Wading into questions about the role of women, as a man, is fraught with danger. Please understand that I have, in my Christian walk, learned as much or more from the teaching and example of women as I have from men, and I have no particular axe to grind or need for validation (i.e., “proof texts” to assert my authority).
First, an anecdote. My college friend Peter F., a fine Christian, was wooing a young Christian woman who had rather strong feminist opinions. On some occasion (a birthday, perhaps) he gave her a card, in which he followed his handwritten greeting with the reference of a favorite Bible verse, to encourage her:
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”
He did not write out the verse; he gave only the reference (2 Timothy 2:15). One minor problem: He gave the reference incorrectly, as 1 Timothy 2:15. I’m certain the young lady looked up the passage. Ordinarily one might notice immediately that the verse is the wrong one, and forgive a simple error such as this. But when her eyes fell on the 1 Timothy passage, she read:
“But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”
I suspect this sent quite a different message than Peter had intended. This gaffe pretty swiftly ended his courtship. With this in mind, I tread cautiously.
I prefer a macroscopic view of the Bible. I think we miss badly when we dive into a single verse or passage without considering the whole sweep of God’s revelation. On its own, this passage seems fairly self-explanatory:
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 1 Timothy 2:11-13
I think we should consider this passage in the light of three glimpses of the New Testament:
GLIMPSE #1. Galatians 3:28
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This is Paul’s plainest statement on the subject of gender, and it comes from his most straightforward written words, from early in his career. There are no boundaries in the Body of Christ. This must be understood as a foundational principle, not as a practical directive. It is strategic, not tactical.
Jesus alluded to this in his reply to the Sadducees in Matthew 22, that at the resurrection (i.e., the eternal state of the Christian, which begins at the new birth), people will not be married nor given in marriage. There is, in the long view, a freedom from gender associated with the Christian existence. Gender roles are meant to apply in this earthly life, for the sake of reproduction and civil society. But we already have the firstfruits, a taste, of a new kind of existence where such distinctions are meaningless (or at least, not invested with the same kind of roles as in this life).
GLIMPSE #2. Acts 15:19-21
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” Acts 15:19-21
This was a watershed event in the life of the early church. The council at Jerusalem included two bitterly opposed factions: the Pharisees who had become believers in Jesus argued that Christianity was a subset of Judaism, consequently Gentile believers would need to undergo conversion to Judaism and be made to follow Jewish ceremonial and dietary laws. Paul and Barnabas, who had been working among non-Jewish pagans in Antioch, spoke strongly against this view. (I would guess that Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which deals with this subject in depth, followed shortly after this council.)
The council ruled in favor of Paul and Barnabas. Had they sided with the Pharisees, Christianity would look very different today (look up the ‘Ebionites’ sometime to get an idea). Significantly, the council decided then to draft a letter to the new Gentile believers, giving them a few rules to follow
- Food sacrificed to idols
- Sexual immorality
- Meat of strangled animals (decidedly non-kosher)
- Blood (also non-kosher)
A few rules to follow? Wait, I thought we were in the Age of Grace here. I thought Paul told the Galatian churches that they were no longer under the supervision of the Law of Moses. What’s the big idea, laying down a bunch of kosher laws for Gentiles who ought not to be bound by them?
The answer is in the rationale: “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times.” The point of these restrictions is not to keep the Christians pure. It is to preserve the reputation of the church among the Jewish people of the city. Flaunting their freedom by holding a weekly pork-and-bacon breakfast would be counterproductive to the message of the gospel.
From his writings, I think Paul believed the gospel to be paramount. This may be a bit of evangelical bias on my part, but I think (especially from the Corinthians letters, and the closing chapters of Romans) that the promulgation of the Good News was foremost in his mind. Nothing should detract from the message:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. I Corinthians 9:19-23
My thought regarding the 1 Timothy passage is that Paul may have been applying this same logic. “We don’t want to offend those around us,” he might be saying, “so let us apply, within the church, the same sort of gender roles as we have outside the church. Our goal is to reach the lost, not shock them.” Consequently, it could be argued that in the context of a more liberalized culture where women routinely serve as heads of government, corporations, and households, the command carries reduced force. I fully recognize the danger in this kind of interpretation — it opens the door for similar “cultural context” interpretations that could be used to nullify almost anything in the Bible.
GLIMPSE #3. 1 Corinthians 7:10-12
“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord)…”
Paul here establishes two layers of authority in the context of marriage and gender. There is that coming from the Lord, the absolute. Then, by the use of the phrase “I, not the Lord,” he brings in a new distinction. This is Paul speaking, in the context of practical advice to the church, and not absolute principles and commandments.
Again, I recognize the danger in this kind of interpretation. If a passage in the Bible fails to specify whether it is “from the Lord” or merely the opinion of the author, how should one interpret it? It would then become far too easy to dismiss everything inconvenient as mere opinion, not applicable to oneself, until one is left with nothing but a few scraps of authoritative Scripture. But Paul makes it clear that such a distinction does in fact exist. I think the Christian should venture into this question, aware of the danger, always seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit, as to the intent of various passages.
In light of this, it is entirely consistent, I think, to see Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy regarding the role of women as a piece of personal advice, based on his wording “I do not permit…” In the 1 Corinthians passage he inserts “I, not the Lord.” He does not say that in 1 Timothy, but it may be implied. Consider: Paul could just as easily have written the passage this way: “It is not right for a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” That would have a different sort of authority. He doesn’t say this, however, and that in itself is worth noting.
I encourage every believer to interpret the Scripture for himself or herself, in a prayerful and reflective manner. God will make things clear:
And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.