Equal value, different roles – 1 Timothy 2:11-15

I’m currently blogging my way through 1 Timothy. It’s a lot slower that I anticipated and so if you’ve only just joined the conversation please see these posts of where I’ve come to. As a quick reminder to the context of Paul’s writing to Timothy:  The church in Ephesus where the young pastor Timothy is serving is surrounded by people who don’t know Jesus. Paul’s constant reminder is that the church is called to be about Chris’s mission to save lives. In the first 7 verses of chapter 2 Paul has given us the first way we are to do that: prayer. We can’t do anything without praying. Now, in this larger section (1 Timothy 2:8-15) Paul sends instructions on how the church should glorify God when they come together. He is writing that because the church is supposed to look different from the society that it is in, at the same as being accessible, approachable and influential in the society it’s been placed. We are never called to be isolationists. We are called to be different, look different for the same of the gospel.

So, this passage that we have before us is probably one of the most contentious passages in the new Testament and goes again the prevailing wisdom of our society.

“Our culture is terribly twisted on the issues of gender and sexuality, and the pressure for the church to compromise and confirm on these issues is great”

– David Platt.

The issues of identity strike at the core of who we are. So, Paul first goes after the divisive men in the church (verse 7), then the distracting women (verses 8-10) and now Paul is going to encourage his readers to work together in distinctive gender roles. Here’s the text:

11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 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—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

1 Timothy 2:11-15

Ok. I told you it was contentious! So how do we interpret such a passage? well I think a couple of principles of interpretation would help:

Principle of Consistency

Simply this is where we interpret each particular Scripture in light of all of Scripture. What we are asking is this: “is my understanding of this passage of the Bible consistent with what I understand about other parts of the Bible?”. Unfortunately many people have taken this verses and not applied this principal and have come away with all manner of weird, not to mention harmful, interpretation. So, a couple of pointers:

  • when we come to a passage in the Bible that looks difficult to interpret (like this one) go to the rest of Scripture. Don’t think that this is all the Bible has to say on the matter
  • Interpret the hard passages (like this one) using the easy passages, not the other way around. It’s very easy for us to use this passages as a lens to interpret the easier to understand passages but that’s the wrong way around. Look at the easy an straightforward passages of Scripture and use those as a lens to interpret the difficult passages.

Principle of Context

God has revealed truth in a particular setting and at a particular time. both of these together are what we normally refer to as “context”. For example, 1 Timothy was written to a church in Ephesus (setting) in around 63ad (time). So, the context for 1 Timothy is the 1st century Christian church in the city of Ephesus. Once we’ve established the context we can do some basic historical research for a broader understanding of what it was like to be a Christian in that context. Here’s what we discover: Ephesus was a city that was known for it’s temples where sex slaves were trafficked to from the rest of Europe and Africa. God had moved in that city in a very real way (read Acts 17:34-19:41) and this little church had formed from the people who came to know and follow Jesus. This meant that the people in the church, who perhaps were once slaves themselves, now had a huge problem in terms of understanding God’s plan and purpose for men and women. They, most likely were struggling with gender issues including gender roles, identity and dysphoria. This context also includes looking at the two letters that Paul sends to Timothy so that we can piece together what he is saying as a whole:

  • 1 Tim 4:3 – false teachers were encouraging men and women not to marry.
  • 1 Tim 5:13 – gossip was a problem amongst the younger women of the church
  • 2 Tim 3:6 – a group of women were struggling with worldly passions

It seems that there were a group of women, probably not all the women but just some, that were undercutting godly doctrine, godly behaviour and godly leadership in the church. That seems to me to be what was taking place in this church in Ephesus and Paul is writing to specifically address those issues.

So what do we make of such a problematic passage? How do we apply these two principles?

The first thing that probably should be noted is that Paul isn’t addressing someone’s value. He isn’t saying that women are less valued or valuable because of their role (against a much more valued and valuable man in his). This would clearly go against the rest of Scripture that places equal value and worth on men and women as images bearers of God. The principle of consistency makes this abundantly clear.

I would argue that this passage is primarily addressing a specific and significant problem that existed in the church at Ephesus. He gives two prohibitions to the women in this Ephesian church in order to help them make sense of their gender roles, but also to help the church make sense of it’s role in wider society (given what has already been written at the top of this article about the church’s purpose).

Prohibition #1 – Women should not have ultimate authority

12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man

Now we know from Titus 2:3 that Paul encouraged women to teach in some settings and it is helpful to think about this prohibition with the whole letter in view. In chapter 3 Paul says that elders express God’s authority over the church by teaching. It is the elders responsibility to teach God’s Word. So, when Paul says here in verse 12 that he doesn’t permit a women to teach – what he has in view is the teaching and leading office of an elder. Can women teach? absolutely they can and should. Can they lead the church as an elder? No they cannot. This is what Paul is saying here.

In verse 11 Paul says “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.” – this is again a reference to the group of specific women in Ephesus who seemed to be causing problems for the leadership in the church. Paul is saying “please, listen to the God-ordained leaders of the church with a teachable Spirit as they are teaching the Word of God”.

So, women who are gifted at teaching should use their gifts to build up the body of Christ but not in the role of elder.

After this prohibition for women not to teach as elders, Paul gives a second prohibition at the end of the same verse: I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority she is to remain quiet.

Prohibition #2 – Gladly submit

Here’s what Paul is saying: “please, gladly submit to the servant leaders in the church”. Now of course I’d also add that this is a general command – both men and women are to gladly submit to the servant leaders of the church, it’s just that Ephesus seemed to have this specific problem with this group of unruly women. The servant leaders of the church (which will be discussed in chapter 3) are to serve the church by loving, caring and nurturing the church by diligently and wisely teaching the Word of God. Now here is what this doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean that women cannot serve in a leadership capacity. Women are called and intended to serve and thrive in various ministries across the church and I praise God for that! God intends to equip and mobilise all people (men and women) for the task of reaching the lost. No one sits on the side lines. As John Piper says “no one sits and watches re-runs while the world burns”.

So, can I encourage you – whoever you are – if you know and follow and love Jesus step up to the challenge of serving Jesus wherever you are and in whatever capacity Jesus has called you to.

If you’d like to do a little more reading on Gender Roles and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 I highly recommend Sam Storms article on the Coalition for Biblical Sexuality

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