The Honorable Joseph Turner, youth pastor extraordinaire and reader of this blog, has asked me if I intend to write about women in the church. Well, as a woman in the church myself, one might argue that anything I write at least touches on that subject, but as luck would have it, I was intending to address the topic as the climax of my series of essays on 1 Timothy. The trouble is, I have been attempting to make these posts short, and what I am about to discuss does not lend itself to brevity. The passage is among the most controversial in scripture.
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.
1 Timothy 2:11-15
I well remember the day that I led a discussion on this passage with a women’s Bible study. The ladies ranged in age from about 25-35, came from various walks of life, and had a basic knowledge of scripture but not a deep, academic sort of understanding. They had evidently not read the verses ahead of time. I spoke the words out loud, then looked up from my Bible to see horrified faces staring back at me. It was as if I had just killed their pet dog.
This is hardly the only passage in Paul’s epistles that is criticized by modern readers for being sexist. There are the odd imperatives about women’s head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:2-16), the command for wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24), the complaint about “weak women” in 2 Timothy 3:6, and probably a few other things that are not currently springing to mind.
When Paul said something, he never said it halfway. (Here I am reminded of his suggestion in Galatians 5:12 that the Judaizers should castrate themselves.) I do not mean that he went out of his way to offend people, for he did not wish to jeopardize the preaching of the gospel. He simply knew that certain gospel truths create their own kind of offense. The cross of Christ, he said, was “to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness”. (1 Corinthians 1:23) For Paul there was always a necessary offense that convicts the sinner and an unnecessary offense that hinders the gospel. “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22b)
Paul’s comments about women in the second chapter of 1 Timothy certainly seem offensive to us today, not only because he tells women to be quiet and submit to authority, but also because of the rationale he provides. “It was Adam who was first created,” he writes, seeming to place a higher importance on the male gender. (v. 13) “It was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman…” (v. 14) Here he seems to be blaming women for sin. The one silver lining he gives to females? “But women will be preserved through the bearing of children…” (v. 15) To top it all off, he ends with a term that goes against every American, consumeristic, post-feminist age instinct: “self-restraint”. When I read this passage to that group of women, here is what they actually heard.
“Ladies, you need to shut up. Listen to the men and do everything they say. God made them first, for they are the best. You are so gullible: you ruined creation! The only hope for you is to pop out lots of babies. Then maybe, just maybe, if you are nice, and polite, and passive, and nurturing, and godly (Good luck on that last one, you gullible woman!)…maybe God will be able to save you.”
Is it any wonder that those women looked as if I had just blown out their birthday candle and devoured the cake before they could take a bite? You don’t have to be in league with Gloria Steinem to find that message offensive. But is this the message Paul meant to send?
Let us consider the context in which this passage occurs. One of Paul’s primary concerns throughout his letters is how believers should conduct themselves when they come together to worship. Much of the book of 1 Corinthians is devoted to this topic, and it is also a major theme of the Pastoral Epistles, including 1 Timothy.
Consider some of the instructions Paul gives to Timothy. He says that, “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.” (1 Timothy 3:11) In the same book, he criticizes women in Timothy’s congregation who were “gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention.” (5:13) In his second letter to Timothy, Paul warns him to “refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels.” (2 Timothy 2:23) He specifically mentions a group of men in the church who were guilty of a laundry list of sins, then implores Timothy, “Avoid such men as these. For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:5b-7)
What is the general theme we are picking up here? It seems that there were people in Timothy’s church, many of them women, who were not holding to sound teaching, but rather sitting around gossiping, quarreling, participating in empty speculations, and generally believing what was false. In some cases, they were actually listening to the men, but the situation was hardly beneficial. These men were not strengthening the ladies’ faith, but causing them to fall into error. Keep this all in mind as we proceed.
Now, let us tackle the main passage in question. Immediately before Paul begins his address to women, he tells their male counterparts, “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.” (1 Timothy 2:8) He then makes a comment to women about valuing good works rather than the outward appearance. (v. 9-10) I think this should really be seen as connected with the other instructions to women, much as we see in other places where Paul addresses multiple groups of people within a broader discussion about the Church. (see Ephesians chapters 5-6)
Paul’s overall concerns for the Church include the need for order and mutual respect. He tells all Christians to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) He speaks of spiritual gifts as being “for the common good”. (1 Corinthians 12:7) And here perhaps is the most relevant passage for our discussion of 1 Timothy…
What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.
1 Corinthians 14:26-40
In this passage, we see clearly Paul’s overall concern for order in worship: a church service that is edifying for all and not chaotic. He stresses that spiritual gifts are only to be used in situations where they are beneficial for everyone, and that there are times when one ought not speak. Note that he extends this command to the men as well as to the women. (Lest you think women never prayed or prophesied in this church, Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 suggest that they most certainly did.)
When Paul does tell the women to “keep silent in the churches”, it should not be seen as a command that they never, ever speak. The problem was seemingly that they were interrupting the presentation of the Word of God to ask questions, or worse yet, to relay some special message that they supposedly received from the Almighty. Paul also indicates that something about what these women were doing was not respectful to authority, as noted in the contrast here: “…they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves…” What Paul does not do is discourage the women from ever asking questions. Rather, he tells them to “ask their own husbands at home”. Thus, Paul’s main concern is to maintain order in worship and a sense of respect for the office of pastor/elder.
Back now to 1 Timothy 2. “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.” (v. 11) This is exactly in line with Paul’s comments to the church in Corinth. There needs to be a respect for the proclaimed Word of God. The worship service needs to be orderly. Honestly, I don’t think this is the part that troubles people. I think it begins with the next verse.
“But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” (v. 12) What is meant by teaching and what is meant by exercising authority? Is this a blanket statement that women should never teach men or hold authority over them under any circumstances? No! How do I know this? From the Bible, that’s how. Timothy himself learned from the godly example of his mother and grandmother. (2 Timothy 1:5) Priscilla worked with her husband Aquila to explain to Apollos “the way of God more accurately”. (Acts 18:26) Scripture clearly teaches that both sons and daughters must respect and obey their fathers and mothers. “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.” (Proverbs 1:8) Therefore, by the principle that scripture interprets scripture, all women are not banned from teaching all men in all circumstances.
So in which situations are women commanded not to teach? Remember, Paul is speaking in the context of the worship service. It would be a mistake to expand this prohibition to include any circumstance outside the church, or even church activities that are not part of what is sometimes called “the Ministry of Word and Sacrament”. I’ll be quite honest with you: when I hear about Christian colleges, parachurch organizations, etc. using this passage to say that a woman can never teach a man in any capacity, I think they are taking Paul’s words beyond what he intended and failing to use scripture to interpret scripture. When I hear people suggesting that women in the secular, professional sphere can never hold authority over men because it goes against some nebulous concept of “manhood”, I want to throw a fit. This is an adding to scripture in the manner of the Pharisees. It has the presumably unintended effect of lessening the special importance of our corporate worship within the local church, making all situations the same.
About one thing Paul is pretty darn clear, and this I freely admit: women are not to be elders. They are not to be teaching pastors. Those positions of highest responsibility in the church are reserved for men – not all men, mind you, but only those that fulfill the criteria listed in 1 Timothy 3 and elsewhere. It is my firm belief that the women Paul was speaking to in our passage desired on some level to be in charge. They did not want to listen to the Word being proclaimed to the congregation. Rather, they wanted to proclaim the Word themselves, according to their own limited and often flawed understanding.
This is why Paul links the concepts of teaching and authority. “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man…” When it comes to the ministry of the Word in the midst of a worship service, teaching does amount to exercising authority. It is an authority that comes from that ordained position, only to be held by those who rightly divide the Word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15) Such ministers are put in their place by God, and to rebel against them or seek to usurp them is to stand against God. (Please note that I am not arguing that we should mindlessly submit to ministers in all circumstances, for if they stray from the Word, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) In addition, the model set forth in scripture is one of multiple elders in a congregation and not a single person calling the shots without accountability.)
Paul now moves into what I strongly believe to be a commentary on the first few chapters of the book of Genesis, which detail the creation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent fall into sin. “For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.” (1 Timothy 2:13) Taking a look at Genesis, we see that it was indeed Adam who was created first when God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”. (Genesis 2:7) We then read a few verses describing the Garden of Eden and at last come to this passage:
Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”
I implore you to note that this command was given to Adam, for Eve had not yet been created. The very next verse tells us, “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.’” (v. 18) The following verses deal with the creation of woman. Now, we can debate until kingdom come about whether the days of creation in Genesis were actual 24-hour days, how the chronologies of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 fit together, and the like. But in describing the creation of Eve after the prohibition against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and likewise pointing out that “God commanded the man” (v. 16), we may conclude that Eve was not there when the command was given and likely heard it from her husband, who had been tasked with primary responsibility for keeping the command. You will see how this becomes significant.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.” (1 Timothy 2:14) Notice that he does not deny that Adam sinned. In fact, we see elsewhere in Paul’s writings that he blames Adam’s sin for the transfer of a sinful nature down to every human being in history. He contrasts the unrighteous action of Adam in breaking God’s covenant with the righteous action of Christ in keeping the covenant. One action brought death to humanity, while another brought life. “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22) See also Paul’s epistle to the Romans.
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned – for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.
Paul clearly teaches that Adam, as the receiver of the divine command, became the original breaker of that covenant between God and man. This is why his sin is described as a different kind of offense, for every other sin of man and woman has been committed by those bound to the sinful nature, but Adam sinned as a perfect creation and passed on the curse to all his offspring.
So if Paul is not putting all the blame for sin on women, then what is he saying? His teaching is this: the woman was deceived. Let’s take a careful look at the third chapter of Genesis.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.
I have highlighted two portions of this text, each of which is an inaccurate quotation of God’s command. First, the serpent asks Eve to confirm for him that God commanded her not to eat from any tree. In fact, God had only said not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To her credit, Eve corrects the serpent, but she then makes her own mistake. She says that God commanded them not to eat from the tree or even touch it, when in fact God mentioned nothing about touching. What is the significance of these perversions?
First, the perversions fit into the serpent’s overall goal, which is to make God’s command seem unfair and unreasonable. The more outlandish the command, the easier it will be to trap Eve in this deception. Second, Eve’s response shows that she did not have a proper understanding of the divine command. There are two possible causes for this: 1) She forgot the exact content of the command, or 2) Adam did not give it to her properly. Either way, we must say in the immortal words of Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
Thus, Eve was deceived at least partially because of poor communication between her and her husband. Going back to Paul’s comments to Timothy, remember that he starts out by instructing the women to remain quiet and receive instruction. He justifies this with the reference to Eve’s sin. I believe that Paul was convinced that Eve fell into deception because she failed to pay attention to the instruction from her husband. When she started questioning God’s command, we do not see her seeking out clarification from the man who actually heard it first-hand. Rather, she makes a decision upon her own authority.
Even so, we cannot let Adam off the hook for this one. We do not know whether or not he was standing there when Eve had this odd discussion with the serpent. If he was, his failure to speak up was surely a failure to protect his wife when she was literally in mortal danger. Whether or not he was there originally, he showed up eventually and joined his wife in her sin. Thus, he shares in the guilt, and in one sense he is more guilty, because he received the command.
Keeping all this in mind, Paul seems to be saying to women, “Remember the mistakes of Eve. The command of the Lord is life for you. Pay heed to the Word, and do not seek to act upon your own fallible judgment.” Well, I am putting those words into Paul’s mouth, but I think they capture his intention.
This leaves us now with that last phrase: “But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.” (1 Timothy 2:15) What in the world? How does having children save a woman? Is this some misogynistic push to keep women barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen?
No, that is not what Paul means at all. In fact, this is the last portion of his commentary on Genesis. After Adam and Eve’s sin, God pronounced sentences of judgment on all three individuals involved in this sad incident. To the serpent He said,
And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.
God then pronounced His curse upon the woman.
I will greatly multiply
Your pain in childbirth,
In pain you will bring forth children;
Yet your desire will be for your husband,
And he will rule over you.
What can we conclude from these two verses? Yes, the woman is going to be subject to great difficulty in bringing forth children. Even today, we know this to be true, but it is only in recent years that death in childbirth and infant mortality have become uncommon in the developed world. Thanks to modern fertility treatments, we also have more women who are capable of having children. Thanks to things like epidurals, labor is still awful but maybe a little bit less so, if I am told correctly. Yet, these phrases pronounced by God speak to the pain carried by women for millennia: both of the struggles to bring forth children and the struggles of being treated as second-class citizens. There is a lot of hardship contained in these verses that cut to the very heart of female identity.
How fortunate then that God also gives a promise! He speak of the enmity between not only the woman and the serpent, but also between “your seed and her seed”. He prophesies that a male descendent of the woman will “bruise you on the head”. Even though the serpent may bruise this descendant “on the heel”, that is clearly not the same kind of mortal wound as one on the head. God is prophesying the end of the serpent’s reign of evil, and it will come about through the seed of the woman.
In verse 19 of this chapter, God tells Adam, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That is the sentence of death. Yet, immediately following that, we read this: “Now the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.” (v. 20) This contrast between life and death seems to point back to that proclamation of salvation that God had made to Eve. Adam has just been told that the inevitable end of humanity is death, yet he declares his wife to be the mother of the living. How is she the mother of the living? Through her seed that will defeat the serpent.
Returning to Paul’s comment that “women will be preserved through the bearing of children”, I truly believe that in this context, we should see it as a reference to the seed of the woman who brought about salvation for mankind: Jesus Christ. This God in human flesh reversed the curse of our first father and mother. He was obedient where they were disobedient. He defeated the devil and brought an end to his reign of terror. “For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26) I do not think that it was a coincidence that after He rose victorious over death, Christ appeared first to a woman. (John 20:11-18)
Paul is not sentencing women to a life of constant child bearing, the better to increase their righteousness. He is proclaiming to them that through a woman, the Virgin Mary, was brought into the world a savior who reversed the curse and opened the way to salvation. In a kind of beautiful way, he is describing women as instruments through which the Incarnation occurred, with the Holy Spirit of course being the actor. (Luke 1:35, Matthew 1:20) He is proclaiming words of comfort to women, declaring them to be mothers of all the living. There is really no other interpretation of Paul’s words that makes sense in the context of 1 Timothy chapter 2, and certainly when we view this passage through the lens of the book of Genesis, it points us toward such a conclusion.
I hope you can see that the instructions Paul is giving to Timothy are not demeaning to women. They are not a denial of the intelligence of women or a rallying cry to keep them in ignorance. Yet, when we misinterpret this passage, we end up in situations where women are demeaned.
Churches quite often suffer from what I might classify as Mary/Martha Confusion. Perhaps you remember the story. Jesus went to visit the house of the sisters Mary and Martha in the town of Bethany. While Martha was busy with the cooking, cleaning, and hostess-ing, Mary was sitting as Jesus’ feet listening to Him teach. Martha criticized her sister for not helping, but Jesus rebuked her and said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)
From a young age, women are typically trained to be like Martha. Just take a look at the rack of women’s magazines: “Bake the perfect pie! Decorate the perfect living room! Wear the perfect dress! Throw the perfect party!” While women thankfully receive a more comprehensive education these days than they did in times of yore, I think there are still a lot more mothers concerned that their daughters leave home with the proper domestic skills than a passionate love for the Word of God and good listening skills. Yet, while hospitality is certainly essential, Jesus tells women we ought to be more like Mary: we should long to hear the Word, long to be discipled, and long to grow in our knowledge of God above all else. It is easy to read Paul’s words to Timothy as a command for women to be more like Martha, but in actuality, he is telling us to be more like Mary and receive instruction.
I thus sum up this very long article by concluding that women are to be silent for the purpose of listening, they are not to teach for the purpose of being taught, and they are to remember always the failures of our mother Eve and subsequent redemption brought about by her seed, Jesus Christ. I hope that this is a message of encouragement for women, and that they will see that we need not be afraid of 1 Timothy or any other book of the Bible. I sincerely hope this has been edifying to you, and that your emotions are more like those women at the end of our Bible study than at the beginning.
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.