By Donna Howell, author of The Handmaidens Conspiracy
A week ago, on August 20, 2019, Charisma News released an article by Shane Idleman titled, “Women as Church Leaders: Is the Egalitarian View Actually Biblical?” The focus of this work was to challenge the Egalitarian view allowing women to hold certain chief leadership positions over a church. In his opening statement, he declared, “no matter how hard we try, we can’t twist the Scriptures to make them fit our politically correct culture.”
Can I get an “Amen”?! Thank you, Shane—and I mean that sincerely.
Anyone who conducts biblical interpretation from a twenty-first-century-culture perspective, and then uses that skewed interpretation to endorse or negate a biblical directive, is guilty of extreme negligence. We simply cannot allow our current religious, social, or political climate to be the lens through which the Bible will be interpreted. That is true today, it was true yesterday, it will remain true tomorrow and forever. So far, Shane and I are in complete agreement. Additionally, I would like to offer many thanks to Shane for the way he handled what’s known as the “Women’s Issue” topic. In no way did he steer for even a moment into the vitriolic, patriarchal jabs that so often litter the argument on his side. Equally refreshing is that he addressed a couple times what the Greek and Hebrew had to say, choosing not to rely solely on the English KJV, yet again. (It’s interesting how many people don’t realize how heavily the KJV translation was also influenced by the culture of its day. We should never interpret Scripture from “a twenty-first-century” lens. On that, everyone agrees. Why, then, should we interpret Scripture from “a seventeenth-century” lens just because the KJV does? The original languages are the final authority. Thank you, Shane!)
For all this and so much more gentle, humble treatment on the Women’s Issue, I give genuine, heartfelt gratitude to the man behind this Charisma News article.
However, and with the hopes of being equally gentle in my response, I would like to point out a few curiosities of the logic Shane applied when he ultimately landed at the conclusion that women can’t be pastors or hold chief leadership positions in the Church.
Is 1 Timothy 2:11–13 a “Headship” Issue?
Though Shane does get into some Greek word studies, early on in his article, he still makes the assertion that women cannot be pastors because we are not to usurp the headship of the male, and he bases this on 1 Timothy 2:11–13 (“Let the woman learn in silence…I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man…”). It is a unique and rare approach that he would not have an issue at all with the “teach” in this verse as many do (Shane actually supports women teachers, his article says), but that he would suggest that there is a “male headship” rule for all time within this verse that still applies today. Either the whole verse applies today or it doesn’t, but we can’t apply one thing from a verse and deny another from the same verse.
To put it another way: When one and the same verse says that a woman can’t teach, or usurp, would it not be poor exegesis and hermeneutics to say that she can teach, but she can’t be called “pastor” because that violates the “usurp” clause of the same passage?
Let’s briefly clarify something here: Scholars have long acknowledged that “teach” in this sentence is grammatically copulative (or “linked to”) “usurp.” Neither of these words can be “divorced” from the other and still maintain the integrity of what the original author (Paul) wrote. Therefore, whatever kind of “teaching” (didaskein) this one single woman is being forbidden to carry out is defined by “usurp” (authentein) in this same sentence. (And yes, it’s only one single woman he’s talking about, since Paul switches from plural to singular in this particular address.)
Elsewhere, when Paul wanted to describe one entity taking or having authority over another entity, he used exousia (1 Corinthians 7:4, 9:4–6, 9:12, 11:10; 2 Corinthians 2:8, 10:8,13:10; Colossians 1:13; 2 Thessalonians 3:12; Romans 6:15, 9:21, etc.), yet in this one spot, he used authentein.
With that in mind, the precise meaning of authentein suddenly gets really important. What kind of usurpation are we talking about here? Paul went out of his way to refer to a very specific authority-takeover unlike the rest he wrote about in every other place.
Since the Greek authentein is never used anywhere else in the Bible, we have no choice but to look extrabiblically for context. When this is done, we see that this rare Greek word means a number of things: “perpetrator of evil,” “doer of a massacre,” “author of crimes,” “perpetrator of sacrilege,” “murderer,” “one who commits suicide,” and so on and so forth. (My book, Handmaidens Conspiracy, spends several pages breaking down the meaning and importance of this word, as well as providing readers with more references and information on where they can go to learn more.)
Because the ancient word had so many possible definitions, scholars aren’t yet completely sure what authentein meant in Paul’s 1 Timothy prohibition. However, scholars unanimously agree that the “kind” of takeover happening here was a hostile one: A woman was, in some aggressive way, asserting her own will over the teachers of the church in Ephesus and causing a rift. She was not a humble, theologically sound, obedient woman of God stepping into a pastoral role that God offered to her, as any woman pastor would be today, assuming she has been properly voted into place by her congregation.
To answer what this one woman was likely guilty of here, one must take a bit of time to research the orgiastic, pagan temple worship that was occurring nearby in the temple of Artemis/Diana—the “creator goddess” whose cult followers taught that childbearing was a dirty thing, Eve was created before Adam, and women’s bodies were the conduits through which the ancient gods could speak to men. These courtesan/prostitute cultists wore long braids with gold and fine stones weaved throughout and, because of their cultural familiarity of being the goddess’ mouthpieces, they were believed to be the “diviners” of a supernatural entity’s will. They were the “teachers” of the city’s esteemed pagan religion, so when Paul established the first Christian church there (before anyone had a New Testament to read for guidance), these women stepped in to take their usual authority over spiritual matters. One in particular, the one Paul is talking about in 1 Timothy 2:11–13, was probably taking over someone’s Judeo-Christian teachings of that day with her own pagan mysticism. In this context, suddenly it’s not far-fetched to see why Paul would be, in this same letter, instructing women not to braid their hair, and refuting Artemis/Diana “Eve first” and “childbearing is shameful” theology with his own “Adam first” and “women being saved through childbearing” theologies in verses 13–15.
So again, I know it’s probably explained somewhere else in Shane’s work why he supports women teachers but not women pastors with 1 Timothy 2:11–13 as a backing—since such a stance both embraces and rejects certain portions of the verse—but as of this time, I can’t see why a woman can’t be a pastor based on this passage.
Shane’s next verse in question was Genesis 3:16.
Is Genesis Headship Relevant?
A common argument Shane shares with many others is the concept that Genesis 3:16 (“Unto the woman he [God] said, ‘…thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee’”) is relevant to the headship role of women in the Church. I mean no disrespect by pointing out that this verse is about a wife’s submission to her husband, and that it doesn’t hold any bearing on whether a woman can be a pastor or church leader, assuming her congregation—and her husband—support her filling that role.
Besides, this verse is almost never treated with consistent application. The Church says a husband must always rule over the woman because Genesis 3:16 says so, but when a Christian woman is in childbirth labor pain today, nobody bats an eye at her “reversing” or “alleviating” the pain-curse from the same exact verse with an epidural or some other pain killer. Why is it considered “humane” and “merciful” to question the value of physical pain, but considered “noncompliant” or “rebellious” to question the value of the “ruling” relationship? Additionally, from the very next two verses, again in the same context, all men are cursed forever to toil the fields in pain and struggle. Is it against God for a man to enjoy his job? “Certainly not,” the Church says. Then why wouldn’t the Church say “certainly not” when the man ruling over the woman is brought into question? Why apply one curse-law and not the other?
When Jesus taught on the subject of marriage in Matthew 19:4–6, He chose to focus on the relationship that was established prior to the Fall when He quoted Genesis 2:24. He could have chosen instead to quote from the post-Fall relationship order (Genesis 3:16), but by realigning His listeners to the pre-Fall relationship, He was placing His own approval on the perfect design established before sin corrupted it. If we are allowing Christ to have the last word on this, then the conclusion is that we should strive to avoid the “rule over thee” status.
Mutual submission, both genders, each to the other in a peaceful and efficient union, is what God created (Genesis 5:2), and what He used Paul to establish once again in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 7:3–5; Ephesians 5:21). (This is not to say that a wife should never submit to her husband. I, myself, submit to my husband, but we celebrate the mutuality of submission in a healthy balance also. My book, Handmaidens Conspiracy, goes deeper into this.)
It Goes Further than Chloe, Priscilla, and Lydia
Shane suggests that it’s a grasp at straws to lay the Women’s Issue argument on whether Chloe, Priscilla, or Lydia were church leaders. Although I don’t completely agree with his quickly-addressed conclusions about these three women, I agree that these examples, by themselves, appear desperate. So why don’t we look at another?
What about Phoebe, who Paul specifically called a “deacon” (literal meaning of diakonos), and then placed her as “overseer” (literal meaning of prostatis), in Romans 16:1? See, diakonos, in twenty-three other locations of the KJV was translated “deacon” or “minister,” and it clearly represented a chief leader in the church. No scholar refutes that. Suddenly, this one location, the woman “deacon” becomes a woman “servant.” Then, to be placed as a prostatis over the men, all the while the men are told to tend to “whatever business she had need of them” in the following verse… Why don’t people on the other side of the Women’s Issue every address Phoebe? Why don’t they acknowledge that Paul called her the masculine form of the noun and not the feminine form (diakonessa), as a means of introducing her as equal authority as any man?
Or Junia? What about the woman Paul specifically called an “apostle” in Romans 16:7? That’s well above even the title of “pastor”!: “Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” I realize some today believe Paul was suggesting the apostles knew of her, not that she was an apostle, herself. But many celebrated, historical, and scholarly names from that day to this believe that you have to go out of your way to read it that way when it clearly identifies a female apostle. The following notable men are only a few who have had no problem interpreting Paul’s words to say Junia was a “woman apostle”: Origen, Jerome, Hatto, Theophylact, Peter Abelard, John Chrysostom, Ambrosiaster, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, John Damascene, Haymo, Oecumenius, Lanfranc of Bec, Bruno the Carthusian, and Peter Lombard (and this is in no way an exhaustive list).
Gifts Given to Anthropois: Men and Women!
But perhaps we don’t need to spend much time talking about all the other examples: For those who say women can preach, teach, and be leaders in certain offices, but they cannot hold the title of “pastor,” how do they explain why Paul uses poimenas—translated in Ephesians 4:11 as “pastors”—as a reference over the Body of Christ as a whole, including women? These gifts are irrefutably gender-inclusive, or else Paul would have been obligated to use a gender-exclusive word when he wrote that God “gave gifts unto anthropois [literally “humankind”: men and women!]” in Ephesians 4:8. (Again, the KJV chose “gives unto men,” which makes it sound masculine, but the etymology of the word clearly reveals it to be generically and gender-inclusively “people.” It’s from this word we get “anthropology,” the study of ancient peoples and cultures.) If these gifts—including the title of “pastor”—were intended to refer to men only, Paul would have used gender-specific terminology in the authentic Greek so that women of all times would know they’re excluded, but he didn’t. The translators of the KJV made that decision instead.
Rarely do I see this conversation treated as fairly and gently as Shane Idleman has, and I will continue to be grateful for that. But for the few areas I felt were crucially relevant for a balanced position, I believed a response article could be beneficial for some readers.
 Shane Idleman, “Women as Church Leaders: Is the Egalitarian View Actually Biblical?” August 20, 2019, Charisma News, last accessed August 27, 2019, https://www.charismanews.com/opinion/77664-women-as-church-leaders-is-the-egalitarian-view-actually-biblical.