The Seemingly Sexist Epistle: Why History Is Important In Studying Scripture

So before we even look at the issue of sexism in Paul’s writings, let’s establish right here and now that patriarchy was the norm for a very long time. The Old Testament was chock full of dudes (as is the New) and significant women were often portrayed as evil (Jezebel), doubtful (Sarai), easily tempted (Eve), and stumbling blocks for men (Bathsheba).  And while there were plenty of important female figures in the Old Testament that weren’t a reflection of old world sexism (Deborah, Esther, Rehab) it was mostly a man’s world. This can be seen as a consequence of sin. In Genesis 3:16, God lists the patriarchal “husbands shall rule over you” as a consequence that had to be lived with as a result of the broken world.

Now the question for us today is what we do under the New Covenant. We know that Christ set us free from the binds of sin and law. We also know according to Galatians: 

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

– Galatians 3:28

So there should be no class, race, or gender distinction between those who are children of God. We are all one body and we can all take equal part in receiving the salvation that comes through Christ.

So what the heck is this about:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

– 1 Timothy 2:11-15

This is a favorite passage for Anti-theists to point to as proof that Christianity is sexist. Now when taken out of context this passage makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. How can Paul say that women cannot teach and must remain quiet when in Titus he says that:

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.

– Titus 2:3-5

Now granted this is in the context of women’s ministry, but it is still clear that it is the women who teach in this instance. How can a woman be expected to teach if she is not permitted to even speak in church? Now nay sayers may come back and say that this passage was not meant to be seen in a church setting, but that older women should mentore younger women in the home. It could be interpreted either way, but that’s not where the trouble for this passage ends.

You see, Paul actually encountered and praised several women in ministry positions throughout his time on earth as recorded in both Acts and his Epistles.

  • Priscilla – Along with her husband this woman helped instruct others in teaching the gospel, lead a house church, and is mentioned as one of Paul’s coworkers. (Acts 18:26; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Romans 16:3) The fact that she is mentioned alongside her husband rather than just her husband being named shows that she probably took equal part in their combined ministry. 
  • Phoebe – Is described as a “diakonon” which was a term reserved for church elders, and where the term Deacon came from. This shows that a woman was capable of being a church elder even as far back as the first century church. (Romans 16:1).
  • Junia – Is referred to among the outstanding Apostles, a title that Paul proudly used to describe himself and his own ministry.  (Romans 16:7)
  • Nympha – Is mentioned as a leader of a house church in Laodicea (Colossians 4:15)
  • Euodia and Syntyche – Worked at Paul’s side to help share the Gospel (Phil. 4:31)

So where on earth did 1 Timothy 2:11-15 come from? For that answer we turn to a fancy little tool I like to call “historical context“.

We should first understand what the book fo 1 Timothy is. None of Paul’s epistles were written to be systematic theology or scripture. Each and every one of these was a letter that Paul wrote, usually to a church or an individual. These letters were usually responding to a crisis or trouble that the early churches were facing, and as a result the letters contain occasional theology, practical advice, and encouragement designed to deal with specific problems and issues.

These letters were saved by many churches in order to preserve the wisdom they contained and these writings were later canonized as scripture. The saved writings of Paul (along with Peter, James, and John) would later be added as part of the New Testament canon for their theological, historic, and practical significance each one posessed.

1 Timothy is no exception and so context is important to understanding this very strange passage. This letter was written by Paul to Timothy, the leader of the Church in Ephesus, to convince him not to abandon his church and to give him guidance into how he could overcome some of the problems he was facing (mainly deception, meaningless talk, and false gospels). You see Ephesus was a city whose main religion was focused around worshiping Artemis, the goddess of fertility and child-birth. As a result the temple priestesses were most likely the main opposition that Timothy’s church faced.

The priestesses of Artemis would not have taken kindly to the Christians who were teaching things that would have encroached upon their target audience.

“…But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

This line was not saying that woman would obtain salvation by bearing children, but rather that it was God who protected them through the birthing process. In Ephesus the temple of Artemis got many sacrifices and donations from people who wanted their loved ones to have a successful birth. Infant and mother fatality rates back then were much higher than they are now, and so when a woman was close to labor it was common to fear for both her and the babies safety. When christians came on the scene and started saying that Artemis would not protect them and that only God had that power, it probably caused quite a stir.

So now the passage in 1 Timothy 2 makes a little more sense in context. This was not a means to say that women could never teach or that their position in life was to become quite, unquestioning, subservient slaves to men. This was how Paul addressed a local problem. Women (priestesses of Artemis) were disrupting Christian worship, spreading false doctrines, and making a mess of things so Paul tells Timothy to cut it off completely and let the men do the teaching. Perhaps it is a bit extreme by today’s standards, but it worked.

Also addressing the Adam and Eve reference in the passage, it seems more likely that this analogy was meant to illustrate that women have mislead men in the past, but it is not there to condemn womanhood in general, as many have used it.

So was the Apostle Paul a sexist? I don’t know, I never met the guy, but I don’t think he was. We have to draw our own conclusions, but when all the evidence is examined and context is considered I don’t see a lot of evidence for a vendetta against women.

What about the passage itself, Is 1 Timothy 2:11-15 a moment of ordained sexism that was permitted in order to resolve a local problem? I guess that depends on how you judge the passage. Without a doubt the passage is taking an extreme stance in order to prevent false doctrines to spread in the Church at Ephesus, and though clearly not a universal teaching, there was a moment when Paul told the women of Ephesus that they should stop teaching and speaking in church. Was Paul in the wrong for this?

Shockingly enough I’d say no. Excessive perhaps, but I don’t think Paul “wrong” to take an extreme stance in order to keep the Christian church in Ephesus alive and preaching the true gospel of Christ. We only have two of the letters that Paul wrote to Timothy, so it is unclear if we can really determine how Paul wanted this issue to be resolved in the long run. Perhaps a better and more efficient system would later be put in place at Ephesus, and this was only a temporary measure. We don’t know what the long term plan was or what the Apostle’s intent was other than that he needed to address the problem quickly.

While not allowing all of the women of the church in Ephesus to speak was not fair to the women who did nothing wrong, it seems that (at least for the moment it was written in) it was a necessary measure. If the tables were turned and it was men who were asked not to speak up in Church or banned from teaching, then I would be rather upset too. I would hate being told I was not permitted to speak just because some other guys were screwing up the services with bad theology and lies. In the end though, remaining silent for a time is worth it if taking such a measure means saving the church and allowing the saving message of Christ to spread in Ephesus.

This passage will always be a bit of a controversial one if for no other reason than we are trying to piece together a story that is missing many of its pieces. We don’t really know everything that lead up to this point (though history helps us make educated guesses) and we really don’t know how this issue was eventually resolved. We have a fraction of the conversation that took place and no more. While I’m sure this post will not unravel the issue of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 completely, it is my hope that in writing this I have given my readers a better glimpse and perhaps a clearer understanding of what the passage probably meant for its original audience.

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