In this section, I want to have a look at some of the key and at times controversial Bible texts and give a bit more exegetical detail on how we are to understand them.
“I do not let women teach men or have authority over them.”
This forms part of Paul’s instructions to Timothy about the care of the church he has planted in Ephesus. Similarly, Paul writes to another co-worker Titus with instructions for the care of churches in Crete. This comes in two letters to the younger co-worker. The letter comes in the context of a church that faces challenges and dangers. First of all, there’s the threat of false teaching (1 Tim 3:3) and then of persecution. In fact, Paul warns that anyone who wishes to live a godly life will face persecution (2 Timothy 3:12).
In his letters, Paul gives instruction on godly living and worship. He insists that the vital thing is that Timothy and the church hold fast to Scripture as God’s inspired word and that godly leaders are put in place to teach God’s Word. Scripture is God breathed –it is trustworthy, useful and sufficient (2 Timothy 3:16).
It’s in the context of these instructions that Paul says that women should be characterised by submission to teaching, modest in their appearance and godly in their behaviour. Then he says that he does not permit them to teach or to have authority over men. Note that Paul specifically does instruct older women to teach younger women.
Some commentators (though not all) that “teach or have authority” here are meant to be read very closely together so rather than conveying two independent thoughts they reinforce each other. The technical term for this is known as “hendiadys.” If this is correct, then the primary issue here is to do with exercising authority. One means by which someone could exercise authority is by teaching and in any case, the Greek verb “to teach” would carry that sense of authority so that “Teacher” was a title of respect for Jesus. A teacher had an authority relationship to a disciple (c.f. Matthew 10:24).
This issue of authority can also be seen in the instruction to “submit” and there is strong suggestion from the overall context that one of the issues Paul had with the false teachers was that they wanted to encourage people to usurp authority.
Hold onto that issue of authority and submission for now. We need to come back to that later. At this point we need to note that some people have suggested that there is a cultural dimension to
this passage which limits its application distinct from the Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic. The suggestion is that Paul gives this instruction specifically for the church at Ephesus because women at that time would not have been as well taught as men and therefore those women were more prone to the false teaching. This then would be a temporary piece of advice and might suggest an instruction more along the lines of “Don’t teach just yet until you have been instructed.” I think that there are two problems with this suggestion. The first is that Paul does not give the reason for his instruction as “because of your present circumstances” as he does with his instructions in singleness and marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, rather he takes the readers back to the issue of Creation and the Fall (again hold onto that thought because it is something we need to come back to later). Secondly, Paul’s issue is not with women teaching generally (prior to having learned) but with them teaching men specifically. If the issue was about women needing to learn first, then why didn’t Paul say “Learn first, then teach.” And at this point, what would there be to stop them from teaching men as well as women. Something else seems to be going on (again this is something we need to come back to).
So, our first boundary line tells us that there is a sense in which women are no to teach men and that this has something to do with authority.
1 Corinthians 11:5
Every women who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head
The whys and wherefores about “head covering” here have been much debated and this isn’t perhaps the place for a detailed discussion of all the ins and outs. However, we can note the following key points:
a. This does appear to be one of those examples of cultural context. When Paul talks about “the very nature of things” in verse 14 that phrase “very nature” can both refer to nature as in “creation norms” or as in “what is widely accepted within the cultural norms of our civilisation” and there is a strong argument here for it to be the latter (not least that Paul himself seems to have taken Nazerite vows at times leading to him growing his hair). b. The cultural practices of long hair and head coverings do seem to reflect a deeper ingrained morality which again is to do with how men and women relate to each other, autonomy, freedom, attention seeking behaviour and modesty. c. The key point is this. The woman is not to wear a head covering and not speak (as per the old Brethren practice) rather she is to have some form of covering when and because she speaks. Note then that Paul again sets this need in the context of theology not culture. The issue at stake is headship and order and this is related again to what happened at Creation.
This is important because in a few chapters, Paul will instruct women to be silent in church (ch 14) and this has been understood by some as a complete ban on speaking and praying. However such an understanding of 1 Corinthians 14 would force Paul to contradict himself in the same letter. Chapter 14 is also to do with order in the church and the issue there seems to be to do with the women in the church turning to others and raising objections and questions in a disorderly and noisy fashion that disrupted the proclamation of God’s Word. No doubt this would have been made worse by the factionalism prevalent in Corinth. So Paul says “wait until you get home to discuss those things.” At the same time, the injunction to talk it through with your husband indicates that a key purpose here is so that right relationships in the home are not to be overturned in the church. Wives should not be publicly challenging their husbands and nor should husbands use a public platform to put down and shame their wives.
So we see that the purpose of the covering is to in some way symbolise authority and order. So just as our first boundary tells us that there is a sense in which women are not to teach and that is an authority issue, so too, Paul says that there are contexts in which women are to speak, they can pray to God for God’s people and they can speak God’s Word to God’s people (prophesy) but when they do so it is in the context of authority. This is backed up descriptively in the New Testament as we see Priscilla and Aquilla teaching Apollos together and the daughters of Philip prophesying.
1 Timothy 3:1
If someone aspires to be an elder he desires an honourable position
The instructions about elders in the church describe the appointment of men. The language is masculine and relationships are described with reference to male roles in the home. Is this simply describing the situation at the time? The elders were male because of social norms just as Bearwood Chapel elders are all currently male but there’s not any written policy on gender.
1 Timothy 3:2 says that he must be “faithful to his wife.” (NLT) or “the husband of one wife” (other translations). Does this back up the suggestion that it is cultural? We are not ruling out unmarried elders are we? So can’t we read verse 2 as “if he is married he must be monogamous” and thus imply “if he is male….”
I don’t think this works. Let me explain why. The literal phrase in verse 2 is “a one woman man.” The point is that whilst it would require monogamy in marriage, it has a much broader implication than that. It refers to whole hearted faithfulness. It means that married elders need to guard their minds and actions and be exclusively loyal to their wives. It means that unmarried elders should not be looking around, flirting, moving from relationship to relationship. These are tough standards and call each of us to daily seek to resist temptation, to repent of lust, to be respectful and appropriate in conversation etc. Indeed all of the qualities looked for in elders and deacons should challenge us.
Secondly, there is an interesting distinction made in the teaching on elders and deacons and it is sometimes missed because in NT Greek, we use the same word for “woman” as we do for “wife.” So 1 Timothy 3:11 has often been translated “In the same way their wives….” However, this begs the question as to why the qualities of a deacon’s wife are articulated but not an elder’s wife. For this reason, I think the word should be translated as “women” rather than wives and is a description of women deacons.
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe who is a deacon”
Paul closes his letter to the church in Rome with a long list of greetings from different people in different roles within the church. The list includes men and women. Phoebe is a deacon, Priscilla is a co-worker, Mary has “worked so hard for your benefit” Junia is highly respected among the apostles.” Note that in the last case, the phrase could either refer to her reputation among the apostles or be describing her as an apostle with an outstanding reputation (if the latter them this would likely refer to a wider body of missionaries/church planters/leaders beyond the 12 (small ‘a’ rather than capital ‘A’ if you like).
The implication, with each of the descriptions, is that in some way, those women were taking a lead in the life of the local church or the wider work of God’s kingdom. So whilst a specific office such as “elder” might be subject to restrictions, there were a much broader range of leadership roles than this.