Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Complementarian Trap

On the subject regarding 1 Timothy 2 Sarah Sumner writes (regarding verse 12):

“There’s no way to interpret this verse at face value unless we’re ready to say that it is sinful for a man to learn about God from a woman. Of course MOST OF US HOLD A MORE MODIFIED VIEW. But that is the point. WE HOLD A VIEW THAT DIFFERS FROM A STRAIGHTFORWARD READING. We say, for example, this verse restricts women from teaching the Bible ‘with authority’ to men ‘publicly at the main church service in a pulpit on Sunday morning.’ In other words, WE ADD EXTRA PHRASES TO THE BIBLICAL TEXT IN ORDER TO MAKE SENSE OF THE VERSE” (Sarah Sumner, “Men and Women in the Church,” page 210).

This is the complementarian trap, according to Sumner: complementarians pull out their trap when it comes to explaining 1 Timothy 2:12, or any of 1 Timothy 2.

What is the trap? The complementarian trap is what happens when they come upon a passage they “invent” an interpretation of (based on presupposition) and then force themselves to QUALIFY the rest of the verse to fit their explanation. This is the problem they face with 1 Timothy 2:12-15. I don’t think that complementarians have stopped to consider that, if they have to qualify the Genesis reference in verse 13 (“Adam was first formed, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman, being deceived, fell into transgression”), that it’s possible that they might have their translation of the verb ‘authentein’ all wrong…

But I think that egalitarians (and I count myself among them) have somewhat given in to the complementarian trap. Instead of searching for a translation of ‘authentein’ that will maintain Paul’s use of the Genesis reference, we (see, I’m including myself) settle on a translation of the Greek verb first—and THEN we decide to explain Paul’s Genesis reference. Once we find a translation of the verb that suits us, then we proceed to explain Paul’s words—as if they need explanation…

We egalitarians do what Sarah Sumner accuses complementarians of—we “add extra phrases to the biblical text in order to make sense of the verse.” Look at Gordon Fee’s explanation of 1 Timothy 2:

“Paul appeals to the Genesis narrative to support his not permitting a woman to teach a man in order to domineer over him. That Paul is using the Genesis narrative for ad hoc purposes seems plain in light of his first assertion in 1 Timothy 2:14, that ‘Adam was not the one deceived.’ Paul’s interest in Genesis is with the language of ‘deception’—which does not come from the actual narrative of the Fall (Gen. 3:1-7) but from the woman, who responded to God’s ‘What is this that you have done?’ by excusing herself and blaming the serpent, who ‘tricked me, and I ate.’ Paul’s interest lies with the younger widows in Ephesus, whose deception by Satan is addressed in the rest of 1 Timothy 2:14-15, where he reflects the Genesis narrative: ‘the woman…was deceived and became a sinner.’ But as he will urge later (1 Tim. 5:14), her salvation rests in her ‘childbearing’ (cf. 1 Tim. 2:15). All of this to say that Paul’s use of the Genesis narrative is SCARCELY EXPLICIT THEOLOGICAL INSTRUCTION ON PATRIARCHY WITH REGARD TO MINISTRY IN THE CHURCH. His concern is not with establishing patriarchy (from man’s priority in creation) but with THE WOMAN’S DECEPTION BY SATAN (which is being repeated again in Ephesus). PAUL PROHIBITS A WOMAN FROM TEACHING A MAN SO AS TO DOMINATE HIM BECAUSE HE DOES NOT WANT THE WOMEN IN EPHESUS TO REPLAY THE SIN OF EVE, WHO WAS DECEIVED AND LED ADAM INTO SIN” (“Discovering Biblical Equality, pp. 376-77).

Notice something here? Fee ends the above quote with the words, “he[Paul] does not want the women in Ephesus to replay the sin of Eve, WHO WAS DECEIVED AND LED ADAM INTO SIN.” But did Eve lead Adam into sin? No—although Adam did blame her for the Fall. Adam sinned because Adam chose to; after all, between he and Eve, he was the only one who heard the commandment not to eat from the tree DIRECTLY from God Himself. Next, the text focuses on Eve’s deception, not Eve’s leading Adam into sin. Another clear observation from the text is that these women were not gonna lead the instructors into sin; she would simply start chaos in the worship services and wreak havoc on the order of the church—but she wasn’t in a place to deceive those who were in authority over her.

Gordon Fee is right about one thing: Paul does seem concerned about the women being deceived by Satan (as evidenced throughout the rest of 1 and 2 Timothy), but Paul doesn’t use any literary technique here. He does so in other portions of his letters. For example, let’s look at 2 Corinthians 11:3 (ESV)—

3But I am afraid that(D) as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts(E) will be led astray from a(F) sincere and(G) pure devotion to Christ.

See the word “as” before the simile is used? A simile is “a comparison of two things using the words ‘like’ or ‘as’.” Notice something? A simile is used here. Two things are being compared: Eve’s deception by the serpent, and the Corinthians’ deception due to false teachers. Paul’s use of simile here is demonstrated by the simile indicator (the word “as”), so as to leave the reader with no confusion about Paul’s intention.

Paul does the exact same thing with allegory. The best passage for this would be Galatians 4:

21Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22For it is written that Abraham had two sons,(AC) one by a slave woman and(AD) one by a free woman. 23But(AE) the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while(AF) the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two(AG) covenants.(AH) One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia;[e] she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26But(AI) the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. (Galatians 4:21-26, ESV)

For this second example, Paul uses an Old Testament reference to Sarah and Hagar to argue freedom in Christ. While coming from Genesis 16 and Genesis 21, Paul explains the important theological point behind it. How? “Now this may be interpreted ALLEGORICALLY—THESE WOMEN ARE TWO COVENANTS” (Gal. 4:24). Here, once again, Paul tells us what he’s doing with the use of the Old Testament text.

But when it gets to his Genesis reference in 1 Timothy 2, Paul doesn’t give a further explanation of why he refers to Adam and Eve’s creation and Eve’s deception—he simply states the events as they happened. The absence of Pauline explanation for the Genesis reference should make us wonder IF THERE IS EVEN A QUALIFIER FOR THE TEXT. Paul here is simply affirming the events of Genesis as they happened.

If this is true, then interpreting the Genesis account is futile. Instead, we should accept the Genesis text for what it is—an affirmation of the events recorded in the Law (Genesis being the first book).

I say this because I think egalitarians fall into the complementarian trap when they go into long explanations of Paul’s use of Genesis. But why do we go into these long explanations? Because we settle on a wrong interpretation of the Greek verb/infinitive “authentein.” What we must do as theologians and exegetes of Scripture is let Scripture determine what Greek verb translation we settle into—not the other way around. A good rule of thumb for anything (like figuring out crossword puzzles) is to start with what you know and work your way up to the stuff that you don’t know. It’s no different when we come to exegetical research…

If we look at the words of Paul, we discover that, unlike Paul’s reference to Eve’s deception in 2 Corinthians 11, Paul doesn’t comment on Eve’s deception here—except to say that Eve was deceived (and not Adam). In addition, notice that he is having to argue order (with use of the words like “first” and “then”) as well as argue against Adam’s deception (“And Adam was not deceived…”). The original text in Genesis mentions nothing of Adam’s deception—so we have to find a way to reconcile this with Paul’s argument. But we can only interpret this correctly alongside of Paul’s having to state that Adam was created FIRST. The issue seems to me to be one not of CHURCH ORDER but of GENEALOGY. Therefore, when Paul refers to Genesis, he is affirming the creation order and Eve’s deception because Genesis records these events as true.

So if Paul is arguing genealogy in 1 Tim. 2:13-14, then we have got to discover the meaning of the Greek verb/infinitive “authentein” in light of the Genesis reference. “Authentein,” then, CANNOT refer to “domineering” or “dominating”—because the Genesis text doesn’t give us that—NEITHER does Paul tell us that. We get no metaphor here—only a statement of the facts.

To help us with the translation of this Greek infinitival verb, we have something called “word cognates.” Cognates are similarities between words of two or more languages that help us understand the meanings of words in languages we know little about. For instance, the Greek word “kaleo” is where we get the English word “call” from—and the word “kaleo” means “to CALL.” The word “antitheseis” used in 1 Timothy 6 to refer to false teaching is where our English word “antithesis” comes from. “antitheseis” and “antithesis” both mean “opposite,” or “opposed to.” Another example comes from the blog. For the last few days, I’ve been taking the reader through New Creation Theology. Look back at the post I did on Galatians 6:15-16, and you’ll find that I looked at the Greek word “kanoni.” This word is a cognate of our English word “canon,” and it is the word from which “canon” derives. Both words, of course, mean the same thing—a standard or rule of judgment. These words make it clear to us that there are such similarities between Greek and English—for English is a GENTILE (or GREEK) language…

Using word cognates, we can figure out what “authentein” is. “Authentein,” as a word, is a cognate of our English word “authentic,” which means “original.” The “ein” ending on “authentein” is the Greek ending for an infinitive (meaning “to be”). So, “authentein” can be translated “to be original”. The verse in 1 Timothy 2, then, says that a woman should not teach “to be original” man…why? because “Adam was first formed, and then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman, being deceived, fell into transgression.”

When placed in the verse, this translation of “authentein” (to be the origin of) makes a lot of sense. It shows us that some of the false teaching concerned “genealogies,” as 1 Timothy 1 gives us the context of the Ephesus situation.

Cognates are there to “bridge the gap” between the Greek language (that of the New Testament) and our language (a modern-day descendant of Greek). Using word cognates is the best way to help us get rid of all the constant writing done on the Greek verb “authentein.”

I wrote this post for no other reason than to help my fellow egalitarians. All I want us to do is avoid the complementarian trap of trying to explain what Paul would have meant. Paul surely never missed an opportunity for explanation; so if he fails to explain here, it’s because no explanation is needed.

For those who care to read more on the interpretation of this Greek infinitive and how the context matches this translation, read the book “I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 In Light of Ancient Evidence” by Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger.


  1. I think that if you really study the Word, I know that you will Gordon Fee to be biased in his research and exegesis of the bible in many parts of his book. If you are arguing that Egalitarians are right then what do you do with God's establishement of headship? Do you believe in it? And if you don't what do you do with God's headship over Jesus and Jesus' sumission (which should be like a woman's submission, not because of less worth than the man but by choice and out of devotion) 1 Cor 15:27-28. This word submission "hypotasso" is the same word used in Paul's letter to the Ephesians 5:22-23.

  2. Keren,

    I think you should go back through Ephesians 5:22-23 and read what it says about Christ being the head of the church. The headship of the male occurs ONLY in the home. The home is the only sphere of dominion the man has been given. For new work on this, please see my new post titled "The Rebel Bride: A Response to the Charge of Inconsistency," and respond there. That should answer the questions you have.

    Let me say here, however, that I am an egalitarian who does believe in male headship of the home. However, I will not approach other rational argumentation here. The goal of this blog is to examine what the Scriptures have to teach us about men and women in the church. For work on the Trinity and Jesus' submission, you can see my section titled "The Trinity." I hope this helps.


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