“Christian Women (part 1 of 3)”

"I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 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. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control."

1 Timothy 2:8-15

The perception of many is that Christianity, represented in passages like the one above, regards women as second-class citizens. Women are daughters of the original troublemaker, so, some think, the best thing for them to do is to have children, stay at home, behave themselves, and keep quiet. Oh, and make sure they don't dress too pretty! Passages like this one, some believe, prove that the apostle Paul, who wrote it, was a male chauvinist and the Christian faith is yet another example of an archaic patriarchal religion designed by men to further subjugate women. 

This is not, as I hope to show, what this or any other Scripture teaches concerning women. The biblical view of femininity is a radical departure from societal norms. It begins with the foundational truth that women are distinct from men but coequal image-bearers of God with men, created to rule over all the earth together (Gen. 1:26-28). The arrival of Jesus Christ restored that purpose by elevating women to a position of equal honor, status, and value in his kingdom. Jesus expects women to work and even to lead in his kingdom, albeit in a limited capacity. 

To help us understand the above passage, let us compare it with other first-century views.

Rabbinical View of Women's Roles

One "Siddur," a Jewish prayer book, contains this morning blessing: "Blessed are you, O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me a Gentile... a slave... a woman..." The Jerusalem Talmud notes the opinion of Eliezar ben Hyrcanus, who said, "Women's wisdom is solely in the spindle... The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women" (JT Sotah 3:4, 19a). Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah put it more mildly, "... men come to learn Torah and women come to hear."

The Babylonian Talmud states, "Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflut" (BT Sotah 21b). The word "tiflut" could be defined in one of two ways: 1) lewdness; men were afraid that women would learn how to outwit their husbands and fool around in secret; or 2) vanity/nonsense; learning was unnecessary for women because they don't need to know Torah. The scribes and rabbis of the first century believed it was inappropriate to teach a woman in public, though some permitted them to study on their own. This is a far cry from what the Jewish Bible, what we call the Old Testament, actually taught. But it accurately represents the sentiment of the day that women were inferior to men.

Pagan View of Women's Roles

Timothy, the one Paul wrote to, worked as an evangelist in Ephesus and the main religion of that city was a female-only cult to Artemis. A magnificent ionic temple constructed in her honor dominated the city and housed a huge statue of the goddess which the Ephesians believed to be a "sacred stone which fell from the sky" (Acts 19:35). Artemis was a female deity and the priests were all women. When it came to worshiping the goddess of the hunt and the wilderness, the women were the ones who ran the show and kept the men in their place. But the cult of Artemis was not unique. There were other cults that included women priestesses (as in Corinth in Achaia).

How Would Jesus Be Worshiped?

You could imagine the confusion and the pressures such a culture would exert on women who became Christians. Women were stepping out from one of two worlds into the Christian world. How would the worship of Jesus differ from the synagogue system and the Artemis cult? Some were saying that because Jesus saved both men and women alike, and all are "one in Christ" (Gal. 3:28), that the old ways of organizing male and female roles should be overturned. Should women be trained so that Christianity would become a cult like that of Artemis, where women take the lead? Or should the synagogue tradition of relegating women to the sidelines be carried over in a kind of male-only environment?

Christian View of Women's Roles

Paul rejects both ideas. Rather, he is challenging the world's view of gender stereotypes. In 1 Timothy 2:1-8, he is teaching how men ought to behave (1 Tim. 3:15). They should be devoted to regular prayer, not fulfilling the macho stereotypes of arrogant thugs, always fighting to get their way. Instead, they should "[lift] holy hands without anger or quarreling." Christian men should learn how to pray without attitudes of wrath or dissension. They should pray for peace in their community and government so that it provides an ideal setting for Christians to spread the gospel. 

Christian women (1 Tim. 2:9-15), "likewise," aren't to fulfill their stereotypes either. They are not to act like simpering, empty-headed valley girls, concerned only with fashion and materialism. They are to be noticed by their "good works" rather than the way they are dressed (v.10; cf. 1 Pet. 3:3-4). In addition, women should be allowed to study and learn along with the men in the same manner and degree. They are to do so "quietly with entire submissiveness" (v.11). We often take this to mean submission to men but Paul doesn't necessarily qualify it that way here. Really, all study of Scripture is to be with the submissive attitude of a devoted student, whether they are men or women (Isa. 66:2). 

This is perfectly in line with Jesus' teaching in Luke 10:38-42. There, Jesus affirms the priority of Mary's devotion to him as a learning disciple. In that text, while Martha was busy serving the guests, Mary was seated "at the Lord's feet" (v.39), a euphemism for the submission of a disciple (Acts 22:3). This was exclusively the realm of men! Mary flouted all the social conventions of gender and yet Jesus said she was exactly in the right place. Many of Jesus' most devoted disciples were women (Lk. 8:1-3). Paul is not inventing anything in 1 Timothy 2. Rather, he is building on what Jesus has already established.

The Qualification of Paul's Teaching 

But Paul qualifies himself in verse 12: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet." It's as if he is saying, "I don't mean to imply that I'm now setting up women as the new authority over men in the same way men exercise authority over women in the synagogues." No, the church is not to take on the model of the Artemis-cult. Women are not to seize control and exercise authority in the church over men. Rather, Paul is agreeing with what Jesus had already taught in Luke 10; that women deserve to learn and develop their talents like men. 

Christian women are to be free from the worldly stereotypes of fussing over their hair or makeup. They are to be free from hiding in the shadows like unobtrusive mice when the "men are discussing serious spiritual matters." But they are not free to take control of the congregation and turn it into another pagan system. Christian women are free to learn in quietness, to mature and develop their talents like the men so they can contribute to the kingdom in their unique ways.

In next week's article, we will discuss the role of Christian women further. Paul both encourages women to teach and regulates their role as teachers.