Tom Wright on Women's Roles

Back in 2004, Tom Wright presented a paper on women’s roles in the New Testament. As usual, it is interesting, challenging, and scholarly. Having spent most of my life in Christian traditions with a very clear-cut, uninterpretive understanding of the role of women, I don’t know what to think of his interpretation. I’d like particularly to look at his translation of 1 Tim 2:8-15.

 First, from the ESV:

 8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

Now, Dr. Wright’s translation (which I assume is in Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters)

 8 So this is what I want: the men should pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, with no anger or disputing. 9 In the same way the women, too, should clothe themselves in an appropriate manner, modestly and sensibly. They should not go in for elaborate hair-styles, or gold, or pearls, or expensive clothes; 10 instead, as is appropriate for women who profess to be godly, they should adorn themselves with good works. 11 They must be allowed to study undisturbed, in full submission to God. 12 I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; they should be left undisturbed. 13 Adam was created first, you see, and then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived, and fell into trespass. 15 She will, however, be kept safe through the process of childbirth, if she continues in faith, love and holiness with prudence.

I know that when I’ve read verse 11 before, it has always sounded like Paul thought the women were going to run wild unless Timothy commanded them to settle it down. But in a world where the vast majority of women were not permitted to learn, and remembering the synagogue prayer “Thank you, God, that I am not a woman,” it seems more consistent with other passages (Gal 3:28, 1 Cor 11:2-11, Mary “sitting at the feet of” Jesus, Paul’s desire to persecute both men AND women in Acts 9) that Paul would be commanding Timothy to make sure that the women were encouraged to learn and were protected from being disturbed. And then the warning in v.12 makes sense considering the likelihood that Timothy was in Ephesus when this letter was received. The Ephesians knew what happened when women were educated; the Artemisian priestesses took over and dominated. And verse 14 makes even more sense, as a warning that women need to learn so as not to be deceived into transgression.

What do you think? The first thought I always have is a suspicious one: is the writer trying to justify a position he already holds? In the COC school of thought, is he trying to sneak in woman preachers and elders? But you have to go to different passages to do something like that. I think Dr. Wright is trying to say that Paul isn’t talking about authority here, but about being both brave and careful with new possibilities.


About Nick Gill

orphan-poet-adoptee-soldier-prodigal-servant-husband- counselor-desperate seeker after my Father's face "I feel my body weakened by the years as people turn to gods of cruel design. Is it that they fear the pain of death, or is it that they fear the joy of life?" - Toad the Wet Sprocket

Posted on 1 April, 2008, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I hear what you are saying. I think that authority is a sticky word today but in the context of what Jesus said about it it should not be an issue.

    I think men must be servant leaders for things to work. In our culture that can be done in a way that it couldn’t at that point in history.

  2. We just don’t hear Jesus, Darin. Rather than let Jesus define authority (Mark 10:42-45), we let our Greek-English dictionaries do it, because it is so much easier to work with the world’s definition of authority.

    Easier to do the things WE want to do, anyway.

    Nearly impossible to do the work of Christ with schemes of worldly authority, though.

    The NT has enough to say about the authority of women in other places (Rom 16 where Paul greets a female apostle; Acts 18 where Priscilla teaches Apollos). This text isn’t one of those places. Here, he says women have full authority to learn just as much as the men.

  3. I read this article and liked it. It always seems like we get bogged down on 2 or 3 scriptures and neglect all of the female servant leaders that God used in His Kingdom. Thanks for remembering Priscilla and Phoebe!

  4. Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche, Nympha in Colosse, not to mention Deborah the judge and Huldah the prophet.

    I don’t have a problem with getting bogged down on a couple of Scriptures, if we have really struggled to discern their meaning according to the life and mission of Jesus Christ.

    It is, rather, when we allow millenia of male-dominated thinking to prejudice our reading of God’s word. We have a responsibility to seek true meaning rather than to assume that the way we’ve always read challenging passages MUST be right.

    in HIS love,

    PS – They’ve been making fun of me at church because I HATE the name of a particular organization in the churches of Christ. It used to be called Lads to Leaders. Now, they’ve attempted to be inclusive while catering to the editor-bishops. What is the name now?

    Lads to Leaders and Leaderettes.

    What does that MEAN? What in the world is a LEADERETTE? And why are they trying to turn some of our lads into them?

    What’s wrong with Lads and Ladies to Leaders? I’ll tell you what someone told me. The true church doesn’t have “lady leaders.”

    If you’ve ever watched the comedian Lewis Black, when he just gets so wrapped around the axle about absolute moronitude that he can’t even speak? That was me. Speechless. Flabbergasted.

  5. Nick, I like your new blog style.
    I’m always leery of lone translations that seem to contradict hundreds of others. Usually they have an agenda other than simple, clear translation.

    No one denies the good influence of godly women like Deborah, Huldah, Phoebe, Priscila, etc. etc. The question is whether their leadership (and yes they were leaders) involved “teaching or having authority over a man.” I see no scriptural indication that it did.

    I don’t like “Lads to Leaders and Leaderettes” either, yes, for the grammatical gymnastics that you decry, but also, I don’t think there ought to be “organizations” that are considered to belong to the “churches of Christ.” That’s sectarian.

    God bless

  6. Gardner, thank you for your kind words. I appreciate your wisdom and encouragement.

    Come now. How can one LEAD without having authority over those you lead?

    Luke clearly tells us that Priscilla taught Apollos.

    Deborah led the whole nation of Israel! I’d say that is some kind of authority.

    Huldah taught the 2nd best king of Judah. The anointed one of God went to Huldah and submitted to her authoritative interpretation of the scroll of the Law.

    Paul calls Junia an apostle in Romans 16.

    On the translation question, I too tend towards that leeriness in many areas. But this is one where I might be more lenient towards newer translators. Our Christian forebears have a long history of prejudice towards Jews and towards women.

    Can you help me see where Dr. Wright’s translation actually contradicts the ESV? Submission to God seems to be the context of 2 Cor 9:13 and 1 Cor 14:33-34.

    Is undisturbed a contradictory translation to quietness? Let me know what you think.

    in HIS love,

  7. Nick,
    To clarify my language a bit, when I say “without taking authority” I’m not talking about moral authority, but rather the assertive authority that those in charge of an an assembly, elders and others may sometimes have to exercise. I believe the leadership of all the women you mentioned fall in the former (and more important) category and not in the latter.

    Deborah illustrates my point! It is interesting to notice that she never stood before an assembly of Israel, but rather they came to her under her palm tree and there she quietly dispensed her wisdom to those wise enough to seek it (Judges 4:5). There’s no equivalent here to what many are pushing for: women in the pulpit, elderships, etc. Also notice that when the need arose for a more assertive authority she refused to take it! Rather she sent for Barak to tell him that the Lord had called him lead the army (Judges 4:6). If there are no differences between the leadership responsibilities of men and women, why didn’t Deborah lead the army? Why did the Lord choose a man for that responsibility? It seems that rather than supporting the concept of assertive authority that many are promoting, Deborah supports the concept of quiet moral authority. I think the same thing is true of all the other women you mentioned.

    May God help us as we sharpen our iron. Thanks for your role in that.

  8. Nick,
    On the translation of the text I like the NIV. Wright’s translation of vs. 11, “allow to study undisturbed” and last part of vs. 12 “left undisturbed” seems to place responsability on others to “leave her alone” when she studies and learns, wheras most other versions that I’m acquainted with seem to place the responsility on the women to learn in quietness (practically the same word as 2 Thess. 3:12) and submission. As the cliché goes, “I’m no Greek scholar” but Wright’s translation does seem to shift the focus or responsibility from the woman to those around her. Maybe he’s right and most other translators are wrong, but I doubt it.

  9. I agree that “Hesuchia” in 2 Thess 3:12 is the same as here. But the context is very different, and that’s precisely my point – suggesting in this passage that the women are being rebellious cuts across the grain of what Paul says about Adam and Eve in this passage.

    In 2 Thess 3:11-13 we have two groups of people:

    Idlers disturbing their brethren, and
    Brethren working, following the examples of Paul and Jesus.

    Paul rebukes the idlers, telling them to stop disturbing their brethren and get to work.

    In 1 Tim 2 we have something less clear-cut:
    Men commanded to desist wrath and dissension (or doubting) in v.8
    Women commanded to desist vain adornments in v.9

    To whom is the next command? Do you tell women to “permit themselves to learn in quietness?” Or do you tell someone else to permit them? That’s where I’m trying to understand how the Greek works.

    We place the stress in the sentence on quietness. Why would Paul need to say anything about women teaching and taking over, if the important part of v.11 is silence and submission? It makes more sense that the important part of v.11 is LEARNING and that Paul is reassuring Timothy and the others that just because women are being allowed to learn, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be allowed to rule.

    If Paul is telling the women to stop acting a fool, nobody needs reassurance against the possibility that Paul might encourage them to take the lead.

    BUT, if Paul is telling Timothy to make sure women are allowed to learn, then definitely the reassurance is necessary (esp. in Ephesus, where the men know a LOT about female domination from the pagan atmosphere)

    About Deborah, what judge DID stand before an assembly of Israel? In Judges, all Israel assembles at the beginning and at the end. Deborah seems to summon Barak because he was disobeying God’s command.

    “That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly, bless the Lord! Hear O Kings! Give ear O princes! … In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were abandoned, and travelers kept to the byways. The villagers ceased in Israel; they ceased to be until I arose; I, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel … the people of the LORD marched down for me against the mighty.”

    Deborah did not take the lead in the battle itself because she was not a warrior – “the princes of Issachar came with Deborah, and Issachar faithful to Barak; into the valley they rushed at his heels”

    But Judges 5 clearly shows her credited as the leader of Israel, and even greater than other judges.

  10. On women “in the pulpit,” I must also disagree. 1st Century Christian prophecy is the closest thing we have recorded to our modern pulpit ministry, and Paul specifically protects the right of the Corinthian women to prophecy in mixed assembly.

    Chapter 14 IS important, but it cannot contradict Chapter 11, and vice versa.

    That is why this issue is more challenging than many will allow.

  11. Nick,
    I don’t think it’s right to assume that Paul is correcting women in 1 Tim. 2. He’s just giving instruction about different roles. They are different!

    Seems like all the translations except Wright’s indicate that Paul is placing responsibility on women (as he did with men earlier to pray with holy hands) to learn quietly. He’s not directing himself to others to “leave them alone” so they can learn quietely (Although sometimes that might be a good recommendation for us men!).

    The issue is not whether Deborah exerted leadership, but rather whether it was a quiet moral leadership or a more assertive one (such as Samuel’s, Gideon’s, etc.).

    You have to read a lot into 1 Corinthians 11 to have women in the pulpit. It’s just not there. All the specific examples we have of women prophesying (Huldah, Phillip’s daughters, etc.) say nothing about them exerting such assertive authority. In Huldah’s case, we simply have a group of men who went (evidently to her home) to hear from her the revelation from the Lord. (This is similar to Deborah.) No woman in the pulpit there. I see no reason to assume the women prophets in Corinth profesied any differently than Huldah and Deborah did, with quiet moral authority.
    There’s no real evidence they took charge of the assembly, but rather 14:34,35 indicates the contrary.

    I think it’s important to admire the way God worked through these godly women without reading more into the accounts than is there.

    Thanks again and God bless,

  12. Gardner,

    About 1 Tim 2:
    I disagree that Paul is talking about different roles in 1 Tim 2. If that were the case, we would have to interpret him as saying that the role of the man is to pray, the role of the woman to dress quietly, do good works, and learn quietly. We interpret everything in that list as equally applicable to both sexes EXCEPT the last thing.
    We don’t assume that because Paul says men should “pray with holy hands” that women shouldn’t.
    We don’t assume that because Paul says women should dress modestly that men shouldn’t.
    We don’t assume that because Paul says women should do good works that men shouldn’t.

    If #1, #2, and #3 are NOT about different roles, why is #4 about different roles?

    On the other issue:
    I think you are reading the pulpit back into these accounts. Prophecy in the assembly seems to be the only one-at-a-time deal in the early church (1 Cor 14:29-31). When a prophet spoke, everyone else was supposed to be quiet until they were finished or until another prophet received a message.

    What we typically look at for pulpit examples speak of DIALOGUE (Acts 19, Paul in the school of Tyrannus – Acts 20, Paul dialoging until midnight in the upper room). We don’t dialogue from the pulpit, so those aren’t pulpit examples.

    Is “assertive authority” an appropriate biblical description of this thing we call “pulpit work”?

    You say, “You have to read a lot into 1 Corinthians 11 to have women in the pulpit. It’s just not there.” I agree completely, but that is because there is absolutely nothing akin to our pulpit (the thing itself AND everything it symbolizes) in the New Testament. It did not arive in Christianity until around AD250 with Cyprian of Carthage. In the first centuries, the assembly was central, relatively flexible, and participatory.

    Only much later did one figure in the congregation become the center, practices become formalized, and the whole gathering become a spectatorial event.

    I know that you know all this; I just get confused when you look in 1st century documents for pulpit authority, male OR female.

    in HIS love,

  13. Nick,
    I was writing a reply to your comments and lost my window! There went ten minutes! Here goes again.

    If you don’t like the term “pulpit,” substitute “give public discourse to the gathered assembly” like Paul did in the synagogue in Antioch and in the church in Troas, like the prophets should do one at a time in the assembly at Corinth w/o interruption, etc. I meant to use the former term metonymically for the latter concept. I think you would agree that it (the latter concept) is in the New Testament. I’m afraid we’re entangling ourselves in semantics here, when I think everyone knows what I meant.

    On 1 Timothy 2, look at the contrast between verses 8 and 9. Notice that the Greek word in 8 for “man” is not the term for “mankind” (anthropos) but rather for “male (aner).” Though it is true that women should also pray, Paul is focusing in verse 8 on males, probably their leading prayer. He changes that focus in verse 9 to females. Don’t miss the contrast! Yes, it is true that men should also wear modest clothing, but his focus on verses 8-15 is still on women. Men surely can’t be saved in childbearing! (However, I think I heard about something weird on Oprah yesterday!) I think that the fact that Paul is focusing on different roles for men and women is self-evident. Check out commentators like Barnes (though he uses the term “duties” rather than “roles”).

    Will be busy the rest of the weekend, but will check out anything else you might want to add on Monday. I love you brother. It’s amazing how you can come to have a genuine affection for individuals just by blogging with them.

  14. “It’s amazing how you can come to have a genuine affection for individuals just by blogging with them.”

    I know I can be a handful sometimes, and I appreciate the patient wisdom that comes from your experience with the Lord.

    I promise that I wasn’t trying to bait you or anything with the “pulpit” material. That’s an old aggravation of mine that rears its ugly head sometimes. I am by no means a member of the “mutual edification” camp, but I understand a LOT of their concerns. There is so little mutuality and participation in our assemblies.

    You seem to agree with me that the prophets in Corinth were expected to participate in one-at-a-time public discourse. Paul also tells us that TONGUES is for unbelievers; Christian prophecy is for believers (1 Cor 14:22, cf. v3-4). This seems to eliminate the theory that the “prophesying women” of 11:1-16 are prophesying in the public square rather than the Christian assembly.

    I really struggle to understand what Paul, a Jewish man, means with 11:14. The man Jesus calls, “the greatest man born of woman,” his cousin John, had long hair! Nazirites were an especially HONORED class, not dishonored. How could it have been dishonorable to honor a vow taken in accordance with the Law of God?

    I also think 10:32 has more influence on the first half of the 11th chapter than I’ve given it credit for in the past.

    If things are as simple as posting our traditional understanding of 1 Tim 2 on the wall of every assembly, why doesn’t Paul do that here in Corinth? Why build their hopes up (Paul will permit us to edify the assembly by prophesying!) and then dash them (we can’t prophesy after all, we must be silent)?

    The truth is there! I pray for the wisdom to understand it. In the meantime, I cheerfully submit to my elders in the faith. Hey, _I_ don’t have to be silent, so why not submit?

  15. Nick,

    I agree with Wright. For me, the literary and social context (Ephesus) factors in heavily. For the record, we’ve been blessed to be led in prayer in New Genesis by women. Since I’m in Columbus this weekend, a very able female will lead the discussion in New Genesis tomorrow.

    Let no one say I don’t practice what I preach! : )


  16. Thanks for coming by, Ben. I pray that our Father continues to watch over you while you’re away from your family, and that the job search bears fruit.


  17. Nick,
    It’s Monday and time for me to wind down a bit. Thanks for your comments and loving spirit. You’re right that some want to quote 1 Tim. 2 and then close their minds to any other factors. I still think some of the new interpretations of that text are contrived to fit cultural trends, but want to keep an open mind.

    I never thought of John the Baptist’s going against “nature” according to vs. 14. That’s just another head scratcher from that context. I’m sure there’s an explanation but I don’t have it right off. I suppose I’m one of the few people left in the world who still thinks women should cover their heads when praying and teaching while men should avoid the same. I know brother Lipscomb and some of the older preachers believed it and a few of us still do. Frankly, I think that 1 Corinthians 11 is the strongest point that you and others who share your position make. If you just assume in that chapter that women were prophesying from a position of assertive authority in the assembly, you have a legitimate point. However, other texts such as 14:34, 35 and 1 Tim. 2 keep me from making that assumption.

    A final thought before I check out your new post and then get back to some real work – Since I’ve begun commenting in your blog and Bobby Valentine’s (my two favorites) I’ve come to appreciate you and those who comment (such as Ben Overby) that many would label as “super liberals.” Though I often leave comments that are diametrically opposed to your points of view, you always receive them with love and respect. The same can’t be said for some bloggers in the “mainstream” who are more traditional. I’m thinking of one in particular who when confronted with disagreement quickly turns snappy, grouchy and defensive. Perhaps it is because in spite of our disagreements we share the emphasis on God’s grace and mercy that the traditionalists seem to overlook. Some may think that emphasis comes from the “Nashville Bible School” and of course good men from that school have influenced us, but it comes primarily from scripture.

  18. While I have no doubt that there are many “super-liberals” who get mean, cranky, or down-right aggressive, I think you are correct in your evaluation of the foundation for our attitudes.

    Those in the “traditionalist” camp seem to be exactly that – encamped in a defensive position. Those of us who have left the camp (we BELIEVE in accordance with Hebrews 13 and other passages) cannot afford to respond with aggression to those who do not share our opinions, even those opinions we hold close.

    I’ve failed at that many times, have no fear. I love my brethren deeply, and sometimes the most passionate discourse occurs between loved ones. I HATE division in the body; I think it embarrasses God before a watching world. Yet I am not wise enough to rip up tares and save wheat. Some interpret Paul’s phrase in 1 Cor 11:19 as an actual approval of division! How they reconcile that with 1:10 I don’t know. Translators haven’t helped; I am stunned at how many translations insert “God’s” before approval or approved in 11:19. That seems to be a blanket surrender to sectarianism!

    Okay… off the soapbox. The Galatian heresy terrifies me. As I read the NT, only three things remove a Christian from covenant with God.

    1) Rejection of faith;
    2) Rejection of repentance;
    3) Striving to merit one’s salvation by justification by law (Gal 5:1-6).

    This occurs every day among God’s people, and it terrifies me as much as the idea of rejecting my faith or my repentance terrifies me. For freedom, Christ has set me free; I pray I will not be enslaved again, either to law or to sin.

    in HIS love,

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