There are some verses in the bible that have been read as culturally time-bound and therefore limited in scope and application. Others have been interpreted as timeless, and therefore interpreted as timeless (see here)! 1 Timothy 2:9-15 is one such passage, a complex passage in the Greek, that has fallen foul of the hermeneutical confusion that befalls some categories of the church, notably the American holiness movement, and various other ‘complimentarian’ groupings.
Throughout church history, i.e. traditionally, these verses have been read as a universal code for female decorum and then applied generally to women everywhere! This has determined what some women have worn as jewelry, how they did their hair and what clothes they wore, etc.
The inevitable consequence of this has been a restriction of women’s role within the church. The Reformer’s varied slightly on this: Luther offered women the privilige of leadership by way of exception in times of necessity (which was generous of him); Calvin and Knox were adamantly against women in any kind of ministerial role. They each show their hand in awful ways: Knox in a nasty little title: First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, and Calvin who wrote that women are “by nature born to obey men.” Calvin and Knox make Luther’s offer look quite lovely!
That these verses have been used like this to control, limit and restrict, seems quite unwarranted given the local circumstances that formed the context of Paul’s writings here. But to be clear from the start, it is always a Christian ideal for women to present themselves in modesty and propriety, but it is no less the same for men too! The trouble is, we now equate these verses with not only a bullying use of power and control, but it also looks too much like a tame but rigid 1050’s American Evangelicalism. Truth is, men too easily use power and force. The desire to dominate is to be avoided by women and men. Humility in service is the responsibility of both sexes.
This passage arises out of the context of heretical teaching given by false teachers, and has significantly involved women in an aggressive and coercive way. The context determines that it is more likely that Paul was addressing the immediate context of women caught up in this heresy. The aggressiveness and coercion exhibited itself in brash and ostentatious ways, so Paul instructs them to dress themselves with moderation and good deeds as true worshipppers of God (2:9-10). It is significant that the previous passage which speaks of “men” (2:1; 2:4-5) and later passages which do the same (4:10; 6:5, 9, 11, 16), have the generic anthropos, a word that is inclusive of both genders. It would in fact be better to render them in English by the more general “all people” or “men and women” or some such inclusive expression (because this is what the text does)! This is important, since in 4:8 Paul uses a gender specific word aner (= a male, in contrast to woman). The point of Paul’s order of behaviour in 4:8 and 4:9-15 is gender specific as well. The seriousness of his comments about males as opposed to the length of his comments about females suggests that the heresy he combats has a pronounced feminine orientation.
In 2:11 Paul calls for the women to become learners not teachers. They are in no position to teach, since they do not understand the gospel. They are certainly in no position to start lording it over other in the church, or as Paul writes (2:12-13), to defy the creation account as recorded in Genesis.
This argument centres around the word authority, Gk. authenteo = to have authority, to domineer, to commit murder, to instigate (Kroegar, p.87-98, 1968), and has traditionally been taken to mean that women cannot have authority over men, and as a correlary, that they cannot serve as a teacher of men. This interpretation has been used as a general mandate for keeping women out of leadership roles in both churches and societies, refusing women ordination, and restricting them to subordinate roles in a patriarchal structure. It is unlikely this is what Paul had in mind. Rather, he addresses a specific, local situation. In the context of first century Asia Minor, the word authenteo was used in litterary patterns which described sex reversal, female dominance and promiscuity, and creatorship (Kroegar, p.94-98).
Thus Paul’s argument from creation is a direct attack on the popular mythology in the ancient world that woman was the author of man, rather than vice-versa. Ephesian society had a powerful matriarchal character that viewed the feminine as primal source (something exstensively argued by Kroegar, p.105-170). A basic understanding of this matriarchal power is seen in the multi-breasted Artemis of the Ephesians!
Parallel to this was the gnostic teaching that Eve was the source of divine revelation, and therefore was worshipped as one who first tasted the Tree of Knowledge, thus given the sheer power of the matriarchal culture of Ephesus and this gnostic Eve teaching, it seems perversly logical that false teachers would therefore target “women” who were yet untrained in Christian discipleship, to peddle their wares.
Thus, it seems likely that Paul was forbidding this sort of matriarchal primacy, and particularly the view that woman was the author of man, since such a view flatly contradicted the Genesis account (cf. 2:20b-24). He forbids these women to teach; he forbids them to peddle their myths concernaing female dominance; he bluntly corrects the fallacy that woman was the author of man or that she was the brilliant daring channel of special revelation in Eden (2:11-14). An alternative translation for 2:12 would be, “I do not permit a woman to teach nor to represent herself as originator of man, but she is to be in conformity [with the Scriptures]. For Adam was created first, then Eve,” (Kroeger, p.103). The irony of course, is that in preventing an abuse of power of one sex over another, Church History has shown that men, whether good intentioned or not, have in fact used these texts to subjugate and control women in exactly the same way that not only Paul forbids, but the Gospel forbids itself, the things we do to be true to the gospel we think we know!!!
The final verse (2:15) is notoriously difficult for translators. (Warning: do not be drinking tea when you read this next bit): The complimentarian or hierarchical view is that woman will achieve salvation and fulfilment when she obeys God’s ordinaces to stay out of leadership roles in order to stay at home and have children (cf. Hendrikson, 1955). Others have seen an allusion to Mary’s motherhood of Jesus and so render the phrase, “She shall be saved through Childbearing” (cf. Ward, 1974; Barclay, 1975). And another, “She will be brought safely through childbirth,” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible [RSV], Weymouth, Moffat) – that is, she will survive the experience of childbirth! None of these are very happy interpretations! The first smacks of salvation by works, the second is obscure, to say the least; and the third is contrary to experience, since many women, Christian or not, die in childbirth. Grammatically, the sentence is complex, and that without theological interpretation. The text literally reads, “She shall be saved…if they remain in faith…” Unfortunately, the bias or the translators editorial teams comes in to play with verses like these, depending on which way their hermeneutical perspective lies. Most translators obscure the fact that the third person singular feminine pronoun is used here. In several translations (NIV, TCNT, Phillips, Moffat, Conybeare, Taylor) the English rendering is given in the plural, i.e., “women will be saved,” when the text is clearly singular, i.e., “she will be saved.” So we exegetically ask, who is the “she” and who are the “they,” and what does it mean to be saved in childbearing?
In the first place, the clearest antecedant to the pronoun “she” is Eve. If so, then Paul may well be alluding to the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15, when YHWH says to the “snake”, “I will put emnity between you and the woman and between your seed and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” It should come as no surprise to the reader, that since Paul has already cited creation and fall narratives of Genesis 3, that he mentions this passage too. It was through childbearing that the promised deliverer would come, and Eve herself was to be saved in the end, because, in giving birth, she began the chain of procreation which culminated in the birth of Christ. If this line of interpretation is correct, then the others refer to Eve’s children, those women in the Church congregation. When “they” remain steadfast in faith, love, hope in the beauty of holiness, they testify to the salvation brought about through Eve’s childbearing. It is not as though Eve’s salvation were contingent upon the faithfulness of Christian women, but rather, that their faithfulness, which is expected, vindicates the promise God made to Eve.
So, false teaching, matriarchal cults, abusive power plays and all manner of manipulations were taking place in the Church that Timothy was responsible for. Paul wrote to directly challenge this, as was his custom! But because the male species is addicted to power and control, we have taken passages like this in the bible and become like the thing Paul is critiqueing.
Therefore, I suffer not a man to suffer not a woman to teach. If you do, I insist you wash my feet and give me a holy kiss every time we gather for church, but no, you won’t will you, because of cultural reasons and wotnot!