Women in Leadership - Part 11: Lucy Peppiatt Rebuttal

Lucy Peppiatt Rebuttal

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In truth I have not had the time to fully read Lucy Peppiatt’s book "Women and Worship at Corinth" and I must admit that from what I have read I have neither the energy nor the intellect to put together a full rebuttal of her arguments on 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and 14:34-35. Although I have tried to explain my own understanding in the sections above. 

However from what I have read I must say that I find a number of elements that trouble me greatly. Please accept that these are merely my personal observations, I have no knowledge of her personally nor do I know anything about her background or theology. These are my opinions. Where practical and appropriate I have commented on her scriptural assertions.

Firstly I find her general tone and language give the overall impression of someone with a deep personal interest in the outcome of the subject. I would go so far as to say that her use of diatribes would lead me to the conclusion that she comes from an extreme feminist position (although I may be mistaken). For example:

...as evidence of Paul’s pragmatism, his muddleheadedness, his latent misogyny, or the gentle patriarchy he is unable to relinquish...

In other words, it is argued that he is both patriarchal and egalitarian, thus apparently letting Paul off the hook when it comes to teaching practices that smack of gross inequality or misogyny.

Ultimately, the traditional approach to the text, so I shall argue, leaves the reader with very few options for rescuing Paul from misogyny, or inconsistency, or bad theology, or all three.

I propose that in a relentlessly patriarchal society, it is more plausible to believe the latter might be the case, that under the men’s influential leadership, certain oppressive practices had been implemented, and other destructive and selfish practices had remained unchallenged.

Another thing that bothers me is that the relentless pursuit of intellectual dissection of the text rather misses the point that these letters were written to ordinary believers in ordinary churches. Are we to understand that unless one has the academic credentials, resources and abilities of someone such as Lucy Peppiatt that we are not able to comprehend what Paul is saying to these believers? Personally I think that this is an elitist view that patronises most believers who have, over the centuries, read and accepted these scriptures as they stand.

I also find her overall attitude towards Paul himself to be somewhat disrespectful. As far as the New Testament goes, The Holy Spirit has chosen this man to expound the teachings of The Lord Jesus to the Church. The sheer volume and depth of his ministry and work speaks to how God views Paul. In Christian tradition Paul is referred to as “the great apostle” but Lucy Peppiatt seems to speak of him with an apparent lack of respect and a flippancy towards the Word of God that I find most troubling. Here are some examples of what I mean.

Yet, despite a plethora of problems with the text, theologians, biblical scholars, and churchmen and women alike continue to hold doggedly to the notion that these verses in their entirety reflect Paul’s views.

Any lay person wishing to understand this passage will find himself or herself completely rudderless in a sea of erudite biblical and historical scholarship, having no real means of adjudicating between the arguments presented, and with an overriding impression that this passage is both obscure and confusing.

I have argued that in our readings of Paul, much depends on who we believe Paul to be. Was Paul a misogynist? Was he just committed to a gentle patriarchy? Was he confused?

All these passages contained within this section are marked by what has been variously identified as tensive thought, contradictions, double-mindedness, inconsistencies, and bewildering references throughout.

They are riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions, and confusing messages and are marked by serious textual and exegetical problems.

Ultimately my real issue lies with her conclusions. She has argued that academics have variously disagreed with Paul and with each other and therefore the real truth of these scriptures is yet to be properly understood. Her apparent conclusion is to come up with a convoluted hermeneutic that somehow allows her to uniquely identify what Paul is actually thinking at the time that he wrote these verses. This time travelling telepathy has given her the insight to conclude that these texts actually mean the complete opposite of what the plain reading says. It is almost too absurd to countenance. 

However, if it is possible from the clues in the text to identify whose voice is whose in the letter, and in Paul’s overall theology, then it can be demonstrated that Paul is indeed arguing against and not for certain practices in these passages. I contend that it is precisely that feature which we find confusing and baffling about the texts—namely, their incoherence—that is the clue to understanding them.

Her argument distills to this - Because she and other academics have found it difficult to accept/understand the plain reading of the scripture, then it must be that these are not actually entirely Paul’s words and the text really means the complete opposite of what it plainly says. 

What she is doing is claiming a subjective understanding of the text that is not possible for us to glean ourselves from reading it but rather we must see it through the prism of her worldview. I would define this as Gnosticism 

However to give her credit she does leave us with a get out clause:

Of course it will be argued that nobody can prove that Paul is arguing against oppressive, bullying, and childish Corinthian practices in 1 Corinthians 11–14. This is true. I have argued that in our readings of Paul, much depends on who we believe Paul to be. Was Paul a misogynist? Was he just committed to a gentle patriarchy? Was he confused? Or was he a radical? Our prior conceptions of him will clearly affect our reading of his letters.

I would like to add that as someone who is clearly not as well educated as Peppiatt, I do not find these verses “confusing”, “baffling” or “incoherent,” quite the opposite. Which leads me to two possible conclusions; either she does not have the illumination of the Holy Spirit, or she cannot make her preconceptions fit within the plain reading of the scripture, obviously causing her confusion. I hope that it is the latter, as the former would be very sad indeed. But in truth, she wouldn’t be the first unsaved Bible scholar if it were so.  

Proof Texts

In her book "Women and Worship at Corinth," Lucy Peppiatt cites various proof texts as examples of women in church leadership. I will look at some of them in turn.

Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis

“Many of Paul’s fellow workers were women: In Romans, Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis (Rom 16:6, 12).”

Undeniably true, many of Paul’s co-workers in Christ were women: Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, Julia & Nereus’ sister,  Considering the place of Mary Magdalene, Joanna and other women involved in Jesus’ ministry it is hardly surprising that this practice continued in the early church, just as it does today. However this in no way lends any credence to the contention that these women held authority roles.

Lydia and Phoebe

“He was happy with women as leaders of house churches (Lydia in Acts 16:14-15 and Phoebe in Rom 16:1).”

There are a number of issues with this statement but before I look at them let's look at what the scripture says.

A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us.

(Acts 16:14-15)

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea;

(Romans 16:1)

Firstly the issue of how Paul “feels” about this is neither explicitly mentioned nor implicitly hinted at. By saying Paul was “happy with women as leaders” is an attempt by the author to impute an emotional opinion to Paul that simply isn’t in the text. It is my view that the use of this sort of language by her is a subtle method to positively reinforce her own narrative.

Secondly and more importantly her assertion that these two women were “leaders” in their respective house churches is, again, not supported by the text. 

In the case of Phoebe it is possible to argue that she was a deaconess, being that the Greek word used (diakonos) makes this clear. What is certainly not stated is that she occupied the role of an elder (presbuteros) of the church at Cenchrea. What is also not clear is what her specific responsibilities were as a deacon at that church.

As for Lydia we are simply told that she invited Paul and his entourage to stay at her house after she and her household were baptised. It does not state that it was the location of a “house church” neither does it say she was a leader. It is “her household” which one takes to mean that there were others living with her, perhaps her husband? Her children? Or maybe even some servants or other relatives? Whatever the case, the only thing we can say for sure is that it was Lidya who asked Paul to stay because that is what the text states. From a cultural point of view this would imply that either she had a husband living with her or she was an older widow because an unmarried woman would not have invited Paul (a single man) to come and stay in her home. Whatever the case actually was, the text does not support the false assumption that she was the/a leader of a house church.

Priscilla and Aquila

Priscilla and Aquila were both leaders and discipled Apollos in the faith (Acts 18:26)

Notice the emphatic assertion here, “were both leaders” stated as an unquestionable fact. Let's look at the text.

and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.

(Acts 18:26)

What can we learn from this piece of text? We can say that Priscilla and Aquila are most likely Jewish, as they hear Apollos speaking in a synagogue. We can say they are perhaps a married couple - both these facts are confirmed by verses earlier in Acts. We can say that they did indeed disciple Apollos. And we can conclude that they are obviously Christians themselves, knowing the “way of God”. But we CANNOT and should not say that they “were both leaders” as this text, nor any other text, supports this assertion. For context and clarity here are the other mentions of this pair of believers. You will notice the complete lack of any mention of what roles they played in the Church.

And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them, and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they were working, for by trade they were tent-makers. And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

(Acts 18:2-4)

Paul, having remained many days longer, took leave of the brethren and put out to sea for Syria, and with him were Priscilla and Aquila. In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow.

(Acts 18:18)

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus,

(Romans 16:3)

Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus.

(2 Timothy 4:19)

The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Prisca greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.

(1 Corinthians 16:19)

This last verse leads us to understand that Christians met together with Priscilla and Aquila in their house, nothing more than that. To claim that this is a proof text for women leaders is to read into the text something that simply isn’t there.


Paul refers to his friend and co-worker Juno as an apostle (Rom 16:7). He is clearly happy with women prophesying and praying in public in Corinth and approves of Philip’s four daughters who were known as prophets (Acts 21:9). “Given the way in which he describes the gift of prophecy as being that which edifies the whole church and given that he elevates the gift of prophecy above the gift of teaching (1 Cor 12:28 is expressed in terms of priority and precedence: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers), it would seem strange for him to implement a contradictory practice that women should stay silent. This poses an immediate problem for the verses on silencing of women. (p12)

This verse (Rom 16:7) is a very problematic and controversial proof text as there is an ongoing debate as to whether or not Juno was actually a woman. The view among most modern New Testament scholars is that this person was a woman named Junia (Ἰουνία), but a common view in the past was that it was a man named Junias (Ἰουνιᾶς or Ἰουνίας, the latter being the Hebrew name Yĕḥunnī).  

The translation of the verse presents two problems: If the name was accented on the last syllable, then it would be a man. Early New Testament manuscripts do not use accent marks. Sources differ on where the accent appears in accented manuscripts, but in the 20th century it was common to put the accent on the last syllable.

Secondly the phrase translated "of note among the apostles" (KJV) can be read two ways, as illustrated by the two readings in the NIV; "outstanding among" (NIV main text) or "esteemed by" (NIV footnote). The latter would provide a very different understanding of the role this person had. Paul may have considered this person an apostle and if so it is more likely that it was a man as in no other passages do we find any other female apostles.

These two questions are still under scholarly debate.

Even if we accept that this individual is indeed a woman and we acknowledge that the translation reads "outstanding among" the apostles, a closer examination of the text shows us that Juno/Junia/Junias was not a lone apostle.

Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.

(Romans 16:7)

One could easily argue that Andronicus was an apostle and Junia was, in fact, his wife. This would then fall under a husband and wife ministry where the husband has headship over the wife. But again, it is not stated explicitly.

Whatever the truth may be, this verse cannot be used as a “safe” proof text to assert the credibility of female leadership, especially as it stands alone in the canon of scripture.

Next - Part 12: Conclusion


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