Misquoting God: Telling women to “submit” to abuse.

“God hates divorce!” These 3 words, taken from a much larger passage in Malachi chapter 2, are sometimes used to tell women that they must remain with men who abuse them. Manipulative offenders and deceived church leaders have even said that it is God’s will for women to “submit” to abuse.

Let’s look at the book of Malachi to see if this is truly what “God” is saying:

You cover the altar of the Lord with tears as you weep and groan, because he no longer pays any attention to the offering nor accepts it favorably from you. Yet you ask, “Why?” The Lord is testifying against you on behalf of the wife you married when you were young, to whom you have become unfaithful even though she is your companion and wife by law. No one who has even a small portion of the Spirit in him does this. What did our ancestor do when seeking a child from God? Be attentive, then, to your own spirit, for one should not be disloyal to the wife he took in his youth. “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel, “and the one who is guilty of violence,” says the Lord who rules over all. “Pay attention to your conscience, and do not be unfaithful.” (Malachi 2:13-16)

God is actually rebuking men who are unfaithful and violent towards their wives.

Earlier in the passage, God compares this marital infidelity to Israel’s sin of idolatry:

Judah has become disloyal, and unspeakable sins have been committed in Israel and Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the holy things that the Lord loves and has turned to a foreign god! May the Lord cut off from the community of Jacob every last person who does this, as well as the person who presents improper offerings to the Lord who rules over all! (Malachi 2:11-12)

In chapters 3 and 19 of the book of Jeremiah, God similarly rebukes Israel and Judah for worshiping idols (unfaithfulness), and offering their children as ritual sacrifices to false gods (violence). What was God’s response to this horrific behavior? “I gave wayward Israel her divorce papers and sent her away” (Jeremiah 3:8).

God divorced his people for infidelity and violence. Do not misquote God to tell women to “submit to abuse”:

How can you say, “We are wise!
We have the law of the Lord”?
The truth is, those who teach it have used their writings
to make it say what it does not really mean.
Your wise men will be put to shame.
They will be dumbfounded and be brought to judgment.
Since they have rejected the word of the Lord,
what wisdom do they really have?
So I will give their wives to other men
and their fields to new owners.
For from the least important to the most important of them,
all of them are greedy for dishonest gain.
Prophets and priests alike,
all practice deceit.
They offer only superficial help
for the hurt my dear people have suffered.
They say, “Everything will be all right!”
But everything is not all right!
Are they ashamed because they have done such disgusting things?
No, they are not at all ashamed!
They do not even know how to blush!
So they will die just like others have died.
They will be brought to ruin when I punish them,
says the Lord. (Jeremiah 3:8-12)

 

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Does the word “head” in the New Testament refer to “male authority”?

Before answering that question, it will be helpful to see what the Greek word translated “head” meant in ancient Greek literature other than the Bible. The word is κεφαλή, and it is found in the following passages:

Greek: “Ζεὺς κεφαλή, Ζεὺς μέσσα, Διὸς δ᾽ ἒκ πάντα τελεῖται ῾τέτυκται” (Aristotle, On the Cosmos, LCL 401a).

English Translation: “Zeus is the head, Zeus the centre, from Zeus comes all that is.”

Greek: “Τεάρου ποταμοῦ κεφαλαὶ ὕδωρ ἄριστόν τε καὶ κάλλιστον παρέχονται πάντων ποταμῶν” (Herodotus, The Histories, 4.91).

English Translation: “From the headwaters of the river Tearus flows the best and finest water of all.”

In both of these passages, κεφαλή is used to represent “source.”

We find the same usage in the New Testament, concerning Jesus:

Greek: “καὶ οὐ κρατῶν τὴν Κεφαλήν, ἐξ οὗ πᾶν τὸ σῶμα διὰ τῶν ἁφῶν καὶ συνδέσμων ἐπιχορηγούμενον καὶ συνβιβαζόμενον αὔξει τὴν αὔξησιν τοῦ Θεοῦ” (Colossians 2:19).

English Translation: “They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.”

Greek: “ἀληθεύοντες δὲ ἐν ἀγάπῃ αὐξήσωμεν εἰς αὐτὸν τὰ πάντα, ὅς ἐστιν ἡ κεφαλή, Χριστός, ἐξ οὗ πᾶν τὸ σῶμα συναρμολογούμενον καὶ συνβιβαζόμενον διὰ πάσης ἁφῆς τῆς ἐπιχορηγίας κατ’ ἐνέργειαν ἐν μέτρῳ ἑνὸς ἑκάστου μέρους τὴν αὔξησιν τοῦ σώματος ποιεῖται εἰς οἰκοδομὴν ἑαυτοῦ ἐν ἀγάπῃ” (Ephesians 4:15-16).

English Translation: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

In both Ephesians and Colossians, κεφαλή (head) is used to describe Jesus as the “source” of growth in his body, the church.

The same word, κεφαλή (head), is used in the New Testament to refer to the first man, Adam, as the “source” of the first women, Eve:

Θέλω δὲ ὑμᾶς εἰδέναι ὅτι παντὸς ἀνδρὸς ἡ κεφαλὴ ὁ Χριστός ἐστιν, κεφαλὴ δὲ γυναικὸς ὁ ἀνήρ, κεφαλὴ δὲ τοῦ Χριστοῦ ὁ Θεός (1 Corinthians 11:3).

“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”

The human race was created through Christ (John 1:3); he is the “source” of “every man.” Adam, the first man, was the “source” of Eve, the first woman (Genesis 2:22). God was the miraculous source of Jesus’ incarnation as a human being (Luke 1:35).

Some complementarians insist that 1 Corinthians 11:3 speaks of God as the “authority over” Christ, Christ as the “authority over” man, and man as the “authority over” woman. The context of the passage, however, does not support this meaning. In 1 Corinthians 11:11, Paul reminds the Corinthian church that just as a man was the source of the first woman, so too is a woman the source of every man. Rather than supporting the notion that “source” should translate into some kind of hierarchical rank, Paul reminds this church that women and men share being a “source” of life equally: “Yet, as believers in the Lord, women couldn’t exist without men, and men couldn’t exist without women” (1 Cor. 11:11).  Paul is talking about “source” in the immediate context of this passage, not authority.

Despite all of these New Testament uses of κεφαλή to mean “source,” some complementarians will insist that “head” means “authority.”  Sometimes they will cite the following passages:

And he is the head (κεφαλή) of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. (Colossians 1:18)

and

…having raised Him out from the dead, and having set Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms, above every principality and authority and power and dominion, and every name being named, not only in this age, but also in the one coming. And He put all things under His feet and gave Him to be head (κεφαλή) over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of the One filling all in all. (Ephesians 1:19-23)

Surely these passages tell us that Christ is the “head” in terms of having authority over the church, don’t they?

No, this is not Paul’s meaning.

The Risen Savior is presented here as having authority over demonic principalities and powers:For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Jesus is seated far above these principalities and powers, and we–his body, which is connected to the head–are seated there with him: “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).

Jesus has authority over these demonic powers, and so does the church, in our union with Christ.  How did Jesus accomplish this for us?  By taking upon himself the form of a servant and dying on the cross: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). 

Jesus died and rose again, so that we might share his victory over sin, Satan and the grave.  This is what Paul means when he refers to Jesus as the “head of the body” and “the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead” (Colossians 1:18).  Once again, he is the “source” of our new life, and of our freedom from the power of a defeated foe.

What does “κεφαλή (head)” mean in the New Testament? Regarding Jesus and Adam, it means “source.” Adam was the “source” of Eve, who was taken from his side; and Jesus is the “source” of life, growth and freedom in the church.  Referring to husbands as the “head” of their wives (Ephesians 5:23), Paul tells them, “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).

Is this language teaching male authority?  On the contrary, let’s look at the example set for us by Jesus himself:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

This example of NOT exercising authority over others is what husbands are commanded to imitate in the New Testament: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).  Suggesting that this passage means that husbands should “rule over” their wives is the exact opposite of what Jesus taught and modeled for us through his life (and death) of sacrificial service. 

When Jesus took upon himself the form of a servant, and was obedient to the point of death, he became the “source” of our life and freedom.  This is what “headship” means in the Bible, and this is the example we are commanded to follow:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)

 

 

 

1 Timothy 2:13-15: The Order of Creation? Saved through Childbearing?

Paul’s Reference to the Creation Account: His Message in Context

Some complementarians insist that Paul makes reference to the creation account in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 to reinforce the notion that women should not attempt to “usurp” male authority in the church.  An exploration of Paul’s Ephesian context in light of his expressed concerns about false teaching suggests a different interpretation.  Rather than protecting “male authority” from women, Paul seems to be intent on protecting the gospel message from an early form of Gnostic asceticism.

One of the earliest recorded Gnostic sects in this region drew their theological beliefs from the mythology of a goddess named Cybele.[i]  Her consort was a castrated male deity named Attis, and she was served by eunuch priests. The Gnostics viewed the castration of Cybele’s priesthood and Attis as a symbol for the renunciation of “the flesh.”  They viewed matter as evil, and sought to “put to death” the body and its passions.

An earlier article examined the possibility that Paul’s prohibition against a woman teaching something related to “authentein andros” in 1 Timothy 2:12 may be prohibiting ascetic teaching that encouraged men to “put to death” a part of themselves.  Available historical evidence demonstrates that some men who embraced this teaching also engaged in ritual self-harm that was prohibited by Roman law.  These practices included self-castration, self-flagellation and the taking of hemlock to suppress the passions.  That article is available here: https://equalityworkbook.wordpress.com/2017/02/08/pauls-concern-in-1st-timothy-false-teaching/

The Gnostic sect that embraced castrated Attis as a symbol of their ascetic beliefs also made significant alterations to the creation story found in Genesis. They praised Eve for eating the forbidden fruit to obtain divine “gnosis,” and viewed the serpent as a messenger of God.[ii] They combined the creation story in Genesis with the Cybele myth, which depicted a female goddess as the source of all life and purity, while male gods were portrayed as the source of all that is evil.[iii] By referring to the actual creation story as recorded by Moses, Paul highlights that while all men do come from women, the first woman came from a man. He also demonstrates that Eve as well as Adam played a role in humanity’s fall. Rather than endorsing a male-dominated “order of creation,”  Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy 2:13-14–understood in their original context–simply correct the theological errors of ascetic Gnosticism.

Paul’s Reference to Salvation through Childbearing: His Message in Context

This brings us to an examination of Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy 2:15: “But she will be saved through childbearing, if they abide in faith and love and holiness, with self-restraint” (Berean Literal Bible). “Saved through childbearing” is the phrase that has led to confusion for many theologians throughout church history. Once again, understanding Paul’s words in the context of his immediate concerns (asceticism influenced by mythology) can be helpful. Authors Philippe Borgeaud, Lewis Farnell and Marguerite Rigoglioso point out that while natives of Asia Minor called their goddess “Cybele,” Greeks who immigrated to the region gave her one of the names of their own goddesses; they called her “Artemis.”[iv] When the Greeks would give a foreign goddess one of the names of their own deities, the beliefs and practices of the different cultures would begin to merge. In some cases they would overlap; in others they would retain some of their original distinctions. (It is important to recognize that there were many variations of the goddess “Artemis” in the ancient world. We are concerned here only with the Artemis that was essentially a Greek perception of the goddess Cybele.) In the worship of Cybele/Artemis, marriage was traditionally frowned upon. This mythical deity preferred women to remain single and set apart for divine service; marriage was viewed as a form of betrayal. Women who married and became pregnant were afraid that the goddess might kill them in childbearing.[v] Whereas worshipers who knew the goddess as Artemis would offer animal sacrifices or other gifts to appease her wrath,[vi] male priests of the goddess Cybele would attempt to appease her by offering bloody sacrifices from their own bodies. Seneca, a Latin philosopher from the 1st century A.D., wrote to express his horror about this practice:

One cuts off his virile organs, another slashes his arms. How can they fear the gods in their wrath, who thus gain their favour when they are to be propitiated. Rather, gods who would demand this should not be served in any manner at all…. On the whims of kings some have been castrated, but no one ever, at the command of his lord, unmanned himself by his own hands. They slay themselves in their sanctuaries; they beseech the gods with their wounds and with their blood. If one has the chance to look closely at what they do and what they undergo, he will find these things to be so unseemly for decent people, so unworthy of freemen, so unlike the actions of the sane, that no one would doubt that they are mad, were they but mad with the minority; now, however, the crowding number of the insane serves as proof of their sanity.[vii]

In the context of 1st century A.D. goddess mythology, salvation from possible death in childbearing and ritual violence against men went hand-in-hand.[viii]

The Gnostics who drew inspiration from this mythology insisted that spiritual salvation required both men and women to become sexless.  Procreation (the creation of matter) was viewed as evil.[ix]

Paul writes to Timothy to tell him that salvation is not to be associated with pagan myths or a Gnostic renunciation of human sexuality. Rather, he explains that women will be saved through faith in Christ, that expresses itself in love and holiness.

Apparently ignorant of Paul’s context and intended meaning, Latin theologians like St. Jerome concluded that women would be saved from sin by giving birth to children.[x] Similarly, in some complementarian circles today, women are told that they will demonstrate a saving faith in Christ by embracing the roles of wife and mother.[xi]

These patriarchal interpretations of Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:15 deny the gospel of salvation through faith in God’s grace, and overlook what Paul’s comments likely meant to his original audience in 1st century Ephesus.

Endnotes

i Hippolytus of Rome, The Refutation of All Heresies, Book V.

ii The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, [1887], at sacred-texts.com, http://www.sacred-texts.com/gno/gar/gar15.htm.

iii Edwards, Let My People Go, pp. 60-61.

iv Borgeaud, Mother of the Gods, p. 7-9; Farnell, L.R. (1977). The Cults of the Greek States: Volume II. New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas Brothers, Publishers, p. 482; Rigoglioso, M. (2009). The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, p. 99.

v Rigoglioso, M. (2009). The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan; Demand, N. (1994). Birth, Death and Motherhood in Classical Greece. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press; Budin, S. (2015). Artemis. New York, NY: Routledge.

vi Budin, p. 95; “let her sacrifice an adult animal as penalty, and then go to the bedchamber”; Farnell, L. (2010). The Cults of the Greek States: Volume 2, New York, NY: The Cambridge University Press, p. 444, robes were offered to Artemis after childbirth, or on behalf of women who had died in childbearing.

vii Seneca, De Superstitione (fr. 34 Hasse), as quoted in St. Augustine, De civitate Dei 6.10.; cited in Borgeaud, p. 95.

viii Sir James George Frazer highlights the purpose of the bloody rituals of Cybele’s priesthood: “new birth and the remission of sins”: Frazer, J. (1994). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, A New Abridgement from the Second and Third Editions, Ed. Robert Fraser, New York, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 358-359; Clement of Alexandria, a 2nd century A.D. Christian writer, makes reference to the bloody offerings of male genitalia as an atonement for sexual sin, in book two of his “Exhortation to the Greeks,” http://www.theoi.com/Text/ClementExhortation1.html#2.

ix The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, as cited in Catherine and Richard Clark Kroeger’s “I Suffer Not a Woman,” p. 173.

x Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Book 1 §27, as cited at http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/jerome.asp.

xi Bruce Ware; as cited in Taylor, S. (2013). Dethroning Male Headship, Auburndale, FL: One Way Press, pp. 108-109.

 

Is Christianity a Male Supremacy Cult?

Simply put, the answer is “no.”

In the New Testament time period, Roman law and Jewish oral tradition did not view the testimony of women as reliable.  In spite of these cultural norms, women were the first to be chosen to bear witness to Jesus’ resurrection—the sign of his triumph over sin and death (Luke 24:1-10).

The apostle Paul tells us there is “neither…male nor female,” for we are all “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  In the body of Christ, men and women are called to serve according to their gifts, not according to their sex at birth (Romans 12:6-8).

In the book of Acts, we see women prophesying (Acts 21:9), and a woman named Priscilla teaching a man “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26).

Phoebe was a deacon who made leadership decisions about supporting the ministry of the apostle Paul and others (Romans 16:1-2).

Junia, a woman, was “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7).

If the New Testament tells us that women and men are equally redeemed, equally sanctified, and equally called to serve God in accordance with their gifts, why do we even wonder if Christianity teaches that women should be subordinate to men?

Because a male supremacy cult does operate within the church, and it does masquerade as Christianity.

One of this cult’s present-day leaders recently equated the doctrine of male authority–which he calls complementarianism–with Christianity: “So, the reason among all the other reasons that I mentioned and could mention that I believe complementarianism will endure is not a passing fancy–is not going to go away–is that no matter how great opposition to Christianity becomes, there will always be a remnant of complementarians willing to die for the truth” (John Piper, desiringGod, April 19, 2017).

John Piper may or may not realize it, but his belief in male authority and female subordination cannot be found anywhere in the teachings of Christ.  In other words, it is not Christian.

John Piper refers to himself as a 7 point Calvinist (traditionally Calvinism is viewed as having only 5 main tenets).  In other words, he derives his understanding of the Bible from the 16th century commentary work of John Calvin (desiringGod, January 23, 2006).

This is what Calvin had to say about women: “Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection and not take it ill that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex” (Calvin’s Commentaries: Vol. 39).

John Calvin did not take his view of women from the teachings of Jesus Christ; rather, he was strongly influenced by the 4th century commentary work of a man named Augustine (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III).

This is what Augustine had to say about women:

It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater . . . This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger.  This therefore is the evident justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who excel in reason, excel in power. (Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, § 153)

Augustine did not derive his view of women from the teachings of Jesus Christ: rather, he was influenced by what he referred to as “the books of the Platonists” (Augustine’s Confessions, Book VII).

This is what Plato had to say about women:

Let me further note that the manifold and complex pleasures and desires and pains are generally found in children and women and slaves….  Whereas the simple and moderate desires which follow reason, and are under the guidance of the mind and true opinion, are to be found only in a few, and those the best born and best educated…

Very true.  These two, as you may perceive, have a place in our State; and the meaner desires of the [many] are held down by the virtuous desires and wisdom of the few [the best born and best educated men]…

You are quite right, he replied, in maintaining the general inferiority of the female sex….” (Plato’s Republic)

Is Christianity a male supremacy cult?  No, but there is a male supremacy cult within the church that claims to represent Christianity.

When human philosophy attempted to infiltrate the early church, the apostle Paul wrote, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

I believe he would say the same today, regarding the deceptive philosophy and human tradition of male authority.

Men are Not Exempt from Mutual Submission

Drawing inspiration from Wayne Grudem’s book entitled “Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth,” complementarians claim that while women must be submissive to men, the reverse is never true.

For example, one complementarian blogger states the following:

-The word “submit” or “be subject to” (hypotasso) is always used for submission to an authority. The submission is always one-directional.

-No one has produced an example in ancient Greek literature where hypotasso (“submit”) is applied to a relationship between persons and it does not bear the sense of “be subject / submissive to” an authority.  (Sam Storms, Enjoying God Blog, September 12, 2016)

It is not difficult to test the validity of these statements by looking at what the Bible has to say for itself about “submission/hypotasso”:

…be filled by the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for each other in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-21)

In this passage, who is to be submissive? Everyone who is “filled with the Spirit.”  To whom are all of these people to be submissive? One to another, out of reverence for Christ.  All Christians are called upon to relate to one another with Christ-like humility and a willingness to serve one another in love.

In one biblical passage alone, the two claims made in the complementarian blog are proven false; but this is not the only passage that teaches all Christians—male and female—to relate to one another with an attitude of Christ-like humility and service.

We find the same principle in Philippians:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:1-8)

As he did in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul points out that those who “share the Spirit” will have the “same mind” that was in “Christ Jesus.” He took upon himself “the form of a slave,” “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.”

Who is supposed to have this heart of humility and service? Everyone who “shares the Spirit” of God. To whom are they supposed to demonstrate this attitude of humble submission? One to another.

We find the same principle in 1 Peter, chapter 3:

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)

Complementarians like Wayne Grudem and Sam Storms appear to be reading their Bibles very selectively. They take note of the submission of wives mentioned in Ephesians 5:22 and 1 Peter 3:1, but then overlook the commands directed towards ALL Christians—male and female—to similarly serve and submit one to another. In 1 Peter 3:7, for instance, after discussing the submission of wives, husbands are explicitly told to relate to their wives “in the same way,” honoring them as fellow “heirs of the gracious gift of life.”

Submission in the body of Christ does not go in one direction from one group of submissive followers to another group of appointed leaders. In fact, when addressing his disciples, Jesus said, “Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ” (Matthew 23:10).

If men want to follow the teachings of Christ, if they wish to be “filled with the Spirit” of God, they will not claim to have a position of authority over women in the church or in the home. They will follow the example of Jesus and take upon themselves the form of a servant; they will “submit one to another, out of reverence for Christ.”

The Elephant in the Room: Denying Reality to Justify Male Power

Complementarians celebrate that they have always had the same view of 1st Timothy 2:12. As far as they are concerned, it tells us that God created men to “exercise authority over women,” and that anytime a woman attempts to share this authority with men, it is a sin.

Egalitarians take a different approach. I’ve completed a literature review of some of the most common egalitarian explanations of this passage. I’ve read the work of Gordon Fee, Catherine and Richard Clark Kroeger, Philip B. Payne, Sharon Hodgin Gritz, Linda Belleville, Leland Wilshire, Gilbert Bilezikian, Katharine Bushnell, Charles Trombley and others.

All of these scholars note that when talking about authority, Paul usually uses the word “exousia” in the New Testament (32 times). In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul uses a different word, “authentein,” and he only uses it once. My first encounter with the word “authentein” outside of the New Testament occurred when I read the Wisdom of Solomon in the Greek Septuagint. Here a noun form of the same word, “authentas,” is used to describe parents who sacrificed their children to false gods and goddesses in secret rituals. This was my first indication that Paul probably did not see “authentein” simply as a synonym for “exousia.”  This impression has since been affirmed by many years of related research.

In addition to noticing that Paul uses “authentein” rather than “exousia” in 1 Timothy 2:12, many egalitarian scholars also see that 1st Timothy is a warning against a false teaching that was somehow “ascetic.” Ascetics taught that the body and its passions are evil. They commanded people to abstain from marriage and to avoid eating foods that might stimulate the passions (see 1 Timothy 4:3-4). Usually this meant avoiding meat and wine.

Many egalitarian scholars also note that this kind of asceticism was connected with a false teaching eventually called “Gnosticism.” The Gnostics taught that denying the body and its passions would enable people to receive special revelation knowledge (gnosis in Greek) from God. In 1st Timothy 6:20, Paul warns Timothy to guard the gospel message against the “profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge”–gnosis.

Some egalitarian scholars also note that Gnostic asceticism in Ephesus and the surrounding region was influenced by pagan goddess mythology. Sometimes the goddess is identified as Artemis, sometimes she is called Cybele. When the Greeks first immigrated to this region, they began to confuse Cybele (who was already there) with one of their own goddesses, Artemis; so it isn’t difficult to see why both goddesses are mentioned in egalitarian literature. In addition to being “ascetic,” Paul identifies that the false teachers in Ephesus would, “devote themselves to myths” (1 Timothy 1:4).

Paul’s use of “authentein” instead of “exousia” in the context of a warning against Gnostic asceticism based on myths suggests a number of possible interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:12:

1) Some scholars see Paul as prohibiting the teaching that a woman was the “author” of man. “Authentein” is sometimes translated as “author,” or “the person ultimately responsible for something,” in ancient Greek literature. Goddess mythology in Ephesus did teach that women were the authors of men. Female deities were responsible for creation, and male deities were more often connected with evil.

2) Some scholars see Paul as prohibiting a woman from teaching a man in a “domineering” fashion. At least by the 2nd century A.D., the word “authentes” began to be used as a synonym for “despotes,” meaning “tyrant” or “despot.” In the goddess myths of Asia Minor, women were dominant. In the 4th century, 1st Timothy 2:12 was translated into Latin, and the word used for “authentein” was “dominari.” Latin commentaries explained that this meant a woman was not to have “domination” over a man. Some commentaries said that a wife was not to be “domineering” with a husband.

3) Some scholars see Paul as prohibiting a woman from simply assuming authority that was not rightly conferred upon her by the church. Again, women influenced by local goddess mythology may have had some sense that they had a special connection with the divine, and that this entitled them to teaching and leadership positions on the basis of gender alone. (Today, we see men making the same erroneous assumption.)

4) Finally, some egalitarian scholars see that just as “authentas” referred to murderous rituals in the Wisdom of Solomon, so too did the goddess cults regularly practice ritual violence against men. Men in these cults were called “slayers of themselves” in Roman literature of the 1st century. They offered sacrifices to the goddess from their own bodies. Ascetic Gnostics interpreted the mythology and practices of these cults as confirmation that the body and its passions are evil and must therefore be “put to death.” On numerous occasions throughout Greek literature extending into the New Testament period words such as “authentas, authentes, authenten, authentai, euthentekota, authentesonta, etc.” were used to indicate murder or violence done to oneself or others, either literally (as in the case of the goddess cults) or figuratively (as in the case of ascetic Gnosticism).  I find evidence for this viewpoint most compelling.  Anyone interested can read more about that here: https://equalityworkbook.wordpress.com/2017/02/08/pauls-concern-in-1st-timothy-false-teaching/

So what do we do with all of these possible egalitarian interpretations?

In my profession as a therapist, we would often use an analogy involving an elephant to describe a situation in which each person in a group had an understanding of one part of a larger situation. All of the people in the analogy are in a dark room, and they attempt to identify the elephant by touch alone. One person would discover the trunk of the elephant, another the ears, another the legs, and another the tail. The danger highlighted by this analogy is that all of these people might focus exclusively on their part of the elephant, divorce it from others’ findings, and begin to argue about what they have found. The one grasping the trunk might conclude it is a snake, while someone else grasping a leg might insist that it is a tree etc. In reality, they each have a hold of one part of something very large and very real—the elephant.

All of the egalitarian scholarship I have just referred to is excellent. It is based on years (sometimes decades) of credible scholarship. All of it points to different aspects of the same larger theme: Paul’s warning against ascetic teaching based on myths that gave priority to women over men. In other words, Paul is not talking about women merely “exercising authority” over men in the church. Those that insist he is are simply ignoring the elephant in the room so that that they can continue to justify the human tradition of male power.

1 Timothy 2:12: Bias in Complementarian Research

In 1984, George W. Knight III published a study on the Greek word “authentein.”  This is the word used by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12.  After examining a sample of 13 uses of the word (in noun and verb forms), Knight concludes that “the broad concept of authority is virtually present everywhere.”  He therefore supports the notion that Paul was prohibiting women from “teaching” and “exercising authority over men” in the church.

The first difficulty with Knight’s study is that it is quite small.  Thirteen citations is a small number of examples from which to make a general rule.  The second difficulty with Knight’s sample is more serious.  He discards information that does not support his patriarchal worldview.

He finds that a verb form of “authentein” was used in a 1st century commentary note on a Greek tragedy entitled “Eumenides” by Aeschylus.  The word is “authentekota,” and its meaning is “murdered.”[1]  The passage it describes reads as follows: “His hands were dripping blood; he held a sword just drawn.”[2]  The commentator notes that the character in the play, Orestes, had previously “murdered” his mother.  Knight’s handling of this example is problematic; he decides that it “helps little” with our understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12, and so he sets it “to one side.”  In other words, he discards it from his sample.[3]

In contrast to Knight’s handling of the word “authentein,” a study of 329 uses of the word found in the TLG computer database was published by Leland Wilshire in 2010.  Wilshire’s sample of the TLG is exhaustive, leaving out no examples.  He also includes examples found in the BAGD Lexicon.  At the conclusion of his study, Wilshire finds that at the time of the New Testament, the majority of citations “have to do with self-willed violence, criminal action, or murder or reference to the person who does these things.”[4]  A list of just some of these citations found by Wilshire and confirmed by my own independent study is available here: https://equalityworkbook.wordpress.com/2017/01/07/not-about-authority/.

Some complementarians have acknowledged Wilshire’s findings that “authentein” in one form or another often referred to something violent or murderous.  This includes numerous citations around the New Testament era, from the 2nd century B.C. through to the 2nd century A.D..  These complementarians suggest, however, that Wilshire’s study focuses mainly on “nouns,” and that the noun and verb forms of “authentein” are not related.

It seems as though they are forgetting Knight’s excluded example of “authentekota” as a verb form of “authentein” that referred to the act of murder.  Another complementarian scholar, Andreas Kostenberger, acknowledges the existence of “authentekota,” but says that because it is “unusual,” it must be a “mistake.”  He also then sets it aside.  Furthermore, Kostenberger says that there is “no evidence” that such a verb was “ever” used to mean “murder” outside of this example.[5]  In saying this, he is simply wrong.  Philip B. Payne highlights the use of the verb “authentesonta” to refer to the act of “murder” in the following citation: “Authentesonta itself does not require that one wear the sword himself…for Mithridates ordered them to kill.”  Payne highlights that “this incident is from 87 B.C..”[6]  Those who hired a man to commit “murder” in the Mithridatic wars are referred to by Appian of Alexandria as “authentai.”  In other words, the verb “authentesonta” and the noun “authentai” are directly related.

In addition to these two examples of verb forms of “authentein” referring to the act of “murder,” Leland Wilshire’s comprehensive study makes reference to more:

Among the secular writers of the late Roman period, there is also a bifurcation of meanings, some writers using the word to mean, “to murder or doing harm,” while others use the word, along with the Greek patristic writers, to mean “to exercise authority.”  Themistius, a philosopher and Rhetorician, from IV AD [the 4th century] uses it in context to mean, “murder.”  Sopater Atheniensis, a Rhetorician from IV AD, uses the word in contrast to autocheir in a context dealing with murder.[7]

Is George Knight III correct in his conclusion that “the broad concept of authority is found virtually everywhere” with regard to “authentein”?  No, his sample size is too small to form such a conclusion, and he chooses to exclude evidence that does not support his belief.  Is Andreas Kostenberger correct to suggest that there are no verb forms of “authentein” that refer to the act of murder?  No, he excludes one example as “a mistake” and simply seems unaware of others.

Egalitarian scholars Leland Wilshire and Philip B. Payne acknowledge that verb and noun forms of the word “authentein” are directly related to one another.  They also acknowledge that various forms of the word “authentein” carried meanings related to violence or murder.  They do not follow the example set by their complementarian colleagues who seem to deny evidence that does not support their beliefs.

An article that explores the meaning of “authentein” as some form of murder or violence in the context of  Paul’s first letter to Timothy is available at the following link: https://equalityworkbook.wordpress.com/2017/02/08/pauls-concern-in-1st-timothy-false-teaching/.

Endnotes

[1] Wilshire, L. (2010). Insight into Two Biblical Passages, NY, New York: University Press of America, pp. 18, 20, 29.
[2] Eumenides by Aeschylus, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Aesch.+Eum.+34&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0006
[3] Wilshire, L. (2010). Insight into Two Biblical Passages, New York, NY: University Press of America, p. 18.
[4] Wilshire, L. (2010). Insight into Two Biblical Passages, NY, New York: University Press of America, p. 29.
[5] Kostenberger, A., Schreiner T. (2016). Women in the Church, Third Edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
[6] Payne, P. (2009). Man and Woman, One in Christ, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan p. 362.
[7] Wilshire, L. (2010). Insight into Two Biblical Passages, NY, New York: University Press of America, p. 25.