I had to think about how to treat this next paragraph. As you may be aware, it has been the focus of intense scrutiny over the past thirty years, ever since the feminist revolution transformed American life and profoundly changed the way people think about the difference between men and women. A simple reading of this text does not seem to favor feminist thinking, emphasizing as it does differences between men and women and drawing out some important implications of those differences for life in the church. So it was predictable that evangelical scholars of a feminist persuasion would re-examine this paragraph to find a way to read it that was supportive of an understanding of gender and sexual roles and callings congenial to modern thought. I have whole books on my shelf devoted to the interpretation of this single paragraph. I have a number of other books that include lengthy studies of this single paragraph. In the footnotes of those books you will find listed book after book and article after article devoted to the interpretation of this single text, almost all of which were written in the last thirty years or so. The major commentaries on 1Timothy devote many pages to their examination of these few verses precisely because the interpretation of this passage has become so controversial. I’m sure there are many nowadays who, before buying a particular commentary on 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, first examine its treatment of 1 Timothy 2:8-15. If the interpretation is congenial to feminism some will buy it; if it takes a more classical view of the text others will buy it. But, like it or not the interpretation of this text has become for a great many readers of the Bible a litmus test. 1 Tim. 2:8-15 is, without question, the most significant text in the New Testament on the subject of the distinction of genders and the implications of masculinity and femininity for life.
As a result it has become perhaps the most controversial text in the New Testament. Gone are the days of the Protestant Reformation when the most controversial text was the Lord’s statement at the last supper, “This is my body.” Gone likewise are the days of the early church when the most controversial text in the Bible was the Lord’s statement in explanation of his parable of the wheat and the tares, “The field is the world.” In our day the real controversy is over Paul’s statement, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.”
The war fought over the interpretation of this text has been, as wars often are, a succession of separate battles. There has been a battle fought over the nature and the implications of the particular false teaching against which Paul was battling in this letter. Do the particulars of that teaching mean that what Paul says here is specific to the Ephesian situation and should not be taken to teach some general doctrine of men and women and their roles in church and home? There was a fierce and lengthy battle fought over the meaning of the word αύθεντεῖν in v. 12, which the ESV translates as “to exercise authority over.” Perhaps the word means “to domineer,” so that it is only an improper exercise of authority that is forbidden. Another battle was fought over Paul’s use of Adam and Eve in v. 13 and still another over the meaning of “saved through childbearing” in v. 15. I will say, at this point, that in my view every one of those battles was won and won decisively by those defending the church’s historic understanding of this passage, but the war was still largely lost, indicating that it was not the Bible that determined people’s views but the culture. So-called evangelical feminists did enough to satisfy themselves and their constituency that they were loyal to the Bible and went on their way with opinions that came not from the Bible but from the culture. Some proof of this is furnished by the fact that liberal commentators on this text, that is, scholars who feel themselves under no obligation to believe what the Bible actually teaches, generally do not dispute that this text teaches both that there is a fundamental distinction between men and women built into them by their Creator and that this distinction had specific implications for their respective callings. It is only evangelicals, people like you and me, people who profess loyalty to the Bible and submission to its authority as the Word of God, who must find a different way to read this text if they want to maintain feminist opinions about gender. My personal opinion is that if I could use the devices used by evangelical feminist interpreters of this and other texts like it in the NT to remove significant gender distinction from Paul’s argument, it, I could make the Bible say virtually anything I wanted.
In any event, I found myself betwixt and between facing this text. I could take three or four Sunday evenings thoroughly to explore the issues, to give you an account of every thrust and parry of the thirty years war over these verses, or I could do as I usually do, and devote a single sermon to this paragraph. I have chosen to do the latter. I will mention, but only in passing, some of the specifics of the controversy, and then deal with what I take, and what Christendom has historically taken to be Paul’s point.
So begins Paul’s consideration of the differences between men and women. “Men” in v. 8 is the Greek term that always refers to the male human being. In vv. 1 and 4 the ESV rightly translates the term “men” as “people.” That is the Greek word anthropos, and, while it can refer to male human beings in distinction from females, it very frequently refers to human beings generically, men and women without distinction. The context determines its meaning. But the word used in v. 8 is ἀνήρ, which refers specifically to a male human being in distinction from a female human being. Then, in v. 9, Paul turns to the women. Clearly he is saying one thing about men another thing about women.
Paul had mentioned prayer in v.1, so he is returning to that subject here after making the point in the previous verses that prayer should be offered for all people because God desires the salvation of all people. Here again the emphasis seems to fall on the church’s public prayer.
Paul assumes that the hands would be lifted in prayer, as that was a customary — though not invariable — posture for prayer, as we know from the OT and from Jewish sources. But his interest here is not in the raising of the hands — which is just another way of describing the act of prayer — but in the hands that were raised being holy, as the following phrase and then the following sentence about women indicates. As Paul tells us in 3:15, a very important verse for the interpretation of the whole letter, he was writing to tell the Christians in Ephesus “how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God…”
The question here is whether Paul is talking specifically about the Christian worship service or about the conduct of Christian women in general. It is hard to think that he is only concerned about how women dress in church, as if he wouldn’t mind if they didn’t dress appropriately for the street or the market. Rather the principles of Christian daily life find particular expression in the church’s corporate life.
The term the ESV renders “apparel” in v. 9 may well apply to demeanor as well. He’s not just talking about clothing. A woman’s dress, as has been often said, is a “mirror of her mind.” [Guthrie, 74] Don’t minimize the importance of dress. Virtually all human beings find and have always found the effect of clothing very powerful in one way or another. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wittily observed, “The sense of being perfectly well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquility which religion is powerless to bestow.”
A word about Paul’s comment about apparel and the fixing of hair. He is obviously forbidding ostentation, any effort to draw admiring attention to oneself. But the Bible itself in a number of cases says positive things about attractive clothing, the arranging of hair, the use of cosmetics and jewelry, all things obviously meant to cultivate an attractive appearance. We have here a typically biblical way of speaking: black and white with no gray, an absolute command without qualification, the purpose of which is strongly to emphasize a particular obligation. This is the way the Bible very often teaches its ethics: in blacks and whites with no qualifications. The Bible clearly does not forbid and sometimes encourages the cultivation of a woman’s appearance, but not for the purposes of vanity. The main thing for a Christian woman is the beauty of her character and her service to others. “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” [Prov. 31:30] But, again, it is typical of the Bible to emphasize the importance of something by making it the only thing or to warn against the misuse of something by forbidding it in its entirety. Interestingly, in 1 Pet. 3:3, Peter makes a similar point in a similar way.
“Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear — but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart” and so on.
That is the English translation. But what Peter actually wrote was “do not let your adorning be external…the wearing of clothes…” Presumably both Paul and Peter thought that Christian women are to wear clothes! But this was Peter’s way of saying that Christians must be moderate in their dress and so should avoid ostentation and the cultivation of vanity. “Don’t wear clothes” means “don’t put the wrong emphasis on your clothing.” Like it or not, a woman’s clothing is a much bigger deal than a man’s; always has been, always will be. Check out the Nordstrom floor plan and see how much of it is occupied with men’s clothing. Still, for you young women who are wondering how to work this out in your own life, let me offer you this simple piece of advice:
Be not the first by whom the new is tried,
Nor the last to lay the old aside.
The effect of clothing is determined by a culture. Modesty is an effect produced in the minds of others. What is modest in one time and place may not be in another. It is the effect you are after. Being too concerned to be trendy is not the way to be modest.
By the way, v. 11 is really more striking in a positive sense than you may at first realize. The Jews did not emphasize and in some quarters did not allow the education of women. One rabbi went so far as to say “Better to burn the Torah than to teach it to a woman.” Not so Paul or the rest of the Bible for that matter, certainly not the rest of the New Testament. Women were to learn the Word of God as men were to learn it. Here Paul is talking about the way they were to learn. Perhaps the false teachers were pushing the envelope and some women were exceeding proper bounds.
As I said, there has been a running battle over the proper translation of the word the ESV has rendered “to exercise authority over.” Indeed, one commentator observes that “The translation of αύθεντεῖν has become the crux of the passage.” [Mounce, 126] That is, the feminist re-interpretation of the passage stands or falls on the question of the translation of this word. I would bore you and lose you if I summarized all the arguments pro and con. I will say only that the ESV and all English translations of the Bible in common use give us something like “to exercise authority over,” they do so because that is the ordinary meaning of the word, and since here it is linked with teaching, which is in itself a positive thing, it is still more difficult to think that the word should be translated “domineer” and refer only to the way in which someone exercises authority. She is not to do either: exercise authority over or teach a man.
That is, there is an order that God has imposed on his creation, an order of the sexes that in God’s perfect creation was intended for the blessing and happiness of all. Paul appeals to the order of the creation of man and woman again in 1 Cor. 11:8-9 when discussing the relationship of men and women and their respective callings. He finds in the way God made the race a fundamental assumption about the nature of manhood and womanhood.
There are difficulties here, no doubt — we wish Paul had stopped to say and at length precisely what he meant and what he did not mean — but Paul again draws attention to the formative history of mankind, this time not at the creation but at the fall. The history of the fall, as it is recorded in Genesis 3, also reveals something significant about men and women. As you can imagine, there has been a howl going up about this verse for the past thirty years. It is demeaning to women, it implies that they are inferior, it seems to suggest that only women are ever deceived when it is perfectly obvious that men are often deceived, and on and on. We’ll leave it here: Paul is obviously saying that the fall reveals something about the difference he is referring to, as the creation did before it. There is a reason why God chose to entrust the leadership of the church — and, at least largely, of the world for that matter — to men. Bad things happen when the divinely established order between the sexes is reversed. We may struggle to know precisely what Paul means and what he does not mean in v. 14, but we know that much to be true: bad things happen when the divinely established order for human life is reversed.
There has been endless discussion about this final verse of the paragraph as well. Some have contended that Paul is talking about a woman’s physical health and safety in delivering children, but this is doubtful not only because of the previous verse and the mention of the fall and sin, but there is no really plausible reason why Paul should raise that issue here. Besides, Paul never uses the word “saved” in reference to anything other than salvation from sin and death, and he uses the word a lot. Others have argued that what we have here is a reference to Jesus Christ. The woman will be saved through the childbirth,” namely the birth of Christ, in context, the seed of the woman mentioned in Genesis 3 as the antidote to the fall. However, that is a remarkably obscure way of referring to salvation and Paul never elsewhere refers to the birth of Christ as the salvation of sinners as he frequently refers to the cross as the salvation of sinners.
It is better in the context to take this statement as a reference to the woman’s sphere of life. She has been told that she is not to be a leader or teacher in the church. She will work out her salvation in a different sphere, that of home and motherhood. We know the false teachers were denigrating marriage (4:3) so Paul reasserts the fundamental calling of the Christian woman as wife and mother. It is here that most Christian women — not all, we know, but most — will work out their salvation with fear and trembling, hence the last phrase, “if they continue….” In 5:10 and 14 we will find a similar emphasis on Paul’s part in asserting that particular calling as the calling of Christian women.
I’m sorry to have gone on at such length in explaining the text, but, as I said, virtually every phase of this paragraph has become controversial in our day and many of you will have heard other interpretations of this text advanced as if they were obvious and certain to be true. It bears saying that after all of the controversy, after all the research reported in all the books and articles, the simple, straightforward interpretation of the text, which the Christian church has shared for almost two-thousand years still commends itself as most obviously Paul’s meaning.
It is worth taking time to remind ourselves that this passage was never thought to stand out as particularly difficult until very recently. That was in some part because of its larger biblical context. After all, this is hardly the only evidence for such a distinction between the calling of men and women, for the reservation of leadership in church and home to men, and for the emphasis in Holy Scripture on a woman’s special calling as a mother.
In the OT the leadership of sanctuary and state was placed in the hands of men by the express commandment of the Lord. Priests were to be men only. The nation was ruled by kings, not queens; the sons of David, not his daughters. The elders of the people were men not women. To be sure, we have Deborah as a judge and Huldah as a prophetess, as we have prophetesses in the New Testament. That is happy testimony to the fact that God has not given woman her particular sphere because she is less worthy or intelligent or capable. Still, all the great prophets of the OT were men and all those who provided books of the Bible.
When we come into the New Testament the situation remains the same, indeed specific teaching on the distinction between men and women and their respective roles is more explicit in the NT than in the Old. The Lord Jesus, of course, was a male human being, a point we are inclined to take for granted but the Bible does not. He chose for his inner circle, as a microcosm of the church in the new epoch and as its original leadership, twelve men. There were woman in his entourage, wonderful women who were of great help to him and whom he appreciated and loved very deeply, but he did not add a single one of them to the Twelve and when it was necessary to replace Judas, another man was chosen and then Paul as well. When the deacons were appointed for the first time, as we read in Acts 6, the apostles instructed the church to choose seven males, not anthropos but ἀνήρ, the word for the male human being in distinction from the female, and the seven individuals who were chosen all had masculine names. These men were chosen even though the ministry for which they would be responsible was a ministry to widows. We are going to read in the next chapter that the elders of the church must be men, husbands of but one wife; a point that will be made again in Titus 1.
How clear all of this was is indicated by the fact that the early church had a male-only leadership except in some of its heterodox sects and has preserved that practice until very recently, and has abandoned it only as it has also abandoned the authority of the Bible to govern its affairs.
But our world has been utterly transformed in this respect in a single generation. There was nothing particularly controversial about this text even among unbelievers until very recently. But now the world reads these verses and considers them patronizing nonsense, a relic of a bye-gone day that we have thankfully left behind, the echo of an unenlightened and primitive age, a feature of human life like slavery that humanity has finally risen above. Surely feminism has been a great boon, a tremendous advance for human beings! Or has it?
In the parts of the world where the feminist ideal has been most thoroughly incorporated into the social fabric, those societies are literally falling apart. It may take a generation or even two for death to overtake them, but that they are terminally ill that is already obvious and irrefutable and becoming a subject of social comment all over Europe and North America. I read a review this week of a major book portending doom for American civilization for this very reason. European and American marriage is the laughing stock of the world. Fewer and fewer adults are getting married. Seattle, for example, is increasingly becoming a city of singles, it is at least half single now, and the entire country is not far behind. Serial co-habitation is now commonplace for the first time in Western civilization. Do you have any idea how profound these changes are and what they portend for the not too distant future?
All of these social changes might seem harmless (indeed are largely assumed in our elite culture to be somehow beneficial), though its psychological effects are traumatic enough (we have a rapidly growing segment of the population that is going to live and die alone). But plunging birthrates are a threat to the very survival of our civilization. Our western society is already falling far short of mothers and if Europe’s experience is anything to go by, and we seem to be following Europe in lockstep in all of these social developments, we are soon to experience a desperate and irreversible shortage of mothers. At present in the United States the birthrate for white, college-educated women is 1.6, far below the rate necessary to sustain a population and all signs point to its continuing to drop. Do you understand this math? If two people produce one person — that would be a birthrate of 1 — the population will halve in a single generation. We are not there yet, but we are getting there and Europe is already there. The population of the United States has not begun to drop significantly only because of the higher birthrates of immigrant women, but most are predicting that it soon will decline and thereafter more and more quickly. Rapidly decreasing populations are the time-bomb threatening to destroy western civilization.
But no wonder; the feminist woman is urged to be anything and everything but a mother. Motherhood is not held before her any longer as the great goal of her life at school, high school or college; indeed a teacher could get into very big trouble if he or she suggested that such was in fact the great goal of a woman’s life, and without subtlety she learns early on that any woman who thinks that her great calling in life is to bear and raise children is selling herself short. Motherhood is a limitation, even a prison in the feminist worldview. Well, if so, women should enjoy their day in the sun while they can, because it will be short and end badly. And, of course, young men are not urging their significant others to bear children; they are more likely to urge them to get an abortion should they find themselves pregnant. A survey a few years ago of male seniors at the University of Washington found that most of them did not want their wives to be stay-at-home mothers because of the impact this would have on what they hoped would be their two-income lifestyle. This is a recipe for disaster, a disaster that is coming so fast you younger people will witness it in your lifetimes.
In the church it is as bad or worse. The mainline Protestant denominations that have been committed to encouraging female leadership — pastors and elders — for most of a century now are going to disappear long before societies of which they are part. A special punishment the Lord has for the church when it flaunts his law! Few of them will survive in any meaningful form past mid-century. The PCUSA is expected to lose a quarter of its membership in the next five years! The women gained the leadership but in a generation there will be nothing left to lead. That stark fact deserves to be noticed much more than it is. The Roman Catholic Church still has a male only priesthood, but its traditionally large families are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. And much the same could be said of evangelical families as well. As families have shrunk, so has the church.
And what of the men? Alas we all know that feminism has proved an acid that has eaten away what remained of the nobler parts of American masculinity, leaving only the dross. American men, educated in the feminist worldview, were taught that they had no special responsibility for women — women did not need them or want them to be men as manhood was traditionally understood — and they enthusiastically availed themselves of the opportunity to live for themselves. The transformation of the American male, now terminally juvenile, irresponsible in his relationships, unfaithful and unreliable, in vast numbers living at home until in his thirties, is perhaps the most ghastly consequence of feminism. Ironically the disappearance of manhood has done no damage more baleful than the damage it has done to the life of women themselves.
Feminism’s very modern cry for liberation has led, like so many other modern revolutionary movements, to new forms of bondage and precious little human flourishing. Our culture is dying and it is very easy to connect the line between the feminist revolution and a number of the most troubling and destructive features of modern western life. It is hardly the only cause of the decline and ruin of the west, but it is surely one of the more significant causes.
So the first thing we must say in response to those who champion feminist ideas in the church, who protest the reservation of leadership to men, who are offended by the emphasis placed upon a woman’s special calling as the mother of children, is this: look at the world these ideas have created! It’s not beautiful; it is ugly. It hasn’t released a flood of new vitality that will transform human life; it has crippled human life and threatens now literally to destroy it in the western world. The denial of the reality that Paul here takes for granted has not improved our world; it is killing it. Come back with your rather desperate attempts to prove that Paul does not mean what he seems to mean in 1Tim. 2:8-15 when you have something to show us that does not cause us to recoil in disgust and dismay and does not portend the end of our nation and our evangelical church.
Very modern is the cry for the liberation of women from bondage to the biblical conception of her life and calling. Historically the social interest of most people, Christian and unbeliever alike was duty, order, and responsibility. The forsaking of those ideals has resulted, predictably, in disorder and disintegration. We are taking a civilization, dismantling it, and replacing it with…nothing. What feminism has bequeathed to the western world is not liberation but alienation and despair. We are getting now the worst of both sexes and little of the best of either of them. We are being robbed of one of the most precious and delightful parts of human life — the interest of men and women in one another. We have made that dimension of life increasingly competitive, bitter, unpleasant, disappointing, and a story of repeated failure.
The second thing to say is that, as we noted in passing when reading v. 11, the Bible, while making some distinctions between men and women and their callings in life, always views men and women as equally responsible for their lives before God, equally obliged to learn the truth and to practice it in their lives, equally able to contribute to the kingdom of God in ways that are essential to its life and health. We can put this point very simply, though it can be made in many ways: the church can live without a woman doctor or lawyer or manager, though nothing prevents a Christian woman from pursuing such callings, but the church will die without Christian mothers, without Christian motherhood embraced without reservation by most of her women. If a Christian woman really seeks first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, she will not let the world persuade her that climbing the corporate ladder is somehow more important to God’s cause in the world than bearing and raising children for the church of God on earth and in heaven. Don’t mistake me; some Christian women will not marry, some will not be mothers for reasons having nothing to do with a worldly disinterest in motherhood. God will call them to the single life, or, in this day and age in particular, they will find themselves without a man worth marrying. But that must not be the norm or the church will have no future. Evangelism has never supplied enough Christians to grow and sustain the kingdom of God without the Christian family.
The third thing to say is simply that the long ages of Christian history bear their witness to the remarkable legacy of women in the world and the kingdom of God who lived their lives precisely as the Apostle Paul has told them they ought to live them here. We don’t, with few exceptions, remember them as kings or generals or preachers of God’s Word, but the calling that Paul has summoned them to in these verses has not prevented vast numbers of them from living lives of immense importance, of rare beauty, and, for themselves, of tremendous satisfaction. One of the things that has always amazed me about feminist propaganda is the way in which it patronizes virtually all the women who lived before Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, including their own mothers! Apparently, true womanhood was created in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That is almost universally true of revolutionary social movements: one has to sugarcoat the present — because it never lives up to expectations, never produces anything close to what was promised — and one has to demonize the past — because otherwise it will seem too attractive in comparison with the present.
Ladies, your heavenly father made you as you are for what he has called you to do. I say, absolutely, as the Bible commands you, cultivate your gifts, be all that you can be. The church and the world, Christian men, and Christian children supremely, need intelligent, educated, gifted Christian women making the most of their gifts, their opportunities and their lives. We need what you have to offer in every way; every way, that is, except those ways that the Lord, in his wisdom, has reserved for men. And when you are tempted to resent that the Lord has given some work to men that he has not given to you, take a good look around you and heave a sigh of relief that you have not been finally given handed the helm of the ship at the very moment its decks are awash and sinking under the waves!