Step by Step Journey: Writings of Richard Dahlstrom - because there's always a next step

A Case Study in Bible Questions – “I do not permit a woman to….?”

While teaching a series currently about women in the Bible, I’m mindful that the notion that women empowered by God to lead in settings where there are men isn’t a concept on which all good people of faith agree.  Someone recently wrote me who is clearly a student of the Bible, conversant in original languages and texts.  She draws a dramatically different conclusion from mine.  As I shared last week in my preaching about women in leadership, my views on the matter aren’t a matter of cultural convenience; they’re a matter of submission to my understanding of the Biblical witness.  To explain what I mean, I’d like to address my understanding of a highly controversial passage from I Timothy 2:12.  (It’s so controversial it has its own Wikipedia post) Here’s how it reads:  I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.  She must be quiet.

On the surface of things, it appears simple enough right?  Women can’t teach or have authority over men.  Done.

On the other hand.  The obvious interpretation isn’t always necessarily the most accurate interpretation, especially when:

1. We don’t apply the next section literally – ever.

2. The literal interpretation conflicts with Paul’s own teaching, since he assumes women are prophesying here.

So we need to dig deeper and ask some questions:

1. Why does Paul move from plural in earlier verses to singular in this passage?  He’s telling Timothy some things that apply to all women, using the plural pronoun in v9,10, and then he suddenly shifts to the singular when he writes (v11,12), “but I do not permit a woman to teach, or have authority over a man”.  This is a highly unusual shift in grammar, often made as a move from a universal principle to a specific situation.

2. Why does Paul use the word he does for what we translate “authority” – One scholar writes:   The most problematic issue is the rendering of the verb authentein as a simply “authority”, implying it has to do with normative relationships in the church or marriage. This unusual Greek verb is found only here in scripture and rarely in extrabiblical texts, where it is associated with aggression. Authentein is translated as “domineer” in the Latin Vulgate and New English Bible and as “usurp authority” in the Geneva and King James Bibles.

A study of Paul’s letters shows that he regularly used a different word (“exousia”) when referring to the use of authority in the church (see 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 9:4-6, 9:12, 11:10, 2 Cor 2:8, 10:8, 13:10, Col. 1:13, 2 Thess 3:12, Rom 6:15, 9:21). So it is strange that many versions translate “authentein” simply as “authority”.  Considering the context of I Timothy 2:12, it is likely that Paul was objecting to some sort of abusive authority.  One scholar notes, regarding the use of “authentein”:  “The verb authenteō refers to a range of actions that … involve an imposition of the subject’s will, ranging from dishonour to lethal force”, which is a very different conversation than “Who gets to preach this Sunday?” 

3. Why does Paul, in v15, say that a woman will be saved through childbirth?   Those who appeal to v12 as applicable today (I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man) never apply v13-15 literally, for it would mean that infertile women are not saved, a ludicrous and shameful notion.

4. Why, in spite of this word, do women have, authority over men in the Bible?  Why is Junia, a woman, named as notable among the Apostles if women can’t have authority over men?  Why is Huldah, the prophetess, the one who Josiah seeks out for interpretation from God regarding God’s word?  Why do Priscilla and Aquila, both women, correct Apollos, a man, in Acts 18?  All of these are clear instances of violating I Timothy 2:12 if it’s an absolute injunction against women having authority over men.

The answers to these questions lead to a seemingly more plausible conclusion:

1. I Timothy 2:12 is writing about a particular woman in a particular congregation.  Timothy was dealing with some specific heresies in the Ephesian church and Paul is writing in order to address them.

2. The region of Ephesus was party to a feminist movement which marginalized men and reduced them to slaves.   This is precisely the kind of authority Paul is referring to in this passage.  Historians Ferguson and Farnell write about the religious traditions of a female-dominated culture that worshiped “the mother of the gods,” whose oldest name was Cybele. When the Greeks immigrated to Ephesus in Asia Minor, they began to call her by the name of one of their own deities; Artemis. The hierarchy of her priesthood was dominated by women. Men could become priests, but only if they first renounced their masculinity, through the act of ritual castration.  These men also were required to abstain from certain foods and, of course, could not marry.  Interestingly, Paul addresses all these ascetic practices as heresy in his first letter to Timothy, because Timothy was a leader of the church in Ephesus. (1 Timothy 1:3-7, 4:1-5, 6:20-21).

3. Paul is writing to prevent the abusive “authority by force” because false women teachers requiring male castration as a precondition for leadership, as was happening in the Artemis cult, would qualify as “authentein” – abusive authority.

4. Paul, in the same text, is writing to remind people of the true nature of salvation.  As one scholar declares:  In the religious culture of Ephesus, life had its origin in Cybele, a woman, and sin originated with various male gods, including Cybele’s unfaithful consort, Attis. There is evidence that by the second century A.D. these beliefs had begun to distort the creation narrative in some faith communities. So Paul reminds the church that Adam–the first man–was also a source of life; and that Eve–the first woman–also played a role in humanity’s downfall.  What’s more, women who worshiped Artemis called upon her to “save them in childbirth.” For centuries, the church has wrestled with Paul’s reference to being “saved in child-bearing” in 1 Timothy 2:15. Understanding the language and context of Paul’s letter sheds light on this mystery. 

Conclusion:  These texts are interpreted in various ways and divide the church for a reason.  The most obvious literal reading of I Timothy 2:12 leads to a conclusion which has been reinforced in both the Roman Catholic church and most of Protestantism for nearly 2000 years: Women are not allowed to teach or lead.

The reason there’s division though, is because of the unanswered questions surrounding the literal reading, for it is clear that the Bible isn’t always to be taken at literal face value.  Literal application has led to the justification of slavery, genocide, and colonialism, all of which have become scars on church history.  There are times to challenge the literal meaning, and without questioning the faith of good people who disagree, I’d suggest that this text is one of those times.

Jesus’ treatment of women, the fact that the first evangelist was a woman, and that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women both point to the fact that Jesus has no problem allowing women to be voices of hope, instruction, correction, or authority. Neither should we.

 

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Scott Tinker

    April 26, 2018 at 8:19 pm

    We were taught in our past church that the salvation described in the second passage is the salvation of our soul and not the salvation of our spirit. Similar to Philippians 2:12 which talks about working out your salvation. I am not the best advocate for this viewpoint, but the basic idea is that Jesus gave us a new spirit where His Spirit dwells, but we need to allow His Spirit to change our soul (will, emotions, intellect, etc.) which often occurs through painful experiences. So I am not sure I can agree with the assertion that we never apply ITim2:13, but I am grateful for the other points which I want to continue to study.

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  2. Peter Phipps

    April 26, 2018 at 8:24 pm

    Thanks Richard
    Just one detail – it looks as if the way you have employed the phrase ‘both women’ in Q4 refers to Aquila and Priscilla. Acts 18:2 says they were husband and wife. Maybe you meant Junia and Priscilla. The main argument still stands, however. Of the 6 references to the couple, Priscilla is mentioned first 4 times and Aquila twice.
    Blessings,
    Peter

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  3. Kathie Delph

    April 26, 2018 at 11:15 pm

    Such a helpful context and interpretation Richard. Thank you for wrestling with hard questions, and for helping us to see the full context of what was taking place culturally and geographically when this was written. Such a helpful understanding for me. This has been a significant issue for me in the church, and in how I view God’s view toward humankind, as communicated through “the Church.” So appreciate the care, thought and wisdom you bring to this teaching on women.

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  4. Graham

    May 2, 2018 at 7:35 am

    The passage is still problematic. Assuming Paul is saying that a particular group of women or woman shouldn’t have authority or speak at the Church in Ephesus… Perhaps because of a particular problem being caused?… Still they are seemingly disqualified soley because, like Eve, they are female.

    Also, the passage just doesn’t make sense to me if he’s not intending to speak globally. At least it seems to be a very poor illogical argument that Paul is making. A group of women shouldn’t talk I’m church or domineer, have authority over men because… in the Genesis narrative Eve ate the fruit first? Why even go there (not to mention the whole crazy salvation through childbirth thing ) if Paul is speaking to a specific situation? Why not just speak to the specific situation?

    Very problematic passage as it’s hard for me to not just chalking it up to culture at the time, Paul coming across sexist by current “standards” and try to ignore it like other hard passages. But then what else can we write off as just cultural? Black and White literal is so much easier.

    The bigger question this raises for me is why is this in the Bible then? Yes, we aren’t the original hearers, intended audience of this epistle…but if all scripture is God breathed, and good for teaching, rebuking,etc…what are we supposed to get out of this passage? Meaning the current church?

    To be clear, I’m not trying to make an argument for suppressing women leadership over men in the church, or that everything needs to be taken literally. (I do know people by the way who do believe a woman’s salvation is through her husband, so some people do take that verse literally..). Just that for me, the bomb is still ticking.

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