Timeless teaching or Cultural context?
I suspect that many readers will be disappointed with my exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in the previous edition of Anabaptism Today. It appears to reaffirm the traditional interpretation of this passage, which denies any teaching role for women in the church. However, I have consistently stated that the passage has to be understood against the background of the serious nature of the opposition encountered in the communities receiving this letter. The author is proposing a specific solution to a very specific problem. This makes it unlikely that this text should be taken as some timeless command prohibiting women from any teaching or authoritative role in the church.
The major objection to the argument that this passage is a historically limited, ad hoc text is that the author seeks to ground his argument in the Genesis creation account. The appeal to so-called “creation ordinances”, it is often argued, makes the author’s prohibition particularly authoritative. However, the author is highly selective in his use of the Genesis material and draws on traditional Jewish exegesis of Genesis 3 to argue that Eve, rather than Adam, became a transgressor (1 Tim. 2:14).1 The grounding of an argument in the Genesis creation account does not necessarily thereby give the argument universal, timeless significance. For example, Paul uses material from Genesis 2 in 1 Corinthians 11: 7-9 to support his argument that women ought to have their heads covered when they pray and prophesy. Most commentators would accept that the issue of head covering is culture-bound, yet Paul uses material from the so-called creation ordinances to buttress this culture-bound argument. To accept this in 1 Corinthians 11 :7-9 but to deny it in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is, I suggest, hermeneuticallv inconsistent.2
Starting with Jesus?
Furthermore, to suggest that 1 Tim. 2:11-15 is a timeless prohibition on women teaching or exercising authority is to make this text the controlling centre for interpreting biblical teaching on the role of women. An Anabaptist hermeneutic refuses to start here but insists that this text must be read in the light of the way Jesus treated women. This is a massive subject in its own right, but here are a few examples:
- Women specifically travelled with Jesus alongside the twelve in his ministry of proclaiming the gospel (Lk. 8:1-3).
- Jesus cut across the traditional and religious concepts of a woman’s role (Lk. 10:38-42; 11:27-28).
- Jesus held a theological conversation with a woman and specifically revealed himself to her as the Christ (Jn. 4:1-27).
- This woman was the instrument in evangelising many from her city (Jn. 4:39).
- According to John’s account, Jesus first revealed himself after his resurrection to a woman and commissioned her to tell the disciples. She is thus the first eyewitness to the resurrection (Jn. 20:14-18).
Paul clearly follows in the Jesus tradition. As most commentators acknowledge, this is nowhere more clearly expressed than in Galatians 3:28. A cursory reading of Romans 16 also highlights the importance of women in Paul’s ministry. In my view, the examples of Jesus and Paul bear eloquent testimony to the fact that 1 Timothy 2 cannot be treated in isolation and cannot be taken as a timeless injunction.
1 Timothy 2 today
What then are we to do with this text today? I conclude by listing some possible implications for those of us who want to take the text seriously but recognise its time-conditioned nature.
- I emphasised in the first part of this article that the whole of verses 8-15 form a unit. Although I have concentrated on verses 9-15, this point must not be forgotten. The whole unit forms a household code with reciprocal instructions to men and women. Exhortation in the form of a household code was given to encourage Christians to live respectably in accordance, as far as possible, with the rules of the surrounding society. As Towner has persuasively argued, this was not in order for the church to live comfortably, but to assist the church in its task of mission. 3 1 Timothy 2:815 thus displays a sensitivity to the surrounding culture in order to advance the missionary activity of the community.
- In the same way, therefore, in the spirit of the household code, the church today should be sensitive to relevant developments and trends in our contemporary culture, in order effectively to engage with that culture in the task of mission. I would suggest that insisting on women having no teaching or leadership roles in the church today neither engages with our culture nor assists the church in its missionary task!
- The specific problems facing the communities addressed in 1 Timothy 2 required drastic action. The only way to deal with the problem of the effect false teaching was having on women in the communities was to prohibit any public teaching or authoritative role for women. Here we have the very real pastoral tension between the actual and the ideal. I do not think the spirit of Galatians 3:28 is entirely lost in the Pastorals. The author does not deal with the problem by clamping down on women entirely. He does still insist that they should learn (1 Tim. 2:11), he allows women deacons in the community (I Tim. 3:11),4 he acknowledges true widows as those who have set their hope on God and continue in prayer (1 Tim. 5:5) and older women do have a teaching role in relation to younger women (Titus 2:3-5).
- I would suggest, therefore, that this text illustrates that there are times when the pastoral problems faced by the church are of such magnitude that some clear principles (here, the egalitarian position of Gal. 3:28) have to be modified for a time (not abandoned) in the light of other clear principles (here, safeguarding the church from error) in order to deal with the problems at hand. Of course, how those principles are modified, by whom and for how long are not easy questions to answer.
- An Anabaptist Christocentric hermeneutic must, therefore, be carefully applied. It is not quite sufficient to appeal to the example of Jesus as though that settles the issue. Even in New Testament times, it was not always sufficient to refer to Jesus’ example. Paul, for instance, acknowledges that it was a command of Jesus that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel (1 Cor. 9:14), yet he felt quite free to ignore this command. Paul recognised that what was appropriate for Jesus and his disciples in Palestine was not necessarily appropriate to the altered social circumstances of mission to the Hellenistic cities of the Mediterranean world.
- Nevertheless, a commitment to a suitably qualified Christocentric hermeneutic would serve to subvert all attempts to make texts such as the one under consideration normative. A tragedy of church history has been that texts such as 1 Timothy 2 have been divorced from the example of Jesus and have thus served to perpetuate, in the name of the New Testament, the subjection of women.
Finally, I can do no better than conclude with David Scholer’s comments concerning the hermeneutical implications of this passage:
- The text speaks clearly and urgently about the importance of the church’s sensitivity to the destructiveness of false teaching.
- The text speaks even more powerfully to the tension between the church’s engagement with culture and its critique of culture.
- The text speaks most powerfully to a concern for sexual fidelity, faithfulness and respect between and among men and women, and to a concern for a rejection of material extravagance.
In the first century AD in the Roman Empire, sexual fidelity/infidelity and material extravagance/modesty were seen primarily as responsibilities of women. For us in conversation with this text in the church today, we must understand that faithfulness to each other as men and women and faithfulness to God with reference to material possessions are necessary for the “adornment” and integrity of the gospel in our world. 1 Timothy 2:9-15 says to the church today that such faithfulness between men and women and to the demands of the gospel must be expressed over against culture in order to speak attractively and persuasively with integrity to culture. Today we understand that both men and women share these demands together.6
Lloyd Pietersen, an accountant in Bristol, is currently doing doctoral research on the Pastoral Epistles at Sheffield University. The first part of this article appeared in Anabaptism Today, .Spring 1998, pp. 8-16.
1. For example, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) reads: “From a woman sin had its beginning and because of her we all die.”
2. See David M. Scholoar, “1 Timothy, 2:9-15 and the Place of Women in the Church’s Ministry” in Alvera Mickelsen (ed.), Women, Authority and the Bible (Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1987), pp. 208-212; Philip H. Towner, The Goal of Our Instruction: The Structure of Theology and Ethics in the Pastoral Epistles, JSNT Supplement Series 34 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), pp. 217-218.
3. Towner, Goal.
4. I know this point is disputed but I am convinced that this is the best way structurally to read the ambiguous “women likewise” in 1 Tim. 3:11, coming as it does in the middle of a discussion about deacons. See Jouette M. Bassler, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothv, Titus, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashvlle, TN: Abingdon, 1996), pp.70-71.
5. See G. Thiessen, “Legitimation and Subsistence: An Essay on the Sociology of Early Christian Missionaries”, in his The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982), pp. 27-67.
6. Scholer’s response to Nancy Wiles Holsey’s response to him in Women, Authority and the Bible, p. 253, note 87.