Why I Believe in Women in Ministry: Part 2 (Gupta)

Why I Believe in Women in Ministry: Part 2 (Gupta) May 20, 2019

Wow, there was so much feedback and interest on social media from my first post, I feel like I should do a quick second one while I have a bit of time (sitting at the beach, “working hard”).

Translation and Terms: The Devil is in the Details

I am being honest when I say, one of the most important things I did to help me understand the “women in ministry” issue was: learn Greek and Hebrew. (And I took advanced Greek, advanced Hebrew, Classic and Ecclesiastical Latin, Aramaic, and Akkadian for good measure.)


So many people over the years had said to me: just read your Bible and the answer is clear. By this, they mean that there are many “clear” passages that forbid women from being pastors or preachers. But here is the problem: “translators are liars” (so the famous proverb goes). That is not a cop-out. Bible translators have to simplify texts to communicate clearly, but all along the way they make lots of little choices, and they have to “take sides” on issues even if the answer isn’t fully clear. So, my house of cards began to collapse when I was confronted with many translation issues. For example

Was Phoebe (Rom 16:1; diakonos) a “servant” (KJV), “deacon” (NIV), or “deaconess” (RSV)? Keep in mind Paul used diakonos for himself (1 Cor 3:5) and Christ (Rom 15:8), and it can also be translated “minister.”

When Paul calls women to be “silent,” is the issue one of lack of words, or is it about respect, peace, and harmony in the church? The verb sigao refers to being quiet, but it can be used in reference to quiet or still waters (LXX Ps 107:29). In Exodus, Moses instructs the Israelites crossing the river that “The Lord will fight for you, and you will be quiet” (LXX Exodus 14:14 NETS). Is Moses concerned with silence? No, so most translations of the Hebrew and Septuagint text prefer the language of peace or stillness.

Then we have the issue of “ordination” and “pastors” and “preaching.” There is little in the New Testament that lays out the specifications of ordination (see 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6). As for “pastors,” this does not appear to me to be a dominant “office” in the first century. In Acts, Paul tells the Ephesians “elders” that the Spirit had made them overseers of the church, to shepherd the people (20:28). Paul mentions pastors/shepherds briefly in Ephesians 4:11. Aside from that, we know very little about “pastors” and their responsibilities. To say a woman cannot be a “pastor” is to place some construct on the Bible that is not explicitly there. We know far more about what Paul thinks about bishops than about pastors. As for “preaching” (i.e., “women cannot preach”), the NT says virtually nothing about sermons and what we think of as preaching (i.e., Bible lessons for the church). The language of preaching (kerusso, kerygma) in the NT is almost always about the proclamation of the gospel. And if rocks are qualified to do this (Luke 19:40), I can’t imagine women wouldn’t be.

Now, I am fine with modern ordination, and pastors, and elders, and preaching, but we must be cognizant of the fact that we sometimes read our modern assumptions about church practices back into the Bible. That is dangerous!

So, a crucial part of my journey was knowing what is and is not actually in the Bible, and seeing the complex, but beautiful Greek text which begs careful study. We will try to do some of that careful study, but for now I want to just reinforce the notion that it is misleading to say: The answer is clear in MY Bible. That usually means: The answer is clear in MY FAVORITE ENGLISH TRANSLATION.

Recently I heard Tish Harrison Warren say that whether you are egalitarian or complementarian, you can only be about 80% sure you are right. I think Warren is right. Scripture offers so many pieces of this puzzle to analyze, and it is really hard to put it all together. It is a beautiful mess, but it is anything but 100% clear to anyone.

In later posts, I will dig into particular texts, church roles, and questions about gender and leadership. I am not trying to throw everything out the window when I say that looking at the Greek makes things messy. I just want to emphasize that the first step in anyone’s journey on this issue must include intellectual humility and a sober recognition that the textual and hermeneutical issues are complex, especially when you look at the text in the original languages.


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  • Some good points here. I’m going to push back a bit respectfully since I think you confused some categories in your discussion of σιγάω (it’s LXX . . . I can’t resist). First, its use to refer to nonanimate entities like water in the example you gave is metaphorical (silence is stillness). Where that extended sense is applied to animate entities like people, the sense is closer to “be calm” (i.e., cease worrying), as in Tob. 10:6, than “be harmonious/respectful,” which I don’t see in the semantic range of the word (In fact, there is a pun in Tob. 10:6 and 7 where the “calm down [emotionally]” and “shut up [verbally]” senses appear back-to-back in dialogue, the latter amusingly spoken by Sarah to Tobit.) All this to say that the “be calm” sense does not really fit in 1 Cor. 14:34, particularly followed by οὐ γὰρ ἐπιτρέπεται αὐταῖς λαλεῖν. Second, I would say that in Exod. 14:14 Moses *is* in fact concerned with actual silence, since the preceding and following verses deal with verbal complaint from the Israelites (see vv. 10-12, 15). I would say that the “be still” translation that you refer to in many English bibles is a fossilized rendering from the KJV-ism “to hold one’s peace” (this is a hunch). The “be calm/calm down” sense could apply here, but in the context that entails verbal silence. Finally, these two texts need to be accounted for semantically among a *much* larger number of instances of σιγάω, both within the Septuagint and elsewhere, that clearly refer to verbal silence. (Full disclosure: I am a complementarian but I address this issue primarily with my post-classical Greek lexicography hat on, or at least as much as possible.)

  • Hi William, thanks. I am happy to dialogue about this, but I was just pointing out the translation issues can be messy – and this actually proves my point.

    Psalm = metaphor = it being a metaphor doesn’t dismiss my point.

    Exodus 14:14 – I disagree, the previous verse is about fear, not grumbling.

    I guess I am not saying the word doesn’t mean verbal restraint, but I am saying it is not always about not talking. So many instances, even Ex 14:14, are about respect (esp respecting God).

    Note how in Sirach and Acts σιγαω tends to be used for a quietness that can be attentive to others.

    1 Cor 14 – I know Paul uses λαλεω in this passage. Still, I am not convinced it means absolute silence. Notice in 14:28, the same verb is used, but then Paul ALSO says they can talk to themselves or God (using the same verb in 14:34, λαλεω). How can they talk if they must be silent? I think here the focus of σιγαω is on quiet/private speech vs. public speech (not silence). This may be a fine distinction, but that is my point in this blog post. This is very messy and getting the translation right matters.

    A similar paradox appears in LXX Psalm 31:3 ὅτι ἐσίγησα ἐπαλαιώθη τὰ ὀστᾶ μου ἀπὸ τοῦ κράζειν με ὅλην τὴν ἡμέραν

    NETS Psalm 31:3 Because I kept silence, my bones grew old from my crying all day long.

    How can the psalmist KEEP SILENT, and also cry (out, κραζω) all day long?

    My sense (from eyeballing the context quickly) is that the psalmist did not confess his sins (see NET). So his “silence” is very selective.

  • Thanks for the feedback. Some interaction:

    The point about the metaphor is that, at least in that particular verse, the sense of the metaphor does not support your “be harmonious/respectful” proposal. That is a different metaphor that I don’t see occurring with σιάγω (but maybe I haven’t found it yet). So although you are right in your broader point that understanding this issue relies upon understanding Greek, I’m saying that this particular metaphorical use of the Greek word in LXX-Ps. 107:29 doesn’t support your argument for 1 Cor. 14 having to do with “respect/harmony.”

    In Exod. 14 they are afraid, yes, and that is exactly why they are grumbling/crying out. That is why the I think command σιγήσετε pertains to both calmness and verbal silence. The internal state (calmness/stillness) is manifested by the external state (verbal silence). That’s why the metaphor above works from a cognitive perspective.

    As for Sirach and Acts, “quietness that can be attentive to others” (as you put it) is certainly correct. But again that is a different idea than “peace” or “harmony”. Although these texts may imply respect (I think they probably do), that is a social phenomenon, not a lexical semantic one. That leads to the last point:

    Personally, I speak to myself and to God without saying anything out loud all the time. (It would be weird otherwise, especially in public.) I don’t think your argument takes us anywhere since the talking (λαλέω) involved in 1 Cor. 14:28 can certainly be understood as internal and thus inaudible/silent. The idea is lack of audible speech. The same goes for Ps. 31:3, where crying out (κράζω) could also be construed as non-verbal (i.e., moaning/crying), prompted by failure to confess sin. The metaphorical idea of calmness is not present here — σιάγω is specifically a lack of speaking, in this case about a particular topic (sin). This reading works well with the “verbal silence” sense of σιάγω that I am saying is prototypical but which does not necessarily entail calmness. Does your suggestion of “peace/harmony/respect” work in Ps. 31:3? I’m not sure it does. So in both 1 Cor. 14:28 and Ps. 31:3 σιάγω means restraint from audible verbal speech, as distinct from both internal dialogue and external non-verbal expression. Both texts have the same, non-metaphorical sense of σιάγω.

  • William, I think we could go back and forth forever, so here are my final thoughts, but I don’t mind the pushback

    I am not saying that the verb doesn’t refer to speech-restraint. But I don’t think it always means that and context is important. Even BDAG (which I don’t love, but it is popular) offers several nuances including “keep still” and “keep secret.”

    Exod 14 – I stick by my interp

    Sirach/Acts – my argument is that silence (no sound/speech) is different than quiet. I think “quiet” is a far better trans. in some circumstances. The way we decide is based on context.

    λαλέω: I take this and κράζω as verbal. Notice how many times κράζω is done in a loud voice (see Rev). Cry here does not mean sob, that is why I added “out” – so correctly Louw-Nida.

    3.83 κράζω ; ἀνακράζω ; κραυγάζω: to shout or cry out, with the possible implication of the unpleasant nature of the sound – ‘to shout, to scream.’

    For λαλέω – on 1 Cor 14:28, see Thiselton, who talks about it as “in private” rather than “in the heart”

  • Good thoughts. Thanks for the interaction!

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