MAY WOMEN PREACH IF THE ELDERS AUTHORIZE IT?

It seems that more and more folks in the Restoration Movement (and elsewhere) are finding themselves comfortable with “women preachers,” or women teaching Christian doctrine to Christian men. An example (one among many) is the recent article in Christian Standard by Brian Mavis, “Women Preaching” (April 2013, pp. 53-54). Two Christian college professors of preaching are quoted as defending the practice.

A professor from Ozark Christian College says the key issue is the difference between the act of preaching, and the role of preacher. The act of preaching (he says) is just proclaiming and teaching the gospel, but the role of the preacher (i.e., the senior minister) is more like that of “the teaching elder.” Here is the point: the latter involves authority; the former does not. “The act of proclaiming the gospel and exhorting fellow believers with the Word is not equivalent to authority.” The implication is that the broader role of the senior minister does involve the exercise of authority. Then, as a separate kind of argument, the professor adds: “If a woman is gifted to preach and teach, [she is] free to do so under the authority of the elders” (p. 53).

Another professor, this one from Johnson University in Knoxville, says the same thing: the key is how this relates to “the function of an elder.” For one thing, “Because the senior pastor functions like an elder, I’m not comfortable with a female senior minister.” On the other hand, “I am comfortable . . . with a woman on the preaching team who is under the authority of the eldership” (p. 53).

In this defense of “women preaching” (if not “women preachers”), two separate rationales are stated (though it is not clear whether the defenders actually see them as separate). One is that women can preach to men and teach men because that act by itself does not involve exercising authority. This assertion is very debatable, but I am not addressing it here. (I should point out, however, that such an approach to 1 Tim. 2:12 assumes that the only thing that is really at stake is whether women may have authority over men. Everything Paul says is reduced to that.)

The other rationale is that women may preach to men and teach men if the elders approve of it. This is the assumption I want to address in this essay. This is one way of formulating an idea that has been around for a long time. It is the idea that women may preach—and actually do anything else that men usually do—as long as they are doing it with the approval of the elders. E.g., in a letter to me a woman who teaches a mixed adult Bible class said, “I agree men have the authority in the church and I respect their role and they approve of my teaching.” In an article in The Lookout a female seminary professor and dean said this: “I personally see the elders of the church as being men. . . . But my opinion is that if they delegate a teaching responsibility to a qualified woman, they are free to do so and she is free to teach. . . . I can accept a woman teaching any age, even speaking in a worship service on some occasions, if she is granted the responsibility by the elders . . . .” A letter to the editor said, “She’s right, the secret is the elders’ asking.”

Where does this idea come from? It is ultimately derived from a seriously faulty interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12, which states in the NASB (1995) translation, “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.”

This appears to be a straightforward, clear, and concise bit of teaching by the Apostle Paul. The thought begins with the Greek particle de, which usually means that the following clause is in contrast with the previous one; thus it is usually translated “but.” This is important because it shows where Paul is going in verse 12. In verse 11 he has said that “a woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.” I.e., women must study and learn Christian doctrine, BUT (de, v. 12) they are not permitted to use the knowledge they acquire to teach men or to have authority over men.

The main action in verse 12 is Paul’s declaration of his apostolic authority, “I do not allow” or “I do not permit” (ouk epitrepō). It is a serious error to think Paul here is simply saying “This is my opinion, my preference, my habit—but it is not a rule anyone has to follow.” This suggestion contradicts the way Paul introduced these instructions to men and women in verse 7, i.e., with a reminder of his God-appointed authority as an apostle and as a teacher of truth, followed by the word “therefore” (oun, v. 8). Thus what is prohibited in verse 12 is prohibited by God’s own authority.

This prohibition is directed toward women: “I do not permit a woman.” The Greek word is gunē, which in some contexts can mean “wife” (just as the word for “man,” anēr, in some contexts means “husband).” In this text, however, neither the context nor the Greek idiom allows us to translate these words as “wife” and “husband.” Thus Paul is addressing women in general, just as he is in verses 9-11.

What exactly are women prohibited from doing? Two distinct verbs (in infinitive form), describing two distinct acts, are given: “to teach” (didaskō) and “to exercise authority” (authenteō). After the second verb Paul adds the word andros (genitive of anēr, “man”), indicating that this prohibited authority is over men only. Most agree that this limitation applies also to the verb “to teach.” Thus Paul is saying he does not allow a woman to teach a man, nor to exercise authority over a man.

The two verbs are absolutely parallel, since they have the same infinitive form and are both equally governed by the same prohibition, “I do not permit.” This is also seen in the strong negative conjunction used to link the verbs together, oude. This generally has the force of the English idiom, “neither . . . nor.” Connected with the negative particle (ouk) used with the verb, Paul is simply saying, “I permit a woman neither to teach a man, nor to have authority over a man.” (See below.)

The question now is this: How did this seemingly simple, non-feminist instruction get twisted into the widely-used feminist rule, that a woman can teach a man (and do anything else a man does) as long as she does so under the authority of the elders? The answer is that it happened in two stages. (1) First, for a long time the verb for “exercise authority” (authenteō) was taken to mean “usurp authority,” not simply “exercise authority.” (2) Second, the two simple prohibitions in the verse have been merged into one complex one, thus: “I do not allow a woman to teach in such a way that she is violating or bypassing the authority of the elders.”

I will comment on each of these stages. First, for a long time it has often been assumed that at least one common (if not the dominant) meaning of authenteō is “to usurp authority, to wrongly seize authority, to domineer over.” Thus the word has been taken to be inherently negative here in 1 Timothy 2:12. (It is used nowhere else in the NT.)

This idea was perpetuated for centuries by the KJV, which says, “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man.” A few modern translations are similar. The New English Bible (1961) translates it as “nor must woman domineer over a man.” The Voice (2008) says it thus: “Now, Timothy, it’s not my habit to allow women to teach in a way that wrenches authority from a man.” The 2001 TNIV has “to have authority” in the text, but “or to dominate” in a footnote. The 2005 TNIV text suggests a moderately illicit authority-grabbing in the words, “or to assume authority,” with “or teach a man in a domineering way” in the footnote.

The Arndt and Gingrich Greek lexicon (1957 and 1979 editions) gives the meaning for authenteō as “have authority, domineer over someone.”

The main rationale for this understanding of authenteō was the assumption that this verb was commonly used in NT times with the meaning “to murder,” while the related noun (authentēs) meant “murderer.” Thus even the Liddell & Scott Greek lexicon defines the verb as “to have full power and authority over, commit a murder.” The association of these words with murder led to the conclusion that they must always have a negative, even evil connotation.

Feminist writers have made sure that we are all aware of this alleged meaning of authenteō. Speaking specifically of the verb, Catherine Kroeger says, “In the NT era its most common meaning was to kill.” Also regarding the verb, David Scholer says, “Many uses of the term seem rather clearly to carry the negative sense of ‘domineer’ or ‘usurp authority.’” “In contemporary Greek society it signified ‘to commit a murder’”; in 1 Timothy 2:12 it “signifies ‘to domineer’ or ‘to have absolute power over’ persons in such a way as to destroy them,” says Aida Spencer. “The word was considered vulgar and almost always was used in a bad sense,” concludes Austin Stouffer. It meant “using such absolute power in a destructive manner,” according to Scott Bartchy. Such examples could be multiplied.

The facts, however, point in a totally different direction. More recent and more comprehensive studies of the way the verb authenteō was actually used in NT times show that it was predominantly used in a positive or neutral sense, “to have or exercise authority over.” These studies show that the negative definitions of the word (as in the previous paragraph) are inexcusable exaggerations if not outright fiction. The first of these studies was by George W. Knight III, “Authenteō in Reference to Women in 1 Timothy 2:12,” in New Testament Studies, 30 (1984), 143-157. He researched all the secular uses of this verb cited in the Arndt & Gingrich lexicon; only one (of uncertain date) means “murder,” and the rest mean “to have authority” in a neutral sense.

A more complete study was made by H. Scott Baldwin, published in 1995 as “A Difficult Word: Authenteō in 1 Timothy 2:12,” in Women in the Church (ed. A. Kӧstenberger), pp. 65-80, plus appendix 2, pp. 269-305. (My data are from the first edition; a later edition is available with slightly revised numbers.) Doing a computer search, Baldwin found 110 uses of authenteӧ (the verb) between the first century B.C. and the 10th century A.D.; he excluded about 30 of these mostly because they were patristic quotes of 1 Timothy 2:12. This left about 80 uses of the verb. Only one time out of these 80 uses did the word mean “to commit murder,” and this was not until the 10th century. In only four other cases did the verb have a negative connotation (“to domineer, to flout authority)—and none of these before A.D. 390! The negative claims made by Kroeger et al. (above) are completely without foundation.

But doesn’t the Arndt & Gingrich lexicon say one meaning of authenteӧ is “domineer over someone”? Yes, in its 1957 and 1979 editions, but here is a significant fact: the term “domineer” does not appear in the original German version by Bauer, from which A&G is translated! The translators have inserted “domineer” without warrant. The German word is herrschen, which means “to rule, govern, have authority.” George Knight says translating this as “domineer” is a “riddle.” It should also be noted that other main lexicons do not emphasize this negative connotation.

What conclusion can we draw from this? Despite the confident claims that authenteō meant “domineer” in NT times, the studies by Knight, Baldwin and others solidly imply that it almost NEVER—if at all—has such a meaning when referring to authority as such. The studies show that its most common meaning is “have authority” in a positive or neutral sense. Thus it is simply out-and-out false to say that authenteō MEANS “to domineer, to usurp authority,” and thus must mean that in 1 Timothy 2:12. Likewise it is simply out-and-out false to say that this verb DOES NOT MEAN “to exercise authority” in any positive sense in this verse.

Here is something else to consider: if Paul is using authenteō in the sense of “domineer,” which is essentially something sinful, why would he limit the prohibition to women only, and then only in respect to men? If the word has a negative sense, then it is wrong for both women and men to do it; and it is also wrong to “domineer” over both men and women.

The above conclusions and considerations are extremely important. They show that Paul’s rule that women are not allowed to exercise authority over men has nothing to do with usurped authority. It is a complete fiction to distinguish between “teaching men WITHOUT the elders’ permission” (thus “usurping authority”) and “teaching men WITH the elders’ permission.” This distinction makes sense only if authenteō can be shown to be negative, e.g., “usurp authority.” But this cannot be done. Therefore, when elders decide to give women their permission to preach and to teach men, it is the elders themselves who are usurping God’s own authority. Elders have no right to permit a woman to do something which the Apostle Paul has already forbidden.

I said earlier that this erroneous practice has arisen in two stages, for two reasons. One, it is based on the assumption that authenteō has this negative meaning, an assumption we must reject. Two, it is based on the assumption that the two prohibitions in verse 12 should actually be merged into just one prohibition. I now turn to this latter point. The idea here is that the two verbs, “to teach” and “to exercise authority,” are not meant to be taken separately, but are actually intended to represent a single act, namely, the act of teaching (or preaching to) men without the approval of the elders. To engage in such teaching and preaching without the elders’ approval would be “usurping authority,” but with this approval everything is kosher. This understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12 opens the door to full-fledged egalitarianism: as long as the elders approve it, a woman is not forbidden—but is actually allowed—to preach to men and teach men.

The idea that these two prohibited acts should be merged into one is pretty much assumed by the feminist community. But can this idea be substantiated as the real meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12? Two premises are said to substantiate the claim. One is the assumption that authenteō MEANS “to usurp authority,” but we have already seen that there is little or no foundation for this idea. The other premise that is said to support the feminist conclusion is that the negative conjunction linking the two verbs together, the little word oude, by the very nature of its meaning and use, makes the second verb a mere modifier of the first one. Thus, because of oude, Paul must be saying, “I do not allow a woman to engage in the unauthorized teaching of men.” (Again, this interpretation would require that the second verb—authenteō—must mean “usurp authority,” which is a fallacy.)

What shall we say, then, about the word oude? One egalitarian (Philip Payne) has said that its English equivalent is ’n’ , as in such familiar phrases as “nice ’n’ easy,” or “hot ’n’ bothered,” or “salt ’n’ pepper,” or “eat ’n’ run.” Thus what Paul is saying is that a woman must not “teach ’n’ domineer” over a man, i.e., she must not teach men in a domineering way.

Is this the proper meaning of oude? The answer is no. Andreas Kӧstenberger has made a study of this word as used in the NT, published as “A Complex Sentence Structure in 1 Timothy 2:12,” in the book he edited called Women in the Church (pp. 81-103). His main relevant conclusion is that this conjunction never connects a positive activity (such as teaching) with a negative activity (such as domineering). Rather, it always connects either two positive activities or two negative ones. This in itself rules out the idea that these two verbs, didaskō and authenteō, form a single idea meaning “teach (positive) so as to usurp authority (negative).” Also, in other uses of oude, even when it connects two things or activities that are related, they always remain distinct. It is usually like our combination “neither . . . nor,” and sometimes is equivalent to “not even.” In 1 Timothy 2:12 it probably has this meaning: “I do not permit a woman to teach a man, and certainly not to have authority over a man.”

Our conclusion here is that we have shown that one of the most widespread assumptions in feminist theology—that women may preach and teach the Word to men as long as the eldership permits them to do so—has no Biblical foundation. On the contrary, the text that has always been seen as prohibiting such activity—1 Timothy 2:12—is seen as continuing to do so.

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MAY WOMEN PREACH IF THE ELDERS AUTHORIZE IT? — 11 Comments

    • I read the article referenced here and approve of its reasoning and conclusions. The article is titled “The Concept of ‘Authoritative Teaching’ and the Role of Women in Congregational Worship.” The author is Dr. R. Fowler White, professor of New Testament at Knox Theological Seminary.

  1. Pingback: The Case For “Occasional” Women Preachers: A Response to Ozark Christian College | The Blade Blog

  2. How do you reconcile this with Galatians 3:28? Aren’t we all reconciled with Christ now that he has paid the price for our sins? Aren’t we all now free of the curse? I have read many different teachings on this. It seems to be an area of deep conflict.

    • Thank you, Shirley Keesling, for this request. I have discussed Galatians 3:28 in great detail in my book, Gender Roles and the Bible: Creation, the Fall, and Redemption, chapter 5, pp. 217-301. I have summarized the data on pp. 432-434 in my book, The Faith Once for All: Bible Doctrine for Today. Perhaps I can copy this shorter version for my next essay on this website.

  3. Having graduated a son and a daughter from ‘CBC’ as well as a son-in-law, I am aware of your work and have several of your books in my arsenal. I also had the pleasure of meeting you and talking to you several years ago during a Men’s Retreat at Elkhorn Vally Christian Service Camp. This said I have great respect for you and your work and have eagerly read several of your recent essays that have been forwarded to me by a very good friend.

    This is a topic that has been bouncing around the Christian Church since I joined 25 years ago. I think of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), did she teach the village? I think of Phillips unmarried daughters (Acts 21), did they preach? And of course, I must consider the passage from 1 Timothy 2.

    As I see this soon leading to a split within the church, I am inclined to give it more thought. Your essay, though written at a high academic level,
    does come across for the most part to those of us with basic education. It boils everything down to syntax and semantics. I learned six years ago in my first trip into the mission field that translation is much more than exchanging an English word for its Spanish equivalent. You must convey the meaning of the English idiom to a proper Spanish equivalent. Having no background in Greek or Hebrew is one of the very few reasons I use commentaries, is to try to understand a little of what was said originally.

    As you point out we are seeing more and more misinterpretation of Scripture in a move to make Scripture fit our ideas instead of the other way around. I have several criteria in Bible study. First is context, does my understanding of a passage fit with the context the passage is set in? Second, as a preacher friend taught me, is the ‘Full Council of Scripture’ (as Scripture is the best commentary on Scripture), what does the rest of Scripture say as relates to a passage? Third is what does the original language say, does it support the findings of the first and second? This is all done hopefully with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, without which it would be far worse than Greek to me.

    This third step can be very difficult because we are looking through a very small opening back across 2000 years, we have little actual understanding of what was meant. We have to infer most from what little information is available. This is where another teachers advice comes into effect; ‘What did the early church fathers say about a passage”? The first century was dominated by the Apostolic writings, the best of which we now call the New Testament. The second and third century were dominated by their students and their students students. These men were only a ‘jot or tittle’ away from the original and I am sure much better understood what was being said than we do. I would be interested to see what men like Polycarp had to say on this subject as it relates to the scriptures.

    What your essay is telling me is that some are taking step three first by finding the meaning “they want” to the original then doing their best to force the first two into this convoluted view or ignoring them all together. They look for the meaning of the original outside of Christian writings because they find it hard to support their views from inside Christian writings which in reality are the only accurate measure of what Scripture is saying.

    The real question is where do you draw the line, what constitutes teaching and preaching? As I wrote to my friend;
    “I have given a lot of thought to the feminist movement items you have
    posted recently. My simple mind boils it down to two things, Evangelism
    and preaching. Evangelism is the call of all Christians, regardless of
    sex, and deals with personal testimony. We all should use our personal
    testimony to reach out to the unchurched as well as to encourage fellow
    Christians. In this capacity I see no conflict with scripture as I am
    aware of it. The problem arises when women take others testimony,
    including scriptural testimony, and use it to preach and teach. At that
    point you are in direct conflict with scripture.”

    I apologize for the ramblings and will put my soapbox away now. I will be seeking to find how the early church fathers interpreted this important passage.

    Your brother in Christ,
    Al Swegan

    • I don’t understand. How can I be allowed to be a missionary (like Phylis Rhine) and preach to men and convert men to follow Jesus (like Priscilla) but once they become Christians, I can’t preach to them anymore?

      It doesn’t make sense to me that I’m allowed to stand in the market place overseas and preach Jesus to 1,000 men and then as soon as one gets baptized, I’m no longer allowed to preach to him while I’m preaching to the other 999. So, once I convert the one guy to Jesus do I have to tell him he’s no longer allowed to listen to me while I’m preaching to the other 999 – even though he may learn something from me (like the men who listened to Pricilla)?

      Can you help me understand this?

      • Patricia – Dr. Cottrell addresses this in his books – but situations like yours are always assumed to be temporary. If there is no man to teach the lost – then a woman must share the gospel. But when a woman does so with the intention of training a man to take on that leadership – because that is the ONLY option available to her – then of course she is acting out of a desire to honor both commands of scripture – obey Paul’s teaching on authority by quickly creating the situation where men can take over – AND obeying by sharing the gospel. What feminists do is take this EXCEPTION and make it the RULE. I know many many people in your situation. They are friends of mine – Phyllis Rhine in fact was my mothers room mate in college. Mom was supposed to go on that trip to Africa that cost Phyllis her life. If she had I would never have been born. At any rate – don’t make the mistake many do when applying apostolic authority – use a very complex or rare EXCEPTION and use it to justify it generally. I am sure Dr. Cottrell would state this better than I. Your motive is very important here Patricia – are you trying to follow apostolic teaching or are you trying to justify your personal beliefs? If the latter is true – then you have a problem – however – it looks to me like you are trying to follow correct teaching – you WILL come to a correct understanding that sets your mind at ease. 🙂

        • oops I was a little wrong when I said IF a man is not there to do it – BOTH men and women are to share the gospel. Sorry 🙂

  4. Dear Mr. Cottrell,
    Once again you have whet the appetite of your readers toward further study. It is always beneficial study the Word of God to understand what He intends to say rather than for what we want to prove.
    I would like to read a follow up essay that brings the following comments into play: “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission.”, and “…she must be silent.” (NIV 2005) (I Tim. 2:11 and I Cor. 14:34,35).
    It might also be valuable to include a consistent understanding of how I Cor. 11:3-16 fits in as well with regard this subject. How does the idea of “must be silent” work consistently with “prophesying and/or praying”? How does teaching relate to prophesying? Who are the hearers? When and where are things done or not done?
    As you have have shown in this essay, a proper understanding of the actual Word of God, is the key to understanding what God intends rather than what man desires to prove.
    Respectfully submitted,
    David Prentice

    • Reply to David Prentice: I have discussed 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 in great detail in my book, Headship, Submission, and the Bible, chapter 20. In this passage verse 5 mentions women praying and prophesying, which I believe refer to the miraculous spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues (i.e., praying in tongues). This is the same subject Paul is discussing in 1 Cor. 14:26-40, where he lays down rules for the orderly expression of these same spiritual gifts in the gathered assembly. Here (vv. 34-35) is where he says women must keep silent in the church. I.e., even if they have the gifts of prophecy and tongues, which they can use in private or in small groups (1 Cor. 11:5), they are not permitted to use them in the assembly. The word used in 1 Cor. 14:28, 30, 34 (“be silent”) is different from the one used in 1 Timothy 2:11, 12. The former is the Greek sigao, which means literally to be silent, not to speak. In the context it is limited to the use of the gifts of prophecy and tongues. The word used in 1 Timothy, though, is hesuchia, which means “quietness” in the sense of a quiet and uncontentious attitude. See the adjective form of the same word (hesuchios) in 1 Timothy 2:2, referring to living a quiet life; and in 1 Peter 3:4, which says that women must have a quiet spirit (i.e., attitude).

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