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Paul’s first letter to Timothy (Part 1): 1 Timothy 1–3

Paul gave Timothy some specific instructions about how men and women should conduct themselves in meetings.

Men

Men were to behave themselves when praying:

1 Timothy 2:8 In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy.

It’s not especially controversial, even if not too many churches now insist that men hold their hands up each and every time they pray. It’s obvious that we should expect people, including men, to pray in a right frame of mind. For some reason, Paul thought men, not women, needed reminding.

Women

Women were to dress modestly. It’s an uncontroversial instruction that has relevance for any time, even if the specifics change from one generation to another.

The next few verses are more difficult and controversial for 21st-century women:

1 Timothy 2:11-15 Women should learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach their husbands or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly. For God made Adam first, and afterward he made Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived by Satan. The woman was deceived, and sin was the result. But women will be saved through childbearing, assuming they continue to live in faith, love, holiness, and modesty.

This text in 1 Timothy could have been translated quite differently, since the words for man and woman are often translated elsewhere as husband and wife (they’re the same words in the original Greek). The phrase have authority has also been translated as usurp authority and use the authority of. The text could have read:

 I do not let women teach their husbands or usurp their authority. Let them listen quietly.  …

This still jars with many women today, but it’s worth stepping back to look at the broader context: the family.

My interpretation: The family is the key

The family is the key in all this: men are to love and serve and have authority over their wives just as Christ does all that for the church (and that’s a tough job for anyone—Jesus died for His church, remember?); women are to submit to their husbands and respect them (and a man like that would be easy to respect). This is true at home and in a church meeting.

One interpretation of this part of Paul’s letter is that women should not have authority to teach their husbands in church because it could usurp the family order—the husband has the teaching authority over his whole family. Churches, by then, were meetings of believers in people’s houses: the family was a key part of church life, and the church a key influence in families.

It can’t have been a command for women to be dead quiet in church all the time because it would contradict Paul’s other instructions to the Corinthians about people taking their turn in meetings rather than talking over the top of each other. In that context, women were able to pray and prophesy, but  women who didn’t understand something were to be quiet and ask their husbands about it later, rather than disrupting the meeting. Women were not well educated at the time: allowing them to be taught at all could well have been revolutionary in itself.

The challenge of these verses, especially for 21st-century western culture, is to recognise the primacy of family and to put self last. It’s a challenge for men, who don’t always want to take the heavy responsibility of serving their families as Christ served the church, and it’s a challenge for modern, liberated women who can do anything a man can do. It’s a challenge in a culture where families are less and less valued.

Even if

But even if Paul did mean to say that women could never ever teach or have authority over any men, as this article argues, then women can’t do two things: get up in church and teach everyone, or be elders (or be on the church board). Women can do everything else, including praying, prophesying, singing, and teaching other women, and more; and the rules don’t apply to life outside church. Concerns like this are understandable, but is there something about teaching men or standing up and speaking at the front of church on a Sunday that’s inherently more worthy than anything else? Are women so much less valuable than men that a gift of teaching counts only if it’s used to teach a group that includes men?

That difficult childbearing clause

Finally, the clause But women will be saved through childbearing has also been difficult. There have been suggestions that Paul was playing on words in a direct repudiation of a heresy that had crept into the church, or that Paul was looking beyond the few hours of the actual birth to the broader idea of women having and raising godly children as this article suggests (scroll down to the heading ‘Women’s Role in a Positive Light—Verse 15). It’s consistent with Paul’s view that it’s better not to marry because of the family responsibilities that come with it.

So these verses also come back to the value of family, and they have just as much relevance now, if not more, as competing ideologies undermine the view of Adam and Eve and the origins of sin.

A final word for men

Do you raise your hands in church whenever you pray?

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