In many ways, Paul’s first epistle to Timothy contains generally direct charges. He is basically giving this protégé of his instructions so that in the event “I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth” – 3:15. Intermittently he gets a little more personal with Timothy, at one point reminding him of “the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well” – 1:18, and at another asking him to “use a little wine because of your stomach and frequent illnesses” – 5:23.
Most of what Paul commands Timothy either to teach or practice is direct, whether it be concerning slaves, widows, deacons, or even false teachers. But there is perhaps this most misconstrued passage in the second chapter. In fact, misconstrued is an understatement, as few ever even dare to try explain it. We may read, but it never bothers us when we don’t make much sense of it because, well, some things are better left a mystery.
But I believe that though we’ll never understand everything in the Bible, as it clearly is full of conundrums, God still requires us to faithfully search out and understand so much about Him, especially from His revealed word. He glories in hiding, and we in searching Him out – Proverbs 25:2. Another reason we shouldn’t tire of searching is that the Biblical passages we Christians find inscrutable and shy away from explaining are the very ones the world erroneously picks and explains their distaste for Christianity using.
1 Timothy 2:11-15 is one such passage. In a rather pontificating manner, Paul says:
“A woman should learn in quietness and full of 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.”
The finality with which Paul speaks over a matter as sensitive as women teaching shocks me. He applies the use of words like ‘must’ to suggest there are no two ways to it; what he has taught seals it! Many wonder if he even was aware his words would make the cut for the Canon and be read generations later by a global church that sees the largest number of women in active ministry than ever before.
Why we should labor to explain
The very first reason is that, today more than ever we have women at the helm of ministries and churches. We don’t just have women occasionally teaching, which already would seem to be a violation of the law Paul sets for us, but we have them giving direction and pastoring. Many have used context to explain this, citing that the culture then was far different from what we have now and so we can’t apply the teaching with generalization. How much water that holds? I’m not certain. All I can say is truth, or rather God’s Word doesn’t change because the world changed.
The other important reason is the feminist movement that is sweeping over our world right now. I definitely believe in acknowledging the place of women and protecting their rights, so that is okay. What riles me about feminism is their approach to achieving this otherwise noble cause. I just don’t think the place of women can be attained by undermining that of men! That, in my sincere view is the greatest undoing of the movement.
The reality of this movement makes Paul’s words one slippery path to walk. Daring to suggest that women are not to teach leaves others feeling we are patriarchal. Such an attitude is the last thing we want anyone to have of the Bible; because it’s not only myself or Paul alone that will be thought of poorly, but especially the God we both claim to speak from His Word.
The literal context
As I’ve grown to appreciate over time, serious misinterpretations of a scriptural text often happen because of just a simple ignorance of a verse or passage before or after it. When we lack the patience and diligence to connect verses and passages to each other, or to interpret them within a context such as cultural if need be, we definitely find ourselves misapplying Biblical teachings.
Paul’s command about women cannot be read in isolation, but has to be interpreted in relation to the context within which it falls. The entire chapter has a theme running through it; God’s desire that all people would come to the knowledge of His truth (leaders not exempted) – 1 Tim 2:4. As it is with every assignment, there has to be a person assigned with the responsibility to see it successfully accomplished. So Paul, as we would expect, flips over to explaining who ought to witness and how they ought to do it.
“Therefore I want men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” – 1 timothy 2:8-10.
In those few words Paul answers our two questions. First, he makes it clear that all who are saved, men and women alike, have a responsibility to ensure that those yet to receive God’s truth receive it. Secondly, he explains how each ought to be involved: men through praying and lifting up holy hands – basically every kind of public ministry that entails leading God’s people as in a congregation, and women through their modesty – how they carry themselves around.
It is this theme of being a witness to all people then that forms the backdrop to the charge that women “should learn in quietness and submission, not permitted to teach or assume authority over a man, but must be quiet” (paraphrased). Paul gives two reasons why he says this; the first is that the man, Adam, was formed first. The implication is that it is the man whom God has charged with authority and a responsibility to give direction. The woman is called to help, not to assume the man’s authority or role
The whole debate on whether men alone should teach or women too can should never be mistaken for a question of knowledge, as in all sincerity countless women are more gifted in Biblical knowledge than most men. It is exclusively a question of responsibility! In her article Women Teaching Men – How Far Is Too Far?, Mary A. Kassian meticulously explains that attempting to set boundaries and establish at what point a woman will have pushed the envelope in exercising her teaching gift is ridiculous.
“I believe that asking “How far is too far?” is asking the wrong question. For me, a better question is: “Do I love what God loves?” “Am I treasuring Jesus by treasuring God’s model of headship? Do I uphold it and support male headship as a good and beautiful aspect of God’s wise plan? Does how I exercise my teaching gift indicate that I value it?” And, “How can I best honor Christ in how (and in what context) I teach?”” she writes. She goes on to list practical ways she has ensured to continually honor God’s model while still exercising her teaching gift.
The second reason Paul gives for why he thinks women should refrain from teaching is that “it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” I understand if that leaves a bad taste in anyone’s mouth. “Where is the place of grace in passing such a judgment? Why would Eve’s sin affect a woman’s ministry yet we know the blood of Christ wiped clean our every sin, even Eve’s?” you say.
To your dismay Paul responds with “But women will be saved”. Their ministry may have been compromised by Eve’s credulity at the hands of the crafty Serpent and leading the man too to sinning, but that’s not the end of it. They will be saved, and that through childbearing. That doesn’t mean the salvation that we all receive by grace through faith as a gift from God – see Ephesians 2:8. Otherwise not a single barren woman or any that dies without a child would be saved.
‘Saved’ in this passage implies restoration. It means that the ministry women may have lost through Eve’s sin would be, in fact has been restored to them. But how is that to happen through childbearing? When Paul requires quietness of women when it comes to public teaching he is not barring them from ministry, instead he is pointing them to another ministry that should fulfill them more! He is turning their focus to their homes. To their children. He sees that as their primary ministry. Their children are the one opportunity to restore their influence on the world that Eve’s sin costed them.
That is not to say a woman’s ministry is to give birth. Her ministry is to do the even tougher job that follows after giving birth; raising her children in godliness. Her most effective tool in transforming the world is not the many sermons she could preach; it is the children she raises in the fear of God who will impact perhaps more lives than she could personally reach. Think of any person in ministry you may know of; for most of them, their journey to faith can be traced back to their parents, especially their moms who naturally spent most time with them than dads.
Timothy himself, whom Paul writes to is a perfect example. He is reminded of the origin of the faith he has; it first lived in his grandmother Lois, and then in his mother Eunice – 2 Timothy 1:5. Lois and Eunice must have been the kind of women who preferred the quiet ministry from the house to anything public, and it paid off greatly in gifting Paul and the world with Timothy. That kind of ministry may never draw accolades as few ever notice it, but its impact is unparalleled.
Whenever we take offense at Paul for his teaching that women should be quiet, it’s simply because we’ve fixed our focus on what he’s asking them not to do instead of turning around to an even more precious thing he’s asking them to do. If you dwell on what women have been denied you will miss out on the wonderful opportunity they have been given. The pulpit should never come first, nor the career. That child at home should. Unfortunately, many women, even Christians, fail to realize this.
Some think of their children as treasures to hide instead of talents to faithfully steward, and in so doing never get to experience the joy of being saved through childbearing. Women, do not miss out on an opportunity to be saved through your child whenever God blesses you with one. There isn’t a better way you can impact the world than this!