What’s wrong with those who oppose women in all roles of ministry?


The following material was blogged in January and February, 2006 and is partially edited in the light of various questions posed by readers.


I have worded the title of this piece boldly, for I write it prophetically and not as a matter of academic discussion. I do not mean the piece personally in the sense that I do not think I am necessarily more spiritual, more informed, or more intelligent than anyone who is opposed to women in all roles of ministry. And I do not mean to say that someone is automatically unspiritual, uninformed, or unintelligent if he or she opposes women in all roles of ministry.

But I do mean to say that this position is wrong. And those who are against women in all roles of ministry do not know God's mind on this issue. The Christians of even fifty years from now will view such individuals as most of us view the Christians who were in favor of slavery 150 years ago. That future generation will have to pray for the Lord to give them strength not to think badly of such people. They will need the Lord's help to have faith that the problem was one of heads and not hearts. It will take some hard thinking for them to understand that such individuals could be spiritual even though they believed the way they did. Luke implied it best through the mouth of Gamaliel in Acts 5: This is of God. There is nothing you can do to stop it because you are fighting against God.

So what are some of the reasons why some Christians oppose women in ministry?

1. Their head is in the way.
I believe that perhaps even for most Christians, opposition to women in all forms of ministry is mostly a matter of their heads. In other words, some aspect of the way they understand the world and have formulated their faith is getting in the way.

I have the utmost of respect for many who don't really understand why (or so they think) God opposes women in some offices of the church. But their head tells them that's what the Bible teaches or what the church teaches. And indeed, in a culture where 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 have been highlighted again and again by some, it is easy to think God just mysteriously doesn't want women doing these things on earth--even though it makes no sense at all from any reasonable perspective. Just using our heads alone, it seems pretty stupid since we know factually that male genitilia have nothing to do with leadership ability or spirituality.

I have the utmost sympathy for the person who says, "I don't understand it. I know women who are more spiritual than I am. I know women who say they're called. I know women whom I think would make gifted speakers and leaders. But the Bible just doesn't seem to allow them. I don't understand it but I submit to it." I respect this person and pray for their heart to win out over their heads.

I have addressed the key passages below in response to some who responded to this initial piece, but I have already done that more extensively elsewhere anyway.  In this lead off piece I simply want to point out that no one directly applies all the statements and injunctions of Scripture directly to today. And this is the way God wants it to be. Why?

a. Because Jesus and Paul did not directly apply the words of the OT directly to themselves without passing those words through a spiritual filter. In Matthew 5:38, Jesus tells his audience not to live their lives like Deuteronomy 19:21: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." And in Mark 2:25-26 he actually argues that there are times when the right thing to do is to make exception for some of the most significant laws.

Paul sometimes takes the OT text allegorically in ways that contradict the clear original import of those passages, such as when he interprets the veil on Moses' face as a hiding of the fading glory of the old covenant (2 Cor. 3) or when he interprets Hagar in relation to the literal Jerusalem (Gal. 4). To be sure, some learned modernist evangelicals have applied their immense intelligence to wiggling out of these plain interpretations. But just because you're smart enough to come up with an ingenious alternative doesn't mean you're correct and it certainly doesn't mean that you're actually listening to Paul. So called "high views" of Scripture often have a way of shoving their preconceived views on the text when the text doesn't say what they want it to say.

b. The original meaning of so many passages is ambiguous or inaccessible to us. I submit to you that the connotations of 1 Timothy change drastically depending on the situation that stands behind it. Again, an honest listen to Paul's writings and the gospels must conclude that the tone and approach of these writings is often in tension with the others because of situational factors.

c. And again, if we really value the text of Scripture enough to listen to it rather than make everything fit together, we will find a healthy dialog within the text of Scripture. Once we allow for these things we will find that some parts of Scripture point in opposite directions from other parts. Ezra would point us toward divorcing spouses and children who are not "Israel" like we are. Jonah, Ruth, and Paul would point in the opposite direction. Luke-Acts is perhaps the most pro-women work in the New Testament. 2 Timothy would lead us in the opposite direction if we absolutized it and ignored the rest. But if we did not have 1 Timothy, we would not expect Paul to make some of its comments, since his other books make no issue of women in ministry roles. He seems to refer to one woman, Junia, as an apostle in Romans 16:7, and he calls Phoebe a deacon in Romans 16:1 as well.

d. Finally, if we really listen to Scripture rather than shove our preconceived theology down its throat, we will conclude that there is a flow of revelation that moves not only between the testaments but into the history of the church. The OT simply is not as close to our Christian beliefs as the New Testament is, and the New Testament books are not the end of the story on matters like the Trinity or the precise nature of Christ's divinity. As a scholar, I would claim that we will not believe Christ to be fully and ontologically divine, of one substance with the Father, unless we accept developments in Christian belief beyond the New Testament.

It takes more than just the original meaning of the Bible to know God's will for today. It takes the Holy Spirit more than anything else. And to hear the Spirit rightly, we need the church.

2. Their tradition is in the way.
For Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, 2000 years of church tradition stand in the way. This is a strong argument to be sure. But as someone who believes God had some part in the Protestant Reformation, I allow that truths can lie dormant in the broader church for hundreds and even thousands of years. The fact that large portions of the church are recognizing the clear trajectory of the Spirit on this issue is a sign of the latest Reformation. It will only grow.

There is always room for the prophetic element of the church, especially when its witness is on a path to become the view of the church at large. You will not have to exhume my body to burn it at the stake, for in a hundred years, even the Roman Catholics will allow for a woman Pope.


I heard recently of an interview with a priest in which he was asked why the Roman Catholic Church did not ordain women.  He chided the interviewer for impatience.  Oh, we will.  It just may take us a 100 years or so to get all the details worked out in our theology.

I am not concerned with other more recent traditions among fundamentalists or other American trends against women in ministry. They are largely a mixture of the early 20th century reactions to modernism combined with a reaction to the empowerment of women in the post-WW2 era. They are a blip that will not stand the test of time. We as individuals can often live with irrationality because of the comfort of the familiar. But our children may not have the same emotional attachment to traditions that cannot be easily defended in the face of reality.

3. They're really reacting to something else that's been lumped in with the women in ministry issue.
I know some people who really get irritated with things like Martin Luther King Jr. stamps and days off school for his birthday. Yet I also suspect that these same people would fully be friends with a person of color and would strongly oppose something like the KKK. The only thing I can figure out is that they are confused. Maybe they thought the protests of the 60's were wrong because people broke the law, believing that Christians should keep the law. Maybe they saw it as people fighting for their rights selfishly rather than being like Christ, who submitted to unjust treatment. Similar things are said about the women's rights movement.

But somehow these things seem like diversions and even resistance to change. It is irritating when someone suggests you should speak more inclusively and say "people" rather than "man." But at the same time, surely no one with a pure heart thinks that God actually values men more than women or whites more than blacks. We have to believe that as spiritual equals, God values men and women the same. So if you are consciously using your language to exclude women, then you have the beginnings of a spiritual problem.

It's irritating, but once you are aware of how male-oriented language is, it becomes increasingly difficult to talk the same way with a pure heart. The principle of the equal value of women pushes you to include them in your speech. To do otherwise eventually requires you to exclude them deliberately in a way you perhaps did not before.

Yet some Christian groups act as if it would glorify God to resist the inclusion of women in language. On what basis? Is it because of what they associate inclusive language with? If the original Greek does not specify male or female at a point, how does it glorify God to push the translation toward the masculine? I think more than anything such individuals are resisting change and resisting things they associate with groups they disagree with. Or perhaps they do not like being forced to do something by the broader culture.

To our shame, God sometimes uses Babylonians and sailors on their way to Tarshish--those who are not His people--to get His people to do what they should have been doing on their own and leading the way on.

4. They have a serious heart problem.
Finally, some men resist the idea of women in ministry because of a spiritual problem. They do not want a women telling them what to do. Or perhaps they would feel intimidated if a woman had authority over them. And some of the above reasons can become spiritual problems when the truth is resisted. Irritation of being forced to change can become prejudice or hatred, and so many of us really value our traditions far more than the truth.

And it is not simply men who oppose women in ministry. Women are some of the greatest opponents to women in all roles of ministry. This can be for all of the same reasons as I've mentioned above. Yet it can also be for spiritual reasons.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a woman feeling called to stay at home and be the best mother in the world. But it's quite a jump in logic to say thereby that all women should do exactly the same thing. There are women who should be in ministry but don't answer the call because of their fear of what others will say in the church. They often face stiff opposition and difficulty finding a congregation that will take them. Others like a comfortable world with well defined roles and someone else to take care of them. They don't want to move outside their comfort zone. Would some women feel less valuable next to a woman minister? They shouldn't if they are doing what God wants them to do. Would some feel envious because other women have opportunities they did not have? They shouldn't.

Not all women are called to ministry. But woe to those who put stumblingblocks in front of those who are!

Conclusion: God is on the move. The kingdom is a place where men and women both have the Spirit equally. We know that women are just as smart as men and that there are gifted women speakers and leaders who are just as gifted as any male speaker or leader. We would need a really good reason to prohibit any one of them from any role in the church, particularly since some of them feel called to these roles.



Response to Rejoinders:

I wanted to respond to a very thoughtful reply to my post: "What's wrong with those who oppose women in ministry?" I obviously worded this purposely in a very strong manner, implying that those who disagree with women in all forms of ministry disagree with God. This is a subject where I would not use my frequent tag-line "Feel free to disagree." On this one I would have to say, "Feel free to express disagreement." But I'm hoping you will change your mind.

Response Quote:
Ken, I love your heart for what is best in the church and for God's people, but I take your heading personally! ;-) What's wrong with me is a very big topic, but here's a try as it applies to this subject: There are some who simply purpose to accept the authority of the Word in all things.

So what does the Word say on this matter? All evangelicals accept the following process:

1. Since the books of the Bible were written to ancient audiences (as the books of the Bible themselves say, so to take the words differently is not to submit to the authority of the Word in its literal sense), the first task of appropriation is to ask what those words meant in their original settings and situations.

2. Joining those original meanings to our world requires us to identify the timeless principles of those words in their original context so that we can reapply those same timeless principles in our context.

I would add to these universally accepted evangelical principles (at least) two comments of clarification:

1. Joining the teaching of these writings, each written to its own individual context, is a task the biblical texts themselves do not do for us. James does not tell us how to connect its "A person is justified by works and not by faith alone" with Paul's "A person is justified by faith apart from works of law." We are forced to step in and synthesize these. There can be no straightforward submission to the Bible's authority on the topic of justification by faith or works because we are forced to find the point of unity between contrasting statements. On this subject, the authority of the Word of God unavoidably must be filtered through human reasoning on some level.

2. Blindly doing what the biblical audiences were commanded to do is very dangerous, since those actions may not achieve the same purposes in our context. This is just the way it is, like it or not. A woman who puts a veil on her head when she prophesies in church (to follow 1 Corinthians 11) just isn't doing the same thing the women of Corinth did when they veiled at Corinth. And I doubt any of us would suggest we should stone our rebellious sons because of a blind application of Deuteronomy 21:18-21.

I don't think you disagree with what I'm saying here, although there are many Christians with such misguided understandings, thinking it is God's will to apply every verse blindly to themselves (as they understand the words on the basis of their varied "dictionaries"). The New Testament authors certainly did not read the OT this way (next post). In fact, not even the Amish do--even if they don't trim the edges of their beards (Lev. 19:27) and the men do greet each other with a kiss (1 Thess. 5:26).

What I think you are suggesting is a valid question (but with the wrong answer): Is the position of the Word of God so clear on this topic that to favor women in all kinds of ministry is a failure to submit to biblical authority.



Comments on Use of Scripture

I thought I would address your important comments on Jesus and Scripture secondly.

Jesus linked His own authority inseparably with that of the written revelation. He based His personal authority in large part on His fulfillment of scripture. He gave His strongest unqualified and absolute endorsement of the words and very letters used to convey God's Word to man. You can't logically believe in Jesus without believing in the inspiration and divine character and authority of the written Word, and vice versa. So placing extreme torque on clear scriptures is dangerously parallel to crucifying Jesus immediately after giving loud verbal affirmation to His divinity.

One of the things that happens when people look to Jesus is they often create Jesus in their own image. I thought I could just give three examples to make it clear that Jesus' use of Scripture (or slightly more accurately, the four distinct gospel presentations of it) is usually a little different from what you are suggesting it was:

Example 1: Jesus on Deuteronomy 24:1
This verse freely allows for divorce, as Jesus interprets it in Matthew 19:8: "Moses allowed you to divorce your wives." But in his usual way, "You have heard it said, but I say to you," Jesus overturns Moses' law by pointing to a situational reason--and one involving sin nonetheless: "because of the hardness of your hearts."

In other words, Jesus says that something in the Old Testament was there because of the sinfulness of Israel, and he contradicts it.

Indeed, while many of the "you have heard, but I say" passages of Matthew 5 have the character of extending the scope of the original OT, many of them shuffle or even conflict with the OT. "You have heard 'an eye for an eye' (Deut. 19:21), but I say do not resist an evil person" (Matt. 5:38-39).

Example 2: Jesus on Leviticus 24:9
Jesus does not actually quote this text, but he alludes to it when he points out the Scriptural problem with what David and Abiathar did in 1 Samuel 21:1-9. In Mark 2:23-27, Jesus accepts the conclusion of the Pharisees that his disciples are working on the Sabbath (we would have tried to reinterpret their actions in another way). Instead Jesus basically argues that there is a time to make exceptions from even really, really big OT laws like the one that says only the priests are allowed to eat the bread of presentation.

So Jesus not only did not model absolutism in the use of Scripture, he rebuked the Pharisees for it and argued that situations are involved when applying the Bible.

Example 3: Matthew 2:15 on Hosea 11:1

Jesus' fulfillment of Scripture almost always involved a non-literal dimension that was spiritually, not literally discerned. Indeed, you will never convince a studied Jew to convert to Christianity using prophecy-fulfillment as your argument.

Matthew 2:15 says that Jesus' return from Egypt fulfilled the Scripture, "Out of Egypt I called my son." Of course there are spiritual parallels to be found here, but Hosea 11:1 is no prediction about some event in the life of the Messiah: "When Israel was a child, I called my son out of Egypt, but the more I called them, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and burned incense to idols."

The fulfilled verse was clearly about Israel and the exodus on a literal level, and no one could ever apply the last part of this verse to Jesus: "he sacrificed to the Baals." Matthew is taking this verse in a spiritual, "fuller" sense.

So we will not find in Jesus or the NT authors anything like modern fundamentalist (Pharisee-like, Judaizer-like) slavery to the literal meaning of the biblical text. Jesus models quite the opposite.

Perhaps the most dangerous assumption made by modernist conservatives in the church is that there is only one, relatively clear meaning to each biblical text and that the divinely ordained appropriation of every biblical text is to be based on the literal meaning in every case. The New Testament authors themselves beg to differ--BIG TIME.

You can say that Jesus always had other Scriptures in mind when he shuffled biblical texts. But then again, the Wesleyan Church has Scriptural support when it fully affirms women in all roles of ministry. I would not ordain any ministerial candidate in the Wesleyan Church who did not hold this position! I would not hire any faculty in the religion department (or to high level administration) of any Wesleyan college who did not hold this position! I would not allow anyone to work at Wesleyan church headquarters who did not have this position.

But I also want to make clear that the WC has no official position on the husband-headship issue--an issue that I want strongly to distinguish from the question of women in ministry. Many Wesleyans believe that the husband should be the head of the home, and on this I would say, "Feel free to disagree with me." Feel free to express disagreement on the other, but I strongly want to change your mind.



Husband Headship in the New Testament

In this post I want to distance the question of husband headship from the matter of women in ministry.

The New Testament teaching distinguishing the role of women from that of men is strong and clear. It is so well established exegetically that any attempts to deny these clear teachings require the type of violent methods that, rigorously applied, will spare nothing of the epistles... As always on major issues for the church, the true discussion is exegetical. If we can reject what the New Testament teaches regarding different roles for men and women it seems to me that we can/must also reject what is taught concerning homosexuality and other issues.

First of all, as long as husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church, I will not be too zealous to argue against husband headship in the home. I've said enough elsewhere I think for you to get my gist on that issue. Since Aristotle says the husband is normally the head of the wife and household, there is nothing uniquely Christian in this specific claim. The direction in which Paul modifies the given cultural framework gives us what is uniquely Christian on this topic.

But I will agree to disagree on this question... the Wesleyan Church has no official position on headship in the home.

But good exegesis bids us distinguish the question of husband headship from the question of women in ministry. For example, notice that I have not said male headship, as if the NT teaches that every male is the head of every female. I've been careful to say "husband-headship." The "household codes" of Ephesians 4, Colossians 3, Titus 2, and 1 Peter 3 have to do with husband wife relationships, not with the generic relationships between male and female in general.

So your comment is partially correct. The epistles give a fairly clear sense of the normal roles in which husbands and wives relate to each other. I say "normal" because, as my last post shows, the general sense of much biblical injunction seems to presume the possibility of exceptions.

I would be surprised if you will find too many scholars (if any) who would argue that these household passages are about all men being the heads of all women.

And don't give me something like the lame argument Calvinists sometimes give about God's sovereignty: "Humans can't have free will because then God wouldn't be in control." Here's a thought, what if it is God's will for humans to have free will? Is God not sovereign enough to choose to give humanity free will? Sorry God, You're just not allowed to do that because You're sovereign. Give me a break.

So what if a husband head delighted in the call of his wife to a senior pastorate? How would that contradict his headship? And of course, if he is submitted to God and God calls his wife, then he would not be allowed by God to use the excuse of headship to keep her from ministry. "You decide whether we should obey God or humans" (Acts 4:19). Let's see, whose headship trumps... God's or a husband's? If she is called and he says no, then she must obey the superior head, and he must repent before he loses his soul for disobedience to God.

So I consider the arguments against women feeble that base themselves on the headship passages. Your case will have to stand or fall on either 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 or 1 Timothy. Of these two, only the exegetical argument from 1 Timothy has any real weight on this issue. Let's see how well established exegetically these arguments are. The well established exegetical basis of fundamentalists against women in ministry mostly boils down to one verse in the entire Bible.

And then, let's look at the passages whose principles form the basis for the Wesleyan Church's "reasoning." Yes, the Wesleyan common sense on this issue predates secular feminism and the women's rights movement. It comes from the spiritual sense of the New Testament read as a whole rather than when a particular interpretation of 1 Timothy is shoved down the rest of the NT's throat.



The Opposing Passages in the Debate

It is so well established exegetically that any attempts to deny these clear teachings require the type of violent methods that, rigorously applied, will spare nothing of the epistles.

As far as I can tell, there are only two places in the New Testament that come anywhere close to an argument against women ministering to men: 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2-3. The bulk of Paul's writings and Acts would more lead us to see women teaching/ministering from time to time without gender being raised as an issue (e.g., Priscilla to Apollos in Acts 19).

Since the principles are on the side of full ministry by women, we will want to look carefully at passages that "minutely" might seem against the idea. I say minutely or mechanically because opposition to women in all roles of ministry goes contrary to spiritual common sense--not pagan common sense. I believe this is another example of Judeo-Christian values working themselves out in our culture.  In other words, it became the common sense of our culture because of the Christian principles of equality that were in our roots.

So we will want to look at these passages very carefully to see whether they in fact mean what some say they mean and to what extent their teaching was culture-specific or universal/timeless.

1 Corinthians 14:34-35
There are some textual problems with these verses. They are in different places in the manuscripts. They interrupt the train of thought on prophecy in chapter 14. There are several shifts in referent like church of Corinth to churches of God (since Corinth isn't a churches but only a church, singular, why would Paul give a command here to churches?). It shifts from a reference to females to a masculine form of the word alone. But I'll presume these two verses were in the original text of 1 Corinthians for the sake of our discussion.

"Let women be silent in the churches."

What kind of silence does Paul have in mind? He has already discussed issues relating to women praying and prophesying with their heads uncovered in chapter 11. Yes, that chapter affirms husband headship in its argument, thus implying that these women were married. Since you prophesy to others and he is addressing worship related behavior, Paul must assume in chapter 11 that wives can legitimately pray and prophesy in the church. Indeed, part of the problem at Corinth is probably that these wives were disgracing their husbands by prophesying in church around other men without a veil to cover their hair. They were prophesying in front of other men while wearing string bikinis without their wedding rings on.

So whatever 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 means, it cannot refer to spiritual speech in church. Otherwise, Paul would contradict himself massively in the space of three chapters. The fact that these women are asking questions of those prophesying leads me to believe that they are disrupting the worship. Paul says for them to ask their husbands at home if they have questions (14:35).

In this case, it is really bad exegesis (I'll give it a D since I grade easy) to suggest that these verses are a prohibition of women speaking in church in a spiritual way. You will only come to that conclusion if you came to the text with it in hand. 1 Corinthians 11 addresses a problem based on women speaking spiritually in the church and Paul's solution there is not to tell them to shut up.

And, to co-opt some of Paul's words to the Galatians, even those who oppose women preaching in church don't oppose women speaking in church (in that sense they are not actually taking the verse absolutely either).  They'll bring women to speak as long as they’re not “preaching" (e.g., Mary Laslo, Elizabeth Elliot, etc; cf. Gal. 6:13). There are of course some wackos out there who don't let women speak at all in a church, but they also shoot abortion doctors and drag homosexuals behind their pick up trucks. In short, that type are hell bound and I couldn't care less what they think... unless of course they decide to kill me in the name of Christ. Then of course I'll admit that they dwell on a far more spiritual plane than I do.

1 Timothy 2:18-15
Before I start this notorious passage, I want to remind us of universal evangelical hermeneutics: 1) first read the text in its original context, 2) find the timeless principles in the passage, 3) reapply them in our context. I've already mentioned that it is not appropriate simply to apply biblical texts blindly to our situation since they weren't written directly to us (as the Bible's books say, so you're disagreeing with the Bible itself if you disagree with this claim).

First, I think it is most accurate to the original connotations to read this passage with a fundamental conception of women-as-wives in view. I would say that the book throughout does not really think of women as self-sufficient or free standing individuals (Paul does do this sometimes in his earlier letters). Rather 1 Timothy primarily views women as individuals defined in relation to a man.

Accordingly, the only man to which the Bible ever says a woman is in subjection to (2:11) is to a husband (not all men in general), demonstrating that Paul is thinking of wives in this verse. And Paul's justification for a woman not teaching a man all comes from the husband wife relationship of Adam and Eve (e.g., 2:13). The woman is saved from transgression by childbearing, which presupposes marriage (e.g., 2:15). I hope you get the distinction I am making. This passage may not wholly address women as wives, but it implicitly defines women as wives (underlying assumption: women are individuals whose identity is a function of a husband). I believe these assumptions contrast with the assumptions of other Pauline passages like Galatians 3 as well as Acts 2.

The words for man and woman in this passage also mean husband and wife, and we should generally expect them to have these connotations when they are nearby each other. Thus 2:8 begins with mention of men (who do seem to be understood as free standing individuals), but then proceeds to women (whom I think are conceived primarily as people defined in relation to a husband). 1 Timothy has some rather startling words to say about "unattached" widows in chapter 5--the basic idea is that women become busybodies if they are unattached to a man (5:13). So young widows best remarry or they will just end up losing control and giving in to their sensual desires (5:11).

So young women and young widows need to be subjected to the healthy life of a wife and a woman should only be unattached if she is an old widow. By the way, this chapter really doesn't sound like the Paul of 1 Corinthians 7. Something seems to have changed between then and now--perhaps the very situation behind this letter. And presumably that's good exegesis, given that the overwhelming majority of those who are competent to make a judgment and don't have a theological ax to grind have concluded the same thing without debate in a guild where you make your reputation by debating.

In short, there's something going on in 1 Timothy with regard to women, and it's leading Paul to go way beyond anything he says in his other writings. In particular, I notice in 2 Timothy 3:6 that Paul points to certain "weak willed women" as conduits of false teaching.

Secondly, the difficult logic of 2:12-15
Here is the logic of the passage:

1. Wives (women?) are said not to teach or lord over a husband (man?) because

2. Adam was made first, then Eve (argument from "birth order"). Therefore, the husband has the authority of the first born.

3. Eve was deceived (not Adam, implied) and thus women in general are more gullible and more prone to deception than men, more prone to lead their husbands astray. Therefore, wives should not teach their husbands because they are more likely to lead them into heresy and deception.

4. But women are saved from Eve's transgression through childbearing, as Genesis 3:16 mentions, if they live a modest, faithful, holy life. In other words, if women are in their proper place in the family and in relation to their husband in particular, then they are released from the disgrace of Eve's sin.

Did you wince? It's hard for me to believe that any spiritual Christian would not wince at the logic of this passage. By faith I submit to the belief that God approved of this message to Paul's context at this time. But that doesn't automatically mean God wants us to apply it directly to our context any more than we stone our rebellious sons.

And don't give me some half way, cop out interpretation of these verses. This is the most obvious logic given the grammar. If you're going to whine about me not listening to the passage, let's really listen to the passage rather than going half way.

Here are some things that I find very difficult about this train of thought:

1. I imagine that in Paul's day women were more likely to be deceived than men, so I affirm by faith that God let this text stand in relation to Paul's context. After all, women were hardly ever educated and spent most of their time sequestered inside.

But this is not the case in our world. It simply isn't true and there's no denying it. I promise you that the GPA's of my female students far outweigh those of my male students. On average my female students are more mature, wiser, and more responsible than my male ones. In short, it would not be true to say that wives are always more likely to lead their husbands into deception today than the husbands are. I promise you that the average in-touch-with-God-ness of our congregations is way higher for the women than the men.

2. If we take these comments too timelessly, we have a blasphemous statement. The Greek is worded like this: "the wife/woman has come to be in transgression, but she will be saved through childbearing, if they remain in faith and love and holiness with modesty."

The most straightforward reading of this train of thought (understandably one that many resist) is that Eve was deceived and "has come to be" (perfect tense) in transgression. In other words, women came to be in a state of transgression when Eve sinned, a state that has continued into the present time (the usual connotations of the perfect tense). Nevertheless they (shift to all women/wives) will be saved (presumably from that state of transgression) by childbearing (the punishment God attached to Eve's sin), on the condition that they are remaining (present tense) in proper behavior.

So what are we saying here, that Christ did not atone for all sin, only for the sins of Adam? I thought that with one sacrifice Christ has forever atoned for sins (Heb. 10:14). We can't change the painful childbirth of women, but why would we institutionalize a penalty for sin if we believe Christ's death atoned for all sin? And further, given the clearly context-bound nature of the argument here, should we really make it the cornerstone of our perspective on women, a verse that implies Christ did not actually atone for all sins?

We must take this passage as we take so many images in Jesus' parables--as somewhat exaggerated speech. Sure, women continue to live out the curse of Eve in a painful childbirth. But if we take this comment any further, we have entered the realm of true blasphemy.

In short, these verses have enough peculiarity to them to make them an extremely questionable place to begin a person’s theology of women.  Galatians 3:28 seems a much more likely place: “there is neither male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I would go further. It is one thing if you don't really understand why but feel like you need to submit to your understanding of these verses. But I think you have a spiritual problem if you delight in these verses.

1 Timothy 3
I would not expect Paul to factor women into the equation of church overseers in 1 Timothy 3, given the underlying antagonistic tone of the letter toward women's "weaknesses" vis-a-vis those of men. And I'll be glad to defend that claim to those who want it both ways--that Paul really is being positive toward women here, just setting down specific roles. If you argue that, forget your wife, I have some waterfront property I'd like to sell you, you “weak-willed,” “easily deceived,” “busybody” of a man or woman who “can't help but give in to sensual desires.”

But I also want to point out that Paul does not forbid women overseers here either. And even though I think Paul also presumes male deacons in this chapter, in Romans 16 he calls Phoebe a deacon. Indeed, if Junia is a notable apostle in Romans 16:7, then he calls a woman an apostle, a role that trumps any of the roles in 1 Timothy.

Conclusion to these passages:
So what is the original meaning, the timeless principles, and the reapplication of these passages? For 1 Corinthians it has to do with church order and affirms that women can speak in prayer and prophecy in church in front of other men. I find nothing in 1 Corinthians or any letter other than 1 Timothy that has any comment that even comes close to forbidding women from any ministry role.

In that sense, 1 Timothy reads significantly differently from Paul's earlier letters in many categories (e.g., vocabulary, style, self-depiction, understanding of law, approach to church structure, default positions on marriage versus singleness, not to mention his comments on wives and widows). It is only sloppy exegesis that does not notice how different 1 Timothy is across the board from Paul's earlier letters. And yes, this is what the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars think. 


Evangelicals usually fall short of declaring 1 Timothy pseudonymous, as is the virtually unanimous consensus of scholars who allow for the possibility of pseudonymous writings in the New Testament.  But that doesn’t mean that we can thereby just ignore the reasons why those scholars have concluded that.  Even though we presume Paul the author, we must account in some way for the significant shifts that this letter represents from Paul’s other writings.  

The principles we apply from 1 Timothy 2 largely have to do with heresy in the church. But taking more key NT passages into view (next post), we must be careful to apply the principles both to men and women. Men can be deceived by heresy too--they can drag their wives in the wrong directions too. Other general principles have to do with order in the church and guarding the "deposit" of the saints. I said in the last post that I can live with husband headship as a timeless principle as well as a possibility.

But in the light of far more central principles of the new age, I cannot live with any application of these verses to the question of women in general taking roles of authority or instruction or ministry when God leads them. 1 Timothy 2 is really a rather unusual outpost in the NT rather than a stop on the main thoroughfare.



A Further Note on the Order of Creation: Adam, then Eve

If someone is only taking this in the husband headship direction, I will just agree to disagree. Although I think some rigid, husband-has-to-be-the-head-even-if-he's-an-imbecile-on-every-level notion sells God and the gospel short. Someone had to be created first.

I suppose someone could argue that Paul's first defense--"Adam first then Eve" is about headship. Then you could argue that the second argument "Eve deceived" is about teaching.

But ultimately, I believe this whole argument doesn't take into account the flexibility of how NT authors used biblical texts. They did not assign a single meaning or application to an OT text and their interpretations almost always read the texts out of context! So Paul reads the Genesis story very differently than an ancient Israelite would have.

And while he gives us one authoritative interpretation of it for one context, everything we know about how NT authors used texts leads us to believe that the same text could be used validly in other ways as well. For example, it would not contradict anything the NT authors do if one of them had argued that Eve was more important than Adam because God made her last, just as God made the animals in the lead up to man in Genesis 1. I want to emphasize this point: it would not be unlike the way NT authors argued to claim that Eve is the supreme creation because after God made the animals and made man, he ended with the crown of His creation: woman.

As it is none of the NT authors actually make such an interpretation, but believe me, some NT authors, including Paul, make arguments from the OT that are far less in context than my hypothetical here (e.g., many connections Matthew draws).

I would say you are institutionalizing an interpretation (yours) of an interpretation (Paul's) of a story (Genesis) that ultimately was not about women in ministry. Genesis 2-3 was originally an etiological story to express why certain things are as they are in the world. Why do men have to work so hard tilling the land? Why are wives subject to their husbands and experience such painful childbirth? Why don't snakes have legs and why don't humans get along with snakes. We'd better have our spiritual glasses on when we are applying it to such a different context such as ours today.

Notice, for example, that in the original story, the woman's desire is to her husband as a consequence of her sin. It doesn't seem to me that the subordination of Eve to Adam was originally the point of the creation order in that story. Rather, this subordination was explained by Eve's sin (Gen. 3:16).

By the way, to show us that we're probably getting too detailed here, notice that if we take Genesis 1 and 2 completely literally and completely historically, they seem to contradict each other somewhat. In other words, both seem to be at least somewhat symbolic.

In the second story, Adam is made before there are any plants or trees on the earth (2:5, 9)--some versions alternate between the words ground and earth but it's the same Hebrew word. In the first story, all these things are made before humanity. Of course there are always ways to force texts together if you're more interested in a particular theology of the Bible more than the Bible itself.

I would suggest that we are immature in our understanding of the Bible if we take these accounts as video feed, live from the garden.



The More Fundamental Principles

When a person learns to read the books of the Bible in their original context, one of the first principles they learn is that each author and potentially even each book may have its own vocabulary, its own style, and its own conceptual framework. You will misinterpret the original meaning of James if you assume it uses the word "works" or even "faith" in the same way as Paul. You cannot assume that Matthew uses the word "righteousness" the same way as Paul either. Indeed, you cannot assume that Paul himself will present the same exact conceptual framework as you move from one of his letters to the next.

With this fact in mind, and given that 1 Timothy contrasts on so many different levels with Paul's earlier letters, I suggest that it is not only legitimate, but almost necessary, to sit loosely to it, at least at first, when looking at what Paul and other NT authors have to say about women in the rest of the NT. We will come back to 1 Timothy and cautiously ask whether it clarifies the interpretation of Paul elsewhere. But we will neither shove it down Paul's throat elsewhere nor shove Paul elsewhere down 1 Timothy's throat either. As much as is in our power, we will let each passage speak for itself.

The Age of the Spirit
What does it mean when Hebrews takes the idea of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31 in relation to what Christ has done: "I will give my laws to their mind and write them on their hearts"? 2 Corinthians may have the same passage in mind from Jeremiah when Paul considers himself minister of the new covenant, "not of the letter but the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:6).

So this new covenant in Christ, in which God writes His laws on the heart in the age of the Holy Spirit, does it send the Spirit mostly to men or to women as well? It sends the Spirit equally to women as well. Consider what Acts 2 has to say in its interpretation of the Day of Pentecost, the commencement of the age of the Spirit: "I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh and your sons and your daughters will prophesy... and indeed on my male servants and on my female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit" (2:17-18). Paul actually adds "and daughters" to his citation of 2 Samuel 7:14 in 2 Corinthians 6:18, including women as children of God. And of course the well-known passage Galatians 3:26-29 explicitly includes women as children of God.

Of course those who disagree with women in all roles of ministry will acknowledge all these things. But they will trump them with their understanding of 1 Timothy 2, and it alone. But if we bracket consideration of that verse until we have looked at the rest of the NT, we immediately notice that we would not expect any NT author to forbid women from ministry given this basic theology of the Spirit. We are never given any reason to believe that women have any difference from men at all on the level of the Spirit. And Paul calls them sons in Galatians 3:26 without distinction from men, all who have been baptized into Christ "have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is not 'male and female.'"

While I cannot prove it for certain, the slightly different wording of the last "not 'male and female'" statement, in the context of new creation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17), makes me think that this is a poetic reference to Genesis 1:27. God created them different, male and female, but in Christ they are all sons, the creation distinction is undone, there is not male and female any more but you are all sons. While some have attacked this line of thought, I find it perfectly plausible and incapable of disproof.


Indeed, if Paul implies that being in Christ in some way obliterates the distinction between male and female, then we are slightly surprised to find 1 Timothy later making a point of the order of creation: Adam first, then Eve.  But then again, Paul also argues for husband headship, so perhaps we are not completely surprised.  It remains a tension in Paul’s thought, apparently the result of a certain dualism between body and spirit in Paul’s thought.

So I am not surprised to find women in roles of ministry in the early church. I am not surprised to find Lydia at Philippi or Priscilla in Corinth and Ephesus. I am not surprised to find that a woman was notable among the apostles (Rom. 16:7) or that Phoebe is entrusted as the voice of Paul to take Romans to the Roman church at Rome to read it to them in Paul's place (if Romans 16 goes with Romans, that's the most likely way to read it; but some think it was a letter of commendation to the church at Ephesus). At the very least, Paul calls her a deacon (16:1), not deaconess. He uses the same word he used of Timothy in 1 Timothy.

I am not surprised to find that Philip had four virgin daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9) or that women prayed and prophesied at Corinth (chap. 11). I am not surprised to find that Euodia and Syntyche were Paul's fellow workers at Philippi (Phil. 4).

To me, the spiritual logic seems very straightforward:

1. The Spirit is poured out equally on men and women.
2. One of the functions of the Spirit is to lead us into truth (e.g., John)
3. Therefore, women can equally lead into truth just as men.

Here's a follow up:

1. Women can lead equally into truth as men.
2. Ministering involves leading others into truth (among other things).
3. Therefore, why would God not call women to minister?

The best answer I've heard anyone give in response is "that's just not the way God planned it." Surely no one today would dare argue "because women's bodies cancel out their spirits." Of course that's what a lot of ancients thought and indeed, that's ultimately the logic behind Aristotle's "the husband is the head of the wife."

So how do we know that God did not plan for women to be able to minister to men? Didn't they minister when they prophesied? When Huldah, a woman, was the highest spiritual authority in ancient Israel in 2 Kings 22:13, 14-20, doesn't this imply that a woman can be the highest authority for a denomination?

And do you think that there will be subordination of women in heaven? Clearly not, for they neither marry nor are given in marriage. They are like the angels. So what is the difference down here? Is it the obstacle of the female body or mind? That won't hold up anymore. Is it the sin of Eve? Sorry, that's blasphemy. Again, you just have to say, God just wants it that way.


The argument from birth order is perhaps the hardest to counter, because it is based on the order of creation rather than on Eve’s sin.  But here I point out that Paul’s arguments aren’t always meant to be taken absolutely.  Paul defends the resurrection by reference to baptism for the dead—we don’t believe in that. In other words, Paul's arguments don't always have the same level of investment.


What do we make of Paul's comments in Romans 9 that God can make some humans a certain way so that He can fry them? He seems to be over-making the point to make the point, like Jesus’ camel through the eye of a needle or plucking out of the offensive eye.


What do we make of his argument in Galatians 3 that the word seed is singular and therefore that the statement "the promise is to you and your seed" is a reference to Christ? In Romans Paul treats the same word seed in reference to all the true descendants of Abraham--a plural, in other words. Clearly Paul's arguments don't always hold the same amount of investment or force. He makes some for effect and some are more effective than others.

With regard to birth order, how much force does this argument really have ultimately with regard to women in ministry? Is it a "look, God could make people just to fry anyway so who are you to question Him letting the Gentiles in?"

Here I must say that the argument logically doesn't seem to have much force. For example, I'm the fifth born in my family. Does that mean that I can’t minister to any of my four older siblings? It just doesn’t make sense.

There is only one verse in the whole NT that even could possibly point in a different direction from a full affirmation of women in ministry, 1 Timothy 2:12. Let's say you have dismissed my exegesis in the previous post. Let's say that this verse isn't primarily thinking of husband-wife relationships. Let's say for the sake of argument that it surprisingly is setting down a general rule: women shouldn't teach men. The actual example of the Bible would still lead us to see this rule as a general rule rather than an absolute without exceptions. Here is one myopia of current fundamentalism, it makes exceptionless rules that were not such in the ancient context.

Sure, the sense of ancient Israel was that a man would most of the time be the leader, the general, etc... But there was a place for the exception, the Deborah, the Judith (although fictional), etc... Against this context, surely Acts 2 points to the spiritual ministry of women as a sign of the new age of the Spirit. In that sense, we should expect more and more women in the age of the Spirit to speak for God.

I have serious questions about someone who wants the Scripture to come out against women in all roles of ministry. I understand and respect the person who believes the Scripture teaches something and, while not understanding why women would not be called to minister, submits to what they believe that teaching is. But I have serious questions about anyone, male or female, who deep down doesn't want women to be able to minister to men. What's going on there?

So the spiritual ministries of women on all levels is a sign of the end times, a part of the age of the Spirit and something we should celebrate. Biblical opposition to it ultimately boils down to one verse, a verse that seems in tension with other verses, especially in the light of what actually happened in the earliest church and the earliest relevant principles set down. Indeed, the church order of overseers and deacons in 1 Timothy seems more developed than anything we see before that point. I'm not sure we ever see as much ministerial specificity anywhere else in the NT. It just may point to a time when the need for more standardization was increasingly being felt, especially as a time when the apostles would pass was in view.

So I ask you to pray and reflect on these questions: Does it really make spiritual sense to bar women--especially those who believed they are called--from any role that they seem to be gifted and graced to do? Am I really opposed to women in ministry because of the Bible or because of something in my heart that I need to address?

What if I'm wrong and I'm actually putting a stumblingblock in front of someone? What if I am hindering someone God has called from obeying Him? Why don't I let God sort it out--if women in ministry is not in God's plan, then surely He won't bless any woman in such a ministry. But if I am opposing God's plan, then there is nothing I can do to stop the marching forward of God's kingdom. Basically, I'm road kill.



Epilog: A Parable of Out of Focus Interpretation

By current evangelical standards, I was raised in a fairly conservative home. And when I took to dating in college, my conservative conscience kicked in. The girl I was interested in did not look like my conservative sisters. My sisters and mother only wore dresses--she wore slacks and pants as well. My sisters and mother had no jewelry, not even wedding rings--she wore earings and rings. One of my sisters never even trimmed her hair because of 1 Corinthians 11--the girl I was interested in had longish hair, but trimmed it from time to time, including the bangs.

So my conscience struck. I really wanted to date the girl, but if I loved the Lord more, shouldn't I discipline myself and not date her. I couldn't ask her to change if it wasn't in her heart...

Well I'll skip the details, but a year of dating followed. She changed. But eventually, she wisely broke up with me to let me do my therapy on my own time. A few months later, her rings came back and the pants, which she had unwisely forgone to feed my conscience. It felt personal, although it wasn't.

So my internal struggle continued. On the one hand, there were those Bible verses:

1 Timothy 2:9: "I want women to dress with modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothes..."

1 Peter 3:3: "Do not let your beauty be outward, arranging hair and wearing gold and fine apparel."

1 Corinthians 11:6: "if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head."

Deuteronomy 22:5 : "It is an abomination for a woman to wear that which pertaineth to a man [insert pants]"

I was fixated on these verses. My mind told me, it's clear as can be. Women shouldn't wear rings or gold. "Pride goeth before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction." Girls wear jewelry because of pride, how couldn't they given how those rings stand out?

I've both experienced and heard stories of how BIG the rings seem when you get so focused on them. I have a family member who once asked for my wedding ring and then proceeded to waltz around the room with it on her finger saying "Look at me, I have a ring." The implication was that I must wear the ring out of pride or defiance, as if the ring was something I was always conscious of and wore as a statement of how great I was. Surely a person couldn't wear a wedding ring without it being a really big statement.

Keith Drury tells a story of how he went to speak at a conference in the early 70s in a place where they didn't believe in wearing wedding rings. He said as he spoke, he could see the eyes in unison following his left hand. As his had went up, the eyes went up following the ring. When his hand went down, their eyes went down. He was startled that no one was paying the slightest attention to what he was saying because they were so focused on the ring. He finally stopped in the middle of the sermon and said, "Would it help if I took this off and put it in my pocket?" He told me there was an audible sigh of relief when he did.

Why am I saying all this? I'm saying it because I believe a hefty portion of conservative American Christianity is fixated on 1 Timothy 2:12 in a way that is massively out of focus, just like the people who couldn't see anything but the ring. Even though this verse occupies such a small space in the Bible, so many currently can't hardly see anything but this verse when it comes to the matter of women in ministry. How could this verse not be the statement on women in ministry, even though it is really not that clear that it even has anything like ministry in mind and is in one of the more peripheral books in the NT (how many sermons do you hear regularly from 1 Timothy?).

I well remember a day in college a few months after we had broken up. The girl was in the library with her rings back on. It hurt my feelings, it angered me a little. It felt like she was shoving them in my face. But after a few minutes of wrestling, the ridiculousness of the whole thing just broke through on me. She didn't wear the rings because of pride. She was a godly person. It was just a piece of metal, atomic number 79. How in the world could it really be as big a deal to God as it was to me. It seemed to mean about as much to her as a tie might to me.

I would suggest that such a moment of spiritual common sense is greatly in order with regard to women in ministry. The Bible makes it clear that there is no spiritual distinction between men and women. We should really be puzzed at the thought that it would matter to God. We know there is no mental or logical obstacle, certainly not for all women any more than for all men.

So if there is a woman who believes that God has called her, if she has the gifts and graces, how in the world does it make any sense not to affirm her? If you are ever around some of these women--some of our students current and former--you'll have the breakthrough on this issue that I had on rings.