I have found that one of the most discriminatory places that exist in the religious church and one of the most discriminated people are women. The Bible shows us that God does not discriminate against women (Galatians 3:28, Romans 2:11, Jesus had women disciples/apostles). However, in many churches, women are limited in what they can do solely due to their gender. One of these limitations is that women are not allowed to teach men or have authority over men. In this study, I will examine the biblical truths about women teachers to debunk the prejudice against women in the religious church.
Historic View of Women
Before we get into women teachers and their authority, let’s examine the reason why women ate thought of with such disdain. Why do people hold women in such low esteem? Why does the church consider women to be less than a man pertaining to leadership? The answer to these questions is very important to our study because they will show us that God is not behind the sexual prejudice. Though the man and the woman have their own distinct purpose, we should not oppress the women because of her sex. Now I would like to present some information that would help you to understand the origin of the disdain for women.
Jewish Thought Towards Women
How could Jewish scholars interpret the scriptures in such a way as to be biased against women? Perhaps there was an extra-scriptural belief in the inferiority of women that was incorporated into the interpretation of the scripture. Perhaps the Hellenization process of Alexander the Great contributed to the Jewish disdain for women.
Philo, a Jewish scholar, attempted to harmonize the teachings of Plato and Aristotle and other Greek philosophers with the Old Testament scriptures, which included a disdain for women. Josephus, a Jewish historian, viewed women with the same disdain, as did Philo.
In general, Jewish thought was influenced and in some instances transformed by Aristotelian and Stoic Philosophies. We will discuss this shortly.
Gentile converts also brought with them the same Greek philosophies pertaining to women. They also used Paul’s writings to confirm their beliefs of the status of women. Some influential people in the Christian faith that interpreted the scriptures with the mindset of Greek philosophy are Tertullian, Saint Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, and Thomas Aquinas.
Many scholars and theologians considered celibacy to be the way to personal holiness. Sexuality was considered a snare of the devil to keep men from holiness. The object of that sexuality from the man’s perspective was the woman. Therefore, women were considered a snare to men sent by the devil. Imagine that!
The Greek Influence
The philosophers of Ancient Greece seem to be the originators of the Western world’s formalized conviction that women are inferior to men. Socrates solidified the Athenian disdain for women. He commented that a society built upon common wife and children relationships would be better. A man should not be tied down to one wife.
Greek women did not participate in much publicly. Their lives were very restricted and confined primarily to the home.
Another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, believed that a male bee led a swarm of bees. He reasoned that the male be was more suited to command as in any creature including humans. Aristotle said that a husband is to his wife as a soul is to the body. The soul controls the actions of the arms and legs with intelligence and wisdom. The wife is, therefore, nothing without the husband.
Church leaders centuries later interpreted Paul’s letters according to Aristotelian philosophy since they were a product of Greek culture and education. Actually, Paul was challenging this philosophy instead of supporting it, as we shall soon see.
Demosthenes, who was born a year before Aristotle, was regarded as the great Greek orator. He analyzed the roles of women in Athens as follows.
- Courtesans (basically a prostitute for the upper class and wealthy)—for men’s pleasures
- Prostitutes (young female slaves)—for daily use
- Wives—to bring up legitimate children and to be faithful stewards in the household.
Greek marriages were arranged. The women did not know here the groom at the wedding and was usually married at a young age. A dowry was paid for the privilege to marry one’s daughter. The Jewish also used this type of arrangement in the Old Testament. Wives received no education except for cooking, spinning (for garments), and how to be modest and quiet.
Women of Athens Greece never went out alone, never shared meals with men (even their husbands), and never entered into the life of the general community. Their lives were basically confined to their homes and even there it was restricted. She lived a secluded, retired, and restricted life.
The Stoics believed that women were a distraction to men in the pursuit of wisdom. The also promoted asceticism (plainness. The Amish follows a similar belief) and celibacy, which supported their belief about women. The Stoic philosophy of celibacy made its way into Christian thought. It was believed that a celibate life would lead to holiness. So men and women would forgo sexual intimacy and marriage for the sake of spiritual development and holiness. Thus we have the concept of the monastery.
There are two primary thoughts pertaining to women. These are the Athenian and Stoic thoughts. They are summarized below.
- Athenian thought: Women are inferior to men. Therefore, they are to be commanded by men and used for pleasure. They have no other purpose but to obey and provide pleasure to men.
- Stoic thought: Women are a distraction to men and should be avoided in order to pursue the qualities that would make men superior.
These two views of the philosophy concerning women are the bases for the interpretations of Paul’s writings regarding women and marriage. These philosophies set the stage for how the scriptures would be interpreted by the Hellenized mind at the beginning of Christianity in the first century and beyond.
The Spread of the Greek Philosophy
Not all nations or people shared in the Athenian and Stoic view of women. Even some Greeks did not believe in those views of women. For example, the women of Sparta had considerable freedom and political responsibilities. As a matter of fact, at one time the women of Sparta owned two-thirds of the land.
Egyptian women lived in an equalitarian society. Egyptian women had the same legal rights as men and participated in politics. Egyptians also had equalitarian marriages, that is, the husband and wife had equal rights and privileges. Egyptian women had a much more liberal life compared with Greek women. For example, Egyptian women could sit on a local tribunal, inherit and bequeath property, engage in real estate transactions, secure a loan with her own property, witness legal documents, act on her own legal matters, buy, sell, or freed slaves, and adopt children.
The reason that these ideas towards women did not spread is that neither Sparta or Egypt offered and philosophical heritage to the world as Greece did. Therefore, their respective philosophies about women remained confined to their respective locations, that is, it remained local.
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great is considered to be one of the most brilliant military leaders of all time. He conquered the entire known world in the third century B.C. He was trained as a student of Aristotle and was influenced and impressed with the Greek culture. One of his greatest legacies is the spread of the Greek culture to all of the lands that he conquered. That process is called Hellenization. Alexander’s successors continued the Hellenization process after his death at the young age of thirty-three.
Thought on Women During Paul’s Time
The thought of women in Rome during Paul’s time was similar to those in Athens, particularly the Stoics. Boys were favored over girls (daughters). The women in Rome did have more freedom than those in Athens, however.
Interpretation of Adam and Eve and the Fall
The basic interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve and the fall during Paul’s time was as follows. Eve fell for the smooth talking serpent. As a result, she would have pain in childbearing and have an altered relationship with her husband. The serpent waited for the women because she was morally weak and easily led astray.
Even though there were many examples of strong women in the Scriptures such as Rahab, Ruth, Tamar, Deborah, Jael, and Judith, the rabbis of Judaism, for the most part, devalued women in their teachings. Some rabbis did argue for equality, however.
One of the primary scriptures that influenced the views of the relationship between a husband and wife is Deuteronomy 5:21. I will quote it here.
Deuteronomy 5:21 (NKJV) 21‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, his male servant, his female servant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’
Since coveting the wife was listed along with other possessions of the husband, then it was reasoned that the wife must be a possession of the husband as well. That is, the wife was a piece of property. The thought of the women being inferior must have existed before the rabbis interpreted this scripture. As a matter of fact, this scripture was interpreted in such a way because of their mindset concerning women. Women were therefore regarded as objects or possessions of their husbands or their fathers if they weren’t married.
A Rabbi might not speak to his own daughter or sister in public. Some Pharisees were referred to as the bruised or bleeding ones. This was because they would close their eyes whenever they saw a woman in the street, which resulted in them walking into walls and houses.
Every Jewish male thanked God in a recital each morning for not making him a gentile, woman or boor. As I said before, Jewish women were deprived of education, especially of the law (Torah).
Paul envisioned a world in which all people would be equal citizens in God’s Kingdom regardless of nationality, sex, or financial status.
Galatians 3:28 (NKJV) 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Paul’s task was to convert the Hellenized mind to Christian thinking. The people had to be transformed by the renewing of their minds in order to accept the New Testament standard for equality, even with women.
We see that men oppressed women, during ancient times and still in some areas of the world today. They were not educated and did not participate in public life. They lived a restricted and secluded life. To make matters worse, men blamed them for causing sin and for being a distraction to the pursuit of holiness. In general, it was a man’s world during the time of Paul.
Let’s turn our attention to 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Let me quote it here for convenience.
1 Timothy 2:11 through 1 Timothy 2:15 (KJV) 11Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. 12But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. 13For Adam was first formed, then Eve. 14And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. 15Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.
Does Paul restrict the teaching ministry of women? Does Paul restrict the authority of women in the church? Many have interpreted this scripture as a restriction on the teaching ministry of women in the church in that women cannot teach men (since it is held that men have authority over the women). It is also believed that Paul restricts women from having authority over men. Are these indeed the case? Paul even seems to give a reason from scripture citing the creation. Before we tackle these questions, I would like to give some background information that will help us understand what was going on in the Ephesian church.
Before we examine the background of this scripture from historical sources, let’s first just think about what is being said first and if our findings later will be consistent with this initial finding.
Let’s look at the idea of a Christian teacher and one in authority in the Christian community. For most Christians, the one in authority is usually the pastor so let’s focus our attention primarily on that. Since most Christians do not read and study their Bible, it becomes important for them to establish a primary source for Christian knowledge. This person is usually the pastor or your favorite TV evangelist. Whatever the pastor or minister says is considered to be from God and therefore “law.” For many church-going Christians, the pastor is the man in authority and whatever he says goes. He is the spokesman of God to the congregation. He has authority over the lives of the Congregation.
What is a teacher? A teacher is someone who presents information and expounds on it in an attempt to help you understand the presented information. Where does the teacher get his or her information? The Christian teacher uses the same resource that is available to everyone, namely the Holy Bible. He or she will also use other resources such as historical, cultural, commentary, etc. to help him or her interpret the scriptures in as close to the original context as possible. Therefore, you don’t have to do as much first level research since the teacher has done so much research and possibly investment in research material. So a teacher is one that helps you to understand the scriptures by presenting information in an appropriate way to facilitate understanding.
A pastor is a shepherd. The pastor is really a servant to the people. He is there to minister to the people, in addition to overseeing the vision that God has given him. This vision may take the form of a church, ministry, school, or community organization. However, we only call the overseer of a church the pastor. The pastor (or bishop) should be able to teach the doctrine of the Christian faith along with other criteria given by Paul in 1 Timothy 3.
The person that has authority over us in the things pertaining to Christ is really the one that is your discipler (Christian mentor). This is the person that led you to your salvation and will answer questions and help stir you on your way to living a life in Christ. This could be anyone who is versed with the Gospel of Christ and the Christian Way.
Consider the following. The power in the Gospel is not from the one that presents it. The power in the Gospel is the Holy Spirit. A woman can get the same results as a man when presenting the Gospel to someone because the power of the Gospel is not in the individual. Yes there is usefulness for apologetics to some people but that is not specific to gender since anyone can learn how to reason with people to get them over their hindrances to accepting the Gospel. The Holy Spirit is active in these situations as well though.
Now if we put these things together we can come up with the following reasonable conclusions.
- The effectiveness of teaching or preaching the Gospel is not gender specific
- Pastors are not the authority over a person’s life.
- Pastors are not authority figures in true Christianity
- The effectiveness of the preaching of the Gospel is not gender specific since the Holy Spirit is the one affecting change in a receptive heart.
Therefore, a preliminary finding just from these considerations is that the gender of a teacher, pastor, or other ministry leaders is insignificant as far as Christian doctrine. There are appropriate situations to consider. For example, a leader for a men’s group in the church should be a man. A leader for a women’s ministry should be a woman. What about the pastor over the entire congregation? Where does the significance of gender come into effect? We will investigate these in another study. However, keep these preliminary findings in mind and see how they compare with what our lesson is about today.
It is very important to understand that prior to the Christian worship meetings that men and women typically did not mingle in worship meetings or in public in many cases. Men were separated from women in antiquity. Why were they separated? Why did the women not mix with men during worship meetings? The answer lies in the association.
Cultic (religious) prostitution was a major reason for separating the sexes. Women in worship gatherings were associated with this cultic prostitution. Some examples of cultic prostitution are given below.
- Temple prostitutes in Babylon
- Holy weddings of the Gnostics
- Corinth, during Paul’s time, was famous for religious prostitution
- Judaism had temple prostitutes (1 Samuel 2:22). See also 1 Kings 15:12, 22:46, 2 Kings 14:21-24.
Because of these associations, contact between men and women in public was restricted. The women were eventually allowed in Jewish worship but they remained separated and out of site (of the men). Therefore, Paul’s allowance of women to be present and participate in an authoritative manner in worship was a very radical change.
The traditional view of women during Paul’s time and prior was that women were a distraction to men in their pursuit of holiness. This thought is derived from an interpretation of the creation account. It was thought that the woman was an afterthought of God and that she was, therefore, inferior to the man that God had intended to create. Of course, this cannot be the case because we know that God creates male and female in his image. We discussed this earlier in this study.
Now the women were involved with worship but were ignorant of the Christian faith and the law. This made them a major gateway for heresy to spread. In the same way that it is believed that Eve was deceived because of her lack of knowledge and experience with God (compared to Adam), the women of Ephesus were deceived because of their lack of knowledge of the Christian faith and the law.
Now let’s try to interpret the scripture in its proper context as best we can. Now I am very careful about presenting any conclusions on this topic because it is so controversial. Different churches have different practices and protocol pertaining to women in ministry and in leadership positions within the church organization. Let me remind you that first and foremost that God is not a respecter of persons. That is, God does not show favoritism. Jesus Christ gave no indication whatsoever that women were somehow restricted in the ministry of the Gospel of Christ. We should also note that Jesus gave no instruction on how the church should be organized, which meant that such was left to those in authority at any given time. Therefore, the organization of the church is influenced by the ideas of men and women, which I would dare say is not the purest in any sense nor could it be. Cultural and local customs are usually taken into consideration in any organizational structure at any given location and at any given time. We saw this in our discussion of women and head coverings.
The word “silence” refers to a student that sits quietly in submission while learning from the teacher. Consider that women were not educated as men were. For example, they were not trained in philosophy, rhetoric and in the law (Judaism) as much as the men were. Paul does reveal that he allows women to learn, which was a radical change from the status quo.
There appears to have been heresies spreading within the church by the ignorant (untrained and uneducated) women. Note that the heresies originated from men. So it becomes only fitting that the untrained women should not teach since they weren’t qualified to do so. Instead, they should submissively learn from the instructor.
A teacher at this time was more than someone that merely gave instruction. The students were expected to listen, believe, and obey what was taught. This gave the teacher a certain measure of authority over the students.
Another view is that women could teach as long as they didn’t have authority over men. This seemed reasonable in light of the fact that women having authority over men in this culture would have been met with great opposition. Paul’s statement may not have been doctrinal but rather cultural in an effort to slowly introduce the Christian doctrine and practices into a culturally strong community.
Yet another view is that Paul is protecting the leadership structure of the home. The woman is not to have authority over her husband who is head of the home. Another way of understanding the last discussion is that the authority of the husband in the home is not exclusive to the home. His authority over his family is absolute and is not overridden by the wife’s leadership role in a church, which he too may be a member but not in authority. In other words, for the sake of argument, a women pastor (we will talk about this later) cannot assume (usurp) the authority over her husband just because she has a higher position in the church than her husband. His authority in his family extends even within the church that she pastors.
Saved Through Childbearing
This verse may refer to the birth of Christ making the woman Mary. It might also refer to the woman’s special task of bearing children. The word “salvation” does not refer to the salvation of Jesus Christ (being born again). It appears to be a reference to sanctification since true salvation (justification) can come only by believing in Jesus Christ.
What does Paul mean that women will be saved through childbearing? It appears that the most fitting explanation, given the context and other teachings concerning women, is that women will be sanctified (grow in the faith) if they accept their purpose that was established at the creation. Don’t grasp authority from men or anyone who is in authority. It is important to realize that Paul is NOT saying that women will be “born again” because they give birth to children. Nor can this imply that women will be physically saved while giving birth because many women die while giving birth.
First, we learned that there appeared to be heresy perpetuating throughout the Ephesian church and that women seemed to be significantly perpetuating this heresy. We saw that women were far less educated than men in regards to the law (scripture) and other things such as rhetoric. Therefore, they were prone to believe something that was not true, i.e., heresy. This is true even today for both men and women. Not knowing the word of God makes you prone to believing a false doctrine because of your lack of knowledge. The church at Ephesus also had to deal with the significant pagan and cultic environment, which was challenging the sanctity of church doctrine.
To this Paul says that the women should learn with a submissive and quiet disposition and that they should not teach because they are currently not qualified to teach. Paul does not forbid the women to teach in an overall sense. However, since they were not trained in the law or Christian doctrine, it was necessary for them to not teach authoritatively over men or to forcibly take an authoritative position (usurp authority) in the church.
So what we have here is a principle that applies today as well. No one should teach unless he or she is qualified to do so. Since women were very active in the spread of the Gospel and even in Paul’s ministry, we can confidently say that Paul was not restricting women’s role in teaching as a general Christian doctrine.
However, from another perspective, it does appear that Paul may have been restricting the women from having authority over men. This would have been a purely cultural thing since we have already found that men are not superior to women by God’s design. So any authoritative rules would have to be connected to cultural norms. We should also note that women did play a significant role in the spread of Christianity, which included teaching. So the bottom line is that there is no New Testament doctrine originating from Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian faith that prohibits women from participating in worship or in the leadership of the churches. Any such restrictions are man-made or culturally induced.
A Note on Culture
Cultural practices may be a valid reason to restrict women in certain aspects of ministry even though there is no doctrinal reason for doing so. This is the same argument that Paul used when he dealt with women and the head coverings (See 1 Corinthians 11:3-12). This doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t pursue something that isn’t culturally accepted. However, it may be to the best interests of everyone if women, as well as men, operate within the bounds of their culture. Of course, there will always be the innovators but the surrounding culture should always be a consideration though not necessarily a final restriction. What am I saying? In many churches today it is held that women should not preach from the pulpit. That is reserved for men only (for some reason). Let’s say that a guest evangelist was invited by the women’s day committee to speak at their Women’s day anniversary. Even though there is no Christian doctrine that would restrict her from preaching from the pulpit, it would be in her best interest and of those present if she did preach from the podium. Over a period of time, she may preach in a way to prepare the people for THAT day when she or other women does preach from the pulpit.
If for example, the women evangelist does abruptly step to the pulpit then there could be many people that will tune out and not listen to what she says because she has broken their cultural code and is therefore no longer accepted. The bottom line is that all things should be done decently and in order. Radical changes are not always the way to proceed to the truth. Sometimes we have to take it slow.
I know for a fact that women experience much more liberties in ministry then they have in the past. This is probably because more people are learning more from the Bible and not just accepting what is said. Women are doing more in the workplace and many of those gender discrimination boundaries are gradually being torn down.
See the full study, “The Place of Women” for more information about this and relating topics
Women Teachers and Authority Over Men
(c) 2000 William R. Cunningham
June 27, 2000