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Women in Ministry: An Introduction to the Questions
part 4

1 Timothy 2

In 1 Timothy, Paul also argues that women should not have authority in the church. Again, egalitarians attempt to reduce or eliminate what Paul wrote.

Some people simply say that these verses are not authoritative. In one sense, by rejecting their authority, they are free to let the text say what it does. They do not seek innovative exegetical solutions or cultural limitations; they simply say that this is chauvinistic and they therefore cannot accept it. However, if they respected the authority of Scripture, perhaps they would study deeper into the text to find that it is not as chauvinistic as they first thought.

Why did Paul restrict women? Some egalitarians say that it was a situation unique to Ephesusóall the educated women were immoral women associated with pagan temples. Some of these women had come into the church with immodest and showy clothing, desiring to teach and lead people astray. So the simple (but temporary) solution for Paul was to forbid the women from teaching. Because of the way pagan society was organized in Ephesus, all the women who could teach were immoral, and all the moral women were not educated enough to teach, so the practical thing was to forbid women from teaching.

However, this seems to overlook the fact that Priscilla was in Ephesus (2 Tim. 4:19). She was able to teach, but Paul did not allow her to teach in the church in Ephesus. Moreover, Paul did not make education a requirement for being an elder.

Some interpreters say that Paul means, "I am not [currently] allowing women to exercise authority." It is true that the present-tense verb often indicates a current activity, but it does not necessarily imply that the activity is only for the present time. It is a possibility, not a proof. Another argument is that Paul is merely expressing his own opinion.

These approaches do not seem to acknowledge that Paul supported his argument with creation (1 Tim. 2:13), not a temporary cultural situation. No doubt, womenís role in Ephesian society was distorted. Paul wrote what he did because womenís role was a problem in Ephesus. But that doesnít automatically mean that what he wrote applies only to that specific situation, especially if he argues on the basis of creation, not situation.

However, culture is a prominent part of the passage, and good exegesis always strives to take the cultural context into account. The context here deals with styles and fashions. Verse 15 is particularly puzzling, but we do not have to throw out v. 12 simply because we do not understand what v. 15 is talking about. This is also something for further study. It seems that Paul uses the created nature of men and women, as well as the results of sin, to support his decision that women should not have authority in the church. Relativizing half of the argument does not overthrow the other half.

The Greek word translated "authority" in this verse is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. Paul did not use the normal word. Some interpreters conclude from this that Paul had a special nuance in mind, an abnormal type of authority, such as "domineer." The problem with this interpretation is that Paul would not want anyone to domineer or misuse authority over anyone else, so why would he specifically mention that women should not do this? It would be like saying, I do not want women to sin against men. This would be true, but an odd way to say it.

Paul used gender-specific words to say that there is some sort of authority that women should not exercise over men. This may suggest that men can exercise this authority, and that women can exercise it over other women. The interpretive problem remaining, however, is what kind of authority Paul meant. We do not know.

Another suggestion is that Paul did not want women to teach because they were spreading heresy. However, the only heretics Paul names are men, and he expels them (1 Tim. 1:20). If women were teaching heresy, wouldnít Paul expel them, too? The approach isnít consistent. It would not make sense for Paul to silence all women simply because some men and some women were teaching false doctrines.

Verse 14 is sometimes cited to claim that Paul was concerned about the gullibility of women. However, if women were easily deceived by heresies, then it would not be wise to permit them to teach anyone, even their own children. Moreover, most of the heretics Paul fought were male; he would not say that women were more likely to err.

A way out?

Some interpreters see the whole controversy as an exegetical mess, and they try to cut through it by saying: If you put 1 Cor. 14:34 and 1 Tim. 2:12 aside and study other verses first, such as Gal. 3:28 and Eph. 5:21, you will come to a different conclusion about the permissibility of womenís ordination.

Thatís true. On any subject, if you put aside all the verses you donít like, you will find a conclusion you do like. However, this method is not a legitimate reason to declare 1 Cor. 14:34 and 1 Tim. 2:12 "unclear" and therefore not authoritative. They are part of canonical Scripture, part of the writings the church has historically accepted for faith and for practice, for the gospel and for church government.

Some interpreters see the texts as contradicting one another, and it becomes a question of which texts are perceived as clear and which are difficult. If we use this approach, we must ask, Which verses are most relevant? The question concerns whether women may have authority in the church, and 1 Tim. 2:12 is clearly relevant; it is less clear whether Gal. 3:28 applies to this specific question.

1 Tim. 3:2 and Tit. 1:6 must also be given high priority, because they are specifically about the role of elder/overseer. Both verses say that one of the qualifications of an elder is that he be a husband, a male. However, rules were commonly put in masculine terms even if they applied to women. Phoebe was called a deacon (a masculine word), even though one requirement for a deacon was to be "the husband of one wife" (1 Tim. 3:12).

One more problem: The New Testament gives us a consistent example of church leadership through elders. However, it does not command the church to have this role. It does not require anyone to be "ordained," just as it does not require us to maintain a widowís list (cf. 1 Tim. 5:9). So some people ask: Why impose ancient restrictions on modern roles when the roles themselves are not commanded? In response, we may note that Paulís comments about teaching and authority are not based on specific offices.

The question often goes back to creation. What did God originally intend? Were men and women created to have different roles? If so, then Paulís arguments make more sense. If not, his arguments seem limited to the situations to which he wrote.

Both male and female are created in the image of God, are of equal value to Christ and are equal heirs of salvation. But this does not mean that God cannot assign them different roles. The question is whether he does and if so, what is the nature of those roles.