Women and Worship
(1 Timothy 2.8-15)
Today’s message is mostly for the ladies in the church, and I don’t think I need to tell you this is a massively difficult text—and not just because certain verses are hard to understand. It is a text which makes many people—men and women alike—very angry. If you’ve been with Église Connexion for any length of time you know that we joyfully affirm what the Bible says about the equality of men and women—that we are all made in the image of God, and that men do not have any de facto authority over women, and are not superior to women in any way. (In fact, as most married men could tell you, a fairly convincing case could be made for the opposite...)
However, we also affirm what the Bible says concerning the differences between men and women. We are equal, but we are certainly different—not just in terms of our natural disposition, but specifically in terms of the roles God has given us in certain contexts. And since the beginning of this church plant we have tried to show how the different roles God has given us, far from being hindrances to either sex, are in fact life-giving and wonderful for both. But our culture objects so strenuously to this idea that we have a hard time seeing it—for our society, “equal” must mean “identical.” So we need to take it as a given that for many of us today, the things we see in this text will seem offensive to us…at first.
But I’d plead with you this morning, if you find yourself offended by these things, to wait. Our duty as Christians is not to decide what we can or cannot accept from the Bible; it is not to look at the various things the Bible says and respond, “Well this I can take, and this I can take…but this? No, that’s too much.” No—our duty as Christians is to see what God says to us in his Word, and trust him that, being God, he knows better than us how he created us, and how we can best be happy in him. Even if it’s hard.
So in order to do that today we’re going to need to keep firmly in mind the fact that we are coming to this text with a lot of cultural baggage—it is nearly impossible for us to read this text today, in Paris, in the way Paul meant it. So if you have any doubt as to Paul's intentions, I'd encourage you simply to give him the benefit of the doubt: he's writing from a profoundly different time and a profoundly different culture. That being said, his goal here is not mainly to talk about the differences or equality of men and women; his goal here is to tell us what kinds of men and women should constitute the church. He’s trying to show us what men and women should do, how they should behave, when they come together to worship. And because God created us equal, ultimately he’s calling us both to exactly the same thing: holiness. Men and women in the church should be holy people, radically demarcated from the world by the way they live. But because God created us different, the way in which that holiness will flesh itself out in the community will in some cases be different.
1) True Beauty (v. 8-10)
Paul begins what he says by talking about the men, but he says much more about women here than men. So today I’ll allow myself to simply read verse 8, then move directly on to v. 9 (we’ll be looking at the guys much more closely next week). V. 8: I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.
Here’s the idea: women, generally more than men, are tempted to dress in such a way that they are noticed as physically beautiful. It’s true that today this distinction is less pronounced than it was at the time; men are more and more tempted in this way, and guys, if that’s the case for you, the same things Paul says here are true of you. But historically this has been a bit more of a stumbling block for women than for men; so Paul is arguing that there is something better than being noticed as physically beautiful.
Paul’s writing to Timothy, who’s the pastor of a church in Ephesus. Ephesus boasted a temple to the goddess Diana; and here, temple prostitutes were employed. (Sexual activity was a form of worship people could offer to the goddess.) No doubt these women were beautiful; and their appearance was characterized in this case by intricately braided hair, by gold and expensive jewelry. The point is not braids or jewelry that women might wear, but rather what is being put forward by the way women dress. These women were dressing to be noticed as beautiful, to be sexually alluring.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with trying to look good; most single people, after all, would like to be married one day, and a minimum of care is helpful. And even if we’re married, we still want to look attractive to our spouse. He’s not saying that women should try to make themselves unattractive, but rather that there is something better than physical beauty, and he’s encouraging women to pursue that. Notice he encourages women to flee something negative and to pursue something positive: women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 BUT with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.
In other words, women should dress in such a way that their inward holiness is made evident on the outside. Women should be pursuing holiness, and that pursuit of holiness should extend to all areas of life, including how you dress! You’re always sending a message by what you wear: what are you saying? What are you telling the men around you? What are you telling the other women around you? According to Paul, here’s the message you should be sending: that holiness is more beautiful than physical beauty. Holiness makes outward homeliness beautiful; and it makes outward beauty all the more beautiful for it.
Women need not dress in such a way to attract, because if the men around you are men who live Jesus, your holiness is attractive enough (trust me—ask any married man of God who is married to a woman of God, and he’ll tell you one of the most attractive things about his wife is the holiness he sees in her). And it is pleasing to God, for regardless of what any man might think, the Lord, who sees the heart, delights in the inward beauty he has created. So rather than going to great lengths to indulge their physical beauty and to attract others by it, women in the church should be marked by holiness.
3) Women & Teaching (v. 11-12)
So he’s established, in a nutshell, what kind of women should make up the women in the church: women whose highest goal is to pursue holiness. Now, he’s going to get specific, and talk about one way this holiness plays itself out in the life of the church. It’s this section that kills, so we’re going to need to do a little work. Let’s rip off the Band-Aid and read v. 11-12: 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. Now there are several words here that pose problems for us, and how we react to these verses will depend on our understanding of these words. The words are quiet, teaching and authority/submissiveness, which of course are related.
Let’s start with the first one. He says, I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain QUIET. Does this mean that a woman literally cannot speak in the context of corporate worship? I don’t believe so. Firstly, because when he says quiet here, he uses the exact same word as he did earlier in this chapter, when he says (v. 1), I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and QUIET life… So obviously he’s not talking about absolute silence—a “quiet life” is not a silent life, but a peaceful, well-ordered life, a life free from useless worry. He’s talking about an overall disposition: a woman should be a peaceful, tranquil presence in the life of the church, a presence which calms worry rather than inciting it.
So that’s the overall idea; now let’s get into particulars. The next word that gives us problems is teach. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. One of the things that anger women about passages like this is that it gives the impression that Paul thinks women are incapable of doing the kind of teaching I’m doing right now. Is he saying here that a woman is not allowed to teach the Bible to others?
The answer here, I believe, is also no. We see plenty of instances in the New Testament where a woman teaches. Timothy himself learned from his mother’s and grandmother’s teaching, as we see in 2 Timothy 1.5. He also tells Titus in Titus 2.3 that older women are to teach younger women. And lest we imagine that a woman may only ever teach to another woman or a child, in Acts 18.26 we see Priscilla, together with her husband Aquila, taking Apollos under her wing and teaching him Scripture—she doesn’t leave all the teaching to her husband, but is clearly as involved in this teaching as he is. So what then is his restriction? In what context does Paul say a woman should not teach?
His sentence in v. 12 is very carefully worded: I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man. Paul will go into this more in chapter 3, but there is one role in the church which the Bible says is reserved for men, and even then, it’s not reserved for all men, but only certain, qualified men. And that is the role of elder, or pastor, or overseer, of the church (the terms are synonymous). We’ll get into why that is in a minute (in v. 13-14), but first we should see that this is the kind of teaching to which he’s referring here.
There is a kind of teaching that carries an authoritative weight about it, teaching during which everyone understands that the person speaking is a person who holds a position of authority in the church—and this is the preaching of the Word during corporate worship. Everyone knows that when the songs are over and everyone is seated and one person stands up to expose the Word of God, that person is one of the leaders of the church. The same is not assumed about the person who leads a home group Bible study, or a guest speaker for an afternoon workshop, or the person who introduces the service and presides over the worship. The preaching of the Word in corporate worship carries with it the weight of pastoral authority. And this is why in Église Connexion only elders or those in training to become elders preach.
We believe it is this, and only this, kind of teaching Paul is restricting here. He’s saying, I do not permit a woman to teach in an authoritative way, TO EXERCISE AUTHORITY over a man, because that authoritative teaching is the task of the elders of the church. So suddenly, we see better what Paul means when he talks about submissiveness. When he says that a woman is to learn quietly, in all submissiveness, he’s not saying that women should be generally submissive, or that she should submit to all men; but rather that in the context of corporate preaching, while the elders God has called to oversee the church are preaching, she should submit to their authority, and that she should not speak in any way which circumvents or undermines that authority.
One of the best experiences I’ve ever had with a woman acting the way Paul calls women to act here with Ashley Harris, who came here with her husband Jonathan from 2015 to 2016. Incidentally, the subject that bothered her so much was this subject of complementarian roles of men and women. I preached two sermons on this subject last year, and they really disturbed her. But rather than standing up while I was preaching and telling me how awful I was, or whispering about me to other people in the church behind my back, she talked about it with Jonathan, came with him to see me and simply said, “I have a really hard time with this subject; it’s painful to hear you talk about it. Can we have dinner with you and Loanne some time and talk about it and ask you some questions about why you hold this position?”
This was a beautiful example of what it means for a woman to learn quietly, in all submissiveness. She didn’t remain silent; she voiced her concerns. And in the discussions we had she was very frank and honest and direct. But by coming to me to voice her concerns in this way, she was incredibly supportive and peaceful and respectful of my authority as the pastor. She didn’t attempt to undermine my responsibility as pastor, but rather honored me by addressing her concerns in the way that she did. It was one of the most encouraging experiences I’ve had thus far as pastor of this church.
4) The Call and the Curse (v. 13-15)
Now there is another question this text asks, and Paul’s answer is much more difficult to navigate. I told you we’d get to it: Why does Paul limit the role of overseer, or elder, to men? There are certainly women who are perfectly capable, and even perhaps more capable than the men, of faithfully teaching the Word. So why is this authoritative speaking to be done only by certain qualified men in the church, and not women—no matter of how “qualified” they might be?
The answer Paul gives is tough—let’s read it, then try to see what he’s saying. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 FOR [so he’s giving the reason] Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
Now before we look at exactly what he means, there’s an important fact we need to see: when Paul lays out what God calls women to do and what God calls men to do in the church, he brings us back to the first man, and the first woman. This is significant, and Paul does the exact same thing in Ephesians 5 when he talks about the role of men and women in marriage. V. 13: For Adam was formed first, then Eve… Remember the creation narrative in Genesis: God created Adam first, and gave him the responsibility of cultivating and keeping his creation (Genesis 2.15). Then God created the woman, and gave her the role of helping the man fulfill his main responsibility (Gen. 2.18). So he’s calling to mind how God created man and woman, and the roles he calls them to fulfill; he’s anchoring his narrative in the creation story to show us that these roles don’t merely exist as a result of sin. That’s part of the answer—but not all. Sin does play a part.
V. 14: …and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Now at first glance one might think he’s saying that women are generally more gullible than men, more susceptible to deception. That is a mighty stretch, and if you suggest that, you’re likely to get a smack in the face from any woman who happens to be near you (and rightly so—men, let’s please knock it off with the macho jokes). So if that’s not it, then what is he saying?
It makes sense when we remember the story. What happened when Satan came to tempt them? Who did he tempt first? The woman. He came and said to Eve, “Did God really tell you that if you ate this fruit you would die?” Now perhaps this particular woman was more gullible than her husband (I doubt it; he was, after all, right there with her, and said nothing). But even if she was, that’s not the point. The point is that Satan was well aware of how God had set things up, of the order he had put over creation and the roles he had given the man and the woman. And in Satan’s first act of temptation, he circumvents that created order. This is what Paul means when he says that Adam was not deceived. Of course he was deceived, but Satan didn’t address him, to deceive him directly; rather, he went after Adam’s wife, and deceived her. He knew Adam was the one responsible for the well-being of God’s creation and of his own family; so in an act of defiance against the order God had established, Satan went around Adam and came after his wife.
That’s the point. At the root of the first sin, and every other sin that came after, was an attempt to disrupt the design God intended for the human beings he had created. God created human beings to function in a certain way; sin always seeks its own desires and its own glory rather than God’s, and tries to corrupt that design. So God’s redemption in Jesus Christ is, among other things, his way of bringing human beings back to the order he had designed for them.
One day, when Christ returns, God will renew the earth, and every domain of creation will willingly come back under his authority, as he intended. But for now, God’s design applies to those two domains which are fully and willfully submitted to him: Christian families and Christian churches. In the home, husbands are called to take on the primary responsibility of leading, protecting, and caring for their families; and their wives are called help them bear the load of that responsibility. In the church, God calls qualified men to lead the church as elders, and he calls godly women to help them bear the weight of that responsibility by respecting the charge to which God has called them. This is why the office of elder is restricted to certain, qualified men, and this is why only the office of elder is restricted to men—it is the only office in the church that carries authority. In every other role in the church, we are brothers and sisters serving other brothers and sisters.
Before we move on, there’s one more question you might be asking: why doesn’t Paul say here that men should submit to the elders’ preaching? Of course they should; but why doesn’t he say it? Why does he seem to single out the women? There are a couple possible answers, but a major one, I think, is this: I think Paul addresses the women specifically here because men do this so poorly. Women will often see this one and only role that the Bible says is reserved for men, and want it, all the while forgetting all the other infinite number of ways in which God gives them total freedom to serve. And one of the main reasons for that is because the men that lead them can be so monumentally disappointing. Men are often lazy—they take shortcuts; they are self-centered; they won’t do the work necessary to preach the Word faithfully or care for their people rightly. We’ll say much more about this next week, but just to give you a preview of what I believe: I believe that if the men who are appointed as elders are the kind of men Paul describes in chapter 3, and if they faithfully do all that the Bible calls the elders to do, the women in their congregation will have nothing to say. They’ll have no complaints, and no desire to undermine their authority; they’ll be thankful for it, and gladly support it. But we’ll get to that next week.
Now Paul ends what he says about women here with an incredibly cryptic verse. V. 15: 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. This is a very strange verse. (Many commentators over the years have suggested that “childbearing” here could be simply referring to “the birth of a child;” namely, the birth of the child who saves us all, Jesus Christ. This requires, in my opinion, a little too much textual gymnastics to be tenable.)
The one explanation that I think comes closest to what Paul must mean comes from Henry Alford, in his commentary on the Greek New Testament. Alford noted that being saved through childbearing need not mean being saved by childbearing; in other words, it is possible to read this sentence and not understand that having children somehow saves a woman. And this is obvious if we know the Bible, because we know we are saved by grace, through faith—not by any kind of external act like childbearing. So what might it mean? Let’s change the words for a minute. I could say, for example, that a Christian is made holy through suffering—meaning that the experience of passing through suffering is a tool God uses to make him holy. It’s not the suffering that makes him holy, but God; the suffering is rather the trial the Christian may pass through to get there.
This makes much more sense, especially since Paul has just talked about the sin of Adam and Eve; it is this interpretation that Alford suggests. After they sinned, God put a curse on both the man and the woman. The man’s curse was that he would have to work intensely hard to provide for his family and his livelihood, and that the earth would work against him (Gen. 3.17-19). And what was the curse God put on the woman after her sin? Pain in childbirth (Gen. 3.16). Here’s what I think Paul’s getting at: I think Paul is using childbirth here as a kind of symbol for everything that became hard for women after the fall. (Had he been speaking to men, he could well have used painful toil as a symbol for the same thing.) That is, after the fall, life became hard. Childbirth is now painful; men are now domineering and abusive when they should be sacrificial servants. In other words, growth in holiness is now going to be a very hard road. But no matter how difficult those trials are, no matter how difficult your particular trials are as women, the promise of the gospel is that you will be saved THROUGH them, if [you] continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. There are trials God ordains for you that are a direct result of the fall; but the promise is that you will be saved through them; God will be faithful to bring you through whole, if you trust him and love him and pursue the holiness to which he calls you.
Ladies, Paul knows that you have it hard. He knows that God has, in these two very specific contexts of the home and the church, put certain men in positions of responsibility over you, and that that’s a scary thing, because men are stupid. He knows that you’ll want to have this authority, despite the way God has ordered these things (that desire is part of the curse too). So when he says what he says here, he’s encouraging you.
God calls men to take initiative in leading lives which are holy, peaceful and gentle; and he calls certain men in your life to take responsibility for you, specifically (in this instance) as your pastors. But they need your help. So here Paul is encouraging you to encourage them by affirming the responsibility to which God has called them. Don’t remain in your pride, wishing you were behind this pulpit, even if you genuinely could say things better than I could. Rather, pursue holiness; have faith that God knows what he’s doing. Love others well; use your gifts to edify the church, in every way God would allow you to use them (which is, in fact, nearly every way possible). Pass through the trial of the curse of sin, knowing that Jesus Christ died for that sin, so that the curse might not last forever. Be the kind of woman who does this well—be truly beautiful. Don’t overly concern yourself with your outward appearance, but rather cultivate the inner beauty of holiness, knowing that Jesus Christ died so that you might become like him. Your husbands, your children, your brothers, your sisters and your pastors need you to be this kind of woman. So show us, and the whole world, what a beautiful woman really looks like. Lean on Christ for your salvation and your growth in holiness. He calls you to be this kind of woman for your joy and for his glory.