I Tim. 2:15ff., Gender, and "Just Obeying What Scripture Clearly Says"

In my book Finally Feminist I refer to I Timothy 2:15ff as the passage that finally clued me in to an important truth about Biblical study: no one knows how to interpret some passages. Lots of people think they do, of course. But there is certainly no consensus as to what’s going on here even among evangelical scholars. Paul seems to contradict himself, the gospel, Genesis, and good sense, all in a few verses!

(I mean, goodness gracious: Paul seems to see hierarchy in the Genesis accounts that rabbinical and Christian scholars agree isn’t [obviously] there; Eve being “deceived” actually shows her at least being reflective, while Adam seems to sin without a thought, so it’s not obvious why God would want men exclusively to teach and have authority in the church; the apostle of sola fide tells us that women will be “saved” via childbirth + faith + good works, which is not immediately coherent; and so on, and so on.)

First implication: As a preacher, teacher, Bible study leader, or individual reader, don’t feel you have to come up with The One True Interpretation of what is one of the most exegetically puzzling texts in the Bible.

Indeed, this passage is one of my favourite examples of how people who insist that they know what God is saying about gender “because the Bible is so clear about it” are not paying sufficient attention to the Bible.

Last week, at Wheaton College, I made this point and referred to the Sermon on the Mount, another “clear” passage that “just needs to be obeyed.” No one in this audience of exemplary evangelicals sported an empty eye socket or an arm stump as a result of “just obeying” the SotM. In fact, we tend immediately to think, “Oh, well, Jesus was being, um–what’s that scholarly word that lets me avoid ‘just obeying’ Jesus?–oh, yes, hyperbolic.” And of course he was, which is why I still have my eyes and hands.

But the point is that this “obvious” hyperbole comes smack in the middle of other texts that we are supposed to “just obey,” with no literary signal that we’re switching from apodictic teaching to hyperbole.

Likewise, then, in I Tim. 2:15ff. It is not “clear” just what form(s) Paul’s argument(s) is/are taking. It isn’t “obvious” what he says. And to respond, “Oh, well, we’ll just obey what is clear and leave the rest” is to fail to interpret responsibly. For how do you know what a passage says “clearly” if its immediate context is fraught with difficulties? The “clear” stuff cannot simply be extricated from the other stuff (verse divisions are actually quite harmful here for exactly this reason, as if each verse is a Lego block one can separate from the rest, hold up, and then say, “I’ll obey this one!”).

In fact, to practice such exegesis and ethics would be as stupid and as harmful as if you had complicated instructions for repairing your computer, didn’t understand most of them, but “clearly” understood the command to “plug it in to an electrical socket and turn it on” and just went ahead and did that at any old point in the proceedings!

Second implication: By all means follow the ancient advice to interpret obscure passages by clear ones. Just be clear (ahem) what are the clear ones.

0 Responses to “I Tim. 2:15ff., Gender, and "Just Obeying What Scripture Clearly Says"”

  1. D.J. Brown

    Ha! Love the “plug it in and turn it on” simile.

    We just hate having to puzzle through an issue carefully and, even then, live without certainty, don’t we???

  2. Keith Shields

    I appreciate this post. It caused me to go find my copy of your book Finally Feminist to remember some other things you said in that book. I wanted to see what you had said about “texts that properly ‘control’ the interpretation of other texts, as we work out our theology” (p. 30). To other readers of this blog I say, if you have not yet read Finally Feminist, go now, buy a copy and read it.

    I find that what you have written is not quite as easy as I remembered it. You continue to challenge me to wrestle with this important issue. Yet, even as I wrestle I find myself in agreement with this statement:

    “To put it more pointedly: When society was patriarchal, as it was in the New Testament context and as it has been everywhere in the world except in modern society in our day, the church avoided scandal by going along with it – fundamentally evil as patriarchy was and is. Now, however, that modern society is at least officially egalitarian, the scandal is that the church is not going along with society, not rejoicing in the unprecedented freedom to let women and men serve according to gift and call without an arbitrary gender line. This scandal impedes both the evangelism of others and the edification – the retention and development of faith – of those already converted.” (p. 56).

    And this statement:
    “The irony remains precisely in Christians lagging behind society and still requiring a submissive role for women, a posture that now is a mirror image of the scandal that egalitarianism would have caused in the patriarchal first century.”

    Thank you for continuing to challenge our thinking.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      Hi Keith,
      I agree with you and those quotes. I have a copy and really need to read it one of these days (after graduation!).

      The big issues are the overall Biblical context (prescriptive, not necessarily descriptive), in which it seems hard not to see women as equals. If, then, women are excluded from a particular OFFICE, it would seem to have to be VERY clearly spelled out (ex: OT priests being Levites). I don’t see that, other than by inferences which don’t hold up to that bigger picture of women in Scripture.

      Second, literary and historical context of the particular letter. As those quotes reference, a good deal of the content of the epistles (not just Pauline, for example, 1 Peter) is devoted to being sure the churches are not sacrificing the primary Gospel message for the sake of exercising other Christian freedoms or implementing societal adjustments (as needed as they may be). Also, the historical context is just as critical to understand what is being addressed. One book I ran across that might be helpful in this regard is Bruce Winters’ “Roman Wives, Roman Widows.”

      And, I completely agree with John’s comment about the apologetic nature of this argument. I’d certainly want to include a background on this issue (presenting both sides) to any apologetic education so that it can be properly presented to people outside the church.

      So much of the ‘heat’ on this issue comes from two equally ‘bad’ camps. One side clearly has a sexist view of women… the other made what, IMO, was the right decision, but for the wrong reasons (women’s rights movement with little to no engagement with Scripture, theology, etc.). Most people I’ve talked to (including elders and pastors, gasp!) who are entrenched on this issue are reacting against those two bad camps and haven’t engaged in the real debate (which I think is legitimate).

      I once had a local pastor say to me that as men are the head of the household, they are the head of the church. After my initial shock wore off, I said, ‘Wouldn’t that be Christ?’ I can’t even recall making an argument that lame back when I was a young-adult, with little more than Sunday school and a few Bible studies under my belt, debating the other side of this issue.

  3. chuck

    I always thought 1 Tim. 2:15 was salvation from the curse in Gen. 3:16. That is the two relationships that are cursed for the woman are between her and her children, and her and her husband. Salvation from this comes through having children itself IF they continue through faith, love, and holiness (Titus 2:4, Eph. 5, 1 Pet. 3). Not salvation in the eternal sense from sins.

    • John Stackhouse

      You’re nicely making my point, Brother Chuck. Whatever you have always thought, lots and lots of commentators see it quite differently–from you and from each other.

      • chuck

        yes along with what you possibly consider clear texts. So what do you consider clear, what is your criteria for said belief, and why should we believe the same?

        • John Stackhouse

          Are you asking me for a brief course in hermeneutics, namely, how to interpret the various genres of Scripture? I don’t mean to be facetious: that sounds like what you’re asking.

          So, for now, I’ll just say that a “clear” passage is one whose interpretation seems to have a very high probability of being right (and a correspondingly very low likelihood of being wrong), given all the available evidence and using the best available interpretative methods.

          • chuck

            No, I wasn’t looking for a course in hermeneutics…just what passages YOU consider clear, why YOU think they are clear (meaning what criteria you used to declare them to be clear), and why we should follow that criteria.

            The probability response simply leaves us with more questions: what is “high”, what is “right”, who determines “right”, what is acceptable evidence, etc.? Not to mention the who thing seems to beg the question.

            Being dogmatic about not being dogmatic about passages YOU declare to not be clear seems hypocritical.

            • John Stackhouse

              Well, I don’t intend to be hypocritical, Brother Chuck! But I don’t know what else I can say at this level besides saying what I’ve said. At the next level are, indeed, broad, basic questions of responsible hermeneutics.

              As for “being dogmatic,” that sounds pejorative, but I’m not clear why you think I’m being dogmatic. I’m giving advice, sure, but that’s what teachers do. How is that being “dogmatic”? If you think you can be dogmatic about I Tim. 2:15ff, feel free: what I’m saying is that so far as I can see, you’re not entitled to be dogmatic about what I see to be an extraordinarily obscure argument.

              But if you want to be dogmatic about “Jesus is Lord” or “Ye must be born again,” I’m right there with you!

  4. KR Wordgazer

    Ever notice how quick many churches are to interpret loosely, or admit to unclearness, when the strict interpretation could be restrictive for men– and how quick they are to claim “plain reading” and interpret as strictly as possible when the interpretation is restrictive for women?

    Hmmm . . .

  5. Mike in Pennsylvania

    I teach Junior and Senior High School students. This age range is not typically known for giving compliments to their teachers, but what they really respect and are vocally appreciative of is when I say “I don’t know.” Not in a everything-is-relative sense but in a “many bright people have done their homework on this one and it still is unclear” sense.

    • Hazel

      Amen to this. I always appreciate people who admit we all have far to go to understand God and the way the world works.

  6. verity3

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    Thank you for your straightforward approach in pointing out these issues. In the politically-correct (referring to church politics) circles I find myself in, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone admit before that God is allowed to speak in hyperbole.

    I am ***so*** tempted to link to this on my Facebook page. But I am afraid it would not promote the dialogue I am seeking with my friends. (Darn those church politics; but I am trying to learn how to practice responsible diplomacy). I suppose I am going to have to learn for myself how to articulate these concepts, huh?

  7. Don

    I see it as an important principle in Bible interpretation, “Do not be arrogant!” It is SO EASY to be arrogant about a possible meaning. When the truth is there are various possible meanings, then the truth we live out is that there are various possible meanings. We are NOT in the position of being Timothy, and to think so is arrogance.

  8. JLBetts

    Pretty good for the short space allotted – thanks! And thanks to Keith Shields for those quotes from your book. Very appropriate.

  9. Wesley

    John –
    as you might imagine, i have more problems with this post than one could responsibly write in a “reply” section (perhaps we could discuss over a good Cab some day?). So, i’ll limit my reply to a question or two:
    1 – seeing as we’re talking about Paul here and not Jesus, do you think Paul was being ‘hyperbolic’ in Galatians when he said said he wished those who thought they were more holy b/c of circumcision would go all the way and emasculate themselves?
    2 – as it relates to context and not pulling out ‘lego blocks’ as you say, what is one of the main thrusts of I Timothy as a whole? The book is a personal letter to Timothy pivoting around the statement Paul makes in 3:14,15 where he states, “…but i am writing these things to you so that, if i delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” I’d say that gives us a good ‘lens’ as it were to look at the rest of the book, wouldn’t you agree?
    I agree, 2:15 is difficult to interpret but 2:8-14 is not difficult at all, only “problematic” to various worldviews. The difficulty in interpreting how Paul (and ultimately the Holy Spirit) is using 2:15 to expand/explain what he/He wrote in 2:12-14, for instance, does not summarily give one the ability to ignore what is clearly stated beforehand. Or do you disagree? It is an exegetical fallacy of some of our emergent brothers and sisters to claim that unless we can exhaustively know ALL truth about something, we can’t make any definitive truth claims. I know, this is an open-handed issue and, Egal or Comp, these are not issues of salvation. But i think we need caution, as well as grace, here lest we do the very thing Peter said some do to Paul’s difficult to understand words in 2 Pet. 3:16. Selah.
    W. Parker.

    • John Stackhouse

      Actually, Brother Wesley, I have no idea why you would have any problems with this post. It seems simple, clear, and accurate in regard to the problems of exegeting the texts in question: So what’s the problem?!

      1. Hyperbole is a perfectly responsible rhetorical form. Perhaps Paul was being hyperbolic in Galatians. Likely so. It seems hard for me to think he literally was inspired by the Holy Spirit to wish literally for the emasculation of his enemies: It seems instead a clever, if drastic, figure of speech.

      2. I certainly don’t think we can’t make any truth claims just because we can’t have exhaustive knowledge of something/have certainty about something. My goodness: If that were the test, we could never claim anything about anything, and Christians have to say “Jesus is Lord” and “Ye must be born again” alongside human beings who must say “2 + 2 = 4” and “F = ma.”

      My point about these passages is that they are very not clear (!) about what some people have said they are very clear. So when it comes to gender, I have done the best I could with I Tim. 2:15ff in Finally Feminist just as, when it comes to ethics, I have done the best I could with the Sermon on the Mount in Making the Best of It.

      Of course you are right to point to context as interpretatively relevant, as I already did in the original post. So what else are we disagreeing about?

      • Wesley

        Brother John –
        ok, here goes. If i could sum up my disagreement in one idea it’s simply this: the Scriptures are clear that those who are teachers are held to a higher standard both by God and those they teach. Therefore, as a teacher, a pastor, a seminary professor and an author, i examine your use of words and communication at a higher standard. And i found in this post that you often misrepresent your opponents on this issue in an unfair light.
        To give you a few examples, when you write, “Paul seems to see hierarchy in the Genesis accounts that rabbinical and Christian scholars agree isn’t [obviously] there” – does that not paint anyone who does see hierarchy in the Genesis accounts as no scholar at all?
        Or when you write, “people who insist that they know what God is saying about gender “because the Bible is so clear about it” are not paying sufficient attention to the Bible.” – does that not again paint anyone who does see the Bible clearly speaking about gender as Biblically illiterate or misguided at best?
        Or finally, “And to respond, “Oh, well, we’ll just obey what is clear and leave the rest” is to fail to interpret responsibly.” – this suggests that all your opponents on this issue speak and act in this reckless fashion exegetically.
        Two things strike me about these and other lines in this post: 1 – this is an unfair method of debating an issue which you see the neo-atheists using all the time: making unfounded statements and then just ‘leaving them out there’ without ever retracting or qualifying what was meant. 2 – along with the first point, who are these masked men you speak of who handle the Scriptures willy-nilly for their own ends? You name no one and quote no one, and so the mythical “man” who selfishly and maliciously handles the Bible in the way you present is not even subtly presented as the Complementarian. I struggle to imagine men such as John Piper, D.A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, and even your own fellow proff JI Packer handling the Scriptures in the way you appear to present them doing.
        I concede, this is a blog post and not a book so i’m not expecting foot notes here. But by all means, at least pull back the shroud and face your opponents and be clear about who they might be and what, exactly, they have said (perhaps you do this in your book and i am, once again, not seeing work you’ve already done), otherwise it comes across as slanderous, broad brush painting of a complex and intricate issue. Therein lies the substance of my complaint with your post.

        • John Stackhouse

          No one likes being misrepresented and this issue is fraught with emotional and relational tripwires. So it’s good to be extra considerate. Let’s see if I can be a little more clear about what I’m doing.

          Re scholarship on Gen. 1 and 2: I didn’t say that ALL scholars see it that way. The point of the original post is that what is touted as clear is not necessarily quite so clear, and when a goodly number of scholars–including bona fide evangelical scholars–don’t see in Genesis 1 and 2 what Paul seems to say he sees, then we do not have obvious clarity. That’s all I’m saying there.

          I am more assertive (!) on the second point, you’re right: I do think that those who say the Bible is just plain clear on this issue are not paying sufficient attention–but I mean that about any feminist/egalitarians who say that also, not just those on the patriarchalist/complementarian side. (And I make this point early on in my book, Finally Feminist, to indicate why I think a new approach is needed to the issue.)

          I certainly did not say, nor did I imply, that complementarians as a class all take the approach of “we’ll just obey the clear parts.” Many complementarians, among whom I count friends, have done much careful work on this issue from which I have profited. What I am assailing is the APPROACH–that can be used by EITHER side in this debate–of citing supposedly clear texts without paying attention to how clear they might not be when full context is considered.

          As for Brothers Piper, Carson, Grudem, and Packer, I do indeed think they have sometimes been reckless in their hermeneutics and ethics on this particular issue. (Elsewhere on this blog you can see where Brother Carson has been academically reckless in another mode.) I do think they have misled people as to what the Bible says; I do think they have drawn wrong conclusions; and I do think their (often approaching supercilious) confidence is badly misplaced because I think they have not handled the complexities and ambiguities of the Biblical text (and church history, and gender studies, and more) adequately.

          But I’m not interested in critiquing them particularly, so I’m not going to bother documenting that impression. Look at their stuff on this subject and it’s evident. I’m concerned instead to offer a better way forward than we have had heretofore, and unless people begin to doubt that what they have been handed is adequate, they won’t look for such a better way. The point of this post is to begin to disquiet those who rest easy that the Bible is just plain and simple regarding gender. It isn’t.

      • Wesley

        I see your point. As your linked post shows well, it is not at all that there are not many questions that could and need to be brought up when working through those verses. I think my point would have been more clearly stated as: there is much less difficulty interpreting 8-14 than there is trying to interpret 15. Certainly not that there are not relevant and necessary questions we need to ask of 8-14. Hope that helps.

  10. Wesley

    One more thought i felt worth mentioning:
    as it relates to, “For how do you know what a passage says “clearly” if its immediate context is fraught with difficulties? The “clear” stuff cannot simply be extricated from the other stuff (verse divisions are actually quite harmful here for exactly this reason, as if each verse is a Lego block one can separate from the rest, hold up, and then say, “I’ll obey this one!”).”

    I would have to bring out the book of Revelations as exhibit A. While certainly not the same style of writing, it does give reasonable doubt to the idea that we can’t extract clear truth from a text fraught with difficulties. Jesus is coming back. He will make all things new. But i have no clue who the “dragon” is or the “great prostitute”, etc. Not having a hot clue about the latter does not make the former unclear or less true.

    • katz

      I don’t think Revelation is the right book to cite if you’re making a point about verses that are easy to interpret.

      • Wesley

        read again … i’m not making that point at all. simply stating that there are clear understandings we can draw from the book of Revelation despite the difficulties in interpreting a lot of the symbolism.

  11. Mike Edsall

    Having been an employee/teacher/trainer in a para-church organization for three decades, I am sorry to say I have naively perpetuated some of this in the past. Even when we embrace a robust egalitarian view, the culture we (in the para-church) most frequently accommodate is the “christian” one that is ironically antithetical to the very Pacific Northwest communities we are trying to reach. We offend the wrong people.

  12. Paul

    I get your point and, with sadness, agree. Years ago I used to sit under a pastor who wielded “the clear teaching of Scripture” like a sword from the pulpit. This went for just about any doctrine, whether eschatology or ecclesiology. Anyone questioning or disagreeing would be tacitly labeled unruly. The net result was a congregation of cardboard cut-outs that only could reiterate what they’ve heard from the pulpit.

    Nowhere is this spirit more evident than in the gender debates. The likes of Grudem and Driscoll, et al. have done more to inculcate this attitude than any I can think of. It deeply saddens me that a hermeneutic culture of non-thinking, non-reflective lay is emerging as a force that cannot reason beyond what is perspicuous…..to them.

    Phil Payne’s book Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters offers some insights from Chapter 22 that are worthy re: 1 Tim 2:15. My summary is:

    “The logical connection of 1 Tim 2:15 to Paul’s instructions in the previous verses is shown: Payne says ‘Verse 15 should be understood in its context as a direct contrast to the negative statements about woman’s deception and transgression in verse 14.’ Of all the wild interpretations of this verse, Payne’s explanation makes sense of the context and the biblical framework of Paul’s understanding of Gen 3:15. After providing eight reasons why σῴζω (“σωθήσεται” or NIV’s “will be saved”) means spiritual salvation, Payne summarizes:

    ‘As in Eden, so in Ephesus, the woman’s deception…led her to turn away from God to follow Satan (cf. 1 Tim 5:15). “She shall be saved through the childbirth” in 1 Tim 2:15 reflects the key idea of Gen 3:15, that the seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head. Thus, both Gen 3:15 and 1 Tim 2:15 specify the role of the woman in salvation, affirming her in a way that balances the criticism of her deception and fall.’

    The means by which spiritual salvation comes is “the” childbirth (the Greek is unambiguous: “διὰ τῆς τεκνογονίας”). By highlighting Christ’s birth, Paul ‘elevates woman to a privileged position that is far higher than anything offered by the false teachers: the promised seed of the woman came through Mary in the childbirth of the Savior. As Paul so often does, he brings the focus back to salvation through Christ, and he does so in a distinctive way that gives dignity to women. The promised Seed, who came through a woman, fulfills the deepest yearnings of women.'”


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