Continuing with 1 Timothy 2:8-15
1 Timothy 2:8-15 Christian Standard Bible
8 Therefore, I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument. 9 Also, the women are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive apparel, 10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess to worship God. 11 A woman is to learn quietly with full submission. 12 I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, 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 transgressed. 15 But she will be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with good sense.
I have a dear friend, Sheila, who is a gifted artist. She visited recently and we were discussing some recent artists’ workshops she had attended. In one, Sheila was given an exercise to limit herself to two colors, besides white and black, which she could combine to create five shades. At first, she chafed at the idea of this limitation of her painting palate. Sheila loves to paint with lots of color! She wondered what she could produce without the full range of colors to which she was accustomed. As she cooperated with this process, she was surprised to find great freedom as she painted, and great satisfaction in what she produced. As we talked, not only about painting, but also about my writing about women, we saw an analogy between accepting limits to our roles as women and to her range of colors as an artist. Sheila discovered the richness of five shades and the range of possibilities that emerged from accepting the limit. Sheila wrote to me later: “The instructors purposefully limited the color palette so we didn’t have to worry about that element. By having the limited color palette, I was able to explore mark making, composition, shapes, lines, values, etc. I didn’t have to worry about the colors since my options were limited and already mixed for me. I was free to fully explore other aspects within the painting. I felt more free with fewer colors. And I was still painting with so much joy! It’s almost like it opened up so many new things to try because I didn’t have to focus on the colors.”
I resonate with Sheila. Over the many years in which I have taught women and children both in my own family and in my university ministry and local church, I also have experienced a joyous sense of bountiful opportunities and freedom, of solid identity in Christ, rather than a sense of deprivation. That is not to say there are never days when the grass does not look greener on the feminist side, but I have accepted what I believe are biblical limitations on the roles of women in the Church – namely, that the role of elder and authoritative teaching (doctrine setting for the church) is reserved for men. This is, I believe, the only limitation on women’s roles in the church.
The passage starts with some instructions to men and women. Men are to use their hands in prayer rather than in fighting. Women, as we discussed in the last post, are to use their bodies for good works rather than a showy physical display. In verse 11, women are urged to “learn in quietness and submission.” In 1st century Judaism, women were not urged to learn the Scriptures. There were rabbis that discouraged women from learning because they believed women to be capable only of distorting what they learned. You can read about the rabbis of the Talmud and their attitudes toward women here. So it is significant that Paul does encourage them to learn. He is diverging from Jewish tradition and following in the footsteps of Jesus, who encouraged Mary to sit at his feet and learn in Luke 10:38-42. “In quietness” does not necessarily mean absolute silence, but conveys a receptive attitude. (I have included some resources below to elaborate and support.) That is further reinforced by pairing it with “full submission.” This is probably the way the entire church was supposed to receive teaching from the elders. Yet there is a prohibition which follows for women specifically. “I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to remain quiet.” Despite many things written about the ambiguity of this verse, taken as a whole, the passage is not ambiguous. The word used for “authority” here is an unusual one for the New Testament, but it’s meaning in the larger time and culture is most commonly “have authority” rather than “to domineer” as some commentators assert. Even if we accept the meaning “to domineer,” we still have a passage that tells women specifically not to be domineering over men. When coupled with the use of the word “submission,” the prohibition seems quite clear that women are not to engage in the indoctrination of men in the Church. It is further reinforced by Paul’s reference to the Creation order – the creation of Adam first, and then Eve – a timeless reason for these roles for men and women. This is not to say that all men may teach women, or that women may not teach any one. Only mature godly men may have this overall teaching authority over the church. New converts who are men are not to teach the church. Men who are teaching false doctrine are to be rebuked and disciplined. Only men with the proven character who pass the tests of the passage immediately following this one may teach and lead the Church. Others, both men and women may teach in other contexts.
In summary, I have concluded from reading the scholarly work of others on 1 Timothy 2 and other passages, and from my own interpretation of Scripture, that God has appointed godly mature Christian men (the elders described in 1 Timothy 3 and discussed in this post) to lead and instruct the Church generally, with the help of the rest of the body, including both women and men, in subordinate roles. Those subordinate roles include advising the elders, giving specialized teaching to various subsets of the body, caring for the needy, counseling and comforting the afflicted, etc. These, like ruling and teaching, are all critical roles. In our eyes, however, they often do not appear to have the same high status of ruling and teaching as elders. But I have repeatedly seen over these years how important these subordinate roles are. We must open our eyes to ways our teaching gifts can be employed in the Church with great impact, beyond the elder role which is what this prohibition concerns.
If you are interested in further reading on this topic, there are many books and articles on 1 Timothy 2:8-15. One online article is by John Piper. Another is by Douglas Moo. One I particularly recommend is a book which contains four different views on how to interpret and apply this difficult passage. The title of the book is Two Views on Women in Ministry (https://zondervanacademic.com/products/two-views-on-women-in-ministry), because there are two egalitarian writers in the books and two complementarian writers (for a discussion of these terms and what they mean, see this post). However, the two egalitarians do not agree fully, nor do the two complementarians. But it is also true that all four writers share a solid commitment to the fundamental equality of men and women in God’s image.
I am personally convinced of the complementarian viewpoint – that is, that while women and men are equally made in God’s image, they are assigned by God to different roles in marriage and in the Church. This passage as well as Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, read most straightforwardly as instructions about different roles for men and women. I teach different roles because I am convinced that they are in the Scriptures, and we are taught to pass on all that the Bible instructs. Titus 2:3-5 specifically instructs me to teach these roles to women. These roles can be seen as limitations, similar to Sheila’s limitation to five colors, or as opportunities to explore the possibilities within. I teach different roles because I believe it honors God to express my trust in Him as my Instructor. I teach them because women and children are full human beings deserving of specialized, in-depth focus. As I cooperate with this limitation, I find that the full range of my intellect and creativity is utilized to teach them well. To see a ministry to women and children as lesser is to see women and children as less. That is unbiblical!
In my experience as a daughter, a wife, a mom and a campus minister, all human beings desire to know that they are valued in God’s eyes. Having a deep sense of identity as an image bearer and of fundamental equality before God is critical for how we feel about ourselves. It is hard to have that sense of value in the face of inequities of gender, talent, physical abilities and disabilities, personality, proclivities to sin, race and wealth, just to name some of the categories we assign ourselves (and others). This puts many young girls at risk of not seeing their value before God and humanity. And it is even harder to have that sense of value when our culture does not teach accurately what makes a person valuable. If we erroneously believe that women must do all the same things as men in order to prove our value, many Christians think it is impossible to empower girls within the complementarian framework.
I care deeply about “growing strong daughters” to cite a helpful book by Lisa Graham McMinn, but I do not believe biblical roles are the culprit for disempowering girls; I think sin is the culprit. Every cultural place and time errs in a variety of ways about how to value human beings, both male and female. At one time in our country, women were not allowed to vote; they were valued as “less than” citizens. An old children’s book I read recently retold for elementary age kids the story of an American Christian family living in Japan in the late 19th century. At that time in Japan, sons were valued and daughters were not. It was encouraging to see that this Christian family from 120 years ago (before the modern women’s movement) fiercely defended the value of their newborn baby girl when their Japanese neighbors expressed how disappointing it was that she was not a son. These are just some examples of ways in which girls and women have historically been devalued and disempowered.
It is often a difficulty for Christian women to reconcile our equality as persons with our inequality of roles. It necessitates careful teaching. The “plumb line” of equality must be constantly emphasized and it requires us to remember and live out our equal value and personhood in the face of different roles. The roles do not destroy our artistry as humans. Biblical roles/ limitations per se do not devalue or disempower women. The opportunities abound and the impact we can make is profound. I will write more about this in coming posts.