According to the interpretation developed to this point, the church should place women who have been given gifts for ministry by the Holy Spirit in roles where they can exercise those gifts effectively to build up the body, including spiritual leadership roles appropriate to their gifting. At the same time, these women should continue to show respect for their husbands, if married, in their heart attitudes and gracious conduct (just as their husbands should treat them with loving consideration). But serving in a spiritual leadership role does not, in itself, constitute disrespect.
Our remaining question is whether the controversial passages in Paul’s letters–1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and 1 Corinthians 14:34-36–contradict this interpretation.
Let’s begin here with 1 Timothy 2:11-15, which bears most directly on our discussion to this point, since (in the opinion of some) it brings in the idea of primogeniture. Paul writes, in the NIV translation, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (vv. 12-13). As we’ve already seen in the case of Thomas Schreiner, those who favor restrictions on what women can do in the church see the principle of primogeniture behind this argument. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) argued similarly on an earlier version of its website (now under reconstruction, so that these words apparently are no longer found there): “The contextual basis for this argument in the book of Genesis is the assumption throughout the book that the ‘firstborn’ in a human family has the special right and responsibility of leadership in the family.”
We’ve already seen, however, that God disregards the principle of primogeniture throughout the First Testament, particularly in the book of Genesis, when choosing the agents of his inbreaking redemptive activity. There are some further considerations that make us wonder whether the restrictive view is really capturing what Paul intended to say:
– If man is in authority over woman because he was created “first,” wouldn’t this establish a principle of “the first shall be first”? How could this be reconciled with Jesus’ teaching?
– In Romans 9:10-12, Paul appeals to God’s setting aside Esau’s firstborn privilege to establish that salvation is “not by works”: “Before the twins [Esau and Jacob] were born or had done anything good or bad–in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls–[Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.'” It seems that something very essential to Paul’s understanding of the gospel is at risk if we interpret him as saying in 1 Timothy that men are in authority because of their firstborn privilege.
We’ll continue to consider this passage in 1 Timothy in further posts.