I have been involved in a conversation or two lately on the ordination of women (as well as making previous posts on this blog). I am convinced that evangelical arguments – i.e. arguments based on Scripture – against the ordination of women as priests/presbyters and bishops are flawed. (Mostly there is agreement that ordination to the diaconate is agreeable; that women may teach and lead other women and children. I do not deal here with arguments from an anglo-catholic presupposition that the church’s tradition rules out innovations).
In my understanding there are two main lines of argument brought to bear.
One, that the teaching and leadership of women over a mixed gender congregation is prohibited by 1 Timothy 2:12: I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority (authentein) over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet (ESV).
Two, that in social organisation men are to exercise headship over women (husband head of wife, father head of family, men to be heads of churches as elders and bishops). This latter argument extends to a response to charges that the first argument treats women as inferior to men by asserting that Scripture teaches men and women are equal but are called to exercise different roles. Headship combined with helpmeet (Genesis 2) undergirds the equal but different thesis.
In this post I want to focus on the first argument and leave the second argument for another post, suffice to observe for the moment that Scripture at best implies men are to be heads of churches rather than directly commands it to be so. That is, the second argument rests on an extension of what is said about the role of men in marriages and families (and what that role actually means is itself a matter of discussion).
One way to engage in interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 is to say there is this interpretation and there is that interpretation and there is another and the pros and cons of each are this and that. My reckoning on that approach is that our presuppositions drive much of that exploration. Thus if I am disposed to affirm the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopacy then I emphasise (e.g.) the difficulty of understanding authentein which is something of a rare word, and whose published meanings range from ‘exercise authority’ through to ‘excessively dominate’. On that disposition one is going to plump for ‘excessively dominate’ and thus apply the prohibition to such women and not to all. Conversely one might adduce supporting evidence in favour of ‘exercise authority’ and push forwards to the conclusion no women may exercise authority over men. Thus in a straight debate between pro-ordination and no-ordination each side is likely to feel winners! This is not to say that I think when all arguments are considered there is a balance between them – just that the issues are sufficiently complex for such argumentation not to lead to overwhelming conclusiveness on the part of those who support the ordination of women and thus those who want to hold out against ordination can feel logically entitled to continue to do so.
No, I think it is time to pursue a different line of argument. It goes like this. Let’s suppose, for the sake of the argument, that 1 Timothy 2:12 lays down a universal rule for every context of the church’s life through time. That is, under no circumstance of the first or twenty-first century, of Ephesus or Canberra (a modern city, created in the twentieth century) may a woman be the teacher or leader of a mixed gender congregation. (Let’s recall that in, e.g. the Diocese of Sydney this is how some Anglicans apply this verse, for there is a rigid application made there, right down to the creation of a special cadre of women leaders, “women workers”, who work alongside but never over the ordained priests of the Diocese). Then let’s pursue the logical implication of this understanding that under no circumstance such as discerning a woman to have leadership gifts or teaching gifts nor testing a women to see if she is faithful in service and sound in doctrine may a woman be appointed to teach or lead a mixed gender church. Nor is there any circumstance in which the church is perceived to be well beyond the dangers of false teaching of any kind touched on by the Pastoral Letters in which a woman may teach or lead. Further, even in the circumstance where, say in another parish or diocese, a woman is appointed to lead and to teach (i.e. to be a vicar or rector of an Anglican parish), and they are recognised by universal appliers of 1 Timothy 2:12 as doing ‘a good job’, being ‘faithful in the gospel’, or ‘an exception to the rule’, nothing changes. Such a woman at best will be recognised as a deacon, even though they are actually a canonically ordained priest or bishop. They will not be appointed to be vicar or rector in (e.g.) Sydney, and will not be invited to preach in a universal applier’s parish. (Aside: I understand that in Sydney there are some parishes that are flexible around the question of women preaching). In other words, no evidence from experience is entertained as constraining the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 away from being a universal rule.
But its precisely at this point of recognising the strength of commitment to the universal application of 1 Timothy 2:12 in some Anglican places – not only in Sydney, by the way – that the case for universal application raises the question whether the grounds are sufficiently robust on which this verse is made a universal rule resistant to any alteration.
Here things get quite interesting. In my observation three lines of reasoning emerge. First is the line of experience of the alleged failings of women in leadership. Thus, for example, it is said that many Anglican women priests are feminist to one degree or another and thus liable to teach false theology, or it will be argued that it’s a great struggle to get men into church these days and having women vicars will only make the situation worse, or the point will be made that the Sydney diocese is extraordinarily healthy and successful in the growth and development of its parishes, especially relative to other Anglican dioceses in the immediately pertinent context of Australia itself where most other dioceses have women priests and are on the verge of having women bishops too. But this is all pretty easily kicked for touch! 1 Timothy 2:12 as a universal rule, let’s remember, is a blanket ban on women teaching and leading mixed gender churches in each and every imaginable circumstance. It is simply not the case that if, say, one sermon in twenty were preached by a woman, or a staff team of five priests included one woman priest, or a couple of parishes out of a hundred had a woman vicar or rector that the strength of men’s ministry or the commitment to orthodox theology, or the health and vitality of a whole diocese would be diminished let alone undermined. No, talk of experience in this context is interesting but not actually part of the real argument for the universal application of 1 Timothy 2:12.
The next two lines of reasoning are theological. The second works with the headship argument which I will tackle in another post, suffice to say here, that headship is not given as Paul’s reason for making the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12. The third line is that provided by Paul himself in 1 Timothy 2:13-14: For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (ESV). So here we get to the theological core of the argument: there is something about women which makes them unsuitable for teaching and for leading mixed gender churches.
Again, let’s bear in mind we are talking about a universal application of 1 Timothy 2:12, so the supporting argument is that there is something about every woman which makes each and every one of them unsuited for teaching and for leading mixed gender churches. Its rough to say this but we must. The best women you could ever meet in the church, the finest womanly minds, the greatest female characters, the most learned and gifted ‘elect ladies’ of the church (cf. 2 John 1, 5), even our own wives whom we know and love and trust, according to this line of reasoning, all are unsuitable. Remember there are no exceptions, no matter who you think of. (After all if we could think of even one exception, just one 21st century Priscilla or Euodia or Phoebe or Junia, the universal rule would have to go and a more limited application of 1 Timothy 2:12 put in its place. Most of us can think of exceptions … that’s the problem with the universalization of 1 Timothy 2:12, it does not match evangelical experience, let alone general human experience)!
What might that something be that makes all women unsuitable for the task of teaching and leading? According to 1 Timothy 2:13-14 it concerns a propensity to be ‘deceived’ and thence to become a ‘transgressor’. Eve was deceived by Satan into thinking that obedience to God did not matter, thence led Adam to agree, and both transgressed. 1 Tim 2:13-14 has the sense that Eve was a double transgressor because she led Adam astray as well as sharing with him in disobedience. The sense of ‘Adam was not deceived’ must be that he was not deceived by Satan rather than not deceived at all since Eve deceived him. Thus 1 Timothy 2:13-14 understands the Genesis story in an archetypal manner: Eve as woman, representing all women, was deceived by Satan and in turn deceived Adam as man, representing all men, and the consequence was transgression. These verses thus offer the supporting argument and explanation to the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12: women should not teach or exercise authority over men because they are inherently deceivable by Satan and liable to lead men astray.
On the face of it this is a strong and well-grounded argument. But it raises a few questions when we read the passage against the whole of Scripture. For example, if women are inherently gullible, unable to resist the false teaching of Satan, why are they entrusted with the task of teaching children and women (Titus 2:3-5)? If the difficulty then is women-in-relation-to-men, were there special circumstances in Ephesus which made the Eve/Adam argument of 2:13-14 relevant to 2:12? Perhaps, it might be responded, there are always difficulties when women and men get together, always potential for proper sexual order to become disordered. Yet even here I think we are entitled to wonder if there were particular difficulties in Ephesus since (a) 1 Timothy 2:15 enjoins women to focus on child-birth (was it younger women causing difficulties?) and (b) 4:3 talks about false teachers who ‘forbid marriage’ (was there either some ascetic ‘the body is evil’ teaching or some licentious ‘casual sexual relationships are preferable to marriage’ teaching which troubled the church?). That is we are entitled to ask whether the Ephesian situation being addressed in 1 Timothy was a (seriously) disordered situation with respect to male/female relationships and not the usual human situation where orderliness is the norm but disorder affects some.
Other questions arise. Can we be sure that 1 Tim 2:13-14 is meant to bear the weight of expectation the universalization of 1 Tim 2:12 places on it? That is, the universal rule not only prohibits all women from teaching and leading mixed gender congregations, it also involves the belief that all women are intrinsically gullible and liable to lead men astray. Was Paul actually saying this with these words? There is an alternative possibility. We admit we do not know everything about the situation in Ephesus. Suppose for example that in the Ephesian church there was an argument around which went like this: women are more important than men, Genesis 1-3 is a load of nonsense, men know nothing, women have special knowledge of theology, including the real truth on (either) sex for pleasure and not for procreation (or) the body is evil, and women are immune to sin. This would make sense of the prohibition (stop these heretical women), the claim in 2:13-14 (Adam first, not deceived by Satan, Eve deceived, transgressed), and the encouragement to bear children in 2.15 (affirming either sex is for procreation or the body is good or both). In this case 1 Tim 2:12 has a limited application – not, of course, solely to the time and place of Ephesus when 1 Timothy was written – but to all situations in which false teaching is propagated by women, and perhaps especially to situations in which normal understanding of the holiness and wholesomeness of marriage and family is being perverted.
Or, we could take another tack. What was Eve’s deception in Genesis 3? It did not concern the suitability of apples as food! The deception was believing the lie of Satan that God had not really said what God had said. Were women teachers at Ephesus questioning whether God had really commanded this or that, and shouting down the men with those questions? Were the men steadfastly refusing to go along with this questioning but losing ground in the arguments. Perhaps the women were cheering the false teachers along and shouting down the true teachers, taking over the speaker’s place in the service when the true teachers were trying to teach. ‘Did God really say we should marry?’ may have been their catch-cry. (A bewildering cry whether it was motivated by stringent asceticism or by seductive promises of promiscuity. Nevertheless 1 Tim 2:15 raises the question whether the error was asceticism rather than licentiousness and thus the false teaching included the line ‘you will not be saved if you bear children which means you have succumbed to the temptation to have sex with your husband’). Again, 2:12-15 makes perfect sense on this scenario: I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man … Adam was formed first … Eve was deceived by Satan … Adam was not … she will be saved through child-birth. For our contexts 2000 years later Paul may have been too cryptic in these verses. A helpful expansion of 2:11-15 could go like this,
‘(With respect to your clash of teachings in your services and women shouting down the orthodox teachers) Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise (manipulative, disrespectful, excessive) authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet. (Contrary to the put-downs of men) Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived (about what God said, until Eve turned his head) but the woman was deceived and (this was not inconsequential because) she became a transgressor. (At this time when Ephesian women are deceived about what God has said about marriage, and confused about losing their salvation if they have marital relations, an Ephesian woman) will be saved through childbearing (that is, will not lose her salvation – this is not, by the way, smuggling in childbearing as an alternative to salvation by faith) – if they (an Ephesian woman, actually any woman) continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.’
Let’s catch up. The point is, it is not actually plain as day that either 1 Timothy 2:12 or its supporting argument, 2:13-14 is universalist in scope. It is plausible that 1 Timothy 2:12 applies to situations such as the one in Ephesians at that time, and to similar ones elsewhere – situations in which women are unhealthily and unhelpfully dominating men in the cause of false teaching. Those who universalise 1 Tim 2:12 make this verse and its support in 2:13-14 bear more weight that it can.
Put another way, a limited application of 1 Tim 2:12 makes good sense. It coheres with the remainder of the Pastoral Letters in the first instance, including their concern about false teaching on the one hand and their recognition of the trustworthiness of women in the teaching of women and children on the other. It fits with the sense we have that when Paul and Euodia and Syntyche and Phoebe and Priscilla were in a church meeting Paul did not prevent these women from teaching. It also fits comfortably with our own experience (to say nothing of other generations) of good women teaching soundly and leading safely, and their churches growing and maturing rather than diminishing and destructing. Finally, a limited application of 1 Tim 2:12 is an approach which differs significantly from another interpretative strategy which confines the relevance of 1 Tim 2:12 to the specific time and culture of Ephesus when 1 Timothy was composed. At any time a church may experience false teaching (on which the Pastoral Letters have a lot to say) and when this false teaching is associated with a domination of men by women teachers who query what God has said (like Eve) and attempt to lead men to heresy concerning ordered sexual relationships (like the Ephesian women), then the Pauline injunction is clear: prohibit, do not negotiate a compromise. But when these issues are not present, the normal life of the church is to involve both men and women in the leadership of the church.