Thus far in my series on the role of women, I have discussed these two major areas:
- The creation – I specifically looked at Genesis 1:26-28; Genesis 2:18-22 (part 1 & part 2); and Genesis 3:16.
- The new creation – I specifically looked at 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 and Galatians 3:27-29.
In all, I believe that the dividing barriers across every area of the body of Christ have been broken down with the reality of the new creation that has already come in Christ. It does not mean that there are not distinguishing characteristics between men and women, but the gospel (good news) declares that our giftings, callings and roles in God are not based upon gender (or any other worldly measure sure as ethnicity, social status, etc), but they are centred in Christ and the new creation that His body even now enjoys.
But it is time to move on to the third part of this series: the church. And with such, there are two main passages I want to consider – 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:33-35.
Perhaps the most debated (and that’s an understatement) of all passages on the topic of the role of women is the ever-famous 1 Timothy 2:8-15. I’ll post the passage here:
8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
Let me start off by saying that I don’t have all the answers with regards to some passages. There are plenty of different understandings that surround this passage, plenty of them. So my hopes is to try and consider some things I have learned in my study, some things I have read from others, and even share where I am not positive. But, in all, I have come to the conclusion that there are two very important things that I keep in mind when considering this passage: 1) reading it through the reality of the new creation and 2) considering it in its historical-cultural context. Those two things are of foremost importance not only with this passage, but with all of Scripture.
So, I move on now to share some thoughts.
First, as I have hinted at already, we must remember that, with any Scriptural text, it is good to keep in mind the historical situation, cultural background, setting, etc, of a particular passage. Unfortunately, we cannot always say, ‘What does black ink on white paper say?’ Our lives in the twenty-first century are quite different from the biblical times of two and three thousand years ago. This 1 Timothy 2 passage is a great example of needing to understand such background information.
1. Background Situation
Paul is writing to Timothy with instruction on how to lead and instruct the church in the city of Ephesus. If you notice in Paul’s ‘pastoral’ letters (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), the word doctrine, or teaching, comes up quite a few times. As in many early church situations, and unfortunately the need is the same today, Paul is trying to help Timothy combat specific problems and even heretical teaching. There is a need for good, solid doctrinal teaching for God’s people.
Before we jump into the specifics of the passage, there is one major thing we should keep in mind about the city of Ephesus. It was a city with many devoted followers to the pagan goddess Artemis, also known as Diana (see Acts 19:21-41). Even more, there was an amazing temple built to this goddess (see Acts 19:27) and it was known as one of the ‘seven wonders of the ancient world’. This pagan religion had a major impact on the life of the Ephesian people.
With so many people following the pagan goddess (a woman-god), there probably would have been false teaching regularly available within the city of Ephesus. It is highly probable that many of these former Artemis worshipers were coming to Christ, but, unfortunately, some of their former teaching could have been brought in and mingled within the Christian community. Thus, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 serves to particularly address some wrong teaching, and, what’s more, wrong teaching that has come through specific women.
2. Respectable Apparel
Though some might highly disagree, we have to recognise that some of Scripture addresses cultural situations in which the writer (as Paul in 1 Timothy) is not looking to lay down a specific ‘command for all time’. One such example of Paul addressing a cultural circumstance of a particular place and time is the issue of slavery. In such passages, Paul was not addressing the matter of slavery as if he wanted it to last until Christ returned (a command for all time), especially in the context of his new creation theology. But he does address a situation knowing the society of his time held slavery as an acceptable practice (for a slavery passage, see Ephesians 6:5-9).
Though we cannot quite fathom how slavery could be seen as an acceptable practise, and I am not saying that Paul believed it was healthy, we must understand that Paul was working with people in a culture where slavery was a tolerable custom. Thus, he gave masters and slaves instruction on how to be godly masters and slaves. Paul was addressing God’s people as faithfully as he could knowing the cultural bounds and societal ways of life in his day.
I labour such a point as to lay a foundation while considering 1 Timothy 2:9-10.
9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.
Of course, for women to ‘adorn themselves in respectable apparel with modesty and self-control’ is great counsel for all time. But the specific refusal of braided hair, gold, pearls and costly attire cannot be a ‘command of God for all time,’ can it?
We must bear in mind that the main purpose of the passage is that women wear ‘respectable apparel’ and ‘what is proper for women who profess godliness, with good works’. But Paul cannot be saying that women can never have braided hair or wear gold, pearls and other costly attire. If so, most women today are in direct disobedience to God and we must make an effort to correct them.
But as we have noted, the heart of the passage, again, is that Paul desires that women dress respectably and wear what is proper for godly women. In those days, it seems that this did not include braided-hair, gold, pearls and other such costly items.
But, even more, there is something else to consider within that specific situation. What was possibly taking place in the Ephesian church was that, as I noted, many women were coming out from the pagan worship of Artemis and coming to Christ. But, unfortunately, many of them might have been dressing in apparel that was not respectable in the midst of public Christian gatherings, possibly even showing allegiance to this Artemis. Thus, Paul is asking the women to make a break from the ‘old’ and dress respectably.
Today, it is quite okay for a woman to braid her hair or wear pearls. But in all things, from clothes, to our words, to our actions, we must be willing to ask ourselves – I know this is permissible in my freedom in Christ, but is it beneficial (see 1 Corinthians 10:23)? That is Paul’s greater desire.
3. The Command to Silence and Not Teach
11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (1 Timothy 2:11-12)
The above two verses bring the greatest contention. Just reading it once over, most would conclude that Paul is commanding for all time that women be silent, learn submissively and not teach or exercise authority over men. And, when also considering these two verses with vs13-14, this is where complementarians look to ‘ground their theology in the creation order’. This is what people like Wayne Grudem look to do in his Systematic Theology (p937-939) as well as Alexander Strauch in his Biblical Eldership (p59-61).
But, I have already argued in my articles on Genesis 1 and 2 that the creation order teaches mutuality and equality between both genders. So, perhaps, vs13-14 are not actually grounding the subordination of women to men, with regards to leadership, in the creation order.
Now, remember. Due to the influence of the Artemis cult, there would have most likely been some troublesome teaching, and problematic women, in Ephesus. Paul would later on say this about these women:
13 Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. 14 So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. 15 For some have already strayed after Satan. (1 Timothy 5:13-15)
Some women had already begun to stray after Satan. This was a serious situation which Paul was addressing. There were obviously some women who were stirring up the church at Ephesus, even with certain false teachings. This is important to keep in mind as we come back to the passage in question.
In their book, Why Not Women?, Cunningham and Hamilton point out the unique structure of vs9-15 in the Greek, specifically in regards to the contrasting use of the words women (plural) and woman (singular):
- Vs9-10 speaks of women (plural)
- Vs11-15a speaks of a woman (singular)
- Vs15b speaks of women (plural)
The specific structure of this passage is highlighted when we consider the singular use of woman in vs11-15a. We already noted that Paul is dealing with multiple women who have been problematic within the Ephesian church (again see other places such as 1 Timothy 5:13-15). But, here, it seems that Paul is now switching to address one particular woman who has been deceived with heresy, hence the use of the singular word woman.
Though Paul does not mention a specific name in addressing the woman (singular), this is not completely out of the question when considering Paul’s letters to other churches and how he handled specific people.
- In 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, Paul is dealing with a particular man who has been sexually immoral and taken his father’s wife. In vs1, he says, ‘a man has his father’s wife.’ He, then, goes on to say in vs5, ‘you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.’ It seems Paul has a specific person in mind, but decides to not mention their name.
- It is also suggested that Paul does something very similar in Titus’ situation in Crete. His words, found in Titus 3:10-11, point to a specifically divisive person in the church: 10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
Many might challenge such an interpretation of these two situations saying that Paul was making general statements about any man who has his father’s wife or any person who stirs up division. Also, some will point out that Paul does mention specific people’s names in his letters and how they had abandoned him (see 2 Timothy 1:15).
But, in regards to 1 Timothy 2:11-15a, and the other two passages mentioned above, it is probable that Paul has made a wise and pastoral decision not to mention this specific woman’s name. Not only that, but while he uses pastoral wisdom in not mentioning this specific woman in Ephesus, he might have mentioned those who had abandoned him (i.e. 2 Timothy 1:15) because he had completely given up on these deserters of the faith.
Thus, noting the change from the plural, women (vs9-10), to the singular, woman (vs11-15a), as well as considering Paul’s willingness in his other letters to challenge particular people without naming them, it is most probable that Paul has one specific woman in mind with regards to 1 Timothy 2:11-12.
Even more, such is most likely the case when we consider the words of vs13-14. Take note of how Paul goes from noting one specifically deceived woman in Ephesus to noting another specifically deceived woman, mainly Eve.
‘One of the major themes of this entire passage was stopping the deception in the Ephesian church. Eve was deceived, and so was this woman who was to be silenced. Both were acting on false beliefs.
What these two women had in common was that they both had believed a lie. As a result, they both had sinned. The sin of both had affected the lives of a large number of people in a very negative way.’ (Why Not Women?, p 216)
God had created man and told him not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17). Only later did God create woman. Accordingly, she relied on her information second hand from Adam concerning the tree from which they should not eat. Thus, Eve was deceived by the serpent when the serpent asked, ‘Did God actually say…’ (Genesis 3:1). If anything, in this ‘pre-Fall’ episode, it was Adam who failed to inform Eve and ground her in the truth so that she might be prepared in case a time of testing were to come. And, even more, Adam should have stood up to such assault on his wife since he was ‘with her’ (Genesis 3:6).
Therefore, from 1 Timothy 2:11-12, I would argue that Paul was not silencing all women for all time. Instead, he was silencing one particular woman who had been deceived. For why else would Paul switch from the plural to the singular? And Timothy would have known exactly whom Paul was talking about. But since the letter would have probably been read publicly, Paul refrained from mentioning her name, helping to pave a way for repentance and restoration for this woman.
Thus, this verse does not teach us, as some suggest, that women are more susceptible to false teaching and, therefore, should not be able to teach. Nor is it a command for all time that women are to be subordinate to men with regards to leadership, never teaching or exercising authority. Paul is likely addressing a particular woman who had been deceived just as the first woman had been deceived. And he is asking for discipline to be applied to her life.
Interestingly enough, I bring up two more related points:
1) Priscilla (also called Prisca), as in Priscilla and Aquila, had a very significant teaching role, especially in the Ephesian church. We see Paul’s greeting to the couple in 2 Timothy 4:19, showing their role in the church in Ephesus. We also read in 1 Corinthians 16:19 that the church met in their home, which most likely meant that they were the leaders of that church. Finally, we see how they both took aside Apollos and explained to him the things of God more accurately (Acts 18:24-28). Thus, they would have both been teaching and instructing Apollos, who himself became a great leader in the early church. And it is interesting to note that, in the six times the couple are mentioned together, four of the times mention Priscilla first. This probably points to her stronger measure of gifting, maybe even referring to her strong teaching role.
2) Paul encourages Timothy with these words in 2 Timothy 2:2: ‘and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful [persons] who will be able to teach others also.’ Most translations use the word men. But the Greek actually uses the general word for humanity (anthropos) instead of the male-specific word (aner). Thus, Paul expected Timothy, and us, to teach faithful men and women so that they can also teach others. Such teaching for women is not only relegated to instructing children or other women, though those are noble ministries. But such instruction was to be provided for both men and women so that both could have the possibility of instructing all genders and ages, even in our main Sunday gatherings with men present.
In the end, even if one does not accept that Paul is addressing one particular women in vs11-15a, one must at least recognise that Paul was addressing a particular situation in the Ephesian church where a particular heresy (or heresies) were being espoused, possibly from current Artemis worshipers or those who were newly converted Christians but had not yet come under solid teaching. And, thus, it is very obvious that Paul’s words are confronting these particular women and this specific situation in Ephesus.
Thus, I am still very convinced Paul is not laying down a command for all time that women should remain silent and never exercise authority over men. And, by no means is this founded in the creation account. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul is addressing part of the wrong teaching that was coming forth in Ephesus, reminding them in vs13-14 of what really took place: 1) who was created first and 2) who was actually deceived. But none of this should be seen as a foundation to the gospel for all time that women must remain silent and not exercise authority over men. The new creation has come!
4. Saved Through Child Bearing
I’ll finish out by finally looking at vs15, which also proves to be a difficult verse to understand. For starters, our verse divisions do not always help. As I mentioned above, vs15a still uses woman (singular). But mid-way through the verse, Paul switches back to women (plural).
Now, it is quite easy to recognise that this verse must not mean what it seems to plainly state, mainly that women would actually be saved through the natural act of birthing a child. Our salvation is centred in Christ alone, not on any merit of our own works, and especially not on bearing children.
Cunningham and Hamilton point out that the Greek for childbearing (teknogonias) is a noun with the definite article ‘the’ preceding it. So, they suggest it should literally be translated as ‘the childbearing’.
The two authors, then, go on to note the greater purpose and context of 1 Timothy 2 to help us understand the first half of vs15, which is still in the singular:
3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:3-6)
The greater context of 1 Timothy 2 is that of salvation! Knowing this, Cunningham and Hamilton conclude that this specific childbearing (literally ‘the childbearing’) that Paul refers to is that of the promised seed of Eve, the Child born of a woman, Jesus Christ. And this case is strengthened even more when considering how Paul addresses the person of Eve in vs13-14. Thus, it was Eve who was promised that a specific seed would come forth from her to crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Many theologians refer to this verse as the protevangelium, meaning ‘first gospel’.
Therefore, knowing that Paul had already been talking about the greater purposes of salvation (vs3-6), then moving on to compare this one particularly deceived Ephesian woman (singular) to Eve, he now says that the deceived Ephesian woman can still be saved, this coming through the great childbearing act which brought the Saviour into our world.
‘“The childbearing” refers to the one mediator between God and persons, the person Christ Jesus, the promised seed of Eve, the Child born of a woman. The issue at stake here was salvation, not motherhood. Women aren’t saved by getting pregnant and having babies. They’re saved by the child who was born – Jesus!’ (Why Not Women?, p224)
Paul ends out this section with a few words to all women (plural): ‘if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.’ This was similar to his earlier words in 1 Timothy 1:5. This is something he expects for all women.
Again, even if one rejects the idea of a singular woman being addressed by Paul in vs11-15a, the whole of vs15 has no bearing on the great role of women. Well, lest we travel down the older traditional-patriarchal view that women are mainly called to be homemakers and care for the children. But I suppose we have moved on from there.
No doubt this set of verses in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is not easily understood. Again, I don’t have all the answers, and the plethora of theologians and scholars out there cannot come to any agreement on the text.
But, considering the passages from the early chapters of Genesis, and noting Paul’s greater new creation theology centred in Christ, it is quite doubtful that this specific passage is teaching that women must be silent and never exercise authority over men for all time. Matter of fact, I suppose that, if the Timothy text is teaching such, then Paul is probably contradicting what he has spoken elsewhere.
Thus, what is most probable is that Paul is dealing with a specific problem in the church at Ephesus, and even likely confronting a specific woman who had been deceived and was deceiving others. This deception would have come from the influence of the Artemis cult.
And, so, I am convinced the usual complementarian readings of this Timothy passage do not do justice to the actual text nor to the greater teaching of the Scripture.