I recently had a conversation with an egalitarian that I thought would serve for a good jumping off point for a quick post about hermeneutics and exegesis.
Over the course of the conversation, the standard proof texts for and against complementarianism were tossed out. As it usually does, we ended up butting heads over the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (ESV)
Now, while we can and should build our case across the whole of Scripture, rather than resting it on a single verse… even if this verse were the only one to speak to the issue the complementarian case is still stronger than the egalitarian case.
They recognize this, so they have to come up with some way to interpret this that does not involve what it clearly means.
To do this, they narrow in on the word which gets translated here as “exercise authority.” (αὐθεντέω authentéō)
This word is used only once in the Scripture, but outside of the Scripture, it is used to describe a type of ultimate authority. It is the kind of authority that a military leader exercises over his subordinates. In the modern idiom, we might call it “executive authority.” In the context, combined with the concept of teaching, it is a clear reference to the office of Elder/Bishop/Pastor which has the dual function of ruling and teaching. Since this is one of the main themes of Paul’s instruction to Timothy, this point is incontrovertible and uncontested.
However, as I said, because this is such a clear statement against the concept of female eldership in the Church, the egalitarians have to find an escape hatch.
That is where the Usurp Authority argument comes in.
It is often argued that this word carries the meaning of “to usurp authority” or to “exercise illegitimate authority.” While this may —although I’ve never seen a reliable lexical source include this in the definition… or a reliable commentary that wasn’t trying to disprove the prima facie reading argue this way— be true in some contexts… the question has to be asked: is this the meaning in this context? That is the work of exegesis and hermeneutics. We have to look at the context in which the word is being used to understand how it is being used.
So is it the way it is being used here?
An easy way to find this out is simply to use the word in the sense that you are proposing, and then explore the implications.
“I do not allow a woman to teach or usurp authority over a man.” or “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise illegitimate authority over a man.”
Well, what are the implications of that?
In this passage, Paul is contrasting men and women and giving instruction regarding their conduct. While we could debate about the implications, Paul instructs men to behave one way (pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling, 1 Tim 2:8 ESV), and instructs women to behave in a corresponding but the different way (learn quietly with all submissiveness, 1 Tim 1:11 ESV). It is in the context of this contrast that Paul says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.”
So if the exercise of authority over a man in question here is only a usurpation of authority or an illegitimate exercise of authority… what is the implication?
Well, on the Egalitarian view of this passage, it is that women cannot usurp authority over a man, in contrast to men… who apparently can usurp authority over other men. Women cannot exercise illegitimate authority over a man… who apparently can exercise illegitimate authority over other men. The whole point of the passage is lost when taken to its logical conclusion on this view, rendering a nonsensical view where illicit usurpation of authority by men is acceptable, and it is only women who are not permitted to do this. In fact, the idea of permitting the illicit exercise of that authority is itself incoherent… if the exercise of authority is permitted by lawful authority (the Apostle Paul), then it is by definition not illicit. If the authority exercised is rightly vested by a legitimate authority (the evangelist Timothy, who appoints elders to teach and rule under the auspices of the Apostle Paul), then it is by definition not a usurped authority.
A simple reading of the verse in its immediate context and a bit of elementary logical thinking defeats this argument.
If however, we reverse the exercise and read use of authority in conjunction with teaching as a reference to the pastoral office… what we get is Paul comparing and contrasting the appropriate roles and conduct of women, and instructing Timothy in light of these differences, that women ought not to teach or exercise authority?
Why is that? The answer is literally found in the immediately preceding verse…
Women are to learn with all submissiveness in the Church, not teach with authority over the Church.