top of page

Book Review: Tell Her Story

Book Review:

Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church, by Nijay Gupta.

Picture of hidden pieces of women's faces
Cover of Tell Her Story

Author: Nijay Gupta is a professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary who has written academic commentaries on several of Paul's letters.

Publisher: IVP Academic, 2023, 224 pages

Genre: non-fiction, Sacred Text Study Guides, Women's Biographies


Pros

- Affirms women in the Bible were leaders, teachers, and ministers

- Shows that women were welcomed and supported by apostles like Paul, equipped and trained for ministry leadership, and served on the frontline of gospel mission

- Gives excellent insights into the Roman Empire and the wealth and freedoms of women in that patriarchal society


Cons

- Some views support a male hierarchy, even if the author states that it does not apply today. Perhaps the author wants to reach a complementarian audience, or his publisher or employer requires it or he has not fully peeled back the sources of his past complementarian views. Where the book perpetuates gender inequality, wifely submission, or females under male authority, I provide alternative egalitarian interpretations below. These differences may simply reflect my journey as a Christian advocate for equal rights regardless of gender.

Conclusion:

Dr. Nijay Gupta shows us the world "where women lived, worked, taught, ministered, led, and risked prison and death for Jesus". I recommend this book for men and women who want to know more about first-century Rome and the social dynamics of churches in Paul's time. Hearing the stories of women in the Bible is an ideal place to start for those beginning to question evangelical or complementarian arguments that restrict women in ministry. The empathetic writing style makes it an easy read. He concludes that the Bible endorses gender equality at home, church, and society.


tell her story book
Evidence that women were evangelists and church leaders

Introduction


Dr. Nijay Gupta's early learning was that men were meant to lead and women to follow and support. When he looked more comprehensively, he saw the women who were there all along, actively involved in ministry and leading the church. He compares the hidden women leaders in the Bible to the women profiled in Hidden Figures: women whose work permitted NASA to put men in space.



Chapter1: Deborah: Prophet, Judge, Mother over Israel

Dr. Gupta provides an amazing description of Deborah and gives new insights into the role of judges as national leaders in charge of Israel. To counter the typical complementarian argument that women lead when men are not available, Nijay Gupta explains that Deborah led because men respected her military and spiritual leadership. He says that looking at Deborah makes it difficult to believe that God does not want women in leadership. This is a strong chapter.


Chapter 2: Going Back to the Beginning (Genesis 1-3)

Gupta explains that Genesis 1 and 2 are not sequential but retell the creation story from different perspectives. Gupta counters the recent idea that female submission was God's perfect plan from the beginning by explaining:

  • The Hebrew word 'Adam' in Genesis 1:26 refers to human, not man or male.

  • God gave men and women the same functions as co-rulers to cultivate, and not exploit creation.

  • Man has no higher priority for being created first; God creates Eve as an equal counterpart. There is no indication that men must lead and women must follow.


The above ideas are consistent with an egalitarian reading of Scripture. However, some of his ideas present women as less than men:

  • He refers to 'be fruitful' as a command to the woman while the Bible calls it a blessing to them both. Being a good parent is important, regardless of gender. Commanding women to procreate blames the female in the event of infertility and removes her agency to decide whether or when to have children. Placing a woman's value on her biological fertility reduces her value as a person.

  • He says they "both together reflect God", inferring each gender is a partial image. The Triune God says, 'Let us make humans in our image'. Each male and female is fully in God's image, regardless of marital status. Each individual human is fully in God's image.

  • He says the man blames God and the woman while the woman blames the Serpent, inferring equal guilt. However, the man is lying and the woman is telling the truth. God curses the ground because of Adam; God does not curse the woman, who truly identifies the source of the problem as the Serpent. God curses the Serpent for its lies and deceit.

  • Gupta also states that Eve's desire for her husband is devious, that she is Adam's opponent, ready to pounce like sin (Genesis 4:7). He does not entertain the idea that Eve has a positive desire to reconcile her relationship with Adam (for which she thanks God in Genesis 4:1), like the desire of the lover in Song of Solomon 7:10.


The chapter on Genesis perpetuates some male hierarchal perspectives that Eve is cursed or has evil desires or tempts men to do wrong. These ideas have limited women's freedoms, reduced female agency, reduced her value to procreation, and justified the subjugation of women and physical harm to women. Click here to read my blog with references on how women are freed in the creation story. I also write that God did not want women to feel pain as a result of the Fall.


Chapter 3: Women in the New Testament World

Dr. Gupta provides amazing descriptions of the cultural structure, where power in society and politics was largely male but also based on the class system. The class structure meant the senatorial class, noblemen and noblewomen, had freedoms and social power. Patronage was one of the ways that wealthy women, often widows, exerted political and social influence and power. The 'manus marriage' where a husband controlled a woman's financial assets, had become rare. In a 'sinu manu' marriage, the wife's financial assets could remain in the control of her father.


Gupta explains that a wealthy home was a public place and did not keep women out of the public eye. Widows controlled one-third of the property in the Roman Empire, and they showed their status and wealth by hosting public receptions in the atrium of their homes. Some women were civic leaders by being benefactors to people or projects. Ancient plaques often honour females without mention of a husband, calling the woman a benefactor, elder, synagogue ruler, or head of the synagogue.


Being at home did not mean women cooking and cleaning and staying in private. Neither a nobleman nor a noblewoman would do domestic duties; the kitchen was for slaves and servants. Some women helped their husband's business, and some ran their own business.

Tell Her story book
Quotes by Dr Gupta in Tell Her Story

Gupta notes that Paul praised both men and women in ministry and leadership of Christian communities. Lydia was an influential householder in Philippi and people met at her house and she established a church. Paul doesn't tell her to get a husband. Paul employed anyone gifted and called to move forward with the Gospel mission. Gupta explains that while the Roman culture was patriarchal, by being shrewd, women could maneuver through cracks.


In my view, women were not being underhanded or using loopholes. Roman class structure rewarded women for their generous service and financial contributions. Roman law allowed women to be free of male guardianship if they had at least three children, and allowed women to buy, inherit, own, and manage land and assets. Commoners were legally able to marry by 'usus' (habitual cohabitation) and women could separate by being away from their shared home for three consecutive nights.


Chapter 4: The Women in Jesus' Life and Ministry

Gupta acknowledges traditional views that the Bible is about men and that church history has ignored women or treated them as unimportant. Gupta sees many stories of Jesus engaging with women in meaningful ways. Luke's gospel often pairs male and female stories and contrasts reversals of wealth and poverty, health and sickness, life and death.


Gupta recognizes the song of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a victory song similar to that of Miriam, Hannah, and Deborah. It reflects Mary's deep knowledge of Scripture and her faith that God is honouring covenant promises. Gupta says Mary is 'a kind of prophet' but stops short of saying that Mary is prophecying how God is reversing power structures.


Gupta points out that Jesus has meaningful conversations with women. Demeaning the woman at the well as sexually immoral is 'read into the text'. Maybe Jesus was not calling out promiscuity but showing concern for her hard life. Maybe he tells her story not to denigrate her but to reveal that he is a prophet. She responds by asking theology questions, not frivolous questions. She realizes he is the Messiah while the disciples wonder what's happening. Jesus also has a key conversation with the Syro-Phonecian woman. Jesus tests her wits with offensive language, then commends her faith.


Gupta counters the argument that only men were disciples by saying there was an inner circle of twelve men and a wider circle of women and men who followed him regularly and took instruction from him. The word disciples means student and Jesus was a teacher, so anyone who receives his instruction is a disciple.


Jesus not only ministers to women but allows them to minister to him, financially support him and anoint him. However, to suggest that when Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus (John 11-12), "she may not have known what she was doing was a prophetic testimony" belittles Mary's understanding. Mary of Bethany sat at Jesus' feet as a disciple, heard him predict his death and resurrection, saw Jesus raise her brother Lazarus from the dead, and spent a year's wages on expensive oil. These indicate it is most likely that she was intentional and knew what she was doing when took the role of a prophet anointing Jesus's head with oil to honour him as king.


Dr Gupta cautiously indicates it is 'possible' that there were more than the three named woman disciples and patrons (Luke 8:1-3). The Bible confirms there were more than three woman disciples, stating there were 'many others' who followed and supported Jesus (Luke 8:1-3), and 'many other women' at the cross. My research found 35 women in the Gospels and my novel develops characters of twelve of these 'many woman' disciples.


Gupta confirms the Bible portrays Mary Magdalene as a devout and spiritual person, not a harlot, and acknowledges that Eastern Christianity honours Mary Magdalene as equal to the apostles. However, he does not mention that the Roman Catholic church considers Mary Magdalene an apostle to the apostles, and many Protestant denominations, including Anglican and Lutheran, honour her as a heroine of the faith. He is empathetic that people view Mary Magdalene as promiscuous because she was a single woman travelling with Jesus. However, the Bible never indicates that Mary travels alone with Jesus; she is named at the top of a list of 'many women' disciples.


Gupta reveals he didn't think women were among the disciples at Pentecost until he saw an ancient image showing Mary among the disciples. It seems the church has done a poor job of telling her story because the Bible says Mary was there (Acts 1:14). Gupta concludes: "There is good reason to believe she was actually there" and "No doubt she was an important voice and bearer of tradition for some time as the apostles got their footing in their worldwide mission."


Chapter 5: The Early Churches Nijay Gupta does an excellent discussion of the early church and their male-female shared leadership. He contrasts the assemblies of the early churches with the stage and audience dynamic of many of today's large churches. Christian church structure and worship traditions developed from:

  • Jewish liturgy of lectures, songs, prayers, and communal meals. While some say a woman head of the temple was an honorary title, Gupta notes that women presided over gatherings at Jewish synagogues.

  • Greco-Roman associations and clubs. These had governors, elders, and patrons. Gupta notes that these associations sometimes had women leaders.

  • Roman household structure. Male and female heads managed households as an estate with servants or tenants. About 25% of Greco-Roman homes had a female head of house. Paul regularly targeted community leaders and homeowners, and once their household was baptized, it became the base for a house church, offering privacy, comfort, food, and the existing household leadership structure.

Tell Her Story book
Myths identified by Dr Gupta

Gupta notes that the New Testament letters reveal the early church did not have authoritarian structures, addressing the people of a community, not the leader. Each member was to receive instruction and take responsibility for it. Leadership was based on good character and meant duties, oversight, care and support, not an office, title, power or authority. Paul described women and men as active in the ministry of their church, citing their activities, not their titles. Paul lists the gifts and activities of believers but does not include offices such as overseer, elder or deacon. Wherever men were doing ministry, women were coworkers and fellow labourers, not a secondary class of leaders. No man or woman in the New Testament is called an overseer. A deacon was a ministry provider, not a less senior role. Both male and female deacons are held to the same standards (1 Timothy 3). The term elder showed maturity, not a title. Titles or offices were less important than the functions of teaching, leading, and counselling.


Gupta argues that nothing in the New Testament prohibits women from being elders, deacons, or apostles. He points out that in the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the man and woman are equally held responsible for their individual actions. The Bible requires all believers, men and women, to share God's word. Just as Israel would have lost one of their best judges if they prevented Deborah from leading, churches that hinder a man or woman from following God's call to lead rob the body of believers of God's gifts.


Chapter 6: Women Co-labourers in Ministry Leadership

Nijay Gupta learned as a child that women should be at home and in Sunday school, not in business or church leadership. However, he saw women in the New Testament were not always at home or were hosting public meetings in the home and could be heads of households. Gupta gives several examples of women being wherever men were:

tell her story book
Women were heads of households

Athens:

Damaris was a woman at the lecture at the Areopagus, and she listened intelligently and responded (Acts 17:34). Some Greek schools allowed for women philosophers. Damaris was one of the elite and one of only two named who became a follower of The Way. She may have later become widely known in the church.


Rome:

Paul greets ten women in Romans 16. He illustrates his theology by greeting people who are both Jew and Gentile, slave and free, women and men demonstrating his teaching that Jesus broke the dividing walls. Some women are associated with a man and others are not. He commends women in ministry and leadership, perhaps encouraging the readers to do likewise. Paul uses the term co-worker for both men and women. While Paul has not visited Rome, he names acquaintances perhaps as references.


Philippi:

Paul names three women in Philippi (Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche) and only two men (Epaphroditus, Clement). Lydia was a non-Jew who worshipped the God of Israel. She was a businessperson working with the wealthy. She was a leader, a fearless first convert in the community, and baptized with her whole household. She managed her own household and the believers met at her house.


Paul calls Euodia and Syntyche his coworkers, and they may have been overseers with important influence. Gupta takes the traditional view that Paul publicly calls them out on being on separate sides of an issue. Gupta does not entertain the idea that maybe they are not in disagreement and Paul is simply exhorting Euodia and Syntyche to be likeminded with himself since he just mentioned how Timothy is likeminded with Paul and how he wants all Philippians to be likeminded with Paul.


Lycus Valley (Colossae, Hierapolis, Laodicia):

Paul names several individual men: Onesimus, Epaphras, Archippus, and Philemon. Paul also names women in this region: Apphia and Nympha.


Apphia, a woman greeted in the letter to Colossians, would also have seen the letter to Philemon and may have had a role in welcoming back Onesimus, the runaway slave. She could have been Philemon's wife, co-worker, or church co-leader but Paul calls her 'sister', which usually means a ministry colleague.


Nympha managed her own household and was likely the sole leader of a church in her home in Laodicea (Colossians 4:15). Since Nympha is named without a man, she may be unmarried or a widow. She is the only named person from Laodicia and was likely an elder or overseer.


Corinth, Cenchrae, and Ephesus:

Both men and women could be heads of a household. If a woman was a widow, she stood in for her deceased husband in business. If she hosted a church in her home, she was not a spectator but a leader, providing space, organizing a meal and presiding over the worship meeting. Chloe may have been a house church leader in Corinth. Prisca (Priscilla) was a leader in Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus. Phoebe was a leader in Cenchreae near Corinth.


Chapter 7 Phoebe: Paul's Trusted Proxy

Gupta explains the great significance of Phoebe carrying Paul's letter to the Romans. When Timothy carries Paul's letter to Thessalonica, Paul commends him as a substitute for himself, his representative, coworker, and brother. Being a letter carrier shows Paul trusts Phoebe as his proxy or representative to those receiving the letter. As a letter carrier, Phoebe may be giving the Roman church updates on Paul's situation, taking gifts, or explaining the meaning of the letter. Phoebe had the means to be a benefactor, travel freely, and may have paid the costs for Paul's letter. She had a high level of status as a deacon and overseer in Cenchreae. Stephanas is a man in Corinth who also hosted a church in his house and had the same deacon title as Phoebe. Paul used the same word deacon for both men and women, describing the same duties and authority. Paul himself does a deacon's work when he collects money for the poor. The church later developed the term deaconess and differentiated duties for the female term. Paul commends Phoebe for her hard work in ministry and her support of Paul's mission. As a benefactor of Paul and many others, she is not a helper but a person of status and power who serves and facilitates others in ministry.


Chapter 8 Prisca, Strategic church leader and Expert teacher

Prisca and Aquila are named several times with her name first (Romans 16:3, 2 Tim 4:19, Acts 18:18 and 18:26) and once with his name first (1 Corinthians 16:19). This may mean Prisca is more active as a ministry leader than her husband. They share Paul's craft of tentmaking and appear wealthy enough to move freely to a new city and able to host church groups in their homes. Prisca and Aquila became Christians in Rome, were forced to leave on the order of Emperor Claudius, lived in Corinth, where they offered Paul hospitality, and moved to Ephesus where they led and taught. When the Emperor allowed Jews to return to Rome, Prisca and Aquila returned. Later, they go back to Ephesus.


Prisca notices Apollos is eloquent and learned but has an incomplete understanding of the Christian faith. Luke says in Acts that she "elaborated, expounded, explained", which likely means Prisca taught him. The same language is used to describe how Peter 'expounds/ explains' his encounters with the Gentiles. Those in Rome ask Paul to 'explain/ expound' his religious beliefs (Acts 28:23). Apollos listens and receives her teachings. and does not reject learning from a woman. Gupta counters those who say that Prisca was not in a church or public setting, explaining that all Christian teaching was done in homes. Homes had atriums for public meetings and offered comfort, privacy, and access to Scriptural scrolls. Prisca is an example of a woman educating other leaders - like a female seminary professor.


Paul says he and all the Gentile churches are in debt to Prisca and Aquila. They risked their lives to save or help Paul. Prisca's gender in no way reduces how Paul honours her. Gupta guesses Paul called on them to move from place to place. Perhaps Paul asks them to return to Rome to prepare for Paul's visit and later tells them to return to Ephesus to help Timothy. Gupta positions them as absorbing Paul's knowledge and insights, passing down Paul's apostolic tradition.


In my view, the reference to apostolic succession suggests a top-down hierarchy where Prisca teaches and leads under Paul's supervision. Many churches reject governance by apostolic succession. Paul himself does not say it is more honourable to follow one teacher or another; it is honourable to follow God (1 Corinthians 3:4-7). Prisca and Aquila were mature believers before they left Rome. Traditionally, Peter founded the church in Rome, and Roman Jews who heard Peter preach when they were in Jerusalem for Pentecost established it. God likely gave insight or guidance directly to Prisca and Aquilla, just as people today hear God's call. Prisca and Aquila likely moved from place to place to follow God's call, not Paul's. It seems unlikely that it was a one-way teaching of Paul to Prisca and Aquila. The three may have had a mutual relationship, strengthening one another's faith. God speaks to us directly and women do not have to go through a male apostle or any male hierarchy to hear from God.


Ch. 9. Junia, venerated apostle and imprisoned hero

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among[d] the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. (Romans 16:7, NIV 2011)


Junia: a female and an outstanding apostle

Before the 13th century, Bible translators all understood Junia was a woman and accepted that Junia was both a woman and an apostle. They understood the verse to say Junia and Andronicus were prominent/ noteworthy/ distinguished among the apostles. From the 13th century to the 1980s, many Bible translators and interpreters treated Junia as a man because they thought a woman could not be an apostle. Now that scholars have returned to the traditional acceptance of Junia as a woman and an apostle, those who think a female cannot be an apostle understand the verse to say Junia was 'well esteemed by' or 'well known by' the apostles.


Gupta says the word apostle means God sending out a person with the good news of Jesus. Gupta counters the argument that only men were apostles by saying there was an inner circle of male apostles including Paul and the Twelve. They were the official apostles and a wider circle were unofficial apostles. Unofficial apostles may have included the 72 Jesus sent out (Luke 10) or not commissioned directly by Jesus. Paul uses the title apostle for Silas, Timothy, and other co-workers.


In my view, the Bible shows Jesus commissioned as apostles 'the women' (Matthew 28:8-10, Matthew 28:19-20), Mary Magdalene (John 20:17) and the 500 women and men (1 Corinthians 15:5-7). Early believers preached the word wherever they went (Acts 8:3-4). I would not assume that these unnamed apostles sent out by Jesus are less authoritative than the named male apostles.


In Christ before Paul

Gupta discusses how Junia and Andronicus held seniority, coming to the faith before him, and possibly walked with Jesus during his ministry. Gupta says they taught by passing on the apostolic tradition and they were outstanding among the apostles because of their courage and resilience in the face of persecution.


Being an 'unofficial apostle' passing along teachings from 'official apostles' infers a hierarchy with women on the lower rung. However, if Junia walked with Jesus, it's likely teaching she heard and witnessed directly from Jesus. She could have been one of the 72 Jesus sent out. Other scholars identify the apostle Junia with the patron and disciple Joanna, being commissioned directly by Jesus and having her own apostolic authority. Junia may have been with Jesus during his earthly ministry, sent out as an apostle by Jesus, and an elder in the early Jesus movement who bravely took risks to speak publicly about Jesus. Katharine Bushnell wrote in God's Word to Women that Paul does not refer to Junia as a lesser apostle but praises her as outstanding among the apostles. Junia's prominence is what led her to be persecuted. Gupta does not mention the orthodox history that recounts how Junia and Andronicus cast out demons, did healing miracles, destroyed idols and preached, with Andronicus later becoming the bishop of Pannonia. While their historic evangelism is not in the canon of the Bible, it is in ancient records. Their miraculous signs confirm they were apostles approved by God (Luke 10:9-17, John 14:12-13, Acts 2:22).


In Prison with Paul (fellow prisoners) Junia had gone to prison for the sake of the gospel. Gupta explains Paul uses the word meaning prisoner of war or war captive. Paul sees himself and other apostles fighting on the front lines of a spiritual war, being captured and going to a real prison. Gupta does not assume that Junia was in prison at the same time and place as Paul, but in prison in the same war as Paul. Instead of focusing on when Paul and Junia may have been in prison at the same time, he focuses on Junia courageously speaking publicly before men and women, going to prison, surviving until release, and then risking a return to ministry.


Gupta considers what crimes could have put Junia in prison. In the Roman era, a woman was often punished in the custody of her husband or father, not in prison. If the crime was serious, the sentence was death, if it was minor they could get house arrest. Gupta describes the horrible conditions and risks for women in prison. Possibly the crime was civil disturbance, or inciting a riot (such as in Ephesus, Acts 19:23-41). Like Paul, she could have been seized, questioned, beaten, and imprisoned for defying Jewish law (Acts 21:27-28) or for destroying pagan idols or temples.


Fellow Jews (kinsmen/relatives)

Gupta assumes Junia was Andronicus's wife, though the Bible leaves it open that they could have been married, or relatives, or a woman with a servant-guard, or simply coworkers in ministry. Gupta presents them as Paul's well-loved spiritual aunt and uncle, not as blood relations. However, Paul does not identify other Jews listed in Romans 16 as his kinsmen. I wonder if Junia or Andronicus were cousins, of Paul's tribe (the tribe of Benjamin) or from the same town.


Conclusion: Putting it All Together

tell her story book cover
The Bible says Women Did

The author concludes that the stories of these women in the Bible demonstrate several things:


1. God's people have always needed wise, faithful, brave women. Their stories show God inspired, gifted, and held women responsible for doing God's work

2. Women of all classes and ethnicities encountered Jesus and his people. While the Jewish priesthood relied on a Levite bloodline, early church leadership was not based on ethnicity, age, class, citizenship, or gender.


3. Paul preached harmony between men and women in the home and church. The stories of Paul's interactions with women show that he accepted them in various roles and equals in leadership. The prohibition passages address specific situations related to harmony and unity in the church, not gender roles.


4. Paul relied on numerous women leaders as co-workers in the gospel mission. Seeing the women in Romans 16 provides a picture of women and men as leaders, working together for the same cause.


5.. Independently powerful women were influential in the Roman world and early churches. Gupta imagines early male leaders "had to search the Scriptures, pray and discuss what God was up to" when they met gifted women and saw God working through them.

6. Paul saw no deficiency of intellect, skill, or morality in women. Paul didn't see men as inherently better leaders. Those who want to ban women from church offices have a burden to examine their view, given that the Bible commends women performing roles as speakers and leaders.


What About...


In this bonus section, Nijay Gupta addresses two common objections:

  1. What about Paul Prohibiting Women from Teaching in the Church

  2. What about the Submission Texts and household codes

1. Prohibition Texts (1 Timothy 2-3, 1 Tim 6, Titus 2)

Gupta provides a partial explanation for the apparent prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2. The letters are context-specific, not a universal ban on women preaching and teaching. He suggests it was a ban on all women teaching in Ephesus at that time, focusing on women disrupting or challenging the male church leaders (v.10-11). He does not differentiate between the group of women (v.10-11) and the individual woman (v.12) or mention Paul's correction of angry and disruptive men (v. 8). He states that Paul stops women from teaching false doctrines in 1 Timothy 2 and men from teaching false doctrines in Titus. Gupta explains these letters are also not targeting women but targetting false teaching, some of which was targeted at women.


Gupta notes that the Pastoral Epistles (Timothy and Titus) were not considered general guidance for all churches until recent centuries. These letters seem mainly about a specific situation with false teaching, and protecting women who were targets of false teachers.

Gupta notes that women are not more easily deceived because of Eve; both men and women struggle with discerning whether teaching is faithful or false.


Dr. Gupta indicates that Eve passed the Serpent's lie to Adam and suggests that women in Ephesus are likewise passing on false teachings to the men. Gupta confirms his belief that God blames Eve and suggests that 1 Timothy is intended to remind women of Eve's guilt in order to humble them. However, Adam was there with Eve and heard the Serpent's lie directly (Genesis 3:6). God does not blame, punish, or curse Eve. To say that Adam sinned because he listened to Eve absolves him of accountability and leads men today to think God does not want them to listen to women. Many men in the Bible were blessed by listening to women. The writer of 1 Timothy likely refers to Adam and Eve to counter a false teaching that Eve was formed first.


"Let a woman learn in silence with all submission" (1 Timothy 2:11 NKJV).

Gupta takes this to mean women should learn rather than teach in Ephesus in the first century. In my view, it means the individual disruptive woman in verse 11 should learn before she teaches. Paul encourages women to be theologically educated so that they can defend themselves from false teachers. Paul also encourages women such as Prisca and Phoebe to teach in his other letters.


"And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence." (1 Timothy 2:12 NKJV). Gupta explains the word translated as 'authority' here means to domineer, bully, or usurp power. Artemis was a hunter and a 'warrior-like goddess', so he suggests "Ephesian Christian women were trying to be domineering- not because they were striving for equality with the male leaders, but because they were trying to overpower them". The prohibition is against women behaving destructively, modelling Artemis, the 'slaughterer'.


This view seems to draw on the idea that Eve had a devious desire to control Adam. However, it is also possible that the Christian women were domineering not from a war-like desire to overpower men but out of fear for their lives. This passage does not address authorities in a worship setting but in a home setting. Maybe the false teachers convinced women that God prefers celibacy and will not protect women in childbirth. Artemis was a virgin goddess and protector of women in childbirth and it is possible a new believer bullied her husband by imposing celibacy out of fear of death without Artemis's protection. The solution would not be to put the woman in her place, but to comfort her. It is the abuse of power that is prohibited.

flashcard 38
Flashcards of opposing views excerpted from The Sword: A fun way to engage in healthy debate on what the Bible says about a woman’s role by Elaine R Kelly

"Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control:" (1 Timothy 2:15 NKJV). There are many ways of seeing the final verse: - 'she' may be the individual woman (v.11) who may have been bullying her husband (but 'she' should not be translated "women" or merged with the group of women in verses 9-10) or today's women.

- 'through child-bearing' could refer to being spiritually saved by the birth of Jesus or being physically saved from death in childbirth.

- 'they' may be either she and other women or she and her husband

- 'remain in faith, love, and self-control' could be telling women how to behave or telling husbands to be more kindly, loving and patient with pregnant wives.

I bring together ideas from various scholars in my discussion on 1 Timothy is here.


Regardless of our different exegesis of 1 Timothy 2 and Genesis, we arrive at the same conclusion:

  • references to women (or a woman) teaching are specific to that time and place,

  • references to Adam and Eve have nothing to do with whether or not women may teach.

  • Paul encourages women to turn toward their husbands with a positive type of desire, and not a desire to control them.

Gupta explains that prohibition does not mean women should stay home and raise children since Paul engaged women leaders, teachers, evangelists, and partners in public ministries. These passages are not about denying women from leadership for all time but about stopping the disruptive spread of false teachings.


Submission Texts: (Colossians 3, Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 2&3)

There is an apparent conflict between the passages that seem to uphold the pagan Greco-Roman household codes with distinct roles by gender and the passages where Paul commends women teachers and leaders and abolishes different privileges based on gender for those 'in Christ'. What do we do with the apparent inconsistency?


Gupta used to think texts upholding roles by gender overruled texts showing women having authority in the church. He changed his mind after studying the texts in their historical context and looking at the stories of women in the Bible.

Gupta explains Paul was drawing from widely known Greco-Roman language to explain God's new household management. These texts draw from the pagan philosophical idea that obedience to a commander brings harmony, and the male is by nature a better commander. Gupta suggests that Christians were holding to some pagan household relationships and traditional dress codes for the church's reputation. Paul passed along the Aritotle idea of patriarchal authority as the norm. New Testament writers supported the household codes for expediency or legal reasons.


Gupta explains that a wife's submission in the Roman world did not prevent her from working, having a business or income separate from her husband's, and did not limit her travel. It also did not mean a wife must do domestic duties; many women in the Greco-Roman household code were authorities over slaves and domestic workers. A wife's submission does not prevent her from acting according to her conscience, not obeying a husband's direction to sin. In the Greco-Roman world, some women were the legal and practical ruling authority of their own households. Women slaves in the Greco-Roman world submitted to their masters, not to their husbands. Male and female slaves, servants, and children would submit to a female head of the household. Whether they were single or widowed, Paul identifies and affirms some women as managers of their own households and as church leaders.


Gupta notes the apparent contradiction if wives always submit (one-way) or wives and husbands submit to one another (two-way). He discusses mutuality in marriage, citing radical reciprocity with 'Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (1 Corinthians 7:4-5) and "submit to one another" (Ephesians 5:21).


However, after citing these passages about mutual submission, he says that "in the end, Ephesians still calls for wifely submission". Gupta states New Testament writers couldn't likely visualize equality in marriage. They moved 'toward a more gracious, mutual, and living spirit in the household' while not making waves and challenging the Roman social order.' Paul sowed seeds of equality that came to bear fruit in the US civil rights movement centuries later. He suggests the submission texts reduced a woman's subjugation in the first century and brought us to equality today.


flashcard 6
Flashcards of opposing views taken from The Sword: A fun way to engage in healthy debate on what the Bible says about a woman’s role by Elaine R Kelly

Many egalitarian scholars do not agree that Ephesians calls for wifely submission. It calls for mutual, two-way submission. Paul could easily visualize equality in marriage by looking at couples like Prisca and Aquila, Junia and Andronicus. Paul was not one to make a gentle nudge; he often used hyperbole to make his point. And his point was that a husband should submit to their wife as a wife does to her husband. However, he made his point in such as a way not to get in trouble with the Romans for overturning their pagan male hierarchal society.



Paul overturned pagan household codes in the first century by writing about reciprocity and mutual submission and telling husbands to serve wives, treating a wife like himself. Mutual submission does not mean a wife submits more often than a husband. The very basic instruction to love one another is a call to mutuality. Paul flattens the hierarchy by making submission two-way. Peter also tells 'husbands, likewise' to yield to their wives (1 Peter 3:7). He does not limit women, Peter encourages women.


The New Testament writers did upset the pattern of male domination - not by addressing governors or rulers but by changing human hearts. They saw equality in marriages such as that of Prisca and Aquila, as well as wives witnessing to husbands, and women heads of households with authority over male servants. Paul did not uphold the household codes but reinvented them for those "in Christ", putting Christ as the authority and head of the family. Paul points to the familiar household code to explain the unfamiliar concept of God's family and unity in Christ. My study of Ephesians shows the main idea is not gender roles at all!


Paul also did not uphold the Greco dress codes or pagan philosophical ideas. Paul told women they had full authority over their clothing and head covering. My discussion on how Paul has been misquoted is here. Paul treated men and women as equal partners in marriage and gave women freedom for ministry as co-workers. Paul instructed women on how to exercise their gifts while speaking publicly at meetings (1 Corinthians 11). The Bible tells Christian women to teach their husbands (1 Corinthians 7:16, 1 Peter 3).


No More Male nor Female (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11)

But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, [f]kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our [g]tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:23-29 NKJV)

Gupta presents the hierarchal view that these passages abolish differences regarding salvation but not regarding other rights or freedoms. It is not an egalitarian view, but might be considered a "soft" complementarian view.

two flashcards 3
Flashcards of opposing views taken from The Sword: A fun way to engage in healthy debate on what the Bible says about a woman’s role by Elaine R Kelly

The egalitarian view is that the differences in our gender, class, and citizenship relate to not only our salvation but also gives each of us the legal rights of sons. Each believer has the same freedom, authority, and responsibility.

Paul preached equality for all even in that day, speaking against the marginalization of people groups by gender, class, or citizenship. Today, school administrators require the name of the parent or guardian for each student. In the first century, women usually required a male guardian. However, the Roman Empire knew women were capable of independence and allowed widows, mothers, and noblewomen to be free of male guardianship. Paul says believers - women and men - no longer need a guardian. Christ guides and keeps us all.


Dangers of Universalizing household codes and submission imperatives

Gupta says the apostles endorsed the pagan household codes as instructions for Christians in the first century, not universal teachings for today. Other scholars suggest the apostles quoted the pagan codes to contrast them to new codes of behaviour for those in God's household. Either way: historic pagan household codes do not apply to today's believing households.


Postscript

"There's no unilateral prohibition of women teaching or acting with independent leadership and authority in the church". - Nijay Gupta

This book is an important work, especially for those coming out of a world view or training that the Bible states women should be subordinate. Telling the stories of women in the Bible reveals how the Bible endorses that women and men share leadership and ministry.


Knowing their stories means taking a fresh look at the apparent prohibition and submission passages. They are less about limiting women and more about unity, harmony, and being a respectable witness to the world. Amplifying the stories of women in the Bible can bring equality to our homes and churches.


 

Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with Christian fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include:

  • Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, Book 1

  • The Sword A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role

  • Because She Was Called: from Broken to Bold, Book 2, A Novel of the Early Church, imagines Mary Magdalene's trip to testify before the emperor





Comentarios


bottom of page