There are some very strong messages in today’s Bible reading. The most significant is in verses 5-6, the gospel in a nutshell: ‘For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.’ One God, one man, one sacrifice for all, in God’s perfect timing. Simple. Succinct. The clear, unambiguous truth; the foundation of our faith. Amen!
The next message, unlike the one above, is not unambiguous. It is one of the most hotly contested passages of the Bible. Verse 12: ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.’ The context surrounding this verse is that Paul has been giving instructions on conduct in church. He stipulates that men should pray in ‘every place’, ‘lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling’ and likewise, women should observe some behavioural guidelines, such as dressing appropriately and learning ‘with all submissiveness’ (I’ll come back to these). And then he drops a bombshell! Women are not allowed to teach or exercise authority over men.
What does he mean by this? Are women forbidden to teach at all? Are they forbidden to exercise authority over men in all circumstances? The debate across the globe with regard to the role of women in the church is still raging.
This is my understanding.
First of all, Paul is addressing the specific issue of church here. He is not commenting on society in general, where women are clearly permitted to hold jobs with leadership roles over men. Just think about Deborah in Judges 4. So that’s one hurdle out of the way.
At a very basic level, the majority of women weren’t able to teach. Most at that time were not even educated and therefore could not read, so Paul’s instruction that they shouldn’t teach was common sense.
God’s prescribed order is ‘the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God’ (1 Corinthians 11:3). In marriage and in church a woman is under the authority of her husband or elders. I prefer to say under the ‘protection’, because the word ‘authority’ can have very negative connotations for women who have been abused by authority figures. Women are under the authority of husbands/elders in the same way that Jesus is under the authority of God. The ‘authority’ is founded in love between people of equal value where one has to bear ultimate responsibility (as Adam did for the Fall, even though Eve ate the apple first), and the other yields ultimate responsibility. This model does not give men in authority – husbands or elders – the right to treat women as inferior and it doesn’t mean that all men in church have authority over all women. The ‘authority’ in the church context specifically applies to the elders, and women are called to come under that authority.
As a very independent woman, who grew up with a strict father, and didn’t get married until I was thirty, I was used to making my own decisions on every level and railing against oppressive authority. When I was challenged by a sermon one day to make my husband the head of the household, I almost had a seizure! Not that my husband has ever been oppressive, but the thought of ‘submitting’ to a male turned my blood cold. The language of ‘authority’ and ‘submission’ clashes so much with our modern society, doesn’t it? However, in obedience to God’s word, I decided I had to do it, not just mentally, but out loud, too. So, I told Simon he was the head of the household and explained what I meant. It’s very difficult to put into words exactly what happened after that, but there was a complete shift in the spiritual atmosphere. I felt a release, a relinquishing of control and I could see God at work in Simon. Standing on God’s word started to break the stronghold of self-reliance I had allowed to develop and moved me towards greater trust in God. I’m still a work in progress, but this experience convinced me that submitting to a husband’s, and in church, an elders’ authority really is God’s holy order of things!
Does God’s holy order prevent women from teaching? I believe not. In other parts of the Bible, Paul encourages all, both men and women, to teach:
- Colossians 3:16 ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God’;
- Romans 12:6-7 ‘Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching’;
- 1 Corinthians 14:26,‘When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation’.
If you want to read further on this, I found these websites helpful: https://www.christianbiblereference.org/faq_women.htm
The third message from today’s passage is the question of women’s dress and learning ‘with all submissiveness’. In the culture of the time, men used to sit separately from women, so the women would shout across to their husbands to ask for clarification, which meant the temple could be a noisy place! Paul wanted the women to sit quietly during the teaching and hopefully ask their husbands to explain later. Fair point!
With regard to dress, on the surface, this one doesn’t translate well in western society where, for years, women were told that it was their own fault for being raped if they wore short skirts. Women have fought so hard to be allowed to wear what they want without being seen as ‘femmes fatales’, so the idea of clothing restrictions jars slightly. On the other hand, think Medallion Man from the 1970s! Shirt open to the waist, hairy chest with medallions and gold chains dangling to the midriff. Is that a ‘church’ look? Would we like to encourage that? No, it’s a showy, in theory sexy, image that draws attention to the individual and away from God. This is where Paul was heading with his guidance. The appropriateness of dress is the same for all of us. If we think it might be too much, it probably is.
Finally, a strong message from the very beginning of today’s Scripture. ‘First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way’. (1 Timothy 2:1-2). How can we achieve a life of peace, quiet, godliness and dignity? By praying for the leaders of our country – the Queen and the government. Whichever way you voted, whether you voted remain or leave, if you are constantly pulling the government down, stop it! The devil must be having a field day with the division that Brexit has caused in the country, but whichever way we voted, we are first and foremost citizens of heaven. Do we believe that God is in ultimate control? Do we believe He is sovereign? If we do, then let’s apply ourselves to praying for good outcomes of Brexit, not trying to turn the tide against something which God has allowed to happen. Proverbs 21:1 says ‘The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will’. At this crucial time in the country’s history, let’s pray for Theresa May and Dominic Raab so that the Lord turns their hearts where He will. Let’s pray for the very best Brexit outcomes so that the British economy continues to thrive, that different nationalities live in peace on our soil, that we maintain great relationships with our European neighbours, but most of all let’s honour God for the path we are now on, as, even though we may not understand it, we acknowledge that it is His sovereign plan.