Reexamining an ancient understanding of a difficult text
I recently read a blog in which Pastor Mark Driscoll presented four interpretations of 1 Tim 2:15.1 He provided a summary of said views, neglecting to say that more views exist. In addition, when dealing with such a controversial matter, a full exegesis of the passage and its context may be more helpful to decypher an enigmatic passage than a summary of the prevailing views. In this ROAR, I will give a translation of the extended pericope, exegete the text, and compare an ancient interpretation with some of the modern interpretations of 1 Tim 2:15. A particular ancient interpretation seems to fit the grammar of the original text, the context of roles within the Church, the context of appropriate and inappropriate works, the context of caring for widows, and the context of the value of children throughout the entire Bible.
NOTE: If you have been reading my political posts, then I ask that you please understand that this post deals with a Church issue. This is not an argument in favor of State mandated gender roles.
Therefore first of all. I am urging entreaties prayers petitions and thanksgivings to be made in behalf of all men, in behalf of kings and all of those who are being in authority in order that we may continue spending a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable before God our Savior, who is desiring all men to be saved and to come into knowledge of truth. For God is one, and one is mediator of God and of men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself a ransom in behalf of all, the testimony in its appointed time. The testimony for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle, (I am speaking the truth I am lying not) a teacher of Gentiles in faith and truth.
Therefore I am desiring the men to pray in every place lifting up holy hands without wrath and dissension. And likewise I am desiring women to adorn themselves in a modest manner of dress with modesty and decency, not to adorn themselves in braided hair and gold or in pearls or in expensive clothing, but to adorn themselves through good works which is fitting to women who are making a claim to godliness. A woman must learn in quiet listening in full submission; But I am permitting not a woman to teach nor to have authority over a man, but to be in quiet listening. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman after being deceived fell into transgression; but she will be saved through childbearing, if they might continue in faith and in love and in holiness with self-control. This word is trustworthy.3
Setting. Paul, the apostle sent under the authority and command of God the Father and God the Son, wrote this letter to Timothy, Paul’s beloved disciple (1:1-2). Paul did not reveal from where he wrote. This may have been assumed knowledge. He could have been in Macedonia while writing the letter (1:3). Paul wrote at a time in which he was free to visit Timothy in Ephesus; thus, he was not in prison at the time (3:14). He probably wrote sometime between his first Roman imprisonment and his martyrdom under Emperor Nero, sometime between AD 62 and 64.4
Timothy was a leader in the church at Ephesus. Timothy apparently wanted to leave Ephesus to rejoin Paul; however, Timothy would have been leaving the Ephesian church in the hands of those who were teaching error (1:3). The false teachers taught doctrines foreign to the gospel, myths, fables, spiritual pedigrees, and possibly an ungrateful rejection of foods and marriage (1:3-4; 4:3, 7). They taught doctrines contrary to godliness (6:3). Timothy was in a position in which he could refute and correct their errors (1:3).
Context. Paul wrote a personal letter. In 3:14, Paul identified his purpose as giving Timothy instruction for how people in the Church should conduct themselves. In relation to this purpose, Paul told Timothy and the men to pray for all people, and the women to do good works and to learn in quiet submission (2:1, 8-12). Praying for all people, even evil rulers like Nero, is conduct that is pleasing to God (2:3). Doing good works, such as rearing children in faith, is conduct that gives a godly testimony (2:10, 15). Learning in quiet submission is conduct giving men proper respect and honor as the first created of God (2:11-14).
In the preceding passage, 1:18-20, Paul entrusted Timothy with commands to endure in the faith, giving examples of those who did not endure. After telling Timothy about handing those examples over to Satan, Paul told Timothy to pray for all people, which would include those who had not endured. The examples help explain why prayer should not include wrath and dissension (2:8). Enduring in the faith as a testimony of salvation also sheds some light on the conditional statement in 2:15, which this study will explain in detail later.
In the following passage, 3:2-7, Paul told Timothy how those worthy of being elders must conduct themselves. Within the description of a worthy elder, it mentions the elder’s household as respecting and obeying his authority. His wife and children are in godly submission. A woman’s learning in submission fits this model household. In addition, the text describes the elder as having a good reputation outside of the congregation. This fits with praying for all people to live in peace.
Structure. Paul used repetition and synonyms in the construction of this passage.4 He used four synonyms for prayer in 2:1. In 2:1-2 and 2:6, Paul repeated the phrase “in behalf of all.” He used the male and female forms of “quiet” (2:2 “peaceful quiet”, 11-12 “quiet listening”). Paul used synonyms for godliness (2:2, 10). He used two synonyms for the verb “to desire” (2:4, 8). Paul repeated the verb “to save” in general and specific contexts (2:4, 15). Paul repeated the words truth and faith together and in separate contexts (2:4, 7, 15; 3:1).
Paul used comparison and contrast to instruct Timothy. In 2:1-7, Paul compared praying for all people to God’s love for all displayed through Christ’s mediation and ransom, and displayed through Paul’s commission as an apostle to all people (not just the Jews). In 2:9-10 he contrasted worldly adornment with godly adornment. Paul compared a woman’s teaching and authority over a man to Eve’s role in the Fall (2:11-14).
The passage progresses based on a hierarchy of importance. The instruction of this passage starts with instruction for Timothy (2:1-7). Paul then gives instruction for the men of Timothy’s congregation (2:8). Afterwards, Paul gives instruction for the women of the congregation (2:9-15). Paul, under God’s authority, urges Timothy to heed his instructions. Timothy, under apostolic authority, must urge the men to pray. The men, under the pastor’s authority, must pray without favoritism. The women, under the authority of men, must be modest, doing good works, and submitting quietly to male leadership.
If the passage has a climax, or pivotal point, it would be his parenthetical claim to truthfulness in 2:7. Paul stressed the truth of his testimony of the Gospel being for all people so that Timothy, the men, and the women would not bring shame on their respective testimonies. Paul put this parenthesis in between his claim of apostolic authority and his claim to be a teacher of all types of people in “faith and truth.” Not only is his testimony of the Gospel true, but it has the implication of being worthy to be taught to all people. The truth of the Gospel is truth to be lived out in godly lives by all Christians as a testimony to all peoples.
Paul used various conjunctions to form lists and to form dependent lines of thought. Paul used “and” in 2:2 to give a sample prayer list of types of ruling authorities, and to give a list of adjectives describing the type of life such prayer makes possible. In 2:3 “and” lists the positive responses of God to such prayer. “And” combines two infinitives in 2:4 to describe God’s desire for all men. In 2:5, Paul used “and” to poetically and cumulatively build up a description of God. Paul used “and” in 2:7 to build a descriptive list of himself, and to build a list describing the content of his teaching to the Gentiles. Verse 2:8 lists two negative attitudes connected by “and” to be avoided in prayer. In 2:9, Paul used “and” to list two positive characteristics with which women should adorn themselves. Paul continued his line of biblical reasoning in 2:14 with an “and.” In 2:15, Paul used “and” to list positive characteristics which must be continued for salvation.
Paul did not use many of the negative conjunctions “but” and “nor.” He used these conjunctions in 2:12-15 to set up contrasts between listening and teaching, Adam and Eve, and possibly an erroneous view of salvation and childbearing.
Paul used several subordinating conjunctions. He used “therefore” twice, first giving an application in 2:1 of how to “fight the good fight,”then giving an application in 2:8 of how men were to reflect God’s love for all people through unbiased prayer. Paul used “in order that” in 2:2 to describe the peaceful results of prayer for all people. Paul used “if” along with a subjunctive and a future indicative to create a “future more possible” clause. In other words, if something happens, something else may happen in the future. In the case of 2:15, if a woman’s children continue in the faith in which they are reared, the woman, demonstrating her own salvation through rearing children in the faith, will likely be saved in the end.
Paul used twelve verbs in the indicative mood, eight infinitives, two subjunctives, five participles, and one imperative. Since there is one imperative, much of the command of these passages comes from implied doctrinal and biblical precedent in Paul’s writing. Paul urges most of these godly behaviors for the sake of the gospel testimony. It is only in 2:12 where Paul gives an outright command. The imperative receives additional force with Paul’s biblical precedent. Many of the indicative verbs express an urging and desire for action. The force of indicative verbal expression in this passage is that of a plea based on the Gospel. Paul urged and desired Timothy and his congregation to do that which is proper, fitting, godly, and good. Some of the infinitives express the proper, fitting, godly, and good actions that Paul desired for the congregation. He desired them “to pray,” “to adorn,” and “to be.” Other infinitives expressed God’s desire for all men “to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” One infinitive described the authoritative position, which Paul forbade women “to be.” The participles show states of being and acting. Rulers are those “being” in authority. Christ acted by “giving” himself as a ransom. Eve’s state of “being” was one of transgression “after being deceived.” The subjunctives suggest the realm of possibility. As has been discussed above, the subjunctive in 2:15 in combination with “if” is a “future more probable” conditional statement. The other subjunctive, being controlled by a present indicative main verb, and being preceded by “in order that,” indicates the purpose of prayer. If Timothy and the men pray, then they may continue to live peacefully in godliness.
Interpretation of Difficulties in 2:11-3:1
Although this passage has been difficult for Westerners since the start of the feminist movement in the 19th Century, Paul’s instructions for women have caused hermeneutical problems since at least the 5th Century.5 Since the 19th Century, Bible translators and commentators have been trying to make the passage more palatable for modern sensibilities.6 Many translations render the subject of 2:15 as being plural even though the verbal reference is singular. Most translations also render the subject of the conditional statement as being “women.” Some translators, and many commentators, suggest that women are preserved, rather than being saved, from birth pains. What does the text say in the context of the rest of I Timothy, the rest of Paul’s writings, and the rest of the Bible?
Continuity of the Message. These teachings and commands for women are not unique. In 1 Pet 3:1-6, Peter told women to submit to their husbands, and to adorn themselves with a quiet spirit for the sake of the Gospel. Peter backed up his teaching with the example from Genesis of Sarah’s submission to Abraham. The explicit teaching for women to submit and learn in silence is not unique in Paul’s own writings. In 1 Cor 14:34, Paul, deferring to the Law, told women to keep in silent submission in the congregation. If a wife had a question, she could ask her husband at home. Paul considered it improper for women to speak in an assembly of a congregation for worship. Earlier, in 1 Cor 11:8-9, Paul, referring to Gen 1:27; and 2:7, 22, appealed to the priority of man in creation, and to the purpose for which God created woman. God created man in his image and glory. God created woman in man’s glory for the man. Priority was not Paul’s only argument from Genesis.
Was man not deceived along with his wife? It may be a question of who was the deceiver in each case. The serpent deceived Eve (Gen 3:1-6, 13). Eve taught the man that the fruit was good (Gen 3:6, 12, 17). God cursed Adam for “listening” to his wife and eating the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:17). Paul differentiated between the serpent’s deception and Eve’s teaching. God did not create Eve to usurp Adam’s role in deciding what tree to eat from for dinner. In other words, a woman should not have authority over men, because she was created for man, and she taught man a fatal error. Submission is part of creation and part of the curse.
Although there is no explicit teaching elsewhere in Paul’s writings concerning salvation through childbirth, he supplied implicit clues to its meaning. In 1 Tim 5, Paul wrote instructions to Timothy concerning the care of widows. Paul instructed the children of widows to learn godliness to care for their family “to make some return to their parents;” in other words, the children, having been reared in the faith by these widows, must put their faith in action. These children, reared in the faith, take care of their mothers. Another clue comes from later in the passage in 5:9-14. In these verses, Paul equates childbearing to a good work that makes a woman worthy of being on the widow’s list. The younger widows do not get on the list, because they have not yet bore children. To be put on the list, they needed to get remarried and bear children. Forbidding marriage and bearing children as sinful acts may have been a false teaching Paul was trying to correct (4:3). In summary, Paul implicitly states that bearing and rearing children are good works, not bad, demonstrating a woman’s salvation in action, and providing a woman’s preservation in her old age (See also Prov 17:6).
Does childbearing save, or demonstrate salvation? If it is salvific, then Paul is contradicting his teaching of salvation by God’s gift of grace through faith, not by works (Eph 2:8-9). Paul is not contradicting himself, but repeating another teaching on salvation. Those who are finally saved will be shown to have been saved through their works (2 Cor 5:10; 2 Tim 4:1). Even in 1 Tim 4:16, Paul told Timothy to continue practicing and teaching good doctrine to ensure his own salvation and the salvation of others. In relation to 2:15, a woman who bears and rears children in the faith helps to ensure her own salvation and the salvation of her children. It is an application of “working out salvation in fear and trembling” despite already having been made believers (Phil 1:29; 2:12).
What makes childbearing a good work? First, it is obedience to God’s first command in Gen 1:28. Second, children used to be seen as very valuable. In the Bible, childless women were often seen as cursed (Gen 16:2-4; 30:1-2; Lev 20:20-21; 1 Sam 1:5, 11; 2 Sam 6:20-23; Luke 1:25). Hannah, who had been barren, in her song of thanksgiving, equated being given a son with the LORD’s salvation (1 Sam 2:2). Due to the high value of children, childbearing is a good work.
Context of the Passage. If learning in quiet submission is culturally outdated for women, then why is not praying for all people outdated for men? Both instructions find their basis in having a good testimony of the Gospel (2:3-7, 10). Paul’s “therefore I am desiring” statement comes after his exposition of God’s love for all demonstrated through Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. His “likewise” statement links his infinitive command for women to “I am desiring” in 2:8. Women are not to adorn themselves with good works in general, but those that are fitting for godly women (2:10). The following prohibitions and their biblical support suggest not all good works are fitting for women. Childbearing and rearing are good works fitting for women (after all, men can not bear children). Paul, having prohibited women from teaching and having authority over men, allowed women to teach and have authority over their children (2:15).
Customary Meaning. Since God desires all to come to faith and knowledge of the truth, Paul desired women to adorn themselves with good works appropriate for women, demonstrating their salvation through feminine works such as modesty, submission to men, childbearing, and childrearing to ensure their own salvation and that of their children. This is the most natural reading of the problem passage; however, it has never been the most popular reading.
Modern liberals read the text aright, but disagree with it.7 Luke Johnson recognized that the verb in 2:15 referred to salvation through childbirth. Johnson also recognized that the subject of the future indicative was the singular “she.” He recognized that the subject of the subjunctive was “they,” referring to children; Yet, Johnson argued that making salvation dependent on the response of one’s children is unfair. He reinterpreted the “they” to refer to women to avoid being unfair. What makes salvation through childbirth fair in the eyes of a liberal theologian? Johnson did not answer.
Modern conservative interpretations of the passage may agree that women should submit to men; however, they reject childbearing as demonstrating salvation. They want to avoid any possibility of teaching salvation by works. Instead, some interpret the passage as saying that if women continue in faith, they will not have birth-pains.8 This interpretation may avoid teaching salvation by works; yet, it ignores the real-life birth-pains of many devoted women. It also ignores the curse in Gen 3:16, which makes no provision for eliminating the pains of childbirth through continued faith.
John Calvin believed that women must submit to men in the assembly due to God’s good ordering of creation, and due to the curse.9 Calvin also suggested that women were preserved from birth-pains through continued devotion.10 In support of his interpretation, Calvin argued that the indefinite singular “she” at the beginning of 2:15 referred to the plural “they.”11 A singular noun without the definite article may refer to a plural noun; however, there is no noun for “she” in 2:15. For that matter, there is no “they.” Both are inferred from the parsing of the verbs. Calvin was trying to avoid the implication of salvation by works.
One must go to the late 4th and early 5th Centuries to find an interpretation similar to that of this study. John Chrysostom found that even in his own day 1 Tim 2:11-3:1 was hard for people to accept.12 John took the passage at face value. He saw man’s priority and woman’s purpose in creation.13 He saw that the result of Eve’s teaching Adam was sin; therefore, it was not her position to teach.14 Concerning 2:15, John rightly put the emphasis on the subjunctive clause, not on the future indicative clause. “If the children continue in faith” suggested to John that women were to be active not only in bearing children, but rearing them in the faith, teaching them.15 A wicked woman bears and rears wicked children; however, a righteous woman trains up righteous children for the reward of obedience.16 John also was one of the few to argue that 3:1 referred to the preceding statement. John argued that Paul, with his “trustworthy” statement, wanted to remove doubt from the minds of women who may have found childbearing and rearing an unworthy work of salvation (4:3).17
What is the fate of barren women? Women who are barren should not despair. Paul was not giving an exhaustive list of good works. There are many good works that a barren woman can do in a modest and decent manner. Remember that women can disciple younger girls. Remember also that a woman can have spiritual children through evangelism.
John Chrysostom’s view of 1 Tim 2:15, which Driscoll calls the eschatological view, seems to fit the wording of the original text, the context of roles within the Church, the context of appropriate and inappropriate works, the context of caring for widows, and the context of the value of children throughout the entire Bible. Women who bear children, rearing them in the Christian faith, are demonstrating their salvation through a good work. If a woman is ever widowed, her godly children will take care of her, saving her from destitution; thus, salvation through childbirth has a dual meaning, being a work of salvation being brought to completion, and a work of preservation in this life.
The Southwestern Company, 1976)