Women and Leadership 1

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

I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. (1 Timothy 2:12 NIV)

The church at Ephesus was troubled by men who taught error and who might also have been living immorally. Christians, especially women, were harassed and in need of help.

The word for church leadership that Paul uses in the letter to Timothy is episkope. It is hard to translate; overseership might be the best literal rendering. It describes the work or position of an overseer. In 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul defines the overseer in terms of function, not office. He is not encouraging people to see status, but rather to see responsibility. Whether that responsibility is also an office, is open to debate. We should observe that no word corresponding to “office” accompanies episkope in the Greek text here. But whatever way that issue is decided, episkope does describe a position of special responsibility and leadership, as the accompanying qualifications imply.

There has been much uncertainty as to whether the term overseer is synonymous with elder. In Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas appointed “elders” in each church they had established thus far. In Acts 20:17 those whom Paul summoned from Ephesus are called “elders,” but in verse 28 he said that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers to shepherd the church. Obviously, “elders” and overseers refer to the same group of people in this passage.

It has been argued that this use of two words could suggest that while a church may appoint elders, only the Spirit makes them overseers, but such a distinction does not seem to be the point here in 1 Timothy. Likewise, the idea that “elder” refers to the person while overseer refers to the work is very questionable. It is precarious to identify any direct categorization of duties in the early church based on such distinctions.

When looking at the early chapters of Acts, we must also recognize the Jewishness of the Christians before the dispersion took place, when the Jewish believers were scattered among Gentile churches. Elders, of course, were well known in Judaism from the time of Moses to second-temple Judaism. There is no passage in the new covenant Scriptures that radically differentiates the role of Christian elders from the Jewish elders, and they are used together at times – as we will see later.

The word episkopos was used in the secular world to describe various kinds of responsible leadership, largely civic or financial. In Titus 1, Paul clearly refers to the same group as both “elders” (v. 5) and overseers (v. 7). It also seems clear that the overseers are the same people who “work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you” (1 Thessalonians 5:12).

The new covenant Scripture listing of spiritual gifts and spiritually gifted persons includes those who take “leadership” (Romans 12:8) and have “gifts of administration” (1 Corinthians 12:28). The word translated ‘administration’ is actually literally ‘pilot’ and it refers to those leaders who steer the church, especially to plot a safe course through dangerous waters.

Interpreters do not agree on whether the phrase “husband of but one wife” by implication excludes women from eldership. It can be viewed in one of two ways. Either:

(1) the phrase was intended by the author to totally exclude women from eldership, or

(2) it merely assumes the common circumstance that Jewish elders (who were male) should not be engaged in polygamy.

If (1) is the case, it can be construed:

(a) to bar women for all time, or

(b) to bar them under the conditions of Paul’s day, but (lacking an explicit prohibition) not for all time.

If (2) is the case, the possibility of women elders may simply have been so slim in those days that male-oriented language was natural but not intended to be exclusive.

It must be mentioned that there is certainly evidence of women elders (both Jewish and Christian) by the second century. Some of the claims may have been exaggerated or are difficult to prove, but the evidence cannot be ruled out entirely. Whether or not women ought to be elders along with men will depend partly on one’s interpretation and application of various relevant Scriptures on women’s ministry and partly on the kind of ministries that elders perform in a given church.

Even some who hold that 1 Timothy 2:12 excludes women from authority over men think eldership is open to women because:

(A) the authority the elders have in their church is corporate and not a matter of one individual ruling over others in the congregation, and

(B) the shepherding ministry of the eldership is one in which all benefit from the presence of women.

There was clearly a plurality of leadership (possibly within each house church, but certainly within a city) and a plurality of leadership bodies. There may have been three clearly defined groups (elders, overseers, and deacons), with the groups having overlapping functions. The overseer may have been an elder who had a significant span of authority. The difficulty with precise interpretation was that leadership was changing and adapting even as the church was changing and adapting.

There may have been just one ruling body plus the deacons, with their individual members having different functions. In that case, it is possible, though it is doubtful, that some may have been known as elders and some as overseers, depending on their work.

It is noteworthy that when Paul lists several ministries in Ephesians 4:11 (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers), he does not assign the titles overseer or elder to any of them individually or as a group. In Romans 12:3–8 and 1 Corinthians 12:28–30 various gifted ministries are named, without indicating that the utilization of these was the particular province of elders or overseers. Those passages include the ministry of leadership (Romans 12:8; 1 Corinthians 12:28).

Returning to 1 Timothy, there seem to be differing functions among the elders: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17 italics emphasis mine). Paul is recognizing a specialized ministry among the elders, with some, but apparently not all, concentrating on teaching and preaching.

We conclude, then, that:

(1) there was a body of leaders in each city, possibly in each house church in a city;

(2) its members were known as elders or overseers, the terms possibly varying with the social situation or with function;

(3) within each group were different responsibilities, including leadership (ruling, but “not lording it over” the church, 1 Peter 5:3), preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17), standing guard, and shepherding; and

(4) the Spirit also distributed some of the same gifts that were requisite for these ministries to other believers who were not elders or overseers.

THE CONTENTIOUS VERSE OF 1 TIMOTHY 2:12

This verse has probably received more attention in recent years than any other passage of similar length. It has been explored and certainly exploited by those concerned with gender roles in the church.

The approaches have been as varied as the concerns. This one new covenant Scripture verse (12) stands over and against the rest of the new covenant Scriptures, and yet it has had a theological house of cards built upon it.

To state matters in the form of a question: Do the new covenant Scriptures see women as gifted by God, enabled by the Spirit, and called to minister without limitations because of their gender, unless there are specific, circumstantial contraindications; or does it see women as being limited from engaging in certain ministries that are reserved for men?

This discussion has raged for a long time and there seems no end in sight, but often overlooked in much of the discussion is the fact that verse 12 contains no command. There is no imperative addressed to Timothy, nor to the woman, nor to the churches about women teaching or having authority. Yet, English translations often seem to adopt an imperative where there simply isn’t one.

We also need to recognise that there are many problems associated with correctly interpreting 1 Timothy 2:12. To begin with, what is translated [as “I do not permit” (NIV) or “I permit no…” (NRSV)] is in the present imperfect tense, which causes great deal of difficulty for a total and timeless ban on women teaching. Therefore, it could be translated as “I am not now permitting…” which is a quite different meaning to a total ban. Furthermore, why does Paul use the indicative form, instead of making it a command prohibition by using an imperative? It is wholly reasonable to interpret Paul as making a temporary practice that was not permanently binding.

Furthermore, in the Greek, the ‘a’ in ‘a woman’ (NIV) is not only singular – thus ruling out a ban on all women – it is also a singular specific word. In other words, Paul is referring here to one specific woman that he does not allow to teach or to have authority over one specific man. Paul does not name her, because he has no need to do so; Timothy knew perfectly well who he was writing about.

Therefore, Paul is actually saying, “I am not now permitting this one specific woman to teach that one specific man…” Paul is not banning any other women from teaching, and even the ban on this one specific woman is only temporary.

It is also unclear what Paul meant by ‘teach’. It may refer to the authoritative communication of “the faith,” that is, the apostolic doctrine, with the witness to Jesus and his teachings at its core. Now, women teachers were not acceptable in either Greek or Jewish societies. Also, women did not count as witnesses (reflected in the fact that Paul did not mention the women at the tomb in his list of witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15:3–8). It would have been counterproductive to allow women to teach and proclaim the apostolic witness to Christ.

To add to the difficulty, to “have authority” is not clear in its meaning. The Greek verb authenteo and its related forms are rare in Greek literature, and that word only appears here this once in the whole of the new covenant Scriptures. Its use changed over the centuries, including both dreadful, obnoxious ways of imposing one’s will on others and more moderate expressions of taking and wielding authority.

The matter is complicated by the fact that words do not suddenly and irreversibly change their meaning, but do so gradually and sometimes with reversion to earlier implications. It is significant that in the give and take of research, the most recent substantial study (and a study, it should be noted, by a proponent of the view that restricts women) offers “to control, dominate, compel, influence, assume authority over, or flout the authority of” as possible meanings, with the context needed for final decision.