1 Timothy 2:12 has become the most debated verse in intra-evangelical debates about women in ministry. For this reason, it was no small matter when the translators decided to revise the rendering of this text in the 2011 edition of the NIV. Paul appears to be prohibiting two activities—teaching and exercising authority—but the new NIV alters that reading.
NIV 1984 “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.”
NIV 2011 “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.”
For whatever reason, the translators decided to change the interpretation. The difference is subtle but very important to the discussion of women in ministry. On the one hand, the 1984 interpretation prohibits women from exercising authority or serving as pastor/elder. On the other hand, the 2011 interpretation does not. The 2011 edition prohibits narrowly taking up authority to oneself. The former prohibition is generic, and the latter specific. Thus the 2011 translation can be interpreted merely as a limitation on women taking up undelegated authority to themselves. They can “have authority” over men and be pastors so long as that authority is properly delegated to them. It is no surprise, then, that Egalitarians such as Philip Payne favor the translation “assume authority.”
The issue comes down to the proper interpretation of a single Greek word—authentein. Does it mean “have authority” or “assume authority”? I have argued elsewhere that the distinction is significant and that this particular translation represents an egalitarian drift in the text of the NIV.
Commentators have difficulty deciding the question in part because the word is so rare. It only appears one time in all of biblical Greek, and only a handful of times outside biblical Greek before the end of the first century. Which brings me to the point of this post.
Al Wolters has a very important article in the most recent issue of The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. In this article, he highlights a long-overlooked instance of authentein in extra-biblical Greek. He shows that authentein is neither pejorative nor ingressive. In other words, extra-biblical sources confirm that authentein does not mean “assume authority” but “have authority.” For those of you who have been following the discussion about the meaning of authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12, you’ll want to make a note of this article.
Al Wolters, “An Early Parallel of authentein in 1 Tim 2:12″ JETS 54.4 (2011): 673-684.
This is the single most important verse in the discussion among evangelicals about gender roles and ministry, and the NIV reflects the wrong interpretation. This article from Wolters is another reason that the translators ought to consider changing it.