Egalitarian Vs Complementarian

Gail Wallace tries to prevent an exegetical explosion but ultimately her effort bombed.

Sure, the Bible is a sharp blade that cuts bone in two but what happens when certain passages turn into bombs? Wouldn’t it be great to find a way to defuse those verse-bombs that we drop on each other? They get lobbed all the time, especially on the internet. Well, here’s an attempt to disarm one.

spyA friend recently linked to an article from The Junia Project 1Junia is mentioned in Romans 16:7 along with Andronicus as being “outstanding amongst the apostles” in the NIV. This is intended to prove that there were female apostles but ultimately it fails. The verse is translated “well known to the apostles” in the ESV which would not put Junia or Andronicus among the Apostles. Also, the way “apostle” is used in the New Testament is complex. There are the Twelve Apostles but then others are apostles. It may be that the way “apostle” is used in Romans 16 is more analogous to what we mean by “missionary.” written by Dr. Gail Wallace, an adjunct professor of Adult and Professional Studies at Azuza Pacific University. She has a PhD in education and seems like a very nice person overall. The blog post Gail wrote is titled “Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb.” Gail is correct when she says in it that 1 Timothy 2 is often treated as a conversation stopper when discussing women’s roles in the church and it shouldn’t be. Complementarian or egalitarian, if we are evangelicals we should be able to come to a text and discuss it and seek to understand and obey it. We should be able to do that without rancor and divisiveness so I am grateful for her efforts.

In good faith Gail opens that conversation by offering to “defuse” this explosive verse for us. She used what I consider to be a very clever metaphor for making her point: she shows us the “three wires” we need to cut in order to defuse the bomb; the “Translation Wire”, the “Context Wire”, and the “Interpretation Wire.” In all, I thought it was a very helpful way to present her material. And even in this short blog post she provided a kind of bibliography at the end. Nicely done!

In the end though, I don’t think she would last very long in a bomb squad. The wires she chose to cut didn’t defuse the bomb but merely confused the issue with some poor arguments against the complimentarian understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12. The problem that Gail seems to have missed is that we can get so entrenched in our positions on issues that we cannot actually hear the other side of the discussion. In this post I take a look at each wire she sought to cut and show how attempting to cut them fails. In the end, I point to three wires we need to cut, not to defuse arguments against our commitments but in order to engage in real dialog on them.

The Translation Wire

Gail starts by saying “The most problematic issue is the rendering of the verb authentein [as] authority.” She rightly points out that authentein only appears here in the Greek New Testament and is not used very often in other Greek literature. How are we to translate the word? The ESV renders it “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.” Most of the other modern translations do the same including the NIV, New Living Translation, and the New Revised Standard Version. I really, strongly believe that amateurs like me and Gail need to take great care before we question modern translations. I’ve had three years of Greek in seminary and I know enough to know that I don’t know much. You have a room full of scholars (male and female) working on these translations. They have all the modern tools and resources at their disposal and they, unlike me, know how to use them. So when I see the ESV, NIV and NLT agree on a translation, I tend to put my hand over my mouth. These three versions have different translations philosophies so when they agree that is pretty strong testimony that they got it right. Though authentein is “usually associated with aggression” our translators decided it was best rendered as “have authority.” Gail suggests, “it is likely that [Paul] was objecting to something other than the legitimate use of authority” but the experts agree with each other in not choosing that translation. Surely they had good reason to.

Gail is writing for the website of a group who “believe that when interpreted correctly, the Bible teaches that both men and women are called to serve at all levels of the Church, and that leadership should be based primarily on gifting and not on gender.” She and I both let our presuppositions shade which translations we prefer. In reality, neither of us are qualified to tell modern translators they were wrong here. We have to wrestle with the text as it is, not as we wish it were.

However, she is correct, the issue is complicated and “current scholarship suggests that the passage is anything BUT clear on the issue.” Amen sister! So let’s let the experts sort it out.

Now, since I have had a few years of Greek, I am going to disagree with Gail on two points. First, she said that “teaching” and “have authority” are probably a hendiadys in 1 Timothy 2:12. She rightly defines a hendiadys as “two words joined by a conjunction to make a single point.” However her example “Don’t eat and run” is not a hendiadys. This indicates that she may not understand how that structure really works. An example of a real hendiadys is Hebrews 12:21. The NASB translates the verse literally “I am full of fear and trembling” but the ESV renders it “I tremble with fear.” Again, there is a good reason translators didn’t translate 1 Timothy 2:12 as “teach in a domineering way.”

Second, Gail said “some scholars believe ‘I don’t permit’ could also be accurately translated as ‘I am not currently permitting’.” While she may be right that some scholars are doing that, it is probably because these scholars don’t agree with the verbal aspect approach to understanding tenses in Greek. I don’t want to derail into a protracted explanation of a complicated issue so let me give an example. Watch how the tense changes in this story:

The other day I was driving to the store. It was about 9 at night and I was almost there when all of the sudden this car is coming right at me in my lane! I swerve really hard into their lane and miss them by an inch! I was able to get back in my lane before any other cars came and I made it to the store okay. The jerk didn’t stop or anything. Man, my heart was pounding.

Did you notice how the narrator switched from past tense to present tense at the high point of the story? That’s verbal aspect. It didn’t mean that the narrator had a car started coming at her while she told the story, rather it was her method of increasing the tension and drawing attention to the important part. The same thing happens in the New Testament and that’s why “I do not permit” is actually in the present tense in 1 Timothy 2:12. Again, all of the major modern translations chose to render it the same way so let’s let them have their say.

In the end, I don’t think she has proven that this wire should be cut but rather that the wire might be questionable and worthy of more study.

The Context Wire

Gail writes a blog post and not a technical journal entry so I have to give her some slack for making this point so briefly. Ultimately, with this wire, Gail went where egalitarians often go: culture. She said that it “is likely that most women in the Ephesian church had limited training in Christian theology” and the implication is that women in that context were not fit to teach or lead. Fair enough. If the issue was simply that Ephesian women were not suitably taught, then two questions arise. First, where were Ephesian men trained? Probably when Paul spent two years lecturing in the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus. But this doesn’t help since Acts 19 says he taught “so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 19:10, ESV) Did “all the residents” exclude women? How do you determine that?

My point here is that the cultural explanation is based on an assumption that has no historical evidence. In the end, it is a case of question begging, “the women were uneducated because the verse prohibits them from teaching so they must have not been educated enough to teach.” That won’t do.

My assessment of this wire is that no case was made for cutting it. When Paul gave a reason women are not to teach or exercise authority over men, he cites Adam and Eve, not the lack of a Christian woman’s college in Ephesus. Gail provides some links to other discussions on Paul’s use of the creation order but they didn’t go much further than she did. No good reason was provided to cut this wire.

The Interpretation Wire

This wire is basically a wire bundle consisting of four principles of interpretation. I’m in favor of taking them as one wire and either cutting or not cutting them as one so lets look at each of the four “subwires.”

Hapax Legomenon – A “hapax legomenon” is a word that appears only once in the Bible. Gail says that we mustn’t build doctrine on a hapax legomenon. I really disagree with that and here’s why. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that the scriptures were “breathed out” by God. Guess what? “Breathed out” is a hapax legomenon and yet 2 Timothy 3:16 is used quite often to support the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible. Sure, it can be argued from other places but it is most clearly explained here.

Consistency – Gail’s point on this is that we have to interpret consistently within a passage. 2Mostly I agree though I believe that there are times when the text warrants a change of interpretation within one context. But when that’s the case, there are usually clues that we need to do that. She says, “if we insist that verse 12 is applicable today, to be consistent, that ruling should apply to the whole passage, including verse 15 (women shall be saved through childbearing).” And right she is! However, no complimentarian I’m aware of teaches that women were once saved through childbirth but aren’t any more.

What is really going on is that Gail becomes “concerned” when exegetes have a problem explaining what Paul meant about childbirth but are pretty sure they understand what he meant about women teaching and having authority over men. That isn’t an example of a lack of consistency but more about passages that are difficult to interpret. We’re talking about two different verses, 12 and 15. Surely we can be pretty confident about 12 even if we’re unclear about 15, right?

Non-contradiction – Another great point. An author wouldn’t likely contradict himself, especially within the immediate context but Gail again fails to make her case. That is to say, she doesn’t really prove her point that complimentarians are guilty of this. 1 Timothy 2:12 does end with “she is to remain quite” but complimentarians generally don’t teach that that means women cannot say a word in church, though some might. I actually agree with the examples Gail offered on this point but I don’t think they overturn the issue of teaching and authority over men. If we want consistency, then we have to include chapter 3 where the qualifications for elders all use masculine terms. With deacons, women are specifically mentioned but not so with elders.

Non-contradiction Writ Large – This forth subwire is really just carrying the third one more consistently across all the New Testament and again, I don’t disagree on this one! I think the Bible is consistent on how men and women have complimentary but different roles within the church. Jesus had 12 Apostles, all male, yet he treated women much better and with greater respect than the general culture at the time did. No problems there.

So it looks like the third wire is to remain in tact also.

How To Defuse A Conversation Bomb

So how can we really defuse this bomb? Not by simply repeating our position on it and assuming the other side will get it this time. What recommendations, then, would I offer? Which wires would I cut?

The first wire is pride. We need to be humble when we discuss 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and admit that it is a touchy and complicated issue. I have to admit that I might be wrong about challenging passages like this one. Rather than acting like we have it all figured out, we should carefully and patiently listen to the other side. We should try to explain their position in a way that they would agree with and then show why it doesn’t persuade us.

The second wire is presuppositions. This is a hard one since it is hard to see when it is our presupposition. It is like we’re color blind and we’re told to cut the red wire. Which one is red? At the same time, we all want to harmonize what the Bible teaches on various issues. What do we do when we see verses that seem to disagree? A wise professor in seminary warned us against the idea of “letting the clear texts interpret the difficult ones.” The one that may be difficult for me may be clear for you. Instead, try to step back and let the Bible question your presuppositions when you hit a “hard verse” like 1 Timothy 2:12.

The third wire is cultural conditioning. We are reading texts written in the first century though we live in the twenty-first century. There are so many issues we face today that Paul had never considered. What we need to be careful of is to not let our cultural issues demand more of the text than Paul had written. Feminism of the 1960s and 1970s is a major factor in our culture today. Let’s make sure that we’re not trying to push it (for or against) into the New Testament since it simply didn’t exist then. That isn’t to say that the New Testament doesn’t have anything to say about the equality of women, it does, but let’s be careful to hear what it is saying and not hear it in terms of the priorities and sensitivities we have today.

1 Junia is mentioned in Romans 16:7 along with Andronicus as being “outstanding amongst the apostles” in the NIV. This is intended to prove that there were female apostles but ultimately it fails. The verse is translated “well known to the apostles” in the ESV which would not put Junia or Andronicus among the Apostles. Also, the way “apostle” is used in the New Testament is complex. There are the Twelve Apostles but then others are apostles. It may be that the way “apostle” is used in Romans 16 is more analogous to what we mean by “missionary.”
2 Mostly I agree though I believe that there are times when the text warrants a change of interpretation within one context. But when that’s the case, there are usually clues that we need to do that.
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One Comment

  • I agree Matt. There are other verses that deal with the role of women in the church but this is a big one. We need to be humble about it and try to unpack it carefully. Too often we come it with our position on women in ministry and then bend it to fit our need. I had hoped that Wallace would do that but she didn’t. May the conversation continue.

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