“The game is afoot”
The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes enjoyed when a case came up to challenge his prowess. He reveled in the difficulties of discovering how a crime was elaborately committed.
I’m not so sure I always feel as optimistic about theological issues challenging my prowess—I’m woefully inadequate. Nevertheless, “the game is afoot” as we continue working through one of the most contentious sections of 1 Timothy: chapter 2 verses 11-15.
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.
1 Timothy 2:11-15
New International Version
Last week, we looked briefly into some of the issues surrounding the understanding of “authority”. If you missed it, you’d better read it first. Especially remember: Paul is writing under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration in Greek, not English.
Verse 11 reminded Timothy Paul requires women to learn. In and of itself, this is amazing because Jewish tradition at the time of Paul did not allow women to learn about spiritual matters in public at all. We can already see how the Gospel is restoring the image of God to men and women.
It’s unclear how far “submission” goes, but it would at least have meant the church leaders of the local congregation. Paul (and ultimately, the Lord who inspired these words) is in no way suggesting a woman surrenders her mind, conscience, or spiritual discernment. He’s talking about submission to an established structure, not becoming a doormat.
Then he qualifies the attitude of this newfound freedom of learning publicly: stillness, calmness, and under the authority of someone else. The inspired apostle continues in verse 12 telling his young student of leadership that he doesn’t allow a woman to teach or assume a position of independent authority over a man.
It’s unclear whether Paul is limiting this to Ephesus only, or is making a pronouncement to all Christian women in all churches. It does seem important to note: Scripture never records Paul himself appointing women to positions of official authority.
To this he adds, “she must be quiet”—reminding Timothy what was written in verse 11. Verses 13-15 are Paul’s theological elaboration on why he rejects this model of women in authoritative teaching.
The emphasis here is not on suppression of women, but on a woman’s attitude in learning. Again, his statements allowing women to learn in a public worship service were a radical departure from the Jewishness of the Christian faith. He’s certainly not referring to the absence of sound from women, but the presence of a teachable spirit.
Many of my brothers and sisters who advocate for an interpretation of women cannot have any spiritual authority over a man quickly run into a problem of hermeneutical consistency.
That is, if we take Paul literally about authority (as we’d understand it in English), we must ask ourselves a few questions of application:
- Can a woman pray for a man’s prayer request—is there authority there?
- Can a woman read Scripture publicly—anywhere men are present?
- If a woman leads music and worship, is that the authority? Can she be on a worship team? Sing a solo?
- At what point does a Christian mother lose her parental authority over her Christian son (because God made the family long before he made the Church)? At 13 (age of male Jewish adulthood)? At 16 (voting and driving age in America)? At 18 (age of American adulthood)? At 21 (legal alcoholic drinking and marrying age in America)?
- In congregational churches, is a woman allowed to vote since her vote is exercising some type of authority over a man (or men)?
Also, if we’re being consistent in our English understanding, we must also take “quietness” literally. In short, consistency of interpretation regarding a woman not having any spiritual authority at all would also require women would not be allowed to be heard in a public worship service. We can’t be literal on one then two words later interpret metaphorically.
Fortunately, Paul was not writing in 21st century English; he was writing in 1st century (koine) Greek. And I’ve gone to great lengths assisting in understanding what is being conveyed here. Perhaps more importantly, we must also consider what is not being conveyed here.
The connection the Apostle Paul makes between teaching and authority would most closely be understood in the modern congregation as a Lead Pastor, or a Teacher Elder. Such an office might not have existed in the mostly small house churches of the 1st century. In our time, these positions represent the “final human authority” in a congregation.
They are the leaders for the congregation. The most consistent interpretation I can apply that takes into account the nuance of Paul’s argument while not straining too deeply into what he doesn’t write leaves me with one definitive conclusion: women cannot serve in a position of final teaching authority in a local congregation.
It’s not saying they can’t teach at all (Scripture has too many examples where they do). It’s not saying women can’t have any type of authority (again, Scripture has too many examples where they do). Nor is the Holy Spirit via the ink and quill of Paul saying women are incompetent to serve in the role of Lead Pastor or Teaching Elder.
Ultimately, Paul isn’t making nearly as big of a deal about women in ministry as we do from this passage. He’s promoting healthy marriages and stable motherhood. We’ll see more of this as we continue our journey through 1 Timothy.
The Lord is promoting the unique gift Christians (all of humanity, really) have in women; not offering a way to suppress them. He’s releasing women to be what God created them to be and setting them free to fully bear the Image of God and the Spirit of God through themselves.
Interested in more like this? Consider Joel’s book: 31 Days of Spiritual Wisdom: A Month in the Proverbs. Moving through a selection of verses from a chapter of Proverbs for every day of the month, Joel walks readers through a journey of spiritual formation applicable to everyday life. The goal? Knowing how to apply the wisdom of Scripture so we grow in our faith, become wiser, and show the world the life-changing power of Jesus.