Gender issues - 1 Timothy 2:9-15
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
If you want to choose a passage from the Bible which in today’s culture is guaranteed to have the effect of sending a fox into a chicken house, it is the one we are looking at this morning. This is such a prickly passage for some I would have liked to have been able to preach five sermons on it in order to qualify some things, but I will have to do my best with just one and chat to anyone afterwards if you want to talk more.
Now before we take a careful look at this passage there are three things I want to say which, hopefully, will help us hear what is being said rather than what we think is being said.
First, let me ask: do we believe that God has our best interests at heart, that he knows what is best, and that he has revealed what is for our best in the Bible? If the answer is, yes then that will put us in a decent frame of mind to listen and we will have a better chance of hearing properly. If the answer is no, then this morning may not be a pleasant time for some of us, but then this is not the passage that you need to look at but other passages which do spell out the goodness of God and his love for his world so that we do get to believe those things.
Secondly, in order to avoid cluttering up this passage with our questions so that we can hear God’s questions, we need to put to oneside issues such as the ordination of women, women bishops and the like. Not that this passage will not have implications for those issues, but rather because that is not what this passage is primarily addressing. So let’s focus on the matters which Paul the inspired apostle is addressing and then work out the consequences.
Thirdly, we must remember that while the Bible was written for us, so God speaks through the Bible, the Bible wasn’t written to us. Paul is writing to a particular person- Timothy- in a particular situation-a church in Ephesus- at a particular time- in the first century AD. This means that if we are going to hear what God has to say to us today, we need to understand what God was saying to them back then. So yes, we need to take into account, as much as we are able, the background of what Paul is writing about so we can make sense of some of the language he uses- for example why has he got a thing about gold and pearl earrings or necklaces and braided hair dos in v 9? However, this doesn’t mean that we can safely set to oneside what Paul is writing with a dismissive, ‘Oh, that was for them, so it doesn’t apply to us’, for you can do that with the whole of the Bible. No, as we shall see, there are some basic truths and underlying principles which Paul draws upon which are to shape church practice which goes back to the way God has ordered creation and that doesn’t change. So, if you like, the historical context provides the colour and shape of what Paul has to say, but the substance, God’s truth remains the same.
So, what is the background? Obviously he thinks that at least some of the women in the church are not behaving as they should (and for that matter, neither were some of the men-v8). At first sight it looks like this whole section from verse 1 is about ‘preaching, prayer and doing your hair’. In verse 9 Paul is concerned about the way some women are dressing and in v11 some women preaching. But what could be the reason for this change in behaviour which leads Paul to spell out the negative and the positive, what Christian women shouldn’t be doing and what they should be doing?
There are two possibilities. The first is that some women have come under the influence of false teachers- those who are promoting myths and so engendering controversy and division in the church. In chapter 4 what they teach is described as the doctrines of demons- which have a certain ascetic quality to them, forbidding marriage, eating only certain foods and so on. No doubt that was a concern, but I am not sure that explains what Paul is getting at here, because women who are concerned with wearing provocative dresses (as opposed to being modest) and having fancy hair dos and gold jewellery and the like don’t sound very ascetic to me- it is not exactly sack cloth and ashes is it? In fact at face value what Paul says about dressing modestly would be latched on to by the false teachers who are into a simple lifestyle as a mark of ‘real’ religion, in which case Paul would be playing into their hands.
So the second scenario seems more likely to me and it is this: around 44 BC women of high social status were given greater financial independence from their husbands and some used their new found wealth to give themselves a bit more freedom-including sexual freedom. In the literature these are referred to as ‘the New Roman Women’. It was, if you like, an early form of the 1960’s women’s liberation movement- no husband was going to tell them what to do. Up to this point was traditional that a married woman showed she was married by wearing a marriage veil over her head when she was out in public-like today a woman would wear a wedding ring; also she would cover her shoulders with a shawl and have short wavy hair. The women who wore no veil, but piled their hair high and wore gold earrings and pearls were the hetairai- prostitutes. Some husbands consorted with these and so some of the new women thought that what was sauce for the gander should be sauce for the goose and so they had their ‘toy’ boys, young men to have sex with and in order to attract them they started wearing fancy braided hair and gold earrings. So it came to a point that in some cases you couldn’t tell who was a prostitute and who was a woman of standing for they had ditched the traditional modest hair dos and clothes which marked a married woman and adopted the dress of those on the game. What is more, some of these women in order to keep their figure would take contraceptives and have abortions. This led to a significant fall in the birth rate, which meant a weak Rome. You see, in Roman culture ‘you were what you wore’, dress code was important and many in Rome thought that what some of these higher class women were doing was sending the wrong signals- looking provocative to be provocative and undermining social stability.
You can imagine this didn’t go down well with the powers that be. So Caesar Augustus tried to stem this movement. First he tried to promote good old fashioned values, particularly the idea of the ideal wife- the modest matron- and so he commissioned statues to be built which displayed good dress sense- married women with head coverings, long sleeves, no jewellery and so on. In AD 18 he introduced laws which laid down financial penalties for remaining single, committing adultery, and gave financial incentives for having children. He also instituted a ‘dress police’ to make sure that women were properly dressed. Even some philosophers got in on the act. So Seneca the Younger wrote to his mother in the 40’s during the reign of Nero commending her for not engaging in immorality, wearing gold and pearls, but instead dressing modestly and not being ashamed to have children. He said, ‘Your only ornament, the kind of beauty that does not tarnish, is the great honour of modesty.’
So maybe some of the higher class Christian women in the church in Ephesus ( as well as Corinth) had become ‘new women’, which would have brought the church into disrepute and so provide a stumbling block for the Gospel- after all, which man would want to join a group which tolerated that which the Emperor thought was suspect? And remember that throughout this letter the apostle is concerned with winning converts, having a church which is functioning in a healthy way as God intended-including male-female relations-to show people that there is a better way, leading ‘peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.’-v2. Why is this important? Because, ‘This is good and pleases God our Saviour who wants all men to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth.’
If that is the case, then we can start to make sense of what Paul says.
And so verse 9, we have Paul’s concern for simplicity over show: ‘I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.’ That is the prohibition. When Paul says, ‘I want’ that is not a personal preference, it is an apostolic command-this is what God wants. And what he doesn’t want is for Christian women to be looking like someone on the game, to be sexually alluring. Now remember the context is about the way Christian men and women are to behave in God’s household-the church, what is going to build up and what is going to tear down. Part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian is to think of others, what will help them and what will hurt them. Here the women were not doing that and they had to be challenged. The Ephesian women were very much in tune with the fashions of the day and some of the fashions, which were quiet immodest- skimpy dresses. And it has to be said that many of today’s fashions are very much like that and so they find their way into a church meeting - the low cut dress and short skirt. My dear sisters, and I say this as gently as I can, could I ask you to consider the appropriateness of dressing like that especially on a Sunday and think about what effect such dress might be having on the men? It doesn’t mean looking frumpy or boring; you can still look nice and fashionable as most of you do, but think christianly about what you wear.
But then Paul goes on from the prohibition to the commendation- just what should characterise the Christian woman. Well, it is not provocative dresses but precious deeds- ‘but (here is the contrast- women are to adorn themselves with) good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.’ The point is, even the pagan Emperor and the philosophers had got this right- so what a switch off it would be for many of them if the Christians got this wrong. Our standards should be higher than the pagans, not lower because we have come to know and love the living God in Jesus Christ who saves and transforms, who makes life better for married couples not worse, with husbands and wives caring about what the other thinks and putting themselves out for each other unlike the new woman, do you see?
So if that is how women are to adorn themselves, how should they conduct themselves in God’s household? Here Paul begins with the direction, v11 ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.’ Let’s just pause there for a moment and take in what Paul is saying. First, Paul is saying what Christian women should do- learn. This is the primary activity when God’s people meet together-being ‘church’- learning. This is very much in line with Jesus final words to his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel- to make disciples-learners- of all nations- teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ Paul lays it down that women are to be learners, they are not second class citizens, they are to grow in knowledge of the Gospel since they are joint heirs with Christ.
Secondly, we are told how the woman should learn, namely, ‘in quietness and full submission’, and then in verse 12 Paul adds, ‘she must be silent’, which is an over translation, because it is exactly the same word as in v11 and verse2, when Paul speaks about leading ‘quiet lives’, so why on earth the NIV translates this as ‘silence’ is beyond me. You see, Paul is simply saying that when it comes to that key activity of learning, which lies at the heart of what happens when God’s people meet together, they are to listen attentively without interrupting or being contentious. And I am glad to say that is exactly what you are all doing right now as I preach- learning in ‘quietness’, and I really do appreciate that.
Now the term which really gets the hackles rising is ‘full submission’. What does that mean? It might be helpful to say what it doesn’t mean. It is not a matter of inferiority. In fact as someone has pointed out, you have submission between equals, it is choosing to submit for the sake of a greater good. Think of a football team. In terms of their common humanity, even ability, the full back is equal to the captain who is the striker. But for the sake of the team and the purpose of the game, the full back will fully submit to the captain. It is a question of order. Sure, there may be a local context here in Ephesus if you had some new Roman women who were not into submitting to anyone-their husbands or the Emperor- but the principle is a universal one. So those are the commendations-this is what godly women should be doing and the way they should be conducting themselves in a church gathering like this- and let me say what an absolute delight it is to belong to a church with so many godly women- you are terrific.
But then we have the restriction, v12, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.’ The question is: is Paul talking about two things or one- teaching and having authority or exercising authority through teaching? Given that in the next chapter Paul goes on to talk about leadership/oversight in the church and that the one ability the leader is to have is to teach, and what Paul says in 2 Timothy 2, that he is to appoint reliable men to teach others, it would seem to be the latter. The way the Lord of the church rules his church, exercises his loving authority in his family, is by the teaching of the Word of God in the power of the Spirit of God and this is the task which is restricted to men. This does not mean that a woman can do no teaching, for example of other women, nor, I would suggest does it mean they can’t lead a mixed Bible study, or speak to a mixed gathering of Christians, as at a conference or a after church meeting. Rather it is that when it comes to leading a church through the authoritative proclamation of God’s Word, what we would call preaching- that is restricted to appointed men.
Then Paul gives the reason for this, v 13, ‘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.’ Paul is taking us back to creation and Genesis chapters 2 and 3. In other words, somehow, the way men and women are to relate in the church, God’s household, has its foundation in the way God set things up in the first place in the human household and the way things went wrong. In the Genesis 2 account, the man is created first and as man is by himself God says that is ‘not to be good’ so god rectifies the situation by creating from the man a ‘helper’, woman- (so she is equal- from the man- but different) and it is together in relationship, that they express the image of God. But the man being first is taken as an indication of leadership or headship in the relationship. This is the established structure in the human family and it is to be reflected in the church family. So to invert that order is to invert God’s order which he established for our good. And this brings us to the second point when it all went wrong. Note that Eve is said to have been ‘deceived’. This is not a text which suggests that women are particularly gullible or do the deceiving. No. The point is that it was Adam as head who was given the command of God not to eat of the tree of knowledge. And he was the one who should have stood firm and engaged with the tempter, but he didn’t, in fact he just stood there and did nothing. Eve, however, in this regard took Adam’s position, she listened to the tempter and she decided that what he said was right, that God wasn’t good, that his word was not to be trusted and so she fell and so did Adam. And Paul is concerned that such a pattern is not recapitulated in the church. The man is given God’s word which he is to believe and obey and share with the woman in a caring, protecting way. For him not to do this and to abdicate his responsibility by saying nothing and giving it over to the woman and submitting to her direction like Adam did is to repeat the sin of Adam. Do you see?
So what do we make of verse 15? ‘But women will be saved through childbearing-if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.’ ‘Ah’ you say, ‘I knew it, it is male chauvinism after all, Paul wanting women to be weighed down with umpteen children, chained to the kitchen sink.’ No, he is not saying that at all. Just think about it: if either through the influence of the ‘new women’ or false teachers, some of the Christian women are denying their womanhood by refusing to have children or wanting to keep their figures through abortions, they will be going in a direction directly opposite to the Gospel and so won’t be saved. If through the Gospel, which restores relationships, mends that which has become broken through sin- our relationship with God, men and women- then women can affirm and celebrate their womanhood, and especially that which is unique and precious to them- having children. And by living out their new life under God, having faith, love and holiness of course they will be saved, for these are the marks of a saved person, a life lived under the Lordship of King Jesus.
You see, all that Paul has been dealing with here in this context is what we all have to deal with in our context- dealing with the effects of sin. Here it is the particular expression of our rebellion in terms of the sexes- the original sin that we know better than God, that he does not have our best interests at heart and his Word on matters-including gender matters- can’t be trusted so we decide to mess around with the way God has ordered things and what a mess we make as a result. But the Gospel starts to put things right and restore proper order, with men learning not to be so pumped up with testosterone that they engage in one upmanship and disputing, instead they learn to live quiet lives committed to prayer-vv1-8. It is for women to be women as God intended, of immense worth and dignity, not being swept away by a false liberation to do your own thing and wear whatever you want no matter how unhelpful-but to show kindness, love and respect; to grasp with both hands the privilege of hearing the Word of God and working it out in our relationships in the church and at home, and for men called by God, to lovingly care for God’s people by teaching the word of God, even at personal cost to themselves when what is taught is unpopular in the modern culture. But because he loves God and his people, he will do it anyway.
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