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Published Date: October 31, 2006

Published Date: October 31, 2006

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The Biblical Basis for Women’s Service in the Church

We are delighted to include this paper by Bishop Tom Wright in the twentieth anniversary issue of Priscilla Papers. Bishop Wright is the fourth-most senior bishop in the Church of England, an internationally renowned New Testament scholar, and a convinced evangelical. This paper is adapted from N. T. Wright’s general session at the International Symposium on Men, Women, and the Church, sponsored by CBE, Women and the Church (WATCH), and Men, Women and God (MWG) at St. John’s College in Durham, England, September 4, 2004. As an Englishman and a research-based scholar, he offers some fresh insights into our understanding of key biblical passages much disputed today in evangelical circles, especially in America.

Preliminary remarks

First, some preliminary remarks about this sort of debate. I have read through some of CBE’s literature with great interest, but also with a sense that the way particular questions are posed and addressed reflects some particular American subcultures. I know a little about those subcultures—for instance, the battles over new Bible translations, some using inclusive language and others not. In my own church, the main resistance against equality in ministry comes, not so much from within the Evangelical right (though there is of course a significant element there), but from within the traditional Anglo-Catholic movement for whom Scripture has never been the central point of the argument, and indeed is often ignored altogether.

Second, I do worry a bit about the word equality. I recognize what is intended, but this word can carry so much freight in our various cultures. Not only is the word equality a red rag to all kinds of bulls who perhaps don’t need to be aggravated in that way (though some may), it is always in danger of implying (wrongly of course, but one cannot police what people will hear in technical terms) not only equality, but also sameness. Likewise, to use the word complementary and its cognates to denote a position which says that not only are men and women different, but also that those differences mean that women cannot minister within the church, is unfortunate. I think the word “complementary” is too good and important a word to let that side of the issue have it all to itself.

We must all recognize that the question of women in ministry takes place within the wider cultural context of overlapping and interlocking issues. The many varieties of feminism on the one hand and the ongoing modern/postmodern culture wars on the other provide two of many signposts. Part of the problem, particularly in the United States, is that cultures become so polarized that if you tick one box many assume you must tick a dozen other boxes down the same side of the page—without realizing that the page itself is highly arbitrary and culture-bound. We have to claim the freedom, in Christ and in our various cultures, to name issues one by one with wisdom and clarity, without assuming that a decision on one point commits us to a decision on others. I just wanted to flag the contexts within which this discussion is taking place, and warn against any kind of absolutism in any particular position.

I also want to set my remarks within a particular framework of biblical theology regarding Genesis 1. Many people, myself included, have claimed that the creation of man and woman in their two genders is a vital part of what it means to be created in God’s image. I now regard that as mistaken. After all, not only the animal kingdom, as noted in Genesis itself, but also the plant kingdom, as noted by the reference to seed, are gendered creations.

The fact that gender is not specific to human beings doesn’t mean it’s unimportant—indeed it’s all the more important, since working out what that means to be male and female is something most of creation is called to do and be. It’s just that we can’t use the argument that being male-plus-female is somehow what being God’s image bearers actually means. Unless we are to collapse into a kind of gnosticism, we have to recognize, respect, and respond to this call of God to live in the world he has made and as the people he has made us.

Key New Testament Texts on Women’s Service in the Church

Galatians 3:28

Galatians 3 is not about ministry, nor is it the only word Paul says about being male and female. Instead of arranging texts in a hierarchy, for instance by quoting this verse and then saying that it trumps every other verse in a kind of fight to be the senior bull in the herd (what a very masculine way of approaching exegesis, by the way!), we need to do justice to what Paul is actually saying here. His overall point in this passage is that God has one family, not two, and that this family consists of all those who believe in Jesus, that this is the family God promised to Abraham, and that nothing in the Torah can stand in the way of this unity which is now revealed through the faithfulness of the Messiah.

First, a note about translation and exegesis. Many Bible versions actually mistranslate this verse to read “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.” That is precisely what Paul does not say; and as it’s what we expect he’s going to say, we should note quite carefully what he has said instead, since he presumably means to make a point by doing so, a point which is missed when the translation is flattened out as in that version. What he says is that there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male and female. I think the reason he says “no male and female” rather than “neither male nor female” is that he is actually quoting Genesis 1:27.

So does Paul mean that in Christ the created order itself is undone? Is he saying, as some have suggested, that we go back to a kind of chaos in which no orders of creation apply any longer? Or is he saying that we go on, like the gnostics, from the first rather shabby creation in which silly things like gender-differentiation apply, to a new world in which we can all live as hermaphrodites? No. Paul is a theologian of new creation, and it is always about the renewal and reaffirmation of the existing creation, never its denial, as not only Galatians 6:16, but also of course Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 make so very clear. Indeed, Genesis 1-3 remains enormously important for Paul throughout his writings.

What then is he saying? Remember that he is controverting in particular those who wanted to enforce Jewish regulations, and indeed Jewish ethnicity, upon Gentile converts. Remember the synagogue prayer in which the man who prays thanks God that he has not made him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. I think Paul is deliberately marking out the family of Abraham reformed in the Messiah as a people who cannot pray that prayer, since within this family these distinctions are now irrelevant.

The presenting issue in Galatians is male circumcision. We sometimes think of circumcision as a painful obstacle for converts, as indeed in some ways it was; but for those who embraced circumcision, it was a matter of pride and privilege. It not only distinguished Jews from Gentiles; it also distinguished them in a way that automatically privileged males. By contrast, imagine the thrill of equality brought about by baptism, the identical rite for Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. And that’s not all. Though this is somewhat more speculative, the story of Abraham’s family did of course privilege the male line of descent: Isaac, Jacob, and so on. What we find in Paul, both in Galatians 4 and in Romans 9, is careful attention—rather like Matthew 1, in fact, though from a different angle—to the women in the story. If those in Christ are the true family of Abraham, which is the point of the whole story, then the manner of this identity and unity takes a quantum leap beyond the way in which first-century Judaism construed them, bringing male and female together as surely and as equally as Jew and Gentile. What Paul seems to do in this passage, then, is rule out any attempt to perpetuate male privilege in Abraham’s family by an appeal to Genesis 1, as though someone were to say, “But of course the male line is what matters, and of course male circumcision is what counts, because God made male and female.” No, says Paul, none of that counts when it comes to membership in the renewed people of Abraham.

But we must also reflect on what Paul has not done as well as what he has done. Regarding the Jew/Gentile distinction, Paul’s uncompromising insistence on equality in Christ does not at all mean that we need pay no attention to distinctions between different cultural backgrounds when it comes to living together in the church. Romans 14 and 15 are the best example of this, but it is also evident throughout Galatians itself, as Paul regularly refers to “we” meaning Jewish Christians and “you” or “they” meaning Gentile Christians. They have come to an identical destination, but they have come by very different routes and retain very different cultural memories and imaginations. The differences between them are not obliterated, and pastoral practice needs to take note of this; they are merely irrelevant when it comes to belonging to Abraham’s family. And this same principle applies to Paul’s treatment of men and women within the Christian family. The difference is irrelevant for membership status, but it still matters in pastoral practice. We do not become hermaphrodites or for that matter genderless, sexless beings when we are baptized. Paul would have been the first to reject the gnostic suggestion that the original creation was a secondary attempt at making a world and that we have to discover ways of transcending that which, according to Genesis 1, God called “very good.”

This is the point at which we must issue a warning against the current fashion in some quarters, in America at least, for documents like the so-called Gospel of Mary, read both in a gnostic and a feminist light. That kind of option appears to present a short cut right in to a pro-women agenda, but it not only purchases that at a huge cost, historically and theologically, but also presents a very two-edged blessing, granted the propensity in some branches of ancient gnosticism to flatten out the male/female distinction, not by affirming both as equally important, but by effectively turning women into men. Remember the last saying in the so-called Gospel of Thomas: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.’”

The ways Paul explores the differences between men and women come elsewhere than in Galatians, of course. I want to look first at 1 Corinthians and then, finally, at 1 Timothy; but, before we do either, I want to mention several themes in the gospels and Acts.

The Gospels and Acts

Among the many things that need to be said about the gospels is that we gain nothing by ignoring the fact that Jesus chose twelve male apostles. There were no doubt all kinds of reasons for this within both the symbolic world in which he was operating and the practical and cultural world within which they would have to live and work. But every time this point is made—and in my experience it is made quite frequently—we have to comment on how interesting it is that there comes a time in the story when the disciples all forsake Jesus and run away; and at that point, long before the rehabilitation of Peter and the others, it is the women who come first to the tomb, who are the first to see the risen Jesus, and are the first to be entrusted with the news that he has been raised from the dead. This is of incalculable significance. If an apostle is defined as a witness to the resurrection, there were women who deserved that title before any of the men. Mary Magdalene and the others are the apostles to the apostles. We should not be surprised that Paul calls a woman named Junia an apostle in Romans 16:7.

Nor is this promotion of women a totally new thing with the resurrection. I think in particular of the remarkable story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. Most of us grew up with the line that Martha was the active type and Mary the passive or contemplative type, and that Jesus is simply affirming the importance of both and even the priority of devotion to him. That devotion is undoubtedly part of the importance of the story, but far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many readers in Turkey, the Middle East, and many other parts of the world to this day, would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet within the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. This was probably what really bothered Martha; no doubt she was cross at being left to do all the work, but the real problem behind that was that Mary had cut clean across one of the most basic social conventions. And Jesus declares that she is right to do so. She is “sitting at his feet”; a phrase that doesn’t mean what it would mean today, the adoring student gazing up in admiration and love at the wonderful teacher.

As is clear from the use of the phrase elsewhere in the New Testament (for instance, Paul with Gamaliel in Acts 22:3), to sit at the teacher’s feet is a way of saying you are being a student, picking up the teacher’s wisdom and learning; and in that very practical world you wouldn’t do this just for the sake of informing your own mind and heart, but in order to be a teacher, a rabbi, yourself. Like much in the gospels, this story is left cryptic as far as we at least are concerned, but I doubt if any first-century reader would have missed the point. Examples like Mary’s, no doubt, are at least part of the reason why we find so many women in positions of leadership, initiative, and responsibility in the early church. I used to think Romans 16 was the most boring chapter in the letter, and now, as I study and reflect on the names it includes, I am struck by how powerfully they illustrate how the teachings of both Jesus and Paul were being worked out in practice.

I wish to offer an insight about Acts—something among many others that I gleaned from Ken Bailey on the basis of his long experience of working in the Middle East. It’s interesting that at the crucifixion the women were able to come and go and see what was happening without fear from the authorities. They were not regarded as a threat, and did not expect to be so regarded. Bailey points out that this pattern is repeated to this day in the Middle East; at the height of the troubles in Lebanon, when men on all sides in the factional fighting were either hiding or going about with great caution, the women were free to come and go, to do the shopping, to take children out, and so on. (I think this tells us something as well about the age of the Beloved Disciple, but that’s another story.) By contrast, it’s fascinating that when we turn to Acts and read of the persecution that arose against the church not least at the time of Stephen, we find that women are being targeted equally alongside the men. Saul of Tarsus was going to Damascus to catch women and men alike and haul them off into prison. Bailey points out on the basis of his cultural parallels that this only makes sense if the women, too, are seen as leaders and influential figures within the community.

But, having mentioned Paul’s abortive attempts to catch Christians in Damascus, it’s now high time to return to his mature thought and look at the key passages which have often caused difficulty.

1 Corinthians1

I want to begin with one of the two passages which has caused so much difficulty: the verses at the end of 1 Corinthians 14 in which Paul insists that women must keep silent in church.2

I have always been attracted, ever since I heard it, to the explanation offered once more by Ken Bailey.3 In the Middle East, he says, it was taken for granted that men and women would sit apart in church, as still happens today in some circles. Equally important, the service would be held (in Lebanon, say, or Syria, or Egypt) in formal or classical Arabic, which the men would all know but which many of the women would not, since the women would only speak a local dialect. As a result, the women, not understanding what was going on, would begin to get bored and talk among themselves. As Bailey describes the scene in such a church, the level of talking from the women’s side would steadily rise in volume, until the minister would have to say loudly, “Will the women please be quiet!” whereupon the talking would die down, but only for a few minutes. Then, at some point, the minister would again have to ask the women to be quiet, and he would often add that if they wanted to know what was being said, they should ask their husbands to explain it to them when they got home. I know there are other explanations sometimes offered for this passage, some of them quite plausible; this is the one that has struck me for many years as having the strongest claim to provide a context for understanding what Paul is saying. After all, his central concern in 1 Corinthians 14 is for order and decency in the church’s worship.

What the passage cannot possibly mean is that women had no part in leading public worship, speaking out loud of course as they did so. This is the positive point that is proved at once by the other relevant Corinthian passage, 1 Corinthians 11:2-11, since there Paul gives instructions for how women are to be dressed while engaging in such activities, instructions which obviously wouldn’t be necessary if they had been silent in church all the time. But that is the one thing we can be sure of. In this passage, almost everything else seems to me remarkably difficult to nail down.

In Paul’s day (as, in many ways, in ours), gender was marked by hair and clothing styles. We can tell from statues, vase paintings, and other artwork of the period how this worked out in practice. There was social pressure to maintain appropriate distinctions. But didn’t Paul himself teach that there was “no male and female, because you are all one in the Messiah” (Gal. 3:28)? Perhaps, indeed, that was one of the “traditions” that he had taught the Corinthian church, who needed to know that Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female were all equally welcome and equally valued in the renewed people of God. Perhaps that had actually created the situation he is addressing here; perhaps some of the Corinthian women had been taking him literally, so that when they prayed or prophesied aloud in church meetings (which Paul assumes they will do regularly; this tells us, as we’ve seen, something about how to understand 14:34-35) they had decided to remove their normal headcovering, perhaps also unbraiding their hair, to show that in the Messiah they were free from the normal social conventions by which men and women were distinguished.

That’s a lot of “perhapses.” We can only guess at the dynamics of the situation—which is of course what historians always do to some degree. It’s just that here we are feeling our way in the dark more than usual. But, perhaps to the Corinthians’ surprise, Paul doesn’t congratulate the women on this new expression of freedom. Instead, he insists on maintaining gender differentiation during worship.

Another dimension to the problem may well be that in the Corinth of his day the only women who appeared in public without some kind of headcovering were prostitutes. This isn’t suggested directly here, but it may have been in the back of his mind. If the watching world discovered that the Christians were having meetings where women “let their hair down” in this fashion, it could have the same effect on their reputation as it would in the modern West if someone looked into a church and found the women all wearing bikinis.

The trouble is, of course, that Paul doesn’t say exactly this, and we run the risk of “explaining” him in terms that might (perhaps) make sense to us while ignoring what he himself says. It’s tempting to do that, precisely because in today’s western world we don’t like the implications of the differentiation he maintains in verse 3: the Messiah is the “head” of every man, a husband is the “head” of every woman, and the “head” of the Messiah is God. This seems to place man in a position of exactly that assumed superiority against which women have rebelled, often using Galatians 3:28 as their battle cry.

But what does Paul mean by “head”? He uses it here sometimes in a metaphorical sense, as in verse 3, and sometimes literally, as when he’s talking about what to do with actual human heads (vv. 4-7 and 10). The word he uses can mean different things; and a good case can be made that in verse 3 he is referring not to “headship” in the sense of sovereignty, but to “headship” in the sense of “source,” like the “source” or “head” of a river. In fact, in some of the key passages where he explains what he’s saying (vv. 8, 9, and 12a) he is referring explicitly to the creation story in Genesis 2, where woman was made from the side of man.4

The underlying point then seems to be that in worship it is important for both men and women to honor God by being what they are and not blurring the lines by pretending to be something else. One of the unspoken clues to this passage may be Paul’s assumption that in worship the creation is being restored, or perhaps that in worship we are anticipating its eventual restoration (15:27-28). God made humans male and female, and gave them “authority” over the world.5 And if humans are to reclaim this authority over the world, this will come about as they worship the true God, as they pray and prophesy in his name, and are renewed in his image, in being what they were made to be, in celebrating the genders God has given them.

If this is Paul’s meaning, the critical move he makes is to argue that a man dishonors his head by covering it in worship and that a woman dishonors hers by not covering it. He argues this mainly from the basis that creation itself tends to give men shorter hair and women longer (vv. 5-6, 13-15); the fact that some cultures, and some people, offer apparent exceptions would probably not have worried him. His main point is that in worship men should follow the dress and hair codes which proclaim them to be male, and women the codes which proclaim them to be female.

Why then does he say that a woman “must have authority on her head because of the angels” (v. 10)? This is one of the most puzzling verses in a puzzling passage, but there is help of sorts in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In these writings we find the assumption that when God’s people meet for worship, the angels are there too (as many liturgies, and theologians, still affirm). This means that the angels, being holy, must not be offended by any appearance of unholiness among the congregation. Paul may share the assumption that the angels are worshipping along with the humans, or he may be making a different point.

When humans are renewed in the Messiah and raised from the dead, they will be set in authority over the angels (6:3). In worship, the church anticipates how things are going to be in that new day. When a woman prays or prophesies (perhaps in the language of angels, as in 13:1), she needs to be truly what she is, since it is to male and female alike, in their mutual interdependence as God’s image-bearing creatures, that the world, including the angels, is to be subject. God’s creation needs humans to be fully, gloriously, and truly human, which means fully and truly male and female. This, and of course much else besides, is to be glimpsed in worship.

The Corinthians, then, may have drawn the wrong conclusion from the “tradition” that Paul had taught them. It seems that his main aim was that the marks of difference between the sexes should not be set aside in worship—at least perhaps. We face different issues, but making sure that our worship is ordered appropriately, to honor God’s creation and anticipate its fulfillment in the new creation, is still a priority—there is no “perhaps” about that.

When we apply this to the question of women’s ministry, it seems to me that we should certainly stress equality in the role of women but should be very careful about implying sameness. We need both men and women to be themselves in their ministries, rather than for one to try to become a clone of the other.

1 Timothy 26

When people claim that the Bible enshrines patriarchal ideas and attitudes, this passage, particularly verse 12, is often held up as the prime example. Women mustn’t be teachers, the verse seems to say; they mustn’t hold any authority over men; they must keep silent. That, at least, is how many translations put it.

This is the main passage that people quote when they want to suggest that the New Testament forbids the ordination of women. I was once reading these verses in a church service and a woman near the front exploded in anger, to the consternation of the rest of the congregation (even though some agreed with her). The whole passage seems to be saying that women are second-class citizens at every level. They aren’t even allowed to dress prettily. They are the daughters of Eve, and she was the original troublemaker. The best thing for them to do is to get on and have children, and to behave themselves and keep quiet.

When you look at comic strips, “B” grade movies, and “Z” grade novels and poems, you pick up a standard view of how “everyone imagines” men and women behave. Men are macho, loud-mouthed, arrogant thugs, always fighting and wanting their own way. Women are simpering, empty-headed creatures, with nothing to think about except clothes and jewelry. There are “Christian” versions of this, too: the men must make the decisions, run the show, always be in the lead, telling everyone what to do; women must stay at home and bring up the children. If you start looking for biblical support for caricatures like these, well, what about Genesis 3? Adam would never have sinned if Eve hadn’t given in first. Eve has her punishment, and it’s pain in childbearing (Gen. 3:16). You don’t have to embrace every aspect of the women’s liberation movement to find that interpretation hard to swallow. Not only does it stick in our throats as a way of treating half the human race, but it also conflicts with what we’ve seen in the New Testament passages we’ve already glanced at.

The key to understanding the present passage, then, is to recognize that it is commanding that women, too, should be allowed to study and learn, and should not be restrained from doing so (v. 11). They are to be “in full submission”; this is often taken to mean “to the men,” or “to their husbands,” but it is equally likely that it refers to their attitude, as learners, of submission to God or to the gospel—which of course would be the same attitude required of male learners. Then the crucial verse 12 need not be read as “I do not allow a woman to teach or hold authority over a man”—the translation which has caused so much difficulty in recent years. It can equally mean (and in context this makes much more sense): “I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as the new authority over men in the same way that previously men held authority over women.” Why might Paul need to say this?

There are some signs in the letter that it was originally sent to Timothy while he was in Ephesus. And one of the main things we know about religion in Ephesus is that the primary religion—the biggest temple, the most famous shrine—was a female-only cult. The Temple of Artemis (that’s her Greek name; the Romans called her Diana) was a massive structure which dominated the area; and, as befitted worshippers of a female deity, the priests were all women. They ruled the show and kept the men in their place.

Now if you were writing a letter to someone in a small, new religious movement with a base in Ephesus, and wanted to say that because of the gospel of Jesus the old ways of organizing male and female roles had to be rethought from top to bottom, such that the women were to be encouraged to study and learn and take a leadership role, you might well want to avoid giving the wrong impression. Was the apostle saying, people might wonder, that women should be trained up so that Christianity would gradually become a cult like that of Artemis, where women did the leading and kept the men in line? That, it seems to me, is what verse 12 is denying. Paul is saying, like Jesus in Luke 10, that women must have the space and leisure to study and learn in their own way, not in order that they may muscle in and take over the leadership as in the Artemis cult, but rather so that men and women alike can develop whatever gifts of learning, teaching, and leadership God is giving them.

What’s the point of the other bits of the passage, then? The first verse (8) is clear: the men must give themselves to devout prayer, and must not follow the normal stereotypes of “male” behavior: no anger or arguing. Then verses 9 and 10 follow, making the same point about the women. They must be set free from their stereotype, that of fussing all the time about hairdos, jewelry, and fancy clothes—but they must be set free, not in order that they can be dowdy, unobtrusive little mice, but so that they can make a creative contribution to the wider society. The phrase “good works” in verse 10 sounds quite bland to us, but it’s one of the regular ways people used to refer to the social obligation to spend time and money on less fortunate people, to be benefactors of the town through helping public works, the arts, and so on.

Why then does Paul finish off with the explanation about Adam and Eve? Remember that his basic point is to insist that women, too, must be allowed to learn and study as Christians, and not be kept in unlettered, uneducated boredom and drudgery. Under these circumstances, the story of Adam and Eve makes the point well: look what happened when Eve was deceived. Women need to learn just as much as men do. Adam, after all, sinned quite deliberately; he knew what he was doing, and that it was wrong, and went ahead anyway. The Old Testament is very stern about that kind of action.

And what about the bit about childbirth? Paul doesn’t see it as a punishment. Rather, he offers assurance that, though childbirth is indeed difficult, painful, dangerous, and often the most testing moment in a woman’s life, this is not a curse which must be taken as a sign of God’s displeasure. God’s salvation is promised to all, women and men, who follow Jesus in faith, love, holiness, and prudence. And that salvation is promised to those who contribute to God’s creation through childbearing, just as it is to everyone else. Becoming a mother is hard enough, God knows, without pretending it’s somehow an evil thing. Let’s read this text as I believe it was intended, as a way of building up God’s church, women and men alike. What’s more, just as Paul was concerned to apply this in one particular situation, so we must think and pray carefully about where our own cultures, prejudices, and angers are taking us, and make sure we conform, not to any of the different stereotypes the world offers, but to the healing, liberating, humanizing message of the gospel of Jesus.

How then would I translate the passage to bring all this out? As follows:

8So this is what I want: the men should pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, with no anger or disputing. 9 In the same way the women, too, should clothe themselves in an appropriate manner, modestly and sensibly. They should not go in for elaborate hairstyles, or gold, or pearls, or expensive clothes; 10instead, as is appropriate for women who profess to be godly, they should adorn themselves with good works. 11They must be allowed to study undisturbed, in full submission to God. 12I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; they should be left undisturbed. 13Adam was created first, you see, and then Eve; 14and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived, and fell into trespass. 15She will, however, be kept safe through the process of childbirth, if she continues in faith, love, and holiness with prudence.


I have shown where I think the evidence points. I believe we have seriously misread the New Testament passages addressed in this essay. These misreadings are undoubtedly due to a combination of assumptions, traditions, and all kinds of post-biblical and sub-biblical attitudes that have crept in to Christianity. We need to change our understanding of what the Bible says about how men and women are to relate to one another within the church.

I do wonder sometimes if those who present radical challenges to Christianity have been all the more eager to seize upon misreadings of what the Bible says about women as an excuse for claiming that Christianity in general is a wicked thing and we ought to abandon it. Unfortunately, plenty of Christians have given outsiders plenty of chances to draw those sorts of conclusions. But perhaps in our generation we have an opportunity to take a large step back in the right direction. I hope and pray that the work of Christians for Biblical Equality may be used by God in exactly that way.

Watch N.T. Wright’s lecture here.


  1. This explanation is based on my commentary, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003). I haven’t encountered anything to change my mind in the few years since I wrote it, though for an important contribution to our understanding of the social context, see Bruce Winter’s Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003).
  2. I am not sure I agree with those who say this verse is a later and non-Pauline interpolation. One of the finest textual critics of our day, Gordon Fee, has argued very strongly that it is, purely on the grounds of the way the manuscript tradition unfolds. I urge you to examine his arguments and make up your own minds. See Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987).
  3. See his article on this topic, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View” ANVIL, an Anglican Evangelical Journal for Theology and Mission 11 (1994): 7. 
  4. I suspect, in fact, that this is quite a different use of the idea of “headship” from that in Ephesians 5, where it relates of course to husband and wife, and where a different point is being made.
  5. As Ben-Sirach 17:3 puts it, summarizing Genesis 1:26-28 and echoing Psalm 8:4-8 (Ben-Sirach was written around 200 b.c.).
  6. I leave the question of who wrote 1 Timothy open. It differs from the rest of Paul’s writings more than any of the other letters, including the other Pastorals and 2 Thessalonians. But that reason is not enough to discount his authorship. Many of us write in different styles according to occasion and audience, and though that doesn’t remove all the questions, it ought to contextualize them. What matters, and matters vitally in so many debates, is of course what the passage says. Once again I am drawing here on what I have said in my commentary on this passage, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (London: SPCK; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003). This time I acknowledge the help of another old friend, Christopher Bryan of the University of the South at Sewanee, whose sensitive work on the classical context is as always very stimulating. See for example, his Preface to Romans: Notes on the Epistle in Its Literary and Cultural Setting (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).