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Some Saturdays ago, I was having breakfast by myself in my house and I decided to watch the news. As I turned on the TV, CNN news anchor, Victor Blackwell, was introducing the following segment: “According to my next guest, millions of black voters will not support Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman. He says their religious beliefs prohibit it. He himself is a black pastor and a Trump supporter, and he’ll explain, next.” I grabbed my coffee and fruit, and moved closer to the TV.
Next, Victor Blackwell introduced two male pastors: the Rev. Darrell Scott and the Rev. Joel Trout, both from the Apostolic Church tradition. Blackwell opened with the following words: “Pastor Scott, let’s start with you. Take 20 or 30 seconds and tell us what you mean by this, that because she’s a woman black Apostolics will not vote for her. Scott answered: “Well, there is a huge segment of Christianity, one that’s Pentecostal or Apostolic who hold to a literal view of the Bible, a literal interpretation of the scriptures. And as a result their policy is that women cannot hold offices in the church. They use the scripture from the Apostle Paul that says ‘Thou shalt not suffer a woman to teach nor to usurp authority over a man.’ Now, some apply that only to a church, that within the parameters of the church a woman can’t be a bishop or a pastor or hold a position of authority. But I know some that I’ve discussed with on a number of occasions that hold to that interpretation in all parameters of life.”
Next, Trout presented the particular views of his Apostolic movement. He stated that they do not have a problem with women pastors or bishops, but that they would never vote for Hillary Clinton due to her views on abortion (the transcript of the complete interview is here; the segment starts at 10:48:19).
As I heard the words of Scott, based on 1 Timothy 2:12, that women cannot teach or have authority over man, many women’s stories from around the world came to my mind, including my own; painful stories that narrate how women’s callings and vocations have been abruptly interrupted or completely truncated due to this verse. I believe that it is the biblical verse most quoted to attempt to keep women from leadership positions that traditionally have been occupied by men. Also, it is one of the most misinterpreted verses.
As I write this column, I recognize that this verse may not be an issue for a huge segment of Christianity that has moved beyond a literal interpretation of the Bible. However, since it continues to be used today against women in many places of the world, including the United States of America, I feel compelled to address it once more.
Together with Scott, there are many Christians worldwide who continue to interpret this verse literally. However, many times this biblical literal interpretation is selective. For instance, the verse that mentions that women cannot teach nor have authority is taken literally, but what about verse 8 that mentions that the specific way to pray is by lifting holy hands to God? If we are going to read this literally, every time that we pray, we better lift our hands. And what about the following verse that mentions that women must dress modestly, without using pearls, gold or expensive apparel? A literal interpretation will question the spirituality and Christian commitment of many faithful Christian women who use some of these items.
If a literal biblical interpretation is problematic, what are we to do with this verse? In a nutshell, let’s try to work with an alternative interpretation. As a starting point, I must mention that this whole chapter is complex, and given the limited space of this column, I will address primarily the verse that Scott mentioned.
Scholars debate the authorship of 1 Timothy and whether it was written by the Apostle Paul or another person who used Paul’s name to claim his authority. Regardless, this letter is part of the biblical canon, and thus authoritative. As with all of the biblical books, 1 Timothy has a particular context. The situation was that some false teachers had invaded the church and were teaching wrong doctrines (1 Timothy 1:4, 6, 7). It appears that women were influenced by these wrong teachers, and thus were spreading their incorrect teachings. Since the women did not have the right doctrine, they were forbidden to teach or have authority. While this verse has been used to try to limit women, in reality what the author is doing here is protecting the good doctrine from wrong teachings, from both men and women.
But this verse also has a wider biblical Pauline context that includes verses such as Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Here it is important to remember, too, how Paul praised the deacon Phoebe and the church leader Priscilla (Romans 16:1-5). As leaders, both of these women exercised authority in their positions among both women and men. In fact, according to Acts 18:24-26 Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos, an adult man, by explaining the right doctrine to him.
While it is true that the writer of 1 Timothy forbade women to teach or have authority, the problem is that this verse has been used as a timeless truth, instead of as a circumstantial verse that was to be applied only to a specific group of women at a particular time. In light of this, there are no grounds to continue applying this verse to all women at all times in order to exclude them from leadership positions in church and society. This alternative interpretation fits more appropriately with Jesus’ actions to elevate the status of women and to include them in his ministry (Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:1-3; John 4:1-42 and 8:1-11).
Due to space constraints, I do not have room to discuss Trout’s concerns about Hillary Clinton. For more on this, please read this essay by Ron Sider, my former seminary professor and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action.
But this issue goes beyond the United States’ presidential election. It involves the proclamation of a gospel that has at its heart equality and justice for all of God’s children, including women worldwide. It affects evangelism, too. I wonder what non-believers thought about Christianity when they heard Scott’s words. It affects, too, the future of our daughters and granddaughters, who may be gifted and called by God to positions of leadership in church and society, and who will be blocked just because they are women. Finally, it affects the healthy development of the church as the body of Christ where all of its members have a place — one that is determined by God’s will and the Holy Spirit’s gifting, and not by one’s gender (1 Corinthians 12:11 and 18).
I truly believe that the gospel is one of abundant life for all of God’s children. This is good news, indeed — news that is worth proclaiming. Amen!