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Shall A Woman Keep Silent? | Pt 2
Rev Dr George Byron Koch
Sermon on: 1 Timothy 2:11-12
Tape Number: 112
About a year and a half ago, on December 11th, 1994, I preached a sermon on the role of women in leadership in the church. There are three primary passages in the New Testament which are used as "proof texts" as to why women should not be allowed to lead or to teach men, particularly, in the church, or to preach.
In the first sermon I dealt with two of those. These are
First Corinthians, chapter 14, verse 33b:
"As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church."
and Ephesians 5:22:
"Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything."
The first two passages were covered in Shall a Woman Keep Silent? Part 1, on sermon tape 22, and you are welcome to pick this up from the tape ministry if you'd like to hear it.
There is a third passage in scripture which refers to and apparently prohibits the role of women in leadership in the church. This comes from First Timothy 2:11-12. Here Paul says:
"A woman should learn in quietness and submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, and then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner."
This is the NRSV which you've just heard. The NIV, the King James and a variety of other translations all read relatively similarly. Before I unpack this scripture, I'd first like to put this issue into a larger perspective, so you understand what I'm doing as I get into the actual Greek that underlies this.
In addition to my normal scripture resources, including Greek texts, grammars, dictionaries and other biblical studies, I also found three books especially relevant, and I recommend them to you: I Suffer Not a Woman by Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger, Beyond Sex Roles by Gilbert Bilezikian, and What Paul Really Said about Women by John Bristow. These are all excellent resources.
As we begin, we need to realize that there are several approaches to studying scripture. For a non-Christian, the Bible may be little more than literature, or perhaps an historical document. For many Christians who would consider themselves "not biblically literate," the Bible is massive and complicated and off-putting, and reading it just isn't very easy. For a multi-religious enthusiast - and we have a lot of folks that way in our culture today - the Bible is just one of many "sacred" writings, and is by definition narrow and limited. For a Christian "modernist" - and this would be someone who applies modern biblical critical methods developed over the last one hundred years or so - the Bible is perhaps a record of God's work among an earlier people, but it's within a cultural framework that no longer exists, and so its guidance is not always appropriate for our day and age. That is, its authors were the product of their own day, and they unintentionally recorded cultural notions of their own day as "coming from God." Therefore we should separate out these "cultural artifacts" from what God really intends for us as "modern" Christians.
For all of these groups: the non-Christian, the Christian not biblically literate, the multi-religious, and the modernist, issues such as those that arise from this passage of Timothy are easily dealt with: they are either dismissed as uninteresting or unimportant, or they are spurned as outmoded ideas from an earlier age.
And while it is true in the broadest sense that we all bring our own cultural notions to our own reading of scripture (and anything else for that matter), and also that even the strictest "fundamentalist" will pick and choose which biblical passages should be applied to the present day, there is, nevertheless, a world of difference between those who elevate their own worldview above the Bible, and those who believe our worldviews should be enlightened by and rooted in the Bible.
Thus, when we come across a difficult or unmodern idea in the Bible, if I am in the first camp, my solution is simple: I ignore it, or I criticize it. If I read First Timothy, and hear Paul say:
"A woman should learn in quietness and submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent."
I either ignore his advice, or I criticize him for saying such a backward and prejudiced thing about women. At best I might say that he was captive to his culture, and believed what it believed, but today we know better and we respect the abilities of women. Therefore we disregard Paul's admonition.
If you heard my first sermon, you know that I believe Paul was anything but anti-women. In fact, in many places Paul specifically congratulates and honors women in ministry in the early church. I believe, in fact, that in the other two passages, Corinthians and Ephesians, Paul was correcting a misapprehension about the role of women in the church, and was saying the opposite of how we've recently interpreted it. We have interpreted it the way we have through the eyes of Aristotle, and particularly in the use of Aristotle by Thomas Aquinas. The theology of Thomas Aquinas has informed the theology of the Roman Catholic church and the Protestant church (which came after his time). Therefore, we incorrectly see and interpret much of Paul through Aristotle's worldview, and I draw out how that happened in the first sermon. I won't go over it all again here.
This would be the approach - to disregard Paul's admonition, even to look at him as a woman-hater - of much of the modern church, and much of biblical scholarship in the last hundred years: to ignore Paul, and consider him simply a captive to his culture. It is an intellectually astute worldview, rooted in the Enlightenment, and it has many things to recommend it.
I do not take this approach, and although I respect the intellectual integrity of many who do, I think it is wrong.
I believe the Bible is literally God's word for us. That it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. That its creation was not casual, and that we must approach it with great seriousness and respect, and that we must never elevate our intellect or knowledge above it.
Much of the biblical text is extraordinarily clear and unambiguous, and we have no excuse if we read it and ignore it. However, when we come across a text which unsettles us - and which in many ways seems to be at odds with other biblical passages which we read - such as this passage from Timothy, I believe the worst thing we can do is quickly reject it - because it doesn't meet with our approval or the approval of our culture.
I hold God's word in such high regard that I believe unsettling passages must be studied deeply. Either I have misunderstood their intent, or our culture and I have misunderstood God's intent for us. I don't believe, as committed Christians, we ought to give ourselves the option of accepting our culture's beliefs if there is a clear biblical mandate to the contrary - even if it means our friends think we're strange or we go to jail. We're called to the culture of Jesus Christ, not that of 20th or 21st century.
With that perspective, what are we to do with what we read here in First Timothy? It is unsettling for us in our day and age. Therefore we must study it deeply, and determine if it really means what it appears to mean. If it does, by the way - if that's really what it said in the Greek, and it's clear and unambiguous - then I would conclude that this is incumbent upon us; we must be obedient even in things we do not fully understand, and which may offend our modern sensibilities - if we truly believe God calls us to follow his word. There are manifold things in life that he understands better than we, and where his advice should be followed, even if we don't fully comprehend his reasons or his purpose. I expect all of you can cite instances of this in your own lives and in your Christian walk: where we knew we didn't know why God was calling us to do something, but we knew we needed to be obedient.
And so if we could unambiguously conclude that this is what God intended that we read in this passage of scripture, I would say that we must be obedient to it, and we should prohibit women teaching in church.
There are many deeply committed Christians, men and women, who understand and accept this passage exactly as as you heard it read in English, and they use it as a normative guide in their lives. The women keep silent in church and do not teach men. This doesn't mean, they believe, that God loves them less, or that they are to be disrespected, or that they are second class citizens, or anything of the sort. It means they believe God created men and women with different roles, and they are being obedient to him. It is important for us to respect this obedience where it is genuine. If I believed this was God's intent in this scripture, I would obey it as well.
However, I do not believe this is what this passage of Timothy is about. I've said I won't reject it simply because it doesn't fit modern cultural ideas, but neither do I want to "read into it" my own ideas about the role of women. So I have to look at it deeply and seriously, and journey to discover what God intends.
It is also important to read this or any other scripture in light of the whole counsel of God. We can't pick one small passage of scripture and use it to "prove" anything if our interpretation is not supported by scripture elsewhere. We know, for instance, that women are described and commended for their positions of leadership in the early church in many passages in the New Testament.
- Priscilla taught Apollos - in fact it says she "corrected him" because his theology was wrong.
- Junias is called an "apostle" by Paul. Junias is the accusative form of a feminine name in the Greek. It is not masculine, and yet some biblical scholars have been so offended by the idea that Paul might refer to a woman as an "apostle" - which is the highest office ranked in the New Testament - that they have said that this is a man's name. But in the Greek it's very clear: this is a woman's name, and Paul lists her as an apostle.
- Phoebe is referred to by Paul as a deacon. The word is deacon in Greek, and yet some translations have changed it to say "servant" - lest she be confused with someone who had authority in the church!
- Women are permitted to prophecy - this is very clear in First Corinthians - and prophet is another office "higher" than that of teacher: it's "apostle, prophet, teacher."
There are many other instances which would contradict the idea that women were not allowed to teach or to lead in the church.
With all this in mind, let's put this passage into proper context: to whom was Paul writing, and why? Was Paul setting forth a standard for all Christians for all times, or giving pastoral advice for a specific purpose at a specific time? No one would assert, for instance, that when Paul says, in Colossians 4:17,
"Tell Archippus: ‘See to it that you complete the work you have received from the Lord.'"
that all Christians, for all time, are to find someone named Archippus and quote these words to him. Neither would anyone assert, when Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 15:33:
"Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.'"
that this advice was meant only for the people of Corinth. Clearly Paul meant it, and the Lord meant it, for all of us, for all time. And between these two extremes lies a range of instructions and commands, some of which were intended to address specific problems or circumstances, and others which are properly more broadly applied for Christians everywhere.
It is in this light that we must consider the cultural context of Paul's letter. I say that with some trepidation. There are people who consider studying scripture, while considering cultural context, to be unholy. Such people refuse to consider cultural information in understanding passages of scripture. This is an intentional refusal to understand scripture in context. But let me be very clear here what is at issue, because it is so easily misrepresented by opponents on the several sides of the issue:
- We can use the cultural context to improve our understanding of scripture.
- We can use the cultural context to pretend to correct scripture, and that's the modernist error - when we take cultural context and we say, in effect, "That is unfortunately what people believed in those days, and Paul was influenced by them, but we know better now. We're much more sophisticated and intelligent and knowledgeable, and we've grown beyond this."
- Or, we can refuse to allow the cultural context to help us understand. But this has the effect of forcing the use of our own cultural to understand it, and that can be wildly inappropriate.
The simple truth is that if I refuse to understand the cultural context of the city of Ephesus at the time Paul wrote this letter to Timothy, I will probably not understand what this letter is about.
Therefore, the context of this letter to Timothy is... a letter to Timothy! He is an assistant of Paul's, beginning now to do ministry on his own. Timothy had a Greek father and a Jewish mother. Both his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois were Christian converts, and it is from them that Timothy learned the Christian faith. Paul knows this. He knows Eunice and Lois personally. Imagine Paul telling Timothy that he wasn't allowed to have been taught by women!
Timothy accompanied Paul for many years as his assistant, and was also sent by Paul on many difficult missions to settle disputes and problems arising in churches in Corinth, Phillipi, Thessalonica and Ephesus. Timothy has been with Paul for many years, and has worked with him as an assistant, and Paul has sent Timothy out to various churches where there was trouble brewing - where there was heresy, or unrest, or whatever, to teach and to settle what was going on in those churches.
Ephesus was a city focused on the worship of Diana, also known as Artemis, and a place where Paul stayed and ministered, with Timothy, for many years. This letter to Timothy is advice from an experienced pastor to his assistant, as the assistant begins a long and difficult ministry on his own, in a difficult city, Ephesus.
You may remember, in Acts 19, where the silversmiths and other artisans who made shrines and other objects related to Diana were enraged by Paul, because he preached that gods made by hands are not gods. They tried to have Paul's hide because he was a threat to their livelihood, although their accusation was that he insulted worship of the goddess.
The city has now been excavated by archaeologists for well over a century. We know that the central theater, where those who were angry at Paul assembled, seated up to 24,000 people in three tiers. In was 495 feet in diameter: nearly two football fields. It opened onto the major street to the harbor. The street was 35 feet wide and flanked by tall columns, with an impressive, monumental gateway at the western end, toward the harbor. In the opposite direction the road ran between two mountains. It was flanked by civic buildings, baths, houses, stores, another theater, and a library.
The city was wealthy. Upper middle class people lived in multi-storied houses, some of which had marble walls, mosaic floors, heated baths and running water. The center of the city contained gambling establishments and a famous and well-traveled house of prostitution. It was not a little, backwater town. It was a major city and a major seaport, and it was very wealthy.
The worship of Diana was as old as the city. The temple to Diana was built in the 6th century BC, was the largest building in the Hellenistic world, and was the first monumental size building ever to be constructed entirely of marble. Statues of Diana had exaggerated sexual features and "fertility" carvings and drawings were everywhere. Today we would call it pornography. Ephesus was a modern, well-to-do city, which idolized wealth, sex and the mother goddess, not unlike today's America.
By the time of this letter to Timothy, the Christian church in Ephesus had been there for many years, but it was being infected by all sorts of heresies, particularly from a syncretism with worship of Diana, and with Gnosticism. Both of Paul's letters to Timothy again and again stress the need to go to Ephesus to forbid the teaching of false doctrines, and teach orthodox - that is, right - doctrine. Both men and women were teaching heresies in the church.
And so Paul says these words. I'll read them first in English, and then I'll tell you in detail what the Greek says:
"A woman should learn in quietness and submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, and then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner."
Before I get into the Greek, I should point out that Paul is well known for his mastery of logic, and this is obvious in everything he writes. This is an extremely smart and well-educated man. You will not find any argument he makes anywhere which is weak, or which is nonsensical. It's not characteristic of Paul. In fact some people have suggested Paul didn't write this, because he wouldn't make an argument like that - that women shouldn't teach because Adam was created first!
Let's go to the Greek now, starting with the sentence, " I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man."
There are two interesting words in the Greek here, "ouk" and "oude." They go together, and are like "neither / nor" in English. The equivalent would be, "I neither permit a woman to teach nor to have authority over a man."
However, these two words can also be used another way, for which we don't have an equivalent in correct modern English, although we do in the vernacular. They can also be used to mean "very much not." That is, they can double the negativity of a statement, and this is perfectly good Greek grammar.
An example of that in English would be, "I'm not never going to school again!"
That's a double negative in English, and a double negative in English grammar makes a positive. But in the vernacular, such a double negative simply emphasizes how deeply meant the negative is. "I'm not never going to school again!" means "I'm ABSOLUTELY not going to school again."
Thus, rather than reading Paul to say, " I neither permit a woman to teach nor to have authority over a man," which would be one construction, an alternative, very grammatical Greek reading would be:
"I ABSOLUTELY do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man."
If Paul is absolutely prohibiting this, then it seems quite unambiguous. But what exactly is it that he absolutely doesn't permit? To teach or have authority over a man? Thereon hangs the issue.
The word in Greek for what he absolutely doesn't permit is authentein.
What does this word mean? When we try to understand what a biblical word means, and in correct context, we usually look for other places in scripture where the same word is used, or a word where the same root is used, and we make parallels. We ask: "how did Paul use it over here, or here?" and so on. Or if Paul didn't use it, we look at other biblical authors. So what about authentein? How is it used elsewhere?
This is the only place in the Bible that this word appears in any form.
Which is why a passage that sounds so extraordinarily clear in the English is not clear in the original language, in the Greek. You can listen to the English you heard me read, and conclude, "This is clear and straightforward, and this is what scripture says, so we will obey it."
But even the translators who rendered the passage the way you heard it in English will tell you that they're not really sure that this is what it means. They believe this is what it means, but they're not certain, because of the absence of this word authentein anywhere else in scripture.
The word is used elsewhere in Greek literature of the era, so let us consider some of the other meanings and uses of the word:
Not only does it mean "authority," it also means "to usurp authority." So Paul's passage might mean "I absolutely do not permit a woman to teach or usurp authority over a man."
Another is "dominate." There were goddess cults in that day where the men who joined were castrated and took on typical "women's roles," and the women took on "men's roles." So it might be domination of men by women that Paul is speaking against, especially if this had begun to infect the church.
Authentein has the same root as our words "author" and "authority," and therefore one common use was "author" or "creator."
All three of these meanings are equally valid renderings of authentein.
There is a third vital word, found in Paul's advice to Timothy that , "she must be silent." The word translated as silent, is in Greek hesuchia. This may mean silent, but it is not silence as in "don't talk." It is a silence as in "quietness and harmony." That is, if I used this word I wouldn't be saying, "be quiet," so much as I'd be saying "please be in quiet harmony" or "conformity." It is a gentle, sweet way to say "be in agreement."
Now, let's put all of this together and see what this passage might actually say.
Remember that present in the city of Ephesus were two similar heresies which were likely infecting the church:
One of them was that the goddess Diana was the fertile creator of mankind. All men were birthed from Diana, as were all women. She was the author of all of them. This is what the surrounding culture believed, and this surely influenced the church just as the strong beliefs of our present culture - about sex, for example - affect the beliefs of many church members and teachers.
A second, similar heresy came from the Gnostics, prevalent in Ephesus, and throughout Asia Minor: Eve was the mother of Adam, and the author of mankind!
There's much more to this Gnostic teaching than is useful to consider here, but the basic theology was this: Eve was the goddess, and Eve created, with the help of the serpent, Adam. In fact, the God of the Bible is portrayed in these texts as an insecure minor deity who tries to prevent the wonderful work Eve and the serpent are doing in creating new gods - the humans. This heresy takes the very sin of Adam and Eve, and turns it into an act to be praised, led by Eve as mother/author of mankind and the serpent as her lover!
Realizing that this is a heresy Paul will want to combat vigorously, let me read you another translation of the Greek into English, which is as legitimate a translation as the common one, but simply makes more sense in context:
"I do not permit a woman to teach that she is the author of man. She must be in conformity (that is, with scripture and orthodox teaching). For Adam was formed first, and then Eve."
This is very Pauline. Paul explains an error, and then he corrects it. I believe this is what Paul is doing here. This heresy, among many others, was being taught: that woman was the author of man. In effect, what Paul is saying is "this is not what scripture tells us. This may be what the cult of Diana believes, and what the Gnostics believe, and it is a heresy taught in this church, but it is not what scripture tells us. And if a woman is to teach, she must not teach that woman is the author of man - because scripture teaches that Adam was formed first, and then Eve."
This sounds like Paul!
I will leave this subject with one final caution: there are a very few areas of scripture which are ambiguous, and this is one of those passages. This word, authentein, is one where we just don't know from the passage itself what it means. So we must ask, how does Paul's advice here fit into the whole counsel of God? How does it fit Paul's other writings, and his purposes in this letter?
Paul is writing to Timothy as Timothy goes off to his first pastorate, which is rife with heresy. Paul says there are "ravening wolves" there. Timothy's job is to straighten out these heresies.
For me, this reading of the passage harmonizes better with the whole counsel of God, and with Paul's writings and logic, than one which, out of the blue, and with bad logic, tells women not to talk in church because Adam was formed first.
It also speaks strongly to a heresy present in the Christian church today. I don't know if you've noticed it, but much of New Age philosophy opposes the idea of the Christian God and the Christian church, and accuses Christians of following an insecure, egocentric, dominating male patriarch, who keeps women in subjection in a "typically male hierarchy." This New Age, very Gnostic philosophy promotes a female "mother goddess," who is the author and creator of men, women and the whole earth. She even has a name, Gaia. Seminarians, college students and children wear T-shirts with her name on them, and learn about "adoring" her in school - because, they are told, she is an actual, conscious being, the mother earth who is our goddess and our author, and who is angry with us for our mistreatment of her body, our planet.
National and local religious conferences are organized around this theme. New liturgies are created with a focus on fertility, the "mother-god," and women's bodies, and unrestrained, gender-indifferent sexual intimacy is celebrated as superior.
This heresy is now actively infecting our seminaries and our churches. Our theologians have become repackaged Gnostics and celebrate this new-found "freedom," just as they, coincidentally, also correct scripture's "cultural artifacts."
In short, we have become a modern, first century Ephesus.
Therefore, in our day and age, in my own church, I would say:
"I do not permit a woman to teach that she is the author of man, that we are the children of the goddess. A woman, or man, who wishes to teach must be in conformity with scripture and orthodox teaching. For Adam was formed first, and then Eve."
I do not believe Paul prohibits the leadership of women in the church, most especially those who teach orthodox doctrine, and are in conformity with the word of God. I believe Paul is quite clear and intentional when he says, in Galatians 3:28,
"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,"
I believe that all of Paul's teaching supports this when it is rightly translated and understood.
I also believe that scripture is unambiguous about the nature of God, about our creation, about sexual intimacy and marriage, and how our lives are to be conformed through his clear word to us. His word convicts us of our sin, men and women alike, and calls us to righteousness. Yet we have fled what convicts us, and created again a goddess who would bless our sin. May God have mercy on our souls.