Saturday, March 24, 2012

Women in the church: Part 2, 1 Timothy 2-3

Other posts on women as elders ⇐click

In this posting I'll comment on a paper (also online here) that a sister in Christ referred me to (see Part 1 for context). It's by Tim Keller, whose teaching we both respect, and it makes some very important points: that traditionalists have abused the concept of headship to treat women as inferiors; that some feminists incorrectly claim kephale (typically translated "head") refers to "source" or "origin"; that women in New Testament churches were prophets and did in fact prophesy in church.

I don't agree with Dr. Keller in all points, though, and I hate to disagree with him because I've benefited so much from his teaching and preaching. We listen to his sermons and we've had college students in our home to discuss his book The Reason for God. Here's the part of his paper I don't quite agree with:

The office of elder is forbidden to women.

Elders are to be men (1 Timothy 3:1-3). In 1 Timothy 2:11, Paul forbids women to "teach or have authority" over men. In 1 Corinthians 14:35-36, women are not to take part in determining whether a teacher is teaching sound doctrine. (Note: Paul's command for women to "keep silent in church" cannot mean that they may never speak publicly. That would contradict I Corinthians 11 where women are told to pray and prophesy. It means they are to keep silent when the prophets are judged.)
online here or here

Does 1 Timothy 3:1-3 mean women can't be elders today?

This is my first issue. If in Romans 12:1 we think "adelphoi" (translated "brothers") addresses both men and women, why would we think "husband of one wife" is exclusively masculine? I'm not saying that it absolutely must refer to both men and women, but if you say 1 Timothy 3 proves elders shall all be male, then I say it's not self-evident why "husband of one wife" must refer only to men, since "brothers" is understood to include both males and females (come to think of it, "sons" in Galatians 3:26-28 prima facie includes both males and females).

Does 1 Timothy 2:12 mean women can't teach in church today?

Next is the thorny issue of 1 Timothy 2:12, which reads "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent." What does this mean? Was it addressing only a specific local condition at a specific time (like Old Testament prohibitions against bacon and shrimp)? Or is it universal and therefore applicable to today (like Old Testament prohibitions against theft and murder)?

The short version (and we need one, since I drone on for over 1200 words, starting at the next paragraph) is that

  • Whereas 1 Timothy 2:8-10 surely refers to a specific local situation (we don't believe men must lift their hands while praying today, we don't forbid braids on women, or gold wedding bands today; and
  • Whereas 1 Timothy 2:15 surely refers to a specific local situation (else women would be saved via childbirth, rather than being saved by grace); and
  • Whereas 1 Timothy 2:11-14 is sandwiched between those two passages that certainly refer to specific local situations; and
  • Furthermore, even conservative evangelicals don't apply or preach 1 Timothy 2:12 as written; they don't forbid women (think Elisabeth Elliot, Anne Graham Lotz) from teaching men about the Scriptures in books or speeches today;
  • Therefore we are forced to conclude that 1 Timothy 2:11-14 must refer to a local situation and therefore is not universal; it is not normative for today.
If it isn't obvious, I owe much of my understanding of this passage to Professor Sarah Sumner and her marvelous volume, Men and Women in the Church. Details follow.

There's a principle of interpretation that says if the plain sense makes sense, look for no other sense. But does the plain sense make sense? I'll claim it doesn't. Let's have a look.

12I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15But women will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
1 Timothy 2:12-15 (NIV)
How is the plain sense not make sense? Let me count the ways.
  • A woman can't teach? Yet Priscilla taught Apollos (Acts 18:26).
  • Women must be silent? But women prayed and prophesied in church (1 Corinthians 11:5)
  • Adam is preferred because he came first? So Ishmael was preferred over Isaac, Esau over Jacob, Manasseh over Ephraim? Not so much. And John the Baptist has more authority to teach (etc.) than the Lord Jesus Christ?
  • Eve was deceived and became a sinner; how did Adam become a sinner? Willfully, right? (Note that Adam was with Eve when she was deceived -- Genesis 3:6.)

    Women are disqualified from teaching because Eve was deceived, whereas Adam was willfully disobedient and so it's okay for men to teach?

    And if women can't teach men because they're deceived, wouldn't that make it all the more dangerous for women to teach other women? If women can't teach men because women are deceived, then women shouldn't teach anyone, especially other women, who according to this interpretation are all the more easily deceived. Yet Paul encourages older women to do just that: to teach younger women (Titus 2:3-5).

  • Women will be saved through childbearing—not saved by grace through faith? (Ephesians 2:8)
No, the plain sense makes no sense, so we must look for another sense. I've heard or read two explanations that do make sense. The first is due to Jack Crabtree, and I heard it back in the '80s; the main thing I remember from that was the idea that this chapter is elliptical—Paul is reminding Timothy of some issue they've discussed before, and these points about Adam and Eve and childbearing are points (as points from an outline) of their discussion.

The lovely Carol reminded me about one of Crabtree's points: that although Eve was deceived and sinned, it was Adam that's held responsible. (Genesis 3:14-17, Eve doesn't get a "Because you have done this" as the serpent did or a "Because you listened" as Adam did; Romans 5:14 "Adam sinned," 5:22 " Adam all die," etc.) It seems to me that Crabtree concluded that penultimate responsibility for a congregation needed to be with a man. (Ultimate responsibility lies of course with the Lord.) This made some sense to me at the time, but I now find the short version above compelling.

Another Crabtree makes a more detailed case in this paper why the passage need not (and indeed cannot) be understood to be universal just because Adam and Eve are cited. (I guess that makes three.)

Professor Sarah Sumner, in Men and Women in the Church (referenced in Part 1), adds a lot of detail; I'll summarize a few of her comments here. In no way do I do her book justice; if you're interested enough in this issue to read this, you probably should buy the book and study it the way the Bereans studied the gospel (Acts 17:11). Some of her points:

  • All Scripture is inspired by God, and in particular 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is; it's also relevant today and profitable for believers today; it is not irrelevant. This does not, however, mean that it's profitable when it's misunderstood. (207)
  • As mentioned above (by me), if a straightforward reading makes sense, we seek no other kind of reading. By "makes sense" we mean "makes sense to believers"—not to unbelievers. For example, a talking donkey (Numbers 22), the virgin birth (Matthew 1, Luke 1), a floating ax-head (2 Kings 6) don't make sense to unbelievers, but we who follow Christ believe miracles are possible and are consistent with God's omnipotence. (208-209)
  • A straightforward reading of 1 Timothy 2:12 is not sensible and indeed is not practiced consistently, even by conservative complementarian evangelical men. Many of us have heard of Elisabeth Elliot “because she's been teaching us the Scriptures for decades” (210-211). Evangelical men
    respond to 1 Timothy 2:12 as if Paul had said, “I do not allow most women to teach men in person, but I do allow for exceptions, and I do allow for women to teach men through other mediums such as books and radio...
    Sumner, op. cit., p. 211
  • We tend to interpret 1 Timothy 2:8-10 (men lifting hands to pray; women to abstain from braids, gold, pearls and expensive clothes) as being only for 1st century Ephesus; 1 Timothy 2:11-12, though, we think applies to us (albeit with a nuanced interpretation). (212-213)
  • If the order of creation is the basis by which we say women shouldn't teach men the Bible on Sunday mornings, then women shouldn't teach men piano or math or English, right? Or at the very least, women shouldn't teach men the Bible any other time, or via books or blogs or essays.

    But do people say it's wrong for women to teach men the Bible in church on Sundays but okay at other times? How is that different from saying adultery is bad in church on Sundays but okay at other times and places? (227)

  • 1 Timothy 2 isn't the heart of the issue for "conservatives" (Dr. Sumner's vocabulary); it's honoring male headship (228-229)
She summarizes the argument on pages 257-258, which I'll incorporate here.
Perhaps the most significant point of agreement between both sides of the debate has to do with 1 Timothy 2:15. Most of us think it's best to understand 1 Timothy 2:15 as Paul's response to a specific heretical teaching. …

… The critical point is that it doesn't make sense to say that verse 15 must be alluding to a local heresy and that verses 13-14 can't be alluding to a local heresy. Thus I am not persuaded by any argument that says 1 Timothy 2:15 alone is situational while 1 Timothy 2:11-14 are universal.

  • Both sides generally agree that 1 Timothy 2:8-10 alludes to a local situation. (It's absurd to conclude that men, not women, must pray with lifted hands, and that women, not men, are prohibited from wearing gold, pearls, and beads.)
  • Both sides generally agree that 1 Timothy 2:15 alludes to a local situation (i.e., to a local heresy).
  • It is likely, therefore, that the verses sandwiched in between, namely 1 Timothy 2:11-14, also allude to a local situation, especially since both sides agree that all four verses, as traditionally understood, give rise to a number of difficulties.
  • The question, then, is this: Was there any known heresy in first-century Ephesus? If so, then the conclusions of this summary are confirmed.

Figure 20.1. Summary of the current debate regarding 1 Timothy 2
Sumner, op. cit., p. 258
Okay, I'll grab the mike back now and make two points:
  1. 1 Timothy 1:3-4 makes it quite clear that there is at least one local heresy: As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God's work…
  2. Does the phrase "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" ring any bells? Acts 19:23-41 describes a great disturbance surrounding silver statues of the goddess Artemis. H'm…

    Oh, Dr. Sumner was way ahead of me; she points out this same passage (but referencing 19:24-35, though I enjoy the rest of the story) on pp. 260-261.

Personally, I find the bit about 2:8-10 and 2:15 being specific/local, hence 2:11-14 must also be specific/local, persuasive. If we add the observation that evangelical men agree that women can teach men other than from the pulpit on Sunday mornings, I think we have a compelling argument that 2:11-14 cannot possibly be universal. I'll go further and say Dr. Sumner is right that the real issue is about honoring male headship (and if I were opinionated and imprudent, I'd add "and male insecurity"—but I'm not).

I'll address 1 Corinthians 14 in my next posting.

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