• Eric Carpenter

Paul, the Culture and the Radical Equality of Women (Part 3)

Updated: Jul 30, 2019


*This is the third in a series of blog posts that discuss the issue of women in leadership. To understand specifically Paul’s outlook on women in leadership, I believe we need to understand three significant perspectives from which he wrote: God’s kingdom, cultural accommodation, and his understanding of the Spirit’s work. These posts are written from a perspective that embraces women in leadership roles of the church.


Meet Phil and Katelyn, newly engaged and new to our church. Both had grown significantly in their faith in college, but at church they had learned that women were not to teach or have authority over men. They asked me to discuss this specific issue.


To prepare for our meeting, our young couple had read various background sources, including—thankfully—some favoring the full inclusion of women in all church ministries. We carefully explored the issue in the context of the core biblical theme, the Kingdom of God. Little by little, as we considered everything, they were mostly convinced. They recognized the strong arguments in favor of full inclusion but still had some questions. Phil asked, “Pastor, we see the strong arguments in favor of women in leadership, but how do you understand passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-15?”


Katelyn included a very personal question: “I really want to be a good wife when we get married. How do I understand concepts like authority, submission and headship? It seems very confusing.” I loved their attitude behind all the questions. Their desire was not to win a theological argument, but to live faithfully in the Kingdom—according to God’s will. Hallelujah! I pray that we all would approach these questions with such a spirit.

Why Dig Deeper?

For many Christians, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 stands as the foundation for the issues of leadership and authority of women in the church. The NIV translation reads:


A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. 1 Timothy 2:11-15


These scriptures seem pretty clear, is there reason to dig deeper? After all, an important principle of interpretation is “stay with the plainest meaning of the text when possible.” This text seems to clearly teach that women should not teach or have authority over men.


However, I would argue that there are important reasons to dig deeper into this passage. The primary reason is its inconsistency with the rest of scripture, including scriptures by Paul himself. In the first article we looked at Paul’s kingdom theology (especially Galatians 3:26-29) and in the second we covered not only the Spirit’s giftings of all people but also the “Fabulous Five”: women who were serving in positions of authority, some including authority over men.


In his commentary on Galatians, noted scholar F.F. Bruce, argues for the primacy of Galatians 3:26-29 in all Paul’s writings, specifically, verse 28: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus…. Bruce writes, “Paul states the basic principle here; if restrictions on it are found elsewhere in the Pauline corpus … they are to be understood in relation to Galatians 3:28, and not vice versa.” [1]


Bruce’s comments illustrate another important principle of Biblical interpretation, “interpret scripture with scripture.” Bruce sees Galatians 3:26-29 as a framework/ foundational passage. It has preeminence over passages that appear rooted in their cultural contexts. It is the lens through which we should look at other passages. Therefore, we should interpret 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in the light of Galatians 3:26-29, not vice versa.


Of course, we shouldn’t view 1 Timothy just through Galatians 3, but also look at other important passages:

  • Genesis 3:16b – Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you…

  • Acts 2:17 – I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy…

  • 1 Corinthians 11:5 – But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…

  • Judges 4 (Deborah), Acts 18 (Priscilla), Romans 16 (Phoebe and Junias).

How do we reconcile these passages with 1 Timothy 2:11-15? We don’t believe that God’s revelation in one text is inconsistent with another text. Does this mean we should look for ways to reconcile all these different passages with 1 Timothy 2? Read on.


Also think about this passage theologically. At first blush, Paul seems to imply that women should not teach or have authority over men, not only because Adam was born first, but because Eve was deceived first. Doesn’t that sound inconsistent with the theology of forgiveness and redemption? Are we to believe that God forbids women forever from teaching and having authority over men because of Eve’s sin? Doesn’t Christ’s redeeming work break the power of Satan and undo all the effects of the Fall? (1 John 3:8, Acts 26:17-18, Matthew 12:25-29)


In terms of salvation, Paul’s words in the Timothy passage seem incredibly confusing and inconsistent. What in the world did Paul mean when he wrote “women will be saved through childbearing …”? What!?! This contradicts all Paul said elsewhere about salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8, Titus 2:11).


When we notice apparent inconsistencies within the scriptures, we must explore further. This is where study of both context and culture come to bear. I have heard it said that discussion of culture and context only comes about when people don’t want to believe what scripture clearly says. On the contrary, I think we study context and culture to understand the whole of scripture more clearly. So, let’s dig a little deeper into this text. Let’s seek to understand Paul’s words here not only in the context and culture of 1 Timothy (the city of Ephesus), but also in the whole context of scripture.


Vs. 11: Submission and the Kingdom of God

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.”

Let’s pull back from the Timothy passage and ask how submission is understood within the kingdom of God. Yes, women are called to submission, but so is every follower of Christ. Submission is the way of the Christian because it is the way of the cross. We are all called to a life of submission:

  • to the Lord (James 4:7)

  • to those older in the Lord (1 Peter 5:5)

  • to the gospel (2 Corinthians 9:13)

  • to civic leaders (Romans 13:5)

  • to one another (Ephesians 5:21)

  • to spiritual leaders (Hebrews 13:17).

The call to submission and obedience is generally about humility, respect and reverence. It is not usually about the forfeiting of rights, authority and giftedness. It is not about power and decision-making; it’s about honoring both God and others in positions of authority.


There is not only a mutual call to submission, but there is also a shared call of “quietness” (Greek hesychia ). Earlier in 1 Timothy, Paul says:


I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior… 1 Timothy 2:1-3


So, the encouragements that Paul gives to women specifically in verse 11 are nothing he hasn’t also said to men elsewhere. He is not “teaching women their proper place.” Rather, he is teaching them the “Christian way.” In fact, he is teaching them the Christian way of “learning,” not to be overlooked by women or men. Paul came from a Jewish context where only men were Rabbis (teachers) and disciples, so his invitation for “women to learn” in any way at all could have seemed revolutionary to some, especially Jewish Christians.


Verse 12: The Significance of a Single Word: authentein

I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

Paul didn’t write his letters in a vacuum. He addressed specific questions; he talked about issues that house churches in different places struggled to understand. 1 Timothy is no exception. He wrote 1 Timothy to refute false teachings bothering the Ephesian believers. (See 1:3-7; 4:1-8; 6:3-5, 20-21). It seems appropriate that we should include 2:11-15 as also correcting a false idea. The appropriate understanding of one particular word in verse 12 can transform our understanding of the entire passage. It helps us identify more clearly what Paul was refuting.


When Paul wrote, “women should not teach or have authority over men,” he chose the Greek word authentein for ‘authority’. This is a unique word. By my count, Paul wrote ‘authority/ authorities’ 25 other times and never used authentein. Not only is this word unique to Paul, but also in all of scripture. Ruth A. Tucker points out, “The word is found nowhere else in Scripture and is uncommon even in secular Greek literature. Where it is used in extra-biblical literature, it usually has a negative connotation and essentially means ‘to thrust oneself,’ or to ‘domineer.’[2] Why would Paul choose such a unique word here?


Strong’s Concordance defines authentein as “one who with his own hand kills either others or himself.” As mentioned above, it carries the connotation of dominating authority. Because of this meaning, KJV translates this passage, “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man …” 1Timothy 2:12


The clearer understanding of this word dramatically changes how we understand what Paul is challenging. Paul wasn’t addressing women exercising authority over men in general, but rather women exercising inappropriate/usurping authority over men.


This line of reasoning seems even more powerful when you contrast it with another instance in which Paul talked about authority between men and women. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul addressed relationships between men and women and at one point he wrote about sexual intimacy:


The wife does not have authority (exousiazo) over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority (exousiazo) over his own body but yields it to his wife.” V.4


Incredibly, in the 1st century setting, Paul argued for equality between men and women in the context of marriage and sexual intimacy. This would have been seen as revolutionary in most cultures of his day. But notice he used the Greek word exousiazo instead of authentein.


Why would Paul use different words in 1 Corinthians 7 and 1 Timothy 2? Because he was teaching the appropriate use of authority in the first instance, and challenging inappropriate use of authority in the latter. Paul does not forbid the exercise of authority of women over men; rather, he forbade the inappropriate exercise of authority (and the teaching that would result from it) of women over men.


Vs. 13 - 14: Correcting the Creation Myths

“For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”

This is a dramatic change of meaning, not only for verse 12, but also in the following verses. When reading the epistles, we often don’t know the background arguments or activities to which the author is responding. We have to infer from their words what issue they are addressing. So, if Paul is arguing against inappropriate use of authority of women, then the role of verses 13 and 14 in his argument changes significantly.


He would not bring up the fact that Adam was created first and Eve sinned first to justify why women are not to have authority over men. Potentially Paul was refuting the false arguments that justified female dominance. These arguments could have been origin myths such as, “women brought men into the world, so they should be the rulers of men.” Arguments could have been made regarding the introduction of sin, “Men are responsible for introducing sin into the world, so they are not trusted to lead.” Was there potentially any teaching of female dominance in Ephesus? The answer is a resounding yes!


According to historians, Ephesus was a center of Roman and Greek pagan worship. Famous for its cult and temple worship of the goddess Artemis (the Greek name for the Roman goddess Diana). In fact, the temple of the goddess was one of the “seven wonders of the ancient world.” It was a massive structure and people came from all over the ancient world to participate in the worship rituals.


The people revered Artemis as the predominant goddess in Ephesus. Some scholars think Artemis had taken on the characteristics of Cybele, the mother goddess of fertility worshiped in Asia Minor and served by many prostitute priestesses.[3] In most Greek cities, Artemis was worshiped as a secondary god, but in Ephesus she was preeminent.


Scripture itself attests to Aretemis’ proclaimed supremacy. In Acts 19 Paul faced great opposition in Ephesus because of preaching against idols, “gods made with human hands.” The worship of Artemis was big business there (19:23-41). Demetrius, the silversmith who fashioned silver shrines of Artemis, argued, “… the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” (19:27) This is why the mob who opposed Paul yelled, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (19:28)


In his important book, Fashioned to Reign, Kris Vallotton finds significance in two symbols associated with Artemis, a crown and eggs. He writes, “… Artemis had a crown on her head, which could have been a sign of female rulership. Artemis also had eggs surrounding her midsection, which many think are a symbol of fertility.” [4]


Vallotton proposes that the teachings of pagan female rulership/domination (symbolized by the crown) and the priority of woman because they are the source of men (symbolized by the eggs) may have crept into the doctrines of the church in Ephesus. Based on Paul’s choice of words and what we know of the surrounding culture, this argument seems plausible.


When people combine belief systems and practices, we call it syncretism. From Paul’s words and what we know of the Ephesian culture, it seems likely that syncretism had infected the church in Ephesus. Believers had apparently allowed the teachings and religious practices of the Artemis cult to influence the gospel and how Christians lived it out. This is similar to modern Christians allowing secular values to affect Kingdom living, e.g. playing sports (often “worshipped” by society) on Sunday morning, thus affecting church attendance for parents and children.


If we view the Timothy passage through the lens of Paul addressing syncretistic teachings and practices, you can see how this changes our understanding of his argument. Did Paul justify limiting women because Eve bit the fruit first? Did this act forever relegate her to a subservient role? No. That would have been very unlike Paul.


In vv. 13-14, was Paul really addressing false teaching (as he does throughout the entire book of 1 Timothy) and the mythologies and creation stories of Artemis? If the Ephesians justified female dominance because women were the source of men, then Paul corrected how creation actually took place— God created the man first. This would have undermined completely the rationale for female dominance. If the Ephesians taught that men were responsible for all the sin in the world, then Paul’s teaching that it was Eve who sinned first would directly refute any justification for female supremacy. Doesn’t it seem that Ephesus could have been the perfect seed bed for such false teaching and behavior?


Verse 15: Salvation vs. Protection

”But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

For a long time, verse 15 has been one of the most confusing passages for me in the whole New Testament. This verse alone should force Christians to dig deeper into NT context and culture. You simply can’t make good biblical sense of this passage unless you explore the cultural context of Ephesus.


As discussed above, Artemis was revered as the goddess of fertility.[5] She enabled women to conceive and preserved them throughout the childbearing process. In v. 15 Paul addressed the fear that if women became followers of Christ, and fully rejected the goddess, there would be a price to pay in childbirth. In v.15 Paul used the Greek work sozo (saved, delivered, healed, preserved, made whole). Context helps us understand which meaning of the word fits best. In context, Paul is not talking about eternal salvation, but is talking about physical preservation and protection.


Therefore, a much better translation of v. 15 is, “women will be brought safely through childbearing.” [6] So, Paul is not promising salvation to women who have kids. He seems to be addressing fears that Ephesian Christians had absorbed from the pagan teachings about Artemis.


Hearing the Text in Context and Culture:

If we allow for the more precise translation of some of the words in this text, as well as the cultural considerations we have highlighted, the text makes far more sense. We can understand these verses in such a way that is completely consistent with both Paul’s teaching and the rest of the New Testament. Below is my simple paraphrase of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 based on contextual and cultural considerations:


Women should receive instruction in quietness and submission, as we are all called to do. This is the way of the cross. I do not allow women to teach in such a way that usurps the authority of a man, she must have an attitude of humility. Despite what you may have been taught previously, Adam was formed first and then Eve. Furthermore, Adam was not the one deceived initially by the evil one, but it was the woman. Eve led the way into our transgressions. That is the true creation story. Finally, it is Christ who will bring you safely through child bearing, not Artemis[7], if you continue in faith, love and holiness with modesty. 1 Timothy 2: 11-15


Wrapping up with Phil and Katelyn

The Spirit of God has great plans for Phil and Katelyn. Based on their foundation of faith and understanding, the Lord will mature them into a faithful husband and wife and empower them as servants of the gospel. Vital for their spiritual formation will be the understanding of mutual submission and the appropriate use of authority in their marriage and in the church.


Thinking of Katelyn in particular, she is not only very well educated, but seems to have some natural abilities in leadership. My hope and prayer is that she, and any other woman called and gifted by God, will not be restricted from leadership because of a misinterpretation of Paul’s words. The church desperately needs all the resources the Lord provides.

[1] F.F. Bruce. The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (The New International Greek Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 1982. P. 190.

[2] Tucker, Ruth A. Woman in the Maze. InterVarsity Press. 1992. P. 115

[3] NIV Study Bible

[4] P. 175. I recommend Vallotton’s explanations of the relevant passages on equality of women, even though some scholars differ on the details.

[5] “The Ephesian Artemis was believed to have the power to bring new life into the world and to take life away. There is no real evidence that she was a mother goddess…. but several ancient documents reveal that she was believed to be a midwife… It was thought she helped women and animals in labor. Ephesian women would call on Artemis during childbirth to speed up the labor and ease the pain, or, in dire circumstances, they would call on her to bring about a quick death to end their suffering (e.g., Acts of Andrew 25). Artemis was also the champion and protector of virgins, both male and female…. She was considered a virgin and, unlike mother goddesses, she was not associated with any male consort or god.” 1Timothy 2:12 in context: Artemis of Ephesus and her Temple. Internet post April, 2013.

[6] See also 2 Timothy 4:18 where Paul refers to himself, …bring me safely….

[7] Because Paul was aware that his letters would be circulated among the house churches, I don’t think he would have ever named Artemis directly. He would not want to bring more persecution upon the Ephesian Christians. Though this omission is understandable, I think it has added to the lack of clarity surrounding this passage.

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