Words about Women Matter to Women (and to Men)

By Amy Buckley, from Arise

Amy R. Buckley (M. Div., George Fox Evangelical Seminary) is a writer, speaker, editor, and activist. Amy has contributed to Strengthening Families and Ending Abuse, Churches and Their Leaders Look to the Future. She founded the Stop the Silence Initiative as an editor for SheLoves.com, bringing to light domestic and sexual violence in Christian communities, calling for a response in Jesus’ name. Amy serves on the board of Life Together International, empowering church leaders to build strong communities in Uganda and the US. She has written articles for RELEVANT, Mutuality, PRISM, SheLoves.com, Shared Justice, and Catapult. She is a member of The Redbud Writer’s Guild. Amy lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband and two adopted daughters. Read more at amyrbuckley.com and find her on Twitter @AmyR_Buckley.

Language matters—what we say, where we say it, and to whom.

If, for example, a Victorian era Brit planned to “knock someone up,” he meant to get a person out of bed. Listeners in his day would have understood the popular phrase from a Sherlock Holmes novel. If a 21st century North American plans to “knock someone up,” however, he expresses less-than-honorable intentions toward a woman.

Depending on the context and intent, it would be appropriate to say, “Thank you.” Or, it would make sense to take out a restraining order and install an extra bolt on the front door.

Context matters. I heard it all the time in seminary. It’s no small thing to translate biblical passages from Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek into English. This requires getting into the minds of the biblical authors to figure out what they intended to say to specific people in certain situations at a specific time in history. Academics call the science of interpretation hermeneutics. The goal is to know what God is saying about faith and practice in a certain context.

Those of us who read modern translations rely on interpretation of the text by translators. “Too often,” a seminary professor once said to me, “some scholars adjust materials to fit the mindset they have developed toward certain difficult passages of Paul.” And it reinforces a bias toward male privilege.

For example, some who interpret 1 Timothy 2:8-15 to mandate the universal subordination of women to men adjust other passages to fit their preconceived notions.

I believe this happens among some who insist that Jesus only had male disciples. True, Jesus initially selected twelve men, probably because the surrounding culture perceived “the voice of a woman to be an invitation to lasciviousness.” A “pious” rabbi would have refused to discuss religious matters with a woman, even a wife. In fact, Jesus broke from social norms by accepting women as learners (Luke 10:38-42). And a significant number of women traveled with him and took part in his ministry (Luke 8:1-3; Mark 15:40-41; Matt. 27:55-56).

God’s Word names specific women in conjunction with the twelve disciples:

Among them were Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples (Luke 8:2-3).

They all met together and were constantly united in prayer, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, several other women, and the brothers of Jesus (Acts 1:14).

Jesus additionally offered female followers special instructions (Luke 24:6-8; John 11:27) and included them in tasks of proclamation and evangelism (John 4:27-42).

It’s notable too that women were the central witnesses to the birth, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. And he waited until the men left to appear to Mary and the other women (John 20:1-18; Matt. 28:9-10). Jesus commissioned them first to proclaim the most significant theological message—the resurrection—to the men (Matt. 28:7-10; Mark 16:7; John 20:17).

Clearly, problems arise when translating Jesus’ relationships with women through a filter that subordinates women to men, universally, in passages such as 1 Timothy 2:8-15.

Those of this mindset also face problems when translating the masculine word for “elder” (presbyter) in the case of a man (1 Tim. 5:1) while rendering its feminine equivalent (presbytera) as an “older woman.” (1 Tim. 5:2)

In light of 1 Corinthians 12-13, which in no way distinguishes male versus female gifts of the Spirit, it makes no sense for leadership gifts to hinge on being male. Paul’s meticulous attention to detail would surely have made that clear. Instead God expresses desire for all believers—men and women—to aspire to the greater gifts:

“But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.” (1 Cor. 12:3)

To those who believe God equips males exclusively with special gifts to be elders, I question the corresponding logic of God equipping women with special gifts to be old.

It makes no sense.

A single post cannot unpack all the ways some translators wrongly interpret the subjection of women to men, for all time, in God’s Word.

This article was originally published on Amy Buckley’s website

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.