Authority is a hard topic for women, especially women in the church. What does it mean to have authority and to act in our authority as women? Too often, a woman in authority is called bossy rather than authoritative. We don’t want the bossy label, but how do we act in our God-given authority?
More than that, how do we interpret the Bible? What does Paul mean when our translation states, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12, NIV). I could have authority over a boy, but what about when I need to say something authoritatively to a man? Should I silence myself?
As an Associate Professor of Bible and Theology, I’m a woman who teaches men. I came from a conservative Christian background where women couldn’t pastor. So, I struggled with understanding the limitations Paul apparently places on women when my job was unlimited.
Struggle led me to study, and here’s what I found.
Our translations aren’t always as accurate as they could be. And, not all translations are created equal; many have a particular bias toward specific viewpoints about women and men.
In 1 Timothy 2, the word used for authority is a word that is used only once in the New Testament. Certainly, it’s not the only time Paul writes about authority. Everywhere else, he uses a different word.
The word is authentein. The way we figure out what words mean in the Bible is to evaluate how the same word is used elsewhere in the Bible. Since that is impossible with this word, we need to go to other first-century texts to find out what it means.
Admittedly, this is a complex process, and I won’t bore (or delight) the reader with all the details. It’s sufficient to conclude that the other instances of this word are decidedly negative. Paul’s not referring to exercising God-given authority here. No, Paul is referring to dominating authority, domineering authority, a selfish authority that may even carry the connotation of murdering.
Paul prohibits women from teaching in a domineering, dominating, crushing manner in 1 Timothy 2 (the Greek grammar leads us to believe that it’s one action Paul is restricting, not two).
We women can admit that we like to control (or at least I do). Our unredeemed human condition shows itself in selfish ambition and domination. Heeding Paul’s warning against exercising authority in a domineering way is right and good. When I get domineering, my authority is tied to the outcome. I want to make someone do what I want them to do. In fact, I’ve found that my exercise of domineering authority only “works” because of fear. Fear as a motivation is suspect.
And yet, we still get to exercise God-given authority. The New Testament calls this type of authority exousia. It’s not a selfish authority, for it is only a derived authority. Jesus Christ has all authority (Matt. 28:18), and he gives it to his disciples: to the twelve (Luke 9), and then the 72 (Luke 10). Since both women and men were disciples, it’s likely that this second number included women.
The authority we have is only derived from the authority of Christ, so we act humbly. This authority is primarily from being sent by Christ, and Mary Magdalene was the first to be sent by Christ to tell the greatest miracle that ever occurred (John 20:11-18).
This authority begins when we believe (John 1:12)—it’s our right (exousia) to become children of God. It carries the connotation of a right and freedom to act. Jesus gave his disciples the authority to heal, teach, and cast out demons (Luke 9-10). If people rejected this authority, were they supposed to force them to receive it? No, they were to speak a testimony against them and walk away. That authority is not domineering.
And then there are the women who pray and prophesy in the Corinthian church. Paul tells them to cover their heads. In the middle is a weird verse, “It is, for this reason, a woman ought to have authority (exousia) over her own head, because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10). Honestly, it’s only the first-century recipients who really understood what Paul meant about the angels; I’ve not found a satisfactory theory. For us, it’s significant to know that the veil was not a symbol of being under male authority, but rather a symbol of being under God’s authority. When women prayed and prophesied with their heads covered, they showed that they were doing it by the authority they derived from Christ.
According to the witness of Scripture, then, we women have authority in Christ, and we can exercise it in a non-domineering way. We can exousia and not authentein. As a child of God with the derived authority of Jesus Christ, we can operate to bring the Kingdom of God into today’s world.