In my continuing series discussing the role of women in church, I want to tackle this verse:
8 "Therefore, I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument. 9 Also, the women are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive apparel, 10 but with good works, as is proper for women who affirm that they worship God. 11 A woman should learn in silence with full submission. 12 I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to be silent. 13 For Adam was created first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed. 15 But she will be saved through childbearing, if she continues in faith, love, and holiness, with good judgment."
Before I dig in deep to understand this passage, I want to explore how and why we develop doctrines. There are certain doctrines which Christians affirm which are seen as foundational. These are drawn from the multiplicity of sources attesting them, from the historical attestation to their importance, and from their vital need in the understanding of the nature of God and the gospel.
For example, one of these very important doctrines is that of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. The crucifixion is attested by all four gospels as well as Paul and others and the empty tomb is by all of the same. Not only is this the most important event in Christianity throughout history, it is the vital aspect of the gospel and in fact IS the gospel according to Paul.
Where am I going with this?
The word translated "authority" in the above passage is the word authenteis. Guess how many times it appears in the New Testament?
Yep, that's it, the only time. Curious, the nature and use of authority is a continuing thread throughout the text, yet this word is never mentioned. Why is that? Maybe (and I'm only saying maybe, I'm not making the case that this is absolutely true) because authority is not how these people understood understood this word.
But what else could it have been?
To understand this, we delve as always into the context. Starting at verse 8, we have men praying, good, we have women dressing modestly (this is Ephesus, home of Artemis after all), that's good, we have women worshipping in silence, (again, this is home of Artemis, ritualized prostitution, raucous women and whatnot, easily a cultural issue) that's good. Then we have this verse that seems to agree with that, but then totally goes off the rails. Adam was created first? What does that have to do with anything? More about Adam and Eve, we're lost, and then saved through childbearing? What?
I'm going to need some outside sources.
It turns out that one of the several possible definitions of the word authenteo (the root of authentein) is author or originator. In fact, there is support in antiquity for the definition "to proclaim oneself the author or originator of something.”
How does this fit into our verse?
Apparently, one Gnostic philosophy taught that women were originators of mankind, that women came first, Eve was the originator of Adam and not Adam the source of the material that became Eve. Some Gnostics taught that Eve was actually the liberator of Adam, being the more enlightened of the two, having the gnosis (knowledge) that gives Gnostics their name.
If this is true, then the verse should read something more like: “I do not allow a woman to teach nor to represent herself as the originator or source of man.” It seems to me that this fits far better with the following verses about Adam being created first. It seems to me that this fits far better with what Paul is saying about how Eve was deceived and not Adam. It seems to me that the childbirth thing he is talking about is a continuation of the idea that though Adam was first, humankind springs forth now from woman which is not a foreign idea in Paul's writings. This interpretation allows the entire paragraph to flow from beginning to end. It seems to me that this is a better reading and more consistent with the text.
That would mean that what Paul is talking about here is really applicable to the people Timothy is actually dealing with, the Ephesians. The Ephesians claim the temple of the god Artemis, and thus the women should take care to differentiate themselves from prostitutes who frequented the temple. And he is giving a specific prohibition against the Gnostic teaching that Eve came before Adam and prohibiting women adhering to this philosophy from teaching it.
I want to say this is a really reasonable option.
But more than that, I want to say that we do not make doctrines out of words that appear only once in the entire text of the New Testament. We do not make doctrines out of words whose meaning is not totally clear. We should not use this verse to say that women cannot teach in the congregation. Because though that is one interpretation, it is not the only interpretation and probably not the best interpretation.