John Walker's Electronic House

Why The Argument Against Women In Church Leadership Is Theological Rubbish

by on Nov.21, 2012, under Rants

Update: After some questions and criticisms, I’ve studied more since writing the below, and have summarised it all here. However, please note that while some of the Greek interpretation has been updated in my later post, the core of what I have written here remains the case. See both posts for a better, overall picture.

The words of the bigoted and scared sing in my ears, as I listen to the arguments of those against female bishops in the Church Of England (CofE). And since writing that sentence, the vote is lost. Women will still not be recognised as equal in the church. While I’ve not been involved with a CofE church for around eight years now, instead a part of an Evangelical free church, I still feel a heavy weight when I listen to this institution toying with continuing one of its number of bigotries. This debate, ahead of the vote to see whether women were allowed to assume the role of bishoping, is a peculiar one to hear in 2012.

On one side were those arguing for equality for women, to let women hold the same roles in the church as men. On the other side were those arguing that women should be under the subjugation of men, that men are who God wants to be in charge, and that women do not hold the same rights as men within the Church Of England. It’s not too often that you get to hear an argument where such overt and proud bigotry is argued so openly and so shamelessly. But even that aside, what’s most frustrating about this discussion is that the argument made by one side – tonight’s winning side – is quite simply, and utterly demonstrably, entirely wrong. Factually wrong.

The argument is that the Bible tells us that women should not be allowed to lead a church, that men are to have authority over women. Bible quotes are given to demonstrate this, and indeed, pick up any modern English translation of the bible and there you will find those very phrases. You certainly can see why people might be wont to think it is not. The bigotry against women is not only passionately argued in our churches, but it appears to be written down in our bibles. But these translations might not be correct. This, I think, provides a reasonable understanding for why the ordinary church goer might think that this is at least what the bible says, whether or not they believe it is reasonable. But it is no excuse for the educated church leaders currently arguing against women’s equal rights.

Two verses are used most frequently in these arguments, at least by those who – thank goodness – don’t to try to wield the poetic imagery at the beginning of Genesis. They are (using the NIV version, because it’s universal, rather than preferable):

1 Timothy 2.12 – I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.

1 Conrinthians 14.34 – Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says… It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

They seem pretty cut and dry, right? But neither appears to be what is written in the original Greek text. Both, I think, have been deliberately mistranslated in an effort to oppress women.

Obviously people all too often take bible verses out of context, and use them against others. And almost equally as often, people will give peculiar, “Ah, but you’ve got to understand that where it says ‘women’, it means ‘sheep'” style nonsense arguments. As the truism goes, any bible verse can be manipulated to mean anything someone wants it to mean. But there are cases where a sentence just doesn’t seem to mean what it says in the English. And amazingly, both of the above were originally written by the apostle Paul as clear statements to argue against those trying to silence women.

But the real madness is, you don’t even have to start looking at the Greek to learn why these statements are clearly mistranslated. You just have to look elsewhere in the letters they’re from.

Paul, the author of these letters to the new churches of Ephesus and Corinth, is not subtle about his belief that women should be leaders in the church. So not subtle that he openly refers to women leaders of churches whom he states he greatly admires, even breaking all contemporary tradition and listing wives’ names before husbands’ when referring to those running churches. The Christian church had women in leadership even before it was called the Christian church! Six times Paul mentions the couple Priscilla and Aquila, leaders of one of the very first churches, and four of those times he names Priscilla first. It was unheard of to do this, and a clear, bold demonstration of his recognition of Priscilla as a church leader. (And it’s well worth noting that some have argued Priscilla wrote the book of Hebrews.) But she’s not an exception. Paul also greets Junia, Julia, Nereus’s sister (a bit rude, there), Tryphena, and Tryphosa, recognising all as playing leadership roles in the early church.

And as if that weren’t clear enough, when he greets Junia, he refers to her as “outstanding among the apostles”. (There’s some controversy over this, with a very few translations saying it means “highly respected by the apostles”, but the majority seem to agree that she is counted amongst their numbers.)

Oh, but there were parentheses there. So we need another example. Phebe! Phebe was described by Paul as a “deacon” (Diakonos), using the same word he uses when describing Timothy’s role – Timothy being Paul’s number two man. Paul also describes himself as a deacon. And he describes Euodia and Syntyche as people who have “contended at my side in the cause of the gospel”. Another? What about church leader, Lydia!

Paul was all about women in leadership, women as heads of households, and women as spreaders of the gospel. And that’s further evidenced when you look at what those two passages above say in their original Greek.

There’s a brilliant quote I’ve recently found. It’s from a Dr. David Thompson of Asbury Seminary, who said,

“Do we read the entire Bible in light of these two problematic texts, or do we read these two texts in light of the rest of the Bible?”

Let’s start with the Timothy line. That Paul does not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man. To pick this verse out, and to apply it today, is as deliberately ridiculous as to claim we should base our over-arching beliefs on the instructions on an aeroplane safety card, or the rules to Monopoly. They were written in a specific context, at a specific time. Even before we get to the mistranslation, the line itself – put back in context – actually begins to make some sense. Paul was writing to a church in Ephesus, which was home to the cult of Diana, or Artemis. This cult taught that women were superior to men, that Eve was created first, and that men were to be subjugated by women. These beliefs were being picked up by the church to which Paul was writing, and his purpose in writing it was to correct what he saw as a heresy. (This is why the passage goes on to make what otherwise look like some very petty points about Genesis.) He was explaining to a church, in one instance in time, about an issue they were facing.

And that mistranslation. As it is translated in most modern Bibles, Paul’s line appears to say that he does not permit women to teach at all. This is clearly not Paul’s belief, as the many examples above amply demonstrate. So what went wrong? It turns out to be that word “or” in “to teach or have authority over men”. The word “or” here is pretty important. It means that the world after the “or” is the subject of the word before it. So properly translated, this line should read, “I do not permit a woman to teach that she has authority over a man.”

And everything is different. Paul does not follow this up with, “But a man can teach that he has authority over a woman.” He is stating, to the followers of Artemis, that women cannot claim to be more important than men. And that’s it. In fact, the whole letter is advice to Timothy, for the church in Ephesus, for their specific situation. Understood in this context, this most frequently used line to ensure women remain subjugated in the modern church, is in fact a protest for equality. The irony that this line is the one that has kept women out of leadership for centuries, and made the battle for female leaders in the CofE over the last 30 years such a horrendous one, is grotesque.

And then what about that Corinthians line? Because here’s a funny thing. In today’s debates, and in the deliberation in the press and media over the last few days, I’ve heard many “conservative evangelicals” pluck out the Timothy line as their sole defence. But it’s always been couched in terms of “but otherwise we like women”. Those against female bishops have made it clear that they believe women have an important part to play in the church (although most don’t like to add that this includes being vicars), and that women’s voices should be heard, and that it is only in overall authority that they have a problem. But, er, if they’re happy plucking Pauline sentences out of context to defend this, what about the one where Paul apparently makes it so clear he believes women should be silent, never allowed to speak?

Well, even if that line were exactly what Paul had written, it would still demonstrate the absolute hypocrisy of their position. As they merrily play the eisegesis game, ignoring context, time and circumstance, they pluck at their convenience. But what did Paul really mean by this line?

Of course we have to do the same common sense to start with. Paul’s a writer who is frequently talking about women in leadership in churches, women who are apostles, women who are teachers, women who spread the gospel. Clearly Paul does not have a problem with women speaking in church. And that’s abundantly clear if you turn back just a few lines to 1 Cor 11.5, where Paul writes,

“And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is as though her head were shaved.”

(Okay, quickly, because it looks like yet another batshit line from Paul, let’s do the hermeneutics on this one and get it in context. Paul was writing to Corinth, a place where prostitutes traditionally shaved their heads. It was the tradition that women covered their hair, and it was into this area that these new fledgling Christians (or “followers of the way” as they would have called themselves) were bringing their new message. Paul’s lengthy argument for why women cover their hair (verses 5-10) seems to be quite the most sexist rant. However, he is in fact explaining the reasons given by the area for this tradition, rather than endorsing them. In fact, this is abundantly clear in verse 11, where Paul points out that actually men and women are equals, pointing out the inaccuracies of the preceding argument (and indeed giving further evidence to support he doesn’t care whether man or woman came first (fnarr) in his letter to Timothy, pointing out who cares who existed first, we all come from God), and then tells the church in Corinth that it is up to them to decide their feelings on hair covering. Paul insisted to these people (and to no other churches that he wrote to) that the women should cover their hair so as not to offend the people around them. He was arguing that they should respect local tradition. A message that perhaps one or two Christians could have done with learning over the last couple of thousand years.)

The point being, he begins this line with it being absolutely taken as normal that a woman would be praying or prophesying – things that tend to involve speaking in church. Again in 1 Cor 11.5 he talks about when women pray and prophesy. And it gets even sillier! In the same chapter, the same flow of thought, Paul repeatedly addresses the church as a whole, men and women, saying that “all” should speak in church, “all” should prophesy. He draws no distinctions between men and women in this. And in the paragraph after the contentious moment, he again says, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy.” For a man who spends so much time instructing how women’s hair should be styled while speaking in church, he really doesn’t come across as the sort against women speaking in church.

So we’re back to the hermeneutics. Why was Paul writing these words to this church in this moment in this context? There are quite a few arguments. Perhaps the most hoary is that until this time, women hadn’t been in church. This was new. There would perhaps be teething problems? It’s not a very satisfying explanation.

However, it could perhaps be more nuanced, because what the dear old NIV fails to account for in its translation of 1 Cor 14.28, 1 Cor 14.30 and the verse in question, 1 Cor 14.34, is that the same word is used in all three lines. According to the NIV, Paul says that those who speak in tongues in a disruptive fashion should “keep quiet in the church”. And he then says of women that they should “remain silent in the churches.” The word for both is σιγάω (sigaō), and it means “to hold one’s peace”, or even to “keep secret”. So rather than an instruction to just shut up, it’s more specific than that – it’s an instruction to not create disruption. It is not a coincidence that modern translations choose different words for each line, despite there being no valid reason to do so – one was designed to oppress women. (And in 14.30 it’s translated even more gently for those who are speaking when someone else has a revelation, where they say “the first speaker should stop”. Same word.)

The word “submission” is also pretty interesting here. The Greek word is ὑποτάσσω (hypotassō), which was originally a military term that means to be under the command of a leader. Its non-military understanding was of an attitude of voluntarily giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden. A pretty loaded word, and one the NIV and other modern translations again choose to interpret as “submission” when used in the context of women, but in 14.32 (just two verses earlier) the same word is translated to “subject to control” when talking about the behaviour of prophets (which, as we’ve seen, very much included women in their number). It’s Paul repeating the instruction. But has been deliberately translated to have quite another meaning.

You could conclude from Paul’s context that the church in Corinth had a particular problem of disorderly behaviour from women in the congregation when it came to their taking part. Paul was admonishing this, and giving them the same instructions as he gives men, particularly highlighting them in this instance. Again, it’s the only time he says it, and the only church he says it to. And note that he never says to whom these women are supposed to “be submissive”. All evidence suggests that it is to “other prophets”.

And here comes the big finish. The line after all that at the end of verse 35 – it says, “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church”. This one’s a corker. Those verse and chapter numbers, when they were later added to the bible, they were put in some canny places. Because the next line, in a new paragraph, the beginning of verse 36, says: “Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” They come completely out of nowhere, and don’t relate to the next line which goes on to say that the church should get people to verify that Paul’s words are true. And they begin with “or”.

The Greek for “or” is ἤ. And it’s an amazingly powerful little thing. It has a number of meanings, as noted above. But when it’s used at the beginning of a sentence it sometimes does a very special thing. As described by Thayer,

before a sentence contrary to the one just preceding, to indicate that if one be denied or refuted the other must stand

And the best modern understanding I can find for this use comes from that most respected of theological discussions, Wayne’s World. The film popularised the use of saying, “NOT!” at the end of a sentence, meaning of course that you didn’t mean the thing you’ve just said. Paul is, essentially, saying:

“It is disgraceful for women to speak in church… NOT!”

This may seem unnecessarily obtuse, or dangerously open to misinterpretation, but it’s important to understand it was well understood at the time of writing. And more crucially, it remains well understood. It’s why every other time Paul uses it it’s translated accordingly. But not this time. Page break, new sentence, leave that “disgraceful” hanging. No matter how obviously false in the wider context of Paul’s writings it may seem to be.

That’s a long bible study. But it’s not an impossibly difficult one. And it’s certainly one I would expect every single person who voted tonight to have bothered to learn before wielding the verses as weapons against women.

In the end, ridiculously, the vote demonstrated a huge majority in favour of women bishops. Of 47 bishops, only 3 voted against it. Of 193 clergy in the synod, just 45 voted against. And of the House of Laity, of the 206 members with a vote, 74 said no. That’s 6% of bishops, 23% of clergy, and 36% of the laity. And astonishingly, it’s that final number that means women bishops don’t get in. All three Houses, according to these arcane, anachronistic rules, have to have a majority of over two-thirds. It means that just six more people in this group needed only to have actually studied the verses they so vociferously lead their lives by – heck, even bloody read their Bibles at all – and vote in accordance with the scripture they hold so dear, for the vote to pass. In fact, add the three Houses together, and you’ve got a majority vote of over 72% in favour. And that, by these ridiculous rules, is not enough.

In the end I don’t much care about the role of bishops at all. It strikes me as a silly position, a layer of bureaucracy that all too often allows unpleasant types to wield far too much influence. And of course it’s a position within a rapidly fading denomination of which I no longer have any part. (However, I did spent six years of my life working for two different Anglican churches, and have a lot of good things to say about the institution too.) But what I do care about is the abandoning of bigotry, and the honest, studied application of theology. And neither took place tonight. Tonight, despite the clear majority not voting this way, was a success for bigotry and ignorance.

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48 Comments for this entry

  • Max Drinan

    That was fascinating. I have to admit it was the potential Church-slamming that brought me in, but this mistranslation issue has me curious. Is there a scholarly accepted true translation available? And what books best explain the historical contexts you refer to? As someone who has been pushed away from Christianity by such seemingly immoral passages, I’m eager to learn more on this subject.

  • George Lawry

    I am an Anglican but do so wish the Church would move into the 21st century. The clear message this vote sends out is that women do not have equal rights in the Church of England. No wonder numbers are falling so rapidly.

  • Betsydet

    John. Thank you.
    I was going to write a blog. I shall probably not bother now but direct people to this.

    Thanks for not being a sexist pig.

  • Andytizer

    I think that the whole concept of a church structure is theological rubbish anyway. If Jesus/God wanted us to form religious political structures like churches, and to lay down laws based on the old/new testament, appoint bishops, have uniforms, service structures, hymns etc. he would have said so himself. The current churches as so far removed from the gospel teachings of how Jesus wanted us to worship/be in a relationship with God, it seems like arguing over scriptural minutiae is irrelevant.

  • Mike McQuaid

    I think the problem here is deeper than you are making out. The reason why we have such stupid decisions is because it’s considered that what Paul (and those who wrote in Paul’s name; it looks likely he didn’t write everything assigned to him) wrote more than two millennia ago is what God wanted then and is what God wants now. Additionally, the Bible is considered the sole authority for most Protestants and the vast majority will only read a translation and those vastly smarter than I (like yourself) who do read bits of Greek and Hebrew don’t have a full, contemporary understanding of the language and culture.

    I think we’ve been seeing for a few hundred years this line of thought unravelling. We can never know for sure what Paul thought about women. Your argument is very persuasive and I agree with it but I there will be some learned theologians who will still disagree with it.

    Christians need to stop feeling the need to justify everything solely through scripture and have the courage to say on some views that are less clear-cut than this (gay marriage, for example, which I know we both agree should be legal) that even if the Bible disagrees then it is wrong and you think God would agree it is wrong.

    I guess my final point is if you spent the same time studying the Bible and reached the conclusion that women shouldn’t be bishops or gay people shouldn’t have equal rights would you side with your conscience and logic or with the Bible?

  • George

    I recently had this discussion with a friend, and one point he raised was “Why did Jesus choose twelve men?” My reply was that nobody would have listened to a woman in those days, and that it wouldn’t have been seen as ‘proper’. He replied with “Because Jesus was famous for his obedience of cultural conventions, what with his avoiding prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, and the like?” Which had me stumped somewhat.
    So why didn’t Jesus have some female apostles?

    (I should perhaps note that neither of us have studied this in any great depth, and to my knowledge he was playing Devil’s Advocate in this.)

  • Jambe

    I wish my Appalachian and Midwestern relatives had the slightest hint of your introspection. Alas, them queers, them baby-killers, them paradoxically anti-Jesus socialists, etc. Despondent exasperation is often common during family religion-chats. LOOKING FORWARD TO THANKSGIVING!


    All moral arguments (theological and secular) are “rubbish” in the Humean sense. Nonetheless, I wish we’d discard the trivialities of religious traditions and focus more intently on humanity itself, especially when making prescriptive statements (such as “women should be allowed to lead”).

    Paul’s behavior is interesting as a historical curiosity but for generations we’ve used our species’ well-being (framed by the Western secular tradition) as a tautological justification for prescriptive language. Why spread iffy old Abrahamic topping on a naturalistic croissant that’s delightful on its own? It’s just a distraction. ’cause it pushes your spirit-buttons?

    To highlight this distraction, consider that in para 9 Paul’s apparently a coolbro for breaking tradition and yet later in para 22 he’s a coolbro for telling people to respect it. Are you saying the name-listing tradition is more objectionable than the hair-covering tradition? Confusing…

    Regardless, it’s entirely irrelevant to modern fulfilling life. It’s also disgusting to suggest (even implicitly) that the ability (or right thereto) of women to lead comes from a book or “God” or “skyward contemplation” or whatever. Surely the fact that you’re surrounded by women whose enjoyment of life would be enriched by a more egalitarian society is reason enough to want lady bishops (or lady-whatevers).


    I realize this is mostly a pained reaction to stupidity in an institution you have lingering fondness for, but it’s still trivial and I think your considerable talent for the written word is wasted on such fluff. You should write about more interesting fluff, e.g. games wot make you cry.

    Actually I think you should write about whatever satisfies you. I was just being a selfish heathen atheist. Shame on me.

    Actually mk2: I just had a heartfelt conversation with God and she forgives me for this heinous sin of a comment (and all future sins I might commit, given that I continue believing in her). Delirious insomnia-derived reassurance is, I contend, the best sort. fwiw God has the voice of Macy Gray.

  • John Walker

    Max – there is a Bible translation called The Source New Testament – a translation from the original Greek by an agnostic translator.

    Mike – I’m certainly not vastly smarter, and I don’t speak any ancient Greek! But I do have a copy of Strongs, and there are excellent Greek resources online. I think I’d contend your point though – ignoring all the linguistic complications, there is no ambiguity that Paul endorsed women church leaders. And one day I hope to write an equivalent piece regarding homosexuality – a subject about which the Bible cares almost not at all.

    George – Here’s some good news: Jesus had many female disciples! The central twelve were indeed all men, and this was inevitably extremely cultural. Possibly even just the perception that they were the core was cultural. But Jesus had many hundreds of disciples, amongst them many women. Women were a core part of his ministry, from the company he kept to the teaching he gave. He taught to women in a culture where to do so was shameful. And the significance that it was women who found he was resurrected is too easily lost on us today – at the time this would have usually meant there would be no credibility to their claims.

  • Steve

    I promise I’m not trolling here, and I ask this question in all good faith (promising start I know).

    Is the following statement not rather dangerous?

    “To pick this verse out, and to apply it today, is as deliberately ridiculous as to claim we should base our over-arching beliefs on the instructions on an aeroplane safety card, or the rules to Monopoly. They were written in a specific context, at a specific time.”

    Could one not extrapolate from this to draw rather broader conclusions?

  • Mike McQuaid

    I look forward to an equivalent piece on homosexuality John. If it’s not derailing I am still interested in what conclusion you would come to if your studies indicated Paul and/or The Bible were clearly opposed to women bishops.

  • John Walker

    Steve – It’s about the two words exegesis and hermeneutics. To understand the bible, and to apply it to today, we must first understand the words in the context for which they were immediately written. And then with that understanding, apply them to ourselves. Paul’s letters are particularly in great need of this level of inspection because they were literally letters written to churches. I think they remain some of the most brilliant theology ever written, and form an elaborate guide for living as a follower of Christ, and being a part of the body of the church. That so much is contextual does not make them irrelevant – and as I hint at in the post, if Christians over the last two millennia had made more of a practice of understanding the process of contextualisation before application, a great deal of the ugliest aspects of the religion could have been avoided. It’s not about excusing away the bits we might not like, but instead understanding what was written and why.

    Mike – It’s a great question, sorry I forgot to answer it before. I honestly don’t know. I think if the source of my faith were inherently bigoted (and I’m aware many think it is), it would be something I’d far more likely step away from. However, the case is, when studied appropriately, it really isn’t. So it’s not an issue I face. I read parts of the bible that make me feel a horrible, sickly reaction – some of the lines of Paul I wrote about above, even reading them last night, made my stomach turn. But then I once again put in the study to understand what had really been written, and once again found a truth that does not conflict with its core message of love.

  • Chris

    A really interesting discussion, John; it’s refreshing to read a critical and scholarly engagement with the texts. I’m sure this is the only genre of argument that has a chance of persuading ‘traditionalists’.

    That said, there are a few points I’m not sure about.
    [Disclaimer: I’m neither a biblical scholar, nor a Christian, just a former student of classical Greek]

    Timothy 2:12 is rendered at as
    “didaskein DE gunaiki ouk epitrepo, OUDE authentein andros, ALL’ einai en esuchiai”
    I can’t really see how it can be translated as you suggest without an accusative pronoun; especially since de…oude…all’ (and…nor…but) is a very common construction. Is there another greek rendering, or dispute over the transmission of oude?

    I’d also take issue with your interpretation of ἤ. In my experience it isn’t used as a NOT! to the previous sentence, but as a marker that the following sentence is intentionally incredible. Basically it’s the passive agressive particle. As in “Do the dishes. Or do I never do anything around here!”. As far as I can see, that’s what the quotation of Thayer says too (though the link’s dead, can’t check).

  • Steve A

    George – that’s a similar line to how a lot of the big media are describing the issue – “Traditionalists say Jesus chose 12 men…”. Which is true, but he certainly had many women followers. He chose to first appear to 2 women, which is a big statement of trust.

    Notably, in the New Testament Letters Junia – a lady’s name – is descibed as an apostle. However, some translations can’t cope with this so change it to Junius. I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard good things of Scott McKnight’s “Junia is not alone” (

    The argument could also be extended to “Jesus chose twelve Jews” as his apostles, which leaves us Gentiles in a bind…


    great blog, seems churlish to call you out on an apostrophe (It’s non-military…) but do unto others etc.]

  • Joe Charmley

    The opening of this blog shows your bias sir. You point out some good information but openly attacking people is no way to have resonable debate.

  • John Walker

    Joe – I don’t want a reasonable debate. I want the bigotry in the church to be exorcised, and I am utterly furious that those with a vote on the synod could be so ignorant in enforcing their bigotry.

    As I make clear in the post, I’m very sympathetic that most people assume Paul was against women, as it’s what’s written in the English bible. But people with the heavy responsibility of a vote have no such excuse, and they are the subject of my anger.

  • Ellis

    It’s a shame you lump all the no votes together as bigotry. Some voted no because they disagreed with the proposals as badly written not because they didn’t wan female bishops. Otherwise a great article,
    I am not CofE and I don’t understand the point of bishops.

  • Rachel Trimble

    Apparently some people voted no despite being in favour of women bishops, simply because they knew that many were against it and felt it unfair to undermine their strong beliefs on the subject.

  • John Walker

    I’m sure such people would have been equally obsequious when there were votes for women’s right to vote. Or votes to end slavery.

  • Sarah Bennetto

    Love this John!
    The Wayne’s World reference will keep me chuckling for days!

  • Ian

    @ Rachel: If that’s true then that’s utterly depressing. Almost more so than if they were just bigots.

  • Mary Patterson

    BRILLIANT! Thank you for taking the time to write this so carefully and explain it so well. Just BRILLIANT!

  • James

    Fascinating read. I’m no bible scholar (hell, I’m no Christian) and I had no idea of the context of the lines being quoted. Shows even the bigot can cite scripture for his purpose, I suppose.

    That aside… I gather a lot of the actual disagreement over this motion was not about the principle of women as bishops, but rather about how such parishes as remained opposed to the idea would be catered for. There’s a temptation (especially to an outsider!) to say “well, that’s their problem, if the majority are in favour so be it” but of course the Church as a whole wants to avoid these kinds of divisions. Do you feel there’s a solution that can keep everybody happy? The whole “stand-in bishops” thing sounds crazy as an outsider, as they’re either largely impotent or they make a mockery of the presumably female bishops they’re standing in for (or both) — but if the alternative facing the church is that these people *leave* the church, that’s both damning and damaging in its own way.

    tl;dr I know jack about Christianity, but I’m curious what compromise if any you think can be reached.

  • Hiren Desai

    Great piece John, and sorely needed. I do have to agree with Steve A above though, I’m not sure how your reading of Timothy concurs with the tone and content of the rest of the book. Has “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” been similarly mistranslated? 1 Timothy 3 is also (according to the NIV anyway) full of references to exclusively male deacons, who are charged with “managing” their families.

    Can you recommend any particular books or other texts on how to gain a more accurate reading of the Epistles?

  • Hiren Desai

    Apologies, I meant Chris, not Steve A

  • John Walker

    Hiren – As I allude to in the post, that long-winded explanation of the events of Genesis was intended to correct the heresy being spread by the Artemis cult. Paul was outlining what the Scriptures say, rather than what was being taught in that church. As I say, those lines appear peculiarly bitchy until you understand the reason he stated them. The poetic nature of Genesis 1-10 and its dubious use by Christians as recorded events aside, the story there explains that the curse brought upon humans after the fall included that women were only redeemed through childbirth. Now clearly that’s a whole other blog post, but the crucial point is, all that was redeemed in Christ’s death. So Paul is correcting their scripture, rather than stating that such things are the case – he fully believed that such curses were no longer relevant to men or women.

    The book I’ve been recommended, and have bought but not yet received, is The Source New Testament by Dr A. Nyland. She is a Greek scholar, but not a theologian, and has translated the Greek texts using much of the new evidence found since the 1970s, from a secular perspective. It is apparently very elucidating.

  • Hiren Desai

    Thanks John, I just ordered it, and I’m looking forward to reading it. In the past I’ve tended to shy away from taking anything in the Pauline Epistles as a guide since I tended to regard them as chauvinistic, and thus contrary to the words of Christ in the Gospels. The image of Paul, at least in certain liberal circles, tends to be that he was anti-woman, anti-homosexual, and that he was responsible for the corruption of the message of universal love that Christ attempted to spread, and to a large extent I agreed with that idea of him. Given what both you and Nyland have said about the inaccuracy of most translations, and the revisionism that she engages in, do you think there is potential for a more widespread rehabilitation of Paul if these new ideas gain wider circulation?

  • Ash Gelderblom

    Thank you John for labouring over this.
    You make some excellent points. Party on.

  • Jack

    “I gather a lot of the actual disagreement over this motion was not about the principle of women as bishops, but rather about how such parishes as remained opposed to the idea would be catered for.”

    They’re catered for perfectly well, through a little-used mechanism called ‘admitting they’re wrong and changing their minds’ ;)

    Brilliant article John! There’s a lot more of this argument in “Why Not Women?” by Loren Cunningham and David Hamilton.

  • John Walker

    Hiren – at this point I think the demonisation of Paul is wilful. I don’t have access to mysterious secrets, locked away in a vault – this stuff is there for everyone to find, and when people in leadership teach otherwise I think they’re guilty of sheer laziness. I am not especially patient with liberal Christianity, admittedly, but I think for a leader to teach that Paul is to be dismissed based on a surface reading of his words in English – well, I think that’s indicative of a serious lack of care. (Please note that I’m addressing this ire at leaders – not at those being taught by them.)

  • Dannii Gray

    Amazing blog John thankyou!!!

  • Gwen Mappledoram

    “You know more about your magazines and novels than what God has written; many of you will read a novel from the beginning to the end, and what have you got? A mouthful of foam when you are done. But you cannot read the Bible; that solid, lasting, substantial, and satisfying food goes uneaten, locked up in the cupboard of neglect; while anything that a man writes, a best seller of the day, is greedily devoured.” ~ C.H. Spurgeon.
    I am sure the Bible says “study to show yourselves approved unto God a workman that need not be ashamed,rightly dividing the word of truth.” Do not just read STUDY. All the people of God need to get off their backsides and STUDY. The Truth will set us free!

  • Hiren Desai

    I’m curious, how would you define “liberal Christianity” and how does it differ from your religious position? I’ve always thought of it as encompassing many of the beliefs you’ve espoused such as acceptance of women and homosexuals, but from what you’ve just said it sounds like it’s more complicated than that

  • John Walker

    Hiren – this is a confusion of the two separate meanings of “liberal” when it comes to Christianity. Politically, I’m an extremely liberal Christian – a bit like Jesus was.

    But in theological terms, it’s a different divide. It’s a sliding scale, obviously, but at one end there’s Evangelical, which believes that the Bible is the authoritative word of God, and the source from which we take our understanding of him, and if our personal understanding of him contradicts the bible, then our understanding is wrong. At the other end is Liberal, which believes that our understanding of God comes from our personal relationship with him, and if that contradicts the Bible, then the Bible is wrong.

  • Robert Hughes

    – Thank you so much.

    – November 21st, 2012 on 11:49 “But then I once again put in the study to understand what had really been written, and once again found a truth that does not conflict with its core message of love.” I agree: it also means that if our theological expression doesn’t reflect the core message of love, it’s the theology that’s wrong. (Don’t know who said it first)

  • mrstrellis

    I have nothing to add really, other than that I have a friend who has a thing for lady vicars in dog collars. Her reaction to a lady bishop in full fancy dress regalia is something I (though probably not her wife) would dearly love to see.

  • Chris Spark

    Hi there,
    I realise this is a very fraught area, and don’t want to get into a big debate about all the things around it right now – that is happening plenty. But this piece got me looking a little at my Greek NT again, and I have to say a couple of the Greek readings in it seem pretty hard to justify.

    The word ‘or’ (Gk: oude) in 1 Tim 2:12 does not seem to work the way he said it in this sort of sentence – it is literally something like ‘neither’ or ‘nor’, and when it comes after a negation (as here) it adds another negation – not this, nor that. Rom 2:28, 4:15, 8:7 (for example) all have very similar constructions – the NIV at each point translates them ‘nor’ (just so you can see what I mean). This is perfectly reasonable (technical note: although in 1 Tim 2:12 oude is used with an imperative, which is not the case in any of Paul’s other usages, I think the truth of it still olds, and neither Thayer, nor BDAG [the standard NT lexicaon] has a lexical option for oude to mean ‘that’ in the sort of way suggested here). The discussion of context is a fair one to have, but this reading of the Gk of 1 Tim 2:12 seems pushed to say the least.

    The ‘or’ in 1 Cor 11:36 (different Gk word noted earlier in the comments) – I did some searching for this Greek word at the start of sentences in Paul’s wider writing, and the interpretation of it here using Thayer’s lexicon again seems really pushed. I looked up Thayer’s definition, and the references it gives. This word ‘or’ at the start of a sentence of this sort has the function that BDAG (again the standard NT Greek Lexicon) describes: “to introduce and to add rhetorical questions”. You see this, with exactly the same word and construction as 1 Cor 14:36, in Rom 3:29, 6:3, 1 Cor 6:2, and others. So the rhetorical question of v36 stands alone just fine (as it does at those other points, as somewhat of a climax of a rhetorical argument) – ‘did the word of God originate with you’ (implied answer: no – so you Corinthians need to stop being so disordered thinking you can make things up for yourselves).
    again the context discussion is a good one to have, it is just the reading of the Greek of this text that I am wanting to point out.

    For these reasons, I think the aspertions cast on most English translations of the New Testament that are in circulation are really quite unjustified.

    Thanks for getting me thinking, and I hope this hasn’t caused offence, but that was what I found when I had a look at the Greek.

    Thanks, God bless

  • Jambe


    How far to the Evangelical end of the spectrum are you, John? I'm curious as to what your personal definition of "authoritative" would be. Do you believe that any "original" biblical scribe was 100% accurate in their description of events or does some "liberalness" bleed in even to your evaluation of the most ancient documents? Do you have a (for example) a particular method for determining what is a hard theological truth and what's an earthly metaphor or a kind of "as good as it gets" approximation of an incomprehensible fact only God could know?

    I think the endeavor of a (critical) theologian is rather like the endeavor of a secular philosopher as you're attempting (via critique) to get at more granular or pithy moral claims. Similarly, I believe moral language can't be true in a 1+1=2 sense but nonetheless it can sort of asymptotically approach truth given a contextual frame. Thus I can comfortably say that e.g. "don't torture babies" is VERY CLOSE to an absolute moral truth, "don't kill generally" is less close but still valuable, and "don't drink beer on Sunday" is utter garbage.

  • John Walker

    Chris – thanks so much for your comments. If my post is inaccurate, I really want to fix it, so I have some questions.

    Both of the translations I talk about are things I’ve been told by proper actual theologians, that I’ve then looked into for myself from my lay perspective. Regarding Cor 11.36, how do you account for the completely contradictory preceding statement from Paul, that absolutely does not ally with either the rest of the portion of the letter, nor his clear opinions on women leaders? Is it not based on this that the assumption that the ‘or’ here must have this preceding-sentence-reversing effect? And I suppose the same question is due of Tim.

  • Chris

    If I may butt in again (earlier on I made the same points, far less eloquently, as Chris Spark), do the theologians you mention have any publications or blog posts dealing with the Tim translation? As unless there’s some vagary of grammar that I (and now Mr. Spark) am missing, the alternate translation seems hard to sustain.
    If you still wanted to square the verse with what you perceive of Paul’s general opinion on women, one could reasonably argue that ‘andros’ here is not ‘man’ in the generic sense, but is ‘husband’. So the line could be rendered: ‘neither do I suffer a wife to lecture, nor rule her husband…’, which would have the benefit of nicely reflecting the subsequent reference to Adam and Eve.
    As for Cor. 14:34ff. – your idea of contextualising Paul’s comments could be quite fruitful here. One could argue he’s addressing, again, not the issue of female speech as a whole, but a specific issue of women worshippers being noisy during teachings. It was something of a trope in Greek pagan ritual that female participants (often leaders of the rituals) would whoop and wail at intervals throughout. Perhaps Paul is attempting to counteract such impulses in Greek Christian ritual?
    I admit that this is pretty speculative. But without a good reason to alter the text, the NIV translations seems reasonable.

  • John Walker

    Chris – Yes, I think you’re right. I’m waiting to get responses from various people, and I will write an update on the post fixing what look like my errors. I’ve put a note at the top of the piece saying so.

  • Christine Deverell

    If I were voting I would vote for women bishops. But what concerns many Christians is the feminisation of Christianity, where we may as well put a sign on the door of the church that says “Beware. Manhood at risk.” Not allowing women bishops will not resolve this issue.

  • Robert Hughes

    This is fascinating stuff!
    I come in again in relation to 1Co14.26-40 following Chris who posted November 23rd, 2012 on 09:31, and ended “… without a good reason to alter the text, the NIV translations seems reasonable”. Could be; but there’s a step after translation that’s to do with understanding. Notes made by the NIV editors show that scholars are divided on a number of things here, so we’re still left with how to interpret what’s written. Lest we forget, some scholars think 34-6 are interpolated verses: no doubt they added them to clarify, but begging the questions, ‘clarify what, and did they succeed, or only muddy the waters, as some scholars say?’
    Taking everything together it seems clear there was a particular controversy in Corinth alone that had to do with women. Something about the cultural significance of (pagan, and/or Greek) women with short hair (or shaved heads – the Greek will support either). And something about worshipping the goddess Isis, which elevated women, and/or encouraged them in ecstatic outpourings for a pagan deity.
    You can see why Paul would want to distinguish worship in the ‘church’ (let’s use that word for simplicity) so as to make it clear the church was a break with what had gone before. Otherwise passers-by might think Isis still ruled. In that context, he may indeed have gone as far as wanting women to be silent in the Corinthian church at that time.
    Or he may have meant them to speak (1Co11.5) – but only in the orderly ways he sets out, each bearing with one another, without clamour. The sarcastic tone of v36 is thus referenced to order generally, applying equally to men and women.
    So, I say one can find no meaning for today solely by interrogating the Greek. Likewise the Greek has to be understood in its context, as best we can discover.
    There will remain two broad schools of thought. On the one hand those who teach the tradition they have inherited; on the other those who question the tradition, beginning with, ‘through what lens is the tradition mediated?’ Looking through the lens of feminist theology, as I do, Paul’s text can be truly liberating; to the extent that it liberates the ‘misogynist’ Paul too!
    The crucial thing is, the ‘liberated’ Paul comes from the same Greek text that traditionalists use, interrogated with the same rigour. There I joyfully meet the God of love who brought in the new Kingdom at Easter: the traditionalist account leaves me cold.

  • AThomas

    George – on the idea that Jesus chose 12 men; first off, it is unclear exactly what happened at Pentecost. Given that it is at Pentecost that the Holy Spirit gives the gift of tongues to the Apostles and tells them to go out and spread the word of God, it is from this event that most churches draw the idea of a ‘divine mandate’. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, gave these men the right to preach at this point, and only they can directly pass on the will of God when they ordain others. That’s the ‘apostolic succession.’ Now there are two problems with that: first, it is not at all clear that they did not also receive both the gift of tongues and the suggestion that they preach. To use John’s text, the NIV, Pentecost occurs in Acts 2, and it not clear if only the apostles are present or if this is occurs directly after Acts 1, in which a group ‘numbering about 120’ and which Paul addresses as ‘brothers and sisters’ were in the church together.

    Second, in Acts 1:15 the Apostles themselves nominate a final member, Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot because of his betrayal. Jesus clearly, then, does not have to choose all of his original apostles directly. He just has to endorse choices made by the casting of lots by his own followers (Acts 1:26), which he does by including Matthias in the Pentecostal gift. The idea that God had to choose the apostles himself, and therefore that the choice of church leaders must link back directly to the original apostles, seems to be flawed.

    But, accepting the idea that there were only 12 men selected and we need to have direct apostolic succession; why might Jesus have selected these men? Is their gender relevant? This is where your argument comes in. There are lots of reasons Jesus might have selected these men that have nothing to do with their genitalia and fit your friend’s idea that Jesus was a ‘rebel’ to some degree or other.

    Perhaps these were the people best placed to convince possible converts and spread the faith? In other discussions I’ve had on this subject I’ve tried to argue that these might have been the best placed preachers in his group, and been shouted down on the grounds that all the apostles make mistakes, and can’t be considered the ‘best’ in his retinue when put up next to the sinless and unshakeably faithful Mary. But we all know that the best teachers are those who understand where we, as students, are going wrong. So who better to spread the message than doubters like Thomas or deniers like Peter? People who have never had a problem with faith are probably not going to make the best and most compassionate teachers about what faith is, so Mary might not have been ideal for that. The fact that Jesus championed the weak, the poor, the meek and the tired supports this particular idea of who he thought the best Christians would be. There are plenty of women today who have suffered, and who have struggled with their faith, when there might not have been in his original inner circle. Maybe that’s why Jesus selected his Apostles?

    One thing you’ll notice from the above article is that Jesus might have been a rebel but his apostles could be decidedly pragmatic about how to relate to local churches and deal with local customs. Even if the first 12 happened to men for a reason that had nothing to do with gender, then, your power argument makes a lot of sense from that point onwards. The Apostles may have tried to pick native language speakers, figures of authority and power in the community, people who were already religious leaders, out of a desire to see the Christian faith spread as quickly as possible. Until last century in most of the world women were not respected or powerful figures; that was certainly true in the Roman Empire. I can see why women would be excluded on practical grounds of their lack of influence in the early church. But that doesn’t apply any more.

    Like you I am not a Biblical scholar, or even a Christian so if there are flaws in my arguments/I have misunderstood something please do correct me. I do like a good argument though, and I have yet to hear a convincing one for the reason why women should not be involved in the church leadership.

  • Chris

    I don’t see how you get your translation for 1 Tim. 2:12. ‘Oude’ means “and not.” And Danker’s lexicon doesn’t allow for much variation on that. You seem to have omitted it completely. I read, “I do not permit a woman to teach *and not* to exercise authority over a man.” Besides, the last part of the verse, “but to be quiet,” is supposed to contrast with something earlier. But on your reading, there’s nothing earlier with which it might contrast. Consider your translation: “I do not permit a woman to teach that she has authority over a man, but to be silent.” It makes no sense. Consider versus 13 and following and you’re even worse off.

    I’m also having trouble with your 1 Cor. 14:35-36 translation. Your take on “or,” the first word in 36 seems right. So the verses read, “For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly. Or did the word of God come out of you?” And the “or” means that we’re supposed to reject either “it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly” or “the word of God came out of you.” You reject the first and keep the second. But I don’t see why. It seems pretty obvious that the word of God did not originate with the women in Corinth.

    That said, I don’t see why either of these versus would make Paul a woman hater.

  • Randal Oulton

    I have a few years of classical Greek. I absolutely back the overall gist of your piece and women bishops….

    Not sure about your point about 1 Timothy 2:12 though… that word oude –. My Greek has rusted away hideously so I’ve hauled out of the basement library two books, “Interlinear Greek-English New Testament” by George Ricker Berry (1976), and “Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised” by Harold K. Moulton (1978.)

    Moulton (page 294) allows that the adverb oude can be read in the New Testament Greek the following ways: neither, nor, and not, also not, not even… which is pretty much how I’d read it to be in classical Greek. I’d like to get your “that” out of it, but I just can’t see it there, and with the preceding “ou” (“ouk” in front of a vowel), you get a pretty strong neither nor there I think, sadly.

    But then, most scholars now agree that 1 Timothy wasn’t actually written by Paul, anyway, but rather a second-generation follower of his. Which would explain why this thought about women just clangs so discordantly against all of Paul’s other ideas elsewhere.

    As for 1 Cor 34-35, I personally wouldn’t agonize over the translation of it — I’m pretty convinced by the argument of Bart D. Ehrman, (“Misquoting Jesus”, HarperCollins, 2005, pages 183 & 184), that it was a textual alteration inserted later by an intellectually dishonest scribe at a time when men in the church were trying to put women “in their place.”

  • DavidBR

    Sooner or later, the whole Bible would not make any sense, as we embark on a quest to throw anything that is not culturally palatable out the window. But that should not surpise anyone. This is a mark of the end, when people do not put up with sound doctrine.

  • Jenny Rossiter

    Please please, please write a book, (co-with Betsy DeThierry? – sorry Bets I know you’re busy but I saw you on this blog!) people out here in the churches and theology colleges need to be resourced to fight this corner! I wish I had a book I could point people to read. J-Lee Grady’s ’10 lies the Church tells women’ is very good, but US based, and a UK response would be timely… I am a post-grad Practical Theology student by the way. God bless you x

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