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Women, Authority and Fear in Childbirth (1 Timothy 2)

The letter of 1 Timothy 2 discusses women, authority, and fear in childbirth. It does not exclude women from being church leaders. This is post 2 of 4, where I look at 1 Timothy 2 where several groups are corrected. I look at the larger context of 1 Timothy here.

I discuss 2 Timothy here. I look at Titus here. These three letters together are called the pastoral letters.


1 Timothy 2: Stop Arguing and Showing off, Let a Women Learn, Comfort her


This chapter is not about putting limitations on women. Paul corrects improper behaviours by both men and women and addresses a woman teaching false doctrine by letting her learn and by alleviating her fears.


woman teaching
https://www.freepik.com/free-photo/excited-pretty-woman-laughing-after-reading-something-new-interesting-book_2593655.htm

Paul asks Timothy to pray for all people and ask elders to ensure believers can live peacefully. Such peace and godliness will help bring all people to come to the saving knowledge that there is one God, and one mediator between God and humanity: Jesus Christ who gave himself as a payment to give freedom to men and women.





1 timothy 2
1 Timothy 2 corrects men and women

Therefore, keeping in mind the goal of peace and godliness that will attract people to know God, the writer instructs three groups:


  • all men to stop the anger, arguing, domineering

  • all women to stop displaying their wealth and instead display their good works,

  • one particular woman to learn the true message (v1. 1), stop teaching until she learns the correct doctrine, stop domineering her husband.



Some translations of 1 Timothy 2:11 say women generally (plural) where the original is singular 'a woman'. To help put this chapter in context, I have a separate article examining the whole letter of 1 Timothy. In it, I look at whether the three pastoral letters were written by Paul or an imitator of Paul, and we look at the qualifications to be a church leader. In 2 Timothy, we look at Scripture as being inspired by God. In Titus, we learn that an elder's responsibilities are to hold to the true message, encourage believers, and refute false teaching.


Domineering or Afraid?

This passage is not about having authority in the church but about usurping a teacher role before being trained or being domineering when we are called to love and serve one another. The writer is insisting that Timothy silence certain people not to teach false doctrines (1 Timothy 1:3). The writer refers to hypocritical liars who forbid people to marry and who promote abstinence (from food and intimate relations) in 1 Timothy 4:2-5. Let her learn the correct doctrine so she will not be vulnerable to false teachers who have been targetting women with the idea that they will risk death in childbirth if they turn away from Artemis. Like Eve, liars may deceive her if she does not know the correct doctrine.


The woman in 1 Timothy 2:11, like all new believers, should learn in quietness and submit to teachers. She should not usurp a teacher's role until she learns the correct doctrine, and should not dominate or bully her husband into believing the false doctrine that they should stay celibate. Her husband may have perceived the woman as desiring control when really she was acting out of sheer terror in the false doctrine that only Artemis could keep her safe in childbirth. Often when a person acts out of fear, others can mistake it as aggression or bullying. The letter addresses the root of her fears, which is false teaching, especially circulated by and for women. The solution is not to condemn her but to let her learn so she can defend herself against false teachers, deceivers and liars. Reassure her so she will hold her faith in Christ and not be afraid of pregnancy or childbirth. Comfort her that faith in Christ means she need not be afraid.


2 women
Elaine Kelly meets Marg Mowczko

Theologian Marg Mowczko suggests the passage addresses an individual woman who is domineering her husband (1). The woman may be refusing to have sex with her husband, avoiding sex, or bullying her husband into abstinence. In the first century, celibacy was honoured based on both Artemis, goddess of chastity, and the Jewish law, which said a woman became ritually impure after childbirth. Perhaps the woman thought she needed to be celibate even while married in order to remain pure and keep her salvation. Marg Mowczko discusses the theme of virginity in the Acts of Paul and Thecla here (2).  The woman teaching this heresy should stop domineering her husband and be assured that she will be kept pure even through childbirth if she and her husband continue in faith and love together (1 Timothy 2).

What False Teaching?

What may have been the false ideas that made her afraid and aggressively warn others to obey?

  • She may have been the victim of false teachers who targetted only women

  • She may have learned from gnostic female false teachers who said that Eve came first, pursued knowledge, gave Adam life and taught him. Paul corrects the teaching, saying that women don't hold superior knowledge from Eve, that Adam was formed first, and that Eve was deceived.

  • She may have learned from pagan teachers telling her to imitate the goddess virgin warrior Artemis. If she thought being a virgin was more honoured or a way to earn salvation, she could have been browbeating her husband into celibacy.

  • She may have learned from legalistic Jewish teachers that women will be kept pure and holy by being celibate since giving birth is ritually impure. These same legalists taught men must be circumcised. Paul says that God will keep her salvation [by Christ] even through the ritually impure childbirth process, as through a storm (not by a storm).

  • She may have been the victim of enemy teachers saying Christian women were more likely to die in childbirth because they did not have the protection of Artemis, the goddess of safe childbirth. Paul reassures her that God will keep her safe through the physically risky birth process, and that she should not turn to false gods to save her in her time of crisis. Paul tells Timothy to comfort the woman that God will bring her safely through childbirth.

Paul says to let her quietly learn the correct doctrine so that she can defend herself from false teachers.

flashcards 1 timothy 2
flashcard samples from The Sword a fun way to engage in healty debate on what the Bible says about a woman's role by Elaine R Kelly

In my book, The Sword: A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says about a Woman's Role, flashcard 38 thrusts the Complementarian argument not to permit any woman to teach or hold any authority over a man, alongside the Egalitarian defence not to allow a woman to spread heresy but first, let her learn!





The Woman is to keep Silent until She Learns the Correct Doctrine

screenshot Lynn Cohick
Dr. Lynn Cohick interviewed on The Local Churchology


Dr. Lynn Cohick discusses 1 Timothy on the Local Churchology Podcast (3) The passage in 1 Timothy 2 must be read in the context of 1 Timothy 1, which introduces the discussion on false doctrines. Paul says he isn't permitting a woman to teach until she learns; he is not prohibiting all women from teaching for all time. He wants the woman to keep silent from teaching false doctrine until she learns. She is to be undistracted and focused while she learns. She is not to spread the heresy that celibacy is more pious or holy, and not to dominate or have authority to make her husband celibate. Paul says childbirth will not make a woman impure and being celibate is not more holy. Paul reassures the woman that her salvation by faith is secure despite the birth process if she and her husband both remain in faith and love.


Learning Protects Against False Teachers

Tom Barker sees this author as mainly concerned with false teachings and letting everyone learn. In his interview with the Local Churchology Podcast (4), he explains that creation order has nothing to do with authority; God gave both genders dominion over the earth. Tom Barker believes the letter is addressing issues specific to Ephesus, where Paul placed Timothy as a church overseer. In Ephesus, many trusted the goddess Artemis and women appeared to be targetted by false teachers who encouraged women to turn back to Artemis. If women did not learn correct Christian doctrine, they would be especially vulnerable to false teachers.

screenshot
Tom Barker interviewed on Local Churchology
screenshot
Tom Barker discusses 1 Timothy

Paul Addresses Private Lives Not Addressing Private Issues Not Community Worship

Dr. Cynthia Long Westfall (5) suggests that this is a personal letter addressing the problems of private individuals. The instructions for men to stop arguing and women to stop showing off their wealth are not related to communal worship services but to how believers live their private lives. The author is concerned about the women in their homes being vulnerable to the risk of false teachers and needing to learn the correct doctrine.


Dr. Cynthia Long Westfall (6) states that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is not related to our spiritual salvation but to a specific woman who dreads dying in childbirth. Fear of death in childbirth may be what makes the woman avoid sex and insist that her husband abstain. Paul corrects her false teaching that Eve came first, was not deceived, and was wiser than Adam. Paul is concerned that this woman is teaching others to avoid pregnancy and childbirth because followers of Jesus lose the protection of Artemis. Paul is concerned about women turning back to Artemis in their time of crisis, and he wants to reassure and encourage women to rely on Christ to shelter and protect them through the childbearing process. In Westfall's view, the risk of death in childbirth is paramount, and the author is telling the woman she can be saved from turning to idolatry and saved from death in childbirth if they (she and her husband) both continue in faith, love, and self-control. Paul seems to be instructing her husband to be considerate and self-disciplined, which can help reduce maternal mortality.


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Cynthia Westfall explaining let women learn before letting them teach
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Cynthia Long Westfall interviewed on Local Churchology

How can the passage reassure women that God will keep them safe from physical death in childbirth when in fact, women do continue to bear risks in childbearing? Dr. Westfall points out that James tells us to pray for the sick and anoint them with oil (James 5:14-15) even though sometimes the person still is not, in fact, healed. In the same way, we can pray for the woman in labour. Paul writes in a culture where a man did not need to be considerate of his wife, and sometimes it was a husband's physical or sexual treatment of a pregnant wife that contributed to maternal mortality. He reminds both the husband and wife to continue in kindness, support, and self-restraint to help reduce maternal mortality.


False Doctrine Today

goddess Artemis
The goddess Artemis wearing magic pouches : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Artemisa_edo_Efesoko_anderea.jpg

Raised to think that women were designed primarily for delivering, raising and teaching children, Sandra L. Glahn had a crisis of faith after experiencing infertility and pregnancy loss.


She had learned incorrect doctrine that women are saved through childbearing, and feared she would not be able to obey God's call for her to be a mother and her salvation might be at risk. In her book, Nobody's Mother (7) she corrects false teachings about being saved through childhood. It is based on the false idea that Artemis was a goddess of fertility or a nurturing mother with many breasts. Rather, Artemis was a goddess of fertility and a midwife and protector of women. Her many pouches hold magic powder to remove pain and keep women safe through childbirth. Women of ancient Ephesus were afraid to turn away from Artemis and trust Christ.


Correct and Restore False Teachers

Bruce C. E. Fleming, the host of the Eden Podcast and Co-Founder of the Tru316 Foundation, states that the main message of 1 Timothy 2 is that we are to correct and restore the men and women overseers who go astray. The male overseers were arguing, the female overseers were overtly showing their wealth, and both groups needed to be corrected. Timothy should stop male and female wayward overseers from teaching false doctrine; let them first learn quietly. Bruce Fleming says the individual woman in 1 Timothy 2:15 relates to the woman, Eve (8). who is named in 1 Timothy 2:13-14. She (the woman/wife) will be saved through the childbirth of Jesus. He explains the true meaning of Genesis 3:16 is that God blessed women by multiplying their ability to conceive.


Who is 'she' and 'they'? (1 Timothy 2:15)

After Paul addresses the individual woman's fear and behaviours based on false doctrine, he switches to addressing the behaviours of a plural group.

"and she shall be saved through the child-bearing, if they remain in faith, and love, and sanctification, with sobriety." 1 Timothy 2:15 Young's Literal Translation

There is confusion on who "she" is in 1 Timothy 2:15. It may be:

  • the woman Eve in 1 Timothy 2:13-14.

  • an individual woman addressed in 1 Timothy 2:11-12

  • women generally in 1 Timothy 2:11-12


'She' is Eve; 'They' is All Women

If you believe the 'she' refers to Eve, then it follows that the 'they' refers to all women and men being spiritually saved through the birth of Jesus. Some Bible interpretations build in this interpretation, saying women are saved 'through the birth of the divine Child' (AMPC), women 'will be saved through the birth of the child if they lead respectable lives' (GW, NOG), 'her childbearing brought about salvation, reversing Eve (MSG). The inference is that sin entered the world with Eve, and is overcome by Eve's offspring, the birth of Jesus, if we continue in faith. In the Old Covenant, the woman was adopted into God's family by the circumcision of a male relative, in the New Covenant, she is saved by the birth of Christ. Paul tells the Romans, that sin entered the world through Adam, and grace came through one man, Jesus (Romans 5:12-19).


'She' is an individual woman; 'They' is the Woman and her Husbanad

As discussed above, the original language of 1 Timothy 2:11 uses the singular, 'a woman'.

Paul may be addressing a specific Ephesus woman who is bullying her husband into celibacy based on her belief in a false doctrine about the risks of childbearing. There is a real possibility that a woman is afraid and wants to be saved physically as well as spiritually.


The plural here may refer to the woman and her husband. Her safety through childbirth is on the condition that 'they both' remain faithful, loving, and self-disciplined. Cynthia Long Westfall (5) suggests a woman is more likely to survive the physical and spiritual struggles of childbirth when a husband shows care and self-control. Ancient tombstones show evidence that it was unusual for husbands to treat their wives kindly since it was considered acceptable to beat a wife. Many women at that time were married at puberty and had five children by the age of 20, and death in childbirth was common.


This passage tells men to address a woman's aggressive behaviour by comforting her, letting her learn, allaying her fears, being self-disciplined and kind, and reassuring her of God's faithfulness. This viewpoint does not contradict the rest of Paul's writing.


"Women" will be Saved: "They" means Women Generally

In some Bible translations, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is translated as 'women' (plural), obscuring that the original language is singular and addresses a specific woman. If you believe 'she' or 'women' refers to women in general, then it follows that the plural in verse 15 refers to all women. This view suggests that women are spiritually saved based on behaving correctly, having faith and bearing children. It is in direct contradiction to Paul's repeated message that all people are saved through Christ.


Several English translations show the final verse using the plural throughout, saying 'women' or 'all women' will be saved through childbirth if women continue in faith and self-control. Some build into their translation the idea of women being saved by having children if the women continue in faith and good behaviour. For example, women will be saved 'by having children' (CEV, ERV), 'women will be preserved if they...' (AMP), and 'women will be saved by having children if they keep...' NIRV. The Living Bible actually infers God intentionally cursed women with pain and women's actions in childbirth save her. "God sent pain and suffering to women when their children are born, but he will save their souls if they trust in him, living quiet, good, and loving lives." This interpretation infers that God saves women's souls in a different way than God saves men's souls. It contradicts where Paul writes that there is one way to salvation: belief in Christ (Romans 6:23).

These traditional male views miss two things.

(1) a woman may be afraid of the real physical risks of childbearing and the reliance on a false goddess to bring her safely through this risk.

(2) Paul warns both women and men to correct their behaviour (1 Timothy 2:8-10).


A patriarchal reading is that this passage does not instruct or make demands on men, only women. They would say it tells women to stay silent and show their virtue by bearing children; no woman should ever teach, domineer, or have authority over men.


Patriarchal readers have been reluctant to see that 1 Timothy corrects the angry and arguing men and tells harsh, undisciplined husbands to be faithful, loving, and self-controlled.


Summary of false teachings and interpretations of Timothy 2, beside biblical truths:

False idea

True idea

Salvation by grace only relates to men

God wants all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).

Jesus is a mediator for men and not women

Christ's work as a mediator or path to God is for anyone who believes (John 3:16, John 4:14).

Women are spiritually saved through obedience to men and through bearing children.

Neither women nor men are saved by their own actions, but by God's grace (Titus 3:5, Romans 3:28, Ephesians 2:8-10, Galatians 2:16, Philippians 3:9)

God commands women to have children. Women of Ephesus were falsely trusting the goddess Artemis. Women should not abandon their ordained roles as mothers by demanding teaching and authoritative positions; women will be fulfilled through childbearing.

God never commands women to have children. God blesses both women and men with the ability to have children when they unite (Genesis 1:22 and 28). Some women have children, some do not. Either way, the childbearing role lasts only a portion of a woman's time on earth. Some women are gifted and fulfilled in roles other than childbearing. Artemis was not a goddess of fertility but of virginity and midwifery. Women should trust Christ, not Artemis, for safety in childbirth.

God wants women to suffer in childbirth; childbirth will make all women suffer but it will not endanger their spiritual salvation

God did not curse women with childbirth and God does not want humans to suffer. God warned Eve of multiplied effort in working the cursed soil and in bringing forth children. Childbirth does not impact spiritual salvation.

Women must never have authority over men at home or in community settings. Any woman teaching a man is usurping the authority of men. Men may hold authority if they meet other criteria. Men may overrule, usurp power, or dominate others.

Women (and men) are not to assume authority by usurping power, overruling or domineering. Christians are to be loving, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, and self-controlled (Galatians 5:22-23). It does not mean a woman cannot have any authority but that she cannot force her authority on others. Jesus calls all believers to show their light (Matthew 5), and Paul says all believers are called to freedom (Galatians 5:13), a woman ought to have authority over herself (1 Corinthians 11:10-12), and husbands and wives should yield authority to one another (1 Corinthians 7:4, Ephesians 5:21).

Paul is upbraiding or correcting women for teaching and having authority over men

Paul is instructing Timothy to let a woman learn, to not permit her to teach until she learns correct doctrine, and not to domineer or bully her husband by teaching false doctrine about the need for celibacy.

A woman or all women will be spiritually saved by the birth of Christ and by giving birth and by good behaviour, remaining quiet and obedient

A woman or all women will be spiritually saved by believing in Jesus Christ. Men and women are both saved by belief in Christ. Men and women are both called to live their faith in their behaviour: love, holiness, and self-control.

Paul's letter to Timothy says to be alert for false teachers or anyone teaching something that doesn't agree with what Paul has entrusted to Timothy. False teachers think they will gain money from godliness and have made money their goal.


Paul says to be rich in good works and generous with others. This mirrors James in telling us to show our faith through our actions (James 2:17). It also echoes Jesus in telling them to build up treasure in heaven (1 Timothy 6:17-19). Timothy has travelled with Paul and been mentored by Paul and knows that Paul commends women as co-workers. Women and men are both called to act on God's call on their lives. Avoid discussions that can lead people away from the faith and run to things that lead to justice, faithfulness, and holiness.

 

Conclusion

In summary, this is a private letter to Timothy, who is in charge of the church in Ephesus. Chapter 2 encourages women to learn correct doctrine so that they are less vulnerable to false teachers. It also alleviates a woman's fears of childbirth and the temptation to turn to Artemis for safety. It does not prohibit anyone from leading or speaking based on gender. It encourages Timothy to live in godliness, to stop the community from spreading false doctrine, and to teach them to live in godliness.




 


Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with Christian fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include:

  • Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, Book 1

  • The Sword A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role

  • Because She Was Called: from Broken to Bold, Book 2, A Novel of the Early Church, imagines Mary Magdalene's trip to testify before the emperor





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