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.



About Paul Robinson

Hi! I am URC minister at the United Church in Rhyl in North Wales. I love the Bible, preaching and using and leading music in worship; and I'm blessed by a God who has and wants to reach me in grace. I'm 30, have been married to Jo for nearly 7 years, and we have a baby girl called Rachel who is 8 months old.

Posted on July 23, 2012, in Monday Exposition and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I’m not at all sure that the eternal truth/cultural specific dichotomy is the best way to approach the problem, since it still leaves you picking and choosing, just within rather than between passages. The difficulty with it is its dualism, as if we can stand partly inside and partly outside time and history, which I suspect relates to a body/soul dualism alien to the gospel.

    I would prefer to read scripture as (a single) narrative (from creation to the end of time) with embedded in it a narrative key (Jesus’ story) that unlocks and releases the truth towards which it points, that truth being Jesus (not some ideas about Jesus but Jesus himself still alive and present to us in Word and Sacrament). There is no eternal truth except him.

    This means, for me, that the approach of trying to glean nuggets of truth, isolated from our relationship to Jesus, can only ever be a form of rebellion. We want to master truth by grasping, securely and for ourselves, part of Truth.

    I’d much rather read the pastoral epistles as opening up to us part of the story of the development and consolidation of the apostolic Church. The difference in mood and emphasis between a letter like 1 Timothy and a letter like 1 Corinthians is itself part of the story. It helps us recognise the rhythms and patterns of the way the relationship with Christ develops within and between communities and the need for different guiding in different times and places.

  2. Nick, thanks for the comment – I agree with most of what you are saying here. The single narrative of scripture is important, and that in itself points us to consider what value we place on a passage such as this, which can be countered by other portions of scripture in their context. Obviously in taking the “narrative key” of the “Jesus’ story” you are introducing your own dualism with which to analyse passages (does this fit with the Jesus I know and understand, or not). In developing our single narrative, we have to decide which passages are foundational in forming our view of that single narrative: some would go for the narrative of covenant (like NT Wright) others would highlight the redemptive narrative, others focus on the Jesus story, and others still just the red words that Jesus spoke in the gospels. I’ve just returned from a Summer School in which the teaching of scripture was defined by asking “would Jesus say amen to that?”. All of these are choices we make in reading scripture, can bring light to passages, and help us when we encounter portions of scripture that stretch our understanding, seem counter-cultural or counter-my-theology. The fact remains that through all of that we each have to decide what we’re going to with these four verses of scripture – ignore them because they don’t seem to be endorsed by the Jesus we make out of the grand narrative, accept them as key to our understanding of God and nature because as good protestants Paul is THE theologian par excellence, or find some balance in the middle. My middle will be different from others. And that is fine.
    Hope that helps. Feel free to continue the discussion….

  3. I agree with your conclusion: we are all saved through the birth of a child. It seems to me that Paul is meditating on those first chapters of Genesis here and is alluding to what Martin Luther called ‘the proto-euangelion’ (Genesis 3:15). I also support your model of principle and cultural application used here. And believe that you can strengthen your case for this by appealing to the Reformed principle of letting Scripture interpret Scripture (Without requiring vague reductionist antinomian narrative keys that are inconsistently applied).

  4. I suspect you may be reading in to my appeal to Jesus as the key something I didn’t intend to put there. I think Jesus is simply not comprehensible outside the overall narrative of scripture and also that no passage can be excluded by appeal to an imagined (e.g. liberation oriented) Jesus. I am in fact appealing precisely to the idea that scripture has to interpret scripture.

    What I’m not wild about is the idea of “key passages”, since I don’t see where the warrant for elevating some passages or books comes from.

    My biggest problem, though, is with the idea that we can extract from scripture some truth that we then use as a yardstick in our interpretation. Our task, rather, is to go to scripture again and again in the hope (faith) that we will encounter Christ there.

  5. Paul Robinson

    Nick thanks for your comment – I think we’re in complete agreement now! I don’t support “key passages” to determine a narrative – all passages should be equally elevated (that’s my understanding of 2 tim 3:16!). I hope too that I haven’t used any other yardstick for truth other than scripture itself – its certainly not my intention to have done so. The cultural/eternal truth divide, in my opinion doesn’t give a yardstick for interpretation but simply a tool for interpreting relevance for today (i.e. Paul was completely correct, and it was right and true for Paul to tell women to be silent in his day – it’s a cultural temporal truth, not an eternal truth for all times and cultures). In many senses it is the tool that we use in interpreting much of the Old Testament (particular chunks of the Levitical law) as we seek to encounter Christ there.

    I hope too that my conclusions in interpreting this passage point to the fact that after analysing the cultural and eternal truths contained here, we have indeed encounter Christ, who is both culturally relevant in this moment, and has an eternal and majestic reign.

  6. I’m not sure we can agree completely, Paul, since I don’t accept the idea that there are “eternal truths” that can be isolated and extracted in and from our reading of scripture. I’m suggesting that everything there is simultaneously revelatory of God and also radically and completely culturally and historically specific. Revelation takes place in time and history and cannot take place anywhere else, since that’s where we are and revelation is revelation to us as well as revelation of God.

    Thus I accept that the distinction between sexes is a real and important one and that a liberalism that denies its significance is deeply misguided, so in that sense I’m complementarian. On the other hand I don’t accept that trying to fix any aspect of the living of that difference in the shape given by the first century makes any sense at all.

    1 Timothy tells us how its author thought relationships in the early Pauline churches should be organised. We have various ways of approaching what that reveals to us about Christ’s will for that church then and how that helps us in understanding Christ’s will for the Church and the world today. I’m not sure dividing the teaching into “cultural” and “eternal” is likely to be the most fruitful nor am I sure that creating abstract rules about how we describe or organise our personal relationships is the best we can do with it.

    There is a process of very fundamental change going on in the way the sexes relate to one another, some of which is driven by the technology of reproduction, some by the incredible advances in other parts of our understanding and management of creation, in terms of science, technology and the organisation of our economies. What we need is a real grappling with what that means and how we should relate to it. Too much “complementarian” teaching is an attempt to deny what’s going on and a reassertion of masculine and feminine roles that belong to the past. It won’t help us in the long term, just make some of us feel better in certain ways in the short term.

  7. Nick, I think you are somewhat confused/ confusing here.

    No one has appealed to a key passage, Paul Robinson is writing in a series that is working its way through the whole of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. I hope that this series is rightly informed by theological scholarship but is also devotional and therefore asks the question what does this passage mean for us.

    I perceived in your first critique, a vague, reductionistic and antinomian narrative key inconsistently applied and you helpfully cleared up that concern by clarifying that scripture must indeed interpret scripture. On that point I think we are agreed.

    I now think you are suggesting an extreme form of cultural relativism, that would deny that any of this truth can be true for us (this would perhaps lead to a functional atheism if not a thoroughgoing atheism). It is their experience, their cultural context, their arguments; so presumably we can come to church today and argue with our fellow brothers in prayer and our young women can come wearing body paint?!? No, I do not think this can be right.

    I think you are right that we need to think carefully about how we express the Christian faith in relation to new scientific discoveries, technological advances, and the management of our economies (but we are called to be faithful to God’s Word in the midst of this).

    In the context of God given equality and complementarity (that you seem to acknowledge), grappling with Scripture and his own life and marriage, Paul offers us a way of understanding what this passage may mean for us. It’s not a simplistic restatement of what has been. Though given our cultural chaos and the damage that it is causing men, women, and children (as sex is entered into without commitment, as marriages begin with too little thought, under false assumptions and end in acrimony, as children are made to bear the weight of keeping parents together, and as young men and women often grow up without, or with inadequate, male role models), perhaps it is time for us to start re-engaging with Scripture on this subject.

    I don’t expect you to agree with me on this but I hope you can respect Paul’s integrity in wrestling with Scripture and his own marriage (21st Century Context) and sharing this with us.

  8. Thanks, James, I hope nothing I wrote could be construed as questioning Paul’s integrity. That was certainly not my intention and if it read like that I apologise.

    Nor was it my intention to advocate cultural relativism, if by that you mean the idea that nothing has any truth outside its context.

    My argument is fairly straightforward, I think, and not too confusing, although I appreciate you are unlikely to accept it:
    1) Scripture is best read as a story about God’s dealing with creation and especially with God’s chosen people, not as a repository of timeless rules or truths
    2) this is because God has to reveal himself to us in our fallen state in time and history (accommodate us, in Calvin’s term), come to meet us as we are
    3) the appropriation by us of this story (or more properly of us by it) is a precondition of entering relationship with God in our own time
    4) our grasp of God’s will for us will always be and has always been partial and limited (including that of the authors of the Biblical texts)
    5) we rely on the guiding of the Spirit and the support of the whole body of Christ in his Church to perceive what we can of the revealed truth

  9. Given this clarification I don’t think we are as far apart as you think. I think I probably have a greater faith in the Holy Spirit’s ability to guide the authors of the Bible (2 Timothy 3). I also think we have to read the Bible carefully paying attention to literary genre (not all of it is historical narrative or story, we read proverbs and songs and letters and prophecy etc.) and we must pay attention to its place in the canon of Scripture as a whole (the Levitical food laws and circumcision for example played a role in setting apart the people of Israel but are set aside when the Gospel is preached to the whole world – cf. Matthew 15, Acts 10). I agree that our grasp of Scripture will to some extent be partial and limited but we shouldn’t use that as an excuse not to wrestle with the text and apply it to our lives. Your initial assumption that this passage could not possibly be challenging you or us about our own relationships seems to lack the humility that you exhibit in point four ‘our grasp of God’s will for us will always be and has always been partial and limited’. It is precisely in acknowledging this fact that I come to the Bible praying that God would give me ears to hear and a heart to understand His Word.

  10. I’m glad to have established some common ground but I’m a little puzzled why you say I’ve made an assumption that this passage can’t challenge us. I’m unaware of having stated or made implicitly such an assumption. My starting point in this discussion wasn’t really with the detail or substance of this passage but with the stated hermeneutic principle that we could separate culturally specific from eternally true statements in the scriptural text.

    I’m objecting to this as a way of interpreting (or more properly opening ourselves up to) the Bible. I’m arguing that
    – any passage will be distorted by isolating it from its place in the overall story (in this case of the development of the Church
    – as fallen human beings our access to the eternally true (as designation that for me can only point the inner being of the triune God) is always in time and history and always partial

    Our (real) difference, I suspect, is in how we see the relationship between Word (Christ) and word (scripture) where I take the a Barthian type view that the Word of God is Jesus and the word in the Bible is a witness to but not identical with this Word. I would thus be sceptical of any view that argued that the authors’ words were directly and immediately inspired.

  1. Pingback: Shaped by the Word: what should happen when we read the Bible? « Love's Work

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