My question is about Paul’s admonition about women in 1 Timothy 2. Apologists often bring in the cultural context of the time and place, which is no doubt important to consider. But on its own that doesn’t explain the relevance of Paul’s reference to Adam and Eve. The reference to childbearing also seems like a nod to Eve. (This is not to say that such a superficial reading of this passage does not also pose problems.) The Adam and Eve reference seems a little more relevant to the situation in 2 Tim. 3:6 than to anything in 1 Timothy; it begs the question of why it is important to remember that Eve was deceived. And then there’s the fact that immediately after this part about women, the 3rd chapter goes into describing potential overseers and deacons as married men, and seems like it is only talking about the wives of these potential leaders in 1 Tim. 3:11. How does an egalitarian and contextual reading of 1 Tim. 2 make sense of the Genesis story and the subsequent qualifications for church office?
How does an egalitarian and contextual reading of 1 Timothy 2 make sense of the Genesis story and the subsequent qualifications for church office?
Glad to see you’re going for the jugular with the classic most-difficult-verse-in-the-entire-Bible question In all seriousness, I really appreciate you bringing it up, and the consideration you’ve obviously put into it already.
As my friend Nathan Rittenhouse likes to say about difficult conundrums, “thousands of trees have given their lives to answering this question.”
That’s definitely true of 1 Timothy 2. A lot of intelligent, godly Christians have disagreed over what this passage means. Unlike them, I’m not an expert- my thoughts are still being informed as I learn more! So- while I can’t give a systematic answer to everything you’re asking, I definitely want to give you a few considerations that have helped me frame the debate.
Here they are:
First, if the Bible is the word of God, then it has to win out in our lives, even if its message contradicts huge swaths of culture. Every Christian has to start here- we should never let culture dictate our theology.
But - there’s some irony in that for us 21st century Christians. Why? Because the Bible directly contradicted huge swaths of culture 2,000 years ago, when it radically challenged the theological and sociological status of women across the ancient world. If you and I were two Greek men having this discussion in 1st Century Phillipi, the Bible’s assertions of the equal value of men and women in Christ would have really messed with our worldview. We would be talking about the ways Christian women who had previously been temple prostitutes had encountered the way of Jesus, and how it was hurting our religious institutions. Maybe even our money-making-demon-possessed slave girl had been liberated by Paul and Timothy… as they were walking to the home of the prominent Christian woman who was hosting them (Acts 17).
I say that just for big-picture context. The Bible was good news for women in the ancient world!
The next thing that strikes me is Paul’s theological context. It matters!
Paul would certainly know the story of Deborah, the prophet of Israel who led the nation to victory over Canaanites (Judges 4 and 5.) Interesting to note here is that Deborah, a prophet and a judge, rules Israel with only passing acknowledgment given to her husband Lappidoth. (Judges 4:4). This story sticks out to me. When Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to have authority over a man,” should we assume he forgot about Deborah? Not likely! How exactly Deborah’s story impacts his answer is obviously part of the question we’re trying to answer, but this is an amazing example of a famous, godly Israelite woman who answered the call to leadership. To me, this makes it even more unlikely that Paul was issuing a categorical blanket statement about all women always remaining silent or refraining from any and all types of leadership.
In 1 Corinthians 11:15, Paul assumes that women are prophesying (speaking) in church. Don’t forget about Anna the prophetess (Luke 2:36) or Phillips’ four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:8). Presumably, all of these women were encouraged to speak their prophesies, even by Paul’s own words to the whole congregation (1 Cor 14:5 “I wish you all would speak in tongues….”), which would have been part of the fulfilment of Joel 2:28 "And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.”
Paul’s traveling companion was Luke, who records Jesus’ interactions Jesus with Mary and Martha. The way the Son of God chose to interact with these women (and all women!) seemed intentionally designed to upset elements of the status quo. While Martha is doing housework, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet (the mark of a rabbi and disciple!) Jesus, in response, says “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38). The significance of that comment cannot be overstated.
Paul’s own words in Galatians ring down through the centuries, a hitherto unheard-of manifesto to equality before God: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
So Paul’s worldview matters here. It’s the reason we have a discussion on our hands, not unanimous consensus when it comes to church leadership. It’s also important because of the historical context surrounding 1 Timothy.
In Ephesus, where Timothy is commissioned for ministry, there was a definite need to counteract an occult Pagan culture that abused women for religious ends. Shrine prostitution in service of Aphrodite and female priestesses like at the Oracle at Delphi would have been common spectacles. This is an important contextual point, because occult practices like those also help us make sense of what happened in Phillipi, when the demon possessed slave girl followed Paul and Timothy, screaming at the top of her lungs (Acts 16).
Occult prophesy was pervasive, loud, chaotic, and clearly exploitative of the women involved- kept as ritual prostitutes in service of the temple and fortune tellers to make money for their owners. In stark contrast to the pagan practices going on around them, Paul wants the Christians to be self controlled so that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
It’s entirely possible that some of those shrine prostitutes or pagan oracles had joined the church at Ephesus, but either way, the brand-new church had a long way to go to differentiate itself from the culture around it. Whereas pagan worship is chaotic, Christians are to be quiet and orderly. Whereas pagan values are focused on outwards appearances (loud ceremony, golden jewelry), Christian values are to be matters of the heart- inward beauty. Whereas so many pagan women were being used for religious purposes, Christian women “are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.” (1 Tim 3:11)
Finally, Paul’s literary context sheds light on the passage. Personally, I always want to tend to tread lightly when interpreting literary context - but I’ll lay out a few points others have made that I think are worth noting:
Paul’s reason for his instructions to Timothy is that the Church will refine it’s witness to the world: to pray for kings and those in authority “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” So the purpose of this section to Timothy is to make sure that the Christians are conscientious of doing what is good and right, so that their witness to the culture around them is pure and godly. There are a lot of examples of how this plays out!
First, Paul’s exhortation to slaves :“All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.” (1 Tim 6:1) Does Paul think slavery is acceptable? Absolutely not! He’s clear about this in 1 Cor 7:23, “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human beings.”
Nevertheless- Paul’s primary intention when writing to the early churches was not to script out ethics of slavery (which, again, he doesn’t condone!) but to make sure that the Church maintained the purity of its witness in the eyes of the culture around them: “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.”
Another strong parallel: Christians are to respect even unjust rulers. Why? Not because unjust leadership is somehow acceptable, but because of the radical example of Christ and the witness to the world: “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” There’s a theological grounding for this too: rulers are instituted by God (Romans 13:1). The early church stayed the course in the days of Nero. But the question hasn’t gone away- we’ve had to grapple with this in our own time as well. Just ask Deitrich Bonhoeffer.
So, when it comes to the relationship of men and women, and the leadership of the church, Paul wants the men in Ephesus to pray without anger or disputing, and he wants the women in Ephesus to learn quietly, respecting the leadership of the men. The relevant question: to what extent are Paul’s words specifically calculated to contrast to the culture of Ephesus around them, and to what extent are they a commentary on the God’s universal plan for how men and women should always interact? My gut reaction says, some of both. But it’s an interesting question to ask.
For me, this context informs your specific questions about deacons. It would seem like Paul is insinuating that the church leadership would be primarily men. On the flip side, I know a lot of people who point to the existence of deaconesses in the early church (like Pheobe in Romans 16:1). I’m still learning more, but to me, it looks like the presence of female deacons certainly could have been the case.
On the questions you raised re: Genesis- they deserve their own post, which is beyond my capacity to deliver (sorry!!) It’s obvious that there is some deep and nuanced theology here. For example, Gen 3:16: “Your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.” Those are God’s words- but they are a part of the curse! Another example: the enmity of the snake is between him and the woman (specifically!) It’s between his offspring and hers. I have no real comment- other than, it seems like there is a deeper mystery than this humble RZIM connect post can handle
Overall, the advice I’ve been given is to take the context of the chapters seriously- not to explain away difficult truths about scripture (there are plenty of those!) but to truly find God’s heart for women and men. To do that, we need the whole story of the Bible, and we need it in it’s most faithful context.
Thanks for the question Joel! Curious to hear your thoughts!