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A Hill to Die On: Part 3

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet" (1 Tim. 2:12).

I have never walked into an Adventist church that demands women be silent. Most churches I have visited allow women to teach and preach. But I have heard some horror stories in which some people consider it their God-given responsibility to make sure women are not given the same “authority” as men.

Recently, a church member related one such experience. She was appointed to be ordained as a local elder along with another talented and Spirit-led lady in the church.

As the ordination service began, a man stood in the middle aisle, lifted his hands to the heavens and shouted, "Lord forgive them for they do not know what they are doing!"

He gave voice to what he thought was righteous indignation at the thought of women receiving authority that belonged only to men in the church.

Welcome to ministry as a female pastor. Many women have had their call and dedication questioned, no matter how committed and talented they are. In the minds of some members, they are illegitimate because of their gender. These people believe churches that give women “authority” to lead and teach are going against God's will.

Are they correct? What should we make of Paul's statement in 1 Tim. 2:12? How do we understand the meaning of this passage and how should it be applied today?

Some answer, “This is literally the Word of God.” And yet we can't be selective in our literalism by applying this verse without the rigorous interpretation we use elsewhere.

Context and translation really matter. The Greek word often translated as “authority" only occurs in this single Bible verse. What becomes clear, as we carefully examine the text, is Paul would not permit anyone to have the kind of authority he is describing. We know this by looking at the hundreds of subsequent occurrences of the word in Greek literature.

Respected New Testament scholar Cynthia Long Westfall wrote an award-winning, paradigm-shifting book, Paul and Gender, in which she points this out. She writes:

"Out of the over 300 occurrences of the verb in the Greek, no one has identified a single case where it refers to any kind of benevolent pastoral care of an individual or group by a pastor or church official."[1]

This authority is best translated as "perpetrator of evil,” "doer of violence," "forcing against one's will," etc. So, no, women shouldn't have that kind of authority — but neither should men. Certainly no pastor should.

So why does Paul specifically call out women?

Return with me to the context of ancient Ephesus, where the Temple of Artemis was located. People were literally worshiping the female goddess Diana. To the people within this culture and context, Paul was speaking: “Don’t allow yourself to be domineered or manipulated by this. Don’t permit this kind of ‘authority’ to have power over you.”

Two millennia removed from the zeitgeist in Ephesus, Paul’s words have been misinterpreted as men are in charge, men alone should have authority and it would be best if women would keep silent. Without correct context, this text has been misused to prohibit women from being pastors. In some place, it has been used to forbid their preaching at all.

In the case of American historian Beth Allison Barr, it was used to question if she had the authority to teach a Bible class to teenage boys, even though she had a doctorate. Should an educated person not have authority to teach a Bible class to teenage boys simply because she is a woman? That isn’t the correct application of the text.

The Western view of authority blinds us. Yet, when we understand the power paradox that is displayed through the entire Bible, it becomes clear. Jesus 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" (Matt. 20:25–27).

Paul picks up on this paradoxical power and in 1 Cor. 9:19 says, "I have made myself a slave to all" — a direct inference to the quotation of Jesus. Also, Paul refers to Jesus as Lord no less than 54 times in his epistles. So why would Paul “lord” his authority over women? The answer: He doesn't.

If we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we won't seek to lord authority over anyone. Godly authority isn't based on physical attributes; it's based on a willingness to lay down our power to lift others up.

Father, forgive us for the times we have confused worldly authority as being representative of You. Forgive us for silencing women and claiming it was Your will. Forgive us for dying on the hill of male headship and forgetting that You alone are the head of the church.


[1] Cynthia Long Westfall. Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ. Baker Academic, 2016.

Featured in: July/August 2023