According to the “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” (CBMW) the English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV) presents an “unapologetically biblical stance on God’s gracious plan regarding the complementary roles of men and women” (http://cbmw.org/uncategorized/literary-esv-is-unapologetically-complementarian/).
In the eyes of this Council, the biblical role of men is to be leaders, whereas the role of women is to submit to this leadership. Female leadership in the church is bluntly described as “unbiblical” (http://cbmw.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/50Q_contents.pdf).
The following passage from the ESV translation seems to support this viewpoint:
“My people—infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, your guides mislead you and they have swallowed up the course of your paths” (Isaiah 3:12).
It appears from this passage that God stands opposed to female leadership. If women usurp male authority, God’s people may be led astray.
What the CBMW does not seem to make clear is that this translation of the Bible is based on the work of Jewish scribes from the 7th-10th centuries A.D. known as Masoretes. One of the jobs of these scribes was to add vowel marks to the Hebrew text, which originally consisted only of consonants (https://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/masoretic-text-vs-original-hebrew/).
Depending upon which vowels were added to Isaiah 3:12, “infants” could be translated “extractors,” and “women” could be translated “extortioners.” Which translation is accurate? This is an important question.
Is God opposed to women ruling in Israel…or extortioners? A much older version of Isaiah, translated from Hebrew, is found in the Greek Septuagint of the 2nd century B.C.. Please note that the writing of this translation predates the oldest available copy of the Mosorete’s text by roughly 1000 years. This version (the Septuagint) was also quoted directly and extensively by the writers of the New Testament (including Matthew, Luke, John and the apostle Paul) (http://www.bible-researcher.com/quote01.html).
How did the Septuagint translate Isaiah 3:12?
“O my people, your extractors πράκτορες strip you, and extortioners ἀπαιτοῦντες rule over you: O my people, they that pronounce you blessed lead you astray, and pervert the path of your feet.”
A much older version of the Bible, frequently quoted by the New Testament authors, says nothing about “women” in leadership.
In fact, in the Old Testament we see that God himself appointed Deborah as a judge, leader and prophet of Israel. She did not lead God’s people astray:
“Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:4-5 NIV).
The CBMW also claims that female leadership is prohibited by the New Testament passage found in 1 Timothy 2:12:
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…” (ESV)
What the CBMW doesn’t seem to clarify is that this translation of the passage is based upon Erasmus’ Greek/Latin version of the Bible from the 16th century A.D.. Specifically the notion that women may not “exercise authority” over a man comes from Erasmus’ Latin “auctoritatum” (Wilshire, 2010, Insight Into Two Biblical Passages). The Greek word he was translating was “authentein.” It is used only once in the New Testament, so it is difficult to grasp its meaning…unless we once again look to the Septuagint for assistance.
In the Septuagint Book entitled “The Wisdom of Solomon” the word “authentas” is used to refer to those who engage in pagan sacrifices to idols (12:6). The “authentas” were parents who sacrificed their children to a false god. What does this word actually have to say about women in leadership?
Absolutely nothing at all.
In fact for hundreds of years leading up to the New Testament era, the word “authentein” nearly always referred to perpetrating or supporting violence, murder or sacrilege (Wilshire, 2010). Not surprisingly, ascetic cults in Ephesus, the destination of Paul’s letter to Timothy, had a long history of performing violent ritual sacrifices involving men. Diodorus Siculus, a historian from 30 BC, explained that one of these cults originally sacrificed male children to their goddess, Cybele. In the New Testament era, male genitalia were offered to the goddess (an idol) during an annual ritual. Men not willing to participate in this ritual were perceived as “unclean” and therefore unfit for spiritual service. Is Paul really writing about “women in authority” here? Not if we look to the Septuagint to help us understand his language, and not if we take the religious history of Ephesus seriously.
So, is the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood correct in saying that the leadership of women in the church is “unbiblical”? No, I don’t believe they are. In fact, older manuscripts of the Bible strongly suggest that scribes and translators later distorted God’s message with their own sexist bias.
“‘How can you say, ‘We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD,’ when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?” (Jeremiah 8:8)