Morality Ch. 15: Female Leaders

Paul concluded that females were uneducated and were therefore considered too gullible to lead a church. His conclusion was sensible, and so was his proposed solution: to educate them. He’d be surprised that women are now well educated but are still often kept out of leadership.

I feel such an idiot that I was so easily misled, but I was only a teenager, so perhaps my age excused me. I had asked my minister why women weren’t allowed any leadership roles in the church. He answered: “Because women have always been the main supporters of heretical movements. It isn’t their fault, but they are more easily deceived by the devil.” As examples he pointed to the prophetess Jezebel from Revelation and the women who split the church at Philippi (Rev 2:20; Phil 4:2). I accepted his explanation completely and didn’t question it for many years. I didn’t even consider how paradoxical it was that those who chose to come to his services (as in many other churches) included more women than men.

Women have always been the mainstay of religions, both dubious ones and established ones – even male-run religions such as ancient Judaism. For example, the non-Jews who chose to attend synagogues in Roman times were mainly women.1 We know this from the many synagogue inscriptions that refer to these “Godfearers”—80 percent of their names are female.2 But their support didn’t help Judaism to gain acceptance in the eyes of Romans because Romans regarded women as easily duped.

6-minute summary

Gullible women

Jews had the same attitude, and first-century Jewish historian Josephus even blamed gullible women for the expulsion of Jews from Rome. He admits that the expulsion was due to a group of Jewish men who swindled money from a rich Roman under the guise of contributing to Jerusalem’s Temple – but somehow he manages to push the blame on to the rich woman, Fulvia, whom they duped. He managed this partly by linking the account with another extraordinary deception of a gullible woman. Paulina, a chaste senator’s wife, refused the advances of a Roman called Mundus. She was a pious devotee of the goddess Isis, so he hatched a scheme to “appear” to her as the god Anubis while she was in the temple of Isis alone at night. In this guise he was able to convince Paulina to sleep with him. Josephus managed to detract from the guilt of the Jewish men by implying that all women are too easily misled.3

Josephus’ readers would have nodded their agreement – these stories confirmed what they already knew, that women are gullible and empty-headed. Elsewhere Josephus even “quotes” the Old Testament in support: “The woman is in all things inferior to the man.”4 Of course, this quote isn’t anywhere in the Bible, but the fact that Josephus thought it was shows how convinced he was of this principle.

At first reading, Paul’s advice to Timothy about women shows that he is equally mistrusting. In 1 Timothy 2:11-15 he implies that women are more gullible by pointing out that Eve (not Adam) was deceived by the serpent and says women should therefore not teach or have authority over men. Actually (as we saw in chapter 7, “Should Girls Be Educated?”), Paul considered that Eve’s deception was due mainly to poor education of women. Unlike other Jews and Romans, who excluded women from education, Paul was in favor of helping women to learn.

Paul’s mistrust might also be inferred from the extraordinary word he uses when he warns about women who “usurp authority” over men (1 Tim 2:12 KJV). Recent research has shown that this rare word (authenteō) was normally reserved for extreme situations of domination or manipulation, though in the centuries after the New Testament was written the meaning gradually changed to a gentler “have authority.”5 This means that earlier English translations (such as the Geneva Bible and KJV) got it about right when they translated it “usurp authority,” whereas some modern ones translate with a gentler phrase such as “have authority.”

Untrustworthy women

It sounds unlikely that women could “usurp authority” or “exercise dominance” over men in a world where men ruled every aspect of life, but actually pious Jews were afraid of women in three key areas of life. These activities affected them every day, every week, and every month. Every day women baked bread and made the “dough offering,” every week they lit the Sabbath lamp on Friday night, and every month they became a source of menstrual uncleanness. These seem like minor matters to us, but in Jewish law these were very serious for any pious Jewish man who was married to a wife who was not trustworthy. If a dough offering was not separated out, then the household bread contained a holy portion that warranted death if eaten by a non-priest. If the lamp wasn’t lit before the Sabbath started (it started on Friday evening, often while the men were still at synagogue), they’d have to eat their special Sabbath meal in pitch darkness. If his wife didn’t warn him about her menstrual status, he would become ritually unclean merely by sitting on the same couch as her.

The rabbis mistrusted women, fearing that they’d forget about these important duties. So they put the fear of God into women – literally – by teaching them this saying: “Women die in childbirth for three reasons – because they are not meticulous in the laws of menstrual separation, of dough offering, and of kindling the Sabbath lamp.”6 That is, if wives neglected any of these three key duties, then God would punish them by letting them die in childbirth. Childbirth was the most common cause of death for young women, so this was a very potent and nasty threat.

Paul undermines this teaching by reversing the saying at the end of this chapter in Timothy. Instead of “Women will die in childbirth if …,” he says: “women will be saved in childbirth if …” And instead of listing three things the women must do, he lists what they should be – full of “faith, love and holiness.” Paul portrays God as one who cares, protects, and rejoices in a pure heart – not one who punishes minor infringements of ceremonial law. Women, for Paul, are faithful, trustworthy, and loved by God. They aren’t the fearsome sources of contamination who are under threat of special punishment, as in ancient rabbinic Judaism.

Women were not the best people to lead the church in Paul’s day. They lacked education, so the only way they could have a major influence was by manipulation or bullying – which are often resorted to by poor teachers. Paul didn’t think they were incapable of teaching – after all, he said they should teach younger women about their household duties (Titus 2:3-4) because this was something they knew about, more than men did. What they couldn’t do was teach men: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man” (1 Tim 2:12).

Women and authority to teach

Is this a timeless command? We cannot know whether this command changed with time because nothing like this was needed in the Old Testament. However, we do know that this reflected the culture of Paul’s time, and a culture-reflecting command is likely to be limited to that culture. One thing to note in this ruling is that teaching implied authority. Some interpreters have tried to separate the two halves of the sentence as if Paul meant “women shouldn’t teach, and also, as an entirely separate issue, they shouldn’t assume authority over men either.” But Paul can’t have meant this, because women were allowed to teach – they taught women. So the first half needs the word “men” from the second half to make sense, which means that “teaching” in the first half is also linked to “authority” in the second half. To teach men implied authority over them, which was totally contrary to the prevailing culture of the time.

Today’s teachers are completely different. Teachers used to embody knowledge itself, and they conveyed it to their pupils in a form that they could memorize, so that they could quote their teacher. A teacher today is someone who collects information and conveys it in a way that promotes understanding and healthy skepticism about things that are uncertain. The teacher is not regarded as having an importance or authority that is superior to their pupils. In fact, any university student who does not question what their teacher says is considered to be inadequate or lazy.

When people bring up this verse I usually reply: I do not accept the authority of any woman’s preaching, and also I do not accept the authority of any man’s preaching – I will only accept preaching that is based on the authority of the Bible.

Today, both the church and society have listened to Paul’s plea that women should be educated and trusted because “nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Women do not yet hold the same number of high-ranking positions as men, but those who do are equally competent and respected – in almost all institutions, except the church. Many churches still follow Paul’s solution for the iniquitous situation he was seeking to change. Paul concluded that the current lack of education for women made them incapable of leadership. He would rejoice today that the situation has changed and women are no longer mistrusted or uneducated. But he would be horrified to see that the church is still acting as though they are.

1^ Many of these converted to Christianity; see, e.g., Acts 14:1; 17:1-4.
2^ Shelley Matthews, First Converts: Rich Pagan Women and the Rhetoric of Mission in Early Judaism and Christianity, Contraversions: Jews and Other Differences (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 67.
3^ Josephus, Antiquities 18.3.4, trans. William Whiston (
4^ Josephus, Against Apion 2.25, trans. William Whiston (
5^ A good summary can be found in A. C. Perriman, “What Eve Did, What Women Shouldn’t Do: The Meaning of αυθεντεω in 1 Timothy 2:12,” Tyndale Bulletin 44 (1993): 129-42 (
6^ Mishnah Shabbat 2:6 ( The origin of this is very early because dough offerings became much less important after the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, though some pious households did still follow this rule.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

Your comments can start a discussion

Share this page on social media and your comments could start a discussion among your friends. Any link you create this way will continue working even after this month when the topic will no longer be available on this site. So new visitors to your discussion will still be able to read the discussion topic so long as they use your social media link.
  • On Facebook the topic, then go to your Facebook page to add your comment.
    If you want me to see your comments, mention "David Instone-Brewer"
  • On Twitter tweet the topic, then go to your Twitter account to read it.
    If you want me to see your comments, mention "@DavidIBrewer"

Subscribe to each new monthly release

● To follow on Twitter: 
● To follow by Email:        
● On Facebook, first "Like" it:
Then, to ensure you see the post each month, in "Following" tick "See first"
("Default" means Facebook decides whether to show it to you or not).