"I Do Not Permit a Man" (Reimagining 1 Timothy 2 in light of #ChurchToo)
1 Timothy 2 has often been cited as prohibitory for women in the role of pastor or teacher. “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man,” writes Paul, and the Southern Baptist Convention echoes his decree in their 1984 resolution on the ordination of women. Yet the word Paul uses for “authority” in this instance is not representative of good pastoral authority, and perhaps his probation on leadership would be applied more faithfully to the men of the SBC than to women.
The letter to Timothy was written to the church in Ephesus, the city where an influential cult of Artemis was centralized as well. The context of the Ephesian church matters immensely, otherwise we end up barring women from church leadership when, in fact, Paul himself recognized women in the leadership of churches in Corinth (Priscilla), Cenchrea (Phoebe), and Rome (Junia).
The exact practices of the cult of Artemis in Ephesus are debated by scholars, but the cult likely granted women primacy in the narratives and practices surrounding worship in some way. The Gospel challenges the assumptions of the majority wherever it is proclaimed. For Jesus, the inclusion of those considered ceremonially unclean, tax collectors and women were upsetting to those who followed him. Paul pushes the envelope by including gentiles, and without requiring they keep food laws or submit to circumcision to boot.
In what ways would the Gospel challenge the majority narrative in Ephesus?
How would Paul help the church imagine the radical ways Jesus should be embodied in their midst?
These questions help us read the letter well, and given the catastrophic implications of proof-texting chapter 2, I will focus there for the remainder of this post. “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man,” Paul writes, but this would have been a call to radical difference in the religious landscape of Ephesus, where priestesses were held in high regard and Gnostic creation narratives prioritized the feminine over and against the masculine. This letter would have been read aloud to the congregation, and I imagine a whisper washing through the gathering as this section was read. Wait, you mean women don’t unilaterally, domineeringly run the rituals of worship?
Paul is not stripping women of a healthy, positive form of authority. The Greek word for what we would think of today as good leadership or authority εξουσια—which denotes capability, mastery and influence. Instead, Paul uses the word αυθεντειν, and this is the only instance in his letters he uses it. A quick study of this word tells the reader that the authority Paul is seeking to limit is not the typical authority discussed in his other letters, or in the New Testament broadly. Rather, the connotation of αυθεντειν is unilateral domination; an authoritarian style of leadership which causes harm to the person wielding the authority and to the community they are lording over.
It is time to reimagine Paul’s letter to Timothy. Recent reports have made it abundantly clear that the unilateral male leadership of the Southern Baptist Church is causing immeasurable harm to women and children in their congregations, and to the men who hold such power. The exercise of authority demonstrated over the last two decades of the SBC has not been εξουσια but αυθεντειν, and were Paul to write his letter today, he would perhaps write it this way:
To my brothers leading the Southern Baptist Convention,
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
Your denomination has been thrust into the collective consciousness of the United States, and the opportunity has arisen for you to instruct those who would teach a different doctrine. At this moment, you could stand against those who occupy themselves with proof texts devising meaning from national mythology cloaked in the language of Scripture. Some people have deviated from the Gospel and turned to pontificating in meaningless jargon desiring to be notable teachers and preachers without understanding what they are saying or the things about which they assert such confidence.
We know that Scripture is good, if one uses it legitimately. We must understand that the law of Scripture is laid down for those who would violate it, not to shame the innocent. The law of Scripture is to correct those who diminish the humanity of others in any way contrary to the will of God.
I am giving you these instructions, dear brothers, in accordance with the witness of the Gospel, so by following them you may fight the good fight of faith. By rejecting such conscience, certain people have suffered a wrecked faith; goodness knows we’ve seen enough names in the papers lately. Perhaps as these now notorious men are turned over to face the accusations they will learn not to blaspheme.
First of all, then, continue in prayer, intercession and thanksgiving on behalf of everyone—high and mighty and down and out alike—so that we might lead quiet, peaceful, dignified lives. This is right and acceptable in the eyes of God our Savior who wants for everyone to be saved, draws all to the knowledge of the truth. For Christ Jesus himself mediates humanity to God and gave himself as a ransom for all—yes even those people you cannot imagine welcoming and affirming in the faith.
Men in every place then should pray and lift their hands not to explain away or to demonstrate their own might or intelligence, but out of a sign of surrender to the Lord Most High. Also, women shouldn’t flaunt their wealth or status—single or married! —within the community of believers. Perhaps a little less focus on the family is in order. Let the women learn, right alongside the men, don’t divide them up into their own study group with watered-down messages and lukewarm tea. And don’t let the men go off on their own either! Shoving ideas about Christ crucified into events with monster trucks and MMA. When one gender is privileged in instruction, things get weird and we miss what God is doing.
I do not permit a man to teach or have authority over a woman, he must keep silent. For it was Adam who pushed blame for his actions off of himself to another first, then Eve; and Adam who did not speak truth to the lies of the snake but stood by thus implicating himself in the deception. Yet men will be saved by giving their lives for the sake of nourishing the life of others, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness and don’t get cocky.
For a more thorough study of 1 Timothy 2, please see the multi-part blog series by Marg Mowczko.
Additional reading on implications of #MeToo and #ChurchToo on the life of the church are available here.