Women as Pastors and Leaders in the Church

During our Centennial year, I am preaching on the great themes that have defined the ministry and theology of Asbury Theological Seminary. Here, we will examine our historic commitment to train women. Even though we began as an institution in 1923, our first regular graduating class that was not merely transfer students was in 1927. (Samuel Maxwell, for example, had two years at Yale divinity school and transferred to Asbury for his final year). In 1924 and 1926 we had one graduate each year. But 1927 was the first graduating class that had gone through Asbury from start to finish. We had four graduates that year. To put this in perspective, this year we will have 304 students graduating. I wonder if that graduation service was shorter than ours are today? I want to draw your attention to these four students, found on our alumni wall of our new Alumni Center. The 1927 graduating class included two international students and one woman, Ellen Frances Keller. Faith Scott-Wright in 1926 was our first female graduate. So, from our humble beginnings we demonstrated a commitment to the training of women, and at the same time Asbury Seminary has held an unwavering commitment to the biblical witness. For many Christians, this seems inconsistent given certain texts in the New Testament, particularly the text I have purposely chosen for our consideration. So, we will need to walk through this carefully.

It will be no surprise to anyone here that supporting the ordination of women to become full clergy is a minority position in the global church. This is mostly driven by the Roman Catholic understanding of clergy as icons of the Incarnation. In their view, this limits full ordination to celibate male clergy. But the barring of women to ordained ministry is driven not merely by church tradition, but also, as noted, by specific texts that seem to bar the full participation of women. I have deliberately chosen as our text what is widely regarded as the most explicitly prohibitive text in the New Testament in reference to women’s full participation in church leadership. We will examine the passage in detail, yet I am referring in particular to the line from the Apostle Paul, “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12, ESV). We will examine the accuracy of that translation, but, on the face of it, it definitely appears, for those committed to biblical authority, to be a serious objection to the ordination of women. The precise language of this passage is, of course, critical, but there is the added challenge that Paul goes on to connect this clear prohibition to a prelapsarian (pre-Fall) creation text, further implying that this is not merely a localized prohibition for a specific context but an ongoing prohibition that transcends and trumps any attempt to localize it in a narrower context to Ephesus. So, we must take this text seriously and explore how we understand this prohibition and why Asbury Seminary, which has such a robust commitment to Scripture, could fully affirm the full ordination of women.

Let’s begin, as all good exegesis does, by reflecting on the context, particularly the city of Ephesus. Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus with explicit instructions to combat false teaching in the church. This is a central theme in the pastoral epistles, and I Timothy is no exception. Right out of the gate after his opening greeting, Paul says to Timothy that he asked him to remain in Ephesus to instruct the new believers to not embrace false doctrines (1 Timothy 1:3). Time does not permit a full examination of the various false teachings found in Ephesus, but everyone agrees that several of these heresies were tied to the pervasive presence of the Artemis cult in Ephesus. Artemis was a goddess widely worshipped in the ancient world. There were several different strands of Artemis worship that gradually merged, and her central seat was in Ephesus.  Ephesus was a thoroughly Greek city with a famous harbor, and the crown of the city was the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. All of you will be familiar with the Parthenon in Athens, but the Temple of Artemis was grander and about four times larger. It was the largest building in the Greek world and would have been breathtaking, and the Ephesians were deeply devoted to the goddess Artemis. The temple contained 127 iconic columns ordained with gold, with an altar able to receive hundreds of sacrifices simultaneously. Over 400 statutes of Artemis have been recovered in archaeological digs, so her presence was ubiquitous. Some of the female devotees of Artemis had become Christians and were exerting themselves forcefully into the Christian services and in the teaching being given to the growing church in Ephesus. This text is, in part, designed to address this problem.

In verse 8, Paul begins by admonishing men to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or quarreling. This is a corrective to the men who often choose power and anger rather than the appropriate Christian disposition of humility and gentleness. This is the bridge between the two parts of the passage, because when he addresses women, he is still on the theme of the value of Christian modesty and propriety. He then addresses women about modesty in dress. The Artemis cult had many female priests, including around 15 high priests in Ephesus who were women.  Because one strand of the Artemis cult was connected to fertility, these priests often dressed in what we would today call immodest or even sexually provocative ways. Paul begins his admonition concerning women by clarifying that Christian propriety encourages women to dress modestly and not provocatively. This is appropriate and good advice for all generations, though what constitutes modesty in dress varies culturally. I don’t think this requires that women not wear makeup or braid their hair or wear jewelry of any kind. Our holiness heritage sometimes insisted on this, but as the church has become more globalized, it has become increasingly evident that different cultures understand female modestly differently. In India where I served as a missionary, there was a lot of talk about women wearing bangles and how many bangles were considered immodest. One bangle was, for some, one too many. Others felt like one or two were fairly normal; just don’t have bangles all the way up your arm. In Tanzania, where our daughter serves as a missionary, it is immodest for a woman to even wear a full-length skirt that reaches all the way to the ground; they must wear a full-length kanga over that. In India, for a woman to show her midriff is not a problem at all; that’s the way saris are designed. But in the West, for a woman to expose her midriff is considered immodest. Clearly, these things are determined culturally, not universally, and we need to respect that. The deeper point is that our presentation in the world should lead with and value our inner character. Paul’s message here to the Ephesians is almost identical to Peter’s admonition in 1 Peter 3:3-4.

When we come to verse 11 in 1 Timothy 2, it is important that we not read through it too quickly and miss the radical nature of what is being said. The passage begins with the phrase, “Let a woman learn…” The passage assumes that women are under biblical instruction. It is important that we pause here and remember that the starting point for all theological questions or inquiries is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, if you want to explore the role of women in ministry, you do not start in 1 Timothy 2 – you start at the empty tomb. The Roman Catholic understanding of clergy is flawed because it is founded on an Old Testament model of priest and sacrifice rather than the New Testament model of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus radically redefines and shapes what it means to be a redeemed person, whether a man or a woman, in the world. There are two ways this dramatically impacts women. First, women, no less than men, are icons of the Incarnation and have all been transformed by the Resurrection. We are all the people of the empty tomb. This radical realignment is fully ushered in on Resurrection morning. In all four gospels, Jesus appears first to women. They become, it should be noted, not merely the first to receive the good news but also the first charged to proclaim it; “Go and tell” is said to the women in John 20:16-17 long before it is said in the Great Commission. In fact, Jesus revealed His messianic identity to the woman at the well in John 4 long before the famous revelation to the disciples at Caesarea Philippi. The women in the gospel accounts are not merely passive witnesses to the Resurrection; they are actively commissioned to go and tell. Secondly, the New Testament affirms the role of celibacy in a deeper way than the Old Testament. There was no permanent celibacy in the Old Testament. In the new creation, we can be married to Christ as His bride in anticipation of the new creation. This is important for women because the Old Testament vision for women was to be married with children. This remains a vital paradigm, since marriage reflects the relationship of Christ and the Church, and childbearing is an icon of the Trinity. We all know that God utilizes relational family language to best describe the relationship of the Trinity. But there is a second sacred path now open to women, which is the celibate life. This opens up many new opportunities since, by definition, a celibate woman is neither married nor has children. This is no longer a curse, but a viable option within the life of the kingdom in anticipation of the new creation where there will be no marriage, except the great marriage to which all marriages point – the marriage of Christ and His Church, the bride. This is all disruptive and counterintuitive for a culture and a time that is by all accounts a patriarchal society. (I will say in passing that the vision of Christian celibacy also has a huge impact on men; not only can men also embrace the celibate life, but if they do get married, the bar for divorce is raised considerably, and there is a clear insistence on faithfulness and monogamy within the marriage bond, rather than promiscuousness and polygamy).

The rest of verse 11 says, “Let a woman learn with gentleness or quietness.” This phrase is promoting an inner attitude of the heart. Now, Paul goes on to say in verse 12, “I do not permit…” (ESV). However, as Ben Witherington, among many others, has pointed out, this is in the present, active, indicative first person, which is never used in this constructive form as a universal prohibition. It should more literally be rendered, “I am not now permitting.” This is our first clue that there may be something contextual unfolding here, rather than a universal prohibition. He seems to be directing this prohibition to an abuse tied to the Artemis cult. Here, Paul uses a word, the translation of which is critical to the proper exegesis of this passage. He uses the word authenteo. It is translated here as “exercise authority.” The word here is not the word Paul or any other New Testament writer uses for “authority” in the way we normally understand the word. The words exousia or prosteimi are the words we normally associate with the English words “authority” and “teaching.” The word authenteo is, in fact, a hapax legomenon in the New Testament. This means that it is a word found only one time in the New Testament.

So, with no parallel texts anywhere in the New Testament to use as your guide, what do you do? This is another important exegetical moment in which we need to practice our training. The standard practice when translating a hapax legomenon is to look at every first century use of this word outside the New Testament to see what it means. A study of this will quickly reveal that this is a very forceful word. There are over two dozen examples of this word meaning “murder” in Greek plays in classical Greek, as it is used mostly as a noun. By the time we get to the first century, the meaning of the word has broadened to include a verbal usage indicating violence and expressions like “tyrannize,” “dominate,” “master,” or, as we would say, “power down” on someone. Chrysostom, a fifth century church father, uses the verb to mean one should not “act like a despot,” as an admonition to men to not treat their wives in a domineering or coercive manner. So, the verb or admonition is not gender specific by any means. It is clear to me that this word should not be used interchangeably with exousia, which refers to ecclesial authority in the church as it is often understood today. Even in early Bible translations, this distinction was clear. The Old Latin said, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to dominate a man.” The Vulgate said, “…neither to domineer over a man.” The Geneva Bible and even the King James Bible translated it as “usurp authority” over a man. All of these early translations reveal that the term was not understood as merely “authority” but rather a particular abuse of authority that Paul had in mind. So, if we carefully study the actual meaning of this word in other first century documents, we learn that it is better to translate along the lines of to “tyrannize” or to “dominate” rather than to “exercise authority.” In other words, this is not about women exercising authority in biblical teaching where one would expect the words exousia or proistemi, used eight times in the New Testament for church leadership. But, like the point about modesty in dress, this is about the excessive way in which they are seeking to instruct. They are speaking up in a disruptive way. They are seeking to dominate the service with outbursts that are not in keeping with the modesty that should characterize not just our dress but also the way we teach and instruct. Once again, the Artemis cult taught in a domineering way, and some women were apparently following that pattern in the church. Paul was facing an unusual problem in Ephesus, so he used an unusual word to address it. We have to understand that members who attended church services in the early church were not nearly as passive as members in our services are today, where one person gets up behind a formal pulpit and speaks as everyone passively listens. Services in the early church were more open events with multiple people sharing and interacting. Paul is fine with the robust nature of these gatherings but wants everything to be done with decency and in proper order. People should speak one at a time. They should speak respectfully. Most of all, they should speak only after being properly instructed in the apostolic message. These particular women were apparently violating all of these guidelines. They were speaking rudely and in a domineering way. They were not waiting their turn. Most importantly, they were speaking before they had learned, which is why Paul begins this part of the passage by focusing on the importance of submissive learning of certified apostolic teaching. So, Paul is saying, in this instance, that these women should remain silent and not speak unless and until they have learned the apostolic message and learned how to conduct themselves with modesty in the church service.

A more accurate translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 might be, “I am now not permitting this woman to speak in such a domineering and disruptive manner. She should remain quiet.” Once you look at the lexical evidence when translating a hapax legomenon, your next step is to see if this understanding is consistent with other passages in the New Testament about women in leadership. This is critical to a final determination as to whether this verse is an unusual, contextual situation or a general prohibition directed at all women everywhere at all times. The Reformation wisely taught us that when we find a difficult passage of Scripture, if there is potential ambiguity (and this text certainly fits that description) you test your interpretation by looking at other passages that are crystal clear and see if there is a consistency in the overall teaching of the New Testament.

We turn to the New Testament already aware of significant female leadership even in the Old Testament, such as Deborah in Judges 4 and 5, the prophetess Huldah in 2 Kings 22:14, and the reference to Miriam in Micah 6:4, which will need to be explored at another time. But when we look at the New Testament, the vista is opened even more. We have already noted that women are the first to be commissioned to preach the good news of the Resurrection. Additionally, we meet women who are prophetesses with no apology, such as Philip’s four daughters in Acts 21:8-9. We discover Jesus had a large number of women disciples, another example of the disruption introduced by the Incarnation. We find women teachers like Priscilla in Acts 18:24-26 and Romans 16:3 and Phoebe in Romans 16:1. We even find a woman named Junia, who is commended by Paul as an Apostle in Romans 16:7. In other words, there is a massive problem with our understanding of biblical interpretation if we allow I Timothy 2:8-15 to overturn dozens of other perfectly clear passages that assume or straight up affirm women in positions of authority in the church, not just the home. It makes better exegetical sense to conclude that the Artemis cult has unleashed two particular problems: 1) disorderly conduct and 2) false doctrine or at least misinformed doctrine in the church. Paul is, quite forcibly, putting a stop to it, which, by the way, also brings this passage into conformity with his own explicit statement that the church in Ephesus was having doctrinal problems. Revelation 2 further confirms that the church in Ephesus had faced false apostles who needed to be silenced.

We have one more important objection that must also be squarely faced. This is the reference to the creation account, especially the prelapsarian moment where Paul says, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” It is widely argued by many scholars that precisely because Paul makes a reference to creation, he is referring to a universal, pre-Fall prohibition that he intends to stand for all time, which should therefore challenge any attempt to limit this prohibition to a particular problem in Ephesus. They argue that, even if everything I have said exegetically is true, Paul seems to land not on a cultural particularity but a biblical universality.

But when looking at Pauline uses of pre-Fall creation texts, it is clear that he often uses those texts to make localized, non-universal applications. For example, using the same reference to God creating all things and declaring them good, he makes the point in I Timothy 4 that food is inherently good and we should not avoid food that God has declared good. While in Romans 14, he quotes the same creational passage and argues the opposite point: that we should be willing to surrender our creational right to eat for the sake of church unity. The point is that Paul does make specific, contextual pastoral applications using creation texts. In fact, here in our text Paul uses Eve as a type for the Ephesian women in particular, whereas in Corinthians he uses Eve to apply to deception throughout the entire Corinthian church. I do not think Paul’s reference to creation necessarily means he is making an application universally to all women throughout all time. So, exegetically, contextually and theologically, I do not think this text should be used to bar women from ordained ministry. What Paul is barring is an undue usurpation of authority that is exercised in a domineering way, especially one that is seeking to extend false teaching in the church. That point is universal whether for men or for women.

Now, in verses 13 and 14, Paul draws upon the imagery and typology of Adam and Eve. We have seen that Paul uses these figures differently in his texts. Adam is singled out in Romans 5 as one who rebels against the command of God, because you will remember that Eve was not yet created when the command in the Garden was given; this is the point about who was created first. Eve, in contrast, is associated in several places with being deceived. Paul is clearly concerned that the women in Ephesus, like Eve, were deceived into embracing false teachings. I think the fact that Adam is a paradigm for rebellion and Eve for deception is not indicating that men are always the ones who rebel and women are always the ones who are deceived. Paul’s use of Eve in 2 Corinthians 11:3 clearly applies to the whole church, both men and women. Rather, the point is that there are two main ways that false teaching gains ground in the church. One is when we knowingly ignore God’s word and rebel against it, and the other is when we are deceived into thinking that what we are doing or teaching is correct when, in fact, it is at variance with the apostolic message. Paul is simply reminding us that we must avoid both of these challenges. Finally, verse 15 says that women will be saved through childbearing if they continue in faith and holiness with self-control. The text does not actually say “saved through childbearing” but actually says “saved through the childbearing.” There is the insertion of the definite article. We are dealing with large archetypes here. As in Romans 5, Paul highlights Adam as the source of the Fall through his rebellion (“In Adam all die”) and Eve is not even mentioned. So here Paul highlights that Eve is also a source for the Fall and condemnation of the human race, since she also disobeyed, even if it was via deception. So, just as through a woman came the Fall, so through a woman came the redemption of the world. The childbearing is referring obliquely to the fact that the salvation and redemption of the world came through a woman, since that is how the Incarnation came into the world. The admonition, though it applies to men and women, is that the women in Ephesus should not get thrown back into deception like the first Eve, but should, through solid teaching and good doctrine, embrace the fruit of the second Eve, Mary, who gave birth to the savior of the world.

This passage is filled with universal applications to all of us. It calls us all to humility in how we act and how we dress. It calls us all to propriety of speech and conducting church services with proper order. It calls us all to be attentive to sound teaching and be instructed with humility in the apostolic faith. But, a serious exegesis of this passage in no way should be taken to preclude the full ordination of women in any church in the world. Paul is concerned with the improper use of authority when exercised by men or women in an abusive, coercive or dominating way. This is why Asbury Seminary for a hundred years has simultaneously held a high view of Scripture and a full-throated endorsement of women in places of ordained leadership and full exercise of authority in the church. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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