Against Patriarchy, Part Seventeen: Should Women Keep Silent?

We come now to the passage most frequently appealed to by those who oppose women’s ordination, 1 Timothy 2. We must begin with context and theme in order to properly situate this text, before examining it in detail.

The History of Ephesus

The church at Ephesus was a special focal point for the spiritual battle between Paul and the Judaizers. As Paul made ready to go up to Jerusalem from Ephesus, he gathered the elders of the church there together and told them to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” in order to “care for the church of God,” because “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them,” (Acts 20:28, 29-30).

This prediction proved true, and Paul was forced to pen two epistles to the young, beleagured minister, Timothy. “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, not devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations…certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the Torah, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions,” (1 Tim. 1:3-4, 6-7).

It is commonly thought that John the Apostle wrote his three epistles to the church at Ephesus, against the gnostic threat there, denouncing this false faction as antichrists (1 John 2:18-22). “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you,” (1 John 2:26).

By the time Christ’s coming was imminent, around A. D. 65-67, the labors of Paul and John had finally paid off. In the letter penned by Jesus and sent to Ephesus, He declares, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false,” (Rev. 2:2).

The Problem at Ephesus

Like with the epistles of Peter, the epistle to Titus, the epistles of John, the epistle to the Hebrews, the epistle to the Galatians, and the epistle of Jude, the epistles to Timothy are written to confront the false teachings of the Judaizers, who have, in the case of Timothy’s Ephesian church, crept in and convinced a number of parishioners of their own teachings, and thereby created a division in the church that was threatening to tear it apart.

Paul’s argument is essentially not theological, but practical, not doxological, but praxological. That is, the core of his argument against these false teachers is that their fruit is rotten. By their fruits you shall know them, and theirs are quite pungent. “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith,” but “certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion,” (1 Tim. 1:5-6). Their views lead not to shalom and peace and unity, but to strife and envy and division. “By rejecting this, some people have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme,” (1 Tim. 1:19, 20).

As with Hymenaeus and Alexander just quoted above, some of these teachers were men. But in fact, Paul uses gender-inclusive pronouns throughout his discussion of these false teachers. “Certain persons…have wandered away,” “some people have made shipwreck of their faith.” This implies that at least some of the troublers of the Ephesian church were women, an implication Paul soon makes explicit. He warns Timothy away from “old wives’ tales,” (1 Tim. 4:7, KJV; once more the ESV obscures the meaning by rendering it with the neutral “irreverent, silly myths,” when graodec refers to old women specifically). He counsels Timothy to correct error with gentleness in both older men, older women, and younger women (1 Tim. 5:1-2), implying that these three categories were in need of correction and education. The young widows were particularly vulnerable to false teachers in this particular context, probably because they were dependent, and would be willing to listen to anyone who helped her: “when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith,” (1 Tim. 5:11-12), for “some have already strayed after Satan,” (5:15) and “saying what they should not,” (5:13). That is, these younger widows were tempted to marry, not just anyone, but those who spread false teachings and in this way were led astray by marriage. These Judaizers “are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth,” (2 Tim. 3:6-7), who are “evil people and imposters” that will “go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived,” (2 Tim. 3:13).

Paul views the church as the new garden of Eden, the Garden-City of God, and he frames his discussion of these false teachers as an Edenic typology. They “creep” into households and take women captive; symbolically they stand in the place of the Serpent who is assaulting, in particular, the women of the Ephesian church, the women stand in the place of Eve, and Timothy is framed as the New Adam of his church, who needs to rebuke such false teachings and drive the ringleaders out of the House of God as Adam should have done with the Serpent, guarding the traditions laid down by Paul. (We should note that women could also take the Serpent-crushing role in Christ, because Paul has already said of Priscilla and the other women of Romans 16 that “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet,” (Rom. 16:20). The role of Serpent-crusher can be represented by any leader in the Church, and in this case the typology applies as it does simply because Timothy happened to be the leader of this particular Church.

1 Timothy 2

The structure of the second chapter of First Timothy follows thusly:

A. All People (vv. 1-7)
B. Men (v. 8)
C. Women (vv. 9-5)
– a. Plural form (vv. 9-10)
– b. Singular form (vv. 11-15a)
– c. Plural form (v. 15b)

We will look at each section in turn.

A. All People (vv. 1-7)

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings [eucharistia] be made for all humanity [anthropos], for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all humanity [anthropos]  to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and humanity [anthropos], the new humanity [anthropos] Messiah Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all [humanity], which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher to the Gentiles in faith and truth.

I have modified the ESV slightly by changing “person” and “people” to “humanity,” because this is a stronger English equivalent of the Greek word anthropos, which refers to the whole of the human race. Thus, first, Paul calls for all Christians in Ephesus to mediate between the whole world and God, which involves mediation, or “intercession,” supplications, prayers, and thanksgivings. Far from promoting a culture war (which itself promotes the same sort of ungodly conflicts, anger, and divisions which he denounces the Judaizers for doing), Paul tells us to intercede on the world’s behalf, to supplicate to God for them, to pray for them, and to give “thanksgivings,” which in the Greek is eucharistia. Not only are we to give thanks and rejoice for the world, we are to perform the Eucharist for their sakes. And he requires us to do this for kings and all rulers; if you’re not interceding for Obama, and performing Eucharistia for Obama, you aren’t living up to the vision of Paul.

All this is to be done so that the Church will be able to live peaceful and quiet lives. This life of peace and peace-bringing is “pleasing in the sight” of Jesus, “who desires all humanity to be saved.” God’s greatest desire is for all humanity, the whole anthropos, to be saved. Next, Paul says that there is only one mediator between God and humanity, the new humanity of Messiah Jesus, the Totus Christus, Body and Head as “one flesh,” Christ and the Church together. The church can intercede on behalf of the world because, in union with Jesus, we also mediate for the sake of the world. The focus on the Body was in vv. 1-2, while the focus is on the Person and Work of Jesus in v. 5. Not only does Jesus desire for all humanity to be saved, His death on the cross is a ransom for all in v. 6, and the Greek implies that this ransom is not for all Christians, but for all humanity. This “ransom” does not refer to penal substitution, but to an act of liberation, of Jubilee, freeing us from enslaving powers as in the exodus (Ex. 6:6; Luke 9:31; Rom. 3:24; 8:22-23; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:7-8; Titus 2:14). The whole world was liberated from its slavery to Satan, corruption, and death in the death of Christ.

B. Men (v. 8)

I desire then that in every place the men [aner] should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling;

Returning to his gender-inclusive call that all Christians pray, intercede, and eucharistia for the sake of the world, here he specifically calls out the men to worship and pray in public worship without anger or quarreling, as, apparently, the Ephesian church was not doing. That is, he calls for peace, shalom.

C. Women (vv. 9-10)

likewise also that women [gune] should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women [gune] who profess [epaggello] godliness–good works.

Paul now turns to women, using the plural form, addressing all the women at Ephesus. He speaks to them “likewise” the men, that is, in the same way. He assumes they are not only participating in public worship, but were leading in supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings/Eucharistia just like the men. He even speaks of their profession of the faith, using the word epaggello, which Luke used to describe Paul’s own public teaching ministry: “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared [apaggello] first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem,” (Acts 26:20). Matthew uses it to speak of Mary Magdalane’s apostolic declaration of the gospel to the male disciples (John 20:18). Luke uses a related word (anaggello) for Paul’s declaration of the gospel at the first Jerusalem council (Acts 14:27).

Paul’s comments about dress codes must be understood first in the context of women who are already leading in speaking and praying in the public worship of the church at Ephesus. His point is that if you’re going to be leading in worship, you ought not to dress in a way that is alluring, as the outside world defines alluring. We recall that Paul has already declared that the women leading in worship “have authority over their own head,” (1 Cor. 11:10), announcing that they can decide for themselves how to dress. In 1 Timothy 2, his context is different, and his mission is for the church there to worship in such a way that they will avoid unnecessary persecution from Rome. The broader context is for worship that will allow the church to “lead a peaceful and quiet life,” and a close look at what he tells the women here not to adorn themselves with are all characteristics of the sultry and erotic worship of the Atremis cult centered in Ephesus (see Cunningham, Why Not Women?, ch. 16). Thus, his advise here is contextualized on the basis of being “all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:19-23), so as to minimize the slanders of the Jews and the Romans.

b. Singular form (vv. 11-15a)

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing–

This section is addressed to a woman in the singular form, as Paul switches from the plural form. David Hamilton has suggested this shift is because Paul has a particular woman in mind, who he does not name (Why Not Women?, 214-215). He observes that Paul often criticizes those who have fallen into sin without naming names, probably in the hopes that by such anonymous rebukes they will find repentance. He does not name the man sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor. 5:1-5) and neither the man in Crete, a “divisive person” who “must be silenced,” the ringleader of those who were “teaching things they ought not to teach,” (Titus 3:10, 1:11). If this is indeed what Paul is doing, and it seems probable, this woman was probably a central figure among the false teachers, and the process Paul commands Timothy to follow here would serve as a model for all those who are teaching wrong things and require correction. “command certain ones not to false doctrines,” (1 Tim. 1:3).

The situation in which a man, in this case Timothy, was appointed a guardian of the truth while a woman had been led astray naturally leads Paul to a typological comparison to Adam and Eve in the Garden. As usual, Paul lays the blame upon Adam while showing mercy to Eve, and as usual the Church has for too long blamed Eve. His point is not that Adam was made first and this somehow makes him better, smarter, or superior. Given what Paul has said about Adam and Eve elsewhere, this is simply impossible. No, Adam’s formation first means in this case that he has greater knowledge, having heard the prohibition on the Tree directly from God, while Eve was formed second and did not hear this directly from God. The force for the argument is in v. 14, not v. 13, on the temptation, not on the creation order. Paul claims that Adam was not deceived by the Serpent, but rather than somehow arguing that this made him less culpable, it actually makes him more culpable. Adam was not tricked by the Serpent, but still ate anyway. Genesis 3:6 tells us that Adam had been right there the whole time and had done nothing to deal with the false teaching of the Serpent, but willfully disobeyed. His sin was high-handed rebellion, conscious and willful. Eve, on the other hand, because of inferior knowledge, had been genuinely tricked and led astray. Adam knew he was sinning, while Eve didn’t, and even in the law there is special provision and mercy for sins of wandering astray. With such sins God is more lenient. With such sins Paul is also lenient–the male heretics were handed over to Satan, but the female heretic was handed over to Timothy for educating.

Still deep in his typological comparison with the temptation in the Garden, Paul then declares that “she” will be saved by childbearing. There has been much discussion about what exactly Paul means here, but he probably has both Eve and the unnamed woman teaching heresy in the Ephesian church in his mind. Having already declared that salvation for the whole world has come through Jesus’s liberating Jubilee “ransom” for all humanity, he is saying that Eve, the ezer-deliverer, will be herself delivered by the coming of her seed, the new anthropos of the Messiah, Jesus and the Church together, in union. He could also have the unnamed woman in mind, and since she is teacher needing correction, her “childbearing” refers to her restoration, in which she will bear many disciple-children, delivering them from destruction.

The middle part of this section (vv. 11-12) illustrates how that restoration process is to come about. This unnamed woman who is teaching false doctrine is to “learn quietly with all submissiveness.” Paul’s command to Timothy, far from prohibiting women from teaching, actually establishes that “a woman should learn” in order to do so properly. He prohibits any unlearned and untrained woman from teaching, just as he would prohibit any unlearned and untrained man to teach, and calls for all women gifted with teaching ability to be instructed for that end. The ESV’s rendering of v. 11 evacuates it of its force: “a woman must learn.” Since all women were encouraged to teach in the public gatherings of the Church (1 Cor. 11, 14), Paul is actually insisting upon a theological education for all women in the churches.

Moreover, a woman is to learn “quietly with all submissiveness.” This is not a reference to 1 Cor. 14:35, where women wanting to teach ought to be instructed by their husbands, but to formal theological education by Timothy and the other qualified overseers in the Church. The phrase “silence and submission” was a common Rabinnical phrase describing the ideal student (Grentz, Women in the Church, 128). Far from meaning “sit down and shut up,” it refers to a willing and open receptivity to the instruction and to the doctrine being taught. Sitting at the feet of the instructor places the learner in a position of reception and absorption, as with Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10:39). Such “sitting at the feet” of the instructor was also a posture of submission. All this is cogent with the teachings of Scripture. “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few,” (Eccl. 5:2). “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger,” (James 1:19). “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom,” (James 3:13).

What then is to be done with verse 12? “I do not permit a woman to teach [didasko] or to exercise authority over [authenteo] a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” The first thing to note is Paul’s odd word choice, if he is indeed referring to a woman exercising authority over men. The word translated “authority” everywhere else in the New Testament is exousia, yet here Paul chose the word authenteo, a word he only uses here. In point of fact, this word does not refer to neutral authority, but a usurpation or seizing of authority through deceptive or violent means, a “hostile takeover,” so to speak, using aggression. (For more, I highly recommend John Jefferson Davis’s essay “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives.“) Thus, Paul’s sense is, “I do not permit a woman to teach by usurping authority.” Paul is already thinking of this woman and all such deceived women as types of Eve, who usurped authority and seized power outside the lawful structures and proper channels. This woman’s problem was not that she was teaching men, but that she was teaching them wrongly, with both false teachings and with an aggressive, divisive spirit, something which Paul and Jesus strictly prohibited among the leadership of the Church: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” (Matt. 20:25-28).

Thus, this woman, and all false teachers, were to be taught by qualified persons in Ephesus, including the godly women who declare [epaggello] in worship (1 Tim. 2:10) and Timothy’s own grandmother and mother who instructed him in the “truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed” which he was to “continue in” (1 Tim. 4:6; 2 Tim. 1:5). Timothy was to “entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also,” (2 Tim. 2:2), but yet again the ESV is being disingenuous. Paul does not speak of “faithful men,” but of “faithful persons,” anthropos, not aner, human beings, not males.

c. plural form (v. 15b)

–if they continue in faithfulness and love and holiness, with self-control.

Paul finishes out his discussion by returning from the singular to the plural, speaking again to all the struggling, troubled, and divisive women in the Ephesian church that they will all be saved by the birthing of the Messianic anthropos, both Christ and Church together. The whole world at the time was travailing with birthing pangs, making ready to give birth to the sons of God (Rom. 8), the Church, which would appear in A. D. 70, coming down from heaven as the city of God (Rev. 21:1-3). But these women, like all people, would participate in this new reality only if they continued in faithfulness and love and holiness as Paul and Jesus defined it, in peace and love of neighbor and love of enemies and the fruits of the Spirit.


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