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Michael Bird

I have a few posts on this website about women Bible scholars, translators, and commentators and how the acceptance (or rejection) of these women and their ministries varies widely among complementarians. The acceptance and even the endorsement of women scholars and teachers by some complementarians seems to contradict their basic stance that a woman cannot teach a man. This stance is typically based on one verse, 1 Timothy 2:12, where Paul says that he is not allowing a woman to teach or “to usurp authority” of a man.[1] 1 Timothy 2:12 has become the sticking point for many Christians on the topic of women in ministry and is widely used to keep women out of influential teaching ministries in churches.

Australian scholar Michael Bird recently published an ebook in which he discusses the issue of women in ministry. He has a paragraph on the discrepancies between the ideology and practice of some complementarians who allow women to lead and teach men in some situations. Here’s what he says:

As to the complementarian and egalitarian application of this text [1 Timothy 2:12], I am going to try to thread an exegetical needle between them. I think it is worth pointing out that complementarians themselves qualify or tone down the full implications of their view, and herein is the weakness of their position. For example, some complementarians allow a woman to teach men indirectly through books, radio, and websites but will not permit them to teach men in person. A woman can write a commentary on Hebrews to be read by men but cannot preach or teach men on Hebrews. A woman can be president, a prime minister, a CEO, a general, or a police officer, but she cannot serve as a pastor.  A woman can teach men French or piano lessons but not the Bible or theology. A woman can teach Bible and doctrine to unbelieving men but not to Christian men. The problem I have here is that some complementarians appeal to Genesis and the order of creation to show that it is inherently wrong for a woman to be in a position of authority over a man, and yet they only apply that restriction to church life or Sunday worship.  But that is like saying that it is okay for someone to commit adultery as long as they do not do it on Sunday or in the church auditorium. Or it is like saying that it is okay to commit adultery as long as you do it with an unbeliever. If it is such a clear violation of God’s ordering of creation for a woman to have authority over a man, then this should apply to all spheres of life whether it is business, government, politics, civil service, or church because God is sovereign over all institutions, and all of life is lived before God and under God. (Italics added.)

Michael F. Bird (2012-12-25) Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry (Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry) (Kindle Locations 516-526) The ebook can be purchased here.

What do you think of Michael’s statements?


[1] The precise sense of the Greek word authentein, which is translated as “to usurp authority” in the King James Version of 1 Timothy 2:12, is uncertain. I have written about authentein in a technical article, here, and in a short, simple article, here. Other challenges involving the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 are discussed here.

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All my articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 are here.
1 Timothy 2:12, the created order, and Bible men who were guided by godly women
1 Timothy 2:12 in Context
Questions about how to implement 1 Timothy 2:12
Women, Teaching, and Deception
Women Bible Scholars and Translators in the Church
Complementarians and Women Bible Commentators
Authority in the Church

15 thoughts on “Michael Bird on inconsistent complementarian attitudes to women teachers

  1. That sounds like the same argument I kept making as a late teen in church when asking “WHY?!” all the time. “You let us do________ but not______. This makes no logical sense!”

    I agree.

    It just does not add up.

  2. The fact that there are so many comp. interpretations of what 1 Tim 2:12 allows and does not allow shows that it is not clear what is meant; this does not even get into the egal interpretations of this verse.

    Comps fail to apply the normal prot. hermeneutic of not using unclear verses for doctrine, so they insist it is clear, all the while denying it is clear by the varieties of what they teach. Such incoherence among the comps needs to be recognized more, so that their false teaching can be rejected.

  3. Marg,
    This is a great quote! I shared it on my facebook page, with due credits to you and Michael Bird. 🙂

  4. One of the things that gets under my skin the most is the phrase: ‘The Bible is clear that…’

    In The Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans says:

    “In my world, women like Joyce Meyer were considered heretics for preaching from the pulpit in violation of the apostle Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent”), while conservative Mennonites were considered legalistic for covering their heads in compliance with his instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:5 (“Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head”). Pastors told wives to submit to their husbands as the apostle Peter instructed in 1 Peter 3:1, but rarely told them to refer to their husbands as “master” as he instructed just three sentences later in 1 Peter 3:6.”

  5. J., The lack of logic in some complementarian arguments does my head in sometimes.

    Don, This is a good point. What would you say are the clearer verses about women in ministry?

    Stephanie, Thanks! 🙂

    Sophie, I purposefully try not to say “the Bible is clear” on issues or verses that are contentious.

    On some issues the Bible is clear, but several passages that have been used to limit women and keep them out of ministry are genuinely difficult to exegete: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are difficult to fully understand. (I’ve written about all these passages.)

    I have a few words about calling your husband “master”:

    The Greek word for “lord,” kurios, is common in the Septuagint and in the New Testament. Kurios is usually translated into English as “lord,” “master,” or “sir.” Sarah refers to Abraham as kurios in Genesis 18:12 in the Septuagint, “though she does not address him directly by that term. This noun [kurios] is the only lexical connection between the [biblical] story of Sarah and Peter’s claim.”

    It is interesting to note that Sarah is laughing when she refers to Abraham as her lord: “Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’” (Gen. 18:12). She does not use the word in an especially reverential fashion. Note also that Rebekah called Abraham’s servant “sir” (kurios) in Genesis 24:18 (Septuagint), and Mary Magdalene called Jesus “sir” (kurios) when she mistook him for a gardener in John 20:15. Rebekah and Mary Magdalene were using the word as a term of respect.

    As well as being a term of respect, kurios is also used with affection. In The Testament of Abraham, a work which, like First Peter, probably dates to the end of the first century AD, Sarah calls Abraham “my lord.” This is likely the text that Peter had in mind when he mentions Sarah to the wives in Asia Minor.

    From here: https://margmowczko.com/submission-respect-1-peter-3_1-6/

  6. Haha 🙂 I’m sure that use of ‘the Bible is clear…’ is a rare exception!

    I think there are times when the Bible is clear, and it’s good to stand up for correct exegesis and good beliefs. But at the same time, when someone says ‘the Bible is clear…’ it can sometimes sound arrogant and dismissive, because there are so many different denominations that have varying beliefs and practices. It just suggests an underlying assumption that the Bible is clear on X issue, so if somebody thinks of X issue differently then they must be being wilfully disobedient.

  7. Yes, it’s neither humble nor helpful to say that a certain passage is clear in meaning when the person you are discussing things with has a different take on that passage.

  8. An example of a clearer verse are where the Spirit-gifted ministries are first discussed, including leadership ministries, where there is no gender mention at all. Contrast this with the discussion of the Aaronic priesthood, in this case when it is first discussed, it is clear what the physical requirements for a priest are, that they are a free Israelite male from Aaron without a blemish including bleeding diseases. Given this, it would be expected that a similar restriction, if any, would be mentioned when the ministries in the new covenant believers are first discussed, but nada, just that the Spirit gifts as the Spirit wishes.

    In other words, why would God set up a leadership ministry and then NOT discuss the requirements (if any) at that point, the answer is God would not do this, exactly because it would be confusing and God is not the author of confusion. Yet claiming that a verse in a letter written to one person (Timothy) in a church with challenges is where such a supposedly general restriction is located does not make sense for the way God works, exactly because it would be confusing to put it there if it were a general restriction, as who else would know about it except Timothy?

  9. One thing many comps do is claim that 1 Tim 2:12 is some kind of an atomic truth statement. This is very problematical, as it rips the text from its immediate context, for the teaching unit in which this verse is found, and one must remember that verses are just a human invention.

    1 Tim 2:11-12 form what is called an inclusio by repeating the phrase translated as “in quietness” in Greek it is “en hesuchia”. This is one of the many attributes of a believer (or at least it is supposed to be) and so this is not anything special that a woman as opposed to a man is supposed to do.

    In this case, what I think Paul is referring to is that the woman/women being taught are to be in classroom order during the instruction, we do this ourselves when someone teaches us, we know it is not appropriate to be having our own discussions when someone is teaching and we have a convention to raise our hands (in silence) when we have a question, because we defer to the teacher and let them speak what they want to speak. Sometimes there is no time for any questions, sometimes questions can be answered at the end of the teaching and sometimes a teacher will allow interruptions of the teaching to ask questions. All of us are trained in the rules of following classroom order.

    But the “data bundle” formed by the inclusio has 2 statements and only v. 11 is in the imperative (“let learn”), while v.12 is not. This means that v.11 should be understood as a command and v.12 is not necessarily a command. But the way it is often translated into English makes v.12 sound like a command and v.11 not a command; this is very unfortunate.

    For what it is worth, I think the entire teaching unit that contains 1 Tim 2:12 is 1 Tim 2:8-3:13, one should also realize that the chapter divisions are a human invention and not necessarily inspired by God.

  10. Don, It’s interesting that you mention the physical qualifications for Old Testament priests. Someone left a comment on this blog a while ago saying that if God had meant women to be preachers or pastors Paul would have included rules and regulations about menstruation and pregnancy in the NT. (I think there was something on this person’s culture that made him see menstruating and pregnant women as unclean or taboo … or something.) What this person and others have failed to see is that the qualifications for ministry in the church are primarily spiritual and secondly moral. There are no physical qualifications for New Covenant ministry. Since the qualifications are mainly spiritual and moral, gender should play only a small part in determining if a person is suitable to preach or pastor.

  11. Another thing to note about the qualifications for Mosaic covenant priests is that there is no rationale given in Scripture for these qualifications. And another is that in the new covenant, every believer is a priest.

  12. I found your post and the ensuing comments intriguing. I know I am chiming in late, but I just happened on this today. I wanted to comment on two things:

    1. Woman and man were both created in God’s image, and there is nothing to indicate a subservient role before the fall. After the first sin, God tells Eve her desire will be for her husband and he will rule over her. Obviously a change from how things were from creation’s ideal! Male domination was a result of the Fall, a consequence of sin’s curse. Jesus died to free us from sin’s curse.

    2. I really loved the quote from Bird because he demonstrates with many examples the absurdity of trying to draw lines in the sand. I was raised in a denomination where we sang hymns written by women with gusto but would be aghast at the thought of a woman praying out loud in church. My father would listen to Katherine Kuhlman on the radio but would roll over his grave if he knew his daughter was preaching on Sunday morning. That’s the problem when we make New Testament principles into a set of rules. We all draw our lines in different places.

    I will be visiting this blog again… always happy to find a fellow female theologian struggling with the issues. Especially those having to do with women!

  13. Hi Julie. I agree entirely. The statements in Genesis 3:16 are about a change from the creation ideal.

    And yes, almost all of us still have lines. We just have them in different places along the continuum.

    Wayne Grudem has compiled some lists which are designed to help churches determine where they can draw their own line which excludes women from more influential ministries.

  14. When I was in seminary, I tried to sign up to take “Sermon Preparation”. I was told I could not take the class, being a female. The whole reason I went to seminary was to receive training as a speaker and writer, which I was already doing. I begged them to reconsider. Eventually they agreed to let me take the class. But they changed the name to “Message Preparation.”

    I got the highest grade in the class (the only woman). But they wouldn’t budge on letting me take “Sermon Delivery”. They said I would be giving sermons out loud, and therefore teaching men. No way. I wondered what the difference would be between that and the many presentations I had already given to a mixed class during the rest of my seminary education. Again, drawing lines in nonsensical places.

    It only makes sense in view of cultural influences. Because the lines that are being drawn are certainly not from a Scriptural perspective.

  15. Julie,

    What you were doing to them altho you might not have realized it is known as the salami slicing technique. The basic method is as follows: Someone draws a line in the same, and another does not like that line. So they stick their toe over it and perhaps it is even an accident. What is the response of the line drawer? Is it full and total retaliation for the infraction? Or do they just ignore it, redraw the line and continue.

    From a line drawers point of view, the latter sets a very dangerous precedent, as the anti-line drawer just puts their toe over the line again and again and again, thereby slicing all of the salami roll, one slice at a time, each time is thought to be too tiny for a response. So the alternative is that the line drawers recognize their need to enforce the line at some point, but here is where comps reveal their confused status, as they cannot even agree among themselves where the line exactly is.

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