The Ministry of Women Redefined

Women in Ministry

The Ministry of Women Redefined was originally published as a book by Jon Zens called “What’s with Paul and Women?” This is an excerpt from the that book.

Editor’s note: If you made a list of the top five controversies in Protestant Christendom in the last 50 years, the issue of women in ministry would definitely be on it.

The dispute boils down to a handful of passages in which the Apostle Paul seems to prohibit women from preaching, teaching and serving as ordained ministers. Traditionalists argue that these passages are God’s will for the church for all time. More progressive voices assert that in these passages Paul is dealing with specific issues in specific congregations in the context of first century Mediterranean cultures, and therefore Paul (and for that matter God, who inspired Scripture) did not intend these directives to be applied forever.

This is a good example of an issue that can’t be responsibly sorted out with a cursory reading of a few versions of the Bible. The passages must be carefully examined in their original language, and in their historical and cultural context before we can fully appreciate their intent.

John Zens has done an admirable job of this in his recent book What’s With Paul & Women? Unlocking the Cultural Background to 1 Timothy 2. He focuses on what is perhaps the most “challenging” of Paul’s passages dealing with the role of women in the church.

With his generous permission, we have excerpted a chapter from that book. It may forever change the way you view these scriptures.

First, a word about historical context. The evangelist Timothy had been commissioned by Paul to remain for a time in the city of Ephesus to minister to the believers there. Ephesus was a bustling port city with a mixture of cultures. It was part of the Roman Empire; it was heavily influenced by Greek culture (Greek was the dominant language), yet it was on the coast of Asia Minor.

The most celebrated deity in Ephesus was a version of the Greek goddess Artemis (identified with the Roman goddess Diana). Many of her followers were fanatical (see Acts 19:23-41), and the economy of the city depended in no small degree on Artemis’ magnificent temple – one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

In Ephesus, Artemis was worshipped as a mother goddess which appealed especially to women. Woman looked to Artemis for help in conception and childbirth.

Paul’s communications to the Ephesians, therefore, would certainly have taken this into account, and as John Zens makes clear in the following excerpt from his book, Paul’s statements in 1 Timothy make much more sense when seen in this context.

“But I am not now permitting a woman to teach with the goal of getting her way with a man, but to be in quietness.” – 1 Timothy 2:12

Traditional View:

1 Timothy 2:12 is used as an always-binding command by Paul that women are not to teach men, which, if done, would wrongfully usurp male authority. Instead of teaching, women are to be and remain in silence.


First, it must be pointed out that there is no command [imperative] from Paul in this text. The wording in the King James Version, “I suffer not a woman,” can certainly sound like a command in English, but it isn’t so in the original Greek text. Instead, it is a simple present tense, “I am not now permitting a woman….” This tense use could imply a shift in Paul’s strategy that arose because of the local and unique problems that existed in Ephesus, which focused on the socio-economic presence of Artemis’ Temple. Timothy had worked with Paul for years and was probably not used to hearing restrictions on the sisters coming from Paul. But now Paul announces, “I am not now permitting a woman….”

Considering the background of the assembly in Ephesus will be helpful in this regard. Read Acts 18:24- 20:1 and you’ll see that Paul spent three years there. So far as we know, this was his longest tenure in any city during his journeys. With this in mind, we can surmise that during his years in Ephesus –approximately A.D. 54-57 – the sisters were functioning along with the brothers in a fashion similar to the meeting described in 1 Corinthians 14.

It was not Paul’s habit to put restrictions on the sisters. However, things changed when false teaching crept in and some believers, including an unknown number of women, were involved in the aberrations, some of which no doubt involved the Artemis cult. As a result, some six years after he left Ephesus (approximately A.D. 63), Paul must announce to Timothy, “I am not now permitting a woman to teach….”

After leaving Ephesus, around A.D. 58 Paul came to the island of Miletus (30 miles south of Ephesus) and called for the elders of the Ephesians assembly. In his farewell address to these servants, Paul mentions no concerns about the sisters, but does warn them, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). It appears that by A.D. 63 this had come to pass, and Timothy was left in Ephesus to correct the confusion created by false teachers and false teaching (1 Timothy 1:3-4)

Paul wrote a letter to the Ephesian assembly around A.D. 61. This epistle is the pinnacle of Paul’s sublime expression of God’s purpose in Christ and his Body, but there are no concerns expressed in it about the sisters nor are any restrictions on them mentioned in his apostolic communication.

Around A.D. 64-65, Christ himself directed a short letter to the Ephesian assembly which is recorded in Revelation 2:1-7. Jesus expressed his concerns to them, but such correctives had nothing to do with the functioning of the sisters. This is significant because in Jesus’ letter to Thyatira he was upset about the false teaching ministry of a woman nicknamed “Jezebel” (Revelation 2:20).

The Ministry of Women Redefined

To Teach and To Dominate

When Paul says, “I am not now permitting a woman,” he follows with a neither… nor construction involving two infinitives, didaskein [to teach] and authentein [to have one’s way with, to dominate]. It must be asked, how do these two infinitives correlate?

Philip Payne and others suggest that the best fit is that of goal or purpose. In others words, Paul in this Ephesian situation where some women were propagating error does not want them to teach with the purpose or goal of getting their way with (or dominating) a man. Payne sees the closet English parallel to how these two infinitives are employed to be our idioms: hit ‘n’ run, eat ‘n’ run, hence, teach ‘n’ dominate – to teach with the goal of dominating (with false teaching). It is this specific type of teaching that Paul is not permitting. 1

There is only one use – and let me emphasize that is it the single instance – of the verb authenteo in the New Testament and it is the infinitive authentein in Timothy 2:12. Traditionally it has been translated as, “nor to usurp authority over the man.” This view assumes that the very act of a woman teaching a man is inherently a wrongful deed that violates male headship. But nowhere is there a shred of Biblical substantiation for such an extreme position. From both Testaments we glean the active role of women as presenters of God’s will to his people:

  • Deborah, a Prophetess, Judge and Wife, sat by her palm tree and made judgments as men and women came to her for counsel in applying the Mosaic law to their lives (Judges 2:16-19; 4:1-5:31).
  • King Josiah sent a male envoy to the Prophetess and Wife Huldah after the Book of the Law was discovered. She gave them [and ultimately, Israel] the word of the Lord (2 Kings 22:14-20; 2 Chronicles 34:22-28).
  • Priscilla and Aquila explained the way of God more perfectly to Apollos in their home in Ephesus (Acts 18:19-26). The assembly in Ephesus also met in the home of Priscilla and Aquila where we can only assume that she had some very edifying things to say.
  • When males and females prophesy in a gathering, Paul says that “learning” is one of the outcomes. Thus, brothers and sisters are constantly learning from one another. In this sense, it is clearly not wrong for women to contribute to the “learning” (manthano) of males.

If there is a divine law that women-teaching-men is sinful, then there can be no exceptions. But there can be no exceptions. But there is no concern in this regard expressed in Scripture, and there are clearly cases where women taught men. In Romans 12:6-7 where Paul is listing some gifts, he mentions “prophesying” and “teaching.” There are no gender restrictions here – both men and women can be involved in such activities.

There is nothing inherently wrong with women-teaching-men, but it is a problem when women teach error, or teach in an attempt to get their way with men. Of course, the same concerns hold true if males teach error or teach with the goal of dominating others!

But the vital matter that must be reckoned with is that authentein simply does not have the meaning “exercise authority over.” In classical Greek literature before Christ, the word was used to refer to a murderer or to one who contracted for a murder to take place.

Linda Belleville observes: “If Paul had wanted to speak of an ordinary exercise of authority, he could have picked any number of words. Within the semantic domain of ‘exercise authority,’ biblical lexico-graphers J.P. Louw and Eugene Nida have twelve entries, and of “rule” [and] “govern” forty-seven entries. Yet Paul picked none of these. Why not? The obvious reason is that authentein carried a nuance (other than “rule” or “have authority”) that was particularly suited to the Ephesian situation…. [Louw and Nida] put authenteo into the semantic domain ‘to control, restrain, domineer and define the verb as ‘to control in a domineering manner’: ‘I do not allow a woman… to dominate a man’ (1 Timothy 2:12)…. [They] also note that authentein is expressed idiomatically as ‘to shout orders at’ … or ‘to bark at’…. So there is no first century warrant for translating authentein as ‘to exercise authority’ and for understanding Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12 to be speaking of the carrying out of one’s official [teaching] duties. Rather the sense is the Koine [common Greek] ‘to dominate; to get one’s way.’”2

Who’s in Charge?

We must remember that our Lord taught us that in his kingdom “authority” – who’s in charge – is to be a servant (Matthew 20:24-28; 23:11; Mark 9:34; Luke 9:46; 22:24). The idea of one person having dominion over another or others is the essence of all that is antichrist; it is clearly how the world operates and, as a pattern of behavior, is one which we are encouraged to diligently avoid, based on the life and teachings of Jesus, the Christ. No one is to be the top-dog, and there are no positions of authority.

I don’t know how many time I’ve heard, “women shouldn’t be in positions of authority.” The truth is, neither males nor females are to be in positions of authority! There is no human chain-of-command in Christ’s domain. The greatest position is at the bottom of the ladder. Those with the most spiritual influence will live as those with no authority. They will live as those with no authority. They will live as slaves and children – who had no status in first century culture. The greatest in Christ’s kingdom lays down his life for others – which is precisely what Jesus did as the servant par excellence.

By his example, then, we must rid ourselves of the traditional idea that some kind of inherent authority resides in the position of “teacher” (or, in our day, “preacher”). Christ is the one with all authority in his kingdom, and he oversees his assemblies by his word and Spirit. Everything that is brought before the brethren is weighed and evaluated in light of the truth as it is in Jesus. Hebrews 5:12 says, “by this time you ought to be teachers, [but] you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.”

Obviously, not every person has the gift of teaching (James 3:1), but all the brothers and sisters can be teachers in some way and contribute to the learning process in the assembly. Again, the New Testament is not against women teaching, but Paul does put the kibosh on a woman teaching with the goal of dominating a man, which was the specific problem in Ephesus.

It is crucial to understand that the only place in the New Testament where the word “authority” is directly connected to gender is in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7. Interestingly, in this passage the “authority” (exousia) mentioned has nothing to do with the husband bossing the wife around. Instead, it is a mutual authority – neither the man nor the woman has “authority” over their own body. The wife has authority over her husband’s body, and the husband has authority over his wife’s body.

An implication of this truth is that the two cannot separate from one another physically unless they mutually agree (symphonou, be in symphony) that this should be done.

Male Headship?

Many take “male headship” to mean that the husband has “the final say.” But how could that be in light of 1 Corinthians 7:1-7? The husband, Paul teaches here, should not unilaterally announce, “We are going to be physically separated awhile.” Such action should only take place if they mutually agree on it. If this is the case in an important issue like physical separation, one would assume that the goal in marital decision-making is for the couple to be one-minded. In light of this passage what “male headship” actually entails needs to be reexamined.3

The evidence we have examined leads to this conclusion: In 1 Timothy 2:11-12 Paul did not issue a universal restriction that applies to all believing women in all Christian gatherings; instead, he responded to the specific problems in Ephesus with gospel perspectives.

Craig Keener thus rightly observes: “Other passages in Paul which clearly demonstrate his approval of women’s ministry of God’s word indicate that 1 Timothy 2:9-15… cannot prohibit women’s ministry in all situations, but is limited to the situation in Ephesus and perhaps some other congregations facing similar crises in this period of the church’s history.4

Excerpted from What’s With Paul and Women? Unlocking the Cultural Background of 1 Timothy 2, by Jon Zens and Wade Burleson. Copyright 2010. Used by permission.

  • Philip Payne, “Authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12,” Evangelical Theological Society Seminar Paper, Atlanta, GA, November 21, 1986.
  • Belleville, “Usurping,” pp. 211, 216.
  • Appendix Three, “What About 1 Cor. 7:1-5,” et passim in the Review Article of John Piper’s What’s the Difference?
  • “Man & Woman,” Dictionary of Paul & His Letters, IVP, 1993, p. 591.

Jon Zens is the author of A Church Building Every Half Mile and What’s With Paul and Women? He became the editor of Searching Together in 1978. Since 1979, he and his wife, Dotty, have traveled domestically and internationally sharing insights about living under grace. Jon and Dotty have three children and six grandchildren. Jon has a B.A. from Covenant college (1968), and M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary (1972) and a D.Min. from the California Graduate School of Theology (1983).

First published in English for Plain Truth magazine in 2011. Translated into Spanish for under the direction of Jose L Bosque. The new title “The Ministry of Women Redefined” chosen by Jose L Bosque to help Google Optimization concerning Women in Ministry.