Why Do We Still Preach 1 Timothy 2?
I don’t know if there is a passage that I want to preach less than 1 Timothy 2. It raises for and in me a whole host of problems.* I must ask: Why do we even preach this text anymore?
The Revised Common Lectionary assigns 2:1-7. If we continue reading, here is what we find:
8 I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; 9 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, 10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
I cannot pass by this without comment—extensive comment—because I think one of my most sacred responsibilities, as a preacher and teacher, is to not explain away or ignore deeply problematic texts such as this one. I should not and will not, especially as a white, male pastor, ignore how deeply problematic the text is; we should not preach it.
First, Paul (or whoever wrote this passage), takes it upon himself to decide what women should and should not wear; he makes judgments about women based upon their hairstyles, the manner of their jewelry, and the quality of their dress cloth. He robs them of the autonomy they are given by God, as created beings declared very good. Paul has no solid theological standing for his misogynistic position. Second, Paul sets forth the notion that women are intrinsically subordinate by nature, pointing to a deeply questionable reading of Genesis 2 as proof of his claim, and therefore should be silent and submissive. This single verse has been directly responsible for millions of women being locked into abusive relationships across these past two thousand years. It is garbage. It alone, in my opinion, should result in 1 Timothy being removed from the Revised Common Lectionary. Third, Paul writes that women shall be saved through childbirth, which is baffling because Paul’s central claim is that through Christ that we are saved, in need of nothing else, and through this salvation we are no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile. I’ll say it again: this is a bunch of malarkey and we should not be preaching it.
Now, to the lectionary passage proper. This pericope is often used in political discussions when one person criticizes a president and someone else says, if you call yourself a Christian, you have to pray for the president Read 1 Timothy 2! Let’s first remember that this text was not written for us, at least, not in the historical sense. Paul is writing about a very specific leader and a very specific superpower: Caesar, Emperor of Rome. Paul knew all too well the danger of opposing Rome directly. By 70 CE, the Temple was destroyed, and the Romans decimated the Jewish homeland. Jesus and his immediate followers were Jewish; while Paul was winning converts among Gentiles, the faith was rightly seen as being Jewish, at least according to Roman standards. So, the advice here is, pray for all leaders who power over us so that we may live in peace while we win over souls for the true king of kings, Jesus Christ.
Paul’s argument is existential as well as theological. He sees that in a battle of swords, no one at that time could stand against Rome, especially not the Jews, who were guerilla fighters at best who could not withstand the full force of the Empire. Paul tells Jews as well as Gentiles that there will be no eternal victory for Rome; the Roman State cannot offer redemption and reconciliation. Only Christ can do that, says Paul. He is not saying that we should pray for all leaders and then do nothing about injustice; he says if there is injustice pray for relative peace so that we may combat it, full in the knowledge that God is with us. Christ as Emmanuel.
What does this text say to us, here and now? I admit, my ears are closed to 1 Timothy. I find it to be deeply problematic. However, I am not called to preach my opinion, I am called to preach the good news, to wrestle with the problematic texts, but not to the exclusion of God’s message of grace and reconciliation. No matter how flawed the messenger, the good news is lifesaving. It is my call to preach this at all times.
First, this passage teaches us to pray for peace (v.2). At the time, the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, was not peaceful for a vast majority of people living within the empire, people who were not citizens. If we pray for peace, what does that peace look like? How do we envision it? What does Scripture tell us? Second, the passage pushes us to think about who and what Jesus Christ is to us (vv.5-6). For Paul, Jesus is a mediator between God and humankind. There are many different ways we can interpret this, from the literal interpretation that Christ died for our sins and in-so-doing reconciled humans to God, to the symbolic, that Jesus models for us the correct way to live, to order our values, and to come into the fullness of who God calls us to be as human persons. Third, we must understand for ourselves what it means to be saved and to have knowledge of the truth (v.4); Paul is moving toward a systematic theology, that is, a theological system in which each of the parts is defined and relate to one another clearly and effectively.
However, Paul’s entire literary corpus covers all of these points and more and manages to do so without the horrid misogyny of 1 Timothy 2. And this situation poses for us a very important question to answer: What is more important, defending the supposed infallibility of Scripture, or pushing aside those things, in tradition and canon, that do not reflect the radical nature of God’s grace, available to all of us equally and in the affirmation that God reconciles human beings in mysterious, life-altering ways? Are we bibliolaters? Do we make the Bible an idol, one that is co-equal to God? Or do we recognize the fallibility of human persons and the deeply complicated history regarding how texts have been received over thousands of years?
When we preach anything from 1 Timothy, and especially 1 Timothy 2, we send the message that the problems with the texts—and the impacts that they have on real persons—are secondary to it being canon. That’s how we turn canon into a cannon.
*For the sake of clarity and expediency, I am going to set aside the debate as to whether or not the historical Paul wrote 1 and/or 2 Timothy. I will refer to the author as Paul, even though I have lingering reservations that he wrote the epistles.