Tag Archives: teaching

Passages that Seem to Limit Women: 1 Timothy 2:11-15

4 Feb

Okay Ladies and Gents, the day has come.  Today we’re going to tackle 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.  But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

I know what you’re thinking:  “This looks pretty straightforward.  Paul is clearly banning all women from leadership for all time.”  I thought that for a long time too.  If you still think that at the end of today’s blog- it’s okay.  I respect anyone who holds a position because he/she feels it’s more biblical.  But I’m asking you to go with me, and ponder a notion that may be unfamiliar- even threatening- for just the length of this post.  Don’t get defensive.  Don’t feel attacked, because that’s not my intention here.  Aristotle said that it’s the “mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”  So, whether you are a complementarian, egalitarian or undecided, let’s entertain some thoughts…

In biblical studies classes, one of the first things we learn is to honor the context.  The context takes everything into account from the genre of the book, to the literary, historical and cultural settings of the author and audience.  The bible cannot mean something to us today that it never meant to the original audience.  Context is always important.  It is necessary for sound interpretation.  So let’s take a look at the context of 1 Timothy.

  1. Author:  Paul the Apostle
  2. Audience:  Timothy, the pastor of the church in Ephesus and student/co-worker of Paul
  3. Genre:  Epistle, or letter.
  4. Date:  mid 60s CE
  5. Major Themes of the letter:  correcting false doctrine and removing/limiting  those who are propagating the false doctrine

There are several implications just from these five pieces of information.  First, since we hold to Pauline authorship (and I do), that means that all of Paul’s writings are relevant when discussing this particular prohibition on women.  Second, we recognize that 1 Timothy is a letter.  We know from the beginning that we’re missing half of the conversation.  Furthermore, it’s a letter to a particular person, in a particular situation, in a particular location.  We cannot get away from Timothy’s context because his context (a church in Ephesus that is combating false doctrine) is the purpose for the entire letter!  Finally, we must consider the way the broad theme of the letter may influence the particular statements found therein.

Reading Paul in light of the whole NTImage

Since Paul is the author of this book, it’s only right for me to consider ALL of Paul’s teachings on women in conjunction with this passage,which is the only explicit limitation on women teaching men in the entire Bible.  This means that I read 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in light of Galatians 3:36-39, Romans 16 (see blogs on Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia), and 1 Corinthians 12 (which lists spiritual gifts without reference to gender). In these three passages, not to mention the biblical accounts of female prophets and leaders and the example of Jesus (blog to come), we see Paul affirming women leaders!  He calls women his co-workers, and he praises them as teachers, leaders, patrons, and even an apostle.  It would seem that the bible in general- and Paul is particular- is sending mixed messages; which leaves us with two possible options.  1) Paul was unstable and double-minded or 2) some things that Paul wrote in letters were meant to address specific situations and were not intended to be normative.[1]

I don’t know about you, but option number two seems much more likely (not to mention less problematic).  And it makes perfect sense given the context. Almost the entire letter of 1 Timothy addresses false doctrine.  A group of people were spreading heresy and Paul was giving Timothy some suggestions to shut it down.  One of those suggestions was to stop the women in Timothy’s congregation from teaching.  Honestly, it isn’t all that surprising those women were part of the problem.  They had very little education, if any at all.  Women were often quite young and were typically married by fourteen (give or take two years), which made them more susceptible to bad doctrine.  If the woman was a widow or wealthy wife, she had some spare time and could easily go from house to house, teaching others the heresy she’d learned.  Paul was completely right to shut this kind of behavior down!  It’s worth mentioning that Paul also cracked down on the men who were leading in Ephesus.  The problem was not that women were teaching, but that women who were unlearned and susceptible to false doctrine were spreading heresy.

A close examination of the specific text

Most translations begin this passage by saying, “I do not permit.”  However, many Greek scholars will point out that Paul is actually speaking in the present tense, as if to say, “I am not permitting.”  This suggests that Paul was speaking with regard to the particular situation in Timothy’s church, rather than all churches.

Secondly, very few people point out how radical it was that Paul said women should learn.  Everyone harps on the quietness and submission part, but that was completely in line with Paul’s culture.  It was not normal, however, for women to be given a significant religious education.  In that respect, Paul is being quite progressive. Giving women a proper theological education would also serve as a corrective to false doctrine and enable women to teach at a later date when they were qualified.

Thirdly, there is a great deal of debate, amongst biblical scholars, regarding the use of “authority” in this passage.  There are some who believe it is best understood as an authority that domineers, rather than leads.  Here are two articles that address that interpretation more fully.  The second link is a little more detailed.

http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/1-timothy-211-15

http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/can-women-teach-part-ii/

Paul then points to Adam and Eve as a reason for the restriction on women.  In this instance, I disagree with the article from CBE (the first of the above links).  I don’t think Paul is saying anything about the inherent equality of women and men.  Rather, I think Paul is actually going back to the issue of false teaching. If  you refer to the creation narrative, you’ll notice that God instructed Adam not to eat fruit from the tree at the center of the garden.  Yet when Eve conversed with the serpent, she was under the impression that the fruit could not be eaten or touched. Somewhere along the way, Eve was misinformed and was deceived because of it.  I don’t think Paul is using creation order as a reason for male headship (read my blog on Genesis and womanhood where creation order is dealt with in great detail).  I also don’t think Paul is putting all the blame for the fall on Eve.  There are other places (like Romans 5 and 1 Cor. 15) when the blame is put squarely on Adam.  It seems to me that Paul is harkening back to a familiar story where poor instruction left a woman vulnerable to deception and took humanity down a bad path.  The same was clearly happening in Ephesus.

Others believe Paul was actually “correcting” previous teachings that ignored Eve’s part in the fall (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15).  Thus, it would function as a good reminder that neither men nor women were morally superior.  That’s legitimate, but I find it less persuasive.

As for the section on childbirth… I have no idea what Paul meant there.  There’s actually no consensus amongst New Testament scholars on that one, so I won’t presume to offer an interpretation.  The CBE article I linked to mentions Artemis worship.  Others have suggested it referred to protection during childbirth.  Frankly, there isn’t enough evidence, in my opinion, to do anything but speculate here.

In summary, the context of false doctrine in the epistle to Timothy, combined with a close study of the specific verses, all of which are read in light of Paul and Jesus’ affirmations of women, point to an interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 that was specific to the situation of Timothy’s first century church in Ephesus, and is not prescriptive for all women, for all time.


[1] Normative means something is applicable for all people, in all culture, for all of time. 

Women Whose Ministry & Leadership Paul Affirmed: Priscilla

28 Dec

Today we’re looking at another woman whom Paul mentions in Romans 16.  Her name is Priscilla, and she is listed along with her husband here:

“Greet Prisca and Aq′uila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I but also all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks; greet also the church in their house.” – Romans 16:2-5 (RSV)

Under normal circumstances, the mention of a husband/wife ministry team would give no one pause (Complementarian nor Egalitarian).  However, we are fortunate enough to have the back story of these two, which makes their mention a little more interesting.  It can be found in Acts 18.

There, we’re told that Paul met Aquila and his wife Priscilla, in Corinth.  They were Jewish believers who had recently come from Italy (almost certainly Rome) because the emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from the city (around 49 CE).  They had immigrated to Corinth where they worked as tent-makers.  Paul lived and worked with them.  When Paul left, Priscilla and Aquila joined him.  The three arrived in Ephesus and began ministry, but Paul eventually left the couple there.  We know from from 1 Corinthians 16 (which Paul likely wrote from Ephesus) that Priscilla and Aquila began a church in their home in Ephesus.

While Priscilla and Aquila were living in Ephesus, a Jew named Apollos came to the city.  He was from Alexandria and was a believer.  Apollos was a powerful speaker on behalf of Christ, but he only knew the baptism of John.  In other words, he had not been instructed fully in the Way.  When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of the Lord more fully to him.  After their tutelage, Apollos left and became a very influential teacher and leader in the church (Acts 18).

ImageIt appears that Priscilla and Aquila returned to their home in Rome when the edict of Claudius expired.  At the very least, they seem to be located there when the letter to the Romans was written.

So what does this missionary couple teach us about Paul’s view of women in ministry?  Quite a lot actually.  First, we see how valuable they were to Paul’s ministry and to the ministry to gentiles in general.  The three worked (and lived) very closely and supported one another in ministry.  Even the use of “Priscilla” which is a diminutive of “Prisca” reveals how close they were [It’s like calling me Katie instead of Kate or Kathryn].  On top of that, they led churches in Ephesus and in Rome, and served as teachers to one of the most influential apostles of the early church.  They were super-duper important!  They are a testimony to how powerfully God uses marriage and married couples.  Neither Priscilla, nor Aquila, was every mentioned individually (at least not in the Bible).

Most Complementarians will stop right there- arguing that married couples indeed minister together.  They would, however, contend that Aquila functioned as the spiritual leader of the two in marriage and in ministry.  As you can probably imagine, I’m going to suggest something different.  Priscilla and Aquila are named seven times (see acts 18:2, 18,19,26; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; and 2 Timothy 4:19).  In five of those seven instances, Priscilla is named first.  [If you want to check for yourself, click this link: http://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=priscilla&qs_version=NIV ] That may not seem significant, but it was, at the very least different.  Imagine if I introduced a newly married couple as Mrs. And Mr. Smith- instead of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  It’s just not how we do things.  Saying it sounds weird and wrong, because it’s not how we introduce married couples.  Now, think about how it would have sounded to Paul’s first century audience when Priscilla was mentioned first.

There are two possible explanations for this. 1) Priscilla was from a superior socioeconomic class than her husband.  I am not inclined to believe this for one simple reason.  Paul never seemed to give much preference to class anywhere else in his letters.  Why should we suppose he cared when it came to his tent-making friends? 2) Priscilla could have been mentioned first because she was the more prominent figure of the two.  Given the unlikelihood of the first possibility, I am persuaded to favor this explanation.  In addition, there is nothing in the text that indicates Aquila was the “real minister,” while Priscilla stayed in the background doing women’s and children’s ministry. Quite the opposite, actually; because the text tells us that Priscilla and Aquila offered instruction to Apollos.  I hope you find it as interesting as I do that this woman is being praised for teaching a man.

What I think it most significant about Priscilla and Aquila, though, is the fact that their ministry was done together- seemingly with mutuality and equality.  If Priscilla was more prominent, then she never chose to minister without the partnership of her husband.  If I’m wrong, and Aquila was more prominent, it’s clear he never chose to subordinate the ministry of his wife.  That’s a great picture for Christian marriage, especially for those of us in ministry.

In my own marriage and ministry, this seems especially relevant.  As far as church ministry goes, I am more “prominent” because I am the pastor, but my husband partners with me in that ministry.  His advice, accountability, and wisdom are indispensable to me.  He has been my most valuable resource in ministry.  We are equals, even if I’m the one who has the title.  I am confident it will be the same when RC ministers to the academic world.  He will be the doctor, the professor, and eventually the writer.  In the academic world he will be the prominent one.  However, he would never elevate his role in ministry over mine.  That’s mutuality.  And let me tell everyone from first- hand experience, it is much harder to live out mutuality than hierarchy. But then again, I’ve found that the Way of the Lord usually is much more difficult- yet much more beautiful- than any other way of life.

In conclusion, Priscilla and Aquila give us a great picture of God’s design for couples in ministry.  They also reveal how highly Paul viewed the ministry of both Priscilla and Aquila.