Get Renew.org Weekly Emails

Want fresh teachings and disciple making content? Sign up to receive a weekly newsletters highlighting our resources and new content to help equip you in your disciple making journey. We’ll also send you emails with other equipping resources from time to time.

21 minutes
Download

Women as Lead Preachers and the Meaning of ‘Authentein’ in 1 Timothy 2:12

Recently Mike Winger, a pastor and featured teacher on Biblical Thinker online, posted a very long series of videos exploring the subject of women in Christian ministry.[1] In part twelve of that video series, Winger does a careful examination of Paul’s use of the term authenteō in 1 Timothy 2:12, which he believes limits the roles of women in ministry. Here is how the ESV translates the verse: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority (authentein) over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” Winger studies the use of authenteō in other Greek writings contemporary to the New Testament and concludes that Paul means that women are not to serve as pastors or elders over men. Winger’s interpretation is consistent with the consensus of the historic and worldwide church, which concluded that women are not to lead men as lead preachers, pastors, priests, or elders.

But Winger’s article violates the egalitarian instincts (i.e., no distinct gender roles) of many American Christians, so it has attracted a lot of negative attention from scholars and teachers, including such accomplished professors as Beth Allison Barr[2] and Scot McKnight.[3] A full-scale response was published online by Andrew Bartlett and Terran Williams,[4] who criticize Winger for a host of issues, but especially for his understanding of the term authenteō. Rather than meaning “have authority,” as Winger asserts, Bartlett and Williams argue that the term means something more like to dominate or strong arm someone. They thus conclude that

“Any church or denomination that excludes women from eldership or pastoral leadership on the basis of reading authenteō as ‘have authority’ or ‘exercise authority’ lacks a sound basis for doing so.”[5]

The concern of Bartlett and Williams is, of course, not really lexigraphical (word definitions). It is theological. They are bothered by Winger’s complementarian views (that men and women are different yet complement each other). It is wrong to hold that the scriptures do not allow women to serve as lead ministers/pastors or elders over men. Instead, they are convinced that the Bible is fully egalitarian, and that the texts that seem to say otherwise have been misread, including 1 Timothy 2:12.


“They are convinced that the Bible is fully egalitarian, and that the texts that seem to say otherwise have been misread.”


It is their argument against complementarianism that attracts Barr and McKnight, who support the detailed response from Barlett and Williams, as both Barr and McKnight promote egalitarianism.

But does a precise definition of authenteō determine whether or not the Bible is complementarian? Even if we translate 1 Timothy 2:12 consistent with Bartlett and Williams’s argument, would the historic and majority church be proven wrong in its belief that the Christian faith is inherently complementarian? The answer is no, and there has been no contextual reconstruction or linguistic discovery that has changed the fact the Bible is complementarian. And whether restless Americans like it or not, God has created men and women different from each other, and designed us to complement each other through different roles.

A Brief Reminder

RENEW.org has published extensively on the subject of complementarianism, demonstrating how the Bible both assumes it and teaches it.[6] For that reason, I simply wish to give a brief reminder of just how complementarian the Bible is.

The Israelite faith believed and practiced male headship (a feature of what is often called “complementarianism”). The Old Testament opens with the story of the creation of humans, where, no matter how you choose to read it, man was created first (primogeniture) and women are derived from men, as “strong helpers” for them. Eve is even named by Adam. This establishes, for Israelite believers, the explanation for why male headship is the norm (1 Corinthians 11:8-10; 1 Corinthians 14:34; 1 Timothy 2:13).

After that, males are regularly the heads of their families, their villages, and their religion. The Torah expected men to head their homes, protecting and providing for women. Ancestry was generally traced through the male, and inheritance laws generally only applied to males. The founders of the twelve tribes were all male, as were the kings of Israel, most notably David. The priesthood was strictly reserved for males, and the sacrifices had to be male. Though there were a handful of female prophets, all of the writing prophets were male. The messianic expectations focused on a male leader: the Branch of Jesse, the son of the Virgin, and the Son of Man. Though there are a handful of female metaphors for God in the Old Testament, God is consistently referred to with a masculine pronoun, and is occasionally called Father. The Law of Moses was addressed to the males of Israel (especially noticeable in the Hebrew language), and the sign of the covenant, circumcision, was available only to males. The Old Testament clearly promotes male headship.


“I simply wish to give a brief reminder of just how complementarian the Bible is.”


Since Jesus came to “fill up” the meaning of the Old Testament, He does not overthrow male headship, but rather demonstrates that all of the Old Testament is based on and should be carried out in love for others. So, Jesus shows enormous love for women, including them in His ministry and protecting them through such things as clarifying divorce laws. But He still only appoints males as the Twelve, and He never overturns principles of male headship. So, the original architects of the Christian faith, the Apostles, were male, the replacement for Judas was male, and the entire New Testament is written by males. That Jesus was complementarian is demonstrated by his original disciples, Peter, who continues Jesus’ teaching by stating that wives are to be submissive to their husbands, with a gentle and calm demeanor (1 Peter 3:1-6).

When the apostle Paul went out to the Gentiles, he found himself having to explain to former pagans that faith in Jesus is complementarian, as it has always been with Judaism. So, Paul writes to the church in Corinth explicitly teaching them that males are the heads of females, and that females are the glory of males, whereas males are the glory of God (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). He later proscribes females from arguing with males in the gatherings, teaching them to practice the propriety in the services appropriate to females (1 Corinthians 14:33-36). To married couples, Paul plainly says that the man is the head of the wife, with the responsibility of loving her as Christ loves the church (Colossians 3:18-19). Indeed, the husband/wife relationship in Ephesians 5:21-33 is a model of Christ (the male) and the church (the female). He instructs older women to train younger women to be good managers of the home and to be submissive to their husbands (Titus 2:3-5). When he details the qualities of elders, he specifically envisions male elders (1 Timothy 3:1-6). And in 1 Timothy 2, Paul says that women should not teach men, but should learn quietly and in full submission. Faith in Jesus, even among pagans, is still consistent with the instructions of the God of the Jews.


“When the apostle Paul went out to the Gentiles, he found himself having to explain to former pagans that faith in Jesus is complementarian, as it has always been with Judaism.”


The early church continued this complementarianism in a thousand ways. The church Fathers were considered Fathers because they were male. The writings of the Fathers support, with only a few exceptions, male leadership and a complementarian viewpoint. The church councils were almost exclusively male. The priesthood of the Catholic church, the Greek Orthodox church, the Orthodox church of Alexandria, the Coptic church, the Orthodox church of Jerusalem, and a host of other early churches were all complementarian. The popes of the Catholic church and every patriarch of the Orthodox churches have been male. And until recently, with only a few exceptions, most churches around the world practiced some sort of complementarianism.

The Jewish and Christian faiths, all the way back to Genesis 2, have overwhelmingly been complementarian—until only recently.

None of this diminishes the amazing women of Scripture or of the history of the church. Women have been leaders, prophets, teachers, judges, missionaries, church planters, evangelists, caregivers, heroes, and martyrs, in the Bible and certainly in the church. My point is not that women have been less important in the Christian faith; that’s not true at all. My only point is that the Bible and the vast majority of Christian history have been complementarian.

Which leads to the question of why certain American Christians can be so insistent that egalitarianism is the only true Christian option and that complementarians are anything from misguided to absolutely vile.


“The Bible and the vast majority of Christian history have been complementarian.”


The answer is not that complementarians are out of step with the scriptures or with Christian history. Nor is it the case the complementarians fail to possess the nuance to understand the clear statements of Moses, Peter, or Paul on gender. There is no historical context (in Ephesus, for example) that reverses “I do not permit a woman to teach a man” so that it actually means “I do permit a woman to teach a man.” It is most certainly not because of a misunderstanding of Paul’s term authenteō, for the precise meaning of the term has no bearing on the complementarian fabric of Scripture. Whether the term means “have authority” or whether it means “seize authority,” Paul still says that women are to take on a submissive and quiet attitude in the verse just before he uses authenteō to say women should not teach men (in the main church assembly). So, if authenteō means “seize authority,” then for a woman to have authority over males would mean, by necessity, that she had seized authority in the complementarian world of Scripture. Thus, when the King James translation was the standard translation in America for over two hundred years of our two hundred and fifty years of our history, the church was uniformly complementarian, even though the King James translates authenteō as “usurp authority.”

The desire factor

I can think of no reason why some Western Christians, especially in the American church, are so zealously egalitarian, other than their inability to believe that the Bible may actually disagree with their very Western values.

To be transparent, as someone who earned a PhD at Vanderbilt in New Testament and who has taught in academic settings, there is a special pressure that needs to be acknowledged. University professors live in a world where diversity, equity, and inclusion trump all other values. The most basic hermeneutical fallacy one can commit is the fallacy of desire. We are often tempted to interpret Scripture so as to confirm our desires or to help us with the pressures placed upon us to conform. Could it be that egalitarians are such because they have already decided, even before approaching Scripture, that complementarianism is wrong? Could it be that all the time egalitarian scholars spend worrying about authenteō, the cults in Ephesus, the definition of headship, etc. are actually just an effort to justify what egalitarians want to believe?

How else can you explain that McKnight criticizes Winger’s “poor understanding of Greek and how language works,” but extols the work of Bartlett and Williams, who identify themselves, not as Greek scholars or masters of ancient papyri, but instead as a judge and a church planter? It is not about translating one Greek word, as the use of the King James version showed us for hundreds of years.


“It is not about translating one Greek word, as the use of the King James version showed us for hundreds of years.”


The hermeneutic of desire also explains how egalitarian Christians sometimes end up as gay affirming (as the United Methodist Church has recently done). If one can argue that the cultural context of a Scripture about gender roles reverses its plain meaning, then one can do the same for scriptures about same-sex activity. Indeed, one can make the case that every Scripture is culture bound and should be reinterpreted by us in accordance with our values. Influential thinkers of the twentieth century did just that. A famous scholar like Rudolf Bultmann stripped all culture from the Scriptures, with only a secular existential philosophy remaining from his excising of “the historical context.” Paul Tillich went even further, explaining that even God is an ancient concept, and that, minus its historical context, we now know that “God” is just an ancient term for “the ground of being.”

Bultmann and Tillich are warnings of what happens when we are determined to make Scripture fit our sensibilities. Any text can be rejected if one desires to do so.

What if authenteō means “seize authority”?

What does authenteō mean? The word does not have a lot of lexigraphical context to be sure. It could mean “have control,” as Al Wolters extensively argues[7]; but it may mean “take control,” as Bartlett and Williams argue. We cannot be sure. But in its context in 1 Timothy 2, it is used to proscribe the activities of women in ministry, and it is also used alongside an instruction describing elders/pastors as men (1 Timothy 3:1-6). In other words, even if Bartlett and Williams are correct, the text still teaches complementarianism. Taking the NRSV, and using Bartlett and Williams’ definition, re-read the text of 1 Timothy 2:11-12:

“Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to seize authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

Somehow, egalitarians read this text and conclude that Paul is teaching women to serve as elders over men, to pastor men, and to become their lead teachers.

Was Ephesus Unique?

In recent decades, it has become common for egalitarians to appeal to the Artemis cult in Ephesus to suggest that Paul’s complementarian commands in 1 Timothy are not really what they appear. The argument was first extensively made by Richard and Catherine Kroegers in their I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (1992) and has been repeated by many others. The Kroegers argue that there was a cult of feminists in Ephesus associated with Artemis which led some women to usurp authority over men. Since the Kroegers believe that the Christian faith erases the distinctions between men and women, they argue that Paul is not forbidding all women from serving as pastors and elders; rather, he is only forbidding Ephesian women from doing so, since they were prone to dominate men because of their Artemis past.

The argument fails, however, for several reasons.

First, the Kroegers likely overstate the evidence in Ephesus in their effort to prove a major feminist cult there. As S. M. Baugh demonstrates,[8] much of what happened in Ephesus occurred in most Greek and Roman cities, where there were priestesses, female prophets, and ceremonial women in religion all over the Roman Empire. There is no real reason to think that women in Ephesus had assumed some enormous authority and power that they did not have in other Roman cities. Therefore, there is no reason to think that Paul’s instructions to Timothy are only for people in Ephesus.


“There is no real reason to think that women in Ephesus had assumed some enormous authority and power that they did not have in other Roman cities.”


Second, even if we could grant that there was a powerful feminist cult in Ephesus, Paul does not indicate that his prohibition against women pastors is temporary or situational. Rather, his prohibition against women preachers/pastors is consistent with what he taught other Christians across the Empire, namely, that male headship (which involves authority)[9] is the Christian norm. Paul re-states the same principles in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, concluding the discussion on male headship with a universal statement: “We have no other practice—nor do the churches of God” (vs. 16, NIV). Paul gives a universal response to a local situation. There is no way to read “I do not permit a woman to teach men” as “I do permit a woman to teach a man, so long as it is not in Ephesus.”

RENEW.org is also publishing a review of the book Nobody’s Mother: Artemis of the Ephesians in Antiquity and the New Testament by Sandra Glahn. Similar impulses are also at work in this book, seeking a way to radically re-interpret the text of 1 Timothy 2:12-15 to fit the secular ideals of our time.

Here is the reality. Paul grounds his prohibition against women lead preachers and elders in theology, not in historical context. In 1 Timothy 2:13-15, Paul justifies his complementarian theology in created order, not in some cultural or political exigence. Women are not to serve as preachers over men—in Ephesus or anywhere else—not because of local custom, but because men were created prior to women and because women were deceived at creation (vv. 13-14). Remember that both Paul and Peter argue in at least five other New Testament books for male headship (1 Corinthians 11 & 14, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3:17-18, Titus 2, 1 Peter 3). The position is not unique to 1 Timothy or to Ephesus.


“Women are not to serve as preachers over men—in Ephesus or anywhere else—not because of local custom, but because men were created prior to women and because women were deceived at creation.”


Appealing to Local Context

And finally, a warning (again). Vague appeals to local contexts when interpreting Scripture are always slippery, uncertain, and conjectural. As noted above, if appealing to local contexts can undo Paul’s prohibition in 1 Timothy, then such appeals can be used to undo anything in the Bible. Perhaps the claims that Jesus was the Messiah were only cultural ways of expressing human hope. Maybe preaching on the resurrection in the Bible is only a cultural appeal to courage based on mystery religions of ancient religions. Maybe the concept of God is only a cultural model for thinking about eternal things. Who gets to say when cultural contexts negate biblical texts? The loudest person on YouTube? The professor of an elite school? The angry feminist? The traditionalist preacher?

Again, in summary, it is possible that authenteō does mean something akin to “seize authority,” although it may also merely mean “have authority.” Most early translations appear to have taken it to mean “have authority,” as did the church Fathers. Either way, the definition of authenteō does not change the Bible’s theology of complementarianism, nor do conjectures about the ancient city of Ephesus.

Rather than endlessly seeking ways to escape what the Bible says about men and women, wouldn’t we be better served learning how to obey the scriptures in love, respect, and faithfulness?


[1] Mike Winger, “Women in Ministry,” https://biblethinker.org/women-in-ministry/.

[2] Andrew Bartlett and Terran Williams, “Why Mike Winger Is Wrong About Authenteō in 1 Timothy 2:12—and Why It Matters,” February 12, 2024, https://bethallisonbarr.substack.com/p/why-mike-winger-is-wrong-about-authenteo.

[3] Scott McKnight, “Responding to Mike Winger,” December 20, 2023, https://scotmcknight.substack.com/p/responding-to-mike-winger.

[4] Terran Williams, “Why Mike Winger Is Wrong About Authenteō in 1 Timothy 2:12—and Why It Matters,” https://terranwilliams.com/why-mike-winger-is-wrong-about-authenteo-in-1-timothy-212-and-why-it-matters-2/.

[5] Andrew Bartlett and Terran Williams, “Why Mike Winger Is Wrong About Authenteō in 1 Timothy 2:12—and Why It Matters,” February, 2024, https://terranwilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Pt-12-AUTHENTEO-IN-1-TIMOTHY-2-summary04.pdf.

[6] Renee Sproles, Male & Female: A Biblical Look at Gender (Renew, 2023) and Renee Sproles and Bobby Harrington, “On Gender and the Bible: A Summary Pt 12.

[7] In Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, 3rd Edition, edited by Andres Kostenberger and Thomas Schreiner (Crossway, 2016).

[8] Steven M. Baugh, “The Apostle Among the Amazons,” Westminster Theological Journal (1994): 153-71.

[9] See Andreas Kostenberger, “What Does the Bible Teach About Headship?” https://biblicalfoundations.org/what-does-the-bible-teach-about-headship/.

Get Renew.org Weekly Emails

Want fresh teachings and disciple making content? Sign up to receive a weekly newsletters highlighting our resources and new content to help equip you in your disciple making journey. We’ll also send you emails with other equipping resources from time to time.

You Might Also Like