This week we have marked international women’s day, a time to celebrate women and their achievements and to take stock of where we are in terms of equality, rights and treatment of women. It just so happens that inadvertently in my preaching plan for the year we are looking at a passage that “has been used unrelentingly as a proof text to swiftly and decisively squelch the ministry of women in fellowship” (John Zens, 2012). It has also contributed to reinforcing a hierarchical view of the relationship between men and women, that has been detrimental to women…and men… and has harmed the whole church. It has also been pointed to as proof that Paul and scripture are antiwomen, and so should be dismissed at best as archaic and irrelevant, and at worst as harmful and dangerous. So while it may be fraught, it is timely that we look at what Paul actually taught about women in leadership. By the way I know it’s not an issue here at St Peter’s, because we been well served by wonderful women elders and several women ministers, mainly rev Sandra Warner, my predecessor, but it is an ongoing issue in the world today and like with Paul’s time impacts on the churches mission to all people.
The passage we are looking at today is acknowledged as being difficult at many levels “Contextually, culturally, linguistically, grammatically and conceptually’. Big words, big issues. We need to dig deep and wrestle with it. Because in the end it has a lot to say to us that we might not hear if we simply either write it off or quote to reinforce our own preconceived ideas. So we are going to do some word studies, some background to place it in its cultural context and in the light of the rest of scripture, then hopefully cross the bridge between the there and then and the here and now having understood it more deeply and all within twenty minutes… Can I say that there are many different interpretations of this passage and I’d love to lay them all out to you, and choices about words and meaning are often made depending on which view of men and women you hold… my view will probably become clear, it’s not about side stepping this passage but as always we hope to remain faithful to scripture.
When it comes to the Epistles in the New Testament we need to realise that the key to understanding is that they are occasional. They are written to a specific time and a specific place, a context. We need to understand it that context before we can start to apply it. AS we work through the pastoral epistles we need to remember that, they are not simply text books on being a leader. The context of the whole of Paul’s letter to Timothy is that Paul has left Timothy in Ephesus to deal with false teachers and teachings that are disrupting the Church and its witness. It would be great if we had a comprehensive understanding of what that false teaching was, we only get glimpses from what Paul tells us, its influence however needs to be to kept in mind.
Paul starts dealing with this false teaching by addressing the impact that it was having on public worship and prayer life of the Church. V11-15 are a continuation of Paul’s teaching which started in verse 1 with acall to prayer for all people, because God’s heart was for all people to come to a saving knowledge of the truth through the one God and one mediator between humanity and God Jesus Christ who gave his life as a ransom for all. There is a universality of that prayer, all people, men and women, Christ died for all, men and women. We come to saving knowledge the same way, men and women. Then Paul had gone on to deal with the demeanour of people who prayed. Which welooked at last week. He told men to lift holy hands and pray without anger or dispute. Which at its core has to do with power, who is right and who is wrong. He also challenged a group of women, mainly wealthy who were attired in a way that reflected the cultural and religious life in Ephesus not the heart attitude of a Christian who comes to worship God. That’s a overview… Verse 11-15 is a continuation of that and is designed to deal with the same group of women, and to deal with the underlying issues there.
Lets look through the text. “ A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.” The first thing we should note is that Paul wants women to learn. In Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus he had said he wanted the whole body to learn and grow into maturity and fullness to be equipped for every good deed (Ephesians 4). The gospel and New Testament Church was different from its Jewish and some pagan systems in that it saw women learning in religious matters as important. This includes such things as Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 when he talks of we should not be uninformed about spiritual gifts and using them in the body. That the church grows when everyone uses the gifts that the holy spirit has given, the holy spirit that was poured out on all flesh, men and women, both who would prophecy, which means to tell forth God’s word.
The word that the NIV rightly translates ‘quietness’ has been translated in other places as in silence. It has been used to effectively silence women, from speaking and taking part in public worship, which by the way is contra to the flow of the New Testament. The word quietness here is the same as the word “quite life” that Paul had used as the reason why we should pray for people in authority, so we could live a peaceful and quite life, which were the best conditions for the church to grow into all Holiness and godliness. It’s not about silence its about a lack of conflict and trouble. Submission here has the idea of not all women being submissive to men, rather it is the right attitude for learning, like silence in a library, it’s not to men per se but to the word of God, to the gospel and apostolic teaching. Martha’s sister Mary is the example of what it means to be a disciple and a learner in Luke 10:38-42. She is sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening. Now some have said that that gospel story reinforces the idea of women being silent, but listening is not a passive exercise and we are not told if Mary was asking questions, It does show that Jesus was comfortable with Women as disciples and in the public space of the house. Now Paul could have said this because there were women present who because of the influence of false teachers were not willing to listen, in fact in 2 Timothy 3:6-7 Paul talks of a group of women who were under the influence of the false teachers who were always learning but did not come to a knowledge of the truth. They were not willing to accept the apostolic teaching, you can imagine how that would impact public worship.
Lets move on… “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man, she must be quite.”
Firstly the flow of scripture in the gospel and new testament is towards equal involvement of men and women in leadership and the mission of the church. The women were the first to hear the good news that Jesus had risen from the dead. Men and women were together in the upper room at Pentecost and received the infilling of the holy spirit which Jesus said would enable them to be his witnesses.
Secondly Paul’s own ministry practises elsewhere in scripture show us that Paul was in actual fact comfortable with women in leadership. Even in Ephesus, Pricilla and Aquilla, had been teaching and has taught Apollos, the truth about the gospel. Paul uses the same title coworkers for them, her, as he does for Timothy and Titus, and the fact that Pricilla comes first is significant. Paul had intrusted Pheobe with the letter to the Romans, which means she would have not just acted as a postman but would have most likely read the letter to them, explaining and expounding it. Junia in Romans 16 who along with Andonicus is acknowledged as outstanding amongst the apostles. There are many other examples of women Paul acknowledges as being in leadership roles in the church. So how do we understand Paul now saying I do not permit women to teach?
The word do not permit has been argued over as to weather it is a blanket ban or more along the lines of in this situation, or now I do not…
We then need to consider what Paul is not permitting. There are two things here teach and have authority over a man. The word for authority here is unique in the new testament cannon, its not the usual word for authority. It has negative overtones about authority in its uses in other literature. So it can mean be dominant over a man. Paul does not permit a women to teach in such a way that she is trying to get what she wants and dominate men, see needs to be quite, which again is the word not for silent but peaceful, and in order. Women teaching and dominating men would have been looked down upon by roman and Greek society and Jewish society as well and would be detrimental to the spread of the gospel. Just as that attitude to women is detrimental to the gospel in our day.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Paul would not allow women to dominate men, because in his letter to the church at Ephesus as Paul had addressed the roman household code his teaching had been Ephesians 5:12) submit to one another out of reverence to Christ. There is a mutuality about that, that revolutionises the Roman household code from an imposition of a strict social order into loving service. The majority of Paul’s teaching in that section on wives and husbands is to us husbands, to love, nurture and honour our wives to build them up to die to ourselves in service to them just as Christ died for the Church. Because we need to hear that, because patriarchy and forcing that roman social order can result as we see in dominating a wife and spousal abuse. Perhaps the best way of looking at this idea of authority is the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 20:25where he tells his disciples not to be like the gentile rulers who lord it over each other, rather they were to learn to be the servant of all.
Then Paul goes back to the genesis story… For Adam was formed first, then eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the women who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbirth’. The hierarchical understanding of this passage, is that Paul is asserting the primacy of men, and saying that women are easily deceived and not as spiritually smart as men, and relegating them to the domestic sphere of childbirth and caring for the family… We tend to see it like that because we’ve been conditioned by that reading. Again social context is important. Firstly from 1 Timothy 4:3 we see that some of the false teaching was around abstinence and not being married, in 2 Timothy 1:17-18 Paul talks of two false teachers who had said the resurrection had already come, there is a sense here that the group of women were seeing that married life and childbearing were no longer part of that. The other side to this is that the main religion in Ephesus was the worship of the goddess Artimus, or Diane, Ephesus was world famous and dominated by the temple of Artimus, a large portion of its wealth came from that, (you can see that in Acts 19). In that religion the all priests were women, it was a religion where women dominated men and Artimus was also the one that women prayed to for safety in childbirth. The hair styles that are mentioned in verse 8-10 were associated with this worship as well… it was said their prayers were wrapped up in their hair. So Paul is working on two fronts her, not to say that women are inferior to men, but probably to remind that group of women that they were not above men, the creation story is used as a leveller. While there is some debate over the childbirth part, saving her is not the being saved in terms of being put right with God, which is only by faith in Christ, does not make sense and on a different pastoral level a misunderstanding of this passage can have horrible and damaging impact on childless couples. The wider understanding of the word saved is in play here to mean physical safety. There may have been a fear for women who had been part of the Artimus worship, as most pagans in Ephesus would have been at facing pregnancy without that, but it is God who with them. At the same time he is addressing the fact that the normal role of the women in domestic life is not to be abandoned..
In the end Paul’s hope for women is that they may continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. The same thing that Paul wishes for all the church, Christian virtues wrapped in Greek philosophical terms. Faith that invisible relationship with God, made possible for all through Jesus Christ, reflected in love, how we treat those around us and holiness a life that is consistent with the God whom we worship, very relevant if Paul is dealing with the remnants of Artimus worship with the gospel. Propriety gives the idea of self-control, which is one of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Ok very quickly, lets wrap it up… sadly this passage had fitted into a strong patriarchal tendancy in the church historically… Today however, our western society and its understanding of the place of women is very different in than it was in Paul’s day. We are open to women leaders and teachers. The causation of this passage is still relevant, and we do need to be on guard about issues of domination and power, not love and service in leadership, of either gender, remember it is about faith which has it outworking in love. In revelation Jesus has to remind the church in Ephesus to remember their first love.
Paul’s focus in on the mission of the church, god wanting all people to come to a saving knowledge of the truth and the gospel has been welcomed in to many places because Christians were prepared to teach women. In many places round the world there maybe good reason for caution in the speed of which women are welcomed into public leadership, as in Paul’s day, having many women teachers is a society that did not permit women teachers would have been counterproductive, today it may endanger them and the church. But in the west as Philip towner finishes his commentary on this passage says “too little too slow could neutralize the church’s impact on society just as effectively.”
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