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On Gender and the Bible: Does God Allow Women Preachers in 1 Timothy 2? (Part 4)

This is another in-depth post where we examine what the Word of God teaches about men and women in the church. This the fourth installment and it is focused on the vitally important teaching of 1 Timothy 2. We will continue to engage with John Mark Hicks’s book, Women Serving God: My Journey in Understanding Their Story and Scot McKnight’s book, Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. We chose these two men because they are influential in the circles of leaders and they serve as common examples of the posture many are taking today (for more on the previous posts, click on Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). In the footnotes below, we point to three other resources that are available for more in-depth study, including a church position paper created by Rodney Plunket, PhD, and others. This paper utilized Rick Oster’s input and is referred to as SWS below.[1]

At we believe the Word of God teaches that the lead teacher/preacher role in the gathered church and the elder/overseer role are for qualified men. While our next post will focus on the elder/overseer role, this post will focus on the teacher/preacher role in the gathered church. The text of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 will be our focus:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

Q: Hicks, as in other places in his book, says that there is significant uncertainty about the meaning and application of this text” (163, italics his). Do you agree?

Oster: There is disagreement about the meaning and application, but I don’t think it stems from uncertainty. I think it is primarily because we live in a world where egalitarian notions of humanity dominate. I think we can, with some historical and cultural background, determine what is happening here.

Q: John Mark Hicks says that besides 1 Timothy 2:12 “…no other text explicitly identifies a gender boundary in the exercise of the Spirit’s gifts” (116, italics his). Do you agree?

Oster: No. We have just seen in 1 Corinthians 11 where boundaries are drawn regarding veils when praying and prophesying in the assembly. Paul’s reasoning is grounded in the creation narrative as we see in 1 Corinthians 11:7-10. And in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is saying that male headship is being dishonored by the way some of the women are interacting with some of the men. If they wanted to learn something, those particular women had to be quiet and wait until they got home to ask their husbands, because they didn’t know how to learn in a submissive, orderly way.

Q: In Part 6 of Hicks’s book, titled “My Firewall,” Hicks notes that he used to believe 1 Timothy 2:8-15 was “a timeless, and universal command” (163, italics his), but that he now believes that Paul is really addressing “a local situation with a temporary prohibition for a specific problem” (165, italics his). Which is it?

Sproles: Bobby Harrington recommended a resource that was really helpful for me when thinking through this very question as I wrote On Gender. It’s Kathy Keller’s Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles. In it she notes that “everything that Paul (or any other biblical author) wrote was to a specific group of people with a specific situation in view. . . . In compiling the canon, it was a presupposition that God’s truth was applicable to the church throughout history.” Moreover, 1 Timothy, out of all of Paul’s letters, could be seen as a “church planting manual—how to set up a church in an organized way.”[2] Andreas Kostenberger and Thomas Schreiner also point out that Paul “had functioned as a missionary and church planter for so many years, he likely had a general vision of how churches should be structured. Hence, his instructions were not entirely situational but reflected the pattern of governance that he expected to exist in his churches.”[3] Indeed, if we claim that Paul’s instructions to specific situations do not apply to the church today, then most of the New Testament would be irrelevant. The goal, then, is to find out what Paul is saying in this particular historical and cultural context and how we can obey his teaching today. That’s why we are glad to be talking with you, Dr. Oster.

Oster: Yes. As I mentioned in a previous interview, the epistles we have in the New Testament are what scholars call “occasional,” which means 1 Corinthians was written to the church regarding Corinth, Galatians was written to the church es of Galatia, etc. And that doesn’t detract one bit from their authority, from their inspiration, from the fact that they belong in the canon of Scripture. However, it does mean that our starting point is to try to understand the issues that are in those letters, to understand why Paul or Peter or John wrote them. I think McKnight and Hicks would agree with this.

So, we must be careful when we suggest, Well, this is just something that’s temporal and cultural, and this over here is eternal because it’s not connected to anything situational in the letter. Those conclusions can be arbitrary, rather than something demonstrated on the basis of exegesis.

Q: Does 1 Timothy 2:8 restrict women from praying in the assembly?

SWS: Some point to 1 Tim. 2:8-15, where men were asked to pray, supposedly just men, not women, as effectively a prohibition against women praying in the assembly. However, the purpose of 1 Tim. 2 is not to give instruction on who gets to pray and who does not. The purpose is to effect “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (2:2). The men in Ephesus (Timothy is in Ephesus at this time) had been sidetracked from this witness by their inability to pray without “anger and disputing” (2:8). Paul’s instruction seeks to reestablish this witness, not by restricting prayer to men, but by addressing the specific issue with the prayers these men were offering alongside their quarreling.

Q: With that in mind, let’s set the stage for this discussion. What is going on in 1 Timothy 2:8-15?

SWS: The arrangement of 1 Tim. 2 provides much interpretive assistance. This chapter begins by encouraging that prayers be made for all people and those who rule over them (2:1) in order that believers may live “peaceful and quiet (Gk. hesuchia) lives in all godliness and holiness” (2:2, cf. 2 Thess. 3:11-12). The pursuit of “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” is Paul’s main interest in 1 Tim. 2. That main interest leads Paul to promote three applications of that main interest. Each application is introduced by “therefore” in 2:8-15:

  • The men must not pray with “anger and disputing” (2:8).
  • The women must not tarnish their witness through immodest dress or adornment (2:9-10).
  • The women must not tarnish their witness through authoritative teaching (2:11-15).

1 Tim. 2:12 clearly states, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” However . . . Acts 18:26 also clearly states, “He [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” Priscilla is a woman, and she is certainly part of explaining the Way of God to a man, Apollos. In Phil. 4:2-3 we read that there were two women named Euodia and Syntyche in the congregation at Philippi who “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” It is clear these two women helped Paul in his ministry of the gospel.

It is worth noting that 1 Tim. 2 shares with 1 Cor. 11:2-16 and 1 Cor. 14:34-35 a conviction that the creation narrative is the ground for the biblical doctrine of headship. This is an important conviction of Paul’s and it is very significant that it is present in all three texts that relate to the roles of women in the church.

Oster: Certainly the relationship of the church to the outside world is crucial at every stage in its growth in the 1st century. There are a lot of rich truths leading up to 1 Timothy 2:8-15, and they highlight the fact that Christians need to live peaceful and godly lives. The stakes are high because God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:3-4).

So, Paul wants church members to behave themselves. First he addresses the men. He talks about men when they pray, lifting holy hands. This is a common posture for prayer and is mentioned in the Old Testament (Ps. 28:2; 63:4; 141:2; Lam. 2:19; 3:41; Isa. 1:15) . It’s documented in the statuary and iconography of the ancient world. Pagans did this. And Paul says the life of piety for God’s people can’t just be outward acts of piety. This is clear if you know the prophets of the Old Testament (Isa. 1:10-15; 58:1-14; 66:1-4; Hos. 6:4-6; Amos 5:21-27; Jer. 7:1-11; Mal. 1:6-14) and Jesus (Matt. 5:23-24; 6:1-8; 23:23-24) , too. There needs to be a heart and a life that is tranquil, that’s not consumed with anger and quarreling. That’s the word to men.

(Left) An Ephesian woman, Cominia Junia, of the 2nd century AD who has raised hands in prayer at worship; note that she also has her head covered in worship. (Right) A boy praying with raised hands, taken in the Altes Museum in Berlin. Photos property of Dr. Rick Oster. 

Then, he turns to the women, who are clearly women of wealth, and tells them that their dress and their demeanor are affecting their witness to a world in need of salvation.

Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls and costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Timothy 2:9-14).

Q: Hicks says the exact nature of the problem with these women and their attire is uncertain. Were they “high-minded, aggressive, and seductive”? Were they recent converts from the Artemis cult? Were they “spreading false teaching and seducing men” (169)? What can we know about this portion of 1 Timothy 2?

Oster: We have clues from the text as to what is happening. We know, especially in 1 Timothy 6, there are instructions for those in the church who are wealthy. In the Roman world, there was not a big middle class, economically. This indicates that there are people from that small group in Ephesus, and generally in the Roman Empire, who had wealth.

Now, these women who have the kind of wealth that is presupposed by the description in verse 9 are obviously going to be women who have had educational opportunities. They have had tutors if their parents wanted them to have tutors. They were being groomed to be married off, at a young age perhaps, into other very aristocratic, wealthy families, maybe even some families connected to senatorial families in Rome. At the least, they would have been from a very high class of families in the Roman province of Asia. The family values of these women’s upbringing was more akin, to paraphrase Jesus, to “the rulers from among the rich and famous who knew how to lord it over others, and their great ones exercise authority over others” (Matt. 20:25) than to the Pauline teachings about submissiveness (1 Tim 2:11) in this area of teaching.

These women with braided hair, gold, pearls, and costly attire need to adorn themselves with modesty and self-control, which is a fruit of the Spirit. The typical church member couldn’t have costly attire. This was directed to a very small percentage of the church members in Ephesus, unless it was a demographically peculiar church.

Q: Let’s talk about the Artemis cult in particular. Hicks makes much of this cult in his suggestion that these commands are not timeless. Here is a section from Hicks’s book:

The generic woman (“a woman”) encouraged to learn and forbidden to teach in 2:11-12 belongs to the group identified in 2:9-10. Some women (including widows), who dressed immodestly and pursued sensuality through drawing attention to themselves, were going from house church to house church practicing their astrology and magic as well as promoting myths. For example, the Artemis cult promoted seduction, sexual fulfillment, and safe childbearing, and the clothing described here reflects the practices of women in the Artemis cult (Hoag). They apparently had some success and were overpowering men in some way, which may have resulted in quarreling among the men. Paul wants to stop this. Therefore, he insists the women submit to the gospel by learning the mystery of godliness. Women should not teach until they learn sound doctrine. Consequently, Paul forbids these women (not every woman)—the women of 2:9-10—from teaching and overpowering men with their influence.

In other words, 1 Timothy 2:12 is not a timeless principle but a specific application of the gospel story in the context of women who were teaching false doctrine, just as the prohibition against wearing gold and pearls was an application rather than a statement of a timeless principle. Read that sentence again; it is an important one (191). 

Oster: Unfortunately, John Mark Hicks’s presentation of the Artemis cult is a distortion. He draws on Hoag’s work[4] and Hoag’s fruitful imagination, creating a synthesis of the Ephesian Artemis with the Egyptian goddess Isis (introducing all types of archaic Egyptian mythology which was not a part of the “faith and practice” of the religion of the Ephesian Artemis). Time and time again, Hoag’s work is woven from repeated possibilities rather than probabilities. When reading this imaginative reconstruction, one is reminded why the term “Parallelomania” was coined long ago to describe how authors perceive apparent similarities and construct parallels and analogies without historical basis.

The truth of the matter is, sexual seduction and erotic themes were simply not a part of the Ephesian Artemis cult. At the same time, there is a lot we do not know about the backgrounds to the problems of 1 Timothy (Hoag is not even certain whether 1 Timothy is Pauline), but that uncertainty, in my judgment, is better than an alternative view based upon a speculative synthesis. The apostle Paul, whose spiritual guidance I read in other letters, would not be so kind to believers as Paul is to these women in 1 Timothy who, according to John Mark, are participants in idolatry, sexual immorality, and (pagan) mythology.

Harrington: The historical and cultural background issues can be confusing for those of us who hear different scholars saying different things. This is the reason we asked Rick Oster to help us with this series. He has a widely respected archaeological and historical specialization on the veils in 1 Corinthians 11 and on life in ancient Ephesus. In fact, his academic focus has been on ancient Ephesus (it started with his postdoctoral fellowship). So, I would also like to point out another important item that he helped me and others to understand.

Sometimes commentators will state that there is a unique situation with the Artemis cult in Ephesus, making it the basis of a unique injunction on women in 1 Timothy 2. But the Artemis cult was not unique to Ephesus. There were Ephesian Artemis Temples (and cults) throughout the ancient world. This is demonstrated, not just by archaeology, but the Word of God in Acts 19:27. In this verse, Luke quotes Demetrius, the silversmith in Ephesus, as referring to the temple of the great goddess Artemis, saying that the goddess “is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world.” Oster points to numerous cities in the ancient world where this cult thrived.[5] For example, a friend gave me the following picture of the ruins of an Artemis Temple from the ancient city of Sardis. This may be the temple of Artemis to which the ancients referred in their inscriptions.

Q: So, when Paul says, Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness” (1 Tim 2:11) what is he talking about?

Oster: When you have people of wealth and aristocratic heritage, and they are in a household filled with slaves, looking out on a city like Ephesus, or the Roman province of Asia, they are the upper crust. A term like submissiveness is not what comes to mind as a way of life. These wealthy women would have been expected to be submissive to their parents, but in general, the tenor and tone of being submissive is foreign to them.

This “quiet” is like a quiet spirit. Paul is describing a quietness of demeanor (a common meaning of the relevant Greek term in the NT) rather than silence. The Greek word here is hesuchia and not sigao, which is the word used in 1 Cor. 14 to tell the disruptive wives to stop talking. It’s a totally different word. This has to do with the tranquility that’s mentioned in the opening part of the chapter.

Paul is admonishing these women that they need to learn quietly in the church. And the word quietly here is certainly resonating with what we saw in the opening verses of the chapter about praying that the government will allow the church to live quiet lives. And by the way, these rich women would likely know some of those government officials they should be praying for in verses 1 and 2.

SWS: Paul characterizes these women as idle, going about from house to house, busybodies who talk nonsense, and say things they ought not to say (1 Tim. 5:13). In 2 Tim. 3:7, Paul also reveals they are “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” If these women are to mature in the faith, it is clear their posture must change to one more conducive to learning. That is what Paul is seeking to bring about through his fellow minister, Timothy.

One point of special note is that “. . . Paul here, in contrast to segments of Judaism that prohibited women from learning, asserts the ability and value of women’s education, that they should be students of God’s ways . . .”[6] However, they were to learn in quietness and full submission.

Q: But Hicks says the text doesn’t say to whom or to what women are to submit. What do you think?

Oster: Just like we saw in 1 Corinthians 11 and then in 1 Corinthians 14, we have a theological argument here based upon the creation story. It’s an appeal to the law, and in this case, it has to do with the priority of the creation of Adam. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Tim 2:13). This is the third time Paul is addressing the issue of how women can participate in the community, and he’s putting some boundaries on that.This perspective is ingrained in Paul’s thinking. It is even assumed in places like Samuel’s selection of a king from Jesse’s family in 1 Samuel 16:1-13. When Samuel goes to anoint the new king over God’s people, he immediately believes that God has chosen Eliab since Eliab is Jesse’s firstborn son (1 Chron. 2:13; 1 Sam. 16:6). Samuel is operating on the basis of a worldview of primogeniture, until YHWH informs him that he himself has chosen David, the youngest son, by looking at his heart (1 Sam. 16:7). For people like Paul, being firstborn or first created meant that this person had special privileges and responsibilities in leadership. Why else would Paul have inserted this reason, unless he had a worldview where the priority of birth meant a leadership authority? As far as Paul is concerned, it’s embedded in the DNA of creation, but the world in Paul’s day and our day doesn’t get its understanding from the creation account. However, it’s pretty important that we, as Christians, should get our understanding from the creation account.

Q: So, lets discuss that. Authenteo, the word Paul uses for authority, is used only this one time in Scripture. How do you understand “to teach or to have authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12)? What is Paul prohibiting?

SWS: Likely it means that Paul permits no woman to serve in the role of authoritative teacher.

Most of the questions generated by this passage about women’s role in the assembly relate to the phrase that women are not to “have authority over” a man. The phrase, “have authority over” is translated many different ways, including “exercise authority,” “assume authority,” or “usurp authority.” This particular word (Gk. authentein) is not used in any other passage of Scripture, so we are not entirely sure how it should be translated. It likely means that women should not be in the teaching role. However, we must remember that teaching in the early church was not what it is today. “Teaching” was a spiritual gift and office (see Eph. 4:11) for the expounding and applying of Scripture. These authoritative teachers functioned very much like priests and rabbis. This teaching is a form of congregational leadership. In 1 Tim. 2:12, therefore, Paul is likely declaring that women cannot serve in that role.

It is helpful at this point in the study to be reminded of Acts 18:26: “He [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” Priscilla is a woman and she is certainly part of explaining the Way of God to a man, Apollos. To place the name of Priscilla before her husband’s name may actually indicate that Priscilla was the more engaged of the couple as they did that. Since we seek to include all relevant passages when determining our faith and practice, it is important that this one not be forgotten. Clearly women are to serve in some teaching responsibilities. They are gifted to do so, and Acts 18:26 displays the value of their using that gift.

Oster: I believe this has to do with theological education in the context of church. I understand teacher here to be what we would call the preacher of a church, someone who is assigned the task of giving theological teaching, leadership, and guidance to a congregation.

Sproles: And with all of the ways Hicks noted women serving God in Scripture—as prophets, judges, teachers, heralds, Levitical singers, sages, etc.—we do not see an exception to the rule when it comes to priests and rabbis. That would be equivalent to a senior pastor or preacher in today’s context.

Q: Hicks and McKnight suggest that these women were following their unchaste culture and teaching unorthodox ideas (Blue Parakeet, 254). Hicks concludes, “The problem with some women in Ephesus was not that they were teaching per se, but that they were promoting ungodliness. They spread the ideas of a different doctrine. Their dress, behaviors, and words brandished that ungodliness. Paul responded with the gospel. He denied the women of 1 Timothy 2:9-10 an opportunity to teach not because women are too emotional, inherently gullible, or simply because they are women. On the contrary, he denied them opportunity because they did not understand and practice godliness. . . . They had been deceived by others” (205-206).

McCoy & Harrington: McKnight is right to point out that some of the young women in the Ephesian church were vulnerable to significant temptations: sexual desire, gossip, and even leaving the faith (1 Timothy 5:11-15). Yet these young widows are set in contrast to older, godly widows in the congregation; such a woman is said to “set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day” (5:5) and she “has devoted herself to every good work” (5:10).

If Paul had in mind only to prevent the especially vulnerable women from public teaching and exercising authority over men (2:11-13), then why did he make his statement about women in general, and not about the especially vulnerable ones? And, again, why did Paul ground his statement in the created order itself (2:13)?

And, as for the idea that these Ephesian women must have been teaching unorthodox ideas, it’s true that some of the younger widows had become “gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not” (5:13). One could try to construe “saying what they should not” to mean that they were teaching untrue doctrines. But the truth is, the false teachers in Ephesus which Paul mentioned were all men, not women (1 Timothy 1:19-20; 2 Timothy 2:17-18; Acts 20:30).

Oster: Yes. To be clear, if these Ephesian women were teaching the idolatrous ideas that John Mark imagines, the apostle Paul would not be nearly as gentle with these women as he is. He would say, “You all are idolators, and God killed people like you in the wilderness.” You’d have something in 1 Timothy 2 like you have in 1 Corinthians 10:6-13. This would be idolatry. As I was reading this material of John Mark’s, I thought he painted these women in 1 Timothy to be the most sinister, evil women in the Ephesian church. I know he’s tried to liberate them in a sense, but his path to get there is overdone.

If these women were false teachers, if they’re promoting pagan myths, Paul wouldn’t say don’t let them teach men. He would say don’t let these crazy, heretical women teach anybody. They shouldn’t teach children. They shouldn’t teach women. They shouldn’t teach men. They should be turned over to Satan and kicked out of the church. Why would Paul say just don’t teach men?

SWS: Paul’s concern here about women teaching men is not designed only to address a situation in which some women are teaching false doctrine. If Paul were concerned that some Ephesian women were teaching falsely, then he would have said these women cannot teach anyone. Obviously Paul is just as concerned to protect women from false teaching as he is to protect men from false teaching. So Paul’s statement here is not about what a woman might teach; it is about the fact of her teaching at all. In the context of 1 Tim. 2, that means she should not be permitted to serve in the authoritative teacher role comparable to priests in the OT.

Q: And the reason given for the prohibition is twofold: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:13-14). Hicks says that there is ambiguity in Paul’s reasoning. Can you help us understand that?

Sproles: Many egalitarians say that there is no hint of authority or order in the creation account before sin entered the world. Hicks says again and again that authority in these texts is inferred, not explicit, and then explains them away by saying Scripture points toward mutually submissive deference and unity. This reminds me of parents creating house rules like “Don’t hit your sister.” Then, when the child gets in trouble for hitting his brother, he claims the principle was only inferred and not explicit. I would say that Hicks goes even further, though, because authority structures are explicitly found throughout Scripture—from governments and families to the tabernacle, temple, and churches. Only those of us living in a culture where authority is viewed as suspect at best and evil at worst would have a hard time seeing authority as for our good, as needed structure, as a way to create order .

The inspired, biblical writers have coherency and cogency, and this reference to the Genesis account of creation comes up again and again. Paul and others continually give explanation for passages in the Old Testament. Therefore, the Bible is the best explanation for itself. To be clear, the New Testament regularly sees itself as interpreting the Old Testament—hundreds of times—so, when Paul says that Adam was formed first as a reason for women to refrain from authoritative teaching over men, this naturally points us to the creation account and the idea of primogeniture, which describes the special rights and responsibilities of the firstborn.

Hicks would insist, however, “Whatever we say about its universal or restricted application, nowhere in Scripture is the principle of primogeniture explicitly explained and then applied to the relationship between men and women as a transcultural norm. It is simply assumed that Adams’s temporal priority entails a primogeniture principle that gives Adam authority over Eve. That is an inference” (195, italics his). This seems to ignore exactly what Paul is doing here. Thomas Schreiner notes the following transcendent norms from creation:[7]

  1. Jesus appeals to creation to support the notion that marriage is between one man and one woman for life (Matt 19:3-12).
  2. Paul grounds his argument against same-sex relations in creation (Rom 1:26-27).
  3. And he says that marriage and eating all foods are good because of creation (1 Cor 10:25-26; 1 Tim 4:1-5).

So, we should not wonder what is happening when Paul tells women they cannot assume authoritative teaching over men. Yet again, the reason given is the creation order in Genesis 2.

McCoy & Harrington: Wayne Grudem lists ten arguments that show that there was indeed male headship before the Fall. The Fall didn’t create gender distinctions and roles; rather, the Fall distorted those roles into ugly power plays. Here are Grudem’s ten arguments:[8]

  1. The order: Adam was created first, then Eve (note the sequence in Genesis 2:7 and 2:18-23; 1 Timothy 2:13).
  2. The representation: Adam, not Eve, had a special role in representing the human race (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45-49; Romans 5:12-21).
  3. The naming of woman: Adam named Eve; Eve did not name Adam (Genesis 2:23).
  4. The naming of the human race: God named the human race “Man,” not “Woman” (Genesis 5:2).
  5. The primary accountability: God called Adam to account first after the Fall (Genesis 3:9).
  6. The purpose: Eve was created as a helper for Adam, not Adam as a helper for Eve (Genesis 2:18; 1 Corinthians 11:9).
  7. The conflict: The Curse brought a distortion of previous roles, not the introduction of new roles (Genesis 3:16).
  8. The restoration: Salvation in Christ in the New Testament reaffirms the Creation order (Colossians 3:18-19).
  9. The mystery: Marriage from the beginning of Creation was a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32-33).
  10. The parallel with the Trinity: The equality, differences, and unity between men and women reflect the equality, differences, and unity in the Trinity (1 Corinthians 11:3).

A serious look at those verses will demonstrate that the Fall in Genesis 3 didn’t create Adam’s headship; rather, it corrupted it. Unfortunately, on his way back to the oneness of Creation, McKnight gets too fixated on Genesis 3:16 (“Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you”). In so doing, he misses the many instances of Adam’s God-given headship that predate the Fall.

We oughtn’t ignore this feature of the created order; contrary to Hicks’s and McKnight’s assertions, it was Adam’s headship to which Paul appealed in discussing gender roles for the New Testament church (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:13).

The truth, however, is that it is more than just egalitarians (or full participationists) that can get stuck in Genesis 3:16. This side of Eden, it is only natural for all of us to seek to dominate, rather than to serve, each other. The power plays of Genesis 3:16 are fitting descriptions of many ugly realities we can find in our marriages and churches.

And here we arrive at an important truth that we all need to pay attention to: Nobody naturally tends toward the kind of biblical, sacrificial headship described throughout the Bible. Do people thirst for power? Absolutely. But as both head of the church and submissive Son of God, it is Jesus who teaches us what actual headship and submission look like. None of it looks like the ugly power plays in Genesis 3:16 which come so naturally to us humans.

With sacrificial biblical norms—rather than selfish power plays—in mind, we believe men and women can flourish in marriage and in the church.

Sproles: It’s also worth noting that Hicks says the only certainties about this portion of Scripture are chronology. It seems that Hicks is agreeing with Bartlett who ”believes Paul’s compressed narrative points to how Eve listened to the serpent and then Adam listened to Eve. In other words, somehow Eve persuaded Adam, and some deceived women were persuading (teaching) and authent (overpowering) men. The problem, then, was not so much that Eve subverted male authority as much as Adam was persuaded by a deceived Eve and ate the forbidden fruit with her” (174). But if Adam was persuaded by Eve, who believed a lie, wouldn’t that mean Adam was also deceived? If I am persuaded to a poor decision based on deception, how can I not thereby be deceived, whether by foolishness, rebellion, gullibility, ignorance or anything else? However, Paul notes explicitly that “Adam was not deceived” (1 Tim. 2:14). To restate the point we have made several times now, Paul points to primogeniture in Genesis 2 to forbid authoritative teaching by women.

Oster: We should also note that teaching is not prophecy. When we look at 1 Corinthians 12, Acts 13, and other places, we see people being teachers and people being prophets. Those are not the same two offices. There is the gift of teaching and the gift of prophecy. In the Old Testament, God commissioned the priests as teachers of Israel. A common misunderstanding that many Christians have is that the priests were just butchering livestock. They did that, but one of the main tasks of the priests in the Old Testament was to teach Israel the law of God. The way people were to know about Mosaic Law, the ethics, as well as the ceremonial guidelines, was from the priests. All of the priests had to be males. You had female prophetesses in the Old Testament. You didn’t have female teachers. The teachers were men. The teachers were priests.

Q: So may women ever speak to the congregation in a teaching role?

Harrington: From the vantage point of the network, this is a point that needs clarifying. There are respected leaders in, in step with our faith statement, who understand Paul to be prohibiting a woman from having any church-recognized teaching authority over men in 1 Timothy 2. Yet, in keeping with this perspective, they believe that a woman can give a message to the church every now and then, if it is under the explicit direction of the elders and not as the main preacher-teacher. That is, she does not teach in the formal teaching/preaching role, but more akin to a special guest, like a missionary or a subject expert. These leaders think the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2 is only on authoritative teaching. I respect this position.

I personally believe— and I want to emphasis this is my personal posture—that it is best for one of the elders or teaching minister/pastors to facilitate these ad-hoc messages by godly women in an interview format. I believe this is more in step with the spirit of male teaching-authority envisioned in 1 Timothy 2.

Sproles: So those who allow a woman to address the congregation on occasion would hold a variation of the soft complementarian view, similar to that of John Frame and Craig Blomberg. This position leaves the door open for special, one-off occasions, where the elders agree for a woman to speak. Frame says, “As unofficial teachers, women have as much right and obligation as anybody to edify their fellow believers, whether men, women, or children. . . . She is not forbidden to teach, or even to teach men; she is only forbidden to occupy the special office [in 1 Tim 2:12]. . . . May she stand behind the pulpit as she exhorts the congregation from the Word of God? Scripture does not forbid that.”[9] Blomberg says, “When one recognizes the biblical restrictions on women exclusively to involve an office (or specific position or role), it become clear there are no tasks or ministry gifts they cannot or should not exercise—including preaching, teaching, evangelizing, pastoring, and so on.”[10]

This is totally foreign to my experience growing up in the churches of Christ, where there were heated discussions of whether fathers could be in the room when their daughters prayed or read Scripture and where women were forbidden to pray with men or dismissed from teaching boys once they were baptized. I agree with Hicks that this rigid complementarianism is not only a wrong application of what we find in Scripture, but I also believe that it strips men of the strong help of women as described in the creation account.

Q: What in the world could Paul be talking about when he wrote, “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (1 Tim. 2:15)?

Oster: Paul believes, as most cultures throughout human history have believed, that childbearing is the normal experience of women. For most of human history, childbearing has been considered a noble undertaking. The creation of families and the bearing of children is noble. The opening chapters of Genesis teach that. I think Paul is pointing what the norm would be, what God has called women to do, and that is to bear children in the context of a marriage. Paul is not writing things about every couple on the planet. He’s not describing the birth practices of every woman who will ever live in human history. That is not what Scripture does. It’s not written to anticipate every exception or personal autobiographical issue you can bring to it. And God’s laws are not constructed based on exceptions. The way it works, if you read Scripture, is that God gives, depending on the circumstance, general plans, expectations, laws, warning, etc. and knows, as we do, that the contingencies of life and history will bring forth exceptions. God lays down his laws, and then there can be exceptions.

One more thought before we close: I think it’s important that we not use our culture to guide how we understand these things. I have heard some argue that if a woman is more theologically mature than a man, she should be the preacher. But if you look at the Davidic King in the Old Testament, clearly Isaiah was theologically more mature than King Ahaz in the 8th century. However, that did not mean that Isaiah can become the Davidic King. God has an order of things and things are set up by covenants and by creation. That’s the way we follow them.

I think it’s because of democratic values rather than divine values that we start making arguments about a person who is more qualified based on their performance rather than if they are qualified based on God’s call or God’s arrangement of things in creation.

Sproles: That seems to be exactly what Hicks and other scholars are arguing. It appears that they cannot imagine a good God creating an order, a structure, or an arrangement, as you said, for men and women. At least one that isn’t jettisoned by the church as we seek to live out new creation right now. To be clear, Hicks says:

The future envisions men and women—however that differentiation is maintained and to whatever purpose—gathered around the throne without hierarchy sharing in the praise of God as each gives voice to their gratitude and awe before God. Each one will bring a hymn, a testimony, a praise, or whatever it might be before the throne of God as we worship and serve together throughout eternity. . . . The assemblies of Christ—the churches of Christ—worship in the eschatological assembly according to the order of the new creation and not according to the disorder of the present evil age (159).

Of course, disorder will not exist in the new creation, but what about the existence of order or structure now? Thomas Schreiner notes, “The eschatology isn’t here yet, and there are dimensions of the new creation that don’t apply now. For instance, marriage exists in the present age but in the eschatology marriage as an institution will be dissolved (Matt 22:30). Some of the orders and structures of the present age won’t exist when the age to come is consummated. Certainly, when the end comes, there will be no need for elders, pastors, and overseers. Life in the new creation, life in the world to come, isn’t necessarily continuous with the structures and practices of the present time. Appealing to eschatology doesn’t resolve the matter definitely.”[11]

I agree with Hicks that we should “honor all the gifts God has given to women” (206), but I disagree with how he makes gifting the only measurement for full participation when Paul points to an order in creation that limits the role of preacher and elder to men. In our modern western culture, the idea that every role in the church isn’t open to both sexes or that a husband and wife would have roles and responsibilities in relating to one another seems wildly unjust and even Illogical. Kathy Keller would have us remember, however, that, “Justice, in the end, is whatever God decrees. So whether or not you are able to see justice in divinely created gender roles depends largely on how much trust you have in God’s character. Shall not the judge of all the earth do right? Can we define justice as something other than God’s design? Using what as our guide? What do we know that he doesn’t know?”[12] As the book of Isaiah (40:13-15) reminds us mortals,

Who has directed the spirit of the LORD, or as his counselor has instructed him?

Whom did he consult for his enlightenment,

and who taught him the path of justice?

Who taught him knowledge,

and showed him the way of understanding?

Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,

and are accounted as dust on the scales;

As redeemed humanity, we get to live out these principles—of headship and strong help, of order—in a way that’s good for men and women. It’s not good and beautiful when people who do not have the Spirit of God inside them try to do this. C.S. Lewis noted this years ago:

The kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful legal fiction. But in church we turn our back on fictions. One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and sensitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.

In a fallen world, humans don’t have access to true repentance, forgiveness, restoration, and the Spirit of God, who gives us wisdom and guides us in holiness. Acting like interchangeable humans, Lewis observes, is a safeguard among unredeemed humanity. But inside Christian marriage and inside the church, we get to act out reality as it should be. We “turn our back on fictions.” We get the honor of putting God’s beautiful order on display. And it really is good for us. However, instead of seeing this as good news, we can get pulled along by the current of our culture and think, No, no. This is unfair. It can’t possibly be right. We have to look like the world.

I have been helped very much by asking myself, What good thing is God up to here? Why did he create two genders instead of a unisex human? Why did he create an order for relating to one another?

When I see in the creation narrative that God created headship, order, submission, love, and sacrifice between the sexes, and when I see these concepts explained even further by Jesus, Paul, Peter, and others in the New Testament, I cannot call them merely situational. I must trust that God has my best interests in mind for my marriage and the church. I must trust His justice and His judgment more than my own. I must try my best to obey. And obedience, Jesus notes, brings its own understanding (John 8:31).

In our next posts, we will address the questions of female elders as well as how men and women should relate to one another in marriage.

[1] The church position paper (SWS) is called, Study with the Shepherds – Women and Men Serving the Church,” which was created by The church of Christ at White Station, where Rick Oster and his wife Sandy have attended for over a decade, 2) Renee Sproles book, On Gender: What the Bible Says about Men and Women and Why it Matters, and 3) Sam Storms’s post, “10 Things You Should Know about 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and the Relationship Between Men and Women in the Local Church.”

[2] See Kathy Keller, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles, 24.

[3] See Andreas J. Kostenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner, Women in the Church 3rd Edition: An Interpretation & Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (Wheaton: Crossways, 2016), 167.

[4] Gary Hoag, Wealth in Ancient Ephesus and the First Letter to Timothy: Fresh Insights from Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus (Winona Lake, Indiana, Eisenbrauns, 2015).

[5] Richard Oster, “The Ephesian Artemis ‘Whom All Asia and the World Worship’ (Acts 19:27): Representative Epigraphical Testimony To Aptemix Ephesia Outside Ephesosos” in Texts and Studies: Contributions to Bilical and Patristic Literature, edited by D.C. Parker & D.G.K. Taylor, Volume 4, Transmission and Reception: New Testament Text-Critical and Exegetical Studies, Edited by J.W. Childers and D.C. Parker (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2006).

[6] William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2000), 119.

[7] Schreiner, Thomas. “Paul and Gender: A Review Article.”

[8] Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More than 100 Disputed Questions (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 109.

[9] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010), 639.

[10] Blomberg, “Women in Ministry: A Complementarian Perspective,” 182.

[11] Schreiner, Thomas. “Paul and Gender: A Review Article.”

[12] Kathy Keller, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles, 38.

(This is Part 4 of our series “On Gender and the Bible.” Here are parts 1235, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10.)

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