Gender, Context and 1 Timothy 2

1 Timothy 2:11-15 is probably the most referenced text in Christian discussion of gender roles. There is even a fair consensus about what it says. It asks the women in the church at Ephesus to learn quietly rather than teach in the church. The really critical question is what does it mean for us today?

There are a number of commands given in 1 Timothy 2 that we no longer keep – men lifting their hands when praying, women avoiding jewellery – alongside those we do keep. So how do we know whether the commands about women teaching are applicable to us?

Here is where we strike trouble, for the answer to our question depends very much on how we reconstruct the situation at Ephesus. There are three broad schools of thought to be found.

First are those who believe 1 Timothy was not written by the apostle Paul, but by a later follower in Paul’s name. It’s a time when the fervour that marked the early Christian movement had given way to a realisation that the Christian community was going to have to find a way to live long term among its pagan neighbours. The early radicalism, in which gender and cultural conventions were stood on their head had passed, and the view of the church were becoming more conventional. So in 1 Timothy 2 we see a return to traditional gender roles. Women are to learn rather than teach, for it is shameful for women to speak in public. The creation stories reinforce this. Pressed into the service of patriarchalism, they are employed to argue for male priority in authority (because man was formed first) and the foolishness of women (the woman was deceived, not Adam).

Second, there are those who argue verses 11-15 reflect standard Christian teaching, found across the New Testament, that men are responsible to lead in home and church and women to support this. Most importantly verses 13-14 ground the principle of male leadership in the creation stories: that the first man was born before the first woman gives him priority in leadership, while the story of the fall demonstrates what happened when this pattern was reversed. The grounding of the teaching in the creation stories shows that the pattern of male leadership and female submission is part of the way God created humankind to be. While it may apply differently in different contexts the underlying principle remains true for all contexts.

Third are those who argue that verses 11-15 are anything but standard Christian teaching, nor are they a retreat into patriarchy. Rather they see these verses addressing a crisis in the Ephesian church. The letter reveals the church is battling a heresy. This has particularly caught on among the women, who are seeking to spread the false teaching to others in the church. The nature of the heretical movement is debated.  Richard and Catherine Kroeger, for example, argue that the heresy is an early form of ‘gnosticism’. This taught that it was a good thing when Adam and Eve ate from the tree, that their eyes were opened to truth. Eve was thus her husbands liberator. Scott McKnight argues that the women at Ephesus were caught up in an aggressive and provocative “new Roman women” movement. Whatever the nuances of the heresy the women are told to stop promoting it, not because they’re women, but because they as a group have become captive to heresy. Instead they are to spend time relearning the truth. The creation stories are employed to remind the women that they are not independent of their husbands (Adam was formed first, then Eve) and of the terrible consequences that occurred when Eve, deceived by Satan, took the lead.

So what do we make of these arguments? For me they highlight the difficulty of reading the New Testament letters. Reading these letters is a little like eavesdropping on a phone conversation. Because you only hear one side of the conversation you need to reconstruct what you think is being said by the other person. Sometimes that is easy – when I  hear “I love you too” it’s not too hard to guess what the person on the other end of the line said. Not so easy when you hear, “Yes, I agree, let’s do that.” Similarly it is sometimes easy to read between the lines of New Testament letters. On other occasions it is very hard. 1 Timothy 2:11-14 is one of those hard occasions. Any of the three interpretations portrayed above could be right, or they might all be wrong!

So what do we do with this text? A lot of ink has been spilled and no school of thought has been able to establish its case convincingly enough to merit a consensus. In view of this I suggest we avoid using it to build an ethic. At the end of the day we have to say we have our hunches about what it means, but we really don’t know.


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