Does what Paul tells women to do in 1 Timothy show what he doesn’t want them to do?

So far we’ve looked at Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy from the perspective of those who say there should be restrictions on what women can do in the church.  We’ve seen that these interpreters believe Paul forbids women to teach or hold authority on the basis of the principle of primogeniture.  I’ve offered several reasons why I don’t think this is what Paul is saying.  But what then is he saying?

I’d argue that we can get a great insight into what Paul doesn’t want the women in Ephesus to do (and likely, by extension, other women in other places) by considering what he does, by contrast, want them to do.  He says, after all, in effect, I want them to do this and not that.  As the ESV puts it:  “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (As you can see by comparing other translations, the word rather is not in the Greek, but the ESV helpfully supplies it to bring out the meaning.)

Most specifically, Paul says that he wants a woman to learn “in hēsuchia” and that, rather than relate to men in the ways forbidden, women should “be in hēsuchia.”  The 1972 RSV, of which the ESV is a revision, translates this word as “silence”: a woman should “learn in silence” and “keep silent.”  The 1973 and 1984 editions of the NIV said instead that a woman should learn in “quietness,” but then, at the end of the statement, still said that she should be “silent.” The TNIV changed this reading to “be quiet” and the 2011 NIV has retained this wording.  So we can see that English translations are moving away from the idea of silence to something having more to do with attitude and demeanor.

In the next several posts I’d like to explore how the term hēsuchia is used elsewhere in the New Testament.  This will give us some very useful insights into Paul’s meaning in 1 Timothy.

But here I’d like to observe—marvel, actually—at how there has been, well, silence about the matter of women’s hēsuchia in 1 Timothy on both sides of the debate about restrictions.  All of the energy has been concentrated on defining what it means for a woman to “teach or have authority”; I haven’t seen anything that addresses, in more than a passing way, what Paul means by hēsuchia.

It’s very interesting to me how closely parallel Paul’s comments here in 1 Timothy are to what he says in 1 Corinthians:

“The women should keep silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission” (1 Corinthians, ESV).

“Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent ” (1 Timothy, RSV)

So why aren’t Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy seen as another notorious “women must keep silent” passage that we all (wink, wink) know we don’t have to take at face value and apply universally?  Is it because we would have to wrestle with whether to take the comments about teaching and authority at face value if we acknowledged the elephant in the room and admitted that, at first glance, it sounds as if Paul is forbidding women to speak in church in two places, not just one?  We see how important it is to ask whether this is actual “silence” or some kind of “quietness” instead.  So we’ll dive right into the word study next time.


Beginning to engage Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy

According to the interpretation developed to this point, the church should place women who have been given gifts for ministry by the Holy Spirit in roles where they can exercise those gifts effectively to build up the body, including spiritual leadership roles appropriate to their gifting.  At the same time, these women should continue to show respect for their husbands, if married, in their heart attitudes and gracious conduct (just as their husbands should treat them with loving consideration). But serving in a spiritual leadership role does not, in itself, constitute disrespect.

Our remaining question is whether the controversial passages in Paul’s letters–1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and 1 Corinthians 14:34-36–contradict this interpretation.

Let’s begin here with 1 Timothy 2:11-15, which bears most directly on our discussion to this point, since (in the opinion of some) it brings in the idea of primogeniture. Paul writes, in the NIV translation, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (vv. 12-13). As we’ve already seen in the case of Thomas Schreiner, those who favor restrictions on what women can do in the church see the principle of primogeniture behind this argument. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) argued similarly on an earlier version of its website (now under reconstruction, so that these words apparently are no longer found there): “The contextual basis for this argument in the book of Genesis is the assumption throughout the book that the ‘firstborn’ in a human family has the special right and responsibility of leadership in the family.”

We’ve already seen, however, that God disregards the principle of primogeniture throughout the First Testament, particularly in the book of Genesis, when choosing the agents of his inbreaking redemptive activity. There are some further considerations that make us wonder whether the restrictive view is really capturing what Paul intended to say:

– If man is in authority over woman because he was created “first,” wouldn’t this establish a principle of “the first shall be first”? How could this be reconciled with Jesus’ teaching?

– In Romans 9:10-12, Paul appeals to God’s setting aside Esau’s firstborn privilege to establish that salvation is “not by works”: “Before the twins [Esau and Jacob] were born or had done anything good or bad–in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls–[Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.'” It seems that something very essential to Paul’s understanding of the gospel is at risk if we interpret him as saying in 1 Timothy that men are in authority because of their firstborn privilege.

We’ll continue to consider this passage in 1 Timothy in further posts.

Present-age considerations in the New Testament

In recent posts we’ve been seeing how, in the First Testament, God’s inbreaking redemptive activity wasn’t limited by present-age considerations such as primogeniture or the youth, sex, social status, or ethnicity of the redemptive agent.  What happens as we move into the New Testament?

As the new creation is inaugurated, God forms a new covenant community that embodies his inbreaking work by pouring out His Spirit on “all flesh,” that is, upon redeemed people without distinction. We see this most clearly in Peter’s quotation from Joel on the day of Pentecost to the effect that membership in the community and possession of the Spirit do not depend on considerations such as whether a person is male or female, young or old, slave or free:  “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”  Paul writes similarly in Galatians that “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith . . . There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Spirit-filled, “charismatic” ministry becomes not an exceptional occurrence, but the norm within the inbreaking community.   In the New Testament we thus see God gifting and using young people, servants, Gentiles and women in positions of spiritual ministry and leadership, and insisting on their full privileges within the covenant community.  (At the same time, people in all of these groups are told to continue to respect the first-creation order in which they are still living.  But in keeping with the gospel of grace, this respect consists in their heart attitudes and gracious conduct, not in their ineligibility for spiritual leadership roles.)

Timothy is told not to let anyone look down on him because he is young, but to set an example for other believers.  Paul asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”  All of the seven deacons chosen in Acts to assist the apostles in the distribution of food have Greek names and are likely (at this point in the movement’s growth) Gentile converts to Judaism who have come to believe in Jesus.  Shortly afterwards Gentiles will be welcomed directly into the community.  (This happened to such an extent that Paul could specify to the Colossians that Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus Justus were his only Jewish co-workers!)  And as I noted in my last post, women had active leadership roles in the new community.  Phoebe read Paul’s letter to the Romans; Priscilla and her husband Aquila were Paul’s valued co-workers and hosted a church in their home; Paul says that Junia is “outstanding among the apostles”; Philip’s four daughters were prophets; Nympha hosted the church of Laodicea in her home.

To me the record of God using women in precisely the kind of roles that some people would restrict them from is so clear and consistent throughout the Scriptures that the only remaining question is, “Then how do we account for those controversial sayings in Paul’s letters?”  I’ll start looking at those next time.


Another present-age consideration that doesn’t matter in the coming age: male and female

As we read through the Scriptures we discover that whether a person is a man or a woman is one more consideration that doesn’t seem to matter to God as He looks for agents of his inbreaking redemptive work.

God reminds the Israelites through Micah, “I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.” Miriam is called a “prophetess” in Exodus when she leads a song after the Red Sea crossing (NIV has “prophet” but the Hebrew form is not surprisingly feminine), and she and Aaron insist in Numbers (their words are true, even though their motives are unfortunately bad) that the Lord has spoken through them as well as through Moses.

Deborah is similarly describe in Judges as a “prophetess” and it’s said that she “judged Israel”: “The Israelites went up to her to have their disputes settled.”  In this capacity she was performing a function that would belong to Israel’s later kings.

When David’s general Joab pursued a rebel leader to the city of Abel and besieged the city to capture him, a “wise woman” negotiated with Joab from the city wall and arranged to turn over the leader (actually, throw his severed head over the wall) so the city would be spared.  She was functioning the way a city elder would, identifying a wise solution to a difficult social problem at the city gate. (In this case the gates were closed because of war so the walls served the same function.)

When the law of Moses was rediscovered in the temple during Josiah’s reign and God’s impending judgment was recognized, the king told his highest officials to “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people.”  They went to Huldah the prophetess, even though Jeremiah and Zephaniah were also prophesying in Jerusalem at this time. She responds authoritatively, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says . . .”

We see similar examples in the New Testament: women accompany Jesus, learn from him, provide for him, and care for his crucified body; Philip’s four daughters prophesy; Phoebe reads Paul’s letter to the Roman church; Junia is identified in that letter as an “apostle”; etc.

Even though some interpreters try to parse these women’s roles finely to show that in some way they conform to Paul’s supposed prohibition of women in authority roles, the basic fact is undeniable: God uses women just as well as men throughout the Scriptures as agents of his inbreaking redemption.  So why shouldn’t they be allowed to serve as similar agents today, without restriction?

The prophetess Huldah answers the high priest Hilkiah’s questions about the Scriptues

More present-age considerations that don’t matter in the coming age

We saw last time that primogeniture is a present-age consideration that does not matter in the coming age, even as it breaks into the present age. There are many other present-age considerations that don’t matter, either, as God looks for willing people to use as agents of his inbreaking redemptive work.

One of the laws in Deuteronomy says that “no one of illegitimate birth nor any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation” (23:2). This law was likely intended as a deterrent, to discourage births outside of marriage and ensure that children had loving, responsible parents. But even though illegitimate children could not even enter the assembly of the Lord (that is, participate in public worship in the tabernacle and temple, the basic expression of community membership), God chose to use Jephthah, an illegitimate child, to be one of the judges who delivered the people of Israel from their enemies. (Jephthah is notorious for offering his daughter as a human sacrifice after his victory, and while this shows his regrettable ignorance of God’s ways, it doesn’t negate the way God used him to deliver Israel; Jephthah is called one of the heroes of the faith in Hebrews.)

The law of Moses teaches deference to the aged.  “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God” (Leviticus 19:32). In keeping with this teaching, Elihu waits to speak to Job until after all of his older friends have spoken. Nevertheless, God uses David to defeat Goliath, even though, as Saul objects, “You are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” Two of the most godly reforming kings of Judah, Joash and Josiah, assumed the throne at young ages.  Paul told Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.” Instead, Timothy was to use the gift that was given to him through prophecy when the elders laid their hands on him–the inbreaking coming age trumps present considerations.

The people of Israel were supposed to observe a strict separation from Gentiles. Nevertheless, God used many Gentiles as agents of his inbreaking redemptive work. Rahab protected Joshua’s spies and was instrumental in the conquest of Jericho. In the book of Judges, Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, killed the fleeing general Sisera to complete the defeat of Jabin’s armies. Ruth saved Naomi’s life and ultimately became the great-grandmother of David and an ancestress of Jesus. The Persian emperor Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Judeans to return from exile; at one point in Isaiah, Cyrus is even identified as one expression of the “servant of the Lord,” whose ultimate identity is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus himself observed how God showed his reality by rescuing the widow in Zarephath and healing Naaman the Syrian in the time of Elijah, when more faith was found in these Gentiles than in the people of Israel.

Well, I think you see where this is going, but we’ll look at God’s use of women as his agents of inbreaking redemption in the next post.

Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Present-age considerations that do not matter in the coming age: primogeniture

Raphael, Samuel Anoints David

In his essay in the volume Two Views on Women in Ministry (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), Thomas Schreiner argues that Paul’s words in 1 Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man . . . for Adam was formed first, then Eve,” should be understood in light of the principle of primogeniture, or supremacy of the firstborn.  This, he says, was an established principle of Hebrew life and culture and it provided the lens through which Paul’s readers (who were either Jewish or familiar with the Jewish Scriptures) would have understood his words.  “The reversal of primogeniture” he adds, “explains why the stories of Jacob’s primacy over Esau . . . and Joseph’s rule over his brothers are so shocking” (p. 291).

Now it is true that God does legitimate primogeniture as a cultural principle for his chosen people.  The firstborn son was to be given a double share of his father’s inheritance.  These extra resources would enable him to carry on the family’s name and holdings as the leader of the next generation.  In a context of polygamy, Deuteronomy 21:15-17 forbids a man from giving the “rights of the firstborn” (including the double share) to the younger son of a favored wife if his firstborn is the “son of the wife he does not love.”

The reason given is interesting and informative: the actual firstborn is the “first sign of his father’s strength,” literally the “beginning of his strength” or the first fruits of his virility.  We are on culturally and scientifically different ground here; there was not yet an appreciation for how the man and the woman both contributed to the formation of the embryo.  The belief, on an agricultural analogy, was that the man simply provided the “seed” that then grew within the woman.  We won’t pause here to engage the complicated question of how and why God would accommodate such a partial understanding when he established the way of life for his chosen people.  The bottom line is that the patriarch of the clan was to be honored as an earthly representative of the creative, life-giving God, and his firstborn son was similarly to be honored as a manifestation of the way in which the patriarch imitated and reflected the activity of God.

This much said, we must hasten to add that the stories of Jacob and Joseph aren’t the  only shocking ones in the Old Testament for people who, in light of God’s own commands like the one we’ve just considered from Deuteronomy, expect the principle of primogeniture to be honored.  God chooses Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his ten older brothers, Manasseh over Ephraim, Gideon over his older brothers, and David over his seven older brothers.  What’s going on here?  Should primogeniture be honored or not, and if it should be, why does God disregard it with such reckless abandon?

My explanation would be that primogeniture is an important principle of the present age.  (The association with the “first fruits of the father’s virility” anchors this principle firmly to the present age, which is concerned with marriage and procreation.)  But primogeniture is not of concern for the coming age.  God seems to disrupt the principle so commonly precisely to show that what he’s doing is not of the present age; it represents the coming age breaking in.

Indeed, in the community of the coming age, we are all first born.  The author of Hebrews calls us the “church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.”  This is one of those cases where an attribute of Jesus, who is the “firstborn of all creation,” is transferred to the community of his followers.

So, in keeping with the paradigm I’m developing, I’d say that we need to balance the responsibilities of the present age with the freedoms of the coming age.  If you are an earthly firstborn, you should accept and embrace a leadership role within your family, and expect your younger siblings to honor you and cooperate with you as you carry out this role under God.  If you are not the firstborn, you should offer this kind of honor and cooperation to the firstborn, who is the leader of your generation of the family.  If you are a Christian, you should be notable for your good attitude in this respect.  At the same time, if a group of siblings are all believers, in terms of the coming age they are all “firstborn,” and so they should all do whatever they can to help one another use their gifts and opportunities to the fullest to advance God’s kingdom.  They should submit to one another out of love and practice servant greatness towards each another.  No ministry calling should be denied to a younger sibling in the kingdom of God on the basis that they are not the firstborn.  A firstborn can legitimately defer to a younger sibling even when it comes to the “right of succession” in the leadership of a ministry that a previous generation of the family has established.

I think you can easily see the implications for the question of whether there should be restrictions on what women can do in the church.  Perhaps some would find these implications shocking.  Just like God’s choice of Jacob and Joseph.

Present-age relationships preserved but transformed

My argument is that the community  of Jesus’ followers is an embodiment of the new creation, the coming age that is already breaking into the present age.  In this community people now relate to one another in a new way.  They are no longer governed as they once were by first-creation distinctions such as Jew/Gentile, slave/free, young/old, male/female, etc.  When Paul talks about this in Galatians, for example, it seems to me that he’s not just saying that people of all kinds now have equal access to God through faith.  I believe he’s also talking about their standing within the community.  This is why, earlier in Galatians, Paul tells how he “opposed Peter to his face” when he stopped eating with Gentiles.  Paul says that the “truth of the gospel” was at stake in this interaction.  If the Galatian community was going to be one in which there were first-class and second-class citizens based on ethnic and religious identity, it was not a gospel community!

However, because the community of Jesus’ followers continues to exist within the first creation, its members must still honor and respect their existing earthly relational obligations.  And so, for example, as Paul writes to Timothy, those who are slaves should continue to show their masters full respect; even if the masters are believers, the slaves should not respect them less, but serve them even better because they are their brothers.  In other words, this earthly relationship is not obliterated but rather it is transformed. I would argue that in the same way, a wife should not show less respect for her husband if they are both believers, but rather a qualitatively higher kind of respect, because he is her beloved brother in Christ. I think many of Paul’s controversial comments about women need to be understood and interpreted as teaching this principle, as we’ll see when we get to them.

At the same time, a husband should show a qualitatively higher kind of love for his wife, since she is his beloved sister in Christ.  As I envision this, the husband striving to present his wife “spotless and radiant” (as Paul says in Ephesians) has to include wanting to see her develop and make full use of the gifts God has given her.  More about this later, too.

We’ll also need to consider whether, according to the Bible, there any basic relational obligations that men in general have to women in general, and that women in general have to men in general, and how these obligations will be both honored and transformed in the community of Jesus’ followers.

Striking a balance between the obligations of the present age and the freedoms of the coming age is, in my opinion, the key to resolving the vast interpretive question before us.  In the following posts I’ll start getting into the specifics.