For the sake of the gospel, let women speak

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

This is the seventh post in our series, One In Christ: A Week of Mutuality, dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender—including relevant biblical texts and practical applications. The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, Church, and society. You can read the rest of the postshere.

It’s time! Today we discuss one of the most controversial passages of Scripture: 1 Timothy 2:11-12, where the apostle Paul writes that “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

Now, I’ve heard from a bunch of folks who are eager to point out that most modern scholars are doubtful that the apostle Paul actually wrote the pastoral epistles. I’ve done a little research on this, and indeed the evidence is compelling. However, for our purposes this week, and with my particular audience in mind, I’ve decided to stick with the assumption that Paul is the author of these texts. 

How do we read the epistles?

“I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into torah.” 
—F. F. Bruce

We forget sometimes that the epistles are just that: letters.

In our rush to find proof texts to support our various positions, we tend to skip past the initial greetings that designate the recipients of the message— “to the church of God in Corinth,” “to the churches in Galatia,” “to God’s holy people in Ephesus,” “to Timothy,” “to Titus”—or those odd little details that remind us that we are essentially listening in on someone else’s conversation--“I have made a fool of myself,” “I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else,” “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus in Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” (You don’t see that last one on many desk calendars.)

I’ve never once heard a sermon preached on the passage in which Paul tells Titus “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12–13), and yet, if these words are truly the inerrant and unchanging words of God intended as universal commands for all people in all places at all times, then the Christian community needs to do a better job of mobilizing against the Cretan people, perhaps constructing some “God Hates Cretans” signs!

'letters' photo (c) 2006, liz west - license:

Hyperbole aside, it’s important to keep in mind that while the epistles are certainly written for us, they were not written to us.With the letters of Peter, Paul, James, John, and the other apostles, we are given the priceless gift of seeing how early followers of Jesus applied his teachings to their unique circumstances. While these letters are packed with important theological observations—“If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come,” “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel,” “Have this attitude in you which was also in Christ Jesus”—they also include lengthy discussion concerning how first-century house churches should operate, how unprecedented influxes of poor widows should be handled, how women should cover their heads when they pray and prophecy, how slaves should behave toward their masters, whether Christian converts should be circumcised, whether Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols, how to endure persecution, how not to offend the surrounding culture, and how to follow Christ with conviction while avoiding unwanted attention from the suspicious Roman officials.

In other words, these letters have contexts. They are addressing very practical problems. 

The epistles were never meant to be interpreted and applied as universal law. Rather, they provide us with an instructive and inspired glimpse into how Jesus’ teachings were lived out by realpeople, in real communities, facing real challenges. It is not the details found in the letters that we should seek to imitate, but rather the attitudes. The details (head coverings, circumcision, meat offered to idols, widow management, hair length, etc.) are rarely timeless, but the attitudes (“as much as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men,” “do not cause your brother to stumble,” “avoid the appearance of evil”) provide guidelines that can instruct us as Christians today. So the questions we should be asking ourselves today are not: Should we eat meat offered to idols?, or Should women wear head coverings?,  but rather, How can we find peace when Christians feel convicted in different ways? and How do we avoid unnecessarily offending others by our appearance? 

When read this way, I am constantly impressed by the degree to which these early Christians were willing to sacrifice beliefs and traditions they held dear for the sake of love and for the sake of advancing the gospel. Such a reading does not devalue scripture, but rather honors it for what it is, not what we try to make it. 

What’s with the women at Ephesus?

Just as I’ve never heard a sermon against Cretans, I’ve also never heard a sermon on 1 Timothy 2:8, in which Paul tells Timothy, “I want men everywhere to pray, lifting holy hands without anger or disputing” that included a universal dictum that all men everywhere must raise their hands whenever they pray.  Nor have I heard a sermon on one of the most common instructions found in the epistles, to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” (1 Corinthians 16:20) Nor have I ever heard of a pastor being removed from the position in keeping with Titus 1:5-6 because one of his or her children had left the faith. (It’s an uncomfortable reality, but if complementarians were as consistent in their application of biblically-based pastoral qualifications as they claim to be, a few of their most prominent spokesmen would have had to resign from their pastoral positions when their children left the faith. They didn't.)

I haven’t heard any sermons on all of those biblical instructions, but I’ve heard more than I can count on 1 Timothy 2:11, which says, “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

So what was the context of these words? Were they really meant to be applied universally to all women everywhere?

Some context: In keeping with the trend of early Christianity, the first-century churches at Ephesus and Corinth attracted a lot of women, particularly widows. As a result, large portions of the pastoral epistles tackle the mounting logistical challenges of caring for so many unmarried women. Of particular concern to Paul was a group of young widows who had infiltrated the church and developed a reputation for dressing promiscuously, sleeping around, gossiping, spreading unorthodox ideas, interrupting church services with questions, mooching off the church’s widow fund, and generally making common floozies of themselves (1 Timothy 5).

'' photo (c) 2009, Sharon Mollerus - license:

Many scholars believe these women were likely influenced by the popular Roman fertility cults of Artemis that encouraged women to flaunt their sexuality and freedom to a degree that scandalized even the Roman establishment, hardly known for its prudish morals. Worship involved deviant sex, shirking off marriage and childbearing, possible abortions and infanticide, and immodest dress that made adherents indistinguishable from prostitutes. (This trend inspired Caesar Augustus to pass legislation regarding what respectable women ought to wear...and, oddly, what prostitutes and adulterers ought to wear!) It seems that enough of these women had joined the church to tarnish its reputation, repelling potential converts and giving the Roman authorities yet another reason to be suspicious of the church, which was the last thing the early Christians needed. (If you want to learn more about the cults, your best bet is Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities by Bruce Winter. See also The Letters to Timothy and Titus by Philip Towner.)

“Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need,” Paul tells the elders at Ephesus. But “younger widows,” he says, are “to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander” (1 Timothy 5:14; emphasis added). I suspect that Paul didn’t want the church, so full of unmarried women, to be seen as just another Greco-Roman cult. He also didn’t want pagans unfamiliar with the teachings of Christ and the Jewish culture interrupting services with questions or bossing around other converts. Is it any wonder, then, that he expected some women in Corinth to prophesy, but challenged others to “remain silent,” or that he advised the women at Ephesus not to seize authority over men but to “learn in quietness and full submission”? (Remember, the guys would have been seriously outnumbered!)

“We are thus led to the conclusion that when Paul asks women to be silent . . . he is not talking about ordinary Christian women; rather, he has a specific group of women in mind,” writes Scot McKnight in The Blue Parakeet“His concern is with some untrained, morally loose, young widows, who, because they are theologically unformed, are teaching unorthodox ideas.” It is reasonable, then, to assume that once these widows were trained, they could resume speaking.

What about Adam and Eve?

Things get a little trickier as Paul goes on with his letter. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve,” he writes. “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

Now, I’ll readily admit that the fact that Paul appeals to the creation narrative to support his point about Ephesian women complicates things for egalitarians. (Actually, the part about being “saved through childbearing” complicates things for everyone who believes people are saved by faith alone.) References to Adam and Eve certainly give a line of argumentation a universal feel.

But as I mentioned on Monday, when first-century rabbis like Jesus and Paul allude to the stories of the Torah, including the creation accounts, they are not participating in “straight exegesis” as we would understand it today. Rather, their creative interpretations of the text are influenced by the hermeneutical conventions of Second Temple Judaism, which allow for quite a bit of “play” with the narrative texts. According to Peter Enns, Paul often uses Adam and Eve as a way of “appropriating an ancient story to address pressing concerns of the moment.”

I’ve heard all sorts of explanations about what Paul meant with these few sentences—that he was countering teachings from the Roman cults that the gender order should be reversed, that he had simply accepted the widely-held belief that women are more easily deceived than men and responsible for the Fall, that by “saved through childbearing” refers to Christ’s arrival through Mary, that “saved through childbearing” is meant to discourage women from engaging in the anti-children activities of the cults, that childbearing has a special redemptive effect, and so on. (I have a hard time with that last one seeing as how Jesus consistently praised singleness and celibacy as an option for committed Christians, as did Paul in 1 and 2 Corinthians.)

No one seems to know for sure what this passages means, and frankly, I’ve just about given up on figuring out exactly what’s going on with it. But here’s the thing: Anyone who says that Paul’s instructions regarding the women at Ephesus are universally binding because he appeals to the creation narrative to make his point can be consistent in that position only if they also require women in their church to cover their heads, as Paul uses a very similar line of argumentation to advocate that. (See 1 Corinthians 11. )

What about women today?

So what about women today? Can we really compare women who have devoted their lives to studying scripture, many with seminary degrees and years of experience, to the promiscuous, first-century Roman widows mooching off the church and spreading idle tales from door to door?

Obviously, Paul didn’t have a problem with women teaching in generalAs we saw yesterday, he honored Priscilla, a teacher to the apostle Apollos, and praised Timothy’s mother and grandmother for teaching Timothy all he knew about faith. He recognized Junia as an apostle, Phoebe as a deacon, and Euodia and Syntyche as church planters.  

In fact, these days, women in the pulpit are more highly educated than their male counterparts. While over three-quarters of female pastors (77 percent) hold seminary degrees, less than two-thirds of male pastors (63 percent) can say the sameIt continues to amaze me that some evangelicals believe that Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, who was ordained at seventeen without a seminary degree, is more qualified to by virtue of being a man to speak to the Church than someone like my friend Jackie Roese, who received top honors at her seminary and is now a pastor at Irving Bible Church in Dallas, or Catherine Hamlin, who devoted her life to caring for fistula patients in Africa, or Sarah Coakley, who is one of Christianity’s most influential theologians and philosophers, currently working on a four-volume systematic theology.

Something needs to change. 

Me with the smart, over-achieving ladies of Truett Seminary -  a reminder that things are changing for the better

Me with the smart, over-achieving ladies of Truett Seminary
a reminder that things are changing for the better

Where do we draw the line?

With all these bright, trained women running around, its’ no wonder complementarians have a difficult time applying their own restrictions on the roles of women in the Church. For example, John Piper was once asked by a man, “Is it wrong for me to listen to Beth Moore?”

 “No,” Piper said. “Unless you begin to become dependent on her as your shepherd-pastor. This is the way I feel about women speaking occasionally in Sunday school. We don't need to be picky on this. The Bible is clear that women shouldn't teach and have authority over men. In context, I think this means that women shouldn't be the authoritative teachers of the church-they shouldn't be elders.” He went on to say that women like Beth Moore and Elisabeth Elliot should be free to speak, to write, and to teach.

In other words, it’s okay to learn from women...just not too much.

'Woman with book and palm trees' photo (c) 1920, George Eastman House - license:

Piper appears to consider the first half of 1 Timothy 2:12 (“a woman should not have authority”) as universally applicable, but disregards the second half (“she must be quiet”) by encouraging women like Moore to continue speaking. If the first half of 1 Timothy 2 is so crucial to the complementarian hierarchal construct, why is the second half, (along with the silence command in 1 Corinthians 14:34) essentially ignored? Why is that complementarian women are forbidden from assuming leadership in churches, and yet permitted to speak? Nowhere does the Bible spell out this distinction between teaching and speaking or between leader and "shepherd-pastor," and yet Piper seems seriously committed to it.

I’ve spent far more time than I care to admit combing through complementarian literature, reading debates about whether women can read Scripture aloud in church, whether female missionaries should be permitted to give presentations on Sunday evenings, what age groups women should be allowed to teach in Sunday school, whether women can speak in small group Bible studies, what titles to bestow upon worship leaders and children’s ministry coordinators so that they don’t appear too authoritative, and on and on and on. If you really want to give yourself a headache, check out Wayne Grudem’s article “But What Should Women Do in the Church?” in which he painstakingly lists 83 church ministries in “decreasing order of authority and influence” to help churches decide which ministries are appropriate for women.  I confess that when I read this list, the first image to come to my mind is that of a man straining gnats and swallowing camels.

Scot McKnight himself changed his position on women and teaching when he realized that his favorite Bible professor, the one from whom he’d learned the most about interpreting and applying scripture, was a woman. “Anyone who thinks it is wrong for a woman to teach in church can be consistent with that point of view only if they refuse to read and learn from women scholars,” he concluded. “This means not reading their books lest they become teachers.”

And as one commenter noted yesterday, many complementarians don’t seem to have a problem with women assuming leadership and teaching roles as missionaries in developing countries,“because if it's happening 'over there', 'somewhere else', in some primitive place where lifestyles aren't quite as sophisticated, and buildings aren't quite so solid , and people are presumed to be simpler, then it's as if it isn't really happening...I'm thinking of the modern Junias like Lottie Moon, Jackie Pullinger, Mary Slessor, Amy Carmichael, Marie Monsen, Gladys Aylward, etc.”

I’ve been told by some complementarians that women are permitted to teach in such circumstances because “desperate times call for desperate measures.” But anyone who doesn’t see the entire world as desperate for the gospel isn’t paying much attention. Those who think the urgency of Pentecost has passed, that the world doesn’t need every trained and passionate advocate for the gospel it can get “have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear.”

'Utdeling av Nobels fredspris 2011' photo (c) 2011, Utenriksdepartementet UD - license:

(Pictured: Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian mother of six who won the Nobel Peace Prize for organizing the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, a movement which mobilized both Christian and Muslim women to end Liberia’s long and bloody civil war through prayer, protests, sit-ins, diplomacy, and sex strikes. Her movement—which has saved thousands of lives— began when she delivered a sermon on peace at her church.

What should we do for the sake of the gospel?

I can’t know for sure, but I believe that Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding the women at Ephesus were intended to protect the gospel from untrained teachers and to ensure that the Church remain distinct from the cults of the surrounding culture. And I believe that, just as he celebrated Junia and Priscilla and Phoebe, he would celebrate and affirm the many trained, gifted, and passionate women who are preaching the gospel from behind pulpits, in darkened slums, in front of classrooms, in busy homes, and before crowds of people longing to encounter God.

It has been pointed out that as long as Christians remain embroiled in endless debates about what women can and cannot do for Jesus, we are only utilizing half the ChurchWomen have so much to bring to Christianity—so many gifts, so many insights, so many new ways of looking at things, expressing things, enacting things, and questioning things. I am convinced that the gospel will only benefit from more women preaching it.

What a tragic and agonizing irony that instructions once delivered for the purpose of avoiding needless offense are now invoked in ways that needlessly offend, that words once meant to help draw people to the gospel now repel them! Research shows that the overall number of women attending church has dropped by 11 percent in the last twenty years. I suspect that part of this has to do with the fact that when female executives, entrepreneurs, academics, and creatives are told that they have to check their gifts at the church door, many turn away for good. In a more egalitarian culture ,where women are assumed to have the same value as men, restricting women’s roles based on their gender is unnecessarily offensive. It drives people away from the gospel -  and not because of the cost of discipleship.

And while our sisters around the world continue to suffer from trafficking, exploitation, violence, neglect, maternal mortality, and discrimination, those of us who are perhaps most equipped to respond with prophetic words and actions—women of faith—are being systematically silenced by our own faith communities.

Scot McKnight has wisely asked: “Do you think Paul would have put women ‘behind the pulpit’ if it would have been advantageous ‘for the sake of the gospel’?

Or, put another way: Do you think Paul would have prevented women from speaking if he knew it would hurt the gospel?

The answer to that question should be a lot simpler than it has become.


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