A Look at 1 Timothy 2:1-15 from My Egalitarian Perspective

I had the opportunity to write our church’s small group study this week. We create every other week based on the text the sermon will be preaching and while the study is not always sermon centric, the guide aims to study the passage through small group discussion. We’re big believers in the importance of Scripture in community.

Also, it must be mentioned, the sermon this past Sunday was incredible. Our pastor, Bryan, gave one of the clearest and strongest messages for the egalitarian position that I’ve heard. He includes his “conversion” from complementarianism to egalitarianism, his look at I Timothy 2:-15, and a fantastic historical understanding of evangelicalism and the role of women. I had no idea how mindful early evangelicalism was to include women in leadership and am shocked at its regression. Here’s the link to the video or if you prefer, audio only.

So the text for my study was the infamous 1 Timothy 2:1-15 and here are a few of my reflections from the egalitarian position from the text. If you are new to the conversation, there are these two terms you need to be familiar with – complementarian and egalitarian.

Complementarianism holds that “God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human personhood, but different and complementary in function with male headship in the home and in the Church.
Egalitarianism asserts that there should be no gender-based role distinctions or limitations placed on women in the home, church, or society. According to this view, women can serve as pastors in light of passages like Galatians 3:28.
(Definitions from http://www.theopedia.com/Complementarianism and http://www.theopedia.com/Egalitarianism)

To be clear, I’m a firm believer of the egalitarian position. I am passionate about this position but know that I love and appreciate many who are passionately complementarian. I feel they suffer from a poor hermeneutic (the process of interpreting Scripture based on a tradition and presupposition) of Scripture. And in my estimation, by not empowering half the church we become unfaithful with who/what God has entrusted our community with and I fear this limits the impact of the Kingdom.

So here’s my study adapted into a blog post:
The Apostle Paul is writing to Timothy who lives in Ephesus. Ephesus was one of the most frequently traveled port cities of Asia Minor. It was wealthy, educated, spiritual and decadent. Think of it as a cross between Boston and New Orleans. The Temple of Artemis (also called Dianna by the Romans) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and countless of travelers would stop and pay homage in the temple that was led by female priests. It’s noteworthy that though many were not faithful believers of Artemis, it was the nature of pagan practice for one to worship whichever pagan god/goddess might grant you health/fertility/success/victory.

One of the critical themes of I & II Timothy is Paul’s confrontation of false teachings, namely Gnosticism, which claimed special enlightened knowledge and rejected the physical world in favor of the spiritual world. Gnostics consistently attacked/undermined Christianity, saying that there was only one spiritual resurrection and no future second coming of Jesus or a future bodily resurrection of the saints in Jesus (2 Timothy 2:18-19).

The Gnostics believed that this hidden knowledge was kept from the followers of Artemis as well. It’s easy to see how there could be a lot of confusion, false teaching, and the spreading of corrupt doctrine. Paul is trying to guard the young Christian community and preserve and promote sound Christian teaching.

1 I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. 7 And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.

Paul begins this section by promoting prayer for people, including government leaders. It makes a bit of sense as it’s hardly ever a good idea to be regarded as an enemy of the state. Further, Paul would love to see Roman leaders become Christ-followers. This is part of his motivation of writing Romans, which was likely written about 5-8 years before 1 Timothy. And if you’ve read Romans, you might remember there is a similar call to pray for leaders 13:1-7.

Then Paul encourages Christians to live peaceful lives in all godliness and holiness. He does not want violent insurrection against an already violent, pagan culture. Instead, he wants to inspire a Christian counter-culture that draws people into a life of Christian redemption and community.

Then he goes into a brief theological lesson on the oneness of Christ Jesus as he wants to reaffirm the centrality of the gospel of salvation found only in Jesus and nowhere else. Which again, this was easy to lose focus in a city that offered worship to many other gods. Paul is saying “only Jesus.”

8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 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, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

Then Paul transitions from calling for the intercession of government leaders to offering instructions on men praying instead of disputing and then, the way women dress for worship.

If you’re new to reading Paul, the casual advice is to “keep up.” This rabbi’s mind zigs and zags with wisdom, Torah history and every day practicality and theological discourse and there’s very little warning along the way.

But this is also where understanding the specific context of the early church in Ephesus is crucial. Paul is getting reports filled with various concerns. One is that the men are disputing with one another. And among others, the women were influenced and distracted more by their surroundings and were not focused on worship. The further issues of gossip from house to house is referenced later in I Tim. 5:13-18.

Then there’s the braided hair comment that throws off some of us modern day readers. Some commentators have speculated that the braided hair, immodest dress, and jewelry were consistent with pagan living. While there is dispute that braided hair was a common sign of prostitution, Paul is concerned with a fractured and distracted community and is offering solutions based on prayer, simplicity, and focused study. This all leads up to the verses that have been among the centers of the debate.

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

There has been much debate concerning the term “assuming authority” (v. 12) and so the ancient context and the Greek language must be explored. It is extremely noteworthy that the Greek word used is authentein. Usually, Paul and the New Testament writers use the more popular and less ambiguous term kurieuein when they mean “to bear power.” Authentein (“assume authority”) is a more aggressive term. More strikingly, it is often used in the negative and carries violence and sexual overtones.

Earlier usages of authentein can be found in the various accounts of Greek tragedies. For example, one version has Menelaus responsible for the death of Achilles and Menelaus is considered an authentes (and a miastor—crime-stained wretch who pollutes others). (Source—Sophocles’ Electra 272-275.) Why would Paul use this word??

Looking back in verse 12, epitrepo is used for “I do not permit.” Scholar John Towes makes the point that when epitrepo occurs, it is used “to speak to of a specific and limited situation rather than a universal one.” (Gen. 39:6, Ester 9:14, Job 32:14, and Hebrew wisdom literature such as Wisd. of Sol. 19:2, I Macc. 15:6, 4 Macc. 4:17-18.)

In my mind, this drastically changes the understanding of this problematic passage as it being local advice for a specific issue: Don’t let uneducated women teach the men, especially in a city known for women teaching and domineering over men. Then there is the aforementioned context of Gnosticism and pagan worship. When combined with the many occurrences of women leading throughout the early church, many of which Paul personally highlights in his letters, I don’t see how I Timothy 2:1-15 cannot be seen as contextual. I simply cannot be expected to believe that Paul has selectively forgotten what he’s been writing, sharing and celebrating for the last 10 years of his ministry.

Further, we must remember many of the Hebrew and Gentile women did not have the benefit of a Torah education like their Jewish male counterparts or the children born into very wealthy families). This is tragically why so many women were the recipients and givers of bad doctrine—they were not educated to know the difference and this is contextual.

So what do we do with vs. 13-14 (“it was Adam who was formed first, and Eve deceived first”)?
Two co-existing theories to be discussed: The most obvious is to return to the Hebrew creation account as a starting point. But this only offers a partial explanation. The second part is that throughout ancient history, and our own, there have been competing creation stories. One Gnostic-like creation myth has mythologized Eve as the firstborn of humanity and as “the one who brings knowledge and meaningful life to Adam.” (Source—On the Cherubim, Philo. 57-60 as quoted by I Suffer Not a Woman by Kroeger and Kreoger. pg. 65). This creation myth did exist before 45 A.D. which is a full decade prior to the believed earliest writing of I Timothy.

Thus, some find Paul’s need to explain the Hebrew Genesis Creation story to be very plausible. The more I learn of Paul’s fist century world, the more I’m drawn to it. Like it or not, Paul is conversant with his world and further, he writes like a guy who has no idea that so many so people will be reading these words. I like to think that had he understood what he was inspired to write, he would have “winked into the camera” and wrote a few words for future audiences, especially as he wrote toward the end of his imprisonment and impending death. But he doesn’t, he’s always focused on his intended audience. This is more observation than rhetoric but as I sit and read by Bible, I cannot help but wonder about this.

So what could Paul possibly mean when he says, “Women will be saved through child-bearing?” First, we know that tragically, not all women survive child-bearing so Paul must be referring to something allegorical or big-picture theological. There are many theories, I’ll mention two, both lack what I want: One is that through God’s goodness, the female gender will continue because women are still being born. This theory is a bit too obvious and lacks Paul’s usual sophistication. The second theory is that God is so good, that He brought salvation in the form of Jesus and He was born of a woman—thus women are saved through child-bearing. Though better than the first theory, I find it unsatisfying particularly in the context. I prefer what some commentators have inferred – it’s very weird and we don’t really know what he’s talking about.

This is perhaps one of the most complicated passages in all of Scripture. As we remember the false doctrines and competing narratives that Paul was fighting in his day, let us remember how the Spirit strengthens us today and how the Scriptures inform us in belief and practice to be the people that God has called us to be. Therefore, may we continue to dig in Scripture and spend some time in prayer for men and women to be faithful to Christ, serve together, and love others.

Comments

  1. Tim, you might be interested in Tom Wright’s take on these issues. He argues for allowing women equal access to leadership opportunities in the church, but to my delight, points out that Paul is not abolishing the differences between men and women. To the contrary, he is arguing that for Paul and for Christians in general, the differences continue to have meaning and purpose.

    http://www.cbeinternational.org/files/u1/PP204_web__Autumn_2006__wright.pdf

    Note that this is published by Christians for Biblical Equality, so it is not some right-wing radical reinterpretation — although it is certainly a reinterpretation. I do not take all details of the reinterpretation as definitive (and neither does Wright), but I like the approach.

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