On Women's Ordination: A Response to Dr. John Jefferson Davis on 1 Timothy 2:12

Rick Phillips Articles

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, Davis argues, Paul's commands are church-specific, intending only to deal with local problems in Timothy's immediate pastoral setting.  Davis then extrapolates from the example of Deborah's leadership in Judges 4 and 5, citing it as a positive biblical example of divinely-approved female leadership that sets a precedent for the same today.  By accepting his revision of 1 Timothy 2:12, regarded as a crux of the complementarian position, Dr. Davis concludes that "the way would be clear to recognize the calling of such gifted women and set them apart for leadership in the church."

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 Davis's paper that the complementarian view of male-only ordination stands or falls with the rendering of authentein and our understanding of Paul's appeal to creation narratives in this passage.  In answering this question, I would assert that Davis's assumption is faulty.  There are other reasons why complementarians insist on a biblically imposed mandate for male-only ordained leadership, and these other reasons must be taken into account when considering any single verse related to this debate. 

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, Davis seems to make no attempt to deny the clear teaching regarding male headship in the Christian home (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:22-24; 1 Pet. 3:1-6).  However, he fails to consider the clear analogy made in Scripture between the home and the church.  In Ephesians 5:29-32, Paul makes this analogy explicit.  Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul's argument makes explicit the correlation between gender relationships in marriage and in the church, as he also does in 1 Cor. 14:33-35.  This correlation secures both rights and restrictions for women: rights such as permission to participate respectfully in public prayer meetings (1 Cor. 11:2-16), and the restriction from teaching or exercising authority over men in the church (1 Cor. 14:34).

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, Davis asserts, gives strong support to the view that Paul meant only to prohibit women using church authority to dominate men, rather than to prohibit women in authority in general.

While Davis's summary argument provides useful and notable information, it either neglects or brushes aside evidence to the contrary.  For instance, he does not explain how his view of authentein fits with the immediately preceding verse, which instructs Timothy to "let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness" (1 Tim. 2:11).  Indeed, Davis does not even see fit to square his interpretation with the words that complete the very verse he cites.  The parallel to Paul's prohibition against women to teach or exercise authority (or, per Davis, "to dominate with authority"), is given in the parallel clause: "rather, she is to remain quiet" (1 Tim. 2:12).  How can a woman remain quiet while serving in the capacity of elder or pastor?  To take this argument even further - and to illustrate the danger of mere lexical word studies stripped of context - Davis ignores the context provided by the very couplet in which authentein rests.  Paul states that he does not permit a woman "to teach or to exercise authority over a man."  This strongly suggests the neutral reading which Davis rejects.  Since Paul is prohibiting women to teach at all, it does not seem plausible that his restriction against exercising authority pertains only to its abuse.

Moreover, Davis fails to consider rather obvious questions pertaining to his proposed rendering.  Even if Paul specifically wrote that women should not "usurp" or "dominate" men through church leadership positions, it does not seem to occur to Davis that for women simply to occupy these positions constitutes usurping and dominating.  After all, Paul (along with Peter) has directed Christian wives to submit to and obey their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24; 1 Pet. 3:1-6).  How can they possibly do so while exercising ecclesial authority over them?  And is not the possession of ordained authority itself a usurpation of the male headship Paul generally asserts?  This question does not intrude on Davis's confident conclusion that his revised reading of authentein overthrows the traditional view against women elders.

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.  Davis argues that a careful study of Paul's appeal to the creation narrative (1 Tim. 2:13-14) will lead us to believe that his concern in 1 Timothy 2:12 is local rather than universal.  When we see Paul's concern later in 1 Timothy and in 2 Timothy about women who are deceived by false teaching (2 Tim. 3:6-7) and have "turned away to follow Satan" (1 Tim. 5:15), we realize that it is this local problem that Paul addresses in 1 Timothy 2:12.  Davis fails, however, to account for the appearance that Paul seems to be addressing matters in principle in 1 Timothy 2, and that he makes no reference to local problems in explaining his commands but rather appeals to the normative standard established in the creation account.

For this reason, Davis's approach must account for Paul's appeal to God's creation order.  In doing this, Davis helpfully notes that by looking throughout Paul's canonical writings, we will find that the apostle is quite selective in the applications he makes from the creation narrative.  Scanning across such letters as Romans, First Corinthians, and Second Corinthians, Davis notes that "Paul draws implications from creation texts in ways that are specifically related to his pastoral and theological concerns for specific churches and congregations."  This is indisputably true, but not necessarily germane to Davis's counter-intuitive conclusion that Paul's use of the creation narrative does not signal a universal principle.  So Davis goes on to note that Paul uses creation to establish a Christian's right to eat all kinds of food (Rom. 14;14; 1 Tim. 4:4), yet he urges the setting aside of this creational right when it will harm the faith of weaker Christians (Rom. 14:15, 21).  Applying this principle to the matter of gender, Davis then urges that "it could also be the case that a creationally endorsed prohibition (1 Tim. 12, 13 sic) of women exercising ecclesiastical authority does not imply prohibition under different circumstances."  It does not seem to occur to Davis that there is a fundamental difference between restricting something that is normally permitted and permitting something that is normally forbidden.  It makes perfect redemptive sense that out of love for our neighbor Christians should refrain from exercising rights that God has granted.  But this does not make the point that we may sometimes engage in activities that God has forbidden generally.  In fact, Davis's argument only strengthens the position of complementarians: agreeing that the creation narrative grounds the principle of male headship, he is forced to argue that under his rendering of 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul wants us to violate God's prohibition due to local needs.  It is hardly necessary to point out the weakness of this argument.

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.

Davis's recitation of parallels between Deborah and Moses rightly causes us to hold this believing sister in high regard.  Moreover, his appeal to the clear biblical language should indeed inhibit us from down-playing the role actually played by Deborah.  But here, again, context is telling.  While we observe that Deborah did exercise the office of judge in Israel and that God did respond favorably to her service, the question remains as whether we should take this or any other example from the Book of Judges as normative for the life of the Christian church.  Given that, for instance, Samson was a violent maniac and a frequenter of prostitutes, yet also a divinely-blessed office-bearer, should we argue that a normative standard has been established?  After all, if Deborah offers an unqualified precedent for female ordained leadership, why doesn't Samson do the same for sexually indiscreet male leaders?  A careful consideration of the redemptive-historical role given to the Book of Judges is beyond the scope of this review.  But in light of these brief observations, it is apparent that the weight given by Davis to Deborah as a normative precedent for women elders in the church today is both glib and irresponsible.

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.