This is another ‘bloggified’ version of a paper I wrote in Bible school, which might read a little drier than most of my posts on my blog. I post it for putting some of my thoughts out there and tackling one of the well-known clobber passages used to against egalitarianism in ministry. I realize the topic of women in ministry is touchy for some, and breaking down the text and doing a thorough exegesis (fancy word for interpretation) of the text might not be everybody’s cup of tea. But I fear the reason doctrines and sacred cows like this exist in the first place is because many people don’t interpret Bible texts correctly.
So, let’s have at it.
Note: The only changes I’ve made to this paper are that I’ve added some more modern commentary and personal experiences to it (since I originally had written this nearly 10 years ago at the time of this posting) and I’ve re-written some sentences to keep this flowing rather smoothly. Otherwise, the following is rather close to something I wrote in a little more academic way than most of my blog posts are written. None of the sections that the reader may find superfluous have been deleted, so as to leave it closer to the condition the paper was when I submitted it since, after all, this is not just a blog post about women in ministry, but an exegesis of a selection of Scripture, therefore attention is given to other thoughts that come up in the passage as well. Feel free to leave your comments below, and who knows, we may start a great conversation or follow this up in another post as well. However, I make no promise to answer challenges to debate with people who make clear they don’t want to be convinced or entertain the mere possibility of changing their mind.
But for now, I hope you’ve got a cup of coffee ready!
I grew up in a denominational setting in which a large portion of women in the church were housewives and they thought the Bible teaches that’s what Christian women are called to be. My mom was recently recounting to me how some had approached her about how her kids (me, and my brother) would “suffer” in our upbringing because she didn’t raise us as a stay-at-home mother. In such an atmosphere, women serving in ministry was discouraged, as well.
The foundation for that belief is based on a misunderstanding of a select few Scripture verses in the New Testament.
A proper understanding of what Paul actually says in one of these controversial passages, 1 Timothy 2:8-15 will demonstrate just what Paul actually thought of women in the ministry, and that they aren’t “only good for bearing children and being a wife to men of God” (yes I HAVE actually been told that before by a woman who sincerely believed it — that’s the only reason I cite it with quotations here).The purpose of this study is to demonstrate that this strongly-held sacred cow, based on the false notion the Bible itself rates women as second-class citizens with no place in ministry is based on preference and opinion and not on any Scriptural basis. An examination of the historical and literary contexts of this passage, as well as an analysis of the text will provide insight as to what Paul actually felt and why in this particular passage his instructions for the church are different than they may appear at first glance.
The epistles of both 1 and 2 Timothy are understood to have been written by the apostle Paul to Timothy, and both letters are organized in the NT in the “pastoral epistles” along with the letter to his other associate, Titus. This letter reads as a personal pastoral letter given to provide written instructions about methods of procedure for Timothy’s ministry in his respective church for which he was temporarily responsible. ((TheologyWebsite.com http://www.theologywebsite.com/nt/pastorals.shtml This site is created and maintained by Scott David Foutz and InetDeveloper.com Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, ad infinitum, Scott David Foutz.))
Although written to Timothy, Paul’s spiritual son in the Lord, as instruction on the organization of early church life, it is safe to assume that this letter was also intended to be read to or read by the Church universal, since it deals with how Paul felt the early church meetings should be organized. False teachers were threatening the stability and integrity of the Christian community (1:3-7) and this letter was to encourage Timothy under such circumstances. ((Elwell, Walter A. & Yarbrough Robert W., Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey, Grand Rapids: Barker Books, 1998, p.336)) The guidelines Paul establishes here are an outline of his personal practice, and it’s safe to say that he taught the same things to all of his churches in ancient Rome.
The second letter to Timothy is widely believed to be the last letter Paul wrote, sometime while he was imprisoned in Rome, therefore pushing the date of this previous letter to Timothy probably no earlier than 63 AD. Specific dating varies from the belief that Paul wrote this letter during his first imprisonment in Rome, or that it was written during his second imprisonment mentioned at the end of Acts. It’s likely that it was his first imprisonment, since in chapter 3:14 he speaks of his intentions to visit Timothy. The most commonly held view is that Paul did in fact write this letter while in prison, sometime between 64-67 AD.
The Church in Ephesus consisted of both Jewish and Greek converts to Christianity. In traditional Judaism women were viewed as primarily a piece of property. In Greek society, women were similarly confined to the house, and did not appear in public alone. The message of the Gospel brought newfound freedom to women of both cultures, and in this new exhilarating lifestyle, it’s not unsafe to assume that the freedom in dress may have gotten out of hand enough that Paul had to address to Timothy how to handle it. In that culture, they may have been resembling prostitutes by their dress, rather than newly-converted believers in Christ. ((DeMarest, Gary W., Mastering The New Testament: 1&2 Thessalonians, 1&2 Timothy & Titus, The Communicator’s Commentary Series, vol. 9, , p. 178))
The same problem most likely was coming up with regard to positions of leadership. Since women (as well as men, obviously) had just come out of a long-held traditional Jewish and Greek culture, they had a lot to catch up on. Paul felt it inappropriate for women to be allowed to have leadership positions in the local church context because of such lack of familiarity with the organization of the meetings.
First Timothy is the first of two letters that Paul wrote to Timothy and is categorized as one of the “pastoral epistles”. The term, coined in the 18th century, is fitting for the reasons that both letters to Timothy and the one to Titus show pastoral concern for their recipients. Also, all three of these letters deal with pastoral matters involving the care of souls and the orderly conduct of God’s people in the church, as well as in the world. ((Elwell & Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament, p. 336))
The text is essentially a personal letter from a father or mentor figure to his protégé and includes instruction primarily on smooth functioning of the church. The pastoral letters were written for specific individuals over specific churches in the early days of Christianity, but out of these writings the Church Universal can obtain instruction as well.
The letter begins with a salutation, and quickly gets into a warning against false teachers in chapter 1:3-7 and the proper use of the law in verses 8-11. Paul proceeds to describe the grace that God has had on him personally, and on that note encourages Timothy to “fight the good fight” (v. 18-20). 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is found early in Paul’s letter, and these instructions to women in the church follow his instructions to the men on prayer in chapter 2:1-8. Immediately afterwards, the qualifications of overseers are outlined in chapter 3:1-7, and deacons in chapter 3:8-13. Paul mentions the false teachers who will arise in the latter days in chapter 4:1-5, and instructs Timothy on teaching the brethren about these things in verses 6-16 along with other ministerial advice as well. Chapter 5 outlines duties for honoring widows (verses 3-16), instructions for elders (17-25), and in chapter 6:1-2 instructions are given for slaves towards their masters.
Paul ends this letter with a final indictment of false teachers in verses 3-5, and the love of money (v. 6-10), a final exhortation (v.11-16), instructions to the rich (v. 17-19) and a final personal admonition to Timothy.
Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:8-15
Observation #1: There’s a subtle comparison between the men praying everywhere lifting up holy hands and the way in which women are to adorn themselves in verses 8-9. This is obvious by how Paul says “in like manner also” when moving from the men’s behavior in public gatherings to the conditions for how women should be dressed at these meetings.
Question: Why would Paul compare women’s external appearance with the men’s behavior in public meetings?
Answer: The manner in which Paul is talking here is in regard to men’s behavior in public meetings and not so much the emphasis on what position their hands are in physically when they pray. Paul says he desires that “men pray everywhere lifting holy hands without wrath and doubting”. The holy hands here symbolizes the quality of their lifestyle (Psalm 24:3-5). ((DeMarest, Gary W., Mastering The New Testament p. 176)) The word “wrath” in Greek is “orge” and has to do with violent passion, anger, and indignation and vengeance. ((Strong, James Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville,Royal Publishers, Inc.) 3709)) Each of those qualities are unbecoming of a believer. The word the New International Version uses instead of doubting is ‘disputing’, or dialegomai in Greek, meaning argument or exhortation. ((Ibid., 1256)) The New American Standard Bible uses dissension, or stasis, indicating insurrection, controversy and uprising. ((Ibid., 4714)) Paul was emphasizing what their attitude should resemble and not their external mannerisms. Clearly the word ‘everywhere’ indicates this is as important in private prayer as it is in public prayer.
Women, on the other hand were expected to reflect the virtuous woman mentioned in Proverbs 31:10-31, and it’s likely that women in the church at Ephesus were misusing their new-found freedom in Christ and that this was the specific problem Paul was addressing when he mentions this here. The Christians in Ephesus were both Greek and Jewish. In Jewish culture, women were commonly treated as a piece of property by their husbands. The Greek women were similarly confined to their homes and did not appear in public alone. When these women got saved and became Christians, they now were fully human beings. ((DeMarest, Mastering the New Testament, p.177)) In all likelihood, the believing women in Ephesus were taking their new freedom too far. It’s therefore feasible to assume that these believers were probably looking like the prostitutes in that culture, whom at worst were adorned with gold pearls, and therefore this was a problem Paul needed to address. ((Ibid., p. 178))
Observation #2: Paul doesn’t say that it’s the Lord that forbids women to have authority over a man, but the pronoun used in verses 8 and 12 is “I”.
Question: Does this mean that we are to continue to obey Paul’s personal practices in the Church today, or was this instruction only for the church at Ephesus?
Answer: Paul is addressing specific people in specific churches. It’s been proposed that some newly saved women could have become overly aggressive in the meetings, when previously they weren’t even allowed to read or interpret the Word publicly. Quite possibly, women got carried away in this new and exhilarating congregation. ((Ibid., p. 179)) Paul states to the church in Corinth that the women were to remain quiet in their meetings and ask their husbands questions at home (1 Cor. 14:34). The Greek word for women used here in both of these passages is “gune” which is more accurately translated as wife. ((Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, 1135)) Coming out of long-held traditional Jewish and Greek cultures indicates that the wives had a lot of catching up to do with regard to public meetings with other believers.
We learn elsewhere from Scripture that it’s in the context of a marriage that man has authority over his wife (Eph. 5:22-28, Titus 2:4, 1 Peter 3:1-7). Clearly Paul is not against women in the ministry, when he mentions in other epistles different women by name who’ve worked with him side by side as fellow workers, for example Priscilla (Acts 18:2-3, Rom. 16:3), and Eudia and Syntyche (Phil 4:3). From viewing other passages of New Testament Scripture, we can assume that possibly when Paul talks of submission, he could also be talking about submitting to constituted authority and obeying what the law also says (1 Cor. 14:33-35, Titus 2:5). ((Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositer’s Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1978), 11:360)) It was confusion that Paul was against in these meetings (1 Cor. 14:35).
In Acts 16:16-24 we see that in Philippi, Paul and his partner Silas preaching to girls landed him in prison, demonstrating just how much his attitude towards women was against the grain of Roman culture. The Lord Jesus Christ’s treatment of women was counter-cultural to Jewish practices as well in that he would talk to them, when traditionally men would not associate with women other than their wives. This is evidenced well by how he talked to the woman—a Samaritan non-Jew at that, by the well in John 4:1-26. When the gospel writer Mark records how women followed Jesus, he’s underscoring a significant turn in Jesus’ ministry. ((DeMarest, Mastering the New Testament, p.178))
Paul’s instructions to the church at Ephesus, clearly seem to be a remedy to a specific problem of disorderliness in their meetings, and not out of personal bias or bigotry.
Observation #3: Verse 15 indicates that the means by which women are saved is through childbearing. There is also a conditional clause that this promise is in effect so long as they continue in faith, love and holiness with self-control.
Question: Are women saved if they have children?
Answer: This particular verse is the topic of much debate–with numerous differing opinions as to what Paul is saying here. The Greek word used here for saved, “sozo”, has nothing in this instance to do with salvation, but with wholeness, health and well-being. Figuratively or literally, it means “to heal, to preserve, save, to do well”. ((Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, 4982)) ((While I originally wrote this nearly 18 years ago in Bible school, and posted it online before learning much of what I’ve learned about the Greek word “sozo” since, an understanding of the all-encompassing nature of God’s saving power helps make this particular passage not-so puzzling. Though I don’t have a whole single blog post on this site devoted exclusively to the study of sozo, I did include it in my book Six Lies People Believe About Divine Healing, and the topic came up in the comments section of this blog post, The People Jesus Didn’t Heal if you have the time for such digging.)) The original word for childbearing is “teknogonia”, having to do with the performance of maternal duties. ((Ibid., 5042)) In the original Greek text it is accompanied by the presence of a definite article before the word, making it literally say “the childbearing”. ((DeMarest, Mastering the New Testament, p.182))
Which instance of childbirth Paul is making reference to is something scholars don’t agree on. A commonly held view however is that this is a reference to the birth of Christ by Mary. This paper favors that particular view. Since Paul uses the context of the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve, then it’s necessary to view this verse in the context of what the account in the book of Genesis has to say on the matter. In Gen. 3:15 we learn that the woman’s seed will crush the head of the serpent, Satan. The last Adam, Christ (Rom 5:12-21, 1 Cor. 15:22,45) is the one who justifies us before the Father and through whom we overcome and crush the head of the evil one under our feet. (Heb. 2:7-8, 1 John 4:4, 4:5). It was Eve who was deceived in the Garden of Eden, and then Adam. The prevailing view of the rabbis at the time was that woman sinned first, and in all likelihood Paul reflected that view.
Theology of the Passage
In 1 Timothy 2:8-15, we see the role of headship or mentoring taking place as Timothy receives valuable advice from his spiritual leader on smooth functioning of the church meetings for his particular church parish. The men in these meetings were to exhibit characteristics of a believer when they met publicly, and the women were to be dressed appropriately.
The passage in Genesis 3 about Eve being deceived and then Adam following suit is the backdrop for why Paul personally didn’t permit women to teach or to have authority over a man. Verse 15 is a seemingly awkward and obscure way of stating his point of how redemption for the sin committed at the beginning of humankind has come about in Christ Jesus, so long as the recipients of this grace continue faithfully in it.
Clothing is often the first statement we make about who we are to those who do not know us because clothing says something. It is related to Christian witness. Extravagance and ostentation are to be avoided as our clothing demonstrates to people what we spend our money on, whether it’s ourselves, or the Kingdom of God. In any culture, emphasis is oftentimes placed on outward appearance, and we should hold valuable the things which are eternal–not earthly and perishing. ((DeMarest, Mastering the New Testament, p.178)) The behavior of a believer with their good works should be what they are noticed for. Men also should reflect in public who they are privately without putting up a pretense of religious posture and manners, but it’s the attitude of worship that’s more important than the externals.
Decency and order are always necessary in any meeting, and Paul demonstrates this in his first letter to the Corinthian believers. Different churches are going to have individual and specific concerns to work through, and it’s necessary for some kind of ground rules to be commonly understood by each member of the local church body to avoid problems.
When one reads Scripture like this, especially New Testament epistles where instructions are given to the Church in a local context, it’s necessary to understand when something is normative and for the Church Universal to follow, or if it was specifically for the individual church Paul was writing to. Just because something is a precedent in a certain instance of Scripture, doesn’t mean it’s normative. Modern churches need to adhere to guidelines and principles in Scripture that are true for every age, and not cling to specific instances something is necessary for certain individuals.
There are many traditions I’ve grown up seeing in the church and when one of them is challenged I’ve been pointed to Scriptures such as this one, without really being told what it means. From analyzing this passage, I can say that it’s important not to just follow traditions just because they are there and seem harmless, but it’s necessary to understand the principles behind things more importantly. If something is a personal preference or opinion to me, then that’s what it is, and not a doctrine.
The Bible clearly does not rate women as second-class citizens with no place in ministry. Paul gave specific instructions to Timothy regarding the specific church he was pastoring in Ephesus, and we aren’t to apply to the Church Universal today. Understanding when something is normative and when it’s a historical precedent in the Bible plays a part in understanding what guidelines are for us and which guidelines were exclusive to the early Church. Furthermore, using the sequence of events in the creation narrative to teach the superiority of man goes beyond anything actually said in Scripture. Paul only made reference to this as an allegory to demonstrate his point. It’s been observed by many that woman was not taken from his feet, to be under him, nor was she taken from his head, to be above him. She was taken from his side, to stand beside him and be held close to his side.
March 17th, 2016 Edit:
I recently recorded an outstanding interview for the Fire On Your Head Podcast with Amber Picota, author of the forthcoming book, God’s Feminist Movement which I think you should check out if you enjoyed this article.
Click on the photo to be taken to the more detailed link:
Listen to the episode here:
Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb
Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb: More on Authority (Authentein)
“But What About 1 Timothy 2:12?” Ten Talking Points by Gail Wallace at the Junia Project