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Women and the Church

Sermon – 10/03/04
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Timothy 2:8-15

I promised last week that this morning we were going to look at one of the most difficult passages in 1 Timothy.  For those that missed last Sunday, I introduced the first letter of Timothy and noted in the process that there’s a near consensus among mainline scholarship that though the letter purports to be from the apostle Paul, that in fact it was not written by the apostle Paul, but rather reflects a very common practice in ancient times of writing in the name of someone else to honor that person.  Think of it as a way of saying ‘this is what I think that person would be saying to us today in our context’.  Thus it’s not surprising that we would find then a letter like this that claims to be written by Paul and is included in our New Testament.

That process by the way, the inclusion of such letters and all the books of the New Testament, took a couple of centuries.  And it was not without controversy.  Marcion for instance, was a very prominent church leader, a wealthy ship builder who was active in the church.  In about the middle of the second century he published his own version of what he thought should be regarded as the scriptures of the church.  And that only had 1 gospel—the gospel of Luke—excluded the others, and there were more than just the four by that time that we know.   Marcion only had 10 of Paul’s letters, we have 13 in the New Testament.  He specifically excluded the Pastoral Epistles – 1st and 2nd Timothy, and Titus.  Scholars do not know if he excluded those three because he was opposed to them in some way, or if he excluded them just because he didn’t know of them.  Which is also one of the reasons scholars think that these three letters were written later than the others.  Marcion, by the way, was declared a heretic later by the church for his viewpoints.  And his teaching was largely refuted then.  Our bible would obviously be much smaller today if his viewpoint had won out.  Not only did he exclude the other gospels and some of the other letters but he also excluded the entire Hebrew scriptures.  He felt that only Luke and those 10 letters of Paul were appropriate.

Well, last week I also revealed one of the minor secrets of that process of editing and assembling our New Testament.  And if you’ll recall that little secret was that the order of the letters was not done chronologically or alphabetically – wouldn’t that have been wonderful?!  Wouldn’t that make it so much easier to find the books of the Bible if they were arranged alphabetically!  It was not done by importance – ‘we think this is the most important’.  There’s some argument that Matthew was placed first among the gospels, and that Romans, the first of the letters of Paul was the most important.  But actually it was simply a matter of size – that was the order in which they were assembled.  The longest letter first then the shortest at the end.  

This morning I want to reveal another secret, much more significant in our interpretation of scripture and which in particular turns the traditional interpretation of 1 Timothy on its head.  So let me then read the text for this morning, from the 2nd chapter:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument.  Also that women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing not with their hair braided or with gold curls or expensive clothes.  [should we take a check here, and see how you’re doing? J]  But with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God, let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man.  She is to keep silent [I think here’s where I preach to the choir! J]  For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived and become a transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through child bearing provided they continue in faith and love and holiness with modesty. [I noticed after I read this passage in the first service someone immediately pulled out their Bible and said “where was that?!  I’m not sure if they were surprised by it or they wanted to use it.  Look for yourself, I’m just reading it word for word as it appears J] 

I began my sermon preparation this week as I typically do, reading the passage several times, contemplating on it, writing down some notes to myself and from the first reading what this says to me, my questions.  And then I pulled out one of my commentary’s, and typically I go for the New Interpreters Bible, which is one of the newest commentaries, one of the best, just to see what that person has to say.  And this is what I read:  “Few if any texts are more painful to modern sensitivities.  The portrayal of women as effectively gagged in church, forbidden to exercise authority over men and restricted to the role of childbearing, modest dressers, and doers of good deeds is as about as remote from the most 21st century evaluations of women’s roles in Western society as one could imagine.  What does one do with a text like this.”[i]  Such help I get from commentaries!  Thank you very much!  Indeed that has been the question all week, as people – some knew because I announced it last Sunday what I was going to preach on – and they were asking me “what are you going to say about that?”  And I think Francis Hyland summed it up best in our spiritual formation group on Thursday morning after we read it and she said “You’re going to preach on this?”  Yeah, I am.  For two reasons.  First, it’s a good opportunity to illustrate how we approach scripture in our tradition.  And secondly, it is precisely its archaic view of the role of women that makes it relevant for today.

Let’s review what it says on the proper role of men & women in the church.  First of all, men should pray without anger or argument.  Now that’s an interesting notion in and of itself.  Think about the opposite of that, praying with anger and argument.  Typically the letters are written in response to specific issues.  There must have been some interesting prayer meetings going on in that church where Timothy was.  I can accept that.  OK, men?  No problem. 

Secondly, women:  dress modestly, perform good deeds, keep silent in church, no teaching of men or exercising authority over men as God intended, and give birth to children.  Seems fair and balanced to me J.  Kind of like FOX news, right?  What happened to the great equality Paul was preaching in Galatians 3:28 – “there shall be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”?  And not just Paul, either, pushing some radical agenda.  Look at Romans 16 – look at Romans 16, look at Romans 16!  It’s there in your Bible, we bought those new Bibles for a reason – page 925.  This is the last chapter of Romans (Paul of course didn’t write chapters, those were added later).  At the end of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome he has a long greeting.  These are people he has met along the way.  They evidently have gone before him to Rome because Paul has not yet been there.  And so he sends this letter up ahead to greet these people, these good friends of his, workers in the Lord and the like. 

Now, what is significant about this list is that there are 29 names (one or two are just relationships, the mother of Ruth, etc).  Ten of those 29 are women (we don’t recognize always because we don’t know Greek names very well).  Of those 10 women, 8 are specifically identified for something they have done – they are praised for something they have done, good workers in the Lord, or something to that effect.  And only ˝ of the 19 men are also so praised.  And note the very first woman – the very first person—named in that text is who?  Phoebe, who is what?  A deacon.  Do you remember the older English translations, what did it used to say?  Deaconess is the way it used to be.  There’s no such word in Greek – deaconess.  They were all deacons, but it was our difficulty with this concept there could be women deacons that we put that into the English.  They’ve now taken that out, they’ve cleaned that up in the modern translations.  Phoebe is a deacon.  And a deacon has much more significance than the job descriptions we give to deacons in our tradition.  It’s more, if you’re familiar with the Methodist deacons, or in some black churches – a deacon is a minister in training, in essence. 

Then the second woman, Prisca, or Priscilla is the more familiar form that we know from Acts, and Aquila, probably her husband – a pair, who worked along side Paul, with Paul, not underneath him but with him, side by side.  Mary, a good worker in the lord.  And then the fourth and most significant of the women in this list.  In verse 7, Junia. 

Now, you will note there is a little footnote after Junia.  See the little “i” in your text?  If you scan down to the bottom of the page, it reveals “or Junias”.  Added an “s” to the name – what is the significance of that “s”?  Those of you who know Latin know that it makes it a male name.  “S” makes it a male name.  It’s only in the last 20 years that Junia has appeared in the text.  It used to be in the older English translations Junias appeared in the text and Junia was in the footnote.  You’ll also note in that footnote it says “some ancient authorities say Julia”, obviously a female name.  Usually when there is a footnote like that it usually means that there are a variety of manuscripts and there’s  a difference in those.  So I looked – I pulled out my Greek manuscript that lists all variations and here’s the secret I’m going to reveal:  there is no manuscript where the male form appears.  How did this happen?  Where did the “s” get added? 

In fact, when I took Greek, the Greek lexicon of the New Testament, which is what you have to have if you’re going to study Greek in preparation for the ministry.  I spent a semester studying Greek not so that I could read the New Testament, it was so I could read this dictionary.  Just so I could look up words – that’s about all you accomplish in a semester of studying Greek.  And I looked up Junias there, and what did I find?  It says that this form Junias is found nowhere else.  Not only nowhere else in the Bible, it is found nowhere else in ancient Greek literature.  What the dictionary does not say, and this is the definitive dictionary on the Greek New Testament, is that there are 250 references to Junia, the female form.  Worse, it goes on to say that the possibility from a purely lexical point of view that this is a women’s name is probably ruled out by the context.  What is that context?  Go and read the verse – what does it say?  Not only that they were in prison, keep going, they’re relatives – just means they’re people of the faith, they are apostles.  Andronicus and Junia (probably again a husband and wife) are apostles.  Did you know there was a female apostle?!  I just learned this last year, it happened when I was in Turkey with Dominic Crossan.  There was a female apostle named in our New Testament and it has been kept a secret. 

Hmm, is right.  Why?  Because it was inconceivable to the editors of our Bible that there could be a woman apostle – the “s” was added to the name.  Oh, it must have been a mistake.  In Paul’s scheme, the highest office in the church is apostleship.  And not only is Junia and her husband Andronicus apostles they are prominent apostles, Paul says.  Again, I ask:  what happened to the equality not only preached by Paul but put into practice by the early Christian community?  I’ll tell you what happened – the normalcy of civilization happened.  The success of the early church, especially among women of means – women, who could dress, you know, the role – who could wear gold in their hair and so on and so forth.  Women who were prohibited from exercising any authority over men in that male dominated, patronage society.  The success of the church among such women is evident here in this text, and it was precisely that success that was too much for its own good.  Placing women like Phoebe and Junia in leadership positions would and did get noticed by that Roman society.

Recall then from your history of the early church, the persecution of early Christianity as an illegal religion.  If the church was going to have any hope of being accepted in society it would have to conform to the social norms.  Again, recall from last week that I said that scholars tend to think 1 Timothy was probably written about 30 years after the death of Paul.  Now think about the difference 30 years can make.  Look back in time, it doesn’t seem like a long time after 2000 years, but look back to 1974.  Gas today:  $2.10 a gallon.  In 1974 what was it?  35 or 40 cents a gallon.  Today, you’ve got a phone at home, you’ve got a cell phone in your pocket, women have one in their purse, we buy one for the kids, you go to the store to get a cell phone and they sell them by the six-pack.  In 1974 the average family had 2 – you had one upstairs and one downstairs, and that was it.  Today John Kerry is campaigning against the war, in 1974 John Kerry was. . . .oh, wait a second – some things don’t change! 

Well, 30 years after Paul tells us that there are women deacons and apostles who served side by side with the men, the author of 1 Timothy tells us that women should not only keep silent they should not be in such positions, they should stick to their role as child bearers.  And don’t even get me stared on this, you know, the transgression that Eve caused and all that – we all know that’s true, but we men keep it silent J.  In short, the radical equality of the early church community ran into the male dominated normalcy of civilization and civilization won.  The brief experiment of gender equality in the Christian community was killed before it hardly began.  And it has taken us nearly 1900 years to give rebirth to this grand vision of a community of God where members of the church are truly equal. 

This pattern, to which 1 Timothy gives witness, of pushing the edge of what will be accepted by society and then the church pulls back, has been the pattern of justice in the church ever since.  The same thing happened with slavery – slave ownership was at first incompatible with Christian faith.  Read again Paul’s letter to Philemon – where he tells Philemon that you have to accept your slave as a brother in the Lord.  Can be a slave and be a brother in the Lord.  But that too was too much of a threat, you see.  And so the church pulled back.  Until the 19th century when the underground railroad and the like exposed the immorality of the institution of slavery and the normalcy of civilization changed.  This is what I call “changing the wind” in my Pastoral column this week, if you’ve read that. 

It happened again with military service – for the first 3 centuries Christians were mostly pacifists, until Constantine, emperor Constantine, began baptizing armies wholesale.  And Augustine developed the ‘just war theory’ to provide the theological justification for Christian involvement in war.  The church pulled back.  The civil rights movement, led by the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference pushing the edge of what would be accepted by society.  And the church pulled back.  Read King’s letter from the Birmingham jail and of his disappointment – not that the KKK opposed him, but that moderate whites in the church opposed him. 

Today, we are seeing it all over again.  Here’s where I get in trouble.  Multnomah County started it for us in Oregon.  3,000 couples got married, same-sex couples.  You know what, they didn’t start it.  It was the Metropolitan Community Church, 30 years ago, that started performing, blessing same–sex unions, in the name of Christ.  Then the United Church of Christ started doing it.  Then Quakers started doing it.  Then the Portland First Christian Church declared themselves open and affirming.  Medford First Christian Church performed a same-sex marriage and split the church in half.  It was because of these Christian communities pushing the envelope of what was acceptable in society that allowed Multnomah County to do that, to make it legal.

Well then, how do we respond – is it any surprise that the larger church is pulling back?  We’ve crossed the line, we’ve gone to far, it’s the exact same thing to which 1 Timothy gives witness to.  You have to stay within the confines of the normalcy of civilization.  Now here’s the dilemma, people:  we are faced with this problem in every age.  The issue changes, but it’s the same problem.  The dilemma is this:  do we side with Paul, and this radical inclusivity and equality or with 1 Timothy and the normalcy of civilization.  Or, can there be a third option?  Represented by the inclusion of both perspectives within the scriptural tradition?  Can it be that the church is that place that’s called to be the big tent, as they say.  Where we are called to live in a covenantal community together regardless of our differences on this issue, or the war, or taxation or any other issue.  And this is my point – the inclusion of both Paul’s gender equality and 1 Timothy’s gender inequality in the New Testament says to us that we must find a way to live in this tension of the ever expanding circle that pushes on the outer limits of the normalcy of civilization and what is acceptable. 

There are times I think when we do need to pull back for the good of the church.  And there are times when we need to push forward for the good of society.  I believe this is a time for the latter.  Which is why I am campaigning against constitutional amendment 36 – the definition of marriage.  Because I believe it writes discrimination into our constitution from a particular religious perspective that legalizes social injustice.  But I do not characterize that as the only Christian position.  And I recognize that Christians can and do take the opposite viewpoint based on their faith and their reading of scripture and I value that. 

Some may say, some have said, that I’m a heretic.  Doesn’t bother me.  What bothers me, is when we divide the church.  When we split into our separate groups and we cease to dialogue with one another over our differences and how we interpret our faith in such difficult issues.  You see, that is the true heresy.  Should the fact that we have different viewpoints from the perspective of our faith mean that we should be any less strident in proclaiming what we believe and why?  Paul wasn’t.  And neither was the author of 1 Timothy.  And both are there in our Bible.  And even thought I take my stand with Paul I’m glad Timothy is there to bear witness to the vision of the church that is larger than my own and is constantly struggling with how inclusive God wants us to be. 

How shall we then keep the community together when we have strong disagreements?  Maybe, maybe 1 Timothy’s advice to men should be one we all take to heart.  Pray together without anger, without argument.  If we can do that, we can be the community of God’s people giving witness to God’s vision for this time and place. 

[i] James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and The Letter to Titus.” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI.  Abingdon: 2000. p. 802.


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