3 dangers in Interpreting 1 Timothy 2

3 dangers with interpreting this passage

As a young Christian, I became convinced of a complementarian position when it came to women in leadership. In any argument 1 Timothy 2:11-12 was my trump card. It was so clear that anyone who disagreed was clearly denying the authority of scripture and was driven by a culture-pleasing and ultimately liberal agenda. Though I respect my many friends who hold a complementarian position due to their reading of scripture and their conscience I have changed my mind. I am not alone in this change: Howard Marshall, Chris Wright, John Ortberg, Ron Sider and Bill Hybels have made the same journey. In such a short article it’s not possible to solve all the controversies surrounding this passage, so I’ll merely ask some framing questions to help us navigate the pitfalls this verse creates.

Here’s the passage in question:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.

Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women[c] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

 

  1. Edit 1 Timothy 2:11-12 out of scripture, dismissing Paul as sexist

All scripture is God-breathed. That means it carries the weight and authority of God behind it. Some of my complementarian heroes accuse egalitarians of not taking scripture seriously. To be honest they have a point: but only about some egalitarians. I have heard many times that we can ignore Paul because he was obviously a misogynist. I have also heard people argue that we can ignore Paul and prioritise Jesus. But this is not an option for an evangelical egalitarian because of our doctrine of scripture. The scriptures are not a random collection of the thoughts and suggestions of certain ancient people as to how one might like to do church. No, we believe that scripture is breathed out by God which means that when we ignore scripture we are ignoring God. Paul is not speaking his own views or opinions – he is being used by God to communicate His word to God’s church.

  1. Use 1 Timothy 2:11-12 as a lens through which to interpret every discussion of women in leadership

J.I. Packer argues clearly that “scripture must interpret scripture; the scope and significance of one passage is to be brought out by relating it to others”[1].

We don’t try and interpret a Bible text in isolation – we need to allow the rest of scripture to inform and temper the limits of the interpretation of a text. For example: Paul talks about the baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29– it would be wrong to build a theology of posthumous salvation from this verse when the scriptures are silent on this issue. Of course, holding the whole of scripture in our minds when we interpret any one part is difficult to do.

 

3. We ignore the context of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 in the letter itself

This verse is more complex to interpret than immediately meets the eye.

i) No one believes that a woman’s salvation is guaranteed through physical childbirth – the climax of the argument in v.15.

ii) I have yet to visit a church that consistently applied the prohibition of gold jewellery for women (v.9), the lifting up of hands for men in prayer (v.8) and the restriction of women from leadership roles (v.12). There are clearly time bound contextual elements in this passage that do not apply across all times and all cultures and universalising one without the others is very selective.

iii) An argument back to creation is not a deal-closer. There are two problems with arguing the mention of Adam and Eve means this is a creation ordinance. First, Paul argues from creation that women should cover their heads in worship and that men should uncover their heads in worship (in 1 Corinthians 11:7-9), but most interpreters understand the specific issue of head coverings is culturally and time bound and so does not apply today. Second, Paul’s argument is also from the Fall – it is at the Fall that Eve was deceived and “became a sinner” and the events of the Fall are being undone by the redeeming work of Christ. Also when it comes to the Fall the rest of Paul’s reflections do not pick out Eve as more culpable than Adam. (see Romans 5:14).

Finally, the specific challenges Paul addresses in the letter cannot be ignored.

As Scholer argues: “1 Timothy should be understood as an occasional ad hoc letter directed specifically towards enabling Timothy and the church to avoid and combat the false teachers and teaching in Ephesus.”

Paul’s prohibition of women in leadership in 1 Timothy was due to the specific challenges Timothy faced in Ephesus. For me this makes sense of the ministry that Paul encourages in women such as Junia, Euodia, Syntche and Priscilla. I remain convinced that those women that God has called and gifted for leadership roles within the church should be encouraged and empowered to use these gifts to the glory of God.

[1] Packer, J.I. (1958) Fundamentalism and the Word of God, IVP, p.103

This blog was first published for Sophia Network’s blog.

easter_paradox_2
You may also like:

1. Tim Keller, women in leadership and ignoring your own rules.
2. Learning from women in leadership – inspiring quotations from women leaders.

Photo credit Photoree. Alyssa L. Miller

 

Tim Keller, Women and Ignoring your own rules

Just in case it needs reiterating- the views represented on my blog and in this post are my own – I am not speaking on behalf of any organisation that I work for.

Why Is TGC Complementarian? from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

 

If you know me a little or if you have read this blog before you know I love Tim Keller. He is one of my favourite authors and preachers. His gracious tone makes him one of a very small number of people I know of who have the capacity to take on the role of Global elder statesman in the mold of John Stott and Billy Graham (in his prime). I have had the opportunity to tell him this in person. I also had the opportunity to ask him directly about one area where I found his position puzzling. It was on the role of women. Tim was one of the founders of the Gospel Coalition whose name suggests that it is a gathering of Christians around the gospel. Indeed on the Gospel Coalition website it says “We are a fellowship of evangelical churches deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.”

Included in the Gospel Coalition’s founding documents are very clear statements around the distinctive roles of men and women in church and home:

God ordains that they assume distinctive roles which reflect the loving relationship between Christ and the church, the husband exercising headship in a way that displays the caring, sacrificial love of Christ, and the wife submitting to her husband in a way that models the love of the church for her Lord. In the ministry of the church, both men and women are encouraged to serve Christ and to be developed to their full potential in the manifold ministries of the people of God. The distinctive leadership role within the church given to qualified men is grounded in creation, fall, and redemption and must not be sidelined by appeals to cultural developments.

Now ofcourse groupings such as these have the right to include and exclude any one they like from their membership. What saddened me was that Tim Keller speaks very highly of the work of Intervarsity and IFES and in fact I have heard him talk about the fact that his theological and apologetic formation happening through such groups. IFES has always taken a clear distinguishing line between first and second order issues and never sought to make views on gender roles an issue that would exclude others from fellowship or ministry. So as one of the founders of GC I was surprised that Keller would include this in his list of entry requirements.

When I had the privilege to spend some time with Keller I asked him if he thought views on the role of women were part of the gospel, he said they weren’t but that they were very important. I came across this video recently on the GC website where along with Don Carson and John Piper he goes a lot further. To say I found this video discouraging is an understatement:

Very recently I commended Keller on some fantastic rules of engagement he had produced on how to deal with views that he didn’t agree with. Particularly:

  • Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not hold.
  • Represent your opponents’ position in its strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form.
So it was sad to hear the arguments used in this little 17 minute video. Yes I think that Keller was the person offering the most conciliatory and bridge building role in this dialogue – but he neither disagreed nor challenged those expressed by his fellow participants. Here’s what I heard being used as arguments against including egalitarians in the gospel coalition, I am open to be corrected of course.

1. Having a non-complementarian view of gender roles means you have a “loose approach to scripture.” (Keller)

This seems to transgress two of Keller’s main rules in engaging with “opponents.” As an egalitarian I have a very high view of scripture so I am being attributed a view that I don’t own. Secondly no one in this discussion has engaged with egalitarianism in its “strongest” form. Carson dismisses other views of reading Ephesians 5 and 1 Timothy 2 as reconstructionist and does not tackle any of the biblical texts or theological themes that egalitarianism at its best draws upon. Yes it is true that some egalitarians use purely cultural and sociological arguments – just as it is true that some complementarians do ( I was at a told recently that women buy more new age books than men so they obviously are not fit to teach or lead.) But again using this kind of argument is not dealing with the theological position in its strongest form.
Even when Keller tries to soften his statement by saying that “there are plenty of people” only loosen things on this issue and then “keep it tight everywhere else,” the point is still that egalitarians cannot hold to a high view of scripture and come to their conclusions – it has to involve loosening their grip on scripture at some point.
The problem with the argument that people who take a different view on the role of women are “loose with the scripture” is that it assumes that there is only one way of reading scripture on this issue. As Carson rightly notes in his opening comments – that is not how the GC understand the way that evangelicals read scripture when it relates to Baptism or Church Government. For me to argue that I have met more people that have turned away from gospel doctrines such as belief in the resurrection or the uniqueness of Christ that also held paedobaptist views – see for example the large number of self described liberal presbyterians or anglicans – would be a facile and prejudiced line of reasoning.

2. Trajectories (John Piper)

Piper’s line of reasoning here is that to take a different view on gender roles will lead to changes in view on homosexuality. This seems to contradict Keller’s rule “never attribute to your opponent a view they do not hold” or even more explicitly never “attribute to antagonist no opinion that he does not own, though it be a necessary consequence.” It is true that some egalitarians have argued that the church should change its views on the role of women and our views on the practice of homosexual sexual intercourse. But it is also true that some have argued that male headship in the home is license for domestic violence against women. Neither of these views are “necessary consequences” and so Keller is wise to argue that you shouldn’t assume the worst when engaging in conversation. But this is precisely what Piper does. As an egalitarian I believe that leadership roles are available to men and women in the church, this does not lead me to change my views on homosexual sex.

Perhaps there is a contextual issue at stake here. Perhaps things are different in the US? Two examples from the UK. The first UK denominations to ordain women were the Salvation Army (c.1870 ) and the Baptist Union of Great Britain (c.1920); neither are liberal today. (Thanks to Steve Holmes for this information). Perhaps a wider contextual awareness may help. But the bigger point is – just because some egalitarians change their minds on homosexuality -doesn’t necessitate that all will. For example just as many complementarians end up becoming AngloCatholic doesn’t mean all will.

3. Egalitarians apparently dont know the difference between men and women – we have nothing to say to 8 year old children on the issue of gender (cf John Piper).

This is a straw man/woman (!) argument. To argue that men and women both have the opportunity to lead in the church does not mean that all egalitarians see no differences between gender. It is true that we may not agree with some of gender differences that some complementarians attribute to men and women – mainly because we think that those differences owe more to culture than biblical exegesis. I have heard a number of complimentarians argue that all women want to be “rescued” and lead by strong men. But this leaves little room for biblical women role models such as Esther, Deborah or Priscilla.

4. Gender is an issue of this time ( baptists and paedobaptists used to argue but this is not the issue that is addressing our culture) (Carson)

I would love to understand how Carson understands the polyvalence of the Bible on the issue of baptism and why it is different from the role of women. I can’t believe that Carson is arguing that our willingness to believe the hermenteutical best of those who read the Bible differently to us on baptism is just an accident of history. As Keller argues your view on women is not a central gospel truth but surely your views on how someone is saved is part of the gospel. Some of my Anglican paedobaptist friends believe it is possible for someone to be saved without personal faith in Christ and that on the basis of promises made by Godparents an infant is regenerate and included into the body of Christ. To argue that this is not an important issue for our time seems to reduce the importance of the gospel. To elevate gender roles above the issue of how salvation operates seems strange to me – but I may have misunderstood Carson on this one, or it is possible he is not being entirely consistent.
I find it hard to believe that the rise of egalitarianism is seen as one of the most pressing dangers facing the church and the culture – above global poverty, gun control, the environment…

5. Confusion on Gender is part of what is at the heart of what is wrong with our culture (Carson)

It seems that Carson is arguing that the breakdown of the family in many western contexts is due to a more egalitarian view of gender roles. I would love to see the evidence for this. Isn’t it possible to argue that while the church has been predominantly complimentarian we have seen the greatest increase in family breakdown.

6. Lack of courage (Piper) “If you arent willing to stand against the tide on this issue you will cave on other issues – gospel issues.”

This doesn’t seem to be portraying egalitarians in their strongest terms. It also contradicts Keller’s fifth rule of engagement “Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing theology–because only God sees the heart.” Writing off egalitarians as cowards is hardly a theological critique. I would like to understand why Piper and Keller who participated fully at the Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization seem so completely unaware of its commitment on the issue of unity across views on gender roles:

We recognize that there are different views sincerely held by those who seek to be faithful and obedient to Scripture. Some interpret apostolic teaching to imply that women should not teach or preach, or that they may do so but not in sole authority over men. Others interpret the spiritual equality of women, the exercise of the edifying gift of prophecy by women in the New Testament church, and their hosting of churches in their homes, as implying that the spiritual gifts of leading and teaching may be received and exercised in ministry by both women and men.[96] We call upon those on different sides of the argument to:

  1. Accept one another without condemnation in relation to matters of dispute, for while we may disagree, we have no grounds for division, destructive speaking, or ungodly hostility towards one another;[97]

7. We are not listening to what scripture says on its own terms “it is not listening to what God says” to take a contrary view on this is “not to tremble at God’s word” (Carson)

Carson joins in the attack on the character of egalitarians – again contradicting Keller’s rule “Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing theology–because only God sees the heart.” Basically we are trembling at God’s word if we agree with Carson’s apparently infallible reading of the gender texts.

Conclusion

I contend that it is possible to have a high view of scripture and believe that women can take on leadership roles in the church.
I contend that egalitarians are not all cowards – sometimes egalitarians have faced significant opposition from conservative friends and colleagues because of where their reading of scripture have taken them.
I contend that the role of women in leadership in the church is not an unasailable division – if we have found a way to find unity in diversity on baptism surely we can on this issue.
I have benefitted greatly from the ministry of all of the men in this video, they have produced some brilliant books and materials, its such a shame this video is not up to their usual high standards.
I would like to encourage the Gospel Coalition to reconsider its position in light of Keller’s very helpful rules of engagement and consider removing this inflammatory and insulting video. I would like to suggest a dialog between evangelical complementarians and egalitarians modelled on Keller’s rules that can genuinely engage with each other’s convictions at their best and explore ways we can find unity in the gospel rather than division on this matter.

Post Script

I have been asked to provide some reading material to help read Egalitarianism at its best.
Here’s my limited list – very happy for other suggestions:
6. Women in the Church: A biblical Theology of Women in Ministry, Stanley Grenz
Here are some others recommended through social media ( I have not read them… yet)
Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters’ by Philip B Payne
Women and Authority, Ian Paul , Grove Booklets
I suffer not a woman’. Kroeger & Kroeger;
‘Women & Religion’ Clark & Richardson.

Women, Men and Twitter Part 2

This is part 2 of a blog about women,men and leadership in the church.

My twitter stream has been populated with an ongoing conversation about women in leadership in the church. For the past 15 years I have been on a long journey from a Complementarian to an Egalitarian position. (see previous blog for definitions). When I was a complementarian I had no desire or practice of abusing women, demeaning them or insulting them. I was trying to be faithful to the scriptures and believed that the Bible taught clearly that men and women were of co-equal value but have different roles.

I have been a convinced egalitarian for the past 8 years or so and I have come to believe that there are good exegetical grounds for seeing that women did have leadership roles in the early church and that they can have today because any restrictions Paul may have sanctioned had cultural and apologetic reasons for being in place. See this interesting piece by Graham Cole from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

There is also a very helpful book that Lis Goddard and Clare Hendry wrote together coming from very different theological positions. It is a model of gracious and robust dialogue. (more on graciousness another time…)

But I still believe that there are many men and women who are saved by Gods grace, that value Gods word and who are not intrinsically sexist or abusive who hold to a complementarian viewpoint. ( Of course we all need to continually check ourselves for racist or sexist tendencies wherever we are in this debate.) I cannot and will not break fellowship with them or refuse to worship or do mission together. I disagree with them, I am willing to have frank and robust discussion with them but I still count them as family. I have been talking a lot about meeting in the middle – and perhaps the language of middle ground may not be helpful. So let me try and explore what I am trying to work through.

One tweet from a friend that haunts me is this: Would you take a middle ground position on slavery or racism?

That is a telling tweet in this conversation and leaves me asking a few questions. (I am not seeking to criticise this tweet which was made in a long conversation. But to wrestle with the challenge of it and to respond to it.)

Is a complementarian understanding of the role of women equivalent to racism and slavery?

As a man some would argue that I can’t understand the experience of exclusion and injustice that many women feel on this issue. And they have a valid point. I cannot possibly understand what it is like to have your calling in life questioned or to feel marginalised because of who you are. But as an Asian who has experienced racism I can relate a little bit to what prejudice feels like.

I am not sure we can equate this issue with slavery as there are options – in the western context we can choose to be part of a church that is egalitarian and not stay within denominations and tribes that don’t allow the full expression of women with leadership and teaching giftings. Slaves have no choices at all so I am not sure they are comparable. As for racism there is no biblical justifiable warrant for this at all – although i dont agree with complementarians I believe they can make a case for it from scripture.

2. Is the idea of building common ground actually counterproductive to genuine change?

My argument has often been that though there are different opinions and this is an issue of great importance this is not an issue of things pertaining to salvation in other words someone that takes a different view from me on women in leadership is still in the kingdom. They are not to be considered a member of a heretical cult – like the mormons or the Jehovahs witnesses. This issue falls into the same area as baptism. As a convinced Baptist I believe the scriptures are pretty clear that believers should be baptised. I have many friends and family who take a very different view following either a Anglican or Presbyterian view of infant baptism. Many of my Anglican friends have a biblical case showing a real desire to submit their views to the authority of scripture. I cannot see that case at all. In the light of this I could:

a) write them off as people who have ignored scripture and have entered the slippery slope to liberalism/strong ( this line of argument is the way that the complementarians such as Wayne Grudem reads the egalitarian / complimentarian divide)

b) write them off as people who obviously dont care about mission and justice – as surely this is antithetical to the grace of the gospel which is offered to all people independent of their family or tribe or upbringing (this is the line that some egalitarians take the debate as for them to deny women leadership roles is an issue of the justice that the gospel brings.

c) agree that this is an important but not a gospel issue and so we can find ways of working together and to study the scriptures together in a way that we can help eachother to come to a deeper understanding of Gods will.

This is how evangelicalism was birthed – when Anglicans and Baptists joined together to fight slavery. I believe as we meet as brothers and sisters with humility and respect for eachother and a firm commitment to God’s word there’s more chance of change than if we retreat into polarized silos. I am looking for common ground in the polarised groups in a bid not to settle for a lowest common denominator middle ground – but to establish common ground that there can be any chance of a conversation that could possibly lead to change.

A friend of mine put it well – in the Northern Ireland peace process – someone had to start talking to terrorists. I can only imagine what a costly decision that was as both sides had clearly entrenched and deeply felt hurts. So many loved ones lost, so many injured, as Bono put it;

And the battles just begun
Theres many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters
Torn apart

But someone decided that rather than allow the war to continue to claim lives, there needed to be a peace process. The war within evangelicalism over this issue does no one any good. We shoot at eachother and as a result lives are damaged, ministries crippled and the gospel is not demonstrated or proclaimed as it should be. I am trying to find a way forward. Peace does not have to mean that egalitarians are the only ones that have to compromise – thats not peace. I am looking for a way to establish some common ground and praying for Gods spirit to empower us to do what scripture demands of us all (Ephesians 4:3):

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace

Jenny Baker has written a helpful post and is right to make sure that both sides are willing to the effort. So I am calling both sides to come and converse as sisters and brothers and lets work this one through.

Any ideas on ways forward or do we have to settle for a divided church / polarised church. Ideas welcome…

More to come… on graciousness, christians against sexism and more…

Women, Men, Church & Twitter – part 1

Twitter Debate

I have been wrestling this week with the memories of an intense Twitter conversation I was part of on the train on the way to Durham University. On reflection twitter is an interesting place to try and have a theological conversation – the advantage is that its public which means we can interact with people who are not in our normal “hermeneutical circle” who will help us to think things through from another perspective. On the other hand the disadvantage is that its very public and restricted to 140 characters which means its difficult for anyone to nuance the contributions and so its easy to go for the cheap shot, the cutting response or the pithy soundbite.

So I am sorry if my tweets were unhelpful in any way.

The twitter conversation was on the gifts and role of women in the church – something I am very interested in and have been working hard to try and help people from different tribes to try and listen to eachother and engage with eachother graciously about. As you are no doubt aware the conversation is very polarised. Complementarians argue that

“In the church, redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation; nevertheless, some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men.”

Some express this very forcibly and have made it central to their teaching for example Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Wayne Grudem. Some seem to argue that if you are not a complimentarian then you are basically a feminist liberal.

Egalitarians argue that:

Some egalitarians have made this central to their teaching and some seem to argue that if you are not egalitarian then you are a chauvinist who oppresses women and denies their true humanity.

Both extremes make this an issue of biblical orthodoxy – the complementarians arguing its about the authority of scripture and the authority of Christ while the egalitarians often emphasise that justice and power of the gospel are at stake.

I know there are evangelical Christians on both sides of the debate. I know there are good and bad arguments being used by both sides. I know there are actually a range of egalitarian and complimentarian positions. There are “hard” and “soft” proponents. There are those that are lead more by the scripture than by the culture and those that are lead more by the culture than the scripture – on both sides. I know there are people that have been hurt on both sides of this debate, and I recognise that women who have felt their God given calling have been dismissed have been particularly hurt.

My hope is that we can build a centre ground coalition that champions the centrality of the gospel, the authority of scripture and a gracious respect and honouring of women and the recognition of the need for a hermeneutic of humility when it comes to the scriptures and a spirit of generosity when it comes to those we disagree with. I want to start a peace process – not just that we agree to disagree but that we find a way through an issue that is splitting the church right down the middle…

I’d love to know why you think this is the issue that is dividing the church at the moment?

… More coming soon

just posted part 2 here.