Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Role of Women in the Church?

A Sermon Preached at St Matthew's Riverdale on Sept 22 2013 on 1 Tim 2 

          Paul says in 2 Timothy 3 that “All of Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” but what about this passage? 

I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; 9 also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, 10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

          On the surface it's controversial enough to have been omitted from our Sunday lectionary, which is why I chose to have it read this morning.  A lot of head scratching has gone on in the twentieth century over what St Paul was talking about in this passage:  Is this a permanent commandment prohibiting women from teaching and preaching in the Church, in its seminaries and colleges?  If they aren’t allowed to teach, are they allowed to evangelize?  If so, isn’t the difference arbitrary?  In his letter to the Corinthians Paul says women can prophecy, and he also says that prophecy is a greater gift than teaching.  But then in the same letter and again in our epistle today he says that they ought to be silent in church.  Is he contradicting himself?  In his letter to Titus he mentions elderly women teaching other women, but why not men?  Women no doubt teach their sons the faith, but if they can't teach men, at what age do children become men such that they should no longer taught by their mothers? 

It is these kinds of objections that have led some to consider Paul’s injunction against female teachers to be a temporary, local proscription.  Maybe in the church Paul is writing to there is a set of false teachings going around that are fashionable with the women rather than with the men.  Maybe he is telling them to be silent in order that they might learn the truth in order to teach it correctly. 

I’m not sure that we can know one way or the other, that is, whether this was meant to be permanent and universal, or local and temporary proscription.  Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus among scholars about this passage.  And depending on what denomination you’re in, you will take this passage more or less seriously.[1] 

But why, then, is this obscure passage in the Bible if all things in it are written for our edification?  I don’t claim to have solved the riddle of 1 Timothy 2.  I think it’s probably there to give us some spiritual exercise.  What do I mean?  I think that with obscure passages we are meant to bring in many other passages to illuminate it.  Not only does this expand our knowledge of the Bible, but it is meant to draw our minds into the mystery of God.  I want to exercise our contemplative powers today, which, even if we never find the ‘right’ answer, has a benefit in and of itself.  I appeal to St Paul himself for such an approach when he told us to look past the letter of Scripture into its Spirit.  On the level of the letter we have found an obscure historical context with many contradictions, but perhaps there is something else on the level of the Spirit.  Let’s move from the outer to the inner. 

This, in fact, is how Paul himself moves.  Please open your Bibles to 1 Timothy 2.  Notice first that in verse 8 he says that he wants men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer during worship.  I once attended a Pentecostal family camp.  All the young people were rounded up for our own praise and worship service, but some of us weren’t raising our hands.  So the preacher scolded us for not conforming to Pentecostal practice.  It wasn’t important to him whether we were inwardly worshipping, only that we had the right outward habit.  If worship was about enthusiasm, then we had to fake enthusiasm.  Paul obviously isn’t talking about this, for he goes on to say that men ought to “lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.”  Without those inward virtues, the outward practice is useless.  No doubt if you have the inward virtues they will show themselves outwardly in enthusiasm and in reverential worship.  But clearly you can have the outward without the inward.

In the same way he moves on to women: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes…”  My Mom grew up in a Christian tradition where this was taken literally.  No earrings or makeup, dresses below the knees and up to the chin, and yet somehow adultery kept happening.  The principle of her Bible school ran off with the secretary—whose appearance, no doubt, was as ugly as everybody else’s due to the strict rules.  Of course modesty is an important virtue, but that’s precisely Paul’s point.  It is the inward virtue of modesty that matters: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good works.”  Our adornment ought to be inward.  How this is outwardly expressed will differ from culture to culture.  At one point this was expressed through wearing shawls.  How should we express this today?  It’s something to think about.

Now we get to the hard verses, but before we get there I have to bring in some Greek.  The adjective for modesty is kosmio; the verb for dress or adorn is kosmein, from which we get the word cosmetics; and these are related to the word cosmos.  In the Bible the woman is understood to be an image of the cosmos.  The beautiful ordering of the earth with all its life, the stars shining in the night sky—all of these are compared to the beauty of a well-dressed woman.  But as Paul reminds us, the adornment that counts is inward.  He is speaking about a well-dressed soul that has the virtue of modesty.  What does a modest soul look like?  One that wears all of the virtues and fruits of the Spirit in beautiful proportion; one that doesn’t quarrel or fight; one that has love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.  That’s the kind of cosmetics Paul is looking for.  Our souls are meant to be like a beautifully adorned woman, a woman whose beauty reflects the beauty of the cosmos. 

This consideration is what allows us to move on to verse 11 through 14 with some understanding: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”  “A woman” here is Eve, the mother of the human race whose name literally means “life,” Zoe in Greek.  Other places in the Bible suggest that she represents the whole cosmos (John 1).  Paul says she is an image of the Church, the New Creation—all of us collectively, and that Adam is an image of Christ.  Adam is the first created man, and Christ is the first man to be recreated—resurrected—from the dead.  God makes an incision in Adam’s side and forms Eve out of his rib, and in the same way Jesus is pierced under the rib by a Roman soldier.  Out of his side flows blood and water, the elements of life, the elements that the Church lives off of in her sacraments.  So, whatever the story of Adam and Eve tells us, it tells us about Christ and his Church.  The part of the story that Paul is referring to in our passage is the temptation found in Genesis 3 which reads:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, "You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" 2 The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, "You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.' " 4 But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.

Paul writes that “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”  Eve wanders off and is taken in by the false teachings of the Serpent, and she in turn teaches Adam to do the same thing.  Paul sets up his first letter to Timothy by telling him to watch out for false teachers, so we know why he is quoting Genesis (1:3).  We see in Adam and Eve the paradigm case of what happens when false teachings are received.  Genesis 3:7 continues the story after both of them ate: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”  Here is the inner spiritual meaning of this passage: Eve, the Church, ought to be silent before Adam, Christ, and not presume to teach him since he is first and she is second, he is God incarnate and she isn’t.[2]  When the Church presumes to teach Christ rather than listen to his words in the Scriptures, she is stripped naked.  The beautiful modesty she had is torn off: fights start in the church, the passions of greed, lust, and anger take over.  No one listens to anyone else or cares about their weaknesses.  No one serves one another, but everyone wants to be served.  Spiritual immodesty is the result of false teaching.  And this is just what the Serpent wants.  In the Jewish tradition he is a pervert who wants to see Eve naked.  But what is worse is that the immodesty of Eve shames Adam too.  He too becomes naked and ashamed, as naked and ashamed as Christ was on the Cross.   

And yet it was Christ’s nakedness that clothed us.  We in the Church have gone after false teachers, we have lost our spiritual beauty and have become immodest.  We have become sexually and spiritually immoral.  We have stripped Christ of his glory and made a fool of him by our thoughts, words, and deeds.  We have nailed him to a tree and pierced his side.  And yet that tree has become our tree of life; that opening in his side has shown us Jesus’ own heart for us.  His nakedness has taken away our spiritual nakedness.  How, then, can we carry on in our sins by refusing to submit to the words of Jesus in Scripture?  Be silent before He who was silenced on the Cross for you! 

I doubt very much that 1 Timothy 2 is a permanent injunction against female teachers.  Both men and woman have the same potential for beautifully adorned souls, which is the primary qualification for a solid teacher.  I do think Paul calls the whole church and all of its teachers to submit to the Word of God.  What can be more comfortable after our aimless, naked wandering than being clothed again in the good deeds of Jesus?  Just think of how great a blessing this is in the face of all our evil deeds. 

Thus God gives Eve this promise in Genesis 3:16 after she sins.  On the one hand he says, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing: in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”  But on the other he tells the Serpent that Eve’s offspring will crush his head.  This is what Paul is talking about when in verse 15 he writes that “she will be saved through childbearing.”  Who is Eve’s offspring and how does this save her?  Eve, says Genesis 3:20, is the mother of all the living, that is, all those in the Church who have been made alive by becoming sons and daughters of God.  It is a painful thing for a parent to raise a Christian child in this day and age; it is a painful thing to teach others the truth about Christ so that they can be born again.  But God has promised our pains will be rewarded, for Jesus says that the wise will be known both by their children and by their deeds (Matt 11:19, Luke 7:35).  For, it is through the good deeds that flow out from our beautifully adorned souls that our children will be taught, and it is those children who will gain the inward spiritual strength to crush the Serpent's head if, as Paul says, they “continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”   When that time comes, Christ’s rule over the cosmos will be restored and all things will be beautifully ordered again.  Submit, St Matthew’s, to that rule!  So, although obscure, I hope that I have shown that this passage has somehow been “useful for … training in righteousness.” 



[1] On the one hand Protestants define the essence of ministry in terms of teaching, and this passage looks like it bars women from such ministry, so they take this passage very seriously--Anglicans and Pentecostals in many countries, for example, have decided that it probably doesn’t bar women from ministry while other Protestants have decided the opposite.  On the other hand Roman Catholics define the essence of ministry in terms of celebrating the Mass, and since this passage doesn’t talk about the Mass, they have no problem elevating women teachers such as St Theresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Therese Lisieux, and Hildegaard.  They take this passage less seriously and bar women from presiding at the Mass based on other considerations altogether.  For the classic study on this passage by the Pontifical Biblical Commission of 1977 see: http://www.womenpriests.org/classic/appendix.asp
[2] This interpretation is confirmed by Paul's prior use of the same story of Eve's deception in 2 Corinthians 11.  Here the point is the same.  The Corinthian church is Eve who is about to be deceived by false apostles.  But Paul, who has betrothed them to Christ, warns them as a father.  Paul consistently makes Adam and Eve types of Christ and the Church, not, as the evangelical opponents of women's ordination assume, types of men and woman in general.  

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