Standards for men and women

A sermon by Rod Benson

1 Timothy 2:8-15

The thing about pendulums is that they swing back and forth. The pendulum of business psychology and self-improvement appears to be swinging away from emphases like passion, competence and commitment, and toward qualities such as character, virtue and human values.

A new book by David Brooks, The Road to Character, illustrates this shift. Brooks believes we live in the era of “the Big Me,” neglecting the “moral grammar” familiar to the generations that weathered two World Wars and the Great Depression. He says:

We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.[1]

It has ever been so.

It is probably one of the paradoxes or challenges you too confront from time to time, and it is a key issue of concern to Paul as he writes this first letter to Timothy.

Unfortunately this passage is one of the most difficult and controversial in the whole of the Pastoral Letters (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus). It is difficult because we live in a time and culture very different from that of Ephesus, or the first-century Roman world in general.

There are strong feminist impulses and role models in Australian society today, and a commitment of sorts to gender equality, and careful attention to style – in hair, clothes, shoes, make-up and fragrances. Paul addresses all of these concerns in the context of public worship, beginning by advising Timothy how men should pray (v. 8).

As I read it, I don’t believe Paul is setting forth a binding rule for men and women for all time, everywhere. He is addressing a local problem at Ephesus. Raising the hands in the air, presumably with palms up, was a culturally appropriate prayer posture for Christians at Ephesus – perhaps one of several.

But Paul wasn’t even seeking to ensure that our body language while praying is appropriate to the prevailing cultural expectations of the local community. He focuses on the character of the person praying: they must be “holy” rather than bound by sin; peaceful rather than given to anger; and seeking harmony rather than fomenting argument and dispute.

If the normal masculine stereotypes of the time encouraged anger, arguing and gesticulating as rhetorical devices to attract and hold attention, then men should remember that prayer is addressed not to other men but to God, and those who pray in public should work diligently to ensure that their lives are marked by holiness, peace and harmony, especially toward other members of the church.

Settle your disputes before you pray! Work through your anger and resolve the conflict before it infects others and makes a fool out of you!

Seek God’s forgiveness for sins you have committed before you come to God in public prayer on behalf of others! See also Matthew 5:23-24; 6:11-15.

In interpreting and applying the teaching of verse 8, I have deployed what is called “cultural transposition” – that is, I have sought to distinguish between God’s essential revelation (which is changeless) and its cultural expression (which is changeable).[2]

It’s a matter of personal judgment informed by sanctified common sense. Thus Paul’s desire is for everyone who prays in public to be known for their good character – measured by holiness, and aversion to anger and disunity.

Verses 9-10 also lend themselves rather well to cultural transposition. If men in the church at Ephesus were tempted to dishonour God and disrupt public worship by expressing inappropriate attitudes and behaviour while praying, women may well have been tempted to fall into a similar trap through their choice of clothes, jewellery and hairstyle.

The same warnings apply to both men and women today. Do I say or do things that could bring dishonour to God or distract others from their worship? What things do I need to change in order to be more holy, less angry, less argumentative, less distracting to others in church, and generally more godly?

*          *          *

Now we come to the difficult words of verses 11-15. Does cultural transposition apply here, or does Paul’s appeal to the Genesis story imply that the submission and silence of women in the church should apply everywhere and for all time? Is he referring to wives of church leaders, or all the women?

What is immediately clear is that Paul says two things: the women “should learn in quietness and full submission (v. 11); and he does “not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man” (v. 12).

Then he states that Adam was created before Eve (v. 13), perhaps suggesting a natural hierarchy that should be reflected in certain social arrangements; and he reminds Timothy that it was Eve and not Adam whom the serpent deceived, and who ate the forbidden fruit, introducing sin into the world – although Adam readily ate the fruit, willingly, in silence (Gen 3:1-6).

Clearly, for Paul to use such strong language, something had gone wrong at Ephesus and Timothy needed Paul’s apostolic authority to set things right. Perhaps Paul has in mind not Eve’s deception but her free decision to take the initiative in the Garden, usurping Adam’s authority and reversing their respective roles.[3]

Perhaps the heresy implied in 1:3-7 had been initiated or promoted by women, although it is the male heretics that Paul targets in verse 3.

Perhaps the heresy included instructions for women not to marry or bear children because the return of Christ was judged to be imminent (cf 2:15).

Or perhaps, as N.T. Wright suggests, Paul’s words were prompted by the culture of the city of Ephesus, where the biggest pagan temple by far was dedicated to the Greek god Artemis (or Diana, as the Romans called her), and whose priests were all women, who apparently exercised some authority over men.[4]

If so, then Paul’s words, which sound harsh to our ears, may have been intended to correct the radical gender role-reversal at Ephesus whereby women were trying to act like men, and men like women, in religious settings.

Although others argue otherwise, I think this gets to the heart of the matter. Paul is not arguing that all women are constitutionally prone to deception and therefore must never be allowed to teach and preach. If that were the case, he surely would have prohibited them from teaching women and children, but he does the opposite (see Tit 2:3ff, where some sort of authoritative teaching by women is indicated).

See also Acts 18:26; 21:9; 1 Cor 11:5; Rom 16:7; Php 4:2; and 1 Cor 14:26, where women’s leadership in the church is indicated or implied.

Instead, Paul is advocating that the Christian women be given time and space to study and learn according to “whatever gifts of learning, teaching and leadership God is giving them.”[5]

I believe it is permissible for women to teach men, but they should do so with the gifts God has given them, celebrating their difference rather than trying to adopt masculine qualities and stereotypes.

Women are not second-class citizens. Women should not feel dogged or condemned by Eve’s error. If there is a place where all of our God-given gifts and skills and abilities should be used and appreciated, men and women alike, it is not in the boardroom or shop floor or school or office, but in the church.

We don’t always get it right, but let’s not make rules based on a misreading of Scripture that ensure failure and impoverish the church for generations.

Returning to the book from which I quoted at the start of my sermon, author David Brooks says:

The good news of [The Road to Character] is that it is okay to be flawed, since everyone is. Sin and limitations are woven through our lives. We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling – in recognising the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.[6]

For a Christian, that work is helped by the Holy Spirit, whose inner presence and fruit and gifts have the power to transform us, making us more like Jesus; and by the community of faith, our sisters and brothers in Christ, with whom we gather for worship, and with whom we pray, and wrestle, and share fellowship.

When the church is at its best, there’s no place on earth like it, and no place you or I would rather be. It’s up to us to make that happen.

Sermon 629 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 2 August 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).



[1] David Brooks, The Road to Character (Allen Lane, 2015), quoted in a review by Simon Caterson, “A moral code to counter diminishing values,” The Weekend Australian Review, 1-2 Aug 2015, p. 21.

[2] See John Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus (Leicester: IVP, 1996), p. 78.

[3] John Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus (Leicester: IVP, 1996), p. 81.

[4] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (London: SPCK, 2003), p. 26.

[5] Wright, ibid.

[6] Brooks, op. cit.

%d bloggers like this: