Fallacious Fallacies in Arguing for Women's Ordination

Linda L. Belleville. “Exegetical Fallacies in Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:11–15.” One Image, One Purpose, One Baptism (Christians for Biblical Equality, 2014) 15–23.

So there I was, minding my own business—during Symposia week, no less—when a parcel reached me by U.S. Post, mailed by CBE International (Christians for Biblical Equality). At first I thought it was a book catalogue (notices from the cbeBookstore do in fact adorn the back cover), but it really consists of a collection of five essays on the topic of “man and woman in the church and home” (3). Each essay is written by non-LCMS people (mainly Evangelicals), although a former LCMS member writes the opening broadside, a former female professor at Concordia Bronxville pens the essay on Genesis 1–2, and a current emeritus LCMS pastor and chaplain provides the observation that the resources provided by the CBE are to him “quite helpful” (3). Already at Symposia the essays were generating a stir; one of the pastors there asked me to write a response to Dr. Linda L. Belleville’s exegetical treatment of 1 Timothy 2:11–15 that follows. But before getting to that, and speaking only for myself, it seems to me that CBE International singles out the LCMS for special treatment, if not contempt. The most prominent writer, Dr. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., is among the most highly regarded Evangelical scholars in America, and has produced well-respected books on the Old Testament, contributed to leading theological journals, and served as president of both the Evangelical Theological Society and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. So I think it’s safe to say that the CBE International has been watching the LCMS quite closely for some time, doesn’t like what it sees, and now has resorted to lobbing bombs and incendiary devices against Missouri’s distinctive theology and praxis. Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I am told (this cannot be verified) that a copy of One Image, One Purpose, One Baptism was mailed to numerous pastors in synod. So the essays most definitely will impact our church, one way or the other.

Now to the essay by Belleville. She claims that the battle among Evangelicals over women leaders and the church continues to “rage unabated,” and that 1 Timothy 2:11–15 sits “at the center of the tempest” (15). She believes that the complexities of this text are many, but that with the advent of computer technology one can “shed light on” many knotty aspects of the passage. She focusses on that which she calls “key exegetical fallacies”: 1) contextual/historical; 2) lexical (namely, the words “silently” and “have authority over”); 3) grammatical (the Greek infinitive and correlative); and 4) cultural (Artemis cult at Ephesus). I should say at the outset that I found very little here that has not been hashed out quite thoroughly elsewhere, and indeed the essay under review seems to be a précis of Belleville’s book Women Leaders and the Church: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000; 217 pages; helpfully reviewed by A.J. Köstenberger in JETS 44 [2001] 344–46). Along with the other essayists, Belleville presents herself as an “egalitarian,” whereas we in Missouri are supposed to be “complementarians.” Hence, most of what she writes has been thrashed out, and responded to by other interpreters, so there should be no reason to reinvent the wheel here. Nevertheless, Belleville’s ways of presenting the issues, analyses of evidence, underlying assumptions, etc., should be heard and responded to as best one can by someone in our circles—and this, by God’s grace, I shall endeavor to do.

Beginning, then, with the first “fallacy” (contextual/historical) Belleville argues that Paul’s overriding concern in 1 Timothy is to deal appropriately with false teaching/doctrine in the church, and that women, in particular, receive a great deal of attention in the letter (e.g., 2:9–15; 3:2, 11–12; 5:2, 9–10, 11–16). Indeed, according to Belleville, some fifty percent of the letter is given to the matter of false teaching and another ten percent at least concerns women (these figures seem based on Gordon Fee’s 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988] 20–23). Belleville proceeds as though Paul actually wrote the pastoral epistles himself, and this is a plus. And in scrutinizing in Greek the passages that concern women I can definitely agree with Belleville that Paul cared a lot about the proper deportment of women in the congregational assemblies—though in ways that Belleville often minimizes or flatly gets wrong. For example, she argues for the existence of women deacons on the basis of 3:11. Traditionally it has been understood that the male deacons’ wives (γυναῖκας) were the object of Paul’s concerns here (see “their [i.e., male deacons’] wives,” ESV, NIV). It requires special pleading, I think, to see such women bearing any kind of authoritative office in the church but, if they do (as Belleville supposes), they would have to have been deaconesses in the way that Phoebe was a female διάκονος in Rom 16:1—which is to say that she apparently had access to congregational funds and can be trusted to have complied with the prohibitions against women speaking publicly at worship in 1 Cor 14:33–34 and 1 Tim 2:11–12. But even Belleville shall have to admit that the main thrust of the apostle’s directive to deacons here was intended originally for male holders of that office (see the many masculine forms in 3:8–10, 12–13), and the fact that such ones are enjoined to be “husbands of one wife” (διάκονοι . . . μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρες, 3:12) clinches the argument. Belleville’s elevation of a remote exegetical possibility (female deacons) to the one she assumes everywhere is quite indicative, I think, of her tendency to major in minors and engage in the sort of exegetical slight of hand that holds the very real possibility of deceiving the laity—as well as pastors, for that matter, who can no longer read Greek well or work with original texts. But those that can, I submit, are in a position to see through Belleville’s many duplicities in an instant. This in effect is what Köstenberger maintains in his review of Belleville’s book (cited above):

Complementarians are regularly stereotyped. Thus 1 Cor 14:34–35 and 1 Tim 2:11–15 “are typically where the discussion begins and ends” (p. 20). Sleight of hand repeatedly replaces responsible scholarship, which is deplorable in a volume addressed primarily to a lay audience where not many will have the skill to check out Belleville’s claims. For example, when evidence is given for women elders, no dates are given (pp. 25–26); regarding women as heads of synagogues, the only date supplied is the 2nd cent. AD (pp. 24–25). On women priestesses, Belleville offers innuendo rather than hard evidence (“raises intriguing possibilities,” p. 27).

Regarding the second “fallacy” (Lexical) Belleville spends most of her energy probing the words ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ (“quietly,” the prepositional phrase occurs twice identically in 2:11, 12) and αὐθεντεῖν (“to exercise authority over,” 2:12 ESV), and almost nothing on the quite significant ἐν πάσῃ ὑποταγῇ (“with all submissiveness,” 2:11 ESV)—save only to claim that the latter really does not pertain to holy matrimony but rather to conducive learning: “a calm, submissive spirit was a necessary prerequisite for learning back then (as now too)” (16). Paul’s commands for peaceable and submissive behavior suggest to Belleville that women were disrupting worship. But the men needed to be submissive too for they were praying in an angry and contentious way (2:8). Belleville takes it as given that there was a “battle of the sexes” going on in the congregation and Paul is “targeting” women whose ministry should not lord it over men (16, 19). Belleville argues, then, that what Paul is prohibiting are women teachers who “try to get the upper hand” but not their teaching per se (21).

I quite agree with Belleville that the prepositional phrase ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ cannot be the ancient equivalent of “be quiet” (TNIV; various translations are presented on page 16), to say nothing about the crass “shut up already!” which some bigots might think it means. Still, Belleville has not used the standard tools of exegetical research as well as she might have. I refer, of course, to Moulton and Geden’s Concordance to the Greek Testament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957) and BDAG: Bauer, Danker, Arndt, Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, Third edition (Chicago and London: the University of Chicago Press, 2000). Had she done so she might have discovered that the editors of BDAG are of the opinion that the two occurrences of ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ in 1 Tim 2:11, 12 should be grouped with Acts 22:2 (μᾶλλον παρέσχον ἡσυχίαν = “they became even more quiet” ESV [Paul begins a speech]) and the variant πολλῆς... ἡσυχίας γενομένης (“and when there was a great peacefulness”) at the beginning of another speech according to the Western text D (the Received Text which both Nestle Aland and UBS follow is πολλῆς... σιγῆς γενομένης: “and when there was a great hush,” Acts 21:40 ESV). Those are the two passages that pertain most directly. There is, to be sure, another occurrence of the word at 2 Thess 3:12 (“do their work quietly” ESV), and some related cognates that might cast some additional light on the matter—namely, the verb ἡσυχάζω (“to be peaceable/orderly,” BDAG 2; see Luke 14:4; 23:56; Acts 11:18; 21:14; 1 Thess 4:11) and adjective ἡσύχιος, -ον (“quiet, well-ordered,” BDAG; see 1 Tim 2:2; 1 Pet 3:4). Some of this evidence, to be sure, suggests silence as opposed to speaking—but also, I think, to being of a “gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Pet 3:4). Same then with respect to the deportment of women in 1 Tim 2:11, 12. I have long suspected (and that’s all it is—a hunch on my part) that the apostolic directive desires gentle and, yes, submissive contentment on the part of those women who frequented the worship of a Pauline assembly, and not bossy assertiveness. Paul must certainly have meant a willingness on the part of those women to be given to, which is always indicative of genuine faith in God’s promises and so willing submission to one’s vocation—in this case, in being and acting like a godly woman, someone for younger women and girls of the assembly to emulate. But this is an idea completely lost upon Belleville whose notion of “gospel-centeredness,” like that of the other essayists in One Image, One Purpose, One Baptism, is that of complete equality between the sexes, with no differentiation between differently created man and woman whatsoever. Such Christianity has been reduced to the “gospel” of equality and fairness, yet, like anyone who goes to church and reads the Bible quite well knows, the God portrayed in Holy Scripture is often quite unfair by human standards (e.g., Matt 20:1–16). So fairness and equality are at best a caricature of the Christian religion, and at worst a horrible reduction and misconstruing of the same.

Belleville spills an inordinate amount of ink (3 pages out of 8 total) on that little word αὐθεντεῖν in 2:12 (often translated “have authority over” a man), and almost nothing on the clear import of the passage, that Paul does “not permit” a woman “to teach” (διδάσκειν is in the present tense, so ongoing aspect). Everyone knows that αὐθεντεῖν is “difficult” because it is a hapax legomenon in the NT; still, Belleville’s exhaustive search of the literary and non-literary databases really does not provide very much that is helpful, in my opinion. The basic sense seems to have been that of “putting a hand” to something, so murder and/or suicide could be meant in the tragedians, rhetoricians, and orators of the sixth through second centuries B.C. However, the semantic range widened to include “perpetrate,” “sponsor,” “author,” or “be master of” a crime/act of violence (17; sources in footnotes 16–19 on p. 22). Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence from the material provided by Belleville that suggests the meaning “have one’s way with one” (BGU IV 1208) or “hold sway over” or “dominate” someone (Dorotheus Hyperetoumenous 346; Ptolemy Tetrabiblos III.13 [#157]). What I take from this is that translators should be requisitely humble as they attempt to render into English words that obviously have had a deep and rich history as αὐθεντέω obviously did when Paul used it originally, but that such English translations as ESV (often read in worship) are close enough to the word’s original meaning to provide an accurate sense of what Paul meant. On page 18 Belleville tries to create a distinction between “exercise authority over” (which she thinks Paul did not mean) and “dominate,” “get one’s way,” or “hold sway or mastery over” someone else—which Belleville does think αὐθεντεῖν means in 1 Tim 2:12. Frankly, I am confused. I just cannot see the distinction that Belleville tries to establish here. Hence, I think her many dozens of examples amount in the end to a dense smokescreen and splitting-of-hairs. I think Paul’s original audience knew exactly what Paul intended by the word, and that we can have a pretty good idea of its meaning also—and this on the basis of the standard translations into English that churches use at worship, and the traditional interpretation of the same that any speaker of standard English should be able to comprehend. With respect to the scholarship of Belleville and her ilk I cannot help but be reminded of Jesus’s criticism of the Pharisees who strain out the tiniest of gnats but gulp down huge camels (Matt 23:24). The “camel” in this case is Belleville’s erroneous opinion that women should be able to teach authoritatively in the church (though not “dominate” men), and the “gnats” are those subtle ranges of meaning that αὐθεντέω (or any word) possesses but really do not decide the matter in the end.

With respect to the third “fallacy” (Greek infinitive/Correlative constructions), Belleville stresses the fact that, as infinitives, διδάσκειν and αὐθεντεῖν can function as verbal nouns, and she cites plenty of grammarians who do indeed describe infinitives thusly (20, notes 40–42). Nevertheless, most people who read Greek understand that infinitives can be just as well be considered “pure action, the pure verbal idea” (so J.W. Voelz, Fundamental Greek Grammar. 4th edition [St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2014] 98, added emphasis). Most readers can see that the infinitives in 2:12 complement the finite verb ἐπιτρέπω (“I do not permit… to teach… to dominate a man,” etc; see D.B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996] 598–99), and Belleville’s refusal to see it thus “runs afoul [of] the most elementary notions of Greek grammar and syntax” (so Köstenberger, in the review cited earlier). Belleville wants to describe the infinitives as nouns so she can argue that “teach” and “dominate” are not synonyms (as Köstenberger and other complementarians argue) but rather define a “purpose or goal”—namely, “I do not permit a woman to teach so as to gain mastery over a man” (19). Please note: it’s not that Paul was forbidding women teach at all, in Belleville’s opinion, but not to teach in a manner that dominates men. That is the point. And she sticks doggedly to it.

The final “fallacy” (Cultural) is a focus upon the cult of the goddess Artemis at Ephesus, where Timothy was located when Paul wrote the letter. Ephesus was the site of the great temple of Artemis (Acts 19:27)—one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—and in the theater of that great city a hostile crowd shouted “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for two hours (Acts 19:28, 34). Thus, Belleville supposes that the Christian women teachers would have been influenced by the cult of Artemis, “where the female was exalted and considered superior to the male” (19). This could be true, perhaps, but is not essential to the myth (I taught Classical Mythology for years at the undergraduate level before coming to the seminary). It is an ingenious argument but otherwise has little to commend it, in my opinion. I’ve just never heard it said that the Artemis cult sponsored some sort of female superiority over men. And if it did this might better explain Paul’s refusal to have women speaking authoritatively in the church—as female pastors, for example—rather than assume that female clergy, in effect, were teaching “in a dictatorial fashion” over their male compatriots (21). Such is total hokey, in my opinion, and it completely misconstrues the plain sense of the Pauline dictum.

Two thoughts have come to me while writing this review upon which I would like to conclude: first is the necessity of a genuinely Lutheran exegesis over that of a Reformed/Evangelical one. Belleville is “an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church” (23) so her exegetical treatment of the passage under consideration reflects not so much radical feminism as a Protestant tradition that for centuries has possessed a lower view of the office of the holy ministry than I (and other Lutheran interpreters) hold. This is why, among Baptists and American Evangelicals especially, one notes an “hire or fire” mentality with respect to whoever the pastor may be and great emphasis also on the minister’s “effectiveness” (usually with respect to the numbers of worshipers drawn to services at a mega church) and cult of personality (whether people happen to “like” the pastor or not). So I’m quite sure, based on her widely beaming smile (in her head-shot on pg. 23) that Belleville is an extremely likeable person—and smart, too, as this review has shown. Her arguments are likely to win over vast crowds of folks who are not trained to penetrate hoary Greek texts and so solve God-pleasingly the menace posed by egalitarianism, feminism, gay “marriage,” a gender-bending culture, and the like. Hence, I would argue that our Lutheran church must continue to produce suitably trained, male pastors who can indeed teach the people the truth in these matters—and model for their congregations what it means to be a godly husband and father. Female deaconesses are desperately needed too, not only to administer the “works of mercy” for broken people in our sin-sickened society, but also to teach girls and young women what it means to be a godly wife and mother—and model this before the world. Otherwise Lutheranism—i.e., genuine Christianity—will rapidly die out, lost to our corrosive culture and vast governmental programs.

Second, Belleville left much unsaid in her essay, despite her apparent thoroughness in defining four fallacies and arguing them through. One phrase that would have helped her to get women right biblically is ἐν πάσῃ ὑποταγῇ (“with all submissiveness,” 2:11 ESV; see my “Ephesians 5:21: Submitting to One Another out of Reverence for Christ,” in CTQ 77.3–4 [2013] 327–34). Also, why did Paul make so much of Adam’s being formed “first,” then Eve (2:13a), the woman’s having been “deceived” at the fall (2:14), and the possibility that the woman will be saved “through childbearing” (2:15a)? Belleville’s disregard for such theologically significant phrases seems quite suspicious, though I shall have to leave it there. Suffice it to say that there is much more to the man-women relationship than egalitarians let on and their attempts to enforce a strict equality between the sexes flatten the deep communion God intends exist between a man and woman in Christ. There is much here for Lutheran pastors to be teaching their people—especially young persons, so that they grow up to be well and happily married. And there is great opportunity for pastors to be bringing the gospel to those who have been broken by the devil’s lies in our culture: to those who’ve heeded the siren call of feminism and now pay the price by not having a loving husband and children to comfort them in their old age; to repentant homosexuals who, by the Spirit’s promptings, want to be free of Satan’s tyranny so come to church in hopes of hearing sin’s release in Christ Jesus from the pulpit; yea, even to ex-egalitarians who suspect that the Bible teaches more than a rigid equality between man and woman and so are prepared to sample Scripture’s richness on just this theme. Jesus is the friend of sinners—all sinners—so pastors should not avoid those whom God’s crushing law sets before them, but continue to grow in what the Word in fact teaches in these matters, courageously set this before a community (perhaps by writing spirited letters to the editor in the local paper), and preach, teach, counsel, and exhort accordingly. God in Christ Jesus will do the rest.


John G. Nordling teaches in the Department of Exegetical Theology of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.

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