Women in the Early Church:  “That” Verse, Part 1

This is an adaptation of a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, July 17, 2022.  Scripture:  1 Timothy 2.

It’s hard to know where even to begin with this passage.  It’s really hard.  Laugh or cry?  Scream or whimper?  Shudder or dissolve into nothingness? 

Where even to begin.  There are a LOT of issues with this passage, and with “that” verse in particular.  Shall I begin by going completely silent, declaring that we’ve been doing it wrong in this church for these many years, and I should just keep quiet? 

Well, no, I’m not going to do that, and for good reason.

Let’s dive right in and take up the big verse, verse 12:  “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” This particular verse is, as I’ve learned, incredibly important to all sorts of Christian denominations.  The Southern Baptist Convention—the largest Protestant denomination in the United States— uses this specific verse to deny ordination to women.  And, other churches and denominations, especially those that are more evangelically inclined, point to this verse to deny pastoral leadership to women.

Watch a few YouTube videos and it’s even easier to get a rather vivid view into the world of the usage of 1 Timothy 2:12, with discussions, debates, etc.  And, a decent share of people using this specific verse to support the subordination of women in the Church and in the family, arguing that while women are important to the Church and in the Church, they have profoundly clear and separate roles, with important and critical limits in regard to what women can do and say. 

So, what do we do about this verse?  How do we understand this verse in light of all that we’ve been learning over the course of months, regarding the significant work, ministry, discipleship, apostleship, leadership of women around Jesus and in the early church?  Why would Paul write such words, in light of his own work with women in spreading the Good News and encouraging fledging communities in the new faith?

There’s quite a lot to discuss.  So much, that I’m not even going to try to squish it into one week.  Next week, we will continue to consider this pesky passage—especially since I think it’s important to consider this passage in a bible study sort of way, and then to reflect on how to deal with this passage now, in these days.  So, we’ll do a little Bible Study first and then a bit of reflection and application—for today and for next Sunday.

Let’s begin by talking about authorship.  The letter says that it was written by Paul and for an awful lot of people, there’s nothing else to say.  For someone else to write it and say that it was written by Paul creates, for us, what appears to be a scandalous situation that would undermine the letter entirely.  How could a letter that says that it was written by Paul, actually not be written by Paul?  And, worse still, how could a letter that says that it was written by Paul but actually not, end up in the New Testament to begin with? 

This whole concept can be really unsettling and disturbing—for us.  It smacks of scandal and deception.  But, just because it’s a scandalous concept to us doesn’t mean that it was scandalous in the first century, or the second.  And, it wasn’t.  It was not uncommon for someone who worked closely with a person of significance to write on behalf of, and in the name of, that significant person, especially after the death of the significant person.

And, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the letter known as 1 Timothy was not actually written by Paul himself.  If you are someone who has read the New Testament, and especially if you have paid significant attention to Paul’s writings, 1 Timothy sounds different.  It doesn’t sound like Paul’s other writing.  Now, this may not seem all that significant.  But, think about it.  Think about your own writing style, or when you read something written by a friend or relative or coworker.  I bet you notice an individual style of writing—words, phrases, common attributes to how you, or someone you know, writes. 

Paul, too, has a distinctive way of writing, using certain words and phrases and ways of constructing a letter.  1 Timothy is different.  And, so is 2 Timothy and Titus.  These three letters are known as the Pastoral Epistles and in the three, there are 306 words that Paul does not use in the letters that are clearly known to be written by him.  And, there are other issues, including early collections of works that would eventually make their way into the canon of the New Testament that did not contain this group of letters, indicating that early on, some authorities knew or were pretty sure that the three letters were not actually written by Paul. 

But, you may be thinking—as plenty of others do—what does it matter?  These letters, including “that” pesky passage are in the Bible.  So, doesn’t that mean that God wants them there?  What does it matter if the letter was written by Paul, or someone who had worked closely with him?  It’s in the Bible.  It’s part of the canon.

We’re going to get to some of that, why we have good reason to be suspect of this passage and “that” particular verse, next week.  So, stay tuned.

For today, what little nugget should we be taking with us, what bit of new awareness should we focus on and hold close, thinking about and praying over?

I would say that we need to remind ourselves over and over again, as we read and engage with our Holy Scriptures, that it’s not only okay, but it is important that we appreciate that our holy book is a library of pieces written by different people in different places and in very different circumstances to our own.  I know that there are those whose sense of “canon” means that the verses and passages can be simply lifted out and that they simply mean what they say.  But, that’s not really the case.  The Gospels, the letters, and those pieces that aren’t easily defined into a category, like Hebrews, as well as the Law, the Prophets, the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures:  each has their own context.  And, while we may not feel inclined to become little Bible scholars, we can at least appreciate that each piece has a context that is very different from our own. 

Sometimes a verse, a passage, isn’t all that it seems.  And, I would say that’s definitely the case for today’s passage.  Just because it says something that on the surface appears clear and direct, that may not be the case.  Again, we’ll talk more about that next week.

Today, we are reminded that understanding the Bible, and its books and passages, can sometimes be a bit complicated.  You might think about in this way:  We have been learning about woman after woman, week after week, month after month.  Lots of women.  At the very least, there are questions to be asked about today’s passage.  It should not be simply lifted out and asserted:  Hey, here’s why women shouldn’t be in pastoral leadership.  Because women clearly were in positions of authority in the early church. 

For today, I know many of you don’t like it when I say this, but it’s still true:  the Bible is a complicated book and one that requires that we engage with it in seriousness, with humility, with an awareness of context, with a sense that there may very well be more to the story.  Just because it seems to state something in a very clear way—like women should be silent and not be in a position of authority over any man—doesn’t mean that that’s what the passage truly intends. 

To be a person of faith should mean that we are aware that our holy stories are sometimes complicated, that they have a context that we must learn at least a bit about in order to understand a verse or a passage, that our holy stories were not written in a time or place, or even in a language, that we can easily understand.  To encounter our holy stories is to open up a world that is at once wondrous in the connections we discover over time and place and, at the same time, mysterious.  There are things to be learned about language and custom, that can help us appreciate stories and lessons.  It is amazing to read these stories and, especially in our time, to discover a kinship of sorts with the early church, gathered in small communities just like ours, while we are also reminded that there are aspects of how the early church went about its life and work that are more difficult for us to understand, that require that we learn more about language and custom, etc.

We are also reminded today of the long stretch of the story of God and God’s people, that small communities gathered and sometimes struggled mightily with what it actually meant to live and breathe, day after day, in the faith.  1 Timothy was a letter written to a church that had lost its way.  They needed guidance and encouragement.

We need guidance and encouragement too.  It’s not easy to be the church.  But, just as the writer—whether it was Paul or someone who worked closely with him—knew:  groups of the faithful must be grounded in prayer, seeking godliness, peacefulness and dignity.  So, let us be, as we continue to seek wisdom and strength:  to be grounded in prayer, seeking in holy humility, the way that is being laid out for us, not by any one person, but by the God we gather to worship and from whom we discover love and blessing, that we may indeed be the people we are called to be.


About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
This entry was posted in Bible and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s