Silence and Salvation: Reflections on 1 Timothy 2 and Women in Ministry

I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

-1 Timothy 2:8-15

Men are to pray. Women are to dress modestly. Women are to learn silently and submissively. Women are not to have authority over a man because it was not Adam but the woman who was deceived in the garden of Eden by the serpent. Women are saved through childbearing. Such is the simple and straightforward teaching of Paul according to 1 Timothy.

There’s just one big problem; almost everything in this passage runs completely counter to what Paul writes in his other letters. First, it seems clear from Paul’s letters that he accepted and expected women in positions of authority. Romans 16 is the best example of this; Paul asked his audience to greet nine different women on his behalf, presumably prominent members of the church at Rome. About half of these women appear to have held positions of leadership. Most significant of all is Junia, who Paul described as prominent among the apostles, a title that we know was extremely important to Paul because of the way he defended it in his correspondence with the Corinthians. Both in Romans and 1 Corinthians, we hear about Phoebe, who was apparently a leader in that church and who was described in Romans 16 as a deacon. In Philippians, Euodia and Syntche are described as women who have struggled beside Paul in the work of the Gospel. In short, women repeatedly appear in positions of leadership in Paul’s writings. Furthermore, there is no other place in Paul’s writings where he suggested that women are saved through childbearing and the only place where Paul wrote about women’s clothing is in 1 Cor. 11 where he insisted that women wear a head covering whenever they pray or prophesy – but that only further proves the point that Paul expected women to pray and prophesy in the assembly of believers!

So how can Paul make such seemingly contradictory statements? The answer for the majority of New Testament scholars is that he did not write 1 Timothy. Yes, 1 Timothy says it is written by Paul but close study of this epistle has provided abundant evidence that it was not. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus (often referred to as the Pastoral Epistles) appear to have been written together as a collection of letters in Paul’s name. In addition to the differences of opinion about women in ministry, these three letters also use words and phrases that Paul never uses in his letters. The attitude toward marriage expressed in the Pastorals is quite different from what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7. The letters also discuss church offices in a way that doesn’t exist in Paul’s letters. Finally, Paul is portrayed as an old man near the end of his life writing to a young Timothy even though Paul’s letters depict Paul and Timothy as having ministered together throughout their lives.

So why would someone write a letter in Paul’s name if they weren’t really Paul? One likely possibility is that these letters were written as a response to the legends of Paul and Thecla. Although these legends are not in modern Bibles, they were very influential in early Christianity. Thecla was a woman engaged to be married when she heard Paul preaching. She was so taken by Paul’s message of salvation that she immediately decided to break off her engagement and follow Paul in his ministry. This infuriated her mother so much that she actually sought to have her daughter killed – just one of many times Thecla’s life was threatened throughout these stories. Thecla did, however, eventually catch up with Paul again and told him everything that had happened to her. Paul responded to her accounts by commissioning her to preach the gospel! Although Thecla’s story is not included in the Bible, there is considerable evidence that Thecla was widely venerated among early Christians. In fact, it seems likely that a lot of women may have been following Thecla’s example – refusing to be married and taking up positions of authority in the early church.

If that’s true, then it’s pretty easy to see how 1-2 Timothy and Titus might have been written as a response to the Thecla legends since these letters oppose everything the Thecla legends are about. Whereas Thecla breaks off her engagement, these letters command women to marry, suggest that women who do not marry will only engage in idle gossip, and even suggest that women’s salvation comes through childbearing. Whereas Thecla preaches the gospel, these letters insist that women remain silent. It’s also easy to see why this writer would take up Paul’s name to make his case since it is Paul who commissions Thecla to preach the gospel. This writer appears to be concerned about the number of women who are taking up positions of leadership in the church and using Paul’s legacy as a justification for their actions, so he also claims Paul’s legacy in insisting that women must not be leaders in the church. The Pastoral epistles and the Thecla legends appear to represent competing attempts to claim Paul’s legacy for the later church.

So where does that leave those who look to scripture as a guide? On the one hand, there are the authentic letters of Paul which generally support women in leadership roles and, on the other hand, a later person writing in Paul’s name opposing women in leadership. Even if 1 Timothy was not written by Paul, it is still a part of the Christian scriptural canon so it will not do to simply insist that Paul supported women in ministry as if that ends the discussion. But neither does it adequately reflect the witness of the New Testament to quote this passage from 1 Timothy and claim that the Bible “clearly teaches” that women cannot be ministers of the gospel. The only thing that is clear is just how unclear this issue is in the New Testament. We have Paul who supported women in positions of authority and a later New Testament writer who did not; the New Testament is divided on this question. But here’s the thing – that means that whatever one believes about women in ministry, it is a decision that individual has made. It was not God. It was not the Bible. If someone opposes women in ministry, it is because they have chosen to do so and they must take responsibility for that decision. It will not do to simply cite 1 Timothy 2 and claim that one is only following what the Bible says or what God says.

Although this may be debated in our scriptures, it is has never been a question of serious debate in the official doctrinal statements of the Church of the Nazarene, the denomination in which I am an ordained minister. The Church of the Nazarene has always ordained women to ministry. There has never been a time in our history when our denomination has not considered women and men to be equal partners in the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ in every respect. In fact, a look back at some of the earliest statements about the ordination of women in the Church of the Nazarene shows that our earliest leaders found this position to be completely unremarkable. It was a given, taken for granted. They didn’t think they were doing something groundbreaking or progressive. They simply believed they were living the gospel. (Bassett, “Ordination of Women to Ministry in the Church of the Nazarene”)

Nevertheless, there is still work to do. Despite the fact that we have always ordained women to ministry in the Church of the Nazarene, we have not always fully supported women in ordained ministry in the Church of the Nazarene. Even today, only 21% of active clergy in the Church of the Nazarene are women, and perhaps more to the point, only 10% of senior pastors are women. (USA/Canada Church of the Nazarene: Women Clergy Statistics) I have heard story after story of women called by God to be senior pastors who have doubted that call because they had never seen a woman minister, they were directly told they couldn’t be pastors because they were women, or they were told that they might as well consider being a children’s pastor or a worship leader because they would never be hired as a senior pastor. We can and must do better because we are only robbing ourselves of the gifts and talents of women who would enrich the ministry of the church if only they found a church welcoming them to do so. We, men and women, have a responsibility to recall that we serve a God who does not judge by outward appearance but looks at the heart and calls to ministry those God sees fit to call, male or female.

David Young is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College, Nazarene Theological Seminary, and Boston University School of Theology. He was privileged to serve as the pastor of Clinton First Church of the Nazarene in Clinton, IL and now serves as the Dean of the Chapel and Assistant Professor of Biblical Literature at Eastern Nazarene College. He and his wife have been blessed with three remarkable children.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: