1 Timothy 2: a response to an alternative reading

I have recently been reading Phill’s blog, on which he has been writing a miniseries on 1 Timothy 2, looking at the issue of women in the church.  I’ve read it with interest, and found it fascinating.  I was going to leave a comment, but by the time I’d finished it was quite long so I thought I’d post the response in full here instead.

Firstly, Phill, thank you for sharing your musings.  It’s encouraging to see your inner theologian getting a good mental workout, and I look forward to seeing your name on the cover of a book some day!  And don’t worry about having outstanding questions, that’s perfectly normal and acceptable – I have far more respect for someone who seeks out complicated questions than for someone who thinks they already have all the answers!

For those who haven’t read Phill’s posts already, I really do encourage you to read those first, otherwise much of this probably won’t make much sense.  But to summarise, I think the basic thrust of Phill’s musings is that Paul’s letter isn’t so much about gender roles as it is about relationships.  That’s a huge generalisation of his eloquent exploration, of course, so do read the original for a more complete picture!

What I have found helpful on this topic is being clear about the distinction between authority and inequality. To demonstrate what I mean I’m going to use my wife as an example (sorry Ellie). In our household, Ellie makes most of the day-to-day decisions, and I simply go along with them. In that respect, she has authority over me because she is taking the lead in the decision-making role, and I am following her leadership. I’m sure there are many other marriage relationships where that concept rings true. However, what’s important is that the relationship is still one of equality – if I had a differing opinion to hers I would share it knowing that both our opinions would be equally valid and equally worthy of being heard. If the relationship was unequal it would mean that one of us would deliberately override the opinion of the other, regardless of whether or not it was founded in truth. So in the case of my own marriage (I’m pleased to say), there is authority but no inequality.  And authority isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I think that’s an important thing to remember when thinking about church leadership. My opinion (which I believe to be Biblically-based) is that everyone in a church is equal, whether they’re in the pew or the pulpit. The person preaching the sermon is not there because they are a better Christian or somehow more important in God’s eyes, but simply because they are trained or otherwise gifted in sharing God’s Word in a way that others can understand and learn from. So there is leadership, but not inequality. The new convert is just as entitled to salvation as the Archbishop of Canterbury. And given our human nature, the Archbishop of Canterbury is just as capable of being wrong as I am.  As someone else is bound to have said already, “there is no such thing as a first class Christian”.

So, picking up on the gender-specific aspect of this discussion, I found Phill’s comment about the specific translations in the NIV very useful – a woman (or indeed anyone) “having authority” is fundamentally different from “assuming authority”. Usurping or undermining someone else’s authority can be very damaging, both in relationships and in the church, whereas (as I demonstrated in my earlier paragraph) having authority is natural and Biblical, irrespective of gender.

Something I often come back to when reading the Bible is to focus on what it means, not on what it says.  Obsessing over the letter of the law is what got the Pharisees into so much trouble about.  In the context of the rest of the letter is talking about, I’m more or less convinced that Paul is talking about relationships and humility, about working together as a body of believers rather than trying to show off or insist on being right all the time.  And that’s an attitude that applies equally to both genders.

And, as Phill pointed out, there are plenty of female authority figures in the Bible and God doesn’t seem to complain about – Deborah was a judge of Israel, after all. Phill also mentioned something about the Queen, who I note is the Head of the Anglican Church and therefore in authority over a great many people – I’m sure someone would have objected already if that was an issue…

It’s far from clear-cut, of course, and there is still much left for theologians to ponder. But here’s my biggest point – if God is clearly and consistently calling women to ministry, can we really contradict Him based on something we think Paul might have meant? As much as I have to respect the Biblical Canon, I would rather follow God than the Bible; the latter is subject to interpretation, while the former is the source itself.  The Bible is a pointer to God, not an infallible deity in itself.

I hope this complements Phill’s exposition, and maybe opens the discussion to a wider audience.  Feel free to leave comments here or on Phill’s blog, depending on who you disagree with most…

2 thoughts on “1 Timothy 2: a response to an alternative reading

  1. Hi Matthew,

    I’m glad you read those posts and found them useful! It’s always good to hear that someone appreciates it 🙂

    I think I would qualify your penultimate paragraph and say that I would rather follow God than a traditional interpretation of Scripture. I think Scripture is the Word of God, but its interpretation and application is done by fallible humans – who get things wrong.

    But yes, one of the things I’ve found when studying this is that the options are a lot less clear cut than many would make it seem!

    Speak to you soon,
    Phill 🙂

  2. Yes, point taken about the fallibility being in human interpretation. Perhaps I’m overly critical in that respect; BibleGateway has that wonderful feature of being able to compare different translations side by side, which reinforces my feeling that none of them can be 100% correct!!

    Outstanding questions for me include the reason for Paul’s seemingly blunt and don’t-argue-with-me language in this passage; was it related to something he had already been talking to the Ephesians about on a previous occasion, or was he truly passionate about that point of view, or was he just having a bad hair day? I struggle with Paul sometimes, I have to admit, he tends to ramble on in unhelpfully long and unfocused rants…

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