More thoughts on women’s roles in the church

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : August 30, 2006

Instead of continuing the discussion that begun in the comments section of my previous post on the role of women in leadership, I’ve decided to add a new post.

I’m not at all convinced that Scripture prohibits the exercising of leadership or teaching of men by women. It isn’t so much that I’m utterly convinced that Scripture teaches an egalitarian position. It is more that I am not convinced of the complentarian position. Given this reality, I would rather err on the side of grace and liberty. And truth be told, I am very much an egalitarian at heart. And since I don’t feel as though it is against Scripture or my convictions to be an egalitarian, I am gladly running with it.

Nevertheless, I would like to engage in a bit of exegesis. I am not a bible scholar–far from it–but allow me to tackle one of the more difficult passages in the New Testament for egalitarian positions. In fact, most passages seem easily enough for the egalitarian crowd to address, with one exception: 1 Timothy 2:11-15…

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

Here’s my read on this passage. The “submissiveness” here doesn’t seem to be “submissiveness” to men, but submissiveness to God or to the assembly. Being unsubmissive, then, doesn’t mean that they had the audacity to lead men or the audacity to speak up. Being unsubmissive means that they were not yielding appropriately to Christ and/or the assembly.

Paul cannot mean that women cannot teach in a broad sense–it must be a very specific sense of teaching (since there are examples in Scripture of women teaching in different senses. I agree that there are cases when women cannot teach. I simply don’t think there is a universal principle here. I also don’t think that women, by default, should be kept from leadership or teaching roles. But the key to understanding this particular situation is that Paul contrasts “teaching and having authority over men” with remaining quiet. Clearly, women are not always to remain silent, since elsewhere in the Pauline canon Paul instructs women in the proper way of prophesying and whatnot.

So, then, this is a particular case when women are to be quiet, rather than in teaching or exercising authority. Why is it that we make this a universal teaching, when it is clearly a particular instance in which we cannot see all the issues readily within the text?

You might say “Mark, you cannot so easily dismiss the complementarian reading of this text, for this teaching is rooted in the creation order!” Fair enough. And it is this reality that renders this the most problematic passage to the egalitarian. However, this passage only makes the point that women should be submissive…and since the earlier use of this word doesn’t seem to refer to male-female relations, then this doesn’t seem to argue for a gender hierarchy, but for women to be submissive.

This is hardly an original thought, but given all of this, I cannot help but think that the situation of that ancient congregation involved a group of women acting in a way that was not appropriate. I do not think that the inappropriate situation was that women were merely teaching men and acting in an eldering capacity. The situation was that unsubmissive women (in my earlier sense of the word) were teaching and having authority. Instead, they should learn from their mother Eve, who was deceived. The implication is that these particular women are being deceived. This seems like a valid interpretation. After all, in 2 Cor 11:3 Paul uses Eve as an example of anyone who is deceived.

The reason this passage is interpreted the way it is by complementarians is that they seem to assume that what Paul means by “submissive” is “submissive to men” and that the reference to Adam and Eve is meant to demonstrate a universal status for men and women. Instead, I think that submission is meant in a broader sense and that the reference to Adam and Eve is an admonition to eschew deception. These particular women are being inappropriate in their manner of teaching and having authority and as a result, Paul instructs the women to be quiet.

for further reading . . .

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6 Responses to “More thoughts on women’s roles in the church”

  1. Surly Dave on August 31st, 2006 10:37 am


    Other than some point specific to Harvest, I have posted my final draft of Women in Ministry.

  2. Van S on August 31st, 2006 12:47 pm

    So Dave, does this mean that you could affirm a woman in any leadership role, so long as she fits the criteria you list?

  3. Surly Dave on August 31st, 2006 3:19 pm

    I feel like that’s a loaded question. Besides, it’s not a ’she’ issue.

  4. Van S on August 31st, 2006 3:31 pm

    I’m not trying to ask a loaded question…it is an open honest one. It sounds like, in your paper, that gender alone is no longer an issue. If that isn’t the case, then I’d encourage you to make it clearer in your paper…that’s all. I’m really not trying to be schnarky or anything.

  5. espiritu paz on September 3rd, 2006 1:27 pm

    It’s interesting how you site the non-hierachtical authority structure of the small church making the question of women in leadership obsolete. I’ve observed how things naturally tend that way too. It helps us get on with the real stuff.

  6. Angelie Ryah-Dahn on September 5th, 2006 2:14 am

    Mark, and anyone else interested in solid exegesis,
    a great resource on the exegesis of women in leadership (or any other sticky topic) is class #11-12 in “Foundations for Ministry” taught by Dave Johnson, senior pastor of Church of the Open Door. It comes in video or audio form (the video is more fun, Dave talks with his hands and eyebrows) and can be requested via their website, or just call them at 763.416.5887
    I hope to visit Missio Dei –I’m a not-so-closet monastic myself! It’s so encouraging to see missional Jesus-followers pressing into the Twin Cities culture. Grace and peace —

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