If Only He Was Here
The older I get the less it bothers me that much of the Bible is difficult to understand or, putting it another way, the less urgently I feel the need to be certain of my understanding. I’ve come to accept that the Bible is loaded with rough terrain and no longer feel the need to, through a constructed theological framework, make understanding it smooth. There was a time I would have thought that statement was horrifying or even nearly heretical; a time when I believed it was my Christian duty to figure everything in the Bible out so I could be sure I was right.
No longer. Now I have come to love the phrase “but I could be wrong” even though I’ve never seen it in a Bible commentary or heard it from a pulpit. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have opinions, or that I have given up trying to figure Bible passage out, just that failure to do it is easier to accept. I can read some of the Bible’s hotly contested passages and hold opinions on them without the passionate need to prove I am right.
For example, I Timothy 2:12 says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” The question that makes this passage controversial is whether Paul is giving a permanent instruction to all women for all time or whether this was a temporary or limited instruction, perhaps only to certain women in the church that received the letter.
Some, like this quote from Bible.org, think this is a no-brainer – “We think [I Timothy 2;12] imposes two restrictions on the ministry of women: they are not to teach Christian doctrine to men and they are not to exercise authority directly over men in the church. These restrictions are permanent, authoritative for the church in all times and places and circumstances as long as men and women are descended from Adam and Eve.” Others, like in the article you can read here, see that interpretation as a bomb that must be diffused.
So who is right? I have an opinion but I could be wrong. The problem is that Paul is not here to explain what he meant and why he was saying this. If only he was here. Although this topic is so heated that I wonder if some involved in the dispute would even accept his word, so married are they to their own views.
Most of you know that I lean toward the limited and temporary view on Paul’s restrictions. Paul was aware of and even praised just too many women who violated the I Timothy 2:12 rule if it was indeed for all women for all time. He knew that Mary sang a prophetic song; that Priscilla taught; he trusted Phoebe to carry a letter to the Romans and to read and interpret it (which was the norm), he acknowledged that Junia was an apostle (in spite of the ESV’s best effort to deny this.); he accepted that Philip’s daughters prophesied and that the women at Corinth prayed publicly and prophesied.
There is nary a word of condemnation for these women or any attempt to explain them away, although there are some very creative ways the “all women for all time” team try to do just that. But to read I Timothy 2:12 as “all women for all time” leaves Paul as living in contradiction to his own teaching and I can’t accept that. Having said that, Paul’s words mean something rather than nothing so we can’t just dismiss them. How do we reconcile his words and his actions?
I can’t help but think that the advance of the gospel was of primary importance to Paul, as it should be for all of us today. I suspect that everything else, including nice things like gender equality, were of secondary importance. He encouraged women’s active participation and the exercising of their spiritual gifts but didn’t want that to get in the way of evangelism. The ancient culture would have been scandalized by the women becoming too bold and too visible. Paul, and the other early church leaders, could well have felt the need to apply the brakes for the sake of not causing a scandal and creating a barrier that would prevent unbelievers from accepting the gospel.
If that is so then in today’s culture the opposite is true. We are not living in the 1st century AD Roman Empire any more, and our answers to our particular cultural challenges should differ from theirs. Most certainly limiting the role of women has the opposite evangelistic effect today. The situation is reversed and women freely using their gifts will aid in presenting the Gospel. But I could be wrong. I wonder what Paul would say to that if he were with us today?