Posted by: minnow | March 2, 2009

Problems for Women in Church Leadership

Originally I was not planning to revisit what some see as the restrictive passages in scripture when it comes to the question of women in leadership. I posted several times a year ago or so and many other bloggers have examined these issues. However, since the root of the issue for many peoples is what scripture says not what it examples, I have decided to once again tackle these passages.

Let us first look at Titus 1:5-9:

“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless–not overbearing, not quick tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”

I actually like this particular passage a lot because it is a wonderful example as to how translators can alter the meaning of a passage by the words they chose. To begin with the word for elders in verse 5 is presbyteros. This is a non-gender specific word. Paul chose this word even though he had gender specific options. Secondly the word man in verse 6 does not appear in the original Greek therefore was actually added by translators. Both these adjustments to the original begin to create the appearance of an instruction about men when in truth it could just as easily be an instruction regarding both men and women. Finally, if we were to insist that the phrase “the husband of but one wife” means the elder must be a man we must also insist that it means he be married and a father. Since Paul, and unmarried, childless man refers to himself as an elder elsewhere in scripture we can not justifiably use that phrase in a restrictive sense.

Next let us take a look at I Corinthians 14:34-36:

“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 a disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.”

Several problems exist in this verse. To begin with the style is foreign to the rest of Paul’s other writing. Secondly, the “Law” it references does not exist in either the Old or the New Testament. When Paul actually cites Law in other parts of scripture he immediately quotes the law he references. Check out I Corinthians 9:8-9, 14:21, or 15:45. Thirdly the “instruction” that a woman must be silent is contradicted by Paul in the very same letter when he instructs the Church as to how women should prophesy.

So, given these problems with the traditional interpretation of this passage what could be a legitimate alternative? In Chapter 7 verse 1 Paul tells his readers that in this letter he plans to answer some of the specific questions they had asked him earlier. Since early Greek writing did not have our handy quotation marks it is very likely that this problematic portion of scripture is actually a quote from a letter he had receive. With this equally plausible interpretation the flow of Paul’s writing both before and after these two verse remains intact. The seeming contradiction in style and instruction now makes sense. And, Paul’s very curt remarks following these two verses: “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” takes on a whole new but much more understandable meaning.* I agree with J. Lee Grady when he says, This strange response makes no sense if we believe that Paul penned verses 34 and 35. But if he is contradicting the statements made by the Judiazers at Corinth, then we can understand the defiant tone of verse 36.” and realize that Paul is not suddenly suffering from a split personality.

The last passage of scripture I will address is I Timothy 2:11-15:

“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.”

On first reading of this passage I run into several problems. In the first place, Paul obviously allows women to speak in other places in scripture, even giving them instruction as to how to do so. Secondly, no one is “saved” by any other means than Christ and Christ crucified. In addition, Adam stood right next to Eve while the serpent “deceived” her and remained silent. For further evidence of Adam’s culpability check out Romans 5. Finally the term “to have authority over” is not used elsewhere in scripture. Where it was used in secular writing of the day it carried the connotation of usurping authority in a forceful manner.+

How should the I Timothy passage be read? Personally I believe the Abandon Image blog offers a great deal of insight for a cultural interpretation of this passage, meaning Paul was addressing a specific situation that existed within the Church at Corinth and his arguments were never intended to be taken universally.  I suggest you visit the blog for the more complete argument.


*If you would like a more thorough argument regarding this possible interpretation or the problems with this passage I suggest reading Walter C. Kaiser’s Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women, or see the article by Dennis J. Preato at God’s Word To Women.

+A much more thorough examination of this issue is found in the comments of the Parchment and Pen blog



  1. Alot of this is speculation.

    Do you not fear the Lord that you distort His Word? I mean really you have to admit that you are taking quite a bit of freedom with your theories.

    Work your salvation out with fear and trembling.

    Sorry but I am very passionate about the Scriptures and to see them bent to fit an agenda is more then I can stomach.

    Sola Scriptura,

  2. Humm…So explain away the examples of women in leadership roles primarily as an apostle and as prophets then come back and tell me that the alternative translations should not be used. Show where scripture does not give any teaching and authority to the role of a deacon (especially since I provided a prime example of both being given to Phoebe) then tell me that I should consider I Timothy 2:11-15 to be a universal prohibition. I am not speculating. In fact I am showing how scripture that with your interpretation actually contradicts itself, no longer contradicts itself. Are you not afraid of distorting God’s word by suggesting that my having an alternative view of what is actually written in scripture could threaten my salvation. My “agenda” is to seek the truth every bit as much as yours is. I am sad that you have chosen to question my motives rather than provide evidence to “prove” your position.

  3. Play with the Word of God all you wish. I have spoke the truth to you in truth and love, but you rather question the very authorship of the Scriptures. Is it so important to you to hold office that you will question Scripture and retranslate words?

    Sorry, but at the end of the day Scripture does not approve with your position on this topic. And thus I do not. I have tried reason on your other board about this subject. I have tried theology. I have used Scripture and still you insist that for all those years the traditional understanding of the verses were wrong.

    So I bid you good day and leave you with your textual criticisms.

  4. Steve–I am truly not trying to offend you. And, I am not questioning the authorship of scripture. How is offering an equally viable choice questioning what the original language says? Do you believe scripture was first written in English? Humanity is falible. We have prejudices. We see through cultural eyes. But, so did those who came before us. Power and control are mighty temptations. For years the US believed slavery was right. And, we used scripture to defend our position. You say you put forth reason, theology, and scripture. Forgive me if I missed it but you asked me to comment on the two scriptures I commented on in this post. Other than that I only hear you say I am wrong but you offer no proof. Where is the scripture that says deacons had no authority. Or where is your historical evidence? Is it your position that Junias in not an apostle or not a woman? Did prophets not have authority? You refuse to answer these questions. I guess we can agree to disagree but please do not question my integrity or sincere desire to promote the truth. I am not suggesting that we ignore scripture. I am suggesting that we look for the best option, the option that allows agreement between the word and the example.

  5. I agree with your statement:

    “Sorry but I am very passionate about the Scriptures and to see them bent to fit an agenda is more then I can stomach.”

    I think Minnow does too (from what I can tell). You can’t say that you know the complete truth about Woman in Ministry. I mean there is a reasonable doubt I have heard many that have the same type of view that Minnow has. I respect that you think it is wrong. But the view Minnow has is seen in bits and pieces all the way through out History not just the 21st century.

  6. I am finding these three conversations increasingly frustrating. Each time Biblical evidence has been put up to show women in leadership, women in authority, the use of titles and so on, it has been ignored and left undealt with by those who claim to place such great store in scripture.
    Instead the discussion seems to have descended into a issue over ‘authority of scripture’. No-one here, myself included, would argue against the authority of scripture. What we are arguing is over interpretation of scripture and that is an entirely different issue altogether.
    Using scripture to keep women out of leadership is every bit as open to accusations of bending scripture to fit an agenda as anything else being said. For every ‘proof text’ Steve has raised denying women authority, there has been evidence from others to show where women are in positions of authority. That’s not bending the text! It’s the tension that always exists in scripture. If you choose to privilege one over the other then that is a matter of personal interpretation, not one of scriptural authority and dressing it up as such is misleading and dishonest. Saying you are ‘true’ to scripture is saying that you are beyond argument and reproach and is an arrogant and prideful stance to take. Speaking the ‘truth’ is nothing but bullying and an attempt to claim a non-existent moral high ground. That phrase should always have the rider ‘the truth as I see it’.
    My apologies for this rant. I hope I haven’t abused the hospitality of this blog, but when the arguments descend to dogmatic positions then you might as well post “I believe you are wrong!” and leave it at that.

  7. JohnO–No offense taken. I guess my “agree to disagree is the same as your I believe you are wrong. Thank you for your contributions here.

  8. Thank you for your forbearance 🙂
    I very much enjoyed the Kaiser article and it prompted me to have another rummage through my own library. I though you’d appreciate a couple of extracts from the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (it’s a fairly hefty academic tome but a great reference).

    In a brief letter of recommendation at the conclusion of Romans, Paul commends the bearer of his letter whom the Romans may trust to explain it to them (Rom 16:1–2). Phoebe is “servant” of the church at Cenchreae, the port city of Corinth; the term may refer to a “deacon” (diakonos), apparently a person with administrative responsibility in the early church, but which in Paul’s letters usually refers to a minister of God’s word, such as himself.

    And I had to laugh at this one:

    In Paul’s following greetings (Rom 16:3–16), he lists about twice as many men as women, but commends more than twice as many women as men.

    In the interests of balance, here’s the part dealing with women asking questions. It doesn’t agree with Kaiser but offers another option:

    More likely is the view that Paul is restricting the only kind of speech directly addressed in these verses: asking questions (Giles, 56). It was common in the ancient world for hearers to interrupt teachers with questions, but it was considered rude if the questions reflected ignorance of the topic (see Plutarch On Lectures). Since women were normally considerably less educated than men, Paul proposes a short-range solution and a long-range solution to the problem. His short-range solution is that the women should stop asking the disruptive questions; the long-range solution is that they should be educated, receiving private tutoring from their husbands. Most husbands of the period doubted their wives’ intellectual potential, but Paul was among the most progressive of ancient writers on the subject. Paul’s long-range solution affirms women’s ability to learn and places them on equal footing with men.

    And on the letter to Timothy:

    Whether because the women were uneducated and thus particularly susceptible to error, or because their seizing authority would have injured the church’s witness in a tense social situation, or (most likely) both, the specific situation Paul addresses invites his specific response. Paul again provides a short-range solution and a long-range solution. The short-range solution is: They should not take ruling positions as teachers in the church. The long-range solution is: Let them learn.

    In other words, it’s an admonition specific to a particular time, place and situation and, given Paul’s support of women in authority elsewhere in his writings, cannot be taken as universally proscriptive for all times and places.

    (See, I can do self-control when I work at it.)

  9. JohnO You do self-control quite well. And thank you for your contributions. I often “agree to disagree” much earlier then I did this time around but I believe those who are not commenting but watching may actually be weighing the evidence so…

  10. You’re too kind and thank you for kick-starting some thought-provoking discussion.
    I too will need to bow out for a bit. I have a looming dissertation deadline and an insufficiency of words on paper.

  11. For an excellent defense of women in leadership and a thorough explanation of these troubling passages check out this link:

  12. After reading the rest of your posts on women in ministry, it looks like you have a very good grasp of scripture and interpretation. You might not need to read anything at all on my blog. 🙂 Although I would love to know what you think.

    10 Lies the Church Tells Women by J. Lee Grady is one of my all-time favorite books. And I need to go read the article by Kaiser. I can’t believe I’ve never read it!

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