Paul, women, and the true message of Christianity

In his recent post, I Do Not Permit a Woman, Dan Wilkinson does an exceptional job of explaining how to read and understand 1 Timothy 2.12, wherein Paul writes “I do not per­mit a woman to teach or to assume author­ity over a man; she must be quiet.” By extension he shows us how to treat any Bible passage that at first read seems morally problematic.

Dan asks, “How do we under­stand the words of Paul? What ones do we choose to apply to our mod­ern Christian prac­tice and what ones do we dis­re­gard — and more impor­tantly, why?” And then he doesn’t just answer that question, he nails the answer to that question. What Dan concludes about Paul, and why, is perfect. He writes:

Any under­stand­ing of 1 Timothy 2.12 that reduces it to a uni­ver­sal restric­tion on women’s roles in the church is, con­sciously or not, pro­mot­ing a misog­y­nis­tic and harm­ful view of women. But any under­stand­ing that sim­ply dis­misses the pas­sage as being a prod­uct of an ancient cul­ture that now has no rel­e­vance to our mod­ern life has also run roughshod over the text. The com­plex­i­ties of the issues raised by this verse and its sur­round­ing text are enough to fill vol­umes. We must be con­tent with a less-than defin­i­tive con­clu­sions about this pas­sage, but that also shouldn’t pre­vent us from com­ing to any con­clu­sion at all. … Given such uncer­tainty regard­ing this text, women should have full inclu­sion in all aspects of church min­istry. To set­tle for any­thing less is to fail to fully embrace the true mes­sage of Christianity.

Read the whole post.

And as a strong complement to that post, read also Dan’s Junia the Apostle. Bookmark both these posts for the next time anyone wants to talk to you about why women shouldn’t be allowed to be, say, bishops.

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  • Donald Rappe

    This minds me of two separate questions. One is “What about women?” The other is “How to understand the ancient sacred writings”.

    For me, the best analysis does not muddle the questions together. It is clearly a fact that Junia was a respected early Christian Apostle before Christ appeared to Paul in a vision and commissioned him. We also know that Deborah was a judge over Israel. It was Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, who sang “Sing to YHWH, for he has risen up in triumph; the horse and rider has he hurled into the sea!” And, of course, we all know how blessed Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, became as a result of her brave and deadly work for God’s people. Miriam’s teaching is at the heart of the Torah. The examples given are from our sacred written tradition and show without any question that women may teach, hold authority over and enter into combat for the people of God. One may argue otherwise only if one is ignorant of scripture or is motivated to gloss over what it clearly teaches.

    The second question is more complicated and has received almost as many answers as there have been covenant people of God. I like to remember that the sacred writings have a historical context and are not rightly understood without it. History is an extraordinarily subtle and difficult subject. It demands scholarly work, and I am not a scholar. (I like to think I am an analyst.) Still the Bible teaches me some history. I can easily see from it that in its context that women were almost always either the property of men, or something close to it. They belonged to fathers, masters, husbands and sons. Sometimes they were viewed with respect, reverence and awe, and sometimes they were seen as not greatly different from other cattle. Clearly the many men and women who authored the scriptures thought and taught in different ways. In my own best unscholarly opinion, the writer of the letter to Timothy in question was not Paul/Saul of Tarsus, but probably an older and more seasoned bishop in the early Church. Sometimes these men oversaw such things as collection of common property and many similar practical questions. This influences my understanding of the text in question. I cannot tell for sure if it was intended as a thought about women’s souls or more along the lines of how to take care of them as property, of one sort or another.

    I have to prepare a Sunday church school lesson for tomorrow. I haven’t done this for about ten years and I enjoy talking with middle schoolers. I try to speak the truth in love without making jaws drop too much. I find the idea that it is actually possible to think about the Bible lessons is well received at this age.

  • Donald Rappe

    I mean I haven’t been a teacher for 10 years. I have prepared other lessons this year!

  • “What about women?” The other is “How to understand the ancient sacred writings”.

    I think that’s an important distinction, especially with the follow-on questions of “What about women today in the church?” and “What authority do we give ancient sacred writings in our lives today?”

  • Al

    It always surprises me that people of faith feel the need to jump through hoops of logic and to contort their thinking in order to make sense of their ancient sacred writings. Sometimes meanings get lost because the understanding of the words has changed. Sometimes the accepted wisdom of the author’s era isn’t so wise after all, as is often the case with accepted wisdom. Assuming that a holy book and everything within it is unalterably true, and that it is our task to find that truth is a little like trying to drive a square peg into a round hole.

    As human beings, we all want certainty. In an increasingly uncertain world we may have to accept that our holy books don’t provide the clear and concise answers that we would like. That doesn’t mean those answers aren’t out there. It just means we may have to look beyond our sacred texts, into our own experience, in order to find them.

    I believe that God gave us minds and free will because he had confidence in our ability to find our own answers. The story of creation hasn’t ended yet. It’s still a work in progress and it changes every day.

    So if Paul’s assertion in 1 Timothy 2.12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man: she must be quiet”, seems misogynistic and seems as though it might be reflective of the biases of his time, why are we compelled to somehow rationalize it into something else? I think we’ve all had the experience of being taught or mentored by wise women and are better for it. If Paul didn’t get that then that was really his loss, wasn’t it?

    If this seems like cherry-picking a sacred text, then so be it. I don’t think God wants us to have blind faith but to have faith and the willingness to seek the truth.

  • Is 1 Timothy one of the epistles that scholars think Paul actually wrote?

  • Jill H

    I adore this comment.

  • Diana A.

    I’m with Jill H. I adore this comment too.

  • Diana A.

    I think some of this stems back to a common error when it comes to reading the Bible. When people read the Bible so as to have a reason to judge and condemn someone else or boss someone else around, then they tend to focus on the passages that allow them to judge other people. Rather, I think the Bible is to be read for our own edification. The writer of Timothy says “I do not permit a woman to teach….” Okay, that was fine, for that author. But if a woman feels moved to teach and a man feels moved to listen to her and consider what she says, where does anyone else get off saying “No, you can’t do that! The Bible says….” The truth is, the Holy Spirit does whatever she damn well pleases and no mortal can stop her.

  • pearloftheprairie

    One of the best books I’ve ever read on this subject is “What Paul Really Said About Women” by John Temple Bristow. He studied the original Greek and most of what Paul wrote is the polar opposite of how it is translated into our modern English.

    He tried to teach his congregation what he believed was the correct interpretation of those passages, but it was so different from traditional beliefs he took quite a bit of heat from his flock, the men in particular.

    I’ll bet he’s moved onto another church.

  • Some say Paul must be read with a grain of salt; sometimes I think one needs the whole shaker!

    In 1 Timothy he appears to subjugate women to a subservient position (which if true probably had more to do with politics and the safety of the Flock in an increasingly hostile environment). By the end of SECOND Timothy, he sends greetings to and from women who clearly held leadership positions in the early Church. If the women had not been leaders Paul would not have named them.

    This, of course, gives rise to the speculation that there is more than one Paul. That is a topic for another day.

  • Jennifer,

    I believe you are on to something here.

    Many scholars do not believe this to be a Pauline letter.

    I see major differences, this being one of them, between what we see about Paul’s teachings and the teaching found in the Pastoral Epistles.

    In short, I see the teaching of the New Testament as clearly equating all men and women for ministry.

  • I always thought that verse talked about women gossiping in the church.

  • Bmac

    I love starting my day with messages like this! Thank you John!

  • Barbara

    Al, thank you for your insight. The most important lessons of faith are revealed to me when God speaks through “strangers”. We are all One.

  • Pearloftheprarie! good to hear from you!

  • My friend Paul is always striving to find his balance. He isn’t always right. He can’t be. He often is seen arguing with himself. So, I see no disrespect in arguing with him also. 😉

    That being said, he is my friend. I don’t go to him for proof texts. I go to him to join an earnest, and never quite resolved discussion of what it means to live in a deep relationship with God through Jesus Christ and how we should be the church in the world.

  • i never did like Paul.

  • Al

    Thanks Barbara and I agree. The truth is a great unifier. It helps us to see ourselves in other people.

  • Matt

    Thirded. So perfect.

  • Lymis

    Paul got stuff wrong. The translators got stuff wrong. People who read translations of Paul get stuff wrong. It’s that being human thing.

    I think we can take some pretty strong cues from Jesus’s approach to things, including to clear and definitive commands from what he himself considered to be Scripture. In pretty much every case where the choice was between a situation where obeying the obvious interpretation of a text would result in something restrictive, minimizing, and dehumanizing, he chose embracing, exalting, and supporting the highest humanity of the other person over rigid interpretations.

    Whether that was intervening to save an adulteress, healing on the Sabbath, touching menstruating women, hanging out with sinners, or telling parables with heathens as the heroes, it’s a pretty common thread.

    Given the choice between treating women as fully equal children of God, with genuine experience of God, and their own wisdom to share and telling them to shut up and keep their heads down, I know which answer feels more like what Jesus would do.

    And if I’m wrong, it’s being wrong on something I’m still willing to stand behind if I’m held to account for it. I’d far rather explain how and why I loved and valued my sisters (and brothers, in other contexts) than try to justify why I marginalized and ignored them.

  • Aggie

    I’d have to go with the Lymis-Al idea that it is probably that Paul (or whoever wrote this) was not at his best here.

    I once read that biblical exegesis was something like “The fine art of explaining why the Bible doesn’t mean what it says.” I don’t discount subtlety, context, historical setting, etc. But if nothing else, if the author intended to mean that men and women are equally qualified to lead and teach, he surely could have made himself clearer!

    Wilkinson also mentions Titus 1:12 in his article– and I also think it’s very unlikely that people from Crete are any better or worse than anyone else…

    Good discussion all!

  • vj


  • Steve

    The people who made up Christianity (Paul, Austine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas) meant *exactly* what they said. There is no need to interpret it and and explain away their words. They simply despised women and considered them to be lower than dirt. There are more than enough quotes to show that beyond any doubt. Part of that was cultural, but especially Paul and Augustine and deep seated sexual problems and hated themselves for it. But instead of dealing with it, they played women for how screwed up they were.

  • Steve

    *played = blamed

  • Lymis

    Wonderful, and so true.

  • Janet

    I used to fret a lot over these passages. Now when I read them, all I hear is “blah blah blah.” I have to say that I don’t really care what was meant by the original writers, because the Bible is not God. God is living, and the Bible is a book. Some of it applies to us living in the 21st century, and some of it doesn’t. Get over it.

  • I’m unwilling to say Paul got stuff wrong, the translators got stuff wrong, etc, because I’m committed to the Spirit-overseen canonicity of scripture. However, Paul’s overall writing shows himself to be a situational ethicist who is trying to put out fires in specific pastoral contexts and help Christians with a variety of backgrounds and presumptions experience the deliverance of Jesus Christ. I think we can read Galatians 3:28 as making a paradigmatic anthropological claim that males and females are equal in Christ Jesus, while seeing 1 Timothy 2:12 as a pastorally contextual instruction from Paul to his protegee. Even if the cult explanation is debunked, the rhetorical context doesn’t support reading a paradigmatic universal into 1 Timothy 2:12.

  • Well hello to Morgan Guyton!

  • Diana A.

    I like this.

  • Diana A.

    Wonderful! Thank you Lymis!

  • Howdy. Does my reputation precede me? 🙂

  • Al, I don’t adore this comment. Just kidding!

    I think your point is good…but I don’t think we should necessarily just say, “Hey, Paul’s anti-women, that’s wrong, let’s move on.” For me, there’s sufficient evidence in Paul’s other writing that he was very pro-woman (Phoebe and Junia are two great examples), so I think it’s worth considering other interpretations of 1 Tim 2.12.

  • Most mainstream scholars think Paul didn’t write 1 Timothy, but it’s not a definitive case either way. The arguments against Pauline authorship are largely based on the style and vocabulary of the letter. But even if Paul didn’t write it, Christians generally accept it as in some way important to their faith…so it’s still important to try and understand what the text is (or isn’t) teaching.

  • Wow Steve. That seems to be an extreme view. I think Paul had quite a few good things to say about women! Freudian analysis of Paul’s psycho-sexual problems is a dubious endeavor…

  • Morgan…I think that’s a great understanding of things. Why can’t everyone see things that way? 🙂

  • Lymis

    Well, I’m not willing to accept the “Spirit-overseen canonicity of Scripture” when Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 irreconcilably conflict on the timeline of creation.

    If “canonicity” means we have to figure out a way for everything in the Bible to be literally true, at least in some context, count me out. I’ll go with a Spirit-overseen understanding of Scripture.

    I’m more than happy to accept that Paul had some point to make that we don’t have all the details on, which may well, if we did, reconcile everything. And certainly, slicing the conclusions as they apply to us the way you do makes perfect sense in that context.

    But I think the fetishizing the texts actually gets in the way of the meaning far more than it should.

  • Jill

    The fact that verse 15 says that the woman is ‘saved in childbearing’ tells me that if viewed in literal context, the author sees women only having value as procreators, but if not literal, he’s just talking trash with his buddies?

    I’m actually asking (not being snippy) because it is at all possible he’s being facetious to prove some point? Is he the Stephen Colbert of his day, using satirical constructs to address touchy subjects? I’m trying to give some benefit of the doubt and find something of value in these verses…

  • Steve

    That’s exactly what all so-called “church fathers” from Paul over Aquinas to Martin Luther thought about women. There are tons of quotes to that effect. And plenty from priests and monks too. Make no mistake, most of them despised women and only reluctantly acknowledged their necessity as baby factories.

  • Steve

    No pseudo-analysis required. Augustine himself said that he hated his own sexuality and lust and he said himself that he blamed women for enticing him. It’s there in black and white.

  • Notice I didn’t take issue with your description of Augustine…although I think it too is overly-simplistic. To say that “the people who made up Christianity” “despised women and considered them to be lower than dirt” is to ignore a wide swath of Christianity that honors and respects women. This isn’t to deny unfortunate misogynistic and patriarchal trends that persist within the Christian faith, but the issue is certainly not as black and white as you make it out to be.

  • Jill,

    1 Tim. 2.15 doesn’t necessarily mean “saved in childbearing.” This is another example of a verse where it just isn’t entirely clear what’s being said and there are a range of valid interpretive possibilities. For example, N.T Wright translates it as “She will, however, be kept safe through the process of childbirth, if she continues in faith, love, and holiness with prudence.”

  • Jill

    Well Dan, I’ll definitely grant that you have a more educated grasp on the intricacies of Pauline logic than I have, so point taken. However, I continue to prefer the good news according to Colbert. At least I know for sure he’s kidding.

  • Jill, I do grant you that humor and irony should be given more consideration when interpreting the Bible!

  • Jill

    Amen! It helps curtail the weeping and gnashing…

  • Maria

    Jill, if I was feeling better I would be laughing. As it is you have me smiling. Thanks for that.

  • Maria


  • Jill

    *Sending you a gentle hug* (my hugs are usually bear-like)

  • Donald Rappe

    Whenever I come across the word canon, I think which canon of what items. Clearly here we must be thinking of one of the canons of sacred writings. Probably not canonical forms of polynomials or any version of “Are you sleeping, Brother John?”. Perhaps one of the canons commonly accepted by Protestants. But, now, to bend my mind until it can assign some meaning to the non-word canonicity, then attempting to conceive of it being spiritually overseen, then leaping into a commitment to this misty state of affairs, just overtaxes my imagination. I cannot think of this as the reason for anything. To say “just because” seems to make more sense.

  • Donald Rappe

    Now, this I can understand!

  • Donald Rappe

    Difference of style and vocabulary is more than just a hint. Trying to draw a conclusion about the thinking of Paul; of Tarsus from someone else’s writing is just pointless.

  • Donald Rappe

    “What about women today in the church?” The reactionary hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church has decided to take on its women religious. Watch and learn.

    We should not read the bible for its authority, but for its insight. If we read it with the same Spirit with which it was written, it will give revelation and salvation.

  • Donald Rappe

    e.g. El Sen~or es mi Pastor, nada me falta. !NADA ME FALTA! This temple song from the southern kingdom tells me I lack nothing. Its authority is that which it reveals. I am moved to hear them as they have been spoken by a woman who lives in the poorest part of our country. For myself, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. Could authority give me courage? Only the Wizard of Oz can do that!

  • Jill H

    “We should not read the bible for its authority but for its insight.”

    Through the comments from Don, Lymis, and Soulmentor in particular, I have learned more about appropriation of biblical context, tone, and intent in the past 6 months than I have in studying the blasted thing over 12 years. Where have you been all my life gentlemen???

  • Allie

    Lymis, I agree. It seems to me that insisting on biblical inerrancy involves so much kissing your elbow that it is deadly to true faith. There’s nothing worse than pretending to believe something you can’t because you feel you OUGHT to believe it.

  • Justin

    Lymis, bravo! This is the approach EVERYONE should take when interpreting and applying the Bible. Wonderful words of wisdom. 🙂

  • Stacy

    I am going to have to re-read that once or twice just to get what he said.

  • Yeah, Dan doesn’t play around.

  • Molly

    Thank you Lymis for that! I have always held to the same sentiment as your statement “And if I’m wrong, it’s being wrong on something I’m still willing to stand behind if I’m held to account for it. I’d far rather explain how and why I loved and valued my sisters (and brothers, in other contexts) than try to justify why I marginalized and ignored them.”

    It is so much easier to follow Jesus’ message to “Love One Another.” He did say he was giving us a New Commandment of that, correct? I am sure that his meaning was one of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness.

    Great discussion. Just what I needed to read today. Peace y’all.

  • Molly

    I think that Paul wrestled with Saul his entire life. In addition to this struggle, I think he thought out loud a lot in his writings. Those are the only reasons (other than the possibility of other authors) for him constantly contradicting himself.

  • Lyn

    I can think of a lot of reasons for him contradicting himself. 1) He was quoting some well-known adage that has been lost to time, perhaps as an example. 2) He is presenting two viewpoints and comparing them. 3) He’s been horribly mistranslated. 4) He changed his mind on some issue or took a more nuanced stance later in his life. 5) He’s being hyperbolic or satiric. 6) Some scribe somewhere left out an important word, like “not”. 7) He’s dealing with different situations that call for different approaches. 8) He’s being pragmatic when it comes to the most important task of spreading the gospel, but is also arguing for a more just and egalitarian community within the church.