Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

1 Timothy 3:1-7: For Men Only?

One of the most convincing pieces of biblical evidence against women in leadership seems to be Paul’s list of qualifications for overseer/elder in 1 Timothy 3:1-8. The terms for these people that we’re more familiar with are pastors, ministers, bishops, etc. I’ll use the terms elder and overseer synonymously in this post.

Even if my interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 were true–that Paul is not laying down an absolute, universal restriction on women–surely the very next chapter in 1 Timothy does confirm Paul would not allow women to lead. Right?

In this (much shorter and much less technical) post, we’ll look at 1 Timothy 3:1-8, and take a few glances at a similar passage from Paul in Titus 1:5-9.

Surprisingly, we’ll see that Paul actually never limits oversight/eldership to men. Instead, he encourages anyone who aspires to this noble task.

How English Translations Let Us Down

Almost every English translation of 1 Timothy 3:1-8 implies that a local church elder is male. Take a look at the beginning of the passage in several translations (my emphasis):

  • NLT: This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be a church leader, he desires an honorable position.” So a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife.
  • NIV: Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife
  • ESV: The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife
  • NASB: It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife

The masculine pronoun “he” doesn’t occur in the Greek text of 1 Timothy 3:1-8 at all.

Pretty cut and dry, right? When we read 1 Timothy 3:1-8 in English, we think, “Well, even if 1 Timothy 2 doesn’t restrict women from teaching and leading, 1 Timothy 3 says elders are men! He is all over the place. He! He! He!”

There’s just one small problem.

The masculine pronoun “he” doesn’t occur in the Greek text of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 at all.

Not once.[1]

It doesn’t occur in the elder qualification list in Titus 1:5-8 either.[2]

Yet the word “he” occurs six times in the NASB, NIV, and ESV. The NASB also inserts the word “man” in verse 1 though it’s not in the original language. How about the NLT? “He” finds its way in there nine times; “man” is also in there once. (Read the whole passage in just about every English translation.)

These mistranslations influence how we understand Paul’s instructions. He seems to have intentionally left out the masculine pronoun for the express purpose of making it clear that women are eligible to serve as elders, too. (I say “seems” because we cannot know with 100% certainty why he did this.)

In verse 1, Paul uses the phrase ei tis, which should be translated “if anyone.” (The ESV gets it right here.) If Paul wanted to be explicit about which gender can serve, he could have used the masculine pronoun at one point or many.

He seems to have intentionally left out the masculine pronoun for the express purpose of making it clear that women are eligible to serve as elders, too.

But he never does.

Unlike English, Greek does not require the use of a pronoun with a verb. So a third-person singular verb (like “aspires” in verse 1) isn’t connected to “he,” but to “anyone.” Anyone (male or female) is who Paul had in mind.

So what’s the best translation? It may seem sacrilege to the grammar purist, but we can’t do better in English than the singular “they.”[3] Yes, “they” should be used as a singular plural pronoun in cases where “anyone” (or “someone”) is the subject.

Here’s what that would look and sound like:

The saying is trustworthy: if anyone aspires to the work of overseeing, they desire a good work. Therefore, the overseer/bishop must be above reproach, a man of one woman, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not drunk, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy, managing their own house well with all dignity, keeping their children obedient, for if someone doesn’t know how to manage their own home how will they care for God’s church? They must not be a recent convert or they may become conceited and fall into the devil’s condemnation. Moreover, they must have a good witness with outsiders, so that they will not fall into disgrace and the devil’s snare.

How would this translation change the conversation about the gender of elders? How would it change your perspective?

But What About A “One Woman Man”?

If we go with my suggested translation, it seems that Paul includes the possibility that women can serve as elders in a church. But even this position has a problem. What about that little phrase “a husband of one wife”? It’s often translated “faithful to his wife” or something similar in both 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6.

Doesn’t that mean that all leaders in a church must be men?

No, not at all.

The literal translation is “a man of one woman.” Some believe Paul is excluding from church leadership men who are divorced or even struggling with lust. But that’s not exactly what he said. That’s an interpretation.

Considering his first-century context, Paul is most likely excluding polygamists (men who have more than one wife) from church oversight.

This is how John Chrysostom (a third-century church father) understood Paul’s words: “This he does not lay down as a rule, as if [an overseer] must not be without [a wife], but as prohibiting his having more than one.”[4] Chrysostom spoke Greek and knew Paul’s culture better than we do. We should take his interpretation seriously.

Someone might ask, though, why didn’t Paul prohibit the opposite: women with multiple husbands (“polyandry”)?

The reality is that polyandry was incredibly rare in the ancient world if practiced at all.[5] For most of world history men have had the advantage in social status, financial security, formal education, and so on. That’s probably why Paul didn’t include “a woman of one man.”

There’s one more possibility for “a man of one woman.” More like an additional layer: Paul may also have in mind active, male adulterers who are unfaithful to their wives.[6] Of course, women did commit adultery. And Paul would not have allowed a female adulteress to serve as an elder either! But female adultery was probably less common because of the potential for severe consequences under Roman law.[7]

If Paul means something more than excluding polygamists, we might say “faithful in marriage” (regardless of gender) gets close to what he had in mind.

How Literal Do You Want to Get?

Complementarian teaching can go further, however. Since Paul included the phrase “a man of one woman,” I was taught that this implies only men can be overseers/elders. Otherwise, why would this qualification be here? Why else would it be phrased this way?

That is a very literal reading and application of the text. If we make that argument, couldn’t we then say that Paul excludes single men from being an overseer/elder? (See Chrysostom’s quote above.) Of course, that would mean Paul himself, not to mention Jesus, wouldn’t be able to serve as an overseer in Ephesus. And that’s just nonsense.

The slippery slope of a literal reading continues. Does managing a household well so that [supposedly his] children obey (v 4) mean that the overseer must be married and have children? Does it mean that the person must also be a head of a household? Is Paul excluding slaves or freedmen or general employees who do not have a household to manage?

Bridging the gap to our day, this would mean only wealthy, married businessmen with children can serve as elders! I don’t know of anyone who wants to make that case.

Paul provides a non-exhaustive list that generally represents what an elder should look like. One’s gender isn’t a requirement.

Paul is saying that if a man is married, he needs to only have one wife; if someone has children (he never says father/man/he, etc.), the children must be obedient/submissive.

When we consider that the lists in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are not carbon copies of each other, it should be apparent that these lists are descriptive, not prescriptive. Much like his spiritual gift lists, Paul provides a non-exhaustive list that generally represents what an elder should look like. One’s gender isn’t a requirement.

Women Can Do This Job, Too

The one ministry skill in the list of qualifications is being able to teach. (But let’s not forget that managing one’s house is also a skill!) Since Paul encouraged women to learn (2:11), the expectation was that they would be able to teach at some point!

Looking at the rest of the qualifications, notice that, again like spiritual gifts, none of them are gender-specific–other than “a man of one wife” (which I explained above).

The qualifications are actually pretty unremarkable things that should be true of all Christians! But it’s fascinating that throughout the letter, Paul encourages and commands women to fulfill many of these qualifications.

The table below shows that Paul used at least nine of the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 in reference to women at other points in the letter.[8]

In Reference to Overseers/Elders (3:1-7)In Reference to Women
Desire a good workDevoted to good works (5:10)
Above reproachAbove reproach (5:7)
Sober-mindedSober-minded (3:11)
Self-controlled Self-control (2:9)
RespectableWear respectable apparel (2:9)
HospitableShowing hospitality (5:10)
Well thought of by outsidersWell-known for good deeds (5:10)
Manage household wellManage household (5:14)
Avoid the devil’s condemnationSome have incurred condemnation (5:12)

It seems Paul believes women can and will take on oversight responsibilities. Why else would he encourage women to pursue these things in the exact same letter where he describes a godly leader? I don’t believe Paul would dangle a carrot in front of a woman’s face only to say, “Oh, wait. You can’t have that role because you’re a woman.”

I don’t believe Paul would dangle a carrot in front of a woman’s face only to say, “Oh, wait. You can’t have that role because you’re a woman.”

Back to the point about these qualities being true of every Christian. Since that’s true, it makes perfect sense for Paul to say anyone can aspire to this role. The Holy Spirit empowers women, just as much as he does men, to reflect the qualities Paul mentions. And because the Spirit dwells in men and women, both genders represent and speak for the risen, authoritative Jesus.

Doesn’t it seem wise for an entire faith community (which is made up of men and women, by the way) to have both genders serving as examples and shepherding the flock? Our churches today are more likely to flourish spiritually, emotionally, and socially when both genders are represented in leadership.

Summing It All Up

The overseer qualifications that Paul lays out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 should not be used to prevent women from serving as elders in a church. Paul never says or implies that they must only be men.

Despite what our English Bibles say, neither of Paul’s lists uses a masculine pronoun in the original language. He says that “anyone” who aspires to serve desires a good thing. And they may serve, as long as they have godly character and are able to teach. In 1 Timothy, it’s also clear that Paul wants women to pursue the same qualities required of elders, implying that they can lead when they’re ready.

Now that we’ve dealt with 1 Timothy 2-3, we’ll shift to the two controversial texts in 1 Corinthians on women’s roles in the church.


Notes

Feature photo: Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash.

[1] “He” also doesn’t occur in the section on deacons in 3:9-13.

[2] Titus 1:6 says, “If anyone…” (ei tis), just like 1 Timothy 3:1 does.

[3] The link will take you to an APA article about the singular “they” in English. “Singular ‘They,'” APA Style, September 2019.

[4] Quoted in Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 425.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (New York: Liverlight, 2016), 308, notes that there is some evidence that the execution of a wife caught in adultery was within the husband’s legal power. Of course, there was no comparable law for adulterous husbands.

[8] This is essentially an English version of the Greek table in Payne, Man and Woman, 447-453.

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

1 Timothy 2:11-15: Dealing with Deception in the Church

In my previous post, I looked at the context of Ephesus, the city where Timothy ministered. The church there was in a vulnerable position because of both the Artemis cult and pre-Gnostic teachings. You’ll want to read that post before this one.

This post will be a commentary on 1 Timothy 2:11-15. My goal isn’t to provide watertight arguments for everything in this passage. Instead, I’ll provide interpretive options that are still faithful to the text and take into account the cultural/religious context of ancient Ephesus.

I hope after reading this, you’ll realize that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is not as straightforward as complementarians claim.

Commentary: 1 Timothy 2:11-15

Here’s the full text of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in the NIV. (Click the link to see the NIV and ESV side-by-side.)

11A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

I’ll introduce the commentary on each verse below with my own translation. The goal of my translation is not to be “as literal as possible” but to provide the sense (in English) of what Timothy would have heard and understood as he read it in the original language (Greek).

Verse 11

11A woman must learn with a teachable heart, with a submissive demeanor [before God].

Let Her Learn

The revolutionary idea in this passage is that Paul commands that a woman should learn Christian theology. In the first century, Jews and Greeks did not permit women to be educated in any discipline, much less theology.

But Paul picks up where Master Jesus left off: women are welcomed as full-fledged disciples.

This was as radical for Paul to write as it was for Jesus to let Mary sit at his feet. This gets overlooked in our conversations about what women are “allowed to do” in churches.

The revolutionary idea in this passage is that Paul commands that a woman should learn Christian theology.

Verse 11 contains the only command (called an “imperative”) in the entire section: manthanetō (translated “should learn,” NIV). The full phrase can be translated as “Let a woman learn” or “a woman must/should learn.”

The entire letter of 1 Timothy is about dealing with false teachers and deception. This is the problem Paul wants to avoid (cf. v 14). Learning is the antidote to deception and Paul commands it as the long-range solution for this problem. His concern is not to restrict this woman/all women forever but equip them to avoid deception.

While we overlook the significance of this in our modern debates, equipping women is another way the early church flipped the world’s values upside down.

All Women or a Woman?

Verses 11, 12, and 15 force us to deal with an interesting question: is Paul talking about one woman or all women? There are good reasons to believe that Paul is writing about one particular woman. I was first introduced to this idea by Marg Mowczko.[1] I think it’s likely this is the case for two reasons.

First, Paul uses the singular gynē (which can mean “woman” or “wife”) in verses 11 and 12. In verse 15, he uses the singular pronoun “she.”[2] Likewise, he uses the singular andros (which can mean “man” or “husband”) in verse 12.

If Paul wanted to keep all women from teaching and exercising authority over all men, why didn’t he use the plural form of these words? There are people on both sides of the debate that have argued “woman” (singular) may be used in general to represent all women. That may be so. But then why use “she” in verse 15? That seems like an odd way to refer to all women.

Second, recall that in the verses immediately preceding 2:11-15, Paul deals with specific problems in the Ephesian church. In verse 8, Paul addresses particular men who ought to pray without anger or disputing.[3] In verses 9-10, Paul addresses particular women who were flaunting their wealth in the worship gathering.

Wouldn’t it make sense for the logical flow of the passage to lead to another specific situation in verses 11-15? It’s possible.

I can’t be 100% positive that Paul’s only talking about one woman. But the needle tips that way for me if for no other reason than the grammar. So I’ll continue to refer to “the woman” in the rest of the post.

The Goal: A Humble, Teachable Spirit

Strict complementarians have argued that the word “quietness/quiet” (vv 11-12, NIV) suggest that women are not allowed to teach in public worship. Some compare this with Paul’s apparent call for female silence in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

But the Greek word here doesn’t mean verbal silence at all. The word is hēsychia and it has more to do with a humble, teachable spirit.[4] It describes someone who doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others. It’s the opposite of disruption, and it suggests serious learning so that a person will eventually be able to teach.[5]

A better “literal” translation (if that’s possible) would be “stillness,” since “quiet” in English means not speaking or making noise.

The implication is that when this woman has learned and demonstrated humility, she would be eligible to teach.

What hēsychia means is important. So is where it’s placed in the sentence. It’s the third word in Greek in verse 11; and then it occurs again at the very end of verse 12 (see above). This is called an inclusio–a literary device that uses a word or phrase like brackets to mark out an important point.

It’s likely Paul put the spotlight on a particular woman who had been disruptive and divisive. But notice that he doesn’t say, “She shouldn’t teach because she’s female.” Instead, the inclusio highlights the problem. “She’s disruptive–so be still / learn with a teachable spirit.”

Submission to Whom?

The woman is to learn humbly and also “with complete submission.” Traditionally, this has been understood to mean that women must learn in submission to men. At least, that’s how I understood it as a complementarian.

But the text does not say that.

“Submission” here relates to how this woman must learn sound doctrine before God and in her faith community. She must not be arrogant, pushy, or domineering (see v 12 below), but with humility first before God, and then before those serving as ministers in the church. This squares with the call to be “in stillness,” or, to have a teachable spirit.

Verse 11 Summary: Paul commands a woman to learn with a humble, reverent posture before God and the faith community. This was revolutionary in the ancient world. It’s also consistent with how Paul treated women throughout his ministry. This is his long-range solution to dealing with deception due to false teaching.

Verse 12

12I am not currently allowing a woman to teach or domineer a man, but she must remain with a teachable heart.

No Teaching…Forever?

The first word in verse 12 in Greek is didaskein (“to teach”). Complementarians argue that didaskein is always used positively in the New Testament, in the sense of teaching the apostolic faith in contrast to false teaching.[6] Therefore, they argue, Paul forbids women from teaching doctrine to men.

But as a matter of fact, didaskein is used negatively sometimes. In Titus 1:10-11, Paul points out there are people in Crete who teach things they should not and are full of deception (sound familiar?). In Matthew 5:19, Jesus says that those who set aside God’s commands and teach others accordingly are least in the Kingdom.

The context must help us know if the author has good or bad teaching in mind. We just saw that Paul commands a woman to learn with a humble posture. Paul’s concern is on what’s being taught and how the teaching occurs. The next section will make this even more clear.

The restriction on this woman seems especially forceful in English. It sounds command-like, which has also led many complementarians to say we must take the text “at face value” and therefore prohibit women from teaching men.

But the force we feel in English isn’t there in Greek. This verb for “permit” is epitrepō. It’s variously translated as “allow, permit, let” in the New Testament.

If Paul wanted to be forceful, he had other words available to him. He regularly uses the words translated as “charge” or “urge” throughout the letter to tell Timothy to do something (see 1:3, 5; 4:11; 5:7; 6:13, 17, 18).[7]

But he doesn’t use those words here.

In verse 12, epitrepō is a present, active indicative verb. For the grammar geeks out there, you know that the indicative mood states a fact. What you may not know is that the present, active voice is reserved for immediate or short duration situations. Philip Payne has shown that in the New Testament, a present, active verb never has the force of continuous, universal facts or application.[8]

An understanding of the right mood and voice can make a big difference. A better translation would be, “I am not [currently] allowing a woman to teach…”

For those who hold to the complementarian position, how would your view change if verse 12 was translated this way?

What Kind of Authority?

There’s something even more significant in verse 12 that leads me to believe Paul does not forbid all women for all time from teaching and leading (or from “authoritative teaching,” depending on how these two activities relate in the text).[9] What is it?

The word he uses for “authority.”

First Timothy 2:12a in the ESV says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…” The Greek word translated “exercise authority” is authentein.

For me, this word is the most important word in the entire passage. What does this word mean?

Word studies can be tricky. You can’t just use any sort of definition you find in a dictionary.

Yet, with authentein, we must rely on definitions because this word is so rare.

How rare?

It only occurs once in the New Testament. Yes, just once. Right here. And it’s only found a total of eight times in ancient documents before the fourth century AD![10] We don’t have a lot to work with.

Complementarians have understood this word to mean that Paul does not allow women to have legitimate, positive authority over a man (such as being a pastor/elder). They argue that because “to teach” is positive (see above) then authentein must be positive since the words are grammatically connected. So it’s “exercise [legitimate] authority” or something like “authority as an officer” in the church. Either way, it’s positive. Nearly every complementarian I know of translates this word this way.[11]

The problem is that authentein does not mean exercising positive or legitimate authority at all. There seems to be consensus among scholars that “the root meaning involves the concept of authority.”[12] The big question is, “What kind of authority?”

Every ancient Greek lexicon (dictionary) defines authentein as a negative use of authority. Very negative, in fact! Here’s how two of the most authoritative Greek lexicons define it:

  • “To assume a stance of independent authority, give orders to, dictate to.”[13]
  • “To have full power or authority over; to commit a murder.”[14]

If Paul wanted to forbid women from legitimate, positive church leadership, then authentein was an incredibly poor choice.

In fact, there is not one Greek-English lexicon that defines authentein in terms of a legitimate, positive, exercise of authority. Linda Belleville says that there is “no first-century warrant translating…authentein as ‘to exercise authority.'”[15]

It’s also worth mentioning that the noun form of this word means “murderer.”[16]

If Paul wanted to forbid women from legitimate, positive church leadership, then authentein was an incredibly poor choice. No male in the church should have authentein!

Paul could have used exousia or epitagēs, the common New Testament words for “authority.” But he did not. Why?

This rare word comes from a word group with the prefix autos, which means “self” (e.g. autobiography). Paul probably chose this word because this woman had been acting in a self-serving, self-exalting, self-aggrandizing, and self-authenticating manner.

Belleville points out that Paul wanted to communicate this specific nuance. One way she translates authentein is “to get one’s way.”[17] In modern-day terms, the Ephesian woman was an abusive bully who dictated to a man, “I’m the boss now.”

The problem wasn’t that a woman was teaching or leading per se. It’s that she was teaching in a domineering manner that attempted to “put a man in his place.” This likely included teaching false doctrines (or at least advocating for them), evidenced by seizing authority that was not rightfully hers.[18]

All of this makes good sense when we consider Paul’s goal: to learn with a humble, teachable spirit.

Whatever side of the conversation we’re on, we must admit that Paul is not restricting a woman who’s teaching sound doctrine with a humble posture. He’s restricting someone who’s seeking to dominate others.

Verse 12 Summary: Paul’s short-range solution to confronting false teaching was to not allow this woman to teach in the gathering. While her teaching was likely heretical (she did need to learn), the manner in which she taught was the biggest problem–she was domineering or “self”-authenticating. She needed to learn with a humble posture.

Verses 13-14

13[Now] Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not deceived; but the woman, being deceived, became a transgressor.

Paul then gives a summary of the Adam and Eve story. At first glance, it seems a bit out of place. Complementarians say this is Paul’s reason why women can’t teach or lead men. They claim it’s due to the “order of creation.”[19] Some also believe Paul’s words imply Eve’s transgression was a refusal to submit to her husband.[20]

Is that what Paul means or implies? It’s possible. But is that our only option? I don’t think it has to be.

Paul on Created Order

Let’s start with the idea of “created order.” Paul has already told us what he thinks about this in 1 Corinthians 11 (written before 1 Timothy).

Would the same Paul who honored Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Lydia, and other women really say women can’t teach or lead because they were created second?

It’s a difficult passage to understand that I’ll address it in a future post. But he seems clear when he writes, “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” (1 Cor 11:11-12).

Yes, the first woman came from a man. But every other man in the history of the world has come from a woman! Ultimately, everything comes from God, so which human came first doesn’t seem to matter to Paul all that much.[21]

I don’t think Paul would contradict himself in 1 Timothy 2. Because of this, not to mention the evidence in my other posts on Paul, this likely is not a universal (transcultural) restriction.

Would the same Paul who honored Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Lydia, and other women really say women can’t teach or lead because they were created second?

Let’s look at other possibilities for verses 13-14 that are still faithful to the text.

Conjunction, What’s Your Function?

The word “for” is a small conjunction with big implications.[22] It’s the Greek word gar and it can sometimes suggest a cause/reason. Other times it can be used to introduce background information or clarify something.[23] Sometimes, it’s even left untranslated.[24] (See note #24 for examples.)

Why is translating this small word important? Because it shows that translators have to make choices. And how a word is translated into English influences how we understand a verse.

What if “for” was left untranslated in 1 Timothy 2:13? What if it was translated “now” or “indeed”? What if verses 13-14 were put in parentheses?

Any of these options would change how we’d understand verses 13-14. We’d see them as an explanation or clarification of what came before, rather than a cause or reason.

What could Paul be explaining or clarifying?

Clarifying Orthodox Belief

Considering the Gnostic influence in Ephesus and the heretical version of the Adam and Eve story within Gnosticism (see previous post), it’s reasonable to believe that Paul is clarifying an orthodox understanding of Adam and Eve. If “for” was translated “now” or left untranslated, or if translators put theses verses in parentheses, we’d see this more clearly in English.

They aren’t to bully their way to the top and make men play second fiddle. Why? Eve was not created to be Adam’s boss but his partner.

If Gnosticism was as rampant in Ephesus as I think it was, not to mention the goddess Artemis cult, it makes sense for Paul to do this. Perhaps the woman in Ephesus was persuaded by the false teachers and/or Artemis worship to assert herself in unhealthy and damaging ways to gain an advantage over her husband (or other men).

This woman (or women) aren’t to teach men in a domineering manner. They aren’t to bully their way to the top and make men play second fiddle. Why? Eve was not created to be Adam’s boss but his partner.[25] That is God’s creative ideal.

Belleville puts it this way:

If the Ephesian women were being encouraged as the superior sex to assume the role of teacher over men, this would go a long way toward explaining verses 13-14. The relationship between the sexes was not intended to be one of female domination and male subordination.[26]

She goes on to say, “Neither was [the relationship between the sexes] intended to be one of male domination and female subordination. Such thinking is native to a fallen creation order (Gen. 3:16).”[27]

This way of understanding verses 13-14 accounts for the religious cultural situation in Ephesus and keeps us from making Genesis 1-2 say something it does not say or imply (i.e. that Eve was subordinate to Adam).[28]

Deception, Eve, and Women

For most of its history, the church has held that women are more easily deceived than men. This was a common belief for the church fathers. Most complementarians, thankfully, have abandoned this view, but not until recently.[29]

Modern social-scientific research proves, of course, that gender is not a factor that influences how gullible someone is. What does? Things like understanding of a culture, financial literacy, age, experiences, socialization, intelligence, education, and even personality all play a part.[30]

In the first century, women probably were more easily deceived due to the vast difference between them and men in these areas. It’s possible that Paul has that mind.

Yet Paul doesn’t explicitly say this. Someone must interpret Paul’s words to make that claim. The irony is that the only two false teachers Paul mentions by name in this letter (who were deceived and are now deceiving others) aren’t women but men–Alexander and Hymenaeus (see 1:18-20).

Eve’s deception comes up in the New Testament one other time. In 2 Corinthians 11:3. There, Paul warns the whole church–both men and women–not to be led away from Christ.[31]

It’s apparent he uses Eve as an example for each church’s particular situation. And in the case of 1 Timothy, he’s not making a universal pronouncement about the gullibility of all women. If we make that case, we’d have to say the same about men because of the 1 Corinthians passage.

Putting the Pieces Together

How might we understand all of 2:11-14? Here’s how I would flesh it, admittedly adding some interpretative statements to help to connect the dots:

This woman should learn in stillness, with a teachable heart and in full submission to God. No more self-authenticating disruption! I’m not allowing her to teach a man in a domineering way, trying to prove women are the superior sex. In God’s kingdom, women aren’t bullies like the false teachers say they are (and that Artemis would have them be!). Remember that women aren’t superior to men. Adam was formed first, after all! Eve was created second to be a corresponding strength him, his partner, fully equal before God. Eve was not his boss! And Eve wasn’t Adam’s teacher either. She was actively deceived and became a transgressor!

This is a completely reasonable way to interpret verses 11-14, in light of the false teachers seeking to deceive people, which is the main reason why Paul left Timothy in Ephesus and why he wrote this letter.

Verses 13-14 Summary: Paul corrects a false teaching spreading in Ephesus that Eve was Adam’s superior and teacher. It was Adam who was made first and Eve wasn’t the teacher, but the one deceived. Paul thus clarifies that Eve was created to be Adam’s partner, not his boss. Females should not dominate men. (But neither should men dominate women!) Creation shows God’s ideal of partnership.

Verse 15

15But she will be saved through the childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with self-control.

If you only read the NIV, you’ll miss that verse 15 does not actually say “Women will be saved through childbearing.” The original language says, “She will be saved…” The ESV translates this correctly, by the way.

This is a significant difference with huge implications. Taking this into account, however we interpret this verse, it still must fit with the rest of Paul’s logic.

A Common Complementarian View

Denny Burk, president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, represents many, but not all, complementarians when he writes:

A wife’s fulfillment of this [chilbearing] role will be one of the evidences of perseverance in the faith. Salvation is future in this verse: “She will be saved.” Thus it is not entry into salvation that is in view but the future consummation of salvation. Women who embrace their God-ordained role while continuing in the Christian virtues of “faith and love and holiness, with self-control” will find themselves saved on the last day.[32]

Burk says that is if a married woman professes Christ but does not embrace her “God-ordained role” of caring for children in the home, she will not find salvation on judgment day.

Think about the implications of that for a second.

Andreas Köstenberger, who’s written quite a bit on gender roles, puts it differently, but still focuses on a woman’s role at home:

My conclusion: in 1 Timothy 2:15 Paul says that women will be spiritually preserved (from Satan) by adhering to their God-ordained role related to family and the home. This is contrasted with Eve, who transgressed those boundaries and fell into temptation (v. 14)…In v. 15, Paul addresses the question, “How can women today avoid the mistake made by Eve?” The answer: by adhering to their God-given boundaries and tending to their God-given responsibilities.”[33]

There are at least three problems with these views:

  1. 1 Timothy 2 says nothing about traditional roles for a wife and mother. That’s an interpretation.
  2. They ignore the context of the letter which is false teaching. The immediate context of the passage deals with deception, and, most importantly, domineering behavior. We might add anger and wealth-flaunting, if we include verses 8-10.
  3. Genesis 1-2 never suggests there were God-ordained roles Eve crossed in Genesis 3.[34] The central focus of Genesis 3 is not that Eve shirked her wifely duties but rather that she disobeyed God’s command. The curse of Genesis 3 also shows sin brought male dominance into the world. It was never God’s creative intention for one sex to rule over the other.[35]

These complementarian views don’t fit with the logic of verses 11-15, and verses 8-15 as a whole.

Three Interpretive Options

When we remember the the cultural context of Ephesus, the pieces start to fit together. We have at least three options that are in stark contrast to the traditional patriarchal views.

Option 1: Look to Jesus, not Artemis
Ephesus was home to Artemis, the virgin goddess and protector of women in childbirth. Pregnancy, labor, and delivery were dangerous in the ancient world. It’s conceivable that Christian women who came from the Artemis cult were tempted to look to her, rather than Jesus, for protection in the childbirth process. (The Greek word for “save” can sometimes mean holistic well-being, not just spiritual deliverance.)

Option 2: Sex and Childbirth Don’t Jeopardize Salvation
In its ascetic form, Gnosticism discouraged engaging in physical pleasure because the material world was evil–perhaps even not “real.” Paul could be refuting this false teaching and encouraging the woman in her faith in Jesus.

The gist of the false teaching was: if you had sex, you indulge the material world and therefore cannot be saved. This sounds over-the-top prude for us modern people. But if we take into account Greek philosophy, Gnosticism, and the Artemis cult, it’s not so far-fetched.

So Paul assures this women that if she renounced the Gnostic teaching of celibacy, had sex, and then became pregnant, she “will be saved” on judgment day.

In the first century, sexual intercourse was primarily for reproduction, and we have evidence Christians in Corinth thought abstaining from sex was good.[36] The problem woman in Ephesus may have been encouraged by false teachers to instruct her husband in false doctrine in a domineering fashion. A part of her dominating authority may have been to withhold sex and refuse to procreate.

So Paul assures this woman that if she renounced the Gnostic teaching of celibacy, had sex, and then became pregnant, she will still have salvation on judgment day.[37]

This may be the exact reason why Paul encourages widows to get married and bear children later in 5:14. The material world (which includes marriage, sex, childbirth, etc.) is not evil, but good because God created it.

Sidebar: Why the switch from “she’ to “they”?
In a somewhat puzzling move, Paul switches from singular to plural in the middle of verse 15 (“she” to “they”). He could have in mind the woman and her husband or the women flaunting their wealth in verses 9-10 or all the women in Ephesus.

It would be irresponsible for anyone to say with absolute certainty who “they” refers to here. But I’m inclined to think it refers to the women mentioned in vv 9-10 or any other women in Ephesus who are drawn to the false doctrine and behavior of domineering teaching.

These virtues are in stark contrast to the domineering attitude Paul wants to snuff out. Faith, love, and holiness–not authentein–is what characterizes a believer. This is another piece of evidence that leads me to believe Paul’s not calling all women to embrace their wifely role. These are necessary ingredients for anyone to have if they want to persevere til the end. The pushy, me-first posture must be put off, and love, faith, and self-control must be put on.

Option 3: Eve’s Offspring Brings Salvation
Some scholars believe Paul continues his thought on Adam and Eve into verse 15 and that there is a subtle reference to Jesus here.

The argument goes like this. The definite article “the” before childbearing signifies a specific childbirth–the birth of Messiah. This birth will reverse the curse Eve helped usher into the world. When Paul says Eve “will be saved” he’s referring to the salvation she will receive on the last day, still to come. It’s through Christ, Eve’s offspring, that women experience salvation “if they continue in faith, love, and self-control” (2:15).

This is how egalitarians like Philip Payne and Ben Witherington understand verse 15.[38] Even some complementarians hold to this view.[39]

I’m not convinced for a couple reasons:

  1. In the rest of his writings, whenever Paul refers to the work of Christ that brings salvation, it’s never his birth but always his life, death, and resurrection.
  2. The way Paul ends verse 15 with “if they continue…” is odd if he’s talking about Eve at the beginning. Yes, Eve awaits her salvation on the last day (“will be saved” is future-oriented). We’re all waiting for that! But the salvation mentioned in verse 15 is contingent on something (“if they continue in faith, love, and self-control”). How can Eve’s final salvation be dependent on someone else continuing in these virtues?

It’s not my first choice, but it’s one option available to us.

Personally, I believe verse 15 is best explained by option #1 or #2, or a combination of both.

Both options make more sense than the complementarian explanation considering the cultural situation in Ephesus. They’re also better explanations given the grammar and flow of the entire passage (including vv 8-10).

Verse 15 Summary: Paul encourages the woman that her salvation will not be lost if she rejects Gnostic teaching (or that her life won’t be in danger if she rejects Artemis). She must continue in the virtues of love, faith, and self-control/holiness, which fits well with the idea of not being domineering (“self-authenticating”). Rather than teach false doctrine and dominate, she must exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Summing It All Up

It’s reasonable to conclude that there was a woman (or multiple women) at Ephesus who was trying to domineer her husband (or a man or all the men). She was likely teaching heretical doctrines, but the bigger point appears to be her demeanor/posture before God and the faith community.

An aspect of this domineering behavior may have been to withhold sex and reproduction due to Gnostic teaching and/or Artemis mythology (suggested by v 15).

Paul’s solution is to not allow her to teach or act in a self-authenticating/domineering way. Instead, she must learn with a humble heart.

I haven’t said everything there is to say about 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and I didn’t provide a water-tight argument for every detail in the text. That was by design. My commentary shows the passage isn’t as straightforward as some would have us believe. The options I’ve provided make just as much sense considering the biblical and cultural context, if not more, than the traditional complementarian view.

As always, if you have questions on anything I’ve written–or if you have ideas I didn’t mention–I’d be happy to discuss those in the comments below.

There will be one more post on this text. I’ll share several brief reflections on how we can apply it in the church today.


Notes

Feature photo: Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.

[1] Marg Mowczko, “3 reasons why it’s a woman, not all women, in 1 Timothy 2:12,” 8/28/2019.

[2] The NIV mistranslates v 15 as “But women will be saved…” though in the footnotes they indicate that in Greek it says “she.”

[3] We should not assume that in every church, everywhere in the Roman Empire men are going into worship angry and ready to argue! When Paul says “I want the men everywhere…” he means everywhere in Ephesus. Also, recall that churches met in homes throughout the city so there would have been multiple church gatherings in Ephesus.

[4] Taking into account Paul’s rabbinic background, we’re reminded that this humble posture was required of men training to be rabbis, too. It’s what we’d want today for anyone preparing for ministry. See Walter Liefeld, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), on BibleGateway.com.

[5] Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 311, 323.

[6] See Andreas Köstenberger, Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995), 81-103; and “Was I wrong on 1 Timothy 2:12?,” Biblical Foundations blog.

[7] Mowczko, “The Consensus and Context of 1 Timothy 2:12.”

[8] Philip Payne comments, “Every occurrence of epitrepō in the Greek OT refers to a specific situation, never to a universally applicable permission. Similarly, the vast majority of the NT occurrences of ἐπιτρέπω clearly refers to a specific time or for a short or limited time duration only.” Payne adds that the grammar Paul uses cannot carry the weight of church tradition for all time. Even Doug Moo, a complementarian scholar, admits, “It must be admitted that the verb [epitrepō] is not often used in Scripture of universally applicable commandments.” See Payne, Man and Woman, 320-321 for both quotes.

[9] I recognize there is a lot of debate on the connecting word “or” (Gk oude) in verse 12 and how that affects whether we see “teaching” and “authority” as separate or joined. I’m not going to get into all that here. For what it’s worth, I think Paul joins two elements with the word “or” to communicate one idea: teaching with authority.

[10] Jamin Hübner, “Translating αὐθεντέω (authenteō) in 1 Timothy 2:12a,” Priscilla Papers 29/2 (Spring 2015).

[11] Here are two non-academic examples of how complementarians view the word “authority” in 1 Tim 2:12: Denny Burk, “Women in Ministry and 1 Timothy 2:12,” Denny Burk blog, 1/21/2012; John Piper, “Manhood, Womanhood, and the Freedom to Minister,” Desiring God, 6/18/1989.

[12] Hübner, “Translating.”

[13] BDAG Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, definition found here.

[14] LSJ Greek-English Lexicon, authenteo.

[15] Linda Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies in Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:11–15: Evaluating the text with contextual, lexical, grammatical, and cultural information,” Priscilla Papers 17/3 (2003), 3-11.

[16] If you’re interested in further reading, see Hübner, “Translating”; Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies”; Marg Mowczko, “The meaning of authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12, with a brief history of authent– words,” 6/29/2017; Philip Payne, Man and Woman, 361-398; and A. C. Perriman, “What Eve Did, What Women Shouldn’t Do: The Meaning of Authentein in 1 Timoth 2:12,” Tyndale Bulletin 44/1 (1993), 129-142.

[17] Ibid.

[18] So what is Paul not allowing? A particular woman (or all women) who is unlearned in Christian doctrine and domineering is not permitted to teach. This would be true of anyone in Ephesus, or any church for that matter! Thus the abstract principle is: Those who are uneducated in Christian doctrine or self-serving should not teach. Paul’s concern has nothing to do with gender. At least not yet. It’s interesting, however, to note that later, in chapter 3, Paul states that “anyone” (singular gender neutral pronoun) may aspire to be an overseer (3:1) and they “must be able to teach” (3:2). Why the emphasis on teaching and not other pastoral gifts? Precisely because the problem at hand in Ephesus is false teaching. I’ll talk more about 1 Timothy 3 in a future post.

[19] See for example Denny Burk, 5 Evidences of Complementarian Gender Roles in Genesis 1-2, TGC Blog, 3/5/2014. For a much longer version, see Raymond Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” in John Piper and Wayne A. Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, ), 119-142.

[20] Ibid., Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies.”

[21] I’ve also shown that the Bible in general has little regard for who comes first. See question #5 here.

[22] Marg Mowczko, “1 Timothy 2:13: Another reason 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seems,” 8/6/2016. Once again, I’m standing on Marg’s shoulders here.

[23] Ibid.; see also Strongs Exhaustive Concordance, 1063 gar.

[24] In 1 Tim 2:5, gar provides additional information about intercessory prayer. In John 4:44, gar is translated as “now” in the NIV. The ESV goes with “for,” but the verse is in parentheses to show thats it’s an explanation. In Heb 2:5, the ESV translates gar as “for” to clarify what was just said, not give a reason. Distinguished Greek scholar William Mounce translates gar as “indeed” in 1 Cor 14:2. In other places, gar is even left untranslated! Both the ESV and NIV do this in Acts 16:37. In 2 Cor 9:1, the NIV leaves it untranslated, but the ESV translates it “now” since a new topic is introduced.

[25] Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies.”

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Some complementarians read gender hierarchy back into Genesis 2 based on verses 13-14. I’ve already shown in my post on Genesis 2 (as well as on Genesis 1) that the idea of hierarchy is foreign to Genesis 1-2 and was introduced after the Fall.

[29] In 1995, Thomas Schreiner wrote, “Generally speaking, women are more relational and nurturing and men are more given to rational analysis and objectivity. Women are less prone than men to see the importance of doctrinal formulations, especially when it comes to the issue of identifying heresy and making a stand for truth. Appointing women to the teaching office is prohibited because they are less likely to draw a line on doctrinal non-negotiables, and thus deception and false teaching will more easily enter the church” (his emphasis). See Thomas R. Schreiner, “An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15: A Dialogue with Scholarship,” in Women in the Church, in Andreas J. Köstenberger, Thomas Schreiner, H. Scott Baldwin, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 145-146. That’s quite the whopper of a quote! Thankfully, Schreiner changed his view in the 2005 edition of the book, saying that God’s good design would be called into question if this were true. For more on how complementarian positions have changed over the years, see Jamin Hübner, “The Evolution of Complementarian Exegesis,” Priscilla Papers 29/1 (Winter 2015), 11-13.

[30] You can find this research summarized in William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 269-274. This book is twenty years old and I doubt these findings are any different. Also, note that in 2 Timothy 3:6, Paul reminds Timothy that women were especially susceptible to deception and it is likely due to the factors Webb mentions.

[31] Liefeld, 1-2 Timothy, on BibleGateway.com. Paul even uses this same analogy of Eve falling prey to the deception of the serpent for the Corinthians as a whole (2 Corinthians 11:3). And it had nothing to do with gender there. This shows sometimes the New Testament authors use Old Testament passages for applicational/pastoral reasons and are not making absolute claims about a text.

[32] Denny Burk, “What Does It Mean that Women Will be Saved Through Childbearing?” Crossway blog, 10/7/2018. Burk believes that “childbearing” is a synecdoche, which is a figure of speech in which the part stands for the whole. So “childbearing” equates to “caring for children as a mother.”

[33] Andreas J. Köstenberger, “What Does 1 Timothy 2:15 Mean? Will Women Be Saved by Childbearing?” Biblical Foundations blog.

[34] Ortlund, “Male-Female,” 138, also makes the argument that Genesis says Eve crossed a boundary. He argues that Adam abandoned his headship (that is, authority over his wife) by “listening to the voice of [his] wife” (see Gen 3:17). But surely the point isn’t that Adam abandoned his headship (which is not stated in the passage) but that he listened to the false teaching of his wife who was deceived by the serpent. This understanding also fits better with Paul’s description of what happened in the garden in light of the them of 1 Timothy.

[35] Belleville, “Exegetical Fallacies.”

[36] Ideas about sexual intercourse were complicated in the first century church, and some were flat-out wrong. Paul confronts a wrong belief that sex is bad in 1 Corinthians 7. Since we know this false teaching about sex was present in Corinth, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to say it was present in Ephesus. And it provides a perfectly legitimate explanation for verse 15. See also Marg Mowczko, “Chastity, Salvation, and 1 Timothy 2:15,” 1/27/2016, “Paul’s teaching about marriage and having children in 1 Timothy 2:154:3-4 and 5:11-15 (cf. Tit. 2:4-5) is distinctly different from the teaching attributed to him in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. And it is the antithesis of the teaching found in many Christian documents that circulated widely in the second century, documents that strongly promoted virginity and chastity as saving virtues.”

[37] Ibid.

[38] If you want to dig into this option more, see Payne, Man and Woman, 416-442. See also Ben Witherington, “Why Arguments Against Women in Ministry Aren’t Biblical,” Patheos: Bible & Culture blog, 6/2/2015.

[39] Jared M. August, “What Must She Do to Be Saved? A Theological Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:15,” Themelios 45/1 (April 2020).

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

The Context of 1 Timothy 2

For many Christians, the entire conversation on gender roles hinges on Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. The headliner is verse 12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.”

I know this is true because this passage shaped everything I used to believe about gender roles.

And I’ve heard the same from other complementarians.

At the beginning of this series, a visitor to my website left a comment on the first post: “Looking forward to 1 Timothy 2:12 :).”

Another person told me that most complementarians have decided before hand what they think about the rest of the biblical evidence because of 1 Timothy 2:12.

A well known reformed evangelical preacher once quipped, “If you can get ‘I do not permit’ to say ‘I do permit’ then you can get the Bible to say anything you want.”

But can an entire theological position stand or fall on one verse? Many answer, “Yes!” Still, others would point to a broader theme of “male headship” throughout the Bible.

In this series, however, I’ve shown that the larger narrative of Scripture, not to mention specific women in prominent roles, should inform how we understand and interpret 1 Timothy 2:12. Not the other way around.

I do not believe that the Bible would contradict itself (and neither would Paul). That means that though 1 Timothy 2:11-15 does restrict women in some sense, it must be doing something other than restricting all women from teaching and leading for all time.

This post and the next is about figuring out what that “something” is.

How Should We Approach 1 Timothy 2?

This passage has been dissected and debated for decades.[1] So, I want to approach it with an extra dose of humility and caution, and resist being dogmatic.

I’d ask the same of you.

I hope that what you’ll find is that the options I present make just as much sense, if not more, than the traditional complementarian explanations.

In light of that, let me be clear: I will not provide my own definitive answer for every single thing in the passage. Approaching this passage with humility and caution leads me to approach it with openness. Instead of giving you the egalitarian interpretation, I want to propose some interpretive options. These options will account for:

  1. The actual words Paul uses;
  2. The context of what Paul’s doing 1 Timothy;
  3. The cultural situation in Ephesus (where Timothy ministered); and
  4. The larger narrative of Scripture which has clearly revealed women do teach, minister, and lead at various times throughout the history of God’s people (see a summary in my previous posts).

We can’t say there are multiple paths to salvation. But with a non-salvation issue like gender roles, we can say with confidence that options are acceptable to Christians

I hope that what you’ll find is that the options I present make just as much sense, if not more, than the traditional complementarian explanations.

This post will examine the context of the Ephesian church which will help us understand Paul’s words. The next post will be a commentary on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 that fleshes out my summary post from earlier this week.

Biblical Context: Ephesus in the New Testament

Ephesus was the most prominent city in the region of Ionia (in modern day Turkey) and a major port on the Mediterranean. Estimates indicate it had a population of 250,000 in the first century. In the New Testament, we’re introduced to Ephesus in Acts 19. Paul spent two years reasoning with Jews in the synagogue (vv 8-10).[2] He spent a total of three years teaching and making disciples in Ephesus (20:31).

Some local idol craftsmen protested Paul’s ministry (19:25-27). Worshiping Jesus, not idols, was bad for business. A large crowd had gathered to join the protest, but most had no idea why they were there (19:32).

From its founding in Acts 19 to the end of the biblical story, the Ephesian church continually fought against false teaching.

The crowd was dispersed after a few hours of shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (19:34). Ephesus, we find out, was the global hub for this false goddess (Acts 19:35). More on Artemis in the next section.

In Acts 20, Paul leaves Ephesus. He encouraged the elders to watch out for false teachers who would try to come in and ravage the church (20:28-31).

Later, Paul wrote a letter to these same Ephesians. Many consider it the of “charter of the church,” particularly because of its great themes of cosmic redemption and unity in the body of Christ.

Paul sent two more letters to Ephesus–his personal correspondence with Timothy, a young minister. Timothy was commissioned by Paul to stay in Ephesus to keep people from teaching false doctrines (1 Tim 1:3).

Ephesus then makes an appearance at the end of the Bible, in Revelation 2:1-7. John wrote Revelation some thirty years after Paul’s wrote Ephesians. Jesus speaks to the Ephesians. He commends them for their endurance and rejection of false apostles. But they are also called to repent because they had forsaken their first love (vv 4-5, probably referring to Jesus).

Finally, Jesus says, “You have this in your favor: you hate the practice of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (v 6). We don’t know anything about this group, but it’s obvious they’re a heretical movement that threatened the doctrine and devotion of the Ephesian church.

From its founding in Acts 19 to the end of the biblical story, the Ephesian church continually fought against false teaching.

Timothy’s Context: Problems in the Ephesian Church

When we zoom into what’s going on in Ephesus while Timothy ministered there, we find a mess. The main reason Paul wrote to Timothy is to encourage him in the work he was commissioned to do: “command certain people not to teach false doctrines” (1 Tim 1:3).

Paul spends the entire first chapter fleshing out this charge. He concludes by specifically naming two individuals who were ring-leaders of this heretical movement in the church: Hymenaeus and Alexander, who have been excommunicated from the Ephesian fellowship (see 1:20).

In chapter 2, Paul begins to address problems that Timothy has been dealing with. First, he gives a general command (“I urge” in NIV) that prayer be made for everyone (vv 1-2). Then reflects on Christ as mediator (see below for more on why I think he does this).

In verses 8-10, Paul talks about two specific problems: angry men (v 8) and wealthy women (vv 9-10). Paul wants the men to pray with the hands lifted up without anger or disputing. He wants the women not to flaunt their wealth by their external attire, but to be adorned with good deeds. The end of verse 9 shows that the issue is not showing a lot of skin, like our modern purity culture would have us think. The problem was flaunting wealth: “not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.”

In verses 11-12, Paul then moves to another problem in the church: a woman is teaching and assuming authority she ought not to have. Paul shifts from two general concerns in Ephesus in verses 8-10, to one specific concern regarding a woman and a man (her husband?) in verses 11-12. The use of the singular (“woman,” “man” in vv 11-12 and “she” in v 15) is one reason I think this is likely the case, but we can’t know for sure. Of course, I’ll explain more in the next post.

Cultural Context: False Teaching in Ephesus

Everything we’ve looked at so far comes from within the Scripture itself. But what about the wider context of Ephesus and 1 Timothy? Knowing something of the cultural and religious context in and around Ephesus will lead us in the right direction and, I believe, better prepare us to understand Paul’s words.

Artemis of the Ephesians

Ephesus was the epicenter of the Artemis cult, home to the Temple of Artemis. It was one of the seven great wonders of the ancient world.[3] The feature photo is a model of what experts think the temple looked like.

Artemis was the Greek goddess of wild animals, the hunt, vegetation, chastity, and childbirth.[4] Unlike other goddesses, she was a virgin and childless. Incredibly protective of her sexual purity, she punished any man who attempted to dishonor her.[5]

Being a virgin in Greek mythology may have meant someone who has never had sex. Artemis fit that definition. But virginity also had the connotation of being strong, independent, and untouched by the influence of another, especially a man. Artemis was the fullest representation of these characteristics.

Any Christian community will deal with the false gods and goddesses of the non-Christian culture that surrounds it.

Though childless, Artemis was a caregiver to women and babies. In one legend, Artemis was born a day before her twin brother, Apollo. And she helped her mother give birth to him. This began her role as the protector of women in childbirth. Ironically, she was also the goddess of disease and sudden death of infants and children.[6]

Finally, she was well known for her elaborate attire. In her temple, both male priests and female priestesses served her. Interestingly, there’s some evidence that only eunuchs (castrated males) were allowed to serve.[7]

While we can’t be sure how much influence the Artemis cult had on Christians in Ephesus, it’s safe to say some was inevitable. Any Christian community will deal with the false gods and goddesses of the non-Christian culture that surrounds it. This is still the case today, even for idols that aren’t physically made by human hands.

Gnosticism in Ephesus

As troublesome as Artemis may have been for the Ephesians, there may have been something even more dangerous because of its subtlety. The text of 1 Timothy itself seems to suggest that the nature of the false teaching that concerned Paul was an early form of Gnosticism.

What is Gnosticism?
Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which is translated “knowledge.” This system of belief was based on the idea of secret knowledge that could be discovered by personal experience.

Built upon various ideas from Greek philosophy, Gnosticism ramped up in the first century, then found significant momentum in the second through fourth centuries. Paul’s letter to Timothy was written sometime in the mid AD 60s. If there was a Gnostic influence (and I’ll show below I think it’s reasonable to say there was), it was in primitive form.

There wasn’t a single gnostic movement. There were varieties and each gnostic leader/group had their own particular beliefs. Gnosticism as a whole, however, had three foundational beliefs:[8]

  1. God is transcendent but not immanent. God is not intimately involved in creation in any way. He only interacts with humanity through good and evil intermediaries. Christ was considered a “good” intermediary.
  2. Salvation is enlightenment. To be saved means to ascend to a specialized knowledge only available to a select few. Salvation is freedom from enslavement to the defiled, material body and deliverance into a pure spiritual existence. Obtaining gnosis means you are a member of the spiritual elite. These people are related via an endless string of divine genealogy.[9]
  3. Life is defined by dualism. The spiritual is good; all material is evil. Gnostics believed that the material universe was not created by God but by another, lesser being. They’d argue that the physical body was not their “real self.” Thus some excused indulging in all physical pleasures. But others practiced asceticism (avoidance of pleasure) because they believe they were liberated from material life into pure spiritual consciousness.

This false teaching snuck into the church in various forms and the apostles dealt with it in various letters. Many of the church fathers refuted Gnostic teaching.

Gnosticism doesn’t seem so subtle to us today. It’s quite obvious it’s false! But we’ve had 2,000 of history to work out our theology. You can buy any systematic theology book you want on Amazon right now. The first and second generations of Christians didn’t have this luxury. False doctrines spread easily then. But does Paul refute Gnosticism in 1 Timothy?

Let’s find out.

Does Paul Refute Gnosticism in 1 Timothy?
You may think all of this is fascinating information but nothing more than a clever way to distract from those boldfaced words, “I do not permit…” I assure you I’m not trying to distract you in the least. The religious context of the first century will help us better understand our passage.

It seems clear to me that the text of 1 Timothy reveals Paul is dealing with an early form of Gnostic heresy.

It seems clear to me that the text of 1 Timothy reveals Paul is dealing with an early form of Gnostic heresy. His emphasis on combatting this false teaching stretches across the letter and should inform how we interpret everything.

Paul mentions five problems in 1 Timothy 1:3-7 that would come to represent later Gnostic belief: false teaching, myths/genealogies, causing people to leave the faith, meaningless/vain talk, and misuse of the law.[10]

In 1 Timothy 2:5, Paul writes, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” Why does he point this out? Yes, because he’s talking about prayer. But is it perhaps because Christ is not simply a “good intermediary,” as the Gnostics taught? He’s not one of numerous aeons.[11] He is the one mediator who connects humanity to God.

In 3:16, Paul records an early credal formation. He affirms the incarnation and Jesus’ vindication by the spirit (probably a reference to his baptism). Then what of his reference to angels? To modern eyes, this is so random. But against the backdrop of pre-Gnostic beliefs threatening the church, it makes perfect sense. Paul affirms the goodness of the material world (Jesus came in the flesh) and affirms angels are witnesses–not divine intermediaries–of the one Mediator, the God-Man Jesus Christ.[12]

In 4:1-8, we see the most obvious defense against Gnostic belief. Paul says “deceiving spirits” are leading people astray (v 1). The false teachers advocated for asceticism by forbidding marriage and ordering the abstention of certain foods (v 3). They also spread myths to the gullible (v 7). These are classic marks of Gnostic belief and practice.

Paul rejects all this and affirms God created everything good. The material world can be received with thanksgiving (v 4). He later reiterates that creation is for our enjoyment in 6:17. Creation is not sanctified, and thus enjoyed, by secret knowledge; humans don’t need to escape it either. It can be received and enjoyed through the word of God and prayer (4:5).

In this same section, Paul reminds Timothy to be trained in godliness–in opposition to the Gnostic’s “spiritual knowledge.” Interestingly, Paul also affirms some value in physical training (v 8). It’s not the focus of the verse. But that’s a strange thing to include in a letter when ink and papyrus were at a premium, unless there were false teachers who preached that the physical body wasn’t real or important. Could that be why Paul mentioned it?

Finally, Paul ends his letter with the most explicit clue. In 6:20-21, he writes, “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge [Gk gnosis], which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith.”

This early Christian heresy wasn’t known as the full-fledged system “Gnosticism.” But clearly people were susceptible to a “secret spiritual knowledge.” Paul’s concern for Timothy’s own salvation (see 4:16) probably shows the pervasiveness of this false teaching.[13]

All of this leads me to believe there is a significant probability that Gnosticism was the heresy that plagued the Ephesian church.[14]

But what does all this have to do with Paul prohibiting women from teaching and leading?

The Gnostic Adam and Eve
In 1945, dozens of Gnostic texts were discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Several contain alternative details of the Adam and Eve narrative.[15] This is relevant because Paul’s summarizes their story in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 (and possibly v 15, according to some people).

To Gnostics, Eve is superior to Adam. She is powerful while Adam is passive and, it seems, quite clueless. Eve gives life to Adam, and she is the one who teaches him.

In these Gnostic texts, Adam and Eve were not historical figures but representative of different human realities. The soul, represented by Adam, was the embodiment of personality. The spirit, represented by Eve, was the capacity for spiritual consciousness. Since the material world was evil, the soul was inferior to the spirit.

Thus to Gnostics, Eve is superior to Adam.[16] She is powerful while Adam is passive and, it seems, quite clueless. Eve gives life to Adam,[17] and she is the one who teaches him.[18]

These Gnostic texts were written well after Paul’s lifetime. Could these these ideas have been in the minds of Ephesians in AD 65? Yes, since religious systems take time to develop. It’s almost certain that the beliefs and stories in these texts were circulating in primitive form well before they were written down.

Because Paul was probably refuting Gnostic teaching in 1 Timothy, I think we have reason to believe what Paul spoke against also included the Gnostic versions of Adam and Eve. I’ll come back to this in my commentary in the next post.

Summing It All Up

The first-generation Christian community in Ephesus was vulnerable as false teachers tried to cloud orthodox teaching with false worship and heretical ideas. I’ve tried to show that both the worship of Artemis and pre-Gnostic teaching were major obstacles for the Ephesian church.

While Artemis isn’t mentioned by name in 1 Timothy, we know from Acts and secular history that Ephesus was the global hub for her cult. Though Gnostic teaching wasn’t fully developed as a system until the second through fourth centuries, many of its core beliefs are directly refuted throughout Paul’s letter.

Paul didn’t need to spell these things out specifically because both he and Timothy would have understood the cultural issues in their personal correspondence. We are the ones who have to work to put these pieces together.

Knowing this history is vital if we want to make sense of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 without doing some kind of interpretive gymnastics. The next post will be a commentary on the text that takes these cultural clues into consideration.


Notes

Feature photo: A model of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

[1] Not only has the passage been debated, but so has the entire book of 1 Timothy. For those who haven’t done formal study of theology, you may not know that there are some people who do not believe Paul wrote 1 Timothy. Some of the vocabulary and phrasing is different than in Paul’s other letters. I do believe he wrote it, but that he probably used a scribe he trusted and to whom he gave a lot of freedom in choosing what to say. Luke would be a good candidate for this. But that’s beyond this post, and we’ll have to set that matter aside for now.

[2] Acts 19-20 suggest that Ephesus had a large Jewish population. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus later confirmed this, see Against Apion 2.4.

[3] “Artemis,” Encyclopaedia Britannica; “Artemis,” World History Encyclopedia.

[4] “The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus,” World History Encyclopedia.

[5] Musing on how she received her name, Plato, Cratylus 400d & 406a, writes, “Let us inquire what thought men had in giving them [the gods] their names…possibly, too, that she hates sexual intercourse (aroton misei) of man and woman.” Found here.

[6] See many quotes from Homer about this here. Here’s one example: “Zeus has made you [Artemis] a lion among women, and given you leave to kill any at your pleasure.” Homer, Iliad 21, 480.

[7] James O. Smith, “The High Priests of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus,” Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M.J. Vermaseren (New York: Leiden, 1996), 323ff.

[8] The term Gnosticism was first used in the 1600s by philosopher Henry More. See “Gnosticism,” Encyclopedia Britannica. For a very helpful summary of gnosticism, see Gervase N. Charmley, “Gnosticism,” Banner of Truth, 3/22/2016.

[9] Edward Moore, “Gnosticism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[10] Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009),, 298.

[11] In Gnostic thought, an aeon is a being from the order of spirits that emanated from the Godhead. Paul’s word about Christ as the Mediator between God and humanity squashes any teaching about him being “one of” many in a divine order of spirits.

[12] Compare Peter’s words about angels in 1 Pet 1:12.

[13] Marg Mowczko, “The Consensus and Context of 1 Timothy 2:12,” 7/2/2014.

[14] It’s also fascinating to note that 1 John, which scholars almost unanimously agree was written to combat Gnosticism, was written from Ephesus to churches in and around Ephesus. See Donald W. Burdick, 1 John, NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), on BibleGateway.com.

[15] For a very helpful summary with links to all of these texts see Marg Mowczko, “Adam and Eve in Ancient Gnostic Literature and 1 Timothy 2:13-14,” 3/9/2015. I’m thankful for Marg’s work here and I’m standing on her shoulders.

[16] Stephan A. Hoeller, “The Genesis Factor,” Quest (September 1997). Hoeller is an ordained priest in the Gnostic church.

[17] The Hypostasis of the Archons, “And the spirit-endowed woman came to him and spoke with him, saying, “Arise, Adam.” And when he saw her, he said, “It is you who have given me life; you will be called ‘mother of the living’.” On the Origin of the World, “After the day of rest, Sophia sent her daughter Zoe, being called Eve, as an instructor, in order that she might make Adam, who had no soul, arise, so that those whom he should engender might become containers of light. When Eve saw her male counterpart prostrate, she had pity upon him, and she said, ‘Adam! Become alive! Arise upon the earth!’ Immediately her word became accomplished fact. For Adam, having arisen, suddenly opened his eyes. When he saw her, he said, ‘You shall be called ‘Mother of the Living’. For it is you who have given me life.'”

[18] Apocalypse of Adam, “She taught me [Adam] a word of knowledge of the eternal God. And we resembled the great eternal angels, for we were higher than the god who had created us and the powers with him, whom we did not know.” See also the Apocryphon of John, “[S]he assists the whole creature, by toiling with him and by restoring him to his fullness and by teaching him about the descent of his seed (and) by teaching him about the way of ascent, (which is) the way he came down.” In the Apocryphon of John, Eve is called “Zoe.” Both names mean “life.”

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

How Paul Helped Elevate the Status of Women

Few people, outside of Jesus, are more celebrated, dissected, and scoffed at than the Apostle Paul. When it comes to gender roles in the church, this is especially true. Historian Beth Allison Barr, in her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, notes many of her students often say, “I hate Paul!”[1] because of how Christians have understood his take on women. 

But what if Paul wasn’t anti-woman, but very much pro-woman? What if he didn’t seek to restrict women, but free them? What if he didn’t seek to silence them but to empower them to speak the wonders of the gospel? What if he partnered with them, as he did with men, to get to the gospel to the ends of the earth? 

This post begins a series of posts on Paul and specific texts he wrote that deal with women. In the first two posts, I’ll give an overview of how Paul viewed and interacted with women. This post will look at the environment Paul ministered in and how two elements of his theology elevated women. The next will highlight several of the women we meet in Paul’s ministry and letters.

The goal is to help us see that Paul was not universally restrictive of women, contrary to what most complementarian theologians teach. In certain places, it sure seems like Paul was quite hard on women! I will address those texts specifically. But when we look at the bigger picture of Paul’s theology and ministry we’ll see a different story.

What if Paul wasn’t anti-woman, but very much pro-woman?

Let’s start with a glance at Paul’s environment and its view of women. 

An Open Door for the Liberation of Women

Paul lived in the Roman Empire in the middle of the first century AD. Roman culture and its philosophy was “thoroughly grounded in the tradition of Greek philosophy.”[2] Aristotle (d. 322 BC) was one of the most influential philosophers. 

In Politics, he suggests a sociological structure for the state. And he has quite a bit to say about women. In one place, he writes, “[T]he relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled.” A bit later, “The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.”[3]

It’s impossible to know if Aristotle’s words were floating around in the minds of the average Roman citizen in the first century. But his influence goes without saying. It’s more than likely that these degrading ideas about women permeated Roman thought. 

As a friend of mine (a PhD in philosophy) commented recently, “Greek philosophy, in general, was in the drinking water of the [Roman] culture.”

Even with this Greek influence, a woman’s place in the Roman world was a mixed bag. Yes, they were often mistreated, abused, and given in marriage far too young (and without choice).[4] To the Romans, a woman’s role was to support her husband, birth babies, and manage the home.[5] 

But there were positive developments. Roman women had much more freedom than Greek women. They were not meant to be invisible and completely relegated to the domestic sphere (like in Greece).[6] They could own property or a business, inherit an estate, make a will, and even buy and sell slaves. 

By God’s sovereign design, this subtle, positive shift served as a launching pad for the church to give prominence and authority to women unlike anything before.

Two Key Values that Elevated Women 

The Roman context opened up the door for the church to elevate women. In this section, let’s focus on two key elements in Paul’s theology that set women free and give them equal status with men. To use a modern category, you can think of these elements as Paul’s ministry “values.”

In Christ: The Gospel Levels the Playing Field

I’ll call the first value “in Christ.” Anyone who has read Paul understands that this is one of his favorite phrases. The reality of being “in Christ” for Paul is foundational to everything else. Life, virtue, ministry, and anything good flows from being “in Christ.” 

What does it have to do with women in ministry?

One passage that egalitarians are quick to point to is Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Complementarians argue that the context is about salvation. I agree, and so do egalitarians. But does Galatians 3:28 have any sociological implications?[7]

There are two other passages that use the “in Christ” phrase that look and sound a lot like Galatians 3:28. 

  • “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor 12:13).
  • “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col 3:11).

There’s also Ephesians 2:15, which is similar: 

  • “By setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two [Jew and Gentile], thus making peace…”

These three passages are representative of each other and probably interchangeable.[8] Paul is looking at areas of social inequality and showing how the gospel brings a new identity “in Christ” that levels the social playing field. In the Kingdom of God, there are no second-class citizens.[9]

If Christianity were to spread across the globe, the Jew-Gentile problem was especially important to address. Jews needed to embrace Gentiles and vice versa. Otherwise, the news of Jesus would not have left Jerusalem!

If the church believed that being “in Christ” had social implications for Gentiles and slaves, why wouldn’t it mean the same for women?

This is part of Paul’s genius. Yes, he was a deeply spiritual missionary. But he was also strategic. That’s why he tackled the ethnicity problem in almost all his letters. 

The church eventually “caught sight of the social ramifications of the Jew-Gentile equality”[10]. The proof is that Christianity spread across the entire Roman Empire. 

Later, Christians saw equality for slaves and worked out the implications over the course of church history. William Wilberforce in England is the most famous example of an abolitionist who believed slavery was at odds with the gospel.

If the church believed that being “in Christ” had social implications for Gentiles and slaves, why wouldn’t it mean the same for women?

To me, the issue here is urgency. In his short lifetime, what would Paul choose to focus on? He had a holy sense of urgency to get the Jew-Gentile problem corrected because of his desire to get to gospel to the entire known world. 

He chose not to press the women and slaves issue. Looking back on history, it’s easy to see how social/practical (not spiritual) liberation for these groups would have actually hurt the spread of the gospel. Society, as a whole, wasn’t ready for it yet, even if Christians were.[11]

But Paul still cared about women being elevated and valued in the church. His approach to this wasn’t as explicit as the gender issue. It was more subversive. His understanding and application of spiritual gifts help us see this.

Mutual Participation: Everyone Contributes in the Church

The second value is “mutual participation” in the church through spiritual gifts. Paul taught that everyone in the church has a part to play—even women. All who are “in Christ” share in the Spirit. This means everyone has spiritual gifts to contribute to the church’s well-being (see 1 Cor 12-14; Rom 12:3-8; Eph 4:11-16).[12]

The point here is that spiritual gifts are not “gendered.” Instead, the Spirit gives gifts to each person as he desires (1 Cor 12:11). And when everyone does their part, the body builds itself up in love (Eph 4:16). Everyone in the body is now an “ambassador,” speaking for Christ wherever they go (2 Cor. 5:20).[13] 

The unique thing about first-century churches is that they met in homes. Churches were more informal and participatory than our churches today. Gathering to hear one man speak for 45-50 minutes was unheard of.[14] 

Paul expected each person to show up to a church meeting with something to minister to others. People weren’t to only consume. They were to contribute. We get a glimpse of this in 1 Corinthians 14:26 when Paul says, “Each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”

When Paul corrected the Corinthians in this same chapter about their worship gathering, he didn’t chide women for using a particular gift or even leading. We actually see women prophesying (a leadership activity) back in 1 Corinthians 11. Instead, he’s worried about the manner of how the gifts were being used.

The value of mutual participation is also seen in the “one another” references sprinkled throughout his letters. Love one another. Encourage one another. Forgive one another. Correct one another. And so on.

Paul expected not only that women would teach men, but that it was completely acceptable in this environment for them to do so.

Consider Colossians 3:16: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (my emphasis).

This is about living in community together. But these things would happen within a worship service context. It begs the question. Why would Paul tell the whole church to “teach and admonish one another” if women could not teach men?

It seems obvious to me that he expected not only that women would teach men, but that it was completely acceptable in this environment for them to do so.

One more thought. Paul says that the word of Christ will dwell in us when we teach and admonish through “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” Paul knew then what science proved much later: music is a powerful medium for memory.[15]

My wife (the musician in our family) has said that most Christians learn more theology through songs than sermons. I agree.

If songs can teach in a way that helps the message of Jesus get into the hearts and minds of Christians, why would Paul encourage women to sing, if they were not allowed to teach? 

Consider the implications for us today. Taken to the extreme, the restriction “women cannot teach men” (from 1 Tim 2:12) would mean that a woman cannot lead musical worship. It would also imply that all women cannot sing out loud during a congregational meeting, since, in Paul’s mind, singing is a communal activity for mutual edification.[16] 

Paul wants believers to minister to one another, without regard for gender. It makes the most sense that Paul encouraged and expected women, like men, to use their spiritual gifts, including teaching, for the benefit of everyone in the early house churches.[17] 

Summing It Up

Paul lived during a major turning point in history. While still falling short of what we’d hope for today, female Roman citizens enjoyed more rights than previous cultures. This opened a unique opportunity for the Church to elevate women to an equal status with men. Paul’s teaching on being “in Christ” and the mutual participation of believers through spiritual gifts were foundational for the Church to treat everyone equally, including women.

The next post will show how Paul lived this out, as we do a brief fly over of his ministry relationships with women.

Paul wants believers to minister to one another, without regard for gender.


Notes

Feature photo: “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles” by Valentin de Boulogne (c. 1618-20).

[1] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001), 39.

[2] See “Roman Philosophy,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part V.

[4] Girls were often betrothed by age 10 and married in the late adolescent or early teen years, although some girls were married by 10 or 11. Mary Beard writes that Atticus sought out a potential husband for his daughter when she was only 6 years old. See Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright & Company, 2015), 311.

[5] Ibid., 304.

[6] Ibid., 307. 

[7] The general idea for this section comes from William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 85-87.  

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 48.

[10] Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, 86.

[11] When I have more time, I’d like to research how the Roman Empire and the Jewish Diaspora paved the way for a solution to the Jew-Gentile problem. In AD 70, when the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, it forced the entire population of that city to find new meaning and identity as a displaced people. But even earlier than that, in Acts 2, we saw that Jews were living all over the known world and would come back to Jerusalem for feasts. The Roman Empire was sympathetic to other religions—as long as they didn’t revolt. (That’s why Jerusalem was burned down!) The Roman road system also allowed for “interstate travel” (as we’d call it today). People were continually crossing paths with others who were different from them. In a nutshell, the Empire was a step toward a more global, multi-ethnic community. While advances were made for women, it was nothing in comparison to this. Women were still second-class citizens (with slaves beneath them).

[12] Spiritual gifts are ministries, activities, functions, etc. that edify and build up others people in the church. See 1 Cor 12:4-6.

[13] The word “ambassador” is connected to the idea of “image and likeness” from Genesis. An ambassador is someone who represents a greater authority, just like an “image” did in the ancient world. Earlier in 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul wrote, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Paul’s building an argument to help the Corinthians see that the ministry of Spirit is to transform believers into the image of Jesus and, therefore, serve as his ambassadors. It is a “new creation refresh” on the original creation account. Women share in this equally with men.

[14] Even in the Jewish synagogue context, one man would not lecture for the entire meeting. Instead, synagogue meetings were much more interactive and discussion-oriented. Consider the scene in Luke 4:14-30, where Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, read from Isaiah, made a very brief comment and sat down. Then the discussion continued (about him, of course!). The goal was communal learning and experience, not top-down communication. 

[15] On my blog and in sermons I’ve shared about the Psalms being what I call “felt theology.” In other words, the Psalms make the truth about God and life come alive in the emotions of the human heart. This is what Paul’s getting at in Colossians 3:16. 

[16] There are some traditions that do not permit women to lead musical worship. I hardly think any would forbid all women from singing out loud.

[17] Craig Blomberg (in a lecture I could not locate if I tried) talked about the importance of song for the oral transmission of the Gospels. Because singing helps humans memorize easily, Blomberg suggested that much of the oral tradition was passed down through song. It’s a fascinating thing to consider. Particularly because several scholars believe two of the most famous passages in the New Testament about Jesus (Col 1:15-20 and Phil 2:6-11) were actually hymns.

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

Genesis 2: Coworkers in the Garden

In my last post, I made the case that Genesis 1 shows us that God created humanity male and female, and that both genders were endowed with equal status, function, and authority to carry out God’s command. As the “image and likeness” of the Creator, humanity served as representatives, or vice-regents, of King Yahweh on earth.

The first chapter of Genesis doesn’t allow us to construct a gender hierarchy. Indeed, to argue that way entirely misses the author’s point.

Now, what about Genesis 2?

In this post, we’ll see that the purpose of Genesis 2 is to show how God provides what is necessary for his mandate to actually be fulfilled. It will also show that the woman is never portrayed as subservient to the man. Instead, we’ll see the beauty of their mutuality as co-priests in God’s sacred space.

Is Genesis Even About Gender Roles?

Let me digress for a moment.

If we’re self-aware enough, we should often ask if our contemporary debates on a particular topic have much to do with what the authors of Scripture were dealing with in the first place. For our discussion, we should ask, “Is Genesis 2 even about gender roles?”

Listen to what Old Testament scholar, and Genesis expert, John Walton has to say:

My own opinion of the contribution of Genesis 2 to the debate is that it offers no establishment or articulation of gender roles. Regardless of what conclusions can be drawn about the issue as a whole once New Testament texts are considered, this text is concerned with human roles, not gender roles. Man and woman serve together. We still have the same problem Christ’s disciples had. While he busied himself proclaiming the spiritual qualities of the kingdom, they were busy arguing who would be most important.[1]

So why I am I spending all this time with the appetizer of Genesis when 1 Corinthians 14 or 1 Timothy 2 looks like the main course? Precisely because it’s part and parcel of the complementarian position.

A case for male “headship” (that is, leadership) is often made by complementarians based on Genesis 2 (and Genesis 1 for that matter). Complementarians argue that while men are not better than or superior to women, they are nevertheless called by God to be the “head” based on several things they see in Genesis 1-2, such as:

  • The man was created first (v 7).
  • The man was given the charge to keep the garden first (v 15).
  • The man named the woman (v 23).
  • The man is the one who leaves his parents to pursue a wife (v 24).[2]

I think Walton is right, however, that the creation account isn’t about gender roles. On the other hand, it displays the magnificent, mutual role humans have in God’s world. That’s what I’m trying to show in these first two posts.

If we can understand the original function and purpose for humanity at creation, won’t it go a long way to helping us peel back the layers of female subjugation that thousands of years of patriarchy have built?

I think so.

Now, on to the text.

Doing Priestly Work in Sacred Space

I made the case in the last post that humanity was created for a specific function/purpose. Male and female were to be Yahweh’s representatives in his sacred space. They were created “in his image”—an ancient Near East way of talking about someone ruling on behalf of a deity.

As we get to Genesis 2, this idea of God creating sacred space is bolstered by the fact that we see God resting on the seventh day of creation,[3] as well as the Garden being placed in proximity to four rivers (see 2:10-14, where the rivers actually flow out of Eden into the Garden). In the ancient world, temples were the place where the divine came to rest–that is, set up residence among its people. Descriptions of temples in ANE literature also contained references to rivers/water, vast gardens, and animals within the larger palace complex.[4]

As long as some Christians use Genesis 1-2 to parse gender roles of leadership and submission, we need to continue to revisit them in their context.

All of this would have been a common scene for the ancient audience of Genesis and they would have associated it with a sacred space for deity.[5]

Right now, you might be thinking, Wait, aren’t we talking about gender? What’s the point of all this ANE stuff?

Yes, we’re talking about gender, but as long as some Christians use Genesis 1-2 to parse gender roles of leadership and submission, we need to continue to revisit them in their context.

When we do, we’ll see the brilliance of God’s design for humanity that makes our question, “What can women do?” look rather silly.

Back to Genesis. Verse 15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (NIV).

The Hebrew words for “work” (‘bd) and “take care” (šmr) are often used throughout the Old Testament in connection to worship or priestly activities in the temple.[6] This is another piece of evidence that the man’s job, as image bearer of Yahweh, was likely a priestly one, mediating God’s presence in whatever he did.[7]

There’s only problem. This priestly work is too much for the man to do alone.

Just a Helper?

In Genesis 2:18, God sees that it is not good for the man to be alone in this garden work.

At this point, most English Bibles do something rather strange. They use the word “helper” at the end of verse 18: “I will make a helper fit for him” (ESV).

When you and I hear the word “helper,” we think of the boss’s secretary or our tiny toddler picking up socks around the house. Aren’t you a good, little helper! Perhaps our minds even drift to a person who serves at the beck and call of another–like the housemaids and servants portrayed in movies like The Help or The Butler.

The problem is that the word translated here, ‘ezer (pronounced ay-zer), doesn’t mean “helper” as we use it in English.[8]

Owen Strachan, one of the most outspoken proponents of complementarianism, says that on the basis of Genesis 2:18, women help men fulfill men’s calling as leaders. “In the wise and gracious design of God, women are ‘helpers.’ They are to be wives and mothers, the bearers of children. While men lead, protect, and provide, women come alongside and support them.” He goes on to say, “To be a woman is to support, to nurture, and to strengthen men in order that they would flourish and fulfill their God-given role as leaders.”[9]

There are several problems with Strachan’s view. First, he’s projecting modern gender roles into Genesis when the main purpose of the narrative is to talk about human roles in the sacred space of the Garden.

Second, this passage has nothing to do with women being wives and mothers. Nor does it have anything to do with men leading, protecting, or providing for a woman. (God actually provides something for the man, who is helpless!)

Third, Strachan fails to see that the use of ‘ezer throughout the Old Testament doesn’t allow for it to be exclusively a term for a subservient person. In fact, 72% of the 128 times ‘ezer occurs it is in reference to someone with a superior-status helping someone of a lesser status who is in need.[10] Quite often, it is used in reference to God himself. Here are some examples:

‘Ezer often refers to Yahweh throughout the history of Israel when he shows up to deliver them from their own sin or their enemies.

  • “And the other [son] was named Eliezer, for [Moses] said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh” (Ex 18:4, NIV). The name Eli-‘ezer means “My God is help.”
  • “We wait in hope for Yahweh; he is our help (‘ezer) and our shield” (Ps 33:20, NIV).
  • “You who fear him, trust in Yahweh–he is their help (‘ezer) and shied” (Ps 115:11).
  • “You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper (‘ezer)” (Hos 13:9, NIV).

Walter Kaiser, a renowned Old Testament scholar, makes the case that ‘ezer is a combination of two older words meaning “to rescue/save” and “to be strong.”[11] Perhaps this is why ‘ezer often refers to Yahweh throughout the history of Israel when he shows up to deliver them from their own sin or their enemies.

Finally, consider that ‘ezer can also mean “help” in the sense of cooperating together, like in Isaiah 30:1-5 when God pronounces a woe on Judah for attempting to build alliances with nations who had more military might.

This, and more, leads me to be convinced ‘ezer is more than just a “helper.”

You may not be. After all, all of this doesn’t actually prove that ‘ezer in Genesis 2 is anything more than a secretary or servant. We need the surrounding context to help us.

No One Equal to the Task

This is where the word kenegedo comes into play. It occurs right after ‘ezer and qualifies it in this context.[12] It’s often translated as “fit for” (ESV) or “suitable for” (NIV). “A helper fit for him” (ESV) or something similar is what we typically read in English.

Kenegdo literally means “according to the opposite of him.” That’s pretty awkward. It’s essentially someone who corresponds to the strength of another. Coupled with ‘ezer we can roughly translate this like “corresponding strength” or, as Walton puts it (admitting he’s making up a word), “counterpartner.”[13]

The narrative flows like this. God puts the man in the Garden to work it and care for it (i.e. priestly activities in sacred space). God recognizes that it’s not good that he’s doing the job alone, so he declares he will make a “corresponding strength” for the man. God brings all of the animals he has created to the man to name them. He finds no ‘ezer among them for himself.

The text isn’t suggesting that the man is lonely and wishes he had someone to snuggle with. Romantic interest or even reproduction is probably not on his mind here–he wouldn’t have been looking at animals in that way at all! Also remember that he is living in the presence of his Creator and is free from sin. He’s not lacking fellowship.

Instead, the man recognizes what God did back in verse 18: working and keeping the Garden is too much for him to do by himself. Working the Garden is the context of this “account” (recall Gen 2:4). The man is unable to accomplish the task alone, so he’s searching for someone like him (the fancy word for this is his “ontological equal”). He wants a partner who can serve with him as a co-priest in the sacred space.

But he can’t find anyone.

So God finally provides one for—and from—him.

“Hey, You Look Like Me!”

In verses 21-22, we’re told God provides a woman from the man’s side (the word we translate as “rib” in verse 21 is an architectural term used for building projects that really doesn’t really mean “rib” at all).

Just as God forms the man from the ground to display his solidarity with the land he is working and keeping, so God forms the woman from the man to display the solidarity they have with each other. This reemphasizes that she is his “corresponding strength” as they work in the Garden.

The man’s reaction tells us everything we need to know about the equality of these two humans before sin entered the world:

It’s like he’s singing to her, “Hey, you look like me!”

“This finally is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘Woman,’
because she was taken out of Man” (v 23, ESV).

The man cries out in delight as he has finally found someone like him–bone of his bones, flesh of his flesh. Someone equal to him and to the task of keeping the Garden.

The man calls her “woman.” This is a Hebrew wordplay. The man, ‘ish, calls her ‘ishshah, showing how the woman comes from and is connected to him. As ‘ishshah, she’s elevated to his level, in contrast to the animals who are below him. It does not at all imply that she’s subservient to him.[14] She is, quite literally, from him. She’s his equal in every respect.

It’s like he’s singing to her, “Hey, you look like me!”

Some complementarians have focused on the man’s “naming” of the woman and equate it to the authority he had over the animals when he named them (2:19). But he’s not naming the woman like that or like he does in 3:20.[15] This is a poetic exultation that he’s found someone like him. He identifies her as someone in the same category he’s in–a human he can labor with.

The man and the woman in the Garden were the first team of priests to serve the Lord in his sacred space. There’s no hierarchy here!

What’s with the little bit in verse 24 about a man leaving his parents? The point, as it explicitly says in the text, is that he would be united to his wife and become one flesh with her.

This ties a nice bow on the chapter. The big idea is the unity, solidarity, equality, and partnership of man and woman in God’s creation.

The First Team of Priests

The man and the woman in the Garden were the first team of priests to serve the Lord in his sacred space. Let that sink in. This is incredible. There’s no hierarchy here! To pull out specific gender roles (like leading and following) based on Genesis 1-2, we’d have to import them into the text from our own cultural categories or project them back onto the text from other parts of Scripture.

Simply, the original Israelite readers–who were entrenched in patriarchy themselves–would have never thought about gender roles or headship when reading the creation narrative.

As I’ve already said, Genesis 1-2 is about more than gender roles. It’s about humanity’s identity and their role of being representatives of God and coworkers with God.

When we look down the corridors of biblical history, all the way to the end of the story in the book of Revelation, we see how this partnership in the Garden comes full-circle. All God’s people, men and women, are a kingdom and priests who reign with Yahweh in a redeemed Eden, that temple-garden-city where we will see Jesus’ face and sin and death will be no more (Rev 1:6; 5:10; 21-22).

Indeed, we are that kingdom and priests now. Later on, I’ll try to show that this is at the very heart of what Jesus brought when he ushered in the Kingdom of God and what the New Testament seeks to flesh out.

Still, until God brings the New Creation, we live in a sinful world which brings devastation to everything in us and around us. A significant part of that devastation is patriarchy.

That’s what we’ll consider next as we turn to Genesis 3.


Notes

[1] John Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), on BibleGateway.com. For anything on Genesis 1-3, just read everything by John Walton. His book The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015) has also been tremendously helpful to me in understanding Genesis 1-3.

[2] For a brief article that sums up what most complementarians see in Genesis 1-2 see Denny Burk, “5 Evidences of Complementarian Gender Roles in Genesis 1-2,” The Gospel Coalition, March 5, 2014.

[3] As you probably know, in the original writings, there were no chapter or heading breaks. Try reading Genesis 1-2 without any of those breaks and notice the continuity from 1:31 to 2:3. Since 2:4 begins with “This is the account of…”, it should actually be the true beginning of “chapter 2” and signal the beginning something distinct from the week of creation that runs through 2:3.We see this formula again in Genesis 5:1, 6:9; 10:1, 32; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9, 37:2. Every single time this formula introduces a new section in the narrative, focusing on a new individual and/or family.

[4] Walton, “The Garden of Eden (2:8-17),” Genesis.

[5] All of these comparisons to ANE literature may freak you out a bit. But it doesn’t have to. The point is not to bring doubt on the Bible. While we start with the text of Scripture to see what it has to say, we need to read it through the lens of the people who originally read it if we want to be faithful to understand it. Otherwise, we project our contemporary categories and understandings onto the text. The point is to show that God, in his kindness and grace, spoke through the writers of Scripture in a way that would be understandable to them. (Theologians call this “accommodation.”)

[6] The word for “work” can be used in an agricultural sense of landscaping, in general for one’s day job (Ex. 20:9), or for worship (Ex. 3:12). For the word translated “take care,” see Lev 8:35 and Num 3:7, 28.

[7] The pseudepigraphal book Jubilees makes a comment about Adam as he leaves the Garden that fits this idea of priestly service: “And on that day on which Adam went forth from the Garden, he offered as a sweet savour an offering, frankincense, galbanum, and stacte, and spices in the morning with the rising of the sun from the day when he covered his shame” (3:27). While Jubilees is not book we recognize as Scripture and, indeed, it has extra details that have no Scriptural foundation, it does give us insight into how ancient Jews understood various aspects of their history. For more on this see, Walton, “Proposition 12,” The Lost World of Adam and Eve.

[8] “The English word ‘helper,’ because it can connote so many different ideas, does not accurately convey the connotation of the Hebrew word ‘ezer.” See NET Study Bible, Notes on Genesis 2:18, on BibleGateway.com.

[9] Owen Strachan, “The Gender of Genesis and Ecclesial Womanhood,” 9Marks, July 1, 2010.

[10] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 128.

[11] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” Pricilla Papers 19/2, 2005.

[12] Marg Mowczko, “A Suitable Helper (in Hebrew),” Marg Mowczko blog, March 8, 2010. Also read everything by Marg Mowczko.

[13] Walton, “Suitable Helper,” Genesis.

[14] Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homoseals, 116-117.

[15] Genesis 3:20 definitely suggests the man exercises some authority over the woman when he names her Eve, while his own name remains unchanged. Of course, we aren’t told this is a good thing! Nothing in Genesis 2:23 suggests he is placing himself over her. But even if we assume that the man is showing authority by naming the woman here in Genesis 2, Webb points out that we could see it as a subtle hint of the patriarchy to come through the Fall in Genesis 3. See Ibid., 117. For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced the man is naming her at all. Again, he’s simply identifying what she is.