Vindication of Female leadership in the Church – Part 2: The Difficult verses

sculpted-headPeter Griffin

This is the second part to this post, the first part is available here
A third part, a round up, is available here

OK, this is the second part to this post following on from  Part 1.  After writing Part 1 it occurred to me that it would probably have made sense to at least post these contentious verses so everyone would know what they are.

Here they are.  These are the verses which to me might seem to limit female leadership, or which are sometimes interpreted in that way.  If I have missed any out, I would be grateful if you would please let me know! So if, for instance, you approach this topic from the opposite point of view, and you believe that there is another verse or passage which is relevant, then please please write a comment leaving the scripture reference.

I have highlighted the different passages differently to show which Scripture references come from the same passages of Scripture

1 Corinthians 14v34-35
34. Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.

35.  And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.

1 Timothy 2v11:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submission

1 Timothy 2v12-15 (the verse following the previous one)
12. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.

13. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.

14. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.

15.  Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.

1 Timothy Chapter 3v1-2 (These verses immediately follow on from the previous ones – verse 15 is the last verse of chapter 2)
1. This is a faithful saying:  If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.

2.  A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behaviour, hospitable, able to teach…

1 Timothy Chapter 3v12:
12.  Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well…

Titus 1v5-6:
5.  For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you –
6. If a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination…

OK, now let me talk about my understanding of these verses.
Let’s start with 1 Corinthians 14

1 Corinthians 14v34-35
34. Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.

35.  And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.

These verses teach that women should keep silent in churches.  The way I interpreted that when I was younger is the same way many people choose to interpret it still: that women should literally not say anything in church.  This would mean that women are not able to share opinions from God’s word or to teach others (including other women) what God’s word is saying.
However, if we read this passage with this understanding, then it causes a contradiction with a passage earlier on in the very same book/letter/epistle:
1 Corinthians 4 v 4-5,13:
4.  Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonours his head.

5.  But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved…

13. …Judge among yourselves.  Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?

In this second passage, Paul makes it clear that a woman (or wife) is “allowed” to pray and to prophesy within a church.  The only issue is that she must make sure that her head is covered.  So then, if he were to announce a few chapters later in chapter 14, that actually, a woman is not allowed to speak at all in church, then he is clearly contradicting himself – unless here in chapter 11 he means that a woman should pray or prophesy with her mouth closed – that is, in silence.


I believe a better understanding of the difficult passage in chapter 14 is gained by looking at the original Greek text. From this, it is clear that the original translation is valid.  However, looking at the original Greek gives a new light in which we can interpret what the passage is saying.  From this, the interpretation that I would give to the passage would be the following, or something similar:

34. Let your women keep silent keep peacefully quiet in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak chatter (speak idly), but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.

35. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is shameful for women to speak chatter (speak idly) in church.

Can you see how this different interpretation gives a very different sense to this passage?  And yet I put it to you that this is essentially the true meaning of this passage.  Let me go over each of the changes that I have made

Verse 34:
keep silent – “keep peacefully quiet”: I’ll admit that this is a bit of a stretch in the Greek, as the Greek word σιγάτωσαν – sigatosan – literally does mean “keep silent”, where “sigao” means to be silent.  However, I believe that the “keep silent” here refers not to literally being silent, but to maintaining peaceful decorum. It is as if you are a teacher in a classroom, and some children are being rowdy in the back, and you shout at them to “keep quiet!”  This does not then mean that you cannot then ask one of them to come forward and explain a passage to the others.  Looking at the next change I have made will help to explain this a little further

they are not permitted to speak -“chatter”:  In the Greek, the word usually translated as “speak” literally means to open your mouth and talk – lalein.  It is not the same word that is used to mean giving an opinion, sharing an idea, explaining a concept – legein.
So what I believe that Paul is forbidding here is the noisy talking that women might engage in during the church service, bringing chaos and disorder.  If we understand this passage in this sense, then the following verse makes perfect sense.

35. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is shameful for women to speak “chatter” in church.

From this we can infer that this forbidden talking was often for the sake of learning something.  It is a bit like if those rowdy schoolkids are noisily whispering among themselves at the back of the classroom: “What did the teacher just say?!”  (“Lalein” can also be translated “to whisper”).  I believe that Paul is saying here that instead of letting this happen, then peaceful order should be maintained, and these women should ask their husbands at home.  However, the big difficulty is that many people interpret this passage to mean that women are not allowed to share thoughts and ideas in church, or preach, in the sense of “legein”.  However this is not what the Greek word “lalein” means.  This interpretation also causes a contradiction with the earlier passage when Paul clearly does permit women to pray and prophesy, but only with their heads covered.   ( The word “woman” in that passage can also be translated as “wife” – this becomes more relevant when we look at the Timothy passage).

praying woman

[Coincidentally, “lalein” corresponds very closely to the original meaning of “speak” in the English language, which in its purest sense does literally mean “to open your mouth and talk”.  However, the word “speak” in English has now taken on connotations which would make it closer to legein than to lalein – especially in the Christian context.  “We invited a speaker and he spoke on xyz” (that is, he shared ideas, he put forward opinions about xyz) ]

Why did Paul target the women specifically?  Why did he not just ask everyone to keep quiet?  I believe that this instruction might have been born from experience.  Let’s think about the basic context that this letter was written in.

It was the First Letter to the Corinthians.  First Century Corinth was a major commercial hub. As well as having a sizeable Jewish community (who would have been well versed in the Old Testament), many of the Corinthian church would have been ethnically Gentiles, converted to Christ from pagan religions.  Of these Gentiles,  many of the men (including the slaves – sometimes, especially the slaves) would have been educated in reading and writing.  This would also have been true of a few, but not all, of the women. Not nearly as many women as men would have been able to read and write (or read and write to the standard to understand Paul’s complex writings – ha ha!  Apparently even Peter the Apostle acknowledged this difficulty 2 Peter 3v16)
This is why Paul can make the basic assumption that there would be things that the  women would not know, or understand – but their husbands would.

What is more, many of these new believers had been converted to Christ from pagan religions. Temple worship in these pagan religions was often loud, and boisterous, disorderly, chaotic, colourful – as it remains with many faiths today, for instance on feast days.  So, to put it simply, these new believers would not have known how to behave in the new faith of Christ.  I believe it is totally plausible that worshippers in the old pagan faiths could go to the temple and talk quite happily away about almost anything they wished, as loudly as they wished, while performing the various rites and rituals – and they would just naturally have translated the same habits into this new found faith with the crucified leader.  Admittedly, this does not necessarily need to have been restricted to only the women.  Earlier on in the book/letter, in 1 Corinthians 2, Paul makes it clear that he has already been to see the Corinthian church:

corinthian-column-headsGabor Szakacs

1 Corinthians 2
1.  And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech of of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God.

2.  For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

3. I was with you in weakness…

So the point is that Paul had already met the Corinthian church.  He already knew the structure of the church, the way the services ran – and the way the women in particular might have spoken noisily during the service.  So he might have offered this injunction specifically to the churches of this city out of specific experience that in the churches of this particular city, the women spoke noisily.  Perhaps this is why it says in 1 Corinthians verse 34:  “Let your women keep silent in the churches…”  That is, not a general instruction to all churches everywhere as in “Let women keep silent in churches”, but rather a specific instruction to these particular churches: “Let your women keep silent in the churches…”

Perhaps this is why this commandment does not appear in any other epistles written by Paul to other cities, like the epistles to the Romans,  Galatians, *Ephesians, Philippians or Thessalonians – because it was not relevant to them, but was specific only to the Corinthians, from Paul’s own first-hand experience. *As Timothy was apparently a minister to the church of the Ephesians, (according to this Wikipedia article) then because a similar commandment does occur in the First Letter to Timothy as we shall see below, then it could be argued that the commandment was also made to the Ephesian churches, as it was made to the Corinthian churches.

Timothy passage
OK, now let us look at the second passage. First I would like to make the point that this is all one passage in the Greek

1 Timothy 2v11
11. Let a woman learn in silence with all submission

I believe the point to be made here is exactly the same as the point made earlier in the 1 Corinthians passage.  Once again the focus is on learning, with the assumption that the women did not already know.  So perhaps the idea is that if you’re in a position to be learning, please learn quietly, peacefully.

12. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.

This is an interesting verse, as there are a couple of alternative interpretations from the Greek.  This is the one verse that people use to teach that women should not teach men, or have authority over them.  However, that contradicts what we examined in Part 1 of this post, where Old Testament women taught men, and held positions of God-given authority over men, and sometimes over  the entire nation of Israel. Similarly in the New Testament, we have the example of Priscilla, who with her husband Aquila explained the way of God more accurately to Apollos. Acts 18v26.  It seems as if this is the same Apollos who grew to become a little bit of a competitor to the influence of Paul: 1 Corinthians 3v4.

Possible interpretation 1:  The common translation is unreliable.
Key to this interpretation is that the word for “woman” in Greek is also the same as the word for wife: gunaiki: γυναικὶ
Similarly the word for “man” in Greek is also the same as the word for husband “andros” ἀνδρός.


So if then we were to retranslate this verse using the alternate translations of gunaiki and andros, then the verse would read “I do not permit a wife to teach or to have authority over her own husband, but to be in silence” (were silence=peaceful submission to her husband).  This is my preferred translation for this verse.

This is for the following reasons:
1. Firstly it is consistent with all other scriptures.
As we examined in Part 1, God says in Micah that He God has authorised at least one woman, Miriam to have authority over not just “a man”, but even a whole nation. So then along comes Paul and says that he, Paul, “does not permit….”.  Does Paul have the authority to revoke what God has already authorised?  If we take the common understanding of this verse, that is what we would be saying that Paul would be trying to do.  At best it is a contradiction, at worst it is an attempt by Paul to attack God’s own authority as God via his own authority as Apostle. God versus Apostle – which One should be greater?  If we however chose to understand it as “wife…husband” then there is no longer an Apostolic attack against God’s authority.

2. Understanding it as “wife…husband”  also flows smoothly with all the Bible passages that teach that a woman should submit to her husband. However, there is no other verse that teaches that a woman should not teach or have authority over a man, this thinking is inconsistent with all the verses where  women clearly do exercise authority over men.

3.  The very fact that Paul answers this question according to what he Paul does or does not permit, to me indicates that this is an issue that has not already been answered in Scripture. If it had already been forbidden in Scripture for a woman to have authority over a man, then the question of what Paul might or might not permit would have been irrelevant.  It would have made better sense for Paul to say “It is forbidden”.
I believe that the point there might have been that some women in the early church were using (exploiting) their new found freedom to exert authority over their own husbands in church.  And Paul quickly moved to correct this, as if he was saying “Sorry ladies, I’m not going to allow you to get away with that!”

Shoes by Petr Kratochvil

4.  If Paul really wished to make it clear that no woman was to have authority over any man, then by using the words which also meant “wife” and “husband” he chose the most ambiguous way of expressing himself.  He could have – frankly he should have used the words for “female” and “male” to clear up any hint of confusion.  These are the words he used in Galatians 3v28, when he says that in Christ there are no Jew or Gentile….male (arsen – ἄρσεν) or female (thelu – θῆλυ)”.  With these words there are no connotations of “wife” and “husband”.

From these, to me it seems so clear that the common translation of this verse is simply wrong. I honestly don’t know why all Bible translators translate it as woman…man.  The only explanation I can offer is because of the word “woman” in the previous verse, verse 11, which is more logically translated as woman, rather than wife.  Perhaps it seems unwieldy to translate the same word as “woman” in one verse, then to translate it as “wife” in the next.  Perhaps this translation works best: “And I do not permit a woman to have authority over her own husband”.    As for the reasons that Paul gives for his refusal to permit… (women…or wives ) – when he spoke of Adam and Eve, and the fact that Eve, not Adam was deceived – these are equally valid whether we translate the word as husband or as man. In addition, these examples concern Adam and Eve, the very first man and woman – and husband and wife. As they concern the very first couple, who came before the Old Testament examples of Deborah, Huldah and Miriam, these reasons would also have been valid even in Old Testament times.  However, in those Old Testament times these reasons  did not stop women from exercising authority over nations, and they did not stop God Himself from authorising women for national leadership – so why would they suddenly become strong enough to limit a woman’s reach in the New Testament, when they did not have that effect in the Old Testament?

Possible Interpretation No 2:  The translation is reliable, but it is time-specific
In this possible interpretation, the translation of the verse can stand, as translated by all Bible translators: “I do not permit a woman to have authority over a man”.  However, perhaps it is an instruction that would have been specific to Paul’s day, rather than to the general church at large.  Perhaps, again, that is why Paul makes it an issue of his own authority “I do not permit…” rather than a general church rule: “It is not permitted” to show that this is a rule that is specific to his own times, his own leadership, the context of the churches which he oversees, while (he accepts that) the next leader might legitimately overwrite this rule to reflect the new context in his (or her?!) own leadership.  Once again, this might be due to the simple fact that women were at the time when Paul was writing  generally just not in a position to know more than men, so then it might have made perfect sense to limit their leadership over men.


Possible Interpretation No 3:  The passage here refers to wives, AND it is time-specific
That is, Paul might be saying that he in particular does not permit wives to exercise authority over their own husbands, even while he is acknowledging that it might be possible. If we are to think about it very technically, both Deborah and Huldah in the Old Testament were described as being married, as being wives.  By their leadership, they exercised authority over domains which technically included their husbands.  For instance, Deborah was judge over the nation of Israel, and her husband was a citizen of the Nation of Israel. Similarly Huldah gave instructions which were applied by the King of Israel over the whole Kingdom  – of which Huldah’s husband was a citizen. It might well be that this is a general rule from Paul to stop women from using the New Covenant freedom to usurp authority over their husbands.  All the same, there might be situations when it is perfectly legitimate for a woman to exercise authority over a church where her husband might be a member – for instance if her husband is a new Christian.

1 Timothy 2 Verses 13-15
These verses talk about why leadership is the place of the man, or the husband.

1 Timothy 3v1-2
1. This is a faithful saying:  If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.

In the Greek, it does not actually use the word for “man” here.  Rather, it says “if anyone desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work”.  The word for “anyone” used is “tis”, which is the masculine form of the word meaning “anyone”.  So in a sense, this word can legitimately be translated “any man”.  However, throughout the New Testament, and Paul’s epistles, very relevantly, specifically male forms of words are used in ways which quite obviously include women too. For instance, the Book of Timothy is written to a specific individual. However, the Book of 1 Corinthians as we have previously looked at is written to a group of believers…and there, the recipients of the letter are addressed consistently as “brothers”.  The same is true of all the Pauline epistles sent to churches or cities rather than individuals. In the English, it is translated as “brethren”.  However in the Greek it merely says “brothers”.  Not “brothers and sisters”, but simply brothers:  1 Corinthians 14v20: adelphoi. ἀδελφοὶ.  Please note, there is definitely a Greek word for “Sisters”  which the Apostle Paul could have used to show that this indicated women as well as men: adelphai.  So Paul could very easily have written “adelphoi kai adelphai” – “Brothers and Sisters”.  But he never did.  Not once.


This point is really brought home in Philippians Chapter 4 v1-2

There Paul starts off:

1.  Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved.

2.  I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.

In verse one, once again, the word used  for brethren, is specifically male: brothers: adelphoi.  And then in the very next verse, he addresses two women:  Euodia and Syntyche, who clearly belong to the group of “brothers”.  This demonstrates how women were included even in the specifically male address to “brothers”.  And the same thing happens constantly throughout the New Testament. “If anyone would follow Me, let him pick up his cross and follow Me…” – as spoken by Jesus, Matthew 16v24:  once again, it is the same masculine tis – τις, once again women are clearly included. It is a feature of the Greek language that it has gender specific variants for many words, and the male endings happen to be the default.  Many times where a female variant definitely and prominently  exists, the writers of the New Testament still use the male form exclusively, in a way that demonstrates that women are included in what they are saying. For instance, in Romans 16v1-2 this same Paul used the feminine adelphe, sister, to refer to Phoebe the deacon of Cenchrea, so it is not as if he was unaware of the feminine variant, while he was exclusively using the male form adelphoi throughout the book of Romans. (In the Greek adelphe  is used in the accusative case, adelphen)

So then, it is inconsistent for people to insist that the “tis” here means that the person seeking to be a bishop has to be a man.  Yes, Paul could have used “tina”, the feminine variant of tis,  to show that women were specifically included.  However, he never bothered with feminine word variants in any other instance, so why would he bother here?  No other word in this verse has any gender connotations.  From this, it is totally consistent that women could be included in this verse.  Yes, it is expressed in the Greek in a specifically male form, but that is consistent with everything else that the New Testament writers wrote, when they used male word endings in ways that quite clearly included women. (This post however, shows that adelphoi was commonly used in a gender neutral way… and also specifically to mean “brothers”, even outside the New Testament.  It also gives some instances within the New Testament where the feminine (accusative plural) adelphas is specifically used to mean sisters.  The fact that adelphoi was commonly used in a gender neutral way outside the New Testament to mean “siblings” does undermine my point somewhat.  However this is only one Greek word that is commonly used in the male form in the New Testament to include women.  There are many, many other examples. )

I guess there is an argument here that this verse should be understood to refer exclusively  to men because of the context of the preceding verses.  That is, Paul has just said that women or wives are not to teach or have authority over men or their own husbands. So in that light, then yes, it would make sense for a verse about people in authority – namely bishops (literally overseers) – episkopes – to specifically refer to men. However, we have already seen that these preceding verses do not necessarily preclude women from leadership even over men, perhaps even over their own husbands.

2.  A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behaviour, hospitable, able to teach…

bride and groomAlenaKratochvil

People who disagree with the idea of women in leadership will specifically point to this verse, and claim that a woman is disqualified because she cannot be “a husband to one wife”.  However, all that I have said previously about specifically male words including women is also relevant here. That is, I believe that this is yet another instance where a specifically male word also includes women.  The point that Paul was making here was about the faithfulness that the bishop was to show to their spouse, not about the gender of the bishop.  We have seen that even where there are specific and easy feminine variants of words, Paul does not use them.  So yes, Paul could have made a point by saying “the husband of one wife OR the wife of one husband” but then he never bothers to do that in any other context, even where women are indisputably included, so it is not really extraordinary that he fails to do this here, AND it does not disprove the idea that women might be included, even if the role of bishop might be considered male by default, (as everything else was, in the New Testament!)

Moreover, I will show you an instance from the New Testament where this very same word, very specifically male, andros, here translated husband, quite clearly also includes a woman.
In Acts 17v34, when discussing the aftermath of Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus, it says:  “But some of the men joined him and believed.  Among them was Dionysius of the Areopagus, also a woman called Damaris…”

Here the word translated men, andres,ἄνδρες is a variant of this same exact word translated as “husband” in the Timothy passage.  It is indisputably, specifically, exclusively  male.  And yet, can you see how a woman (gune) called Damaris is casually included in this indisputably, specifically and exclusively male word?  The Greek says Among them (that is, among the men, andres) who joined him (Paul) and believed….was a woman called Damaris.  So then, can you see how possible it is for women to be included – even casually included, even in this most masculine of words?  Once again, the Greek could have said “men and women” – except that that might have come across as meaning “husbands and wives”.  The Greek could also have used the more neutral “anthropoi”, human beings, except that that may have seemed a little stilted.  In the event, Luke did not bother to clear up any possible gender confusion, and just casually used the exclusively male term.

This same point is also true for 1 Timothy 3v12:

1 Timothy Chapter 3v12:
12.  Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well…  

and Titus 1v5-6


Titus 1v5-6:
5.  For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you –
6. If a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination…

Even if we are to conclude that Paul did mean that only men should hold these positions of bishop and deacon, then it is totally plausible that this was to be specific to those times because of the comparative ignorance of women relative to men then.  And then, there is also the troublesome fact that in Romans  this same Paul also names a woman, Phoebe, as deacon, in a role which he supposedly here in 1 Timothy restricts to men…Romans 16 verse 1-2

Going back to the 1 Corinthians passage, on a somewhat tangential note, it is possible to translate 1 Corinthians 4v5, 13 as referring to wives rather than women specifically. This passage talks about the need for a woman/wife to pray with her head covered. It would make sense if this verse were to be translated wife instead of woman.  Then it might mean that a wife specifically, not just any woman, would need to pray or prophesy with her head covered, to show that she is under the covering of her husband (whereas a single woman need not bother, not being under anyone’s covering?)  And then this could also tie in with the “wife” understanding of the Timothy passage, that a wife should not exercise authority over her husband, as this would be one and the same thing as fighting against her “covering”… 😉

Read Part 1 of this article here
Read Part 3 of this article here


Photo Credits:
Image of female sculpted head by Peter Griffin at http://www.publicdomainpictures.netImage of standing woman reading book by Petr Kratochvil at
Picture of woman praying with head covered by George Hodan at
Picture of Corinthian Columns by Gabor Szakacs at
Picture of couple sitting on bench by Marina Shemesh at
Picture of man and woman’s shoes by Petr Kratochvil at
Picture of female student by Petr Kratochvil at
Picture of Sisters by Christine Vincent at
Picture of Bride and Groom by Alena Kratochvil at
Picture of Greek Church by Petr Kratochvil at

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