11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Timothy 2:11-15)
Over the last year, I’ve been working through troublesome Bible passages and I’ve avoided talking about this one until now. Not because I don’t like or can’t get past it but because it controversial, and I by nature, am conflict averse. I like to unpick things, take a deep dive into things I don’t understand or want to clarify – but I don’t want to have an online stoush about it.
But a reader recently asked me about verse 15 and the saving-through-childbearing thing, and you can’t really look at verse 15 without looking at the rest of it. But its a really tricky passage and we need to do justice to the text and acknowledge and deal with how we read it as women (and how it has been used). So I decided to do a 3-part blog that picks apart the 3 main elements – 1. Learning in silence and submission, 2. Not permitted to teach or have authority, and 3. Saved by childbearing.
Deep breaths everyone, here we go…..
Many are confronted enough by this passage that it becomes discarded as something added by a misogynistic Paul. This passage infantilizes women and silences their voices. This is not Jesus’ view, we reason, this was not in the gospels. So Paul must have added this based on his personal (sexist) opinions. On this basis the passage can be discarded.
Except that doesn’t quite work. Paul anchors what he is saying in the creation story which means it’s not really a later additional based on personal opinion. This demands that we pick it apart and work out what is being communicated. We need to look at language (Paul was writing in Greek) and context (he was in a specific place and time) to determine what is being said, before we have an emotional reaction to it that clouds our vision.
When I say “before we have an emotional reaction” I’m not being patronising and saying “calm down dear” in a pat-you-on-the-head kind of way. I have that emotional reaction when I read this passage too. It makes me feel angry. It makes me think that Paul is a misogynist jerk. It makes me feel talked down to, made to feel inferior to men.
I am a complementarian which means I believe that God created men and women with equal value and dignity and with different/complementary functions. That does not mean that I am OK with sexism or misogyny though. Complementarity does not include infantilising or demonising women, or treating them as inferior – even though I know Scripture has been sinfully used that way in the past (and sadly still is). Complementarity means having complementary functions – functions that are different but that fit together. There is no difference in value ascribed to those functions. Unfortunately, humans do ascribe value, treating some functions as higher/better and therefore the person/gender is higher/better. This is not what we see in Scripture.
But this is what can sit behind our reading of this passage. We can either be quick to assume it validates our superior position, or we can read it as though it really does belittle and silence us. So let’s go one verse at a time.
The first thing to look at is the context of verse 11 “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.”
In the previous section, in verses 8-10, Paul had exhorted men and women to worship appropriately, men without anger and women with decorum. That decorum is expressed in their manner of dress. To us today, Paul’s words telling a woman what to wear sounds rude and oppressive, but at the time, the manner of a woman’s dress and adornment communicated where their heart was. So Paul is not being prescriptive about what a woman should wear, and he is not making a sexist comment about it either, he is saying their behaviour should be appropriate to worship – it should show restraint, respect and good judgement. It’s similar to him telling the men to worship without anger or disputing. He is not saying all men have anger issues. He is telling them to worship with restraint, respect and good judgement.
This then rolls directly onto women learning in quietness and submission. Out of context, it sounds sexist and demeaning. In the context of respectful worship, it makes a bit more sense. We also need to remember that in this era, women did not really learn at all. It was Jesus that up-ended the expectations of the day by allowing women to follow him and learn from him. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet (Luke 10:38-42) and in Acts 2:42 when “they” devoted “themselves” to the apostles teaching, the verb encompasses both men and women. So Paul’s letter draws a direct line from Jesus, through the apostles to the church in Ephesus where Timothy was serving when Paul wrote him this letter. Women were equally taken seriously as disciples as the men are.
Furthermore, while our Bible translations are faithful, it is hard to get the full sense of the Greek verbs. It would require adding more and more words that make a straight translation more chaotic. With this passage, the way the verb works in Greek makes the sentence more like “See to it that the woman who seeks to learn, does so”.1 If a woman wants to learn as a disciple, she definitely should, and be encouraged to do it.
When we read learning in quietness, it feels like we’re being told to shut up, perhaps because we are highly sensitised to women’s voices being silenced. But the Greek word here was rarely used as a repressive command. It was more commonly used to describe a demeanour of reverence or devotion.
She is also to learn with full submission. Again, this can sound demeaning to our ears. But let’s think about this in our own setting for a moment – we need to sit under the teaching of the Bible in humility. That concept wouldn’t feel odd to us. Perhaps the context of male authority in the church in this passage makes this a little harder to accept. We’ll dig deeper into that aspect of the passage when we go through the permitting-a-woman-to-teach-and-hold-authority bit.
For the moment though, we’re starting this passage with an exhortation for the women to learn which was counter-cultural, and that if they did, they should do so reverently, and with humility.
1 Yarborough, The Letters to TImothy and Titus (The Pillars New Testament Commentary)