On Women's Ordination: A Response to Dr. John Jefferson Davis on 1 Timothy 2:12
In August 2008, Professor John Jefferson Davis of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary posted a serial paper on the proper exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:12, titled, "1 Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Pauline Use of Creation Narratives." His paper argues that the Greek word authentein, traditionally rendered as "to exercise authority," is better translated as "to usurp authority" or "to dominate". Furthermore, he argues that Paul's appeal to the creation narrative in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 should not be taken as establishing a universal, transcultural principle with regard to women in church leadership. Rather,
Dr. Davis' paper deserves a response from the complementarian camp for two reasons. The first is that we should all be willing to consider biblical appeals and take seriously the exegetical arguments of other positions. Second, given today's context in which many Christians would readily escape from the cultural scorn heaped upon those who uphold traditional Christian views of male headship, any biblical argument is likely to serve as a pretext for revising our beliefs and practice. For this reason we should be especially careful in our exegetical arguments. In assessing the contribution of Dr. Davis's paper with this in mind, I would like to pose four questions.
The first question is: Should we really regard a decision about the proper exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:12 as definitive for the question of female ordained leadership in the church? It is the clear assumption of
One of reasons for male-only ordained leadership is the indisputable fact that Jesus Christ appointed only males to the office of apostle. The importance of this observation is often dismissed as being demanded by the social conventions of Jesus' time, which supposedly left our Lord with no other possible approach. The idea is suggested that if Jesus were to start the church today, He would of course include women as apostles. But a little reflection on this will give us pause. The composition of the apostolate was a matter of foundational importance to the future history of Christ's church. Is it not troubling to suggest that the Son of God would have compromised an important principle due to contemporary cultural pressures? And if He did, how will we know that anything else Jesus established for Christians holds universal authority? Moreover, is there any evidence that Jesus ever bowed to wrong-minded cultural conventions? The Gospels clearly inform us that Jesus' refusal to compromise with any of the Pharisaical agenda, especially including the approach to Sabbath-observance they had forced upon the culture, was an immediate cause of Jesus' crucifixion. Jesus was literally willing to be crucified rather than go along with false cultural practices pertaining to righteousness and worship. Moreover, there is abundant evidence in the Gospels of Jesus' specific refusal to bow to wrong-headed gender restrictions. In a time when a rabbi was disgraced for speaking even to his own wife or daughter in public, Jesus publicly displayed close fellowship with his women disciples. Jesus' treatment of the Samarian woman at the well (Jn. 4), His response to the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 7:53-8:11); and His approval the woman of bad reputation who had anointed His feet (and this in the face of immediate Pharisaical outrage, Lk. 7:36-50), among others, should lead us to believe that Jesus was completely immune to the kinds of cultural pressures assumed with respect to His male-only appointment of apostles. Is it not best to accept that Jesus intentionally ordained only males to the office of apostle and to reflect reverently on the broad implications of this fact for ordination in today's church?
Another matter of great significance in our understanding of gender and church leadership deals with the close biblical parallel between the Christian family and the church as the household of God. The New Testament mandate for male headship in marriage is so broad and insistent that it is virtually impossible to deny it and still uphold any strong view of biblical inspiration and authority. Agreeably,
This line or reasoning underscores the primary problem with isolated word studies like that provided by Dr. Davis. The issue of female ordination does not hinge on the exegesis of a single word in 1 Timothy 2:12. Indeed, it would have been judicious for Dr. Davis to point out that his view of 1 Timothy 2:12 and the ordination of women church leaders represents a significant inconsistency in the Bible's handling of gender distinctions. For if our Lord Jesus intentionally appointed only males to the apostolate, and if the Bible is crystal clear in its instructions for gender relations in marriage, does it not naturally follow that women should not be given ordained leadership positions in the church? If women should "keep silent in the churches," keeping their questions to "ask their husbands at home" (1 Cor. 14:35), how can it be envisioned that a woman could properly be installed as an elder or pastor?
The point of my argument is that Dr. Davis's attempt to revise our doctrine regarding the ordination of women, while at the same time showing deference to biblical inspiration and authority, simply fails. Indeed, the plausibility he attains is made possible only by restricting himself to a lexical study of the word authentein and utterly neglecting the context supplied by the New Testament teaching on gender relations as a whole.
My second question isolates on the issue of correctly rendering authentein: does Dr. Davis provide a compelling argument for his new rendering, persuasively answering the objections of the traditional view? Here, too, the answer is no. Davis's argument is simply this: 1) authentein being a hapax legomenon in the New Testament, we must consider its usage in literature prior to Paul; 2) in four out of five instances cited in a 2004 study of pre-Pauline uses of authentein, the neutral rendering of "exercise authority" is eclipsed by the negative rendering of "dominate" or "usurp." Moreover, 3) several pre-modern English translations take this same approach, including the King James Version. Finally, 4) if Paul meant to specify the bare exercise of authority, he could easily have used the word proisteimi, which appears elsewhere in his writings. All this taken together,
In light of these considerations, Dr. Davis's argument for a new rendering of authentein loses virtually all of its force. Likewise, his conclusion "that the burden of proof is on the (now) "traditional" view to justify its translation choice" is turned on its head.
My third question pertains to Dr. Davis' most thoroughly argued point, our proper understanding of Paul's reference to creation narratives in his teaching on gender.
For this reason,
My fourth and last question is directed toward Dr. Davis's reliance on the biblical example of Deborah as a divinely-approved judge. My question is, "Is it responsible to generalize on the example of Deborah without reference to the particular place and role of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament canon?" Again, my answer is no.
In conclusion, while I am in no position to comment on Dr. Davis's motives in presenting his paper on 1 Timothy 2:12 and the ordination of women, I do know that many of his readers will welcome any exegetical pretext for embracing his conclusions. Complementarian Christians do indeed pay a cultural price for holding to biblical views that are deemed out-dated, although it can be argued that we reap benefits as well. But the question as to what the Bible teaches remains central for those committed to biblical inspiration and authority. With this in mind, the question of women's ordination deserves more fair and balanced information than that provided by Dr. Davis's treatment of 1 Timothy 2:12.