1 Timothy 3:1-13 & Matthew 6:1-18

Sit down and shut up?

So, this week we begin our slightly postponed journey through the Pastoral Epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These letters, written by Paul towards the end of his life to his young proteges give us insight into the working of the early church, the challenges it was facing, and practical guidance on how leadership is meant to function in a church. Before we get stuck into this week’s passage, however, let’s take a step back and find out a bit more about the context that this letter was being written into. Now, it just happens that Timothy was based in Ephesus, and we, with some serendipity, found out quite a lot about the church at Ephesus in our reading from Revelation last week. It was a church that was well known and commended by God for its good works, its resistance to false apostles and their corrupt teaching, but was challenged because it had lost its first love, and that was putting its existence in peril.

From the last appearance of Ephesus in the Bible, let’s go back to the first, which is in Acts 18, when Paul arrives there with his team, including Priscilla and Acquila, a husband and wife church planting team. Having spent very little time there, Paul leaves Priscilla and Acquila in Ephesus to continue the work of spreading the good news. While they were there, a man called Apollos turns up, but his understanding of the gospel is not complete, so Priscilla and Acquila take him home, fill in the gaps and send him out as an effective preacher and evangelist.

Some time later Paul returned to Ephesus and stayed for a couple of years, building up and teaching the church. So many people came to faith, and were so convicted that their previous way of life was not right, that they made a huge bonfire and burned their scrolls of sorcery and texts of their mystery religions. It wasn’t long before the kick back started. There was a famous temple of the goddess Artemis in Ephesus, from which flowed a profitable trade in silver shrines, bought by pilgrims who came to the temple. This trade was threatened by the growth of the Christian church, and there was a riot. Paul realised that his presence was a hindrance to the ongoing spread of the gospel and departed, leaving Timothy to lead the young church.

At some point it seems that some people, including a couple of men called Hymenaeus and Alexander, began to teach things in the church that were wrong. We don’t know exactly what they were, but given Paul’s corrective teaching in this first letter to Timothy, it seems to have been some kind of mystery religion, in which only people who had been let into the secret, or who came from a particular ancestry, were seen to be true believers who could approach God in prayer. It seems from verses later in this letter that some of the women in the church were particularly vulnerable to this perversion of the Christian faith.

So, Paul writes to Timothy to encourage him to be firm and direct in standing up to these false teachers, to teach what Paul had taught him faithfully, and to encourage him to put safeguards in place so that these divisive and deceitful teachings should not take root. Paul’s aim in all this is summarised in verse 5 of chapter 1, “the goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith”. Paul wants the people in the church to stop quarrelling, and to live and worship in love for each other and for God.

As we move into chapter 2, so we read examples that Paul gives of what this means in practice, and these are to do with prayer. Paul’s first point is that we should be praying for everyone in all kinds of ways. The heart of Paul’s understanding of the gospel is found here – “God wants all people to be saved, … Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all people.” It is not an accident that Paul writes “all people” twice, and then goes on to describe himself as a “true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles”. We have to be a bit careful here. As Paul himself makes clear in other places, Christ’s saving work has to be appropriated to be effective. That is to say, people have to say “yes” to God to receive the life that is offered to them. However, we need hold on to the fact that that offer is made to all people, and that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to redeem every single person who has ever, or will ever live, no matter their family name, their ancestry, or their race. And if that is true of God’s saving purposes how much more should it be true of our prayers. We should be praying for all people, for leaders of all nations, for everyone. No matter if we agree with their politics or their decisions, or whatever, we are commanded to pray for them.

And what is to characterise our prayers? Unity, amity, peace, and focus on God. This is what we find as we read on. These directions might sound, to our 21st century ears, a bit gender stereotypical, as they can be summarised as, “men stop fighting and women stop flirting” but that shouldn’t stop us hearing the underlying directive. We might want to extend it to include “women stop fighting and men stop flirting”, but that would be because we understand that quarrelling, disputing, and inappropriate expressions of sexuality, are equally unhelpful from either sex when it comes to having a flourishing and effective corporate prayer life in a Christian community. Remember, the goal of Paul’s command, “the goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith”

Having dealt with the prayer life of the church, Paul goes on to consider the place of women in the learning community, and their role as teachers and those having authority in the household of God. As I’ve been preparing this week, I have been struck by the irony that an instruction that was primarily intended to encourage a young church to put away disputes has come to be one of the most contested and disputed passages in Scripture. There are many, many books and papers written on these verses, and even on individual words within them. I am going to outline in brief some of these, but do not have time to go into depth on all of them.

The first thing to note is that Paul says that women should learn. Paul’s driving concern is that all Christians should know their faith well so that they are defended against false teaching. It appears, for whatever reason, that some of the women in Ephesus were particularly vulnerable to the false teaching and teachers that were causing trouble at the time, so Paul insists that it is important for them to learn.

Verse 11 continues with two terms that need to be unpacked a little. The first is, “quietness”. Just as in English, in New Testament Greek there is a word for complete absence of speaking – “silence” and subdued speech, “quiet” – in fact the same word that is used here is used in verse 2 for the quiet lives Paul wants for all Christians. This is not about women being forbidden to speak, but about them having an approach to learning that will enable them to hear and take in what is being taught. The second term is “full submission”. “Full submission” to what? Paul doesn’t say, and various options have been suggested, including to men or to husbands, but given Paul’s driving concern for everyone to adhere to correct teaching, it seems to me that the most likely thing that Paul would have wanted these women to be in full submission to was correct teaching.

Verse 12 also has another phrase that needs particular thinking about, “to assume authority over” This is one word in New Testament Greek, and it appears only once in the New Testament, here. Furthermore, it is not very widely used in other literature of the period, all of which means that there is a lot of debate as to what it actually means. There is evidence that its primary meaning is one of domineering or usurping, like a bullying and controlling partner in an abusive relationship. There is also evidence that it just means authority, in a neutral sense, although this does leave open the question as to why Paul didn’t just use the normal word for authority that is found throughout the whole of the rest of the New Testament.

It is clear, that at the least, Paul wanted the women in Ephesus, new to the faith, to have a humble approach to being taught, and to those teaching them, so that they could stand firm in their faith. The question is whether or not he intended a stronger, universal prohibition on women having a Christian teaching ministry to men, or to have roles in which they have authority over men.

One of the main arguments for this understanding is that in the following verses Paul appears to base his command on an appeal to the created order, from Genesis 2. However, in line with the overall theme of the letter, which is corrective rather than a systematic presentation of Paul’s theology, it seems more likely that Paul is offering a corrective to two ideas. The first is one from the local culture, in which Artemis was created first and only subsequently took a male consort. The second is a possible misunderstanding of Paul’s own teaching in which Adam is said to be the origin of sin, which might be taken to mean that woman had no part in sin. Paul’s point is not that women are more sinful than men, but that they are no less sinful.

For me, however, the strongest argument that Paul did not intend this as a universal prohibition is the knowledge of the sheer number of women he worked with who were teachers and church leaders. This is illustrated clearly when we go to another reference to that couple we met earlier, Priscilla and Acquila, who are mentioned by Paul in the greetings at the end of his letter to the church in Rome, where he describes them both as his fellow workers. Significantly here, as well as in Acts, they are referred to in that order, probably indicating that it was Priscilla who had the higher status in the teaching and church planting partnership. Furthermore, as we read that list of greetings, we discover the first person in the list is Phoebe, a deacon in the church, and later we come across the name of another women, Junia who Paul describes as outstanding among the apostles. As RT France, a well regarded New Testament scholar writes, “The cumulative impression from Romans 16:1-16 is that Paul numbered women amongst his closest fellow-workers in his apostolic mission, that they held positions of recognised authority in his churches, and that they were engaged in teaching and indeed ‘apostleship’.

As a local church we have authorised and accepted the ministry of women who teach and lead and I look forward to the time when we have a female churchwarden. As part of the Church of England, we are part of a wider church that affirms the ministry of women as leaders and teachers. I believe that we are a stronger and richer church for this, and that this is because this decision is faithful to the whole counsel of Scripture.

However I know that there are members of the church who have different views on these verses and come to different conclusions. As I come towards the end of our exploration of these verses I am drawn back to Revelation. It seems that the Ephesian church did get their teaching straight in the end, and got rid of the false apostles. But, they lost their first love, which is a tragedy, as this was exactly what Paul did not want, as he wrote, “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” It is my prayer that we, as individuals, whatever our gender, and as a church will be equipped to discern true teaching, be humble in receiving it and sharing it, and be free to worship and pray together, peaceably and in love for each other and for God.


  • Martin Dixon wrote:

    Thank you for posting last Sunday evening’s sermon which I have now printed off and have set aside for further contemplation. I had been waiting for it being posted before thanking you for its content, its thoughtfulness, and for the prayer and research you put into it.

    A further point: you preached on the Lord’s Prayer towards the end of last year. I didn’t respond to it, but I thought you might be interested in reading John Goldingay’s excellent commentary (in his OT For Everyone series) on psalm 145 where he links lines of connection between this psalm and the Lord’s Prayer.


  • Thanks Martin 🙂

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