Editor's Note: This article has been translated to French. Click here for the French version.
Is the Bible divided on the issue of gender? Many highly respected evangelical scholars believe there is a tension in the Bible between affirmations of gender equality and gender roles. Can we arrive at a consistent biblical position without doing violence to the text? Need one sacrifice good exegesis at the altar of systematic theology? Surely, good exegesis and good systematic theology go hand in hand. I have prayerfully wrestled for forty-one years with the texts’ apparent contradictions on gender and can honestly say that the biblical texts themselves have transformed my understanding. From creation to new creation, the Bible’s message about gender in the church and marriage consistently affirms the equal standing of man and woman.
Women in the Old Testament
Woman in the creation and after the fall
Genesis presents gender equality, rather than male leadership, as humanity’s created state.1 It teaches that man and woman are created equally in the image of God and together have dominion over the earth (Gen 1:26–27). Their equality is not limited to spiritual standing before God, but applies to their dominion over the earth. God blessed man and woman and charged them both in verse 28: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over . . . every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
The structure of the creation narrative climaxes in the creation of woman, fulfilling man’s need for a partner corresponding to him (Gen 2:18, 20). The text describes woman being created to be the man’s ʿēzer kĕnegĕdô, literally, “a strength corresponding to him.” Unfortunately, the word ʿēzer here is often translated “helper,” which, in English, implies a subordinate or servant. Never in the Bible, however, does ʿēzer suggest “helper” as in “servant,” but almost always describes God as his people’s rescuer, strength, or might.2 The most authoritative biblical Hebrew dictionary lists biblical meanings of ʿēzer as “help, assistance, might, and strength,” but not “helper.”3 Three times ʿēzer describes a military protector.4 Nothing in the context of any of these passages warrants concluding that, as ʿēzer, either God or woman is subordinate to man.5
The second word, kĕnegĕdô, combines kĕ (as) + negĕd (in front of) + ô (him) and so conveys “as in front of him.” Nāgîd, a noun related to negĕd, refers to the person in front and means, “the one declared (by Yahweh) to lead.”6 Therefore, like ʿēzer, kĕnegĕdô is more appropriate to identify a superior or equal than a subordinate. Nothing in the expression ʿēzer kĕnegĕdô in Gen 2 implies God created woman as a subordinate helper for man. Quite the opposite, it highlights her strength to be an equal partner with man, rescuing him from being alone. She is his counterpart: his companion and friend who complements him in exercising dominion over the earth. She fulfills him so that together they can be fruitful and care for the earth.
Likewise, nothing in the Genesis account of creation grants man priority in status or authority over woman,7 but throughout it emphasizes their equality. God makes woman from the man’s rib, and the man recognizes, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (2:23), because they share the same substance (2:21–23). “Father and mother” are identified without hierarchical distinction (2:24). In marriage, they are “united” and “one flesh” (2:24). Both are naked and feel no shame; they share moral innocence (2:25). Together, they face temptation and disobey God’s command (3:6). They both realize they are naked and sew coverings (3:7). Both hide from God (3:8), showing they were both ashamed that they had disobeyed God. Both pass the blame (3:12–13). God speaks directly to both, announcing specific consequences of their sin (3:9–13, 16–19). Both are responsible for their own acts. Thus, Gen 2–3 portrays gender equality, not an “order of creation”8 that grants men authority over women.
Male hierarchy over women is not in God’s original design. The first mention of male rule is in Gen 3:16, which identifies it as a direct result of the fall: “He will rule over you.” Even prominent male hierarchists agree that this “is not a prescription of what should be.”9 Like every other result of the fall, it is a negative change. To make this compatible with the theory of male headship in creation, hierarchists say Gen 3:16 is about the introduction of unloving rule, not male rule over women in general.10 The text, however, does not say that only unloving male rule is a result of the fall; it says that male rule itself is a result of the fall. Genesis 3:16 uses by far the most common word for “rule,” not a word that naturally brings to mind bad rule. The word is even used for God’s rule, which is certainly not bad rule! Both major biblical Hebrew dictionaries analyze every Old Testament instance of this word and list no negative meaning for it.11 This word does not imply bad rule, but simply means “rule.”
Since man’s ruling over woman is itself a result of the fall, man must not have ruled over woman before the fall. The practical result of men ruling over women, even in the best of circumstances, is that women are deprived of the corresponding authority with men that God granted them in creation. Furthermore, because of their fallen nature, many men have used their positions of authority to abuse women. Christ, the seed of the woman God promised would crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15), has overcome the fall. Consequently, we should resist the tragic consequences the fall introduced, including man’s rule over woman, not foster them.
Women in the rest of the Old Testament
The Old Testament praises many women in leadership over men, including wives and mothers. It describes women in leadership with God’s blessing with no hint that their gender should disqualify them. The prophetess Miriam is sent by God “to lead” Israel (Mic 6:4; cf. Exod 15:20–21). Deborah is one of the judges “the Lord raised up” who “saved Israel from the hands of their enemies” (Judg 2:16, 18; 4:10, 14, 24; 5:1–31), a prophetess and the highest leader in all Israel (4:4–5). She, a wife and mother (5:7), had authority to command Barak, Israel’s military commander, “Go!” (4:6, 14), and he went. They worked together well with shared authority: he as military commander, she as commander in chief. Queen Esther had sufficient influence to bring about the destruction of the house of Haman, along with 75,000 enemies of the Jews (Esth 7:1–10; 9:1–32). She, along with Mordecai, “wrote with full authority. . . . Esther’s decree confirmed these regulations” (9:29–32). The Bible praises the Queen of Sheba (1 Kgs 10:1–13; 2 Chr 9:1–12) and the Queen of Chaldea (Dan 5:10–12). The Hebrew word for “queen” is simply “king” with a feminine ending. The Bible only praises and never criticizes only three people with this title from the root for “king”: these three women. The records of the kings of Judah always note or name the queen mothers (cf. Jer 13:18; 29:2; 2 Kgs 24:15). They included Bathsheba, who was enthroned (1 Kgs 2:17–19), Maacah (1 Kgs 15:2, 10, 13), and Nehushta (2 Kgs 24:8).
Priests consulted the prophet Huldah on finding the lost book of the law and submitted to her spiritual leadership. Israel’s leaders, including the king, the elders, the prophets, and the people, accepted her word as divinely revealed (2 Kgs 22:14–23:3; 2 Chr 34:22–32). The obedience of Israel’s male leadership to God’s word spoken through a woman sparked what is probably the greatest revival in the history of Israel (2 Kgs 22:14–23:25; 2 Chr 34:29–35:19).
Not one Old Testament text says that God permitted women to hold such political or religious authority over men only because of special circumstances, nor do they describe these cases as exceptions to a scriptural principle. Although two female monarchs of Israel, Athaliah (2 Kgs 11:1–3; 2 Chr 22:10–12) and Jezebel (1 Kgs 18:4), were wicked, so were most of Israel’s kings. Scripture does not criticize them or any other woman leader of Israel on the grounds that their having authority over men is an inappropriate role for a woman. Instead, the Old Testament presents women in religious and political leadership as normal.
The only social or religious leadership position of significance that the Old Testament does not record women holding is that of priest. The obvious reason for this is the association of priestesses in some heathen cults with prostitutes or cultic sexual rites, which Deut 23:17 prohibits. God repeatedly forbade his people from giving an appearance of following the immoral practices of the surrounding nations,12 and to have women priests would give that appearance. However, the Old Testament ideal was for the people of Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). Isaiah 61:6 predicts a future when all God’s people “will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God.” God brought about the priesthood of all his people in the New Testament church (1 Pet 2:9).
Old Testament prophets revealed God’s intentions for a greater prophetic role for women. Moses wrote, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Num 11:29). Joel announced God’s desire: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. . . . Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28–29), a promise fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:14–21).
God even used women in the greatest of all prophetic roles: speaking key portions of inspired Scripture. These include the songs of Miriam (Exod 15:21) and Deborah (Judg 5:2–31) and Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam 2:1–10). God continued to speak through women in this way in the New Testament through the Song of Elizabeth (Luke 1:25, 42–45) and Mary’s Magnificat, the first Christian exposition of Scripture (Luke 1:46–55). Quite the opposite of excluding women from leadership over men, God appointed women to both secular and sacred leadership.
Jesus and Women
Jesus in all his words and deeds left us an example to treat women as equals with men, never subordinated or restricted in role (Matt 12:49–50; 15:38; 25:31–46; Mark 3:34–35; Luke 8:21; 11:27–28). His treatment of women as equals defied the judicial, social, and religious customs of his day. On judicial matters where women’s rights were curtailed, such as regarding adultery and divorce, he treated men and women equally. In a society that regarded women as less intelligent and less moral than men, Jesus respected women’s intelligence and spiritual capacity, as is evident in the great spiritual truths he originally taught to women such as the Samaritan woman (John 4:10–26) and Martha (John 11:25–26).
In a culture that frowned upon the religious education of women, Jesus encouraged women to be his disciples. For example, when Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet listening,” the posture and position of a disciple, Jesus affirmed her: “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38–42).13 It is generally agreed that disciples in Jesus’s day were trained to carry on a rabbi’s teachings, typically becoming teachers themselves, and the rabbis’ disciples were always male. Jesus teaching both men and women disciples implies that he wanted women as well as men to be religious teachers.
Yet, does Jesus’s choice of only men for the original twelve apostles, who had a revered leadership role in the early church, mean that he thereby excluded women from church leadership? No. Simply choosing men for the twelve apostles does not logically exclude women from church leadership any more than his choosing free Jews for the twelve apostles excludes Gentiles or slaves from church leadership. In any event, the two most influential early church leaders, James the brother of Jesus (Acts 15:13; Gal 11:19)14 and Paul, were not among the twelve apostles, but, like the woman Junia, were also apostles.15 Since apostles other than the twelve held key church leadership positions, why should the twelve be our only standard for church leadership?
So, then, why did Jesus choose all men and no women for the original twelve apostles? Although the New Testament does not explain his reasons, Jesus probably chose men for two reasons: to avoid scandal and for symbolic parallel. If Jesus had included women in gatherings in the shadow of darkness, especially in the wilderness or in places like the garden of Gethsemane, this would have raised moral suspicions not only about Jesus, but also about these twelve, on whose integrity the church would depend. Furthermore, Jesus’s appointment of twelve Jewish free men paralleled the twelve sons of Israel and reinforced the symbolism of the church as the “new Israel.” Also, Jesus’s choice of women disciples (see above) shows that he did not intend his choice of twelve male apostles to exclude women from church leadership.
Nor did Jesus prevent women from proclaiming the gospel to men. The first Christian missionary was a Samaritan woman: “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39; 28–42). The first person the resurrected Christ sought out and commissioned to announce the gospel of his resurrection and his coming ascension to God the Father was Mary Magdalene (John 20:14–18). Since “apostle” means “sent one,” it is appropriate to say Christ appointed her an apostle to the apostles. Leadership for Christ, which he redefined as humble servant-leadership (e.g. John 13:3–17), is at least as appropriate for women as men.
Paul and Women: Champion of Equality
Paul many times affirms the equality of man and woman by identifying women as laboring alongside men in ministry, by affirming many theological truths that entail the equality of men and women, and by explicitly affirming their equality.
Paul’s affirmations of women in ministry
In Rom 16:1–16, Paul greets by name ten people he identifies as colleagues in Christian ministry. Seven of the ten are women: Phoebe, “deacon of the church of Cenchrea” (16:1) and “leader16 of many, including myself” (16:2); Junia, “outstanding among the apostles” (16:717); Prisca, “my fellow worker in Christ Jesus” (16:3; cf. Phil 4:3); and Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis “worked hard in the Lord” (16:6, 12). First Corinthians 16:16 urges believers “to be subject to every fellow laborer.” First Thessalonians 5:12 identifies “those who labor among you” as “those who are over you in the Lord.” It cannot be stressed enough that Paul is not simply listing these women as believers, but as ministry leaders. Paul greets many believers in this passage, but describes as ministry leaders only ten people, and seven of those are women. The three men are Aquila, Andronicus, and Urbanus. The first two are listed with their wives, highlighting their shared authority. Paul’s naming such a high proportion of women leaders in an open society is unparalleled in the entire history of ancient Greek literature and suggests a level of female leadership in the early church exceptional for its culture.
Paul’s theological principles logically entail the equality of man and woman.
Paul affirms men and women are equally “in God’s image,” “in Christ,” given dominion over the earth, and given the creation mandate and blessing. Much of his theology logically entails their equality: servant leadership, “mutual submission” in church and marriage, the oneness of the body of Christ, the priesthood of all believers, the gifts of the Spirit for all, liberty in Christ, inaugurated eschatology, the new creation, and “there is no male/female division” in Christ.18
Paul’s explicit affirmations of the equality of man and woman
In two verses, Gal 3:28 and 1 Cor 11:11, Paul explicitly argues that women and men are equals in church life.
In Gal 2:11–3:28, Paul insists that unequal treatment in the church of a social group, including women, is contrary to the gospel. He denounces Jewish Christians, including the apostle Peter, for not treating Gentile Christians as equals and even refusing to eat with them. Paul argues that, since Christians’ salvation identity is in Christ alone, it is contrary to the gospel to assign status or privilege in the church based on ethnicity, wealth, or gender: “There is no Jew/Greek division, no slave/free division, no male/female division, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Since these are all social categories, and “in Christ Jesus” refers to the church, Gal 3:28’s most obvious application is to social relations in the church. Peter sets an example of repentance for unequal treatment of a class of believers by affirming “our beloved brother Paul” and the wisdom of “all his letters” as “scripture” in 2 Pet 3:15-16.
Some say this passage is just about who can be saved and does not affect life in the church, but they misunderstand the passage’s view of salvation and ignore its historical and cultural context and the implications of its wording.19 The passage inextricably links salvation to one’s social life in the church. As in all Paul’s writings, salvation in Christ cannot be divorced from life in the body of Christ, the church. In terms of cultural context, Gal 3:28 repudiates the ideas conveyed by the daily Jewish prayer thanking God for not being born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman, since these groups lacked the privilege of studying the law. Paul’s repudiation of these distinctions must entail the opposite, namely, affirmation of the equal standing in the practical life of the church of each of these groups, for they are all one in Christ.
A close parallel to Gal 3:28 is 1 Cor 11:11: “However, neither is woman separate20 from man, nor is man separate from woman in the Lord.” Paul states this in the context of affirming that women, like men, may lead the key activities in public meetings of the church—prayer (the vertical dimension of worship) and prophecy (the horizontal dimension of worship)—as long as they do so in ways that do not repudiate marriage and Christian morality.21 Consequently, this denial of a separation between men and women “in the Lord” must apply at least to these activities of church leadership. The first word in the verse, “however,” in Greek implies the sentence to follow is the passage’s most important point. Despite the contrasting hair style “coverings” (11:14-15) Paul commands in order to avoid symbolizing immorality, he highlights repudiation of gender-based separation in Christ as his most important point regarding public worship. This is why he welcomes both men and women to lead worship through prayer and prophecy.
Paul’s affirmations of the equality of husband and wife
First Corinthians 7, Paul’s most detailed treatment of marriage, specifies exactly the same conditions, opportunities, rights, and obligations for the woman as for the man in twelve distinct issues about marriage. In each, he addresses men and women as equals. He repeatedly uses symmetrically-balanced wording to reinforce this equality, as can be seen in the following twelve issues. Paul affirms that husband and wife mutually possess each other (v. 2). They have mutual conjugal rights (v. 3), mutual authority over the other’s body (v. 4), and mutual sexual obligations (v. 5). Both are told not to separate or divorce (vv. 10–13). Both consecrate the other and sanctify their children (v. 14). Both have freedom if deserted (v. 15). Both have a potentially saving influence on the other (v. 16). Both are free to marry (v. 28). Both may focus on Christ as single (vv. 32 and 34b) or on pleasing the other in marriage (vv. 33–34a and 34c). Paul even writes, “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but his wife does” (7:4). Richard Hays correctly observes how revolutionary this was: “Paul offers a paradigm-shattering vision of marriage as a relationship in which the partners are bonded together in submission to one another.”22
Similarly, in Eph 5:21–22, the wife’s submission is explicitly one facet of mutual submission, each voluntarily yielding in love.23 Paul’s call to both wives and husbands is to defer to and nurture one another. Christ is the model for all believers, wives as well as husbands (5:2). Paul defines what he means by Christ being “head” in verse 23 by equating it with “savior” through emphatic apposition: “Christ the head of the church, he the savior of the body.” What does Christ do as “savior”? Paul explains: “Christ gives himself” for the church (5:25) and “nourishes and cherishes” it (5:29). This shows that Paul is using “head” with the established Greek meaning “source,” here focusing on Christ as the source of love and nourishment of the church.24 Paul calls husbands as “head” of the wife to follow Christ’s example as “head” by loving, nourishing, and cherishing their wives (5:25–29). This cherishing, nourishing love, not a hierarchy of authority, motivates her submission (5:23).
The Bible approves women leading in the home. Paul treats husbands and wives equally in relation to their children (Eph 6:1–2; Col 3:20) and tells wives to “rule their households” (literally, “be house despots,” 1 Tim 5:14). If this is not leadership in the home, what is?
Paul and Women: Champion of Patriarchy?
Despite Paul’s many affirmations of gender equality, the idea persists that Paul is a champion of male rule in the church. Why? Primarily because of popular interpretations of a few passages: 1 Tim 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man”); 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 (male-only overseer requirements); and 1 Cor 14:34–35 (“Let women be silent in the churches”). The following analysis exposes the error of the popular interpretations of these verses and shows that Paul is a consistent advocate of gender equality.
1 Timothy 2:12
Does 1 Tim 2:12 prohibit women from teaching or having authority over men? Actually, no. Paul writes in 1 Tim 2:11–12, “Let women learn in all submission. I am not permitting a woman to teach and [in combination with this] to assume authority over a man.”25 Grammatically, Paul’s prohibition applies to that ongoing circumstance with no specification of universality. Paul’s expression, “I am not permitting,” uses a verb that favors a presently ongoing prohibition over a universal prohibition, particularly in this first person present indicative grammatical form.
BDAG 150 identifies the meaning of its key verb as, “to assume a stance of independent authority.” The NIV 2011 revision properly translates it “to assume authority.” In every documented occurrence of this verb meaning “assume authority,” it refers to unauthorized assumption of authority. This verse does not use the New Testament standard word for “exercise authority.” Even the major hierarchist book's study of this key word does not identify “to exercise authority” or “to have authority” in the range of meanings it carried in Paul’s day, but does include “to assume authority.”26 Consequently, Paul is not prohibiting women from having authority over men. Rather, because of the ongoing crisis of false teaching in Ephesus, he prohibits women from unauthorized assumption of authority over a man.
Paul is not prohibiting two activities, women teaching and assuming authority over men; he prohibits one thing: women assuming authority to teach men. In this verse, the Greek oude joins the two elements “to teach” and “to assume authority” to convey a single idea, as is typical with Paul’s use of this conjunction.27 Why does Paul prohibit women from assuming authority to teach men? He identifies two reasons. One, for women to assume authority to teach men without recognized authorization by the church was disrespectful to men, whom they ought to respect, since man was the source from whom woman came (2:13; cf. 1 Cor 11:8, 11–12). Two, some women were deceived by false teachers to follow after Satan (2:14; cf. 5:13–15). Paul had already prohibited false teachers from unauthorized teaching (1:3). Here, he similarly restricts women, the only group Paul identifies as deceived by them.
Paul in 1 Tim 2:12 is not prohibiting women in Ephesus like Priscilla (present in Ephesus in 2 Tim 4:19) from assuming properly delegated or recognized authority. After all, Acts approvingly notes she “explained to [Apollos] the way of God more accurately” (18:26 NASB). Although both Luke and Paul, following Greek custom, introduce Aquila and Priscilla listing the husband’s name first (Acts 18:2; 1 Cor 16:19), in every passage about their active ministry, they list Priscilla’s name first (Acts 18:18, 26; Rom 16:3), contrary to Greek convention. This makes it virtually certain that she played a significant, if not the dominant, role in their ministry. Not surprisingly, then, in both Paul’s most extensive lists of his colleagues in ministry, 2 Tim 4:19–21 and Rom 16:1–16, the first person he greets is Prisca, addressing her by the more respectful form of her name, which he always uses. Similarly, since Phoebe delivered the letter to the Romans as Paul’s emissary (Rom 16:1–2), she naturally answered the Roman Christians’ questions about it and thus was its first expositor, teaching adult men. All this shows that 1 Tim 2:12 must not prohibit women such as Priscilla and Phoebe, who had properly recognized authority, from teaching men. It simply prohibits women without recognized authority from assuming authority to teach a man.
Overseer requirements in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1
Does Paul require that all overseers be men? Actually, Paul encourages every believer to aspire to be an overseer: “Here is a trustworthy saying: Anyone who aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1). In Greek, “anyone” is a gender-inclusive word, implying an open door to women as well as men. Would Paul encourage women to desire an office that is forbidden to them? Paul makes it clear that “anyone” is his continuing subject by reiterating “anyone” in verse 5 and identifying “anyone” as the subject of the parallel list for overseer qualifications in Titus 1:6. Contrary to most translations, there is not a single masculine pronoun in any of the church leader qualifications in 1 Tim 3:1–13 or Titus 1:5–9.28
What about overseers being a “husband of one wife” in 1 Tim 3:2, 12 and Titus 1:6, which in Greek is literally, “man of one woman”? This text does not say merely “man” but “man of one woman”; the whole phrase must be understood together as an idiom. Some insist on extracting one word, namely, “man,” and arbitrarily isolating it from its context as a new requirement that every overseer be a “man.” But this is as nonsensical as arguing that since “hit and run” is a felony, “run” must also be a felony. Most scholars, including hierarchist scholars, understand “man of one woman” to exclude polygamists or sexually unfaithful men from being overseers.29
Nevertheless, some insist that the passage also excludes women. Reading a double meaning into this idiomatic phrase, both an exclusion of polygamists and a universal requirement that overseers be men, is unwarranted and would make nonsense of most of Paul’s other multi-word requirements for overseers. Must all overseers have their “own household” with slaves and multiple “children” old enough to “believe” and be in subjection “with all gravity”? Furthermore, since 1 Tim 3:11 identifies qualifications for women deacons, the same expression, “man of one woman,” in the requirements for deacons in 3:12 must not exclude women. Thus, reading into “man of one woman” a requirement that overseers be male is arbitrary and unwarranted.30
It is simply Greek convention to use grammatically masculine forms when referring to groups of people including men and women.31 One excellent pastor-professor who affirms patriarchy argues that it is common throughout the Bible for prohibitions addressing men also to apply to women. He states, “As is widely recognized, . . . [i]n the absence of other constraints, norms which utilize male-oriented terminology ought to be construed, in general, as including both sexes in their purview.”32 Jesus’s interpretation of Deut 24 in Mark 10:12 confirms this. The principle of monogamy conveyed by “man of one woman” applies equally to men and women just as “you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exod 20:17) applies equally to a husband or wife coveting a neighbor’s spouse. Thus, the most accurate and literal translation of “man of one woman” is “monogamous” since it best conveys the Greek convention’s inclusive meaning of masculine forms, and since this is the natural meaning of this idiom in verse 12.
1 Corinthians 14:34–35
So, then, 1 Tim 2 does not prohibit all women from teaching or having authority over men, and 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 do not prohibit women from being elders. But does 1 Cor 14:34–35 command women to be silent in church? Yes. In fact, this is the only command that women be silent in the entire Bible. The plain meaning of these verses is repeated three times for maximum emphasis: “Let women be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak . . . it is a disgrace for a woman to speak in church.” Verse 35 prohibits even a respected woman, a wife, from the most justifiable kind of speech by a woman in church, namely asking questions out of a desire to learn. This clarifies that the prohibition is on all speech by all women in public assemblies of the church, not a limited restriction. This was the conventional wisdom in the ancient world widely held by Jews, Greeks, and Romans.33 But how can Paul be a consistent defender of gender equality if he gave this command? Does that make Paul—and the Bible itself—inconsistent?
These verses have puzzled scholars for centuries, including early church fathers, because they explicitly contradict statements throughout this chapter that “all” may teach and prophesy (5, 24, 26, 31, cf. 39) and the affirmation of women prophesying in 11:5–6, not to mention Paul’s support of gender equality elsewhere. They are also puzzling because their use of “the law” (14:34) is exceptional. Everywhere else Paul cites “the law,” he quotes the Old Testament—but here he does not. Contrary to what verse 34 says, the law never commands women to be in submission, much less to be silent, in religious gatherings, but several times encourages women to proclaim God’s word publicly. Psalm 68:11 (12 in the Masoretic Text) states, “The Lord announced the word; the women proclaiming [feminine plural] it are a great company.” Because 1 Cor 14:34–35 contradicts biblical teaching in its immediate context and elsewhere, its unqualified prohibitions of women speaking in church have baffled readers for nearly two thousand years.
Scholars who assume 1 Cor 14:34–35 expresses Paul’s command have, in an effort to make Paul (and the Bible) consistent, proposed an enormous number of interpretations to limit its threefold demand for silence, each contrary to its plain meaning. They try to narrow the prohibited speech to only a specific kind of speech, such as judging prophesies, disruptive chatter, tongues, teaching, or prophecy. These narrow interpretations do not fit the broad scope of a straightforward reading of the unqualified words for “be silent” and “to speak.” Nor do they fit the example of prohibited speech verse 35 identifies: wives asking questions out of a desire to learn. Instead, these narrow interpretations of the prohibited speech permit the type of speech specifically prohibited in verse 35! Consequently, the meaning of “to speak” must not be limited to things such as judging prophecies, disruptive chatter, tongues, teaching, or prophecy. Furthermore, every attempt to limit the prohibited speech contradicts this passage’s threefold (and therefore maximal) unqualified demand for silence.
Since attempts to limit the prohibited speech fail, how, then, can one reconcile verses 34–35 with Paul’s many affirmations in this chapter and in chapter 11 of women prophesying, and his support of gender equality elsewhere? The best answer comes from the discovery that these verses did not originally belong in their current location after verse 33. This is evident in what the earliest manuscripts show to be the original location of this passage. Verses 34–35 follow verse 40 in all “Western” text Greek manuscripts,34 but, in other manuscripts, they follow verse 33. It would have been totally out of character and convention for a scribe to move these verses from after verse 33 to after verse 40 or vice versa.
There is not a single manuscript of any of Paul’s letters containing any passage of comparable length that has been moved this far without an obvious reason. It was scribal custom, however, to write omitted text in the margin, such as the twenty instances of old uncial text in the margins of Matthew in Codex Vaticanus. It was also customary for scribes copying NT manuscripts to put text they found in the margin into the text where they thought it fit best, just like any secretary retyping an edited letter today will move marginal notes into the body of a letter. This custom is evidenced by the inclusion in NA28 of seventeen of these twenty instances of Vaticanus marginal text. Transcriptional probability, therefore, argues that someone first wrote this command that women be silent in the margin of a manuscript, and later copyists inserted it either after verse 33 or after verse 40.35 After all, common sense demands that something customary is more likely to occur than something so extraordinary that no other instance exists.
As marginal text, its meaning is not constrained by its context and its purpose is harder to determine. Specifically, we do not know if this text in the margin is something Paul affirms or denies. This makes it inherently less stable ground for theological or practical argument. Perhaps it identifies the false prophecy Paul had in mind in his adjacent reference to “one who thinks he is a prophet” (v. 37). It is doubtful Paul himself penned 14:34–35, since a typical margin would not accommodate this much text in his large handwriting (Gal 6:11; 2 Thess 3:17), though he might have ordered his scribe to write it in the margin. Because the overwhelming cultural concensus prohibited women from public speech, almost any reader might have added 34-35 in the margin in order to keep Paul’s repeated encouragements to all to prophesy from applying to women. We can only conjecture who wrote it in the margin, why, and when, so both its authorship by Paul and, if so, whether he affirms or denies it, is in doubt. Therefore, this command that women be silent in church should not be used to establish normative theology or church practice. Indeed, it would be most appropriate for Bible translations to put this marginal comment where it almost certainly originated: in the margin, preferably as a footnote.
Some may become alarmed at the prospect of putting these verses in the margin, thinking this may undermine faith in the reliability of the received text. However, this concern is unfounded. First Corinthians 14:34–35 is a unique case—the only passage in Paul’s letters where such a large block of text occurs in various manuscripts in locations this far away from each other with no adequate explanation. Consequently, this manuscript evidence for regarding it as marginal text does not support the marginal status of any other passage of Scripture.
Most scholars who affirm inerrancy36 believe some passages were not originally in the text, even though they have been printed in many Bibles. The question, then, is not whether one should ever put verses in the margin, but whether it is justifiable to do so in this particular case. Even hierarchist scholars admit that some passages, including large ones like the narrative of the woman taken in adultery in John 7:53–8:11, do not belong in the text.37 The command that women be silent in church shares many features with John 7:53–8:11 that suggest it does not belong in the text, either.38 Furthermore, there are many more distinct evidences that the passage silencing women was added later than even the narrative of the adulteress.39 In light of all this evidence, it is hardly surprising that J. A. Fitzmyer writes, “the majority of commentators today” regard 1 Cor 14:34–35 as a later addition, including leading evangelical text-critical scholars like Gordon Fee.40
Even if Paul ordered his secretary to put verses 34–35 in the margin, the conflicts between the content of these verses and Paul’s teachings indicate that he probably did so to identify the content of the false prophecy he had in mind in his adjacent rebukes in verses 36–37: “did the word of God originate with you?” and “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or inspired, let him know that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.” No matter who wrote it or why, the near certainty that 1 Cor 14:34–35 was first written in the margin and the strong likelihood it is a later addition by someone other than Paul, make it a dubious basis for excluding women from speaking in church.
Scripture’s affirmations of the equality of men and women and its affirmations of women called by God to exercise authority alongside or over men are so clear and numerous that to attempt to deny them all is like a person caught in an avalanche thinking, “I will evade each rock or clump of snow as it comes, and none will hit me.” Just as the totality of an avalanche is inescapable, so the totality of what the Scriptures affirm about the God-given equal authority of men and women is inescapable. The Bible teaches both men and women to exercise authority humbly as the Spirit leads and as Christ commands. Biblical evidence for the equal standing of men and women in the life of the church is inescapable. It is not just the passages explicitly about women considered above. It pervades every “one another” passage and virtually every command and encouragement in the Bible—for its assertions and stories are for all of us, and God wants us to live into them wholeheartedly and without reserve, not out of fear of crossing a man-made gender-role -boundary that is alien to the Bible’s teaching.
This article appears in “Status Quaestionis,” the Winter 2015 issue of CBE’s academic journal, Priscilla Papers. Read the full issue here.
1. Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 41–54, shows the weakness of attempts to read male authority into Genesis 1–3.
2. Sixteen times: Exod 18:4; Deut 33:7, 26, 29; Ps 20:3 (2 Eng.); 33:20; 70:6 (5 Eng.); 89:20 (19 Eng.); 115:9, 10, 11; 121:1, 2; 124:8; 146:5; Hos 13:9. For more on the background of this expression, see Aída B. Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 23–29.
3. Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann Jakob Stamm, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (hereafter HALOT) 5 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1994–2000), 2 (1995): 811–12.
4. Isa 30:5; Ezek 12:14; Dan 11:34. Spencer, Beyond the Curse, 23–29, gives more detail.
5. Contra Raymond C. Ortland Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1–3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 95–112, 104.
6. Or “chief, leader, prince . . . officer . . . governor of a town . . . court official . . . head of a family . . . eminent person . . . cult official . . . the high priest . . . overseer . . . supervisor . . . the leader of Israel, appointed by Yahweh” according to HALOT 2:667–68. It is used of David’s and Solomon’s rule over Israel in 1 Sam 9:16; 13:14, and 1 Kgs 1:35.
7. Payne, Man and Woman, 41–54, critiques attempts to detect male authority in creation.
8. Nothing in Genesis teaches a “creation order” giving man authority over woman. God gave dominion to humankind over the earlier-created plants and animals. God giving leadership to one born later is a recurring theme contrary to the Ancient Near Eastern custom of primogeniture: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his older brothers, Moses over Aaron, David over his brothers, and so on. When Paul refers to woman coming from man (1 Cor 11:8, 12 and implicitly in 1 Tim 2:13), he does it to show the respect owed to one’s source, whether woman or man (1 Cor 11:3, 12); cf. Payne, Man and Woman, 113–39, 402–50.
9. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, “Charity, Clarity, and Hope: The Controversy and the Cause of Christ,” in Biblical Manhood, 403–22, 409.
10. George W. Knight III asserts this is “‘rule’ in an autocratic, unloving way” (“The Family and the Church: How Should Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Work out in Practice?” in Biblical Manhood, 345–57, 346); Piper and Grudem assert this is “fallen ‘rulership’” not “God-ordained headship” (“Charity,” 409), and Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Sisters: Multnomah, 2004), 123 n. 45, 40, 43, “the kind of harsh rule implied in Genesis 3:16.” Grudem should know it is unwarranted without lexical support to say this “rule” is “harsh,” for he admits two pages earlier (38 n. 27) his error in arguing without lexical support that another word from this same verse signifies a “hostile or aggressive desire.”
11. HALOT 2:647–48 and Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament; (Oxford: Clarendon, 1906), 605.
12. E.g., Lev 18:3; 20:23; Ps 106:35.
13. See Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
14. F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 296, notes that the Clementine Homilies identify James “as ‘bishop of bishops’ and ruler both of the Jerusalem church and of all churches everywhere properly founded by Divine Providence.”
15. Paul defines an apostle as one who encounters the risen Christ (1 Cor 9:1; 15:8; Gal 1:1, 15–17), receives a commission to preach the gospel, and endures the labors and sufferings of missionary work (Rom 1:1–5; 1 Cor 1:1; 15:10; Junia was in prison with Paul, Rom 16:7) that bears fruit (1 Cor 9:1; 15:10) and is certified by “signs, wonders and miracles” (2 Cor 12:11–12). While some translators represent this as a male name “Junias” in Romans 16:7, the evidence overwhelmingly favors the female “Junia.” The unanimous credible testimony of the church’s first millenium identifies “Junia” as a woman. See the excellent work by Eldon J. Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 23–81.
16. Prostatis combines the Greek words meaning “in rank before” and “to stand.” Every meaning of every related NT word that could apply here refers to leadership. “To have an interest in” in Titus 3:8, 14, does not apply here. C. K. Barret, The Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 283, argues against interpreting this as “patron” since “Phoebe cannot have stood in this relation to Paul (since he was born free, Acts xxii, 28).” The NT, like Greek literature in general, normally conveys the idea “benefactors” or their deeds, with different words that combine the common Greek words “good” and “deed.” Cf. Lk 22:25; Acts 4:9, 10:38; BDAG 405; LSJ 712; Payne, Man and Woman, 62–63.
17. See especially Epp, Junia, 23–44, 69–78, and Bauckham, Gospel Women, 165–86.
18. See regarding these Payne, Man and Woman, 69–76.
19. Payne, Man and Woman, 79–104, identifies 42 factors in the cultural, historical, theological, and literary context of Gal 3:28 that it must not be divorced from life in the church.
20. Standard Greek dictionaries do not support the translation “independent.” Nor does “independent” convey the contrast “however” requires. Nor is it something distinctively true “in the Lord.”
21. See Payne, Man and Woman, 113–215, and Philip B. Payne, “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” Priscilla Papers 20, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 9–18.
22. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox, 1997), 131.
23. Even according to hierarchist George W. Knight III, “Husbands and Wives as Analogues of Christ and the Church: Ephesians 5:21–33 and Colossians 3:18–19,” in Biblical Manhood, 165–78, 166–68.
24. Payne, Man and Woman, 117–37, shows that “source” was an established meaning of “head” (kephalē) in Greek, but that “authority” or “leader” was not.
25. Payne, Man and Woman, 319–97, defends the accuracy of this translation.
26. Henry Scott Baldwin, “An Important Word: αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2:12,” in Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 (ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner; 2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005) 49–51. The first documented occurrence of the word in 2:12 clearly meaning “exercise authority” is circa AD 370 (St. Basil, The Letters 69, line 45). In Paul’s day, it could mean either “to dominate” or “to assume authority” that was not recognized or delegated. Payne, Man and Woman, 361–97, documents the occurrences and meanings of this verb and its use in 2:12.
27. Philip B. Payne, “1 Tim 2.12 and the Use of οὐδέ to Combine Two Elements to Express a Single Idea,” NTS 54 (2008): 235–53, and Philip B. Payne, “Oὐδέ Combining Two Elements to Convey a Single Idea: Further Insights,” in Missing Voices: Broadening the discussion on men, women, and ministry (Minneapolis: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2014), 24-34.
28. The American Bible Societies’ Contemporary English Version (CEV) and the Common English Bible (CEB) correctly translate each list with no masculine pronouns.
29. E.g., Chrysostom, Homily on 1 Tim 3:2; Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, 80, citing Josephus and Rabbinic works. Grudem correctly argues that “man of one woman” is “not intended to rule out a single man (such as Jesus or Paul) from being an elder.” This necessarily entails that “man of one women” cannot describe all elders, which contradicts Grudem’s assertion (263 n. 107) that “husband of one wife” is a necessary qualification for “each” deacon and that it excludes women. Grudem incorrectly adds “each” where there is no such word in the Greek of 1 Tim 3:12. Douglas J. Moo, “The Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15: A Rejoinder,” TJ 2 NS (1981): 198–222, 211, acknowledges that “man of one woman” need not exclude “unmarried men or females from the office . . . it would be going too far to argue that the phrase clearly excludes women.” His following assertion, however, “it does suggest that Paul had men in mind while he wrote,” applies properly only to Paul having in mind the exclusion of polygamists or unfaithful men, not that he had in mind a requirement that all overseers must be men. Thomas R. Schreiner, “Philip Payne on Familiar Ground: A Review of Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters,” Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Spring 2010): 33–46, 35, acknowledges, “The requirements for elders in 1 Tim 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9, including the statement that they are to be one-woman men, does not necessarily in and of itself preclude women from serving as elders.”
30. Nothing else in the list has a double meaning. Cf. Payne, Man and Woman, 445–59.
31. E.g., with the same subject, “anyone” (tis), as here: Mark 8:34; 9:35; Luke 9:23; 14: 25–26; John 7:37–38; 9:31; 11:10; 12:26, 26, 47; 14:23; Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 3:12–15; 3:17; 5:11; 8:3, 10; 10:28; 14:24–25; 2 Cor 10:7; Gal 6:3–5; 2 Thess 3:14; 1 Tim 5:8; 6:3–5; 2 Tim 2:21; James 1:5–8; Rev 3:20.
32. Gordon P. Hugenberger, “Women in Church Office: Hermeneutics or Exegesis? A Survey of Approaches to 1 Timothy 2:8–15,” JETS 35, no. 3 (1992): 341–60, 360 n. 78.
33. Cf. Armin D. Baum, “Paul’s Conflicting Statements on Female Public Speaking (1 Cor. 11:5) and Silence (1 Cor. 14:34-35): A New Suggesion,” Tyndale Bulletin 65.2 (2014): 252–271.
34. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (rev. ed.; NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 699; including Ambrosiaster, circa AD 375.
35. This is an application of the fundamental principle in determining the original text of Scripture, known as Bengel’s first principle. It states, “The text that best explains the emergence of all other texts is most likely original.” See J. C. F. Steudel, ed., Gnomon of the New Testament by John Albert Bengel (trans. James Bandinel; reprint Edinburgh: T & T. Clark, 1858), 1:13-19.
36. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, article 10, states: “We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.” Similarly, article 6 states, “We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.” It affirms the inspiration only of the original words, not later additions.
37. D. B. Wallace, “Reconsidering ‘The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress Reconsidered,’” NTS 39 (1993): 290–96; D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 333, writes, “those [manuscripts] that do include it [John 7:53–8:11] display a rather high frequency of textual variants. . . . The diversity of placement confirms the inauthenticity of the verses.” Carson, however, inconsistently calls Fee’s application of these same principles to 1 Cor 14:34–35 “weak and speculative” in “‘Silent in the Churches’: On the Role of Women in 1 Corinthians 14:33b–36,” in Biblical Manhood, 140–53, 142.
38. For example, it has a high frequency of textual variants, diversity of placement, contains word usage atypical of the book’s author, disrupts the narrative or topic of the passage, and has marginal symbols or notes indicating scribal awareness of a textual problem. Also, in both cases, the most important NT manuscript, Codex Vaticanus, has a symbol of a textual variant at the exact point these passages begin. Payne, Man and Woman, 232–56, explains these factors.
39. It makes alien use of vocabulary from this chapter. It conflicts with the goal of instruction in church. Its “just as the law says” does not fit Paul’s theology or style. It subordinates a weak social group that Paul champions. Its vocabulary mimics that of the later 1 Tim 2:11–15. In 1 Corinthians, only these verses are directed to people “in the churches.” Furthermore, it fits an obvious motive for this addition, to silence women. Payne, Man and Woman, 257–65, explains these aberrations.
40. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians (New Haven: Yale, 2008), 500. Kim Haines-Eitzen, The Gendered Palimpsest: Women, Writing, and Representation in Early Christianity (New York: Oxford, 2012), 62, affirms this of “nearly all scholars now.” At least sixty-two textual studies argue this is a later addition. Cf. Payne, Man and Woman, 226–27, citing reasons for this, 225–67; Fee, First Corinthians, 780-92.
Related Reading from Dr. Phil Payne:
Examining the Twelve Biblical Pillars of Male Hierarchy
Response to Kevin DeYoung’s “Our Pro-Woman, Complementarian Jesus”
Does the New Testament Name Only Men as Local Church Officers?