A few weeks back I posted a review of Jonathan Merritt’s new book following up on our CrossPolitic interview.
One of the items I mentioned that I have not had a chance to follow up on is the topic of women teaching men. This was one of the items we spent a few minutes on in our CrossPolitic interview, but Jonathan apparently decided to use that method of argumentation that has been more prevalent in sermons than many preachers might care to admit: point weak, shout here.
In the midst of our interview, Jonathan made it plain that he was quite sure that there was only one possible way someone might think that Paul’s admonition forbidding women from teaching men and having authority over them could still apply to Christians today — and that would be through some sort of ludicrous literalism. However, I’m also suspicious that he realized at some point that I might have another, more reasonable argument and so he proceeded to insist that I couldn’t possibly have another, more reasonable argument.
But I would like to lay out why I believe a conscientious Christian can both take 1 Timothy 2 literally and gladly submit to his instructions regarding women teaching men, all while not ending up as a flat-earther or a tinfoil mad-hatter. The key point is that all of Scripture should be taken literally as it is written and in the context of the rest of Scripture. For example, Jesus says that He is the door of the sheep (Jn. 10:7-9), but given the rest of Scripture, we understand that to be a true metaphor with a literal meaning explained in the text: “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved…” (Jn. 10:9).
Here, in 1 Timothy 2, we have instruction that prayer be offered for all men, and that men in particular are to pray everywhere, lifting holy hands, without wrath and doubting (1 Tim. 2:8). This is followed by instructions for women to adorn themselves modestly and soberly, without gaudy hair styles and flamboyant jewelry, but instead to adorn themselves with good works (1 Tim. 2:9-10). Merritt insisted that if we would take the following verses literally about a woman learning in silence (v. 11) and not to teach or have authority over men (v. 12), then we must take the previous verses about lifted hands and modest adornment literally. Which, shockingly, I do. I do so in fact while casually walking down the street with my hands in my pockets, whistling a certain well known tune by Tom Petty about not backing down.
Merritt was incredulous, and seemed to think that those verses clearly required a man to raise his hands in prayer at all times and in all places, and clearly it also prohibited a woman from ever wearing jewelry or braided hair. Period. End of Story. I can’t hear you! Somewhere in the back and forth (which consisted of more of the back and not so much of the forth), Merritt questioned whether I would be able to pass an exegesis course at one of his respectabiggle seminaries (which is an open question, I readily grant), but I would turn the exegesis question on Merritt: Do we not interpret Scripture with Scripture? Is this not one of the most ancient canons of interpretation? Is not God consistent with Himself? And thus, we find a good deal more in Scripture regarding postures in prayer and worship as well as modesty and feminine adornment.
We find, for example, that sometimes God is quite pleased with his people clapping in praise (Ps. 47), and if this is the case, would it be sinful for a man not to lift his hands at that very moment? Does 1 Tim. 2 require men to only clap their hands while lifting them over top their heads? I offer the modest suggest that it would not be a sin to stop raising those hands in order to clap them. Or when Paul reminds the Corinthians of the appropriate way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, he says that when the Lord Jesus took bread he gave thanks, giving all the impression in the world that the minister leading the Lord’s Supper ordinarily holds the bread in his hands while saying a prayer of thanksgiving. But what about lifting his hands? Is it a sin not lift hands then? This will come as a radical and revolutionary thought to Mr. Merritt, but I’d say, nah. Lifting hands is an appropriate posture for prayer, and perhaps it is even an ordinary posture for prayer. But the literal meaning of Paul’s admonition is not that every breath of prayer must always and in every place be with lifted hands. It’s primarily an admonition to piety, holiness, and faith. As you lift hands in prayer, let them be holy hands, not hands given to wrath or doubting.
Likewise, the Bible tells us a great deal about feminine adornment and modesty. The Bible recognizes the natural glory and beauty of a woman, and endorses modest adornment that is fitting with godly lives (e.g. Gen. 24:22-47, Ez. 16:12-13, Song of Songs, 1 Cor. 11:15, Tit. 2:9-10, 1 Pet. 3:3). God Himself adorned his bride symbolically with gold and fine linen (Ez. 16), and faithful husbands adorn their wives in imitation of Christ with glory (Eph. 5:25-28). An excellent wife is a glorious crown to her husband (Prov. 12:4). Therefore, costly clothing and braided hair are not always and in every context immodest. But they most certainly can be. Thus, the literal meaning of Paul’s exhortation is that women must not be immodest or gaudy in their adornment, but match their outward adornment with the lasting beauty of godliness, holiness, and fearlessness.
And therefore, when we arrive at the next verses regarding a woman’s silence in worship and the prohibition against teaching men and having authority over them, we should do the very same thing we have done with the previous instructions. We should compare Scripture with Scripture. And what do we find? We find a striking absence of female preachers and teachers in all of Scripture. It is a striking historical fact that there is not one single instance of a female priest in the Old Testament, and the elders and bishops of the Church are explicitly identified as men (1 Tim. 3, Tit. 1). We do find Deborah the prophetess judging Israel. We do find Miriam leading the women singing songs of praise on the shores of the Red Sea. We see Anna the prophetess telling everyone in the temple about Jesus. We see many women serving Jesus, and many others assisting Paul and the churches in ministry. We also see women praying with their heads covered in 1 Cor. 11:13-16, perhaps even in a worship service. So does Paul’s admonition that women learn in silence mean that they may not make a single sound in a worship service? Prepare yourself for this literal interpretation of Paul’s admonition: nope. Women may sing and pray and perhaps other things too, so long as they do so with clear and obvious submission to their callings as women.
And the straightforward meaning of Paul’s admonition stands. A woman may not teach or have authority over men. A woman may not be an elder or pastor, and she may not pretend to be one or even inadvertently act like one. She is to be under authority, and not exercising authority (1 Cor. 11:10). It is shameful for a woman to speak out in church (1 Cor. 14:35). In the end, all the cultural/literal handwaving is silly. Paul’s very next stated reason for his admonition is a thick, immoveable, brick wall: “For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression” (1 Tim. 2:13-14). Even if the lifting of hands and modest adornment instructions were culturally relative (which I deny), Paul insists that this specific prohibition of a woman teaching a man and having authority over him is grounded in the creation of Adam and Eve. It doesn’t get less culturally relative than that. This is built into the creation of man and woman. Women are not to teach men or have authority over men because man was created first, and because Adam was not deceived. We may not fully understand that reasoning. It may rub our postmodern hairs the wrong way. But that is the Apostolic reasoning and it goes all the down, all the way back.