Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Luke 11:29-32; 1 Timothy 2; Proverbs 1:20-33; Nehemiah 3
This passage in 1 Timothy 2 has been at the centre of debates about women’s roles in the Christian church. How a passage like this is understood has more general implications for how the Bible is applied, especially in ethics. Taken most literally, it says that women should not teach or be in authority over men, which conflicts with contemporary (Western) society’s emphasis on women having all the same roles as men. However, this restriction may have been intended only for the church in Ephesus to which Paul was writing because of problems in that local church. Paul did have women leaders in other churches (Romans 16:1-7) and God chose Deborah to lead when the men would not (Judges 2:16). The restriction in 1 Timothy 2 may not apply today in our cultural contexts. But if hermeneutical gymnastics are required to avoid Paul’s restriction, the same could be done to avoid taking seriously any biblical teaching that appears to conflict with current social norms, thereby making culture the primary authority for Christian ethics.
The main theological point of this passage is that God wants all people to be saved and know the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). For that reason, how Christians act and the character qualities they exhibit should draw others to want to come to know God and receive his grace (1 Timothy 3:7-13; 5:10-15; Titus 2:4-10; 1 Peter 2:12). Paul applies that principle in a number of ways, first with prayer. He says he wants men to stop their angry disputes and instead pray, lifting up their arms in humility. Likewise, women’s inner piety should express itself in good deeds, not extravagant appearances. While the instructions are different for men and women, the structure suggests the same overall concern. Outer appearances should reflect inner godliness.
Commentators suggest that Paul’s use of the verb “I want” is significant. He says he wants men to pray, wants women to dress modestly, and does not permit women to teach or have authority over men. The one command is that women should learn (v. 11). Some take this to mean that these instructions were for the church in Ephesus, not divine commands to be enforced in all places. They see the general principle for all cultures being that men’s and women’s external appearances should match their inner character so that people are not hindered from coming to know Jesus Christ and accepting God’s salvation.
Things become more controversial in verses 12-15. Almost every noun and verb in this section has been extensively analysed by scholars and yet different positions persist on exactly what Paul meant and how this applies today. Some words have well-known meanings, but other crucial terms (like authenteo, translated “authority”) only occur here in the New Testament. Why would Paul use this rare word when he normally uses exousiazo, the common word for exercising authority over someone? Some suggest that authenteo refers to authoritarian abuse of authority and that this is what Paul does not permit. Others disagree.
Ethical principles in the Bible are based on theological ideas. Writers then apply these principles within a particular context. A part of interpretation involves teasing apart the theological grounding and its application. Sometimes we have enough historical information to do this. Sometimes we don’t, and must admit much more uncertainty about its application today. This passage falls into the latter category.
We do know that some women were being taken advantage of by false teachers. Among other things, they forbid marriage (1 Timothy 4:3) and were deceiving some women (2 Timothy 3:6-9). Paul uses Adam and Eve to ground his instructions. Volumes have been written on what he meant here. One plausible interpretation recalls that Adam and Eve were to be dependent on God and one another as one flesh in marriage. Eve was deceived by the serpent, acted independently and promoted false ideas. Likewise, women in Ephesus were being deceived and promoting false ideas about celibacy and, therefore, childbearing. Paul reminds them that marriage should be held in high regard because God created it and used it to bring salvation via the birth of the Messiah. Women should see the high honour in marriage and childbearing as a way of proclaiming God’s grace. The application is then that women who have been deceived by false teachers and seek to act independently of Scripture and wise counsel should not be allowed to teach or lead. Instead they should learn humbly, just as men should pray humbly, and portray godly, attractive lifestyles.
This is a challenging passage, but some things are clear. It does not claim that women have a lower status than men. It does not restrict women’s roles in the church beyond teaching and having authority over men (whether that is viewed as applying to that time only or all time). The only command in the passage is that women should learn, something not generally promoted at that time in Jewish, Greek or Roman society. The primary concern is that all Christians live lives of faith, love and holiness so that all people will be drawn to the grace of God.