In my sermon on Sunday, I made an argument that the apostle Paul is neither a male chauvinist pig nor a helpless victim of a patriarchal culture who unconsciously reflects its oppressive values. I made this case by pointing to other parts of Paul’s letters that contradict this idea—especially his words in Romans 16, 1 Corinthians 11, and Galatians 3:28. How can we, the church, argue that women shouldn’t serve in leadership roles in the church based on Paul’s words (in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, for example), when Paul himself, in other places, indicates that they are and should?
As I said Sunday, Paul can’t mean that all women at all times and in all places should remain silent in worship in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 when, in the very same letter, 11:4-5, he assumes that women aren’t silent (“but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled…”), nor should they be.
As always, we have to interpret difficult passages of scripture first in light of scripture that’s clearer and easier to understand. Therefore, whatever we think Paul means in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, he can’t mean that all Christian women at all times and in all places are prohibited from participating fully in church leadership. He must be saying something else.
My favorite theologian and Bible scholar, N.T. Wright, makes the same argument in the following video clip—except with an English accent, so you know it must be true.
Notice he refers the listener to his commentary, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters, for his argument about Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:8-15, which in my view are among the most difficult to understand in all of the Bible.
His argument takes up several pages in his commentary. Let me try to represent it as succinctly as possible. First, the key to the passage is to understand what Paul is getting at in this passage: Women must be allowed to learn and study God’s word, every bit as much as men. Women should do, for example, what Martha’s sister Mary does in Luke 10:38-42. In the culture of the Ancient Near East, that Jesus permitted Mary to sit at his feet alongside the men was a radical gesture; Paul’s words are in that same spirit. Therefore, his words about “full submission” in v. 11 describe a woman’s attitude as a fellow learner: in submission not to men, but to God.
Verse 12, however, is more controversial. Of this verse, Wright says,
Then the crucial verse 12 need not be read as ‘I do not allow a woman to teach or hold authority over a man’ (the translation which has caused so much difficulty in recent years). It can equally mean: ‘I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as the new authority over men in the same way that previously men held authority over women.’ Why might Paul need to say this?
There are some signs in the letter that it was originally sent to Timothy while he was in Ephesus. And one of the main things we know about religion in Ephesus is that the main religion—the biggest temple, the most famous shrine—was a female-only cult. The Temple of Artemis (that’s her Greek name; the Romans called her Diana) was a massive structure which dominated the area. As befitted worshippers of a female deity, the priests were all women. They ruled the show and kept the men in their place.
So in a pagan religious milieu in which women held great power over men, Paul wants to make sure that these Ephesian Christians don’t get the wrong idea: “I’m not saying that Christian worship in Ephesus should mirror pagan worship, in that women now get to dictate to men; only that they should be encouraged to learn alongside them.”
We’re not out of the woods, though: What do we make of this weird part about Adam and Eve? We know that Paul can’t be blaming Eve for Adam’s sin—in which case we’d have to throw out large chunks of his argument in Romans! He’s referring instead to the nature of Eve’s sin: ignorance. Unlike Adam, who deliberately sinned by breaking God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit, Eve sinned because she failed to understand the command, which was given to Adam in Genesis 2:16-17. Seriously: read these verses in the context of the entire chapter.
Now read 1 Timothy 2:13-14 again: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve…” Paul doesn’t say this in order to establish an ontological hierarchy: “See, men are superior to women.” Rather, he’s reminding Timothy that when God gave the command to Adam, Eve wasn’t yet created! Eve was created some time later, in Genesis 2:21ff. So Eve had to learn about God’s command concerning the forbidden fruit later—and she failed to learn it well, obviously. For all we know, Adam failed to teach it to her properly. As a result, she fell into sin.
Adam sinned too, of course, but the nature of his sin was different—and in some ways worse, at least based on an Old Testament accounting of sin.
So Paul is using this illustration from Genesis 2-3 to stress the importance that everyone—both men and women—be given the opportunity to learn the word of God.
Finally, what about v. 15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” Unless we imagine that Paul has forgotten about salvation by grace through faith, we know he can’t be saying that women are saved as a result of their ability to give birth. That’s preposterous! Since the Creation story of Genesis 2-3 is still in view, Paul has in mind Eve’s punishment for her sin, described in Genesis 3:16 (“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children). Eve’s punishment doesn’t cut women off from salvation: for women, like men, will be saved through faith, love, and holiness.
I’ll leave you with Wright’s words again:
What about the bit about childbirth? Paul doesn’t see it as a punishment. Rather, he offers an assurance that, though childbirth is indeed difficult, painful and dangerous, often the most testing moment in a woman’s life, this is not a curse which must be taken as a sign of God’s displeasure. God’s salvation is promised to all, women and men alike, who follow Jesus in faith, love, holiness and prudence. And that includes those who contribute to God’s creation through childbearing. Becoming a mother is hard enough, God knows, without pretending it’s somehow an evil thing.
1. N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 25.
2. Ibid., 26-7.