Proper 21| 1 Tim 2:8-15, 3:1,8-13 | Psalm 146| Luke 16:19-31
“Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! *I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.” FSHS
Last week six of our members went through the sacramental rite of Confirmation. Confirmation accomplishes several things in our spiritual lives, but most basically, it is the “ordination service” of the ordinary Christian. Just like in the ordination of a deacon, priest of a bishop; in Confirmation “everyday” Christians make an adult profession of their faith and commitment to Jesus Christ and receive the blessings and laying on of hands of the church through the Bishop to carry out the ministry of Christ to the world. The idea here is that we as Christians don’t just let the pastors do all the ministry. We have a priesthood of all believers, because like the priests of the Old Testament each Christian is called to go between God and the world in prayer and ministry- thus brining the concerns of the world to God and the love of God to the world. Confirmation is a special moment in which the church reminds individuals of that calling and asks the Holy Spirit to equip them for that ministry. Specific ordained Christian ministries such as being a deacon, priest/ pastor or Bishop all come out of the foundation of our ordination into the priesthood of all believers in Confirmation.
The Confirmation emphasis of the priesthood of all believers fits right in with what we’ve been talking about here at Tree of Life. The week before Bishop Ron’s visit, we started a sermon series here at Tree of Life on what are often called the Pastoral Letters of Paul, especially, 1 and 2 Timothy. Though Bishop Ron didn’t focus on 1 Timothy during his visit with us last week, Confirmation fits right in to what 1 Timothy calls us to think about it, because 1 Timothy is all about how to be the church and go forth in the ministry God calls us to do.
Today’s reading in 1 Timothy zeroes in a little more on Christian ministry by giving some prerequisites and qualifications for those who take leadership roles within the church. Now typically, we do not read this part of 1 Timothy in church. The lectionary sort of skips over it. Why? Well, for starters, many pastors through the years have believed that ordinary church attenders don’t need to know about the requirements for leaders. But I think that notion is particularly wrong-headed for a couple of reasons. 1) All Christians need to know how to discern good leaders so that we can protect against bad ones and help those who are receiving calls discern what God is doing in their lives. And 2) as I just said, ordained ministry comes out of the priesthood of all believers- thus, while some of us may be called into specific roles of service and leadership, all of us are called to ministry- all of us are called to bring Christ to the world. Thus, all Christians, not just the pastors, need to know about the requirements of Church leadership. But…honestly…I don’t think a misguided belief that ordinary Christians don’t need to know about leadership qualities is the real reason why we avoid reading the passage we heard for today in church. And neither do you. The real reason we skip over it is that well…at least according most of our English translations it seems to be…sexist.
Confirmation calls all Christians to ministry. But passages like this one make us wonder: are there differences or even limits to that calling depending on who we are- things like sex, race or social status? For much of church history people have read 1 Timothy 2 and supposed that the answer to that question must be yes- different people have different roles: men lead- hopefully not with violence, and women- uh serve or listen or something? Whatever women do, it seems they are not supposed to do it with words or authority or something, anyhow, they definitely shouldn't braid their hair! Well, uh oh, (someone with braided hair) I guess we’re in trouble.
In our culture such an extreme interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 is very jolting and strange. Women in our culture can be President (or at least make a run for it), why make them sit quietly in church? And yet, if we’re going to take Scripture seriously, we can’t just wish this passage away. A lot of aspects of Scripture challenge our culture- and all cultures. Just because an idea in Scripture seems odd to us doesn’t make it wrong. It could be that our culture is just so far away from God’s design for human life that his ways seem strange to us. Is this one of those cases? Well, obviously, that fact that I’m standing up here talking to you would suggest that I don’t think so…but why not?
Well for starters it seems problematic to say that women can’t have any speaking roles in the church if God has gifted so many women through the centuries to be great teachers. We often think that women pastors are sort of new thing in the last few decades, and to some degree that’s true, but there have always been remarkable women teachers in the church. These women have often suffered and been silenced by a church that did not readily accept their ministry, but nevertheless their amazing spiritual contributions endure. Often in order to be heard these women had to constantly apologize for their gifting and the things that the Lord had given them to say. But they felt compelled to say them anyway…because they perceived the Lord was leading them. Here’s just a few examples. One of the greatest Christian theologians of the Middle Ages was a woman named Julian of Norwich. She begins her seminal work on the problem of evil and suffering of Christ by saying, these are just the writings of only a humble creature, and yet she felt that what Jesus had shown her was so important she had to share it so she dares to write it anyway.
Another famous female spiritual leader, Theresa of Avila, began her famous work on Prayer the Interior Castle by belittling herself and then trying to downplay what she is about to write by saying: “I submit all my writings to the judgment of those learned men by whose commands I undertake them. He who bids me write this, tells me that the nuns of these convents of our Lady of Carmel need some one to solve their difficulties about prayer: he thinks that women understand one another’s language best and that my sisters’ affection for me would make them pay special attention to my words, therefore it is important for me to explain the subject clearly to them. Thus I am writing only to my sisters; the idea that any one else could benefit by what I say would be absurd.” However, for the last five hundred years both men and women have found her writings extremely helpful and in fact they may well have contributed to the revitalization of Christianity in the West.
Some women who are gifted to speak and lead, describe attempting to suppress that gift despite the Lord’s clear leading and feeling immense spiritual pain as a result. American historian Catherine Berkus tells the account of Eleanor Knight, an woman preacher in the early 19th Century, who felt a strong impulse to preach and pray in church. Her actives angered her somewhat abusive husband who ordered her not to do it again. She tried to obey him, but the more she tried to suppress the Spirit within her the more she felt alienated by God. “I began to die in mind,” wrote Eleanor. “I felt like an animal or reptile out of their element. My distress increased daily, until my mind was in agony; I began to cry mightily to the Lord.” In 1829 the Lord answered Eleanor with a dream that began with her husband representing a sort of demonic attack and then the Lord taking her away to a peaceful place called “the narrow road” in which Jesus told her, “I call you to preach.” When she answered that she couldn’t preach, the Lord repeated, “I call you to preach.” In the morning Eleanor realized she was being called to obey God and not men. Soon after she found out her husband was having an affair and leaving her. Then her youngest child died. And after a time of mourning, she realized that the Lord had cleared the way for her to obey his voice and she set out, with three children in tow, as an iterate preacher throughout all of New England. Though she continued to experience criticism and push back as a woman preacher, she said it was nothing compared to her prior internal pain of disobeying God.
What are we to make of these kinds of stories? How do they fit in with Scripture? One of the things we believe as Christians is that the Holy Spirit will not say something that is country to Scripture or lead us away from what God has already revealed to us. God sometimes speaks new things, but not things that are contrary to Scripture. So what do we do with the seeming tension between the experience of women who are called to teach, preach and lead on the one hand, and the seemingly anti-women’s leadership message of 1 Timothy 2 ? As I see it there are four options:
So, I believe the answer is actually number four. There’s some tricky Greek in this passage of 1 Timothy- stuff that’s tough to translate and understand. In the past Christians, though very smart, simply didn’t have some of the incredible translation tools that we have today. We’re always learning. Today if you want to understand the meaning of a word, you can type it into a program on your computer and pull up all the known uses of that word within a few hundred years of the writing of the New Testament. In the past, even really smart people just had to make some educated guesses. Because most cultures, especially in the Middle East and Europe assume the subjugation of women, well meaning Christians when they got to this difficult passage, made an educated guess: Paul is telling women to sit down and be quiet because church leadership is only for men. However, a closer reading of the passage in it’s wider context within 1 Timothy and the New Testament as a whole together with some of our new wonderful translation tools, reveals that far from forbidding women from leadership, Paul is actually giving instructions here to allow for the proper training of women (and men for that matter) for ministry leadership. 1 Timothy is a letter all about training the church to be the church. Here, as in the rest of the letter, Paul is pointing out the necessary steps for growing the character of leaders not writing off the leadership abilities of half the church. If you’ve never heard that idea before, I know that may sound like a stunning claim, or just plain tricky, but it’s not just my own thought. It’s a idea shared by a great many Bible teachers and researchers, not the least, the famous Anglican theologian NT Wright, not to mention the wonderful biblical scholars sitting here in our own congregation.
So come with me and look again at 1 Timothy 2 and 3. If you are Christian who attends a church with a woman pastor you need to know what to do with this passage. I’d like to argue that you also need to understand it because it calls us all to greater holiness of life as we grow into our ministry as the priesthood of all believers.
This passage begins with Paul stating: “I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands with out anger or argument.” We know from earlier in 1 Timothy that there were some problems in this church in Ephesus and here we find out one of them may have been men actually getting involved in arguments and even violence. There were false teachers infiltrating the churches. Paul says they were engaging in meaningless talk, maybe that was starting arguments and even violence. Have you ever been to a church were everyone always bickered? It’s horrible. I heard about a church not to long ago in which the men literally got into fist fights in the parking lot after church- talk about not behaving in a Christlike manner?! It seems some of that was happening in Ephesus. And Paul says, no men. As Christians we don’t solve our problems by “taking it outside,” we solve them through prayer.
Then he moves on to the women. “[I desire] 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, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.” Research tells us that people have an easier time getting people to pay attention to them and listen to what they are saying, when they are well dressed. This goes especially for women. In the world, we are taught that if a woman wants to be a successful, she have to pay attention to her appearance. Dress to kill, to seduce, to intimidate. Paul agrees that women need to pay attention to their appearance, but Christian women should have a very different aim- communicating the love of Christ. For that reason Paul warns women against two possible sins in the way they dress: dressing to seduce and dressing to communicate status. Now fashions change from culture to culture. In Paul’s culture women only Prostitutes went around showing off their bare arms or even their bare heads. Much like the Middle East today, decent women wore clothing a lot like this alb-it fully covered them. In our culture, the standards are very different. Modesty for us, still involves covering up certain areas of the body and wearing clothes that are not overly revealing, but we’re more casual about not wearing head covering or letting our arms and legs show. I think the principle here is: ladies, think about why you are wearing what you are wearing and what affect you think it will have on others. Be honest and dress in a way that reflects your worth as a daughter of the King, not as someone who makes weak men to a double take. Our culture says liberated women should be able to wear whatever they want, but the Scripture teaches us that we are be our brothers keepers. That doesn’t mean it’s okay for Christian men to just let go and lust after women who are dressing in seductive clothing and then blame them, it just means that women have a responsibility here too. So ladies, and gentlemen, dress in a way that reminds people that you are made in the image of God, not in the image of Vogue Magazine.
The second possible sin in regards to the dress of women (and of course men as well) is to dress in a way that communicates wealth and ignores the needs of the poor. When we come together as the body of Christ, we come from many different economic backgrounds. Those who have more money should not show it off with fancy jewelry and expensive hair dos. Don’t come to church flashing your diamonds and designer clothing. It’s not that braiding your hair is somehow evil, but do you really need to pay $100 for your hair cut or new weave? Strive for simple decency. It can be beautiful without being expensive. In this way, those who cannot afford the same luxuries will not bad and you’ll have more money to share with the poor. As we saw in our Gospel reading today, the Lord is not impressed by our outward appearances but by the conditions of our hearts and the good works that come from forth because of hearts focused on Christ. Thus, Paul tells the women: clothe yourself with good works.
Then comes the clunker, vvs. 11-12: The NRSV of the Bible translates it: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” This is the verse that has silenced the voices of so many women throughout the generations and caused those who would not remain silent for the sake of the Gospel a great deal of hardship. However, I don’t think it’s a very good translation. You’ll notice in your bulletin I’ve there are couple of words in bold print. The word the NRSV translates silence, is better translated something like peaceful quiet or mediation. The biblical scholar Jeremiah Coogan recently informed me that in all the other times this word is used, it is seen as the opposite of violence and conflict. One of the things happening in the church in Ephesus was that a group of women were causing lots of arguments by going around and teaching a strange idea that men were the causes of evil not women. They also seemed to have non-Christian ideas about sex that ranged from total free for all, to being anti-marriage. Paul isn’t telling women that they have to be silent all the time. Rather, he’s saying, stop constantly bickering, and take the time to listen and learn the teachings of Christ. And men, don’t be so angry and hostile at these women that they can’t even learn. Let them learn. How can anyone grow in Christ and become a leader if they aren't able to learn? I don’t know if Paul is think of this, but it strikes me that even today, many women are so busy taking care of their families and trying to please everyone, that they never really take the time to study Scripture for themselves. Paul doesn’t want women relegated to the children’s ministry. He wants them to have real opportunity to learn the ways of Christ, just like the men.
In the next verse Paul goes on to say that he doesn’t want these women who haven’t had a chance to learn to teach or the Greek word is Authentien over a man. English translation usually translate that work “exercise authority.” But that is not a very good translation. When the New Testament talks about godly authority it uses the word “exousia.” This word, Authentien, is never used anywhere else in the Bible. Only here. That means we have to look at other ancient writings besides the Bible to understand what it means. When we find it in other places, it always has to do with one of two things, violent dominance or seduction. Paul doesn’t want the women in this church to keep using argumentative dominance and seduction to lead men astray. That’s not how women should gain power in the church. Maybe that’s how it works in the world, but not in the church. Instead, Christian women, just like Christian men, need to be in peace and really learn the way of Christ before they can teach. Thus, his talk about Eve. These women in Ephesus were teaching that the problems of the world all began because of the sinful nature of men as opposed to women. Well, says, Paul, the Bible tells a different story. Both Adam AND Eve were to blame for the Fall. But part of Eve’s problem was she hadn’t learned enough, so she was deceived. Adam sinned knowingly, but Eve sinned because she hadn’t taken the time to think things through. Let’s not have anymore women who don’t take the time to learn God’s truth. Let them learn in peace. The last verse of chapter two is a weird one: “Yet she (Eve) will be saved through childbearing, provided they (all women?) continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” Many people, noting that the overall teaching of Scripture certainly does not condemn women who can’t have children, think this verse is referring to Mary having Jesus who saved us all. I also like the idea that part of Eve’s salvation is that her eventual daughters reborn of Christ into the church the time to learn the Gospel and so live lives of love and holiness.
Reframed in this way, 1 Timothy suddenly fits right in with the overall Biblical picture of a priesthood of all believers in which both men and women take up the mantle of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and become leaders. Paul’s point is not that women can’t teach or lead in church, but that they need to teach and lead in a Godly way that has taken the time to learn the ways of Christ.
Having set down these guidelines about what not to do, Paul goes right on to describe what godly leaders, who have taken the time to learn the way of Christ, look like. They are to be serious, not double tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience (they shouldn’t be pretenders). And they need to be tested before they are given authority. And just in case anyone thinks women get to skip that stuff, Paul adds that they same goes for women leaders: “they must likewise be zealous, not slanders, but temperate, faithful in all things.”
Are there second class citizens in the kingdom of God? Well, yes. Jesus Christ is our great high priest and king and authority over all of us. All of the rest of us be we male or female, Jew or Gentile, salve or free, must come under submission to him. We are all second to Jesus Christ. But he humbled himself to serve us and give us all the priesthood of all believers. So my friends, don’t get lost in quarrels or the power games of the world. Lift your hands in prayer, take the time to learn in peace and quiet, and help each other serve the Lord for the sake of the Gospel.