A Pepper Grinder Post

Let a Woman Learn

I don't just LOVE jumping into controversial topics. However, as you may remember, not long ago I did a two-part series on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 where I talked about I saw on the Web about this, and then gave what I hoped was . Toward the end of the second posting I stated, "I believe that the teaching Paul gives elsewhere about women teaching or having authority over men still stands today." It tends to bug me when people just throw out some controversial statement about something they believe and don't back it up. So, here I am. The passage to which I was referring is 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Here's my translation:

Let a woman learn in quietness, and with full submission. I don't allow a woman to teach or to be in authority over a man; she must be quiet. Because Adam was formed first, and then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and fell into sin. But women will be saved through childbirth, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.

If that last verse about women being saved through childbirth is making your theological eyes pop out of your head, just chill. I will talk about some possible interpretations of that verse in an endnote*, but it isn't what I'm mainly focusing on.

The first thing I want to say, which might elude our 21st century minds, is that Paul begins with a command to let women learn. This was not at all a given in the first century world. In Judaism, as in most other cultures of that time, learning and study was considered a purely masculine activity. In our equality-infused culture, it's easy to miss the positive fact that Paul is opening a door wide to women which was generally closed.

clouds and shadowsBut I'm not going to pretend that Paul doesn't also place restrictions on how a woman should learn. He says she should learn in quietness, with full submission. This word for quietness isn't the same one I talked about in the posts about 1 Corinthians 14. It's another word that's only used a few times in the New Testament (four, to be exact, twice in this passage). Although it generally means something pretty much like what we think of as quietness, I want to point out that it is also the word Paul uses in 2 Thessalonians 3:12, where he talks about Christians quietly working and earning a living. In that passage it's obvious he doesn't expect Christians to be silent on the job, but rather that they are not to cause a ruckus or call a lot of attention to themselves. It's interesting to me that this also fits in with the kind of silence women were commanded to keep in 1 Corinthians 14, which was not utter silence, but rather a lack of disruption. In light of this, it makes sense to see it the same way here. I think Paul's point is not that women are supposed to sit through teaching in total silence, but rather that they should not be the ones up front, in the spotlight.

Similarly, they should deliberately be adopting an attitude of submission. Submission is not something that can be forced on someone. Subservience can be forced, but submission can only be yielded voluntarily. This is what Paul is asking for.

From saying that he wants women to learn, and how he wants them to learn, he goes on to say what he does not want them to do. He does not want them to teach or be in authority over a man. But the way he says it is interesting. He says, "I don't allow a woman to ..." Offhand, this could give the impression that Paul is just telling Timothy what he does, rather than describing how things should always be. However, I don't think that's the case, and shortly we'll get to the reason I say that.

When we hear the words "teach" or "teacher," I think we naturally tend to picture a school setting, where a student is receiving instruction in normal academic subjects. This is NOT the way the word was used in New Testament times. In almost every case where this word is used, it refers to religious instruction. The word is used over and over to describe Jesus teaching people. It becomes still more specific after the early church was formed. There it refers to instructing believers in the truths of the faith. As such, it is inseparable from being in authority. Church leaders were supposed to be "able to teach" (1 Timothy 3:2), and Paul seems to have looked on anyone who was teaching in the church as someone who was leading, whether for good or evil. Thus, it isn't surprising that Paul combines the prohibition against women teaching with the prohibition against being in authority over men. We should really see this as one single prohibition: providing authoritative religious teaching to men. In our modern context, this clearly applies primarily to women who serve as teaching pastors or elders. I'm not sure what I think about a woman teaching a mixed Sunday School class, since (brace yourself for a shock) they didn't have Sunday School in New Testament times. To me, it still seems like a woman teaching men in Sunday School would fit under this prohibition, but I'm really not sure about that. What I am sure is that it is perfectly fine for a woman to teach academic subjects to men.

Evergreen in fall leavesWhy someone says something, or the reasons they give, can be just as important as what they say. For example, suppose I say to my youngest son (who is learning to drive), "Don't drive faster than 55." If I say that because I think the world would be a safer and more fuel-efficient place if everyone kept their speed to 55 or under, that's one thing. But what if I mean, "Don't go over 55 today since the roads are wet," or, "I don't think it's good to go over 55 in this car, since it makes the whole car start to vibrate in an unnerving way?" In the one case, I've given him a universal prohibition; in the other cases, I've said not to do something for a particular reason, which implies that the prohibition applies to a limited situation. Sometimes we're forced to do some detective work to figure out why a command or prohibition is given in the Bible. For example, when I wrote about 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 ( and ), I decided, based on the context, that Paul was commanding women to be silent in church in response to a particular situation in that time and place. This would imply that in other situations, women speaking in church is fine. However, I have to admit that my conclusion is not 100% certain, since it is based on some detective work.

In our passage, I don't see any of the kind of clues that would make me think Paul is basing what he says on a particular situation. In 1 Corinthians, we saw that the verses leading up to the command for women to remain silent in church were screaming out "ORDER." Here we see nothing like that. Leading up to this passage, Paul was writing instructions to Timothy, who was working with a newly-planted church. He was giving him guidelines for the church and for Christian life. He was talking about things like praying for all people and for those in authority, God's desire for people to be saved, Christ's position as mediator, men praying with a good attitude, and women dressing modestly and doing good works.

Fortunately, this passage is much clearer than something like 1 Corinthians 14 thanks to a small Greek word which is usually translated as "for" or "because." Paul sticks this in near the start of verse 13, to show why he has given the command for women not to teach or be in authority over men. By using this word, he takes the guesswork out of the reason for his command. Paul gives us two reasons.

First, Paul says, Because Adam was formed first, and then Eve. I want to make one thing clear about this: Paul is not saying that Adam is better than Eve because he was created first. If anything, we would think the opposite, since Genesis presents the creation of people on the last day of Creation as the crowning achievement of the whole show. I think this is like inheritance rules in Bible times. The firstborn son was supposed to inherit twice as much as his siblings. Is that because he was better? None of the evidence, then or now, suggests that. Some firstborn sons are great; some aren't. They inherited the double portion not because they deserved it, but because of their position. In the same way, Paul is saying that men should be in positions of leadership and teaching in the church simply because of their position in Creation. He doesn't say they make better elders or pastors or teachers; he simply says it is their due.

This first reason is interesting, because I've read some who make an argument like, "Men running the show is a result of the Fall of Man. Since Christ reversed the effects of the Fall, women and men are now completely equal in terms of position and authority." The problem with applying this type of argument here is that Paul's first reason for men taking positions of teaching and authority is tied into something that came before men and women rebelled against God. It is tied into the way God himself created people.

trail in the woodsThe second reason Paul gives is: And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and fell into sin. Now Paul is bringing the Fall of Man into his argument, but there's something very odd about what he says. If I hadn't read the account in Genesis, I might think (based on what Paul says) that when Eve offered the apple to Adam, he refused it. Or maybe Eve snuck up to Adam while he was asleep in the recliner and pushed a little forbidden fruit into his mouth. Let's refresh our memory. Here is Genesis 3:6 (the verse right after the snake gives his spiel to Eve) in the NIV:

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

The idea that Eve was deceived is easy to grasp, but what about Adam? It says he was with her. Presumably, he also heard the snake's sales pitch. He had certainly heard God tell them not to eat fruit from that one tree. If Adam was not deceived, what is Paul implying about him? To me, this implies that, whether out of rebellion or out of passivity, he simply followed Eve's lead and ate the fruit, even though he knew it was wrong.

It's hard to understand why the sex that chose to do something he knew was wrong would make a better leader than the sex who was tricked into doing wrong. But here's the thing: all preachers and church leaders are human, which means they are all prone to sin. I don't think God is making this limitation because of qualifications for the job. I don't doubt that there are women preachers who can preach a great sermon, and I have absolutely NO doubt (having heard a fair number of sermons in my life) that there are plenty of men who are mediocre or awful preachers. I believe that when God pronounced sentence on Adam and Eve, he made the punishment fit the crime. Eve, who had taken the lead in this tragic event, would have to follow Adam. Adam, who had knowingly followed Eve into sin, would have to lead.

I have also heard people make arguments for women preachers that don't deal primarily with the Bible. I have heard women say something that boils down to, "I have the gift; I must be called." To me, this seems to be saying, "My perceptions carry greater weight than the teachings of the Bible." If you can say that without wincing, I worry about you. I will speak for myself and say that I am extremely good at justifying what I want to do. Isn't that basically what people did in the Garden of Eden? If we cut ourselves free from the "restraints" of the Bible, there is no limit to how thoroughly we can be deceived.

I have heard of a man arguing that if we're going to reach the world with the gospel, we need all the preachers we can get, and thus, we gotta have those women. I have a big problem with this type of argument. I think there are areas in our lives where the Bible says nothing one way or another, and I don't think it's bad to make pragmatic decisions in those areas. On the other hand, when we put pragmatic considerations above the plain teaching of Scripture, I think we're in big trouble. God's power is limitless! How can we read the Bible and not see that God can change seemingly unchangeable circumstances in the blink of an eye? He can take care of the practical considerations, but if we let go of the Bible so we can do what must be done, we are traveling a road that leads away from God.

rock in the woodsThink about the early church. How do you think things would have gone if the apostles had decided that it made more practical sense to obey the command of the authorities not to evangelize. After all, why risk getting your leaders thrown into jail, when you could take a more subtle approach? In the same way, I think we need to follow the teaching of the Bible and leave the logistics to God.

Are women as smart and capable as men? Yes, they are. But the clear teaching of the Bible is that they should not teach or be in spiritual authority over men. The reason has nothing to do with their qualifications or the particular situation of the first-century church--it has to do with the order of Creation, and it has to do with God's judgment on each sex after the Fall of Man. It's an argument that goes against many modern cultures. We can choose to follow the thinking of the day, or we can choose to go with the Bible and let God work out the details. I know what my choice is.


*There have been a number of suggestions about the meaning of verse 15, which says (in my translation), "But they will be saved through childbirth, if they continue in faith, love, holiness, with self-control." The most obvious meaning is that women will be saved by having children. This is a problem, both because it would teach salvation by works, which Paul is clearly against elsewhere, and because it doesn't deal with women who can't have children. Another proposed meaning is that women who follow Christ will be brought safely through childbirth, but this clashes with our knowledge that many godly women have died in childbirth. Another idea is that women will be saved through the Childbirth--that is, the birth of Christ. I don't like this one because it involves some wrestling with the Greek to get that translation. It also leaves me wondering, "What about us guys? Aren't we saved through Christ, too?" My preference for understanding this verse is that Paul is saying that women can live out their salvation by flourishing in their uniquely feminine role, which is exemplified by being a mother. I won't lie to you, I'm not completely comfortable with this interpretation either. It seems like an odd verse to me. I've read a number of people's takes on it (this paragraph is a simplification of the different views I've seen, and there may well be more that I haven't come across), but I've never seen an interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15 with which I felt 100% comfortable.

Comments on this post:

I think you made an excellent point about about God causing the punishment to fit the crime. Thanks for clarifying this passage.
-Elisabeth   November 14, 2016