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Living On The Edge: challenges to faith

September 1, 2013 Leave a comment

Today Christians in the Western world are typically living in a post-Christian society. Christian beliefs are met with skepticism, and people see little reason to believe. Christians are confronted with daily challenges to their faith, and often struggle to understand the relevance of Christianity to modern life.

The book ‘Living On The Edge: challenges to faith‘ (due to be printed in November 2013), addresses those concerns. For an overview of the book, click here.

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The crisis of absent men

May 14, 2011 6 comments

The Claim

A common complaint made by egalitarians is that ‘the church’ is forcing women to leave, and discouraging women from joining, due to ‘traditionalist’ views of the role of women. Although there is certainly evidence that women have on occasion been dissuaded from joining a church (or ecclesia), due to its position on this issue, or even from accepting Christianity, there is far more evidence that churches in countries which have made the greatest effort to be inclusive of women, are losing men at a significant rate.[1]

The Facts

Remarkably, church attendance by women has consistently been higher throughout history, even during those times when women were most marginalized. Historically, women have typically been more involved in religion than men regardless of social or theological environment.[2]

The marginalization of women therefore has historically had little to no impact on church attendance by women (and in some cases can be seen to have encouraged it), whereas modern churches face the challenge of seriously declining male attendance, despite the fact that men still occupy the majority of leadership positions in most mainstream Christian denominations.[3]

The most prominent examples of this problem are in the US and UK, where numerous studies have confirmed a significant gender gap in the churches,[4] which various organizations have attempted to address.[5]

This particular subject has not received the same enthusiastic call for action as issues such as the role of women in the congregation,[6] though it has been noted to various extents in the relevant scholarly literature for many years.[7] Many Christians remain unaware of the issue, and no worldwide campaigns are undertaken to increase awareness of the problem (some efforts to address the issue are in fact even resisted[8]), though literature addressing the subject specifically (both popular[9] and scholarly[10]), is gradually increasing.

It should be understood that there is evidence that this lack of involvement by men is not necessarily related directly to participation by women.[11] A congregation which increases the involvement of its women in various roles (including leadership), will not necessarily lose its men.[12] If we are to be serious and honest about addressing gender issues in our community, this is an issue which should not be ignored.

The problem is the more concerning given that no single cause for the decline has been discovered, indicating the issue is complex, and not susceptible to a simple solution. Significantly, this appears to be a uniquely Christian problem, not found in other religions:

‘Yet, as Murrow (2005a, 8 ) points out, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam all have at least as many male adherents as female ones. Podles (1999, ix) also notes that, within Christianity, the Orthodox Church has a general [sic] balance. The implication is clear: it is not that religion or spirituality per se are inimical to men. Rather, it must be specific forms and expressions of religion or spirituality that alienate men and deter their participation.’[13]

One contributing factor appears to be derogatory attitudes towards male spirituality, with men commonly encountering the belief that their religious experiences are of little value, and that they are less spiritual than women:

‘It is somewhat disturbing to note that, according to my survey, 13.2% of Christians agree with the statement that “men are less spiritual than women” (including 19.3% of men, who are repeatedly told that their forms of spirituality are not the real thing).’ [14]

Another clearly identified contributing factor has been the gradual feminization of Christian worship services, aimed at reflecting what women (supposedly), feel most comfortable with:

‘Perhaps the main focus of those who criticise the Church for having become feminised is that its worship is too ‘touchy-feely’, overemotional or over-personal. This has been derogatorily called ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ (or, more provocatively, ‘girlfriend’) worship. As Murrow (2005a, 187) argues, “today’s praise music invites the worshipper to assume the feminine role” and praise music can resemble the Top 40 love songs.’ [15]

By way of example, Ducker provides the lyrics of three typical popular worship songs, with lyrics such as ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’, ‘But listen, my Lover/Is coming from heaven’s throne!’, and ‘I have felt Your touch,/More intimate than lovers’. [16] Noteworthy is the fact that even some popular Christian composers have started to consider that such lyrics are inappropriate.[17]

This feminization of church culture has had a negative impact on men, contributing to their absence. [18] As men are under considerable secular pressure to conform to unbiblical male role models, Ducker observes that the modern church must take steps to address the needs of men in the congregation:

It is a commonplace that masculinity is in crisis. Men are experiencing considerable confusion over their identity, in terms of who they are and what their roles are. As the end of the millennium approached, Roy McCloughry reported “a loss of definition and a confusion about what is expected of men… It is amazing how quickly men seem to have lost their confidence” (1994, 4).

However, such complaints were already familiar, having their origin in the turbulent changes in gender relations in the 1960s, and the ensuing ‘sex war’. By the mid-1980s Leanne Payne was able to note that this “growing cultural malady” was already epic in proportions” and equated to a full-blown “crisis in masculinity” (1985, 9). The Church’s response to this disruption to men’s identities, labelled “gender dysphoria” by Culbertson (2002, 221), has been both feeble and disappointing, yet this is a profoundly spiritual issue.’ [19]

The fact is that men are leaving their churches at a far greater rate than women.


[1] For the UK, Ducker notes ‘Using the limited data that we do have, we find that there is considerable convergence of estimates for the male proportion of those in Church, which typically fall within the range of 35% to 40% for the period 2005-2007. This proportion is lower than at any recent point of church history and is part of a trend going back at least as far as 1980, when approximately 44% of those in Church were males.6 There are signs that this trend is now stabilising’, ibid., pp.11-12 (2007)

[2] ‘It is found consistently that women are more religious than men both behaviorally and attitudinally (e.g., Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, 1975; Scobie, 1975; Yinger, 1970), Gee, ‘Gender Differences in Church Attendance in Canada: the Role of Labor Force Participation’, Review of Religious Research (32.3.267), 1991

[3] ‘It would be interesting to see whether the gender of clergy is correlated to male/female attendance rates, and whether it is significant that two denominations that have had women ministers since the early 1970s (URC and Methodism) also have two of the lowest rates of male participation (35% and 36% respectively). Re-examining his most recent dataset, Christian Research’s Dr Peter Brierley 18 One topical example of this is the revision of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ to ‘Onward Christian Pilgrims’ (see, for example, Hymns Old and New – new Anglican edition), has found that “where there is a female minister the percentage of men in their congregations is only 38%” compared to the “overall proportion of churchgoers [which is] 43%” (personal correspondence, 9 May 2007).’, Ducker,  ‘Disbanded Brothers – Has a ‘Feminised’ Church Alienated Men in the UK?’, pp.24-25 (2007)

[4] ‘The UKCH Religious Trends series has included occasional data on church attendance by gender (as well as analysis by age, denomination and churchmanship). No.5 in this series (2005/2006) provides evidence for two main trends: that women outnumber men in the UK’s churches, and that the proportion of men in church congregations is falling‘, Ducker,  ‘Disbanded Brothers – Has a ‘Feminised’ Church Alienated Men in the UK?’, p.10 (2007); also http://www.whychurch.org.uk/gendergap.php

[6] ‘there has been surprisingly little written on this topic in relation to the UK’, Ducker, ‘Disbanded Brothers – Has a ‘Feminised’ Church Alienated Men in the UK?’, p.2 (2007)

[7] As for example an article almost 50 years ago, ‘women, both in and out of the labor force, attend church more frequently than men’, Lazerwitz, ‘Some factors associated with variations in church attendance’, Social Forces, p. 310 (1961)

[8] ‘there is continued reluctance to organise men-only activities’, Ducker, ‘Disbanded Brothers – Has a ‘Feminised’ Church Alienated Men in the UK?’, p.22 (2007)

[9] Kunjufu, ‘Adam! Where Are You? Why Most Black Men Don’t Go to Church’ (1994), Podles, ‘The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity’ (1999), Murrow, ‘Why Men Hate Going to Church’ (2005)

[10] Lummis, ‘A Research Note: Real Men and Church Participation’, Review of Religious Research (45.4.404-414), 2004

[11] Note however the 2003 UK study by Heather Wraight, ‘Men and the Church’, which found ‘the most common response to the question what they “least liked about being a man in church” was “being outnumbered by women” and “being in a minority”’,  in Ducker, ‘Disbanded Brothers – Has a ‘Feminised’ Church Alienated Men in the UK?’, p.9 (2007)

[12] In a study of Episcopalian congregations in the US, Lummis notes ‘Survey results indicate that the presence of women in ordained or in lay church leadership does not significantly diminish men’s feelings of being appreciated by their congregations’, ‘A Research Note: Real Men and Church Participation’, Review of Religious Research (45.4.404-414), 2004

[13] Ducker, ‘Disbanded Brothers – Has a ‘Feminised’ Church Alienated Men in the UK?’, p.17 (2007)

[14] Ibid., p.17

[15] Ibid., p.20

[16] Ibid., pp.20-21

[17] ‘Significantly, Matt Redman, composer of several worship songs in this vein, recently admitted that he was “re-visiting a couple of things [that he had] written before” because they were too effeminate: “If a blokey bloke comes into church, is he going to connect with what’s going on? Some of the romantic imagery used in worship, the more I think about and study scripture, I’m not so sure about it… In the Bible you don’t have people coming up to Jesus saying, ‘You’re beautiful…’, even in Revelation before his throne… [One song ended with] ‘I’m so in love with you’… Maybe I should have written, ‘I’m so in awe of you.’ It’s a learning process.” (Interviewed by John Buckeridge in Christianity, March 2007, pp.12-13)’ , ibid., p.21

[18] ‘Instead of affirming men in their created, masculine identities, the Church has tended towards a general notion of spirituality that is unmistakably feminine. Thus, the desirable virtues of churchgoers are that they are ‘nice’, ‘friendly’, ‘polite’ and ‘well-behaved’. They should be contemplative, quietly prayerful, intuitive and able to express their ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus articulately and emotionally. Whilst these characteristics may well reflect a certain type of spirituality, it is not one that men will necessarily identify with and as such is further evidence of the feminisation of Church culture.’, ibid., p.26

[19] Ibid., p.26

Is 1 Timothy 2:11-12 a time limited text?

The Claim

Hugenberger (a moderate egalitarian/soft complementarian), notes the view of Spencer (a strong egalitarian), that Paul’s prohibition on women speaking in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is time limited, a temporary prohibition until the women of the ecclesia have abandoned their heretical teaching:

‘In addition Spencer notes that rather than using the imperative mood or even an aorist or future indicative to express that prohibition, Paul quite significantly utilizes a present indicative, perhaps best rendered “But I am not presently allowing.”29 This temporary prohibition, then, is based solely on the regrettable similarity between the Ephesian women and Eve in that the women of Ephesus had been deceived and as such if allowed to teach would be in danger of promoting false doctrine.’[1]

Hugenberger then explains why this suggestion is improbable:

As attractive as this interpretation appears, serious objections have been raised against it in recent years.

First of all, some caution may need to be exercised against an overly simplistic picture of the Jewish or Greek cultural background at times assumed for our passage.32 For example, Eunice and Lois (2 Tim 1:5; 3:15) appear to have known the Scriptures better than might be inferred from the Jewish practice adduced by Spencer, although Spencer acknowledges the possibility that women could learn privately.

Most seriously, S. T. Foh has argued that the women of 1 Tim 2:9–15 do not appear to be one and the same as the false teachers elsewhere.

She notes that these women are treated in a radically different manner from the false teachers since they are urged to “continue in faith, love, holiness, and sobriety,” while the women mentioned in 2 Tim 3:6–7, for example, “can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”

Moreover, as Foh points out, there is no Scriptural warrant for the underlying assumption that Eve taught Adam to eat the forbidden fruit.’[2]

‘Finally, this view fails to explain why Paul stresses the temporal priority of Adam rather than merely mentioning Eve’s deception.’[3]

Egalitarian Commentary

Egalitarian Barron similarly exposes the weakness of this argument:

‘First, defenders of the traditional view have argued that Paul’s blanket statement, “I do not permit a woman to teach,” sounds universal.

If what he really meant was “I do not permit a woman to teach error,” and that he would have no objection to women teaching once they got their doctrine straight, why did he not say that? Kroeger received criticism even from a fellow egalitarian for failing to deal with this point.16 [original footnote reproduced in footnote [4] below]’[5]

Indeed, Barron rightly notes that the argument is incompatible with the common egalitarian claim that women were teaching in the ecclesias because they were sufficiently educated and doctrinally sound:

And egalitarians are in no position to interpret Paul’s dictum as a temporary prohibition, needed until women could surmount cultural obstacles to education—not when, out of the other side of their mouths, these egalitarians are championing women (one of whom, Priscilla, labored in Ephesus) who did fulfill a teaching or leadership role in the NT.17

Not all women of Paul’s day were intellectually impoverished or hopelessly contaminated by pagan practices, yet Paul seems to prohibit all women from teaching in Ephesus.

The egalitarians seem forced into the implausible claim that no woman in the Ephesian church was sufficiently orthodox and educated to teach.’[6]

Egalitarian Gordon Fee likewise dismisses the idea that the prohibition is temporary:

Despite protests to the contrary, the “rule” itself is expressed absolutely. That is, it is given without any form of qualification. Given the unqualified nature of the further prohibition that “the women”29 are not permitted to speak, it is very difficult to interpret this as meaning anything else than all forms of speaking out in public.’[7]

So also egalitarians Soderlund and Wright:

‘I Timothy 2:11-12 thus remains as the one apparently clear case of Paul’s imposing a ban on women’s ministry.’[8]


[1] Hugenberger, ‘Women In Church Office:  Hermeneutics Or Exegesis?  A Survey Of Approaches To 1 Tim 2:8-15’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (35.3.349), (September 1992).

[2] Ibid., p. 349.

[3] Ibid., p. 350.

[4] ‘16. Liefeld, “Response to Kroeger” 245’

[5] Barron (egalitarian), ‘Putting Women In Their Place:   1 Timothy 2 And Evangelical Views Of Women  In Church Leadership ‘,Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (33.4.455), (December 1990).

[6] Ibid., pp. 455-456.

[7] Fee, ‘The First Epistle to the Corinthians’, p. 706 (1987).

[8] Soderlund & Wright, ‘Romans and the People of God’, p. 239 (1999).

Secular commentary on egalitarianism

The Claim

Some egalitarians claim that the egalitarian interpretation is uniquely positioned to convince unbelievers that the New Testament Christian community was egalitarian.[1]

The Facts

Although the complementarian case certainly receives criticism from general society, secular scholarship overwhelmingly supports the complementarian case and typically rejects egalitarian revisionism as ideologically motivated fiction. Ironically, it is often the egalitarian case which brings the Bible into disrepute with the non-believer.

Secular commentaries on early Christian history do not hold these views simply because they are driven by the desire to depict the Bible as negatively as possible, or because they assume the Bible is misogynist, patriarchal, and sexist. Many affirm that the Bible contains positive affirmation of women. But they are skeptical at best of egalitarian revisionist treatments of the Biblical texts, and of well established historical facts.

Alastair Campbell

Despite acknowledging the possibility of women as leaders of ecclesial meetings held in their households, historian Campbell’s overall response to egalitarian historical revisionism is negative.[2]

Instead, Campbell argues, modern Christians should simply accept that their position is different to that of the 1st century ecclesias, and acknowledge that they will necessarily abandon the apostolic teaching and example as a result of living in a different culture.[3]

Judith Lieu

Lieu is a respected academic commentator on early Christianity holding views sympathetic to egalitarian revisionism. Lieu is skeptical of such attempts firstly because of their origin.[4] She is also skeptical of them on the basis of their methodology.[5]

Lieu identifies the fact that such criticism of egalitarian revisionism is well established, and notes the methodological flaws typical to such revisionist efforts.[6]

She is unpersuaded by attempts to present Christ or Paul in an egalitarian light,[7] and unconvinced by the dramatic claims made by egalitarians for Galatians 3:28.[8]

Gerd Lüdemann

Lüdemann is unconvinced by egalitarian claims, and criticizes the revisionist work of the respected Biblical scholar Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.[9] [10]

Also receiving sharp rebuke from Lüdemann are the egalitarian attempts to read into the text more than is there. [11]

Like other secular scholars, Lüdemann is unconvinced by egalitarian claims for Galatians 3:28.[12]

Lena Ksarjian

Lena Ksarjian is sympathetic to egalitarian and feminist efforts to re-interpret the Bible,[13] but does not find these efforts convincing.[14] Ksarjian is particularly critical of the claims made by Schüssler Fiorenza.[15]

Craig Martin

Craig Martin describes the flawed interpretive methods he used to use when he was an egalitarian Christian.[16]

He explains how, on the prior assumption that the New Testament taught egalitarianism, he used these methods was to interpret the text in a manner which was acceptable to his theology.[17] [18]


[1] ‘However, there is another apologetic mission that egalitarians are in a unique and opportune position to fulfill. This involves presenting the message of biblical equality to the unbelieving world in a persuasive manner, thus winning to Christ people who might never be touched by traditionalist approaches.’, Groothius (egalitarian), ‘Apologetics: The Egalitarian Imperative’, (2002)

[2] ‘Rather than striving to show that women played a more prominent part than our evidence suggests, or that the prohibitions of the Pastorals do not mean what they appear to say, it would be more honest to admit the facts and then, if so minded, set them aside. Again, rather than using the New Testament to establish a primitive, egalitarian innocence for the church, while discarding much of the New Testament in the process, those for whom the New Testament documents speak with authority would do better to take them as a whole and ask what we learn from the disciples of the apostles and the fact that they in their generation closed the door to women in leadership after Jesus and Paul had seemed to open it.’, Campbell, ‘The elders: Seniority within earliest Christianity’, p. 275 (2004).

[3] ‘They would say to us, I think: We did what we thought was right in our situation for the sake of the spread of the gospel (1 Cor 9:20–23). The spread of the gospel is still paramount, but your day is not ours. We refused to bring discredit on the gospel by an untimely and intemperate rush for freedom. See that you do not bring discredit on the same gospel by denying a freedom whose time has long come!’, ibid., p. 275.

[4]The politics of such a view are self-evident, for much study of the subject has developed within a context where women were struggling to establish a proper role for themselves within the contemporary church; to this end they have sought an egalitarian past to act as a model for present polity.’, Lieu, ‘Neither Jew nor Greek? constructing early Christianity’, p. 83 (2002).

[5] ‘While other enthusiastic assertions about the distinctiveness of early Christianity and/or of the teaching of Jesus have been somewhat tempered in recent years, this one, [better treatment of women by early Christianity than in early Judaism] for those same reasons, has continued to be repeated. It is the purpose of this discussion neither to prove nor to disprove that claim, something which with our evidence may not be possible, but rather to explore the rhetoric which surrounds it and to expose the hazards of the naive use of sources which often accompanies it.’, ibid., p. 83.

[6] ‘To do so is not totally new: a range of recent studies has shown that such wishful thinking about Jesus’ or Paul’s ‘liberalism’ is deeply flawed, resting on a naive use of the early Christian sources, particularly regarding Jesus, and on a, perhaps less naive, misuse of the Jewish sources, taking as descriptive of the first century, the prescriptive construction of a world by the second-century male scholarly elite we know as the rabbis.2 [original footnote reproduced in footnote [6]  below]’, ibid., p. 83.

[7] ‘This essay has already rejected any model which starts with ‘the good’ that Christianity or Judaism could offer women, for such models tend to personify Christianity, usually in the person of Jesus or Paul, when recent study suggests that both Jesus and Paul were ambiguous regarding this issue, and that any place women had in their movements was ancillary to their definition of those movements.’, ibid., p. 97.

[8] ‘The arguably pre-Pauline formula in Gal. 3:28, ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, and not male and female’, has been celebrated with enthusiasm as the cornerstone of early Christian egalitarianism, particularly within feminist exegesis. Yet the rhetoric of Galatians remains unaffected by the last clause of that confession.’, ibid., p. 112

[9] ‘For all those seeking historical information and plausible historical reconstruction in Schüssler Fiorenza’s feminist-theological reconstruction of Christian origins, reading is a torment. With arbitrary exegesis she attempts to show that the early Christian movement opened up positions of leadership for women and therefore could be called egalitarian.’, Lüdemann, ‘Primitive Christianity : A survey of recent studies and some new proposals’, p. 87 (2003).

[10]Many textual analyses are very farfetched; those mentioned in the report could easily be supplemented.113 [original footnote reproduced in footnote [10]  below]  …The theological zeal behind this book is at least as absolutist as the patriarchalist exegesis of primitive Christianity and modernity which Schüssler Fiorenza attacks. It is hardly much use in moving forward constructive research into primitive Christianity.’, ibid., p. 87.

[11] ‘Scattered through the chapter there are again theses that serve to re-evaluate the role of the woman in early Christianity: Phoebe (Rom. 16:1–2) was not a deaconess commissioned for women’s work but a minister of the whole church of Cenchreae (170). That does not emerge from the wording. Three women, namely Lydia and her companions (cf. Acts 16:15), are said to have been founders and leaders of the church of Philippi, with whom ‘Paul had entered into a “communal partnership” (societas)’ (178). This thesis is derived solely from Acts. Finally Prisca—by means of an uncertain historical judgement—becomes the teacher of Apollos (179).’ , ibid., p. 87.

[12] ‘Ch. 6 is headed ‘Neither Male and Female. Galatians 3:28—Alternative Vision and Pauline Modification’ (205–41). Schüssler Fiorenza rightly regards the text as a pre-Pauline baptismal declaration. The text is ‘best understood as a communal Christian self-definition rather than a statement about the baptized individual’ (213).’, ibid., p. 87.

[13] Ibid.

[14]In conclusion, I am sympathetic with the feminist project. I do not believe that feminist scholars are engaging in some intellectual sleight of hand or are pulling a nonexistent rabbit out of a nonexistent hat. I do believe these scholars are well-intended. However, some of these intentions serve to promote patriarchy rather than help eliminate it.’, Ksarjian, ‘Trying to Prove that the Bible Is Pro-Woman How some feminists perpetuate patriarchy’, Free Inquiry Magazine, (19.1.1999)

[15] ‘’In Schüssler Fiorenza’s view, Galatians 3:28 is the “magna carta of Christian Feminism.”9 From the historical point of view, Schüssler Fiorenza’s interpretation is vulnerable.'[15]

‘In light of these complexities I do not see how Schüssler Fiorenza’s interpretations can withstand historical scrutiny.’, ibid.

[16] ‘Another example of selective privileging can be seen with the way in which Christian communities interpret the comments about the status of women in the Pauline and deuteroPauline letters. Some passages in these letters recommend measures that we would now consider to be sexist; other passages suggest Paul apparently supported women in leadership positions.’, Martin, ‘How to Read an Interpretation: Interpretive Strategies and the Maintenance of Authority’, The Bible and Critical Theory, p. 05.14 (5.1.2009).

[17] ‘This was exactly the position I took in my early undergraduate studies: reconciling my assumption of the inerrancy and authority of the Bible with my view of God as necessarily egalitarian required exhaustive mental gymnastics.’, ibid., p. 06.14.

[18] ‘I tended to privilege selectively the passages that appeared to support women in leadership positions, and then I read the passages that disparaged the role of women in light of those, often attempting to interpret the sexist passages as if they were not sexist. How could the apparently sexist passages be interpreted as not sexist? Sometimes with the simultaneous deployment of ventriloquism – ‘Paul really means something completely different than what he seems to say’ – and sometimes with the simultaneous use of disabling contextualization – ‘this comment was only applicable to the specific context in which Paul was writing, and doesn’t apply to other contexts.’’, ibid., p. 06.14.

Does 1 Corinthians 14:34 contain a quotation from Paul’s opponents?

May 11, 2011 1 comment

The Claim

Egalitarians such as Bilezikian[1] and Arichea,[2] claim that the restriction on women speaking found in 1 Corinthians 14:34 is a quotation from Paul’s opponents rather than the words of Paul himself.

The Facts

The interpretations of Bilezikian and Arichea are strongly motivated by the egalitarian view they bring to the text.

Bilezikian writes from an unabashedly egalitarian position, calling for “deliberate programs of depatriarchalization” (p. 211) in our religious institutions and “a systematic effort of deprogramming” in our thinking so that we do away with “regard[ing] the opposite sex as opposite” (p. 210; italics his).’[3]

‘He [Daniel C. Arichea Jr] has also written numerous Bible studies for young people and on the subject of women in the Scriptures, one of which is entitled “Laying to Rest the Misconception of the Subordinate Role of Women in the Church.”‘[4]

To reinforce the egalitarian motivation behind his interpretation, Arichea lists among the ‘advantages’ of this interpretation the fact that it is supportive of the egalitarian case:

‘a) It changes the passage from that of an oppressive text that can be used as an anti-feminist tool to one which advocates the active participation of women within the church.’[5]

‘f) The spirit of Gal. 3:28 is not violated by Paul in any way.’[6]

Nevertheless, Arichea himself lists a number of objections against this interpretation of the text:

‘However, there are objections to this position as well, among which are the following:

a)  There simply is no way to be certain, since the Greek text does not contain any interpretive markers of any kind. What then if Paul was actually advocating the silence of women in the church?

b)  Such a position advocating the active participation of women in the church service seems too advanced for Paul and for the early church at that stage of its history.

c)  Canonical history seems to indicate that vv 34-35 was understood primarily as an admonition to silence, as is clear in the repetition of these same arguments in 1 Tim. 2:11-15.

d)  But the main objection has something to do with the difficulty of relating the passage to its immediate and wider context. Considering that the subject of the whole of chapter 14 is orderliness in the worship service, which came under threat due to the practice of speaking in tongues, it would be rather unlikely for the chapter to contain a section asserting the right of certain people, and specifically the women, to speak in the church service.  It would be more likely for an admonition to silence to be included rather than a justification for speaking.’[7]

Arichea also states clearly that the translation suggestion which he finally proposes has no support from the scholarly consensus whatever:

‘Considering the whole argument, it does seem that this third option is worth considering and pursuing further. It should be noted, however, that no translation (to my knowledge) has followed this option, nor has it been mentioned in the notes accompanying various translations. Of all the commentaries I have examined, only one advocates this position.’[8]

Scholarly Commentary

This suggestion has not found significant support among scholarly commentators, and remains a marginal position even among egalitarians.  It is rejected by egalitarians such as Johnson and Witherington,[9] [10] [11] Fee,[12] Hays,[13] Horrell,[14] and Keener.[15] Thiselton notes other commentators rejecting the suggestion.[16]

Following the scholarly consensus, these verses are represented as Paul’s words (not a quotation from the Corinthians), by the CEV, GNB/TEV, HCSB, ISV, Message, NAB, NASB95, NET, NCV, NIRV, NIV, NLT, TLB, and TNIV. In fact, no standard modern Bible translation renders these verses as a quotation.


[1] ‘…Paul is quoting derisively the words of his Judeo-Christian opponents,’, Bilezikian, ‘Beyond Sex Roles: A Guide for the Study of Female Roles in the Bible’ (3rd ed. 2006).

[2] Arichea, ‘The Silence of Women in The Church: Theology and Translation in 1 Corinthians 14.33b-36’, The Bible Translator, p. 110 (46.1.1995).

[3] Trotter, review of Bilezikian‘s ‘Beyond Sex Roles: A Guide for the Study of Female Roles in the Bible’, in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 12 (30.1.101), (1987).

[4] 2008-09 Bulletin of the Duke University Divinity School; this is a publication by the university at which Arichea works.

[5] Arichea, ‘The Silence of Women in The Church: Theology and Translation in 1 Corinthians 14.33b-36’, The Bible Translator, p. 110 (46.1.1995).

[6] Ibid., p. 110.

[7] Ibid., p. 110.

[8] Ibid., p. 110.

[9]The best refutation of this view is given by Ben Witherington, who argues that the previous quotes of Corinthian views in the letter were actually stated and then refuted or circumstantially modified by Paul.’, Johnson, ‘1 Corinthians‘, p. 272 (2004).

[10] ‘More telling against this view is the large number of words in verses 34-35 that resonate with the immediate context (Witherington 1988:90-91).’, ibid., p. 272.

[11]Witherington offers stronger and more detailed arguments why the hypothesis of Odell-Scott and Flanagan and Snyder are open to doubt. In sum, because of such phrases as as in all the churches of God’s holy people, and because 6:12; 10:23; 7:1 et al. represent not “rebuttals” but circumstantial qualifications “they raise more questions than they answer.”359  With a deft turn, he adds: “In all probability Paul is anticipating the response he expected to get (v. 36) when the Corinthians read his argument (vv. 34–35).”360’, Thiselton, ‘The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A commentary on the Greek text’, p. 1151 (2000).

[12] ‘The very first word *e, “or,” “either… or,” or the interjection “what!”) should not be seen as introducing a statement rejecting the previous two verses, as if they were an aberrant Corinthian viewpoint, but as Paul’s anticipation that his rules to control speech practices at Corinth would anger the Corinthians.  As Gordon Fee correctly points out, “Has God given them [the Corinthians] a special word that allows them both to reject Paul’s instructions… and to be so out of touch with the churches?” (1987:7210).

It appears that the Corinthians were trying to make up their own rules, and perhaps even thinking their own word is sufficient or authoritative or even the word of God themselves” (cf. v.36; Witherington 1988:98).’, Johnson, ‘1 Corinthians‘, p. 277 (2004).

[13] ‘Hays considers it “far fetched in the extreme” to think that Paul was quoting theCorinthians in verses 34-35 before he rejects the statement in verse 36. (Hays p.249)’, Mayer, ‘The Women Should Keep Silence in the Churches’, Resources for Sustenance and Renewal(2002).

[14] ‘D.W. Odell-Scott’s attempt to offer an ‘egalitarian’ interpretation of 14.33b-36 based on the contrary force of the particle h (at the beginning of v. 36 is highly implausible in relation to vv. 34f (which must then be read as a statement of Corinthian not Pauline opinion); the particle’s ‘contrary force’ makes much better sense in connection with v. 33.’, Horrel, ‘The social ethos of the Corinthians correspondence: interests and ideology’, p. 187 (1996).

[15] ‘Some have argued instead that Paul here quotes a Corinthian position (1 Cor 14:34–35), which he then refutes (1 Cor 14:36); but 1 Corinthians 14:36 does not read naturally as a refutation of 1 Corinthians 14:34–35.’, Keener, ‘Man and Woman’,  in Hawthorne, Martin, & Reid, ‘Dictionary of Paul and his letters’, p. 590 (1993.)

[16]Horrell finds the view of Odell-Smith and Allison “implausible” not least because, as Conzelmann also notes, v. 36, which attacks the self-important claims of some at Corinth to be “different,” then leaves v. 33b either as part of the Corinthian slogan, which would not cohere with our knowledge of Corinth, or as simply hanging without continuation until after an overly long quotation, or as belonging to vv. 26–33a, which, apart from Barrett, KJV/AV, RV, Alford, and Phillips, is widely accepted as belonging with vv. 34–37 (as UBS 4th ed., NRSV, REB, NIV, NJB, Conzelmann, and most writers).357 “The point about the particle … makes most sense when v. 36 is linked with v. 33.”’, Thiselton, ‘The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A commentary on the Greek text’, p. 1151 (2000).

Paul knew how his statements sounded

Mitigated Statements

As with Jewish society, 1st century Greco-Roman society contained a wide range of attitudes towards women, from the misogynist to the egalitarian.[1]

From this socio-historical background, we know that private associations were free to decide on their own codes of conduct even if these breached social norms, [2] and that 1st century Christian women (whether Jews or Gentiles), would have had reasonable expectations of participating in the congregational worship as a result of their previous religious experiences.

Paul would therefore have been aware of how his commandments concerning women sounded, and accordingly sought to soften the message.[3] [4] [5]

Egalitarian scholars have noted this particular feature of Paul’s commandments, in the seven passages in which he gives commandments concerning the relationship of men and women in the ecclesia and the family using a formulated style.

Walker provides a detailed analysis of these passages. [6] [7]

Specific Texts

1 Corinthians 11:3-16:

* Commandment: Women’s heads should be covered when praying and prophesying

* Reason: The woman is the glory of the man, woman came from man, woman was created for man, and because of the angels

* Mitigation: In the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman; just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman, but all things come from God

1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

* Commandment: Women should be silent in the ecclesias, they are not permitted to speak

* Reason: Let them be in submission, as the Law says; it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church

* Mitigation: If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home

Ephesians 5:22-25:

* Commandment: Wives, submit to your husbands

* Reason: The husband is the head of the wife

* Mitigation: Husbands, love your wives and do not be embittered against them

Colossians 3:18-19:

* Commandment: Wives, submit to your husbands

* Reason: It is fitting in the Lord

* Mitigation: Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the ecclesia

1 Timothy 2:8-15:

* Commandment: Women must learn in all submissiveness; I do not permit a woman to teach or to hold authority over a man, she must remain quiet

Reason: Adam was formed first, and then Eve, and Adam was not deceived but the woman, being deceived, fell into transgression

* Mitigation: She will be delivered through ‘childbearing’,[8] if she continues in faith and love and holiness with self-control

Titus 2:4-5:

* Commandment: Wives are to be subject to their own husbands

* Reason: So that the message of God is not discredited

* Mitigation: [not explicit]

Conclusion

All these passages contain instructions concerning the role and relationship of women in the ecclesia and in the family which Paul knew would be seen by women themselves as placing limits on their participation in the ecclesia and placing them under the authority of their husbands, and which he sought to soften in some way as a result.

Four of these passages appeal explicitly to other passages of Scripture for support,[9] and none are explained as a response to an existing local situation, nor justified as just a cultural accommodation.[10]


[1]But studies of Roman society have found a variety of indicators about the status of women, and what was true about women in the eastern part of the empire was not necessarily true about women in the western empire. On the one hand, there was the household headed by the husband/father/master, a hierarchical order-obedience structure that included those who were economically dependent. On the other hand, there were emancipatory ideas about women that allowed them greater freedom and economic independence (some were even the heads of households).’, Tanzer (egalitarian), ‘Eph 5:22-33 Wives (and Husbands) Exhorted’, in Meyers, Craven, & Kraemer, ‘Women in scripture: a dictionary of named and unnamed women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament‘, p. 481 (2001).

[2] ‘Whereas in the larger outside world, both Roman control and residual customs mitigated against mixing men and women, slave and free, foreign and religious practice; in the voluntary associations there was a lively atmosphere in which these mixes could be tried out and experienced without threat of larger social catastrophe or consequences.’, Nerney, & Taussig, ‘Re-imaging life together in America: a new gospel of community‘, p. 12 (2002).

[3] ‘a “mitigation,” “softening of the blow,” or “saving phrase” to make the statement, assertion, or command less offensive to women.’, Walker, (egalitarian) ‘The “Theology of Woman’s Place” And the “Paulinist” Tradition’, Semeia, p. 106 (28.1983).

[4] ‘In 11:11–12, however, he backtracks lest the Corinthians become confused and think that he implies that women are inferior to men. He is not attempting to establish a gender hierarchy that places women in a subordinate role. Since he argues from hierarchy to make his case about head coverings, he needs to caution against any misapplication of what he says. Women and men are interdependent in the Lord.’, Garland (egalitarian), ‘1 Corinthians’, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, pp. 508-509 (2003).

[5]In other contexts, among some gentiles, Paul’s moral conservatism and reaffirmation of traditional roles for women would have appeared too confining (this appears to have been the case in Corinth).’, Witherington (egalitarian), ‘Women’, Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, volume 6, p. 959 (1996).

[6]a. General Statement, Assertion, or Command (vv 8–12) I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent. b. Reason or Justification (vv 13–14) For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. c. Mitigation, Softening of the Blow, or Saving Phrase (v 15) Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.’’, Walker, (egalitarian) ‘The “Theology of Woman’s Place” And the “Paulinist” Tradition’, Semeia, p. 197  (28.1983).

[7] ‘In some passages, the pattern becomes more complex, and, at times, it is not clear whether element “c” is present at all. Thus, the pattern of 1 Pet 3:1–6 is ‘a’ (v 1a), ‘b’ (vv 1b–2), ‘a’ (vv 3–4a), ‘b’ (vv 4b–6a), with v 6b either a continuation of ‘b’ or perhaps a very subtle form of ‘c.’ The pattern of 1 Cor 14:34–35 is ‘a’ (v 34a), ‘b’ (v 34b), ‘a’ (v 34c), ‘b’ (v 34d), ‘a’ or possibly a subtle form of ‘c’ (v 35a),16 ‘b’ (v 35b). In Titus 2:4–5, the pattern is a simple ‘a’ (vv 4–5a), ‘b’ (v 5b), with ‘c’ absent altogether. Three of the passages introduce a somewhat modified form of element ‘c’ with a command to husbands that they love their wives. Thus, Col 3:18–19 follows the simple pattern, ‘a’ (v 18a), ‘b’ (v 18b), ‘c’ (v 19), while Eph 5:22–33 has the more complex pattern, ‘a’ (v 22), ‘b’ (v 23), ‘a’ (v 24), ‘c’ (vv 25–33a), ‘a’ (v 33b); and 1 Pet 3:1–7 has the pattern, ‘a’ (v 1a), ‘b’ (vv 1b–2), ‘a’ (vv 3–4a), ‘b’ (vv 4b–6 or perhaps 4b–6a with 6b a very very subtle form of ‘c’), ‘c’ (v 7). The analysis of 1 Cor 11:3–16 is again complicated by the question of the unity of the passage.17 If it is a single unit, then the pattern is apparently ‘a’ (vv 3–6), ‘b’ (vv 7–10), ‘c’ (vv 11–12), ‘b’ (vv 13–16), although the distinctions are not as clear here as they are elsewhere. If, however, the passage is divided into three pericopes, as has been suggested, then the following patterns emerge: “Pericope A” follows the pattern, ‘a’ (v 3), ‘b’ (vv 8–9), ‘c’ (vv 11–12); “Pericope B” the pattern, ‘a’ (vv 4–6), ‘b’ (vv 7,10,13,16), with no ‘c’; and “Pericope C” consists almost entirely of element ‘b,’ with ‘a’ only implied and ‘c’ absent altogether.18’, ibid., p. 107.

[8] The precise meaning of the Greek word here is a matter of interpretation; the majority of commentators understand it as a figure of speech for the role of the woman as wife and mother, sometimes as ‘motherhood’, such as EDNT, ‘According to 1 Tim 2:15 in its interpretation of Gen 3:16, bearing children / motherhood is the special task of women, including according to v. 15b a life in faith (possibly a reference to the rearing of children in faith; cf. b. Ber. 17a): σωθήσεται δὲ διὰ τῆς τεκνογονίας.’, Balz & Schneider, ‘Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament. Translation of: Exegetisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testamen’, volume 3, p. 340 (1990-c1993), and ANLEX, ‘bearing children, childbearing, motherhood (1T 2.15)’, Friberg, Friberg, & Miller ‘Analytical lexicon of the Greek New Testament’, volume 4, p. 376 (2000); ‘The final interpretation may be termed “the majority view.” 44 This view would hold that Christian women are not saved through teaching and asserting authority, but by attention to their traditional role.  “Childbearing” serves as a figure of speech to illustrate Paul’s argument that women need not behave as men but rather fulfill their divinely appointed role to find salvation.’, Moss (complementarian), ‘1, 2 Timothy & Titus’, The College Press NIV Commentary (1994).

[9] 1 Corinthians 11:7-9; 14:34, 1 Timothy 2:13-14, 1 Peter 3:5-6.

[10] The commandment in Titus 2:5 for wives to submit to their husbands is justified here by ‘So that the message of God is not discredited’, but the same commandment is also accompanied by two additional reasons elsewhere; Ephesians 5:23, ‘The husband is the head of the wife’, Colossians 3:18, ‘It is fitting in the Lord’.

Interpretive errors: Misuse of background information

Irrelevant Material

One error into which commentators may fall is to apply irrelevant background material to the text, ignoring or overlooking the criteria of ‘relevant proximity’, criteria which are used to identify whether or not a source is sufficiently close to the text being examined (chronologically, geographically, socio-culturally, and in terms of literary genre), to be relevant to its interpretation.

One very common form of this error is to use anachronistic sources, sources which do not belong to the time frame of the text being studied, and which are separated from the text by so many years as to be irrelevant to it.

In his book ‘Women in the Earliest Churches’ (1998), egalitarian commentator Ben Witherington III commits the error of using sources describing Greek women in 400 BC as if they were relevant to women in 1st century Judea, who lived more than 400 years later in a completely different time and place:

The first chapter is disappointing. The author rightly observes that “no study of women in the New Testament can be undertaken without looking at the larger historical context in which the events of NT history transpired” (p. 5). His chapter on “Women in first- century Mediterranean cultures”, however, deals with women in fifth century B.C. Athens and Sparta as if the chronological interval of four or five centuries does not count.’[1]

Later Witherington commits the same error several times. He takes a quote from Herodotus about Macdonian women and quotes it as if it was relevant to Macedon 200 years later, then claims that this is relevant to the background of 1st century women in Philippi another 300 years later again:

The chapter abounds in major and minor errors. To give some examples: in the discussion of the prominence of women of the Macedonian dynasties during the Hellenistic period he quotes a passage from the work of Herodotus, who had died two centuries before, as evidence (p. 12 and note 65). Further, this favourable position of women within Macedonian royal families is taken to be representative for Macedonian women in general and is used as an argument to explain the existence of female cooperators in the propagation of the Gospel at Philippi in the days of the apostles (p. 112).’[2]

Similarly, in attempting to describe 1st century women in Judea Witherington omits a large collection of relevant 1st century sources, relying on rabbinic literature written after the 1st century instead:

‘He relies almost exclusively on rabbinic literature, especially Mishnaic material which is most easily datable. He makes minimal use of non-literary texts (such as gravestones, government documents, or graffiti), art, or archeological remains, thereby excluding many recent discoveries which broaden the “traditional” view of women in the first century.’[3]

Witherington’s selectivity with regard to sources is compounded by his appeal to out of date publications.[4]

Inappropriate Use

A typical error is using generalized background material to draw specific conclusions about individual passages:

‘Arnold rightly documents the pervasiveness of magic in Asia Minor during the period when Colossians was written. What is lacking, however, is any firm evidence that magic was actually the problem in the letter to the Colossians.

There is no reference in Colossians itself to magic, spells, invocations, conjurations, sorcery, etc.’[5]

In this case a generalized background of magical practice was misread back into a text which made no specific reference to it. Specific passages should instead be used to identify specific background material relevant to the passage itself, to avoid reading irrelevant background material into the passage.[6]

In another example of the same error, the worship of Artemis is assumed as the relevant background of 1 Timothy, despite the fact that the entire letter makes absolutely no reference to it whatsoever.[7]

On the basis of a couple of references to very general sins, an entire argument is built that 1 Timothy is warning of the dangerous influence on the ecclesia of an ‘Artemis cult’.

This kind of selective treatment of the historical evidence is extremely bad historical analysis, and results in completely inaccurate interpretations of the text. Drawing specific conclusions on the meaning of the text from such vague generalizations as ‘sexual impurity’ and ‘greed’ is invalid.[8][9]

Witherington’s reliance on post-1st century rabbinic data results in him treating 1st century Judaism as if all Jewish groups held the same views on women, when in fact a wide variety of views were held. [10]

Neglecting both the criteria of genre and chronology, Witherington treats various theological expositions, opinions, and diatribes of the post-1st century rabbis, as accurate historical descriptions:

‘Witherington also makes no distinction between reality and what may be the opinions, theological interpretations, and polemics of the rabbis. Instead of meeting its goal, what this chapter provides is a summary of the rabbinic ideal for women and their role in society.’[11]

Adding to these mistakes, Witherington makes historical errors with regard to dates, uncritically reads one source as literal,[12]and mistakes a literary character with a real woman, another example of lack of attention to genre.[13] Witherington also misuses his sources by projecting his own values onto them.[14]


[1] de Blois & Hemelrijk, Review of Women in the Earliest Churches by Ben Witherington III’, Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, p. 279 (45.2.1992).

[2] Ibid, p. 279-280.

[3] De George, ‘Reviewed of Women in the Ministry of Jesus: A Study of Jesus’ Attitudes to Women and Their Roles as Reflected in His Earthly Life by Ben Witherington III’, Journal of Biblical Literature, p. 275 (105.4. 1986).

[4] ‘Moreover, he cites publications that are outdated, and bases his opinions on a small number of texts which he uses without any regard to their context.’, de Blois & Hemelrijk, Review of Women in the Earliest Churches by Ben Witherington III’, Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, p. 279 (45.2.1992).

[5] Schreiner (complementarian), ‘Interpreting the Pauline Epistles’, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, p. 9 (3.1999).

[6] ‘Many religious movements vied for the attention of the populace in the first century. We need primary evidence from the letter itself to establish a particular religious influence in the letter under consideration.’, ibid., p. 9.

[7] ‘Sharon Hodgin Gritz falls prey to the same error in her analysis of 1 Timothy when she posits the influence of the mother goddess Artemis cult.15 Certainly such a cult functioned in Ephesus, but Hodgin Gritz fails to show that the cult lies behind the situation in 1 Timothy.’, ibid., p. 9.

[8] ‘To see a connection with the Artemis cult on the basis of sexual impurity (1 Tim 5:11-14) and greed (1 Tim 6:3-5) is unpersuasive, for these sins, as we all know, may emerge in almost any religious movement.16′, ibid., p. 9.

[9] ‘Hodgin Gritz does not explain adequately how myths and genealogies (1 Tim 1:3-4), devotion to the Mosaic law (1 Tim 1:8-11), asceticism (1 Tim 4:1-3), and knowledge (1 Tim 6:20-21) relate to the Artemis cult. The features of the Artemis cult appear to be superimposed upon the contents of 1 Timothy.’, ibid., p. 9.

[10] ‘While rightly holding that there is no monolithic rabbinic Judaism at this time, he nevertheless treats first-century Judaism as a fairly uniform system. He concludes that, concerning women, “a negative assessment was predominant among the rabbis” (p. 10). No attempt is made to separate out the position of women held by different Jewish sects.’, De George, ‘Reviewed of Women in the Ministry of Jesus: A Study of Jesus’ Attitudes to Women and Their Roles as Reflected in His Earthly Life by Ben Witherington III’, Journal of Biblical Literature, p.275 (105.4.1986).

[11] Ibid., p. 725.

[12] ‘He takes Diodorus’ remarks about female dominance in Egypt literally (p. 14), whereas it more probably is part of a widespread Greek topos of Egypt as a world in reverse2).’, de Blois & Hemelrijk, Review of Women in the Earliest Churches by Ben Witherington III’, Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, pp. 279-280 (45.2.1992); a ‘topos’ in this context is a literary theme which reccurs in texts over time, a standardized ‘theme’ or narrative structure, such as the ‘three sons’ who reccur in the fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and many other fairy tales (the oldest two sons are typically vain, proud, or ignorant and fail as a result, while the youngest is kind, well-mannered, and fortunate and thus succeeds).

[13] ‘Some minor errors: Thucydides did not live in about 400 B.C. (p. 6), he died probably around that date, Diotima (p. 7 and note 18) was no historical woman, but a literary fiction (Plato, Symp. 201 D). Sempronia was not the wife of Catilina (written as Catalina) (p. 18) and the Bacchanalia were not introduced, but suppressed in 186 B.C. (p. 20)*).’, ibid., p. 280.

[14] ‘On p. 14 he regards the Egyptian goddess Isis as “the patron saint of Egyptian’s women’s movement”, an anachronistic and misleading point of view. She was a mother goddess1).’, ibid., p. 279.