Question:

Today I came across a difficult passage of 1Timothy 2:11 about how a woman should learn in quietness and that Paul doesn’t permit women to exercise authority over men. He further argued that this is because of how Eve first fell into temptation and not Adam and that Adam was formed first.  The passage gets even more difficult when he mentioned “yet, a woman will be saved through childbearing if they continue in love, faith, etc.”   I checked your website before asking questions as I always do and found this http://evidenceforchristianity.org/does-the-new-testament-support-opression-of-womenr/ where you briefly discussed this passage as part of the entire discussion of whether NT oppresses women.  There you began your explanation in regards to Timothy passage by saying “the biblical role of women in the church…”. I double checked the entire chapter and I think in this chapter Paul discussed how women should act in general and not specifically in the church, please correct me if I’m wrong. When I read for instance 1Tim 2:8 he began with “in all places…” (ESV) and that’s why I conclude this applies in all situations.  If this is true, is there any cultural context that I miss here? Especially since Paul also described how women should dress (i.e. in my original country Indonesia, we deem inappropriate if a woman dresses with “revealing clothes”), I wonder if there’s a cultural reason why Paul ordered a woman to learn in quietness and submission.  I’ve never thought that this passage would be difficult until an atheist used this to attack the Bible, saying it is outdated and no one should follow it. It makes it even harder for me to defend it if Paul’s reason was because of Adam and Eve since atheists wouldn’t even admit their existence. This is a generalization from a single passage of course, but if I were to defend that the entire Bible is inspired and thus, the moral implication will always be relevant, I find this passage as a stumbling block. Do I even use the correct assumption here that the moral implication of the Bible will always be relevant?  Thank you and hope you can help.  

Answer:

When Paul says “everywhere” or, in your translation, “in all places,” he is not literally talking about all people and all places, because he is specifically talking about Christians, for one thing.  We need to look at the details of the passage to understand what he means by “all men everywhere.”  When I read 1 Timothy 2:8-15, the context tells me that Paul is talking to Timothy about the worship services of the church.  I encourage you to look at this passage for yourself, and I believe you will agree that Paul is giving advice about the meetings of the church—not what individual Christians do in their homes or on the job.  He is talking about “everywhere” that the church meets together to worship God.   The advice is that women should dress modestly and should be in a submissive role in the worship services when it regards the question of authority.  Women should not be taking direct, authoritative roles in our public worship.  I believe that, in context, this is what Paul is saying.  There may be some cultural context here, and exactly where the cultural context ends and where the general application begins is a debatable point.  Exactly how we put this admonition into practice will depend somewhat on cultural context. I wish it was black and white here, but, honestly, it is not.  I can say with great confidence that Paul is not teaching literally that women cannot speak at all in church, as we have examples of women speaking in church in the New Testament.  However, the issue seems to be authority and submission, not talking.  Paul tells us in 1 Tim 2:12 that in the worship services, women should not be “teaching or having authority”.  This is the context for the admonition about silence. 

Paul then goes on to make an argument based on Adam and Eve for why the man’s role is different from the woman’s role—for the woman not having authority over the man in worship settings.  I am sure your atheist friend will not buy this argument.  Paul is not speaking to atheists here.  He is speaking to believers.  If the atheist is to be able to listen to what Paul is saying here, he or she first must be convinced that God is real and that the Bible is inspired.  Well, there is a veritable mountain of evidence for the existence of God and for the reliability and inspiration of the Bible, but I would personally not engage in a debate with an atheist over 1 Tim 2:8-15, as he or she has a sufficiently different world view that discussing this passage with the atheist is really not a useful conversation.  To tell you the truth, if I were talking to an atheist and he/she brought this up, I would probably try to turn the conversation in a different direction rather quickly—I would turn it back to the evidence for the resurrection or for prophecy fulfillment, or other relevant arguments, not an argument over a personal matter between Christians.

Could this passage be a stumbling block in a conversation with an atheist?  Honestly, yes, because the very idea is based on a premise that the atheist rejects before the conversation, which is that God has authority over us to tell us how we should conduct ourselves.  I reject the conclusion of the atheist, which is that this passage is outdated and the Bible is a bunch of sexist nonsense.  This is completely false.  However, let me be honest with you here, the atheist probably will not see it that way, and I would want to turn the conversation with an atheist in a more productive direction.   It would be like talking to a person from Mongolia about baseball strategy.  The conversation would need a lot of filling in background to be useful.

So, my answer is that the teaching of the Bible, or in this case, more specifically the New Testament is always morally/ethically relevant to the believer who has accepted submission to God.  However, for an atheist, much of the Bible will be morally relevant (do not kill, tell the truth, show kindness and respect, love your neighbors), but other biblical admonitions will not make sense to a non-believer.  I am afraid you will just have to be able to accept this fact and deal with it.  Some of our beliefs and practices will not make sense to the atheist.  Jesus admonition that  blessed are those who mourn or blessed are the meek will not make sense to an atheist.  If your goal is for every single belief or practice of a Christian or every statement in the Bible to appear logical to a non-believer, than that is not a realistic goal.  A better question is whether these things are logical or reasonable within the context of the Christian worldview, given that the Christian worldview is the most reasonable view of the world—something that I am convinced is true, and something I hope our atheist friends will be able to see.

John Oakes

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