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Pauline Epistles

On Church Organization in the Pauline letters

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In order to understand the information in the Pastoral Letters regarding the organization and administration of churches (cf. Part 6), a survey of the evidence from the Pauline corpus as a whole will be useful. Here it is important to distinguish the letters where there is little or no question of authorship by Paul, and those which many critical commentators regard as pseudonymous. The undisputed Pauline letters are (roughly in chronological order):

  • 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Romans, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon; to which I add 2 Thessalonians and Colossians

All of these would have been written in the period c. 48-60 A.D. The letters most often thought to be pseudonymous are:

  • Ephesians and the Pastorals (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus)

If these are authentically Pauline, then they probably would have been written c. 60-63 A.D.; if pseudonymous, then they would be later productions, the Pastorals often dated to the end of the 1st century (c. 80-100) or even the beginning of the 2nd. I discussed the situation regarding the Pastoral letters briefly in Part 5, mentioning that, in my view, the evidence for pseudonymity is a bit stronger for 1 Timothy. Personally, I am inclined to the view (on objective grounds) that 2 Timothy is genuinely Paul’s work, and probably so for Titus as well. I leave open the (reasonably strong) possibility that 1 Timothy is a later work, written in imitation of 2 Timothy (and possibly Titus), and will use this as a working hypothesis for the short study below.

The Earliest Letters

Of the 7/9 ‘undisputed’ letters of Paul (cf. above), it is interesting to note that church organization and administration does not play a major role, at least in terms of providing specific detail as to how congregations are (or ought to be) governed. Paul writes a good deal about his own ministry work, along with that of his fellow missionaries, including his (and their) role as apostle (a)po/stolo$)—1 Thess 1:2-10; Gal 1, etc. This derives from the very early Christian idea of one who was sent forth (to preach the Gospel, etc) as a representative of Christ. Early tradition centers this idea with the Twelve (Mark 3:13-19 par; Acts 1:13, 16-26), and those first believers (in Jerusalem) who witnessed the resurrected Jesus and participated in the initial wave of missionary activity (Acts 1-2ff; 1 Cor 15:5-11; on Rom 16:7 cf. Part 4). These missionaries and preachers played a leading role in the founding of the first congregations all throughout Syria-Palestine and the wider Greco-Roman world. When addressing the congregations, in the earliest surviving correspondence (1 [and 2] Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians), Paul gives little indication of a well-defined church structure, tending to emphasize the ideal that all believers have a place (and important roles to play) in the body of Christ—1 Thess 1:3ff; 4:9; 2 Thess 1:3-4, 15; 3:6ff; Gal 3:26-29; 6:15-16; 1 Cor 1:2, 10ff, 26-31; 2:14-16; 3:1-4, 21-23; chaps. 11-14, etc. The only passage which suggests definite leadership roles within the congregation is 1 Thess 5:12f:

“And I ask of you, brothers, to have seen [i.e. to recognize] the (one)s laboring [kopiw=nta$] among you and standing before [proi+stame/nou$] you in (the) Lord and putting (things) in mind [nouqetou=nta$] for you, and to give them the lead [i.e. judge/esteem/consider them] over and above [i.e. abundantly] in love through [i.e. because of] their work.”

The three verbs (participles) indicated here are not titles or official positions, but rather describe roles and regular activity (“work/labor”) within the congregation. The second verb (proi+/sthmi) implies a leading role—one who provides guidance, help (and protection) for the congregation (cf. Rom 12:8; 16:2, also 1 Tim 3:4-5 etc). The third (nouqete/w) indicates teaching and instruction (cf. 2 Thess 3:15; Rom 15:14; 1 Cor 4:14 etc). Such persons are to be accorded positions of honor and respect within the congregation. In Galatians, the rhetorical thrust of the letter prompts Paul to downplay positions of (supposed) authority in the Church—even that of apostle—subordinating all human authority to the truth of the Gospel (Gal 1:6-9, 11-23; 2:1-10ff; 6:11-16).

1 Corinthians

The Corinthian correspondence (esp. 1 Corinthians) provides by far the greatest detail as to how congregations (are to) function. While the leading position of Paul and his fellow missionaries (Apollos, et al) as apostles and “servants” (cf. below on dia/kono$) remains prominent (cf. all through chaps. 1-4, 9; 16:10ff), the congregation is described in rather egalitarian and “democratic” terms; note the following:

  • The theme of unity which is set in contrast to divisions/groupings based on the authority, etc. of prominent individuals (1:10-17; 3:1-9, etc), including Apollos, Cephas (“Peter”) and Paul himself. The argument running through chapters 1-4 also functions as a warning toward those who might seek to control/influence believers on the basis of their gifts and talents.
  • In chapters 5-6 the emphasis is on the ability (and expectation) of believers to govern their own affairs, in a prudent and common-sense fashion. No mention is made of appeal to the authority of official positions in the churches, other than that of Paul (the apostle). Indeed, 5:3-5 suggests a straightforward division of authority: (a) the apostle, and (b) the assembled congregation (as a whole).
  • The lengthy and complex line of argument in chapters 8-10 has, at its core, that the “strong” in the churches should subordinate their own (personal) authority and interests to the good of the congregation (especially of the “weaker” members).
  • The discussion of corporate/community life and worship in chapters 1114 presents a model of many roles and functions, operating more or less equally—and in unity—within the congregation (the ‘body’ of Christ). Note the many different “gifts” of ministry mentioned in 12:4-11 (and the roughly contemporary list in Rom 12:4-8). Similarly, it is expected that many different people could (and should) participate actively in the worship-meeting (chap. 14, esp. verses 26-33). There is no suggestion that any of these roles were reserved for specific “offices”. Moreover, it is clear that men and women both could take active speaking/preaching roles in the meeting, as long as certain customs were properly observed (11:2-16). The two ‘highest’ gifts or roles were that of: (1) apostle, i.e. the missionaries who were involved in the founding of the churches and their oversight; and (2) prophet, i.e. one who communicates the (revealed) word and will of God to the congregation. Cf. 1 Cor 12:28-31; 14:1ff, 24, 29-33, 37-39; Rom 12:6; Eph 4:11.

dia/kono$

The Greek word dia/kono$ (diákonos, “servant”) can range in meaning from a waiter of tables (cf. Acts 6:1-6) to a person who holds public office (including a religious office). It is used 21 times in the Pauline corpus, including 12 (or 16) times in the undisputed letters. In most instances, Paul clearly understands it, not as the title of an official position (i.e. deacon), but in the general sense of “minister”—that is, of Christ and the Gospel. He likely views it as partly synonymous with dou=lo$ (“slave”)—i.e. slave/servant of Christ, which Paul applies to himself (and others) frequently in his letters (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10, et al). The word certainly has this general (Christian) meaning in Rom 16:1 (cf. the discussion in Part 4); 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 11:15, 23; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; and cf. Eph 3:7; 6:21; 1 Tim 4:6. It is also used in a general sense of Christ (Gal 2:17; Rom 15:8), and human (civil) authorities (Rom 13:4). Only in 1 Tim 3:8-12 does dia/kono$ likely refer to a distinct office (or official position) in the Church; on Phil 1:1, cf. below.

Philippians 1:1

Paul’s greeting in Phil 1:1 includes the somewhat unusual phrase (in italics):

“…to all the holy ones [i.e. “saints”] in (the) Anointed Yeshua {Christ Jesus}…(together) with (the) overseers and servants/ministers“.

Here Paul seems to distinguish two groups (or positions) that are set apart from the congregation as a whole. The second of these (dia/kono$, “servant”, i.e. ‘minister’) has been discussed above. The first word requires special comment.

e)pi/skopo$ (epískopos)—This word fundamentally means “one who looks (carefully) over something”. It occurs only five times in the New Testament (Acts 20:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:7; 1 Pet 2:25), but cf. also the related verb e)piskope/w (Heb 12:15; 1 Pet 5:2). This careful examination (“looking over”) is usually understood as being done by an authority or person appointed (as a representative) for such a task. The related noun e)piskoph/ sometimes has the specific meaning of the actual visit (or time of the visit) made for examination/inspection—in Jewish tradition, for the time God visits the earth for Judgment (Lk 19:44; 1 Pet 2:12). Acts 1:20 (citing Psalm 109:8) uses e)piskoph/ in the sense of a position (that of apostle), and so also in 1 Tim 3:1. The best translation for e)pi/skopo$ is “overseer”; it really should not be rendered in the New Testament as “bishop”, not even in the Pastoral letters.

The word is used only once in the undisputed letters of Paul (Phil 1:1), but also occurs in the context of early Christian (and Pauline) tradition in Acts 20:28. In that narrative setting, Paul is addressing the “elders” (presbu/teroi) of the churches of Ephesus, who have come to visit him, at his request, in Miletus (v. 17-18). Here is the instruction he gives them in verse 28:

“Hold (attention) toward yourselves and to(ward) all the herd [i.e. flock {of sheep}], in which the holy Spirit has set/placed you (as) overseers [e)pisko/pou$] to (shep)herd the congregation [e)kklhsi/a] of God, which he made (to be) round about (himself) [i.e. he acquired] through (his) own blood.”

Assuming that this reflects authentic historical tradition, it would correspond roughly to the time of Phil 1:1 (c. 60 A.D.). All that is really indicated here is that elders (certain of them at least) are to oversee the welfare and protection of the congregations, especially against false teaching. Their roles are described only generally in this regard. They are to continue and preserve/maintain the work done by the founding missionaries (Paul and the other apostles), and so act with some measure of (apostolic) authority, if only by example. One or more elders would fulfill this role for each congregation (usually a house-church) in each city or location. What of the situation implied by Paul in Phil 1:1? The fact that these two roles/positions—e)pi/skopo$ and dia/kono$—are not discussed anywhere else in the letter (nor really in any of the other [undisputed] Pauline letters) strongly suggests that we are still dealing with a very generalized distinction, which I would summarize as follows:

  • e)pi/skopo$ refers to the elder (or elders) who has come to exercise the leading role(s) in overseeing the congregation; these persons may have been appointed by Paul (or other apostles) and confirmed (presumably) through a ritual process involving the laying on of hands.
  • dia/kono$ refers to any/all persons exercising (leading) ministry roles in the congregation, presumably according to the spiritual “gifts” and abilities recognized in 1 Cor 12ff; Rom 12:6-8, etc.

Ephesians 4:11

Eph 4:11-12 contains a list of “gifts” similar to those in 1 Cor 12:4-11 and Rom 12:4-8, only the emphasis is not so much on the Spirit—rather they are said to have been given by Christ. Also, the various gifts in the earlier letters have been ‘replaced’, it would seem, by more clearly defined roles in the Church—five are listed:

(1) Apostles, (2) Prophets, (3) Preachers, i.e., those proclaiming the Gospel, (4) ‘Shepherds’, and (5) Teachers

The first two match the two ‘highest’ gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians, while preaching/proclamation of the Gospel and teaching are natural functions for any Christian minister. In early tradition, it seems clear that “shepherd” (poimh/n) is generally synonymous with e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”), as attested both in Acts 20:28 (above) and in 1 Pet 2:25. Most likely, poimh/n was the older, and more widely used term, going back to Jesus’ own words and the Gospel tradition (regarding Peter, etc)—cf. Mark 6:34; 14:27 par; John 10:2-16; 21:15-17; 1 Cor 9:17; 1 Pet 5:2. The corresponding (traditional) word in English is “pastor”. It should be noted that many commentators believe that Ephesians is pseudonymous, serving as a kind of compendium of Pauline teaching, much as it is assumed for the Pastoral letters. Whether or not this view is valid, it does seem that this passage reflects some degree of development—i.e. a five-fold ministry instead of the more diverse ministerial roles indicated within 1 Corinthians. On the other hand, assuming Pauline authorship, it is possible that these five roles effectively summarize what Paul has in mind when he uses the term dia/kono$ (“servant”) to refer to the (leading) ministers in the Church.

2 Timothy and Titus

There is actually very little information regarding the structure and organization of the churches in these letters, which, perhaps, could be seen as an (additional) argument in favor of their authenticity (in contrast with 1 Timothy). In 2 Timothy, the focus is almost entirely on Paul’s (personal) instruction to Timothy. According to the (assumed) historical situation, Timothy would be serving as Paul’s (apostolic) representative, exercising authority and care over all the congregations in a particular region (trad. the area around Ephesus, cf. 1 Tim 1:3). He is exhorted to follow Paul’s example, and to preserve correct teaching and tradition (as it has been passed down to him). Very little detail is given with regard to ministerial roles in the churches, apart from a reference (in passing) to the practice of the laying on of hands (1:6). In Titus, the apostolic role is set out more precisely (Tit 1:5ff; 2:1ff), and several of the points of instruction are treated much more extensively in 1 Timothy; note especially:

  • The reference to the establishment of elders (presbu/teroi) in each town/congregation (1:5-6ff); such elders are called “overseer” (e)pi/skopo$), as in Acts 20:28 (cf. above). Cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13.
  • The guidelines on how to give instruction, and on the roles of men and women, etc., in the churches (2:1-10, cf. 1 Tim 2:1-10ff; 5:1-6:2).

In my view, it is incorrect to read a later, developed view of bishop into the reference to “overseers” in Tit 1:7ff. Here in Titus (and 1 Timothy), it is clear that the “elders” are understood as men (i.e. gender-specific), and perhaps also in Acts 20:17, etc. Interestingly, presbu/tero$ (whether singular or plural) is not used in any of the undisputed letters of Paul, only in the Pastorals (1 Tim 5:1-2, 17, 19; Tit 1:7).

1 Timothy

Here, in all of the New Testament writings, we find the clearest (and most extensive) information about specific ministry roles or positions in the Church. They are:

  • “Overseer” (e)pi/skopo$)—3:1-7
  • “Servant/Minister” (dia/kono$)—3:8-12
  • “Widow” (xh/ra)—5:2-16, i.e. female “elders”, ideally widows over the age of sixty, with a specific position and duties in the congregation
  • “Elders” (presbu/teroi)—5:17-20

Commentators continue to debate the precise meaning of e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”) here. Much depends on one’s view of the authorship (and dating) of the letter. If it is authentically Paul’s work (and written before c. 64 A.D.), then it is likely that he is simply referring to the elder (or elders) appointed to oversee the congregation. On the other hand, a later (c. 80-110) pseudonymous writing may assume something closer to the bishop of subsequent ecclesiastical tradition—i.e., one who exercises authority over all the churches in a particular city or region, entailing a more direct hierarchical chain of government. According to the (presumed) historical setting of the Pastorals, only Timothy and Titus themselves, as Paul’s (apostolic) representatives, function in anything like this wider role. It is, I think, unwise to read the developed meaning of e)pi/skopo$ too readily into 1 Tim 3:1-7. Similarly, it is unclear whether, or to what extent, dia/kono$ (“servant/minister”) here fits the (later) office of deacon. The pairing of dia/kono$ with e)pi/skopo$ may simply be building upon the (earlier) terminology used in Phil 1:1 (cf. above). The “overseers” and “ministers” seem to be understood as gender-specific roles (1 Tim 3:2-5, 12); however, the reference to “women” in 3:11 could conceivably refer to female ministers (cf. Rom 16:1-2 and the separate note on v. 11). The widows (5:2-16) are generally the female counterpart to the (male) elders in 5:17-20.

Women in the Church: Part 6 – The Pauline Letters

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Having already examined five primary passages in the Pauline letters—1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33b-36; Gal 3:28; Rom 16:1-2ff, and 1 Tim 2:11-15—in some detail, it remains to survey other portions of the Pauline corpus which relate in some way to role of women in the Church. As a way of organizing and presenting the evidence, I have decided to divide them roughly between:

(a) Passages which emphasize the equality and/or reciprocity of the genders, and
(b) Those which indicate that women are in some sense subordinate to men, or may be restricted from fulfilling certain roles

The situation, of course, is considerably more complex than this simple division suggests; however, I believe that it genuinely reflects two aspects of Paul’s thought and teaching regarding gender roles, etc. It also happens to follow the two basic views or approaches to the subject by Christians today. A serious error of modern commentators and church leaders, etc, is that they tend (or wish) to focus on just one side of the question, to the exclusion of the other.

1. Passages which emphasize the equality and/or reciprocity of the genders

1 Thess 2:7, 11—Paul uses mother/father (female/male) imagery, applying them equally, in turn, to the role and function of apostles. Cf. also Gal 4:19, etc.

1 Corinthians 7—According to the language and (reciprocal) style Paul uses throughout this chapter, men and women (husbands and wives) have equal status—i.e. in the context of marriage, especially with regard to sexual relations. There is no emphasis whatsoever on headship/submission here.

1 Corinthians 12-13 & 14:1ff—Spiritual “gifts” (charismata) relate to all believers—note the use of pa=$ (“all”) repeatedly in 12:6, 11-13, 19, 26, 29-30; 13:2-3, 7; 14:5, 18, 23-26, 31. There is really no indication that any of the gifts or roles mentioned in these sections (with the possible exception of “apostle”, cf. below) apply only to men or are restricted for women. According to 11:2-16 (cf. Part 1) women may function as prophets, which is the second ‘highest’ gift/role after in the church after apostles (12:28ff). This means they may exercise a role that involves preaching/teaching, and 14:3 would suggest that women who prophesy also instruct/edify men in the assembly. Only 14:34-35 refers to any restriction on the participation of women in the worship meeting, but the context of this reference needs to be examined closely (cf. the discussion in Part 2). The emphasis on unity among believers (in the corporate setting) also means that all gifts/roles in the church ultimately are subordinated to the love-principle (chap. 13, cf. Gal 5:14ff).

2 Cor 11:2-3Female imagery is applied to believers as a whole, without qualification or comment. Note above on 1 Thess 2:7, and cf. Rom 7:2-3; 9:25.

Rom 12:4-8—Cf. 1 Cor 12-14, and also Eph 4:11-13. It is possible that the language “the one teaching [o( dida/skwn]”, etc., in vv. 7-8 is gender-specific, but Paul does not make a point of it. He frequently uses masculine terms and (grammatical) gender when referring to believers (men and women) generally or collectively.

Along with these passages, one should note instances where Paul makes special mention of certain women, indicating they are fellow ministers/missionaries or otherwise hold prominent/leading roles in the churches. In addition to Phoebe and the others mentioned in Romans 16 (cf. Part 4), we have:

  • Prisca and her husband Aquila (1 Cor 16:19, also Rom 16:3; 2 Tim 4:19, and cf. Acts 18:2, 18, 26).
  • Chloe (1 Cor 1:11)—a prominent (and wealthy) person in Corinth, who may have been important in the church.
  • Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3).
  • Apphia (Philemon 2), specifically called “sister” in context with the “brothers” of v. 1.
  • Nympha (Col 4:15)—like Prisca, she hosts a congregation in her house, and presumably has a prominent position in the church.

When Paul refers to such women in relation to himself and other (male) ministers, he generally does so without any distinction. See especially in Rom 16:1ff and Phil 4:2-3, where terms such as “servant/minister” (dia/kono$), “co-worker” (sunergo/$), and perhaps even “apostle” (a)po/stolo$, cf. Rom 16:7), are used equally of women.

2. Passages which emphasize subordination or restriction of roles for women

Gal 1:1ff; 1 Cor 3:5ff, etc—In the vast majority of instances where Paul uses the terms dia/kono$ (“servant/minister”) or a)po/stolo$ (apostle), he applies them to men—most often himself, but also Apollos, etc. Only once is dia/kono$ used specifically of a woman (Rom 16:1-2, cf. above). Similarly, in the New Testament, the term a)po/stolo$ is only used of men, with the possible exception of the reference to Junia in Rom 16:7. This relative imbalance may simply reflect circumstances of culture and social convention at the time, rather than a rule regarding the role of women in ministry. Admittedly, the evidence for women in these leading roles is fairly slight (cf. above), but it is significant enough (especially in light of Rom 16:1-2, 7) that it should, at the very least, give one pause before denying the positions to women outright.

Gal 6:6; 1 Cor 2:15-16, etc—It is possible that masculine gender expressions such as “the one instructing”, “the one (who is) spiritual”, “he judges”, “him”, etc, in certain passages assume a gender-specific context, indicating that men are (to be) in leadership roles (cf. on Rom 12:4-8 above)

2 Cor 8:17-18ff; 9:3ff—Here the representatives sent to the congregations appear to be men, i.e. “brothers” in the stricter (gender-specific) sense. This, however, does not necessarily mean that women were forbidden from such roles. Note again Rom 16:1-2, where Phoebe, a leading figure (minister) in the churches of Cenchreae/Corinth, likely is the one carrying the letter on Paul’s behalf, and he introduces/recommends her formally to the churches of Rome.

Phil 1:1, 14—It is possible that here in v. 1 dia/kono$ (“servant/minister”), along with e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”) refer specifically to men, though this depends somewhat on the relationship with 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9 (cf. below). If “brothers” in verse 14 is taken in a stricter, gender-specific sense, it may assume that certain speaking/preaching roles are (to be) filled by men.

Col 3:18-19 (and Eph 5:22-24ff)—Here Paul (or the author) is referring to the marriage relationship—husband and wife—within the Christian community. The verb u(pota/ssw literally refers to being under (an arranged) order, but the passive/reflexive form often indicates obedience or even being (made) subject to a higher (ruling) authority. The wife/woman is to be “under order” (i.e. subordinate) to her husband (i.e. to his position/authority), but the same is not said of the husband/man (contrast this with the reciprocal language in 1 Cor 7); instead, it is said that he must love (and be gentle/caring toward) his wife. Much the same is stated in Eph 5:22-24ff, but the instruction has been expanded with the illustration of the relationship between Christ and the Church (his Bride) in vv. 23-24, which is worth quoting:

“…(in) that the man/husband is head [kefalh/] of the woman/wife, even as the Anointed (One) {Christ} is head of the congregation [e)kklhsi/a], he (being) savior of the Body—but (then) as the congregation is set in order under [u(pota/ssetai] the Anointed (One) {Christ}, so also the women/wives to the men/husbands in all (thing)s.”

Ephesians is considered by many (critical) commentators to be pseudonymous, but, even if this were granted, the statement here would still seem to reflect genuine Pauline teaching (cf. 1 Cor 11:3ff).

The Pastoral Letters—For the difficult critical questions related to these letters—in terms of authorship, date of composition, historical background and interpretation—along with a discussion of 1 Tim 2:11-15 in particular, cf. Part 5. Of all the letters in the Pauline corpus, these (esp. 1 Timothy) provide the clearest evidence for a restriction of leading/ministerial roles in the churches. In addition to 1 Tim 2:11-15, note the following passages in particular:

  • 1 Tim 3:1-13—The context makes fairly clear that “overseers [e)pi/skopoi]” (certainly) and “servants/ministers [dia/konoi]” (probably) are to be men. The only uncertainly is in the reference to “women” in v. 11 (cf. the note on this verse).
  • 1 Tim 5:2-16, 17ff—The widows in the congregation (vv. 2-16) have a role (as female “elders”) comparable to the (male) “elders” (vv. 17-20). This also suggests a definite division/distinction, especially if it is assumes that the elders (presbu/teroi) are men, as in Tit 1:5-9. According to v. 17, preaching and teaching are generally reserved as roles for the elders.
  • 2 Tim 2:2; 3:17—Similarly, teaching is to be done by “trustworthy men” (2:2), where a)nqrwpoi (“men”) is almost certainly used in a gender-specific sense; this is likely true for the expression “man of God” in 3:17 as well.
  • Titus 1:5-9—The context makes it clear that the “elders” (presbu/teroi), especially those appointed as “overseer” (e)pi/skopo$), are understood to be men.
  • Titus 2:3-5—The role of older women (i.e. female “elders”) would seem to be limited to instruction of the younger women. Here also we have the directive, stated briefly, that wives are to be “in (proper) order under” their husbands (using the verb u)pota/ssw as in Col 3:18-19; Eph 5:22-24, cf. above).

Conclusion

The passages which most clearly (and directly) emphasize restriction of roles for women, and/or their subordination under the men of the Community, are in those letters which are commonly regarded as pseudonymous—the Pastoral letters (esp. 1 Timothy), Ephesians (and Colossians). This means that there are likely to be significant differences of opinion as to what Paul himself actually believed and taught, depending on one’s view of authorship of these letters. Similarities and parallels can be found, to some extent, in the undisputed letters (e.g., 1 Cor 11:3-9ff; 14:33b-36; Phil 1:1), but it is methodologically unsound (and unwise) to read the teaching of the Pastoral letters, for example, back into 1 Corinthians, etc, without further ado. Each passage must be examined in the context of the letter and the situation which is being addressed. Overall, the evidence from the undisputed letters would indicate that women could serve in leading roles, as ministers in the churches, with few restrictions. A somewhat different picture is presented in 1 Timothy (and perhaps in Titus). The only role which seems to be reserved for men, without question, is that of the elder (presbu/tero$) who is to function as overseer (e)pi/skopo$) of the congregation. Unfortunately, these positions are scarcely mentioned at all in the undisputed letters—presbu/tero$ (“elder”) is never used, and e)pi/skopo$ (“overseer”) only once (Phil 1:1), briefly and without further comment (but cf. Acts 14:23; 20:28). Otherwise, while the evidence is relative slight (and occasionally ambiguous), women in the ‘Pauline churches’ seem to be recognized and allowed to function as ministers in various ways, including certain roles involving preaching and teaching. However, there continue to be differing views on the subject, and so it should remain open for dispute and discussion, without prejudice.

For additional background on this subject, see the separate article on “Church Organization in the Pauline Letters“.

Note of the Day (1 Tim 3:11)

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1 Timothy 3:11

An important reference in the Pastoral letters, related to the role of women in the Church, is 1 Tim 3:11, part of a section on “Church order” (3:1-13), in which Paul (or the author) discusses: (a) the position of “overseer” (Grk e)pi/skopo$, epískopos) in vv. 1-7, and (b) the position of “servant/minister” (dia/kono$, diákonos) in vv. 8-13. These terms are discussed in Part 6, including how they are used in the passage here. The only relevant occurrence of these words in the (undisputed) letters of Paul is in Philippians 1:1, where they are cited together as part of his greeting to the churches in Philippi: “…to all the holy ones [i.e. ‘saints’]… th(at) are in Philippi, (together) with (the) overseers and servants/ministers…”. This verse is also discussed in Part 6. Elsewhere, Paul always uses dia/kono$ in the general sense of a (Christian) ministerRom 15:8; 16:1 (cf. also 13:4); 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 11:15, 23; Gal 2:17; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; also Eph 3:7; 6:21; 1 Tim 4:6. Only in Phil 1:1 and 1 Tim 3:8, 12 does the term seem to apply to an official position or “office” in the Church. The word e)pi/skopo$ does not appear anywhere else in the undisputed letters, only in 1 Tim 3:2 and Tit 1:7, though it is also used in a (Pauline) tradition recorded in Acts 20:17ff (v. 28). According to Acts 20:28 and Tit 1:5-9, the e)pi/skopo$ is an elder (presbu/tero$) who is appointed to oversee a congregation, especially in the sense of providing care and protection (from false teaching, etc). The term is more or less synonymous with the older title “shepherd” (poimh/n), as indicated by 1 Peter 2:25 and Eph 4:11, and roughly corresponds to the word “pastor” in English.

It is clear from 1 Tim 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 that “overseers” were understood to be men (i.e. male elders), but this is less certain with regard to the position of “servant/minister” (dia/kono$). In Rom 16:1, Phoebe is called dia/kono$—this is sometimes rendered “deaconess”, based on an understanding of the later Church office; however, as I have explained in Part 4 (on Rom 16:1-2ff), this is anachronistic, and the word as it is used everywhere except in 1 Timothy (and, possibly, Phil 1:1), should be understood in the general sense of “servant” or “minister” (of Christ). Still, the application of the word in the case of Phoebe is often thought to be relevant to the context of 1 Tim 3:8-13. In the midst of his discussion, on the qualifications for the “minister”, Paul (or the author) interjects:

“And these (persons/men) must first be thought acceptable (by examination), then they may serve as minister, being without (anything) calling (them) into question. Even so (for) the women (they are to be) reverent, not throwing (accusations) about, sober [i.e. discrete], trust(worthy) in all (thing)s.” (vv. 10-11)

The Greek word gunh/ (“woman”) can also mean “wife”, which has led to some ambiguity in this passage—do the “women” here refer to female ministers or to the wives of the (male) ministers? The answer to this question often reflects the particular interest or predisposition of the interpreter. Those who favor a more egalitarian approach to gender roles in the Church, or specifically women serving as “deacons”, will likely choose the former. On the other hand, those who take a more traditional-conservative view of the issue, emphasizing/preserving male “headship” and/or gender-restriction of the leading roles, probably will choose the latter. In defense of the interpretation as “female ministers”, the example of Phoebe in Rom 16:1 is typically cited (cf. above). However, while Rom 16:1-2ff certainly can be said to reflect a tendency by Paul to treat women equally as fellow ministers and missionaries, it is questionable whether this ought to be read into 1 Tim 3:11, especially in light of the (reasonably strong) possibility that 1 Timothy is pseudonymous (cf. Part 5). In my view, the context of First Timothy itself suggests that the “servants/ministers” in 3:8-13 are probably best understood as men. Note the parallel syntax in vv. 8 and 11:

  • Diako/nou$ w(sau/tw$ semnou/$ mh… “Just so for (the) ministers (they should be) reverent, not…”
  • Gunai=ka$ w(au/tw$ semna/$ mh… “Just so for (the) women (they should be) reverent, not…”

It would be a bit unusual if the author was re-stating the instruction, using “women” to indicate “ministers who are women”. This seems especially clear, given what follows in verse 12: “Ministers should be men [i.e. husbands] of one woman [i.e. wife], standing fine before (their own) offspring and (their) own house(hold)s”. Here “woman” certainly means “wife”, and so likely has this denotation in verse 11 as well. We might paraphrase the flow of the passage as follows:

8As for the ministers, just like the overseers, they should be reverent in behavior… and these (men) are to be tested (and) approved first, then they may serve as ministers without anything against them.
11As for the wives, just like the ministers, they should be reverent in behavior…trustworthy in all things.
12Ministers should be husbands of one wife (only), standing before and guiding their children and households well.”

The question of how this passage relates to Paul’s statements in Galatians, Romans, 1 Corinthians, etc (i.e., the undisputed letters) is a separate matter entirely. For those who have not yet read the discussion in Parts 1 through 6, this will help with a better understanding of the language and thought expressed by Paul in the relevant passages.

Note of the Day (1 Tim 2:12)

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1 Timothy 2:12

This note is supplemental to the discussion on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Part 5 of the current series Women in the Church. Verse 12 is central to an interpretation of the meaning and force of the instruction regarding women in the passage. Here is the teaching in vv. 11-12 as a whole:

“Women must learn [manqane/tw] in quiet(ness) in all (proper) order [u(potagh/]; and (indeed) I do not turn over [e)pitre/pw] to women to teach, and not to have power (over) a man, but to be in quiet(ness).”

There is a kind of symmetry, or chiasm, in the author’s statement:

  • Women to learn in quietness and (under) order
    —I do not turn over to them (the right/authority, etc) to teach or have power over a man
  • (Women are) to be in quietness

In some ways, the key element is the central verb e)pitre/pw, “I do not turn over (to)”, which is usually understood in the sense of “I do not permit/allow…” This personal statement is significant in light of the questions surrounding the authorship of Pastoral letters (and 1 Timothy in particular). There can be no doubt that it relates in some way to a similar instruction in 1 Cor 14:34-35:

“The women in the congregation must keep silent, for it is not turned over [e)pitre/petai] to them to speak, but they must be under (proper) order [u(potasse/sqwsan], even as the Law says. And if they wish to learn [maqei=n] some(thing), they must ask their men [i.e. husbands] about it in the house [i.e. at home]…”

The common/related Greek words and the portions in italics show how close the two passages are, in the general sentiment that is expressed. For more on the context of 1 Cor 14:34-35, see the discussion in Part 2. In 1 Corinthians however, it is clear that Paul does allow women to play a leading/speaking role in the Church (i.e. the worship-meeting), since they may pray publicly (out loud) and deliver prophetic messages, as long as certain cultural-religious customs (involving dress code) are maintained (1 Cor 11:2-16, and cf. the discussion in Part 1). Based on 1 Cor 14:3ff, it also seems evident that a woman who prophesies, in so doing, edifies and instructs the entire congregation (including the men). Is there a contradiction between 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Tim 2:11-12? For those who hold 1 Timothy to be pseudonymous, the situation is easier to explain, since the formula “I do not…” is taken as a kind of literary fiction—Paul is used to convey instruction to Church leaders regarding how congregations should handle and govern affairs. At the time 1 Timothy was written (c. 80-100, according to this view), the more charismatic and egalitarian approach found in the Corinthians churches, has been replaced by a carefully defined, organizational (and hierarchical) structure. On the other hand, if 1 Tim 2:11ff is genuinely Paul’s own teaching, a bit more comment is required.

The force of e)pitre/pw—There are several ways the situation may be understood based on the first-person use of the verb in 1 Tim 2:12:

1. Paul is simply personalizing the general instruction in 1 Cor 14:34f—”I do not…” instead of “it is not…”—as befits the nature of the letter (i.e. to his close friend and colleague Timothy, instead of the congregations of a city/region). The context is then best understood as similar to that in 1 Cor 14, on the theory, perhaps, that two specific situations are being addressed in vv. 34-35: (a) women/wives in the congregation responding to the message (prophecy) being delivered (cf. verses 29-31), and (b) women/wives seeking to learn more about what was said. 1 Tim 2:12 would relate more specifically to (a).

2. Paul is distinguishing his own (personal) instruction to Timothy from the practices current in the churches of Corinth (which he hopes to regulate, but does not prohibit). In other words, Paul himself does not allow women to hold such teaching roles, and instructs Timothy to follow his example in the churches which he oversees; but he does not interfere with the practices at Corinth (i.e. women functioning as prophets/preachers) as long as things are done to respect gender-distinction in relation to church custom and the order of creation.

3. The same essential situation is expressed in both 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:11-12—i.e., that women, as a general rule, are not to speak/teach/preach publicly in the congregation (where men and women are present together). 1 Cor 11:2-16 reflects the exception of women in whom the (high) gift of prophecy is recognized; they may speak/preach (i.e. utter prophecy) in the worship-meeting, but only in a manner which symbolizes conformity to the order of creation (use of head-covering). In 1 Cor 14:34, Paul implicitly cites the Law and Church custom (v. 33b, 11:16), whereas in 1 Tim 2:12 it is his own (apostolic) authority (cf. also 1 Cor 14:37).

4. Paul is referring in 1 Tim 2:11-12 to a specific (local) situation, perhaps related to the spread of false/aberrant teaching (1:3-7ff; 4:1-4ff). According to 2 Tim 3:1-9, certain kinds of false or heterodox teachers had apparently made some headway among women in the community, and it is conceivable that Paul thought this might spread throughout the congregations. In such a context, e)pitre/pw might then might carry the sense of “I certainly would not…”, “make sure that…”, “I would urge that…”, or something similar.

Of these, options 2 and 3 are the most tenable. I suspect that #3 more or less reflects Paul’s own views on the subject. When dealing with specific questions regarding (corporate) church life and worship, he tends to be rather conservative and cautious, always careful to observe established custom and a proper order of things. On the other hand, he often uses much more radical language and conceptual models when referring to the essential religious identity of believers in Christ (Gal 3:26-29, etc). He no doubt realized that this language could be misunderstood or applied in ways that disrupted Christian unity. In some areas, there is evidence in the letters of how he sought to work through these potential problems (cf. 1 Cor 8-10); unfortunately, we have preserved only glimpses of this in terms of gender-relations in the Church.

A proper understanding of 1 Tim 2:12 also requires that we explore what Paul (or the author of the letter) means when he uses the verb dida/skw (“teach, instruct”). This will be discussed in the next note.

Women in the Church: Part 5 (1 Timothy 2:11-15)

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1 Timothy 2:11-15

As a way of examining and focusing the evidence from the so-called Pastoral letters (1-2 Timothy, Titus), I will be looking in detail at one specific passage—1 Timothy 2:11-15. The situation regarding the Pastoral letters is especially difficult due to the much-debated question of authorship—are they authentically Pauline as the text indicates, or are they pseudonymous? Most critical commentators believe that they are pseudonymous; even many ‘Evangelical’ or otherwise traditional-conservative commentators today are willing to accept this, at least as a possibility. The arguments for pseudonymity are varied, but essentially it is felt that the Pastoral letters contain certain words and phrases, ideas and expressions, which differ markedly from those in the letters where there is no question about Pauline authorship (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, et al). For example, the word-group eu)se/beia/eu)sebw=$/eu)sebe/w does not occur at all in the unquestioned Pauline letters, but the words are found 13 times in the three Pastorals alone. In my view the evidence for pseudonymity is much weaker for 2 Timothy, which generally seems to be compatible with Pauline language and epistolary style (and note the specific personal details, e.g. 4:13, etc). I find many more instances of vocabulary and ideas in 1 Timothy which could be considered atypical of Paul. The situation with Titus is harder to judge, partly due to the comparative brevity of the letter. For many Christians, pseudonymity automatically means a lesser degree of authority and trustworthiness; for others, it makes little or no difference, since the Church as a whole has accepted the canonicity and authority of these letters, regardless.

Historical and Literary Context

If the Pastoral letters are genuinely Pauline, then they were probably written toward the end of Paul’s life (c. 60-63 A.D.) . Second Timothy is set during a period of imprisonment 2 Tim 1:8, 17; 2:9; 4:6-8, 16ff, presumably in Rome (1:17), perhaps not long before his death. The purpose of the letters would have been to offer instruction and encouragement to his younger colleagues (Timothy and Titus) in their role as (apostolic) representatives (and overseers) for the churches over which they had been given authority. For Titus this area was the island of Crete (Tit 1:5ff), for Timothy the region surrounding Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3, etc, and so according to tradition). If any/all of the letters are pseudonymous, then they likely date from a later period, toward the end of the 1st century A.D. (c. 80-100), serving as a compendium of instruction regarding the proper organization/administration of churches, with an emphasis on protecting correct teaching and tradition (i.e. “orthodoxy”). As pseudonymous works, they would best be viewed as variations (alloforms) of a common set of instruction, addressed to different locations (i.e. Ephesus/Asia Minor and Crete, etc). In certain respects, they would be similar to the Didache or “Teaching (of the Twelve Apostles)” and the so-called Letter of the Apostles (early 2nd-century).

The core of First Timothy (2:16:2) is comprised of instruction on Church order—how the congregation should be organized and its corporate life and worship governed. Specific guidelines regarding roles or official positions in the congregation alternate with exhortations to maintain correct teaching and tradition along with proper ethical conduct:

  • Greeting (1:1-2)
  • Exhortation to Timothy (1:3-20), regarding
    —Preservation of correct teaching and tradition (vv. 3-11)
    —Paul’s own example as minister of the Gospel (vv. 12-20)
  • Guidelines for the Churches (2:1-3:13)
    —General instruction on Prayer and Worship (2:1-8)
    —continuation, emphasizing the role and position of Women (2:9-15)
    —Regarding “Overseers” (3:1-7)
    —Regarding “Servants/Ministers” (3:8-13)
  • Exhortation to Timothy (4:1-16), regarding
    —False teaching (4:1-5)
    —Preservation of correct teaching and (ethical) conduct (4:6-10)
    —Example of Timothy as minister and apostolic representative (4:11-16)
  • Guidelines for the Churches (5:1-6:2)
    —General instruction related to the handling of men and women (5:1-2)
    —Regarding (female) “Widows” (5:3-16)
    —Regarding (male) “Elders” (5:17-20)
    —[Miscellaneous/personal instruction] (5:21-25)
    —Regarding those in the churches who are Slaves (6:1-2)
  • Exhortation to Timothy (6:1-19), regarding
    —False teaching and ethical conduct (vv. 1-10)
    —Example/encouragement for Timothy as minister of the Gospel (vv. 11-16)
    —The use of riches (vv. 17-19)
  • Conclusion (final instruction) and benediction (6:20-21)

In each of the sections on Church order, there is teaching regarding the role of women in the Church—2:9-15 and 5:3-16—following a brief general instruction related to men and women (2:8-9a; 5:1-2). I will be looking primarily at the first passage (especially 2:11-15), but will comment briefly on the second as well below.

Exegetical Notes and Interpretation

Paul (or the author) begins in 2:8-9 with general instruction as to the manner in which men and women pray (presumably in the context of the worship-meeting, cf. 1 Cor 11:2ff)—it should be done with honest faith/devotion and simplicity. Verses 9-10 add to this some conventional/proverbial teaching on how women should dress and comport themselves—which, admittedly, sounds a bit stereotypical (perhaps even demeaning) to our ears today, but it fully fits in with the thought and language of Proverbs 31, etc. The emphasis is on (inner) virtue and ethical conduct (i.e. “good works”) rather than outward adornment. The instruction regarding the role and position of women in the Church follows in vv. 11-15, and is stated clearly in verses 11-12, which may be divided into two parts (the key words in italics):

“A woman [gunh/] must learn in quietness [i.e. quietly], in all proper order” (v. 11)
“and I do not turn over to a woman to teach, and not [i.e. nor] to have power over a man, but (rather) to be in quietness” (v. 12)

As I discussed in Parts 1 & 2 (on 1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:34-35), the word gunh/ (“woman”) can also mean “wife”, just as a)nh/r (“man”) can mean “husband”; so it is not clear whether the context relates to men and women generally, or to husband and wife specifically. Paul probably has the marriage relationship primarily in mind in 1 Corinthians, and so he (or the author) likely does here as well. If 1 Timothy is pseudonymous (cf. above), then this may be a direct allusion to 1 Cor 14:34-35 or similar Pauline instruction which has been preserved; if written by Paul himself, then certainly there is some relation to the idea expressed in 1 Cor 14:34-35 (on this, cf. Part 2). The context of 1 Corinthians was the response to prophetic messages in the (charistmatic) worship-meeting as manifest and practiced in Corinth (early-mid 50s A.D.); a later author likely would not have had this specific setting in mind, but would have understood it as a general rule for women. Verse 11 contains two prepositional phrases:

  • e)n h(suxi/a| (“in quiet[ness]”)—here h(suxi/a probably should be understood as “quietly”, with the connotation of gentle, humble, obedient, etc, rather than a strict imposition of silence.
  • e)n pa/sh| u(potagh=|—the word u(potagh/ is somewhat difficult to render literally in English; it has the fundamental meaning of “being set/placed in (an arranged) order”, i.e. “under an order”. As with the passive/reflexive form of the related verb u(pota/ssw, it can denote obedience, or even the more forceful idea of being (made) subject to a higher/greater power. However, one should be cautious in translating it as “subjection” or “submission” here—it is perhaps better to follow the more essential meaning “under order”, i.e. “in/with all (proper) order”.

In verse 12, there are three verbs which should be noted:

e)pitre/pw (“turn upon”, i.e. “turn over”)—that is, give over to someone, perhaps with the specific sense of “permit, allow”. It is used in a similar context in 1 Cor 14:34 (cf. Part 2): “for it is not turned over to them [i.e. to women/wives] to speak”. Here Paul (or the author) personalizes the instruction “and I do not turn over to women…”, also giving it a more precise context, by way of two infinitives:

  • to teach (dida/skein)—the importance of teaching, whether through use of the verb dida/skw or the related noun didaxh/, is clear, especially in the Pastoral letters (1 Tim 4:11; 6:2; 2 Tim 2:2; 4:2; Tit 1:9, 11), with the warnings against false teaching and the strong exhortation to preserve correct teaching/tradition (1 Tim 1:3, etc). For more detail, cf. the separate note on verse 12.
  • to have power (over) (au)qentei=n)—the verb au)qente/w fundamentally refers to holding something (a tool, weapon, etc) in one’s own hand. It can specifically denote an act of war or violence, but also (figuratively or generally) to the exercise of power. The verb only occurs here in the New Testament, so we are left to guess somewhat at its precise meaning in this context—it probably should be understood in the basic sense of a woman exercising (or asserting) authority over a man. Again, the marriage relationship may be in mind.

The instruction given here is supported by an argument from Scripture—the Creation narratives in Gen 1-3—much as Paul does in 1 Cor 11:7-9ff (cf. Part 1). Verse 13 more or less summarizes 1 Cor 11:8, but with the specific emphasis that the Man (Adam) was formed first (prw=to$); this is a small but significant difference with the line of argument Paul uses in 1 Corinthians. Even more serious (and troublesome for us today) is the interpretive development which follows in vv. 14-15:

  1. The statement that it was not the Man (Adam), but the Woman (Eve) who was deceived by the Serpent, leading to sin/transgression (summary/paraphrase of Gen 3):
    “And (moreover) Adam was not (the one) deceived, but the Woman, being deceived out(right), has come to be in violation/transgression” (v. 14)
  2. A (proverbial) saying, which Paul (or the author) affirms (3:1a), along with the Scriptural account (as interpreted):
    “but she will be saved through the birth of offspring, if they should remain in faith and love and holiness with (a) safe/sound mind” (v. 15)

There is nothing in the (unquestioned) letters of Paul to suggest this emphasis on child-bearing/rearing as the primary role for Christian women (indeed, much in 1 Corinthians could been taken to suggest the opposite, cf. 1 Cor 7:5-9, 26-35, 38, 40). It sounds almost crude and ‘unenlightened’ to many today, though it generally fits with the traditional Jewish view as expressed e.g. in b. Ber. 17a: “How do women attain merit? By letting their children be instructed in the house of learning” (Dibelius/Conzelmann, p. 48). Women are said to be “saved” (in the general religious-cultural, not theological, sense) by raising up godly children. This effectively removes the ‘curse’ brought about with the Fall, which, according to the Genesis narrative, happens to involve both child-bearing and the ‘subjection’ of women (Gen 3:16). For further discussion, cf. the separate note on this verse.

Note on 5:3-16 & Conclusion

The other passage dealing with the role of women in 1 Timothy is 5:3-16—instruction regarding widows in the Church. The treatment of the subject suggests that the author has in mind an (official) position in the Church (“Widow”), alongside those of “Overseer” (3:1-7) and “Servant/Minister” (or ‘Deacon’, 3:8-13). Not all actual widows qualify for the office/position, which seems to have involved financial support from the congregation (v. 16) as well as certain ministerial duties (vv. 10-15). In general, widows should be supported by their families, attending to them first (vv. 4ff, 16). The qualifications of the (true) Widows are laid down in vv. 9-10, with the basic rule that they should be at least sixty years of age (extremely old for the time). In some ways, the Widows are the “Elders” among the women in the Church, just as the male “Elders” (presbu/teroi) are mentioned briefly in the following vv. 17-20. This office/position of Widow has been used as an argument for a relatively late dating of the Pastoral letters (late-1st/early-2nd century), but there is actually little information on how churches were structured in the period c. 70-100 A.D. to warrant making any firm conclusions as to when certain practices developed.

Many sincere believers today are genuinely uncomfortable with much of the language and the ideas regarding women (and their roles) expressed in the Pastoral letters (and especially here in 1 Timothy). For a good many commentators these passages are incompatible with the Paul of 1 Corinthians 11, Romans 16, Galatians 3:28, Philippians 4:2-3, etc, and are considered the product of a later author (or tradition) with a less enlightened view of the role and place of women in Christ. Other scholars would maintain that the Pastorals, even if pseudonymous, preserve, or were influenced by, Paul’s genuine teaching in 1 Cor 11:2-16 & 14:33-36, etc. Of course, if 1 Timothy is actually Paul’s work, then we must taken even more seriously the similarities between 1 Tim 2:11-15 and those passages in 1 Corinthians. Does 1 Tim 2:11-15 assume a specific contextual situation like that in 1 Cor 14, or is it meant to be taken as a general rule regarding women? In either case, how should this instruction be understood or applied today, in light of Paul’s teaching elsewhere and in the remainder of the New Testament? These are important questions, with no easy answers ready at hand, and yet it is necessary for each reader and commentator to grapple with them in his or her own way.

References marked “Dibelius/Conzelmann” are to Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles (Hermeneia Commentary series), transl. by Philip Buttolph & Adela Yarbro, Fortress Press: 1972.

Women in the Church: Part 4 (Romans 16:1-2ff)

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Romans 16:1-2ff

The next primary passage to be examined in this series is Romans 16:1-2ff, in particular, the references to the women mentioned by Paul in this chapter.

Historical and Literary Context

Romans was written by Paul sometime after 54 A.D., probably from Corinth—in the context of the missionary journeys described in the book of Acts, this presumably would have taken place during the third journey (cf. Acts 20:1-3). This situation of the letter is unique in that Paul had not yet visited Rome (though he was eager to do so, Rom 1:10-15; 15:22-29), and played no direct role in the establishment of Christianity there. He did know, it would seem, a number of believers in the Roman churches, as indicated by the greetings in chapter 16. By all accounts, churches or groups of believers had been present in Rome from nearly the beginning (cf. below on 16:7, and note Acts 2:10; 18:2), from both Jewish and Gentile (Greco-Roman) backgrounds. This is the catalyst for the framework of the letter—addressed to both Jewish and Gentile Christians—expressing a great hope for unity, especially in light of his pending journey to Jerusalem with the collection taken up (in Greece and Macedonia, etc) for the suffering believers there. A good many of the themes from Galatians are picked up and developed in Romans.

It has often been suggested that chapter 16 is part of a separate letter, and was not addressed to the churches in Rome, but rather to those in another location (such as Ephesus). Moreover, there is evidence that Romans circulated in a form which lacked either chapters 15-16 or 16:1-23 (cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 47-67). However, this is far from conclusive, and the weight of the (textual) evidence suggests that chap. 16 is part of the original letter (except for verse 24, which is almost certainly a subsequent addition). If so, then 16:1-23 serves as the conclusion to the letter (Epistolary Postscript), with vv. 25-27 as the concluding doxology. It may be divided as follows:

  • Recommendation of Phoebe to the Roman congregations (vv. 1-2)
  • Greetings to believers in Rome (vv. 3-16)
  • Final exhortation (and warning) (vv. 17-20)
  • Further greetings from Paul and his secretary/scribe (vv. 21-23)

Exegetical Notes

In the notes on this chapter, I will be focusing on the references to women—the female friends and colleagues of Paul to whom he sends greeting.

16:1-2Phoebe (Foi/bh, lit. “Bright/Shining [One]”). These verses serve as an official introduction (recommendation) of Phoebe to the Christians of Rome; in all likelihood, she would have been the one carrying the letter. This is the technical sense of the verb suni/sthmi (“set/stand with”) which begins the chapter: “I cause her to stand (together) with you”, an idiom meaning “I introduce her to you”, i.e. “I (re)commend her to you”. She is called “our sister [i.e. in Christ]”, as a term of affection and respect, beyond simply identifying her as a believer. Phoebe is also described here by two specific words (or titles):

1. dia/kono$ (diákonos), “servant”. This word in Greek has a wide range of specific meaning, from a waiter at tables (Xenophon, Mem. 1.5.2, cf. Acts 6:1-6) to a person who holds a public (religious) office (cf. Rom 13:4). In early Christianity, it corresponds roughly to the English word “minister”. Paul uses it to refer to himself (an apostle), along with fellow missionaries and church leaders such as Apollos, Epaphras, and Tychicus—cf. 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 11:15, 23; Col 1:7, 23, 25; 4:7; also Eph 3:7; 6:21, and 1 Tim 4:6. It does not appear to be used in the sense of a specific office within an organized Church structure, as would have developed by the early 2nd-century (Ignatius Ephesians 2:1; Magnesians 6:1), and which may be indicated in 1 Tim 3:8, 11-12; Tit 1:9 (cf. also Phil 1:1). The technical use of the word for the developed office is typically transliterated in English as deacon. Phoebe is sometimes referred to as a deaconess, but this is anachronistic, and the gender-specific term (diakonissa) is not used in the New Testament (cf. Fitzmyer, p. 729).

2. prosta/ti$ (prostátis), from the verb proi+/sthmi (“stand before”). It literally means “one who stands before”, i.e. as a leader or one who gives help and assistance to others. It can be used in the technical sense of a patron (Lat. patronus) or protector, implying one who possesses a higher socio-economic status. Generally, it should be understood as someone in a leadership role (cf. the use of the related verb in 1 Thess 5:12; Rom 12:8), but here it could also mean that Phoebe provided financial assistance, etc, to Paul when he was in Corinth (Cenchreae being a key port/harbor for Corinth). Phoebe thus appears to have been a prominent woman (perhaps a well-to-do business woman), who also served a leading role as minister in the congregations of Cenchreae (and Corinth).

16:3-5a Prisca (Pri/ska, of Latin origin), cf. also 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19. In the book of Acts, she is called Priscilla (Pri/skilla, “Little Prisca“). She is always mentioned together with her husband Aquila ( )Aku/la$), and typically her name comes before his, which may indicate that she was the better-known figure in Christian circles. From Acts (18:2), we know that she and her husband were Jews (probably already Jewish Christians) who had been living in Rome prior to the expulsion ordered by Claudius c. 49 A.D., after which they lived and worked in Corinth and Ephesus (traveling there together with Paul, 18:18). Now it would seem that they have returned to Rome, where they lead/host a congregation in their house, as they did in Corinth (1 Cor 16:19). Prisca (with her husband) was prominent and gifted enough as a minister to instruct Apollos “more precisely in the Way [of God]” (Acts 18:26), which indicates that she was capable of exercising a teaching role in the Church. The couple was known and respected by many congregations (Rom 16:4b).

Paul refers to them as sunergoi/ (v. 3), meaning that Prisca was a sunergo/$ (sunergós), literally one who “works (together) with” him [i.e. with Paul]. This term (or title) is used by Paul numerous times in his letters, in reference to friends and fellow-missionaries (or Church leaders) who work closely with him in proclaiming the Gospel and establishing/strengthening the churches—cf. Rom 16:21; 1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 1:24; 8:23; Phil 2:25; 4:3; Col 4:11; 1 Thess 3:2; Philem 1, 24. The reference here and in Phil 4:3 (cf. below) indicates that Paul uses the word for fellow ministers—men and women—without distinction.

16:6 Maryam (Mari/a, i.e. Mary), of whom it is simply said that she “did much labor/work [e)kopi/asen] unto us [i.e. on our behalf]”.

16:7 Junia ( )Iouni/a). It is also possible to read )Iounia=n instead of )Iouni/an, which would make it the shortened form of a man’s name (Junian[us]) ; however, this is highly unlikely (cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 737-8, and UBS/Metzger, p. 475). It is sometimes thought that she was the wife of Andronicus, with whom she is mentioned together here. Paul indicates that Andronicus and Junia share the same ethnic/religious origin (suggenei=$) with him, meaning they are Jewish Christians, and that they have also suffered imprisonment just as he has. They “(have) a mark upon [e)pi/shmo$]” them, i.e. are remarkable/noteworthy “among the apostles”. This phrase could mean (a) they are highly regarded by the apostles, or (b) they are apostles, and prominent among them. Some commentators are reluctant to grant the latter, as it would mean than Junia is an “apostle”; this difficulty almost certainly explains the attempts to read Junia as a man’s name. Otherwise, it would be the only time in the New Testament that the word a)po/stolo$ was applied to a woman. However, this may the result of a basic misconception. The noun a)po/stolo$ (apóstolos), from a)poste/llw (“set/send forth”) in the early Church (perhaps influenced by Jesus’ own use of it) came to have a distinct semi-technical meaning—someone who has been commissioned (sent forth) by Jesus to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples/converts (in his name). If Andronicus and Junia are counted among the apostles, this may simply mean that they are of the first generation of believers—Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (such as Barnabas, etc)—who either saw the resurrected Jesus (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor 15:6), or were part of the earliest events (Acts 2ff). Paul states that “they have come to be in Christ before me”, i.e. “they had been Christians before I was”.

16:12-13—Four women are mentioned: Tryphaina and Tryphosa (Tru/faina & Trufw=sa, both lit. “Luxurious [One]” or the like), who may have been sisters, and Persis (Persi/$) who may have been a slave. Of all three, Paul says that they “did much labor/work [e)kopi/asen] in the Lord” (cf. v. 6 above). He also mentions the mother (of Rufus), a woman Paul considers to be like his own mother (“…his mother and mine”).

Interpretation

Of the persons whom Paul specifically mentions in verses 3-16 (including Phoebe in vv. 1-2), there are eight women compared with five men (Aquila, Andronicus, Urbanus, Apelles, Rufus). Moreover, the terms and language he uses to describe them shows little or no distinction whatever, i.e. whether they are male or female. This follows what we see elsewhere in Paul’s letters, e.g., in Philippians 4:2-3, where the women Euodia and Syntyche are considered to be close “co-workers” (sunergoi/) of Paul, alongside Clement, etc. In Romans 16, Paul uses terms such as “servant [i.e. minister]”, “co-worker”, perhaps even “apostle”, equally of men and women without distinction; only in the case of the term “apostle” [a)po/stolo$] (v. 7) is there some uncertainly that it is applied to a woman (Junia). Certainly women such as Phoebe and Prisca were ministers in their own right and prominent/leading figures in the churches, alongside Paul and Apollos, et al. While we do not necessarily have specific detail on what they did in their position of ministry on a regular/daily basis, there is nothing in the Scriptural account itself—that is, in the passages where they are mentioned—to warrant our limiting or restricting their role in any way.

References marked “Fitzmyer” above are to J. A. Fitzmyer, Romans, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 33, 1995.
“UBS/Metzger” refers to the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition) 1994-2002.

Note of the Day – Thanksgiving (1 Cor 1:4-9)

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1 Corinthians 1:4-9

Most of Paul’s letters contain, in the introductory section (exordium), a component of thanksgiving, in which he refers to his giving thanks (to God) for the believers to whom he is writing. The introduction, or exordium, follows the initial greeting (salutation), which almost always blends into a blessing formula (i.e., “grace and peace”)—1 Corinthians provides a good example of this format:

“(The) favor [xa/ri$] (of God) be with you, and peace [ei)rh/nh] from God our Father and (our) Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed {Jesus Christ}.” (1 Cor 1:3)

More than a simple wish, such blessings serve as a compact theological statement. The same may be said of the thanksgiving which follows in 1:4-9. There are two aspects of the thanksgiving which should be noted:

  1. Rhetorical—A common rhetorical device in the exordium (introduction) of the speech or letter was the so-called captatio benevolentiae (“capture of good-will”), through which the speaker/writer seeks to gain the audience’s attention and interest with complimentary words, or by offering praise. Paul often couches this praise in the context of his offering prayer to God.
  2. Theological/Spiritual—On the one hand, the thanksgiving genuinely reflects Paul’s care and concern for the believers in the regions where he had worked as a missionary, and for the churches he had helped to found. At the same time, his thanksgiving formulae also contain a seminal theological statement that unfolds out in a long sentence, with a distinct Christological (and often eschatological) emphasis. From a rhetorical standpoint, this focuses his audience’s attention squarely on their religious identity in Christ.

The thanksgiving begins with verse 4:

“I offer good words (of thanks) to my God always about you, upon [i.e. for] the favor of God th(at) was given to you in (the) Anointed Yeshua…”

The initial verb here is eu)xariste/w (eucharistéœ), “give/offer good (words of) favor”, or, more specifically, to offer words of thanks or gratitude for a favor which was shown. Paul repeats and spells out this favor (xa/ri$, cháris) precisely: “…the favor [xa/ri$] of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus”. The Christological emphasis could not be more clear—the favor (or “grace”) lies squarely in the person and (saving) work of Christ. In verses 5-7, the emphasis shifts to the Corinthian believers (in Christ):

“…in all (thing)s you are made wealthy in him [e)n au)tw=|] , in all (spoken) account(s) [lo/go$] and in all knowledge [gnw=si$]” (v. 5)

If verse 5 emphasizes the believer’s identity in Christ, verse 6 focuses on the other side of this identity, of Christ in the believer:

“even as the witness of (the) Anointed was made firm [i.e. confirmed] in you [e)n u(mi=n]” (v. 6)

Again, in verse 7, Paul cleverly positions his praise of the Corinthians in relation to Christ—in particular, the expected appearance of Jesus at the end-time:

“so that you are not to be left behind, not in any favor granted [xa/risma] (by God), looking out to receive from (God) the uncovering of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed” (v. 7)

This “uncovering” (a)poka/luyi$, lit. “taking the cover away from”) of Christ, refers specifically to his (impending) future appearance, as in 2 Thess 1:7, etc. The favors granted (xari/smata, charísmata) to the Corinthians—that is, their distinct spiritual “gifts”—along with their inspired words and (spiritual) knowledge (v. 5), come to be an important point of emphasis in Paul’s teaching throughout the letter (on the charismata, cf. especially chapters 12-14). Verses 4-8 comprise a single sentence in Greek, which closes on a strong eschatological note:

“who also will make you firm until (the) completion, without (anything) calling you in (to account) on the day of our Lord Yeshua [(the) Anointed].” (v. 8)

There is likely a dual-sense of the word te/lo$ (“completion”) here, referring to (a) the end of the current Age, and (b) the believer being made ‘perfect’ and complete. Note the elliptical outline of this clause:

  • (Jesus Christ) who
    —will make/keep you firm (i.e. stable, sure, strong) until…
  • the day of Jesus Christ

A second, shorter sentence in verse 9 summarizes and concludes the thanksgiving:

“Trust(worthy is) God, through whom you were called into (the) common-bond [i.e. community] of His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed, our Lord.”

Again, the emphasis is squarely on the believers’ identity in Christ, here defined in terms of being called by God.

After the thanksgiving, Paul turns to the main proposition (propositio) of the letter and his reason (causa) for writing. This is outlined in verse 10-17, with the propositio of verse 10 emphasizing the need for unity among believers, in the light of apparent divisions (and divisiveness) in the congregations. This lack of unity at Corinth had been reported to him by “the (people) of Chloe”, which could refer to the people of Chloe’s household, or to the house-church led by Chloe (meeting in her house, etc). In either case, she was clearly a prominent women in the Corinthian church. Her name is literally “Green” (Xloh/), presumably in the sense of “fresh, tender”, i.e., young and beautiful. It is worth noting her name here in light of the current series Women in the Church which I am presenting on this site. The next article (Part 4) of this series will focus on Romans 16:1-2ff, which features another prominent woman of Corinth—Phoebe, minister (dia/kono$, diákonos) in the Corinthian port town of Cenchreae.

Women in the Church: Part 2 (1 Corinthians 14:33b-36)

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1 Corinthians 14:33b-36

Historical & Literary Context

For an overview, see Part 1 (on 1 Cor 11:2-16). In chapter 14 Paul gives practical instruction regarding the use of believers’ spiritual “gifts” (charismata, cf. chaps. 12-13) in the worship-meeting. Indeed, we have here some of the earliest detail on how worship-meetings were organized in the New Testament period. While it is possible that the information in 1 Corinthians reflects some measure of local or regional development, there was doubtless much in common with meetings as they were held throughout the early Christian world. It clearly was what we would call a charismatic worship setting—i.e., with believers participating (speaking, etc) as the Spirit prompted them, and according to their spiritual gifting (cf. 12:4-11).

In verses 1-25, Paul deals specifically with the practice (and gift) of speaking in tongues (i.e. foreign/strange language). It would seem that some congregations in Corinth were giving undue or exaggerated importance to this phenomenon, with utterances being offered without any corresponding interpretation. Paul gives instruction with regard to this, and contrasts the practice in general with the giving of a prophetic message (in the ordinary language of the congregation); clearly he would prefer that the Corinthians’ meetings be characterized more by prophecy than by messages in a foreign language.

As noted in Part 1, in this early Christian context, ‘prophecy’ (or ‘prophesying’ [profhteu/w]) refers to an inspired utterance or (short) message in which the word and will of God was communicated to the congregation. According to 11:2-16, men and women both could preach or deliver such messages, as long as it was done within certain specific religious custom (and associated dress-code). Here in verses 26-33a, Paul urges especially that those who actively participate (taking a leading/speaking role) in the worship-meeting do so in an orderly, respectful manner. In particular, no more than two or three persons should give a prophetic message, each in turn (v. 29, 31). The speaker would be standing, while the others in the congregation were sitting. A person seated may be prompted to respond to the speaker’s message; if so, then the speaker should yield (in an appropriate way) to that person, so that a fresh revelation may be added and shared with the Community (v. 30). According to Paul, this also was a way to test and regulate the “spirit” in which a prophet spoke—i.e., by the willingness to yield and recognize another believer’s insight (v. 32). All of this is rather foreign to us today, though there are perhaps loose parallels in some of the modern Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, as well as in the traditional Quaker meeting. However, it is important to understand the religious context; otherwise, an interpretation of the verses which follow (vv. 33-36ff) is sure to be severely flawed.

On the text of 14:33b-36—A number of commentators have felt that verses 34-35 may be an interpolation, i.e. something added to the original text by an early scribe or editor, either from another letter of Paul (even another Corinthian letter) or as non-Pauline material. The textual basis for this view is that, in several manuscripts and other witnesses (D F G 88* d g Ambrosiaster etc), verse 34-35 appear in a different location (after v. 40). Such ‘floating’ text in the manuscript tradition is often indicative of a secondary addition. However, no manuscript or version is without these verses; and the textual variant most likely is the result of the feeling, by one or more scribes, that vv. 34-35 fit better following verse 40. Indeed, vv 33b-36 as a whole seem to be somewhat out of place, disrupting the flow of the passage—note how verse 37ff follows smoothly after v. 33b—though many other abrupt digressions can be found throughout Paul’s letters, and could just as well be viewed as a mark of authenticity. It is understandable that many modern commentators might regret Paul’s words and the language he uses in vv. 34-35, and wish that they were not part of the original letter.

Exegetical Notes

Here I will limit comment to several key words and phrases, in verses 34-35 especially, as it will help to focus the interpretive questions related to the passage. Earlier commentators had taken v. 33b (“As in all the congregations [e)kklhsiai] of the holy ones [i.e. saints]”) with vv. 26-33a, but it is probably better understood as introducing what follows. The phrase has a similar place (and purpose) as in the concluding statement of 11:2-16—Paul is referring to the common practice and custom of churches everywhere as a way of persuading the Corinthians to accept his instruction.

Verses 34-35:

ai( gunai=ke$ (“the women”)—as I discussed in Part 1, gunh/ (“woman”) can also mean “wife”, just as a)nh/r (“man”) can mean “husband”; even more so than in 11:2-16, Paul seems to have married women in mind here. The phrase “in the congregations [e)kklhsiai]” probably carries the specific meaning of the assembly or worship-gathering.

siga/twsan (“[they] must be silent”)—the verb siga/w has the basic meaning ‘be/keep silent, still, quiet”, sometimes with the sense of keeping something hidden or secret. Paul uses it earlier in vv. 28, 30, and this is instructive for understanding its meaning here:

  • V. 28—If a speaker wishes to give an utterance/message in a foreign language (“tongues”), but there is no one to interpret it, he ought to hold back the message and remain silent.
  • V. 30—If a revelation has been given to a person sitting (and hearing a prophetic message), and that person wishes to speak, the earlier speaker ought to yield (“be silent”) and let the revelation be heard.

e)pitre/petai (“[it] is turned [over] upon”)—the full phrase being “it is not turned over to them to speak”, which could mean either: (a) “it is not permitted for them to speak” or (b) “it is not their time/turn to speak”.

lalei=n (“to speak”)—What is the precise meaning of the verb here? The main possibilities are: (a) any sort of speaking during the meeting, (b) speaking a prophecy, (c) responding to the prophecy (v. 30), (d) speaking to her husband about what was said, or (e) inappropriate talk (chatter, etc). Based on the context, I would say that only (c) and (d) are viable options (cf. below).

u(potasse/sqwsan (“[they] must be under order”)—The verb u(pota/ssw means “put/place under an arranged order”, i.e. “put in order”. The passive/reflexive form often denotes obedience, sometimes with the harsher sense of submitting or being subject to a higher authority. Unfortunately, this more forceful (negative) connotation has been read into the context here, with the idea of the woman (or wife) being subject to the man (or husband), sometimes informed by a traditional interpretation of Gen 3:16b. A better approach is to look at other occurrences of the verb in Paul’s letters which involve a similar (or relevant) context. I would point to Romans 8:7 where Paul effectively exhorts human beings (believers) to place themselves under God’s Law (cf. also Rom 10:3, and note parallel language in Rom 13:1, 5). He also uses the verb in the context of the (hierarchical) chain which reflects the order God has established for the universe (1 Cor 15:27-28; Phil 3:21)—all things are subordinated under Christ’s authority, with Christ under God (the Father). Paul clearly includes man and woman (spec. husband and wife) as part of this (vertical) chain of relation (1 Cor 11:3, and cf. Col 3:18; Eph 5:21-24, where u(pota/ssw is used). Ultimately, one must turn to the immediate context of v. 32

“the spirits of (the) prophets are under the order [u(pota/ssetai] of (the) prophets”

by which he means the the impulse/desire to speak must function within the proper order of things in the worship-meeting, specifically in terms of when/how a prophet or (inspired) speaker should participate in turn (cf. above).

o( no/mo$ (“the Law”)—”even as the Law says”, i.e. the Old Testament Law, as expressed primarily in written form in Genesis–Deuteronomy. Does Paul have a specific Scripture in mind? That is hard to say. It is unlikely that he is referring to Gen 3:16b (cf. above), though possibly he has the Creation narrative (Gen 1-2) in view (cf. 1 Cor 11:7ff, and the discussion in Part 1). The context of the order of worship could apply to virtually anything in the (Levitical) code governing religious ritual. Note a similar combination of the “the Law (of God)” and the verb u(pota/ssw in Romans 8:7. As I have argued elsewhere, the expression “Law of God” in Paul’s letters means something more than the Old Testament (written) Law, being synonymous with the will of God.

maqei=n qe/lousin (“they wish to learn”)—”and if they wish to learn something”, i.e. regarding what has been said, the prophetic message in the meeting. For the sense of manqa/nw (“learn”), cf. its use in verse 31.

e)perwta/twsan (“they must ask/inquire upon”)—the verb often implies a serious questioning or interrogation, i.e., seeking to gain information. Paul states that the women must question “their own men/husbands” about the matter, in the house (i.e., privately, at home).

ai)sxro/n (“shame/disgrace[ful]”)—Paul’s words here, taken out of context, sound especially harsh to modern ears: “for it is (a) disgrace for women to speak in (the) congregation(al meeting) [e)n e)kklhsi/a|]”. His use of ai)sxro/$ (“shame, disgrace”), like that in 11:4-6, is related to the idea of something which violates and mars the proper order of things (established by God).

The statement in verse 36 sums up not only vv. 33ff, but entire discussion in chapter 14. The thrust of Paul’s rhetoric here is to make the Corinthians recognize that their worship-meetings ought to conform to Christian practice and custom in general. This tone continues through vv. 37-40, culminating with his final, definitive instruction: “All things must come to be well-formed [eu)sxhmo/nw$] and (done) according to order [kata\ ta/cin]”—in conventional English we might say, “all things must be done in a proper and orderly manner”.

Interpretation

Sadly, verses 34-35 have been taken out of context and used to support the idea that women should not speak at all in the worship-meeting, or that they are not permitted to participate as public speakers/preachers in the meeting. Such a (general) view is indicated by Tertullian already in the late-2nd/early-3rd century (On Baptism, 17.3), and has persisted, in various forms, down to the present day. I would maintain, however, that it is not warranted by the context of chapter 14, and is flatly contradicted by 11:2-16. Based on the exegesis and analysis offered above, I suggest the following interpretation:

  • Verse 34 relates specifically back to the discussion in vv. 26-33a, especially the issue in v. 30—i.e., of those seated in the congregation who may be inspired to respond to the prophetic message, or to offer a fresh revelation in turn. Paul seems to be limiting this aspect of the worship-meeting to men. While women may function as speakers/preachers, giving a (prophetic) message, it is a different matter for those seated in the congregation. Possibly this instruction should be construed even more narrowly, to the wives seated with their husbands.
  • Verse 35 shifts the discussion to a slightly different situation—where a wife wants to know more about the (prophetic) message that was spoken. In such instances, she should wait and discuss it with her husband at home. It is not certain whether, or to what extent, this instruction relates to unmarried women in the congregation. Some commentators have suggested that Paul has in mind wives questioning the (prophetic) message of their own husband, but that seems to be reading a bit too much into the passage.

Paul probably includes both of these situations under the declaration in 35b, though the emphasis may be on the latter. As indicated above, the language of this statement sounds quite harsh (with the use of “shame/disgrace”), but the force and place of it, in context, should not be misconstrued.

It is extremely difficult to apply 1 Cor 14:34-35 to the worship-setting in our churches today, since it requires a high degree of religious-cultural translation, which is perilous and unwise to attempt. It is better to spend one’s effort and energy grappling with just what Paul is trying to emphasize for believers regarding the relationship between men and women, as expressed in the corporate/community worship setting. How far should gender-distinction be preserved? How should husbands and wives relate in the worship setting? What about the distinction between ‘gifted’ minister and ‘ordinary’ congregant? Who should or should not be actively speaking/participating in the meeting, and where/when/how should they do so? Are there other aspects of the modern community worship experience which more seriously threaten proper order and custom than those which Paul addresses in Corinth?

Women in the Church: Part 1 (1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

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1 Corinthians 11:2-16

As I indicated in the Introduction, proper interpretation of a Scripture passage requires first a careful study of its original historical and literary context. Trying to interpret a passage out of context, would be like taking a brick out of a wall and then trying to assign specific meaning to the brick, whereas the individual brick really only has meaning in the context of its place in the wall. I begin with the historical and literary context, then follow with a number of key exegetical notes on the passage, before concluding with a summary interpretation.

Historical Context

First Corinthians was written by Paul sometime between 53 and 57 A.D., from Ephesus, to the believers in Corinth—that is, the congregations (house-churches) in the city taken together. Paul’s initial ministry work in Corinth took place c. 50-52 A.D. (Acts 18:1-17), just several years earlier, so these would have been very young churches. There had certainly been some correspondence prior to the writing of 1 Corinthians, including a previous letter by Paul (cf. 1 Cor 5:9-11). Much of Paul’s purpose in writing was to promote and encourage unity among believers; he deals with numerous practical questions and issues related to Church life, which may be divided into two categories: (1) problems which have come to his attention, and (2) questions addressed to him by the churches (cf. 1 Cor 7:1, etc)—the latter seem to be in focus throughout much of the second half of the letter, from chapter 7 on. Many of the questions and issues deal specifically with the organized, corporate worship of the congregations; as such, 1 Corinthians provides perhaps the earliest detail on worship-meetings in the New Testament period.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine the precise background to the matter Paul addresses in 1 Cor 11:2-16. Clearly it relates to the dress, or attire, of the men and women who take an active, leading (speaking) role in the worship-meeting; in particular, the covering of one’s head (and hair) is at issue. There is ample archeological and literary evidence indicating the use of head-coverings—by both men and women—during Roman religious ritual (cf. Witherington, pp. 232-9). The head-covering was used specifically by the person(s) who took an active role in the proceedings, i.e. presenting the sacrificial offering, delivering prophecy, divination, etc. (cf. Livy 10.7.10; Varro On the Latin Language 5.29.130; Juvenal, Satires 6.390ff; Witherington, p. 230f). There is some evidence for women performing religious ritual with their head/hair uncovered in the Dionysian and other ‘mystery’ cults (cf. especially the Andania Mysteries inscription, in Dittenberger, Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum II [1917] no. 736, 4); there is also the traditional depiction of the Pythian priestess (oracle) at Delphi. It was customary, in both the Greco-Roman and Jewish world, for married women to be veiled or with headdress, especially when seen in public, as a simple matter of decency and decorum. These are just some of the factors which may play a part in Paul’s discussion.

Literary Context

Study of Paul’s letters has benefited tremendously in recent decades by the application of rhetorical analysis—that is, the use of Greco-Roman (and Jewish) techniques of rhetoric, both in the structuring of the letter (i.e. epistolary form), and in the way different sorts of arguments and illustrations are utilized. The basic proposition (propositio) of 1 Corinthians can be found in 1:10—a call for unity among the believers and churches in Corinth—which also serves to express the main cause, or purpose, for which Paul writes. This is expounded initially in the personal narration (narratio) which follows in vv. 11-17, the last statement of which effectively centers the basis for unity in the Gospel and the cross of Christ (v. 17), rather than in the various factions and other influences at work in the churches (vv. 11-16). In terms of classical rhetoric, the main body of the letter is called the probatio (“proof, proving”), in which the author, by various means, gives the reasons in support of his point, and seeks to persuade his audience to accept it. The body of 1 Corinthians can be divided into two main sections: (a) 1:184:21, which addresses the divisions in the churches directly, and (b) 5:116:12, which deals specifically with various issues which threaten unity and proper Christian conduct/attitudes within the churches. 1 Cor 11:2-16 belongs to this latter group, specifically among those questions or issues related to organized corporate worship. The rhetorical context—i.e. the theme of unity—is clear in the short transitional section (10:31-11:1) which leads into this passage. An important subsidiary theme is that of believers’ willingness to subordinate the exercise of the (individual) freedom they have in Christ for the good of the Community (the body of Christ) as a whole.

Exegetical Notes

Verse 2—The introductory praise Paul offers in this verse (e)painw=, “I give praise upon [you]”) is a rhetorical device known as captatio benevolentae (“capture of good will”), which the speaker hopes will cultivate a favorable response from his audience. Here it also serves a specific technique for moral/ethical suasion—i.e. ‘I hope that you will, in fact, (continue to) think and act this way’.

ta\$ parado/sei$ kate/xete (“you hold down [i.e. hold firm to] the things given along”)—this is the thrust of Paul’s statement, that the Corinthians will continue to accept and live out in practice the instruction they have received. The word para/dosi$ (parádosis), from the verb paradi/dwmi (paradídœmi, “give along”), is an important term in early Christianity, referring to the authoritative teaching (and example) given down from the apostles and their companions (i.e. the first Christian missionaries) to a new generation of believers. This “tradition” covers virtually every aspect of Christian life in the early Church. In a period before the widespread use of Christian Scripture, apostles such as Paul, and his fellow-missionaries, personally—through oral and written communication—served as a fundamental source of religious authority for the various congregations which were established during their ministry. Paul urges them to continue following his example and instruction, even in difficult matters such as he is addressing—”even as I gave (them) along to you, (I hope you will) hold firm to these things (I have) given along”.

Verse 3—Paul lays the groundwork for his position with an illustrative formula, summarizing the Christian community in a relational (and hierarchical) chain: God—Christ—Man—Woman.

qe/lw de\ u(ma=$ ei)de/nai (“But I wish [i.e. want] you to see [i.e. know]…”)—this introduces Paul’s instruction, what he specifically here wants them to understand.

a)ndro/$gunaiko/$ (“of man…of woman”)—the nouns a)nh/r and gunh/ (“man” and “woman”) can also mean “husband” and “wife”, so it can be difficult to determine if Paul is speaking about the sexes in general, or if he has the marriage relationship specifically in mind. Does he assume, for example, that the woman participating (prophesying) in the worship-meeting is married? This would seem to have some bearing on his argument regarding head-covering.

kefalh/ (“head”)—the force and meaning of this word here in 1 Cor 11:3ff has been much discussed and disputed by commentators in recent decades (cf. Thistleton, pp. 811-22 for a detailed summary). It has the fundamental meaning of “head”, in a literal (physical) or figurative sense. According to the latter, it may denote (1) a position of leadership or high rank (“first, foremost”), (2) a position of authority under which another is subject, or (3) the power under which another acts or comes to be. The question is complicated by the fact that Paul makes the man-woman relationship parallel with the relationship between God and Christ. If the woman is subordinate/subject to man, then, by implication, so is Christ to God; the full chain of verse 3 is formulated: “the head of woman is man, the head of man is Christ, and the head of Christ is God”.

Verses 4-5—Paul states his position in these two verses, regarding how men and women, respectively, who actively participate in the worship-meeting, should treat their head (kefalh/). Note the wordplay with verse 3—here the “head” is taken literally. It is important to note that Paul is referring to those who take an active, leading role (i.e. speaking) in the meeting, summarized by the two verbs proseu/xomai (“speak out toward [God]”, i.e. pray) and profhteu/w (“foretell, tell before”). The prefixed element (preposition) pro/ (“before”) can be understood as either “tell something beforehand, i.e. foretell” or “tell something before (i.e. in front of) others”. The New Testament usually has the former meaning, especially when referring to the Old Testament Prophets announcing the future (regarding Christ); however the latter meaning better fits the corresponding Hebrew abn, as a spokesperson or representative of God before the people. In the context of early Christian life and worship, Paul clearly also has this broader meaning in mind, especially as prophecy (or prophesying) is regarded as the second greatest of all the “gifts” (charismata) of the Spirit (second only to apostleship), cf. 1 Cor 12:28ff; 14:1ff (also Rom 12:6). According to chapter 14, the uttering of ‘prophecy’ was central to the worship-meeting, similar to, and (it would seem) characterized as, both revelation and teaching. It refers primarily to the communication/presentation of the word of God—as such, it holds a comparable place to preaching and the traditional sermon of later times. In 14:26-31, Paul indicates that it was common practice for multiple persons to deliver a prophetic message at a meeting, though he recommends no more than two or three, in turn.

kata\ kefalh=$ e&xwn (“having/holding down [upon the] head”)—this refers to some kind of covering upon the head; it is not clear if Paul has something specific in mind, he seems to be speaking generally (i.e. anything upon the head).

kataisxu/nei th\n kefalh\n au)tou= (“he brings down shame/disgrace [upon] his head”)—Paul bluntly states that a man who prays/prophesies with something on his head disgraces/dishonors his head. The play on words (from v. 3) could mean that he dishonors Christ (his “head”) as well.

a)katalu/ptw| th=| kefalh=| (“without a cover[ing] down [upon] the head”)—for a woman who prays/prophesies, the situation is opposite: doing so without a covering on her head brings disgrace to her head. Again, according to verse 3, this could be taken to mean that she also dishonors the man (i.e. her husband, her “head”), and, by extension, Christ.

Verse 6—At the end of v. 5, Paul introduces a comparison between the shame of a woman prophesying ‘uncovered’ and that of a woman whose head/hair has been shaved off (i.e. cut by a razor, cura/w). In verse 6, he uses the parallel verb kei/rw (“shear”), which can be used of sheep, but also in the context of the Nazirite vow. Paul doubtless is indulging in a bit of rhetorical exaggeration here: he is trying to emphasize that this is no trivial matter; in his view, within the cultural-religious context of the Christian worship-meeting of the time, a woman participating in this way without head-covering, was shameful and scandalous. It must be admitted that the precise force of Paul’s argument is lost for us today.

Verses 7-9—Paul draws upon the Creation account in Genesis, establishing two arguments from Scripture: (1) Man is the image of God (v. 7, Gen 1:26-27), and (2) the woman (Eve) came out of man and was produced to be his companion (not the other way around) (vv. 8-9, Gen 2:18-23). In fairness, it should be said that neither of these arguments seems particularly compelling for us today; the first, indeed, is actually somewhat problematic. The original context of Gen 1:26-27 makes clear that “Man” (<d*a*) is best understood as (hu)mankind—male and female together—and yet here Paul seems to read <d*a* as “the man” (Adam), i.e. the male. There are, I think, two ways to interpret Paul’s specific wording in verse 7:

  • The man is the image and glory of God, while the woman is the (image and) glory of the man
  • Man (male and female) is the image (and glory) of God—the woman is (also) the glory of the man

The first interpretation indicates a strict subordination, in which it is hard to avoid the idea that the woman’s status/position is somehow subordinate to the man’s. The second view is less obviously offensive to modern-day sensibilities.

do/ca (“esteem, honor”, i.e. “glory”)—this word is typically translated as “glory”, but this can be somewhat misleading; often “honor, esteem, dignity, etc” is closer to the fundamental meaning. It is used to render the Hebrew bodK*, literally “weight”, but also in the sense of “dignity, honor”, and is likewise translated “glory” frequently in English. The Genesis account (Gen 1:26-27) to which Paul alludes makes no mention of “glory”, but Paul has added this as a kind of interpretive gloss, it would seem, to make it more fitting to the man-woman relationship in his argument. It would be rather strange (and inappropriate) to speak of woman as the image (ei)kw/n) of the man; he has deftly substituted in “glory/honor/esteem” (do/ca) instead. Paul does not use the kind of reciprocal language as in 1 Cor 7:2-4 etc—he does not say “…and man is the glory of woman”. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Paul specifically has in mind the marriage relationship. Even so, in what sense is the woman (or wife) the glory/honor of the man? This must be answered in light of the conceptual framework of 11:3 (cf. above).

Verse 10—The statement is central to verses 7-9 and 11-12, both of which refer to the created order. This is key to a correct interpretation of this difficult sentence.

e)cousi/an e&xein (“to hold authority”)—the noun e)cousi/a is rather difficult to translate literally into English; it has the basic meaning of ability, i.e. the ability coming from a person to do something, though occasionally in the sense of a right or permission granted by a higher power. The verb e&xw can mean “to have”, generally, but more concretely “to hold“. The expression in context is, “to hold authority upon the head [e)pi\ th=$ kefalh=$]”—i.e., by way of the symbolic head-covering.

dia\ tou\$ a&ggelou$ (“through the Messengers”)—the preposition dia/ (“through”) is usually understood in terms of reason or purpose (i.e. “because of”). The word a&ggelo$ (ángelos) most likely refers to a heavenly Messenger (i.e. Angel), as commonly in the New Testament and other Jewish writings of the period. This seemingly ambiguous phrase will be discussed in detail (along with verse 10 as a whole) in a separate note.

Verses 11-12—Paul returns to the theme of vv. 7-9, that of man and woman (husband and wife) in the created order of things—but instead of a hierarchical (vertical) relationship emphasizing subordination, we find a reciprocal and complementary (horizontal) relationship emphasizing interconnection. Both aspects of the relationship ultimately stem from God (vv. 7, 12b), and are to be understood within the context of Christian unity—”in the Lord” (e)n kuri/w|). For more on the relation to vv. 7-9, cf. the note on verse 10.

Verses 13-15—here is a further argument from nature (fu/si$) and custom, parallel to the argument from Scripture in vv. 7-9ff. Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians to ‘judge for themselves’ is a rhetorical device—i.e. “surely you yourselves must realize…”—placing the argument in the context of reason and common sense. It is possible to be thrown by Paul’s syntax, but the argument in vv. 14-15 is quite simple: it is natural for a woman to have long hair, and a man to have shorter hair => it goes against nature (and is thus shameful) for a man’s hair to be long and woman’s to be short. A head-covering and long hair each serve, in their own way, as a peribo/laion—lit. something “cast around” one’s head (i.e. a mantle or hood). Long hair comes to a woman by nature, the head-covering by way of custom and ritual symbolism.

Verse 16—Paul finally appeals specifically to Christian custom and tradition. The word sunh/qeia refers to something (Christians) habitually do together, i.e. common custom. According to Paul, the custom of women praying publicly or preaching/prophesying in the worship meeting with their head covered (and the reverse for men), was something that all “the congregations [e)kklhsi/ai] of God” observe.

filo/neiko$ (“fond of quarrels”)—this adjective refers to someone who “loves a quarrel”; the element nei=ko$ connotes strife or fighting with a desire to gain victory. In English idiom we might paraphrase as “one who loves a fight and always wants to have it his/her own way”. Paul’s exact phrase here is, “if any(one) thinks/seems [dokei=] to be fond of quarrelling…” He appears to be anticipating some opposition to his instruction; it may also simply be a rhetorical device—i.e. even if you do not accept my arguments, realize that you are going against the accepted practice and custom of Churches everywhere.

Interpretation/Application

In many ways early Christian life and worship represented something entirely new. In the Jewish Synagogue tradition, women were segregated from men and limited to private (silent) prayer during the worship meeting. This was not so in the early Christian Community, in which men and women, from the beginning it would seem, worshiped together side-by-side essentially as equals (cf. Acts 1:14; 2:1-4, 17-18). On the other hand, there was a tradition of women oracles and officiants of the religious ritual in the Greco-Roman (pagan) world. It is possible that Paul (along with other early missionaries) was attempting to navigate a middle way between these two competing religious-cultural approaches. Women could take an active, leading role, together with men, in the worship meeting, but only insofar as they worked within the proper order of things. This would seem to involve an established (and customary, cf. verse 16) dress code, whereby the women who spoke (praying publicly or prophesying) were expected to do so with their heads covered. Paul offers a number of arguments in support of this custom; it is not clear to what extent these are unique to Paul or reflect earlier traditional teaching. His arguments center around the relationship between men and women according to the order created/established by God. Most likely Paul (and others) felt that the (ritual) dress-code related to the worship-meeting expressed a specific Christian understanding—i.e. how men and women now relate to one another in the Community of Christ, which reflects a new created order. It is possible that some in Corinth felt that the new order (freedom in the Spirit) meant that one could ignore religious-cultural custom and convention. Paul responds to similar ideas throughout the letter (cf. especially in chaps. 8-10).

By way of summary, the following points of interpretation may be noted:

  • Women were allowed to take an active (speaking) role in the worship meeting. This included “prophesying” which, in the early Christian context, meant an inspired utterance, a communication of God’s word and will to the Community. It was central to the worship meeting (14:26-33), considered as among the ‘greatest’ of spiritual “gifts” (12:28-31; 13:8; 14:1ff; Rom 12:6ff), and may be seen as holding a place at least comparable to the traditional preaching of a sermon. There may be some similarity with words of “prophecy” in modern-day Pentecostal/Charismatic worship; but a closer parallel is perhaps found in the traditional Quaker service.
  • Women who filled this leading role were to do so with their head covered, while men performed with their head uncovered. The importance of this head-covering was three-fold:
    (1) It followed custom and decorum for women, both in the context of Greco-Roman (and Jewish) society, as well as their participation in religious ritual. There would thus be no cause for scandal when outside observers witnessed Christian worship.
    (2) It preserved a distinction between genders, which, if abolished in practice (and done so carelessly), could likewise bring shame and disgrace on the Community.
    (3) It was a symbolic reflection of the created order (as established by God), which likewise ought to be maintained within the Community.
  • The head-covering also symbolized the authority/ability of the woman to perform her (ritual) role (as prophet, etc) in the worship-meeting. It indicated that she (and the Community as a whole) recognized both: (a) her unique gifting (as a prophet, etc), and (b) the order established by God.

Application of Paul’s instruction in a modern-day (Western) setting is extremely difficult, since the overall cultural-religious context is so very different. Head-covering (and related dress codes) no longer have anything like the same meaning for us today. At one time it was customary for women to wear hats (and sometimes veils) when attending Church services, largely as a matter of pious routine, under the influence of 1 Cor 11:2-16; but this has been almost universally abandoned today. Much more important is the question of the active role of women (as speakers/preachers) in the worship meeting, as well as that of gender distinction—to what extent (and in what manner) should this distinction be preserved and symbolized in corporate worship? Central to Paul’s argument is the relationship between man and woman in the order of creation, which should continue to be reflected even in the “new creation” of the Christian Community (cf. the note on v. 10). Admittedly, Paul’s specific use and interpretation of the Creation narratives of Gen 1:26-27 and 2:18-23 is somewhat problematic for us today; yet it ought not to be simply brushed aside. Perhaps most significant of all is the entire issue of gender distinction for believers in Christ, especially in light of Paul’s famous statement in Galatians 3:28. However, before addressing this verse, it is necessary to examine the other main passage in 1 Corinthians dealing with the role of women in the worship-meeting (1 Cor 14:33b-36), which I will do in the next part of this series.

References marked “Thistelton” above are to Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC]), Eerdmans: 2000, esp. pp. 800-48. A good compendium of modern scholarship (up through 2000), with extensive bibliographic notes.
Those marked “Witherington” above are to Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, Eerdmans: 1995. Cf. also his Women in the Earliest Churches, (Cambridge: 1988).