Men, Women & the Church

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

1 Tim 2:8-15

 

A very foreign text…

As you can probably imagine, this is a sermon I have been a little apprehensive about delivering. There are not many passages that generate more debate, emotion and division, and I feel like I’m probably going to offend a whole bunch of people today!

The simple truth is that there’s an increasing sense of shock and scandal as you read 1 Timothy 2:8-15 as 21stCentury, Western readers. It starts of innocent enough – men should pray without anger; then it starts to get a bit ‘old fashioned’ – women should dress modestly… then, bam! The Bible says what now?? Women should be quiet and submissive!? I don’t permit women to teach? They must be silent? And then it just gets worse… Suddenly we’re hearing that the problem is that women are more gullible – and it’s their fault humanity rebelled against God – that’s why they can’t teach. And then to top it all off – Paul says everything will be ok so long as women just stick to having babies!

You see even if the real message of this passage is a little more nuanced than the way I just represented it (and believe me, it is!), even so, we hear it first of all in light of a cultural journey of liberation from the assumptions, ideals and practices of patriarchy. We react to what this passage is saying, even after a more thoughtful reading, as people who have been affected one way or another –for better or worse – by the broader culture’s resolute rejection of gender roles and stereotypes. We’ve soaked up the idea that a person’s worth is inherently connected with the roles and opportunities that are open to them; and so to discriminate in any way – to say that a ‘job’ or role is not appropriate for someone because of their sex – is to deny their equal humanity. Just this week I read a Facebook post by a Christian woman I know, expressing this very idea. She wrote, “In the latest episode of “[her name] tries to be an equal human but *something* always gets in the way”, I have no before and after school care for [child’s name] next year. Any creative solutions?”Trying to be an ‘equal human being’ is bound up in being able to work and engage in activities without being restricted by motherhood any more than her husband (or any other man) would be restricted by being a father.

And so reading these kinds of statements feels like someone trying to drag you back to the dark ages – times when a man could walk through the door from work whenever he wanted and expect to put his feet up whilst his wife prepared the dinner and sorted the kids – perhaps even where a man could do what he thought was necessary to ‘put the woman back in her place’ if he didn’t like what she was saying or doing.

And that’s the real problem, isn’t it? We’re just so aware of how patriarchal societies have oppressed, abused and belittled women. We’re so aware of how men have used ideas of male headship and the ‘proper place’ of women, even in the name of biblical teaching, to exploit and demean their wives and other women around them, or to preserve privileges for themselves. The articles by Julia Baird a year or two ago, claiming connections between the doctrine of male headship and domestic violence confirmed in the minds of many that these ideas are harmful and belong to a former time, best left behind – best apologised for rather than propagated further!

Now, there’s a lot to say about the claims of Julia Baird’s articles and the validity of many of the assumptions about gender roles and value that our culture now makes, but I think we need to start by acknowledging that there are good reasons for rejecting what was previously considered ‘normal’ in our views of men and women. We need to start by appreciating that when most of us read passages like this in the Bible, we are going react to it through the lens of this cultural journey, and it’s going to make us want to explain away, ignore, or at least minimise the message of these verses. For some, this will mean simply writing it off as a product of a different time and place that doesn’t apply to us anymore. For others, there is a more earnest effort to show that the passage actually means something very different from what it seems to mean, or that there are reasons why Paul only ever intended these instructions as a temporary measure to some crisis in Ephesus.

I am well aware that here today there will be people sitting at different ends of a spectrum of attitudes towards these issues. I’m aware that the statements of this passage, and some of the things I’ll say will perhaps trigger emotional and even painful reactions. The fact is that it’s difficult for Christians to talk about the issue of gender and roles in the home and the church, because it’s not just a theoretical debate – it’s deeply personal and has huge consequences. It’s a highly emotive issue, and people often have deeply entrenched views that they are determined to defend.

But it’s important consider what the Bible actually teaches about these matters and how that should relate to our situation today – and it’s vital that we seek as much as possible to do just that: understand what the Bible actuallyteaches and apply it faithfully, rather than seek to justify our particular view, whatever that might be. And actually, I think that’s ultimately what our passage today is all about. Yes, there is the particular issue of men and women and their roles and behaviour in the church; but actually the broader challenge of the passage is to be a community that takes its lead from God’s Word rather than being guided by our own impulses or the current cultural trends and ideologies. The church in the first Century was susceptible to allowing their culture, their practices and their behaviour to be too easily shaped by things other than God’s will for them, expressed in his Word, and we are no different today. So as we explore this passage, as awkward and confronting as it might be for some of us, my prayer is that we will commit ourselves to be a community that, above all, is willing to trust and submit to what God’s word is saying.

 

Understanding the Passage

As we approach our passage, it’s worth appreciating that Paul has just been urging God’s people to be praying for all people, for rulers and for society at large, so that we might live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. And he urges this ultimately in light of the fact that God desires all people to be saved in Christ. And so now, in our passage, Paul is essentially expressing his desire for God’s people to act appropriately and with reverence as they gather – so that they may indeed embody the quietness, godliness and holiness God desires of all people. There is a ‘therefore’ in the original Greek at the start of verse 8 that’s missing in the English translation we’re using, which is a shame, because it’s important to appreciate the connection.

 

Lifting up holy hands

In verse 8 then, he begins by stating that, therefore, he wants all men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. ‘Lifting up hands’ is simply the common cultural form of prayer at the time; and the English word ‘everywhere’ could be more literally translated ‘in every place’, which is a way the Bible sometimes refers to the gathered church in each particular place.

Does this mean Paul expects only men to pray in church? No, of course not – the Bible itself is clear that women should be praying and prophesying in church as part of the gathered body. The emphasis is not on who has or hasn’t been praying, but on the fact that Paul wants men to be praying in a waythat expresses their holiness, unity and love in the gospel, rather than in anger and disputes! Seems like a low bar for men, but I think it’s quite perceptive. Really this is a broader reference to the way men relate as brothers in Christ, and particularly as they gather for public worship.

You see a key feature of the false teaching Paul is seeking to correct through this letter is the way it produces or is characterised by endless quarrels and disputes. Men are, quite frankly, prone to anger and disputes – I speak as one of them! And Paul is aware that current influences on the church in Ephesus are making things worse. So he reminds them to let their attitudes and behaviour be shaped by the gospel and their Christian identity, so that they gather in a spirit of unity, rather than allowing disputes to corrupt their worship. If Christian men are to embody the quiet and godly lives God wants for all, they better at least gather to pray in peace and unity rather than harbouring anger and disputing with clenched fists!

 

Modest Adornment

Then in verses 9 and 10, Paul moves to address the practices and attitudes of women, again particularly as they gather for church. “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”

Now, once again, I think we see here both a perceptive comment about a common temptation, but also a correction of a trend Paul is aware of in the community he’s writing to. Commentators talk about trends from upper class Roman woman, such as braiding hair into plaits with threads of gold, starting to influence eastern cities like Ephesus. And as in every time and place, clothing, make-up and hairstyles could be used to express status and draw attention to oneself as desirable. And Paul’s point is pretty clear: he urges Christian women to dress modestly, rather than either seductively or ostentatiously, with great expense, and instead to adorn themselves with good works. As the old saying goes, ‘true beauty is within’, and Paul’s point is that women should in fact seek to cultivate inner beauty over external appearance.

And no, Paul’s not encouraging women to be frumpy. He’s not urging you to wear track pants to church, or saying that wearing quality clothing that is actually nice and attractive is inherently wrong. He’s challenging the impulse to follow the trends, obsessively striving to ‘keep up’ with fashions, spending more and more on clothing and accessories as if it’s vitally important. He’s challenging the mindset that values your appearance more than your character. Basically, dress in a way that is appropriate or fitting for a woman who professes to worship God rather than her own image.

 

Teaching and Authority

And then we come to verses 11-15, the more controversial statements, where Paul turns to speak about women learning and teaching in church. And he begins by stating that a woman should learn in quietness and full submission. First thing we should note is that the word translated ‘quietness’ is exactly the same word used back in verse 2, describing the ‘quiet lives’ that all Christian men and women should be seeking to live. And in fact, it’s also the same word at the end of verse 12, which the NIV translates as ‘silent’ for some reason. It’s really about an attitude or demeanour of respect and deference to the teacher, rather than a command to just ‘keep quiet’ or ‘be silent’. It’s a disposition that should characterise all of us, not just women. And we should also appreciate the obvious point that Paul is encouraging women to learn! Privileged women certainly had opportunity to learn and be educated at the time, but it has not been uncommon in different times and places to deny women the opportunity to learn alongside men. God wants women to grasp the deep truths of the Bible as much as men, so that they might know, live and promote the truth.

And yet, Paul does emphasis here that this learning, particularly for women, is to be done in a spirit of quietness and ‘in all submission’. Most likely, the primary sense of this phrase is to expand on the idea of learning in quietness – to learn in a submissive attitude towards the teacher, rather than an arrogant or unteachable spirit. But given what he goes on to say, I think it’s also fair to say he’s indicating that women should participate in church and learn in a way that reflects rather than rejects the dynamic of male headship and female submissionthat is to be expressed first and foremost in the marriage relationship. And just what exactly does that mean? Well I think that’s what verse 12 is all about. Paul explains he does not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man, rather, she is to be quiet – or ‘to learn in quietness’, as he has just been saying.

Now there’s a lot of detail we could go into here, but I think all the scholarly debate about the meaning of words and the phrases in this short verse can be boiled down to a few key points.

First, the words ‘to teach’ and ‘exercise authority’ are almost certainly neutral activities and fairly general in nature, rather than negative or highly specific activities. Some have tried to argue that Paul is (surely!) just explaining that he does not permit women to engage in false teaching or domineering behaviour over men. This argument usually goes along with the assumption that Ephesus was a unique situation, where female dominance was encouraged through worship of the goddess Artemis, and which must have been influencing the church. Thus, Paul is just writing to tell this particular church not to allow this particular false teaching or exaggerated worship of ‘the feminine’ to take hold. Without going into too much detail, the truth is that Ephesus was essentially the same as all the other Greco-Roman cities, and attitudes towards women and men were very much the same as everywhere else. And in terms of the words themselves and the context of the passage, there is no indication whatsoever that Paul is talking about inherently negative activities – it has to be read in from your own assumptions. So Paul is saying that (for some reason!) it is inappropriate for a woman to do these things which are in and of themselves perfectly good.

Secondly, the words ‘teach’ and ‘exercise authority’ seem to be referring to distinct but related concepts, or activities. So it’s not like the words just merge into one concept, but neither are they totally unrelated. We should understand both ‘teach’ and ‘exercise authority’ in relation to each other. So Paul is saying he doesn’t permit a woman to engage in authoritative teachingto men, nor to be in a position of authority over men in the church that relates particularly to teaching. There are many different forms of teaching, admonishing and instructing each other, as men and women, and Paul assumes this will be a mutual reality amongst brothers and sisters in Christ. In Colossians, for example, he talks about all of us teaching each other, even as we sing to each other and to God in church. Likewise there may be forms of authority in church, or in society, which have nothing to do with teaching the Bible. So Paul is particularly speaking about roles and activities that involve the authoritative teaching of the mixed congregation.

And finally, I think it is right to understand Paul to be referring again primarily to appropriate behaviour within the gathered, local church community. The exercise of authority, or the task of teaching with authority, has a relational dynamic to it, and these instructions come as an extension of what Paul wants to see amongst God’s people ‘in every place’. And this is why, particularly in light of the way these concepts are related, that most people understand Paul to be essentially prohibiting women from taking on the role of a teaching elder in a church, or engaging in the public and authoritative teaching of the gathered church, which is of course, the primary responsibility of a teaching elder, or pastor.

 

Why??

Now of course, the question is why? Especially in light of how foreign Paul’s instructions are to our culture, we want to knowwhyhe’s prohibiting women from this authoritative teaching ministry in the church.

Well, as with most teaching and warnings in Paul’s letters, he is addressing a particular problem with the general truth of God’s word. He was probably aware of some murmurings, if not actual movements, of women beginning to question the strict cultural norms surrounding men and women and seeking to engage in authoritative teaching in the church. As I said before, it doesn’t fit with the facts to ‘interpret’ Paul as just prohibiting inherently destructive teaching or domineering practices by women. But there are hints that the false teaching that Paul is aware of may have encouraged women to minimise the distinctions between men and women and to reject aspects of womanhood bound up in this life, such as marriage and raising children (See 1 Tim. 4:1-5). And Paul writes to say, ‘No, don’t go there’, just as he does when he hears about angry, quarrelsome men and women getting carried away with their physical appearance.

Now, at this point some would say that Paul’s instruction is motivated purely by not wanting to bring the gospel or the church into disrepute by seeming too culturally radical or politically unstable, so he doesn’t want them to flaunt gender roles even though in Christ we could. So therefore his prohibition is not really relevant for today, because it is no longer a scandal in our culture for women to teach and be in authority – in fact it’s the opposite! But whilst Paul sometimes does reason like this, even about how men and women should relate, I don’t think it’s his only motivation, and definitely not here, and that’s because of what he goes on to say in verses 13 and 14. You see these verses, which giving the reasonfor his command (note the ‘for’ at the start) – these verses take us back to the foundational narratives of the Bible. Paul takes us back to Genesis 2 and 3, referring in summary to the stories of creation and rebellion, and indicates how they teach us that there is, and should be, an enduring dynamic of headship and submission that is relevant to marriage and to church life.

So, from verse 13, Paul explains, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” It sounds bad right? Particularly the bit about ‘the woman being deceived and not the man’. Makes it sound like women can’t teach or be in authority because they are more easily deceived. It really does sound like biblical endorsement for views of women that truly arefrom the dark ages!

But actually this has got nothing to do with Paul’s argument. It’s nothing to do with competency or gullibility. No, it’s about either accepting or rejecting the complementary roles God has ordained for men and women, communicated through the creation narrative.

You see when Paul refers to the fact that Adam was formed first, he’s indicated that in the narrative of Genesis 2, this fact is significant for the relationship dynamic between Adam and his wife Eve, who is created to complement and help him to carry out his responsibilities under God. Together they are created equal in God’s image, and given authority over creation, but betweenthem, Adam is to assume the role of authority.

But it’s not just that this is the picture we get of how things are supposed to be in Genesis 2, it’s that in Genesis 3, where humanity rebels against God’s authority, we see the whole thing reversed. The serpent, representing the animals, leads humanity astray, and in particular by tempting Eve into making the decision to rebel, and then finally Adam just follows along with her example. So Paul follows his reference to the way things are meant to be in Genesis 2 with the summary reference to the way this was all overturned in Genesis 3. He’s not saying, “Look how bad things go when women take the lead!”, he’s saying, “Rejecting our complementary roles and responsibilities is actually bound up in our rejection of God’s authority over us – it’s not good!” This is why, Paul argues, it is important that in God’s church a woman is to learn in quietness and submission to the teaching elders, rather than take that responsibility over the church for herself.

 

Saved through childbearing

So then, finally we get to the strangest verse of all! As if it couldn’t get better! “But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”Now, there’s a couple of ways to interpret what Paul is saying here, but we can say with confidence that he is NOT saying that women can be saved from sin by having babies. If you just read it without thinking, it kind of sounds like he’s saying that – but he’s definitely not! The most obvious clue is that woman are only saved on the condition that they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

But what is he saying about childbirth and salvation?? One very plausible explanation is the simplest (and probably the leastpolitically current!). He could be saying that women will be saved from spiritual ruin if they (as one commentator puts it) ‘re-engage fully in the respectable role of mother, in rejection of heretical and secular trends’. In this view, Paul’s not saying women earntheir salvation by being good mothers, but that they will resist deception(and therefore be ‘saved’) if they accept their God given responsibilities rather than being tempted to reject them and take up roles of authority over men. Now as much as this message would grate against many of us as terribly old fashioned and restrictive, it can’t be too far from the truth given what Paul has already argued. Clearly he istrying to encourage us to embrace the roles God has given us as good, rather than reject them. And yet, I don’t think this is actually what verse 15 is primarily about.

You see, when the NIV says ‘women will be saved’, the Greek actually reads ‘shewill be saved’. The ‘she’ is singular, and then he transitions to ‘they’ in the second half of the verse. Paul seems to be still alluding to the narrative of Genesis 3 and referring in particular to Eve as the representative of all women. And so I think that the reference to childbearing is almost certainly an allusion to the curse Eve receives from God for her rebellion – that she will now bear children in pain and frustration. You see, the word ‘through’, just like in English could mean either the means by which salvation is achieved, or the danger through which one must passto be rescued. And so whilst it might seem a little cryptic, I think Paul is saying that even though things have gone wrong and though they must still pass through, or endure, the consequences of this sin, women will be saved ultimately if they remain in faith, love and holiness with propriety. The answer is not to try to escape the consequences of their sin and the difficulties this creates for their experience of womanhood in this life, but rather to steadfastly focus on faith, love and holiness with propriety.

 

How should we apply this passage?

So having stepped through (in some detail!) what this passage is saying, it’s important for us to consider how we should respond to it and apply to our context.

As I’ve already indicated, I think the clearest implication of the passage, for Christians 2000 years ago as well as today, is that the role of teaching elder or pastor in a local church should not be assumed by a woman, but rather a man should take up this responsibility. And in relation to this, a woman should not engage in authoritative teaching of men or of mixed congregations. Some people try to pin this down to very specific, official roles or tasks, such as saying anything is ok so long as the senior minister of a church is a male. Or that the key thing is that women don’t preach sermons in church. But I think that approach can be a little simplistic.

The question we need to ask ourselves is which roles or activities in our contextare essentially defined byand understood asthe responsibility of the public, authoritative teaching of the Bible over the gathered church. For many churches, Sunday sermons will serve that function. But that doesn’t mean all forms of speaking, teaching, exhorting and encouraging in church will serve this function or be understood in this way, even if they look and sound a lot like a ‘sermon’. It’s also easy to see how a Bible Study leader might ‘teach and exercise authority’ over others in the kind of way Paul is indicating. But equally, bible study leaders can function more like tour guides and facilitators, rather than ‘pastor-teachers’. The key is to be faithful to the principles rather than develop a ridged set of dos and don’ts that never change.

And really, focusing primarily on what people can and can’t do is not really the emphasis of the New Testament is it? The big picture, the main focus is on each and every part serving, speaking, encouraging, building up in all sorts of ways as God has gifted and equipped us. Being clear on the core principles that define the appropriate boundaries God gives us means we can focus on giving both men and women every opportunity to serve as God has gifted them within those boundaries, and to encourage and equip them to do it. We never want to make the mistake of discouraging women from serving and teaching as God calls them to do so according to his wisdom, just because there are particular roles or functions they should not engage in. Our job as pastors is teaching, encouraging and equippingallof God’s people to speak the truth in love, in a whole variety of ways, so that together we might grow towards maturity in Christ, as each part does its work.

 

But I think for many of us, the challenge of this passage is not figuring out the detail of what is and isn’t appropriate. I think the real challenge is our core reaction to the teaching of the passage itself. As I indicated at the start, the overall point is really whether we will take our lead from God himself in directing, driving and guiding us in life and ministry, or whether we will subject God’s will to our own emotions, desires and the ideas and trends of the world around us. So if you’re convinced that this passage is actually teaching that there are some activities and roles within the church that it’s not appropriate for a woman to take up – if you can see that the passage is actually teaching this – then will you accept it as the word of God? Will you submit to what it says? Or will you reject it as simply unacceptable? Will you remain determined to makeit mean something else, perhaps just hiding behind the excuse that there’s lots of debate about this, so you don’t need to worry too much about it. But that’s not really ok is it. God reveals truth to us in his word. We need to work hard to make sure we’re reading it right – especially passages like this which require more cultural sensitivity and thoughtful interpretation. But if we realise it really is saying something to us – we need to accept it as the word of God don’t we? We need to be a church that is directed, guided and shaped first and foremost by God’s word, rather than our desires, ambitions or cultural values and trends. And we need to be prepared to do this even when it grates against our sense of what’s acceptable.

 

But in the end, we don’t just want to accept God’s word grudgingly, as an inconvenient truth, do we? You need to pause and consider whether you are willing to trust that if this is God’s will for us… then perhaps it really is goodfor us. Those of us who have soaked up the cultural narrative about gender and roles find it so hard to accept what the Bible says here – it sounds so wrong; but I do believe that there’s something good and beautiful about the complementary roles God has given us as we pursue his will together.

It can be equally hard to believe that it’s better to give than to receive, or that there really is joy in sacrifice, but when we embrace it and trust God’s wisdom, we see the goodness of His way. And I think it’s the same with God’s wisdom for how we should relate as husbands and wives, and as men and women in the church. As I said earlier, we’ve soaked up the idea that role and status are inseparable, and that equal value only comes with equal opportunities and function. But that’s not how the Bible describes us as the church.

We are one body with many members, each playing a different and valuable role. Not everyone is the head, and not everyone is a hand or a foot. And no-one is to assume they are more or less important than another because of their role. Each of us are created equal in dignity and value in God’s sight, and each of us is given a role to play – a role that doesn’t define our value, but rather gives shape to our contribution as we work out God’s will in this world together.