Request an Exam Copy

Paul the Misogynist, Contextualist, Culturalist? Kathy Keller Says Not So Fast!

Categories New Testament Book Excerpts

Kathy Keller, co-founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, believes God gave us a good gift when He created complementary gender roles for men and women.

She also encourages women to teach and lead, as she does herself.

It's interesting that she’s been called a “raving feminist” in some circles and “self-hating” in others. (7)

In Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles, Keller embraces the tension of gender roles in ministry as both a woman empowered by the Holy Spirit to minister and a Christian called by God to abstain from authoritative teaching roles.

Yet other women have struggled with this tension. In response to 1 Cor. 14:33b-38 and 1 Tim. 2:11-12, these women wonder:

Why do we have to obey, or even care about, something said so long ago [about women in ministry] in a culture so unlike the one in which we live today?

Keller suggests, “the answers have changed by the decade as to why we do not have to care, much less obey, these two texts...“ (22) Those who are wary of the passages in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 typically explain them by characterizing Paul as a misogynist, contextualist, and/or culturalist.

Keller says not so fast!

Paul the Misogynist

While one of the more popular answers, Keller says “The charge of misogyny against Paul is unsupported by even a casual reading of the New Testament.” (23)

Keller outlines several areas in which Paul welcomed women in certain ministry contexts:

  • Paul referred to women like Priscilla as a synergos (“fellow co-worker”) in the same way he referred to men;
  • he “deputized them to carry his letters,” like he did Phoebe with Romans;
  • 1 Cor. 11:5 suggests he permitted women to speak and pray publicly in gatherings;
  • and Paul expected women “to be full participants in the body of Christ with the gifts of the Spirit.” (23)

“Clearly, women are not prohibited in Scripture from most kinds of public speaking,” Keller insists. She goes on to argue “Only one, the teaching mentioned in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, is off-limits to women.” (15)

Paul the Contextualist

Yet even then Keller notes another notorious defense against Paul’s injunction, the contextualist defense:

More tenacious has been the explanation that 1 Timothy was written solely to the church in Ephesus, where a thriving cult of Diana had long existed. Women accustomed to goddesses and priestesses came into the church with an inflated view of their status; as a result, they caused problems among the congregation. (24)

Keller argues the notion 1 Timothy was written only for that particular situation has two “insurmountable difficulties”:

  1. Everything Paul (and others) wrote was contextual. “Nothing in Scripture is addressed to ‘the church throughout the centuries, in whatever time, place, or cultural situation you find yourself.’” (24) Yet Scripture is considered authoritative for our time because God is authoritative for all time.
  2. 1 Timothy is a Church Planting Manual. 1 Timothy 3:14-15 says “this letter ought to be regarded as a template for all churches at all times in all places.” (25) Thus Paul’s instructions for women isn’t merely contextual, but applicable for every church.

Paul the Culturalist

“The most recent attempt to circumvent these texts is to argue that the cultural changes during the last two thousand years make it impossible for us to do things the way they were once done.” (26)

According to this response, Paul wrote for a specific culture and time back then, but now we have become more enlightened:

[W]e used to think that the Bible supported a patriarchal, sexist view of men and women and their roles…in fact, it did teach that. But God has given us more light…so we can discard those commandments that might be culturally inappropriate or offensive in order to obey more fundamental commands that are buried within and seeded throughout the text. (26-27)

Keller insists such a view makes two basic hermeneutical mistakes:

  1. Proponents misread Old Testament texts as didactic when they are descriptive. “Sexist and oppressive behavior of both men and the culture as a whole are described in the Old Testament, but they are not enjoined.” (27)
  2. Proponents demand God's Word be measured by our cultural yardstick. And yet “whose cultural moment are we talking about? Christians in non-Western parts of the world find no difficulty with these so-called ‘texts of terror.’” (28)


While Keller sees Scripture encouraging women to teach, exhort, encourage, and minister in many ways, she believes God’s Word prohibits women from being authoritative teachers (i.e. elders).

“So there is something that is being commanded to the church that we must find a way to obey. Dismissing, ignoring, or throwing one’s hands up in despair of finding clarity are not options.” (30)

Keller offers a personal and challenging perspective on biblical gender roles and the complementarian view. By contrast, read about Michael Bird’s view in my last column. Next week we will look at a new biblical argument for allowing women to preach freely in churches, presented by John Dickson.


Jb_headshotJeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and makes the vintage faith relevant at

When Words Mean What They Don’t Mean — Mondays with Mounce 232
When Words Mean What They Don’t Mean — Mondays with Mounce 232 Every once in a while I come across a verse that is simply impossible to translate. No matter what you do, you over- or...
Your form could not be submitted. Please check errors and resubmit.

Thank you!
Sign up complete.

Subscribe to the Blog Get expert commentary on biblical languages, fresh explorations in theology, hand-picked book excerpts, author videos, and info on limited-time sales.
By submitting your email address, you understand that you will receive email communications from HarperCollins Christian Publishing (501 Nelson Place, Nashville, TN 37214 USA) providing information about products and services of HCCP and its affiliates. You may unsubscribe from these email communications at any time. If you have any questions, please review our Privacy Policy or email us at This form is protected by reCAPTCHA.