Better Bibles Blog has moved. Read our last post, below, and then
click here if you are not redirected to our new location within 60 seconds.
Please Bookmark our new location and update blogrolls.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Women Leaders: 1 Cor. 12: 27 - 31

I regard this passage as a significant one in understanding leadership in the church today. In this passage the gifts are ranked from greater to lesser - apostles, prophets, teachers and so on.

    Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues [d]? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire [e] the greater gifts. TNIV 1 Cor. 12: 27 - 31
Prophets are placed above teachers, and we know that women were prophets in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. How is it understood then that women may not be teachers within the assembly?

There are two ways of explaining how this passage supports the exclusion of women from leadership. The first one requires demonstrating that while women prophesied in the early church, they were not actually prophets. This view is held by J.T. Riddle, who recently wrote the following in the Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
    Women may prophesy in the church, and, indeed, the fact that they do so is a fulfillment of scripture (Acts 2:17–18). They do not, however, fill the role or office of prophet within the early church, since this role requires the authoritative teaching and regulation of doctrine (see 1 Tim 2:11–12). Both the essential equality of men and women and the distinctions in their roles are rooted in the created order (see 1 Cor 11:7–12; 1 Tim 2:13–15). Far from being inconsistent, Paul’s thought is imminently coherent JBMW vol. 11/1 page 28 J.T. Riddle

For Riddle, the role of the prophet requires authoritative teaching and therefore, women are not prophets. He explains that women do prophesy but are not actually called prophets in Acts. This hinges on demonstrating that while Philip's daughters, Acts 21:8-9, prophesied, they were not called prophets/prophetesses.

The activity of Philip's daughers is compared to the event in Acts 19:6, where 12 men who had been baptized, spoke in tongues and prophesied. These manifestations of the Spirit are simply considered to be illustrations of the coming of the Spirit. However, I am not so sure if it is correct to equate the ongoing activity of Philip's daughters with the event mentioned in Acts 19:6.

The use of the English finite past tense, 'prophesied', in both Acts 19 and Acts 21 obscures the fact that in Acts 19 the past imperfect tense is used in Greek, while in Acts 21, the present participle is used. In fact, the NASB translates this verse as,

    Now this man had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses. NASB

    And the same man had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy. KJV

In Acts 19, a particular event is outlined, but in Acts 21, the term 'who prophesied' modifies Philip's daughters, and does not describe an event. It is difficult to express this difference in English but I believe that it is not appropriate to make a simplistic comparison between the event of Acts 19 and the description of Philip's daughters in Acts 21, based on the English occurence of the past tense verb 'prophesied.'.

The other argument against women in leadership is to bifurcate the roles of teacher and prophet along the folowing lines,

    So teaching in the New Testament epistles consisted of explaining and applying the words of scripture or the equally authoritative teachings of Jesus and of the apostles. In the New Testament epistles, "teaching" was very much like what we call "Biblical teaching" today. Many charismatic and Pentecostal churches today understand this difference quite well: Prophecy, like other miraculous gifts, is subject to the governing authority of the elders or pastors of the church. Prophecy and teaching are different gifts. Grudem 2004, page 229

From Grudem's argument, I would infer that prophets are below, that is subject to, the governing authority of teachers. This appears to directly contradict the passage in 1 Cor. 12.

I have always understood, first, that there were women prophets throughout the scriptures from Miriam to Anna, and that there was no reason to believe that role of prophet was restricted to men with the coming of the Spirit in Acts.

The other concept to explore is the role of prophet itself. What does it entail?

Here are a handful of explanations of the role of prophet that I have been able to find.

    God delivered a message to the prophet, who was in turn to transmit that message to the people. The divine message was always a moral one about how people ought to live. Often the message involved the extent to which people were living up to higher ethical standards. Hanan, A.

    A prophet is basically a spokesman for G-d, a person chosen by G-d to speak to people on G-d's behalf and convey a message or teaching. Prophets were role models of holiness, scholarship and closeness to G-d. They set the standards for the entire community.

    According to some views, prophecy is not a gift that is arbitrarily conferred upon people; rather, it is the culmination of a person's spiritual and ethical development. When a person reaches a sufficient level of spiritual and ethical achievement, the Shechinah (Divine Spirit) comes to rest upon him or her. Likewise, the gift of prophecy leaves the person if that person lapses from his or her spiritual and ethical perfection. Judaism 101

    Most of his "words" are addressed to criticizing present wrongdoing. Injustice, oppression, and rich, even luxurious, worship while the poor starve, are the issues he speaks about most.

    Popular views of the Bible prophets see them as "religious" figures. This is wrong in two ways. Firstly it suggests a separation of religion and the rest of life which is modern and Western In Ancient Israel there was not a distinct private religious sphere. Secondly it suggests that they spoke about "religious" issues. They did, but they spoke more about what we call politics. Even prophets who had a strong burden to correct false religious practice, like Hosea, addressed political issues strongly too (cf. Hos 5:11 with 5:13; 9:1 with 9:3). Postmodern Bible Commentary

From these few references I understand that the role of prophet is associated with holiness, scholarship, moral guidance, ethics and other qualities which we would normally not disassociate from teaching. I have certainly understood the role of prophet to be distinct from the role of priest. When Christ came to be our permanent high priest, the church was left with apostles, prophets and teachers, roles which are all closer to the role of the Hebrew prophet, than to that of the priest.

Another part of this discussion which concerns me is the dichotomy that we have today between the role of leadership in secular and Christian circles. There are some who teach that women can be leaders in government and the workplace but not in the church. Within this teaching, God has divided human activity into spheres. This sphere assignment is not historically stable so personally I have great difficulty attributing it to God.

I appeal to readers for additional comments on the role of prophets in the scriptures.



At Thu Mar 22, 01:57:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy said...


Are you confident that the list is ordered hierarchically rather than chronologically?


At Thu Mar 22, 02:39:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

The word μειζων is the comparative of μεγας - great. There is no possible ambiguity in this case.

At Thu Mar 22, 04:16:00 PM, Blogger Kenny said...

I would suggest something else: it is very important to the role of a prophet that it is sort of the 'renegade' office. That is, a prophet doesn't have a particular place in the hierarchy or authority structure of the Church. In the OT, the authority structure God ordained terminated at the judges (first), kings (later), and high priests, but all of these people are from time to time rebuked by prophets. Prophets tend to address problems in the existing authority structure: they come to rebuke those abusing their authority, or even the whole church. This is not to say that these are the only things a prophet does, but they are key parts of his or her role.

I would think of an apostle as an ambassador (there is, of course, lexical support for this) and a prophet as a messenger: the ambassador has authority to represent a ruler. The messenger doesn't have that kind of authority him/herself, but a message delivered has authority over the ambassador and all the ruler's other subjects.

I think this sort of thing is why there are no requirements listed for a prophet, but there are for the offices of the church hierarchy.

It is also to be noted that "prophecy" as the term is used in Scripture need not mean "thus say the Lord..." or foretelling the future. It simply means communicating a message from God. This means that when, in an Evangelical church/small group, someone gets up and says "let me tell you what God has been showing me recently" this is prophecy.

There can be absolutely no biblical justification whatsoever for prohibiting women from prophesying. Nor can you prohibit them from testifying, or even preaching (in the Biblical sense - that is, announcing the gospel to the unsaved), since both of these are duties of every believer.

At Thu Mar 22, 10:46:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks Kenny,

A few stray thoughts. I see the prophet as in some way above or at least equal to the teacher. Teachers pass on what they have received. Teachers do not exercize authority as much as study to present competent scholarship.

To exclude women from teaching also excludes them from dialogue and further learning. Therefore communities must accept women on par with men in order for them ro learn alongside men.

On another point, I am not sure about the kind of authority an apostle might have. Would you be thinking of a bishop?

At Fri Mar 23, 07:50:00 AM, Blogger Kenny said...

I agree with your first paragraph, more or less. An exception - and perhaps this is what Paul intends in 1 Timothy and elsehwere - would be if the teacher was seen as really authoritative in his teaching. That is, as exercizing the authority of the church and stating what the church officially believes. If we interpret it this way, then we would have a sensible explanation for why women should be allowed to teach in, e.g., a Christian college, but not a church. (Note that I don't take the latter as a datum that our theory has to encompass; rather, it's a practice that some denominations have that looks inconsistent at first glance, and it is of interest that this theory would make it consistent.)

The second paragraph I don't agree with. Could you explain why not being able to teach prevents someone from learning and dialogue? This would be even less problematic if it was restricted to something like "teach authoritatively on church doctrine" - which is just something I thought of now in response to your comment and not a possibility I've thoroughly studied out.

The apostles in the early Church seem to have had authority similar to the authority that bishops/overseers had later (in NT times a bishop/overseer was the same as an elder), so, sure, that is one way of looking at that. Of course, in many ways the apostles seem to have had more authority than that, especially if we look at the claims Paul makes in, e.g., 2 Corinthians.

At Fri Mar 23, 08:22:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


At a certain age one stops being enrolled as a student but the learning community continues as people become pastors, teachers, professors. To be excluded permanently from being a teacher means that one cannot have the privileges of interaction on par with others who will stimulate further learning. It means not having access to resources. It means not being full time in that community. One is marginalized and trivialized.

I wonder where the expression to teach authoritatively comes from. I don't think I have seen it in the Bible unless it comes from 1 Tim. 2:12, which would be very weird because we don't really know what that word means lexically. We know what the word teach means more or less, but the expression "teach authoritatively" - are there two kinds of teaching? non-authoritative and authoritative.?

How does God split our world into domains - spiritual and non-spiritual, church and non-church. Women are acceptable in non-church, God looks the other way, but in church, women are not quite the thing. All that from 1 Tim. 2:12.

But 1 Tim. 2:12 doesn't say that - it says a woman must not teach a man, what about English comp. and math and physics? Does it specify?

At Fri Mar 23, 04:01:00 PM, Blogger Kenny said...

Suzanne - I'm not buying your argument about being excluded from the community due to not teaching. For instance, even if we take this verse in a very broad interpretation, most major universities have research professors with no teaching duties. These people are not marginalized or excluded. In fact, many professors work hard to get these positions and not have to teach. (Of course, other professors enjoy teaching.)

As to exactly what I think 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits, I've posted a substantial discussion of it on my own blog.

At Fri Mar 23, 05:24:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Maybe I am stupid or something but don't you have to teach first. What I mean is, aren't these positions fairly competitive? A woman couldn't just turn up at a seminary and say I'm a woman and can't teach so give me a research position. I don't mean research assisant, but a full-grown job.

Surely you can see that some people teach in order to do more research. Why make a long complicated list of restrictions especially for women? Why say women have to participate in a second hand kind of way.

I am sure they will simply choose to become physicists and politicians rather than theology students - if they have any common sense.

It is very tiresome to think that there are always men around, young and old with yardsticks measuring out narrow boundaries for women.


I just read your post and first I want to say that you write about this very well. Top marks for expression!

Sadly, preaching outside the church is harder now than ever before. The number of countries where there is no established church has diminished. Women had more opportunites in the last few centuries than they do today.

Sadly, in places that are wet and cold, preaching outside the church is harder than in coutries that are dry and sunny.

Last, Paul doesn't actually mention the church. Do you think God really divides up our human reality into church, seminary, secular university, etc. These domains are not permanent and stable.

Does God have a timeline - it is the x century and now we have secular and denominational theological training so now this verse means not j but k. Next century, it will have another meaning.

At Fri Mar 23, 11:08:00 PM, Blogger Kenny said...

Your response to the comments about these research positions is talking on a practical level, and I thought this conversation was happening on a theoretical level. If we are talking on a practical level, we may want to say something else entirely. All I was saying is that not being able to teach needn't necessarily entail exclusion from the community of scholars, and I was giving an example of people who actually are part of that community despite not teaching. If in practice women are excluded from the community of scholars, we should do something about that, because it seems clear to me that this command can't possibly be meant to exclude them from that, and I don't see any justification anywhere else for why we might possibly want to exclude them. I definitely believe that women have just as much to contribute to this as men do.

I don't say that preaching in the sense I am talking about has to take place outside the church, nor do I say that it has to be public speaking (but it could be). What a pastor does on a Sunday morning is usually a combination of preaching, teaching, exhortation, and sometimes testimony and/or prophecy. For some reason, Paul seems to exclude women from the teaching role, but I don't see anywhere where he excludes them from any of the other roles involved here.

By the Church I mean neither a building nor an institution. I'm not totally clear on what I mean, but this recently came up in another blog discussion I'm having, so perhaps I should try to figure out just what I mean by "the Church." (I often say that I have a Baptist ecclesiology, and I think my views are somewhere in that vicinity, but I don't actually know the details of the standard Baptist view!) At any rate, the command is given in the context of instructions on church order, and I don't see why they should have to apply outside that scope.

Really, I am trying not to interpret the restriction any more broadly than is actually necessary. "The Spirit blows where he wishes" and we must be very careful not to place any restrictions here which God has not placed himself. So I don't really know where the edge of the context of church order is, but I still suspect (and it would probably be useful to examine Paul's use of didasko) that this has something to do with teaching the doctrines of the Church in a practical respect. I vaguely remember studying the use of didasko once and being surprised how often it is used in contexts that make it clear it is talking about applied moral instructions, rather than what we are in the habit of referring to as "doctrine," but that is neither here nor there.

At any rate, I agree that the whole inside/outside the church distinction is a little shaky given the text, and even if it were clearly expressed in the text the distinction itself is kind of nebulous. But what I'm trying to figure out, at least for purposes of a first approximation on an interpretation of this verse is something like "what is definitely prohibited?" and I think that adding the "within the church" qualification helps there. That is, because of the context I'm more certain that it applies to cases that are definitely within the scope of "church order" than I am of cases that are outside that scope.

As you can probably tell from these comments and my post, I'm pretty confused about this verse, but I think I'm arriving at a pretty firm grasp of the scope, nature, and cause of my confusion, which I think is at least a good start :)

At Sat Mar 24, 12:21:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


I am with you because - believe it or not - I haven't written about 1 Tim. 2:12 before because I wasn't sure before what I would say.

However, I think of the church as the believers themselves, and that would have to mean the seminary and the adult study group as well as the pulpit. I think the church must be considered globally because not all cultures at all times have separated different functions out. In the group I was raised in, there was no such thing as this part of church and that part. There was the church - the believers. Women were silent in the assembly. Period.(But some of them made up for it at home.)

On a practical and more academic note, people are life-long learners. If one set of human beings have access to salary and funds and resources and support, and the other set do not, then they cannot both learn on par. This may only apply to a certain privileged level of learners, but are we going to exclude women from that? Are women to be excluded from higher level theological education?

In this case the one set of humans is not treating the other set of humans the way they would wish to be treated themselves.

Regarding other points, the scriptures do not say that a woman should not prophesy (give moral guidance) or proclaim the gospel - all the scriptures say is that in this one passage Paul declares that he does not permit a women to teach and dominate men.

At Sun Mar 25, 04:48:00 AM, Blogger Psalmist said...

I'm wondering how significant you think it is that Paul refers to a (singular) woman, rather than women (plural), in 1 Tim. 2:11-12. It's interesting to me that we today tend to make 1 Cor. 12:27-31 dependent on 1 Tim. 2:12, when it comes to whether the apostle, prophet, or teacher is female. Teachers obviously must first be taught, and 1 Tim. 11 provides for that teaching. So by extension, an interpretation of the Timothy passage that excludes all women permanently from teaching men ("authoritatively" or otherwise--I'm with you, Suzanne, about how one finds constructs distinction biblically) must in effect say: "Let women learn, but never let them use their learning to pass on what they have learned to men." By saying this, they add to 1 Cor. 12:27ff the restriction that certain of these callings/gifting of the Spirit are never given to women, except to use in ministry to other women. We simply don't have the scriptural context for that to be a valid addition, ISTM.

Ah, to offer to the assembled body my service of musical leadership...

At Sun Mar 25, 12:30:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Psalmist,

I am going to come back to a discussion of 1 Tim. 2:12 soon. It seems it was unfinished.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home