Christianity,  Culture,  Theology/Bible

The Hermeneutics of Gender

There was a lot of discussion last week of the Presbyterian Church’s (USA) decision to allow for the ordination of homosexual clergy. Christopher Cocca has an article at The Huffington Post, however, that pulls a thread that many have not picked up on.

Cocca’s article is essentially about hermeneutics and the way that the Bible should inform our moral evaluation of homosexuality. But he comes at the issue from a different angle and argues that there is a connection between the ordination of homosexuals and the ordination of women. Cocca maintains that the hermeneutic that excludes the former also excludes the latter. He is no doubt right about this, and that is why all the mainline denominations that are now accepting gay marriage/ordination have long ago accepted the ordination of women into the pastoral office. Cocca sees this connection, and he is right.

But the question that I want press is this. Is the hermeneutic itself a sound one? Is Cocca giving us a valid way to approach our reading of the scripture? I think the answer to that question has to be no.

Cocca contends that, “the refusal to ordain women or to treat homosexuals with fairness, dignity and grace, stem from a certain kind of biblical hermeneutic that deals with Scripture in very limiting ways.” After caricaturing his opponents as believing in a “transcription” mode of divine inspiration, he argues that Bible nevertheless has contradictions within it when it talks about gender issues. His case in point is the way that the apostle Paul speaks about women in 1 Corinthians and Romans. On the one hand, Cocca says this about 1 Corinthians:

“In Corinth, women were to have precious little to do with church leadership: even as the freedom they found in Christ to speak in a room of men was real, Paul thought its practice would scandalize the accepted gender roles of Corinthian culture at the expense of the Gospel. (This is one of those times where I think Paul erred on the side of caution with devastating results).”

On the other hand,

“In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he acknowledges and praises the leadership role of the woman Junia, even calling her an apostle.”

Cocca says that these statements represent two contradictory perspectives on gender that cannot be reconciled. He writes,

“If you believe the letters to Corinth were from God, you probably believe the same about the note to Rome. But if believing such also means you believe that these letters are also meant for all Christian communities for all times, you have something of a problem. Which model is right? Should the Roman apostle Junia really consider herself a complementary (subservient, rather than co-equal) child of God next to her husband simply because Paul told the church in Corinth (and Ephesus) to follow the societal and familial norms of their native cultures? I don’t think so. I don’t think you can hold this view even if you say you think the Bible is the literal word of God.”

In short, Cocca thinks that Romans presents an egalitarian vision of gender roles while 1 Corinthians presents a patriarchal one. Paul was mistaken in 1 Corinthians, but right on the money in Romans. Thus, Christians should not take Paul’s instruction to one particular church (Corinth) and make it the ethical norm for all churches at all times in every place.

There are numerous problems with Cocca’s argument, and we would do well to note at least three of them:

(1) Cocca misreads 1 Corinthians. Cocca’s reading of 1 Corinthians is staggeringly superficial. He claims that Paul did not mean “these letters” to be “for all Christian communities for all times.” This is an astonishing statement when we take a closer look at what Paul actually says in the gender texts of 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 14:33-34, Paul exhorts the women to be silent during the judgment of prophesies and to be in submission, and they are to do so as it is done “in all the churches of the saints.” Paul explicitly cites this norm as a norm for all the churches, not just Corinth. Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul affirms male headship (v. 3) in the worship practices of the church and concludes by saying, “we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16). One can disagree with Paul, but one cannot say that he was unclear. Paul means the gender texts of 1 Corinthians to be normative for all churches, not just Corinth. This is a glaring omission on Cocca’s part.

(2) Cocca misreads Romans. Cocca tries to make hay out of the fact that Junia is apparently named as an apostle in Romans 16:7. What he fails to mention is that the translation of this verse is highly disputed. In fact, some translations don’t even recognize Junia as a feminine name but as a masculine one, “Junias” (NASB, NIV [1984], RSV, NJB). Other translations that do regard it as feminine regard Junia not as an apostle but as one who is well-known to the apostles (ESV, NET). Other commentators, understand Junia to be an “apostle” but not in the same way that Peter and Paul are apostles. Tom Schreiner, for example, sees the underlying Greek term to mean that she was an itinerant evangelist or missionary, not that she was an apostle in the strict sense (Romans, pp. 796-97). The case for Junia as an apostle is no slam dunk, but you wouldn’t know that from reading Cocca’s article.

(3) Cocca undermines biblical authority. This is the most serious shortcoming of Cocca’s article. Cocca argues that there is a contradiction between Romans and 1 Corinthians. Logically, that means that the two letters may both be wrong, but they can’t both be right. And so Cocca takes the next logical step. He concludes that Paul has “erred” in 1 Corinthians “with devastating results.” If Cocca is right about this and the Bible contradicts itself, then we are left with no basis to appeal to the Bible as an authoritative guide for life and godliness.

But Cocca’s opinion on this point is at odds with the way that the Bible speaks about its own inspiration: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Because scripture is “breathed out by God,” it cannot have errors and contradictions in it lest we conclude that there are errors and contradictions in God Himself. This implication of Cocca’s view of inspiration doesn’t seem to trouble him, but it ought to.

Both Cocca and the PCUSA adopt a hermeneutic that undermines the Bible’s teaching about gender and sexuality. And that is the real issue for both of them. Cocca and the PCUSA have asked the ancient question, “Hath God really said,” and they have concluded that He has not.


  • donsands

    Good job refuting. It’s crystal clear in the truth that homosexuals are in need of repentance, and have no place in the pulpit.
    Woman as deacons/elders is less clear to me. Yet as shepherds, I think it’s clear that our Lord gives His beloved ‘men’ only to shepherd His sheep.

  • Ted

    Sadly many egalitarians who comment on this blog and swim in the evangelical scholar world have embraced books like Dr. Webb’s “Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals” and his redemptive hermeneutic model. Books like this I think only follow down the logic trail of where this Huff Po writer is talking about.

    So while, I am sure many egalitarians will continue to say that there is no correlation between an egalitarian view and a slide toward embracing homosexual behavior, church history of the last 100 years appears to be saying otherwise. Along with many writers and authors as well.

  • Chris Donato

    Ironically, sectarians and liberals use the same hermeneutic on this score. Thanks, Denny, for pointing out the flaw.

    IOW, the biblical case for women in ministry is strong-ish, whereas the case for treating non-celibate homosexuality as an acceptable practice among Christians, as not “missing the mark,” is clearly indefensible.

    With this flawed hermeneutic, Cocca had better be prepared to defend every “marginalized” group—pedophiles included.

  • Traci

    As I was reading this, I realized that this is the same problem that keeps blowing people around theologically. The arguments for sin and error seem so well-reasoned and strong, but they’re actually bitter distortions. It takes a lot of effort to reveal the problems (or even recognize them sometimes), so thanks for the reminder to stay diligent for the sake of truth.

  • Louis Tullo

    I commend your defense of proper Hermeneutics on this issue, especially after having seen Romans 16:7 consistently misread by liberal theologians. It seems incredibly lackadaisical to rely on a single sentence that doesn’t even negate the gender of Junia, when throughout Scripture a complementarian view of gender roles in the church is clearly spelled out numerous times. Great article!

  • henrybish

    Excellent analysis Denny,

    I would add 2 things though, first, on Junia you did not mention Albert Wolters other option: that Junia represents a Hebrew (rather than Latin) male name:

    I noticed this approach even seemed to take a bit of the wind out of the sails of a certain woman who sometimes comments here in opposition.

    Second, as a friendly challenge, I think you claim to much when you say:

    In 1 Corinthians 14:33-34, Paul exhorts the women to be silent during the judgment of prophesies

    This approach has been convincingly challenged, for example in JETS 2008 James Greenbury directly interacts with the ‘judging prophecy’ approach:

    Michael Marlowe of also has a very good article that overviews the historic interpretation of the verse with 1Cor11:5, ‘judging prophecy’ is a very historically novel interpretation indeed, none of our forefathers in the faith went that way:

    Even Carl Laney from CBMW is unsatisfied with the Grudem/Carson approach:

    Also, Ligon Duncan does not take that approach, see some of his articles on the CBMW website.

    So I think you should at least give it some more careful consideration, and a response is certainly due for the Greenbury and Marlowe challenges mentioned.

    Another reason to be more open on this verse is that you alienate many from the complementarian fold who go with the historic interpretation, denominations such as:

    – Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland
    – Free Church Continuing (also Scotland)
    – A huge number of Plymouth Brethren assemblies across the world.
    – Many (most?) in the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) (your country) (
    – Many in the Vision Forum/homeschool circles
    – A previous executive director of CBMW too, I believe!

    I’m sure there are many more traditions/groups that are excluded, those are just a few I happen to know of.

    But please understand that as a friendly challenge, I appreciate your work!

  • Donald Johnson

    Well, as an egal I find I at least partially agree with Denny in that claiming there is a contradiction between 1 Cor and Romans on gender verses belongs on Fail blog.

    But when does a post on socially liberal HuffPo supposed to have any credibility in this area of Bible interpretation?

    And why bring up the bogeyman of homosexual ordination by liberals? It is simply not relevant to evangelicals, except as yet another example of liberals being liberal, but there are plenty of those kinds of examples out there.

  • Ted

    It is relevant Donald because of the trajectory. Please don’t try and bring fear or hyperbole into the discussion by terms like “bogeyman.”

    I am not trying to frighten anyone, but just mentioning the routine trajectory of many who have embraced egalitarian views.

    If you think this has no correlation to evangelicals that is fine. But if you look at how rock solid Princeton Seminary, which the PCUSA is affliated with, was a 120 years ago, and where it is now than it appears you are wrong.

    If you want to see even a more evangelical example of this slide just look at evangelical pastor/leaders like Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, and Brian McLaren. And this is giving Rob Bell the benefit of the doubt on thinking he has not moved on the LGBT issue.

    All of these men first moved on the women’s issue and then the LGBT issue.

    At this point trying to brush all of this aside and say it is not relevant at all is just an embarrassing claim to make.

  • Donald Johnson

    The PCUSA does not claim to be evangelical/conservative and it was liberal/mainline when I attended a church in it as a child; I cannot recall ever hearing the gospel, altho I heard lots of Bible stories and got to read “God is dead” books in their library. What they decide to do is simply not relevant.

    I claim bringing up what liberals do is a bogeyman, as it is an attempt to scare people rather than discuss the interpretation issues.

    On Junia, comps oppose the plain reading in the Greek and oppose the early church fathers who taught on this verse, in other words, they engage in special pleading. They approach the verse thinking it cannot mean what it seems to say and what the ECF said it meant and look for an escape valve.

  • RD

    And every woman who prays or prophecies with her head uncovered dishonors her head – it is just as though her head were shaved.” 1 Corinthians 11:5

  • Ryan K

    Donald your dodging what Ted is getting at.

    I doubt you are a 120 years old, but the PCUSA has its roots in robust, Reformed theology of Princeton Theological Seminary from a hundred years past.

    Now like it or not, something changed in the PCUSA and a course was set upon that has led it to where it is now on the LGBT issue. That course first included moving away from a complementarian framework.

    Also, as Ted mentioned we have seen hyper-speed examples of this same path in the last 10 years from guys like Tony Jones and Brian Mclaren.

  • RD

    Should it be surprising to us that Paul would reflect the cultural norm of his time when he expresses views concerning women? Are we really to take the cultural views of first century AD Palestine and make them normative for 21st century American citizens?

    Remember, this was a culture that by and large saw no moral problem with the buying and selling of human beings, thought that women should not enter worship with their heads uncovered (or wearing any kind of jewelry), believed it a direct violation of the law of Moses to have a tattoo or any kind of skin piercing, believed that a woman on her period should be avoided by society at large.

    When we read 1 Timothy 3:16 are we to apply it equally to Matthew 22:36-38 and Leviticus 25:44 & Leviticus 25:46? When do we decide – and how do we decide – which God-breathed scripture we are going to adhere to literally?

  • Nathan

    People are sinners and they want their sins to be accepted. I get that. Another piece of the puzzle regarding some of “those people” giving up on conservative churches is that these churches in general don’t preach and practice a proper gender ethic. I am 100% positive that God has created people that are outside the bounds of conservative Christians’ definitions of maleness and femaleness, but He still expects “those people” to be a part of the church and not be cast into some role He never intended them to play.

    So yeah, there may be a link between women pastors and accepting homosexuality on churches. You can point to the mistakes “those people” have made in their theology, but keep in mind that their decisions aren’t made In a vacuum.

  • Adam Omelianchuk

    Ted said:

    “Sadly many egalitarians who comment on this blog and swim in the evangelical scholar world have embraced books like Dr. Webb’s “Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals” and his redemptive hermeneutic model. Books like this I think only follow down the logic trail of where this Huff Po writer is talking about.”

    Um no. Have you read Webb’s book? His hermeneutic argues precisely the opposite: there is movement towards God’s ideal of gender equality; no movement towards affirming same-sex relationships.

  • Ted

    @ Adam

    Should have been more specific in my point with Webb’s book. While Webb may have argued in his book that there is no movement in the way of homosexuality, many who support his redemptive method and learned it from his writing disagree.

  • Sue

    Mike Heiser, Al Wolters and I have discussed Junia at length in emails, and there is no question that the evidence for a masculine Junia is non-existant. Wolters was arguing that a masculine Junia was theoretically possible, and could be a first declension male name. However, he admits that there is no evidence that anyone ever considered Junia to be masculine. None at all.

    And since Wallace and Burer have miscited Pss of Solomon 2:6 there is no support at all for the notion that episemos plus the dative could mean “well-known to.”

    I would encourage anyone interested in these issues to email Wolters or Wallace and ask them the current status of their hypotheses.

  • Dillion

    ” When do we decide – and how do we decide – which God-breathed scripture we are going to adhere to literally? ”

    Sorry RD I puckered up a bit when I read that. Isn’t that largely the problem in the liberal church?

  • RD

    As evangelicals I think we have to be careful about how we approach issues like this. When it involves a fact that we aren’t comfortable with – Junia being a female apostle, for example – we are quick to deconstruct the scriptures and to emphasize diverse opinions and theological alternatives, i.e. even if she was a she, Junia wasn’t really an apostle in the same way that the others were….she was more of an itinerant minister, but not a preacher, per se….etc etc. How can evangelicals criticize others for doing the same thing we so often do ourselves when we’re faced with texts that don’t fit so easily into our systematic theology?

  • Chris

    Nathan you wrote “I am 100% positive that God has created people that are outside the bounds of conservative Christians’ definitions of maleness and femaleness, but He still expects “those people” to be a part of the church and not be cast into some role He never intended them to play.”

    Can you elaborate what you mean?

  • Tyler

    @Ted: I don’t know of anyone who could read Webb’s work and then be further convinced that their ‘redemptive movement’ includes homosexual practice. Webb makes no room for that position in his book.

    I am still confused on the argument you are trying to make and where Webb’s work fits in.

  • Sue

    Most evangelicals do not believe that Homosexuality is in the same category as female functional equality. Functional equality is usually related to the humanness of the person, that is a slave is fully human in executive function, that is the frontal lobe decision-making brain activity, and so is a woman.

    The full use of executive function is developed by being able to exercise this brain activity in making decisions, and experiencing consequences, either good or bad. All humans are equally bounded by the need to live in community, but all have equal need for decision-making in order to earn the necessary financial base to support our dependents, whether they be parents, children, siblings or our neighbours. This is the essence of being human. Women between ages 50 – 70 are just as likely as men to be supporting young adult children in college, aging parents, spouses and those around them in need.

    Egalitarians view Phoebe, Junia, Lydia, Chloe, and other women as examples of women who filled the same mentoring and providing function as any man might. Women need to prepare themselves for filling these functions in their later years, as these responsibilities come to us all.

  • Luis Gutierrez

    A human being is a human being is a human being. If women can be baptized, then they can be ordained; and if a homosexual’s baptism is not rescinded after the person becomes conscious about being homosexual, then homosexuals can be ordained. Else, the entire theology of ordination is nothing but a bunch of rules made by human hands

    I remain deeply troubled by the way the misuse of ecclesiastical authority in some quarters, especially with regard to the ordination of women. Specifically, the Vatican has started steering the church back toward a “siege mentality” and away from listening to the sensus fidelium and discerning the “signs of the times.” Lamentably, this trend is now being reinforced by the phenomenon of “creeping infallibility.” After much prayer, my discernment is that the Vatican is playing at being God and imposing by force a discipline of doctrinal rigidity on matters that have nothing whatsoever to do with the deposit of faith.

    Regarding the ordination of women, I can understand that the Vatican is reluctant to acknowledge that the church succumbed to sexism like everyone else, including most world religions. But the power of the keys were given to the church not to protect herself but to open the doors of the kingdom – as in Acts 15. Indeed, the power of the keys was given to Peter; but to Peter in union with the church, not to Peter in isolation from the church (Matthew 16:9, 18:18).

    Faith transcends reason, but faith cannot be irrational. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is a literalist (as opposed to literal), fundamentalist, and therefore irrational exercise in a futile attempt to elevate Canon 1024 from discipline to doctrine. Even more irrational is the current policy of forbidding discussion of the issue (again, Cf. Acts 15). To finish unloading all my concerns, may I say that – in my not so humble opinion – priority should be given to the ordination of celibate women rather than abolishing priestly celibacy.

    Jesus was celibate. He is the norm for both men and women. He was the norm for his mother. He remains the one and only norm for being human in the divine image. To say that women cannot be priests because Mary was not a priest is a fallacy. Mary is our blessed mother, assumed body and soul to heaven, because she was the most perfect icon of her Son.

    The church must do what is right, not what is safe. Indeed, the words of Jesus are right on target: “Be not afraid.”

    “Regina apostolorum, ora pro nobis.”

    In Christ our Lord,

    Luis T. Gutiérrez, PhD, PE
    The Pelican Web of Solidarity and Sustainability
    Mother Pelican: A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

  • Nathan


    I only have time to give a very brief overview of problems I’ve come across regarding so-called biblical manhood. Found on blogs by Denny Burk, Challies, CBMW, Owen Strachan, Doug Wilson, Boundless Line, etc…

    Single men get a bad rap. If you are a single man that is not intentional about getting married, then you are immature and missing God’s call for you to be a leader.

    Check out Owen Strachan’s post of Bruce Ware’s talk on godly manhood. Godly manhood seems to be defined by being a husband and father.

    If a man’s demeanor and likes/dislikes aren’t standard issue, then he might as well fuhgeddaboudit. If he isn’t the alpha male that is idolized in churches, he is going to have a difficult time fitting in and being a productive part of the team.

    There is no way that he is going to make it in the churches led by the hoora grunts in this video. (disclaimer: I agree with standing firm on biblical truths. I don’t agree with the outright mocking seen in the video)

  • donsands

    “Mary is our blessed mother, assumed body and soul to heaven, because she was the most perfect icon of her Son.” -Luis

    Where is that in the Holy Bible, by the way?

  • Chris

    Thanks Nathan! As a single pastor I have experienced the bias despite the fact that both Jesus and Paul say that unmarried people are able to serve God better and singleness is preferred.

  • RD

    Cocca undermines biblical authority. This is the most serious shortcoming of Cocca’s article….If Cocca is right about this and the Bible contradicts itself, then we are left with no basis to appeal to the Bible as an authoritative guide for life and godliness.

    It all goes back to this: our view of the Bible. I truly believe that all of the commentors here are serious about their Christian walk. I really don’t think there is anyone who visits this blog and reads the posts that Denny shares who isn’t serious about their Christianity. In spite of this, there are many different understandings expressed on this site about the role of women in ministry, the role of homosexuals in ministry, rights of the unborn, etc. Why are there SO many different views? Because there are so many different views about what the Bible is. If the interpretation of the Bible is really so clear, why are there over 20,000 distinct denominations in the world, each with their own understandings of Biblical Christianity. Who has the absolute infallible interpretation?

    I don’t know a single Christian who believes that the Bible should be taken absolutely literally that actually does so. Many many Christians believe that committed homosexual unions are an abomination and they point to specific verses as proof. Some of these verses declare the punishment for homosexual acts to be death. I don’t know a single Christian who thinks society should enforce this specific portion of the scriptural mandate. Why not?

    So, I sincerely ask, where is the line of obedience to be drawn in a literalist view of the Bible?

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