The Slimmest of Evidence

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By Gary Burke

I wonder why we are so willing, on the slimmest of evidence, to place such sweeping limitations on women’s service in our congregations. I’m talking primarily about I Tim. 2:12, but the same also applies to I Tim. 2:8-10 and I Cor. 14:34-35.

Let’s start with the word in I Tim. 2:12 variously translated “exercise authority over” or “domineer” (Greek: authenteō). Based on this word alone, it is widely held that women may not lead men in any aspect of church life. However, consider these facts about authenteō.

  • It is used only here in the New Testament, so we have no biblical parallels to help define it.
  • There are very few known examples of the word being employed prior to Paul’s use in 2:12. Most of the evidence is late, even centuries after the New Testament.
  • The scholarly community is deeply divided on its precise meaning in 2:12 and, therefore, how it should be translated into English.
  • Scholarly (and not so scholarly) opinions about its meaning in 2:12 not surprisingly often mirror the views many interpreters already hold on women in the church.

And yet. . . , as Carrroll Osburn has observed about this verse, “no biblical text has been so misused to legislate so many prohibitions that stifle so much service by so many people.” How is it that our default here, when faced with the ambiguity of this word and this passage, is to restrict or limit what women may do not only in their servant leadership in our assemblies but also in all other aspects of our congregational life where men are involved? These restrictions are immense in their effect on our sisters’ Christian service; yet we are willing to apply them on the basis of one possible meaning of a highly ambiguous word for which there is no other biblical example to help us define it.

Then there is the other ambiguity in I Tim. 2:12: “man” (Greek: anēr). Since we don’t know enough about these women who had been abusing their teaching role in the church in Ephesus, it is unclear who the “man” is here. The word in this case is singular, not plural. Thus, it could be referring to “man” in some generic way or “a man” or even “husband” of these teachers.

So putting all this together, what have we often done? We have made the massive leap that these two words, “authenteō anēr,” mean that no woman from that time forward may lead an adult male in any church activity within or out of the assembly. Wow! How in the world did we get all this out of two words in the text that are each unclear in their precise meaning?

“Authenteō anēr” simply cannot bear the weight that is far too often placed on it. Look at what we have done. Among the possible meanings of this phrase we have assumed the one that most severely limits the Christian service of half our members. Not only have we harmed our sisters, but the church as a whole suffers from being deprived of this service.

The good news is that wrongs can be righted and minds can be changed when we allow them to be challenged by fresh Bible study. That’s what happened when I, along with my fellow elders, led our congregation in a study of the relevant biblical passages. We changed our practice, but only after we were convinced that we were on firm scriptural ground. We can fix this thing and do better than we have in the past.

For a fuller treatment of (or more information on) these matters, see Gary Burke’s book, God’s Woman Revisited.

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