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Women, Preaching, the Bible and 1 Timothy 2

As a female student and teacher of the Bible and someone who seeks to interpret and live out what it teaches faithfully, as well as an ordained minister and preacher, I often get asked how I interpret what the Bible has to say about women and preaching. This paper comes out of a class I have taught sharing some of my perspectives on that question. While I have studied and thought through these passages over some time and in some depth, I don’t pretend to have them fully figured out or have the final word on how to read them.1 I hope that I hold my perspectives with thoughtfulness and integrity, but also with grace and humility. What I do seek is to have is a consistent hermeneutic for how I read the Bible as a whole and to start first with the big picture of God’s redemptive plan as revealed in the Scriptures before moving to specific texts.

For me, first and foremost, having both men and women preach the gospel points to the nature of the kingdom and the new creation. It is important to me to start at this big picture level on this topic, because I have had conversations that too often start from one particular verse in one particular passage of Bible as if there is a ‘proof text’ that can be used to give a full and final word. I find that an unhelpful framework when it comes to the Bible. The Bible isn’t made up of individual context- less pieces of information called ‘verses’, any one of which can then form a lens through which the rest of it is read. I want to start with the big picture and read the Bible from its broader theological context. The nature of the kingdom and the new creation The nature of the kingdom Jesus lives and brings and the nature of the new creation he points towards is one is which there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free (Gal 3:26-29). The New Testament’s great vision is one of unity where all are one. This doesn’t mean differences are eradicated. Revelation’s great vision of the new creation is one where people of every tribe and tongue sing with one voice (Rev 7:9-10). But the kingdom of God is a place where all the dividing walls between different groups have been broken down (Eph 2:14), whether between people of different race, different gender, or different status. Whatever barriers we use to divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’. I believe that the church is a glimpse of this new creation/kingdom community here and now. So we are calling people to the way things will be, not the way things have been. Thus we need people from both genders, all ethnicities, and various classes, to proclaim God’s Word. In practice, this highlights for me the importance of hearing different voices and perspectives. Too often we hear too many of the same voices – whether culturally, in age, in socioeconomic status, or gender – in the books we read and the speakers we listen to. Hearing repeatedly from the same perspective reinforces the same ideas and allows us to overlook our blindspots. God speaks through different people in different ways; different life experiences, perspectives and worldviews have something to teach us. This was brought home to me by an indigenous Australian friend a few years ago. I asked him what we as white Australian Christians need to hear from our indigenous brothers and sisters. He said something that has stuck with me because while I believe it, I had never thought of it in this context. He said, ‘we believe that the gospel is enculturated’. That is, we believe that the good news of God is lived out in real time and space through real people in particular cultures and that as that happens, we learn more about the gospel and about God from one another. ‘So,’ he said, ‘what do you have to learn from your indigenous brothers and sisters about the gospel’? This is not about lip service, or political correctness, or giving equal time for fairness’ sake. It is about the fact that God works through people who have different experiences and perspectives. We need each other. This is true regarding culture and regarding gender. The experiences that women have had are different from those of men, and multiple voices are important to give different perspectives. Another comment that has stuck with me was from a visiting theologian who said ‘For too long men in our churches have been denied the voice and perspective of women.’2 This has been a really helpful perspective for many men and women: the point is not that its ‘unfair’ that women have not been preaching but rather that our communities of faith have missed out by not hearing God speak through half of our people. The issue is the full flourishing of the church as the community that lives out the kingdom and points toward the new creation. The calling and gifting of the Holy Spirit Within that big picture, I want to hear what God’s word has to say and seek to live it faithfully. There are a number of biblical passages that not only encourage but call us to invite women and men to preach God’s Word. There are the gifts lists in books like Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians. These tell us that the Spirit gives gifts as He chooses; gifts including preaching, teaching, pastoring, and evangelism. These passages seem to me to be the starting point for understanding different ‘roles’ in the church. The Spirit gives different people different gifts and the practice of the church is the outworking of that. People in the New Testament don’t decide who does what; the Spirit gives as he determines (1 Cor 12:11) so that the church is built up until we all reach maturity (Eph 4:11-13). When people have argued that there are limitations on those gifts, in particular on one or two of those gifts, and that they are only for men, that undermines the whole idea of these passages, which is that the Spirit gives as He chooses. There are not two groups of gifts listed – those which the Spirit gives to anyone as He chooses, and those which the Spirit gives only to the men He chooses. To take a verse like 1 Timothy 2:12, for example, as the proof text through which I read the rest of the Bible would fundamentally change how I read these passages. As a woman, if that were to be my hermeneutic, it would take large sections of the Bible and say ‘these are not for you.’ It would essentially say that these chapters of the Bible are written only for men because when Paul says ‘anyone’ he doesn’t really mean anyone; he doesn’t mean me. Similarly, there are many passages in the New Testament that call on followers of Jesus to proclaim the good news, to teach His word, to announce His kingdom. If there is a restriction due to gender on who can do those things and all those passages are to be read through that lens, then again I find that much of the New Testament does not apply to me. Women in the Scriptures I also look to the many examples of women throughout the Scriptures who take on all kinds of ‘roles’ in the community of faith. Yes, there are fewer women named than men, but when we read closely we see that it is not as small a number as some assume,3 and for the cultural context in which the biblical stories take place, the number is quite surprising. We have Old Testament prophets, women who speak forth the word of the Lord. Alongside Moses is Miriam, an example of different gifts given to different people. We find Deborah as a judge, leading the nation of Israel in an ongoing role even before she is called by God to rescue the people. In the New Testament we find women in all kinds of roles. In Romans 16:7 we have Junia who is named as ‘outstanding among the apostles’. Scot McKnight has written a passionate work about her place in church history.4 Clearly a feminine name, the obscuring of her gender by many English translations is an example of how we can sometimes be influenced more by our assumptions or cultural perspectives than by the text itself. In Romans 16:1 we have Phoebe who is a diakonos, a word usually translated as minister or servant and given to those serving in leadership roles in the early church. In Acts 18 we find Priscilla, a teacher in partnership with her husband Aquila. Some suggest the fact she is often named first suggests she had a more prominent role, but I don’t think it really matters. As a couple they teach and train Apollos. In Luke 10 we find the story of Mary and Martha, perhaps overlooked in this context. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet learning. In Jewish culture, the only reason to learn is so that you can teach. This is what Jesus did with his disciples. For three years, he taught them so that they might then go and teach others. Jesus explicitly welcomes Mary learning. If she is not then able to use that learning to teach others, what is the point? In the wider context of the Bible, we never learn so that we can be puffed up about knowing, it is always so that we can pass it on and teach others.5 We have the Samaritan woman in John 4, the first person to whom Jesus reveals Himself as the Messiah and who becomes the preacher and proclaimer of the good news about him to her whole community. And of course we have Mary Magdalene, the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection and the first proclaimer of that message.6 So it is within this wider biblical perspective, and in the light of women throughout the biblical narrative proclaiming and teaching the good news, that I read those particular verses that have been used to suggest limitations on the roles of women within the church. There are two passages, 1 Timothy 2:12-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, that on their face seem to restrict women from certain activities. I want to take these seriously and interpret them faithfully as I uphold the authority of Scripture. These two passages are found in letters from Paul to particular people in particular circumstances. This genre must be taken seriously when we read them, considering the setting into which they are written and the intended application of their words in that setting. This should not, however, become an excuse for not wrestling with their wider implications. In this paper, I will walk through a reading of 1 Timothy chapter 2 in some detail. I am using the NIV but will comment on the Greek at various points as well. 1 Timothy 2 The first letter to Timothy contains instructions, encouragement and advice from his mentor Paul on how the younger leader will conduct himself and lead the church faithfully. What follows is my reading of what we call chapter 2 of this letter. I have found the writings of others including N. T. Wright7 and Scot McKnight8 helpful, and yet I differ from their interpretations in some places and any mistakes that follow are most certainly my own. My wrestling with verses 12-15 seeks to read the passage within this wider literary context. I have found some discussions that start with verse 12 quite frustrating, because we are jumping into the middle of Paul’s thinking. If I were to sum up this chapter as a whole (recognising that Paul is very good at talking about fifteen things at the same time!) I would suggest that his primary concern is the gospel and our public witness to it. The gospel is always Paul’s big concern, particularly how it is being proclaimed to those who have not heard it. In this part of his letter to Timothy, he works through a few factors that might affect this. Verses 1-7 First Timothy 2:1 usually gets pulled out when we have elections, calling us to pray for those in secular leadership in our communities. Paul gives the reason he is calling for this prayer in verse 2: that we might live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. He doesn’t say here to pray for our leaders that they do a good job, or to pray that we get the right leaders, the latter of which was of course not the same kind of option in New Testament times when leaders were not chosen by the people! Now, of course we should pray for our political leaders in the difficult role they have, but Paul’s primary agenda here is that we would be able to live out the gospel. If kings and leaders don’t let us live lives that proclaim and point to the reign of Jesus, then it is the gospel that suffers. So we pray that we might be given the space to live as disciples of Jesus. Thus ‘peaceful and quiet lives in godliness and holiness’ seems to be a shorthand way of saying ‘be the church’ or ‘live out the gospel!’ We pray that nothing hinders our witness to the gospel. Verse 3 continues that this is good, and pleases God, because he wants everyone to come to know him. The motivation is mission: God wants people to know him. Paul then wants to explain why this is, to reiterate the content of this good news at every opportunity he can, stating that there is one God and one mediator, Jesus Christ. I imagine Paul is thinking, ‘let me tell you more about this gospel we want everyone to know’! And when he does that, as he often does, he comes to his own calling, in verse 7 reminding Timothy that he is an apostle and herald for the sake of the gospel. So for Paul, it is all wrapped up in being who we are called to be so that people might come to know Jesus because that is what God is always about and what he himself has given his life for. Verses 8-10 Therefore, begins verse 8, and as the old saying goes, we need to ask, what is it there for? It links back to what Paul has just said: in light of the goal that the gospel might be preached so that people might hear it so that Jesus might be known. Paul addresses men first, then women. He does have some particular things he wants to say to each gender. We want to be able to live as gospel people so that people might come to know Jesus, and Paul seems to be aware of some things that might hinder that for men and women in particular. Paul says two specific things to men: he wants them to pray and he wants them not to be angry or disputing. Why does he pick these topics for men? This is where we get into speculation, as he doesn’t say. Was there a particular problem with the men in Ephesus getting into fights when they prayed? I don’t know. Are men by nature more likely than women to fight? Perhaps. Whatever the contextual basis, this is the example Paul gives. This is one thing that could get in the way of our witness. If men gathering to pray are getting in to fights, then the gospel will suffer. What is at stake is their witness to Jesus; that’s what is always at stake. But Paul also names a specific action in prayer: lifting up holy hands. This seems to be a cultural practice. Do we read it as a command for all men everywhere in all times and places when they pray? I’ve never heard a sermon that says men who pray without lifting their hands are sinning. And I don’t think that is what Paul is trying to say. I do think, however, that he might be trying to make a connection. If your hands are lifted up in prayer, what can’t you be doing with your hands? Fighting! And the wider point seems obvious: if you are genuinely prayerful for and with one another, then you won’t be arguing. The physical might be a demonstration of that, but it’s not really about what your hands are doing. It’s about what is going on inside you. Now, we could argue that in our culture or in the New Testament culture or in general that men tend to be more prone to fighting and getting into argumentative discussions. But that is certainly not a blanket rule; women can also fight and be argumentative when they want to be. We have to wrestle with the text and understand that this is an example that puts into practice Paul’s wider point about living out the gospel faithfully for the sake of those who haven’t heard it. Then Paul turns to women and his first specific command to them is about how they dress. Again, there is an external element but the key is what is going on in their hearts. On the outside this is about dressing modestly, but on the inside it is about living lives that honour Jesus. Here we could ask the same questions as above: were women in Ephesus dressing in particularly unhelpful ways? Are women by nature more likely to focus on their dress? I don’t know. We can make those arguments and have those discussions, but in the end it is an example that has come to Paul’s mind. Something else that can hinder the gospel can be the way women dress. What is interesting to me here is that I have most often heard this passage applied to speak about sexual modesty. But this is not where Paul goes. His concern is economic modesty. Elaborate hairstyles and expensive jewellery are his ‘go to’ examples. We can read this and go immediately to what is our biggest cultural issue. Perhaps Paul goes to what seems to be theirs. It is not that the women are wearing skimpy clothes; it’s that they are dressing in a way that shows off how wealthy they are. That is what is getting in the way of the gospel. Why would outsiders follow a gospel that leads its followers to showy demonstrations of wealth? So we seem to be able to take these verses and quite comfortably apply them to our culture in a slightly different way. Is that a valid thing to do? Yes, I think it can be. We can say that Paul is picking a specific issue in his culture but the principle is about heart attitude and what gets in the way of the gospel. This could be applied in our culture around sexual modesty; I think it can be applied in a multitude of ways but this can certainly be one. We understand the key point Paul is making and then we apply it in our context. But we do not make a blanket rule in our churches that women can never wear gold or braid their hair. We understand that as a particular cultural application of the broader point. It’s the same as asking whether we require men to lift their hands when they pray: we know it’s not about the external action. We do this all the time when we read the Bible, we know the point being made and we are able to find the cultural application of it. Sometimes it is worth making the same application Paul is making. Perhaps we do need to challenge our people about how much they are spending on clothes or where their clothes are made. But we also recognise that there are other ways we can apply the principle of not doing things that undermine the gospel and get in the way of our witness to Jesus. Verses 11-12 Verse 11, then, says that a woman should learn in quietness and submission. Verse 12 is translated by the NIV ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.’ This is the verse that has most often been used to say that women shouldn’t preach. The first thing I want to point out is that there is only one imperative in this verse, and indeed in verses 11-15 as a whole. In general terms, indicative verbs describe what is, infinitive and participial verbs are dependent on other verbs, and imperative verbs express prescriptions or commands. The single imperative here is about women learning. As a third person imperative, a literal translation might be ‘Let women learn!’9 From this imperative we can infer that perhaps women were not learning, whether someone was stopping them from doing so or it was something that had never been done. It was probably unusual in the culture for a woman to learn (remember the Mary and Martha story). So in its original context, Paul’s audience would have pricked up their ears at the command for women to learn. Then he says they are to learn in two ways: h