Women of Good Works and Full Submission | 1 Timothy 2:9-11
By John Fitzsimmons
Pastor, Sligo City Church
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When it comes to understanding biblical teaching about the role of women in church, there seems to be risk on every side. First, there is the risk of controversy. Few issues have brought more division in recent years than the role of women in church, and these verses we begin looking at today stand at the centre of an ongoing debate. Second, there is a risk of letting contemporary (or ancient) culture overrule Scripture. No matter how it is understood, Scripture stands against the attitudes of our day on many levels. Third, there is the risk of allowing church history to dictate how Scripture should be applied. When questions are asked about the role of women in ministry, the attitude of many churches has been, “We’ve never done it that way before.” As a result, the spiritual and natural gifts of women have often been marginalized & suppressed, to the impoverishment of the church. And fourthly, there is the risk of allowing personal opinion, feeling, preference or experience to colour our understanding of Scripture.
When we come to God’s Word we always have to be willing to allow it to change and expand our minds. We never come to Scripture with our minds fully made up. Instead we always come with a humble and fully submissive attitude, acknowledging our personal opinions, feelings, preferences & experiences often need corrected by Scripture... There are strong and persuasive arguments on either side of this debate... and there is much to learn from listening to the best of both sides. If you cannot see that it’s probably because you already have your mind made up... All of us need to ask God for humility and wisdom as we approach this subject (James 1:5-8). Culture does not have the final say on how Scripture should be applied (the culture of Ephesus, church culture, or today’s secular culture); nor does history... nor does personal opinion, feeling, preference, or experience; nor do you or I. Scripture alone has the final say on Scripture, and Scripture is God’s supreme and final authority in all matters of faith and conduct...
As well as this we need to understand we cannot build sound theology on one verse, or one passage. We need Scripture to interpret Scripture! We need to study all of what Scripture says on a subject... This is why Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15; “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” None of us has all the answers; none of us fully understands the Scriptures, all of us have much to learn... However as a preacher of the truth I am called to “Do [my] best to... rightly handle the word of truth”... So over the next two weeks or so I offer you my best on this text and subject, with the deep desire that I might present myself to God as one approved.
V8-10 “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or quarrelling; Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.”
Let a Woman Adorn Herself
The word "likewise" (v9) is significant because it sets the context. Paul is still talking about public worship and he assumes women will be present and participating by praying and learning with the men. The main point is; while the men need to be challenged about coming to worship without “anger or quarreling”, the ladies in Ephesus needed to be challenged to come without drawing ungodly attention to themselves... In short both men and women are to come to worship with pure hearts...
In Greek society braided hair, gold and pearls and costly attire were a sign of vanity. Some women spent hours fixing their hair and adorning themselves. One ancient sculpture depicts a wealthy lady in her salon, pampered by four attendants. As well as this; excessive adornment was also characteristic of prostitutes in Ephesus. Ephesus was home to the goddess Artemis (Diana to the Romans). Members of the church in Ephesus would be familiar with temple prostitutes loitering near the pillars of her temple. To dress in their style was tantamount to marital unfaithfulness.
In Ephesus, the way a woman dressed demonstrated the difference between chastity and adultery. These verses should not be understood as prohibiting jewellery and nice clothes. The principle is how and why these things are worn. This same principle applies to every culture. How and why a woman dresses the way she does says a lot about her, and God’s women are commanded to dress respectably and modestly, not seductively or elaborately... A worship service is not a fashion parade. A Christian woman does not go to church to meet men; she goes to meet God. “Getting ready for church” is primarily a matter of preparing the heart, just like it is for the men... A woman who comes to be noticed must remember who she is competing with. God is the one who ought to be the focus of our attention, and no women who is truly devoted to him, would ever want to rival him...
With that said, let me be careful to point out that these verses also express God’s positive desire for women. Paul says “that women should adorn themselves...” John Stott notes that; “When a woman adorns herself, she is seeking to enhance her beauty.” Paul recognises both that women are beautiful and that they should be encouraged to exhibit their beauty. There is no biblical warrant in these verses for women to neglect their appearance or conceal their beauty. The question is how and why women adorn themselves. The text teaches us that women should adorn themselves, but they should do so with “respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control... with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.”
So it’s perfectly okay for women to dress nice and exhibit beauty in a godly manner... but this verse also highlights how it’s also important to understand that true beauty comes from the spiritual life of the soul, which produces good works. God’s standards for feminine beauty are very different and much deeper than much of today’s culture. How many fashion magazines feature tips for inner beauty? The world often sees beauty as only outward thing... but “the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). Men are often part of the problem. When we evaluate women only by looks, we help make women slaves to their appearance. Attraction is not wrong, but when men look only at outward beauty it is ungodly, since God looks primarily on the heart.
Primarily a Christian woman is made beautiful by who she is in Christ and what she does in his name, not by what she wears. True beauty comes from nurturing the inner woman, and good works are the overflow of that inner beauty. If a woman wants to be beautiful in God’s eyes, the primary fashion statement she ought to make is her good works. Some of the beautiful works Paul has in mind are listed in chapter 5: bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, caring for the afflicted, and being devoted “to every good work” (which pretty much covers everything...) 1 Pet 3:3-5 underlines the importance of a woman’s inner beauty when it says;
“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands.”
Let a Woman Learn
V11 “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.”
In the Roman world, women were considered to be intellectually second-class. For this reason the educational system was only designed for men. The Jewish rabbis were even more chauvinistic. According to the Jerusalem Talmud (not the OT), “It would be better for the words of the Torah to be burned, than that they should be entrusted to a woman.” In such a culture educating women was viewed as a waste of time.Unsurprisingly then women played a very small role in the public life of the synagogue. The Babylonian Talmud gives an insight into this negative attitude towards women; “The men came to learn, the women came to hear.” In such a context the words “let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness” are very positive & affirmative of the equality of women. In fact these words align perfectly with the counter cultural example of Christ in the gospels.
Think about the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Often when this story is taught the focus of application is on spending time at the feet of Jesus. This is an important lesson, but there is something else happening in this story. The story opens with the words; “Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.” Clearly Jesus wasn’t on his own when he went to Martha’s house, but who was he with? Verse 23 of the chapter helps us see he was with his disciples. This means, when Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (V39) she was sitting with the male disciples – assuming the place of a learner with them... Martha was outraged by Mary’s actions. She thought Mary should be helping her in the kitchen like all good Jewish women. But listen to how Jesus responded to Martha! Did he send Mary back to the kitchen? No, instead he defended her right to learn; “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” In other words Mary did the right thing by sitting at the feet of Jesus with the men; Jesus was pleased with her and assured her that her right to learn would never be taken away from her. When Jesus spoke these words he opened the door for all women to take their place at the feet of Jesus as equal disciples.
As Paul says in Galatians 3:28 NLT: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In fact the only place we can be truly one is when we sit together at the feet of Jesus in submission to his teaching. At the feet of Jesus we are all equal. We all need his salvation and discipleship... These words of Jesus (& Paul) confirm the dignity and equality of women in becoming students of Scripture and disciples of Jesus. They also serve as a rebuke to any woman or man who thinks theology and discipleship is mainly for men.
Notice also the way Mary learned in this story; she “sat at the Lord’s feet and listed to his teaching”. Mary learned in true rabbinic style. She kept her place; she was listening rather than talking; and by sitting at Jesus’ feet she was choosing to submit to his teaching authority. In other words as Mary sat in the Bible College of Jesus she learned “quietly with all submissiveness” just as Paul encouraged the women in Ephesus to do. So these words of Paul should not be read as a negative, but simply as the normal way women (and men) ought to learn from God’s Word. These words do not relegate women to silence; instead they elevate women to the same level of discipleship as men.
In fact they describe the only attitude a person can learn with. Any teacher knows it is impossible to teach someone who is talking all the time... Good learning requires good listening and a teachable submissive spirit. It’s impossible to teach someone who thinks they know everything... If any of us are going to learn we need to develop a quiet and teachable spirit, and be willing to let God teach us through others. James 1:19 NIV says; “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” This is the way all God’s people are called to learn. They sit at the feet of their Master, even if he is speaking through the voice of a faithful and submissive minister of his Word. Our aim ought to be to learn with a quiet and submissive heart... We submit not so much to the minister of the Word but to the Lord of the minister, who is also our Lord.
Submission is defined here as “all submissiveness”, or “full” (NIV) or “entire submissiveness” (NASB) in these verses. The Bible leaves no room for partial submissiveness for women. To be elevated to discipleship is to be called to full submission to the Lordship of Christ. This is true for women as much as men. Anything less than full submission is no submission at all. Philip Graham Ryken notes; “Partial submission reserves the right to rebel; it leaves room to manipulate and to control. Grudging submission reserves the right to grumble; it leaves room for resentment and bitterness. But true submission is total submission. It is a heart surrendered to God.”
All of us all called to put up the white flag and surrender all to Jesus. Submission can be a threatening word to people because a wrong understanding of it has often been used as an excuse for abuse. However as Christians we have a responsibility to understand submission in its full and true biblical sense, which includes resisting the urge to think of it as something negative. Submitting completely to Jesus is the most positive thing we can do, because when we surrender all to Jesus we submit ourselves to the only One who loves us completely. You can trust the One who loves you completely! You can trust him more than you can trust yourself!
Whenever the idea of submission appears in the NT it is always stated in the most positive of terms (as we will see next week). The Bible insists it is a wonderful thing to submit to godly authority. Not an easy thing, but a wonderful thing nonetheless. We will look at this more fully next week, but let me just say now that the only submission women are called to is the true and full biblical vision of submission which is rooted in the example Jesus sets for men and women and reflective of the very nature and character of our triune God.
The whole idea of submission and headship and authority needs to be handled very carefully because it has been misunderstood and abused. However the Biblical vision of men and women united under Christ in a relationship of submission and sacrifice (in church or marriage) is one of the most beautiful things in all of Scripture. God made us not to compete with one another, but to complement each other... Genesis 1:27 NIV says; “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Together we reflect the image of our creator, yes the fall may have shattered the mirror and caused tension and disharmony, but the grace of God is restoring what was broken. And under Christ our Head we can increasingly display the glory of God...
The one question I want to end with today is this: How submitted are you to Jesus? Only full submission is true submission! Only full submission brings full joy! How submitted are you to Jesus and his Word? Since men and women are equally free to sit at the feet of Jesus in willing submission to his teaching, then the call to fully submit to his Lordship is a call to every one of us, irrespective of gender... He surrendered all for you on the cross when he willingly submitted to the Fathers will. Let his sacrificial love for you ignite within your heart a willing submission to his Lordship. Place yourself willingly at his feet and become his disciple.