Authority is a hard topic for women, especially women in the church. What does it mean to have authority and to act in our authority as women? Too often, a woman in authority is called bossy rather than authoritative. We don’t want the bossy label, but how do we act in our God-given authority?

More than that, how do we interpret the Bible? What does Paul mean when our translation states, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12, NIV). I could have authority over a boy, but what about when I need to say something authoritatively to a man? Should I silence myself?

As an Associate Professor of Bible and Theology, I’m a woman who teaches men. I came from a conservative Christian background where women couldn’t pastor. So, I struggled with understanding the limitations Paul apparently places on women when my job was unlimited.

Struggle led me to study, and here’s what I found.

Our translations aren’t always as accurate as they could be. And, not all translations are created equal; many have a particular bias toward specific viewpoints about women and men.

In 1 Timothy 2, the word used for authority is a word that is used only once in the New Testament. Certainly, it’s not the only time Paul writes about authority. Everywhere else, he uses a different word.

The word is authentein. The way we figure out what words mean in the Bible is to evaluate how the same word is used elsewhere in the Bible. Since that is impossible with this word, we need to go to other first-century texts to find out what it means.

Admittedly, this is a complex process, and I won’t bore (or delight) the reader with all the details. It’s sufficient to conclude that the other instances of this word are decidedly negative. Paul’s not referring to exercising God-given authority here. No, Paul is referring to dominating authority, domineering authority, a selfish authority that may even carry the connotation of murdering.

Paul prohibits women from teaching in a domineering, dominating, crushing manner in 1 Timothy 2 (the Greek grammar leads us to believe that it’s one action Paul is restricting, not two).

We women can admit that we like to control (or at least I do). Our unredeemed human condition shows itself in selfish ambition and domination. Heeding Paul’s warning against exercising authority in a domineering way is right and good. When I get domineering, my authority is tied to the outcome. I want to make someone do what I want them to do. In fact, I’ve found that my exercise of domineering authority only “works” because of fear. Fear as a motivation is suspect.

And yet, we still get to exercise God-given authority. The New Testament calls this type of authority exousia. It’s not a selfish authority, for it is only a derived authority. Jesus Christ has all authority (Matt. 28:18), and he gives it to his disciples: to the twelve (Luke 9), and then the 72 (Luke 10). Since both women and men were disciples, it’s likely that this second number included women.

The authority we have is only derived from the authority of Christ, so we act humbly. This authority is primarily from being sent by Christ, and Mary Magdalene was the first to be sent by Christ to tell the greatest miracle that ever occurred (John 20:11-18).

This authority begins when we believe (John 1:12)—it’s our right (exousia) to become children of God. It carries the connotation of a right and freedom to act. Jesus gave his disciples the authority to heal, teach, and cast out demons (Luke 9-10). If people rejected this authority, were they supposed to force them to receive it? No, they were to speak a testimony against them and walk away. That authority is not domineering.

And then there are the women who pray and prophesy in the Corinthian church. Paul tells them to cover their heads. In the middle is a weird verse, “It is, for this reason, a woman ought to have authority (exousia) over her own head, because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10). Honestly, it’s only the first-century recipients who really understood what Paul meant about the angels; I’ve not found a satisfactory theory. For us, it’s significant to know that the veil was not a symbol of being under male authority, but rather a symbol of being under God’s authority. When women prayed and prophesied with their heads covered, they showed that they were doing it by the authority they derived from Christ.

According to the witness of Scripture, then, we women have authority in Christ, and we can exercise it in a non-domineering way. We can exousia and not authentein. As a child of God with the derived authority of Jesus Christ, we can operate to bring the Kingdom of God into today’s world.

Amy Davis Abdallah
Dr. Amy F. Davis Abdallah loves walking the journey of authentic Christian life with others. She takes special interest in the development and needs of women of any ethnicity, age, vocation, or status, and just published her first book, The Book of Womanhood (Cascade, 2015). Amy passionately fulfills the roles of professor, wife, writer, speaker, mentor, mother, and whatever else life presents. In her free time, she enjoys exercise, photography, climbing mountains, travel, adventuring with her husband and son, learning languages, and the creative arts. Follow her on Facebook and on twitter @amyfdavisa

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  1. Good stuff, Dr Davis. I would’ve liked to be enlighted with more. I think there’s plenty of biblical evidence to support the ministry of women in the church and seminary (and I’ve been blessed to see it firsthand). But I also think there are some passages that are just hard to understand.
    So I do have 2 follow up questions about that passage you discuss.
    First, wouldn’t you say both men and women have a tendency to authentein? In that case, why would Paul single out women in this instance? Second, if he’s referring only to that kind of teaching, what does he mean by being quiet?
    Appreciate your input!

    1. Oscar,

      Great questions! First, I agree that we both have a tendency to authentein. You’re right.

      So why does Paul directly address the women here? There are a few reasons for that. I’m indebted to resource at CBEinternational.org as well as to their tome, _Discovering Biblical Equality_. I think the argument I here pose is from the latter, but they have other resources also on their website.

      Basically, in context, 1 Tim as a whole is against false teaching. It seems that there were some women at Timothy’s church in Ephesus that taught forcefully, but also incorrectly. At Ephesus was the temple to Diana, or Artemis. Its cult made women higher than men. These women had been converted, but their cultural understanding of superiority remained. They were forcefully teaching in the church. Paul, in this portion, was having the women remember that they weren’t above men, but equal to them. A woman wasn’t formed first, and a woman was deceived. Rather than placing themselves above men, they should understand themselves as equal. And they should pray to the Lord to keep them safe (be saved) in the dangerous activity of childbearing (infant and mother mortality was high). They should pray to the Lord rather than Artemis.

      There are several interpretations about this, but I like this one because it’s cohesive. Please check _Discovering Biblical Equality_ and CBEInternational.org for more information. This was just a brief analysis.

      Again, thanks for your interest! Great questions!

  2. Amy, I appreciate your well thought out post here. I have understood authentein but this has made it clearer and I will repost for the benefit of others.

    I have your book and am looking forward to reading it.

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