13th in a multipart, ultra-bonus blog series, with a cherry on top!…..
Now, we are in the thick of it. After Paul makes his controversial statement in 1 Timothy 2:12 (ESV), “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,” he explains his reasoning:
- 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 2:13-15 ESV).
Complementarian and egalitarian Christians typically diverge on how to best interpret this passage. They also diverge among themselves!
When I was a new believer, I always got stuck on verse 15, the “she will be saved through childbearing” part. I mean, I learned over and over again that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-10), according to the Apostle Paul. Works will not get me into God’s presence in heaven. But it sure sounds like women will be saved by having children here, which is DEFINITELY a type of work (Right ladies???). However, we all know that women and men are saved the same way, through Christ and Christ alone!!
Is Paul backtracking and contradicting himself? Or is something else going on?
In 1 Timothy 2:13-15, Paul lays out three specific reasons why he is targeting “a woman” in 1 Timothy 2:12, for special treatment. Here I will point out each of these specific reasons, and how complementarian and egalitarian scholars address each.
DISCLAIMER: So, before some New Testament Greek expert screams in agony at something I say, I am only giving a summary here of perhaps the most widely held views, as I could write about twenty (!!!) more blog posts (but I will not) covering different nuances, argued by various complementarian and egalitarian scholars, on just these few Bible verses. But this will give you a flavor of the discussion, showing how and why biblical interpretation is not always easy:
VERSE 13: For Adam was formed first, then Eve
- Complementarian view: Paul is making an appeal to the creational order of things. Because creation is universal in scope, Paul’s reasoning is universal in terms of application. This is therefore not a passage of Scripture that can be limited to a specific application to the church of Paul’s day in Ephesus. Since Adam was formed first, before Eve, it stands to reason that Adam has a certain priority before Eve, that has been carried down through the ages, whereby the husband is the head of the wife (1 Corinthians 11:3), and such order is also to be reflected in the order of the church, whereby women are not to teach or have authority over men, at least in terms of the eldership and pastoral leadership of the church.
- Egalitarian view: The heresy of Gnosticism in the early church taught that Eve came first before Adam (we have good evidence for this in the 2nd century, but from the 1st?????). However, the Bible views this order to be reversed. Paul is therefore addressing particular heretical teachings being taught, presumably by certain women in the Ephesian church. Paul is concerned about stamping out a particular heresy (1 Timothy 1:3), and not by making some universal, timeless decree.
VERSE 14: Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
- Complementarian view: Here Paul goes from an appeal to creation to an appeal from the fall of humanity, which also has universal application (not local or limited). Both the man and the woman sinned, but the sin of the woman was not like that of the sin of the man. The man sinned knowingly while the woman sinned in ignorance, due to her deception. God has established a particular order of things in order to protect men and women from destroying one another, due to the devastating impacts of the fall. God has therefore put men as spiritual authorities in the local church, over women, in order to remind us of that order, without in any way denigrating either women or men.
- Egalitarian view: Once again, Paul has a particular heretical teaching in view. The early church Gnostics taught that it was actually a good thing that Eve ate of the fruit of the tree, as it gave her spiritual wisdom. In contrast, Paul is reminding Timothy and his readers that according to the Bible, this is false teaching. Eve was not enlightened, in the manner of the Gnostics,, when she sought spiritual knowledge and wisdom. Rather, she was deceived. As a result, no particular ordering, hierarchy, etc. is intended by Paul here in terms of church leadership structure, which might be universal in its application. Women are not to domineer men, but neither are men to domineer women.
VERSE 15: Yet she will be saved through childbearing…
- Complementarian view: The first two reasons above speak to creation and the fall. Now Paul turns to the promise of redemption, after Adam and Eve’s fall. But first, we must carefully learn to read the text in context to grasp the meaning of this difficult verse. Most translations ignore the fact that a definite article precedes the reference to childbearing. In other words, a more strictly word-for-word translation is reflected in Young’s Literal Translation, “she shall be saved through the child-bearing.” So, what is “the child-bearing?” Paul apparently knew of the teaching that it would be through Eve’s offspring that the Messiah would come to crush the head of the serpent, the Satan figure of Genesis 3 (Genesis 3:15, Romans 16:20 ESV), commonly referred to by scholars as the protoevangelium, which was well-known by the early church. In other words, women, as the daughters of Eve, will find salvation through the coming of the Christ-child. Jesus is our salvation. Paul is therefore giving the women of Ephesus a timeless reminder, of woman’s participation in God’s redemptive purposes. This truth would have had a poignant meaning in the Ephesian church, in contrast to the teaching in the Ephesian temple of Artemis, that women would be somehow “saved” through childbearing, by offering sacrifices in the pagan temple. In other words, this verse in 1 Timothy is not about works-salvation. Instead, this verse is about the liberating message of Christmas!!
- Egalitarian view: Yet again, we have another reference to another false teaching that was creeping into the Ephesian church. Women in the church may have been secretly offering sacrifices in the temple of Artemis, in order to assist them through the process of childbirth. When Paul speaks about being “saved” in this verse, it is not about salvation to enter God’s presence. Rather it is about being “kept safe,” through the pains and risks of childbirth, which was quite risky for women in the premodern era. Paul wants to remind the Ephesian women that the God revealed in Jesus will protect them in childbirth. They do not need to go to the temple of Artemis.
Mmmmm… There is a lot going on here, is there not?
In short, complementarians typically appeal to Paul’s understanding of creation, fall, and redemption, as a timeless paradigm, that designates the order of men and women in the life of the church. Egalitarians, on the other hand, typically appeal to 2nd century evidence for Gnosticism, as a heretical movement that Paul wishes to stamp out. However, egalitarians are dependent on assuming that such 2nd century evidence can be safely extrapolated back into Paul and Timothy’s 1st century context, for which we have little to no direct evidence for support. 1
For Those Who Want to Pull Their Hair Out at This Point…
Trying to arrive at the best interpretation of the Bible is not always easy. Some forms of reasoning will appeal to some people, and not appeal to others. But the importance in doing this is to help gain an appreciation of why different Christians might read the Bible differently. It is so easy to separate ourselves off into our own theological silos, and fail to really learn why another follower of Jesus might think differently than we do.
Nevertheless, this should not be an excuse for simply throwing up our hands, and giving up on trying to interpret the Bible. There are consequences to any particular doctrine being promulgated in the church. Sometimes these consequences are easily visible, but most of the time, they are not, upon first reflection. Such doctrines may have consequences that can only be seen down the road, perhaps in terms of future generations, far removed from us, in the lives of our children and grandchildren. Some consequences can be devastating, having an eternal impact.
Perhaps taking a few steps back, would be a good thing to do at this juncture….
A good rule of thumb for me, when thinking about a controversial issue, and I happen to lean a particular direction, is to consider this: “What if I am wrong? What if I end up going the wrong way on a matter? What type of impact will that have in my life, the lives of those around me, and the lives of those I have not even met yet?”
In the last four posts in this series, I want to look briefly at some fundamental, theological questions, that have helped me sort through the issues, that have led to me to where I am on the complementarian/egalitarian question. The four questions are: (1) What is our theology of gender, and what does it mean?, (2) How does the relationship between men and women, with respect to eldership, impact the unity of God’s church, across time, culture, and denominational tradition?, (3) Is there a sacramental character of eldership, that points towards the mystery of male and female being made in the image of God?, and (4) How does our understanding and practice of “women and eldership” impact the church’s witness in the world? Specifically, how important is it that we have godly spiritual fathers in our churches, who are teaching boys and young men how to become and be men, and that we have godly spiritual mothers in our churches, who are teaching girls and young women how to become and be women?
As these questions are explored, a potential solution I hope will emerge, that might make peace between complementarians and egalitarians, without compromising biblical truth.
1. British pastor and Bible teacher Andrew Wilson has a blog post that succinctly lists out all of the various interpretations of the “women will be saved by childbearing” passage. Contrary to Wilson, I tend to favor the “Christmas” interpretation above, as it fully accounts for the presence of the definite article, “the,” when referencing childbirth, whereas all of the other interpretations tend to gloss over this detail. But then, I am not a Greek scholar, and Wilson is. ↩