Friday, June 12, 2009

Biblical Hermeneutics and Female Leadership in the Church

Note: This post was a paper originally written in 1995, when our church was dealing with the issue of women pastors and women teaching over men in the Baptist General Conference. We left the BGC many years ago, but some have still found this paper to be helpful. I hope the readers of this blog may find it helpful as well.
Most of us are aware of the ongoing debate among many evangelicals today over the nature of women's roles in the church, particularly with regard to the question of whether or not women may be included in leadership positions. Although I have only just scratched the surface in my own study, upon examination of some of the literature representing the various viewpoints, it wasn't long before I discovered the difficult and sometimes complex issues involved. There are many hard questions which need to be answered by evangelical Christians concerning these issues, especially in the face of much cultural, social and sometimes political pressure. I do not believe, however, that we may responsibly avoid clearly answering such questions, especially in the interest of the full participation of gifted women in the body of Christ. In the end, though, there is only one basic question which has to be answered: “What does the Bible teach about the role of women in the church?”

It is because we are most interested in discerning the Biblical teaching on the matter that the real debate among evangelical Christians is a hermeneutical one. And, as I see it, it really comes down to several key questions regarding the method of interpretation of certain kinds of Biblical data. I shall seek to highlight these questions in the following pages through an overview and brief examination of some of the various pertinent Biblical texts. I shall first examine as a group those Biblical texts which seem to view favorably women in positions of authority and teaching over men. This shall be followed by a brief discussion in turn of 1 Tim. 2:11-12 and Galatians 3:28.

There are a number of texts which are often cited as indicating either that women were in positions of leadership, and possibly teaching, over men or that they had gifts which would enable them to fulfill these kinds of functions and should therefore not be denied them. A rather long list of these kinds of texts is sometimes presented by those who would argue for women's ordination, or at least for some kind of active leadership teaching role for women in the church. For example, John Stott argues that “a strong prima facie biblical case can be made for active female leadership in the church, including a teaching ministry” (Decisive Issues 275). He then goes on to cite numerous Biblical examples, which include: Hulda (2 Kings 22:11 ff); Miriam (Exodus 15:20); Deborah (Judges 4-5); Phillip's four daughters (Acts 21:9); women who prayed and prophesied at Corinth (1 Cor. 11:5); Priscilla (Acts 18:26); and Junias (Rom. 16:17). In addition, Stott observes:
Paul seems to have had women helpers in his entourage, as Jesus had had in his. It is impressive to see the number of women he mentions in his letters. Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi he describes as “fellow-workers” (a word he also applied to men like Timothy and Titus), who had “contended” at his side “in the case of the gospel.” And in Romans 16 he refers appreciatively to eight women. He begins by commending “our sister Phoebe, a servant (or perhaps 'deacon') of the church in Cenchrea,” who had been “a great help to many people” including Paul himself, and then sends greetings (among others) to Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis, all of whom, he says, have worked “hard” or “very hard” in the Lord's service. (275- 276)
It is this kind of evidence which Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger, in their recent book, I Suffer Not a Woman, believe forces us to seek a new interpretation of 1 Tim. 2:11-12, which states that a woman should “quietly receive instructions with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (NASB). The Kroegers lament that “many evangelicals view all Biblical passages about the role and ministry of women through the lens of 1 Tim. 2:12. It becomes the key verse on women, the one on which all others turn” (12). Here I believe the Kroegers have pin-pointed a crucial hermeneutical question. Should the Biblical passages included in Stott's prima facie argument cause us to limit in some way the 1 Tim. 2:12 passage, or should we allow the apparently universal and unambiguous statement of 1 Tim. 2:12 to control our understanding of the kinds of texts which Stott lists? This is not an easy question to answer, and it should be pointed out up front that there are a number of prominent evangelicals who agree with the Kroegers and Stott. For example, Millard J. Erickson, in his Christian Theology, lists basically the same Pauline passages as Stott and the Kroegers and agrees that “these indications of Paul's conception of the usefulness of women in ministering modify those passages where he seems to restrict their activities. The restrictive passages, then, should be seen as relating to particular local situations (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:33-36)” (549).

It must be admitted that on the surface this argument does seem to be compelling, and it should not be dismissed lightly, especially with advocates the like of Stott and Erickson. Nevertheless, if 1 Tim. 2:12 is in its own context clearly universally applicable for the church in all ages, then I do not believe that the above argument is convincing. I do not see how a clear, didactic utterance intended to set forth the respective functions of men and women regarding authority and teaching in the church could be overruled by a series of texts such as those put forth by Stott. For example, such historical narrative texts as those concerning Miriam (Exodus 15:21-22) and Deborah (Judges 4-5) simply are not intended to teach the correct role of women in the New Testament church, and neither of them imply in any way a universal leadership and teaching role for women in all ages. For instance, though we know that Miriam was a prophetess, there is no real evidence that she was in a specific position of authority over men. And even if there were such evidence, there is no textual evidence at all that such a thing should be considered as normative for Israel, let alone the New Testament church. Also, when one considers the example of Deborah, who was unquestionably in a position of leadership and authority over men, it is again not at all clear in the text that this was to be regarded in any way as a norm. In fact, I would contend that there is clear evidence to the contrary. It should be noticed, for instance, that in the beginning of the book the author describes a repeated cycle in which Israel would fall into sin, then they would be overwhelmed by their enemies as a judgment from God, then the people would repent and cry out to God for help, then then He would raise up a judge who would bring deliverance from their enemies, and then the people would fall into sin and and start the cycle all over again (2:11-19). In this passage we are twice told that “the LORD raised up judges” (vs. 16, 18). But later in the account of Deborah, the author of Judges is sure to point out that “the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:5, italics mine). Although God made Deborah a prophetess, it was the people who sought to make her a judge. It is no wonder, then, that when Barak later refused to go into battle without her, Deborah chided him with the words, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (4:9). And we should also remember that Judges is a book written not only to tell about that period of Israel's history, but also to show how decadent and abnormal it was! So, rather than seeing Deborah as an example of God's intention for women in every age, one may instead take it as just another indictment against a wicked nation who continually refused to do things God's way. So, again, if 1 Tim. 2:12 is a prescriptive passage intended to be universally binding in all ages, then such arguments from descriptive historical narrative passages do not seem to me to be valid.

But what about Acts 18:26 where Priscilla and Aquilla are said to have “explained” to Apollos “the way of God more accurately?” Well, as Stott himself points out, this is an instance of informal and private teaching rather than official and public (276), and it does not seem to me that this kind of private “team-teaching” (if it may be called that) on the part of married couples is in view in 1 Tim. 2:12, which does appear to be referring to public gatherings. In fact, the observation that the word for “explained” in Acts 18:26 is ektithemi (rather than didasko as in 1 Tim. 2:12) may serve to further informalize the passage, distancing it even more from the context of 1 Tim 2.

Lastly, in those passages where Paul commends women as fellow laborers in the gospel (e.g. Phil. 4:2-3), or in the case of Phoebe who is commended as a “servant of the church,” there is no indication that any of these women were in positions of authority or of teaching over men.

To summarize thus far, I do not believe it hermeneutically valid to set aside a clear passage of Scripture on the basis of ambiguous or exceptional texts, especially when none of these texts has as its intent instruction concerning the respective roles of men and women in the church. However, all that I have said up to this point assumes that 1 Tim. 2:11-12, in particular, may only be interpreted legitimately as laying down a universal norm for the church in all ages. I shall now seek, then, to demonstrate the validity of this interpretation.

As briefly noted above, 1 Tim. 2:11-12 reads, “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” The question we must answer is, “Is this text to be taken as universally binding on the church in all ages, or may we see it as limited to a specific situation Paul is addressing at the church in Ephesus?” My answer is that we may not see it as strictly applicable only to that occasion unless there is Biblical warrant to do so. D.A. Carson, in his Exegetical Fallacies, points out the error of taking any other position. He notes that Philip B. Payne
argues that 1 Tim. 2:11-15 is directed toward a local abuse, and therefore that its teaching should not be universally applied. The reasoning may be analyzed thus:
Teaching occasioned by a local situation is not universally applicable.
The teaching in question is occasioned by a local situation.
Therefore the teaching in question is not universally applicable.
In this instance, the form of the argument is valid, but the first premise is too generalized to be believable. In one sense, all the New Testament documents are “occasional”; so unless one enunciates more clearly just what features are no longer binding . . . we shall be left with the uncomfortable conclusion that nothing in the New Testament is binding on the consciences of modern believers. (101)
I agree with Carson's conclusion that we must enunciate more clearly a means of determining what is to be considered normative and what is not. I believe that William Larkin has ably done just that in his recent – and underappreciated – work, Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics: Interpreting and Applying the Authoritative Word in a Relativistic Age. Larkin describes four ways for determining whether or not a specific teaching of Scripture may be considered normative. Any teaching must be considered normative unless it meets one of the following criteria:
(1) Indirect application is called for if the direct recipient of the teaching is limited by the immediate context.
(2) Presentation of specific historical or cultural conditions for obedience to the command or reception of a promise indicates that a limited application was intended.
(3) A limited cultural rationale shows that the writer intended to limit the extent of
(4) The broader context of subsequent revelation can explicitly set aside previous revelation. (354-456)
These criteria I believe to be solid hermeneutical principles which may be applied to the text of 1 Tim. 2:11-12. And, when this is done, we find not only that it does not meet any of these four criteria, but that there is in fact a rationale given by Paul that requires that these verses be taken as universally binding in all ages. Paul's rationale for the command is found in the next verse in the assertion, “For it was Adam that was first created and then Eve” (vs. 13). Thus Paul appeals to the creation order, and one can get no more universally binding than that! Others may argue at this point, however, that Larkin's basic assumption, being that “all biblical teaching – commands, promises, and statements of truth – is normative unless Scripture explicitly indicates otherwise” (354), is misguided. One such person would be Millard Erickson who, after listing a number of problems associated with failing to appropriately contemporize Biblical teaching, asserts that “in actuality, we should be diligent in attempting to determine the underlying intent of the passage or the signification within the signification, even where none of these problems is evident. Otherwise, we are simply assuming that the Bible is speaking in an absolute or universal fashion whenever we do not have reason to do otherwise” (Evangelical Interpretation, 58-59). Perhaps, then, we should briefly examine Erickson's suggested approach to see how 1 Tim. 2:11-12 would fair given his own assumption, which seems to be that we should not see the Bible as speaking universally unless we have explicit indication to do so.

In his Christian Theology, in a chapter entitled “Contemporizing the Christian Message,” Erickson lists the following five “criteria of permanence:”
(1) Constancy across cultures.
(2) Universal setting.
(3) A recognized permanent factor as a base.
(4) Indissoluble link with an experience regarded as essential.
(5) Final position within progressive revelation. (120-124)
At least four of these criteria (1, 2, 3 and 5) appear to be very solid and helpful principles to aid us in our understanding of what is to be considered normative in Scripture. And, after applying these criteria to 1 Tim. 2:11-12, we once again discover that Paul's prohibition concerning women is intended as a universal norm for the church in all ages. For example, Paul gives “a recognized permanent factor as a base” for his command, namely that it is based on God's intention in the creation order (1 Tim. 2:13).

We have thus seen so far that 1 Tim. 2:11-12 must be taken as normative for the church universally and in all ages, even after having applied “criteria of permanence” from opposite ends of the evangelical spectrum concerning this issue. And we have further seen that this position must be taken because Paul's rationale for the command concerning women is based upon the creation order. There are those, however, who would concede this point but would argue that Paul gives this rationale merely to establish the issue of authority, and only forbids women to teach over men in situations where authority is being usurped over them. Stott, for example, notes that:
Paul expresses two antitheses, the first between to “learn in quietness” or “be silent” and “to teach,” and the second between “full submission” and “authority.” The latter is the substantial point, confirms Paul's constant teaching about female submission to male headship, and is firmly rooted in the biblical account of creation (“for Adam was formed first, then Eve”). But the other instruction (the requirement of silence and the prohibition of teaching) . . . seems to be an expression of the authority-submission syndrome, rather than an addition to it. (277)
Stott thus concludes “that there are situations in which it is entirely proper for women to teach, and to teach men, provided that in so doing they are not usurping an improper authority over them” (278). This reasoning, however, is simply not valid. I agree that women teaching over men is an expression of authority over them, but I see no good reason in the text for limiting Paul's rationale only to certain situations of teaching over men and not to others. That is, there is no evidence from the text that Paul has in view here any limitation such as Stott supposes. If it is wrong for women to have authority over men for the reason Paul gives, and if teaching over men by definition expresses this kind of authority, then teaching over men is wrong. Not only this, but when Paul gives the reason “for Adam was first created, and then Eve,” he is giving an explanation for the clause “I do not allow.” And he expressly says that he neither allows women to teach nor to usurp authority over men. There are actually two separate prohibitions, and I see no way that Paul's rationale does not extend to both of them. In addition, George Knight points out that “Some have suggested that Paul is only ruling out teaching or exercise of authority apart from a man's oversight, or just a certain type of authoritative teaching. The insistence here on silence seems to rule out all these solutions” (Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles 142). Gordon Fee also notes with regard to the admonition for women to keep silent that “Since this is the first thing said about women here in verse 11, and the last thing said in verse 12, it seems clear that the emphasis lies here” (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus 35). So, contra Stott, it is in fact the prohibition against teaching which seems to be the “substantial point.” Let us not think, however, that this means that women must always be silent, for as George Knight goes on to point out concerning the command of silence, “The clause as a whole describes the status of a woman not in relation to every aspect of the gathered assembly . . . but specifically in respect to that with which it is contrasted, i.e., teaching (and the exercise of authority)” (142).

In summary, there is simply no valid reason for seeing 1 Tim. 2:11-12 as anything other than a universally normative prescription for the church for all ages. Neither is there any valid reason in the text for limiting this only to the command that women should have no authority over men and not to the command that women should not teach over men as well.

But, someone may ask, what about Paul's statement in Galatians 3:28 that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus?” Does this text not rule out such a distinction between male and female as we have seen in 1 Timothy? The answer is no, it does not. Paul is not obliterating role distinctions based upon sex, he is talking about a person's spiritual standing before God which is not determined by whether one is a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free man, a male or a female. What Paul is doing is destroying class distinctions made by those to whom he is writing insofar as a person's justification before God is concerned. In those days, Jews often had such a low view of Greeks, masters often had such a low view of slaves, and men often had such a low view of women, that Paul needed to assure them that God does not show this kind of partiality in bestowing salvation. So, though there is equality in their spiritual standing before God, there are still distinct roles which men and women must fulfill because of their sex. 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is talking about these kinds of roles and is not in any way implying that men are better than women or that women are in any way to be thought of as inferior beings.

I shall conclude as I began, with a statement of the difficult and sometimes complex nature of the issues surrounding the roles of men and women in the church, and particularly regarding the question of female leadership and teaching over men. I do not pretend to have answered by any means all of the questions which need to be answered, but I have tried to point out what I believe the foundational and most crucial issues are that need to be faced by evangelical Christians. These issues involve the way in which we interpret Scripture and apply it in a culture so far removed from that of its authors. I have tried to sort through and highlight some of the problems and possible solutions to these questions. This has led me to a position which is becoming increasingly less popular, but which I believe to be Biblical. I therefore must hold that women should neither be ordained to elder or pastoral offices in the church, nor should they be in situations in which they are teaching over men. And although there are undoubtedly still many difficulties left unresolved, I would take this at least to include both preaching in such public gatherings as Sunday morning worship and teaching in such public gatherings as Sunday school or discipleship groups.

Works Cited

Carson, D.A. Exegetical Fallacies. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993.
---- Evangelical Interpretation: Perspectives on Hermeneutical Issues. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1986.
Fee, Gordon 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1984.
Knight, George Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.
Kroeger, Richard Clark & Kroeger, Catherine Clark I Suffer Not a Woman. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992.
Larkin, William J. Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics: Interpreting and Applying the Authoritative Word in a Relativistic Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.
Stott, John Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1990.


  1. Thank you for this post... I feel that you gave due credit to both "sides" of the argument and explained any misinterpretations very well.

    The ONLY thing I would disagree with you on is your statement in the last paragraph about the culture difference.

    At the time of Paul's writings to the early church, the dominating influence on society was the Roman empire. Any brief study could show that our 21st century, western society is quite alike in many ways to the philosophies and culture of the 1st century Roman Empire.

    (this guy explains it some)

    But in the end that only goes to further validate your (and my) standing on this issue.

  2. Well, Cody, I certainly wouldn't deny that there are similarities between ancient Roman culture and our own, as well as between ancient Greek and Jewish culture and our own, but I stand by my assertion that the culture of the first century was in the main "far removed from our own." I suppose it just depends upon which aspects of the pertinent cultures one is referring to.

    And then, of course, there is the fact that we are far removed from these ancient cultural trends as to historical timing, which also makes a difference. For example, it is sometimes quite difficult to interpret ancient texts because we simply don't have enough information to know what the specific cultural mores were behind some of the issues.

    Anyway, I thank you for your input.