I said a few weeks ago that our big problem with 1 Timothy is that we read it as a manual for how to run a church; we reduce it to a practical handbook of disconnected instructions on church government. To be sure, this letter says a lot about how the church should be led, but to read it in that reductionist way is to miss why Paul is concerned about that; it’s to read these commands right out of their Ephesian context, and to fail to see that everything Paul says here is for one purpose: defeating the false teaching that is turning the Ephesians away from the gospel and destroying their relationship with Christ.
That’s true no less of this passage than of the rest of the book. We tend to read it, as we tend to read a lot of the Bible, as if it was written about five years ago to the contemporary Western church to address what we think are the most important questions—and it wasn’t. It applies to us and our situation, it’s the word of God to us and we must listen carefully and obey it, but it was written to different people in a different time and place and culture who had different issues and were asking different questions.
If we lose that and try to read this as a random collection of practical instructions, we miss the heart of this passage, because it follows right on from Paul’s concern in chapter 1. False teachers have arisen within the church in Ephesus, and they have set themselves above the authority of Timothy and the faithful elders of the congregation; they probably gave a wink and a nod to Paul, but only to try to convince people that they were teaching a higher form of what Paul had taught. In truth, though, it was nothing of the kind. According to the false teachers, only those who followed their teaching and the practices they prescribed could know the truth—they were the spiritual elite, and everyone else was cut off from salvation. They were preaching a religion that was elitist and exclusivist; it was only for people who were good enough for them, and smart enough to follow them. Against that, Paul hammers back that salvation is for everyone, the gospel is for everyone. That is what this chapter is about.
So, then, what’s all this about women? The answer is, not as much as you might think. The core of this passage is the first seven verses, which set out the basic imperative: God desires all people to be saved, salvation comes only through Jesus Christ, and the church’s job is to get that message out. Verses 8-15 address issues in the church that were getting in the way. It’s not just issues with the women, either; Paul has to tell the men of the church that they need to gather to pray without anger or fighting. This doesn’t mean they were fighting while they were praying (though they might have been); the point, rather, is that their arguments were dirtying their prayers. That’s the reason for the reference to “lifting up holy hands”; the standard posture of prayer in those days was standing with hands raised, and you were supposed to have purified them before worship began. Paul’s concern is that the men in this church were praying with hands that had been made unclean by their anger and their fights, and that they need to clean up their act.
With the women of the church, he addresses a different concern, because their behavior was interfering with the work of the church in a different way. It’s important to note a couple key things here. First, where the NIV reads, “A woman should learn in quietness,” the Greek word here and in verse 12 is the same as in verse 2, where Paul says to pray for those in authority “so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.” His point here is about having a quiet and peaceable demeanor, not being noisy, disruptive, and quarrelsome—much the same as he told the men in verse 8. Second, in verse 12, the NIV reads, “I permit no woman to teach,” which sounds like a general command that applies everywhere—but that translation gets the tense wrong. A more accurate one would be, “I am not permitting a woman to teach”; you can still read that as a general command that applies everywhere, but it doesn’t have to be. Given the context, I don’t think it is; I think it’s here because it bears on Paul’s primary concern, which is the spread of false teaching in Ephesus.
If so, though, how, and what does dressing up have to do with it? It may seem strange to us that Paul should take the time to tell the women of the church not to dress expensively, braid pearls in their hair, and wear jewelry, but his audience knew why he said it. Every culture has its own set of signals. In that culture, for a woman to dress up and wear jewelry was the equivalent in our culture of wearing the miniskirt and the bikini top: it was understood that she was declaring herself available, or even intent on seduction. Thus for instance the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote, “There is nothing that a woman will not permit herself to do, nothing that she deems shameful, when she encircles her neck with green emeralds and fastens huge pearls to her elongated ears.”
Now, granted that what we wear affects how we feel about ourselves, that’s over the top; I suspect that many women really felt that as unfair and unreasonable, but there wasn’t much they could do about it; legally, a woman belonged to her father as long as he was alive unless she was married, in which case she belonged to her husband. Roman women didn’t even get names, they got numbers. You can see why the message of the gospel, of freedom in Christ and a God who loves us all as individuals, was liberating and greatly appealing to women in that culture; and you can see, I think, why the false teachers in Ephesus would have particularly targeted women, and why they found their most receptive audience among the young women, and especially young widows, of the congregation. Under the influence of those false teachers, it seems clear that some of the women of the congregation were using using their freedom and equality in Christ in ways that were extremely unwise and disruptive; combined with that, they’re spreading a false version of the gospel within the Ephesian church. Paul knows that Timothy has to put a stop to that and shut them down if he’s going to keep from losing the church entirely.
His concern, then, isn’t gender roles in the abstract—his concern is what people’s behavior is doing to the teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ in Ephesus. He’s focused on the particular need to root up and stomp out the false teaching there; to that end, he tells the women of the church that they need to back off, settle down, stop talking, and find their bearings again—just as he tells the men of the church much the same thing, in a different way. The key here is that whatever the people of Ephesus are doing that’s disrupting the church and its work and worship, they need to stop doing—right now.
That’s because, as I said a minute ago, the church has a mission, with which nothing must be allowed to interfere—and the false teachers are doing just that, and so are the men and women Paul addresses. The mission is to bring the message of salvation through Jesus Christ to all people in all the world. Paul makes this clear in verses 5-6. There is only one God, and there is only one mediator, Jesus Christ; there is no other God in whom the peoples of this world may find life, and no other mediator through whom they may find salvation, and if they do not find this way, there is no other to be found. And this Jesus gave himself a ransom, not for some, but for all, for God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” The good news of Jesus Christ is for all, because his salvation is for all—all peoples, all nations, all languages, all times, male and female both—and the job of the church is to proclaim this truth to any and all who will listen, wherever they may be found and whatever they may be doing.
This is why Paul says to offer every kind of prayer—he uses four different words there, just to make sure his hearers get the point that he means every kind of prayer—for everyone. The false teachers in Ephesus were preaching a religion that was only for “special” people, and so bred a narrow, superior attitude. I suspect from Paul’s command in verse 2 that they even considered themselves superior to the rulers of the day; they saw themselves as the true elite, while the people in positions of power and authority didn’t deserve their eminence. In any case, it seems clear that they lacked any real concern for anyone but themselves, and so they only prayed for those whom they considered worthy of their prayers; the rest of the world could go hang, and in fact deserved to.
Paul has no use for this, and so he says, “Every kind of prayer shall be offered for everyone, without exception; and indeed, you should especially offer every kind of prayer for all those in positions of authority, not only for their own sake, but so that we may live quiet and peaceful lives in all godliness and proper conduct.” The command to pray for those in power is a slight digression, but well taken: if the authorities are opposed to the work of the church, it can be extremely difficult to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. At that point, it’s possible to have a peaceful and calm life, or to live life in accordance with the will of God, but not to do both. For those in authority, then, we pray not only for their own sake, but also that they will use their power in such a way as to help the mission of the church, or at least not to hinder it.
And to those in the church, he says that we, too, must do everything in our power to carry out that mission, and not to hinder it in anything we do. That’s why he tells the men of the church to set aside their anger and their quarrels, which are hindering their prayers—and no doubt turning off people who might otherwise be open to the message of the gospel. That’s why he tells the women of the church not to flout the social conventions of their day, but to adorn themselves instead with their good works—not because jewelry and nice clothes are sinful, but because their dress and behavior was sending the wrong message to people outside the church, giving the enemies of Christianity something to use against it. Believe me, more than one book was written against the church, and more than one law decreed against it, on the grounds that Christianity was undermining the morals of the Roman Empire. And finally, as many of the women in the church were preaching the false gospel of Timothy’s opponents, Paul forbade the women of Ephesus to teach. Anything to keep the false teaching from spreading.
The fundamental point here is clear: we’re called to be people of the gospel, and only of the gospel. We can’t change the message we’ve been given, and what it reveals about God, to conform it to someone else’s expectations or desires—not even if we think it will help us attract more people, since if we’re attracting people to something that isn’t the gospel, we’ve done nothing good. And we can’t let anything other than the gospel get in the way of proclaiming the gospel message—we need to be committed to doing whatever we can to reach whoever we can reach with the good news of Jesus Christ in such a way that they will listen. We need to be committed only and wholly to the service of the Lord, and to doing whatever is in our power to ensure that people who don’t have a relationship with Jesus are introduced to him in the fullness of his truth and love.
Which means that we need to be clear on what’s worth fighting about—and for—and what isn’t. Anything that diminishes the gospel, anything that seeks to take away from the seriousness of human sin, the glory and holiness of God, or the greatness of his grace, we have to fight that, as Paul fought the legalists in Ephesus. That fight’s going on right now in this denomination, and we’re committed to staying Presbyterian so we can keep standing up for the gospel. But what about the other things we fight about—such as the role of women in the church, which drives most of the preaching on this passage? I had somebody call me a heretic in print a few weeks ago because I don’t believe, on my best reading of Scripture, that the word of God forbids women to lead and teach. I don’t claim to be infallible—we’re all fallen, we’re all sinners, none of us get everything right, and I’m no different—and if I’m wrong, I pray God shows me differently, but as I’ve studied the word of God, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to; and in the meantime, does it advance the cause of the gospel for Christians to beat each other up on this issue, or baptism, or communion, or how we do worship, or other such issues?
No, it doesn’t. Those sorts of fights don’t draw people to Jesus Christ, they just draw lines that people won’t cross. That’s not to say that those issues don’t matter, just that getting them wrong doesn’t keep people from perceiving and being captured by the heart of the gospel, that there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all so that we might be saved from the power and penalty of sin and brought to the knowledge of the truth—which needs to be the heart, the essence, the focus, of our preaching, our teaching, and everything we do. It all needs to be about the gospel, for the sake of the gospel, in the service of the gospel, so that when people look at us, yes, we have beliefs about what women should or shouldn’t do, and how we should do baptism and communion, and how we do worship, and all sorts of other things, but so that people recognize that those things aren’t what we’re about: what we’re about is Jesus Christ and him crucified.