Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul

Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul
Peter Naylor Peter Naylor (1937-2007) obtained his M.Th at the University of London, and then studied Semitics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was also awarded a Ph.D. from Potchefstroom University, So
01 August, 2019 6 min read

Andrew Perriman’s book seeks to provide biblical justification for the ordination of women as ministers of the gospel. On the rear cover Dr R. T. France, formerly principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, claims that the volume ‘offers the best hope I have seen for a fresh start to what is in danger of becoming a dialogue of the deaf’. Perhaps!

In more detail, the book, which is not an easy read, is in the main a scholarly examination and application of an alleged metaphorical meaning of the word ‘head’ (Greek, kephalê) in Paul’s letters. This is the hinge on which all turns.

The author’s position

The author may be an evangelical, since he implies that he is committed ‘to the verbal inspiration of Scripture’ (p.221). But from time to time he expresses views that would not be acceptable to others who side with him on this point. For example, there is ‘an ordained priesthood’ in today’s churches (p.10), while contemporary prophecy ‘provides access to areas of knowledge and understanding that are beyond the competence and authority of the Bible teacher’ (p.80). At their baptism believers ‘put on Christ, becoming “sons” like him, and receive the Holy Spirit’ (p.186). Eldership in the New Testament was a pragmatic concession to the prevailing culture of the time, the churches having developed from a synagogue format. And the fall of Adam is almost always presented as part of the creation ‘story’. Why?

Who is in charge?

Perriman interprets the metaphorical use of ‘head’ in ancient literature, principally the Greek Old Testament, as having meant neither ‘source’ nor ‘authority’ but ‘prominence’ or ‘pre-eminence’. This appears to be a new view, opposing Wayne Grudem, among others, who has defended the ‘authority’ approach, and a certain evangelical feminists who uphold the ‘source’ interpretation.

We need to cite Perriman: ‘In other words, the metaphorical use of kephalê [again, ‘head’] does not of itself introduce ideas of authority or sovereignty into the text’ (p.31). This means that Adam was more prominent than Eve but not that he was given any authority over her. From Eve’s point of view, to be Adam’s helper did not mean that she was subordinate to him. Although Genesis relates that Adam was given the pre-eminence of priority, he was not ipso facto the one in charge.

What happened according to Perriman was that, male dominance came to the fore with the passage of time, even though it was never part of God’s original plan. This is how Paul sees ‘patriarchy’, accepting it but not endorsing it: women should fit in with the prevailing male-dominant society. To compound the matter, any attempt to assemble what the apostle has to say on the subject of the status of women in the churches is rather like putting together the surviving pieces of a prehistoric skull (p.186). There is little coherence.


Perriman implies heavily that because God spoke to Adam directly, and because Adam relayed the amplified message to his wife, Eve was disadvantaged. It was partly because she had never heard the voice of God directly that the serpent targeted her. Also, because the arrival of Eve heralded the introduction of sexuality into the created order, the serpent’s temptation somehow foreshadowed a seduction process. In brief, Paul takes the temptation-scene as a typological pattern for the situation in which women within the first-century churches find themselves. To quote:

‘Paul makes use of the motif of Eve’s deception in two places. In 1 Timothy 2:14 it is used in support of the instruction that women should learn submissively and not engage in public speaking. On the one hand, the woman generally speaking was disadvantaged educationally and socially and therefore more likely to become a conduit for false teaching. On the other, the woman was regarded as susceptible to the improper enticements of the false teachers. The second passage [2 Corinthians 11:2-3], however, makes it clear that Paul did not regard women alone as capable of being deceived’ (p.184).

Although Paul was no chauvinist, says the author, womanly vulnerability means that the ladies should keep their station. But were he living in a non-patriarchal environment, perhaps our emancipated West, Paul would have given other counsel. This implies that because we are moving out of the male-dominated culture, which has prevailed for so long, we are under no scriptural necessity to stay within the apostolic tramlines. It should even be possible to redefine marriage as a relationship in which the husband is no longer the sole authority-figure. And there could be no objection to introducing women to the ministry, the message being more important than the gender of the messenger.

Women in the ministry

Concerning Ephesians 5:21-24, where the husband is said to be the head of his wife and Christ the head of the church, Perriman writes that Paul ‘has closed the door [upon freeing the wife from subordination], but he appears not to have locked it’ (p.57). Because the apostle believed that Christ would return in the imminent future he did not attempt to disturb social conventions, requiring Christians to accept the dominance of men as inevitable within their communities. In this way they would shield their novel faith from ridicule and worse. From this it follows that far from being unbiblical, the notion that in our post-patriarchal Western society women should be appointed as ministers of the gospel is a proper application of Paul’s flexibility. To maintain the norms which have prevailed for nearly two millennia would be a mistake. The church has not been wholly wrong, of course, in subordinating women because the climate of the first century has persisted. But now things are changing and we ought to adapt.

The headship of Christ

I would make two comments.

1. Perriman’s thesis turns on his interpretation of the metaphorical use of ‘head’ by the apostle Paul. If he can be disproved here he must capitulate and the ladies must be barred from the pulpit. To be fair to this careful author, one ought to subject his numerous proof-references from Greek literature to detailed examination, and this is a task for a specialist.

2. Perriman links the headship of Christ with that of the husband over his wife. This is where we really are in deep water. If, for the sake of the argument, we accept that headship means pre-eminence and prominence but never authority, in what respect is Christ ‘head’, as he is said to be in Colossians 1:18 and Ephesians 1:20-23? It emerges that what Paul means is that Christ is above all other powers but does not exercise authority over them! He is no more than foremost or pre-eminent (p.43).

With regard to those texts which present Christ as seated at the right hand of God, Perriman comes out with the statement that ‘in none of these passages is there any explicit indication that the phrase denotes Christ’s authority or rule over other powers’ (pp.43-44). He further informs us that ‘where Christ’s resurrection and exaltation are described in terms of sitting at God’s right hand, the New Testament apparently prefers to avoid the connection … with the theme of subjugation and rule’ (p.44).

Is this so? Is it not rather the case that ‘pre-eminence’ is a meaningless expression if it lacks a reference point? Does not the New Testament insist that Christ is pre-eminent and head precisely because he is the King of kings and Lord of lords? And to say that ‘the subjugation of Christ’s enemies was felt [by Paul] to belong not to the present but to the future (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:24-28)’ is surely inaccurate. Because Jesus reigns between the first and the second advents, there is a progressive collapse of all his enemies, death being the last to succumb.

Christ is in control

The problem for Perriman’s presentation is that if Jesus is the Head of all things yet not the Lord of lords, who is? Who is in charge? Who governs the world in the interests of the body of Christ? Who controls the church? As I see it, the problems set us by this book stretch far beyond the issue of the rôle of women in the church. If I understand Mr Perriman correctly, he presents us with the spectre of a power-vacuum of frightening proportions. How can there be ‘another king’ apart from ‘Jesus’ (Acts 17:7)?

I would like to see a review of this book by an evangelical Anglican in order to see what he makes of it. My own opinion is apparent.

Peter Naylor (1937-2007) obtained his M.Th at the University of London, and then studied Semitics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was also awarded a Ph.D. from Potchefstroom University, So
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