A Line in the Sand? (A sermon on 1 Timothy 2)

A few weeks ago, as most of you know, Dave and Denning from Holy Trinity went to Syria as part of a peace delegation, and we all held our breath and prayed for their safety. Especially Denning’s mum. We hoped that the outcomes of the mission would be worth the risk they may have been taking with their lives. And we were all relieved when they made it back safely.

This morning I am placing myself in another war zone, and I hope I am also here as a delegate of peace. It may be true that lives have not been lost in this battle, but livelihoods, reputations, and a sense of belonging have definitely been gained and lost. Christian witness has been seriously damaged, and Christian unity disastrously compromised. This battle is over the inclusion of women in leading and teaching ministries in the church.

Just last Christmas, John Dickson published a little modest book that made a little modest claim about the verse we will look at this morning. He said[1] that when 1 Timothy 2:12 says “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man”, the word for “teach” is a technical term for a type of teaching that has no longer been practiced in the church; so the verse does not prevent – or even refer to – the sort of teaching women might do today.

This was a very modest claim. Too modest, to my thinking, but because the uproar that followed it, his invitation to speak at the Katoomba Women’s Convention was withdrawn. And I suspect he lost a few friends. And maybe gained some, too.

In our current environment in Sydney churches there are consequences for stepping out of line on this issue. Michael Jenson, in his recent book on Sydney Anglicans[2], says that 1 Timothy 2:12 has become a “line in the sand” for most of the leadership of our diocese. Those considered to be on the wrong side of the line are not only labelled as feminists, but as unbiblical, unevangelical and sometimes even heretical.

We are in the middle of a battle here.

And those of you who know me at all know that I am not a fighter. I REALLY don’t like conflict. But a few months ago when some of us were discussing this battle, I found myself saying, “Um… I have some thoughts on 1 Timothy 2. Maybe I could put them into a sermon some time…” And somehow, some time has turned into this morning.

Since I made that offer I have been given some great reasons for not preaching this sermon. Quite apart from the fact that I hate conflict.

Those reasons come down to a question of how much weight should be placed on 1 Timothy 2:12. By focusing on this verse, am I reinforcing the “line in the sand” mentality that has brought us to this crisis.[3]

I have been wrestling with this question for a few months now. And I can definitely see compelling reasons for not focusing on 1 Timothy 2:12; reasons that have nothing to do with feminism and everything to do with a couple of principles of biblical interpretation that are honoured – and I’d like to think practiced – in most Sydney Anglican churches.

  1. We should give more weight to the whole message of the Bible and less weight to individual verses that seem out of step with the rest of the Bible.[4]
  2. We should give more weight to clear, straightforward passages and less to obscure ones.[5]

Both those principles encourage us to approach 1 Timothy 2 with great caution.

In relation to the first principle: I can’t take you through the whole Bible this morning. Maybe another time.[6]

But consider 2 Kings 22:11-12. The young king, Josiah, has given orders for the temple to be repaired and a priest brings out the book of the law, which had been hidden.

In this Key moment in Old Testament history, a female prophet exercises what is arguably the highest form of authority there is in any spiritual community. She decides whether or not a piece of writing should be heard as the word of God. And not just any piece of writing either. This is the book of the Law! The book that all their civil and religious activities were supposed to be based on. And she also announces the timing of the coming destruction and exile: it is inevitable, she says, soon but not until after the death of the current king. And that’s how it was. Jerusalem was destroyed and its population taken into exile during the lifetime of Josiah’s sons.

It is clear in the Old Testament[7] that the way to know if a prophet is genuinely from God is in hindsight. If their predictions prove true then they are legitimate prophets of God. So readers of the final version of 2 Kings can be in no doubt about Hulda’s legitimacy. Her predictions proved true, so readers can be assured that her authority was from God. It is not common for women to exercise this sort of authority in the patriarchal Old Testament culture, but it was accepted without comment when it did happen.

In the New Testament we also see a number of women exercising leadership. We find them mainly in the greetings sections of Paul’s letters. Again, this is a patriarchal culture where men are better educated and so are generally better suited than women to teaching ministries so, yes, more of the teachers are men, but women are there, teaching and leading, and no embarrassment is expressed about their presence.

If 1 Timothy 2:12 really is saying that women must never teach or exercise authority over men, then this one verse is on its own[8], and it stands against a thread of biblical tradition in which women have taught and exercised spiritual authority in the Old and New Testaments, and have been commended – not condemned.

So, on the principal that we should give more weight to the whole message of the Bible and less to contrary individual verses, we see that 1 Timothy 2:12 needs to be read with a lot of caution.

And this is even more the case when we consider the second principle: that we should give more weight to clear passages and less to obscure ones. Let me read 1 Timothy 2:12-15,

12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

 

There are so many questions raised by this difficult passage. When the various puzzling bits[9] in these verses are added up they amount to easily the most obscure passage in the New Testament, maybe even in the whole Bible. We must be very cautious about allowing these verses – on their own – to direct our doctrine or practice in the church.

Making these verses a line in the sand is simply not sound[10] biblical interpretation.

If you believe that women should be fully involved in the leadership and teaching ministries of the church, just don’t accept the accusations that you are therefore unbiblical, unevangelical or unchristian. And if you believe that women should not be involved in leadership in the church, please don’t accuse people who disagree with you of being unbiblical.

I’m not saying that we should ignore these verses or cut them out of our Bibles. We should just give them their proper weight.

But in spite of all that, I decided to go ahead and preach on 1 Timothy 2. That’s because I know a number of ministers who are afraid of where they might end up if they follow the call of their heart and their mind: if they give women the same respect and dignity that they give men; if they allow their churches to benefit from the gifts of all members, including the teaching and leadership gifts of women; if they submit to the transformation that must take place in the church when the voice of women is heard as well as the voice of men.

I know women who sense a call and gifting toward ministries of leadership and teaching, yet are told that the God who seems to be calling them does not allow them to practice those ministries.

Many good-hearted people are conflicted and confused. They want to obey God, yet they are told that the command of God on this issue is the opposite of the voice of their own conscience. There is a battle: not just between factions and between denominations. There is a battle in the hearts of a lot of Christian people.

Before we move on to examining 1 Timothy 2, I would like to give you half a minute of silence to ask yourself how you have fared so far in this battle …

 

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.

 

This chapter begins by calling for a non-anxious attitude toward civic authorities who would mostly have been pagan and hostile.[11]

 

Paul calls Christians to be wise. If they openly oppose those authorities they will bring down retribution on themselves. Surely the best outcome for everyone would be for those authorities to come under the influence of God’s spirit and submit to the truth. As Paul goes on to say:

 

This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

 

For

there is one God;

there is also one mediator between God and humankind,

Christ Jesus, himself human,

6        who gave himself a ransom for all

 

There is only one ultimate authority. These leaders might put themselves in the place of God.[12] But this is blasphemy, and the Ephesian Christians could be confident that God would deal with them when God was ready.

 

Don’t bother trying to gain influence with the governor or the emperor. You have influence with the one who has real authority. So use that influence by praying!

 

Paul goes on to say:

 

For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

 

Paul’s defensive tone here suggests that his authority as an apostle was being questioned by some in Timothy’s congregations. Paul doesn’t like having his authority undermined[13] because his authority is intimately connected to his message.

 

Paul wrote this letter to Timothy because his message of the Gospel was being corrupted. At the start of the letter he says, “I urge you to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine.” He speaks of endless genealogies, myths and speculation. This sounds like the sort of stuff that has often popped up in the church – the DaVinci Code type conspiracy theories, the secret knowledge that only select Christians possess, those stories that are just so much more exciting than the Gospel.[14]

 

Some of the myths and conspiracy theories in Ephesus probably related to the temple of the goddess Artemis that dominated the city. And because of that female deity it is likely that some of the myths were about women and birth and about relationships between men and women. In 4:3 we read: “They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods.” In 5:13 Paul speaks of some young women gadding about from house to house, saying what they should not say. So perhaps some of these speculations had something to do with a need for women to escape from biology in order to enter a genuinely spiritual life.[15]

 

In this church that seems to be oppressed from outside by hostile civic leadership, and conflicted within by disagreements over doctrine, Paul says to the men:

 

I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument;

 

In this conflicted church, the men need to be told to lift their hands in prayer [prayer hands] rather than in anger [fists]. They are told not to use their physical strength to gain the upper hand in church conflicts, but instead to use their influence with God.

 

The men are told to pray rather than fighting, and the women are told to

 

dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, 10but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.

 

Most Australian women have a few pieces of gold and a string of pearls in our jewellery box, but in the first century only the wealthiest of women would have had those things; and if they went all out and put on all their finery it would have been for only one reason: to make an ostentatious display of their wealth in order to intimidate people who were less well off. And men often dressed their wives up like dolls in order to display their wealth.

 

Why would they do that? In that culture, even more than in ours, money was power. This was a time when slavery was an entrenched part of the economy, but slavery wasn’t the only way that people with money gained power over people without money. Wealthy people tended to be patrons to little armies of people who were technically free but who depended on their patron financially and would be expected to demonstrate loyalty and to do whatever favours their patron might ask of them.

 

So Paul is being completely counter-cultural here by saying that wealthy women should not use their wealth to gain influence for themselves or their husbands.[16]

 

Now, looking at the separate instructions given here to men and women, do you think that these instructions are exclusive to each specified gender? Is Paul saying that it is fine for women to get into fist fights and it is OK for men to use ostentatious displays of wealth to gain power and influence?

 

I’m hoping you are all thinking, NO. It just seems that in this particular situation a lot of people were agitating for power, and some men were doing it with their fists and some women were doing it with money. And each needed to be corrected appropriately.

 

Paul has more to say to women:

 

11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.

 

In other words, let women be disciples.[17] Let wealthy women listen to the Gospel, even when it is being taught by rough working men. Men like Paul. There is no question that this would have been mortifying; that it would have required remarkable humility, from the women and from their husbands. These women would have been tempted to use the influence of their wealth in spiritual matters[18] but they are told to be submissive instead.

 

In 6:5, Paul condemns people who are using godliness as a way of getting rich. There Paul is saying the same thing but the other way around. He is telling the poorer members of the church not to suck up to the wealthy ones in order to get something out of them. And in Ephesus, sucking up might have included agreeing with their speculative theological ramblings… or maybe putting their name forward when bishops were being selected.

 

The Christian life is not a means of gaining power or money. It is not about gaining the upper hand, but about laying down our lives, giving up our influence. Submitting to God and to one another.

 

And so… verse 12:

 

12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.

 

The Greek word behind the translation “to have authority”[19] is not used anywhere else in the New Testiment and its meaning is not completely clear from other literature either, but it certainly is more negative than the word Paul normally uses to talk about healthy, legitimate authority. It has a sense of grasping or userping authority that belongs to someone else.[20]

 

And when Paul says that women are not to teach or to usurp authority, those two words need to be understood together rather than independently.[21] What he is saying is that women are not to teach in a way that usurps or grasps at the authority of men.[22]

 

…but she is to keep silent.

 

Now, the word translated “silent” here was also used[23] in verse 2 and there it was translated not as “silent” but as “quiet”:

so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life

 

The word can mean absolute silence but it often means quiet in this sense of being calm and untroubled. And given that this whole chapter has been about living peaceably in a time of conflict, it makes much more sense to translate the whole sentence like this:

 

I am not allowing women to teach in a way that usurps the authority of men, but they are to live quietly.

 

And the quiet living that women are called to here is the quietness of prayer and good works that the whole Christian community is called to, not just the women. And again I would ask if you think Paul would say that it is just fine for men to teach in a way that usurps the authority of other men. I don’t think so. It just seems to be that, in this situation, Paul is addressing a particular problem with women teaching, probably teaching speculative, sub-Christian doctrine, as a way of getting hold of authority that was held at that time by men.

 

Paul says much the same thing, through Timothy, to each of the agitated groups he addresses in this letter. Quieten down. Use your hands for praying, not for fighting. Use your money to do good rather than to get hold of power. If you have opportunities to teach, use those opportunities to promote peace and truth rather than to usurp authority that you have not been legitimately given.

 

Notice that the next chapter begins with the words: “whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task”. There is nothing wrong with wanting to gain a position of authority in the church. The questions Paul raises are to do with how a person goes about it, what they plan to do with it, and whether they are yet sufficiently mature in Christian character to be able to handle it without hurting the people in their care.

 

Now I can only make a few brief comments on verses 13 to 15:

 

13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

 

Within Genesis 2[24], the creation of Adam first does not imply authority. It illustrates how incomplete and lonely men would be without women.[25] So Paul is saying here, I think, that Adam needed Eve to complete him, so that they could enter together into the destiny of their shared humanity; but instead she brought harm to him by leading him into sin. So, to the agitated women at Ephesus, he says, “The men need you. There is no question about that. But make sure that what you contribute is for their good, not for their downfall. Be like your mother Eve was supposed to be but don’t do what she did.”

The phrase about being saved through childbearing needs to be understood alongside the renunciation of marriage that has been happening in this community. Women do not need to deny their biology or separate themselves from men in order to be spiritual. We can embrace the gift God has given some of us of bringing life into the world, just as Mary embraced the opportunity to bring our saviour into the world. I think the move from the single “she” to the plural, “they” is a move from Eve to women in general, and is a clarification that it is not, of course, childbearing that saves women but that, like men, women are saved by Jesus, through faith that is expressed in love, holiness and modesty.

OK. Take a deep breath. It has been a long journey.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul speaks into a chaos of conflict and opposition; of false teaching and exploitation; of money being used to gain influence in the church and “godliness” being used to gain money; of men fighting men and women asserting their independence from men; of the church being used as a rung on social, political and financial ladders.

This is a mess, and it is a mess very much like this that we see Christian communities descending into time and again.

The heart of Paul, the apostle of Good News to the gentiles, must have been broken. Just as it breaks my heart to see these words of his being used to justify the marginalisation, diminishment and sometimes the outright abuse of women.

The Gospel was supposed to set these people free from all that nonsense! But the power of the Gospel is always in tension with the weakness of Christian response. This is a tension that will, at some point, break all our hearts and humble us to the point where we are willing to do the only things we can do. Pray. And work for the good of others, including our enemies.

Into the chaos in Ephesus, Paul calls for quiet, for peace, for prayer and for a focus on doing good for others rather than seeking power for self. In our battlefield in Sydney we need to hear Paul’s call to respond with quiet, with prayer, with a genuine effort to do good. And we also need to follow Paul’s example by opposing teaching that undermines the Gospel and distorts the truth revealed in Jesus: To be quiet, prayerful, humble… people of the truth.

 

Let’s pray,

Lord, Jesus

Please give us peace in our anger

Quiet in our confusion

Love, to respond to past and present hurts

And creativity to find ways of genuinely doing good to people who, at present, seem to be our enemies.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen

 

 

 

 

Resources

I recommend you have a look at the resources tab at the web site for CBE – Christians for Biblical Equality:

http://www.cbeinternational.org

CBE has a Sydney chapter that you can find at http://cbesydney.org.au

 

 


[1] Dickson claims that “teach” is a technical term for passing on and laying down the original Gospel tradition. That laying down of the Gospel was finished with the completion of the New Testament, so now nobody – women or men – teach in that particular way. Therefore, 1 Timothy 2 does not apply to the sort of preaching and teaching we do today, so there is no reason why women should be prevented from preaching today.  See Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons by John Dickson.

[2] Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology

[3] What I want to do is rub out the line and dance all over it in the name of respect and Christian unity – but by preaching on this difficult verse am I actually making the line deeper and clearer?

[4] See Article 20 of the 39 Articles

[5] See Westminster Confession Ch I, 9

[6] You might choose to read through the Bible for yourself with that question in mind. Look at the few places where women exercise leadership – and yes there are only a few – and ask whether there is any comment in the narrative about whether it is a good or bad thing that they are doing. You do need to keep in mind, of course, that the Bible was written in an utterly patriarchal environment and that male leadership is always assumed to be the norm. You do need to read carefully to separate out what is cultural from what is the biblical message that is spoken into that culture.

[7] Deuteronomy 18:22

[8] The closest other verse is 1 Corinthians 14:34, which says:  “women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.” This verse needs to be read in light of the fact that just a few chapters earlier Paul wrote about women praying and prophesying in church. And while it is possible to pray silently, it is really not possible to prophesy silently! So the call for silence cannot be absolute; it must be a certain type of speaking that is being prohibited, and unfortunately it is extremely difficult – I suspect impossible – to be absolutely certain about what sort of speaking that is. 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy are letters. They are one side of a written conversation, and while I am reasonably sure that the people these letters were addressed to: the church at Corinth, and the young missionary, Timothy, knew what Paul was saying, we just don’t have the inside information that they had.

[9] The word translated “to have authority” here is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. It is a negative word that seems to indicate a usurping or grasping of authority that legitimately belongs to someone else, but it is not clear exactly what it means.

Then the reference to Adam and Eve is puzzling. When we read Genesis 3 it appears that Adam was just as deceived and just as much a transgressor as Eve. Is Paul perhaps misreading genesis here? And then Paul doesn’t draw any particular lesson out if it – he just lets it stand. Presumably Timothy knew what he was referring to, but unfortunately we don’t.

And then comes the incredible statement: “she will be saved through childbearing”. What could that possibly mean? And on top of that there is a change from “she” to “they”. Who are “they”, and for that matter, who is “she”? Eve? Women generally? Mary? It isn’t clear.

[10] In this context I mean the reformed Evangelical type of biblical interpretation that is honoured in Sydney.

[11] Why does Paul call them to pray for these authorities? Because they are good or worthy of prayer? No, he is much more practical and realistic than that. He tells them to pray for people in authority because those people they have the power to allow the church to live a life of quiet and peaceable godliness and dignity, and they also have the power to subject the church to violence and oppression.

[12] Throughout the first century Roman emperors were becoming more and more bold in their claims to be divine.

[13] He believed that God sent him to take the Gospel of Jesus to the Greek-speaking world. And he defended his call to be an apostle, so that the people who had come to believe through him would continue to believe the Gospel he taught them.

[14] I’ll admit to being captivated by some of that sort of stuff when I was a teenager. Things like mapping the Book of Revelations onto twentieth century events. I suspect, though, that the stuff going around Ephesus would have been more damaging than that.

[15] If so, this was an issue Paul had addressed in other churches, and seems to have been a typically first century Greek distortion of the Gospel. See 1 Corinthians 7 and 15

[16] Remember that in this culture, money was probably the only power these women had. And Paul is telling them to lay it down. To let go of power and influence… to submit to the one true God and live a life of good works rather than a life of influence. To live the God-centred life that was available to all women, rich and poor.

[17] Learning in silence and submission was the role of a disciple in a rabbinical school.

[18] Some of them would have been hosting the church meetings, and it would have been the most natural thing in the world for a host to use that position to influence the guests. Remember there were no church buildings at this stage, and the only people with homes big enough for church gatherings were the wealthiest people in the church.

 

 

[19] αὐθεντεῖν

[20] The word for “to teach” is just the usual word. I mentioned earlier that John Dickson has suggested that it has a specific, technical meaning related to the handing down of the original Gospel tradition. I have read his book and I am not sure that I agree with him completely but I think he might be onto something. I think, though, given the emphasis in 1 Timothy on stopping people from teaching false and speculative doctrines, that it is more likely that Paul has false, teaching in mind here.

[21] When those words – to teach and to usurp authority – are brought together here they form what’s called a hendiadys. An example in English would be if I were to say that I am “Good and angry”. I would not mean that I am good and by the way am also angry. It means that I am “goodly” angry or well and truly angry.

[22] This is one reason why we need men who value the leadership gifts of women to be more bold in challenging the line in the sand mentality of Sydney and calling for the ordination of women to all offices in the church. When women do this we can be perceived as grasping at authority that the Church has seen fit not to grant us.

[23] as an adjective

[24] It seems very likely that some of the theological speculations that were going around were connected to the creation stories in Genesis, so Paul is here correcting their mistakes. It would be helpful to know exactly what it was that he was correcting… but we can still make some headway into understanding what he is getting at.

[25] Paul shows that this is his understanding in 1 Corinthians 11.

First preached by Margaret Wesley at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill June 2,  2012.

To download or hear the audio version of this sermon click here.
To see the video version of this sermon click here.

Margaret Wesley 

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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