In just two days, the gathered delegates for the Seventh-day Adventist church will be making a decision regarding ordaining women to the pastoral ministry. I doubt that any view-changing contributions can be made at this point. However there is an issue that does need further clarification—the role hermeneutics play in this conversation. I hope to make a contribution to that clarity in this short article.

It has been suggested by individuals on both sides of this issue that different hermeneutical principles are being utilized resulting in very different conclusions. One group says: “Those who are faithful to the historical-grammatical hermeneutic will urge a ‘no’ vote to the motion.” Another group says: “Use a principle-based approach and vote ‘yes.'” I would like to pose this question: “Is it necessary to use a new hermeneutic to arrive at a ‘yes’ vote, or could someone be faithful to the historical-grammatical hermeneutical principles, and still come to the conclusion that a ‘yes’ vote is in order?” If the issue facing the church really is about the method used to interpret scripture, this is of grave concern. However, if the issue is more about members of the body of Christ coming to different conclusions using the same method, it reframes the conversation. The former is something to draw a line in the sand about. The latter can be approached with more Christian charity and acceptance of differences.

I believe that the statement that one must use a new hermeneutic to arrive at a “yes” vote is incorrect. Utilizing historical-grammatical principles, let us examine some key verses in this conversation and see where they lead. Rather than present answers, I will be asking questions that will demonstrate through the historical-grammatical method that one can arrive at the “yes” position without using a new hermeneutic. This doesn’t mean one should arrive at a “yes” vote, but rather that it is not necessarily an inappropriate conclusion based on faulty principles of interpretation.

I believe that the statement that one must use a new hermeneutic to arrive at a “yes” vote is incorrect.

Clearly one of the main discussion-informing texts in the present conversation is 1 Timothy 2:8-15. We often pass over the opening salvo of this passage, yet it helps illuminate the rest of the passage. So let’s consider it. After highlighting the importance of the gospel (v. 1-7) Paul calls for “men in every place to pray.” What does Paul here mean by the phrase, “in every place?” It is often assumed (and perhaps correctly) that Paul means every place of worship, or every church, and that the entire passage is set in the context of worship. Yet this is not necessarily the case, nor is it patently obvious. Paul uses the same expression to refer to the growth of the gospel beyond the confines of the place of worship (see 1 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 2:14). How a person interprets this phrase, will impact the rest of the passage. A church setting will lead to one conclusion, while a broader setting will reframe the subsequent issue.

Another question that can be asked is, why does Paul reference “without wrath and dissension” in his appeal for prayer? Was there something happening in the church that Timothy pastored that warranted this? How a person interprets this phrase, will also impact the rest of the passage.

In verses 9 and 10 Paul turns to discuss the role of women, beginning with a call to modesty and godliness. Then—pay attention—he shifts from the role of women to a woman. Is this simply rhetorical? Or was Paul attempting to highlight a specific woman? Again, the conclusion one draws will impact the rest of the text.

In verse 11, Paul calls for a woman to receive instruction quietly and with submission. What does Paul mean by these expressions? First it is important to note that the word “quietly” does not here mean silence. Paul uses the word in verse 2 to describe the kind of life we should lead. Thus, in this passage at least, Paul is not enjoining silence, but a tranquil attitude toward life. Following this, he urges “all submission.” How should this be interpreted? All would agree that it does not mean all women should be submissive to all men. Is it referring to a church setting in which men should be taking the lead? Possibly, however by comparing this expression with Ephesians 5:24, we see that Paul enjoined the same command—“submission” in “all things”—in the context of the marriage relationship. Is it possible that Paul argues for submission within marriage here? My point is that this argument can go two ways, depending on the emphasis one places, despite the fact that the same hermeneutical principles are at work. If we compare Ephesians 5:22-31 with 1 Timothy, we notice several parallels. There is the idea of submission, a reference to creation, and an emphasis on the male leadership. If we compare these two passages with 1 Peter 3.1-7 we notice more parallels. There is the idea of modesty, submission, and male leadership. Is it possible that Paul is referring to something similar in 1 Timothy? Perhaps not, as he does not clarify the relationship between the man and the woman in that passage, as he does in Ephesians 5:22 (“your own husbands”). My point: where the interpreter places the emphasis (comparing scripture with scripture or identifying key words in the text) will impact interpretation even though the same hermeneutic is being used.

Paul is not appealing to culture, but to the origins of the human family.

The next verse is one of the most knotty in this conversation. Perhaps it is crystal clear to some, but there are several points that need addressing. Paul writes: “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” Here are some questions that need answering:

  1. When Paul uses the present tense “I do not allow…” does he mean I do not currently allow or I will never allow? This cannot be settled by an appeal to the Greek; interpreters answer the question both ways.
  2. What does he mean when he states that a woman cannot not teach? Both sides recognize there is a role for women to teach, and therefore neither perspective take it as an absolute restriction. To what kind of teaching is Paul then referring? Perhaps it is the teaching of an elder (1 Timothy 3:2), but that is not totally apparent from the text, particularly as false teaching is identified as a problem in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3-4.)
  3. What does he mean that a woman cannot have authority over a man? It is argued that this refers to the leadership position in the church. But this too, while a possibility, is not immediately obvious from the text. In fact, this interpretation becomes less certain with further study. Probing the original language here, I learned that the word translated authority is used only once in the NT. But a stronger word may be needed to accurately capture the meaning. The Old Latin translation of the Greek expresses it this way: “I permit not a woman to teach, neither to dominate a man.” The Vulgate is similar: “I permit not a woman to teach, neither to domineer over a man.” The uncertain meaning of the word, at least casts some doubt that this is referring to the pastoral role in a local church.

In the next two verses Paul grounds his argument for the role of women in the creation story. All interpreters must take this seriously. Paul is not appealing to culture, but to the origins of the human family. However, by using the hermeneutic of comparing scripture with scripture certain questions arise. (As mentioned above, Paul links the creation account with a wife’s submission to her husband—Ephesians 5:31. Is something similar happening here? Perhaps not, although it is a possibility). It is argued that given Paul’s use of the creation story, this is evidence of a pre-fall subordination of the role of woman to man. However, this too is not patently obvious from a close reading of Paul. In 1 Corinthians 11:8-10, Paul argues from the creation account that a woman should have a sign of authority on her head. Both sides of the current discussion realize that the head covering was a cultural expression of a principle, a cultural expression that is no longer applicable. However, Paul grounds the use of this covering in the creation order, in a manner similar to 1 Timothy. Let me return to my central point: Utilizing the same hermeneutical principles, we can draw different conclusions. In 1 Corinthians 11:8-10 we commonly read a cultural command, while in 1 Timothy 2:13-14, we read an on-going principle. The hermeneutic is the same, but the conclusion is different.

Paul grounds the use of this covering in the creation order…

Perhaps one more illustration will suffice. It is often said that because only men constituted the OT priesthood, only men should lead churches. However this argument has a faulty premise. The NT does not compare church leadership to the OT priesthood (which has been superseded by Christ’s priesthood) but to the OT system of elders. Still, it could be argued that since only men were part of the elder system, thus only men should have the authoritative position in the church today. This is largely defensible, with one major caveat. In Deuteronomy 1:9-15, Moses recounts the initiating of the elder system in Israel. In verse 16, Moses describes these elders as judges. Thus there is a scriptural connection between the OT elders and the work of the judges. While these were predominately men, that they were not exclusively so is evident from the role of Deborah (Judges 4, 5).

My point in sharing these observations is not to urge a vote one way or another, but rather to emphasize that sincere Bible students using the same hermeneutical principles can come to different conclusions on this matter. Not all issues are spelled out for us. We should be wary of turning black and white into gray, but just as wary of turning gray into black and white. Ironically enough, some of those accusing others of using a wrong hermeneutic are drawing more exaction from the text than good hermeneutics warrant! We need humility. It is imperative that Christian charity and warmth be graciously extended to all participants in the conversation. “Christ-like love places the most favorable construction on the motives and acts of others” (Ellen White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 319). As the church moves forward, let us learn to esteem others better than ourselves, even when we disagree.

Steven Grabiner