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

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

Jesus, Justice and Gender Roles, by Kathy Keller

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 from 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 of the biggest challenges 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 Authentēand 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).

Nevertheless, Wolters states that authenteō does not have a pejorative force in most occurrences of the word. I disagree. For example, Chrysostom, in his Homily on Colossians 3:18-26, 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 behaviour and 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 14:33b-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 14:33-35 as “texts of terror” is overly dramatic. I prefer to describe these texts as “difficult passages” because they are genuinely difficult to interpret.

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 interpretation 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.

Related Articles

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
6 Reasons 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seems
Questions about how to implement 1 Timothy 2:12
1 Timothy 2:12 in Context
Gender Roles and Speaking Ministries in the Church
A Critique of John Dickson’s “Hearing Her Voice”