Women in the Early Church:  “That” Passage, Part 2

This is an adaptation of a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, July 24, 2022.  Scripture:  1 Timothy 2.

Last week, we considered the authorship and context of this particular passage that we are focusing on for a second week, since there’s just so much here (I could, in truth, probably spend a good month here).  We were reminded last week of the significance of engaging with the Bible, which is a library of pieces written at different times, in different places, with different customs, and in different languages—all of them very different from our own.

We pondered last week the notion that this letter was not actually written by Paul.  While raising the very real possibility that this letter was not in fact written by Paul is a scandalous notion to us, it was not in the first century. This letter, along with its companions 2 Timothy and Titus, does not sound like Paul’s other letters and it contains words that Paul did not use in the undisputed letters. More about one of those words in just a moment.

We’ll begin with the part of the passage that brings up appropriate dress for women.

Many years ago, when my husband, Joseph, and I were first together or first married, we spent Christmas on Long Island with Joe’s family. This involved attending the local Catholic mass on Christmas morning or the weekend following Christmas.  I don’t remember precisely when and I don’t remember anything about the mass itself, except for this one thing:  the fur coat parade.  Not all of the women certainly, but an alarming number arrived, ready to show off their new fur coats that each one had received as a gift for Christmas. The longer and more elaborate and more expensive the coat was, the further down the aisle the woman went.  Or, at least that’s how it seemed to me.  Once I noticed a few fur coats going down the center aisle, I asked about it and I was told that this happens every Christmas, like it’s some sort of weird annual custom. 

The author of 1 Timothy would not have approved.  In fact, something just like this is happening in the church at Ephesus, the church that the author—whether it was Paul or someone who worked closely with Paul—was writing to, responding to a letter that someone in that church had written, very likely asking for help.  Clearly a problem had taken root in the community.

We shouldn’t forget that all of the letters in the New Testament were letters that were written in response to a letter that outlined a situation or laid out an issue or a problem or even a scandal of some sort. We don’t have any of those letters. What we have are the responses, many of them written by Paul himself and some written by people who worked closely with Paul.

1st Timothy was written to the church in Ephesus, where there a problem had developed. One aspect of the problem in that church was the fact that some women were attending the church all decked out in all of their finest and perhaps parading down the center aisle or whatever was the center aisle in that first century faith community and displaying themselves in an ostentatious way. This had become a problem and the writer of 1st Timothy was offering guidance to Timothy in dealing with the problem.  As it is stated at the beginning of the letter:  “To Timothy, my loyal child in the faith:  Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.  I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith. (1 Timothy 1:2-4)

Beyond the problem of the inappropriate dress, it also seems that there was a group of women, or perhaps one singular woman, who had begun to engage in problematic teaching, teaching that needed to be corrected.

This may have been connected to a temple that existed in Ephesus, dedicated to the goddess Artemis, as well as other influences that led to various problematic teachings, including a rewriting of Genesis 2, claiming that Eve was created first and then Adam.

And so, the author of 1 Timothy is strongly, and in no uncertain terms, outlining a solution to this particular problem in this particular church.  Let’s be clear here.  While there are some important questions about this letter, and this section of this letter, and a real lack of complete clarity, it is likely that the statements that are lifted out time and time again to deny women pastoral leadership are really about a very particular situation in a particular church that involved a particular group of women or even one particular woman.

That this passage and the one pesky little verse have been lifted out to apply to all women across the entire church through millennia demonstrates a remarkable lack of information about this book in the Bible.

And, then there’s the authority issue in verse 12:  “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”  The word that’s translated “authority” is a rare word in Greek and that makes it extremely hard to translate.  As is offered on The Junia Project website [https://juniaproject.com/defusing-1-timothy-212-bomb/]:

This unusual Greek verb is found only once in scripture and rarely in extrabiblical texts, where it is usually associated with aggression. Authentein is translated as “domineer” in the Latin Vulgate and New English Bible and as “usurp authority” in the Geneva and King James Bibles.

A study of Paul’s letters shows that he regularly used a form of the Greek “exousia” when referring to the use of authority in the church (see 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 9:4-6, 9:12, 11:10, 2 Cor 2:8, 10:8, 13:10, Col. 1:13, 2 Thess 3:12, Rom 6:15, 9:21).  So it is strange that some modern versions translate this simply as “authority”. Considering the context, it is likely that [author] was objecting to something other than the legitimate use of authority in 1 Timothy 2:12.

There is also the possibility that the verb used for teach is linked here to the verb that is used here to convey authority, in a sort of conjunction, like “Don’t eat and run,” leading us to a better interpretation as in “don’t teach in a domineering way.”  It’s different, isn’t it?  And, in line with what we’ve been learning over the course of this long series focused on women.

Now armed with this new awareness and knowledge, what do we do with it this new wisdom?  What should we take with us in the days and weeks ahead?

The first is to not make any apologies for being a church that welcomes the pastoral leadership of women.  The second is to be reminded, once again, that the Bible is a complicated library of books that requires study and thoughtful deliberation, attention to context, custom and language, and that there are verses and passages that may appear at first plenty straightforward, but are actually not so clear.  Third, there are times when we may fall into problematic practices and that we need to work together to do our best to realign ourselves in a thoughtful and encouraging way.  Those women who were decking themselves out at the church in Ephesus, in a similar way to the women showing off their fur coats in the church on Long Island, were very likely not bad people, but people who had lost their way, had lost their focus on what it means to be a part of the faith.  We are always in need of reflecting on our habits, customs and routines, on our connection to the faith.  We aren’t meant to be perfect, but we should be, on a regular basis, considering our practice:  how well are you, how well am I, how well are we living out the faith?

This isn’t about the clothes we wear, but about our attitude, about doing our best not only to live out the faith, but to be transformed by the faith.  How well are you, how well am I, how well are we living out the faith, day after day, and how are we allowing ourselves to be open to the movement of the Spirit, drawing us in and transforming us that we may indeed be the people we are called to be, letting go of habits and practices that get in the way, and realigning, over and over again, to the way of Christ?

May we continue to be about this holy work.  Praise be to God.  Amen.

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.
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