Wednesday, September 17, 2008

"I suffer not a woman"

In the modern, egalitarian age, this verse (1 Tim 2:12) has been a lightning rod. It raises several interrelated issues—teaching, authority, social roles—and the question at issue is how these issues are properly interrelated.

1. A preliminary question involves the meaning of authenteo. One scholar reviews a range of meanings: “to rule, reign,” “to control, dominate,” “to compel, influence,” “to act independently,” “to assume authority over,” “to exercise one’s own jurisdiction,” “to flout authority,” “to be primarily responsible for or instigate something,” H. Baldwin, “A Difficult Word,” A. Köstenberger et al. eds. Women in the Church (Baker 1997), 65-80.

Some of these meanings are neutral while others are negative. To some extent the context will narrow down the range of semantic options.

2. For purposes of this little post, I don’t think we have to decide whether a neutral or negative meaning is intended. Rather, I’d like to raise the larger question: how was a 1C woman in a position to exercise the forbidden conduct, however defined?

Here I think the answer probably lies in the nature of 1C churches. A modern church is generally a public facility. The congregation financed its construction or upkeep. Same thing with a rented facility.

The pastor doesn’t own the building. Usually, he’s on the payroll too.

3. But 1C Christians generally met in private homes. House-churches. The home belonged to a wealthy couple or wealthy man or wealthy businesswoman or wealthy widow or wealthy divorcee.

For more on 1C house-churches, see B. Blue, “Acts and the House Church,” D. Gill & C. Gempf, eds. The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting (Eerdmans 1994), 119-222; L. White, The Social Origins of Christian Architecture (Trinity 1996).

In addition, a wealthy couple or wealthy woman would also have slaves and servants at their beck and call.

Strictly speaking, 1 Tim 12 doesn’t mention the church. However, the context is implicitly ecclesiastical. It’s written to Timothy, who—at the time of writing—is responsible for the church of Ephesus. That supplies the background and occasion for the letter.

4. Now, once we think in terms of 1C house-churches, it’s easy to see how the problem Paul is combating could arise.

It would be easy for the hostess to abuse her authority or exercise authority over male parishioners (e.g. slaveboys). To some extent, her household is a captive audience. She could also patronize iterate false teachers.

So she could use her power to manipulate the situation in one form or another.

5. The house-church arrangement also has some bearing on 1 Cor 11 & 14. While Paul says that such women should learn at home, this is probably not an absolute distinction. The contrast doesn’t lie between church and home, per se, but between your own home and another home which is hosting a Christian worship service.

So it’s a question of how to conduct yourself as a guest in someone else’s home—which, in this case—also functions as a house-church.

And it’s obviously possible for a wife to undercut her husband’s authority in a public setting or neutral location like that.


  1. Hi Steve,

    Does your background commentary on 1 Timothy 2 help in the complementarian argument that Scripture teaches that only men should occupy the office of elder?

    I would think so, but I'd like to obtain your thoughts.

  2. It depends on what prerogatives a particular denomination assigns to the pastorate, or the duties of a particular pastorate (say, in a megachurch where you have several pastors with different duties).

    In Presbyterian polity, to take one example, a pastor is both a teaching elder and a ruling eldership. Given that job description, a woman couldn’t be a pastor since “ruling” is, by definition, an exercise of authority.

    On the other hand, I don’t see that teaching, per se, is an exercise of authority. The modern church is a free association. If a man listens to a woman expound the Bible, he does so of his own volition. No one is forcing him to listen. Or agree. Or conform.

    What’s authoritative is obligatory or compulsory. What’s voluntary is not.

    If it’s just a case of a woman teaching the Bible, then I don’t see that this is essentially different from reading a commentary by a woman. A male reader isn’t submitting to the authority of a female writer. She can’t compel him to do anything. She doesn’t control him.

    At the same time, a female Bible teacher would be subject to male ruling elders.

    Paul isn’t opposed to women teaching in any capacity whatsoever. He calls upon older Christian women to instruct younger Christian women. And he commends the mother and grandmother of Timothy for rearing Timothy in the faith.

  3. What say you over this Baptist Seminary's firing of all female professors? (

    I never understood why a woman should be able to teach history or mathematics but when it comes to the things of God, she just had better shut her big yapper.

  4. James,

    I hesitate of opine on specific cases since there's often more to the story than meets the eye. Gene Bridges is our resident SBC expert.

    For someone who agrees with you:

    But there may be another side to the argument (in this case).