Women Under Christ's Authority | 1 Timothy 2:11-15
By John Fitzsimmons
Pastor, Sligo City Church
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Peter in chapter 3:16 of his second letter said of Paul’s letters, which he viewed as Scripture, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand.” This has been very true in my prayer, study and reflection on these verses. Last week I noted how women played a very small role in the life of the synagogue in NT times... This week I want to begin by pointing out this was not the case in the NT church...
The NT opens with the story of the birth of Jesus in which Mary is given the great honour of giving birth to the Messiah. In fact if it wasn’t for Mary (and women) we wouldn’t have a saviour to rescue us from sin. And since Mary was a virgin who conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit this means no man was involved in the process at all. Giving birth to the saviour was a role reserved for a woman. Other significant ladies joined Mary in the Christmas story, Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:39-45); and Anna the prophetess (Luke 2:36-38) who spoke of Jesus “to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
As we continue through the gospels we find Luke is careful to note that “many” women (including Mary Magdalene and Joanna) helped and supported the ministry of Jesus “out of their own means” (Luke 8:1-3). John also tells us the story of the Samaritan woman who led many of her own people to Christ with her “testimony”. Throughout the gospels we find Jesus healing (Matt 15:28; Luke 8:43-48); forgiving (Luke 7:36-50); teaching (Luke 10:38-42; John 4:1-26) and defending women (Matt 26:6-13; John 8:1-11). We also find him raising a young woman from the dead (Luke 8:49-56); giving a widowed woman back everything by raising her son from the dead (Luke 7:11-17) and using the example of another widow to teach his disciples about true devotion (Luke 21:1-4).
In short, the gospels are full of women encountering Christ in various ways, and the gospel writers go out of their way to point this out! They also reveal it was women who were notably present (most of the men were nowhere to be seen) during the death (Matt 27:55-56), burial (Matt 27:61) and resurrection (Matt 28:1-10) of Christ which of course is the most central event of our faith and the one on which EVERYTHING hangs. In fact according to Matthew two Mary’s were the first witnesses to his resurrection, and the first people told to proclaim the Good News to the other disciples (Matt 28:7)!
In the book of Acts this highlighting of the presence of women continues. Acts 1:14 says the disciples “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” Then Peter’s sermonin Acts 2:17-18 begins with a quotation from Joel 2:28-32; “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophecy.” AmazinglyPeter was quoting a prophecy which was happening before his eyes. This is a prophecy concerning the days we still live in! (1 Cor. 11:5 assumes women will be praying and prophesying in corporate worship).
We also read of Tabitha in Acts 9:36-43. According to V36 “She was full of good works and acts of charity.” In fact Tabitha was so valuable to the Church in Joppa that when she became ill and died Peter came and prayed for her and she came back to life... Act’s 16:11-15 talks of the conversion of Lydia and we read in V13; “And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.” The apostle’s took time to teach these ladies about God and the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to pay attention, Lydia and her household then got baptised. In the story which immediately follows we learn it was because Paul & Silas in the name of Jesus delivered a young slave girl from the spirit of divination that they got put in prison. Acts 18 tells us of Priscilla, who, with her husband, invited Apollos (one of the most competent NT preachers) into her home “and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (V26). In other words she helped teach this powerful man of God. Then Acts 21:9 tells us that Philip the evangelist “had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.”
In Romans 16 Paul affectionately lists 29 co-workers, strikingly 16 of them are women! Women like Phoebe, a deacon in a local church (Rom 16:1 NIV); and Junia who along with her husband were “well known to the apostles” (V7).This list identifies single & married women who “worked hard”, “risked their lives” & even went to prison for Christ & the gospel. So clearly women were very active, prominent and even vocal in the life of the early Church! Then alongside all this we have this difficult verse in 1 Tim 2:12; “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”
Some Christians have taken this verse to mean no woman should ever teach a man anything (which is sometimes hard to do anyway!) In some churches women are forbidden not only to preach, but also to teach Sunday school, participate in home Bible studies, lead worship, or give any kind of input. The problem with this is it goes against some of what we have already discovered in the NT, as well as those words of Joel which emphasise the prophet-hood of all believers. According to Joel and the preaching of Peter, all God’s sons and daughters have a prophetic ministry. No matter what our understanding of prophecy it’s hard to exercise such a ministry if you are banned from speaking in church altogether. This does not mean all women (and men) are called to serve in the church’s teaching office, but it does mean they are all empowered at times to exercise some kind of speaking ministry.
In keeping with this principle, the apostle Paul gave the following instructions to women as well as men in Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one and other with all wisdom, sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” So firstly,it’s clear then that men and women can teach and learn from one another in public worship when the word of Christ dwells richly in them! So prohibiting women from teaching men in church altogether not only goes against Biblical teaching, but also against biblical example.
Secondly, let me point out, that in I Timothy (and the other Pastoral Letters) teaching always refers to apostolic teaching. For example in chapter 1:3 Paul told Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine”. That is, to not let anyone (men or women) teach or exercise authority over the apostles teaching. In 4:11 he said; “Command and teach these things”, meaning the authoritative apostolic instruction he received. In 4:16 Paul told Timothy to “keep a close watch on yourself and the teaching”, not his own teaching but “the teaching”. In 6:3-4 Paul says; “Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he (GK: or she) is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.” Paul seen what he taught as the very teaching of Christ, this is how we should view NT Scripture! And both sexes are equally called to submit to Christ’s authority.
The reason I point this out is because from my studies I have come to understand “teach” and “exercise authority over” are closely related terms. So it’s very likely Paul is not talking about two separate things but one. This is also important to point out because whatever way we understand these verses they cannot mean all women are called to submit to all men. For one, we’ve already seen that Priscilla taught Apollos and it seems at some level Apollos submitted to whatever he was taught. Secondly, such an understanding of these verses would lead to many obvious dangers... Therefore Paul must mean something else. Perhaps he means women are not to teach or exercise authority over “the man” (as the KJV puts it) who has been entrusted with the apostle’s teaching, namely Timothy... In this case the same rule also applies to men who do not serve in the role of overseer, as 1:3 & 6:3-4 makes clear...
Timothy had apostolic authority from Paul! In 2 Timothy 1:13-14 Paul wrote to Timothy; “Follow the pattern of the sound words you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” Then in 2:2 he told Timothy to entrust what had been entrusted to him to other faithful people “who will be able to teach others”. Paul also closes his first letter to Timothy by saying; “O Timothy, guard the good deposit entrusted to you...” Don’t forget the big problem in Ephesus was false teaching – people teaching different doctrines which disagreed with the sound words of Jesus! In doing this these false teachers were assuming some kind of self-appointed authority, which they sought to exercise in the church! Paul needed to challenge and silence these people by making sure the right people were entrusted with teaching and leadership roles! The rest of the church was to submit to the teaching deposited to Timothy. Remember this is before they had a NT canon. We have this good deposit in our Bible’s!
Baring in mind as well that in the Roman world, women were generally considered to be intellectually second-class and for this reason the educational system was designed only for men. (I say generally because there is evidence of a small number of wealthy and well educated women in Asia Minor at this time). This meant most women didn’t have the opportunity to learn... Add to this the dominant cult of Diana, the great goddess of the Ephesians, making Ephesus a stronghold of feminine supremacy to the point people possibly believed woman was the author or originator of man, or that Adam came from eve. This is possibly why Paul says V13; “For Adam was formed first, then Eve”, to underline the Biblical order of creation and correct false teaching. We also know that some women in the church “strayed after Satan” (5:15). So it’s very likely women in the church at Ephesus had been influenced by false teaching and the cult of Diana and were perhaps trying to exercise some control in the church. Therefore the best thing for these Ephesian women was to remain quiet (that is remain in submission)... under the teaching authority of the male overseers so they could learn “the teaching that accords with godliness.” Historic & cultural insights do not change the meaning of Scripture, but they do help bring clarity to it.
So these verses are perhaps teaching that women are to submit to the teaching and discipline of the overseers of the church. They are not permitted to “teach or exercise authority” over them... In this respect, they are no different from the men who are not overseers. If women are to be equal learners with men, then they need to come under the same teaching and authority as men. Therefore they are not permitted to “teach or exercise authority over” the male overseers. And if they do teach they are to do so under the authority of the overseer/elders, in submission to the fundamentals of the church, and more importantly the apostles teaching which of course is now canonised in our NT...
Thirdly, let me ask two questions: Q1. Imagine you have two preachers assuming God given authority in their teaching. One is a woman called Deborah who is teaching the Bible faithfully with great integrity, the other is a man called Balaam who is teaching heresy. Do you submit to Balaam’s teaching simply because he is a man, or do you submit to Deborah’s teaching because she is truly speaking the Word of God?
Q2: Do Paul’s words; “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” automatically imply men have the right to teach and exercise authority over women, or do they just mean women are not permitted to exercise authority over certain men? Could it be that men and women are not to exercise authority over each other, but instead serve each other and submit to the oversees and elders who are called not to ‘Lord it over’ those entrusted to their care, but to be examples who willingly and lovingly watch over the flock, with a heart of sacrificial service (1 Peter 5:1-4)... In fact, is it right for any of us, men or women, or even overseers, to even desire to exercise authority over others? What kind of a person desires to exercise authority over another? Listen to these challenging words of Jesus to his disciples in Mark 10:42-45;
“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Those words “But it shall not be so among you” are striking... Obviously Jesus’ idea of leadership is very different from much of what we see in the world. In Christ’s community greatness is measured by service! John Stott notes when commenting on these words of Jesus in the context of these words of Paul in First Timothy 2;
"Supposing... we begin our thinking about Christian pastoral leadership with the teaching of Jesus in Mark 10:35ff... Why should it be thought inappropriate for women to exercise such servant-leadership? They have done so throughout biblical history. Besides, there are now no authority figures in the church, who can teach like the apostles in the name and with the authority of Christ. The NT is now complete, and all Christian teachers are called to teach humbly under its authority. If then a women teaches others, including men, under the authority of Scripture (not claiming any authority of her own), in a meek and quiet spirit (not throwing her weight about), and as a member of a pastoral team whose leader is a man (as a contemporary cultural symbol of masculine headship), would it not be legitimate for her to exercise such a ministry, and be commissioned (ordained) to do so, because she would not be infringing the biblical principle of masculine headship?"
John Stott’s words make a valid point but they also raise the next question this text forces us to deal with. I’ve already pointed out how the overseers/elders in Ephesus were men, so we still need to deal with the other big question this text raises: Is the overseeing/headship role in the life of the church reserved for men because of God’s created order, or were the overseers/elders in Ephesus male at this time for cultural reasons only?
The Creation order/headship theme in Scripture cannot be ignored, it is there, but it needs to be carefully understood and applied. God’s intention in creating male and female, and their relationship to him and each other needs to be understood as best as possible. We also need to understand how the fall deeply damaged the relationship between the sexes, and the consequences that have resulted because of it. The gifts of many women have been suppressed because of a wrong understanding of these things. A wrong understanding of headship has also been used by men to domineer over women in many cultures and situations. Created order/headship isn't simple! For example in the OT God allowed the married Deborah to be both a prophetess and Judge to lead Israel. Such things need to be taken into account before we reach any conclusions.
The bottom line is, as Christians, none of us (male or female) will ever speak with any kind of true authority until we learn to submit to the apostles teaching, this teaching has been entrusted to us via Scripture! None of us have permission to “teach of exercise authority” over the NT apostles who spoke “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Before any of us assume any authority to teach etc, we must learn to sit quietly at his feet in full submission to his word! I believe God wants to see the gifts, leadership and teaching abilities of women put to full use, as they were in the early church. But this will only happen when women offer their full submission to “the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:5). Colossians 1:17 says; “He is the head of the body, the church...” No matter what conclusions we come to, all of us must submit to this Man and whatever he teaches!