Part Four: More on the Precepts of St. Paul

The following is the fourth in a seven-part series.

In the previous article of this web series we looked in depth at St. Paul's teaching in I Corinthians 14 that women should be submissive and silent in church. I argued that the proper interpretation of the apostle's teaching in that passage was that it forbade women from "speaking" in church only in the sense of women acting as the official "speakers" (i.e. preachers and teachers, a role reserved for the male bishops and presbyters) at the Eucharist. In I Cor 11:5, St. Paul seems fine with women praying and prophesying aloud in worship services, because they were not "speaking" (that is, filling the role of official preacher or teacher). But I also said that we find in St. Paul's first epistle to Timothy what appears to be a further, brief elaboration of this same teaching:


Let a woman learn in silence, with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silence .... (I Tim 2: 11-12)

Here again, St. Paul cannot be forbidding women from teaching Christian doctrine altogether, for elsewhere he implicitly approves of women instructing others in the Faith (see Titus 2:3-4). Besides, the context of his remarks in I Tim 2:11-12 (quoted above) is the proper ordering of public prayer (see I Tim 2:1 and 2:8). Thus, St. Paul seems to reiterate here his teaching from I Corinthians 14 forbidding women from teaching/ preaching only in the worship assembly, not in other aspects of the life of the Church.

Some commentators argue that St. Paul uses the Greek verb "to have authority" (authenteo) in I Timothy 2 in a restrictive sense, as if to say, "I do not permit a woman to domineer over men, or usurp their authority." The word authenteo sometimes can be translated in that way (so these commentators claim). Moreover, they allege that there were female followers of heretics in Ephesus (allegedly mentioned in I Tim 5:15) who may have been trying to usurp the authority of the rightful local pastors in that city, or to misuse their own gifts in the worship service by teaching heretical doctrines. Thus, they argue, in I Timothy 2 St. Paul was not forbidding all official teaching and preaching in the worship assembly by women, or all pastoral authority exercised by women - only the particular misuse of it going on in Ephesus at the time.

Just changing the translation of the Greek word authenteo here from "have authority" to "usurp or misuse authority," however, does not alter the whole context in which this word appears, for in I Timothy 2:11- 15 St. Paul clearly has all Christian women in mind, not just a handful of heretics and troublemakers. That's why he starts his instruction on this matter with "Let a woman [i.e. all women] learn in silence, with all submissiveness," just as he does in I Corinthians 14. This is also why in I Timothy 2:14-15 he bases this teaching on female subordination in the Church on the priority of Adam over Eve in the Genesis creation and fall story. Besides, all three passages in the New Testament that specifically identify false teachers at Ephesus indicate that these heretical teachers were men, not women (Acts 20:30; I Tim 1: 3-4 and 19-20; II Tim 2:17-18).

In addition, there is precious little evidence from ancient Greek usage that the word authenteo could be employed as a negative term to imply usurpation or misuse of authority, rather than simply "to have or exercise authority." Wayne Grudem writes:

The most complete study of the word shows that its meaning is primarily neutral, "to exercise authority over." In 1995 H. Scott Baldwin published the most thorough study of the verb authenteo that had ever been done. ... [He] looked at all the examples that exist from ancient literature and ancient papyrus manuscripts. ... [S]everal earlier studies were flawed by mixing the verb with two different nouns with the same spelling (authentes).

Baldwin correctly limited his examples to the verb found in I Timothy 2. He found eighty-two occurrences of authenteo in ancient writings .... He found only one example in which the verb seemed to take a negative sense, but because language changes and meanings of words change over time, that one quotation [from St. John Chrysostom] from A.D. 390, coming more than 300 years after Paul wrote 1 Timothy, is of limited value in understanding the meaning of what Paul wrote .... A recent extensive and remarkably erudite study of cognate words now confirms that the meaning of authenteo is primarily positive or neutral [i.e. in itself it does not carry negative connotations of misuse or usurpation of authority]. (Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, p. 202-204)

We need to remember that St. Paul, like his Master and Lord, was no coward or compromiser. He was not afraid to challenge and break through the social barriers and prejudices of his day when he believed they were at variance with the gospel. For example, he was instrumental in bringing Jews and Gentiles together into the one common Christian community of faith, and the mere facts that he permitted women to learn the Hebrew Scriptures, to instruct others in the Faith, and to pray and prophecy aloud in church were in themselves major innovations in his day compared with the usual practices at Jewish synagogues. Moreover, while St. Paul taught the principle of male "headship," or servant-leadership, in both the Church and the family, he did not argue for its extension to other areas of communal life, such as law, medicine, business or government. Nor did he teach that a woman's place is solely in the home (see Acts 16:14 and 18:3). In short, while by our standards today he was relatively conservative on the matter of male and female social roles, he certainly would not be classified that way when measured against the standards of his own time. In the case of women's ordination, he evidently did not believe that the gospel compelled him to move in that direction.

Some commentators suggest that St. Paul excluded women from the priesthood just because most of the women of his time were uneducated; they would not have had the educational background to do the job. As a matter of fact, however, historical research shows that women in Asia Minor, at least (where St. Paul focused much of his missionary work), were remarkably well-educated in his day. They often served as the modern equivalent of "superintendents of schools" for entire cities (Grudem, p. 174). In Ephesus, for example, Priscilla and Aquila travelled with St. Paul and taught the gospel message to Apollos (Acts 18:3-26). Besides, as we have already seen, St. Paul clearly offered his reasons for restricting the pastoral leadership ministry to men in I Corinthians 14 ('the practice of all the churches," "the testimony of 'the law,'" and "a command of the Lord"). In I Timothy 2 he added (implicitly) the headship of Adam over the natural, nuclear family, which he evidently saw as extending to the Christian Church "family" as well, "the household of God" (I Tim 3:15). Paul never complains that he could not appoint any women to be elders, presbyters or bishops because there were no educated women around.

Perhaps the most popular, revisionist reading of St. Paul's teachings on women's ordination comes from what is known as the "Trajectory" or "Redemptive Movement" theory. In a nutshell, this is the theory that throughout his lifetime, St. Paul's thought was probably moving steadily in the direction of greater equality for women in the Church, and he just did not live long enough to draw out the full implications of his own underlying principle of the equal dignity in Christ of all people, a principle that he had clearly taught to the Galatians early in his missionary work (Gal 3:28): "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." In the same way, it is said, St. Paul did not live long enough to draw out all the implications of Galatians 3:28 for the abolition of slavery - but in time the Church as a whole did see those implications, by the Holy Spirit, and put them into practice. On women's ordination, therefore, we should be led by the logical implications of Gal 3:28, and overall trajectory of St. Paul's thought, not by its limited application in his own lifetime.

There are at least three reasons, however, why the trajectory argument does not work.

First, with regard to slavery: the Bible nowhere says that slavery is a good thing in itself, a divinely ordained social arrangement; God simply accepts slavery as a "given" aspect of ancient civilization, and regulates it in Israel both by restricting its scope (to debtors and prisoners of war mostly) and mitigating its evils (e.g. teaching masters and slaves to treat each other justly, and calling for the liberation of all debtor-slaves in Israel in the great Jubilee once every 50 every years). For Christians eventually to apply Galatians 3:28 to the issue of slavery, therefore, did not involve pitting "scripture against scripture," so to speak. In the case of the ordination of women to the Apostolic Ministry (as delegated also to elders, presbyters, or bishops), however, St. Paul clearly implies both in I Corinthians 14 and I Timothy 2 that this is not the will of Christ. Also, we have seen (in article two of this web series) the example set by Jesus himself stands against it. Thus, to try to use Galatians 3:28 to justify women's ordination today would indeed involve setting "scripture against scripture" - in fact, setting St. Paul against himself! - with all of the dire consequences for our respect for the trustworthy authority of Scripture as God's Word that this would entail.

Second, one has to be very cautious with trajectory arguments in general as a way of interpreting the Bible. The process of determining a legitimate trajectory can be a very tricky one. For example, one could easily argue that while St. Paul's early teaching seems more egalitarian (as in Gal 3:28), the trajectory of his later thought on such matters moved steadily away from that early idealism to a more conservative, semi-patriarchal position in I Corinthians 14 and I Timothy 2. Thus, the real trajectory of his thought moved in the direction of greater restrictions on women's roles in the Christian community, not greater openness. Should we then accept the end point of that trajectory as authoritative today, and strip women of all roles in the Christian community outside of the home?

Finally, for Catholics no "trajectory" or "development of doctrine" that involves things allegedly implicit in the original Apostolic Faith can be legitimate without the assistance of the light of Sacred Tradition. That Tradition includes the consensus teachings of the saints and the Fathers, and any relevant decrees from popes and ecumenical councils. It is the Holy Spirit living in the Church who, through these means, acts as our principle guide to help us interpret the Holy Scriptures, and to unfold the true implications of apostolic teaching. As we shall see (starting with the next article in this web series) the Sacred Tradition of the Church is essentially unanimous in its witness that the divinely given constitution of the Church requires an all-male priesthood.

Just one final point regarding the witness of Scripture on this matter. Some commentators point to the importance of St. Peter's vision which led him to welcome uncircumcised Gentiles into the Church (see Acts 10). This shows that God was leading St. Peter to be "inclusive" with regard to welcoming uncircumcised Gentile converts into the Church - and this allegedly implies that God would want us to be similarly "inclusive" with regard to women into the priesthood today. But it is hard to see the logical cogency of this argument. Why would the fact that St. Peter permitted uncircumcised Gentiles to be baptized necessarily imply that women should be ordained? Baptism and ordination are two different sacraments: baptism is ordinarily necessary for salvation for everyone, while ordination certainly is not.

By the way, the same rejoinder applies to St. Paul's "inclusive" and (at first glance) boundlessly egalitarian argument in Galatians 3:28. When St. Paul wrote that we are all "one" in Christ Jesus, the context of the passage shows that he was discussing what was required for a person to be baptized and saved through faith. His point was that all people come to salvation on the exactly the same and equal basis: whether male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, saving grace is a free gift of God to all, received through repentance, faith and baptism. No one type or person has an advantage over any other type when it comes to salvation. By why does the fact that all can access saving grace on the same basis, necessarily imply that anyone can be ordained?

In any case, one of the reasons that that the other apostles accepted the authenticity of St. Peter's vision about baptizing uncircumcised Gentiles was that they found it implicitly prophesied in the Old Testament (Acts 15:17). There is no such prophecy regarding women serving as elders or presbyters, bishops or priests in the New Israel.

In short, St. Paul's teaching on this matter is clear enough, and neither special pleading, nor any string of non-sequitur arguments should be allowed to overthrow it. As Jesus himself said, St. Paul is "a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel" (Acts 9:15). He was not just any saint, but specially chosen to be an apostle of the Lord. Unless Jesus made a big mistake here, we need to listen trustfully and obediently to his apostolic ambassador, whose teachings are guaranteed to be true by Christ's own promise of the Holy Spirit to the apostolic band: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth ...." (Jn 16:13).

Next Time: the Iconic Role of the Priest

Follow the entire series.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

©Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, 2019


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