WOMEN AND LEADERSHIP (2022)
WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP
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)
CONTEXT AND CULTURE
Like other Gentile churches in other Greek cities under Roman rule, the church at Ephesus was troubled by groups of men who taught error, and who may also have been living immorally. Christians, and especially women, were harassed, living side-by-side with the occult in its various forms, and they were in need of help. The tension in the city between Jews and Christians made life very difficult for the Christians, who were being pressured to compromise their loyalty to YHWH through persecution and marginalisation. Roman law and Greek culture were very strong and it took great resistance on the part of Christians not to be compromised, and not to have their bold faith in YHWH diluted, or even disabled.
The word for church leadership that Paul used in his letter to Timothy was episkope. The word episkopos was not a specifically Christian word, but it was used in the secular world to describe various kinds of responsible leadership, largely civic or financial. episkopos is hard word to translate into English; overseership might be the best literal rendering. It described the work or position of an overseer in society. In 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul defined the overseer in terms of function, not in terms of office.
1 TIMOTHY 3:1
The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. He was not encouraging people to see mere human status, but rather to see divine responsibility. Whether that responsibility was also an ‘office’ is open to debate. We should certainly observe that no word corresponding to ‘office’ accompanies episkope in the Greek text here. But, in whatever way that issue is decided, episkope does describe a position of special responsibility and leadership under Christ, as the accompanying qualifications imply.
ELDERS AND OVERSEER
In Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each church that they had established thus far.
And after [Paul and Barnabas] had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe…
In Acts 20:17 those whom Paul summoned from Ephesus are called elders, but in Acts 20:28 he said that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers to shepherd the church.
From Miletus [Paul] sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him…
Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…
Obviously, elders and overseers refer to the same group of people in this context.
It has been argued that this use of two words (elders and overseers) could suggest that while a church may appoint ‘elders’, only the Holy Spirit then makes them overseers, but such a distinction does not seem to be the point in 1 Timothy as a whole. Likewise, the idea that elder refers to the person while overseer refers to the work is very questionable and very hard to support. It is very 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, and Paul based his new covenant leadership roles on the synagogue’s leadership roles. Indeed, there is no passage in the new covenant Scriptures that radically differentiates the role of Christian elders from the Jewish elders, and they are even used together at times – as we will see later. In Titus 1:5,7, Paul clearly refers to the same group as both elders and as overseers.
I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless…
It also seems clear that the overseers are the same people who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you. (1 Thessalonians 5:12)
MARRIED ONLY ONCE
Interpreters do not agree on whether the phrase married only once (1 Timothy 3:2,12) by implication excluded women from eldership.
1 TIMOTHY 3:2,12
Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once… Let deacons be married only once…
While this expression married only once can be interpreted in different ways, the context and culture require it to mean that elders should not be married to more than one partner at any given time – therefore setting aside as unacceptable the very common practice of polygamy. Paul does not outlaw remarriage after (e.g.) a partner had died or is divorced, and such a prohibition has virtually no solid evidence in the Scriptures to support it. Married only once certainly does not exclude women from being elders, and there is evidence of women elders (both Jewish and Christian) by the second century. Whether or not women ought to be elders alongside men will depend partly on one’s interpretation and one’s application of various relevant Scriptures upon 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 that eldership is open to women.
PLURALITY OF LEADERSHIP
There was clearly a plurality of leadership within each house church and within a city, and there was a plurality of leadership bodies. There may have been three clearly defined groups, (elders, overseers, and deacons) but the Scriptures point to the groups having overlapping functions. The overseer may have been an elder who had a significant span of authority over a group of churches, and this model would directly reflect the role of some of the elders in the synagogues. The difficulty with any precise interpretation about leadership in the early church is that leadership itself was changing and adapting because the church itself was changing and adapting. It is noteworthy that when Paul lists several ministries in Ephesians 4:11, (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors/teachers) he does not assign the titles of overseer or elder to any of them, neither individually, nor as a group.
The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…
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 ministries of the leader (Romans 12:8) and forms of leadership. (1 Corinthians 12:28) Returning to 1 Timothy, there seemed to be a variety of differing functions among the elders:
1 TIMOTHY 5:17
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching. (Italics emphasis mine).
Paul was there recognizing a specialized ministry among the elders, with some of the elders, but not all of them, concentrating on teaching and preaching. We must now move on to examine in some depth 1 Timothy 2:12.
1 TIMOTHY 2:12
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)
Let us now carefully examine 1 Timothy 2:12 from the Greek, and not just build theologies from one English translation. 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 some of those concerned with gender roles in the church. The approaches have been as varied as the concerns. This one new covenant Scripture verse stands over and against the rest of the new covenant Scriptures, and yet it has had a theological house of cards built upon it. Do the new covenant Scriptures see women as:
- Gifted by YHWH?
- Enabled by the Holy Spirit of YHWH?
- Called to minister under YHWH without human limitations?
This discussion involving these questions has raged for a long time and there seems no end in sight, but what has often been overlooked in much of the discussion is the fact that verse 12 contains no command. There is no imperative addressed to Timothy in 1 Timothy 2:12, nor is there any command to the woman, nor is there any command to the churches about women teaching or having authority. To say it again plainly: 1 Timothy 2:12 contains no command imperatives. Yet, English translations almost always seem to adopt an imperative where there simply isn’t one, and that is a common error in translation. We also need to recognise that there are many problems of translation 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 in the Greek, which makes a total and timeless ban on women teaching impossible from the text. Therefore, it should be translated as “I am not currently permitting…” which is a quite different meaning to a total ban. Furthermore, why did Paul use the indicative form, instead of making it a command prohibition by using an imperative? It is wholly reasonable to interpret Paul as only making a temporary practice that was not permanently binding.
Furthermore, in the Greek, the ‘a’ as in ‘a woman’ and ‘a man’ (NIV) was not only a singular pronoun – thus ruling out a ban on all women – but it was also a singular specific pronoun. In other words, Paul was referring here to one specific woman that he did not currently allow to teach nor to have authority over one specific man. Paul did not name this woman, because he had no need to do so; Timothy knew perfectly well who Paul was writing about. Therefore, Paul was actually saying, “I am not currently permitting this one specific woman to teach or to have authority over that one specific man…” Paul was not banning any other women from teaching, and even the ban on this one specific woman was only temporary.
It is also unclear what Paul meant by ‘teach’, because Paul did not define what he meant by the word. To add to the difficulty, the Greek word translated as to have authority is not at all clear in its meaning. The Greek verb that Paul used is authenteo and this verb and its related forms are very 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 meaning 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.
It may be concluded from the grammatical relationship between the two words didaskein (‘to teach’) and authentein (‘to have authority’), joined by oude (‘nor’; but ‘or’ in NIV), that since didaskein is viewed as a positive activity in the pastoral letters, so also is authentein. Understanding authentein in a positive sense, however, does not rule out its having a strong sense. What is sometimes overlooked in discussions on the meaning of authenteo is that Paul chose this very rare verb for authority over exousiazo, which is a member of the common word group relating to authority. The exegete of 1 Timothy 2:12 must ask why, if Paul was writing about authority in the usual sense, he chose a most unusual and very rare Greek word that had a history of very strong meanings. It should also be noted that the clause in verse 12 specifically limits its prohibition to one particular woman teaching and of having authority over one particular man.
I believe that Paul was here writing in the context of marriage and that he was referring to that woman’s own husband and therefore Paul did not rule out in any way ministry for women as a whole. If, as I believe, this verse relates exclusively to the marriage covenant between that one woman and that one man, then this verse is about marriage headship, and not church leadership. In any event, 1 Timothy 2:12 simply cannot with any integrity be used as a blanket ban on women engaging in ministry of any kind, for the Greek text simply does not allow that interpretation. Therefore, there is no legitimate way to believe from 1 Timothy 2:11–15 that Paul prohibited women either to teach men or to have any kind of authority over men. Thus, any attempt to apply this verse in a Western or other contemporary culture is, I believe, futile and simply incorrect. I state clearly my belief from the evidence that Paul’s statement was directed to specific circumstances in relation to only one woman and one man in one particular marriage relationship at Ephesus and in the Ephesian church. Why do I say that? Because Paul never mentioned it even once elsewhere in his writings. Therefore, it is both wrong and incredibly foolish to apply 1 Timothy 2:12 in one English translation as a blanket ban on women in leadership and, to do so, is to apply the Scripture wholly without integrity
Now let’s explore further Scriptures that make clear just how much women were involved in Christian ministry generally in Paul’s day, and in Paul’s own travelling company too. Here is how Paul spoke of those who worked beside him: I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have 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. (Philippians 4:2,3) In his culture and day, when Paul wrote of co-workers in this way, he made the co-workers equal to himself. Paul was an apostle; therefore, his co-workers were also apostles too. That is the clear cultural and contextual implication of what Paul wrote. Euodia and Syntyche were apostles alongside Paul. They were female apostles. Each house church in those days was led by that house church’s host. For example, in Colossians 4:15, Paul speaks of Nympha and the church that met in her house.
Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.
Nympha was female. Nympha was the leader of that house church because it was in her house. In the closing greetings in his letter to the church at Rome, Paul wrote of his relatives who had been in prison and who were also apostles alongside him.
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. (Romans 16:7)
Junia, named here as an apostle, is female. There have been many arguments and discussions about the gender of this name, but a female apostle is the only conclusion that has any real integrity. To argue that Paul speaks here about two male apostles who are named in the Greek text in this way is an argument that stands on no meaningful foundation. The new covenant Scriptures named prophetesses who were ministering at that time. For example, Philip the evangelist had four unmarried daughters who were used in prophecy. (See Acts 21:8,9)
The next day we left and came to Caesarea; and we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.
Prophecy can be very powerful in its impact, and females are used in this way by YHWH just as much as males. Prophetesses also ministered in leadership, and Peter enlarged upon this:
First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2 Peter 1:20,21)
The Greek word that is often translated here only as ‘men’ moved by the Holy Spirit is not gender specific, and it is a matter of integrity to translate as ‘men and women’, because it clearly covers both. The NRSV translation correctly speaks of men and women because it meant any man and any woman who was moved by the Holy Spirit. It is also misleading for any translation to speak here of ‘prophets’ who were moved by the Holy Spirit, because Peter was focusing on the ministry of prophecy itself, not on the one(s) speaking it. Men and women alike were moved by the Holy Spirit and men and women alike spoke from YHWH. Men and women are different but equal under YHWH. Now let us explore in more depth the passage from Romans that I have already quoted from.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother–a mother to me also. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
This closing section of Romans is not at all typical of Paul’s writings. The high number of greetings that Paul sent in this final section of the letter is very unusual, and it comprises twenty-six individuals, two families, and three house churches. It may perhaps initially be surprising that Paul sent greetings about so many people in Rome, given that Paul had not yet been to Rome himself, and that it would be around three years before he got there. Letters of commendation were important in the ancient world. People who travelled in those days did so without the public facilities that we enjoy today such as hotels and restaurants, and so they relied on the hospitality of people that they had never met as they moved around. Phoebe was going to be travelling to Rome herself, and she was commended by Paul as both a ‘sister’ (adelphe – a term rare in the new covenant Scriptures), but she was also as an official servant (diakonos) of the church in Cenchrea who was a benefactor (prostatis) to many people. This meant that she was most probably a successful and wealthy businesswoman who used her wealth to support the church and its leaders like Paul.
Prisca and Aquila were a well-known couple who were tentmakers like Paul, and who had fled Rome and gone to Corinth because of Claudius’s expulsion order. They ministered alongside Paul in Corinth and then went to Ephesus where they engaged in ministry and brought Apollos to a deeper experience of faith. They served with Paul in Ephesus for some time before returning to Rome after Claudius’s edict lapsed. Prisca and Aquila were commended as fellow workers (synergos), a term Paul used frequently to describe people who ministered alongside him in many ways and who Paul regarded as equal to himself. Paul also recorded that they risked their own lives for Paul, possibly during the riot in Ephesus. Prisca and Aquila owned a house large enough to be used as a house church and they must have been fairly wealthy.
Mary was a common Jewish name and it was also used by Gentiles, so we cannot be sure of her ethnic background, but Paul commended her for working ‘very hard’ among the Christians at Rome. Andronicus and Junia were relatives of Paul and had been in prison with Paul, they were Christians before Paul was, and Paul says that they are prominent among the apostles. Andronicus and Junia were almost certainly husband and wife and Paul calls both of them apostles, and it is very hard to manipulate the Greek text in a way that avoids concluding that there were female apostles and leaders in Paul’s day. Of the twenty-six Christians commended by Paul in this short section of Romans, ten are women.
Women were a very important and very public part of the Christian community in Rome and elsewhere. Women were also a very important and very public part of the leadership of the Christian community in Rome and elsewhere. What we do with all of this in our context and in our time is entirely another matter. Let us be very careful not to:
- Make rules and regulations from one English translation.
- Preach and teach from an English translation without referencing the Greek text.
- Make what Paul said about one situation a rule for all situations.