Can Women Teach in the Church?

For us modern readers, 1 Timothy 2:9-15 may be one of the more puzzling and objectionable passages in the New Testament.  Even more perplexing is verse 15 that seems to suggest that childbearing is the means of salvation for women.  This verse has been used to contain women to the household and insist that they have children for the sake of their salvation.  Immediately, this seems to challenge the Christian understanding of salvation through faith in Jesus and not works.  It is not the biological act giving birth that earns someone salvation, however in this passage the two are closely related in the way childbirth is used as a vehicle to salvation.

I want to make a quick mention of authorship before continuing further.  It is frequently argued that this epistle was not penned by Paul himself because of differences in vocabulary and style, and theological emphasis, when compared to the undisputed letters of Paul.  It is also argued that the structure of the church discussed is reminiscent of late 1st century and early 2nd century churches, and the events discussed in the letter don’t match up well with common reconstructions of Paul’s life.[1]  It is likely that a follower of Paul in a “Pauline School” penned this letter.  However, we shouldn’t be concerned that authorship either confers or revokes the value of this epistle.[2]  The content is what is most incumbent on its canonicity, and it has proved valuable and coherent with the New Testament and for the Church.[3]  I will refer to the author of this epistle as Paul, but only for convenience and not as a declaration that Paul of Tarsus was the historical author.

It should be noted that this passage comes right before further discussion on the church structure in chapter 3 and right after comments about the need to combat erroneous doctrines in chapter 1 and attitudes of worship in the beginning of chapter 2.  This is also a letter written to a group of people to address a problem they are having.  As such, this passage is looking at how the women in Ephesus should conduct themselves to exemplify worship that is “appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”  So, what could a conversation about Eve and her salvation through childbirth have to do with worship in an Ephesian church?

The difficulty of this passage for me is the utter connectedness of the argument in verses 11-15.  When reading it, it is clear that verses 13-14 serve as a justification for verse 12, and potentially verse 11.  Then verse 15 is clearly linked to verses 13-14 and is an outgrowth of it.  In attempt to deny any indication that the Bible teaches a superiority of men over women, there has been an attempt to distance verse 15 from 13-14.  Scholars have proposed that the Greek word here σωθήσεται in verse 15, can either have a sense of salvation from danger, or a more eschatological connotation.[4]  In hopes to stray away from the idea that eternal salvation is somehow attained through childbirth, some have supposed that salvation here should be understood as being preserved from danger.[5]  Thus, the verse is saying that women will be saved, or kept safe, and preserved through childbirth if they maintain in the four virtues that follow it.  Or to be more explicit, the verse means women will be kept from death during childbirth by God if they persist in the four virtues of this verse.

The issue with this reading of verse 15 is two-fold.  First, when σωθήσεται is used in the Pauline corpus it always has the eschatological connotation.[6]  Also, it unnaturally dislocates the verse from what immediately proceeds it.  This suggests an exegesis that is more focused on words and verses, than with the discourse as a whole.[7]  Not only is there a forced separation of the flow of ideas when trying to break verse 15 from verses 13-14, but there are also grammatical reasons we shouldn’t separate these verses.  Eve is the most natural antecedent to the singular verb here “to save”, she is the one who is saved.[8]  The NIV and NLT render σωθήσεται as “But women”, while other versions like the ESV and NRSV keep the singular verb and say, “Yet she” or “But she”.  This changing of the verb to plural aids in disjoining verse 15 from verses 13-14.  However, when kept in the singular as is the Greek, it shows that it must relate to Eve.  This shows the utter connectedness of these verses and leads me to reject any interpretation that tries to pull them apart from one another.

Given the discussion above about grammar, if verse 15 refers to Eve, then what are we to think about salvation through her childbirth?  In the proceeding verses, Paul writes about Eve being deceived and states that Eve’s redemption is to come through giving birth in verse 15.  There is a way for this verse to use the eschatological sense of σωθήσεται, without suggesting that childbirth earns one eternal salvation.  By giving birth to Cain after sinning, this is a sign to Eve that she is still in participation and relationship with God.[9]  When we look at Genesis 4:1 after she has her child, Eve gives credit to God and says she had her child by God’s help, not Adam’s.  In allowing Eve to bring about new life, God signaled to Eve that he has not left her and is still with her.  Her birth didn’t earn her or bring her salvation but showed that she was “saved” because it showed her continued relationship with God.  Eve is then used as an exemplar or metaphor for the women of Ephesus Paul wants to admonish.  There is a deep treasure of intertextuality in Jewish thinking at this time around explaining Eve’s fall into deception.

I think it is possible to read Paul in this passage as saying childbirth can be vehicle to lead a disruptive group of women in Ephesus to salvation.  I don’t see it as a wild speculation to think that the women that shouldn’t be teaching and having authority, are precisely the same women that Paul latter charges with idleness and nonsense talking.[10] These women were being taught false doctrines and then bringing them back to the church and propagating them.  Looking at 5:11-15, Paul talks about young widows who have too much time on their hands who go around saying things they shouldn’t be saying.  He concludes that they should get married, have kids and not give the enemy an opportunity for slander.  The implication is that having a family will prevent these women from falling into sinful living and being led astray to Satan.

Instead, having a family will aide in keeping them with God and in relationship with him.  Thus “through childbearing” they will have salvation for it will take them out of the situation that could keep them from God and assist them in maintaining in faith, love, holiness, and propriety.  This suggestion of childbirth doubles to provide a practical way to mediate against the inconveniences of some distracting women and to uphold the dignity of marriage and childbearing against more ascetic movements that attacked the physical aspects of marriage.[11]  The fact that childbirth may be a means to keep someone in Christ, doesn’t nullify the fact that it is because of belief in Christ that one receives eternal life (1:16).

I believe there are also cultural reasons for using childbearing as a link to salvation.  Childbearing was a very important role for women in Graeco-Roman world and key to the continuation of the church.[12]  For Christians as a new group, there were potential survival considerations for the church to agitate the rest of society as least as possible.[13]  Having their female members rearing children would appease the cultural sensibilities of their society and lessen the amount of scrutiny and attack they would receive.  This would help continue the existence of the church which will be saved by God.  Again, it is not that childbearing gives any merit to earn salvation for that is through Christ alone, but it does function as a way for God to bring about his salvation.

We can see how the women discussed here mirror Eve.  Like Eve, they have been deceived and fallen into sin because of this deception.  Like Eve, God is using childbearing to be their means of redemption and show that he hasn’t left them and is still in relationship with them.  These women’s role in church worship was to seek redemption from God and to continue from their in a godly manner that would lead to their salvation.

These women (and potentially others) were being deceived by false doctrines and bringing them to the church and so Paul needed to write this letter to urge Timothy to clear up the confusion (1:3).  He didn’t want these women to be teaching in the church because of their heretical theology but wanted them to learn.  He wanted to show them the severity of their sin by comparing them Eve’s fall into deception.  However, he didn’t want to leave them hopeless.  Like Eve had been redeemed by God through childbirth, Paul sees Childbirth as an avenue of redemption for these women.  Since this is a letter, it’s important to understand that Paul is concerned with the particular context of Ephesus and shouldn’t be taken to be making universal statements about women in this passage.[14]  There is a group of women who Paul talking to.

Unfortunately, verse 12 has been held as a proof text of not allowing women to teach in church (Matthew Henry Commentary).[15]  Other verses like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, 1 Tim. 3:5 and Eph 5:22-24 are held as further evidence that women are not to be leaders, at least not the head pastor in a church.  Besides context, there are textual reasons for being skeptical that verse 12 is a universal ban on women pastors.  Textually, this verse uses the hapax legomenon αὐθεντεῖν (to use authority over).  Outside of the Bible, this word has been used in relation to authority attributed to birth right (New Horizon).[16]  Pauline thinking commonly referred to his churches as his children.  As such, Paul may also be saying that those men he has put in place as leaders of the church have a birthright sort of authority to teach.  The women should not think they can teach over these men or with the same sort of authority as these men as these women are not his children.  We also see that ἡσυχίᾳ in verse 12 is the same word used in verse 2:2, indicating that the quietness Paul is wanting these women to have is similar to the quietness of Christian living, rather than some connotation of subjection or subordination.

We are now left with an understanding of this very difficult text.  Indeed, there may be other ways to see how this passage fits into the gospel.  However, when considering the text, context, co-text, and intertext, this is the most salient interpretation to me.  The way the plain language is in stark contrast with fundamental tenets of salvation and even other Biblical verses about women leadership and just the Spirit of empowerment of the gospel is reason to look for another interpretation of this passage rather than a straightforward reading.  Space wouldn’t permit elaborate comments, but we would do good to note Joel Greens sentiment about scholarship before we close.  Although there was a lot of technical study going on, the text needs to be able to be read as Scripture and still speak to us today, even though we never lived in 1st century Ephesus.

 

[1] Boring, M. Eugene., and Fred B. Craddock. The Peoples New Testament Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004

[2] Wall, Robert W., and Richard B. Steele. 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. WM. B. EERDMANS PUBLISHING, 2012.

[3] Achtemeier, Paul J., Joel B. Green, and Marianne Meye. Thompson. Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001. 461.

[4] Hutson, Christopher R. “”Saved through Childbearing”: The Jewish Context of 1 Timothy 2:15.” Novum Testamentum 56, no. 4 (2014): 392-410. http://www.jstor.org.fuller.idm.oclc.org/stable/24735869. 393.

[5] Bridget Gilfillan Upton. 2007. “Can Stepmothers Be Saved? Another Look at 1 Timothy 2.8-15.” Feminist Theology 15 (2): 175–85. doi:10.1177/0966735007072027. 181.

[6] Bridget Gilfillan Upton.  Can Stepmothers Be Saved? 181.

[7] Mbamalu, A. I. (2014). ‘The woman was deceived and became a sinner’ – a literary-theological investigation of 1 timothy 2:11-15. Hervormde Teologiese Studies, 70(3), 1-7. Retrieved from ://fuller.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest com.fuller.idm.oclc.org/docview/1747402966?accountid=11008. 4.

[8] Wall, Robert W., and Richard B. Steele. 1 and 2 Timothy

[9] Wall, Robert W., and Richard B. Steele. 1 and 2 Timothy

[10] Mbamalu, A. I. The woman was deceived. 4.

[11] Achtemeier. Introducing the New Testament. 450.

[12] Barton, John, and John Muddiman. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

[13] Hutson, Christopher R. Saved through Childbearing. 409

[14] Waters, Kenneth L. “Saved through Childbearing: Virtues as Children in 1 Timothy 2:11-15.” Journal of Biblical Literature 123, no. 4 (2004): 703-35. doi:10.2307/3268466. 708.

[15] Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henrys Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997.

 

[16] Wall, Robert W., and Richard B. Steele. 1 and 2 Timothy

 

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