Woman thou art silenced: a second look at the “worst verse in the Bible”

When the satirical Christian website Ship of Fools asked readers to submit nominations for “worst verse in the Bible” a few years back, there was a clear winner, beating out passages on genocide, dismemberment, and all manner of inscripturated unpleasantries. It was this:

I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent. (1 Timothy 2:12, NIV)

For many complementarians, 1 Timothy 2:12 is the Discussion Killer. The Trump Card. It’s the clobber text that beats up all the other clobber texts and takes their lunch money.

Paul couldn’t have put it any more clearly.

But before we all wave the white flag and pull the plug on #Mutuality2012, let’s remember something. The name of Paul’s letter was not “Mandatory Instructions for All Churches Everywhere to Follow till the End of Time.” Paul set his sights a bit lower than that. Namely, on counseling a young pastor who was at the end of his rope.

Paul had sent Timothy to take the reins of the church in Ephesus — a church Paul had started. It was not an easy task.

Theater at Ephesus

I visited Ephesus in 2005 as part of a study tour retracing the spread of early Christianity in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). What I learned there put an entirely new perspective on the “worst verse in the Bible.”

In Paul’s day, Ephesus was a leading city of the Roman Empire. Half a million people lived there. That number swelled for two weeks every year, when a giant festival was held to honor the city’s patron deity: Artemis.

Artemis was the goddess of fertility, among other things. All her priests were women and, as N.T. Wright observes, “they ruled the show and kept the men in their place.”

Artemis’ temple was said to be founded by the Amazons, an ancient group of female warriors who had little use for men, apart from the occasional hookup in order to procreate.

Yup, that’s her.

According to the Artemis legend, women were created first. Women were inherently superior. Women called the shots. Artemis was mainly concerned with the welfare of women, which is why she promised to protect them in childbearing — no mean feat in a world where 1 in 3 women may have died giving birth.

Men who wished to serve the goddess were free to do so… well, I say “free.” Actually, the cost was quite steep. In exchange for the honor of service, Artemis quite literally demanded their manhood.

The late New Testament scholar Catherine Clark Kroeger described the initiation process as follows (with thanks to Alex Haiken for the link):

Males voluntarily castrated themselves and assumed women’s garments. A relief from Rome shows a high priest of Cybele [a closely related deity]. The castrated priest wears veil, necklaces, earrings and feminine dress. He is considered to have exchanged his sexual identity and to have become a she-priest.

No doubt many of the female converts in Ephesus came straight from the Artemis cult. Can you imagine the difficulty they would’ve had learning to accept men in the group as their equals? Not unlike like the difficulty some men have today accepting women as their equals.

Before long, tensions would have boiled over. Church gatherings would have descended into anarchy as some of the women boasted that they were created first and should call all the shots. Timothy would have reached the end of his rope trying to hold this fledgling church together.

And so his mentor, the apostle Paul, wrote a letter. Two thousand years later, we cannot hope to understand Paul’s advice without spending a little time in Ephesus.

Paul was trying to correct a specific situation run amuck. And so he prohibited Ephesian women from taking the reins of the Ephesian church, from usurping Timothy’s authority (as Paul’s duly appointed surrogate), and from lording it over their brothers in Christ — many of whom had known nothing but subjugation their entire lives.

Understanding Ephesus even helps explain Paul’s otherwise bizarre reference to childbearing, which turns out to be a slap in the face to Artemis:

But women will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Timothy 2:15)

To insist today that women are inherently subordinate to men — and on that basis to make 1 Timothy 2:12 a universal prohibition against women in leadership — is to commit the same sin Paul was so adamantly against. Only, this time the shoe is on the other foot.

Paul didn’t want women lording it over men, as Artemis had taught them to do. Nor would he have wanted men lording it over women — not if he really believed his own words when he told the Galatians that there is no “male and female” in Christ’s church.

If Paul were addressing a complementarian church today, where it was taught that women are intrinsically subordinate to men, he may very well have written something like this:

I do not permit a man to teach or have authority over a woman; he must be quiet. For Eve was formed last, making her the pinnacle of creation. And Eve was not the one who was told to stay away from the forbidden tree; it was the man who was told and should have known better.

Sometimes harsh words are needed to correct an imbalance of power. But in the long run, the only real solution is (you guessed it)…


5th-century Church of the Virgin Mary, Ephesus

4 thoughts on “Woman thou art silenced: a second look at the “worst verse in the Bible”

  1. “Paul set his sights a bit lower than that. Namely, on counseling a young pastor who was at the end of his rope.”

    Very important part. It’s such a strange practice to look for a verse that says what you want it to say, cut it out, and paste it at the top of all your arguments. That’s not being a good steward of the text.

    Additionally, it seems to me that much of Paul’s advice along the way was “ad hoc,” so maybe we shouldn’t work to apply every little detail, and instead be faithful to the whole witness of Scripture.

    Great post. Blessings.



  2. Pingback: Weekly Link Round-Up ‹ Phire Walk With Me

  3. Pingback: Was my mother sinning? « Abnormal Anabaptist

  4. Pingback: What Equality in Christ Means For Me | BlobsOfPaint

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s