Renew-Hicks Articles on Women and the Assembly

April 23, 2021

For convenience, below are links to the discussion between Renew and myself. I hope you find the series informative as well as reflective of attitudes that honor God and bear witness to the fruit of the Spirit.

I only respond to Renew posts that explicitly interact with my book Women Serving God.

  1. Renew’s Review (Part 1): Hermeneutics.
  2. My Response to Part 1.
  3. Renew’s Reply to my Response to Part 1. (I also copied it into #4 below.)
  4. My Rejoinder to Renew’s Reply to my Response to Part 1.
  5. Renew’s Review (Part 2): 1 Corinthians 11.
  6. My Response to Part 2.
  7. Renew’s Review (Part 3): 1 Corinthians 14.
  8. My Response to Part 3.
  9. Renew’s Review (Part 4): 1 Timothy 2:8-15.
  10. My Response to Part 4.
  11. Renew’s Review (Part 5): Elders.
  12. My Response to Part 5.
  13. Renew’s Review (Part 6): Marriage.
  14. My Response to Part 6.
  15. Renew’s Review (Part 9): Where Does Egalitarianism Lead?
  16. My Response to Part 9.
  17. Renew’s Summary (Part 12).
  18. My Response to Renew’s Summary.
  19. Renew’s Final Response to My Comments on their Summary.
  20. Christian Chronicle Review by Sproles.
  21. Hicks’s Response to Chronicle Review by Sproles.


The Assembly and Male Authority: Response to Renew #12

July 23, 2021

I am grateful to Renew for the invitation to offer a 2500-word response to their 12-blog series “On Gender and the Bible.” Renew will follow my response with a 1500-word reply. I will regard their response as the end of our discussion with no further reply from me.

In their first blog, Renew identified my book, Women Serving God, as a primary interlocutor. Several blogs directly interacted with it; others did not. I responded to those blogs where Renew engaged my book specifically. A list of the blog interactions, with links, may be found here. I recommend everyone read both Renée’s book (On Gender) and mine as well as the blogs for a full account.

First, I will address our differences about the participation of women in the assembly. Second, I will offer some general perspectives regarding Renew’s 9,000+ word summary (blog #12). My response is entirely too brief, but I appreciate the space Renew has afforded me.

The Use of Gifts in the Assembly

My book focused on a specific question, “Does God invite women to fully participate through audible and visible leadership in all the assemblies of the saints where men and women are gathered to glorify God and edify each other?” (p. 16).

On this question, Renew and I find significant common ground.

  • We both affirm the practice of women praying and prophesying in the assembly as a function of audible and visible leadership.
  • We both believe 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a narrow concern and does not entail prohibiting women from speaking (e.g., praying, testifying, and reading Scripture) in the assembly.
  • We both affirm there are forms of leadership within and outside the assembly (including teaching adult Bible classes, leading small groups among other functions) that do not dishonor “male headship (authority).”

Gratefully, Renew rejects the historic traditional position that silences women in the assembly except for singing (though much of history also silenced the singing of women). In other words, their interpretation of “male headship (authority)” is itself a new interpretation of the restrictive texts which began to emerge with some significance in the 19th century. The “soft complementarian” position is a new position in the context of traditional practices. Traditionalists see this as caving into the women’s movements of the last two centuries.

In relation to the assembly, our primary difference is simply this: Renew believes authoritative teaching belongs only to “male headship in the local church.” This teaching “leads and sets direction for the congregation.”

Does this mean any lesson delivered from the pulpit on a Sunday morning “sets direction for the congregation?” Does this exclude women from all preaching or only some forms of or contexts for preaching? In other words, how does one discern when a function exercises headship (excluding women) and another function only exercises leadership (including women)?

Renew and I agree women may lead the assembly, but Renew restricts women from “authoritative teaching,” that is, the task of the “main preacher” and elders/overseers. They do so primarily on this basis:

  • They see prophesying as less authoritative than teaching because women prophesied in the assembly but they are not permitted to teach authoritatively. The gift of prophecy, however, is given priority over teaching in the same way apostleship is given priority over prophesying in 1 Corinthians 12:28: “first, apostles; second, prophets; and third teachers.”
  • Women should not exercise ecclesial [my word] authority over men (Renew’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12). However, (a) the translation of the rare word as “authority” is highly disputed; (b) it is not Paul’s word for ecclesial authority anywhere else (including 1 Timothy), and (c) women elsewhere exercised communal authority over men in Scripture (Deborah and Esther).

I don’t find these two points credible.

  • Prophesying is speaking the word of God for the sake of edification, teaching, encouragement, and revelation. The distinction between prophesying and teaching in terms of authority is weighted in the wrong direction; prophesying is more weighty than teaching. It is also a distinction of recent origin—a new interpretation.
  • To exclude women from authoritative teaching on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:12 is precarious because the grammar, lexicography, and context is problematic. I have identified twelve different interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:12. Renew’s own discussion of 1 Timothy 2:12 identified their position as “likely” rather than certain. Their interpretation is dubious (see this video for a more thorough discussion).

Contrary to identifying a single office or gender as leaders in the assembly, 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “What is the outcome of this, brothers and sisters? When you meet together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All these things must be done to build up the church.” When Paul says, “brothers,” in 1 Corinthians, he includes both men and women (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:1; 14:6, 20; 15:1). Both men and women are singing/praying (psalm), teaching, prophesying (revelation), and speaking in tongues in the assembly. Women were teaching as well as prophesying and praying. Renew does not think 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 totally silences women except disorderly ones (Oster) or those who judge the prophets in 14:29 (Sproles). This leaves lots of space for women to exercise audible and visible leadership in the assembly.

My point is a simple one. In terms of the assembly, Renew and I, disagree only on one particular: they exclude women from serving as authoritative teachers.

Renew and I agree that whatever “male headship (authority)” is, it does not silence women in the assembly. The problem of identifying exactly what is a “male headship (authority)” function in the assembly is not explicit in the New Testament. It must be inferred, which is why soft complementarians (including those in the Renew network) often disagree about where to draw the line.  

  • Some don’t permit women to teach adult male Bible classes; some do.
  • Some don’t permit women to co-preach with a male leader; some do.
  • Some don’t permit women to lead worship; some do.
  • Some don’t permit women to officiate at the communion table; some do.
  • Some don’t permit women to permanently lead small groups that include men; some do.
  • Some don’t permit women to be lead ministers over programs in the church involving men; some do.
  • Some don’t permit women to preside over a baptism; some do.

I could go on. In 1995 (revised in 2006 & 2013), Grudem identified nine governing activities, ten teaching activities, and one “public visibility or recognition” position that are restricted to men while he detailed nineteen governing activities, twenty-five teaching activities, and nineteen activities related to “public visibility or recognition” that are open to women. The application of “male headship (authority)” is no simple matter.

Should not such an important principle that is foundational to male/female relationships be more clear?

Such applications, however, are unnecessary. No text explicitly restricts the participation of women in the assembly based on “male headship (authority).” Women prayed and prophesied even as they honored their heads. Headship (whatever that means) actually supports women in their praying and prophesying in the assembly, and prophesying—speaking the word of God to the assembly—carries authority to which the assembly should submit, after they are properly tested like all words should be. Since prophecy bears authority, it might be that 1 Timothy 2:12 does not mean what Renew thinks it “likely” means.

Summary Blog Post #12

If we appeal to history (not necessarily a bad thing), it cuts both ways. Perhaps worldly patriarchy has always (for centuries) influenced the interpretation of Scripture just as much as some think worldly egalitarianism influences the interpretation of Scripture today.

  • The vast majority of Christians were traditionalists (totally silencing women in the assembly).
  • The vast majority of Christians excluded women from any public roles in society as well the home and church. As late as the early 20th century, many Christians opposed suffrage because a woman should only exercise authority through a man (supposed meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12).
  • The vast majority of Christians believed women were inferior intellectually, inherently gullible (easily deceived), and too emotional for leadership, even into the early 20th century (if not still among some).
  • The vast majority denied women and men were equally created in the image of God. For them priority in creation implied Adam was a superior human. This includes some of the most renowned Christian theologians. Thomas Aquinas, for example, said females—as created—were inherently “deficient” and not made in the image of God in the same way males are.
  • Many (though difficult to quantify) Christians overlooked, sanctioned, or even justified the maltreatment of women from domestic violence to sexual abuse.

Historically, female itinerant preaching emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries at about the same time Christians began to advocate for the abolition of slavery.

Nevertheless, it is better—Renew would agree—to seek the restoration of God’s intent in creation rather than use historical arguments as theological principles. History is filled with good and bad, and the way to adjudicate is through biblical theology.

1. God created males and females to be different.

I prefer to say, God created males and females different. Males and females are differentiated, This a created good. God created diversity within nature and humanity. This diversity enriches life and brings different perspectives and experiences to the table. Difference does not imply a difference in authority, however. Rather, God enjoys the diversity of the human community because it enriches the community as they share life together in mutual submission.

2. God created male headship (authority) in the beginning.

This is the crux because it fundamentally and unnecessarily conflates primogeniture (authority as first created) with headship.

Does the creation of Adam have primogeniture significance? This is an unnecessary inference because (a) the text of Genesis does not read as a primogeniture text because the climactic moment is the creation of women so that humanity is whole (good); (b) primogeniture is not absolute in Genesis as Isaac is given the promise over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Judah over Rueben, and Ephraim over Manasseh; (c) the only explicit identification of authority in Genesis 1-2 is their shared authority over the creation; (d) the woman was created as an equal help/ally (one who corresponds or is “face-to-face”); (e) if it is primogeniture, then men should have authority over women not only in the home and church but in all social relationships; and (f) 1 Timothy 2:13 may be read differently as a narrative sequence rather than assuming primogeniture (see this blog).

Does Paul use the word “head” as a synonym for authority? This is not certain. There are other potential meanings from “ontologically superior” (traditional reading) to “source” to “head/body-unity/nourishment” to “prominence in terms of what came first.” I don’t think Paul means “authority” because (a) women participate in the assembly with their own authority (1 Corinthians 11:10, NIV, CEB); (b) though women came from men, now men come through women, and all things come from God—in the Lord, there is mutuality rather than gendered authority; (c) this is the only text (1 Corinthians 11:3) that indicates that “headship” is a relationship that every man sustains to every woman, but if it means authority, then this should apply to society as well as home and church (why is this not universally true rather than only in the home and church?); (d) headship in Ephesians 5 is about the head/body analogy where the head nourishes the body (rather than having authority over the body) and this relationship is characterized by mutual submission; and (e) if “head” means authority, then it appears men have authority over women in analogous way that Christ has authority over the church—which is absolute authority, a Lordship authority.

In other words, this claim is far from certain, based on a few ambiguous lines in a few texts, rooted in inferences rather than explicit statements, and has created a primogeniture understanding in place of the mutuality and shared authority of Genesis 1. I think perhaps worldly patriarchy has influenced Christian interpreters throughout the centuries (leading them to traditionalist conclusions) rather than hearing the intent of the word of God. Soft complementarians, I believe, need to reclaim the original divine intent for creation rather than one influenced by worldly patriarchy.

3-4. Marriage

I understand Ephesians 5 in a much more mutual sense than a hierarchical one. Since my book did not discuss this question, I will move on due to space limitations.

5. Male Headship in the Local Church is Reflected in the Teaching-Authority and Elder Roles.

I offered my perspective on “teaching-authority” in the previous section. As to elders, my book makes no case about elders, so I will conserve space. Yet, though insufficient, I note that elders are never described as “heads” as part of their function in the local church, there are no male pronouns in the Greek text when Paul describes the qualities of elders/overseers, and Paul begins 1 Timothy 3:1, “if anyone” which is gender neutral.

6.  Men and Women are to submit to and honor the authority of male headship in the church.

Of course, this sense of “authority” depends on: (a) the meaning of “head” and (b) the meaning of authority in 1 Timothy 2:12. These are dubious conclusions and far from certain.

I have no problem with believers submitting to teaching and appropriate functions/gifts of other believers. The question is whether that authority is gendered such that no females may serve as authoritative teachers (though women prophets did). Since believers are to submit to every fellow-worker and laborer, and women are included among Paul’s fellow-workers and laborers (20% are women in Paul’s letters; 1 Cor. 16:15-16; Romans 16:3, 6, 12; Philippians 4:3), then believers should submit to women as they serve within the community of faith. Submission is not about a gendered hierarchy of authority among believers but mutual submission to each other in the exercise of our gifts.

Authority lies in giftedness rather than gender. We submit to those who exercise their gifts within the community.

7. On Blessing the Church.

I have some questions.

  • What if we have perpetuated worldly patriarchy instead of embracing mutual submission?
  • What if we excluded gifts (including teaching) from the assembly because of worldly patriarchy?
  • What if we have suffered loss (the common good for which gifts are designed) because we have excluded women from the exercise of some gifts due to worldly patriarchy?

I could ask more questions, but I am out of space.

“Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have victims.”  Many women can testify to that. They have been victims throughout church history.

I, with Renew, affirm: “men and women were created by God to equally reflect, in gendered [sexually differentiated, JMH] ways, the nature and character of God in the world.”

We mirror the glory of God in differentiated but mutual ways. Neither spiritual gifts nor authority are gendered. Rather, God’s glory is manifested through the diverse exercise of gifts within the community of faith.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.


Tips for Discussions on Social Media (including Facebook)

July 8, 2021

1. Read the post carefully. If you think you want to respond, read it twice more. As far as possible, understand the main point of the post, its argument, and its tone.

2. Before you respond, take a few moments, even minutes, or if necessary hours to pray, calm your soul, and refocus your heart. Do not offer an immediate reply as if you have thought about this for a matter of seconds. Give it a few minutes, or whatever time it takes to channel the emotion into something profitable, loving, and edifying.

3. When responding to a post, begin with affirmation. What do you appreciate about this post? Do you appreciate its curiosity, its point, its tone, its argument, or its search for understanding? Name what you appreciate about the post or the person.

4. Restate what you understand the point of the post is. It is helpful to think in these terms, “What I hear you saying is . . . .” Often we don’t hear as well as we think we do.

5.  When responding to the point of a post, state the response as succinctly as possible but with sufficient clarity and explanation. Make the point direct rather than circumnavigating the globe–direct, but kind and open to correction and dialogue. Refrain from long posts and cryptic ones. If it is too long, it won’t be read carefully. If cryptic, your expectation that the reader will fully understand is a hindrance to dialogue and may come across as smug.

6.  Deflections and defensiveness do not lead to healthy dialogue. Consequently, in your response do not deflect by changing the subject (“what about…?”) or becoming defensive (“do you think I’m stupid?”). Instead, address the point at issue directly. If you want to extend the point in a different direction, clearly identify that is what you are doing (“I know this is not your point, but I think it would be helpful to think about this as well in order to illuminate our discussion”).

7.  Don’t speak in absolutes; rather, speak out of the situated character of your thinking. For example, “in my experience,” “as it seems to me,” or “this is how I see it fitting into . . .” State your conviction, argue for it, and provide substantial reasons while, at the same time, demonstrating humility and openness to listening to the other.

8.  In longer posts (which are not typically recommended), it is sometimes helpful to enumerate the points you are making so that readers don’t miss them, confuse them, or conflate them. For example, I might respond to a post by listing three separate points. They may all three respond to the same argument, or they may be three different questions or issues related to the post. Enumerating them helps subsequent responders to precisely identify the referent of their response.

9.  Clearly state where you agree with the post. Then state clearly the point of disagreement(s). We will disagree. It should be understood that a statement of disagreement is not a personal insult; it should have no intention of offending the other. At the same time, the disagreement must be stated in a way that does not insult or intentionally offend the other (e.g., attack their character or intelligence).

10.  Kindness and gentleness are always good and healthy virtues. There is no place for name-calling or attaching a label to one who does not accept it or see themselves in that way. There is no virtue in beating up or shaming the other. Gentle correction is appropriate. Posting ought to assume one is willing to receive gentle correction, but unkind putdowns, labelling, or dismissals are unacceptable and counter-productive

11. In closing, express your love, commitment to dialogue, or your desire for peace between you and the other. One can say this simply, “Peace, sister” or more expansively, “thank you for your commitment to dialogue and understanding; that means so much.”

12. When do I stop replying/posting on a thread? Typically, two or three responses is sufficient to address a specific question with an appropriate give-and-take. FB is not a good place for extensive discussion and long posts. But here are a few pointers that have helped me: (a) when I feel frustrated and I cannot respond well with kindness, I don’t respond; (b) when I feel like we are at an impasse or at the level of a fundamental disagreement and we have both made our point; (c) when the time it is taking is not worth the effort in the light of other things I need to be doing (including resting); and (d) when I summarize my point, clarify, and “let it go” while acknowledging this will be my last word in this thread but inviting the other to offer a final reply.


Response to the Review of Women Serving God in the Christian Chronicle (July, 2021)

June 27, 2021

I thank Renée Sproles for taking the time and energy to write a brief notice of my recent book Women Serving God. Her review appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Christian Chronicle. I appreciate her attentive effort to summarize and raise questions about it. I welcome such engagement.

I appreciate Renée’s sensitivity to the difficulties of a “no participation” (traditional) view. She recognizes that the restrictions found in many traditional churches are inconsistent with New Testament practices, and those practices have been personally frustrating to her. I share her commitment to a “way of doing church that honors God and embraces revealed freedoms.”

Many other women have found traditional practices frustrating as well. Women Serving God contains essays by Claire Davidson Frederick, Jantrice Johnson, Lauren Smelser White, and Bethany Joy Moore. They not only offer their own theological perspectives but share their own stories about growing up in churches of Christ.

At the same time, I think there are some insufficiently nuanced statements in the review. I do recognize an economy of words was necessary for such a brief piece where she intends to fairly express what insights the book has as well as her dissatisfaction with its conclusion. Understandably, she abbreviates points in order to meet the word limit she was given. Her task was a difficult one as brevity always is. I have more space in my blog response than she did in her published article. That, I hope, tempers my own remarks.

Nevertheless, I take this opportunity to respond to a few points, though neither her review nor my response can substitute for reading the book as well as her book entitled On Gender or the dialogue between Renew and myself through multiple blogs.

I will begin with her final paragraph. Her final question is: “what would our churches look like if we submitted to God’s revealed Word, taking advantage of our freedoms, and submitting to its boundaries?” I answer: it would look great!

I affirm the question and its sentiment. That is the purpose of my book: to identify the freedoms and boundaries in order to submit to the teaching of God’s word. I fear her question might insinuate that I am not interested in that agenda, but I trust Sproles recognizes that I, too, seek the same goal.

She is exactly correct that much of the problem lies within us as we presuppose certain perspectives about gender or patriarchy. That is why I wrote the book. I want to submit to God’s word just as much as Sproles does. We share this common interest and goal.

We both recognize that commands and instructions are embedded in occasional documents that address culturally situated contexts. For example, the command to greet one another with a holy kiss–a command that occurs more often than any seeming restrictions of women in the biblical text–is culturally embedded. This does not mean that culturally embedded commands are inherently relative. Rather, the commands address the readers in those contexts because they arose from a theology grounded in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. They are not simply cultural, though they are articulated within a culture. They are expressions of theological values rooted in God’s own life and identity, and they reveal the will of God. We read Scripture in order to listen to God’s voice and learn God’s will. The question is: how do we identify those values and apply them in our contemporary contexts? The search is not for “nuggets” (I never use that word in my book) but a pattern of divine activity that calls us to participate in the mission of God.

Paul says, “man is the head of woman.” I affirm that. The question is, what does Paul mean? What is the meaning of his metaphorical use of “head”? Whatever it means, Paul affirms women who pray and prophesy in the assembly as long as their own heads are covered. I offer a brief opinion as to what Paul might mean (which should not be reduced to a simple “source” understanding, though that is shorthand for a range of perspectives), but I neither stress it nor make an argument based on the meaning of “head.” This is not a major concern of mine in this book because whatever headship means, it does not delimit woman from audibly and visibly participating in the assembly, according to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Sproles and I agree that Paul authorizes women to audibly and visibly pray and prophesy in the worshipping assemblies of Corinth.

It is perplexing that Sproles believes the restrictive texts are more facil than difficult given the history of their interpretation. Indeed, the “limited participation” view has a wide diversity within its own advocates. Some believe women may lead worship (or singing), prayer, read Scripture, offer testimonies in a worshipping assembly, share the pulpit with a male leader in the assembly, or offer communion talks from the pulpit as well as teach Bible classes that include men. Others oppose some, if not most, of these practices. Sproles affirms some kind of “limited participation” perspective, though I am not sure where she draws the line on some of these practices. She does believe only men are to do the authoritative teaching in the assembly (and in other spaces?).

Ironically, the defense and practice of “limited participation” only emerged with any significance in the 19th century (by the earliest women itinerant preachers, in fact), and the interpretations of the restrictive texts that permitted this were not widely promoted until the late 20th century (particularly through authors like Grudem, Piper, and the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). The interpretations offered for “limited participation” are new interpretations. They are neither ancient nor traditional. In other words, few understood these texts as permitting “limited participation” in a worshipping assembly until the last 150 years or so. Perhaps outside pressures influenced and moved people to create a new interpretation that is now called “soft complementarianism.” That highlights the difficulty in understanding these texts, whether or not limited participation is correct. I don’t think, however, the “limited participation” view is the best understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12.

These texts, particularly 1 Timothy 2:12, have been used to forbid women from voting in political elections, teaching in higher education, sitting on boards, voting in church business meetings, teaching eleven year old baptized males, teaching the Bible to any men under any circumstance, leading their husbands in prayer, baptizing men, eight year old girls from addressing a group of several men (including their fathers), pre-adolescent girls from picking up attendance cards, making announcements, or offering testimonies in the assembly, etc. I could continue this list if I wanted to use the space (some lists have over 100 items). Such applications indicate these texts have never been simple. The interpretations have been widely debated over the last 100 years unless one wants to return to a “no participation” view where, historically, women were not even permitted to sing in public worshipping assemblies during most of the Medieval period.

1 Timothy 2:8-15 is a difficult text. 1 Timothy 2:12 has at least twelve different possible interpretations, and Paul’s rationale in 1 Timothy 2:13-15 has at least six different possible interpretations. Even Renew’s article on 1 Timothy characterizes their understanding of the text as one which “likely means that women should not be in a teaching role” (my emphasis). “Likely” reflects some uncertainty or at least credible doubt, and this accentuates its difficulty.

Sproles asks, “How can Galatians 3:28…be a seed text to overturn male-female distinctions in the worship since Paul, who proudly co-ministered with women, writes to Timothy in a later letter affirming gender distinctions, even grounding them in creation order?” In response, I would say, because 1 Timothy 2 does not mean what Sproles thinks it means, and Paul is not grounding his thought in a hierarchical creation order. I answer her question in the book. One may not agree with my interpretation, but the answer to Sproles’s question is fairly straightforward: Paul does not mean what Sproles thinks he means.

Moreover, I never describe Galatians 3:28 as a “seed text” as my own view, though I did use it once in reference to a broad view of “full participation” when outlining three major positions at the beginning of the book. For myself and in my argument, however, I do not claim Galatians 3:28 is a seed text. Rather, it is consistent with Paul’s theology throughout his writings and applied to varied situations. Paul calls women to fully utilize their gifts within the assembly and the church, which expresses their status as co-heirs with men, just as the enslaved are called to fully utilize their gifts as co-heirs with free peoples with the faith community.

If Genesis 1 teaches a shared vocation and identity, and Genesis 2 teaches complementarity with differentiation without hierarchy, then servant leadership is mutual. Paul affirms this mutuality rather than excluding women from participation in the assembly (1 Corinthians 11:11-12). Godly male leadership is present across the testaments and so is godly female leadership (Miriam led the congregation in worship, Deborah judged Israel, Huldah proclaimed the word of the Lord to the king’s representatives and the High Priest, and Esther instituted a new festival and commanded Israel to keep it).

I do appreciate that one can read my book and be left unsatisfied. I understand that. I do not expect everyone to agree. Everyone will have to do their own assessment after reading the book for themselves.

I wrote the book to begin a discussion. One of its first fruits has been the dialogue between myself and Renew. I think it has been a healthy discussion, and I invite everyone to read it.

Thanks for your review, Renée. I appreciate your commitment to the word of God and your desire to submit to it.

May God give disciples of Jesus peace, wisdom, and discernment.


Women and the Bible: Notes on Ecclesiastes 7:23-29

June 4, 2021

The NRSV reads (my two translation adjustments are in brackets):

All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, “I will be wise,” but [she] was far from me. 24 That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? 25 I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things, and to know that wickedness is folly and that foolishness is madness. 26 I found more bitter than death the woman who is a trap, whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters; one who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 See, this is what I found, says the Teacher, adding one thing to another to find the sum, 28 which my mind has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made human beings [upright], but they have devised many schemes.

This text has been used as an example of the Bible’s (or, at least, this particular author’s) misogyny. While some suggest that we should not be surprised that the “Teacher” would hold pessimistic and/or misguided views of humanity, I think a misogynistic reading is a misunderstanding of what the Qoheleth is doing in this critical juncture in the book’s argument.

This is a significant moment in the book where an unfulfilled search is emphasized (“I did not find what I was looking for but only found something more bitter than death itself”) as well as the inability of human beings to know much of anything that has enduring significance by their own wisdom.

“I have tested” (7:23) recalls Qoheleth’s quest that begun earlier in the book (2:1). That testing followed folly, not wisdom. The conclusion is that wisdom [she] is inaccessible (“far off”) and unfathomable (“deep, very deep”). No human being can discover it.

The search (“turning my heart toward”) itself is traumatic and fraught with dangers. The search seems like a good idea, that is, to “know, search out and seek wisdom and significance” (7:25).  The Hebrew term behind “scheme” or device is attested only in 7:25, 7:27, and 9:10. A cognate appears in 7:29 often translated “plans, schemes, or inventions” (only elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible at 2 Chronicles 26:15). The point seems to be something like generating meaning or significance with the embedded idea of self-creation perhaps.  Perhaps the point is something like this: when we cannot discover authentic meaning, we create our own (or, as the existentialist Sartre said, we create essence out of our existence).

What does one find out (or discover)? The Hebrew term translated “find” is used eight times. The movement of the text is something like this:  I wanted to find X, but instead I found Y; finding X is harder than finding one human being in a 1000 (or, “finding a needle in a haystack”) since I was unable to find X (wisdom personified as a woman). What I did find is Y, which is folly (personified as a woman).

“Dame Folly” and “Lady Wisdom,” prominent in Proverbs 1-9 (especially 9), form a wisdom backdrop for this section.  “Dame Folly” is a snare, a trap, much like an adulterous seductress (Proverbs 5-6). “Lady Wisdom” (Proverbs 8) is the embodiment of the wisdom that arises out of the fear of the Lord. Qoheleth did not find “Lady Wisdom” but discovered “Dame Folly.” Bartholomew’s commentary on Ecclesiastes puts it this way (p. 275): “Human autonomy is so ingrained in modern culture, even though it has been challenged but not abandoned under the guise of postmodernism, that it is difficult for us to see the radicality of the ironization of an autonomous epistemology here in 7:23-29…[it] demonstrates that starting with an autonomous epistemology is not wisdom but folly and will lead one not to truth but right into the arms of Dame Folly.”

While 7:28 is sometimes read as misogynous (women are less virtuous, or they are inferior intellectually, etc.), it is probably better to see it as either hyperbole as in there is no one who is upright, male or female (taking the cue from 7:29, and consistent with 7:20), or proverbial as in it is easier to find a needle in a haystack than it is to find “Lady Wisdom” (taking the cue from 7:25-26). In other words, finding Lady Wisdom is more difficult than finding one man in a thousand. He did not find wisdom; rather, he discovered folly. And this is consistent with humanity in general: though they were made upright, human beings devise many foolish schemes.

Qoheleth has a moral compass—the one who pleases God (e.g., “good before the face of God”) and the sinner (cf. Ecc. 2:26; 5:5; 8:12). Though Qoheleth did not find “Lady Wisdom” but did find something—“this alone I found”—“that God made ‘adam upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” God created humanity with dignity, identity, and vocation, but humanity created their own paths (folly).

Theologically, the creation narrative lies behind this reflection in Qoheleth. God made ‘adam (human being; cf. 3:11, 14; 7:14; 11:5; 12:1). The Solomon persona in 2:5-6, 11 contrasts with God’s own creative work. While God created something good, Solomon seeks some that satisfies his own interests. The “Fall” narrative is part of this context as well: “they” (human beings) have created their own meaning and wisdom through their various schemes.

Qoheleth’s search, personified by Solomon, is rooted in the human ego or autonomy; it is the process of self-discovery. Qoheleth did not employ traditional wisdom (which begins with the fear of the Lord) but rather employed a version of Hellenistic wisdom where humanity is the measure of all things. Qoheleth adopts the dominant cultural worldview in order to examine “vanity” (hebel, used 37 times in Ecclesiastes) and discover “wisdom.” It did not work. He did not find authentic wisdom but only folly.

Traditional Hebrew wisdom actually lies in the backdrop of Qoheleth’s thinking. Qoheleth pursued an alternative but it was a dead-end and ultimately returns to what is “known” (what is confessed; cf. 3:12, 14; 8:12) and the fear of the Lord (5:7 is an imperative; cf. 3:14; 8:12-13). “Dame Folly” and “Lady Wisdom” form a backdrop throughout the book as well.

Theologically, Qoheleth’s search is about the nature of epistemology (autonomous?) and the fundamental resource of wisdom, which arises out of the fear of God. Postmodern readers resonate with the dead-end nature of autonomous human discovery, which attempts to discern a metanarrative to give meaning to human life.  Job 28 also shares this. The question is “who narrates the world?” Qoheleth probes the meaningfulness of Israel’s narrative for a Hellenistic setting and provides a theological resource for probing that narrative in the postmodern setting. This is part of its canonical function.

Theologically, Qoheleth lives with both the “vanity” (hebel) of life and the goodness of creation (“rejoice” of 11:9 and the imperatives of 9:7-9). The text ultimately orients us toward a humble, though frustrating, fear of God in the face of death.

Christologically, one may not only see the eschatological response to death but also the embodiment of the goodness of life in the midst of death in the ministry of Jesus. “Vanity” (hebel) is not denied; indeed, it is shared with humanity. At the same time, it is redeemed in the context of an “already, but not yet” eschatology.

Helpful resources:

Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker Exegetical, 2014)

Choon-Leong Seow, Ecclesiastes (Anchor Bible, 1997)

Michael Fox, Qohelet and His Contradictions (Sheffield Academic Press, 1989).


1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and Silence

April 24, 2021

1 Corinthians 14:34-35 commands silence for women in the assemblies of the saints. Is that absolute, qualified, circumstantial, quoting opponents, an interpolation? Its meaning and application are contested, and in the history of that discussion, both in the American Restoration Movement (e.g., Guy N. Woods, B. B. James) and in other traditions of Church history (for centuries women were not permitted to sing in the sacred gatherings and excluded from choirs), some have taken the plain and clear meaning of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 to include the exclusion of women from singing in the assembly.

Issac Marlow, an English Baptist, published a tract in 1690, and, in part, stated: “The Women ought neither to teach nor pray vocally in the Church of Christ, is generally believed by all Orthodox Christians, and is asserted from 1 Cor. 14.34, 35. . . and 1 Timothy 2, 11, 12. . .I therefore greatly marvel that any Man should assert and admit of such a Practice as Women’s Singing; and that any Women should presume to sing vocally in the Church of Christ, when he positively and plainly forbids them in his Word: for Singing is Teaching, Coloss. 3.16. and Speaking, Ephes. 5.19, both of which are plainly forbidden to Women in the Church.”

Marlow’s question is this: if silence means women cannot speak, and singing is a form of speaking, then why do most [Protestant] congregations encourage women to sing when they are discouraged from other forms of speaking based on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35?

Marlow is cited by Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, pp. 120-1, an excellent book about the history of patriarchy or complementarianism.

From within the Restoration Movement (Stone-Campbell Movement,” David Lipscomb, “Paul’s Words and ‘Woman’s Opportunity,’ Gospel Advocate 34.42 (October 20, 1892) 661, wrote: “As to the claim that woman is not silent in church when she is singing, we grant it, and if Paul had enjoined unqualified silence upon woman in the church, it would be wrong for her to sing; but this he has not done. The prohibition is restricted to speaking–‘it s not permitted unto them to speak.'”


Soft Complementarianism Among Churches of Christ in the Late 19th Century

April 10, 2021

James Madison Mathes (1808-1892), who edited the Works of Barton W. Stone, authored an article in the 1882 Gospel Advocate (pp. 490-91) entitled “Woman’s Work.” Mathes was a fellow-journeyman with the conservative leader Benjamin Franklin of Indiana. Franklin shared his perspectives on this topic.

He staked out what he thought was a middle ground between the “extremes” of silencing women in the assembly and inviting them to preach. He did not believe 1 Corinthians 14:34 silenced all women but only those creating a disturbance, and he believed there were “no female apostles, evangelists, or overseers in the apostolic churches.”

“The question of woman’s work in the church is one of the live questions of the hour. . .the apostle does allow Christian women to pray and prophesy in the public assembly. . .The apostle here says not a word against women praying and prophesying in the public assemblies, provided they wear long hair, or have their heads covered with a veil. (1. Cor. 11:6). And it is very evident that Christian women did occupy prominent positions in the apostolic churches. Paul commends Phebe [sic], as a deaconess of the church at Cenchrea.”He recommends the pamphlet Woman’s Work in the Church for those who want to study the topic more. That pamphlet was written by Abigail M. Mathes (James’s second wife) in 1878.

The biography of Benjamin Franklin (The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, p. 163), written by Benjamin’s son Joseph, describes sister Mathes: “She was long a teacher in the schools of Cincinnati, and is a very ready writer. She is the author of a very worthy tract, entitled “Woman’s Work in the Church,” which has had a large sale.”

Abigail M. (Rickoff) Mathes, Woman’s Work in the Church of Christ (1878).

Some congregations of the churches of Christ practiced and a number of conservative leaders advocated for the visible and audible participation of women as leaders in worshipping assemblies.

Abigail was one of them.Abigail was a school teacher and wrote for various periodicals. She was the second wife of James M. Mathes (1808-1892).

She offers a middle path between what she called two extremes. She did not think women should have public authority in either society (including voting) or church but did not think women should be silenced in worshipping assemblies or have no voice on social and political questions. This is a version of what is today known as “soft complementarianism,” though her version applies 1 Tim 2:12 to all of life and not just to the church.”

“Some women and men have gone to the extreme of placing woman upon an exact equality with man in every department of Church work, and even demanding for her political equality with the elective franchise and the right to hold office, and to exercise authority in the Church as Elders and Preachers of the Gospel. Another class, going off to another extreme and denying to her all religious, political and social equality with man, and condemning her to absolute silence in the Church, not even allowing her the privilege of praying or exhorting in the social prayer meeting…making her a religious nobody graciously permitted to be a member of the Church, but mute and inactive in all the public and social duties of membership.” p. 4

“We doubt the propriety of women taking the pulpit as pastors and evangelists, because it seems to take her out her proper sphere, and place her in a position from which her modest nature would seem to shrink, as unsuited to the true position of woman, as the assistant and help-mate of man. But I would not be understood as saying that women have no right to teach, exhort, sing and pray in the congregation. Very far from it. For I believe that she has the scriptural right to do all these things, and more.” p. 10

“May the sisters exhort, teach, sing, and pray in the worshipping assembly without violating the law of Christ? We answer in the affirmative. . . .We are aware that in some communities there is s sort of prejudice, as we think, growing out of ignorance, against the sisters taking any part in the social worship beyond the singing. They would make Paul’s prohibition general and universal [1 Cor 14:34-35] and condemn all women to absolute silence in the worshipping assembly.” pp. 12-13.

James M Mathes (1808-1892) was a close friend and ally of Benjamin Franklin (1812-1878), Together, they led a conservative element north of the Ohio in the mid-19th century (e.g., they opposed instrumental music in the assembly). Franklin held the same view as Abigail Mathes. Franklin was convinced that there were “two extremes–the one not permitting women to open their lips in any worshipping assembly, and the other making them public preachers and teachers” (American Christian Review 10 [2 July 1867] 213).


ELEVEN QUESTIONS ABOUT AND SIX INTERPRETATIONS OF 1 TIMOTHY 2:13-15

March 19, 2021

For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

If the reasons Paul gives for 1 Timothy 2:11-12 are difficult to understand and subject to a wide range of meaning in addition to the questions and interpretations surrounding 1 Timothy 2:11-12 themselves, it is precarious to assume their universal import and impose restrictions on women based on this text. There may be situated cultural reasons rather than universal ones for Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:8-15.

Eleven Questions

1.  What is the significance of “first”? Is it prominence in a marriage, primogeniture rights, narrated chronological sequence? What does “first” entail? What sorts of honors, rights, privileges, inheritance, or authority are involved? Why does Paul appeal to “first” rather than “headship” explicitly if this is his meaning?

2.  What is the significance of the fact that Adam was not deceived but Eve was? Does this imply something about women as weaker, uneducated, more gullible, or inferior? How does this factor into Paul’s rationale?

3.  Why is it important to emphasize that Eve was deceived? How does this illuminate the situation in Ephesus? How does it illuminate why women are not permitted to “teach or have authority” over a man?

4.  Why is the transgression of the woman noted but not the transgression of Adam when in other places Paul highlights the transgression of Adam and the responsibility of Satan?

5.  What is the transgression of Eve? Is it merely the eating of forbidden fruit or is it also the assumption of leadership authority in the marital or spiritual relationship between Adam and Eve? Is the transgression of Eve the same as the transgression of the women in 2:9-12, or is the transgression of Eve similar because both the women of 2:9-12 and Eve were deceived?

6.  What is the nature of the rationale? Does it provide a ground for a universal principle or an example (narrated story) of why deceived people (in this case women) should not teach?

7. Why does the rationale contain events from both creation and the fall? How is the “fall” part of the rationale for 2:11-12? Are these two separate rationales (creation and fall) or is this a narrated sequence derived from Genesis 2-3 about Eve as a deceived woman?

8.  What does “saved” mean? Does it refer to salvation from sin, from the curse (a reversal of Genesis 3:16), from death, or taking her proper place in the domestic world rather than public life?

9.  What does “childbearing” mean? Does it refer to the birth of the Messiah, to child-rearing, to childbirth itself, or is it a metaphor for domestic life in general?

10.  Who is the “she” of verse 15 and who are the “they”? Is this merely stylistic? How are the “she” and “they” connected? Is it Eve who represents all women and “they” are all women? Is it about husband and wife (“they”)? Are the “they” the women of 2:9-10?

11. To what extent does Genesis 3:16 as the reversal of the fall through salvation and hope for healthy marriage and/or sexuality play a factor in understanding Paul’s rationale?

Six Interpretations

The first three interpretations are essentialist readings (that is, there is some thing about the created nature of reality) of Paul’s rationale while the final three interpretations are about the situated nature of Paul’s rationale. The former lend themselves to universal applications (though there is a difference in whether it applies to home alone, home and church, or to home, church, and society). The latter lend themselves to limited applications to the situation in Ephesus.

1. For Adam was formed first as the image of God, then Eve as an inferior helper; and Adam was not deceived because he was not as gullible as Eve, but the woman was deceived because her nature is more gullible and became a transgressor that ruined the whole human race for which she is punished, according to Genesis 3:16. Yet she [Eve or women] will be saved from further sin, ruin, pain, or perhaps even death through childbearing as she keeps to her domestic responsibilities, provided they [all women and/or her children] continue their Christian discipleship in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

This is the dominant interpretation of the post-Constantinian church. The rationale suggests that women are not equipped for leadership in the home, church, and society because of their secondary essence. Their role is confined to the domestic sphere.

2. For Adam was formed first with primogeniture rights where the chronological order is an enactment of a divine hierarchical intent, then Eve as a dependent helper in the human vocation; and Adam was not deceived as a good, instructed leader would not be, but the woman was deceived as she listened to the serpent and became a transgressor when she assumed a leadership that did not belong to her and led her husband into sin. Yet she [Eve or women] will be saved from the further effects of Genesis 3:16, sin, ruin, pain, or perhaps even death through childbearing as she keeps to her domestic responsibilities, enjoys renewed marriage/sexuality with her husband in reversal of Genesis 3:16’s distortion of the intended created order, and refrains from public leadership in the church, provided they [all women or her children] continue their Christian discipleship in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

This interpretation grounds Paul’s teaching in a hierarchy of roles. Because men have primogeniture rights, which is how “first” is understood, they are invested with the responsibility to authoritatively lead the home and church. It is a hierarchy of authority. For some, this includes society as well, but for others it is restricted to the home and church alone. Women are excluded from particular roles by virtue of a hierarchy of authority.

3. For Adam was formed first as the prominent leader, then Eve as a co-worker and marriage partner in the human vocation; and Adam was not deceived because he was instructed well, but the woman was deceived because she was uninstructed and the woman became a transgressor due to her lack of learning. Yet she [wife] will be saved from the further effects of Genesis 3:16, sin, ruin, pain, sexual exploitation, or perhaps even death through childbearing in the context of her married home life as a kind of reversal of Genesis 3:16’s corruption of God’s intent, provided they [husband and wife] continue their marital relationship and life in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

This interpretation locates Paul’s rationale in the marriage relationship as grounded in the story of Adam and Eve. The application of the text, according to this interpretation, relates to household relationships rather than public leadership in the Christian community. This may be an accommodation to culture, or it may reflect an understanding of husband-wife relations patterned after Adam and Eve in creation.

4. For Adam was formed first, then Eve in contrast to pagan and Gnostic myths that say otherwise or give prominence to the woman; and Adam was not deceived and, though instructed, sinned with his eyes wide open, but the woman was deceived by the lies of the serpent and became a transgressor. Women should learn the mystery of godliness rather than trust the deceivers and their myths. Yet she [women] will be saved from pain and death through childbearing as a kind of reversal of Genesis 3:16’s corruption of original mutuality and/or sexual exploitation, provided they [all women] continue their Christian discipleship in faith and love and holiness, with modesty rather than seeking the help and aid of Artemis or other pagan gods.

This interpretation locates the rationale in the context of the conflict with false teaching in Ephesus. Some were promoting female dominance and priority (including teaching that Eve was created first or had some priority). Paul responds with the chronology of the Genesis narrative and the role of Eve in the fall. Further, in contrast to how women sought protection (salvation) in childbirth from Artemis, Paul counsels they trust God through continuing in faith, love, and holiness.

5.  For Adam was formed first in chronological sequence, then Eve was created to complete humanity so that together they might pursue the human vocation; and Adam was not deceived and, though instructed, sinned with his eyes wide open, but the woman was deceived because she listened to the serpent and then Adam listened to Eve and through her deception the woman became a transgressor. Women should learn the mystery of godliness rather than trust the deceivers and their myths. Yet she [women] will be saved from this false teaching through honoring their marriages and having children rather than embracing asceticism as part of the false teaching as a kind of reversal of Genesis 3:16’s corruption of original mutuality, provided they [Christian women or husband/wives] continue their discipleship in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

This interpretation believes the problem in Ephesus was generated by the presence of false teachers. Just like Eve, some women were deceived into following and promoting their myths. Paul’s resolution is the rejection of the asceticism that plagued this false teaching and encourages women and men to embrace healthy sexuality, including having children as well as continuing in a godly marriage and community.

6. For Adam was formed first in chronological sequence, then Eve was created to complete humanity so that together they might pursue the human vocation; and Adam was not deceived and, though instructed, sinned with his eyes wide open, but the woman was deceived because she listened to the serpent and then Adam listened to Eve and through her deception the woman became a transgressor. Women should learn the mystery of godliness rather than trust the deceivers and their myths. Yet she [Eve] will be saved from her transgression through the birth of the Messiah [“the childbearing”], provided they [all women or the women of 2:9-10] continue their discipleship in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

This interpretation understands the problem in Ephesus was generated by the presence of false teachers. Just like Eve, some women were deceived into following and promoting their myths. Paul’s resolution is the birth of the Messiah who will save from sin all those who continue in faith, love, and holiness.


FOURTEEN QUESTIONS ABOUT AND TWELVE INTERPRETATIONS OF 1 TIMOTHY 2:12

March 15, 2021

“I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent [or quiet].” 1 Timothy 2:12 (NRSV)

Some suggest the above text is clear, obvious in its meaning, and uncomplicated. Quite the contrary, I think, and for at least three reasons: (1) fourteen questions that reflect how difficult its interpretation is, (2) twelve distinct but seemingly viable interpretations of the text, and (3) its history of interpretation.

These considerations, among others, make this one of the most problematic texts in Paul to understand and apply. 2 Peter 3:16 recognizes some texts in Paul are “hard to understand.” Is 1 Timothy 2:12 one of them? Perhaps so, given its history of interpretation and applications.

FOURTEEN QUESTIONS ABOUT 1 TIMOTHY 2:12

  1. Does “man” refer to any male (including eight year old persons), all baptized/born again men in the church, all men (whether Christian or not) at a certain age, or to only husbands (as a domestic teaching rather than a “church” or assembly teaching)?
  2. Does “woman” refer to any female (including eight year old persons), all baptized/born again women in the church, all women in creation (whether Christian or not), or to only wives (as a domestic teaching rather than a “church” or assembly teaching)?
  3. Does “a woman” refer to a specific woman who was a protagonist of some sort and creating a disturbance, or is it generic for all women, or only some women like those identified in 2:9-10?
  4. To what does “teach” refer—official church authority, instruction of any kind, singing? Does it include speech like making announcements, reporting on mission work, serving on a praise team, leading worship in song and prayer?
  5. Is the purpose, content, or style of teaching part of Paul’s concern in this text? Or is it only the act of teaching itself?
  6. What is the meaning of the rare word for “authority”—is it negative, positive, neutral, official, leadership in any form, or a specific form of leadership? What is the lexical meaning of authentein (“to have authority”)–legitimate authority, oppressive authority, domineer? Why does Paul only use this word once in all his writings, and why did not Paul use one of his typical words for leadership/authority that are present elsewhere in the Pastoral letters?
  7. What is the grammatical relationship between “to teach or have authority over a man”—is it is it about the manner/style of teaching, or two separate but related acts, are the two verbs both positive/negative or mixed, does “over a man” apply to teach as well as having authority?
  8. What is the setting for the prohibition—assembly, home, society, public, private, etc.? Is it limited to any of these settings, or is it universal in intent?
  9. Is the intent situational (addressing a specific problem for a limited moment), universal and timeless, or both? What is the universal principle and how is it related to the situation? Is the statement itself the universal principle or an application of a principle within a particular situation? Why does Paul uses a word that typically addresses a limited situation (“permit”) instead of a more general and often used verb to “command” in the Pastorals?
  10. What is the meaning of “silent” or “quiet”—does it refer to voice, demeanor, submissiveness (but to what or to whom—husband, all men, church authorities, church teaching, the assembly, God)?
  11. How do we apply this text in our contemporary settings—what is “leadership” in our contemporary church architecture (serving communion while standing, serving on a praise team before the assembly, etc.), what is the line between teaching and non-teaching in this text (is there a difference between teaching and prophesying, making announcements, giving a testimony a baptism or in the assembly, requesting prayers, confessing sin, etc.?), what kind of authority (leadership?) is envisioned in our present settings, and are women to be “silent” with their voice, only “quiet” in their demeanor, or both?
  12. Where do we apply this text in our contemporary settings—small groups, home devotionals, public assemblies, Bible classes, street preaching, one-on-one evangelism, PTA meetings, etc.?
  13. What is the social, cultural, and historical context of this text? How would this have been heard in its context in light of the particular situation of the Ephesian house churches?
  14. What is the literary context of this verse, the purpose of the letter itself, and the disturbances surrounding women in Ephesus evident in the letter?

TWELVE HISTORIC INTERPRETATIONS OF 1 TIMOTHY 2:12

Bold=the NRSV text; Italics=an interpretative perspective

1.   I permit no woman to teach at all or have any authority over a man in any circumstance whether in society, home, or church; she is to keep silent in all contexts where men are present and submit to all men.

This was the typical interpretation for most of the Post-Constantinian church (fourth century onward). Women may only teach, have authority, or lead an assembly or group in female-only environments, whether in public or private. At times, women were not even permitted to write for publication, which is a form of teaching.

2.   I permit no woman to teach in any public (though it is permitted in private) venues where men are present or to have authority over a man in any public contexts, including social, political, and educational ones; she is to keep silent in public situations and maintain her role as a keeper of the home.

This was, historically, the interpretation of the vast majority of Christian traditions. Women were excluded from all public venues whether in society or church, though often encouraged to teach in private (within certain parameters). For many, “man” is defined as any adolescent male or any male that has been baptized/born again.

3.   I permit no woman to teach any man in any religious context whether at home or church (including small groups, Bible classes, and other religious venues) or have authority over a man in the life of the home or church (though she is permitted to do so in social contexts); she is to keep quiet and submit to men in the home and church.

This modern interpretation restricts its meaning to the church and home. A woman is not permitted to lead (have authority over) men in any public or private gatherings of the church in any way. This excluded women from leading small groups that included men in their home as well as teaching Bible classes, and it excluded women from leading prayers in such setting (sometimes, including leading their own husbands in prayer). It is represented by many traditional (“hard”) complementarians. For many, “man” is defined as any adolescent male or any male that has been baptized/born again. However, women may teach and have authority over men in social, educational, political, and other contexts.

4.   I permit no woman to teach any man in any public church context or have leadership authority over a man in any public way; she is to keep silent rather than teach; she is to submit rather than exercise public authority in the assembly. But she is permitted to teach in private contexts and public social venues.

This modern interpretation restricts the prohibition to public church contexts. A woman is not permitted to lead men in the public gatherings of the church in any way, whether visible and/or audible. However, it gives women space to teach in other settings such as small groups, Bible classes, or report on mission work to a group (depending on what is considered public or private). Some “soft” complementarians understand the text in this way. For many, “man” is defined as any adolescent male or any male that has been baptized/born again. However, women may teach and have authority over men in social, educational, political, and other contexts.

5.   I permit no woman to teach any man as an official church authority figure or in any way to have official authority over a man as a preacher (e.g., the official senior minister), pastor, or elder; she is to keep quiet by submitting to the authority of male church officials, though she is permitted to teach and have authority in private contexts, various religious gatherings, and social venues.

This modern interpretation restricts the prohibition to official authoritative speeches and decisions within the church. Primarily, this restricts women from becoming pastors (including the regular “preaching minister”) and elders. A woman may teach in religious contexts such as Bible classes, small groups, and even preach on occasion to the whole assembly as long as she does not assume the role of elder, senior minister, bishop, or some official authoritative representative of the church. Some “soft” complementarians understand the text in this way. However, women may teach and have authority over men in social, educational, political, and other contexts.

6.   I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man in the sense that she may not usurp or take by force an authoritative teacher role in the public assembly; she is to keep an appropriate quiet[ness] in the public assembly.

This modern interpretation affirms women teachers (including the public assembly) as long as they are serving quietly under the leadership of church male authority (e.g., elders). Some suggest there is a hard theological boundary (e.g., no women elders or preachers) as to what church officials may permit while others believe elders are guided by a spiritual wisdom that discerns what is culturally appropriate for the sake of the health of the congregation.

7.   I permit no [wife] to teach or have authority over a [husband]; she is to keep a quiet demeanor in relation to her husband at home and in public, especially in the public assembly of the church.

This modern interpretation restricts the teaching to the relationship between a husband and wife in public or in the public assembly. Some limit it to only domestic relationships, and thus it does not apply to church organization or assemblies. It is limited to the interaction between a husband and wife. Consequently, it contains no other limitation on the participation of women in the public assemblies of the church.

8.   Accommodating to the Roman cultural setting for the sake of the gospel, I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep quiet as they submit to God so that the gospel might get a hearing.

This modern interpretation reads the text similar to the way many handle slavery texts. Living within the Roman culture, Paul does not take a revolutionary approach but a quiet subversive one. The gospel must be heard first before any revolutionary changes are possible in cultural dynamics. But Paul does not intend this as a universal, timeless prohibition. It is an accommodation to the domestic patterns of Roman culture.

9.   For now, I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man due to the turbulent circumstances surrounding women in the Ephesian house churches; she is to keep a quiet demeanor in all her activitives.

This modern interpretation affirms the situational nature of Paul’s statement. It is peculiar to Ephesus in some sense and is Paul’s response to those specific circumstances. Paul does not intend this as a universal, timeless prohibition but is limited to the peculiar circumstances of the Ephesian house churches.

10. I permit no deceived woman to teach false doctrine or to have authority in a way that negatively and abusively overwhelms or dominates a man; she is to keep a quiet demeanor in all her activities, just like all believers. Once she has learned, then she may teach.

This modern interpretation affirms the situational nature of Paul’s statement and identifies it as a problem with some women who have been deceived by false teachers and were active among the house churches. Paul does not intend this as a universal, timeless prohibition but is limited to the specific circumstances of the Ephesian house churches.

11. Correcting male and female overseers (bishops) in the midst of a congregational struggle with false teachers, Paul wrote, I permit no unlearned or deceived woman to teach in an incorrect or overbearing manner; she is to learn with a quiet demeanor, submitting to the truth of the gospel.

This view understands 1:18-3:16 as focused on leadership in the church, particularly overseers. Paul has already excommunicated two male leaders, and now he instructs Timothy in the appropriate decorum regarding leadership in the church. Men were arguing and women were dressing immodestly (disorderly) and acting (teaching) in overbearing ways.

12. Paul or one of his disciples wrote, I permit no woman to teach at all or to have any authority over a man in any circumstance whether in society, home, or church; she is to keep silent in all contexts where men are present and submit to all men. But this is an enculturated perspective that is no longer viable in our contemporary context.

This modern interpretation suggests the author is simply wrong, though his direction was appropriate for his own cultural location or perhaps was blinded by his own cultural values. This perspective understands the prohibition in the same way as the Post-Constantinian church, which is #1 on this list.

*If you are interested in my own view, you can watch this video, or read the appropriate chapter in this book.*

SOME RELEVANT HISTORY FOR CHURCHES OF CHRIST

In the nineteenth century, many leading teachers among the churches of Christ believed that 1 Timothy 2:12 had universal application. It was not limited to the assemblies of the church but also applied to societal relationships and vocations. Consequently, 1 Timothy 2:12 was used to deny women the vote, oppose public speaking by women in any social situation, and reject any kind of public leadership on the part of women.

If the historic, traditional interpretation that dominated for centuries in the Post-Constantinian era is correct, they had a point. If the prohibition of 1 Timothy 2:12 is rooted in some kind of “order of creation” (primogeniture or firstborn), then it applies universally—whether in church assemblies or educational and political ones. Whatever is rooted in creation, complementarians typically believe, applies to every aspect of human life.

It would seem a consistent application of 1 Timothy 2:12—if one thinks this expresses a timeless prohibition—excludes women from any public leadership or authority, whether in the church or in society. That is how our “forefathers” read it until women were given the right to vote, hold political office, sit on juries, serve as judges, and become Presidents of universities as well as sit on the boards of Christian universities. Subsequently, we no longer believed that, adjusted our interpretation, and decided that the text only applied to (any?) assemblies of the church (and/or home) while continuing to ground the prohibition in some kind of “creation order.”

This came into specific focus when the woman’s suffrage movement—the movement to secure the right of women to vote in local, state, and federal elections—became a prominent question among the churches.

In 1874, D. G. Porter, a minister within the American Restoration Movement, wrote an article entitled “Republican Government and the Suffrage of Women” (Christian Quarterly [October 1874] 489-90) in which he concluded that women do not have the right to vote “unless, indeed, it is proposed to proceed upon what seems the absurdest of all principles; namely, subordination at home and in the Church, but independence and equality abroad. We call this proposition absurd, because it would seem that if woman can be equal to man in authority anywhere, it must be at home and in the Church; and that her equality here, if indeed that ought to be her position, must be the foundation of her equality in external affairs.”

According to this argument, 1 Timothy 2:12 forbids women to have authority over men because this is the order God instituted in creation. If this order is rooted in creation, it is universal. It cannot apply simply to the home or church, but it must apply to society as a whole. Consequently, women do not have the right to exercise the authority of voting or have authority over men in any social situation.

This was a common argument in the late nineteenth century, and we can see it or something similar among some of the most respected leaders among Churches of Christ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

David Lipscomb (d. 1917) wrote:

For women to enter the work of public speaking or of leadership in the affairs of this world is to cut them off from childbearing (Gospel Advocate [3 July 1913], 635).

Woman’s work in life is to bear and train children. No higher, holier, more sacred work has ever been committed to human beings. This is her chiefest work in life. If there were not a passage of scripture on the subject except to indicate this, it would forbid her engaging in any work incompatible with this. Public speaking in any of the callings of life that demand a constant strain on the mind, a constant anxiety and care in reference to the public affairs of church or state, an excitement of the ambitions for place and power, not only destroy her taste for and cause her to neglect the home and family duties, the duties of wife and mother, but such a strain on the mind destroys the ability for childbearing (Questions Answered, 739).

R. C . Bell (1877-1964) in The Way (1903), p. 776:

[W]oman is not permitted to exercise dominion over man in any calling of life. When a woman gets her diploma to practice medicine, every Bible student knows that she is violating God’s holy law. When a woman secures a license to practice law, she is guilty of the same offense. When a woman mounts the lecture platform or steps into the pulpit or the public school room, she is disobeying God’s law and disobeying the promptings of her inner nature. When God gives his reason for woman’s subjection and quietness, he covers the whole ground and forbids her to work in any public capacity…She is not fitted to do anything publicly….Every public woman—lawyer, doctor, lecturer, preacher, teacher, clerk, sales girl and all—would then step from their post of public work into their father’s or husband’s home, where most of them prefer to be, and where God puts them….You are now no longer a public slave, but a companion and home-maker for man; you are now in the only place where your womanly influence has full play and power.

History enlightens us. Even among Churches of Christ we have not always interpreted this text the same way–and many other examples could be cited, including no women teachers at all. This ought to give us some pause, especially if we think we understand this text correctly and have no doubts about our conclusions.

CONCLUSION

A text with such difficulties, questions, and history of interpretation (where only an extreme minority would hold the traditional, historic interpretations of #1 or #2) should not be the basis of excluding women from teaching in the public assembly because . . .

  1. the diversity of interpretation is disorienting to some degree,
  2. the questions are debatable at every turn, especially the meaning of authenteo,
  3. other texts affirm women prophesying with men present,
  4. the story of women in the Bible runs against the grain of this text (e.g., Miriam as a leader of Israel [Micah 6:4], Deborah has authority to judge and prophesy [Judges 4:1-3], etc.),
  5. the application of this text is wildly inconsistent,
  6. the history of interpretation indicates the church has often been wrong in the application of this text,
  7. the understanding of this text, even among traditionalists and complementarians, has changed in the light of further study and positive (as well as negative) illumination of cultural contexts.

Consequently, any certain application or interpretation of this text does not take full account of its difficulties. 1 Timothy 2:12, given our distance from the situation the text addresses, the problems of grammar, and a critical issue of lexicography, is not a clear and unequivocal text.

Given the principle of interpreting the more obscure texts in the light of the clearer texts, it is best, then, to interpret this text in the light of clearer texts such as the gifting of women to prophesy among other texts.

Peace upon God’s church


On Women Baptizing and Teaching in Light of the Great Commission

March 11, 2021

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Matthew 28:19-20a

The imperative to “make disciples” is part of Jesus’s last words to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. The following two participles (baptizing and teaching) are instrumental in this process. In part, disciples are made by baptizing them into the community of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and they are also continuously formed (made) by teaching them to follow what Jesus taught.

Baptism is a dynamic movement into the life of God. Disciples are baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. It is a movement into (which is literally what the text says; e.g. ASV) the communion of God, which gives disciples a sense of belonging to the family of the one (“name,” not names) God of Israel. Baptism is our entrance into the community of God to live among the people of God in the church of Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:18; 18:17).

Teaching is also a dynamic activity. Discipling is a process that not only begins before baptism but continues after it. Disciples are formed by teaching that is based on the life and words of Jesus. This includes—if it is not, in fact, the focus—the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, which concludes with a call to the wise living, which is obedience to the words of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus teach the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 7:24-29).

Discipling is not limited to one class or group within the community of God.

The heirs of the Restoration Movement have long recognized that baptism is not a clerical act, limited to the clergy in the community. We have wonderfully modeled the priesthood of all believers by affirming everyone’s privilege to baptize another, particularly one whom they have led to Christ. As Alexander Campbell said, “When then any one desires baptism, any one to whom he applies may administer it” (Campbell-Rice Debate, p. 580).  There are no clerical boundaries to baptizing another, though pragmatically this often fell to the “preacher” in many congregations.

But the priesthood of all believers disappears when gender is introduced into the discussion. And the exclusion of women from baptizing anyone has a long history in the Restoration Movement. For example, Campbell also said, “We never, by word or action, sanctioned either females or minors as baptists” (p. 584). There are, it is argued, no examples of women baptizing anyone. Therefore, women are excluded. (We might remember there are no examples of women eating the Lord’s supper either.)

In effect, this limits Matthew 28:19-20a to males. If women cannot baptize anyone, this means they cannot obey the command of Jesus to “make disciples” in the way Jesus told his disciples to make disciples. Are not women as well as men told to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing. . .”?

Further, to “make disciples” is not only to baptize them but to continue to teach them as well. Yet, the practice of many congregations is not only to exclude women from baptizing but also to exclude them from teaching. This exclusion comes in many forms, and not all exclusivists agree on the degree of the exclusion and its particulars.  This excludes women from private teaching, leading small groups, instructing Bible classes where men are present, and sermons as well as other forms of teaching. Some, however, only exclude women from sermonizing in the assembly, or perhaps even more narrow—speaking authoritatively for the church. In other words, when it comes to identifying the teaching from which women are excluded, it is a continuum of judgments, inferences, and applications.

If women are to make disciples, it is difficult to exclude them from the very process Jesus identified for disciple-making. If Matthew 28:19-20a is a call for disciples to make disciples, it is a call for both men and women to make disciples by baptizing and teaching the discipled.

Women, then, are invited to baptize and teach as part of the discipling ministry of the followers of Jesus.

I realize that the previous sentence is relativized by some who maintain that 1 Timothy 2:12 not only prohibits women from teaching men (in whatever form such teaching is envisioned) but also from having authority over them. Consequently, it is suggested by some that baptism is an authoritative act (bordering on a clericalism) within the community and women cannot, therefore, baptism anyone and certainly not men. A single text, it appears, delimits the disciple-making Jesus commanded on the part of women in the community of God. For some, it excludes them from baptizing anyone, and for many it only excludes them from representing the church through authoritative speech (whatever form that may take).

While this is not the place, due to limitations of space, to seek a better understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12, a few comments are appropriate. The sort of teaching envisioned in 1 Timothy 2 is not disciple-making but abusive domination of another. Paul, it seems to me, forbids some women, who had been deceived by false teachers, from aggressively attempting to persuade men. They were belligerently overwhelming others and leading them into the clutches of Satan by spreading false myths rather than submitting to the truth of the gospel, the mystery of godliness. (For more on this way of reading 1 Timothy 2:12, see my video here.)

To use 1 Timothy 2:12 to limit women in disciple-making, whether in baptizing others or teaching others, is not only to abuse 1 Timothy 2:12 but to subvert the commission of Jesus intended for his disciples, both men and women. I see no reason to delimit or restrict the meaning of the word “teach” in Matthew 28:20. Women are authorized to teach, and the only text that might say otherwise is filled with difficulties of language, grammar, context, and meaning. It seems to me, Matthew 28:19-20 provides the horizon for all disciple-making, baptizing and teaching.

In answer to the call of Jesus, everyone, both male and female, may baptize and teach others. Everyone is called to make disciples.