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Submissive from the start

18 January 2013

St Paul believed that men had always been in charge, Ben Cooper argues

geoff crawford

All one: Margaret Houston taking part in a protest in favour of women bishops outside the General Synod meeting in November

All one: Margaret Houston taking part in a protest in favour of women bishops outside the General Synod meeting in November

There is no doubt that, as the gospel of Jesus Christ spread in the first century, it had a particularly radical impact on women. Luke's Gospel, in particular, emphasises the favour shown to women by God through Jesus. Women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. Women such as Lydia (Acts 16.14), Priscilla (Acts 18.2 etc.), Phoebe (Romans 16.1), and Junia (Romans 16.7) played significant parts in the early spread of the gospel.

The gospel declared the equal status of women in the justified community (Galatians 3.28), publicly restoring their position as equal image-bearers of God (Genesis 1.27). Historians are agreed that in Graeco-Roman culture, a culture in many ways hostile towards women, the Christian community provided a safe refuge, where women could enjoy equal status with men, and grow in love and service.

It is also clear, however, that roles of church-planting and the overlapping roles of oversight (from which we get our term bishop) and eldership (from which we get our term presbyter or priest) were taken by men in the Early Church. Women were not considered for the replacement for Judas in Acts 1.21-22, despite, for example, Mary Magdalene's having both been with Jesus in his earthly ministry and having witnessed his resurrection. Indeed, all the leading figures in the Church's mission as recounted in Acts were men.

When Timothy and Titus put into practice the instructions for appointing elders/overseers in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, they would have understood clearly that they were to appoint men to these ministries.

Junia in Romans 16 is sometimes cited as an exception to this general rule. But, even if the correct translation of Romans 16.7 is "prominent among the apostles" - although "noteworthy in the eyes of the apostles" seems more likely to me - there is no positive evidence that she was a church-planter in her own right, or had oversight over a local church or local churches. She was not one of the Twelve, and someone can be sent - and hence "an apostle" - in the New Testament without necessarily having such authority.

Was this distinction between the genders intended to be a temporary phenomenon - a concession to the cultural prejudices of the day? Well, there is no explicit suggestion along such lines in the New Testament. Indeed, the explicit teaching on gender distinction points to a deeper, more enduring reason.

Scholars are right to insist that the explicit teachings on gender in, say, 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 should be read within the particular historical situations that they were written to address. The issue in both Corinth and Ephesus seems to have been one of disorder between men and women, which was in danger of bringing the gospel into disrepute.

In Corinth, certain "new wives" seem to have been refusing to acknowledge the authority of their husbands in public by not covering their heads (1 Corinthians 11.5); in Ephesus, there was inappropriate teaching and exercising of authority (1 Timothy 2.12).

Paul seeks to correct the problem in Corinth by getting wives to wear a sign of authority (1 Corinthians 11.10) to acknowledge their husbands as "head" (1 Corinthians 11.3). In Ephesus, he encourages "learning with quietness and full submission" over "teaching or exercising authority" (1 Timothy 2.11-12).

The significant thing to note is that in neither case is the reason given anything like "Do this in order not to cause cultural offence." Rather, in both 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2, Paul makes direct appeal to the pre-Fall order of creation in Genesis 2 - where, as first-created, the man has leadership responsibilities comparable to those of the first-born in ancient families.

 It simply will not do to ignore or gloss over this. Moreover, Paul is acting to do more than just restore right relations between husbands and wives. The context in 1 Timothy 2 is behaviour in the assembled congregation; so the teaching referred to in 1 Timothy 2.12 is broader than just a given wife's teaching her husband. Paul applies his understanding of the pattern of right relationship between husbands and wives to men and women in the wider "household" of believers.

In Paul's understanding, then, the gospel offered to women something different from an offer of equal opportunity in the contest for leadership roles. It was an invitation to women to join in constructive partnership with men in the promotion of the gospel in the world, according to the ordered pattern of Genesis 2. The New Testament teaching on gender roles thus remains as counter-cultural in the modern West as it was in the first century, but for rather different reasons.

The Revd Dr Ben Cooper is the Minister for Training at Christ Church, Fulwood, in Sheffield, and the course director of Fulwood Bible Training.


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