###Curious bits of 1 Timothy###
The other thing that’s been bothering me lately is less of a hot topic, and at the same time a little more complex. It has to do with the second half of the sentence “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man,” in 1 Timothy 2:12. What does this phrase “to have authority over a man mean?” Once again, it sounds obvious and deeply offensive to the modern mind: Paul is a misogynist and wants to hold women down. More charitably, he’s establishing God’s order for church, possibly reaffirming a hierarchy that has been intrinsic to humankind from the beginning: that the men should be the leaders of the community.
That may be so, and if it is, it comes with a bundle of questions about how we are to implement such a hierarchy in our society, and how that might affect our worldview. But the thing that has my attention is the idea of hierarchy itself. As I mentioned earlier, as an American, I have this gut-level *need* to make everybody basically equal. I’m very content with the idea of meritocracy. I have no problem with admitting that there must be some kind of structure, some kind of decision and command process, and awarding positions of power to those who desire them and prove their capability to fill the role. That is, I’m an instinctive egalitarian, though I recognize that there are fundamental differences in temperament between men and women which may lead to different roles.
1 Timothy seems to fly in the face of my egalitarianism. First the word in the passage itself, “authentein,” to exercise authority, is not the normal word we see translated as “authority.” In fact, this is the only time the word is used in the entire New Testament. The normal word is “exousia,” meaning something along the lines of capacity, or a sphere of influence – “Tell us by what authority you do these things.” Exousia is the kind of authority we’re comfortable with. In a congregational church, the authority of God is understood to be vested in the congregation as a whole, so that they can appoint or remove the minister who operates under that delegated authority. An evangelical preacher insists that his message is not based on what he thinks, but upon the final authority of the scripture.
Authentein means something quite different. Part of the word is the Greek equivalent of the English word “himself,” and it contains the idea that it’s possible to order things on one’s own authority. You could even translate it something like “have self-authority.”
Is it even possible to have self-authority? To order and demand and insist on things being a certain way simply based on who you are? To a certain extent, yes: it’s exactly what Jesus did when he insisted that he had the authority to forgive sins. But the fact that Jesus could forgive sins is bound up in the fact that he was God in flesh. To say that anybody else has self-authority like this is preposterous. Such a person would be a usurper, a dictator, and illegal entity, a tyrant. This is why the King James authorized translation says, “I do not allow a woman to *usurp* authority over a man.”
In fact, one way of reading the text, favored by NT Wright, is to say that verse 12 is nothing more than Paul’s assurance to Timothy that he doesn’t intend, by allowing women to educate themselves, to instigate some kind of feminist revolution. Paul intends to elevate women to their proper place as men’s equals, not to establish them as tyrants over their husbands.
But I’m not satisfied. There’s also a grammar problem. Most translations say something about usurping or having power *over* a man. But this doesn’t read right in the Greek. A literal translation would seems to say, “I do not allow a woman to have self-authority *of a man*.” Curiouser and Curiouser. Now, my Greek is weak, and this may be a standard way of saying “over” in this kind of context, but it reads to me that Paul is saying he doesn’t allow a woman to have a man’s authority, that is, *the kind of authority that naturally comes with being a man*.
Lost lost! This is precisely the sort of thing that I don’t want to hear: that some people are naturally more equipped to be authoritative than others, that it is their right and responsibility to do so. Worse still is the implication that this distinction can be determined not only by natural demonstrations of leadership, but by certain easily marked physical attributes. Is he a man? Then he ought to be a leader. Is she a woman? Then she ought not to usurp the natural authority that comes with being male. Oh, who can deliver me from such a conclusion?