Volume 17 - Issue 3

A stalemate of genders? Some hermeneutical reflections

By C. Powell


Christians are not exempt from the effects of secular trends in emancipation. Today’s Christian woman is faced with a situation where the church is often sending out messages about her nature and role which are in opposition to those received in her contact with the secular world. She may be a school headmistress, teaching boys, but she may not ‘teach’ men in the church. And within the church world itself there are puzzles. She may join a missionary society (mostly manned by women!) and be supported by her church to teach men and women and plant churches abroad, but still not be able to ‘teach’ on her return home!

In an attempt to decode such conflicting messages, the modern Christian woman may rightly turn to the Bible for authoritative guidance, yet precisely there she faces another set of problems. Christians are divided over what the biblical evidence says.

The pressing need at the moment is to formulate a theology which does not merely sanctify the results of secular feminism, but which reassesses the new cultural horizon and thinking on the role of women in the light of the biblical horizon. Achieving such a fusion of horizons is precisely the issue among evangelicals in this debate.

Scripture must be authoritative

If Scripture is not viewed as authoritative there is no obligation to take its words as foundational or binding for decisions affecting doctrine and behaviour in the area of the roles of men and women. The issue will be decided on other grounds. Thus, although Schuessler Fiorenza deals with the biblical text more than most liberal Christian feminists, when the text is put in the balance and found wanting, feminist concerns outweigh revelation: ‘The personally and politically reflected experience of oppression and liberation must become the criterion of appropriateness for biblical interpretation and evaluation of biblical authority claims.’1 It is this question of scriptural authority which divides the different approaches to the issue at the most fundamental level.

At this stage the polarizations may seem obvious. Those who regard Scripture as secondary see things one way, and those who regard Scripture as primary see things another way. However, the debate is not simply a matter of whether Scripture is authoritative, but how that authority may be discovered. We are still left with the dilemma that evangelicals (i.e. those, including myself, who regard Scripture as primary and authoritative) do not necessarily agree upon the interpretation of the text, and there is often a great chasm of suspicion between the proponents of those various interpretations. Deciding what the text means involves more than merely assenting to its authority.

A matter of exegesis

Among evangelicals the different sides of the debate show that scholarship is divided. Some take a traditional or ‘hierarchical’ view of the relationship of men and women, while others maintain a ‘liberationist’ position of mutual submission and equality. (The labels do not consign the one side to ‘chauvinism’ and the other to ‘raving feminism’!) The curious thing is that the source for these widely differing views is precisely the same text! The text itself faces us with choices more complex than merely to take it or leave it.

The vast majority of literature appearing is still in the area of exegetical statements about Scripture, where a particular view is propounded because this is what Scripture is obviously saying. If we remain at this stage we shall go no further than hurling proof texts from one side of the debate to the other. What is necessary is to go a step further back, to examine the hermeneutical processes which lead to the formulation of the various conclusions advocated. There is scarcely any material which is yet dealing with such questions. Willard Swartley’s book Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women is one of the few to start raising the issues, but there is a long way to go.

Is tradition exegetically authoritative?

In asking this question the emphasis is not on a particular church or doctrinal tradition, but on the tradition in which we all stand with respect to the way in which given texts have historically been interpreted.

Many evangelicals have frankly been deterred from the possibility of coming to conclusions which differ from those traditionally held through the centuries, rightly afraid of somehow, in the process, sacrificing the authority of Scripture. But is this necessarily the case?

Biblical exegesis on the nature and role of women has traditionally been exclusively hierarchical. Thomas Aquinas concluded women’s subordination from the Pauline writings, inferring from Genesis 2 and 3 (influenced more by Aristotle than Scripture!) that woman was essentially a misbegotten male, a male manqué. The woman is by nature (for Aquinas it is ontologically convincing) cursed, subject to man and weaker than him: ‘woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates’!2

Man was clearly made in the image of God, but woman was inferior in this respect also. Augustine commented, ‘The woman herself alone is not the image of God: whereas the man alone is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman is joined with him.’3

By the time of the Protestant Reformation Luther’s exposition of Scripture was still governed by the presupposition that woman was inferior to man. On Ecclesiastes 7:26 he eisegetes, ‘she was created to be around the man, to care for children and to bring them up … and to be subject to the man. Men, on the other hand, are commanded to govern and have the rule over women and the rest of the household. But if a woman forsakes her office and assumes authority over her husband, she is no longer doing her own work, for which she was created, but a work that comes from her own fault and from evil. For God did not create this sex for ruling, and therefore they never rule successfully.’4 Luther may have had cultural grounds for such ideas, but there are no biblical grounds for men being commanded to govern and rule over their wives, let alone women in general, and certainly nothing in Ecclesiastes! And if on creational grounds a woman’s role is to be around the man and to have children, presumably all men are to be gardeners!

Calvin seems to accord women a slightly higher dignity than Luther, yet he was similarly convinced of women’s subordination, on creational grounds. In his commentary on 1 Timothy 2:12 he states: ‘The reason that women are prevented from teaching is that it is not compatible with their status, which is to be subject to men, whereas to teach implies superior authority and status. ‘He goes on to say that men as teachers may also be subject to others: ‘there is no absurdity in man’s commanding and obeying at the same time in different relationships. But this does not apply to women, who by nature (that is, by the ordinary law of God) are born to obey, for all wise men have always rejected gynaikokratian, the government of women, as an unnatural monstrosity.’5

Calvin and the others were convinced that their views rested on biblical grounds, totally oblivious that their own cultural horizon had in reality led them to faulty exegesis. Tradition does not always leave us the best of exegetical examples!

What has changed?

It is only within the past generation that a significant number of exegetes have seriously maintained that Scripture teaches equality and mutual submission rather than a hierarchy of the sexes, and that the role of teaching is not reliant on a superior status or authority which is gender-based. Is this overthrow of a traditionalist interpretation also the overthrow of biblical authority? The question must be asked how such teaching could possibly be plain from Scripture if it has not been generally recognized before now? The weight of historical exegesis falls on the traditionalist interpretation, leaving us with two main options:

(1)  The traditionalist understanding must be correct because exegesis is historically changeless.

(2)  The liberationist understanding may be correct because exegesis depends to a large extent upon the current cultural horizon of the exegete as well as the past cultural horizon of the text. In this case the results of exegesis may validly change if new light is shed on the exegetical and cultural presuppositions of past generations.

From a study of the history of exegesis the first option is obviously untenable. For the second option we have ample historical precedent. For example, in attempting to specify incarnational Christology and to protect it from the early heresies, many of the early Church Fathers did so within a Platonic frame-work which presupposed that God was both immutable and impassible—views which are no longer held to be prerequisite to modern exegesis! Their understanding was affected by their cultural horizon which was later seen to be unwarranted by Scripture itself. Luther’s cry for justification by faith from Romans was contrary to much prevailing interpretation, just as also with the abolition of slavery came the understanding that Scripture could no longer be used to maintain the unjust status quo, even if, in the 1850s, to argue against slavery was allegedly to argue against Scripture’s infallibility!

In other words, tradition alone may hallow error just as easily as it may hallow truth, and newness itself does not sanction or invalidate an interpretation.

Issues in translation

There are already a number of arguments previously cherished by traditionalists which have been shown to be hermeneutically unsound. For example, the use of ‘helper’ to refer to Eve in Genesis 2:18 is rarely referred to now to indicate subordination, since it has been shown that ‘helper’ is used most often of God in relation to Israel—with no connotations of inferiority!

Similarly, many questions have been asked of the traditionalist position—not through a stereotypical desire to be militant or anti-authoritarian, but because it throws up issues of inconsistency and problems of translation and exegesis.

The verb hypotassō occurs twenty-three times in the Pauline epistles. Traditionalist writers tend to translate the word as ‘subordinate’ rather than ‘submit to’ (the former often having overtones of inferiority in the English). Although Paul clearly distinguishes between hypakouō (‘obey’—a verb never used for the husband/wife relationship6) and hypotassō, there has often been an implicit acceptance of obedience even where it does not actually occur. Typical of this is Best’s statement, ‘In Ephesians 5:22–33 the wife is taught to be obedient to her husband in the same manner as the Church is obedient to Christ. The subjection of the Church to Christ and its relationship to him as wife is assumed as known.’7 He clearly reads obedience instead of submission, though the two are not synonymous for Paul.

In fact, the injunction ‘Wives, submit to your husbands …’ is an implicit command where the imperative is absent, but assumed from the participle hypotassomenoi in Ephesians 5:21, which commands us to be subject to one another. It is thus part of a mutuality of submission within the body of Christ. It cannot be a different submission on the part of the wife since there is no new verb, and the only verb used is one which in fact also governs all other relationships. The niv conveniently separates verse 22 as beginning a new section, and no traditionalists see it as significant that the injunction of 5:21 applies to men and women alike! However, ‘the subordination of wives is an example of the same mutual subordination which is also shown by the husband’s love …’.8 Submission is not the duty of the wife alone any more than love is the duty of the husband alone!

Markus Barth contends that whenever the verb is used in the active, God himself is the only one who does the subjecting. There is a hierarchy of God’s supreme power subjecting the weaker and inferior to himself. However, when used of Christ, the church and its members, hypotassō ‘describes a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden. He expects this kind of subordination only of Christ and of persons who are “in Christ”.… It is a demonstration of that “total humility, gentleness, mutual bearing, love, unity, peace” which in 4:1–3 were described as the constitutive works not of miserable slaves and bootlickers but of the free children of God, of persons in high standing, even of princes.’9

This is no feeble submissiveness. Neither is the husband on any occasion enjoined to make the wife submit. Rather, it is a voluntary, personal act of free yielding to an equal, required of both sexes. This is surely what the text requires us to understand, and also how stable, godly marriages and relationships actually work! Correct exegesis affects correct behaviour; orthodoxy and orthopraxy are inseparable.

Presuppositions in translation

Bruce Metzger, in his introduction to the New Revised Standard Version (nrsv), comments that ‘During the almost half a century since the publication of the rsv, many in the churches have become sensitive to the danger of linguistic sexism, arising from the inherent bias of the English language towards the masculine gender, a bias that in the case of the Bible has often restricted or obscured the meaning of the original text’.10The nrsv is to be congratulated in its attempt (though not always successful) to take this seriously.

Whilst some feel it is nitpicking to correct this linguistic bias (after all, man has embraced woman for years!), apart from being sociologically downright impolite in linguistically ignoring half the population, this bias actually leads to a number of wrong assumptions within the biblical text which the Greek does not warrant. For example, in a recent lecture this author had difficulty persuading a student that Paul’s use of adelphoi(‘brothers’) throughout 1 Thessalonians did not mean that he was addressing only men! It also leads to such ‘helpful’ comments as the Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible entry on ‘Woman’: ‘The gospel was available to all men without regard to sex’!11

The sexism (i.e. neglect or exclusion of women) of the Greek language itself is often reinforced in translation into languages which are also sexist. The fact is that, in Greek, feminine nouns and pronouns are used exclusively with reference to women. If a category is mixed or uncertain (e.g. disciples), then the masculine is always used, although Luke sometimes specifies both (e.g. Acts 5:14: andrōn te kai gynaikōn). It is time our translations changed to using ‘brothers and sisters’ where this is clearly the intended meaning, as indeed the nrsv does. It is not enough to maintain, ‘everyone knows that “brothers” means “sisters” too—it is taken for granted’. It is not taken for granted that masculine includes feminine, and why should it? Take for example 2 Timothy 2:2, ‘And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others’ (niv). This presents no problem for men (i.e. male) to read. It must apply to them. But, in the English translation, does ‘men’ here include women? After all, these ‘men’ are to teach others—something which (according to traditionalist or hierarchical interpreters) women are apparently precluded from doing!

Every female reader, consciously or unconsciously, passes this word ‘men’ through an interpretative grid to ask whether it includes her or not. In the case of 2 Timothy 2:2 the translation may lead her to believe that she is not included. Greek has a separate word for man and woman/husband and wife (anēr and gynē). However, here the word anthrōpos is used, a word clearly meaning ‘person, human, mortal’, yet more often than not in the niv, translated by the ambiguous word ‘man’. The Greek is clearly inclusive; the English is not. The small courtesy of inclusivist language is not some grudging concession to feminist stridency, but a necessary tool for correct exegesis.

Similarly, the English personal pronoun ‘he’, used in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, prejudges the issue and makes it difficult to read it as anything but exclusively male when there is in reality no Greek male personal pronoun or indication that it is to be understood exclusively.12 Yet the niv inserts ‘he’ or ‘man’ some eleven times in this passage!

Disregarding inclusivist language may lead to presuppositional blindspots among exegetes (the vast majority of whom are male). For example, 1 Thessalonians 4:3–8 is a passage stressing the need for personal purity in relationships. Exactly which relationships are in mind has been disputed; the discussion ranges between skeuos (‘vessel’) in 4:4 as a reference to the wife (so B. Witherington III, M. Evans) or to the body (so L. Morris). Among the many arguments it is felt that to refer skeuos to the wife would portray a low view of women, whilst others see no denegration of the wife, especially since in 1 Peter 3 she is referred to as the ‘weaker vessel’, thereby presuming that the husband is a vessel too!

The options given by scholars are either that it means ‘a man should control his own body’ or that ‘a man should acquire a wife’ in all holiness and honour. Of those who relate skeuos to the wife, all of those read by this present writer presume that the hekaston hymōṉ (‘each one of you’) of 4:4 refers exclusively to men. It is presumed that Paul must be speaking of a husband, and no translation or commentator even entertains the possibility that it may refer to a woman. It simply does not occur to them! It is always seen to be a man controlling either his body or gaining his wife! The likelihood is there, however, that the language used is deliberately ambiguous and is embracing both men and women. Skeuos is used here by Paul as if to say that the instructions for sanctification and chastity apply to each to take a partner/control of their own body in holiness and honour. There is no need for Paul to be addressing only men at this point. This is merely one example of the danger of marginalization in translation. Maleness is assumed, femaleness is not.

Christians should, for reasons of courtesy and clarity, use the word ‘man’ only when it refers to maleness. If this means changes to our translations or in our everyday language, so be it. We can only be enriched by the process.

Issues in exegesis and interpretation

Unclear texts should be interpreted in the light of clear texts

There are no unequivocal texts forbidding women for all time from teaching or participating fully in all aspects of church leadership. The key texts used in the past are significantly among the most difficult in the NT, including a number of hapax legomena and verses such as 1 Timothy 2:15, which still awaits a really convincing exegesis.

For example, the hapax legomenon ‘authentein’ in 1 Timothy 2:12 is seen by Moo to be ‘a major crux interpretum13 to support a traditionalist interpretation. Does this not in fact violate the generally accepted hermeneutical principle that unclear texts should be interpreted in the light of clear texts? Payne rightly notes, ‘In no other verse of Scripture is it stated that women are not to be in “authority” over men. It is precarious indeed to deny that women should ever be in a position of authority over men based on the disputed meaning of the only occurrence of this word anywhere in the Bible.’14

Yet in the debate over women it is precisely such ‘unclear’ texts which are used as foundational to the traditionalist argument that women should not authoritatively teach men. Rarely are there references to unequivocal texts such as Colossians 3:16 which clearly states that teaching is the responsibility of all believers. Gender is simply not specified, and neither is it anywhere assumed that some teaching is more authoritative than other teaching within the church body, or that a formal sermon slot in church is different from teaching outside a church environment.

Presuppositions in exegesis

Presuppositions are inevitable scholarly appendages, indivisible from any theologian’s task and visible at every level of exegesis. Scholer observes, ‘The concept of genuinely objective biblical interpretation is a myth.… Generally, persons raised within holiness, pentecostal and certain Baptist traditions experienced women teaching authoritatively in the church long before they were equipped to interpret 1 Timothy 2:11–12 and never found that passage a problem. Conversely, persons raised in many Reformed traditions knew long before they were equipped to interpret 1 Timothy 2:11–12 that women were to be excluded from authoritative teaching in the church. They grew up finding the verses clear support for what they believed.’15

Not that this means that the task of exegesis is a hopeless one, but that at least these things should be recognized with no false notions of some ideal ‘objectivity’. Not all presuppositions are wrong. Yet the approach of the exegete must always be that presuppositions are not to change the text, but rather be changed by it. As Swartley challenges, ‘If Bible study is never allowed to change our doctrine, indeed our beliefs, then why do it?’16

Much of the traditional exegesis of the passages concerning women has rested on presuppositions that Paul must have had a hierarchical opinion of women. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Grosheide remarks of 7:39, ‘Remarkable it is that Paul first mentions the wife instead of beginning with the husband. This may be due to the fact that the Corinthian women were taking too many liberties and also that the wife is subject to the husband.’17 The commentary mentions little about the significance of 1 Corinthians 7 with regard to the role of women, but the above quotation serves to show that it presumes, if anything, to have the subjection of wives in mind, even if the passage does not mention it! Many liberationist exegetes note, however, that the surprising parallelism of men and women in the passage would seem rather to point to Paul’s handling of them as equals.


Kephalē (‘head’) has been a linchpin of controversy, leading many to conclusions of hierarchy—authority for husbands and subjugation of wives—and some others to an understandable over-reaction, leading unfortunately to an emptying of meaning or force to verses such as Ephesians 5:23. It is important to see how exegetes’ assumptions about the word may lead to erroneous interpretations and an ignoring of the contextual meaning.

For instance, the majority of exegetes dealing with kephalē in Ephesians 5:23 proceed with the following hermeneutical reasoning:

(i)         Kephalē means ‘head’, either literally or metaphorically.

(ii)        What ‘head’ means can be found by a diachronic study of kephalē used in other contexts in biblical and extra-biblical Greek literature.

(iii)       Kephalē is sometimes used with the sense of ‘ruler’ and sometimes with the sense of ‘source’ or ‘origin’.

(iv)       The choice lies with the exegetes; those with traditionalist presuppositions opt for ‘ruler, authority over’, and those with liberationist presuppositions opt for ‘source’.

(v)        Sometimes even English etymology is called upon to bolster the argument of meaning, e.g. the ‘head’ of a school or ‘head’ of a class imply authority and pre-eminence, therefore ‘head’ in Ephesians 5:23 has these connotations! Even if this is not a deliberate hermeneutical procedure it is often an unconscious misfortune resulting from translation into a polysemy.

However, James Barr has shown that ‘the etymology of a word is not a statement about its meaning but about its history; it is only as a historical statement that it can be responsibly asserted, and it is quite wrong to suppose that the etymology of a word is necessarily a guide either to its “proper” meaning in a later period or to its actual meaning in that period’.18 Words not only change their meanings with the passage of time, but even within the same timespan words are themselves capable of a plurality of meanings.

Neither is the use of kephalē in other Pauline passages a fool-proof methodology. It is possible for a word to be used even within the same letter with entirely different meanings or shades of significance. What must be avoided is what Barr terms ‘illegitimate totality transfer’, where the semantic value of a word in one particular context is added to its use in a completely different context. Thiselton states that ‘the meaning of a word depends not on what it is in itself, but on its relation to other words and to other sentences which form its context … words do indeed possess a stable core of meaning.… Nevertheless, the most urgent priority is to point out the fallacy of an atomizing exegesis which pays insufficient attention to context’.19

For example, in Ephesians 1:22 kephalē may well mean ‘head’ in the sense of ‘crown’ or ‘top’, but it is different from 5:23, where it does not. Context must be the hermeneutical decider, but context is frequently forgotten!

So what does headship mean? The tradition passed down in many churches is that of a husband taking final and major decisions, and in the end being a type of loving ‘boss’. Is this in fact what the biblical evidence suggests? An example of faulty transference of meaning is found in Best’s comment on Ephesians 5:23: ‘Headship implies here not organic unity but the power to rule’.20 The implication for him is obvious without any need for explanation! Certainly Christ does have power to rule his church, but it is nowhere suggested that power is the point of comparison in this context. In fact, in a passage speaking so much of submission and love, power and ruling are distinctly out of place. The analogies drawn from Christ are all in the area of giving up and sacrifice, not of power or rule. Headship is giving, not ruling.

Hurley says, ‘Headship and leadership most often involve initiative rather than command’.21 But for Hurley the initiative is essentially in authority of decision-making for the husband, whereas the context in Ephesians simply does not say this, rather it demands that we see initiative at the point of selfless, self-giving love.

Similarly, Bruce makes this bald statement on this passage: ‘In this context the word “head” has the idea of authority attached to it after the analogy of Christ’s headship over the church’.22 The underlying exegetical assumption here is that the analogy of Christ’s headship of the church is speaking about authority at this particular point. This is neither necessary nor obvious. 5:25–29 elaborate on this headship in terms of love. It is not Christ’s Lordship which is analogous to the husband’s headship, but Christ’s self-giving, and it is to such a headship of love that the wife is to submit herself.

It becomes obvious that views of headship being ‘over’ the wife/woman or consisting in superiority, priority, decision-making, bread-winning or authority from this passage are based on eisegesis rather than on the text itself. The ideal Christian marriage is not required to be the relationship of a subservient wife to an authoritative husband, but that of mutual self-giving.

Choosing an interpretative centre

Where we begin is all-important to our conclusion. Clark says, ‘In short, 1 Timothy 2:8–15 is one of the most important texts to consider in any examination of the New Testament on the roles of men and women.’23 F.F. Bruce, however, begins with Galatians 3:28: ‘Paul states the basic principle here; if restrictions on it are found elsewhere in the Pauline corpus, as in 1 Corinthians 14:34f.… or 1 Timothy 2:11f., they are to be understood in relation to Galatians 3:28, and not vice versa.’24

The heart of the problem is precisely here. The basic hermeneutical principle upon which all agree is the necessary harmonization of text. From then on a ‘Key’ passage is found, which becomes the standard by which all other texts must be harmonized. Which one is the ‘right’ one to start with? This is the moot point. Perhaps it should be borne in mind that traditionalists have usually made the more unclear texts their centres for interpretation.

The use of the creation narratives

A complete examination of this topic is impossible here. However, a good example of the way in which the creation narratives have been used may be seen from 1 Timothy 2:8–15. Debates over this passage are often brought to a climax by an appeal to the fact that ‘Paul uses a creation argument’ or ‘Paul refers to the creation order’, as if this were automatically known to be irrefutable evidence for the traditionalist view!

The traditionalist exegesis of these verses may be seen from Alan Stibbs’ commentary. It is presumed that Paul’s teaching about woman is quite clear. She is to be subordinate, and the reference to the Genesis story is so obvious that there is no need to exegete it: ‘The tragedy of the Fall establishes the general truth that a woman is more easily deceived than a man; so it is out of place for her to take the lead in settling either doctrine or practice for the Christian community. (Note that it is, however, a woman’s privilege to teach children and younger women …).’25

But does the fall establish such a general truth? The main hermeneutical issue arising from 1 Timothy 2:13–15 concerns the reason for which Paul uses the allusion to Genesis. What exactly is the point of comparison between the Eve story and the Ephesian situation?

A traditionalist view:

Throughout his book Man & Woman in Biblical Perspective, James Hurley presumes that Genesis 2 was written in order to show the headship of man over woman and that it is for this reason that Paul refers to Adam and Eve.

Hurley’s insistence on hierarchy leads him to a faulty exegesis of Genesis 3. He rightly dismisses the possibility that the consequences of Eve’s act are that all women are gullible and should not be allowed to propagate their ignorance. Perhaps a little close observation of the subject matter may have helped him to his conclusion, but also the fact that women are specifically encouraged to teach in certain other circumstances. The key to understanding lies in deciding who was actually at fault in the fall. ‘Paul seems to be saying that Eve was not at fault; she was deceived. Adam, on the other hand, was not deceived but deliberately and with understanding, chose to sin.… The verse under consideration appears virtually to excuse Eve on the basis that she was in reality deceived by the serpent.… Paul’s point might then be paraphrased, “The man, upon whom lay responsibility for leadership in home and in religious matters, was prepared by God to discern the serpent’s lies. The woman was not appointed religious leader and was not prepared to discern them. She was taken in. Christian worship involves re-establishing the creational pattern with men faithfully teaching God’s truth and women receptively listening.” ’!26

The exegetical fallacies here are legion. They involve conclusions, among others, that Eve’s act did not constitute sin (and all acts following deception must therefore presumably not be counted as sin either?). Adam was in effect priest and religious leader of the family (which is simply not mentioned in the text and has repercussions on women’s place in the priesthood of all believers). It sees the necessity of a theological sin to cause the fall, and finally, it makes Adam’s deliberate sinning the condition of and preparation for the faithful and authoritative teaching by men in the church!!

A liberationist view:

The gar (‘for’) at the beginning of 1 Timothy 2:13 is not illative (causal, giving the reason for the prohibition), but explanatory, i.e. it is not about Adam being in a position of superiority over Eve, or that woman’s nature prevents her from teaching. Rather, Eve is cited as an example not to follow. Ben Witherington III, in one of the most penetrating and exegetically detailed books to appear on the whole debate so far, maintains, ‘The point of the example is to teach women not to emulate Eve, but rather to emulate the behaviour outlined in v. 15’.27

Evans argues that Eve’s deception is used by Paul, not to point to women’s greater capacity for deception, since in 2 Corinthians 11:3 Paul uses Eve’s deception to say that both men and women can be deceived. Neither is it used to propose women’s unsuitability to teach, otherwise, why should they teach children and other women? Rather, Paul is making a connection between understanding or knowledge and teaching. It is the purpose of his epistle to expose false teaching and encourage the truth. So, ‘Eve had been deceived and had sought to teach Adam something which she herself did not understand’.28 In the context of false teaching, or while women were uneducated, they were not to teach.

This view relies heavily on Paul’s teaching being culturally relative rather than absolute. The prohibition is dependent on women being ignorant, and once this changes, it is no longer valid or necessary. Yet this in no way detracts from the absolute nature of the principle behind Paul’s teaching, which is that ‘No believer, male or female, has an automatic right to teach. Any, particularly women, who are untaught and easily deceived, must continue to concentrate on learning rather than on usurping an authority which has not been given to them.’29 But the emphasis and highly innovative point Paul is making is not that women should not teach, but that they should learn!

What is normative?

One of the main fears about this question for traditionalists is that, if certain of Paul’s injunctions to women are seen to be non-normative, then the authority of Scripture itself is at stake. However, this question has to be faced for the whole of Scripture, not merely on this particular issue. So Payne rightly asks how far other accounts of the early church are to be normative for today. ‘Several comments in 1 Timothy 2 should caution us not to assume that everything here is to be normative for all ages.… It is inconsistent simply to assume on the one hand that it is normative for women never to teach or be in authority over men, but on the other hand to dismiss as not normative Paul’s comments about braids, gold, pearls, expensive clothes, and raised hands in prayer.’30

In this issue the traditionalists are obviously lacking in hermeneutical consistency. Much of this arises because of a failure to recognize the implications of the genre of epistle. Paul’s epistles are contextualized, not systematic, theology. So Witherington rightly states, ‘We are thrust into the context of the letters that are of either a problem or progress nature. It should be recognized that what an individual says to correct an error cannot be taken as a full or definitive statement of his views on a particular subject … Paul, as a task theologian … [stresses] certain points not because they are of great importance, but because he must redress an imbalance in the thinking of his audience.’31 The liberationist may be neither dismissive, escapist nor unsound in appropriately maintaining certain parts of Paul’s teaching to be culturally binding for his then target readership, yet not necessarily binding in the same way in the different cultural milieu of today. As the OT so often functions for us as a paradigm of principles for action rather than a blueprint of detailed instructions, so also with the NT epistles: they must be understood against their primary context and then recontex-tualized into ours.

Practical modern application

In the past the established church has closed its doors to women’s public ministry where it might involve teaching when men are present. Traditionally this has come back to ‘biblical grounds’. This is not the place to discuss women’s ordination and other related issues, except to point out some anachronisms with which we have all had to live. In the last years the number of women missionaries continues to exceed the number of men. Among the various unhappy suggestions that ‘the men are being disobedient’ or ‘some of the women ought not to be there’ may be the plain fact that God is calling many more women and that their gifts may be used abroad whereas (on theological grounds!) those same gifts may not be used at home.

Hurley concludes from 1 Timothy 2:11–12 that women may not authoritatively teach men. However, on the mission field he would allow it, as long as they are not taking an elder’s role.32 This not only reveals (all too often for theologians) an appalling lack of understanding of cross-cultural church planting, but presupposes that 1 Timothy 2:11–12 is speaking of an elder’s teaching. This simply is not true. The passage is unqualified. Why are Hurley and so many of our churches apparently prepared to sacrifice their theological prohibitions in work overseas? A jet flight does not change the nature of women or the men to whom they may minister!

In fact, the traditionalist position presents a muddled interpretation of exactly what does constitute authoritative teaching. A question never asked is what determines teaching as authoritative when a man engages in it? The great danger is of placing authority itself in the male gender rather than in the Word of God. Evans rightly warns, ‘The more the distinction between the sexes is stressed, the greater the tendency to assume that men relate to God in a different way from women.’33


If this issue is to proceed any further than a battle of proof-texts or a stalemate of genders then we must be willing to re-examine presuppositions, face up to inconsistencies and cease dismissing evangelical liberationists as per se unsound!

Although it is possible that the modern cultural horizon regarding women is adversely affecting true exegetical understanding, it must equally be possible that the modern horizon is actually correcting a false understanding of the past. The latter certainly makes most sense of the facts.

1 E.S. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (London: SCM, 1983), p. 32.

2 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part I, Question XCII. Aquinas asks the question, ‘Whether woman ought to have been produced in that original production of things?’, a question he does not ask of man!

3 Augustine, On the Trinity, 12.7.10.

4 Luther’s Works, Vol. 15, p. 130.

5 J. Calvin, The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon (Edinburgh and London: Oliver & Boyd, 1964), p. 217.

6 The only time hypakouō is used is in 1 Pet. 3:6, referring to the example of Sarah calling Abraham ‘Lord’. The only occasion of this is in Gn. 18:12, where, interestingly, no obedience is involved. The context in 1 Peter would seem to point to Christlike behaviour in a situation where a Christian wife is married to a non-Christian husband.

7 E. Best, One Body in Christ (London: SPCK, 1955), p. 172.

8 M. Barth, Ephesians, II (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1974), p. 608.

9 Ibid., p. 710.

10 New Revised Standard Version (Oxford: OUP, 1989).

11 ‘Woman’, Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. IV.

12 The mias gynaikos andra of 1 Tim. 3:2 may not be referring so much to the gender or number of the spouse as to the faithfulness of relationship. So the nrsv’s ‘married only once’ does not translate it as gender-specific, and interestingly the niv sees not gender, but faithfulness as the point at issue in a parallel usage in 1 Tim. 5:9, where it translates ‘the wife of one husband’ as ‘has been faithful to her husband’. If Paul’s major point had been to clarify gender in leadership, it could easily have been expressed less ambiguously.

13 D. J. Moo, ‘1 Timothy 2:11–15: Meaning and Significance’, Trinity Journal Vol. 2 NS, No. 2 (1981), p. 66.

14 P.B. Payne, ‘Libertarian Women in Ephesus …’, Trinity Journal Vol. 2 NS, No. 2 (1981), p. 175.

15 D.M. Scholer, ‘1 Timothy 2:9–15’, in A. Mickelsen (ed.), Women, Authority & the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP, 1986), p. 215.

16 W. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1983), p. 187.

17 F.W. Grosheide, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), p. 185.

18 J. Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: SCM, 1983), p. 109.

19 A. Thiselton, ‘Semantics and New Testament Interpretation’, in New Testament Interpretation, I.H. Marshall (ed.) (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1979), pp. 78–79.

20 E. Best, op. cit., p. 179.

21 J. Hurley, Man & Woman in Biblical Perspective (Leicester: IVP, 1981), p. 150.

22 F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), p. 384.

23 S. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1980), pp. 191–192.

24 F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1982), p. 190.

25 A. Stibbs, The New Bible Commentary Revised (Leicester: IVP, 1970), p. 1171.

26 J. Hurley, op. cit., pp. 215–216.

27 B. Witherington III, Women in the Earliest Churches (Cambridge: CUP, 1988), p. 122.

28 M. Evans, Woman in the Bible (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1983), p. 105.

29 Ibid., p. 106.

30 P.B. Payne, art. cit., pp. 169–197.

31 B. Witherington III, op. cit., p. 25.

32 J. Hurley, op. cit., p. 250.

33 M. Evans, op. cit., p. 108.

C. Powell

C. Powell teaches NT and Greek at All Nations Christian College, England