Bob Edwards’ Fascinating Discussion on The Origins of Male Authority in the Church

I wanted to share this discussion on the origins of male authority in the church, made by social worker, psychotherapist, and professor Bob Edwards.  Bob is a frequent contributor to the wonderful Egalitarian website, The Junia Project.  I would encourage you to press “play” and listen.  I am always looking for videos like this to watch while I’m working (I highly recommend subscribing to CBE, Christians for Biblical Equality, on YouTube.  They have lots of great videos on their channel).  I also took notes, below, for easier reference to the material.

Bob discusses how gender socialization impacts our perception/understanding of the bible.

Socialization is a process that occurs throughout our lives.  We are socialized by the cultural norms present in our environment.

People are socialized by three essential processes:
1. cultural norms are modeled for us
2. overt instruction
3. reinforcement – reward/withhold rewards, encourage/discourage behavior

Put these together, and people are socialized
to make the norms of their environment their
own internal norms.

Socialization takes place in regards to gender.  We have role models that show us what it means to be a man/woman in a particular society (leadership may only include men).  Often we are taught overtly (in Christianity, we are taught that men are leaders, protectors, providers, and that women are supposed to be helpers of men.  Men have authority and women do not, and must submit themselves to male authority.)  And there is reinforcement (if you don’t do what is expected of you in this environment, we’ll make that painful for you).

Socialization is sometimes affected by people who act as if certain things are simply true.  People may act as if women are less capable of leadership and decision making.  They act like that simply by not allowing women to make leadership decisions.

The end result of the socialization process is that the norms that exist in the culture around us become the norms that exist in our own minds.  The external norms become internal norms.

Some researchers, particularly in the field of social sciences, cognitive psychology and the psychology of perception, talk about cognitive lenses by which we make sense of the world around us.  If I’ve been socialized to believe  that men lead, women follow/submit, if I’ve been socialized to believe that men are more fit for certain positions in the church and home, then I am going to internalize those norms and I will automatically assign certain meanings to the word “man” and to the word “woman.”  And we do this by association.  I may automatically think “leader” when I hear “man” and “helper” when I hear “woman.”

These associations we make take place in the brain (according to researcher Milo Fridga) in .00007 seconds.  That’s fast.  And so, we don’t always realize that socialization is at work when we’re looking at the world around us.

In fact, socialization affects how we see, how we perceive, and how we make sense of the Bible.

Then Bob discusses the cognitive lenses of the most influential theologians throughout history.

St. Augustine
A Roman Bishop that lived in the 4th century A.D.  The church had just become the official state religion of the Roman Empire – significant because the Roman Empire was dominated by men.  “The Rule of the Fathers” was the cultural norm – the father of the household had absolute rule over his wife, children and slaves.  Slavery was prevalent and normative, to own other human beings who would do all the labor for us.  Also, the dominant philosophy of the day was rooted in the thinking of prominent Greek scholars like Plato and Aristotle, and there were some neo-Platonic philosophers that were popular, like Plotinus.

St. Augustine once said that when he became a Christian and tried to make sense of the Bible, it was very difficult for him.  It came across to him as almost nonsense.  And so, he read from a number of books written by philosophers that followed the train of thought begun by Plato, and went as far as to say that this helped him to make sense of the Bible.  So in other words, the work of Plato and later Plotinus, became the lenses through which Augustine made sense of the Bible.

Plato in The Republic:

“Let me further note that the manifold and complex pleasures and desires and pains are generally found in children and women and servants….  Whereas the simple and moderate desires which follow reason, and are under the guidance of the mind and true opinion, are to be found only in a few, and those the best born and best educated.”

“Very true.  These two, as you may perceive, have a place in our State; and the meaner desires of the [many] are held down by the virtuous desires and wisdom of the few.”

“Seeing then, I said, that there are three distinct classes, any meddling of one with another, or the change of one into another, is the greatest harm to the State, and may be most justly termed evil-doing?  This then is injustice.”

“You are quite right, he replied, in maintaining the general inferiority of the female sex….”

The worldview that is preferred by Plato is that a just state is made up of a hierarchy of classes and that the highest class is made up of the best born and best educated, exclusively made up of men, and that the particular needs and desires of the many (women and servants) need to be held down and kept in check.  Your blood (ethnicity, family line, race), your gender, and your education contribute to this sense of intellectual and moral superiority.  Women were considered inferior and so needed to be ruled over.  Any mixing of these classes was considered by Plato to be an injustice.  So when St. Augustine read the Bible through this lens, this is what he saw.

St. Augustine in Questions on the Heptatuech, Book 1, Section 153:

“It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater…. This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger. This therefore is the evident justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who excel in reason, excel in power.”

So we see the same concept here in the work of St. Augustine, in 4th century A.D. and he is seeing through the lens of a philosopher of ancient Greece, 4th century B.C.  Justice is a class-based society, men are in the superior class and must rule, and women are in the inferior class and must be ruled over and serve.

He says repeatedly in his Confessions, (for example Book 8 Chapter 2) that he was influenced by Plato:

“Simlicianus congratulated me that I had not fallen upon the writings of other philosophers, which were full of fallacies and deceit, “after the beggarly elements of this world” whereas in the Platonists, at every turn, the pathway led to belief in God and his Word.”

John Calvin (16th century A.D.)
A theologian frequently referred to by present-day Complementarian teachers,  pastors, and scholars.  In the seminal Complementarian work, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by Wayne Grudem and John Piper many authors cite John Calvin and his commentary work, particularly on the Epistles.  John Calvin made sense of the relationships between men and women on the basis of his understanding of the Creation account in Genesis.

What’s interesting about John Calvin, he admits to seeing the Bible through the lens of the work of St. Augustine.  So you have this worldview being passed down through literature, teaching, and modeling through culture and context – gender socilization.  In Europe during Calvin’s lifetime men were seen as superior and women as inferior.

“Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings.”

“Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection, and not take it amiss that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex.”

Same language as Augustine and Plato.  Many of the authors of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and many of the members of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood identify themselves as strictly Calvanists in their theology.  John Piper, for example, is incredibly enthusiastic about John Calvin and his work.  On his blog,, he identifies himself as a “7 Point Calvanist,” and there are traditionally only 5 main points to the theological system.

And so we have the case that lenses of the 4th century B.C. are showing up in present-day commentaries of the Bible.

St. Augustine and Calvin attempt to make sense of the problem of evil, both attaching great significance to their view/understanding of Adam and Eve.  There are assumptions made by Augustine that because Adam was made first and Eve second, that Adam was in charge.  It is interesting that the Apostle Paul, when he writes about this in 1 Corinthians, he points out that although Adam was made first, all men are born of women, and both come from God.  And so I’m not sure that the order of Creation as it is referred to is an indication of leadership/authority/male-dominated hierarchy.  It certainly is not explicitly spelled out.

St. Augustine also makes a particularly Platonic assumption about the verse in Genesis in which Adam describes Eve as “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”  In the text, Eve is taken from Adam’s side.  Adam is acknowledging that this person is made of the same “stuff” as himself.  But when St. Augustine saw the word “flesh,” he automatically assumed that meant something lower than intellect, something more vulnerable to temptation.

He explains this in On John, Tractate 2, Section 14:

And how are they born? Because they become sons of God and brethren of Christ, they are certainly born. For if they are not born, how can they be sons? But the sons of men are born of flesh and blood…The apostle puts flesh for woman; because, when she was made of his rib, Adam said, “This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.”   And the apostle saith, “He that loveth his wife loveth himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh.”  Flesh, then, is put for woman, in the same manner that spirit is sometimes put for husband. Wherefore? Because the one rules, the other is ruled; the one ought to command, the other to serve. For where the flesh commands and the spirit serves, the house is turned the wrong way. What can be worse than a house where the woman has the mastery over the man? But that house is rightly ordered where the man commands and the woman obeys. In like manner that man is rightly ordered where the spirit commands and the flesh serves.

So that’s how St. Augustine makes sense of Adam saying “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”  His automatic perception of the woman being referred to as flesh is that she must be ruled and that there is something not quite right with her.  And that the man equals the spirit, and the spirit must rule over the flesh (which isn’t quite right), and so the man must rule over the woman.  What I find interesting is that the man is never compared to the Spirit.  Augustine projects that onto the text, seeing something that is not there – but he is seeing what he already believes.  And he believes this because he agrees with the philosophical writings of Plato from the 4th century B.C. 

It is also the case that St. Augustine had male-leadership modeled for him in the culture of Rome but also in his own home, in which his father dominated his mother, including physical beatings which his mother blamed herself for, and St. Augustine agreed that was right. 

So we have role modeling of male domination reinforced in the home through violence, specific teaching of male-dominance through the philosophical work of Plato, and we evidently have St. Augustine internalizing this gender socialization so that the norms of his society became the norms in his mindset, it became the lenses through which he read the Bible and understood God’s revelation.  But we can see that his reasoning is flawed, because the man is not compared to the Spirit and the woman is not compared to flesh in the sense that she is somehow evil or less-than a man.  That is not, I believe, what Adam had in mind when he referred to Eve as “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”  Adam obviously historically precedes Plato and does not seem to have a Platonic view of his wife.  That’s being projected onto Adam just as it is being projected onto Paul in his Epistles.

These norms have also been internalized by present-day teachers/commentators, and have also been internalized historically by Bible translators.  Here are some discrepancies we can find in our translations of the Bible, in which some are clearly coming from a profoundly Patriarchal lens is beign used to make sense of the text.  One of the most prominent comes from Isaiah 3:12.

As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths. King James Version

Women ruling over Israel is apparently a bad thing.  We see this despite the fact that Deborah was a judge.  People went to Deborah seeking wisdom, and she would render judgment.  She was also prophetic and this was good, this was of God.  She gave instructions to a man who was to lead an army into battle.  She was a leader with God’s blessing to fulfill this function.  So why would it seem to suggest that women ruling over Israel is a bad thing?

In the Greek Septuagint, this same verse gives us a completely different understanding.  Translated into English directly from the Greek, we have:

Oh my people, your extractors strip you and extortioners rule over you.

So we have different translations with additions made by scribes, many generations after the text was originally written.  Depending on these small marks added by scribes, you could read that children and women are being oppressive, or you could read that extractors and extortioners are oppressing Israel.

The King James Version was translated all by men, during a period of history when male-domination was normative in the culture, and the theological work of St. Augustine was prominent, from the 4th century on and particularly through the Middle Ages. 

The work of St. Augustine and the translation work of St. Jerome – this work was incredibly influential when it came to making sense of the Bible in the Middle Ages, and that explains why the KJV would say that women ruling is a bad thing, in contradiction to the Septuagint.

We find other discrepancies between the KJV and the Greek New Testament.  Phoebe was referred to in the Greek as a deacon, diacanos, and in the KJV, as a “servant” rather than “deacon” (where sometimes diacanos is translated “minister”).   Later, Phoebe is referred to with a noun in Greek, prostatis, and a verb form is used repeatedly throughout the New Testament to indicate positions of leadership and ruling, and yet the KJV translates prostatis in Phoebe’s case as “helper.”  There is no suggestion that Phoebe could have been in a position of leadership.

Here is a link to an excellent article that expands on this in great detail by Elizabeth A. McCabe.  She does an excellent job describing how the words used to describe Phoebe are the same words to describe Paul, Timothy, and elders.  Some argue that the difference in translation is due to context, but in Romans 16, Paul is simply introducing Phoebe and commending her for her work.

Another example of problematic translation occurs in Ephesians 5.  We’ve got the oldest known translation for Ephesians talking about “submitting one to another out of reverence for Christ.”  That’s in 5:21.  There is one instance of this verb translated “submit.”  In later manuscripts, we have another instance of this verb added to text by scribes, in 5:22 – a specific command to wives, “Wives, submit to your husbands”, also translated, “Wives, be subject to your husbands” (NASV).

It’s one thing to say “Be subject one to another” and then provide examples of how that might apply to wives and then to husbands, but the additional command, “Husbands, be subject to your wives” is not present.  Husbands are asked to love their wives as Christ loves the church.

What is interesting is that is it not the relationship of Christ as Lord and head of the Church that husbands are commanded to emulate, it is the example of Jesus taking upon himself the form of a servant.  Philippians 2 tells us, “Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but rather took upon himself the role of  a servant and was obedient even to the point of death on the cross.”  And this is the example given to husbands in Ephesians, how husbands are to serve their wives.  “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and became a ransom for all,” and “The greatest among you will become a slave of all.”

This is powerful language.  Jesus is trying to teach his followers  that there is a different way he wants them to relate to others, different from the rest of the world where people are trying to rule over others and be the one in charge.  Jesus was telling them, forget that and focus on serving.  He modelled that when he washed his disciples feet, dressing himself as a slave and performing the function of a slave in washing their feet.  John Piper writes that the disciples still knew who was in charge, but that doesn’t fit their reactions.  Peter’s first reaction was to forbid it, “No Lord!  I won’t permit it!  I won’t accept you functioning as my slave!”  And Jesus replied, “If you want to be clean, if you want to be mine, you have to allow me to do this.”

There is this incredible example being role modeled for his disciples, and he says, “As I have done for you, do for one another.”  And later he says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.”  One translation of Philippians 2 says, “In all your relationships, have the same attitude as Christ Jesus, who didn’t see God’s authority as something to be grasped and used to his own advantage, but rather he took upon himself the form of a servant and served with love.”

And so looking at Ephesians 5, and when we don’t add in the additional command to wives to be subject to your husband, we get a picture of Christians submitting to one another, serving one another in love.  It’s a beautiful picture.

Another Bible verse that is problematic in terms of its translation is 1 Timothy 2:12-15, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” and then Paul makes reference to the Creation account with Eve being deceived and Adam not being deceived, and also to being saved in child-bearing, which has puzzled the church for centuries.

One of the main verbs used in this particular portion of the Bible, is authentein, an infinitive Greek verb, used one time in the New Testament.  Most of the other times “authority” occurs in the NT, it is translated from excousia, which has a clear indication of authority.  Authentein, however, can’t be found elsewhere in the Bible unless we look at the Wisdom literature in the Septuagint, specifically the Wisdom of Solomon, in which there is a noun form almost identical to authentein, authentas, and it referes to people who commit murder in the ritual sacrifice to a false god or idol.  There is no sense of positive authority with authentas in the wisdom of Solomon in the Septuagint.

So why do we have ritual murder for authentas on the one hand, and exercise authority on the other hand in Paul’s epistle.  The word authentein became associated with “authority” through the work of the early Church Fathers, Greek and Roman, who began to use it in this sense almost exclusively.  There are a few references to some form of the word authentein that does seem to equate to “exercise authority,” so I’m not saying its an impossible use of the word.  But it is certainly not the most common use.

A book was published in 2010 that does an extensive study of all the variations of the word, authentein from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., with the Biblical era as the intentional center of this range.  William Willshire made use of an online database of every instance occurring in writing from that range, with the following definitions:

– “doer of a massacre”
– “author of crimes”
– “perpetrators of sacrilege”
– “supporter of violent actions”
– “murderer of oneself”
– “sole power”
– “perpetrator of slaughter”
– “murderer”
– “slayer”
– “slayer of oneself”
– “authority”
– “perpetrator of evil”
– “one who murders by his own hand”

(Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Philo, psuedo-Clement, Appian of Alexander, Irenaeus, Harpocration, Phrynicus, as cited in Wilshire, Leeland, “Insight Into Two Biblical Passages: Anatomy of a Prohibition”, University Press, 2010).

If we’re trying to decide which meaning is the best, we need to look at the context of the letter and the context of the intended audience of the letter.  Paul was writing to Timothy who was pastoring in Ephesus and Paul was incredibly concerned about false teaching.  He was concerned about people who were forbidding marriage and sexual activity, and were commanding people to abstain from eating certain foods.  They thought their lifestyle of self-denial gave them special knowledge about/revelation from God which made them teachers of the Law.  Paul says to Timothy, “Guard against these teachers of the Law.”

We talked about some of the uses of authentein being from historians like Diodorus Siculus, and others, and these historians not only make use of the word authentein repeatedly, they also describe the culture of Ephesus.  They describe it in these terms (Diodorus Siculus):

“Beside the river of Thermadon, therefore, a nation ruled by females held sway, in which women pursued the arts of war just like men…. To the men she relegated the spinning of wool and other household tasks of women. She promulgated laws whereby she led forth the women to martial strife, while on the men she fastened humiliation and servitude. She would maim the arms and legs of male children, making them useless for service in war.” (as cited in Murphy, 1989, p. 58).

Another historian from the 1st century B.C., Pompeius Trogus, supplies us with additional information about this “nation ruled by females”:

“They also dismissed all thought of intermarriage with their neighbours, calling it slavery rather than marriage. They embarked instead upon an enterprise unparalleled in the whole of history, that of building up a state without men and then actually defending it themselves, out of contempt for the male sex…. Then, with peace assured by their military success, they entered into sexual relationships with surrounding peoples so that their line would not die out. Males born of such unions they put to death, but girls they brought up in a way that adapted them to their own way of life….

After conquering most of Europe, they also seized a number of city-states in Asia. Here they founded Ephesus.” (as cited in Yardley, 1994, p. 29).

More recent historians have also studied this culture where women were dominant and men were maimed as children.  Historians Neal and Ferguson describe the spiritual teaching of this culture in Ephesus.  Women were seen as good and the source of life, and men were seen as evil.  In Ephesus, the deity that was worshipped was known as Cybele, and when Greeks immigrated they called her Artemis, and the Temple of Artemis became world-renowned.  If you wanted to become a priest in the service of Cybele, you had to be castrated.  Men castrated themselves so that they would be acceptable to the goddess, because male sexuality was seen as a source of evil.  These women wanted to bear children, so they would mate with surrounding people, so they would at times get pregnant and give birth, and women frequently died in child-birth, and they would call on Cybele to save them in child-bearing.

Paul wrote abut salvation in child-birth because of this culture, and he writes to Timothy about Adam also being a source of life, because of their views on women as the source of life and men as the source of evil.  It is also important to look at authentein in light of this culture.  Is it referring to simply exercising authority or some sort of violent domination?  If Paul is writing to a context where the Goddess Cybele is being worshipped, that sees women as dominant, male sexuality as unacceptable, that encourages men to be holy through doing violence to themselves through ritual emasculation…Is it really likely that Paul is saying that all women should not have authority over men in the church, or is he saying that women should not teach and practice ritual violence against men?  Frankly, the repeated use of the word authentein to describe ritual violence and because of the spiritual cultish practices occurring in Ephesis, it makes more sense to translate authentein to describe violence or abusive domination.

Why have Bible translators seemed to overlook these prevalent understandings of authentein and the Ephesian context of female-domination?

Leeland Whilshire looks at St. Jerome’s 4th century translation of authentein in terms of leadership rather than violence.  He says that authentein can be translated to the Latin dominari, referring to domination over men.  This is one of the first instances of translation from Greek into another language, and the notion of violence is lost in the translation.  Later translations also lose sense of the sense of domination.  In the Reformation, Bibles translated into German and later English, simply talked of authentein in term s of exercising authority.

All this to say that the mindset of the translator plays a pivotal role in this process.  If someone doesn’t believe that women can have authority over men – if they’ve already internalized that cultural norm, if its become their cognitive lens through which they make sense of the world and the Bible, and you see this word in the Bible, how are you going to translate it?  They make these decisions in translation on the basis of their own socialization.  There is mounting evidence that our gender socialization does impact the cognitive lenses through which we make sense  of the world around us, and that includes how we make sense of the Bible.  We may see what appears to be a male-dominated gender hierarchy in the Bible, but we may be seeing what we’ve already internalized to be normal, but that might not be an accurate reflection of the original language or the original message of the Bible as it was intended by the author in his original context. 

For reflection/prayer:

What are my cultural lenses?

What has my role modeling been?

What has my teaching been?

What has my reinforcement been?

Have I been raised in a patriarchal family structure?

Have I been raised in a patriarchal social culture?

Have I been raised in a patriarchal church?

Am I reading translations of the Bible in English that add verses/headings that do not occur in the original Greek that encourage female submission?

What is my gender socialization and how is that impacting how I read the Bible and what God is saying about the role of women in the church and home?

Once again, here is the link to the video on Youtube, and Bob Edwards’ blog.

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8 responses to “Bob Edwards’ Fascinating Discussion on The Origins of Male Authority in the Church

  1. Having suffered the loss of both testicles (castrated) I have found myself less inclined to be dominant. Is is easier for me now to have a female boss? I think so. Am I less likely to be forceful with my opinions, especially with women? I’d say so. So, from Cybelle’s point of view her eunuchs were pliable and less likely to be distracted and distracting, By that token, perhaps I am my boss’ eunuch – even though she is not aware of my missing balls.


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