Wrestling (or at least trying) the Gospel out of 1 Timothy 2

I Timothy 2:8-14

Steve Hammond

September 18, 2016


I Timothy 2:8-14 (New Hammond Revised Version)

I desire, then, that in every place the women should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the men should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with expensive haircuts, or gold jewelry or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for men who profess reverence for God. Let a man learn in silence with full submission. I permit no man to teach or to have authority over a woman; he is to keep silent. For Eve was formed first then Adam. Eve was not deceived, but the man Adam was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet he will be saved through child rearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

How is this passage different than you are used to hearing it? What do you think about it? Is this a silly, irreverent, a flagrant show of hubris, or ultimately futile attempt to make something out of the Bible it can never be? Is there any way to significantly undo the damage caused by passages like these in the Bible?

The overwhelming consensus of Biblical scholars is that the Apostle Paul did not write 1 Timothy. And the tone of this passage itself suggests that it was written as a backlash to what the author saw was the woman problem that was starting to engulf the early church. In this hardcore patriarchal society there were very proscribed roles for women and men, slaves and masters, children and parents, for everybody.

In the early church, though, it appears that some women felt the freedom to step out of those roles and that there were some men supporting them. And you could argue that one of those men was the Apostle Paul. Now, granted, there are things that we know that were definitely written by Paul about women that are cringe worthy. But as we have talked about many times, there’s more to the story. In several places Paul commends the women whom he calls co-workers and leaders in the church.  As I have said in times past, Paul was a work in progress like all of us are. And we get to see him grow as we read the New Testament. Paul spent lots of time thinking about who Jesus was and what it meant to follow him and we get to witness some of that journey in his own spiritual life. This is the guy who did write some anti-woman platforms into the Bible, but he was also the guy who wrote that There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

It could be that First Timothy was written as something from Paul in order to offer a corrective to Paul. Whoever wrote this letter to those early churches may have wanted to remind people of what Paul used to say about women as a way of reining in what was happening in those churches. The evidence may be a bit sparse that such a thing was going on, but I don’t mind offering my conjectures.

Another thing to remember, as we look at passages like this, is that patriarchy is not the invention of the Bible. Patriarchy was there long before the Bible was and the Bible was written in unapologetic patriarchal societies. That’s why, I think, going out of our way to find nuggets of equality in the patriarchal settings of the Bible is more than just an attempt to whitewash it. To me it’s is like those little shrubs clinging to the rocks on the side of the cliff. Somehow they have managed to survive in that environment and you wonder how they keep from tumbling into the ravine.

As I have mentioned before, patriarchy is the foundation for other issues confronting our world, including racism. Fortunately, even as hard as it is for some of us to confront, we are starting to learn more about white privilege in this world. White privilege and patriarchy are traveling companions. It’s not even white privilege that’s the issue, but white male privilege. Granted white women get many of the benefits that come simply by being born white. But don’t forget that it’s not been all that long since white women were allowed to participate a bit more in the privilege of being white.

One hundred years ago white women were among those who weren’t allowed to vote in this country. Some of you here may have had to have your husband sign for you before you could get a credit card or a car loan. As far as I know, in the history of the whole world, no man was ever required to have his wife sign for him.

To this day in many churches they still do the thing in weddings where the bride is given away. Think about that. The bride’s father transfers ownership of his daughter to her husband just like she was any other piece of property. That’s not just some quaint wedding tradition like something old, something new, a wedding ring, or a flower bouquet. It’s a nod to the fact that until only the past couple of generations that women were nearly universally seen fully under the control of men. The everyday misogyny so apparent in the current political campaign, offers clear testimony, to me, that white male privilege trumps (pun intentional) all other privilege. Patriarchy survives in many ways, even for white women, though, again, white women are granted more privilege than lots of men and women of color are.

So what do we do with all of this? Is it really legitimate to take a passage of scripture and do with it what I did today? Do we just leave it as it is and either ignore it or find other ways to work around it? Do we do what many churches do and say this is what the Bible says and we are charged to not let our women get out of hand like they are in our society and even in some churches? I know many of those folk feel like they need to defend the Bible. But those who argue that the Bible is clear in everything it teaches and who argue, for example, that there are no contradictions in the Bible to grapple with are, I believe, missing the point. It’s the contradictions. It’s the weird things. It’s the mysteries, I think, that make the Bible that active, living, inspired text that changes us as, sometimes, we have to wrestle the gospel out of it.

Maybe a passage like this can be a gateway to a deeper understanding of the Bible. You have also heard Mary and I, over the years, talk about the lenses through which we read the Bible. We try our best to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. That means we start with Jesus and see how passages in the Bible, like this one, fit in with what he was doing. That is way better, I am convinced, then starting with a text like this one and trying to figure out how Jesus fits into it. I call it the Jesus test. If the way we read a passage isn’t good news to the poor, if it doesn’t liberate captives, and set oppressed people free then it’s not getting to what Jesus was getting at when he taught about the realm of God.

What if it’s the Jesus test, itself, that makes the Bible the Bible? Maybe the Bible itself is the larger story of what’s going on in the church and this world. Jesus is calling us forward to the God Movement, the Realm of God, to discover what the church can become while so much is calling us backward.  Shouldn’t we see that struggle, that tug of war, played out in the Bible?

It’s the struggle we see so clearly in the New Testament that caused some of our early brothers and sisters in the faith to do and say some unhelpful things that are right there in the Bible for us to read. But the struggles are real and always have been for followers of Jesus.

As I have been getting ready for today, there has been this fantasy, this scenario that’s come to my mind where Jesus is the editor of the Bible. He’s sitting in his heavenly editorial headquarters and someone brings him First Timothy. He reads it and hands it off to Mary Magdalene and does that palm to forehead kind of thing.

In closing, I have to confess that I realize that it is one thing for a white guy like me to try to find ways to redeem the Bible from its patriarchal foundations. For others, though, that may no longer be a possibility. It’s a bridge too far and the Bible is not all that helpful. Recently someone said to Mary that Christianity is so cruel. I get that. We have used the Bible in cruel ways. And it’s not enough to say that sometimes we have misunderstood what the Bible really says, or we aren’t all like that, even if both of those things are true. It’s still not enough to undo the damage.

For me, though, there continues to be life pouring out of the Bible. But that can only happen if I play around with it, question it, and listen to others’ questions. This is a quest that has led to me to places I never imagined I would go, like rewriting First Timothy. But I think it’s okay because I’m trying to find my way to Jesus, the one who, after all, the Bible calls the Word.