Studies in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Lesson 6 (1 Timothy 2:8-15)
by Reta Halteman Finger
We now begin with what may be the most difficult text for Christian women in the entire New Testament—1 Timothy 2:8-15! As I write, I’m surrounded by seven commentaries, plus two books and one article devoted entirely to this paragraph. This will take more than one lesson! Note, however, that I’ve again included verse 8, about men, which parallels the author’s instructions to women.
“A text without a context is a pretext”
If ever a paragraph in the Bible needed both a literary and a socio-cultural context, it’s this one! Imagine, for example, how much women’s fashions have changed since the first century CE—or even in our own lifetimes! However, throughout church history, men have selected out, even within this paragraph, what would best assert their authority over women. For example, I would guess that today, in many Southern Baptist congregations or in other churches stressing biblical infallibility, men are much more concerned about restricting women’s leadership in verses 12-14 than they are about women braiding their hair or wearing jewelry in verse 9.
Although this is rarely done by traditional preachers and Sunday school teachers, we’ll first review the larger literary and cultural contexts. Rather than writing as a traveling missionary like Paul, the author of this epistle writes like a pastor, which is what Thomas Long calls him in his commentary on First and Second Timothy and Titus. No doubt native to Asia Minor, this pastor understands not only his Greco-Roman milieu but also the current precarious situation of the Ephesian house churches.
The pastor sees the church community structured as a typical hierarchical Roman household (the oikonomia; see 1 Tim 1:4, where it is translated “divine training,” as discussed in more detail in lesson 3). Long contrasts our modern world “where social roles and political structures are fairly fluid” with the Greco-Roman world where they were “relatively fixed and stable,” especially the different natures of males and females (p. 69). Although in this Roman context where some women were beginning to run small businesses, Aristotle’s statement of several centuries earlier still reigned: “The male is by nature fitter for command than the female,” he asserted. “The relation of the male to the female [which is one of] inequality, is permanent” (Aristotle, Politics, book 1; quoted in Long, p. 71).
In this context, women’s behavior was a typical concern. The pastor would have assumed that men were natural leaders, and women did not have that capacity for leadership. They were considered more emotional and prone to be taken in by the “myths and genealogies” of the opponents (1:4). Thus, observes Jouette Bassler, the pastor has more instructions for women than he has for the men (p. 56.)
Conflict over “sound teaching”
But even before the pastor spells out some foundational theology, such as in 2:5-6, he is concerned about “sound teaching” (1:10) because of the serious conflict roiling the Ephesian churches (1 Tim. 1:3-11). Although the nature of the opponents’ doctrine is not clear (1:3-4), it directly or indirectly relates to the challenge Christian belief poses to pagan emperor worship and Roman politics. The monotheistic theology of Christians and their view that Jesus is the one human mediator between God and humans (2:5-6), directly confronts polytheism and unseats the emperor as the mediator between the Romans and their gods (see Lesson 5).
Whatever the heresy of the opponents, it must have been serious enough to make political waves and threaten the safety of the Christian churches of Ephesus. (See Acts 19:1-41 for a previous uproar in Ephesus over a perceived threat to the goddess Artemis.) Therefore, the pastor-author of 1 Timothy “urges” prayers for those in positions of authority (2:1-2). Speaking as Paul the “apostle” in 2:7, he strongly “desires” the men to pray “without anger or argument” (v. 8), so that believers “may lead a quiet and peaceable life” (2:2). As long as conflict pervades the church and the opponents are unruly and disobedient (1:9), the risk of arrest and persecution is high.
The house church context
At this point in time, church congregations met in private homes, including in the more public areas of the atrium and the courtyard. Thomas Long describes the competing models of worship between traditional Jewish synagogues—which required a quorum of ten men and where women sat separately and were silent—and the house church context where a more informal atmosphere prevailed, and where women were used to speaking their minds (pp. 71-72). When the pastor urges men to pray “in every place” (2:8), he probably means in each of the house churches in Ephesus.
But courtyards and atria were open air, without roofs, and thus were quite public in the sense that passersby could overhear what was going on, especially if men were loudly arguing with each other. After noting the male gender’s aggressive tendencies, Long explains verse 2:8 in this way: “Men should worship in a way that exercises self-discipline and tamps down these natural impulses to anger and aggression. Praying with hands open and lifted is a sign of humility and of dependence on God. Men who have their hands open and raised in prayer cannot close their fists in rage” (p. 72). Otherwise, the house churches could never lead “quiet and peaceable” lives safe from political harassment.
In the next lesson, we will closely examine the instructions about women in 1 Timothy 2:9-15. Why all the concern about dress, not teaching, and even the curious phrase about salvation through childbearing? We will learn why this pastor wants “to counter the activities of the opponents who seem to have had particular success in interesting women in their teachings” (Bassler, p. 56).
Questions for discussion or reflection
- How was/is 1 Timothy 2:8-15 interpreted in your church context? Did it limit your own life at any point? How much emphasis was placed on the instructions to men? (Include your comments in the space below.)
- If this text is situation-specific, can it be applied to contemporary church contexts? If so, how?
Aristotle, Politics, book 1, chapter 12. Trans. Benjamin Jowett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1905), p. 25.
Bassler, Jouette M. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.
Long, Thomas G. A Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.
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