I sometimes find myself in the unenviable position of being caught in the crosshairs of both very conservative and very liberal Christians. For example, liberal Christians disagree with me regarding homosexuality, the practice of which scripture clearly condemns. Sometimes, especially because my mother is a pastor, they will appeal to passages that appear to prohibit women from preaching, using them as examples of how our culture needs to move past old-fashioned ideals. Very conservative Christians, on the other hand, will object to female pastors and believe that the only sort of reasoning that would allow for female pastors must necessarily set aside scripture, or rely on faulty arguments like the ones used to support homosexuality. I can’t win!
I don’t think that either of these views is entirely correct. To maintain a biblical stance on homosexuality doesn’t require one to treat women poorly, nor does to accept women in ministry (especially leadership positions) require that one set aside biblical infallibility and inerrancy, or yield to liberal interpretations regarding homosexuality. Since I’ve already written about homosexuality (more than I really cared to!) elsewhere, I’m going focus on the question of female pastors. First, however, there are some considerations about methodology that I need to address.
Whenever Christians from very different backgrounds, denominations, or languages get together, or even just when Christians in general get together, there are bound to be disagreements. Is there room for disagreements and, if so, how do we handle them? The best way I have found, and that I have tried to practice, is this: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
In some cases such disagreements might stem partially from Christians using slightly different hermeneutics, or interpretive principles used to understand scripture. For example, I will often use various translations of scripture, depending on which one most accurately reflects the sense and meaning of the passage in the original language, to the original hearers. To determine the meaning of the original passage to the hearers, it is important to take into account not only the literary context in the verses surrounding the passage in question, but also the intent of the entire book or section of text, linguistic considerations pertaining to the original language, the cultural and historical context in which the original passages would have been heard and understood, and correlation to other passages of scripture. This is the historico-grammatical method of scripture interpretation.
So, now that I’ve said all that, how do I go about defending my position with respect to female pastors? My primary line of reasoning involves three premises.
My first premise is that the issue of female pastors is not a moral issue. I will investigate the passages that deal with women as teachers and leaders shortly, but first I want to note a few of the passages that deal with the gross moral sins that are often listed in scripture. These passages often contrast such sins with morally praiseworthy qualities, as in Galatians 5, where Paul’s list of sinful “works of the flesh” is immediately rejected in favor of his famous “Fruits of the Spirit.” Colossians 3:5-15 is another example of such contrasting lists. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 we see a list of only sinful behaviors, and from the middle of Ephesians 4 well into Ephesians 5 there is extended teaching on both behaviors to avoid and behaviors to practice. Romans 1:21-32 contains an extended passage on ways that humans rebel and sin against God, portraying the darkening of the mind that occurs when sin is embraced. 1st Peter 2:1 contains a brief list of sins, and moral instruction is scattered throughout the remainder of the book, while 2nd Peter 1:5-7 contain a list of morally praiseworthy traits.
I could probably continue to list passages that contain moral instruction, but the ones I’ve listed so far are enough of a sample to illustrate my point, which is this: Nowhere in any of the passages dealing with gross sins or immoral behavior do we see any mention of women teaching or having authority. In fact, there aren’t any passages of moral teaching in scripture that list women teaching, preaching, or having authority over men as something sinful or a moral issue at all. You will note that there are, in these passages I’ve listed, instructions for how husbands and wives are to relate, but that is a different question than whether or not the issue of female teachers, preachers, and leaders is a moral issue.
In fact, far from being portrayed as a moral issue in scripture, the teaching about women in these leadership roles always takes place in scriptures pertaining to orderliness in worship. Orderliness in worship is a common theme in the New Testament teachings on ecclesiology (theology of the church), but it is always discussed in practical and pragmatic terms rather than moral ones. This is very significant for this discussion, because it means that even if the passages addressing female leadership roles were taken to be prohibitive of female leaders, it is not a large moral issue, but rather a practical one of wisdom regarding church structure. This puts the passages dealing with female leaders on the level of passages such as 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul advises people not to marry! He clearly doesn’t view marriage as bad or sinful, but thinks that those who are single can serve God in more ways and more whole-heartedly. Likewise, if Paul is merely sharing what he views as the best sort of church structure, then his words aren’t morally binding. To put this point another way, one could ignore everything else I have to say in this letter and there still wouldn’t be a basis for condemning female leaders in the church (whether teacher, preacher, pastor, etc) as sinful. There are, however, several more considerations that are important to this topic, so let’s move on!
Female Teachers, Deacons, and Apostles
My second premise is that there had been approved female spiritual leaders in Israel’s past, and that there were approved female spiritual leaders at the time when Paul wrote his epistles. Deborah (Judges 4) and Huldah (2 Kings 22) in the Old Testament stick out as prominent examples of women who were in positions of spiritual authority. Deborah, a judge of Israel, was in a position of legal and spiritual authority over all of Israel, and led the entire nation to victory in battle. Huldah was a prophetess who prophesied to King Josiah, placing her in a position of spiritual authority over even the king of Judah! Before we leave the Old Testament, I’d like to point out one more important passage. In Joel 2:28-29 we read,
And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions; and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out My Spirit.
Peter quotes this verse at the beginning of Acts, and indicates that it had been fulfilled at the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. What I find interesting is that, in contrast to the times before Pentecost, it wasn’t just that the Holy Spirit being given to women was the exception; it was an exception for the Holy Spirit to be given to anyone! After Pentecost, however, even the women would receive the Holy Spirit to the point that they would prophesy. This is the very first verse to which Peter appeals to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is among the disciples; the foundational verse, if you will, for Pentecost, and it speaks of women prophesying.
Continuing to the New Testament, we have several small examples just during the life and ministry of Jesus, such as the woman who was a prophetess and one of the first two people to recognize Jesus the Messiah (Anna in Luke 2), a woman being the first recorded evangelist and first convert among the Samaritans (the “woman at the well” in John 4), a woman being the first Gentile convert (the “Syrophoenician woman” in Mark 7), a woman being the first bearer of the good news of the resurrection (Matthew 28), as well as Jesus breaking the cultural taboo against teaching women, specifically allowing one to violate her cultural housekeeping duties in order to learn at his feet (Mary in Luke 10). In the book of Acts we also discover that Philip the Evangelist had four virgin daughters who were prophets (Acts 21:8-9).
Aside: Female Prophets
The role of female prophets is often overlooked in the discussion about female leaders in the church, but it is very relevant! Huldah, Anna, and the four daughters of Philip were all female prophets. This places all of these women in the same class as men like Samuel, Nathan, Isaiah, Zechariah, etc. The role of “preacher” in the New Testament carries much of the same sense as prophesying – speaking the words of God as he delivered them, for the warning, exhortation, instruction, edification, and comfort of the people of God. Prophesying and preaching are very similar roles! Thus writing off the female prophets of the Bible as somehow irrelevant to the discussion of the role of women in the church is absolutely unfathomable. We have these several women who are all described as carrying on exactly the sorts of activities that today would be called preaching! That fact alone should be sufficient to call into question the idea that scripture prohibits female pastors.
Moving further into the book of Acts, we get to passages directly relevant to women having spiritual authority when we encounter Priscilla and Aquila for the first time in Acts 18:2. Priscilla and Aquila are interesting to me because they are always mentioned together, but the context of the passages in which they appear make it evident that Priscilla was a woman who held a leadership role, and may have even been foremost in teaching Apollos (Acts 18:26) and possibly in leading the church that met in their home (1 Cor. 16:19). This isn’t just idle speculation because a woman is listed; it is based on considerations in the Greek language. One of the ways emphasis and importance are demonstrated in Greek is through word order. This is possible because Greek words come with what I’ll call “packing labels” in the form of noun, article, and verb endings that enable words to be shifted to various positions in the sentence. The interesting thing is, when the teaching of Apollos is mentioned in Acts 18:26, Priscilla is listed first, as if indicating the importance of her position in teaching Apollos. Lest this be written off as a coincidence, of the six times (in Greek, seven in English) their names are mentioned together, Priscilla’s name comes first four times. Now it is atypical that a woman’s name would be mentioned alongside her husband’s at all; normally one would have written “Aquila and his wife.” The mere fact that Priscilla is mentioned by name is important, then, but to be listed ahead of her husband two-thirds of the time is remarkable! The early church fathers also appear to have thought so, as is evident in the writing of one of them, John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople in the fourth century:
This too is worthy of inquiry, why, as he addressed them, Paul has placed Priscilla before her husband. For he did not say, “Greet Aquila and Priscilla,” but “Priscilla and Aquila.” He does not do this without reason, but he seems to me to acknowledge a greater godliness for her than for her husband. What I said is not guess-work, because it is possible to learn this from the Book of Acts. [Priscilla] took Apollos, an eloquent man and powerful in the Scriptures, but knowing only the baptism of John; and she instructed him in the way of the Lord and made him a teacher brought to completion (Acts 18:24-25). (John Chrysostom, “First Homily on the Greeting to Priscilla and Aquila”)
Some have argued that Priscilla is not the sort of teacher that scripture prohibits, because her instruction of Apollos occurred at Priscilla and Aquila’s home. This is a dubious distinction, because 1) the location at which education takes place is irrelevant from a spiritual and scriptural standpoint and, 2) we know from 1 Cor. 16:19 that a church actually met in Priscilla and Aquila’s home, so distinguishing between teaching at church and teaching at home is impossible in this case.
Continuing on, we encounter other women who were apparently in positions of spiritual authority. In Romans 16:1 we hear of Phoebe, a woman listed as a “servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.” Servant? Doesn’t sound so impressive, why bother listing her? I decided to dig a little deeper, so I switched to Greek and read through, looking for the word “servant” which is usually doulos when Paul is speaking. I couldn’t find it, but in its place I found the word diakonon, which I soon realized was the word for “deacon.” I used Strong’s Concordance and found out that it was reference number 1249 in Greek, a form of the word diakonos which means “servant, minister, or deacon.” I decided to do a reverse lookup and find all of the places where this word occurs. It is used occasionally in the Gospels to mean “servant,” but in the Acts and Epistles (where it is conjoined with a church context) it is translated exclusively as “minister” or “deacon,” except for two places. Can you guess where? The two places that refer to Phoebe! Again the inconsistency bothered me, so I started looking again at the exact variations in the word endings. It turns out that the word is the same masculine form for “minister” that is used to refer to Jesus in Romans 15:8! I’m not sure how to account for the translation as “servant” by any Greek rule or context – the only difference seems to be that she was a woman, and so the fact that she was listed as a deacon was discounted. More modern Bible translations have included at least footnotes to indicate that she was a “deaconess,” which is still a bit biased, since the word used to describe her is “deacon,” but it’s an improvement.
Then there is also Junia, who is mentioned in Romans 16:7 as being “of note among the apostles” and in Christ before Paul was. To be even included among the apostles (not the 12, but among apostles as missionaries) would be sufficient to show that Junia was a leader in ministry, but Junia was “of note among the apostles!” Certainly this shows a very respected position of leadership. This also seems to have been the conclusion of the Church Fathers. Again Chrysostom writes
‘Greet Andronicus and Junia…who are outstanding among the apostles’. To be an apostle is something great! But to be outstanding among the apostles – just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.
Origen of Alexandria also seems to have thought Junia was a woman, and in fact the first treatment of Junia as other than a woman seems to be more than a millennium after Junia lived! Thus the earliest understandings of Romans 16:7 by the church fathers indicate that they thought of Junia as a female apostle – the highest calling in Christianity (apart from martyr, perhaps) at that time!
I think it reasonable to conclude, then, that there were at the time of Paul’s writing several women who were regarded as prophets, deacons, teachers, and apostles – even by Paul himself!
My third premise is that whatever passages there are that seem (at face value) to prohibit women in positions of spiritual authority should be investigated carefully using linguistic, literary, cultural and historical contexts to avoid interpretations that create contradictions within scripture! It is quite possible that, without these contexts, we will come to a mistaken conclusion regarding Paul’s intention in a particular passage. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is sometimes interpreted that women should not be allowed to speak in worship:
Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
At face value this passage would seem to prevent women from speaking in churches… even to the extent that they shouldn’t say a single word and should maintain complete silence! That is clearly a very strong interpretation of the passage, one rejected even by those who oppose women in ministry. Even very few fundamentalist churches really succeed in meeting this requirement! However, if we look just a few chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians 11, which is a passage on orderliness in worship, we see that Paul in fact expected women to speak in church:
But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
Now it would be excessively odd if Paul just didn’t notice that he had said opposite things in two places in the same letter, wouldn’t it? So perhaps again we should dig a little deeper. It is evident that part of the purpose of 1 Corinthians is to teach the Corinthians about orderliness in worship. We can see this central theme of the passage summed up in 14:33: “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” The Greek word for “confusion” (akatastasia) carries a sense of unrest and tumultuousness. This was a particular problem, because for the first time women were being included in the general meeting, in the same room as the men (an example of women being elevated by Christianity). The women would ask questions of their husbands (who were seated across the room from them), and talk amongst themselves because, essentially, they had never been taught how to sit still in church! This is often experienced in other cultures where Christianity is introduced, if there has in the past been segregation between the sexes in public places. So it makes sense that Paul might insist that women keep quiet. But still, given the fact that he had apparently allowed for women to talk in prayer or in prophecy, why say that it is a shame for women to speak in church?
Well, the most reasonable explanation was not that he meant for women to always be silent in church, but that he simply meant for them not to talk disrespectfully during worship. I, after all, don’t like when my students are talking, but I don’t mean that no student can ever talk in class, just for them to remain respectfully silent while I’m lecturing. This is supported again by the actual Greek words used in the passage from 1 Cor. 14. The word for “keep silence” in 14:34 is sigao, which carries the meaning of a voluntary respectful silence, not an enforced silence, while the word for “speak” in 14:35 is laleo, which is the only one of 30 similar Greek words which can merely mean “talk” in a conversational sense. Thus the overall idea behind 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 seems to be that women should not be disruptive during worship by chatting with their friends or attempting from across the room to ask their husbands questions about elements of worship. It does not seem to mean that women can’t speak at all in church, or that they could never be the primary speaker, given the right circumstances.
1 Tim. 3:1-2
There are, of course, other passages that are often used to argue that women cannot be pastors. One frequently used passage is from 1 Timothy 3:1-2, where Paul lists the requirements for bishops:
This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach…
People who use this verse to prohibit women from preaching reason that, because of the use of the word “man” in verse 1 and the word “husband” in verse 2, this passage necessarily precluded a woman from holding the position. Technically, the word “man” doesn’t appear in the Greek in verse 1 (although it’s true that the word for “husband” does appear in verse 2), but this isn’t particularly relevant to my interpretation. I will grant that Paul does, in fact, list the qualifications for a man to be a bishop. This in itself, however, is not enough to establish that women cannot be bishops, for two reasons.
The first reason is simply a logical reason: Since only the criteria for men are discussed in this passage, it is possible that there were either similar criteria for women to be bishops, different criteria for women to be bishops or, if women weren’t allowed, no criteria for women to be bishops. That means that, of the logically possible reasons that criteria for women were not listed, only one would prevent women from being bishops. We can’t automatically assume that this is the interpretation Paul intended.
An illustration from the Old Testament will help explain why. Did you know that female homosexuality is not prohibited anywhere in the Old Testament? Leviticus only mentions men sleeping with men as being an abomination, and completely ignored the women. One friend of mine used this to conclude that female homosexuality was not prohibited by the Old Testament! How odd, I thought, that God should go to all of the trouble of prohibiting men from homosexuality, but not women, especially when Paul lists both as being sinful in Romans 1. The explanation, of course, was that the entire Law was given to men in a patriarchal society, where it would be understood that the same restrictions applied to females by a principle of reciprocity. The only reason for the law to differentiate between men and women on morality and cleanliness issues was when there was a clear biological relevance. For example, women were made unclean by menstruation, men by emissions of semen. To bring my point around, then, we wouldn’t try to base an approval of female homosexuality on the fact that Leviticus only mentions male homosexuality, so why try to base a rejection of women pastors on the fact that 1 Tim. 3:1-2 specifically lists criteria for men? If it is permissible to say, “only the requirements for men are listed, so only men can be bishops,” then the same logic applies when we say, “only the prohibitions for men are listed, so only men are prohibited from homosexuality (in the OT)” If we reject the second statement, we ought to reject the first as well.
To elaborate on this point just a little further, remember the concept of a synecdoche. A synecdoche is a literary device whereby a part of something is used as a reference to the whole, as when someone says of a car, “nice wheels.” Obviously the car has more than just wheels, but “wheels” is understood to be a reference to the entire car. Similarly, sometimes “man” is used in scripture to refer to humanity. We don’t, for instance, construe 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” to mean that only men are made new in Christ! We understand that, even if only men are listed, the principle applies to women as well. Even though the part (man) was listed, all of humanity was in view, and we are justified in asserting the same thing for women: “Therefore if any woman be in Christ, she is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
The second reason why 1 Timothy 3:1-2 can’t establish that women can’t be bishops is by comparison with the criteria listed for deacons just a few verses later in verse 12: “Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.” If you were to set aside the logical problem I mentioned a moment ago, you might think that this passage merely strengthens a case against women in ministry. However, don’t forget that we have already found an example of a woman deacon (Phoebe) listed in scripture! If, consequently, we cannot interpret verse 12 as being prohibitive of deacons (because Paul knew of a female deacon and approved), then why do we think that the parallel construction of criteria pertaining to bishops would be prohibitive of female bishops? Given the fact that the passage itself is logically inconclusive regarding female bishops and deacons, and given that female deacons (and even apostles) were mentioned by Paul at the time, and given the possibility that, as in Leviticus, there is an expected symmetry between men and women, it doesn’t seem reasonable to conclude that 1 Timothy 3:1-2 is intended or even functions as a prohibition against female pastors.
1 Tim. 2:8-15
Finally we come to a passage that is difficult to interpret regardless of which side of the discussion one takes – 1 Timothy 2:8-15:
I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.
It is difficult to see how the “traditional” interpretation against female pastors can make sense of this passage, especially absent cultural and historical context. Under the traditional view, it is difficult to see what motivation Paul would have had for giving some of his instructions. It is not at all normal occurrence for men to elevate women above themselves in authority and teaching – in fact, there is usually significant resistance among men to female leadership. We see this even in modern times, but it would have been especially true during the time of Paul. This makes Paul’s instruction regarding women teaching appear completely unnecessary – like telling an adult man “Don’t eat the daisies!” Adult men aren’t tempted to eat daisies, nor are they tempted to yield easily to a woman. Why would Paul need to specifically prohibit women from teaching, especially since the only false teachers he found worth mentioning were male?
I confess that at first I found this passage quite puzzling for four reasons. First, it is evident that even those who argue that women cannot be pastors do not apply this passage literally and in its entirety. To be specific, women often braid their hair and wear gold, pearls, and costly array. Second and more importantly, however, there is the same tension as in other passages: if Paul knew and approved of several women who were spiritual leaders in the form of teachers, deacons, and apostles, why would he then prohibit women from these same roles? Third, Paul explains in Romans 5 that sin came into the world through Adam, a point essential to his reasoning in that passage. Why does he now seem to be blaming Eve and exonerating Adam? Fourth, why does Paul say that women are saved through childbearing, when we know from Ephesians 2:8-9 that “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Is Paul advocating a salvation by works for women?
Is there an interpretation of this passage that explain these points, without being ad hoc or ignoring context?
I believe the answer to that question is a definite “yes!” To understand why requires a little bit of background knowledge about 1 Timothy. Timothy was in charge of the church at Ephesus when Paul wrote 1 Timothy to him, and of course it is evident from the first chapter that Paul was instructing Timothy on how to handle some heresies that were creeping into the church, being spread by Alexander and Hymenaeus. (It is relevant to note, by the way, that these two false teachers were males, and that Paul doesn’t mention any female false teachers.) People were being deceived, and it was not good. In light of this, chapter two begins with his teaching on how the situation should be handled (“I will therefore…”). His first commands to men and women address the stereotypical problems associated with each; men are either too aggressive/angry, or too doubtful/ignorant, and women are obsessed with looks and are silly. Quick, think of how many TV sitcoms play on these extremes for both men and women! But Paul quickly dismisses behaving along such negative stereotypical lines. What is his next piece of instruction? “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.” Now I will deal with the issues of “silence” and “subjection” in a moment, but the immediately striking thing is the part that says, “Let the woman learn….” This was definitely new for those who had grown up under Judaism, where the prayer, “Lord I thank you that I was not born a Gentile or a woman” was a reflection of the fact that neither Gentiles nor women were trusted with learning the laws and scriptures of Judaism. Let women learn?! That’s a big deal!
So what is the fear that springs into the mind of a Jewish man from Ephesus upon hearing these words? Probably the association between women learning and the priestesses of Artemis of the Ephesians. Artemis was a goddess of fertility, childbearing and, interestingly enough, hunting. She had an Amazonian background, and worship of her involved priestesses attended by eunuchs (snip, snip). It would have been natural for the men to worry that, if women were allowed to be educated, they would seize authority and dominate the men, as the priestesses of Artemis dominated the eunuchs. In order to address this possible objection arising in the men’s minds, Paul writes “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” While the word “suffer” creates a bit of the wrong impression (“allow” is a bit better translation from Greek), the rest of the passage is straightforward: even though the woman is allowed to learn, she is not to start lecturing men or usurping authority over men – in marked contrast to the priestesses of Artemis in Ephesus!
Bishop N.T. Wright, one of the leading theologians alive today (and an expert on the Resurrection!), paraphrases 1 Tim. 2:12 this way: “I don’t mean to imply that I’m setting up women as the new authority over men in the same way that previously men held authority over women.” He also elaborates that the unusual Greek word for “usurp authority,” authenteo, has overtones of “being bossy” or, “seizing control.” The “silence” that is indicated in verses 11 and 12 (heysuchia) is that of the respectful quietness of one who does not meddle in the affairs of others. This interpretation is now consistent with the idea that Paul knew of women in positions of teaching and authority, and was simply reassuring the Ephesians that he wasn’t advocating the sort of domineering women present in the Artemis cult.
What, then, do we make of Paul’s recounting of Adam and Eve? “For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” This exactly illustrates his point, going back to verse 11; women need to be allowed to learn, because it was Eve that was deceived, while Adam rebelled. What is the cure for deception? Education in the truth! Thus the main point of this passage seems to be about helping women learn so that they aren’t deceived. Paul doesn’t want the women to be easy prey for false teachers like Alexander and Hymenaeus!
Finally, we arrive at the last verse of the pericope: “Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.” We know from Ephesians 2 that Paul can’t mean that women are literally saved by childbearing and, the KJV not withstanding, the Greek preposition used (dia), means “through” or “by,” depending on the context. N.T. Wright (whom I’ve consulted once or twice regarding this passage) makes a point here about how Paul was trying to affirm that childbirth wasn’t a bad thing, but I actually think something different is going on here. Recall that Artemis was the goddess worshipped in Ephesus, and that Artemis was a goddess of fertility and childbearing, among other things. Women would consequently entreat Artemis for safety in childbearing. (Although Artemis was supposedly a virgin herself, she also supposedly helped her mother Leto deliver her twin Apollo immediately after her own birth).
This point of connection seems too great to be a coincidence, especially since it is the second such connection to Artemis worship that seems to have occurred in the passage. Just as Jesus spiritualized the concept of being born (again) as analogy for salvation, Paul plays on the concept of being kept safe in a physical sense for the mother (instead of the one being born), but strengthens it by adding that which is necessary for being kept safe spiritually: faith, charity, holiness and sobriety (hearkening back to verse 9). Paul is thus not teaching that childbearing is literally what brings salvation for a woman, nor is he attempting to say that women just need to all be stay-at-home moms who know their place (not that there is anything wrong with that, some of my best female friends are stay-at-home moms!). Rather, he is making a cultural reference the Ephesians would understand, using it to encourage a proper attitude among the women, for the development of the spiritual fruit he lists.
There are some alternative views regarding this entire passage. Some have suggested that there were heresies in the Ephesian church that were more dramatically affecting women than men. This seems like a reasonable possibility, given that women were new to inclusion in worship, and hadn’t been educated to prevent them from following false teachers, such as Hymenaeus and Alexander from 1 Tim. 1. Such a problem would indeed make it all the more important that women be allowed to learn in order to avoid being deceived, as in 2:14. It also would provide motivation for a local (rather than universal) ban on women teaching and exercising authority.
To conclude, I don’t believe that 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is best understood as attempting to prohibit women from teaching or exercising authority in general in the church. Rather Paul’s intent was to encourage that women be allowed to learn in a non-disruptive way, so that they wouldn’t be deceived. Nevertheless, they were not to use this newfound education and freedom to become know-it-alls and lecture the men, nor were they to attempt to dominate their husbands (c.f. Genesis 3:16, a woman’s desire to rule over her husband). Instead, they were to continue on in faith, charity, holiness, and sobriety.
Those are the main verses often used to prohibit women from participating in the ministries of teaching, preaching, or other forms of leadership. None of these “go-to” verses necessitate such a prohibition against women pastors, and for some of them that isn’t even a sensible interpretation, while others actually have other, compelling interpretations that are more plausible. This fact enables us to avoid conflicting statements about this topic in scripture, given the known existence of female teachers, deacons, and apostles. Given that the teaching on women as pastors isn’t moral in nature, even Christians who for some reason don’t buy this primary line of reasoning should be able to disagree agreeably. They should recognize that there are legitimate alternative interpretations that lead other sincere, intelligent, and Spirit-filled Christians to accept female pastors, without compromising their beliefs in scriptural inspiration and inerrancy, and without being immoral.
I’ll leave you with one thought about this topic and what I call “subjection theology” as it is often directed towards women.
Genesis is often cited when the relationship between men and women is being discussed, following Jesus’ precedent of going back to God’s original intent (see Mark 10). It is interesting to note that in Genesis 1 both man and woman are given dominion over the earth, but there is not any sense in Genesis 1 (or in Genesis 2, for that matter), that women are in any way inferior or to be ruled over by the dominion of man. The idea of women being ruled over by men doesn’t occur in scripture until after the Fall, as part of the consequences of the Fall!
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. Genesis 3:16
These are the consequences of the Fall; things didn’t have to be this way, and there isn’t evidence that they were this way before the Fall. But now, after the fall, we see the first signs of marital struggle and an asymmetry between the sexes – “thy desire shall be to thy husband [to rule over him], and he shall rule over thee.”
The question that arises in my mind, then, is about which of these two models Christians should make their goal. Are we, in our gender relations, trying to recreate the pre-Fall state of affairs (wherein male and female are co-regents over creation), or are we trying to emphasize the consequences of the Fall?