As is customary in this type of "household code" teaching, instructions to one member of the pair are followed by corresponding instructions to the other (Eph 5:22—6:9; Col 3:18—4:1; 1 Pet 3:1-7).
Appropriate adornment (2:9-10). One source of the disruption being caused by women was their dress. Paul addresses this by drawing from the church's accepted teaching about the adornment of women (compare 1 Pet 3:3-5). He prescribes a manner of dress with three very similar terms stressing modesty and discretion (NIV modestly, with decency and propriety). Some commentators suggest that the tone of this instruction is "sexual," Paul's intention being to discourage women from dressing in a way that would distract men in the worship service. But perhaps the more acute problem was that of insensitive women flaunting their dress, jewelry and hairstyles in a way that hurt the feelings of the poor and disturbed the church. The kinds of adornment mentioned (braided hair . . . gold . . . pearls . . . expensive clothes) all belonged to that culture's critical caricature of wealthy women.
While today this manner of dress is not nearly as exclusive as it was in Paul's day, nor indeed restricted to women, its effects can be the same. I am reminded of a visit to a large, upper-middle-class church in Dallas (it could have been any large city or suburb). When I entered the sanctuary, the first thing that struck me was the glitter of jewelry, the expensive clothing and the fashionable hairstyles. The craning necks as people sized one another up gave the impression that for many the purpose of gathering together that Sunday morning was to display economic status. A newcomer of modest economic means could not help but feel a sense of exclusion.
According to Paul's instruction, what is to be noticeable about Christian women (and men) is not showy apparel, which sends an unsettling message (even to outsiders), but the power of God in spiritual deeds. Good deeds (v. 10) speaks of genuine Christianity, the observable lifestyle that flows out of faith in Christ. This is the appropriate "adornment" for those who profess to be genuine Christians. Among other things, Paul sought to prevent Christian women from being typed by those outside. In some parts of the world today, the "prosperity gospel" has put showy apparel at a premium and minimized good deeds, but the discerning unbeliever can tell the difference between genuine and nominal Christianity. At the same time, it is the invisible force behind good deeds, love for others, that creates and sustains unity.
The woman-man relationship in the worship service (2:11-15). Today, among those who take the Bible seriously, two main positions have emerged in the discussion of this passage and its implications. As the following brief outline of each position will show, the passage needs to be considered as a whole, for the instructions of verses 11-12 (and also vv. 9-10) are grounded in some way by verses 13-15.
One position (here called position 1) generally maintains that verses 11-12 prohibit women from teaching and holding authority over men. Within the worship setting their appropriate role is that of the learner. Women will be quiet during the teaching portion of the service—that is, they will not teach or question. And they will be fully submissive to men's authority. Furthermore, on the basis of the Genesis material in verses 13-14, the arrangement sanctioned by Paul is held to be permanent. Verse 13 grounds the subordinate position of the woman in the order of creation, the man having been created first. The allusion to Eve's deception in verse 14 presents an illustration of the negative consequences that result when the divinely willed structure is disturbed. In one way or another verse 15 then refers positively to the acceptable role of women.
The second position (which I shall call position 2) insists that the passage contains a temporary restraining order issued to curb the activities of a group of women who (most argue) were teaching the heresy in Ephesus. Thus the relegation of women to the role of learners, who must be quiet and submissive to the imposed (male) authority structure, represents a local rather than a universal rule. Similarly, the prohibition from teaching in verse 12 was a stopgap measure, and the reference to holding authority over a man is better understood as "wrongfully usurping" his authority. As far as Paul's use of Genesis goes, verse 14 provides an example or explanation, showing how just as the deception of Eve had drastic results, so also did the deception of some women in Ephesus. Verse 13 is somewhat problematic for this position.
The contemporary debate seems to turn on the question of the rule's limits of applicability, local and temporary versus universal and timeless. And the determining factor usually ends up being the interpretation of Paul's use of the Genesis allusions. But there is more to be considered.
First, the passage must be assessed within the whole of Paul's teaching, and particularly in light of other statements he made about the relationship of men and women (and husbands and wives). Those of position 2, in attempting to understand the relevance of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 for today, have rightly pointed to a Pauline theme of equality within the social structure, as registered by the triad of texts Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Colossians 3:11. Further, it is certainly arguable that Paul's acknowledgment of the role of women in his ministry (Rom 16:1; Phil 4:3) and in the church's worship (1 Cor 11:10) is the outworking of that principle of equality. The apparent discordant note struck in the present passage (and in 1 Cor 14:33-35) should alert us to the fact that Paul's program of social equality was not unconditional, but it does not necessarily nullify the basic principle. As F. F. Bruce explained, in Galatians 3:28 "Paul states the basic principle . . . if restrictions on it are found elsewhere . . . they are to be understood in relation to Gal. 3:28, and not vice versa" (1982:190).
But Galatians 3:28 was almost certainly not meant as a proclamation of liberty to be experienced immediately and fully in all dimensions of life. If it were this simple, Paul would have been far more forthright in urging the abolition of slavery. Also, Galatians 3:28 addresses three kinds of fundamental relationships or distinctions (racial, economic [perhaps], gender), but they do not have the same origin. Slavery was already common to Hebrew culture when God claimed his people. What he did was provide guidelines for its regulation. It may be argued that racial distinctions between Jews and Greeks (Gentiles) were encouraged for a time, but clearly bigotry and exclusive claims to spiritual superiority have human origins. Of the three pairs, only distinctions related to gender trace directly back to God's creative activity. This by no means automatically substantiates position 1. It merely suggests that Galatians 3:28 is not a simple declaration of the immediate eradication of all social distinctions. Paul's own approach to the three relationships ought to be evidence of that.
There are at least two other factors that need to be considered in discussing Paul's approach to these institutions and to movement in the direction of freedom. The first is his understanding of and sensitivity to culture. On the one hand, Paul and other New Testament writers seem to have viewed their world and its structures as a part of God's design. They could encourage the church to "submit to" the institutions of the world (1 Pet 2:13) and (as far as possible) through generally acceptable behavior to make a redemptive impression in it (1 Thess 4:11-12; 1 Tim 3:7; 6:1). But this was a view held in tension with a firm belief that the world is an evil force at war with God. Consequently, the church was by no means to allow culture or society to dictate its policies; however, where possible, peaceful coexistence would be a help to the church's evangelistic mission. The New Testament household codes give some evidence of social awareness and cultural sensitivity, but they never advocate conformity for conformity's sake, and when we are reading them, we need to distinguish between categories of relationships as we do in Galatians 3:28. Ultimately, it is reasonable to think that Paul or any other New Testament writer would have stopped short of advocating the immediate abolition of slavery because the culture might perceive it as a threat. But it does not automatically follow that his concern was precisely the same when he addressed the woman-man relationship.
The second factor is Paul's (and the New Testament's) understanding of salvation. It leaves us in a state that has been described as "already and not yet." Salvation is a combination of things to be realized progressively in this life (victory over sin, growth in godliness) and promises to be fulfilled only with the return of Christ (resurrection, the final victory over sin). Salvation in relation to the social structure within the church and in relation to personal sanctification is progressive, under way but not finished, "already" but "not yet." But that the distinctions inherent in the female-male relationship belong to the category of things that may or should pass away in this age (as it is argued in the case of slavery or racial distinctions) is a proposition in need of theological demonstration. Jesus' statement in Matthew 22:30 may have been misinterpreted to mean that all significant male-female distinctions will eventually disappear; but whatever it means, it applies to the resurrection and remains a promise. To judge simply from Paul's teaching elsewhere, it is doubtful that Galatians 3:28 implies that all male-female distinctions ought to be done away with as soon as the church is able to carry this program out. But even if Paul means more, it does mean that, with respect to value and position as heirs, no cultural distinctions that might support male superiority have a bearing on salvation or usefulness in the church. With respect to function and authority in the church, it is probably ill-advised to draw conclusions directly from either Galatians 3:28 or 1 Timothy 2:11-15. A broader theological program is needed.
A final question bearing on the interpretation of the passage is the degree to which Paul is countering effects of the false teaching. Two views should be introduced briefly.
1. At a bare minimum, it is reasonable to understand the rise of women to teaching positions as the indirect result of the false teaching. The doctrine of a realized resurrection (2 Tim 2:18; see introduction) was current and may have led women (and perhaps slaves) to enact promises (even if they misunderstood them) such as those connected with the well-known teaching of Galatians 3:28. Even Jesus' teaching (Mt 22:30) could have figured in their thinking. Some scholars have suggested that the women in mind had actually been enlisted by the false teachers to teach the heresy. The latter is difficult to prove, but it remains a possibility.
2. It is also within the realm of possibility that the passage speaks with even more precision to false doctrines that affected the thinking and behavior of women. In this case too the resurrection misunderstanding and the connected overrealized view of salvation would be central. Perhaps the false teachers drew on Jesus' teaching on marriage in the resurrection (Mt 22:30) to support their doctrine of celibacy (1 Tim 4:3). They may have construed their present "resurrection existence" in terms of pre-Fall existence. From the first three chapters of Genesis they might have concluded that since sexual distinctions, sexuality and childbearing came after the Fall, they no longer pertain to the new age. In the same way, they might have argued that "subordination" was enforced only as a result of the Fall (Gen 3:16) and that the eating of meat was a sign of depravity (Gen 9; 1 Tim 4:3). In this case, the myths and endless genealogies Paul mentions (1:4) might have included proof texts of such doctrines drawn from the creation materials. And in this case, 2:13-15 may take up and correctly apply the Old Testament material.
We cannot be certain of either view. But it is extremely likely that the false resurrection doctrine had an effect on views of sexuality and perhaps blurred distinctions between the sexes, affecting marriage and certain functions in the church. It seems all the more likely in view of the close parallels between the resurrection misunderstanding and questions about marriage, men and women, and foods in Corinth and Ephesus (see introduction).
These considerations provide a framework within which to explore the meaning and intent of the instructions to women. However, the complexity of the whole issue and the range of texts involved suggest that we should think in terms of possibilities rather than certainty at several points.
Paul actually encourages women to learn, which sets him apart from his contemporaries in Judaism. But it is the manner in which they learn that will settle the disturbances they have been causing in the church: in quietness and full submission (v. 11). Paul does not mean that women are to be absolutely silent during the service (compare 1 Cor 11:5). Rather, he instructs them to exhibit quietness (in spirit) instead of taking the lead, or to "be silent" in the sense of not teaching. Even as learners, perhaps, they are to refrain from entering into public discussions about interpretation of the Old Testament and prophecies (1 Cor 14:33-35).
Full submission is the more general description of the appropriate demeanor of the woman learner. It seems clear from this passage that to be in full submission meant for those women to refrain from teaching (men) and probably also to dress in appropriate ways. Certain questions, however, continue to be asked: Is this a universal or temporary rule? Does the teaching here need to be understood as an exception to the principle of Galatians 3:28, necessitated by the imprudent actions of some women? Positions 1 and 2 answer these questions in different ways (see above). Below we will consider the matter further.
Teach and have authority over a man (v. 12) may be references to separate activities that Paul restricted to men. Or the first term might represent a specific example of activity that falls under the general rule that follows: women's teaching in the public assembly would violate the given authority structure. In either case, we should notice that Paul did not employ his usual term for "the normal exercise of authority" (exousia). He chose an unusual word (authenteo) that could carry negative connotations such as "to usurp or misappropriate authority" or "to domineer." The unusual term probably signifies an unusual situation. In the Ephesian context at least, women had misappropriated authority by taking upon themselves the role of teacher.
Thus verses 11-12 aim to restore peace in the worship service by placing certain limits on the role of women. Probably as a result of the influence of the false teaching, some women had assumed the role of teacher. This step led Paul to invoke a subordination rule; it seems to have precluded women from teaching men, since to do so constituted authenteo—that is, the wrongful appropriation of authority over men.
In handling the supporting material that follows, verses 13-15, our first concern should be whether any special significance is to be attached to Paul's citation of material from the creation narrative of Genesis to support some argument or other. It is difficult to establish a hard and fast rule. On the one hand, Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:7-9 alludes to the same Genesis passage (2:21-23) that 1 Timothy 2:13 does in order to ground the covering of the woman's head in worship. But this practice, most would argue, was bound to a particular culture. On the other hand, the reference to Genesis 2:24-25 in Ephesians 5:31 is indeed meant to remind Christians that marriage is an institution to be continually honored (compare Mt 19:5). Therefore, the allusion to Genesis 2 in the words for Adam was formed first, then Eve (v. 13) is best considered on its own.
What are the possibilities? First, it can hardly be denied that Paul appeals to the order of creation. While it is usually thought that this statement substantiates the prohibition of verse 12 (Knight 1992:142-43), it may ground all of verses 9-12, with full submission understood as encompassing aspects of dress and function (Fee 1988:74). But the question of precise intention remains. Did Paul intend the Genesis allusion to mean that the created order still pertained and that distinctions between the sexes and an authority structure existed even prior to the Fall (compare 1 Cor 11:7-9)? Did he mean that the conditions of the curse, which promised painful childbearing and placed the wife under the husband's rule (Gen 3:16), were still in effect? Was he addressing the false teachers' twisted interpretations of the creation accounts which had influenced the thinking of women (see above)?
Verse 14 is almost certainly a local reference to the deception of some women in the Ephesian church (see the notes for other explanations). The deception of Eve had become a model to illustrate the dangers posed to the church by false teaching (compare 2 Cor 11:3). Paul's use of the model here probably sent the signal that by taking the role of teachers (and possibly in what they taught) these women had been deceived by heretics. It also implies that this activity was sinful.
Verse 15 sounds strange to the ears in any version: But women will be saved through childbearing. Not surprisingly, its meaning is debated. The NIV has rightly interpreted the singular verb (literally, "she will be saved") as a general reference to women. But as the promise continues, a condition limits its applicability to those women who continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. That is, the promise applies to women whose conduct (here propriety refers back to the appropriate conduct prescribed in vv. 9-12) bears the marks of genuine Christian existence. But what does saved through childbearing mean? With original sin and the pronouncement of the curse as the background, some have understood the definite article ("the") which precedes childbearing in the Greek sentence to denote "the birth"—that is, the birth of the Christ. Following the guilty verdict of verse 14, saved would then mean primarily salvation from sin, and the allusion would be to the "protoevangelion"—the promised seed of the woman who will crush the serpent's head (Gen 3:15). While this reading is possible, one wonders why such an ambiguous reference to Christ would be made (unless Paul here is simply making use of the false teachers' language and text to adjust their teaching). The same background perhaps leads more naturally to a promise that God will provide physical protection for godly women under the curse, an emblem of the final complete removal of the curse to come. Finally, some point to 5:14, where the term childbearing describes a part of the life appropriate for young widows, to argue that Paul endorses here the domestic life of the housewife as the normative, acceptable role that women are to pursue. Serving God in this capacity, they will "work out their salvation."
Clearly, none of these interpretations is free of problems, and the best we can do is to narrow down the possibilities. It may be that what seems to us as allusiveness in Paul's references to the creation material actually represents his counterarguments using the kinds of texts the heretics themselves employed. But while we have no way of knowing the precise lines of the false theology, we can be reasonably sure that it was triumphalistic in thrust (2 Tim 2:18). Consequently, we can at least see that 2:15 does pull the readers back to reality, either (from the theological perspective) by asserting that this life is still marked by the curse/sin and God's promise to save or (from the ethical perspective) by teaching that life must yet be lived in the confines of a mundane social structure that still awaits the eschaton.
We run the risk of misusing 2:8-15 if we make it a proof text in our modern debate. The passage as a whole calls for men and women to relate to one another in the church according to the standards of acceptability, in awareness of the theological realities of the age in which we live. Although Paul's reference to the creation story cautions against viewing his teaching as simply suited to his culture, his sensitivity to culture should also be considered in addressing questions related to the role of women in the church today. There is a need to explore the degree to which there existed in the apostle's thinking about the female-male relationship a difference between nonnegotiables (aspects of this relationship that seem to stem from God's creative will) and negotiables (aspects of behavior within the relationship that may be expressed differently from one culture to the next). If 2:15 envisions an acceptable role for women, then, depending on the culture within which we find ourselves, verse 15 may well need to allow room for astronauts, surgeons and business executives in addition to missionaries, church workers of various sorts and, indeed, housewives. But in any role godliness will need to be found in this incomplete age through our reliance on God's promise in the continuing struggle with sin. As for the role of women in ministry, the church must continue to wrestle with this issue, and this passage will have its place. But easy answers that either simply impose culture on God's will or neglect culture altogether must be resisted.