I honestly thought I’d have nailed 1 Timothy 2 by now (‘I do not permit a woman to teach…’). But I haven’t. So this post is a bit of a work in progress. As far as I can discern the motives of my deceitful heart, I’m not stubbornly resisting the obvious meaning of the passage out of some prior commitment to a particular view on women’s ordination. I could, as far as I can tell, go either way on this. Or I could go neither way, and fly off in some bizarre and novel direction, which I’m (mercifully) becoming less prone to do in my old age. Anyway, shall we get going?

Paul, writing to Timothy in Ephesus, clearly wanted him to do something about the women there:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet (1 Tim 2:11-12, all quotes from the NIV).

The historical context of 1 Timothy, as with the other Pastorals (2 Timothy and Titus), is one of false teaching. Douglas Moo attempts to unpack this, in a chapter in the seminal complementarian book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem). (Both the book and the chapter are available online.) Drawing on many verses from the Pastorals, he makes a plausible case that this false teaching was leading women to abandon traditional female roles. For example, Paul found it necessary to ‘counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander’ (1 Tim 5:14). Observing parallels with the situation in Corinth, Moo comments:

While we cannot be sure about this, there is good reason to think that the problem in both situations was rooted in a false belief that Christians were already in the full form of God’s kingdom and that they had accordingly been spiritually taken ‘out of’ the world so that aspects of this creation, like sex, food, and male/female distinctions, were no longer relevant to them (p. 181).

There is plenty of debate about the details of the verses already quoted, most of which seems to be driven by a desire to evade what seems to be the meaning, viz., that Paul did not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man. But far more significant, in my view, is the question of why. Why did Paul not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man? Were there specific cultural reasons in that context, whether the context is Ephesus in particular, or the Greco-Roman world in general? Or were his reasons applicable to all human cultures? Paul clearly felt the need to impose some restrictions on the role of women in the church in that context, even if we may debate precisely what those restrictions were. But if Paul was writing to our context, would he have responded in the same way?

Fortunately Paul helps us out here, because the next sentence begins with ‘For’. But unfortunately, for myself at least, his reasons are not easy to understand. Here they are:

13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

On verse 13, when treated in isolation, Moo is persuasive:

Paul emphasizes that man was created ‘first, then’ Eve; the temporal sequence is strongly marked (protos, ‘first,’ and eita, ‘then’). What is the point of this statement? Both the logic of this passage and the parallel in 1 Corinthians 11:3-10 make this clear: for Paul, the man’s priority in the order of creation is indicative of the headship that man is to have over woman. The woman’s being created after man, as his helper, shows the position of submission that God intended as inherent in the woman’s relation to the man, a submission that is violated if a woman teaches doctrine or exercises authority over a man (p. 190).

But what about verse 14? Is Paul saying that women are inherently more easily deceived? Moo thinks not:

For one thing, there is nothing in the Genesis accounts or in Scripture elsewhere to suggest that Eve’s deception is representative of women in general. But second, and more important, this interpretation does not mesh with the context. Paul, as we have seen, is concerned to prohibit women from teaching men; the focus is on the role relationship of men and women. But a statement about the nature of women per se would move the discussion away from this central issue, and it would have a serious and strange implication. After all, does Paul care only that the women not teach men false doctrines? Does he not care that they not teach them to other women? (p. 190)

Indeed, Titus 2:3-4 specifically instructs the older women to teach the younger women.

The issue, according to Moo, is not a general proneness to deception, but one very specific deception:

More likely, then, verse 14, in conjunction with verse 13, is intended to remind the women at Ephesus that Eve was deceived by the serpent in the Garden (Genesis 3:13) precisely in taking the initiative over the man whom God had given to be with her and to care for her. In the same way, if the women at the church at Ephesus proclaim their independence from the men of the church, refusing to learn ‘in quietness and full submission’ (verse 11), seeking roles that have been given to men in the church (verse 12), they will make the same mistake Eve made and bring similar disaster on themselves and the church (p. 190).

This is less persuasive. In one of an ongoing series of essays on women’s ordination, Anglican theologian William G. Witt takes Moo to task on this point:

This is to read something into the text that is not there. Nothing in either the Genesis account nor in Paul’s argument suggests that the woman was deceived by taking initiative over the man or that God had forbidden her to take such initiative.

Moo’s reading also fails to make sense of the start of verse 14, which states that ‘Adam was not the one deceived’. Presumably if the deception was the reversal of gender roles, then Adam was just as deceived as Eve was, because he ‘listened to [his] wife’ (Genesis 3:17). But the deception is surely the taking of the fruit itself: the woman took the fruit because she was deceived, but the man took the fruit even though he wasn’t deceived, but because he was, like so many men after him, behaving like an idiot.

So what is verse 14 all about?

Moo’s interpretation assumes no strong connection between verses 13 and 14. You could even remove one or the other, and the meaning would still stand. So women should not teach men, first, because of the creation order, and second, because in the Fall the woman was deceived in taking the initiative over the man. Each of these reasons makes sense on its own.

Witt provides an alternative:

The most helpful suggestion I have come across is a reference made by Craig S. Keener to a rabbinic interpretation of the passage that Paul could have adapted. Because Eve, not having yet been created, was not present in Genesis 2:16-17 when God gave the commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she was not directly informed by God, but indirectly informed by Adam, and therefore subject to deception. On this typological interpretation, Paul would be suggesting that, like Eve, the women at Ephesus are not well-informed, and thus are subject to deception. They should not teach, but rather learn quietly in submission to the subject matter, so that they will be better informed and no longer deceived. Presumably, once they had learned, they could well teach.

This is appealing on many levels. It provides a clear connection between the creation order and Eve’s deception: Eve was more easily deceived precisely because she was created after Adam. It also provides a clear parallel between the situation in Eden and the situation in Ephesus. But does it fit?

The difficulty is that in Genesis 3 Eve clearly was well informed. Minor details aside, she was well versed in the fact that God had specifically commanded them not to eat of that tree (Genesis 3:2).

It also makes the transition to 1 Tim 2:15 quite abrupt:

But women will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

This fits much more comfortably with Moo’s reading, according to which the basic problem was that women were abandoning traditional male/female distinctions, such that part of the solution was for women to be more content to fulfil traditionally feminine roles, such as bearing children.

Vast tomes have been written on these verses, so I haven’t run out of material to read (even if I’m beginning to run out of oomph). But so far I haven’t found a satisfactory interpretation. Unless we can make sense of why Paul gave those instructions, we cannot apply them to our own context. It is not simply that Paul appeals to the creation order, because verse 14 follows verse 13, and could well be part of a single reason, not a second independent reason for verse 12 (indeed, I suspect this is the case). And I still have no idea how verse 14 fits in, I’m afraid.

Comments welcome…!