Is It Wrong for Women to be Church Leaders?

Written by Max Aplin | Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

If you look up 1 Timothy 2:12 in nearly any English translation of the Bible, you will read something very similar to what the English Standard Version has:

‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet.’

If, however, you turn to this verse in the recently published and widely acclaimed International Standard Version, it reads:

‘Moreover, in the area of teaching, I am not allowing a woman to instigate conflict toward a man.  Instead, she is to remain calm.’

Evaluating the ISV translation

I was involved in academic and semi-academic work using New Testament Greek for over twenty years (although never in a teaching capacity).  During that time I spent countless hours studying passages of the Greek New Testament and reading scholars’ interpretations.  For me personally, the ISV translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 is one of the most astonishing treatments of New Testament Greek I have ever seen.  It literally left me with my mouth wide open in amazement when I read it.

I don’t want to spend time discussing the Greek in detail here, since most readers of this article will not be familiar with its rules.  I can recommend William D.  Mounce’s commentary on the Pastoral Epistles in the Word Biblical Commentary series for a sound treatment of this verse.  

However, I will make a few very brief comments about the Greek text of the verse.  It is true that there is scope for discussion about some aspects of the text.  But there should be no question whatever that the infinitives didaskein and authentein both have the same grammatical relationship to the verb epitrepo.  This means that the verse certainly says, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach’.  There is no doubt either that, taken in the wider context of verses 11-14, this verse also forbids women to be in authority over men in a church setting.  It does not say what the ISV tries to make it say.  

The influence of modern Western culture

I think I know what has gone on here.  It seems that the translators of this part of the ISV have been massively influenced by modern Western culture.  And they have then allowed that to determine their translation.  The usual translations of 1 Timothy 2:12 forbid women from teaching in church or holding leadership positions.  But this way of doing things is totally at odds with mainstream Western beliefs.  The translators seem to have been so convinced that modern Western culture is right on this issue that they have contrived a way to get the Bible to agree with that culture.

If my understanding of the psychology behind what has gone on here is right, the translators have got their priorities exactly the wrong way round.  One of the main reasons that God has given us Scripture is so that the influences of the cultures surrounding us are corrected by what He has to say.  There should always be one-way relationship between the Bible and the Christian.  It should influence us, but we should never allow ourselves to influence it by mistranslation or misinterpretation.  It seems that the translators of 1 Timothy 2:12 in the ISV have seriously failed to live up to this principle.

Like all cultures, modern Western culture gets some things right and some things wrong.  This culture is very strong on equality between men and women.  Christians can voice a loud ‘Amen’ to that.  It is also very strong on criticising men in positions of authority for using that authority to mistreat women.  Again, Christians are totally on side.

However, Western culture is completely wrong to say that because men and women are equal, there is therefore no place for men being in authority over women as a matter of principle.  

Crucially, even the Trinity itself shows us how being under authority does not mean inferiority in value or worth.  According to the Bible, God the Son is eternally under the authority of God the Father.  However, this in no way means that the Son is less in value or any less God than the Father.  And the fact that the Father has authority over the Son in no way means that the Father is greater in value or any more God than the Son.  

Given that having authority over or being under authority does not mean greater or lesser value even within the Trinity itself, the same could easily potentially be true of men and women.  And passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-14 make it clear that in church leadership men do indeed have a God-given authority over women that women do not have over men.

1 Timothy 2

Here is 1 Timothy 2:11-14 in full:

‘11 A Woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  12 And I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but she should be quiet.  13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and came into sin.’

This passage tells us that women should not teach in churches or be in church leadership positions, and any translations or interpretations that deny this should be firmly rejected.  

I have already mentioned the deeply flawed ISV translation of v. 12.  

Similarly, there are those who say that in these verses Paul is just referring to a situation in which women were misinterpreting the Genesis account.  They claim that he is not using Genesis to back up his instruction that women should not teach or lead.  However, this too is a contrived way of avoiding the sense of the text, and should not be accepted.

It is also unwarranted to claim that barring women from church leadership is merely something that was culturally appropriate for the churches Timothy was involved with.  Nor should we think that this was appropriate only for all Christians in the first century.  The way that Paul appeals to the creation account in Genesis shows that he views male leadership in churches as a principle that is not dependent on culture.  Instead, it is something that fits with God’s created order.

1 Corinthians 14

1 Corinthians 14:34-35 points in the same direction.  These verses read:

‘34 . . . women should be silent in the churches, since it is not fitting for them to speak, but they should subordinate themselves, just as the Law also says.  35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.’

The phrase ‘just as the Law also says’ shows that Paul isn’t thinking of a principle that was dependent on cultural conditions in Corinth.  Rather, he is implying that women’s subordination and silence in church gatherings is based on a principle in the Law of Moses that goes back to ages past.  This principle is clearly presented as one that applies to the whole Christian era.

We can note that women are referred to in the same letter as praying and prophesying in church gatherings (1 Corinthians 11:5).  And in light of the teaching of chap. 14 on prophecy, it seems that 11:5 is referring to women praying and prophesying out loud.  

The silence of women in 14:34-35 therefore mustn’t be taken too literally.  Nevertheless, this passage does strongly suggest that women do not have authority to teach in churches – at least, to teach adults – and that they should not be leaders.  

Summing up the discussion so far

So the New Testament tells us that women should not teach in churches or be church leaders.  And this is a principle which is based on God’s created order and therefore applies to the church in every century.  

That’s that, then, is it?  Women should never be teachers or church leaders, should they?

Allowing for possible exceptions

Actually, things are not so simple.  Importantly, it is going too far to treat 1 Timothy 2:11-14 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as cast iron rules that need to be followed no matter what.  Instead, these passages should be treated as principles that may potentially allow for exceptions in special cases.  

Scripture often gives a general principle with the unspoken assumption that there may be exceptions to that principle.  

For example, in Mark 10:10-12 Jesus teaches that anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.  That might seem to conflict with Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:9, which allow for divorce and remarriage in the case of sexual immorality.  

However, it would be wrong to conclude that there is a conflict between Matthew and Mark here.  Instead, Mark provides a general principle whose exceptions have been left unexpressed.  And Matthew then goes into a bit more detail, giving an exception to the principle in Mark.  

Modern Western Christians often get confused in issues like this because they are unaware that the culture of the biblical writers allowed for unexpressed exceptions to things more than we are used to in the modern West.

It is unwarranted, then, to conclude from 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 that there must never, ever under any circumstances be women leaders of churches.  And it is just as unwarranted to conclude that women must never, ever under any circumstances teach adults in churches.

Reasons for thinking that there are exceptions

There are, in fact, some good reasons for believing that God does at times approve of exceptions to the principle of 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.

To begin with, there are other passages in the New Testament that need to be allowed their due weight.  We must resist at all costs the temptation to simplify things by ignoring or explaining away biblical texts that seem to fit awkwardly with others.  The Bible contains more tensions and paradoxes than we are used to in the modern West, and we must never try to force Scripture into a Western mindset.

Acts 18

Acts 18 is relevant here.  

In Acts 18:2 Luke introduces us to Aquila and his wife Priscilla, some Jewish Christians (or at least Jews who will be Christians by the time of v. 18).

Then in Acts 18:18 Luke states:

‘. . . and with him [Paul] were Priscilla and Aquila.’

Note how Priscilla is mentioned before her husband in this verse.

Finally, in Acts 18:26 Luke says:

‘But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him [Apollos], they took him aside and explained the word of God to him more accurately.’  

Greek manuscripts of v. 26 differ, but the original text very probably mentioned Priscilla before Aquila, as New Testament textual analysts widely agree.

The name Aquila begins with an alpha, the first letter in the Greek alphabet, while Priscilla begins with a pi.  So, in mentioning Priscilla before Aquila in verses 18 and 26, not only is Luke going against the cultural norm of mentioning the husband first, but he is going against alphabetical order too.

Clearly, we don’t have much information to go on here, and certainties are not possible.  However, we get the impression in these verses that Priscilla was probably a more prominent figure in the early church than her husband.  And v. 26 suggests too that she probably took more part than Aquila in explaining the word of God to Apollos.  

It is true that the situation envisaged in v. 26 is a private meeting, not a church gathering.  Nevertheless, this verse seems to stand as a warning against taking the prohibition of women teaching in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 too rigidly.

Romans 16

There is also Romans 16:7 to consider, where Paul instructs the church in Rome to greet two specific Christians.  His instruction is best translated:

‘Greet Andronicus and Junia [Greek: Iounian], my compatriots and fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles.’

This verse probably refers to a woman apostle.  There are, however, two areas of uncertainty:

(1) The clause I have translated as ‘who are of note among the apostles’ could potentially be translated as ‘who are of note in the eyes of the apostles’.  If the latter interpretation is accepted, it would mean that the two people Paul refers to by name were not themselves apostles, just that the apostles thought highly of them.

However, if this interpretation is correct, a rather unusual grammatical structure has been used to give this meaning.  There is a more natural way of saying this in Greek.  On the other hand, if ‘who are of note among the apostles’ was the intended meaning, the most natural form of the Greek has been used.

On balance, it seems likely that ‘who are of note among the apostles’ is the correct interpretation, and that the two people Paul refers to by name were apostles.

The New Testament actually uses the term ‘apostle’ (Greek: apostolos) in different ways.  Sometimes it refers exclusively to those who were members of the select group of twelve (e.g., Revelation 21:14).  However, at other times it is used more broadly to refer to those Christians who received an extraordinary commission for ministry by the risen Jesus (e.g., Acts 14:14).

If, as seems likely, the two people Paul names in Romans 16:7 were apostles, then they would obviously have been apostles in the second of these senses.

(2) There is the issue of what Greek word was in the original.  

The text contains the accusative case word Iounian.  This could potentially refer to the woman’s name Junia (Greek nominative: Iounia).  Or it could refer to the man’s name Junias (Greek nominative: Iounias), considered to be a short form of the name Junianus.  Accordingly, some have argued that it should be translated Junias and that Paul is referring to a man.

The problem with this latter view, however, is that there is no evidence that anyone called Junianus was ever referred to as Junias.  The name Junias is not found in any other surviving ancient literature.  

By contrast, Junia is well known as a woman’s name.  It seems much more probable, therefore, that this verse is referring to a woman, Junia, although this is not certain.

These two areas of uncertainty do add up, and the first one carries some real weight.  Nevertheless, on balance it is probable that in this verse Paul is referring to a woman who was an apostle.  

I don’t know how often this interpretation was accepted in the early centuries of the church.  But I do know that the fourth-fifth century church leader, John Chrysostom, a native Greek speaker, took the verse in this way, and said how remarkable it was that a woman should be called an apostle.

It is true that we know of no other female apostles in the early church, but we do know of numerous male apostles.  Nevertheless, in the time of the judges almost all the judges were men, yet God chose Deborah as an exception (Judges 4-5).  It seems perfectly possible that He could also have chosen a female apostle as an exception to the rule.  Perhaps He even chose more than one, since it is highly likely that the names of some apostles have not been recorded.

If there was an apostle called Junia, she may well have had some authority over both male and female Christians.  And if so, she would have been an exception to the principle outlined in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.  And if she was an exception to this principle, we would expect there probably to be exceptions today too.

When no men are available

Quite apart from biblical texts, every reasonable Christian would surely agree that there are times when women should be church leaders.  Take the following scenario, for example:

In a country where there are very few Christians, there are fifteen people in a church, and no other Christians are known for a hundred miles in any direction.  Of these fifteen, five are children, and of the ten adults, seven are women.  

Let’s suppose that of the three men, one is not very committed.  He doesn’t play much of a part and is not very reliable, only rarely turning up to services etc.  It would surely be wrong to insist that he becomes a leader, something that he would probably refuse to do anyway.

Let’s suppose also that the two other men are devout and serious about following Jesus, but that they are both recent converts, whereas a few of the women have been Christians for decades and are very committed.  Again, it would surely be wrong to insist that either of these new converts becomes a leader.  That would be to get priorities all wrong.

So, in a situation like this there is no doubt that women should take on leadership and teaching responsibilities.  

Men failing in their duty

Another situation when it makes sense to think that there should be women leaders is when men fail to take up leadership roles.  

Let me give an example of the sort of thing I mean.  I am a member of the Church of Scotland denomination, and I am part of a local congregation in the town where I live.  The Church of Scotland on the whole is in a dire spiritual state.  Most congregations are as dry as dust and are taught heresy in some areas of doctrine and/or morals.  (There is a large minority of evangelical congregations, like my own church, that are serious about following Jesus and the authority of Scripture.)

In the Church of Scotland there is a serious shortage of pastors.  People are simply not applying for these positions.  Many churches therefore have to make do with retired pastors and elders filling in.  Furthermore, most of the people who do become pastors are not fit to be pastors.  

I have personally known devout Christian women, who are pastors within the Church of Scotland.  They are fully orthodox in doctrine and morals, and they are convinced that God has called them to this ministry.  

Given the terrible state of affairs, where flocks are taught heresy or have no pastor at all, I find it quite plausible that these women have correctly heard God call them into this work.  I don’t find it hard to believe that He has to some extent set aside the principles of 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 and is raising up women for leadership positions in the Church of Scotland.  
Conclusion

In the discussion above I have tried to emphasise two points:

First, although men and women are equal in God’s eyes, His standard pattern is for men and not women to be church leaders and teachers.

Second, there are good reasons to believe that it is sometimes God’s will for there to be exceptions to the standard pattern.  The New Testament itself seems to point in this direction.  And there are some situations when it makes perfect sense that women should lead and teach.  

How often God approves of such exceptions is a difficult issue.  But Christians must not ignore 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.  Every time a woman becomes a church leader or teacher, there needs to be a very good reason for choosing to step outside the standard pattern revealed in Scripture.

See also:

About The Author

I have been a Christian for over 30 years.  I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh.  I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland.  Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com

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