Tag Archives: Michael F. Bird

Scripture Questions on Women in Leadership

Some of you are aware, this is a topic I have been studying for much of 2021. This post is a partial culmination of months of study and about 20 books studied. I skimmed more than a dozen early Victorian books because I wanted to go well outside the modern debate to find out what old-time preachers said about Eve. What I found shows that consensus about women's subordination and men's authority was nearly unanimous; but there was precious little consensus about how that could be supported from the Genesis narrative. Below, you'll find a general overview of the biblical issues involved, starting with Genesis.

The Major Questions

The question of the role of women in our day can be summarized in three circles: 1) marriage/family; 2) the church; 3) society/creation. Logically, there is an implicational hierarchy at work; despite a spectrum of views on the topic, it is difficult to substantiate women’s submission in only one or two of these spheres when woman is free in the larger sphere. (This explains Christian feminism.) Conversely, when creation language is appealed to (cf. 1 Cor. 11, 1 Tim. 2), it is difficult not to imagine that all women are subordinate or inferior to all men. (This explains biblical patriarchy.) This is why the issue is so polarizing, and intermediate positions are hard to maintain.

The biggest Old Testament question is whether female subordination was intended from creation, or is a consequence of sin. Most, but not all, classical commentators choose the former; nearly all contemporary commentators choose the latter. From my own study of Genesis, equality seems to be the starting point. Martin Luther even supports this in some passages in his commentary on Genesis, though he later contradicts himself.

The biggest New Testament question is about the meaning of the prohibitions (1 Cor. 14:34, 1 Tim. 2:11) and domestic codes (Eph. 5, 1 Pet. 3). There is no question that Paul considered many women his “co-workers”. Most also maintain that Phoebe was a deacon (Rom. 16:1–2); and many from ancient times have believed that Junia was an apostle, as is the plainest reading of Romans 16:7. If we privilege these narratives, which are many, then we may choose to severely qualify the aforementioned prohibitions. If we privilege the prohibitions, then a lot of historical and scriptural evidence has to be thoroughly re-examined. Either position requires liberties in interpretation, which is why this debate must remain a second-order issue.

The Minor Questions

In this overview, I list all of the key Bible passages in this discussion. For each scripture, I’ve placed three views:

H = the hierarchicalist/complementarian view
M = the mutualist/egalitarian view
My thoughts = my evaluation of both arguments, with variant perspectives

Views presented here, when not cited, are generally taken from two representative works: on the hierarchicalist side, David Pawson’s Leadership Is Male: What Does the Bible Say? (1988); on the mutualist side, Lucy Peppiatt’s Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts (2019). For a more moderate egalitarian perspective, see this booklet by Michael F. Bird.

1. Does the sequence of creation imply that woman is not a leader?

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Genesis 1:27

H: Genesis 1 shows man’s relation to God (vertical); Genesis 2 shows man’s relation to woman (horizontal). The first account emphasizes equality between the sexes “in value, potential, and destiny” (Pawson, p. 15), but the second account shows that in fact woman is created second, and man is therefore the leader. In 1 Timothy 2:13, Paul appeals to the order of creation for this reason.

M: “Since they are like God, they are best suited for a unique relationship to God.” (Dempster, qtd. in Peppiatt) Genesis 1 makes it clear that all humans may relate directly to God, but a hierarchicalist/complementarian interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:7 directly contradicts this, since it states that woman only relates to God through the mediation of man.

My thoughts: John Calvin, Philip Doddridge, and many other hierarchicalists believe that the sequence of creation was irrelevant, and Paul appealed to the order of creation to make a different point in 1 Timothy 2. It was very common in the Victorian era to speak of Eve as the “crowning grace of creation” (e.g., John Angell James).

2. Does the manner of Eve’s creation imply female subordination?

And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet [‘ezer kenegdo] for him.

Genesis 2:18

H: “Woman was made from man. Woman was made for man. Woman was made after man.” (Pawson, p. 18; similar language is employed by many authors) See 1 Corinthians 11:8–9. Woman is a helper which means that she is subordinate.

M: “In later Mishnaic Hebrew, the root of [kenegdo] means ‘equal.'” (Peppiatt)

Helpers can also be inferiors, equals, or superiors. On the Hebrew phrase translated “help meet”, David Freedman writes, “I believe the customary translation of these two words [i.e., ezer kenegdo or “helper”], despite its near universal adoption, is wrong. That is not what the words are intended to convey. They should be translated instead to mean approximately ‘a power equal to man.’ That is, when God concluded that he would create another creature so that man would not be alone, he decided to make ‘a power equal to him,’ someone whose strength was equal to man’s. Woman was not intended to be merely man’s helper. She was to be instead his partner.” (R. David Freedman, qtd in Peppiatt, p. 49)

Additionally, when Paul says that woman was made for man, he seemingly corrects (or contradicts) his own words on this point when we move from 1 Corinthians 11:8–9 to 1 Corinthians 11:11. (See more below.)

My thoughts: Older commentators frequently take the manner of Eve’s creation to imply a profound intimacy between Adam and Eve. The same is true of Adam’s naming of Eve. It is mainly in modern theology that every detail of the text is exploited to make Eve subordinate. In numerous Jewish commentaries and Church Fathers, the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib is taken to imply that they were created from the same “raw material”, which makes them compatible. My favorite is Sforno (16th c.), who wrote that kenegdo literally means ‘equal’, but God clearly couldn’t have meant positional equality, otherwise who would wash the dishes and cook the meals?

3. Does the curse of Eve introduce female submission, or extend it?

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

Genesis 3:16

H: The word “multiply” indicates that this curse is only an extension of already existing subjugation. The third line, “thy desire shall be to thy husband”, includes “an unusual Hebraism which means an ambition to control, manipulate, possess someone (as its occurrence in Genesis 4:7 clearly shows). That is, having led her husband into sin, she must now live with a continuing urge to subordinate him to her wish and will” (Pawson, p. 25).

M: The line, “thy desire shall be to thy husband”, has also been translated “your desire shall be contrary to your husband.” Thus, the possible translations are directly contradictory to one another.

My thoughts: Pawson has certainly overinterpreted this verse. Many translators (such as Alter) believe it follows Song of Solomon 7:10: “for your man shall be your longing.” There are other interpretations of this verse as well. In any case, there is no clear indication of female subordination before this verse.

In addition, commentators of the rank of Martin Luther and John Wesley deny that woman was subordinate before the fall, but modern complementarians generally affirm this. There are many other points in which modern complementarians (Pawson, Ortlund, etc.) are at odds with classical commentators.

4. Why does Adam name Eve?

And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.

Genesis 3:20

H: Adam names Eve because he has authority over her. “Naming in Scripture is an expression of authority. . . . Incidentally, a legacy of his action is to be found in a wife taking her husband’s surname after marriage.” (Pawson, p. 18; cf. Ortlund; Luther’s Commentary on Genesis)

M: “One person names another not because he or she has authority over the named person but because he or she is the right person to identify or determine the essential significance of the named person.” (Andrew Perriman, qtd. in Peppiatt)

My thoughts: I thought it was strange that Pawson mentioned women taking their husbands’ last names, because this seems to happen only in Western European cultures. In most of the greater Middle East, South Asia, Korea, and China, a woman retains her father’s name at marriage; in Latin America, following Spanish custom, children take both parents’ last names (i.e., Pablo Ruiz y Picasso).

I would add that I know many aunts and grandmas who received new names from their nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, which throws a wrench in that idea! My own family calls me by a name given by my brother. Many societies in Latin America, Slavic nations, and Arabic-speaking nations use special names only within close family. The prerequisites of the act of naming can be kinship or intimacy. Authority is only one consideration, and it does not conclude the matter.

The best evidence against this logic, though, is found in Rabbinic commentaries, where Adam is regarded as the first human to name God. Surely Ortlund, Piper, and Grudem would not say that this implied that Adam had authority over God!

5. What may we learn from women who prophesy?

And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time.

Judges 4:4

H: Prophesying is merely relating the words of God, and does not equate to teaching, leadership, or authority, and thus women may prophesy in both Testaments. (Pawson)

M: Female leaders and prophets—such as Deborah, Miriam, Zipporah, Manoah’s wife, Ruth, Hannah, Abigail, the Wise Woman of Tekoa, the Shunammite Woman, Huldah, and Esther—show that women had considerable freedom during the time of the Old Covenant. (Ellicott’s Commentary states this.) Special qualifications or limitations of women are imposed by societies, not by revelation.

My thoughts: I have heard several opine that women primarily lead when men aren’t taking up their God-given role as leaders (i.e., women may lead as an “escape clause”). The story of Barak and Deborah exemplifies this. But this doesn’t explain away all the prophetesses of the Bible.

In Barnes’ Notes, on 1 Corinthians 11, he writes that female prophets plainly “expound the Word of God” (contra Pawson) but gives other reasons that modern women should not teach. He writes that they would require the same inspiration as scripture’s prophetesses. The complementarian position here—that women could prophesy at one time but now cannot teach—is problematic.

6. Why did Jesus only call male apostles?

And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach . . .

Mark 3:14

H: Jesus only ordained twelve men, when he could have ordained six men and six women, to better represent both sexes. (Pawson)

M: “Although the twelve apostles were men, Jesus surrounded himself with women disciples as well. R. T. France writes, ‘In the cultural context of the time it was perhaps inevitable that men should form the inner circle around Jesus, but Luke 8:1–3 suggests that that inner circle was not very sharply distinguished in practice from the wider group of companions among whom women were prominent.’ Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many other women accompanied Jesus on his mission and funded him out of their private means. Jesus chose women as traveling companions, disciples, and patrons of his mission.” (Peppiatt)

My thoughts: I agree with R. T. France. Some cultures are simply more gender-segregated in their activities, so I would not use the maleness of the twelve apostles as a talking point here. It is a descriptive fact, not a prescriptive fact.

7. Did Priscilla have a teaching role in the early church?

1 And [Paul] found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came unto them. . . . 18 And Paul after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow. . . .26 And he [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.

Acts 18:1, 18, 26

Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers [literally, ‘co-workers’ (KJV, ESV), ‘fellow-workers’ ] in Christ Jesus . . .

Romans 16:3

Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.

1 Corinthians 16:19

Salute Prisca and Aquila . . .

2 Timothy 4:19

H: Priscilla is frequently named before her husband Aquila because of her high social standing. On Acts 18:26: “The verb ‘teach’ is not used on this occasion, they did it later and it was a private context in their home, not a public one in church” (Pawson, p. 43).

M: “Four of the six times [Priscilla] is mentioned, she is mentioned first, giving us a clear indication that she is deemed to be the most prominent of the pair. In addition to this we know that she had a crucial role in instructing Apollos in the faith (Acts 18:26). Prisca, Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis all ‘worked’ with Paul. Gaventa writes, ‘That bland verb does not convey a great deal in English, but this is the language he uses elsewhere when he is speaking about apostolic labor (as in 1 Cor 3:9; 4:12; 15:10; Gal 4:11; 1 Thess. 5:12)'” (Peppiatt).

“It is evident that Priscilla has served as a teacher (Acts 18:24, 26, 28).” (Oden, First and Second Timothy and Titus, p. 98)

“Does it not seem as if Priscilla ought to be a greater Christian teacher than Aquila?” (Joseph Parker, The People’s Bible, in loc. Acts 18)

My thoughts: In verse 26, the verb for “took him” (προσλαμβάνω) can mean “received him into their home”, but the context here also matches closely with Matthew 16:22 and Mark 8:32, where Peter “took” Jesus aside and rebuked him.

Contra Pawson, the verb for “expound” (ἐκτίθημι) is hardly weaker than “teach”. In the Septuagint it means to “lay down” a decree; in the NT, it involves taking time to set someone straight who is mistaken. Thus, Peter “expounds” his visions to the Judaizers (in Acts 11:4), and Paul “expounds” the kingdom of God “both out of the law of Moses and out of the prophets” (Acts 28:23). It is unconvincing to claim that “teach” differs categorically from “expound”, or that Priscilla was excused in correcting a prominent and well-versed male teacher because it was “private” (which is likely but not necessarily clear from the text).

In addition, no mention is made of Priscilla’s pedigree in the NT, but we do know some of Aquila’s background; so Pawson is only speculating as to why her name comes first. Chrysostom (4th c.) surmises that she must be “more zealous, and more faithful.”

8. Was Phoebe a deacon?

1 I commend unto you Phebe [= Phoebe] our sister, which is a servant [‘deacon’ in NIV, NLT] of the church which is at Cenchrea:
2 That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer [or ‘leader’ in YLT] of many, and of myself also.

Romans 16:1–2

H: Some writers and translators believe that Phoebe is a “servant”, not holding the office of deacon. Other hierarchicalists hold that women may in fact hold that office—of the related office of “deaconess”—but not higher offices in the church.

M: “The history of translation has certainly misled us on the nature of Phoebe’s central role in the early church.” (Peppiatt) “Paul uses [διάκονος] to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25).” (McCabe, “A Reevaluation of Phoebe,” 99.)

Several also point out that the Greek participle for “being”—οὖσαν, here translated “is”—frequently is used of someone holding an office, not of someone acting temporarily in a given capacity (as “servant” or “helper”).

My thoughts: The translation “servant” is speculative and is inadmissible here. Women have served as deacons since the earliest days of the church. One gravestone, found on the Mount of Olives, refers to a deacon Sophia as “the second Phoebe” (Η ΔΕΥΤΕΡΑ ΦΟΙΒΗ), showing that she was certainly believed to be a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem.

The discussion gets quite convoluted on whether Phoebe was a female deacon or a deaconess or a servant. Thomas Timpson, in his book on New Testament women, argues that she was not a deaconess, but simply a woman of privilege with great influence (though Timpson is not here arguing that women can’t be deacons).

In any case, it is problematic to argue from the union of 1 Timothy 2 and Romans 16:7 that women can be deacons but not elders; the phrasing of 1 Timothy 2:11 relates mainly to the manner of leadership, and does not prohibit female elders any more than it prohibits female deacons. If 1 Timothy 2:11 is read flatly, then women cannot teach in any capacity, period. That includes public schools, weaving, and dog grooming!

9. Was Junia an apostle?

Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellowprisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.

Romans 16:7

H: Some writers say that Junia is only travelling with the apostolic band (Pawson), or that she is highly regarded by the apostles, but not an apostle herself.

M: Chrysostom (4th c.) was overawed by Junia, writing that she was not only an apostle, but “of note among” them. Later, translators such as Martin Luther, Eberhard Nestle, and Kurt Aland suppressed this evidence of a female apostle, replacing “Junia” with a male name; furthermore, when the name “Junia” resurfaced, various liberties were taken with the text because of theological bias.

My thoughts: The plainest reading is that Andronicus and Junia are apostles, and women are nowhere prohibited from apostleship or eldership in the New Testament.

10. Does a wife have authority over her husband?

The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.

1 Corinthians 7:4

M: In the Roman Empire, a man had near-absolute power over his wife and children, and the statement that the wife has authority over her husband’s body is a tremendously subversive statement.

My thoughts: As Peppiatt brings out in Women and Worship at Corinth, there is definite tension between 1 Corinthians 7:4, where a woman clearly “has authority” (ἐξουσιάζει) over her husband in one area of their marriage, and 1 Corinthians 11:10, where a woman has to wear “authority” (ἐξουσίαν) on her head, because of the angels.

11. Does a woman have to cover her head in worship?

Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you. But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. 10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. 12 For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God. 13 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? 14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? 15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. 16 But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.

1 Corinthians 11:2–16

H: Verse 3 (like Ephesians 5:23) points out male headship, meaning men hold authority over women. Women may “pray” and “prophesy” (v. 5), but need to show submission and modesty in doing so. For some (Barnes), other special conditions would have to be met, such as clear evidence of inspiration. Paul clearly links veiling and submission to woman’s status at creation, in verse 8. This gives it the widest possible scope.

M: Peppiatt, in her book, Women and Worship at Corinth, proposes that Paul is quoting from his opponents in this passage, and she lists a number of rationales for doing so:

1) In verse 6, the writer advocates shaving women’s heads; the clearest explanation here is that it is a reductio ad absurdum for a prescriptive practice that Paul disagrees with.
2) In verses 7 to 9, woman does not relate directly to God, but relates to him through man. This contradicts verse 11, which makes man and woman interdependent. Verse 11 begins in Greek with a strong adversative particle, “nevertheless.”
3) In verse 10, women are encouraged to cover their heads “because of the angels”—a phrase for which no firm explanation has been given.
4) In verse 14, Paul could not be teaching against men having long hair, because he himself had long hair while fulfilling his vow.
5) In verse 14, Paul appeals to “nature itself,” which is not an argument that Paul uses elsewhere.
6) Very few churches throughout history have sought to apply this passage in their church worship. So it is apparent to everyone that there is some interpretive difficulty here.

More reasons are listed here.

A further consideration is that the hierarchicalist view of “headship”, which makes this a statement of man’s authority over woman, also makes a statement of God’s authority over Christ. This doctrine, known as “eternal functional subordination”, is now supported by many prominent theologians because of complementarianism—see the work of Kevin Giles on this.

12. Must women keep silence in church?

34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. 35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
36 What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? 37 If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. 38 But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.

1 Corinthians 14:34–38

M: Paul is quoting from his opponents in verses 34 and 35, and in verse 36 he is strongly contradicting them. According to Peppiatt, 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 together show that Paul was combating misogynism in the Corinthian church.

It is also very problematic that no “law” (v. 34) enjoins obedience on women, though some believe this to refer to Genesis 3:16 (which is a curse, but is found in the Torah).

My thoughts: In my opinion, λαλεῖν is mistranslated. It should be “it is not permitted for them to talk”. The verb has no reference to public speaking, which is why, if it is to be universally applied, then women can’t even greet each other in church.

Michael F. Bird believes that the context here has something to do with marital relations and family discussions during church teachings; as a principle, no one (women included) should disrupt a sermon by discussing the sermon with their neighbor or family member.

13. What is meant by “neither male nor female”?

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

H: In context, this verse relates to Abraham’s covenant. Only free, Jewish males could receive inheritances, and in Christ we all inherit the blessing of Abraham.

M: It is impossible to so strictly separate soteriological implications from social implications. (Peppiatt, Bird)

14. What about the “household codes”?

22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. 25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; 26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, 27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. 28 So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. 29 For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: 30 For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. 31 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. 32 This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.

Ephesians 5:22–33

18 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.
19 Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.
20 Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.
21 Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.

Colossians 3:18–21

1 Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.
Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.

1 Peter 3:1–7

H: Even if historical context mitigates these commands, they cannot be negated on the basis of scriptural authority and inspiration.

M: Philip Doddridge, in the 1740s, wrote that mutual submission was the greater command, and these are lesser commands within that frame (though Doddridge still believed in male headship). This is an important consideration.

R. W. Dale, in 1882, relates these passages to church-state relations, writing that the New Testament church was not meant to be revolutionary or radical in a political sense. Paul therefore commands Christians to obey the law of the land. They did eventually overturn the social order, but only by degrees. Dale writes, that these domestic codes are harder on men than women. Commanding men to self-denial and marital faithfulness was radical in the Roman era.

In his Lectures on Ephesians, Dale notes three arguments against a marital hierarchy:

  • If wives must obey husbands, then slaves must obey masters (American emancipation happened in Dale’s generation);
  • Paul never says that wives are to “obey” their husbands, Titus 2:5 KJV being a mistranslation (Joseph Parker and others have agreed);
  • “Marriage is transfigured” (p. 356) by devotion to Christ, so that we are “not under law but grace”, and any subjection or sacrifice enjoined of either spouse is representative of a tender affection founded in Christian love.

15. Who were Euodia and Synytche?

I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life.

Philippians 4:2–3

My thoughts: Paul must have addressed these women in a corporate letter because they had some unresolved controversy which had bearing on the direction of the local church. It is hard to imagine, then, that they were not significant leaders, and it is patronizing to contend that they only taught women and children. (I share this view with Moises Silva.)

16. Why does Paul say he will “suffer not a woman to teach”?

In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided [braided] hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; 10 But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. 11 Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. 12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. 13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. 15 Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.

1 Timothy 2:9–15

H: Verse 12 relates back to Genesis 3:16, in which woman is by nature tempted to usurp the authority of the man. In verse 13, Paul establishes that the priority of Adam in creation means also that he holds priority in teaching and decision-making. In verse 14, Paul further establishes that “Adam was not deceived”; man, therefore, is less liable to deception than woman.

M: It is clear from a linguistic point of view that αυθεντείν (KJV, “usurp authority”) means something like “dominate”, and is not referring to prohibiting the holding of any specific office.

Some argue that 1 Timothy 2:11–15 involves the female cult of Diana (or Artemis) of the Ephesians. This comes from the Kroegers’ book, I Suffer Not a Woman.

  • Timothy was in Ephesus;
  • Women had a dominant role in the pagan cult there;
  • “Braided hair” (v. 9) was a sign of pagan devotion;
  • Diana was routinely invoked during childbirth, so Paul is clearly encouraging women not to fear in childbirth in v. 15.

Michael F. Bird denies the Kroegers’ argument, but maintains that the passage is not transcultural; it does not apply to Christians of all times and places.

My thoughts: Even classical commentators have noted that

  1. the sequence of creation does not imply male authority (v. 13);
  2. Adam was deceived, but not in the same way or time as Eve (v. 14);
  3. “she shall be saved in childbearing” is one of the most enigmatic statements in the whole New Testament (v. 15), and is often taken to refer to either “the seed of the woman” in Genesis 3:15, or a reversal of the curse of Eve in Genesis 3:16.

Since many eminent authorities have denied the literal sense of verses 13, 14, and 15, which are supporting context for verse 12, this problematizes the exploitation of this passage to deny women leadership roles. It indicates that there is some important missing context here, though theologians cannot agree what it is.

The parallel mentions of external fashions here in 1 Timothy 2 (“braided hair”) and again in 1 Corinthians 11 (“veils”) are also strong cues that Paul is addressing specific cultural practices in these two important passages.

Review: Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, & Bobby Haircuts

Author: Michael F. Bird is an Australian New Testament scholar and author of many books. His books and teachings mainly pertain to core Christian doctrines such as justification, Jesus’ divinity, and Jesus’ messiahship.


Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, & Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Equality in Ministry (2012) is Michael F. Bird’s defense of women in ministry, including a brief account of how he changed his mind on this issue.

In describing why he changed his mind, Bird cites two growing concerns he had: 1) Paul’s co-workers in the gospel included many women; 2) Prohibitions on women in Bird’s church far exceeded those of Scripture, and women were forbidden even from leading songs at co-ed small group meetings.

Then Bird breaks the false dichotomy by showing that there is a spectrum of opinions involving women in leadership.

Though the back cover uses the phrase “taking a stand”, Bird’s position in this debate is stubbornly moderate—I was going to say, annoyingly moderate. His exposition of key texts will not satisfy complementarians or thoroughgoing egalitarians. (Bird opts for the more conventional terminology here, though I prefer the more transparent terms, hierarchicalist and mutualist.)

Like complementarians, Bird allows that men hold authority in households, since “man is the head of the woman”. He tempers this by stating that the New Testament household codes are all framed by commands involving mutual submission. In Bird’s view, this transforms—but does not negate—male headship.

Like egalitarians, Bird allows that many women ministered, taught, and preached alongside Paul, and the two key prohibitions (1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:13) are not transcultural. Though he considers himself a moderate egalitarian, I’ll discuss ways that his position on these passages differs from many or most egalitarians.

Key Passages

Bird states that passages like 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 (on veiling women during worship), 1 Corinthians 14:34–36 (on women remaining silent in church), and 1 Timothy 2:11–15 (on women “teaching or exerting authority”) relate to local social and spiritual conditions, and are not mandates for all churches in all time. But that does not make them irrelevant.

1 Corinthians 11:2–16

In 1 Corinthians 11, a number of befuddling statements are made involving women wearing (or not wearing) veils during Christian worship. Bird points out that this passage cannot be used to silence women in church, since it states that women may “pray and prophesy” publicly, if they meet the conditions of appropriateness and modesty.

He argues throughout the booklet that, though Paul appeals to the creation order, veils were clearly related to local customs regarding modesty. This connection between the creation order and local custom is an important one for Bird, because this can determine how we treat both 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2.

Bird does not require any special pleading or wrangling of the text. He simply states that in this passage “Paul intends to correct male behavior just as much as female behavior” (p. 25). Paul mentions Christ as the head of man and then the husband as head of the wife, but he is not setting a “chain of command” according to Bird:

There is indeed a hierarchy of relations between the persons mentions in the various couplets [1 Cor. 11:3], but one that must also be understood in light of the gospel, where Paul affirms mutuality, reciprocity, and the value of others in the relationships that characterize the new creation.

Michael F. Bird, Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts, p. 25

1 Corinthians 14:34–36

On 1 Corinthians 14:34–36, Bird does not adopt either the “interpolation” argument or the “quotation” argument, often appealed to by egalitarians. But he points out that 1 Corinthians 14:34 blatantly contradicts 1 Corinthians 11:5, in which women can pray and prophesy. The weight of evidence seems to show that women can pray and prophesy (and teach) in public worship. But Bird (p. 29) writes that this passage relates to the relation of husbands and wives during public worship. (Incidentally, Tyndale translates 1 Corinthians 14:34 this way, but no other major English translation has done so.)

1 Timothy 2:11–15

Bird is not satisfied by the most common arguments on either extreme concerning this passage. Complementarians would say that it is transcultural and women cannot teach or lead men in spiritual ministry. Egalitarians frequently appeal to the local Artemis cult, which was led by women, as a source of false teaching and social issues in the Ephesian church where Timothy led. This second argument was popularized by the Kroegers’ book I Suffer Not a Woman (1994), but Bird writes that it was disproven by Steven Baugh. (He does not elaborate.)

Instead, Bird writes that women were involved in some heresy that involved a deviant view of creation. In my opinion, Bird is taking the same scheme as the Kroegers’ book but omitting all reference to Artemis. He chooses this stance, however, as a way of privileging the text over speculation about historical context.

Firmly choosing the middle of the road, Bird tempers all this by stating that Paul still prohibited women from ministry in Ephesus, and so there is a transcultural principle that must be gleaned from that. We cannot simply dismiss passages that are transcultural.

How Important Is It?

In his conclusion, Bird states that this is a second-order issue, not a first-order issue. Affirming women in ministry should not bar us from fellowship with those who reject them. In their 1991 edited volume, Grudem and Piper disagree, stating this is a first-order issue (meaning that they would not hold fellowship with those who disagree!).

It is strange to me that Grudem puts not preparing women for leadership on the level of Jesus’ messiahship, the Trinity, the gospel of salvation, the authority of Scripture, and the forgiveness of sins.


Finally, I would like to mention the difficulties of the position chosen by Bird.

There are logical difficulties attached to a moderate position, which is perhaps why it is seldom defended. What does it mean to affirm husband’s headship and women as leaders? Are the church and the home to be treated as totally separate spheres? If women are creationally unfit to lead the home, how are they fit to lead the church? Conversely, they can make decisions for the church, which is made up of many families, why can’t they make decisions for their own family?

Bird handles the biblical text quite well and covers quite a bit of the contemporary textual arguments found in the academy—and that in a very short space. He brings up some fantastic points about 1 Corinthians 11, but that section did leave me wanting more, since the passage is so obfuscated. Personally, I admire Lucy Peppiatt’s treatment of this passage; in my opinion, Bird does not have adequate space in this small book to address its manifold difficulties.

I’m also a tad annoyed at the typos that appeared in this staple-bound booklet from Zondervan. It was originally only an ebook.

It would be great to hear Bird again on these issues. He is an engaging and persuasive writer, and this is an impressively tactful treatment of a moderate egalitarian position.