Women & Ministry, pt 2: Exegesis

This is part 2.

In 2009, I co-authored a commentary on the Pastoral Epistles and Philemon, published by Smyth & Helwys, Reading Paul’s Letters to Individuals.  In it, I argued that Paul’s prescription in 1 Timothy 2.12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to usurp authority over a man”) is medicine for a sick church, intended to meet the crisis the Ephesian church was facing, and NOT a universal principle for all Christians everywhere.  This conclusion is borne out by texts from Acts and Paul’s other letters that paint a more complete picture of Paul’s ministry, where women were clearly activate in leadership, including teaching.

Let me turn that inside out & unpack it.

1. From Acts, Romans 16, etc., it’s clear that Paul had women in important positions, leadership positions, in his churches.  Acts even shows us a woman in a teaching position, correcting a male church leader, and her actions are depicted positively.

2. The two passages that complementarians find most supportive of their position are 1 Cor 14.34f and 1 Tim 2.12.  The complementarian universalizes these passages, and claims that these are Paul’s eternal instruction for all churches everywhere.

3. 1 Cor 14 is not safe ground for the complementarians, because 1 Cor 11 (which clearly and positively describes women prophesying [which involves ministering by speaking] in the public worship service) undoes the simple understanding of 14.34f.  This leaves 1 Tim 2.12.

4. 1 Tim 2.12 prohibits two activities: teaching and usurping authority.

4.A: The Greek infinitive that some translate “hold authority” does not refer to every exercise of authority.  That word (AUTHENTEIN) refers to “taking authority for oneself, usually by force”; “rebellion”; “overthrowing authority.”  Paul is not prohibiting women from exercising any kind of authority, he is prohibiting the women IN EPHESUS from rebelling against the leadership of the church.

4.B: Paul IS prohibiting the women in Ephesus from teaching in the church.  But WHY?  Because the church was corrupted by false teaching, some of it having to do with women’s roles, which was causing disruption in the church and damaging the church’s reputation with the community around it.

5. When you get down to it, both Ephesus and Corinth were sick churches.  Paul’s instruction to them is like chemotherapy that attacks a cancer.

What does chemotherapy do?  It makes the patient extremely sick, poisons him or her nearly to death, so as to make their bodies inhospitable for the cancer.  This makes the environment so unhealthy for the cancer that the cancer shrinks, goes into retreat, and can be surgically removed.

Why don’t we give chemotherapy to people who don’t have cancer?  If someone is in a high risk group a cigarette smoker with a family history of cancer: why not start chemotherapy NOW, so they won’t develop cancer later?

Because chemotherapy is POISON.  It would make a healthy person extremely sick and weak, and lead to other health problems, some of them quite severe.

The risk that chemo presents is only acceptable when the confirmed presence of cancer makes chemo “the lesser evil.”  So it is with Paul’s instructions regarding the women in Ephesus, and to a lesser extent Corinth.

Don’t universalize Paul’s chemotherapy for sick, cancer-ridden churches.  Follow his example of including women in ministry and respecting and using their gifts, instead.

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