Is 1 Tim. 2:12 a Concession to Culture?

Is 1 Tim. 2:12 a Concession to Culture?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 3:05pm

THIS IS A FOLLOW-UP to my recent note on women preachers. One respondent asks,

“Would it not be appropriate to acknowledge the cultural context of Paul’s writing? Paul was writing in a time when it was culturally inappropriate to do as Paul said. However, in a cultural setting that would accept a woman’s wisdom and speaking ability, wouldn’t it be acceptable to allow a woman to preach?

“I mean in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul says that it is disgraceful for a woman to pray with her head uncovered, but we do not take this literally. Many women pray with their head uncovered. However, it seems to me that Paul was saying this in cultural context. It would offend people, at that time, if a woman did not have her head covered, just as it would have offended people for a woman to speak in a church. Would you not take that into consideration?”

MY REPLY:

It is true that some aspects of apostolic instruction are culturally sensitive, as with the head-coverings (see my recent FaceBook note, “Head Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:1ff.”). In 1 Timothy 2 the references to lifting holy hands in v. 8 and to certain kinds of attire in v. 9 are probably reflections of certain cultures. However, there are general ethical and spiritual teachings which cannot be just adaptions to the culture, such as praying per se (v. 8) and dressing modestly (v. 9). On which side of this fence does Paul’s instruction about “women preachers” fall? To say it is somehow culturally determined seems to fly directly in the face of Paul’s own rationale for the prohibition as stated in vv. 13-14, i.e., the order of creation.

Those who try to explain Paul’s prohibition as a concession to the Ephesian culture usually depict that culture as repressive of women. E.g., one Bible college president said, “Maybe the missing link here is in the cultural situation in the Mediterranean world at that time. Women in general were not allowed to speak publicly, especially to men, because for the most part, they had not been educated, and so had nothing helpful to contribute to the corporate meeting. And the forward woman was viewed as being coarse.” An avowed feminist put it thus: “Most women at the time were ignorant, illiterate and strangers to any form of education.”

The problem here is that such statements are mere assumptions, not based on any solid research into the “Mediterranean world” of Paul’s day. The fact is that the pagan culture of Ephesus at that time was replete with women religious leaders, so much so that what Paul is teaching does not make concessions to that culture (as this argument alleges), but actually goes AGAINST what was allowed by the culture. The notion of women in leadership as being “culturally inappropriate” at that time and place is one of the many myths surrounding this subject. See, e.g., Albrecht Oepke’s article on “gune” [woman] in Kittel’s “Theological Dictionary of the NT” 1:776-89. See also Manfred Hauke, “Women in the Priesthood” (Ignatius 1988), 340-343, 401-402. (Citations from these authors are given in my book, “Feminism and the Bible,” 319-21.)

Also, on this same point, I recommend a forth-coming book by a non-instrumental churches of Christ brother, Bruce Morton, called “Deceiving Winds,” published by 21st Century Christian (which has just announced that this book has gone to press). It is a thorough study of the historical and cultural background of Ephesus as it affects several of Paul’s writings. The book is especially relevant on this issue.

After reviewing the facts about the culture, one could best argue that the PRESENCE of female teachers and priestesses in the pagan world was the very reason why Paul gave his specific instruction AGAINST such practices in 1 Tim. 2:12. Pagans may allow these things, but God does not.

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