March 23, 2011
Our Journey toward Women in Leadership (Part 2)
How we dealt with 1 Timothy 2:11–12.
I described in a previous post how our church community shifted from a complementarian view of women in ministry to…well…something different. Of course we had to deal with 1 Timothy 2:11–12, which seems to bar women from leadership in the church altogether. Let me tell you how we understand that passage at Evergreen.
It’s necessary to place the passage within the larger context of 1 Timothy 2. It seems that the end of chapter 2 which states that “women will be saved through childbearing” was correcting a heresy in the early church. As it is translated in English—and without a cultural understanding of the times in which it was written—it sounds as if women are saved by means of having children. But Paul was, in fact, correcting some proto-Gnostic heretics that claimed women were the cause of humanity’s fall and that God was very, very displeased with them. To be saved, then, women needed to give up their sexuality and become more like what really pleases God, namely men. For example, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (which is full of the very ideas Paul wanted to correct) says:
Simon Peter said, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” (114).
These heretics were teaching that only by giving up intercourse and other “worldy” pleasures could women be saved. And if a woman had a child? Well, how evil to take part in sex and bring another person into this wicked world! (Clearly, this group didn’t last very long.)
Paul is saying that’s hogwash. Women can be saved through (not “by means of” but “in spite of the experience of”) childbearing, if they continue like anyone else in faith (which saves you), love (which demonstrates you are saved), and holiness (ditto). Understanding that this sentence, which is notoriously difficult to understand in English, is correcting a heresy (and actually raising the status of women) helps us see that the verse we get hung up on (“I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man”), which seems so clear in English, may not be so clear after all.
The word translated “exercise authority” appears only here in Scripture, so it’s hard to get a handle on. But it could mean “dominate.” First Timothy was written to a pastor (Timothy) in Ephesus, a center for the worship of the goddess Artemis. It seems that in the church at Ephesus, where people were coming out of pagan goddess worship, women were taking a dominating role, telling the men how it would be, and claiming a privileged position in the church. Paul says that they, like everyone else, should learn from their teachers quietly and submissively not teach the men in a dominating way. He then corrects another heresy that was common in a culture accustomed to goddess worship—that Eve was created first, not Adam, and that Adam sinned first, not Eve. Paul was dealing with a very early and mis-informed kind of religious feminism. It’s very human—and very silly—of us to get caught up in the “who sinned first” argument. Paul doesn’t do that. And he isn’t basing a prohibition of women in leadership on the order of creation. Rather he’s reminding us of the facts of the biblical narrative and asking us to keep it straight.
When you put all this together, Paul appears to be saying, I don't allow women to dominate men, and these ideas going around are incorrect. Eve was the one who sinned first and Adam was created first. But that doesn’t mean women are evil.
It’s a notoriously difficult passage. But in light of Paul’s admonition to us that in Christ, there is neither male nor female, Jew or Greek, etc., and because we see the “arc” of scripture (the way the status of women is progressively raised through Scripture), as well as many of the examples of women in leadership, at Evergreen we are hesitant to exclude women from any role.
I recognize that many will disagree with where we’ve landed on this issue. In fact, many will take issue with the idea of even asking these questions. My sincere hope, whether you agree or disagree, is that you will sense our primary desire to see the Good News of Jesus embraced by those who don’t know Him.
We see this not as a capitulation to culture or the first step down some slippery slope that inevitably leads to calling good what God has called evil, but rather more fully living out the Good News of the One who came to bring freedom from oppression and to break down the walls that divide us. We see the invitation to women to use their gifts freely and the inclusion of women into leadership as an outworking of the Good News of Jesus—that in Christ, the divisions between slave and free, Jew and Gentile, and male and female are done away with. We are all one in Christ.