Women and authority in ministry

I have posted this comment in response to some reflections on John Richardson’s blog. I am hoping we might have a further exchange of views based on a more detailed critique from John. You can find extracts from the booklet at these posts: Gen 1, 2 and 3, Luke 24, John 20, Acts 18Romans 161 Cor 111 Cor  14Eph 5 and 1 Tim 2 and a summary of conclusions here.

John, thanks for reading my Grove text—I look forward to hearing a longer critique of it. But I wonder if I can pick up a couple of points from the comments so far.

Firstly, I think it is interesting that you pick up Ephesians 5 as representing ‘the crux of the debate’ in relation to the question of ministry and women. I would simply want to ask ‘Why?’ The text is really clear that

  • the submission of women to their husbands is but one example of the submission of all believers to each other
  • that this in itself it but one aspect of ‘being filled with the Spirit’ and
  • that it is about women submitting (quite emphatically) to their own husbands.

Most contemporary translations are lamentable in missing all three points by introducing incorrect paragraphing (and it would be interesting to reflect why this is); your translation is better, but still omits to translate the emphatic ‘idioi‘ ‘their own.’

Second, you comment (I think rather dismissively? unless I have misread) that ‘context is king’. Well of course it is; it is an element of introductory hermeneutics in the evangelical tradition that a text without a context is a pretext.

Third, on the question of ‘obey’ and ‘submit’ you draw on Peter’s citation of the OT to argue that in Paul the two words are synonymous. I have heard this suggestion before, and I think this is very poor reading. When you read Paul in Greek, three things scream out: that ‘submission’ of wives to husbands come in the context of all submitting to one another (and the same goes for attitudes to leadership); that in the ‘household codes’ Paul is consistent in not asking wives to ‘obey’ their husbands; and that this is in really striking contrast to parallel contemporary household codes which are in many other ways strikingly parallel.

Fourth, I think it is remarkable that you juxtapose Acts 18 with 1 Tim 2 and 1 Cor 14—as if they were equally clear texts. Acts 18 unambiguously asserts that Priscilla has an apostolic, church-founding teaching ministry. 1 Tim 2 and 1 Cor 14 are fraught with exegetical difficulties, which is why I gave disproportionate coverage to them in my booklet. But to put these texts together as if there was a simple tension between them is misleading.

Fifthly, I don’t think I can be characterised as an ‘egalitarian’, if by that you mean someone coming to the text aiming to defend a position. My aim in my Grove booklet was to read the texts fairly and responsibly, and I do think this has been lacking in large parts of this discussion (and not on one side only). But the chief burden for scrupulousness in this regard must lie with those who are claiming to be shaped by Scripture as their authority in all matters of life and faith.

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

24 thoughts on “Women and authority in ministry”

  1. I’m glad you corrected “All contemporary translations are lamentable in missing all three points by introducing incorrect paragraphing” in the version of this post on the feed to “Most contemporary translations …”. But given the status of NIV in the evangelical world, even if “most” is technically correct I think it would have been better to note explicitly that the NIV 2011 update (also TNIV) has greatly improved paragraphing and wording here which clearly brings out your first and third points, though not your second.

  2. Yes indeed–thanks! First comment written in haste!

    But it still baffles me: why the omission on the third point? It is really obvious–it is an example I use in introductory Greek teaching. I can only conclude that translators have a vested interest in protecting an interpretative tradition from what the Bible clearly says, which is worrying. I know of no grammatical reason to do this.

  3. That’s right Ian, there is, as Peter will agree, no such thing as a neutral translation

    This is all good stuff though!

  4. Looking forward to following all the reasoning through on this one between two bloggers I follow, once I am released from college assignment pressure. I have such high hopes for my two free weeks between leaving St John’s and starting parish ministry! It would be great to come to some next stage conclusions, in terms of my journey, on the issues that motivated the start of my own blog three years ago. I follow with interest. Ian, is your Grove book an Ebook too?

  5. Can’t help but notice your blogroll is a bit gender lop-sided. I would be interested to see whether you can find some women who blog biblical studies. Let me know if you do and I can suggest them (and any men you rate in this area) for the Biblioblogs site.

  6. All this is really helpful to read – I am a bit grumpy with hearing this debate framed with the conservative evangelical narrative of “if you really really follow the bible then you must oppose women in leadership no matter how persuasive your equality/fairness/it-seems-to-work or other airy-fairy arguments are”.

    Arguments for women in leadership positions are scripturally sound and robust and very evangelical.

    It just so happens they are equal, fair and work too. Funny that, what with God being just.

    Keep going Ian.

  7. Ian, I can’t figure out why you think the paragraphing is so “lamentable” and “incorrect”. (admitting that basically paragraphing is an interpretive activity) What is your alternative to a break between v20 and v21? No break at all?

  8. Pete, I guess because of the effect on the ordinary reader. As time goes on I worry more and more about the impact of these extra-textual helps and the way they shape people’s interpretation. I guess there were some virtues to the AV approach after all!

    It is interesting to compare versions, and would merit more time. But a quick survey shows quite a range of approaches. The AV contrasts with most contemporary versions in actually translating idiois ‘to your own’ which is surely emphatic. And not surprisingly ESV and NKJ follow this. Versions vary in whether they put v 21 with v 20 or v 22. But the most common problem is the separation of the ideas following the imperative ‘be filled’ with other, successive imperatives, progressively detaching the ideas from the work of the Spirit. Putting a para break and a heading cements this, so most ordinary readers make no connection between the two.

    The challenge is what to do when the writer slides from one idea into another, either with a kind of chain link or interweaving (eg is John 1.14 the end of what went before or the beginning of what is to come?).

    But it is particularly problematic when ‘submission’ is detached and focussed on in certain circles, and ‘be filled with the Spirit’ is often ignored.

    Does that make sense?

  9. Ian thanks,
    First, I certainly agree re headings within the biblical text – I have no time for these in ETs at all. Should be banned. Perpetrators should be sent to Waynesboro etc. etc.
    Second, if we think that in general a translation into English will use paragraphing as markers of (sometimes mild) division of the text into smaller units (with positives outweighing the potential negatives), then occasionally, as here, there are going to be conflicting indications of the movement/division of thought. In these cases you might have to chose the lesser of two problems.
    Third, I think the textual problem in v22 is tied to the paragraphing problem – Sinaiticus, for example, reads a new main verb in v22 and this is connected with the fact that v22 starts a new paragraph (I haven’t checked, but reckon this is fairly common). This leaves your chain of participles complete in v19-21. The two manuscripts without a verb in v22 also don’t have any paragraphing.
    Fourth, it is surely not arbitrary to see the participles in v19-20 as much more closely linked on content grounds than is v21. V22-24 are a unit by inclusio, by content, and by relationship with the other elements of the household code.
    Fifth, so you are stuck with a difficult paragraphing choice. So what is your alternative again?

  10. Something raised by John Richardson that seems very pertinent to the present discussion is the ‘biblical’ foundations for ordained ministry. The main reason so far as I can understand it for denying the pulpit, priesthood or the episcopacy to women is the connotation of authority implied by such a move. For better or for worse, some would seek to deny authority to women. Ordination invests authority. Yet this equation can and perhaps should be challenged. I recall reading somewhere Linda Belleville asserts that authority and church leadership are never linked. But if oridination carries with it no investment of authority, what can be the objection, even from unreconstructed MCPs, to the ordination of women or of the elevation to the episcopacy?
    This may sound very anarchistic and radical and I am not sure that I would wish to defend it absolutely. However, what seems eminently challengeable is the apparent rigidity of the authority structures that are normally followed. The preferred word of the ‘hiearchialists’ in man/woman realtion is ‘complementarianism’. Yet if we were to attempt a ‘biblical’ theology of complementarianism, the key passage seems to me to be 1 Cor 12. In that complementarity is between eye and ear etc. Surely authority in matters of seeing lies with the eye and in matters of hearing with the ear. Thus the lines of authority are not rigid but change with context. Might this provide a better way forward?

  11. Timothy, thanks for these comments. I think this is an interesting area, and has had wider discussion in various places.

    I agree with you that Paul certainly does not talk in hierarchical/authoritarian ways. Nevertheless, there is a question about who has authority to eg discern the true nature of the gospel, and the NT (and OT) does not shy away from this. Indeed, Paul appears quite interested in this question in establishing a ‘hierarchy’ (for want of a better word) of ‘apostles, prophets…’ etc

    But whatever the answer to this question, it is clear that Paul saw apostleship and prophecy as in some way exercising authority–but he was happy for women to exercise such roles!

  12. Hallo Ian

    I have just read your booklet today. I enjoyed it very much. Thank you. I am interested in thsi question because my church is ‘complimentarian’ to the nth degree (in recent years we have lost soem flexibility on this) and my daughter is about to start (she hopes) the Lay Leadership course with a view to ebcoming a Lay Reader. She has done a bit of preaching and leads a housegroup with her husband. I am a very proud father (always have been). She attends a different church.

    Anyway two things struck me from the booklet which – if you have time I would like to discuss.

    1 Ephesians 5:22,23 is clearly about the marriage relationship only and has to be read with 5:32. The relationship between H and W is said to be an illustration of the relationship between Christ and his church. Christ is described as head of the church (his body). In Ch 4 Christ is described as the head (from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equippeds…..makes the body grow so that it builds it self up in love.’) so I guess in Eph 5 the same thought is beign continued as to how we are to understand head. And back in ch 2 He is the chief cornerstone – where the metaphor is that of a building – on which everything depends. So I think we are given some beautiful pictures of the church in relation to Christ, but it seems to em that because it is the church in relation to Christ it is impossible to do away with the concept of an inferior and a superior, or perhaps less provocatively expressed a greater and a lesser at least by implication submission which includes the concept of obedience. And I think here is where one can see the difference between Husband and wife and parent and child for example. This language of relationship doesn’t get applied in the same way to parent and child or master and slave.

    As you can tell I am struggling here, but I hope you can see what I am driving at.

    I don’t believe Kephale is used here and I don’t believe head = origin here in the way it can be said to in 1 Cor 11. So how are we to understand ‘head’ in Ephesians.

    2 No sign of authority between Man and woman in Genesis 2.
    On this C John Collins in his commentary on Genesis 1 – 4 has the following comment on the Hebrew in Gen 2: 23,24

    ‘In verses 23 -24 tis ‘man’ [Adam] is also called ‘ish – also rendered ‘man’, but specifically a male. Genesis 2:23 draws attention tothe way that”ishsha ‘, (‘woman’), sounds like the femenine of ‘ish’ (man), in order to emphasize the common origin, and also the priority of man.’

    And that is how he deals with the issue. He also infers that because in 2:18 she complements the man and says that Paul says in 1 Cor 11:7 -12 that this is ‘the rationale for the woman’ in Genesis 2 (ie that she compliments man).

    Now I know you would not agree, but I think both sides tend to simply state positions ratehr than justify from the text their respective positions, and I think Gen 2 is the fundamenatl text where the arguments elsewhere stand or fall, so any comment you can amke would be helpful.

  13. David, thanks for reading the booklet and thanks for your questions. I think there are several things here.

    1. As you say, the language in Eph about Christ as head is very clearly language about origin. (For many years I struggled with the idea of head = source, since it seemed just odd, but I have come to realise how deeply influenced we are by the existing registers of our own language and how hard it is to be disciplined by the actual semantic range of terms in another language.) As I point out in the booklet, the Greek of Eph 1.22 and Col 2.10 simply does NOT say he is head ‘over’ all things! The logic of Col, esp 1.17 f is that, since he is the source of all things, in the eschaton he will be put over all things, since they have their origin in him. This is not to say that being origin = being superior, but that being the origin will then lead to being set over all.

    2. This leads to an interesting discussion about superiority, and even what we mean by this. I think it is fascinating that you comment ‘it is impossible to do away with the concept of an inferior and a superior’ and I see this tendency in all the ‘hierarchy’ arguments. Since Christ is part of the godhead, surely (the reasoning goes) he must be superior to us? Indeed, and this is one strand of Scripture. But think how many times Jesus is described as ‘one of us’, as our ‘brother’, one alongside whom we address God as ‘Abba’, and so on. I think this is related to how we understand Jesus as fully human and fully divine–which in this context means fully equal with us as well as fully ‘over’ us. But the conservative move to constantly focus only on his ‘superiority’ I think reflects a tendency to ignore the humanity of Jesus, and in fact lapses towards docetism–Jesus’ humanity is only a temporary appearance, masking his true nature. Last week I was speaking to a conference of (mostly) evangelical Christians, and said that often evangelicals are not Jesus-followers but Paul-followers, and they took that as a fair challenge.

    3. I agree that Adam is described in Gen 2.23-24 as ‘ish’ and on the pun/echo with ‘ishsha’ (woman)–but am at a bit of a loss as to why Collins goes on to say this signals the common origin ‘and priority’ of man. The shape of the narrative in the second part of Gen 2 has a very clear and repeated focus not on the priority of the man (for whom his male identity is not clarified in any case in the first part of the chapter) but on his *incompleteness*. The language of ‘a suitable companion’ is very strongly one of equality, and the reason the (named) animals are no good is because they are not equal to him. So I would probably agree with Collins in this point, but would want to make it more clearly.

    Does that answer your questions?

  14. Ian, I’ve just got your excellent booklet (four copies actually as I want some extras to give away). I share your views on the subject.

    The point I wish to make is this: there is a big difference in opinion on this subject. Some interpret the Bible as saying “leadership is male”, others see it as egalitarian. I personally regard the former view as resulting from very poor exegesis influenced by a male-dominated world, but I have to accept that it exists.

    So how should the church reconcile these two conflicting views? I think there is a principle that says when we are faced with two conflicting interpretations of the text, both of which could be valid, we should choose the one that allows for the greatest level of ministry and the widest spread of the gospel. And denying ordination to women is not compatible with that principle.

    Could this be a way forward? Perhaps I’ve got the rose-tinted specs on!

  15. Hello again Ian,

    You’ll no doubt be aware of these two pieces by Gerald Bray and David Banting, in response to yours from two weeks earlier:



    It would be good if you could offer some engagement with their views, just as you are doing here with John Richardson’s. I really appreciate your willingness to discuss this subject matter and interact with those who feel differently.

  16. Ian, I’ve found it but can’t read it as I’m not a subscriber. I may be able to find a printed version, or I think the online version will become freely available in a week’s time.

  17. Pete, just realised I haven’t replied to your question of two years ago. Two things to note:

    a. the reason Sinaiticus and other mss introduce the verb in v 22 is that one of the early lectionaries split the passage into two readings, so v 22 as the start of the second reading made no sense without a verb added.

    b. given that the initial reception of the text for most would have been oral rather than read, then the whole notion of ‘paragraph’ is misleading. Adding any para breaks in a text which has intercalation or overlapping continuities causes a problem.

    So, what would I do? I would run the text on and have no para break. I don’t see how you can justify any para break which takes priority of the more basic unit of sentence.

  18. Ian,

    May I ask a slightly different question? Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that your exegesis of the NT on such passages as 1 Tim is right. Your exegesis implies that the restriction on women’s ministry in the NT was for reasons to do with the 1st century church context. Paul never meant to restrict women’s ministry for all time, on your reading. What follows for today? That the church may allow for the ordination women as Bishops and that the church may also decide that, like the 1st century,there are good reasons in our context today not to ordain women. The church may decide that the unity of the COE is a factor that means that the ordination of women as Bishops should be postponed or that something like a 3rd Province is granted. I would be interested in the comments of those who favour a more egalitarian reading of the texts about the practical implications of their exegesis for today.


Leave a comment