Explaing First Timothy 2:11-15: Female Submission, Silence, & Subordination

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First Timothy 2:11-15 seems to be the mother of confusion when it comes to the Apostle Paul’s feelings towards female leadership in the church. In fact, it is at this point of the Bible that one has to wonder if Paul even liked women and deemed them to be useful in more ways than just childbearing. It states,

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach
or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.
and Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and
became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in
faith, love and holiness with propriety (NIV).

To appreciate what Paul is trying to say to both Timothy and his congregation, one must fully understand the issues at hand in the young pastor’s church. Certain females were falsely teaching and disturbing the order of the congregation. What must be understood is that prior to Christianity, Greek females were not permitted to even be instructed in spiritual matters.

The synagogues were used by men alone. Therefore, when Christianity arose and welcomed female participation to learn and be instructed about Christ, many jumped at the opportunity.  Unfortunately, some women abused this new freedom and began to teach as well. Since women had been previously untrained in any sort of spiritual education, especially the very new religion of Christianity, their lectures were untrue and reflected poorly on Christianity. Paul was not physically there to correct the women who were causing problems, so he opted that all women sat in silence, listened, and learned.

While many think Paul was being sexist, he was actually allowing women to have greater freedom than they had ever had. However, Paul had one primary concern, and that was to convert Gentile-pagans to Christianity. Therefore, if this mission was being interrupted in any way, he did what he had to do and said what he needed to say for the sake of his ultimate purpose.

Paul was not about to let these loud-mouth women undo all he taught when he was present, especially if his “children in the faith,” as well as new believers, were beginning to accept deceitful Christian doctrine.  The apostle would have taken the exact same measures if he had heard certain men were perverting the Gospel of Christ with lies.

Paul’s phrase, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” comes across as if he is saying “I never ever allow women to teach men in church,” in the English language. In Greek, however; there is a “present active indicative verb which can be translated, ‘I am not presently permitting a woman to teach or to have authority over men (Williams, Don. The Apostle Paul and Women in the Church. Van Nuys: Bim Publishing, 1977).”

In other words, Paul never meant for this passage to be a universal and continuous principal.

Perhaps he was suggesting to these women to stay quiet and listen so they could “catch-up” on the learning they were previously denied, so that one day they could teach and hold authoritative positions in the Church. No matter what the exact intentions were, it is clear in Pauline letters that the apostle not only allowed women to be in church leadership, he welcomed it and openly recognized many female ministers throughout as “co-laborers” in the Lord.

There is another problem that is less recognized with accepting First Timothy 2:11-15 as a timeless, universal doctrine meant for every congregation after Paul wrote the letter we now call First Timothy.  Paul ends this passage with this statement: But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (NIV). If Paul literally meant that women would be saved through having children this would go against the whole gospel message that is taught by Paul and all the other apostles.

Paul clearly states in Ephesians 2:8-9, 

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it (NIV).

Being saved by grace alone found in the atonement of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of our faith and it would be fair to say most Christian denominations believe this to be an non-negotiable doctrine.  If a woman could be saved through childbearing (essentially a “good thing”), she would have no need to put her faith in the grace of Jesus Christ.  She, in fact, could earn her salvation apart from the cross.

Surely Paul did not mean this statement as a literal, universal doctrine that should be passed down through the ages. If he did mean it in this way then women who were unable to have children for various reason would be denied the possibility of eternal life. Do you see how absurd the Bible can get when we take it out of context? 

While we can not be completely certain what Paul meant by such a strange statement, we can be sure of what he did not mean.  Both men and women are saved by grace and grace alone and this entire passage was meant to calm down a group of rowdy ancient women in one particular church at one particular time in history.

Learn more about Paul’s bizarre statement “women will be saved through childbirth” and what he most likely meant at Ben Irwin’s blog: Here

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