The Role of Women in the Church: 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:33-40 revisited
By Danny Coleman
A few years ago I embarked on in-depth research into the topic of women’s roles in the church. There were three reasons I undertook this study:
1. It occurred to me that the Body of Christ is about two-thirds female. What I mean by this is if you look at most church services you will find that there are more women than men. Yet, in most church services the women--who make up the majority—-are limited in how they can function as compared to men.
2. I kept encountering women who were gifted teachers, pastors and theologians but who were not able to fully function in those gifts. That struck me as a bit of a rip-off, not just to those women, but to the church which was being deprived of the blessing of being edified by their gifts. I now am part of a Quaker church which is pastored by a woman who is, as it turns out, the most gifted pastor I have ever known.
3. I was disturbed by the apparent contradiction in Paul’s writings in the New Testament: On the one hand, Paul worked closely with Priscilla and referred to her on equal terms. Priscilla was very clearly a teacher. One of her students was Apollos. In his letter to the Romans, Paul singled out Junia, a woman, and Andronicus, a man, and called them “outstanding among the Apostles”--in other words, Paul considered Junia and Andronicus to be Apostles of note. Also in Romans, Paul commends Phoebe to the churches. Many historians believe it was Phoebe whom Paul entrusted to deliver the letter to the Romans (see Michael Bird's excellent essay Fretting Over Phoebe
for deeper look into the ramifications of this). In his letter to the Romans, Paul calls Phoebe a “diakonon”, which is the same word he uses elsewhere to describe himself and Timothy. In our English Bibles, diakonon
is usually translated into English as “minister” or “servant” (of course, when applied to Phoebe it is “servant”). Paul also calls Phoebe a prostatis
. Although it appears only here in noun form, the verb form proistemi
, occurs eight times in the New Testament and is translated as “rule”, “lead” or "manage". The noun prostatis
is used in Greek writings of Paul’s time period to describe a “leading officer” (our English equivalent would be a superintendant). A prostatis
was someone who presided, in the sense of leading, governing, directing or conducting. When applied to Phoebe, however, prostatis
has often been translated into English as “helper”. One wonders to what degree the presuppositions of the translators regarding women's roles was a factor in their word selection in this verse. There were other women that Paul pointed out: Euodia and Syntyche, whom Paul says “contended at my side in the cause of the Gospel”—-which I think means they did more than just serve coffee and donuts. Then there was Nympha, Chloe, and Lydia (also possibly Stephana); all of whom appear to have been house-church leaders.
Yet on the other hand, in 1 Timothy 2:11 and 1 Corinthians 14:34, Paul seems to be saying that women are forbidden such leadership and teaching roles.
There appears to be a contradiction in Paul’s thought and praxis. Many attempts have been made to explain or reconcile or downplay this apparent contradiction. Why did the man who wrote to the Galatians that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” later write to the Corinthians that “…women must remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak…”. Why did Paul speak highly of the teacher Priscilla and commend Phoebe as a leader, yet instruct Timothy to forbid women from teaching or having authority over men?
It is these two scriptures in particular--1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:33-40--which I want to look more closely at, because it is these two scriptures—more than any others—that have been used to limit and marginalize women in the church. We live in a day and age where women are police chiefs and pilots and neurosurgeons and corporate CEOs and leaders of nations, yet within the walls of many churches they are still told that it is God's will that their opportunities to minister or participate be limited.1 Timothy 2:11-15
One of the most important lessons I ever learned about studying scripture is to ask this question: “What did it mean to the original hearers?” That simple question opens up a world of discovery. When Paul wrote 1 Timothy, he didn’t just sit down out of the blue one afternoon and say “Hmmm, I think I’ll write some holy scripture.” No, he was writing to a particular person at a particular place at a particular time for a particular reason. When we read 1 Timothy we are, quite literally, reading someone else’s mail. And so it behooves us to understand what was going on in Timothy’s world and what Paul’s letter would have meant to him.
Timothy was in Ephesus. It appears that Ephesus was a tough place to be a Christian. It was in Ephesus, remember, that the craftsmen who made shrines to the goddess Artemis caused a riot because of the Gospel that Paul was preaching (Acts 19). Paul later wrote about fighting “with beasts at Ephesus” (1 Cor 15:32), which probably refers to this riot. Of his time in the region where Ephesus was located, Paul would later write “…we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life.” (2 Cor 1:8).
And now a few years later Timothy, Paul’s young protégé, is in Ephesus and appears to be under a great deal of stress. Paul is trying to encourage Timothy and also give him some specific practical advice. Paul even tells Timothy to drink some wine because of his stomach and occasional illnesses, which makes one wonder if poor Timothy was getting ulcers from the stress.
What is it about Ephesus that would make it such a difficult place? In New Testament times Ephesus was considered a major city and trade center of the Roman Empire. It was located in the Western part of a region called Asia Minor (which is now Turkey). Ephesus was the gateway from the West to the East. The region of Asia Minor had previously been called Phrygia.
Phrygia was sometimes associated with the mythical Amazons—a nation of female warriors. Phrygia, and Ephesus in particular, had also been the center of worship of an ancient goddess name Cybele. Cybele was the great mother goddess—believed by Phrygians to be the mother of all the gods and of the earth. Another name for Cybele was Magna Mater – Great Mother. Long before the Greeks expanded into Phrygia, Cybele had been the primary deity, worshiped for thousands of years—perhaps all the way back to Neolithic times.
The story of Cybele centers upon her love for a beautiful young shepherd named Attis. Attis, being pure and chaste, resisted Cybele’s sexual advances. In a fit of rage, Cybele caused Attis to go insane. He ran screaming through the forest until he came to a great pine tree. At the foot of the pine tree he pulled out a knife, castrated himself, and bled to death. Where his blood touched the ground, beautiful violets sprouted up. Attis went to the underworld and Cybele mourned him, but after a short time she resurrected him and her mourning turned to joy. In the cult of Cybele the goddess was simultaneously the source of fertility, the Great Mother, a perpetual Virgin (she never consummated with Attis), Creator, Resurrector and sexual aggressor.
During rituals, pine trees would be decorated with flowers and taken into sacred caves (representing Cybele’s sexuality). Worship of Cybele was overseen by priestesses and priests. The priests, called Galli, were men who had castrated themselves in reenactment of Attis’ self-mutilation and surrendered their manhood to the goddess. Thereafter the priests dressed and acted as women. Worship of Cybele is said to have been a frenetic and orgiastic affair with drums and cymbals and flutes, wailing and chanting, whirling priests dancing before a statue of the goddess, devotees slashing their arms and splattering their blood on her statue, a bull being castrated and then sacrificed. As the ritual reached a frenzied climax, new initiates to the priesthood who had worked themselves into a state of religious ecstasy would take out razor sharp knives, emasculate themselves and caste their severed manhood to the goddess as a sacrifice. We can assume that some did not survive the ordeal. Cybele is usually depicted with two lions or leopards at her side. In later statues, a cluster of egg-shaped orbs protrude from her chest. Scholars argue about what these shapes represent. Some think they are breasts, symbolizing that Cybele was the universal mother; others think they are the scrotums of priests and bulls. Others think they’re just large beads. The priestesses of Cybele served as mid-wives to their communities and invoked the goddess’s protection during child-birth. Men engaged in ritual intercourse with priestesses or emasculated priests, thus enabling Cybele and Attis to vicariously consummate their love.
The cult of Cybele was powerful, pervasive and well-established in Phrygia by the time the Greeks took hold of the region.
When the Greeks expanded into Phrygia, they brought their gods and goddesses with them. The Greeks tended to take local deities and absorb them into the existing Greek pantheon. Thus, Cybele became Artemis. The Artemis worshipped in Phrygia was very different, however, from the Artemis worshipped in Athens. The Phrygian Artemis was really Cybele with a new name, a fresh coat of paint and another layer of mythology added on.
According to Greek mythology, Artemis was the moon goddess, the daughter of Zeus and the twin sister of Apollo, the sun god. As the story goes, Artemis was born first and then assisted her mother in delivering Apollo. As a result, Artemis was considered the protector of women during child-birth. Women in ancient times would make offerings to Artemis and ask her to protect them during pregnancy and labor. This probably accounts in part for the reason why little portable shrines to Artemis were a major industry in Ephesus. Artemis was also the goddess of healing and of hunting. She was believed to be a perpetual virgin, and would kill any man who approached her with wrong intentions. Artemis was a warrior. She was protective, capricious and dangerous.
When the Roman Empire arose and supplanted the Greeks, the Romans kept the Greek pantheon. Artemis became Diana. Same goddess, different name. During Paul’s time she was still commonly called Artemis. In Ephesus, Cybele became Artemis and Artemis became Diana. But the Artemis/Diana which was worshipped in Ephesus was very different from the Artemis/Diana worshiped elsewhere. In Ephesus, it was an amalgamation of Cybele and Artemis.
Ephesus was home to the Temple of Artemis, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was not just a massive temple but also a repository of art and treasure. It was the largest bank in the region. It was run by a huge staff of priests and priestesses who directed the affairs of the temple, conducted sacrifices, engaged in ritual prostitution, etc. This was the largest and most complex temple of ancient times. There had actually been a series of temples to Artemis on that spot going back to 700 BC. They had been rebuilt and expanded over the years. The Ephesians believed that Artemis had been born nearby and had founded the city. One historian has written
that “…the principal force of her cult was upon the interrelated components of the city’s urban life, e.g., the civic, economic, educational, patriotic, administrative and commercial facets… There was no other Graeco-Roman metropolis in the Empire whose ‘body, soul and spirit’ could so belong to a particular deity as did Ephesus to her patron goddess Artemis.” By the time Timothy got to Ephesus, Artemis worship had been entrenched for nearly 800 years and Cybele worship for thousands of years before that. Christianity was a strange new religion in Ephesus.
In light of this, you can imagine how Timothy might have been intimidated. But there’s more. Believe it or not, there was an even bigger threat to Timothy in Ephesus. It was a teaching that had wormed its way into the church and was creating all kinds of trouble. Trouble with a “T” and that rhymes with “G” and that stands for “Gnosticism”.
Ephesus was ground zero for Gnosticism. Gnosticism got its name from the Greek word gnosis
which means knowledge. The roots of Gnosticism can be traced back at least to 400 BC and Plato. Plato taught that the cosmos had two aspects: The world we see and an unseen world of “forms” or “ideas”. Plato posited that the unseen forms were perfect and unchangeable but that what we see in our world are only crude imitations of the unseen forms. Thus, a tree is but a crude representation of the ideal tree. Plato’s thinking led to a type of dualism where the material world was seen as flawed and inferior while the unseen “spiritual” world was seen as perfect. This dualism led to Gnosticism, which viewed the material world as not just flawed but as evil. The goal of Gnosticism was to obtain secret knowledge which would enable one to escape the prison of the evil material world and be reunited with the perfect spiritual world.
Gnostic teaching can be likened to a parasite which attaches itself to a host and grows within that host. At the time of Paul and Timothy, Gnosticism had found its way into Judaism. Ephesus was second only to Alexandria as a center of Jewish Gnosticism. There are variations, but the Jewish Gnostic story basically went like this:
Outside of our cosmos is a greater realm called the Pleroma, or region of light. The Pleroma emanates from twelve beings called Aeons. The Aeons can be thought of like angels but are paired in male/female couples. Beyond the Aeons and the Pleroma is the Monad (also known as “The One”). An Aeon by the name of Sophia (which means “wisdom”) decided to create something on her own, apart from her partner Aeon. Because she was essentially rebelling against the order of things, her creation was deeply flawed. What she created was a being called The Demiurge. The Demiurge, according to Gnostics, is what we call God. However, Gnosticism taught that The Demiurge is not kind or just or loving but rather is a sadistic and ignorant monster. Sophia, ashamed of her mistake, isolated The Demiurge and surrounded him in a fog. The Demiurge does not know that he is the child of Sophia. He thinks he is God and is alone above all else. Since the Demiurge is the creation of Sophia, he has within him some of her powers. So he set about to create the world, as recorded in Genesis. But the world he created, like The Demiurge himself, is deeply flawed and evil.
The Demiurge created Adam, but could not give Adam life. Sophia saw the lifeless Adam and took pity. She sent her daughter Zoe (which means life) to bring Adam to life. Zoe gave Adam life and Adam called Zoe “Eve”. But now Adam and Eve were trapped inside of the evil Demiurge’s material world. They had within them the spark of life, from the Pleroma, but it was encased in crude bodies of flesh. The Demiurge sought to keep Adam and Eve, and the children they would eventually produce, as prisoners in his world. But a savior came, sent by Sophia. The savior was the serpent. He came to liberate Eve and Adam by telling them about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent explained that it was through secret knowledge—gnosis
—that they and their offspring could escape from The Demiurge and his evil world and ascend to the Pleroma.
You can see how Gnosticism would have made Jewish and Christian leaders crazy. It essentially takes what the Bible teaches and flips it upside-down. Good becomes evil and evil becomes good. God is the bad guy. The serpent—Satan—is the good guy. Eve gave life to Adam and “original sin” is actually liberation. Christian leaders for the first few centuries contended vociferously against Gnosticism and it eventually died out. Some would say it was forcibly stamped out once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. In recent years Gnosticism has experienced a bit of a revival.
Repeatedly in his first letter to Timothy, Paul refers to “false teachings”, “myths”, “endless genealogies” and “controversies”. At the end of the letter Paul tells Timothy “Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called gnosis
(knowledge), which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith.”
This was the religious climate into which Paul had initially brought the Gospel and then into which Timothy had come to nurture the Ephesian church. The "church" in Ephesus was actually a collection of churches
that met primarily in homes. One can only imagine what was going on in these house-church meetings as former priests and priestesses and worshipers of Artemis--now converts to the new religion of Christianity--were bringing their religious baggage in with them, while at the same time Gnostic teachings were infiltrating and competing with orthodox doctrine. We can begin to understand why Timothy was overwhelmed.
In light of all this background, let’s (finally) look at 1 Timothy 2, beginning at verse 11:
“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. 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.”
What exactly is it that Paul is saying here?
The quote above came from the New International Version English Bible translation. If we look at the actual Greek text we find that the word translated “quietness” is hesuchia
, which does mean quietness or harmony or agreement and the word translated “full submission” is hupotage
which literally means “arrange under”—in other words, to voluntarily place oneself in subjection to someone or something. So Paul is saying that women should be in quiet agreement and place themselves under subjection. But to what? To men? Or to sound doctrine? I believe it is the latter.
Next Paul writes, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man…” The Greek word Paul used here, which is translated as “to have authority over” is authentein
. It is not the word normally used for authority
in the New Testament. That word is exousia
. The word authentein, in fact, is used nowhere else in the entire New Testament. When translators need to clarify what a writer meant when he/she used a certain word, they look at how that same writer used the word elsewhere. If that isn’t an option, they look at contemporaneous writings for how the word was used.
A remarkable thing has happened in the last 25 years or so. With the advent of computers, all of the extant ancient Greek writings have been gathered together into digital, searchable databases. This has opened new doors for researchers to see how particular words were used and how the meaning of words changed over time.
The word authentein
, it turns out, was a somewhat unusual word even in Paul’s day. It was also a word which was rich with meaning and overtones. Paul seems to have carefully selected this word because of the meanings and overtones it would convey.
Just looking at the word authentein
, and how it resembles certain words in our language gives us some clues: Authentic. Author. Authority. Authentein
is a compound word made from the Greek word auto
, meaning “self” and hentos
, meaning “thrust”. Literally, it means “to thrust oneself forward”.
In the oldest examples we have, the word was used to describe someone who committed murder or suicide by planning the action and then carrying it out with their own hand (thrusting the dagger forward). The word came to be used to describe the mastermind of a diabolical scheme to overcome and murder someone. It was not just the action itself, but the authoring of the plan also. To authentein
was to originate and perpetrate. By Paul’s day the word was also used to describe a tyrant. To authentein
was to completely dominate someone. This reminds me of a popular phrase used today by video gamers when they defeat an opponent: “I owned you!”
So what is Paul really saying here? Here are two possibilities:
1. “I do not permit a woman to teach or act in a way that utterly dominates a man…” This is close to how the verse was translated in the Latin Vulgate up through the King James Version – a period covering about 1200 years. If we think back about Ephesus with its Amazon legends, Cybele, Artemis, Diana, castrated priests and powerful priestesses, suddenly Paul’s use of the word authentein makes a lot of sense. There had been a religious culture of emasculation and female domination entrenched in Ephesus for thousands of years. It is also interesting to note that a couple of sentences later, in verse 15, Paul says “But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” Here Paul is directly addressing the custom of pregnant women appealing to Artemis to save them during childbirth.
2. “I do not permit a woman to teach or claim to be the author of man…” This interpretation directly addresses the Gnostic teachings about Eve being the one who gave life to Adam and received saving knowledge from the serpent. This would explain why, immediately following in verse 13, Paul says “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.” Paul is directly contradicting Gnostic teaching, which he rails against throughout the letter to Timothy.
Or perhaps Paul, inspired genius that he was, intentionally selected this obscure word authentein
because it invoked a richness of meaning that would encompass both of these forms of aberrant teaching that the Ephesian church was wrestling with.
All the evidence put together strongly suggests that Paul’s statement to Timothy about women was very specific to the situation in Ephesus.
If we were to amplify 1 Timothy 2:11-15 with everything we’ve looked at in mind, it might say something like this:
“A woman should learn in agreement and submission to sound doctrine. I do not permit a woman to teach that they are the author of man or to tyrannize men. She must maintain harmony. For, despite what the Gnostics teach, Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. And women will be saved during childbirth, not by offering sacrifices to Artemis, but by continuing to follow Jesus in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”1 Corinthians 14:33-40
As in the case with 1 Timothy, this letter from Paul to the Corinthian church was prompted by some specific and troubling circumstances. Chloe, the leader of a house-church in Corinth, had sent messengers to Paul with a report about multiple problems in the Corinthian house-churches. The report seems to have been in the form of a letter which contained specific examples of things people had been doing and saying in Corinth, as well as a series of questions. Paul's response is the document we call 1 Corinthians. Since we don't know the contents of the letter that Paul was responding to, reading 1 Corinthians is a bit like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. We can read Paul's responses to
the Corinthians, but we don’t have the letter from
the Corinthians which would enable us to “hear” both sides of the conversation. However, Paul repeatedly brings up points or questions from their letter:
Now about the matter you wrote about…
Now about virgins…
Now about food sacrificed to idols…
Now about spiritual gifts…
Now about the collection for God’s people…
Now about our brother Apollos…
Sometimes Paul quotes back statements from the Corinthian’s letter and then responds:
“I follow Paul”; “I follow Apollos”; “I follow Cephas”; “I follow Christ”.
“Everything is permissible”
“Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”
The tricky part about this is that in Paul’s day correspondences were written in Koine Greek with no punctuation. The letters were all capitalized. Words and sentences were run together without spaces in between. There was no such thing as quotation marks. The Corinthians would have recognized which parts of Paul’s letter were their own words being quoted back to them, but we can only guess.
For example, in the NIV, 1 Corinthians 7:1,2 says:Now for the matter you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.
Some scholars believe that in verse 1 Paul was quoting the Corinthians and then in verse 2 offering his response:Now for the matter you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to marry.” But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.
The difference is subtle. In other places, however, the difference could be dramatic. At chapter 12 (we know of course, that Paul didn’t write in chapters--they were added 1,000 years later) Paul launches into a lengthy discourse on the topic of spiritual gifts. He pays particular attention to vocal gifts; especially prophecy and speaking in tongues. This discourse goes from the beginning of chapter 12 to the end of chapter 14. At the end of chapter 14, just as he is about to conclude his discourse, Paul makes the following statement:As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.
Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
There are several difficulties with this portion of scripture. The first is the previously mentioned contradiction between this statement and Paul’s other statements and actions regarding women. Within the letter of 1 Corinthians itself, there is an apparent contradiction: In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul makes the point that women should wear a head covering when praying or prophesying in church
(in order to adhere to cultural norms and not cause unnecessary scandal). Yet here, three chapters later, he seems to be saying that women cannot
pray or prophesy in church at all! A second difficulty has to do with the placement of this statement in the overall discourse. It seems out of place. Some scholars have even suggested that this statement was pasted in awkwardly from another letter by Paul or written in later by someone other than Paul. A third difficulty is Paul’s strange and pointed questions in verse 36 “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” and then his return to the topic of prophecy and tongues. What prompted this odd outburst?
There is a solution to these difficulties which causes this portion of scripture to flow very naturally and eliminates the apparent contradiction: What if verses 33 and 34 are a quote from the Corinthian’s letter and verse 36 onward is Paul’s response?
It would read like this:Quote from Corinthian’s letter:
“As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” Paul’s response:
Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored. Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
Someone in a Corinthian house-church has laid down a rule that women must remain silent. They have invoked the Old Testament Law to back it up (which is a clue that maybe the person is a Judaizer--someone trying to reincorporate the requirements of the Old Testament Law into the New Testament church). A modern paraphrase of Paul’s reaction might be:
“What?! Do you think you’re the only one who can speak the word of God?! If you think you are a prophet or spiritually gifted, you’d better listen to what I’m
telling you, otherwise you should be ignored: Be eager for prophecy and do not forbid anyone
from speaking in tongues. But do everything in a genuine and dignified way."
There is no way to prove this hypothesis, short of discovering the original letter to Paul from the Corinthians. But it should give us pause, especially in light of what we know about Paul’s radically supportive attitude towards women in leadership. If the hypothesis is true, suddenly 1 Corinthians 14:33-40 makes perfect sense. Paul is infuriated that someone is trying to use scripture to block women from functioning in their spiritual gifts within the church. I suspect that if Paul were alive today, his reaction would be very much the same.
What is abundantly clear is that Paul was not writing universal mandates intended to limit the roles that women could fulfill in all churches for all time. Rather, he was writing letters to very specific people and responding to very specific situations. It behooves us to be congnizant of these underlying contexts so that we stop marginalizing two-thirds of the Body of Christ.