In 1972 I had the opportunity to hear Katherine Kuhlman speak in Portland, Oregon. Near the end of the meeting, she addressed criticism from those who did not believe women should preach. By that time in my life, I had already heard numerous women preachers, but that night was the first time I remember anyone saying God had forbidden them. I wondered how God could bless those women in ministry, as I had seen him do, if he was really opposed to them. Since I enrolled the following year in a college founded by a woman preacher—Aimee Semple McPherson—this question had particular relevance to my immediate future.
The opposition to women preaching is primarily based on 1 Timothy 2:11-15, especially verse 12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” (1 Corinthians 14:33-35 is also part of the discussion, but I will reserve that for another time.) This translation hangs precariously on a single Greek word with a remarkably obscure meaning. The word is authentein.
Authentein is usually translated “to bear power over” or “usurp authority.” It appears only once in the Bible, though it can be found in numerous places in other ancient literature. There are four basic meanings to this word:
1: to start something, or to be primarily responsible. In this respect, the word was commonly used in relation to murder. An authentes was a murderer.
2: to dominate or rule over.
3: to usurp power or rights. This application appeared frequently in court documents.
4: to claim ownership or authorship.
Clearly the translation, “I do not permit a woman to teach,” is valid within these meanings, but there are other possibilities. The reference to murder is plausible. Timothy ministered in the city of Ephesus, home of the world famous temple of Artemis, attended by a thousand female devotees and a band of emasculated eunuch priests. Legend also said that Ephesus was founded by the Amazons and the symbolic murder of men was an integral part of some of the pagan ritual of Artemis and other goddesses worshiped in the city. Paul’s statement may have been directed at those practices. If so, then his goal was not to keep women from preaching, but to correct attitudes brought into the church by converts from pagan worship.
Though it has been the most popular, the second meaning, to dominate, seems unlikely in view of other references in Paul’s letters. He spoke often of women in positions of authority, such as Priscilla and Phoebe. Most notable was Junias, who is called an apostle (Romans 16:7). Besides, if he simply wanted to say that women should not exercise authority, he would have done better to use either the word kurieuein or exousiazein.
The idea of women usurping authority that doesn’t belong to them is plausible. The focus would then be on the aggressive pursuit of authority in contrast to quiet learning, something not limited to women. Paul frequently said the same thing to men (such as in verse 8).
The fourth meaning, to claim authorship, provides some interesting possibilities not usually considered in this discussion. The idea of origin is inherent in all definitions of the word. A murderer, for example, is the author or originator of a murder. The English words “author” and “authentic” derive from the same root. The question here is how this relates to women teaching.
Without making it overly complicated, the structure of the entire sentence is common throughout Paul’s letters when he speaks of teaching. Two things are linked together in a way that uses the second to clarify or explain the first. This would translate something like, “I do not allow women to teach a particular doctrine, specifically I don’t allow them to teach authentein.
That means that Paul did not say that women should not teach at all, but rather that they should not teach whatever is represented by the word authentein. The next couple of verses clarify what he had in mind. He says that Adam was created first, and then Eve, and that women will be preserved through bearing children. Both of these statements were direct contradictions of basic and well-known Gnostic teachings of the time, teachings that were prevalent in Ephesus. Gnostics believed that Eve was created first and gave life to Adam, and that having children was a tie to the material world that would keep you from getting into heaven.
Authentein would then allude to the belief that woman was the originator or author of man. To paraphrase Paul in modern terms, a woman should not teach if the content of her teaching is contrary to biblical truth. Instead, she should quietly learn the truth first.
Of course, Paul also said this to the men of Ephesus, who wasted much time arguing over false doctrines, myths and endless genealogies. Katherine Kuhlman made the statement that she did not believe she was God’s first choice for her ministry, but several men failed to respond to the calling. Based on the likely definition of authentein, I believe she actually was God’s first choice. The problem isn’t with women preaching. It is with people preaching opinions, myths and destructive doctrines—such as, “Women have nothing good to say”—instead of the truth.
(The material in this post was adapted from the book I Suffer Not a Woman by Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger.)