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Female leadership in the Christian Scriptures

Passages from 1 Timothy,
Titus, Philemon, & 1 Peter


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Passages that might refer to female ordination/leadership:

  • 1 Timothy 2:11-15: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 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." (NIV)

    There are many interpretations to this passage:

    • Most New Testament scholars believe that 1 and 2 Timothy were not written by St. Paul. Rather, they were composed by an unknown author in the 2nd century CE, some 35 to 85 years after Paul's death. Some theologians believe that one of the purposes of the epistles was to clamp down on the equality granted to women by Jesus and Paul. Someone simply wrote a document, condemned any position of authority given to women, and pretended that it came from Paul. They note that many of the concerns expressed in 1 and 2 Timothy did not materialize until the second century. If this interpretation is correct, then these epistles do not posses one of the main requirements to be in the official canon - that of apostolic origin.

    • St. Paul wrote "I do not permit a woman..." If one believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, then the passage is considered absolutely true: St. Paul did not permit women to teach. That leaves open the question as to whether another leader of the early Christian church would have held a conflicting belief, would have allowed women to teach, and could marshal arguments in favor of his/her position. Of paramount importance is what God's stance would be. Would God treat men and women equally, or would God be disgusted at the thought of a woman teaching a congregation?

    • Religious conservatives generally believe that the author intended this passage to be a universal statement on women's roles, covering all societies throughout all eras, including today. One source (6) comments that "Paul pointed back to the pre-fall creation ordinance of headship, reiterated after the fall. By appealing to the divine arrangement from creation as the reason why the woman is not to have authority over the man, the apostle dispelled any suggestion that his instruction...was culturally conditioned or time-bound." That interpretation would certainly disallow any female clergy today.

    • Others believe that he directed these restrictions temporarily to the church at Ephesus because of some time-limited, local problem. It is worth noting that he had serious concerns over women's behavior in that church. Verse 2:9 talked about immodesty and impropriety in women's dress; Verse 5:13 talks about idle and gossiping women. Verse 5:15 talks about women who have "already turned away to follow Satan." The author may have concluded that the women at Ephesus were out of control, and that the cure was to clamp down severely on their freedom of expression. This would restore order to the church. In that case, the passage would be limited in time and location. It would have no relevance to today's situation. Western society has certainly abandoned restrictions in secular areas regarding women in teaching roles.

    • There has been little discussion concerning alternative meanings of 1 Timothy 2:12. The most popular translations of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) are in general agreement:
      • "I do not permit a woman to teach, nor to have authority over her husband..." The New Testament; Richmond Lattimore
      • "I do not permit women to teach or dictate to the men..." The Revised English Bible.
      • "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man..." King James Version.
      • "I do not permit a woman to teach, nor to have authority over her husband..." New American Bible.
      • "They should be silent and not be allowed to teach or to tell men what to do..." Contemporary English Version.
      • "I do not let women teach men or have authority over them..." New Living Translation
      • "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man..." New Revised Standard Version
    • Verse 12 requires women to remain silent. This contradicts St. Paul's references to women elsewhere in his writings. For example, he discussed women prophesizing in church - something that they could not do if they remained silent. He also refers to some women as his co-workers - a task that would have required them to be very vocal and assertive. Another problem is the break in thought between Verse 12, which seems to prohibit women from taking an active role in the church and Verse 13 which suddenly starts jumps back 4000 years and discusses Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

      The key word in Verse 12 is "authentein" in the original Greek. It has been traditionally translated into English as something like "usurping authority over." The word appears only once in the Bible. So, to fully understand its meaning, one has to consult other literature that was written during Biblical times. One source, Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger, (2) points out that:

      • During the 6th century BCE, the word usually meant "to initiate or be responsible for a murder."
      • During the 3rd century CE, it meant to fraudulently "claim ownership of property," or to "usurp power." The latter is the meaning that most Biblical translators chose. But that meaning was centuries in the future when 1 Timothy was being written.
      • When 1 Timothy was written, the most common meaning was "to be, or claim to be the author or the originator" of  something.

      To further confuse matters, the Greek word  "hesuchia" had many similar meanings: "silence, "harmony," "peace," "conformity" or "agreement."

      Substituting the correct 1st century meaning for the Greek word "authentein," and using an alternative meaning for "hesuchia" the passage would go something like:

      • "I am not allowing a woman to teach or to proclaim herself [to be] the originator of man; she must conform [to scripture and church teaching]. For it was Adam who was first formed and then Eve. Adam was not deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became the sinner"

      At first glance, and in 20th century North America, this new translation does not make a great deal of sense. But consider the cultural context of Ephesus where Timothy received the epistle. That city was a main center of Pagan teaching, governed by the Greek Goddess Artemis (a.k.a. Diana by the Romans). Pagans in the city taught that the female was superior to the male, and that women should rule. Most of the residents believed that Artemis/Diana was able to have children without the intervention of a man. Also in Ephesus were Jewish Gnostics who drew their theological beliefs both from the Old Testament and the teachings of Artemis. They taught a version of the creation story that in many ways reverses the Christian version. They believed that Eve was the "illuminator" of mankind because she was the first person to receive true Gnosis, (knowledge) from the serpent. Eve then supplied the new revelation to Adam, who they taught was Eve's son - there was no husband in the picture.

      It was in this multi-faith community that these two letters were written to Timothy. The main theme of 1 Timothy is to uphold doctrinal purity in the presence of surrounding unorthodox teachings. It would seem that 1 Timothy 2:12-14 is an attempt by the author to persuade the Christians to reject the dominant beliefs among the local Pagans and Gnostic Jews in Ephesus regarding a female deity (Artemis, Diana, Eve) being the originator of the human race without benefit of husband. It all fits neatly in place like a jig-saw puzzle. The break is logic is healed.

      Other Bible scholars believe that woman and man should be replaced by wife and husband in the above verses. This would mean that the passage would not refer to women teaching men in the church, but rather wives teaching their husbands within the home. 3 This would put an entirely different spin on the meaning of this text - one which is in harmony with other statements by St. Paul.

  • 1 Timothy 3:2: "Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife..." (NIV)

    Most versions of the Bible substitute "bishop" in place of "overseer." Some conservative Christians believe that this passage absolutely prohibits female clergy, because a woman can hardly be a husband of one wife. Liberal Christians may interpret the passage as being written for male bishops, since most church leaders were indeed male. When a female Bishop was under consideration in the early church, she would be judged by the same criteria, but the gender of the words would be inverted to read: "...the wife of but one husband..."

    This is similar to many situations today in which authors use "he", "him", "man", etc. for simplicity, and imply that the passage applies equally well to women. Modern legislation is often written using male terms; a disclaimer is added to the end explaining that the law applies equally to men and women. If that author were writing today, he might use gender-neutral language to avoid confusion.

    The overall intent of the phrase appears to be a prohibition of candidates for bishop who are single or are in polygamous relationships.

  • 1 Timothy 3:8: "Deacons likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere..." (NIV)
    The same arguments as for Timothy 3:2 apply here.

  • 1 Timothy 3:11: "In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers..." (NIV)
    The Greek word "guanacos" is translated "their wives" in the NIV. Some conservative Christians assume that this is a further reference to the maleness of church leaders. On the other hand, the same Greek word has been accurately translated "deaconesses" in other translations. In the latter case, it would be solid evidence permitting female church leaders.

  • Titus 1:6: This passage repeats the thoughts of 1 Timothy 3:2. Liberal theologians generally agree that this is another one of the pseudonymous epistles that claim to be written by Paul, but which were in fact written by an unknown author 35 to 85 years after Paul's death. It reinforces the message of Timothy.

  • Philemon 2: Paul writes his letter to "Apphia, our sister" and two men as the three leaders of a house church.

  • 1 Peter 4:10-11: This passages discusses all believers serving others with whatever gifts the Holy Spirit has given them, "faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms." (NIV) Liberal Christians might presume that this would mean that some women are given the gift of being an effective pastor, and thus should be permitted to exercise that gift. Conservative Christians might interpret this passage as referring to women receiving gifts, but not the gift of being an effective pastor.

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Reference used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Frank Daniels, "The Role of Woman in the Church." part of the Religious Heresy Page at: http://www.scs.unr.edu/~fdaniels/rel/women.htm
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Copyright © 1999 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-SEP-05
Author: Bruce A. Robinson
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