Let’s review. Women are created equal to men (though different), the headship of husbands in marriage involves position but not sovereign rule, and an abundance of evidence reveals that women played pivotal roles in the early church both in and out of leadership positions (much like men).
So why, then, do we see Paul seem to go all macho in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (NASB):
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.
Commentators are naturally all over the place on this. Many, as you’d expect, hold the traditional line: women have no place being in teaching or speaking positions or in authority over men. Let them teach kids’ Sunday School or speak at women’s gatherings, but keep a roll of duct tape handy in case they start forgetting their place.
But this view loses its coherence in the light of biblical women serving as prophetesses, deaconesses, apostles, and other church leaders, unless one were to suggest they served in all-female churches (which is incoherent in view of other evidence — such as Priscilla and Aquila correcting the Alexandrian Jew Apollos in Ephesus, a man who was “eloquent”, “mighty in the Scripture”, and “fervent in Spirit”, who taught accurately about most things but needed some guidance in the “way of God” beyond John’s baptism). So how do we make sense of this?
Submissiveness and Authority
First, let’s consider some keywords from the verse.
This “submissiveness” is the Greek word hypotagē, a compound word from hypo (meaning “under” like a hypo -dermic needle) and tassō (meaning “an appointment, assignment, or arrangement”), suggesting that submission is less about weakness and more about voluntarily accepting one’s designated position (remember that position is not necessarily tied to sovereign rule). This is meekness, not weakness. We can’t interpret submission with an aggressively narrow view like surrender, bringing to mind images of winners and losers, unless we’re solely considering surrender to God.
The “exercise” of “authority” depicted is an interesting word with an interesting component. Vine’s notes the word authenteō means “to exercise authority on one’s own account… In the earlier usage of the word it signified one who with his own hand killed either others or himself.” This etymology reveals an overtly self-absorbed dynamic to this exercising of authority. This isn’t about someone exercising authority that has been rightfully delegated or granted to then, but arbitrarily taking on authority that’s not rightfully theirs — such as the ending of a human life. This could be way many translations use the word “usurp”, which paints a fitting word picture.
Given our submission to God’s supreme authority, we have no right to any self-willed exercises of authority. We must only steward whatever position God gives us. And that’s true for both men and women.
At first glance, this seems to take some of the edge off Paul’s comments, particularly considering the statements aren’t commands to Timothy but comments on Paul’s own personal methods. But why pass on this counsel in such a way? Why specifically state “women” should honor and steward their place when it’s true for all Christians?
The scholar Gordon Fee has offered a compelling argument about the overall subject matter of the letter Paul wrote to his pupil that we now call the book of 1 Timothy. Fee suggests that the letter to the young church leader was focused on addressing a set of heretical teachings circulating in the church at Ephesus, and that Paul was mentoring Timothy on how to handle the situation. As The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible states, “Heterodoxy had infested the church — a kind of legalism (1 Tim 1:6f.) and a kind of speculative theology based on myths and genealogies (1 Tim 1:4).”
It is against the backdrop of such a premise that we see Paul’s words in a new light. There’s a strong indication the primary advocates of the heretical teachings (such as those mentioned in 4:3) were the very women Paul preferred not to teach or go beyond the God-given order of the Ephesian church.
This would also explain why Paul uses the depiction of Eve and the serpent as a substantiation of the need for these women to be silent — they, too, had been deceived. Indeed, without such an explanation, Paul’s tangent into the creation story seems callously arbitrary, like a bitter old man wielding a millennia-old grudge like a mallet.
In Hard Sayings of the Bible, the authors suggest 2 Timothy 3:6-9 refers back to these women, depicted in the NIV as “gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
Women were the primary targets of the original heretics, the authors indicate, and if so, they bit hook, line, and sinker. They not only accepted these heretical doctrines, but also became their primary advocates, forgetting their place under Timothy and in the kingdom, outpacing their position in the church and the godly doctrines the church was teaching. They began teaching these heresies, arbitrarily taking on a position of authoritative leadership God hadn’t placed on them.
This cogent possibility renders the words of Paul coherent, leaving room for the teaching women depicted elsewhere (including Paul’s own writing to Timothy) in the New Testament. I’m not fully convinced that this is exactly what happened, but it’s a more compelling argument than a self-contradictory interpretation that depicts a universal demand for silent women.
Yet I know what some readers are thinking…. What about that 1 Corinthians 14 bit? Well, I’ll share my thoughts on that next.
Originally posted 2016-08-29 08:00:33.