How a First Century Roman Author Sheds Light on the Context of 1 Timothy 2:12-15

I just finished reading a satirical commentary on life in the Roman Empire of the 1st century AD, written by a man who lived at the same time as the apostle Paul. The author’s name was Juvenal. In his 6th Satire, he describes concerns similar to those raised by Paul in his first letter to Timothy.

Both Juvenal and Paul talk about women dying (or being saved) through childbearing (see 1 Timothy 2:15). Childbearing was very dangerous for women in the ancient world. Women would appeal to Ephesian goddesses (Artemis and/or Cybele) to save them in childbirth. Some women would also practice “pharmakeia,” otherwise known as “perierga.”

Acts 19:19 talks about the practice of perierga in Ephesus. This is one of the Koine Greek words for “sorcery.” In a 1st century context, “sorcery” literally involved the use of forbidden drugs. Some of these drugs were directly associated with a woman’s fear of death in childbearing. Some drugs, administered to women, triggered abortion. Other drugs, administered to men, suppressed desire and/or produced sterility. In both instances, those to whom the drugs were administered were sometimes inadvertently killed (see James Rives’ “Magic Religion and Law” in Ando and Rupke’s “Religion and Law in Classical and Christian Rome”).

The use of these drugs was prohibited under a law called the Lex Cornelia de Sicariis et Veneficis (The Law of Cornelius Against Murderers and Poisoners). Cornelius Sulla served as a Roman official in Asia Minor. The Roman word for “poisoners” or “sorcerers” was “veneficis.” One Greek word carrying the same meaning was “periergoi.” Paul warns certain Ephesian women not to be “periergoi” in 1 Timothy 5:13.

Juvenal writes about the necessity of abstinence from intercourse as part of ancient religious custom. He specifically discusses the cults of Isis and Cybele. Juvenal also references the fact that the male priests of the goddess Cybele (notably worshiped in Ephesus) had all castrated themselves. While some men (like Cybele’s priests) physically castrated themselves for religious reasons, other men used drugs—including hemlock—as a form of chemical castration.

Following prescribed periods of abstinence and/or the practice of literal or chemical castration were integral components of ancient goddess mythology. Intercourse in general (or sexual activity during times set apart for religious observance) would lead to divine judgment. Specifically, a woman might die in childbearing. Juvenal explained that priests of the goddess cults would make “intercession for wives who’ve failed to abstain.” Sometimes these cults would also sell drugs to either prevent or terminate pregnancy. Juvenal refers to “the peddler of magic spells and Thessalians.” The so-called “witches of Thessaly” were renowned for their use of drugs (including poisons) to suppress male desire (see Marco Leonti and Laura Casu’s “Ethnopharmacology of Love”).

In addition to trying to control human reproduction, the priesthoods of these goddesses also practiced soothsaying or fortune-telling. Their religious rites of abstinence allegedly gave them access to divine knowledge (gnosis). These mythologies influenced the rise of Gnosticism within Judaism prior to the advent of Christianity. These myths then began to infiltrate the early church, notably in Ephesus. (See Hippolytus of Rome’s “Refutation of All Heresies,” Lewis Farnell’s “Cults of the Greek States,” Florence Mary Bennett’s “Religious Cults Associated with the Amazons,” John Ferguson’s “Religions of the Roman Empire,” Allen H. Jones “Essenes: The Elect of Israel and the Priests of Artemis,” and Philippe Borgeaud’s “Mother of the Gods: From Cybele to the Virgin Mary” for more information on the beliefs and practices of the goddess cults, and how they impacted the early church).

Juvenal makes a direct comparison between the the goddess cults and Jewish women who embraced similar beliefs and practices. He says that such a woman would “interpret Jerusalem’s laws,” and he refers to her as a “high priestess”; she would also practice fortune-telling (perierga) for money. The main difference, to Juvenal, was that the goddess cults tended to charge more money for their services than their Jewish counterparts.

In Paul’s 1st letter to Timothy, we find a warning against “false” teaching by those who claimed to be “teachers of the law.” Paul also says they were preoccupied with myths (see chapter 1:3-7). They also taught abstinence from marriage and certain foods (see chapter 4:1-10). As mentioned, Paul warns certain women in Ephesus not to be “periergoi” in 1 Timothy 5:13. Most English translations render this “busybodies,” which may be missing how the word was more likely used in a 1st century Ephesian context. In 2nd Timothy 3:8, Paul compares the false teachers of Ephesus to “Jannes and Jambres,” two of the sorcerers who opposed Moses in the book of Exodus. In Plutarch’s “Alexander,” periergoi practiced “enchantments,” and participated in “superstitious ceremonies” (2.4-5).  In 1st Timothy 6:20-21, Timothy is urged to guard the gospel message against that which is falsely called “gnosis” (knowledge).

In 1st Timothy 2:12 Paul warns against “a woman” teaching (didaskein); he also warns against her doing something represented by the Greek words “authentein andros.” In other 1st century AD literature, words such as “authentes, authenten and authentas” were used by Philo and Josephus to refer to those who were somehow responsible for someone’s death. In Josephus, the “authenten” was someone who purchased poison from a woman to commit a murder. In Philo, the authentes was someone who caused his own death by embracing a false “gnosis” (knowledge) of God (see Josephus’ Jewish War,” and Philo’s “The Worse is Wont to Attack the Better”).

Authentes—and related nouns—had nothing to do with “exercising authority” over someone in these contexts. They were a reference to being responsible for someone’s death (either spiritually or physically). Two Hellenistic Greek verbs—euthentekota and authentesonta—were also used with this meaning. One use referred to a man who murdered his mother. The other referred to a king (Mithridates) who was responsible for the death of others, even though he himself did not commit the act (see Leland Wilshire’s “Insight into Two Biblical Passages,” and Philip B. Payne’s “Man and Woman: One in Christ”).

In Juvenal’s 6th Satire, he refers to a woman who practiced the use of poisons as a “murderer.” He also compares such women to the mythical Danaids, who were noted for killing their husbands.

If Paul and Juvenal are discussing similar concerns—and it seems probable that they are—then the women Paul addresses in 1st Timothy were not simply “exercising authority” over men. They may have been engaged in false teaching that would somehow be responsible for a man’s death. This may have been a spiritual death (teaching false gnosis), or it may have been connected to the practice of perierga—the illegal use of pharmaceuticals to inhibit desire or promote male sterility, which sometimes resulted in death. In one way or another, false teaching would have been responsible for the death of a man.

An excellent summary of the spiritual context of 1st century Ephesus is available in a Priscilla Paper’s article, written by Dr. Aída Besançon Spencer. In the article, she accurately references the influence of the goddess cults on the early church. She specifically mentions the practice of perierga (withcraft/sorcery), and how Paul is likely addressing a false teaching that would result in the domination or destruction of a man. She highlights that Paul likely compares this false teaching to Eve’s giving of the forbidden fruit to Adam–an act which led to his death.  Paul makes reference to this in 1 Timothy 2:13-14.  Her article, which I would recommend, is available here:

Paul’s use of the word “authentein” and his reference to being “saved through childbearing” have baffled theologians for centuries. Reading other 1st century authors– such as Juvenal, Philo and Josephus–who used similar words and/or discussed similar issues, will likely give us a better chance of grasping his intended meaning.


Other 1st Century Jewish Writers Who Used Greek Words Like “Authentein”

I was recently reading an interesting paper about a 1st century Jewish philosopher named Philo. Like Paul, Philo wrote to warn people about a false “knowledge” (gnosis) of God. Also like Paul, Philo used a rare Greek word in the context of a warning against false teaching. While Paul used the word “authentein,” Philo used a similar noun, “authentes.” Here are a few excerpts from the paper, and some thoughts about why this may be significant for women’s equality in the church:

Heretical gnosis reached Palestine at least by the early first century. ‘Gnostic’ mystical doctrines were tolerated and fostered by some in orthodox circles, so long as ‘the honor of the Father in Heaven’ was served and the unity of God maintained. Thus a distinction was made between ‘true’ gnosis and ‘false’ gnosis, the latter characterized by arrogance over against God…

The Palestinian distinction between true and false gnosis is matched by, and preceded by, a similar distinction in the Alexandrian Diaspora. Philo distinguishes between the true and the false gnosis by stating that the true is characterized by following God, and is typified by righteous Abel, while the false, typified by Cain, is characterized by ascribing all things to the human mind. (

In his work entitled “the Worse Attacks the Better,” Philo talks about two opposing principles in the life of each person. One of these principles—which he metaphorically calls “Cain”–is at war with the other, which is metaphorically referred to as “Abel.”

A person who is dominated by Cain embraces a false “gnosis” of God. Such a person elevates the human mind over and above God. Philo describes the symptoms of such a life in the following terms:

If, therefore, you see any one desiring meat or drink at an unseasonable time [some Gnostics advocated a life of bodily self-indulgence], or repudiating baths or ointments at the proper season, or neglecting the proper clothing for his body, or lying on the ground and sleeping in the open air, and by such conduct as this, pretending to a character for temperance and self-denial [other Gnostics advocated a life of bodily self-denial], you, pitying his self-deception, should show him the true path of temperance, for all the practices in which he has been indulging are useless and profitless labours, oppressing both his soul and body with hunger and all sorts of other hardships. (The Worse Attacks the Better)

Sticking with his “Cain and Abel” metaphor, Philo explains that a person who embraces a false “gnosis” (knowledge of God) becomes a “murderer” of himself. Here are his exact words:

What is this that thou hast done, O wretched man? Does not the God-loving opinion which you flatter yourself that you have destroyed, live in the presence of God? But it is of yourself that you have become the murderer (authentes), by destroying from out of its seat the only quality by which you could live in a blameless manner. (The Worse Attacks the Better)

What is striking about this passage is that Philo describes a man who has embraced a false “gnosis” of God as an “authentes”–a “murderer” of himself.

Some complementarians argue that the practice of using “authentes” to refer to a “murderer” was obsolete by the 1st century AD; yet Philo–a first century author–used it in exactly this way. He is not alone. Flavius Josephus–another 1st century Greek speaking Jewish writer–also used “authentas” and “authenten” to convey this meaning.

Those familiar with the Greek language of Paul’s first letter to Timothy will probably recognize that Philo’s “authentes” is very similar to Paul’s use of the word “authentein” in 1 Timothy 2:12. Dr. Leland Wilshire, author of “Insight into Two Biblical Passages,” demonstrates that “authentes” is a noun form of the infinitive verb “authentein.” In other words, it is likely that the two words shared a similar meaning in the 1st century AD.

Some complementarians allege that while nouns like authentes may have carried a meaning related to murder, similar verbs (like authentein) did not. In making this argument, they ignore the work of egalitarian scholars Leland Wilshire and Philip B. Payne who provide examples of other verbs in Koine Greek literature that carried this meaning. The first verb, discussed by Wilshire, is “euthentekota.” It is used in a commentary on a famous Greek tragedy in which a man “murdered” his mother. The second verb, discussed by Payne, is “authentesonta.” It is used to highlight that a king (named Mithridates) was responsible for the killing of Roman citizens carried out by his soldiers. Even though the king did not do the killing himself, he was still responsible for the deaths. (See Payne’s discussion of 1st Timothy 2:12 in “Man and Woman: One in Christ”)

The significance of the parallel between Philo’s use of authentes and Paul’s use of authentein becomes especially apparent when we consider that both authors were 1st century AD Greek-speaking Jews, writing to warn people about a false “knowledge” or gnosis of God. As Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:20, “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge (gnosis).”

Paul’s description of those who embrace such a false knowledge is also similar to Philo’s. Here are Paul’s comments from 1 Timothy 4:1-4:

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.

In Philo, false gnosis is responsible for a man’s spiritual death. Such a man would be an “authentes.”

In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul may very well be prohibiting a woman from a form of teaching (didaskein) that would similarly be responsible for the spiritual death of a man (authentein andros).

Some complementarians object to this thinking on the grounds that it is absurd to think Paul was forbidding a woman from “murdering” a man. The Ten Commandments would suffice to prohibit such an act. Paul would not need to write an additional prohibition in 1st Timothy 2:12. This is a straw man argument. Paul was not evidently prohibiting women from murdering men. What he may have been doing, however, is prohibiting a false teaching that encouraged a man to embrace a false knowledge of God, and thereby become a “murderer” of himself.  In this manner, a woman’s false teaching may have been responsible for a man’s spiritual death.

Again, some complementarians refer to this kind of thinking as “mental gymnastics.” It isn’t. In reality, it’s simply good ethnomethodology–a field of sociology that examines the cultural meaning assigned to words in their original historical context. In 1st century Greek literature, written by a Jewish author, “authentes” did indeed refer to a man who “murdered” himself–brought about his own spiritual death–by embracing a false knowledge of God. Paul may well have used “authentein” in a similar manner.

If this interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 is accurate, Paul’s reference to the story of Adam and Eve in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 is very enlightening. Gnostics referred to the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as “divine gnosis.” They viewed the serpent as a messenger of God that was passing this knowledge onto Eve, who would then transmit it to Adam. In 1 Timothy 2:13-14, Paul may be addressing this Gnostic heresy by reminding Timothy that Eve did not receive “divine knowledge” from the serpent; rather, she was deceived, and when she gave the fruit to Adam, he ate it and consequently died. (See “The Equality Workbook: Freedom in Christ From the Oppression of Patriarchy” for further details and documentation on early Gnostic thought)

Even the passage about being “saved through childbearing” begins to make sense in this context. Some Gnostics believed that a woman would lose her salvation by bearing children. Giving birth to a child, in their eyes, was an act that imprisoned another soul in a corrupt body. It was viewed as a terrible sin. Through childbirth a woman might lose her life (death by childbearing was common) and even her salvation.

A woman teaching an ascetic form of Gnosticism (bodily self-denial) in Timothy’s church might have encouraged a man to embrace a false knowledge (gnosis) of God that required celibacy, perhaps even within marriage. (Paul confronted a similar problem in 1 Corinthians 7:1.)

Paul’s response to this Gnostic teaching may then have been to remind Timothy that women will be “saved through childbearing” by having faith in Christ that shows itself in holiness (1 Timothy 2:15). This does not mean, as St. Jerome wrongly suggested, that a woman will be saved “by” bearing children; but rather that she will be saved by faith in Christ, and need not worry about losing her soul “through” the act of giving birth.

It’s interesting to note that both Philo and Paul appear to address Gnostic heresy that was formed by combining Judaism and/or Christianity with pagan myths. (For more information on goddess myths and their influence on early Gnostic beliefs, see Philippe Borgeaud’s “Mother of the God’s: From Cybele to the Virgin Mary.”)

Paul makes reference to the influence of “myths” in 1 Timothy 1:4. Ephesian mythology was particularly focused on “saving women in childbearing.” One way the Ephesian goddess could be appeased was by male priests who permanently renounced their masculinity through a ritual act of self-castration. Historically, native Ephesians called this goddess Cybele. Greeks called her Artemis, and Romans referred to her as Diana. Though Greco-Roman worship practices eventually dispensed with castration in favour of temporary celibacy for Artemis’ male priests, Anatolian men continued to honor their goddess (Cybele) through ritual self-castration. This practice continued in Ephesus through Roman times, and was even imitated by Christians who embraced extreme asceticism, notably in 1st century Ephesus. (See Daniel F. Caner’s “The Practice and Prohibition of Ritual Self-castration in Early Christianity”

This practice so alarmed Roman law-makers that Roman citizens were forbidden to participate in the rite. Those who violated this law were prosecuted under the Roman law “against murderers.” Depriving a man of his masculinity—and depriving both him and the Empire of future (male) offspring—was a crime comparable to murder. (see “The Covenant of Circumcision: New Perspectives on an Ancient Jewish Rite,” edited by Elizabeth Wyner Mark, and “Becoming Male in the Middle Ages,” edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler)

What does all of this historical information suggest?

It tells us that despite complementarian claims to the contrary, words like “authentes” and “authentein” likely maintained a meaning in the 1st century AD that had nothing to do with a woman “exercising authority” over a man in church. It is more likely the case that the apostle Paul, like Philo before him, was writing to warn the church about a false teaching that would somehow be responsible for the death of a man. The teaching may have encouraged a man to embrace a “false gnosis” of God and thereby bring about his own spiritual death. And/or it may have encouraged a man to participate in the extreme asceticism of self-castration—a crime comparable to murder under Roman law.

Women May “Exercise Authority” in the Church: New Evidence to Help us Understand Paul’s Comments in 1 Timothy 2:12-15

The following article examines uses of the word “authentes” in ancient Greek literature other than the Bible.

Why is it helpful to look at this literature?

When the apostle Paul wrote 1st Timothy in the 1st century AD, he used a word that is found nowhere else in the New Testament.  That word is “authentein.”  Beginning with a man named Origen in the 3rd century AD (roughly 200 years after Paul wrote his letter) commentaries began to interpret Paul’s language as prohibiting women from “exercising authority over a man” either in church or in the home.

The commentators who did this (Origen, Augustine, Jerome, etc.) used Plato’s philosophy as an interpretive guide to the Bible.  Plato believed that the “natural order” of the created world was based on hierarchical categories.  He taught that men must rule women, just as free men must rule over slaves.  Any “mingling of the classes” would result in social disorder (Plato, the Republic).

By examining ancient Greek literature between the 3rd century BC and the 2nd century AD, we find that the word used by Paul, “authentein,” frequently carried a meaning other than “exercise authority.”  In the Greek Septuagint Bible, for example, Jewish scholars used “authentas” (a noun from of the same word) to refer to parents who “murdered” their children by offering them as sacrifices to false gods (Wisdom of Solomon 12:6).  Throughout ancient Greek literature, we find that noun and verb forms of “authentein” were frequently used to refer to those who were directly or indirectly responsible for someone’s death.  This death could be intentional or unintentional; it could refer to killing others or oneself; it sometimes referred to a literal “death,” and sometimes referred to putting someone or something “to death” metaphorically.  An article that includes a survey of these meanings from the 5th century BC through to the 2nd century AD is available here: 1st Timothy 2:12: Not About Authority.

Recently, as I was doing research for a friend, I found yet another example of “authentes” used to mean something other than “exercise authority.”  This example is found in a non-biblical story known as “the Shepherd of Hermas, Parable #9.”  I believe the use of “authentes” in this parable sheds even more light on our understanding of Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy 2:12-15.

For anyone who hasn’t read this parable, it contains a vision of a tower made up of many stones. The stones are actually people, and the tower is the church.

The “authentes” of the tower comes to examine the stones to see if they are worthy to be included in its construction (9.5.6). Those that are considered worthy have renounced the desire for women and embraced “continence”–sexual abstinence (9.15.2). They have been brought to the tower by virgin women (9.3.4). In fact, stones not brought to the tower by virgins are described as “unsightly” (9.4.6).

Those who did not embrace continence after professing Christ would be judged unfit for the church, and “cast out” by the tower’s authentes (9.13.8-9).

In this role, the authentes functions as the tower’s architect, designer, originator. It is made “according to his will” (9.5.2). He also functions as the inspector or judge of all the stones (9.5.6). He decides which stones will “enter into the Kingdom of God” (9.12.5), and which stones will be “condemned to death” (9.18.2). In fact, it is directly in the role of inspector or judge that the term “authentes” is used.

Many scholars believe that the Shepherd of Hermas was written either in the late 1st or early 2nd century AD. Another writer during the 2nd century AD, Appian of Alexandria, also used “authentes” in a similar manner. To be precise, he used the plural form of the same word, which is “authentai.” Appian was referring to magistrates who were contemplating sentencing a man to death. They were hesitant to pass the death sentence because despite his crime, the man was renowned for his public service to the Roman Empire (The Civil Wars 1.7.61).

Appian used the same word (authentai) again to refer to men who participated in the murder of Julius Caesar (The Civil Wars 3.2.16). The word signifies that they were responsible for Caesar’s death. Appian uses “authentai” yet another time to explain how the actions of such men (their involvement in Caesar’s murder) eventually led to their own deaths (The Civil Wars, 4.17.134). In other words, they were responsible for their own demise.

Though complementarians (i.e. those who teach “male authority”) have stated that using “authentes” to refer to murder or being responsible for someone’s death was “obsolete” by the New Testament era (Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 44, A Semantic Study of Authentes and its Derivatives, Albert Wolters), a look at primary sources even into the 2nd century AD tells us otherwise. (The same journal article also says that the meaning of “murder/responsibility for death” was to be associated with Attic, not Koine Greek, yet Appian wrote in Koine.)

Over and over in complementarian literature we’re told that the meaning of “authentein” in 1 Timothy 2:12 could only be a reference to “positive authority.” In other words, for women to “exercise authority” over men in the church is wrong, simply because they are women.

That is not the meaning we find in our primary sources. In the Shepherd of Hermas, the “authentes” functions as the one who inspects the stones and passes judgment on them, condemning them “to death” (9.18.2). He is also the “designer” of the tower, the church. In the works of Appian of Alexandria, authentai are magistrates (judges) with the power to sentence people to death, they are murderers, or they are people whose actions result in their own deaths.

How might this meaning relate to the apostle Paul? In a nutshell, Paul was warning the church against a false teaching known as “asceticism.” It encouraged people to “put to death” the body and its passions. In fact, the false teaching Paul was warning against seems very similar to some portions of the Shepherd of Hermas. Men who did not embrace “continence” (sexual abstinence) would be “cast out” of God’s kingdom. Paul may have used “authentein” as a reference to men “putting to death” the part of themselves related to their passions. Experiencing desire in this belief system was viewed as a sin. Women and men were expected to embrace “continence,” even in marriage. Failure to do so would put their salvation in jeopardy. (See also Paul’s reference to women who may have been concerned about being “saved” in childbearing: 1 Timothy 2:15. If they had accepted the false teaching of asceticism, having sex and bearing children would have jeopardized their salvation.)

Some men who blamed their bodies for sexual sin literally castrated themselves in an attempt to rid themselves of bodily passion. The Acts of John provides an example of a man doing this in 1st century Ephesus (1.236), the destination of Paul’s letter to Timothy. Others who hoped to rid themselves of desire would use hemlock, a potent poison. Both self-castration and the use of hemlock had the same intended outcome: “mortification of lower masculinity” (The Origins and History of Consciousness, Eric Neuman, Part 2, p. 253). The “sacrifice of lower masculinity” was viewed as “the precondition of spirituality,” and a prerequisite for salvation (Neuman, p. 253).

A Roman law initially passed by a proconsul in Asia Minor named Cornelius Sulla in the 1st century BC attempted to limit these activities on the grounds that they robbed a man (and the Empire) of future offspring, and also risked killing the man (Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen & Bonnie Wheeler, p. 22; Magic Religion and Law: The Case of the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis, p. 59). In English, this law would be referred to as the “Law Against Murderers and Poisoners.”

Could Paul have been warning Timothy about a false teaching that encouraged men to “mortify” or “put to death” their “lower masculinity” as a condition of salvation? I believe so. This meaning fits both Paul’s language and his immediate context. Also writing in the 1st century AD, Philo Judaeus similarly used “authenten” to refer to men who metaphorically “put to death” or “murdered” a part of themselves. Appian of Alexandria, as we have seen, used “authentai” to refer to men who were responsible for their own literal deaths. Flavius Josephus (also writing in the 1st century AD) used “authenten” to refer to death by poison (Jewish Wars 1.582.1). Men who practiced ascetic self-mortification were prohibited from self-castration and using hemlock in a law written by a proconsul in Asia Minor of the 1st century BC on the grounds that they might be responsible for their own deaths.

In other words, if we are willing to put complementarian claims aside and look for ourselves at available evidence, it does not appear that the apostle Paul was warning anyone about “female” authority. Rather, it seems he was concerned about the false teaching of asceticism, and practices associated with it that might result in either the literal or metaphorical death of a man.

In light of this information, how might we more accurately interpret 1 Timothy 2:12?

“I do not permit a woman to engage in teaching that would be responsible for the death of a man.”

Leland Wilshire offers another similar interpretation: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to instigate violence against a man” (2010, Insight into Two Biblical Passages, pp. 29-32). If Paul was concerned about ascetic self-mortification and related practices, it is self-inflicted violence that would have been encouraged or “instigated” by the false teaching.

Authentes was sometimes used to refer to someone who “supported” a violent act (Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica. Book 34/35 chapter 25 section 1 line 4), so another translation could be, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to support violence against a man.”

Since authentes was used by Philo to refer to men who metaphorically “put to death” a part of themselves, another translation could be, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to support the self-mortification of a man.”

Paul addresses “a woman” because at least one of the false teachers in Ephesus was evidently female. He identifies male false teachers in 1st Timothy 1:20; so it appears he was concerned about the nature of the teaching, not the gender of the teacher.


From the Shepherd of Hermes, we can also see why some egalitarian scholars point out that “authentes” can refer to the “originator” of something. In addition to being the judge who would condemn people to death, the “authentes” of the tower was also its “designer” or “architect.”

From the Shepherd of Hermes, we can see why other egalitarian scholars point out that “authentes” was sometimes used as a synonym for absolute master or “despot.” The tower’s “authentes” was also referred to as its “despotes.”

In the 2nd century AD, a Greek grammarian named Phrynicus Arabius pointed out that some orators in the law courts were using “authentes” and “despotes” interchangeably. He disagreed with this practice, stating that authentes should only be used to refer to someone responsible for murder (Lobeck, C. Rhematikon sive verborum graecorum et nominum verbalium technologia, as cited in Payne, P. (2009). Man and Woman, One in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, p. 364.)


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)


…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)




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:

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:

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:


[1] Wilshire, L. (2010). Insight into Two Biblical Passages, NY, New York: University Press of America, pp. 18, 20, 29.
[2] Eumenides by Aeschylus,
[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.

Ephesians 5:22: When Men Add Commands to the Bible

Paul’s alleged command in Ephesians 5:22, “Wives submit to your husbands,” forms the foundation of the complementarian view that husbands must exercise authority over their wives in Christian marriage.[i]  This supposed command is often supplemented and reinforced by headings that have been added to the biblical text by translators.  Immediately above Ephesians 5:22 in the Open Bible: New King James Version, for example, we read the heading, “Wives: Submit to Your Husbands.”  The New American Standard Version adds yet another statement of obligation directed exclusively to wives in Ephesians 5:24: “But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.”

In the oldest available Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (Parchment 46 and Codex Vaticanus), Ephesians 5:22 does not say, “Wives submit to your husbands.”[ii]  Neither the heading, “Wives Submit to Your Husbands,” nor the additional phrase in Ephesians 5:24 telling wives that they “ought to be” submissive can be found in any Greek manuscripts whatsoever.

In this passage, the apostle Paul introduces the idea of “submission” in Ephesians 5:21.  After telling all Christians to “be filled with the Spirit” in Ephesians 5:18, he then explains what this will look like: “submitting one to another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).  In other words, all Christians who are filled with the Holy Spirit are to relate to one another with Christ-like humility and a willingness to serve.  Ephesians 5:22  then adds the phrase “wives to your husbands” as an example of what this mutual submission will look like.

In grammatical terms “be filled with the Spirit” is the imperative verb; “submitting one to another” is a participle phrase (that describes being filled with the Spirit); and “wives to your husbands” is yet another phrase that qualifies “submitting one to another” by providing an example.  Simply put, “wives to your husbands” is not a complete sentence; it cannot stand on its own as a separate command.  There is no new and separate command directed only to wives.  Patriarchal translators create the illusion that there are two different kinds of commands–one in Ephesians 5:21 directed to all Christians, and another in Ephesians 5:22 directed exclusively to wives.  The added command appears to reinforce a gender-based hierarchy in Christian homes.  It is important to recognize that this is not grammatically possible in the Greek text of the oldest available manuscripts.  It is only possible if a second imperative verb is inserted into verse 22.[iii]  The submission that exists in marriage from wives to husbands is one example of the humility and loving service that all Christians who are filled with the Spirit are called upon to demonstrate.

In Ephesians 5:24  Paul does not tell wives that they “ought to be” submissive to their husbands.  Rather, he makes an observation regarding “the way things were” in ancient Greek, Roman and Jewish cultures.  The verb he uses in verse 24 in reference to wives is “hupotassetai” (are subject); it is a present, indicative, middle or passive verb.  When understood in the passive voice, it is not a command; rather, it is used to describe something as it already is.[iv]  The same verb, in the same tense, mood and voice is used in Luke 10:20: “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject (hupotassetai) to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (NASB).  The disciples discovered that unclean spirits “were subject” to them, in Jesus’ name.  This was not a command; it was an observation.  The same verb, in the same tense, mood and voice is used again in 1 Corinthians 14:32: “and the spirits of prophets are subject (hupotassetai) to prophets” (NASB).  Paul is explaining that a prophet’s spirit “is subject” to him or her.  This means that people have control over when and how they might prophesy.  Again, this is an observation, not a command.

When the biblical authors talk about what someone “should” or “ought” to do, they typically make use of the Greek words “opheilo” or “dei.”[v]  One example of such a statement is found in Luke 13:14: “But the synagogue official, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, began saying to the crowd in response, ‘There are six days in which work should (dei) be done ; so come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day.’”  The teachers of the Law are telling people how they “should” behave.  They are talking about a legal obligation, expectation or command.  They are telling people what to do.  Another example is found in Luke 18:1: “Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought (dein) to pray and not to lose heart” (NASB).  Jesus was telling his disciples what they “ought to” do.  He is giving them instructions that they are meant to follow.

Paul’s use of hupotassetai (are subject) with regard to wives in Ephesians 5:24 is the same as Luke’s use of the same word regarding unclean spirits and the spirits of the prophets.  In these texts, the Greek words opheilo and dei are absent.  Translators of the NASB version of the Bible acknowledge that they have added the phrase “ought to be” to the text of Ephesians 5:24. [vi]  This phrase is not found in any Greek manuscripts of this passage.[vii]  Paul is not telling wives what they “ought to” do; rather he is describing a situation that already existed at the time he wrote his letter.

To understand the situation Paul is referring to, it is helpful to become familiar with the Greco-Roman and Jewish literature of the New Testament era, concerning the relationship between husbands and wives.  According to Greek philosophy, which was embraced throughout the Roman Empire, a man was indeed the “lord” of his household, and women were “subject” to his authority.  According to Aristotle, women were to be viewed as the slaves and possessions of a man.[viii]  A similar view of women was proposed by the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria.[ix]  In the eyes of 1st century Greeks, Romans and Jews, men did indeed exercise lordship over women, children and slaves.

This is the culture Paul is addressing in his letter, and he correctly observes that wives “are subject” to husbands.  Instead of affirming this role, however, Paul says something very different; he tells husbands to imitate the love of Jesus, who laid aside his divine authority to make himself a servant: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25, NIV).  Unlike the passive verb Paul uses to describe the pre-existing submission of wives, the verb directed towards husbands is present, active and imperative.  Simply put, it is a command.  Paul is indeed telling husbands what they “ought to do.”  In fact, he uses this exact language not with wives, but rather with husbands in Ephesians 5:28: “So ought [ophelousin] husbands to love their wives.”  This is not a command that Greek, Roman or Jewish men would have been accustomed to hearing.  Men filled with the Spirit, however, would “submit” themselves to other Christians–including women, including their wives: “submitting one to another out of reverence for Christ.”

In its original language and cultural context, how might we understand the apostle Paul’s overall message in Ephesians 5:18-28?  Be filled with the Spirit, submitting one to another, just as wives do to husbands, and just as the church does to Christ.  Husbands, you ought also to love and serve your wives, just as Christ loved and served the church, giving His life for her on the cross.

A patriarchal/complementarian reading of Ephesians 5:21-28 rejects the notion of mutual submission in Christian marriage.  It insists that just as Jesus was the Lord and Master of the church, so too must a husband be lord and master of his wife.  In other words, according to patriarchal theology, it is the “lordship” of Jesus that husbands are told to imitate in marriage.

Jesus fills many roles in his relationship to the church.  He is our “Lord.”  He is our High Priest.  He is the Good Shepherd.  He is our Teacher.  He is the Chief Cornerstone of God’s living temple, the church.  He made himself a servant and was obedient to the point of death on the cross to atone for our sins.  Among all of these aspects of Christ’s ministry on earth, husbands are told to imitate only one:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind–yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27, NRSV)

Husbands, love your wives, make yourselves a servant, just as Christ loved and served the church, even to the point of death on a cross.

The apostle Paul teaches the same principle of mutual servanthood in his letter to the Philippians:

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 [doulos],
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 2:5-8, NRSV)

Christians seeking to have “lordship” over others in the faith are firmly rebuked by our Saviour:

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, NIV)

Jesus reminds his followers that they have One Leader, and that is Christ alone.  All of Jesus’ followers are “siblings” and “equals”:

Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.  But the greatest among you shall be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (Matthew 23:10-11, NASB)

Every Christian is called to love as Christ has loved us (John 13:35).  In the body of Christ, and in Christian homes, husbands are called to love, not to be lords over their wives.

(From Chapter 5 of “The Equality Workbook: Freedom in Christ from the Oppression of Patriarchy”)

End Notes:

[i] In his online article entitled “The Myth of Mutual Submission,” Complementarian Wayne Grudem claims, “the Greek text clearly specifies a restriction, ‘Wives, be subject to your own husbands,’”

[ii] “P46 is a papyrus manuscript which dates from about 200. It is one of the oldest manuscripts we have. B is Codex Vaticanus, which is one of the best manuscripts we have, dating from about the fourth century. Neither of these manuscripts has a verb in verse 22,”; Photograph of Parchment 46:; Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges: “It is probable that the Gr. original has no verb here,”;  Nestle GNT “Αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν,”

[iii] The first instance on record of a second command “submit” being inserted into the Greek text of Ephesians 5:22 occurs in the middle of the 4th century A.D..  This alteration of the Greek coincides with the shift in Bible translation and commentary that we find in the 4th century work of St. Augustine and St. Jerome.

[iv] Hart,, pp. 3-4.


[vi] New American Standard Bible: Text Edition with Illustrated Dictionary-Concordance (1977). New York, NY: The Lockman Foundation, Thomas Nelson Publishers, p. X & 819.

[vii] Parallel Greek texts of Ephesians 5:24,

[viii] Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Part II, translated by Benjamin Jowett,

[ix] Philo, Questions and Answers on Genesis,