The debate about the rather challenging verses in Paul’s first letter to Timothy continues to surface at regular intervals, and it is often characterised as being between those who maintain the ‘historic’ understanding of these verses, so requiring women not to teach or have authority in church, and those who want to offer an ‘innovative’ reading that allows for a full role for both genders. I was told exactly that last week on social media: whom am I to go against the settled and agreed view of the Church for close on 2,000 years?
But it is worth reflecting on how this passage has in fact been interpreted historically. Kevin Giles does just this in his article in Evangelical Quarterly from 2000, available for download here. Some of the voices from the past are well worth listening to.
Giles first notes that there is wide agreement amongst Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, Jerome, Aquinas and many others that v 11 means that Paul is demanding absolute silence by women in church at all times. ‘Calvin and Luther also took Paul to be saying women should keep silent in church, yet in practice they allowed women to sing hymns in church. Calvin allowed that they could lead in prayer, Luther did not.’ Here is a sample of related comments, some from Giles, some direct from the sources.
Chysostom in Homily 9:
For, as if they came hither for recreation, they are all engaged in conversing upon unprofitable subjects. Thus all is confusion, and they seem not to understand, that unless they are quiet, they cannot learn anything that is useful. For when our discourse strains against the talking, and no one minds what is said, what good can it do to them? To such a degree should women be silent, that they are not allowed to speak not only about worldly matters, but not even about spiritual things, in the church…For the sex is naturally somewhat talkative: and for this reason he restrains them on all sides.
On v 12 Luther comments:
This passage makes woman subject. It takes from her all public office and authority
and he here appears to understand this to apply in all spheres of life, not just home and church. Similarly, Calvin says that
Women by nature (that is by the ordinary law of God) are born to obey, for all wise men have always rejected gunaikokratian the government of women, as an unnatural monstrosity…the true order of nature prescribed by God lays down that the woman should be subject to the man.
The 19th-century Southern US theologian R L Dabney comments:
Man is the ruler, woman the ruled…Her race is a subordinate race…
Charles Hodge says:
Man’s superiority … enables and entitles him to command…This superiority of the man is … taught in Scripture, founded in nature and proved by all experience.
Calvin on creation order:
Now Moses shews that the woman was created afterwards, in order that she might be a kind of appendage to the man; and that she was joined to the man on the express condition, that she should be at hand to render obedience to him. Since, therefore, God did not create two chiefs of equal power, but added to the man an inferior aid, the Apostle justly reminds us of that order of creation in which the eternal and inviolable appointment of God is strikingly displayed…The reason that women are prevented from teaching is that it is not compatible with their status, which is to be subject to men, whereas to teach implies superior authority and status.
The influential English Methodist theologian, Adam Clarke, comments:
God designed that he (the man) should have the pre-eminence … the structure of woman plainly proves that she was never designed for those exertions required in public life. In this is the chief part of the natural inferiority of woman.
Irenaeus says: ‘Having become disobedient, she (Eve) was made the cause of death, both to herself and the whole human race’ and Tertullian goes further:
The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die.
Luther on the woman’s deception:
There was more wisdom and courage in Adam…Experience has been witness of this…It was not Adam who went astray. Therefore there was greater wisdom in Adam, than in the woman.
[The woman] seduced the man from God’s commandment, it is fitting that she should be deprived of all her freedom and placed under a yoke
On the final phrase, about ‘being saved through the childbirth’, Chrysostom comments:
Be not cast down, because your sex has incurred blame…the whole sex shall be saved, notwithstanding, by childbearing.
Luther argues that women’s penalty for sin remains, notwithstanding the work of Christ:
The pain and tribulation of childbearing continue. These penalties will continue until judgement…You will be saved if you subjected yourselves and bear children with pain…If women bear themselves weary—or ultimately bear themselves out-that does not matter. Let them bear themselves out. This is the purpose for which they exist.
Calvin (says Giles) believes these words were added for the ‘consolation’ of women.
[In case it should] reduce women to despair to hear the whole ruin of the human race imputed to them…Paul reminds them that although they must suffer temporal punishment, the hope of salvation remains for them.
The reason for citing these perspectives is not simply to provoke revulsion against these views, though Giles does comment:
It is hard not to come to the conclusion that so much of what we have just outlined, which purports to be the exegesis of 1 Tim. 2-9-15, is not more a reflection of the androcentric and misogynist views of the theologians quoted, who are immersed in a thoroughly patriarchal culture, than the mind of God as revealed in Scripture.
(For a sustained argument along these lines, see Alvin Schmidt, Veiled and Silenced: how culture shaped sexist theology.) I would hasten to add that these readings are very hard to support from the text of Genesis and 1 Timothy, let alone the wider picture in the NT of men’s and women’s roles. For my own perspectives, see my entries on Genesis, on 1 Timothy, as well as on 1 Corinthians and Ephesians.
But Giles’ real point here is that even the most ‘conservative’ mainstream view arguing that women cannot teach does not argue for what these historic interpretations argue. The consistent position above is that women should not exercise any responsibility or authority in society, that their purpose in life is childbirth, and that this is because they are inherently inferior and more prone to sin. Contemporary conservative commentators are always very careful to distance themselves from such views.
The consequence of this is that, in the debates about the role of women, all views are ‘novel’ in the sense that they do not follow the above positions. So the debate is not between the ‘historic’ view and an ‘innovation’, but between two competing innovative readings, both of which are significantly different from past readings.
But I have further reflections on this dynamic. To recognise this history of interpretation is not to advocate a hermeneutical counsel of despair—if so many can get this so wrong, why bother reading these texts? Quite the opposite. It demonstrates how easy it is for us to be shaped by the values of our age and read this into the Scriptural text—and that applies to all sides in the current debates on sexuality and gender relations. Our careful engagement with the text of Scripture is more important than ever, as is the commitment to allowing Scripture to challenge and form our views.
The task of interpretation demands a high level of both self-awareness as well as awareness of the range of different perspectives. The only way to address this is to engage, positively, with those with whom we disagree, rather than retreating into ghettos of those who share the same view as we do.
(First published in a revised form in September 2013).
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