse 11, as well, to add some context:

(11) Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. (12) I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

This translation from the ESV makes it seem pretty straight-forward. Not a whole lot of mystery here. No women teaching or having spiritual authority. This is how most Christians have read this verse, throughout the centuries of church history. Why do we even need to talk about it, right?

Nevertheless, evangelical egalitarian scholars of late bring out some interesting observations and questions about this verse. Some will balk at this point, claiming that any challenge to a traditional interpretation of Scripture is, by necessity, an attack on Scripture itself.

However, this is simply incorrect. A possibility? Yes. By necessity? No. The church is always strengthened, not weakened, whenever challenges are faced.

Evidence is evidence, and so any honest look at the Scriptures requires an honest examination of the evidence at hand. But whether or not the evidence surveyed is sufficient to overthrow the traditional interpretation, is an entirely different matter.

In this blog post, and the next two following, I will focus on primarily three challenges and difficulties that egalitarians and complementarians cite, that stem from this single verse (verse 12). Also, how do the differing sides in this debate respond to such challenges, with evidence?

That Little Word “Permit”

First, I want to focus on this highlighted word, “permit.” “I do not permit a woman to…”

Effectively, this is indicating that Paul is not allowing some specific behavior. The question that many egalitarian scholars raise is the possibility of a particular, unique cultural situation, being addressed in this letter. Is Paul “not permitting” something, due to local conditions in the church in Ephesus, which is where Timothy, the recipient of this letter from Paul, is located?

This argument is not one that can be dismissed so easily. After all, Paul also forbids women from adorning themselves with “braided hair” (1 Timothy 2:9 ESV), and I do not know of any Bible teacher today who goes around scolding women for their unacceptable hairstyles in church. And what about jewelry and expensive women’s clothing? Could it be that there is a specific cultural setting at play, here in Ephesus?

…women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works (1 Timothy 2:9-10 ESV).

But a more important reason for possibly rethinking 1 Timothy has do with why the letter was written in the first place. Egalitarian scholars emphasize that Paul wrote to Timothy specifically to address the issue of false teaching happening in the Ephesian church. Paul had charged Timothy to “remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3 ESV). Furthermore, “Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Timothy 1:6-7 ESV).

In other words, certain people were infiltrating the church in Ephesus, teaching things for which they had absolutely no clue what they were talking about. Paul wanted Timothy to put a stop to what was going on in Ephesus. So, who were these “certain persons?”

The implication is that Paul’s restriction here, with “do not permit,” in 1 Timothy 2:12, is not universal and therefore, not applicable to all times and all places. Here are just some of the points of evidence that are cited, to support this claim:

  • The Greek word for “permit,” epitrepō, is not part of a Greek command tense. When Paul is chastising Christians for improper behavior, he normally does this using command tense verbs. For example, in verse 11, the word “let” is a command. “Not permit” in verse 12 is not a command. If Paul were forbidding women to serve as elders, at all times and all places, why would he not issue this directive in the form of a command, as he does in other areas of ethical teaching?
  • Furthermore, as the argument goes, the use of “permit” elsewhere in the Bible is normally associated with a specific, limited, local situation. To treat “do not permit” as a universal norm would go against the typical New Testament usage of the term.
  • Notice also that Paul says “I do not permit a woman.” It is curious as to why Paul uses the word “woman” in the singular, and not the plural sense. Paul’s previous command in 1 Timothy 2:8 was to “men,” in the plural, and not in the singular. Why would Paul shift from a plural reference to a singular reference? Is it possible that Paul is speaking in the context of a woman married to a man, as opposed to addressing the behavior of women, in a church service?
  • If Paul had a particular woman; such as a woman married to a man, or women in general, in view, this would fit with the suggestion that the “certain persons,” (1 Timothy 1:6-7) who were promoting false teaching in Ephesus, were women.
  • The reference to a singular “woman” raises yet another question as to the context of the passage. Historically, Bible translations, such as the NIV, have put headings, at the top of 1 Timothy 2, like “Instructions on Worship.” This suggests that the passage is about appropriate behavior in a church service. The problem with doing this type of thing is that these headings are simply not found in the original text. Many egalitarians protest that a church service setting is not in view. Rather, the setting is more general than that, talking about the personal lives of Christians, as in perhaps domestic relations between a wife and her husband. Notice that the ESV has softened its heading to be understood in a more neutral way, “Pray for All People, which may or may not refer to a Christian worship service.

The larger context that egalitarian scholars point out is that Ephesus was known for its great temple to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, as well as being a fertility goddess. This temple was enormous, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Egalitarian scholars suggest that the influence of Artemis pagan worship, which included a male and female priesthood,1 was so strong in Ephesus, that it spilled over into the Ephesian church, influencing a number of the women to succumb to heresy.

Historical evidence indicates the Artemisian religion was so dominating, that women undergoing childbirth would feel compelled to offer sacrifices to the pagan deities. Perhaps Paul knew that some of the women in the church were continuing to have one foot in the church and another foot in the world, and participating in such pagan rituals. In order to stop the heresy from spreading, Paul was seeking to silence these renegade women, or perhaps at least the unamed leader of the women, or perhaps wives having a wrong influence over their husbands. Instead, these particular women (or a particular woman) needed to learn Christian truth properly, and to learn so quietly!

If this analysis holds, it would indicate that, yes, the situation in Ephesus was unique, which is why Paul’s “I do not permit a woman,” should only be taken as addressing the situation in Ephesus, and not something applicable to all times and all places. But is the evidence to support this argument strong enough to persuade?

Mmmmph! Perhaps the Egalitarians Get It Right?…. Or Do They? A Complementarian Response

The complementarian scholarly response is to say, “NO.” It is true that much of what Paul has in mind in 1 Timothy is to address false teaching creeping into the churches. But it does not necessarily follow that every detail in the letter is addressing matters of false teaching. Instead, if we consider that Paul was writing 1 Timothy, after having had years of experience in planting churches, it would be reasonable to conclude that Paul had many “lessons to be learned” that would be applicable to all churches, and not just to the church in Ephesus. Here are some points of evidence that complementarians cite:

  • For example, the verses being examined are part of a larger passage of directives given to both women and men. Looking at an earlier part of that passage, 1 Timothy 2:8, gives us a clue: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (ESV). Notice the phrase “in every place.” If this group of directives that Paul is giving is strictly applicable only to Ephesus, then the qualification “in every place” would have no meaning. Instead, this would indicate that Paul’s directives are applicable everywhere he has been ministering, not just in Ephesus.
  • To think that Paul was only concerned about false teaching creeping into the Ephesian church, specifically, ignores the fact that Paul talks a lot about false teaching in plenty of his other letters! To insist otherwise is to dismiss the very ad-hoc nature of Paul’s letters, which all tended to touch on various topics, as matters arose to his attention, when writing specific churches or specific people.
  • Some egalitarian scholars contend that the false teaching in Ephesus, that Paul is critiquing, closely matches the Gnostic heresy of the early church, that exalted the feminine above the masculine (a future blog post in this series will detail this). But complementarian scholars point out that the clear evidence for the Gnostic heresy historically comes from the 2nd century A.D., and not from the 1st century, when 1 Timothy was written. To extrapolate from the 2nd century context back into a 1st century context requires the demonstration of evidence that we simply do not yet have.
  • Paul elsewhere (1 Timothy 3:2) gives the qualifications for overseer as being a “one woman man,” which many would say, implies being male. The same qualifications are also found in Paul’s letter to Titus, whose church was in Crete, hundreds of miles away (see Titus 1:6 ESV). This would argue against the possibility that Paul’s instructions to Timothy in Ephesus were only limited to Ephesus. The appeal to Ephesus as a unique, cultural situation loses its force, thereby lending this verse to having a more universal and non-time bound application.
  • The claim that the false teachers Paul had in mind were women, is difficult to sustain, since Paul specifically names Hymenaeus and Alexander, who were men, as false teachers (1 Timothy 1:19-20 ESV). Paul does not name any women specifically as false teachers in either of his letters to Timothy.
  • Finally, coming back to that little word “permit.” Notice that the use of “permit” is stated in the negative here, as in “I do not permit.” The fact that it is negated, indicates that the negative use of “permit,” simply can not mean a local, time-bound application, as many egalitarians claim. Instead, it must mean an unlimited, timeless application.2

There are several additional, nuanced arguments advanced by both egalitarians and complementarians, on the subject of “is this just a non-universal, limited cultural application?” But hopefully you get the idea how this tit-for-tat works among scholars who debate these issues. No one gets a free ride here.3

But there is more to this verse, namely 1 Timothy 2:12, that requires further consideration, revealing some other tough problems. Stay tuned for the next blog post….


1. According to research done by S.M. Baugh, in his essay, “A Foreign World: Ephesus in the First Century,” in Women in the Church, Third Edition , editors Andreas Kostenberger and Thomas Schreiner, ( p.34ff), the Artemis cult in Ephesus did have female and male priests, and many egalitarian scholars concur. So if this analysis holds true, then N.T. Wright is entirely incorrect in saying that there were only (or primarily) female priests in the Artemisian cult, as Wright states in a popular YouTube video.  Wright’s egalitarian argument hangs a lot on the claim that the Artemisian cult had essentially an all-female priesthood.  

2. The language of not permitting “a woman” (singular) to teach/exercise-or-assume authority over “a man” (singular), does not get a whole lot of attention in the complementarian literature I have surveyed. It is generally assumed that Paul is not addressing any particular woman or man, but rather women and men as gender categories. For example, Andreas Köstenberger argues that the change from plural to singular, in verse 12, serves as a “topical frame indicating a change of subject…..most likely in order to prepare for the reference to Eve in verse 13.” Where it gets really tricky for complementarians is whether or not this restriction in verse 12 applies to all women and all men, in a corporate church setting. Does this mean that any man can teach a woman? What if the woman has been a growing Christian believer for many years, and the man has only been a Christian for a week? Does this permit that young Christian man to teach a mature woman in the faith? Most probably not, but it does leave the question open as to whether or not teaching/authority is the domain of men in general, in a local church, or is this particularly the domain of the elders only; that is, an all male eldership, and therefore not applicable to non-elders? Complementarians themselves are divided on this question.  

3. It bears saying that a common objection to 1 Timothy 2, in general, promoted by egalitarians, is that this passage MUST be culturally-limited in application, otherwise, Paul’s command that women should not wear “braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,” (verse 9) of that they should “remain quiet” (verse 12) in church, is rendered absurd. But such an answer does really address what the specific cultural situation Paul had in mind. Rather than neutralizing the Word of God here, on this point, we should seek to try to find out what these particular commands/statements by Paul, actually mean. Granted, there have been traditional scholars who have misread this passage, so the egalitarians have some substance to their objection. But we must not allow that to distract from an honest, open look at the text. Yes, there are difficulties with this text, but recent scholarship has provided us some very helpful points of evidence that can help us to piece together a coherent understand of what Paul is after. With respect to the “braided hair” part, we have evidence that braided hair, along with excessive jewelry was a sign of prostitution, or the flaunting of wealth, in the first century.  In other words, Paul is asking his readers not to dress like prostitutes, or flaunt their wealth (see Urban Legends of the New Testament, by David Croteau, p. 211-214). Regarding the request that women are to “remain quiet,” we must follow the principle of having Scripture interpret Scripture, and recall 1 Corinthians 11 teachings about women praying and prophesying. Surely, women are not remaining quiet here!! Instead, it is best to understand this within the context of Paul encouraging the women to “learn quietly.” In a day and age where few women, if any, received formal education, Paul’s command here is a radical one, affirming the women SHOULD be educated!! Instead of dismissing this as a cultural “one-off”, we as Christians should see Paul’s writing here for what it is, a radical affirmation of the dignity and worth of women.  

Who Was Mary Magdalene?

9th in a series.

I am going down a bit of a rabbit hole in this post, so hang on, as it is going somewhere… When many Christians read the Gospels, they will often smash different elements of the stories together, creating a type of “super-narrative,” neglecting the subtle and not-so subtle nuances employed by the four, individual Gospel writers. The question of, “who was Mary Magdelene?,” is a case in point.

In 591, Pope Gregory the Great popularized the idea that Mary Magdalene was “the repentant prostitute.” You see this idea conveyed in a famous scene in Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, when Jesus intervenes to save the woman caught in adultery. Gibson has her dressed as a prostitute, none other than Mary Magdalene.

What Pope Gregory did, that inspired folks like Mel Gibson, was to take Mary of Bethany, a woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair (John 11:1-2), another unnamed sinner, who poured alabaster oil on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), and this woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), and then combine all three women figures into yet still another, single composite character, Mary Magdalene, named in Luke 8:1-2.

In 1517, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, a French Bible scholar during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, wrote a treatise arguing that the three “Mary’s”; Mary of Bethany, the unnamed “Mary the sinner” who anointed Jesus’ feet, and Mary Magadelene, were actually different people. Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples was reviled by the church establishment for his views, challenging church tradition, and he had to flee France, to save his life.

Some beloved church traditions can be hard to break.

However, it is important to note that among the Eastern Orthodox, this tradition established by Pope Gregory never took root. In the Christian East, Mary Magdalene is instead often known as “an apostle to the Apostles.” She was the one who announced to the male disciples that Jesus was Risen from the dead (John 20:11-18).

This one little piece of information is significant in the debate over women in church leadership today. For example, some contend that women should not teach a man, unless a man in present. After all, when Priscilla sought to instruct Apollos in “the way of God more accurately,” her husband Aquila, was right there with her, and joining in the teaching effort (Acts 18:26 ESV).

But here, when Mary Magdalene goes off to inform the male disciples, as to what the Risen Lord Jesus had said to her, she was acting solo. But those who reject the practice of having women as teachers over men, without qualification, should note this important story of Mary Magdalene. While no men accompanied her when she presented her case for the resurrection to the male disciples, she was still acting under the spiritual authority of Jesus Himself, who as we should remind ourselves, was male.

So, was Mary Magdalene “teaching?” If so, in what way was she “teaching?”

Recovering the Historical Mary Magdalene

Though some Roman Catholic scholars have tried to re-piece together Pope Gregory’s composite Mary Magdalene, the majority of scholars today agree with Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples that such a composite association of Mary Magdalene is highly unlikely. For one thing, “Mary of Bethany,” came from the town of Bethany. “Mary Magdalene,” or “Mary the Magdalene,” is another way of saying “Mary of Magdala.” In other words, she was from Magdala, which is a different town, nowhere near Bethany. Magdala is near Galilee, in the north of Israel. Bethany, is in the south, near Jerusalem.

The unnamed “Mary the sinner” of Luke 7 shows up right before Mary Magdalene, in Luke 8, but there is no obvious link between the two women. Though it is possible to link the unnamed “Mary the sinner” with Mary of Bethany, because of their similar treatment of Jesus’ feet, nothing else in these two episodes links these two women together.

Furthermore, nowhere in the Gospels is the woman caught in adultery ever identified as being Mary Magdalene!

Modern scholarship confirms that the name “Mary” was a very popular name among Jewish women, in the first century, so the confusion is understandable, which partly explains why the Gospels specifically identify “Mary of Magdala” apart from “Mary of Bethany.”

Aside from the risk to d’Étaples’ life, you could say that little harm has been done here by this confusion of the Mary’s. No critical theological doctrine is at stake. Gregory probably meant well by trying to simplify the story of these Mary’s.

But the biggest problem with Pope Gregory’s composite Mary Magdalene approach, is that it has generated endless speculation into the notion of Mary Magdalene as “the repentant prostitute,” particularly among those who love the thought of scandal:

Was she really that repentant? The Gospels’ presentation of Mary Magdalene does identify her as being in Jesus’ immediate circle. Perhaps she and Jesus had some type of … you know…. (hush, hush, whisper, whisper)…  thing going on?

There is no end to this type of craziness. Novelist Dan Brown made a mint off of his blockbuster book, The DaVinci Code, that propagated the conspiracy theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, and had children, the existence of whom the Vatican has been suppressing for centuries, somewhere in France. This is right up there with NASA faking the moon landing on a Hollywood-type set, off in a desert out in Arizona. But a biblically illiterate public today still somehow manages to eat this type of stuff up, just like the Albigensian heresy group did back in the 12th and 13th centuries!

Mary Magdalene continues to fascinate people, though the Gospels only give us a limited amount of information about her. Her biggest role in the Gospels remains that she is explicitly named in the New Testament, as among the women after the crucifixion, the first to be witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:1-10).

Jesus clearly gives Mary certain instructions to pass onto the other male disciples (see also John 20:1-18). But does this necessarily make her the first woman pastor or elder?

Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena (1835) by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov.

New Developments in Our Understanding of Mary Magdalene?

Controversially, some have recently tried to place her as a prominent leader in Jesus’ band, alongside the twelve male disciples, giving her a type of spiritual authority role, thus raising another round of discussion, regarding the roles of women in the leadership of the church today. But we should be very cautious with such speculation.

A case in point is the 2018 film released in the United Kingdom, Mary Magdalene, giving British audiences a new look at who Mary Magdalene might have been. Mary Magdalene wins support from scholars for steering away from the image of Mary Magdalene as a “the repentant prostitute.” But in other respects, the reports are very mixed, and not altogether exciting. Some critics say that Mary Magdalene leans too heavily on the Gnostic Gospel of Mary. Gnosticism is a heresy that has been condemned by the church in every age. The likelihood of the film’s release in the United States remains in doubt.

The esteemed New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado has seen the movie. Though he was not overly impressed by the film, in his informed review, Hurtado carefully summarizes the early speculative traditions about Mary Magdalene, for the serious Bible geek. Even a prominent Australian egalitarian blogger, Marg Mowczko, panned the film. The trailer for the movie that might never make it to the United States is below.

If you want a good, in-depth scholarly explanation for who Mary Magdalene really was, dispelling conspiracy theories, take about 17 minutes for Dr. Michael Heiser’s FringePop321 video (Dr. Heiser is a Bible scholar with Logos Bible Software, and author of The Unseen Realm). The renewed interest in “Mary of Magdala,” through books and movies that speculate a lot, may actually spur thoughtful study of the more reliable, biblical framework behind this most mysterious and attractive of Jesus’ early followers.

In the next few blog posts in this series, we will discuss 1 Timothy 2:12, and the nearby verses, one of the most hotly debated passages in all of the New Testament, that divides complementarians and egalitarians. Stay tuned, and learn what the fuss is all about…..





#MeToo and the Church: The Abuse of Women, 1 Peter 3:7, Egalitarian vs. Complementarian Solutions?

Another packed out arena for Bill Gothards’s “Seminar in Basic Youth Conflicts,” from either the 1970s or early 1980s. In 2014, Bill Gothard was relieved from his ministerial responsibilities, by his ministry board, due to accusations of sexual harassment, that some think are still unresolved.

8th in a series. We are about halfway through…

Here is a topic we normally do not like to talk about.

If you appreciate thoughtful, video podcasts, that deal with egalitarian versus complementarian issues in the church, this would be a good one. The presentation is worth listening to, but I will summarize it here, if you lack the time to watch and listen:

In January, 2019, British evangelical broadcaster Justin Brierley moderated a discussion between Natalie Collins and Phil Moore, examining the #MeToo movement’s impact on the church. Egalitarian vs. Complementarian: Which position offers the best solution to the problem of abuse of women in the church?

Natalie Collins, a gender justice specialist, has done important work to raise awareness of abuse of women in the church. Phil Moore is a London pastor, concerned about many of the same issues, that Natalie raises. However, the two could not be any more different in diagnosing the root of the problem of women’s abuse, and in offering a solution.  For Natalie, complementarian theology, that emphasizes male leadership in the church and in the home is to blame. Male headship IS the problem. Instead, an egalitarian response is needed. For Phil, the problem is that complementarian theology has been done badly, and it just needs to be done, and acted out, rightly, in order to address the problem. Male headship, done correctly, IS the solution.

Natalie’s passion is driven by the fact that domestic abuse, and sexual abuse in general (including children), has been an overlooked problem in evangelical churches. But this is changing. This is not just a Roman Catholic problem with priests. In 2018, a report in Texas revealed that over the past 40 years, there were 400 allegations against 168 male church leaders in 200 independent, fundamentalist Baptist churches. The Houston Chronicle in February, 2019 reported that in the Southern Baptist denomination, one of the largest evangelical groups in the United States, roughly 380 Baptist leaders and volunteers faced allegations of sexual abuse, involving more than 700 victims, over the past twenty years, since 1998. About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, 100 are still in jail. The rest? They could still be serving in churches.

Add on top of that, there is the recent situation involving Rachael Denhollander, the woman who exposed the sexual abuse perpetrated by USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Denhollander and her husband then went on to eventually persuade Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, after seven years, to finally withdraw unquestioning support of Sovereign Grace Ministries pastor, C. J. Mahaney, who has been accused of covering up long standing claims of sexual abuse, by either staff or other volunteers in Mahaney’s churches.

In nearly all of these cases, particularly those involving women, the failure to act to investigate, much less discipline, the claimed perpetrators was due to a sense of deference to the male-led leadership. A 2017 report in Christianity Today magazine indicates that many Christian leaders want their churches to be safe havens for victims of domestic abuse, but they do not know how to do that. Two in five evangelical pastors personally know of someone, mostly women, who have suffered from domestic abuse. Yet only one out of two evangelical churches have a specific plan in place to help victims of domestic abuse.

And those numbers only correspond to cases that have been reported. How many women in evangelical churches suffer abuse, but never report it?

A crucial question to ask is this: If your church is a male-led church, and a woman were to come forward, with a claim that she was being abused by her husband, would that male-led church leadership believe her enough, to be willing to even investigate her claims, and offer protection?

As this is a serious problem, we should be thankful that women like Natalie Collins are sounding the alarm. But does Collins’ proposed solution effectively address the problem?

For example, at the 48:15 mark into the discussion, Phil appealed to a passage that has often puzzled me. It is worth thinking about this one crucial Bible passage:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered (1 Peter 3:7 ESV)

From a 21st century perspective, reading this passage comes across as condescending towards women.  Woman as the “weaker vessel?” That does not sound very fair, does it?

Yet as Phil Moore explains the passage, here Peter is not downgrading the women, as Peter fully believes in the equality of men and women. Peter is not saying women “you are the weaker vessel, so behave like this.” Rather, Peter is addressing the men, saying, “Guys, understand, she is weaker than you…. If you treat your wife badly, God will not hear your prayers.

In other words, Peter is admonishing the men, in the most severe terms, …. that are never spoken against women, by the way, …. such that the men are challenged not to use their physical strength, or any other advantage, as an excuse for abusing women. Men can not do that, and think that they are worshipping God at the same time. Instead, Christian men and women are to think of themselves as co-heirs together, “of the grace of life,” and thereby behave appropriately towards one another.1

Natalie Collins, on the other hand, was unfortunately rather dismissive of the text, and never adequately offered an alternative interpretation that could improve upon Phil’s interpretation. As a speaker for Christians for Biblical Equality, I was disappointed that Natalie advanced relatively little in terms of Scriptural application, in comparison to Phil. In fairness, not all egalitarians approach this issue in the same way that Natalie did.

Natalie did suggest that many Christians think that Peter considers women to be weaker vessels, because they believe that women are more easily deceived than men. But as Phil pointed out, there is nothing in 1 Peter 3 that indicates that this is the case.

Too her credit, Natalie does expose a popular misbelief, that can paralyze women. For example, a woman friend of mine, when she was a teenager, about age 14 or 15, was raped by the son of the pastor of her church, who was about 3 years older than her. After he raped her, he told her that she could not say anything against him, because no one would believe her. Rather, she should keep silent about the incident.

That is a terribly egregious example of completely butchering a verse in the Bible, “the women should keep silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34 ESV).

For folks like Natalie, much of what drives egalitarians crazy is the appeal, made by at least some complementarian advocates, that firmly believes in a hierarchy of order, as associated with traditional patriarchy. Traditional patriarchy only perpetuates domestic abuse. Phil sought to answer that in a different way, emphasizing that men need to learn how to become better men. I do not believe that Natalie heard that from Phil.

Furthermore, many egalitarians assume that if you get completely rid of complementarian theology, that this will solve the problem of the abuse of women in the church. However, if there is any one particular thing we can learn from the 2018 tragedy in leadership at Willow Creek Church, one of America’s largest and most influential egalitarian churches, it is that abuse still can happen at an egalitarian church. No church, whether it be complementarian or egalitarian, is immune from abuse.

Nevertheless, the podcast is a good discussion, and as Jennie Pollock says, it is “an exercise in disagreeing well.” Give it a listen if you have the time.


1. The NIV translation of referring to the woman as the “weaker partner,” is unfortunate. As the ESV says “weaker vessel,” it implies that the woman’s weakness is on the outside, an external physical characteristic, as opposed to something intrinsic to her being. The NIV’s “weaker partner” loses that sense of distinction, implying that the woman’s weakness is more intrinsic. The ESV rendering is to be preferred. Likewise, the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) is like the NIV is in having “weaker partner,”  but at least it is an improvement over the previous Holman Christian Standard Bible translation (HCSB), which has “weaker nature.” If I think of woman as analogous to a “weaker vessel,” I think of something like a ship carrying precious cargo. But strangely, the history of bible interpretation injects ideas into the text that are hard to make sense of. For example, in Martin Luther’s commentary on 1 Peter 3:7, he says, “The husband is also God’s instrument [or vessel], while the wife is weaker bodily, as well as more timid and more easily dispirited.” I get the “weaker bodily” part, as a boat vessel or cargo vessel, can be weak, with respect to the cargo being carried inside of that vessel. But what is a “timid” or “more easily dispirited” boat, or truck, or moving van? When did boats and trucks have feelings? 

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