The Biggest “But”

by Rob Kranz

In my last post, we looked at one of the two big "Buts" in the New Testament regarding women's roles. 1 Corinthians 14 can seem problematic on the surface. However, a closer inspection shows it to be a cultural accommodation, not a description of sinful church behavior.

The biggest "But," however, is in 1 Timothy 2. No discussion of this topic would be complete without a critical examination of this passage.

As I wrote in my last post, proof-texting is a problematic exercise from the outset. Proof-texting can lead to any number of errors if done incorrectly. We must look at the overall picture painted in the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) to develop a comprehensive and holistic view on any given topic. Only then can we evaluate the authority of specific passages on a stand-alone basis—context matters. As an earlier post in this series has discussed, Paul recognized, relied upon, and praised powerful, Spirit-filled women in his letters. Some of these women held positions of leadership and authority. So, how do we reconcile Timothy's big "But?"

With that said, here's the passage in question:

I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

1 Timothy 2:8-16, NRSV

I'll admit, this is the toughest of all the passages. Paul's language seems pretty unequivocal. The pronouncement is black and white: women are to be in submission, learning in silence. However, let me remind you that we need to consider everything we have learned regarding Paul's actions and letters. We can't throw all of that away in favor of a proof-text of this one passage.

Paul's Wish List

The entire letter contains instructions about proper organization and etiquette within the Christian communities. First, it's important to recognize the verb used to introduce this list: "I want." In Greek the word is boulomai (βούλομαι). It means "will," "want," or "desire." It doesn't mean "command." That's a different word in Greek. With that in mind, let's look at the list of things that Paul "desires/wants:"

  • Men should pray by lifting "holy hands."
  • Men should approach prayer without anger or internal disputes.
  • Women should dress modestly and decently in suitable clothing.
  • Female modesty and decency are defined as follows:
    • No braids in their hair
    • No gold jewelry
    • No pearls
    • No expensive clothes
  • Women should be clothed in "good works."
  • Women should learn in silence and full submission.
  • Women can't teach.
  • Women can't have authority over a man.
  • A woman must keep silent.

The natural question that comes to mind is this: is this list cultural or theological? Is this list describing practical instructions relative to their world, or are these universal practices for all time? Just like in 1 Corinthians 14, that's an important issue to discern. Admittedly, one can see a theological premise governing the entire list. But why this list?

Paul seems to treat all of these items with equal importance for the church. As such, I would argue that we must answer those questions for the entire list as a unit, not cherry-pick items to be one or the other. When forced to examine and classify the list as a whole, most of us probably get less comfortable. If this is a "theological" list (i.e., a list of "thou shalt not's," or inferred sinful behaviors), then we have some serious issues to address. I'll admit it. I don't like to pray with my hands lifted high. I've still got too many protestant/puritan tendencies to get comfortable with that. Others are going to have to rethink their wardrobes entirely—especially all y'all in Dallas! (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) Clearly, Paul forbids wearing your "Sunday Best" to church. He does it with equal conviction as he does telling women they can't teach or have authority over a man.

When viewed as a whole, I think this list makes much more sense culturally. Are there theological principles at work? Of course there are. If your first inclination is to evaluate which are cultural vs. theological instructions selectively, you have proven my point. You are using your understanding of culture to assess these instructions. Paul's list to Timothy is rooted in their culture. Ancient Christian artwork reveals details about prayer posture. They raised their hands. Is that the only acceptable way to pray? Of course not. Definitions of modesty and decency have clearly changed from the 1st century Roman Empire until today. They've changed substantially even in the last 25 years!

On top of that, the social structure of our Western society has changed. Patriarchy is less prevalent. The Pater Familias, as the Romans understood it, is also a thing of the past. How does this impact the silence, submission, teaching, and authority, issues? I'd argue all of these items are on the table in light of Scripture's holistic witness.

What's Paul's Motivation?

There's another thing I'd like you to consider: why does Paul feel the need to make this statement? In light of the prevailing culture, wouldn't this be obvious? Culturally, everything he describes would be the norm in their culture. Perhaps we are seeing a response to what was actually happening in the churches: women were teaching and having some authority over men in the church communities. In other words, the early church was living out 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." We've even seen Paul promoting and participating in it!

So why does Paul seemingly pump on the brakes? Again, I think he may be dealing with the more significant issue of the church's mission. Can the Christian community be an effective witness to their non-believing friends and neighbors if they have a reputation for throwing out all social norms and constructs? At what point are their actions seen as threats to society and the Roman Empire? At what point does their new-found freedom do more harm than good? When you look at Paul's list in that light, you can begin to understand why he might make these statements.

Paul's Creative Midrash

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Paul's creative midrash (Hebrew for interpretation) of the Genesis story about the man being created first, yadda yadda yadda. Commentators have long pondered what in the world Paul is doing here. Why does he make this strange claim about women "being saved through childbearing?"

First, let's all agree that it's weird. There's not a great explanation for it. A quick review of commentaries or websites yields all sorts of speculation on this passage's meaning.

Paul was a student of Rabbi Gamaliel—the GOAT of early Jewish rabbis. Paul's rabbinic training was second-to-none. A close reading of his letters shows that he can be creative and fearless when interpreting Scripture. His interpretations often raise scholarly eyebrows and were probably intended to shock and anger some of his audience. Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism operates under paradigms that sometimes seem strange to us. Also, the Rabbis believed that Scripture had a wide range of meanings applicable to various circumstances. If you'd like to explore that more, I'd encourage you to read one of my early posts, The 70 Faces of Scripture.

Personally, I think Paul is trying to find the thinnest theological thread to grasp onto, knowing he's telling this community to change their practices for the sake of their witness to the world. In doing so, he finds a scriptural interpretation (albeit tenuous) to justify this adjustment to their behavior to spread the Gospel.

The Mission of the Church

So, what does all this mean for us? Our mission is unchanged from that of the early church. We are to be about spreading the Good News of God's saving act through God's Messiah, Jesus. That mission includes restoring the Kingdom of God here and now in anticipation of the World to Come. But it also means we need to be effective witnesses to our culture and communities.

In light of this, I believe Scripture teaches that women are valued and equal partners in God's mission. The church needs to rethink and evaluate how it accomplishes its mission making the best use of the whole Christian community, men, and women. Failure to recognize the Spirit-filled gifts God has given to women is to damage our witness to the world and hinder the Kingdom's restoration. "Thy Kingdom come! Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."

May God give us all eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts open to do God's will.

Grace and Shalom.