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Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles
A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry

by Kathy Keller
Zondervan, 2012-12-25 Kindle Edition


Kathy Keller is the assistant director of communications for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and has previously co-authored a book on marriage with her husband Tim. Kathy’s new book is entitled Jesus, Justice and Gender Roles, with the subtitle of Gender Roles in Ministry. The main title, however, is misleading as Jesus is rarely mentioned, and justice is only touched on briefly. Kathy states that women in ministry is not a justice issue, but a theological issue—I think it’s both—still, she states that marginalizing women in the church is a matter of injustice.

Kathy devotes most of the book to presenting her case that women are prohibited from just one kind of ministry in the church.

Kathy argues that gender-based roles are part of God’s design for ministry in the church, but she never says what these roles actually are for women. Instead, Kathy simply states that in her church, “anything that an unordained man is allowed to do, a woman is also allowed to do.” (Kindle Location 247) I cannot see a differentiation of gender roles in this statement. Kathy does imply, however, that women should not be ordained.

Is being ordained a role? Many people have been effective pastors, preachers, and elders without being officially ordained. Conversely, people may be ordained for all sorts of ministries, and not just the ministry that Kathy believes is out of bounds for women. For example, Patristic texts show that both men and women could be ordained as deacons in the early church.

Kathy also says that women shouldn’t be church elders because one of the functions of being an elder is supposedly out of bounds for women. Again, Kathy is not specific about the roles of elders, but if just one function is a problem, why not allow women to minister as elders but let them refrain from this one prohibited activity?

1 Timothy 2:12 and “Authority”

One of the ministries that Kathy believes is not out of bounds for women is speaking in church. She writes, “Clearly, women are not prohibited in Scripture from most kinds of public speaking. Only one, the teaching mentioned in 1 Timothy 2:11–12, is off-limits to women.” (Kindle Locations 136–137)

Kathy believes that 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits women from authoritative speaking and teaching. She makes this claim based on her understanding of both 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:33b–35. She believes the Corinthian verses are less clear and need to be interpreted through the more clear verse of 1 Timothy 2:12. I believe that the two verses are unrelated and are referring to different situations (Corinthian unruliness and Ephesian heresies) and different kinds of speaking (nuisance questions and heretical teaching). Nevertheless, this is what Kathy says:

“If we look at the cloudier passage, 1 Corinthian 14, and ask the question, “Something is being forbidden here—what is it?” we find the answer in the clearer passage, 1 Timothy 2, which is: authoritative teaching, or teaching with teeth in it.” (Kindle Locations 234–236)

This surprises me. 1 Timothy 2:12 is the more obscure verse. I’ve looked long and hard at 1 Timothy 2:12 and still don’t know for sure how to interpret it. Judging by the variety of ways this verse is understood and implemented in different churches, I’m not alone in being unsure of what Paul meant in this verse and how he wanted his prohibition carried out.

There are several exegetical challenges in 1 Timothy 2:12 and the verses surrounding it. One challenge is understanding what Paul meant by the Greek word authentein. Kathy has translated this word simply as “authority.” It is unlikely, however, that authentein refers to a legitimate or wholesome authority. (Despite appearances, authentein and “authority” are not etymologically related.)

Albert Wolters is a scholar and a complementarian who has written a paper entitled A Semantic Study of Authentēs and its Derivatives, which was published in the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in Spring 2006. Wolters writes that the noun authentēs (which is related to authentein) had two basic senses in ancient Greek literature: “murderer” and “master,” but that the meaning of “master” gradually eclipsed the meaning of “murderer.” He also notes, “There is a widespread lexicographical consensus that [the verb] authenteō means ‘have authority over’ and/or ‘domineer.'” This consensus is reflected in many English translations of 1 Timothy 2:12 where authentein is translated as “to usurp authority over” (KJV), “to have dominion over” (ASV), “to have authority over” (several transl.), etc.

The LSJ lexicon gives the primary definition of the verb authenteō as “to have full power or authority over.” It is important to note that this kind of power and authority is the kind that Jesus, Paul and Peter taught against (Mark 10:42–43; 2 Cor. 1:24; 1 Pet. 5:3). Christians should not exercise power or authority over a fellow believer.

Nevertheless, Wolters states that authenteō does not have a pejorative force in most occurrences of the word. I disagree. For example, Chrysostom, in a comment on Colossians 3:19, used this word pejoratively in his caution to husbands not to “act the despot” towards their wives.[1] Acting like a despot is unacceptable behaviour from any man or woman.

Authentein is an obscure word and the precise meaning and force of authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 is unclear. However, the fact that Paul is not allowing a woman to behave in this way seems to indicate that he is thinking pejoratively about this behaviour. Otherwise, why would he disallow it? Let me reiterate, I do not think that Paul was speaking about legitimate authority, or sound teaching, in this verse. He was prohibiting unwholesome domineering behaviour and flawed teaching.

Egalitarians, Scripture, and Disobedience

The most disappointing aspect of Kathy’s book is her opinion of Christians who hold to egalitarian views. Kathy used to be a feminist and she used to have a very low view of Scripture. She thinks the two go together. I am an egalitarian, as are many of my friends and, without exception, we all have a very high view of Scripture. Anyone who knows me knows that I love the Bible and am devoted to understanding it and “living it.” I take the Bible as God’s authoritative and uniquely inspired revelation.

Kathy believes that egalitarians make excuses so that we can dismiss certain verses and not obey them. She provides three possible excuses that feminists and egalitarians might use to dismiss some Pauline texts:
~ (1) Paul was a misogynist,
~ (2) certain verses only applied to the church in Paul’s day, and/ or
~ (3) Paul’s command is now out of date.

Rather than dismiss these verses (1 Tim 2:12; 1 Cor 14:34–35, etc), many complementarians and egalitarians study these verses carefully and we heed what we can understand and we obey what is genuinely relevant. We cannot obey what we do not understand and some of Paul’s instructions are genuinely limited in application. (I wonder if the men in Kathy’s church lift their hands when they pray as per 1 Timothy 2:8? Or if her church enrols widows as per 1 Timothy 5:9?)

Kathy thinks feminists and egalitarians are being disobedient to God. This is a broad brush and, as such, it is not accurate. Kathy’s husband Tim Keller believes that egalitarians “loosen” the Scriptures in order to come to their understanding. This is simply not true. I started becoming egalitarian when I began reading the New Testament in Greek and was surprised to find how gender-inclusive the verses about ministries and ministry gifts were.

The most disturbing part of Kathy’s book for me was when she wrote: “Christians in non-Western parts of the world find no difficulty with these so-called ‘texts of terror’.” (Kindle Locations 347–348) (“Texts of Terror” is an expression coined by Phyllis Trible.) To describe 1 Timothy 2:11–15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 as “texts of terror” is overly dramatic. I prefer to describe these texts as “difficult passages”: because we only have one side of “the conversion,” they are genuinely difficult to interpret. But when read in context, there is nothing in these verses that terrify.

I find Kathy’s statement about non-Western women enormously sad. Christian women in many non-Western countries live in highly patriarchal societies. Many of these women do not have a real conception that they are of equal worth as men. Perhaps they do not even know that they are truly made in the image of God. Women in non-Western countries often suffer with poorer conditions and much less freedom than their husbands and brothers. I doubt that Kathy wants this for any woman.

Kathy then moves on and explains that, even though there is a large spectrum of interpretations and practices surrounding women in ministry in various churches, it is wrong to err on the side of charity when in fact the biblical position is clear. I’m not sure why she thinks the biblical position is clear. And what is the alternative to erring on the side of charity? Being uncharitable?

I disagree with Kathy’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34–35. I do not think the instructions in these verses are referring to, and thus applicable to, well-behaved Christian women. I disagree that most egalitarians play loose with the Scriptures and make excuses so that we can avoid obeying God’s Word. I believe that godly, gifted women should not be prohibited from speaking ministries in the church. In fact, I do not believe that any ministry is off-limits to a capable Christian woman.[2]

I’ll let Kathy have the last word and end with her own summary of her position:

Women [should be] encouraged to be active, verbal participants in the life of the church—teaching, exhorting, encouraging, and contributing in every way except in the office of elder (or wherever juridical authority rests in a particular church), where teaching and doctrine are judged according to the canonical deposit of truth, the Scriptures. (Kindle Locations 371–374)


[1] Chrysostom uses the verb authentei in his tenth Homily on Colossians. (Scr. Eccl. vol 62, page 366, line 29. Source: TLG)  In Vol XIII of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 304, this verb is translated as “act the despot.”

[2] Unlike the Kellers, some prominent complementarian pastors do not even allow women to read scripture aloud, or pray aloud in church meetings.

A Dutch translation of this book review is available as a PDF on the Man Vrouw Kerk website here.

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Explore more

Prominent Biblical Scholars on Women in Ministry
Interpretations and Applications of 1 Corinthians 14:34–35
The meaning of authentein, with a brief history of authent– words
All my articles on authentein are here.
6 Reasons 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seems
Questions about how to implement 1 Timothy 2:12
All my articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 are here.
Paul’s Theology of Ministry
Gender Roles and Speaking Ministries in the Church
Don Carson and Tim Keller on 1 Timothy 2:12

28 thoughts on “A Critique of Kathy Keller’s “Jesus, Justice and Gender Roles”

  1. I find it strange when people use 1 Timothy 2 to understand 1 Corinthians 14.

    Instead of using a letter written to a completely different audience in a completely different context to understand a couple of verses that have also been pulled out of their context, why not use the verses surrounding 14:33-35 to understand what Paul originally meant? Such as the ones that talk about women … speaking in church?

    I also find it incredibly sad when she writes about the non-Western world. If only she knew why they found no problem with those “texts of terror”…

  2. I know what you mean about 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians. The letters were written with two very different situations in mind.

  3. What is non-authorative teaching? And what is the point of teaching if it has no authority to influence hearers?

  4. Good question, Retha. I don’t know what non-authoritative teaching is? And I would hope that all good teaching influences the hearers. Kathy is vague about what women can do; I’ve quoted the clearest passages from her book in that regard.

  5. Thank you for your review. I’d been hearing about the book elsewhere and knew not to waste my time and money. Now I know more why I had the “hinky” feeling in the back of my mind about this.

    Thank you for reviewing it so that the word gets out and hopefully dissuades others from taking her hook, line and sinker.

  6. I own Phyllis Trible’s book ‘Texts of Terror’. It deals with four difficult Bible stories involving women: Hagar, Jephthah’s daughter who he sacrificed upon returning home, Tamar (David’s daughter), and the concubine who was raped and murdered in Judges. The meaning of the term seems to be related to the terror of these women’s experiences. So I’m not sure why Keller would use the term ‘texts of terror’ for verses concerning women and ministry; she’s either applying the term to verses that don’t really fit the description of ‘terror’, or asserting that women in more patriarchal cultures would have no difficulties regarding the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, the concubine’s rape etc. And that would be a fairly outrageous and dehumanising claim given the brutality and injustice of these stories.

    Whatever she’s referring to, it’s unfortunate that she’s nodding toward countries where women are considered legally and culturally inferior to men and saying ‘Well, those women don’t have a problem with it!’. If she can’t connect the dots on such an obvious score then I really have to question her judgement.

  7. Thanks for this, Sophie. I can see why Phyllis Trible refers to these truly tragic narratives as “Texts of Terror”. This makes Kathy’s comment that women in non-western countries would have no problem with these texts as more disturbing. However, I think Kathy is using “texts of terror” to refer to verses like 1 Tim 2:12 and 1 Cor 14:33b-35. I don’t think these verses qualify; they are not terrifying at all.

  8. Right or not, it is pathetic on Keller’s part to point to cultures with far greater gender disparities than ours to say ‘Well, if women who live under patriarchal oppression have no problem with these verses, then why should we?’, which is what I gather to be her line of reasoning. It isn’t clear to me whether by ‘texts of terror’ she’s referring to the complementarian proof texts or Trible’s four stories. And to be honest I’m not sure that either I or Keller know enough about non-western Christian women to be able to speak authoritatively on their concerns!

  9. Speaking completely from my own experience, though, I’d agree that lots of western women are have no difficulties with complementarian interpretations of verses, and that non-western women most likely have no difficulties with them, too.

  10. Some of Kathy Keller’s “side” comments (comments that were not part of her main arguments) seemed hastily made. I actually wondered while reading the book whether she was pressed for time in meeting the publisher’s deadline.

    The comment about non-Western women seems ill-conceived, as does her comment that it is wrong to err on the side of charity. I’m sure Kathy is smarter than this, and possibly regrets making these statements.

  11. Just curious, I’ve always had this question. Priestly duties were relegated to men from 1/12 of the tribes of Israel, namely the Levites. Was this unfair to other eleven? Does it mean that those from the other eleven were somehow unfit for that role?

  12. Hi Dude, God explicitly gives his reason for choosing the Levites as the priestly tribe, but it is important to note that there were many other, added, qualifications for priests. Only some Levites qualified. So “Priestly duties were relegated to men from 1/12 of the tribes of Israel” is not a correct statement. The fraction was much smaller.

    Many of the commands in the Torah were designed to illustrate God’s holiness, perfection and separation. In the New Testament believers are made holy, or separate, through Jesus redemptive act on the Cross and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Holiness is available to all who receive Jesus as Lord and Saviour. I’ve written about the Old Testament priesthood compared with New Testament ministry here. There’s a big difference!

  13. I have posted on the self-named “Gospel Coalition” website a few times and pointed out that they should be named “The Complementarian Gospel Coalition” since they act as if this was a primary doctrinal issue, while declaring that baptism is not, in contradiction of Hebrews which says that baptisms is a milk doctrine (among others listed), that is, something that one is to learn first, when one is a babe in Christ. Therefore, TGC are 180 degrees out of phase with what Scripture actually teaches on the gender debate.

  14. I’m a bit confused. Does she think the one function in the office of “elder” that’s off-limits to women is the only difference between what men and women are permitted? If so, then is that ONE DIFFERENCE a big enough deal for her to actually claim that there are “roles” for each gender? I believe men and women can both be elders, but for the sake of argument, even if I believed women were banned from holding that one position, that belief alone would not be enough to claim entirely different “roles” that must be understood and adhered to by each gender for full flourishing.

    Maybe if I had read the book I would understand this point better. As you’ve described it, it sounds like she wants to keep the sense of very separate destinies but has realized there’s only one truly defensible piece of evidence in her corner, and is trying to make it work anyway.

  15. Rachel, I found the author’s view narrow. Keller was totally speaking from her own experience: her past experience as someone who didn’t believe in the Bible as the inspired word of God, and her present experience in her own particular church with it’s own customs. Her take on “gender roles” as being tied to ordination was vague and is not transferrable to congregations who have different ways of recognizing ministers and ministry.

    It’s been a while since I read the book but from memory I believe that her line in the sand is “anything that an unordained man is allowed to do, a woman is also allowed to do.” (Kindle Location 247) She does not explain what authoritative teaching is, etc.

  16. Don, the name Gospel Coalition bothers me too. They certainly do not speak for all believers of the wonderful Gospel of Jesus Christ. Their tamed, legalistic version can stifle rather than liberate.

  17. Marg,

    I appreciate your response to my response. After I posted, I realized how long it has been since your original post regarding the book, thanks for responding!

    I also appreciate your rich explanation of the Old Testament priestly ministry as it related to the holiness of God.

    I grant that the Levites’ tribal origin was not the only requirement given, and that there were a long list of requirements. “Relegated” was a poor choice, I am merely saying that the priestly function was limited to the Levites. I also grant that the OT priestly ministry was different than the NT pastoral ministry – thank you for clearing that up. It was still a ministry function, however, and there were no doubt equally qualified men from other tribes. Unless God created the Levites as spiritually superior to all other tribes, there must’ve been men from other tribes that were just as qualified but unable to perform the duties of this particular ministry because of their non-Levitical origin. I am drawing a parallel between that truth and the truth of 1 Timothy 2 that states that speaking and having authority over men is limited to men.

    Admittedly, I am not a linguist, nor have I studied the Greek very carefully. That being said, I don’t think that Paul was using authentein pejoratively. If so, why does he give an affirmative explanation for his proposition, namely that the reason for the limitation is that man was formed first, then woman? In fact, maybe the reason why the consensus is “authority” is because of this further explanation given by Paul. No other alternative translation would make sense when you take into account the last part of the sentence. For example: “I do not permit a woman to be sexually promiscuous toward a man, because man was formed first, then woman.”

    I appreciate, again, your response!

  18. Hi Dude,

    Priests: I imagine that there would have been people capable of performing Levitical duties who did not belong to the tribe of Levi. Occasionally non-Levites were adopted into the Levitical system (e.g. Samuel from the tribe of Ephraim). And some women ministered in the Tabernacle and Temple. However, I do not see any value at all in comparing the Old Testament priesthood (along with the covenant with Israel, select priests and temple workers, sacred rituals, and a sacred Tabernacle/Temple), with New Testament ministry (along with the universal new covenant, the priesthood of all believers, and house churches.)

    Authentein: If you click on this link you will see the entry in the LSJ Lexicon for the noun authentēs and the verb authenteō, etc. https://margmowczko.com/the-lsj-entries-on-authenteo-and-authentes/
    The LSJ Lexicon is the most respected lexicon of Ancient Greek (including New Testament Greek) and it has no theological agenda. I’m sure you will agree that having “full power or authority over” someone, or having “absolute sway” over someone does not constitute healthy, godly authority.

    I have more articles on authentein, some more technical than others, here: https://margmowczko.com/tag/authentein/

    Reason or Repudiation?: I do not believe that 1 Timothy 2:13-14 contains the reasons for the prohibition in verse 12. The conjunction “for” (gar) in verse 13 is taken by many to mean that Paul is giving the creation order, or possibly Eve’s deception, as his rationale for his prohibition. However the “for” could also be used to introduce Paul’s repudiation of part of the false teaching at Ephesus.

    Any good Greek Grammar will tell you that the word gar is used in a variety of contexts. This is evident in the New Testament where it is not unusual for gar to connect a verse which doesn’t seem completely, or logically, connected with the preceding verse (e.g. Acts 15:20-21).

    It seems that you are interested in this passage of Scripture. I have written about 1 Timothy 2:12 and its context here: https://margmowczko.com/1-timothy-212-in-context-1/

    You might be interested in this article too:

  19. Dude, also note that the requirements for ministry in the Old Testament are all physical, whereas the requirements for ministry in the New Testament are spiritual and moral, and not physical.

  20. I’m very glad for this book review. I wish Keller would have made an attempt to not make every point so backhanded. She comes across as cold and uncaring when she describes encounters in her church. It also saddened me that this book made no point to be objective. I know she is trying to stand firmly to what she believes but to shut the door on any other possibility does not encourage dialogue.

    I did have a question that I hope you can help me with: Keller uses the argument in this book that people who disagree with her haven’t studied scripture enough or they would come to the same conclusion as she did. I’ve had several PCA pastors use the same argument and I was wondering how to thoughtfully rebutt this trump card? It is so frustrating to have a healthy dialogue only to be belittled as being “biblically less literate” as Keller puts it.

  21. Hi Fisher,

    I know what you’re saying. I don’t know much about Kathy Keller, but I expected more from the book, and some remarks did seem uncaring.

    How’s this for a response:

    I doubt that anyone would consider the following men to be “biblically less literate”: I. Howard Marshall, F.F. Bruce, Gordon D. Fee, Walter Kaiser, John Stott, Kenneth Bailey, Ben Witherington, Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, Kevin Giles, Chris Forbes, and many other scholars who hold to an egalitarian ideology.

    There are more here: https://margmowczko.com/prominent-biblical-scholars-on-women-in-ministry/

    You might be interested in this post: https://margmowczko.com/leon-morris-on-head-in-the-new-testament/

  22. Oh dear, so I am allowed to teach as long as it contains no authority? So do I pray that the Holy Spirit doesn’t anoint my words since spiritual authority is given by him?! O the stunning inconsistency of it all!

  23. Thank you for this review. Judging from your analysis of the book, Keller seems to speak with some authority in her book. Then again, perhaps I should ignore this teaching, since she does not think women may teach men authoritatively? 🙂

    1. From what I understand, Kathy believes that women can preach and teach, but can’t be elders and senior pastors. Unfortunately the line that she draws is not readily transferable to denominations that don’t have “elders”.

  24. Well, I happen to live in a non-western country, Africa to be precise; and I dare to say that the conditions are not as bizarre as Westerners sometimes readily make it out to be. It is all propaganda if you ask me.
    I was actually in shock when I read your articles and found that the female marginalisation in church is still very much an issue over there in the Western world, because you see, I have been teaching Bible study, publicly, to both adult men and women for about thirteen years. I honestly had no clue that western countries were the ones dealing with such issues. They are completely alien to me. As a matter of fact I find them really absurd.

    1. Hi B. Ak,

      I still get shocked when I read some of the things that get taught and are believed in Western churches. I read a particularly ridiculous and harmful tweet from a man with a largish ministry just yesterday where he clearly put women on a lower level than men, with less responsibility and authority. And, in the comments, the women were affirming his words.

      You are right, it is absurd.

      1. Hi, i am also from a non western country, Ghana in west Africa to be precise, and i was really surprised at the claim she made that non western women have no issue with this, in Ghana especially the urban areas many would put their hands up in horror if you told them this kinds of things, despite the fact that most Ghanaians are Christian, don’t get me wrong i won’t be surprised to find out there are some Ghanaians with the mindset that women should not be allowed in leadership rules in Church, but i feel like generally Ghanaian Christian women have a lot of freedom.

        1. Thanks, Nana. I appreciate your perspective!

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