by Chesna Hinkley, CBE International, 2/18/19.
1 Timothy 2 is a tricky passage to interpret well. Verses 11-15 alone contain four biblical “buzz phrases” often employed by those who oppose women’s equality in the church. Paul writes:
1. Women should learn in silence (2:11).
2. I do not permit a woman to teach or dominate a man (2:12).
3. The woman was decieved and became a sinner (2:14).
4. Women will be saved through childbearing (2:15).
These troubling verses form, for many, the foundation of the case for women’s submission to men and against the legitimacy of women’s preaching and teaching in church and/or to men. Though it would appear those opposed to women’s equality in the church have the upper hand in interpreting “problem passages” like 1 Timothy, egalitarians are actually better equipped to explain why Paul, normally a strong supporter of his female ministry colleagues, would seemingly prohibit those same coworkers from carrying out gospel work. So the next time someone cites 1 Timothy to obstruct women’s gifts and leadership, here’s what you can say:
The Purpose of 1 Timothy
The major crisis in 1 Timothy is false teaching. This takes up most of the content of the letter, and 1:3 says that Paul left Timothy in Ephesus to “command certain people” not to teach falsely or continue in “myths and endless genealogies.” Some people have “turned to meaningless talk.” They want to be teachers, “but they do not know what they are talking about” (1:7).
So, what is false teaching? We know not all the apostles had exactly the same ideas. We also know that Paul didn’t want people fighting about less central ideas, because his primary concern was that the “one faith” be preached (1 Cor. 1:12-13). That means that the “false teachings” referenced here were outside the bounds of Christianity.
The Artemis Cult and Other False Teachings
Artemis of the Ephesians (see Acts 19) was the goddess who kept women safe in childbirth (2:15). If she wasn’t appeased, many Ephesians believed mother or baby would die. In Ephesus, Artemis worship was everywhere. There was an extraordinary temple to her there. Her cult was so deep in the Ephesian worldview that it would have been terrifying for women to give birth without offering sacrifices. The easiest way to soothe this fear would’ve been for women to continue worshipping Artemis on the side. They might’ve also brought elements of Artemis worship into Jesus worship.
Further, some of the church fathers believed that an early form of Gnosticism was being taught at Ephesus. Later on, Gnosticism was a widespread heresy that preached “endless genealogies” of demigods and demons (1:4). It also taught that salvation came through “secret knowledge” (gnosis).
The Gnostics liked Eve because, as they saw it, she wanted to gain wisdom by eating the forbidden fruit. Sometimes, she took on a mysterious power as the spiritual Feminine. In some Gnostic creation myths, Eve was created first. According to church father Irenaeus, Gnostics taught that Eve brought “what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim 6:20-21) into the world.
This context is crucial to interpreting this passage as modern believers. Knowing that Ephesian Christians were receiving false teaching, perhaps especially from women who would benefit from Eve’s high status, helps to explain why Paul is so concerned about how women were leading and teaching in church. Now, let’s look at Paul’s message to women within this context: