1 Timothy 2:11-15
Thanks to my fellow bloggers, I have the delight of sharing my thoughts on perhaps the most difficult and controversial words in Paul’s first letter to Timothy:
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—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
When we hear words in scripture such as these, which seem counter-cultural in our society (women should be quiet and not exercise authority over men) or seemingly challenge doctrine clearly described in other parts of scripture (women will be saved through childbearing, as opposed to through faith), we have a spectrum of options available to us. At one end of the spectrum we can suggest that Paul was writing in a culture so different to our own that these words are simply not relevant today and should be ignored. At the other end of the spectrum, we can take every word of this passage as eternally true and therefore as literally relevant today as it was in Paul’s day. The first leaves us in the dangerous position of picking and choosing which bits of scripture WE want to listen to, and the latter can lead to an isolated and seemingly ancient faith that speaks little in today’s world. Most people would find their interpretation of these words somewhere between, which is what I suggest here.
In the previous passage Paul has talked about how men should pray ‘lifting up holy hands without anger or argument’ (v.8) and that women should ‘dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works [in] reverence for God.’ (v.10). It seems to me in these verses there are eternal truths and cultural references. The eternal truth in v.8 is that men should pray without anger or argument – prayer is not the place to settle scores with one another, but the cultural reference is that they should hold their hands aloft while they do it. The eternal truth in v.10 is that women (for the sake of everyone!) should dress for worship modestly and decently, and clothe themselves in good works out of reverence for God, whilst the cultural reference is that they do that by not braiding their hair, wearing gold, pearls or expensive clothes. And so I propose the same breakdown of cultural and eternal truths in the verses we are considering in this post. The complimentary nature of the two sexes God uses to reflect his image is often described in the Bible in terms of authority and submission (in the same manner as the complimentary nature of the trinitarian God-head is described in terms of authority and submission). Men and Women are different – complimentary, but different, and in any relationship, marriage, friends, colleagues, churches, that complimentary can be seen. But in our personal relationships, male and female, made in the image of God, reflect the submission/authority relationship of the trinitarian God-head. Me and my wife balance it like this – I’m in charge, but my wife is always right. I have the position of authority in our relationship, but the authority only exists to support and build up what my wife believes is right. This is the eternal truth of this passage – both male and female made in the image of God with complimentary roles in relationships. The cultural reference here is that women should do that by being quiet, not teaching, or as other translations puts it, being silent. Today, as in the case of dressing without braided hair, or having to lift your hands in prayer, the relationship between male and female and its complimentary nature does not have to be exercised through silent women.
This leads us to understand that v.13-14 describe the downfall of the whole of humanity – Adam for not taking responsibility and leading his wife in love, and Eve for being tempted. This is no finger pointing at one gender of humanity. Interestingly this could be carried through to the final difficult sentence in this passage in which most translations give the sense that the act of childbirth saves a woman. However, these translations miss that in the Greek text, ‘childbirth’ (τεκνογονίας) is actually preceded by the article (τῆς τεκνογονίας), and thus could be translated ‘Yet she will be saved through THE birth of a child’, which may lead us to see salvation through faith in Christ after all. Perhaps it is in that birth – that of Jesus born of Mary – that we see this passage come alive in understanding. Mary, in quiet submission, but certainly not in silence; with humble heart, but certainly not in timidity or lack of steely courage and determination, gave birth to a child who would offer salvation to the whole of humanity through His death on the cross. Interestingly of course, the final call to faith, love, holiness, with modesty, is given in the plural – male and female together – saved through Christ – called to be humble in heart and courageous for God.
These thoughts are a work in progress, and by no means are complete. I thank John Stott, whose commentary on 1 Timothy & Titus in the Bible Speaks Today series has been invaluable in thinking through these verses.