Some Thoughts on 1 Timothy 2:11-15

Every so often I come back around to think on controversial subjects.  I reacquaint myself with the arguments on both sides, reevaluate them, and often end up strengthening my understanding of my own view, although on some occasions I have reversed course (I recently changed my mind about the gifts of prophecy and tongues, for example). 

I have recently had a thought in mind about the key biblical passage on women in ministry, but I have not gotten around to posting it until now.  That passage is 1 Timothy 2:11-15:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

There are basically three ways to approach this passage.  With two approaches you can end up with women pastors, and with the other approach you cannot.  The first approach would be the liberal approach, one that does not accept the authority of Scripture.  Most liberal exegetes look at this passage, conclude that the author (not Paul, according to them) restricted authoritative teaching offices to men, and then say, “Now isn’t that silly?”  And they go on ordaining women to the pastorate.  The passage has no bearing on church practice in that case.

The other two approaches accept the authority of the text as God’s Word but differ as to its applicability to today.  Complementarians like myself see the flow of Paul’s argument, particularly the appeal to transcultural realities like creation and the Fall, as sealing the case for the transcultural applicability of this command.  Women are not to be ordained to the pastorate at any time because this transgresses God’s design in creation, a design that, as much as it conflicts with modern sensibilities, is nevertheless for our good and for his glory. 

Egalitarians, on the other hand, argue that Paul’s restriction on women here is an ad hoc prohibition, one designed to curtail the spread of false doctrine that had particularly influenced the women in Ephesus at this time (see Gordon D. Fee, Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991], 52-65 for this approach).  Paul’s point, so this approach argues, is not to give a command to the church for all time, but rather it is to give a command that applies to a particular situation and that would not necessarily apply when the situation has changed.  Therefore, given the changed setting of our cultural situation, where the same kind of false teaching is not rampant among women, we need not obey Scripture to the letter in this case.  The ordination of women is perfectly compatible with Paul’s intention in this passage, so the argument goes. 

The thought that has been occurring to me more recently is how ironic it is that those who want to protect the ordination of women have to turn Paul into a sexist in order to do it.  Let me explain. 

If a youth minister arrives at his Wednesday evening youth gathering to find the young people listening to a hip-hop song on the church’s CD player, a song that is full of crude and degrading language, the first thing he will do, if he is a youth minister worth his salt, is have the music turned off.  But let’s say the song happens to be performed by a black hip-hop artist.  What if the youth minister then says to the group, “From now on, there will be no more listening to the music of black people on church property.  I do not permit any of you to play any music performed by a black person at church gatherings.”  Surely we would conclude that the youth minister’s action was tinged with a bit of racism.  After all, he has, on the basis of one bad example, branded a whole class of people with a moral taint solely because they share similar physical characteristics with that one bad example.  He has used a sledge hammer where a scalpel is needed.  The damage he has done is likely worse than that of the original problem itself. 

If egalitarians who respect the authority of Scripture are right, then Paul has done the same thing.  No one is going to argue that all the women in Ephesus and only the women in Ephesus were guilty of being seduced by this false teaching (witness two men who are mentioned by name in 1 Timothy 1:20).  So, if the egalitarians are right, we must conclude that Paul chose to address a problem among some women, as well as among some men, by giving a blanket prohibition against all women teaching and exercising authority.  If that is not sexism, I don’t know what is. 

As they say in rural Kentucky, “That dog won’t hunt.”

(Okay, I have never actually heard anyone in rural Kentucky say that, but it seems quite plausible that somebody does say it.)

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One Response to “Some Thoughts on 1 Timothy 2:11-15”

  1. Ali Says:

    Yes, I agree, but I think egalitarians won’t.

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