Christianity Today once featured a cartoon depicting the apostle Paul arriving at Corinth and saying rather meekly, “I see you received my letter.” Greeting him on the road is an angry mob of women holding placards reading “Women of Corinth unite” and “Paul the apostle is a male chauvinist pig.” It is an amusing picture, but its sentiment is far from the truth. For his time period, Paul’s letters were radically liberating and dignifying for women, who had few rights in eastern Greco-Roman culture.

Paul’s teachings about women have sometimes been misunderstood and misapplied in ways that are denigrating to women. For example, rather than giving attention to Paul’s emphasis on the husband’s obligation to put his wife’s interests well ahead of his own, people have often misconstrued Paul’s comments on wifely submission as a charge to husbands to make their wives submit; as permission for husbands to boss their wives around; or as justification for meanness, abuse, or even violence against women.

Related to their views on these and other texts regarding marriage, evangelical churches continue to be sharply divided on the question of the role of women in church leadership. They have often polarized on a spectrum, with complementarians (those who believe there are distinct, complementary roles for men and women in marriage, church, and sometimes society) on one side, and egalitarians (those who deny there are distinct roles for men and women) on the other.

Despite the regrettable divisiveness that has sometimes resulted from these differences, some evangelical churches have decided to respect the strengths of both views and focus on the deeper unity between complementarians and egalitarians. As just one example of that unity, most complementarians and egalitarians celebrate the inherent worth and giftedness of women. They know that women fully share with men in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and that men and women are joint heirs of the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ and cobeneficiaries of the outpoured Spirit of God and his gifts (Acts 2:17–21).

Further, most complementarians and egalitarians believe that the Bible enjoins both men and women to exercise their spiritual gifts for the upbuilding of the church (1 Cor. 12:7). This includes, in many circumstances, teaching the Word of Christ to all, regardless of gender. For example, Paul exhorts believers to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16, NIV 1984). Nothing in the context suggests that Paul has only men in view as those who should “teach and admonish.”

Article continues below

To this text could be added many others (such as Hebrews 3:13 and 5:12), including descriptions of women who taught spiritual truths to men in various private or less formal contexts, such as Abigail, who rebuked David in 1 Samuel 25, or Priscilla, who with her husband, Aquila, corrected the defective theology of Apollos in Acts 18:26.

Most complementarians are persuaded that 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent”) prohibits women from teaching men in specific situations, such as a pastor or elder within a church setting. But many complementarians, like egalitarians, would not object to a woman teaching physics to male students at a local university, or a female boss teaching a male employee how to do his job, or even a wife teaching her husband how to update his computer.

Similarly, most complementarians, like egalitarians, would not object to a woman prophesying (differences in how this is understood notwithstanding) or praying out loud in church (1 Cor. 11:5; 14:3), the content of which may be packed with profound theological insights. Likewise, complementarians and egalitarians affirm women who compose or sing songs in church that aid worship and reinforce biblical truths, or who author scholarly biblical commentaries from which male pastors and others can learn.

In fact, both groups agree that women like Deborah (Judges 5), Hannah (1 Sam. 2), and Mary (Luke 1) were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write various portions of Holy Scripture. Through their writings, these women have taught both men and women with inerrant authority down through the ages.

Complementarians and egalitarians are not as divided as some think. Their main difference concerns only the very narrow issue of the right of women to teach and lead men within the church with what may be characterized as an intermediate level of authority (below that of the women whose inspired words were incorporated into Scripture, but above that of the praying and prophesying women of 1 Corinthians 11).

Christians of both persuasions, and those in between, have a profound loyalty to Jesus Christ and his Word and are convinced that their viewpoint is demanded by Scripture. Their common loyalty to the Word of God constitutes a deeper unity that should enable a generosity of spirit toward those who may differ in this current debate.

Article continues below

Complementarians and egalitarians may achieve greater understanding and mutual respect by learning more about three key biblical texts that are most often cited in support of the main points of contention related to gender roles with respect to church leadership: 1 Timothy 2, 1 Timothy 3, and Titus 1. The challenges regarding the interpretation of these texts may encourage greater forbearance toward those who hold a different view from one’s own.

The first passage, 1 Timothy 2:12, is translated in the NIV 1984 version as “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” If this is read without regard to context, it appears to prohibit any woman from teaching any man anything or having any position of authority over any man. Women must “be silent.” Based on its wider context, however, most interpreters limit the application of this directive to ecclesiastical settings, especially public corporate worship.

Egalitarians often argue that Paul intended the prohibition to be only a temporary measure based on the fact that women were typically less well educated than men. Perhaps also the women in Ephesus, where Timothy was ministering, may have been susceptible to certain false teachings or were themselves promoting the false teachings that the resurrection had already taken place (2 Tim. 2:18) and hence there is no more marriage (1 Tim. 4:3; Mark 12:25).

Some egalitarians also view Paul’s wording of “I do not permit” as indicative of the temporary nature of these requirements. In any case, now that women are as well educated as men and since that dangerous heresy is no longer a threat, Paul’s prohibition may no longer apply.

Complementarians usually agree that some aspects of Paul’s admonition may be temporary or culturally relative, such as the prohibition against “braided hair” a few verses prior, but they insist that this cannot be the case for 2:12 since Paul grounds it in creational norms based on the relationship between Adam and Eve (1 Tim. 2:13–15). This conviction regarding the permanence of 1 Timothy 2:12 seems persuasive, but on closer examination, the appeal to Adam and Eve implies that what Paul intended was not a prohibition about gender roles but rather a prohibition about marriage roles—how a wife and a husband should relate to each other.

Article continues below

As Paul correctly recognizes, Gen. 2:24 is explicit in its conclusion that the account of Adam and Eve defines the marriage relationship where the two become “one flesh.” Adam committed himself before God to love and care for his wife, Eve, just as he loves and takes care of his own body. Paul builds on this understanding with his “head-body” metaphor for marriage in Ephesians 5:29–30: “After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church, for we are members of his body.”

Also, in Ephesians 2 Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 about how the two become one flesh, proving that the Genesis text is the inspiration for his use of the head-body analogy. Building on the Old Testament’s frequent use of the marriage analogy for God’s relationship to Israel (Isa. 54:5–8; Ezek. 16), Paul then uses the head-body imagery to show Christ’s love for the church, which is his body.

Therefore, when Paul speaks of Adam and Eve, as he does in 1 Timothy 2 and Ephesians 5, he is not using Adam and Eve as a model for how all men should relate to all women (gender roles), but rather as a definitive model for how a husband and wife should relate to each other (marriage roles), just as Genesis 2:24 stresses.

It is important to recognize that in Greek the terms for man (anēra) and woman (gynē), which are used in 1 Timothy 2, are, in fact, the normal terms for “husband” and “wife.” Sometimes a definite article or a pronoun helps indicate which meanings are intended, but mostly it is the context that allows translators to know for sure.

Although many English Bibles translate verse 12 with woman and man, it is far more likely, given Paul’s emphasis on Adam and Eve, that it should be translated as it is in, for example, the Common English Bible (2019): “I don’t allow a wife [gynē] to teach or to control her husband [anēr].” Not surprisingly, Martin Luther, well before modern feminism, already recognized that 1 Timothy 2 refers explicitly to husbands and wives, not men and women in general.

Three other considerations support the marriage interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12. First, within the rest of Paul’s writings, the word anēr (for “man” or “husband”) occurs 50 times in close proximity to gynē (the word for “woman” or “wife”), which appears 55 times within 11 distinct contexts. In every case, these terms bear the meanings “husband” and “wife,” rather than “man” and “woman.”

Article continues below

Second, the detailed list of immodest eye-catching clothing and jewelry prohibited in 2:9 parallels similar lists of disapproved adornment in other Greco-Roman texts in the New Testament period. Adherence to these prohibitions is evidence of good behavior and modesty in wives, rather than women in general. So Paul seems to be already thinking in terms of husbands and wives.

Third, extensive thought and word parallels exist between 1 Peter 3:1–7 and 1 Timothy 2:8–15. Peter explicitly acknowledges that he read Paul’s letters (2 Pet. 3:15), and it is universally agreed that 1 Peter 3 refers to marriage. If one allows Scripture to interpret Scripture—that is, if one allows what is clear to assist in the interpretation of what is less clear—the presence of so many striking parallels between 1 Peter 3 and 1 Timothy 2 creates strong support for the interpretation that 1 Timothy 2 likewise concerns marriage roles rather than gender roles.

Of course, the mandates in 1 Timothy 2:11–12 still need clarification about what exactly is intended, even if it seems likely that these verses concern the relationship between a wife and her husband: “A wife should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a wife to teach or have authority over her husband; she must be silent.” It helps to recognize that elsewhere, the Bible requires men or all people involved to be “silent” (1 Thess. 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:12; 1 Tim. 2:2).

Based on examples like these, the demand to be “quiet” or “silent” can mean—depending on the context—an end to unwelcome, disruptive, or negative speech (arguing, complaining, harping, nagging), not necessarily absolute silence (1 Pet. 3:1).

Paul’s prohibition of a wife teaching her husband seems strange, especially given the Bible’s positive report of the remarkable wisdom of many women, including cases when they correct their husbands (Judges 13:23) or where God instructs a husband to do what his wife tells him (Gen. 21:12). In this text, “to teach” is paired with a rare Greek word that is sometimes translated “to exercise authority over,” but it can also be translated into terms that suggest abusive authority such as “domineer,” “control,” or “boss.” The church father John Chrysostom, in a homily on Colossians, uses the same word when he warns a husband not to “be domineering over” his wife.

Article continues below

Based on examples like this, the Common English Bible translates 1 Timothy 2:12 as “I don’t allow a wife to teach or to control her husband.” This translation suggests that the word often translated as “teach” may have its less common but recognized pejorative sense of “instruct,” “lecture,” or “order,” as it does, for example, in Matthew 28:15. Accordingly, Paul’s statement may be more adequately translated as “I do not allow a wife to lecture or boss her husband, but to be quiet.”

The mention of “submission” on the part of wives in 2:11 strikes some readers as demeaning, but what seems to be intended is a receptive disposition, a willingness to listen and be persuaded as needed, not mindless obedience. It helps to recognize that other biblical texts require all persons, male or female, to be submissive to all governing authorities (Rom. 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13–14) and even just to those who are older (1 Pet. 5:5).

Both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 insist that candidates for overseers, or elders, should be “the husband of but one wife.” This instruction cannot be seen as disqualifying for the issue of women holding church office, however, because the Bible almost universally expresses generalizations, laws, and norms from a conventionally androcentric, or male, point of view.

For example, each of the Ten Commandments is worded in Hebrew as if it were being spoken to men only (for example, in Hebrew all the you forms are masculine singular), including the 10th commandment, which insists, “You [masculine singular] shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Ex. 20:17). Readers have always correctly understood, however, that this and every other commandment applies equally to women.

The same androcentric language is used for every job description seen in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. This is the case even when there is clear evidence that the office in question did in fact permit women, even if they were less common in that role. For example, we know that there were legitimate female prophets, such as Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), and Anna (Luke 2:36). But the job descriptions for a “prophet” found in Numbers 12:6–8, Deuteronomy 13:1–5, and 18:14–22 are written as if they could only apply to a man. The androcentric language to describe a legitimate prophet of the Lord in Numbers 12 is especially striking, since the only prophet in the immediate context is Miriam.

Article continues below

If there are other biblical texts that prohibit women from serving as an elder, 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 would not disagree with them. But the androcentric language of these passages does not provide an adequate basis for assuming that there was such a prohibition. Perhaps something that suggests the possibility that New Testament churches included both spiritually mature women and spiritually mature men is the New Testament’s choice of the term “elders” to refer to those leaders (see Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5; and 1 Pet. 5:1).

The very first occurrence in Scripture of this term, with its more common sense as a reference to persons of mature age appears in Genesis 18:11, where it refers to a mature man and mature woman: “Now Abraham and Sarah were elders well advanced in years” (author’s translation).

Historic evangelicalism has considered other secondary issues like baptism, church polity, or the ideal style of worship music as important and worthy of prayerful examination but not of divisive obsession. There should be no excuse for followers of Christ to disparage or disfellowship one another over secondary issues.

This generosity of spirit ought to apply to the current debate over gender roles in church leadership. It should not be necessary even as a practicality for there to be any separation between followers of Christ who hold one view versus those who hold the other. Both egalitarians and complementarians should be able to thrive happily in the same church, regardless of the approach favored by its leaders.

Even though egalitarians welcome competent women to serve as elders or pastors, they recognize that no text in Scripture requires there to be a female elder or pastor in their church.

Similarly, complementarians should be able to attend a church where women serve as elders or pastors. Naturally, complementarians would not encourage or vote for any women to serve in these leadership positions.

Nevertheless, it would never be a sin for the complementarians in a church that has female elders or pastors to learn or heed directions from those elders or pastors, as long as whatever those female leaders preach or direct is faithful to the Word of God. For example, if a female elder directs the congregation to open a worship service by singing “Amazing Grace,” the complementarians in the congregation should not hesitate to sing that hymn because it would not be a sin to comply with such a directive.

Article continues below

Any discussion or teaching on gender roles and marriage roles should be open to correction and be as generous and respectful as possible toward those who hold a different view. May the Lord guide us all to continue to search out the Scriptures and teach us to love one another with greater humility and forbearance.

Gordon P. Hugenberger is senior professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and former senior minister of Park Street Church in Boston.

[ This article is also available in Português 简体中文, and 繁體中文. ]

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.