Without doubt, the issue of the ordination of women has proved most contentious in the churches in recent decades. In fact, in most churches the issue has been won by now – by the wrong side. It does not matter what the Anti-Discrimination Board says; we must seek first what God says.
1. State of Play in Christendom.
a. the Catholics and Orthodox do not allow women priests.
b. the Anglican Church allows women ministers or priests.
c. the Uniting Church allows women pastors and elders, and does not ordain men who
disagree with this policy.
d. the Baptists in NSW in 1998 voted to allow each congregation to decide i.e. the
ordination of women was allowed.
e. the Assemblies of God allow women pastors.
f. the Presbyterian Church is in an awkward situation at the moment. In 1967 the General Assembly of Australia ruled that the eldership was open to women. This led to the 1974 decision that the ministry or pastorate was also open to women. In 1977 church union came about, and in 1991 the General Assembly of Australia (G.A.A.) decided that women were no longer eligible to become pastors or ministers. Then in 1997 the G.A.A. ruled that eldership belonged to the state assemblies i.e. that the 1967 decision was not binding on any state assembly. The Queensland Assembly has never allowed women elders, and the Victorian Assembly in 1997-8 voted strongly in favour of disallowing women elders in the future. That has since been followed by Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia. The NSW Assembly rejected an overture to disallow women elders in 1998, and refused to discuss the issue in 2005.
There will be pain in many parishes because of this issue. For so-called pastoral reasons, many do not want to raise this issue. I am not unsympathetic. We cannot reform the Church in a day. Not everything can be done at once – see 1 Cor.11:34. But it has been nearly forty years since women elders were voted in, it has been thirty years since union, and it has been 16 years since the G.A.A. voted against women pastors. B. B. Warfield declared: ‘There is no escape from the position that the Church is bound to confess all that God has lovingly revealed to her as His truth. What the Bible teaches, not what is convenient, undisputed, or likely to put us to the trouble of defending, is the proper measure of the contents of our credo.’ That is to be the Christian’s motive. In many ways, it is the most important thing I will say today. The utilitarian asks: ‘How can I maximise happiness and minimise pain?’ The Christian asks: ‘What does God say?’ In April 1521 Luther appeared at the Diet of Worms before the emperor Charles V. He stood firm: ‘Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand, I can do no other.’ Thomas Carlyle called it the greatest day in the history of the world. We Protestants are supposed to respond to that – one man holding fast to the Word of God, no matter what all the powers of the world may say and do.
3. 1 Timothy 2:11-15
a. The Prohibition (vv.11-12)
With full apostolic authority, Paul writes to Timothy at Ephesus: A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent (vv.11-12). Whatever else Paul says, he certainly says that women are to learn – contrary to some rabbinic teaching which forbade women from learning the torah. Paul is not writing about inferiority and superiority. Women and men are both created in the image of God (Gen.1:27), and in Christ are equally redeemed (Gal.3:28). ‘To be subject to’ does not mean ‘to be inferior to’. Christ was subject to Joseph and Mary (Luke2:51), but He was certainly not inferior to them. Paul is writing about function, not status. The silence is not absolute, as 1 Peter 3:4 shows, so it is not to be interpreted in a wooden or heavy-handed way. Paul declares that women are forbidden to perform two – and only two – functions in the Church: they are not to teach men or to rule over men. Women can teach children (Prov. 1: 8; note Timothy himself in 2 Tim.1:5; 3:15) and other women (Tit.2:3-4); they are to manage their households (1 Tim.5:14); they can become deacons (Rom.16:1-2); and they can teach men in informal situations (Acts 18:24-26). In both Testaments the extraordinary prophetic office is open to women (Ex. 15:20; 2 Kings 22:14-15; Isa.8:3; Acts 2:36; Acts 21:9).1 But the ordinary ruling and teaching office of the presbyter is not open to women. Paul specifically says that he was writing so that Timothy would know how people ‘ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God’ (1 Tim.3:15).
The liberal simply rejects what Paul is saying. A. T. Hanson says this is Paul at his worst, and says: ‘Christians are under no obligation to accept his teaching on women.’ William Klassen too acknowledges that 1 Timothy 2:9-15 means what it says, but thinks that Paul did not write it, and adds: ‘It is hard to measure the damage it has done in the history of the church.’2 The Roman Catholic Wilfrid Harrington calls it ‘a sad passage’.3 Yet professing evangelicals have often been no better.
a. Paul Jewett says that Paul was either being inconsistent or wrong in 1 Timothy 2. That is hardly an evangelical approach to Scripture as the Word of God. Ward Gasque is no better when he makes Galatians 3:28 ‘the necessary theological starting place for any discussion on the role of women in the church’, which, he thinks, makes it ‘extremely difficult, if not impossible, to come to the traditionalist conclusion.’ The method seems to be: make Paul refer to office in the Church in Galatians 3:28, and then filter every other text through that grid. I. H. Marshall’s approach is somewhat similar, as he tries to portray 1 Timothy 2:12 as an isolated text. Galatians 3:28 has been referred to by Paul Jewett as ‘the Magna Carta of Humanity’.4 Krister Stendahl sees this as the ‘breakthrough’ text,5 while William Webb thinks in terms of ‘seed ideas’ that are not static but which point to a higher, more dynamic and progressive social ethic.6 The first problem is the obvious one – in Galatians 3:28 Paul is not dealing with offices in the church but with the availability of salvation; in 1 Timothy 2:11-14 Paul is dealing with offices in the church.
b. David Steinmetz has written: ‘Calling and not sex is the test of authentic ministry; the
church has been called to prove the spirits, not determine the gender.’ This is to cloud
what God has made clear. Alas for Steinmetz, the Church is called to do both, at least so far as the eldership is concerned.
c. It has been suggested e.g. by Richard and Catherine Kroeger that ‘to have authority’ or ‘to exercise authority’ could mean ‘to domineer’ or even ‘to murder’.7 Authentein is a hapax legomena, but there are 1,934 words in the New Testament that occur only once.8 To make much of this is a precarious exercise. H. Scott Baldwin has studied 82 references to authentein in the ancient world, and finds that the meanings are ‘based on the idea of the possession or exercise of authority.’9 In any case, the context shows that the meaning of authentein in verse 12 cannot be ‘to domineer’ or even the KJV’s ‘to usurp authority’. The Greek word for or (oude in v. 12) usually joins two concepts that are either both viewed positively or both viewed negatively. The ‘neither verb A nor verb B’ pattern is found 53 times in the New Testament. They are either positive e.g. Matthew 6:28 (‘neither labour nor spin’); 13:13; Luke 12:24; Acts 4:18 or negative e.g. Matthew 6:20 (‘break in nor steal’), John 14:27; Phil.2:16; Heb.13:5. The context in 1 Timothy 2 is thus very much against its joining to teach (a positive activity) with to domineer (a negative activity). Presbyters must be able to teach (3:2) and govern the church (3:4-5) – both positive activities and these are the very activities which are not open to women in any official presbyterial capacity.10
d. The same can be said about the Kroegers’ claim that ‘to teach’ means ‘to teach heresy’.11 To the Kroegers, Paul is saying: ‘I do not allow a woman to teach nor to proclaim herself author of man.’12 Craig Keener and Gordon also say that women were spreading false teaching at Ephesus. For two thousand years, the Church missed the right translation! But surely Paul is objecting to women who, as presbyters, teach men in an official capacity. It is not so much the content of their teaching but the very fact that they are teaching. So far as we can tell, it was males who were spreading false teaching at Ephesus (Acts 20:30; 1 Tim.1:19-20; 2 Tim.2:17-18). But Paul does not ban men from preaching.
e. R. T. France sees conflicting emphases in Scripture, and sees the prohibition texts as parallel to the Old Testament sacrifices, i.e. they are abolished in the new covenant. France’s evangelicalism at this point is akin to liberalism.
f. Kevin Giles writes: ‘The Bible is authoritative in matters of faith and conduct but not necessarily in science, or on how to order social relations.’ This means the Bible is not necessarily authoritative when it tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves, or when it tells us that homosexual relations are an abomination in God’s sight.
g. Gilbert Bilezikian says that ‘I do not permit’ is a temporary command because it is in the present tense. But so are the commands in Rom.12:1; 1 Cor.4:16; Eph.4:1; 1 Tim.2:1; Titus 3:8.
h. Many Anglican evangelicals – as well as some others – argue that Paul is forbidding not two functions – teaching and governing – but one, namely, authoritative teaching. Verse 12 is thus viewed as a hendiadys which usually links two nouns via a conjunction in order to express a modification of the first idea rather than two separate ideas. James Hurley and Susan Foh both adopt this reading of 1 Timothy 2:12, although both still oppose the ordination of women to the eldership. Edmund Clowney considers that it allows women to teach men ‘provided that the teaching not be of the authoritative sort.’13 In the first place, one can only wonder what non-authoritative preaching from the pulpit might sound like. Indeed, if women are to remain silent, non-authoritative teaching is not meant to sound like anything.
More substantially, the infinitive authentein is not adverbial to didaskein. Clowney virtually reads the text as though the conjunction oude were not there. In the New Testament there are only three places where there is a construction along the lines of an infinitive, then a conjunction, then another infinitive. 1 Timothy 2:12 is one. Another is Acts 16:21, ‘they advocate customs that are not lawful for us, as Romans, to receive or practise‘. The other is Revelation 5:3, ‘And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it‘. In each case there are two ideas that are related but not identical. To assert that there is anything different in 1 Timothy 2:12 is a rather desperate ploy, without Scriptural warrant. Paul is forbidding two activities, not one activity done in a certain way.
i. Grant Osborne says that 1 Timothy 2 was simply designed not to give offense in the ancient world, and is not applicable in modern Western society. However, the Archierus of the Imperial Cult in Proconsular Asia was often a woman, so the ancient world was not unfamiliar with the notion of female religious authority. In any case, Paul’s reasoning in verses 13-14 is not along the lines of ‘Women are not allowed to teach or rule over men because that would offend society’s norms.’
j. Klyne Snodgrass tries the blanket approach: ‘I view 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as statements necessitated by specific problems in Corinth and Ephesus, respectively, and as shaped by an ancient culture. These texts do not become less important than Galatians 3:28, but they are less direct in their application.’14 This seems to be trying to cover as many bases as possible. ‘Rabbi’ Duncan called it the principle of ‘cloudification’.
Captain Bernard Acworth was one of the founders of the Evolution Protest Movement in Britain, and it was decided to ask C. S. Lewis whether he would support the movement. Lewis was no scientist, but he wrote a letter to Captain Acworth in 1951, and in it Lewis commented: ‘I wish I were younger. What inclines me now to think you may be right in regarding [evolution] as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders.’ That is not only true on the issue of evolution. If there is a convincing case for women presbyters, I have yet to read it. We need to return to Warfield’s view. In a number of crucial ways the issue of women presbyters is a test case for evangelicals – do we obey the Word or follow the world? The Humpty Dumpty approach to words is very common in the postmodern world and the postmodern church. Words can mean exactly what one chooses them to mean. But Christians believe that God has spoken and spoken clearly. The Bible is like a lamp shining in a dark place (2 Peter 1:19).
b. Reasons for the Prohibition (vv.13-14)
Two reasons are given for this prohibition, and they are introduced by the Greek word ‘gar’: 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 (vv.13-14). Paul does not present an argument based on culture or a lack of female education. There are cultural applications in Scripture such as the reference to washing one another’s feet in John 13:14. But Paul argues from Scripture in 1 Timothy 2. He points out firstly that Adam was created before Eve. One feminist has replied: ‘So what, pigs were made before both of them. Is the pig greater than the man?’ That is quite witty for a feminist, but it is also an attack on Scripture. There is a creation order, even before the Fall (see 1 Cor.11:8-9). Redemption in Christ does not abolish the creation order on polygamy or homosexuality (Matt. 19:4-6; Rom. 1:26-27) – nor does it do so on the issue of women presbyters.
Secondly, this creation order is reinforced by the Fall. Adam, of course, was guilty (Rom.5:12), but Eve was deceived (Paul uses a strong word in 1 Timothy 2:14). Glenn Davies writes: ‘Eve was deceived to play the role of head.’15 J. A. Bengel also tries to show the difference: ‘The serpent deceived the woman; the woman did not deceive the man, but persuaded him.’ Eve took the lead in Genesis 3, and the results were disastrous – which is not to say that Adam was not culpable too. Sin entered the world through Adam, our representative head (Rom.5:12-14; 1 Cor.15:22). Paul was not simply writing about a specific problem with the women at Ephesus, as so many scholars claim. Paul was not aiming at unlearned women or heretical female teachers or bossy, domineering women. So far as we can tell from the evidence, the false teachers mentioned in the Pastoral Epistles were all men (1 Tim.1:20; 2 Tim.2:17-18), and women are mentioned because they were influenced by heresy rather than the purveyors of it (1 Tim.5:11-15; 2 Tim.3:6-9). No doubt, Paul was responding to a specific situation at Ephesus but he was doing so in general terms. As an inspired writer of God’s Word, Paul was setting out basic principles for role-relations within the Church. The fact that Adam was created first and Eve sinned first thus has ramifications today in the Church and in the home.
c. The Role of Mothers (v.15)
Finally, Paul asserts: But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (v.15). This has proved something of a problematic verse. It could mean that:
a. women will be preserved through child-bearing;
b. women will be saved through the birth of the Child, Christ Jesus (John Stott);
c. but the idea seems to be that most women will become mothers. Motherhood has been regarded as a demeaning occupation in certain societies but it is not so regarded in Scripture (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-3). The influence of a godly mother has been crucial in the lives of so many Christians – John and Charles Wesley, John Newton, and Augustine of Hippo, to name just a few. Paul seems to be saying that Christian women will be saved by bearing children, i.e. by adhering to their God-ordained role.
4. Other Texts
L. E. Maxwell, whom the Kroegers call ‘a thoroughgoing fundamentalist’, declares that over 100 passages affirm women in leadership and fewer than half a dozen do not.16 That is nonsense. What we have seen in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 fits in with the rest of Scripture. It is no good to appeal, as Krister Stendahl does, to Galatians 3:28 as if that reflects Paul in a feminist mood, and this is then regarded as the ‘breakthrough’ text. Paul there is writing about the availability of salvation – who makes up the kingdom of God. Galatians 3:28 is not contrary to 1 Timothy 2:11-12.
Turn to other texts. In the home, for example, headship is entrusted to the husband, not the wife (Eph.5:22-24; Col.3:18; Tit.2:5; 1 Pet.3:1).17 In general terms: ‘the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man’ (1 Cor.11:3). Authority and honour are not the same. The football coach has more authority than the players, but the players have more honour. There is within the being of God both equality and authority, and there is in the relationship between men and women something similar – equality of worth and authority in function (1 Cor.11:3). Stanley Grenz tries to argue that there is mutual submission within the Trinity, but this is not so (Ps.40:8; John 6:38; 8:29; Heb.10:7).
The headship in the household is loving but it is still headship. Your household might be like mine – sometimes I feel more like a figurehead than a head, but God still grants me the loving headship over the household. Old Testament elders and priests were all male (Ex.18:21,25; 29:1-37; Num.11:16-30). Finally, Jesus’ twelve apostles are all male.Jesus did not choose six men and six women. Gilbert Bilezikian asserts that ‘Pragmatic considerations of accommodation determined the composition of the first apostolic group.’18
Our interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 does not stand out as ‘odd’ when compared to the rest of Scripture. One can only conclude that the view that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 allows women to be presbyters is not so much an interpretation of Scripture as an assault on it. If Paul intended to allow women elders, we can forget about the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. Dave’s Third Law of the Bleeding Obvious is being replaced by the tyranny of ‘experts’ who are swayed by the fads of the day.
5. Implications and Consequences
How serious is this issue? We are obliged to be gracious in all circumstances, but we need to ask how this issue fits into the general scheme of things. Is this a matter of adiaphora? Does it rank with debates over baptism and the millennium? For what it is worth, I contend that a number of issues are at stake:
1. the Bible’s authority is undermined.
2. authority in our homes will be dislocated.
3. our churches will be governed by people whom God has not called.
4. gender inter-changeability will lead to homosexuality.
5. our perception of God will be radically changed. C. S. Lewis predicted this back in 1948, and it has been amply demonstrated by William Oddie in What Will Happen to God? (SPCK, 1984) As Mary Daly put it: ‘Since “God” is Male, the male is God.’ We already have calls for non-sexist Bibles and for liturgies which do not address God exclusively as Father. The National Conference on Women in the Uniting Church in 1990 declared: ‘Within our hearts is Spirit/ And She makes clear our part.’19
Alas, we are not dealing with a minor issue. It is crucial that you get this right. I may not wish to echo John Knox’s First Trumpet Blast Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. But Knox was closer to getting it right than a great many more sophisticated and urbane twentieth century exegetes. All in all, we can understand why Wayne Grudem regards so-called evangelical feminism as ‘a new path into liberalism’.20
1 – Calvin writes: ‘Extraordinary acts done by God do not overturn the ordinary rules of government, by which he intended that we should be bound.’
2 – W. Klassen, ‘Musonius Rufus, Jesus, and Paul: Three First-Century Feminists’ in P. Richardson and J. C. Hurd (eds), From Jesus to Paul: Studies in Honour of Francis Wright Beare, Ontario, 1984 p.204.
3 – W. Harrington, Jesus and Paul, Glazier, 1987, p.150.
4 – Paul Jewett, Man as Male and Female, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1975, p.142.
5 – Krister Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966, p.32.
6 – William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, Illinois: IVP, 2001, pp.83, 36. For a compelling reply to this whole approach, see Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, Oregon: Multnomah, 2004.
7 – Kroeger et Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman, Michigan: Baker, 1992, pp.85-6.
8 – Grudem, p.320.
9 – H. Scott Baldwin, ‘A Difficult Word: authenteo in 1 Timothy 2:12’ in A. Köstenberger et al, Women in the Church, Michigan: Baker, 1995, p.78.
10 – See Code 4.34 & 4.35 for the duties of elders.
11 – Kroeger et Kroeger, pp.80-1.
12 – Kroegers, p.103.
13 – E. Clowney, The Church, Illinois: IVP, 1995, p.229.
14 – Snodgrass in Mickelsen, Women, pp.164-165.
15 – G. Davies, ‘Biblical Study Paper: 1 Timothy 2:8-15’ in B. G. Webb (ed), Personhood, Sexuality, and Christian Ministry, Sydney, 1986.
16 – cited in Kroeger et Kroeger, pp.32-3.
17 – Wayne Grudem studied some 2,336 examples of ‘kephale’, and found that it means ‘head’, not ‘source’ (Grudem, p.202).
18 – Cited in W. Grudem, p.170.
19 – Elizabeth Wood Ellem, The Church Made Whole, p.94.
20 – W. Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, Oregon: Multnomah, 2004, p.18.
See also a related article OVERTURE IN RELATION TO WOMEN IN THE ELDERSHIP – To the venerable Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in the State of New South Wales.