When 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 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 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, could he?
Except that the name of Paul’s letter is not “Mandatory Instructions for Churches Everywhere.” Paul set his sights elsewhere in 1 Timothy—namely, he was counseling a young pastor at the end of his rope.
Paul had instructed his protégé Timothy to take charge of the dysfunctional Christian community in Ephesus, a church Paul had planted years earlier. The assignment proved to be too much for the young disciple.
I visited Ephesus in 2005 while studying the spread of early Christianity in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The trip offered another perspective on the “worst verse in the Bible.”
In Paul’s day, Ephesus was home to half a million people. It was a leading city of the Roman Empire. The population swelled for two weeks every year, during a giant festival to honor the city’s patron deity, Artemis.
Artemis was the goddess of fertility (among other things). 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, a mythical group of female warriors who had little use for men, apart from the occasional need to procreate.
According to the Artemis legend, women were created first. Women were superior. Women called the shots. Artemis was mainly concerned with the welfare of women, which is why she promised to keep them safe in childbearing—no mean feat at a time when as many as 1 in 3 women died giving birth.
Men who wished to serve the goddess were free to do so… well, I say “free.” Actually, the cost could be rather steep. In return for the honor of service, Artemis required their manhood, quite literally.
New Testament scholar Catherine Clark Kroeger once described the initiation process as follows:
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.
It’s possible female converts in Ephesus came to Christianity straight from the Artemis cult. Can you imagine the difficulty they would’ve had learning to accept men in the church as their equals? Perhaps not unlike like the difficulty some men have accepting women as their equals today.
Before long, tensions might have boiled over. Church gatherings could have descended into chaos as some of the women announced they were created first and ought to call the shots. Timothy would have quickly reached the end of his rope trying to hold this fledgling community together.
So his mentor Paul wrote a letter. Reading that letter almost two thousand years later, we cannot hope to understand Paul’s advice without spending a little time in Ephesus.
Whatever the precise nature of the conflict, Paul was trying to correct a specific situation run amuck. So he prohibited Ephesian women from taking the reins of the Ephesian church, from usurping Timothy’s authority (as Paul’s surrogate), and from lording it over their brothers in Christ.
This interpretation may also help explain Paul’s otherwise bizarre reference to childbearing, which might just be be a direct challenge to Artemis:
But women will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
—1 Timothy 2:15
Don’t trust Artemis to look after you in childbirth, Paul was saying in effect, trust the risen Christ.
If I’m right, then to conclude from 1 Timothy 2 that women are subordinate to men and therefore unfit to lead is to commit the very error Paul condemned in this passage. 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. Remember, this is the same person who told the Galatians 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 inherently and forever subject 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, the pinnacle of creation. And Eve was not the one told to avoid 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. That’s what we see in 1 Timothy 2, where Paul provides a short-term solution to a specific problem. In the long run, however, the only real solution is (you guessed it)…