1 & 2 Timothy Part One Deep Dive
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The book of 1 Timothy contains some heavy-hitting content by Paul; arguably the most enduring part of this corpus (body of work) are Paul’s comments in Chapter 2. The Apostle Paul is not afraid to speak to these matters of doctrine and gender, in particular, the role of women and men in practical ecclesiology (the practices within church communities). Therefore, we, in turn, should not be afraid to engage with this ancient text. This text has long been used within church history to forbid women to teach or to have any authoritative position within church structures. By digging into the context and socio-historical environment of those present in the church, we can hope to faithfully interpret what Paul is saying, and consider our systems of interpretation before we formulate it to our practices. There is a very real warning present within the text, which needs to be heeded; however, there is also a plain sense within the text that allows for easily mistaken reading, the balance is important. Keeping in mind, that in order for Christianity to remain pure, our orthodoxy (correct thinking) and orthopraxis (correct action) must work in harmony.
Now that the elephant in the room is addressed, let’s really drill down and look at what’s going on in the text as we pull out some historical points, and formulate a position that is biblically faithful, and consider the image and purposes of God.
The passage in question is 2:11-15, however, a more nuanced interpretation may require some other biblical material, to aid this reading.
There are four things happening in the background of this text:
Paul is writing to Timothy in order to achieve many things, not the least of which is to counter false teachers and address inappropriate behaviours displayed by some individuals in the Ephesian congregation; in particular, the women present therein. The grammatical composition of the language in this passage is crucial, as Paul shifts from woman to women, and man to men throughout. This is an important distinction, one that there simply is not room to unpack here, but sheds great light on this matter. Feel free to check it out in your own study.
The second point of cultural context to consider is the situation of women within the Ancient Greco-Roman society. The social strata of this time placed women underneath men, and as with uneven playing field, the consequences are drastic. For instance, the level of education that most women had received up until this point within Greco-Roman society was very poor. Educated women were an exquisitely rare find, though occasionally present in this time. This should immediately raise questions when Paul begins v.11 with “Let a woman learn”, this notion would have been radical in this society, much less radical than the second part of the verse, “quietly with all submissiveness”. This was the expected behaviour of an ideal student during this time. So already, our paradigm must shift as we continue to unpack this section.
The third factor to consider is the meaning of the words, ‘teach’ (didasko) and the words ‘assume authority’ (authenteo). Discussion around the best translation of these words is vast, and there is not simply enough space to explore here. However, the distinction many scholars at least agree on semantically is that the usage of these words contain a prohibition against teaching false doctrine as a means to usurp authority over men. This position is defensible with regard to the increasing false teaching within the wider historical church setting, and the appearance of ‘New Roman women’ who were shirking the traditional symbols of chastity and modesty in favour for the sexual liberty of their male counterparts. While this expression may be seen with favour within the twenty-first century, it certainly was not appropriate for the publish worship forum of the time. We must be careful not to impose twenty-first Century paradigms on 1st-century texts.
A final point of consideration is Paul’s appeal to the account of Adam and Eve. Many see this functioning as a prescription of blame written by Paul, presenting Eve as a representative for women, and her moral failure in the Garden of Eden. However, the context of the passage and the wider scope of the Pauline corpus calls for a more distinct reading. Firstly, the passage could follow along with Paul’s train of thought regarding false teaching, in particular, the recounting of the Creation narrative and the headship or source of man. This reading is plausible due to the influence of the Cult of Artemis at work in this society. Another reading may see it as Paul making a point concerning the way in which Eve was deceived, and tying her deception back to the failure of Adam to teach Eve properly concerning what God had commanded. Which closes the circle that began this section, that women should be taught and learn.
How easy is it to see that these seemingly small textual considerations can reveal a more holistic reading over and against a distorted interpretation of the created order being the implicit leadership order? An interpretation in this vicinity remains biblically faithful, aligns itself somewhat more coherently with Paul’s line of thought, but more than that, it restores equality to the genders when it comes to the topic of church structure and function.
A final thought, regarding the interpretation of large swathes of ecclesiology through one passage of scripture. When we do this, we run the risk of missing not only what the original author was trying to communicate, but we also miss the richness of theology and practices available to us in the wider body today. Moreover, Paul’s prohibitions here are contained in a personal letter. This means, we cannot mistake the intention of Paul to be writing to Timothy and commanding a universal, eternal restriction on all women as teachers or leaders. Particularly because in doing so, it would be contrasting with the Paul of scripture. Paul highly regarded women, and names them amongst his most valued co-workers. The names of Priscilla, Junia, and Phoebe come to mind, as well as many others.
Paul, Women & Wives – Craig Keener
Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives and Bobby Haircuts - Michael F. Bird
Why Not Women? – Loren Cunningham & Joel Hamilton
Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul's Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians - Lucy Peppiatt