Settling for the “clearest reading” of a Bible passage is not enough if doing so causes the Bible to contradict itself.
In a recent interview with the New Voice Media Group (which includes Associated Baptist Press), I used rock climbing as an analogy for interpreting Bible passages about the role of women. Whether climbing a steep rock or reading a confusing passage in Scripture, the temptation is to hug the rock too closely.
A classic example is 1 Timothy 2:11-15, a very steep rock. It is a difficult text to interpret not only because Paul suggests that women are saved through childbearing (v.15) but also because it contains a strange Greek word found only once in the Bible.
We cannot build a universal application from a text like this by hugging the rock — insisting upon the literal or “clearest reading” of the English text. The passage, by virtue of its complexity, demands more of us, just as a skilled climber recognizes that climbing a steep incline requires a counter-intuitive measure. Despite the laws of gravity, the safest path upward is not to hug the rock but to lean away.
This does not mean that we abandon a high view of Scripture but rather that we gain perspective through a historical, cultural and linguistic analysis and by allowing what is clear in Scripture to shed meaning on what is unclear.
To gain balance and perspective in understanding 1 Timothy 2:11-15, we can lean back and consider how other writers from the first century used Paul’s word in verse 12, authentein. The answer is very helpful.
First-century writers nearly always used authentein for “authority” that was domineering, misappropriated or usurped. It can also mean to behave in violent ways or to kill. That is why the Vulgate, the Geneva Bible, the King James and others versions of Scripture translate the word as “domineering,” or “usurping authority.”
To discern moral teachings that have universal application, however, today’s readers must move beyond the “clearest reading” of this passage to uncover the situation of first-century Ephesus.
It is helpful to learn that Ephesus was a city known for its worship of the fertility goddess Artemis, who promised women safety in childbearing. Unlike most goddesses, Artemis did not have a male partner. This background helps explain why women who were affiliated with Artemis might expect and even usurp authority to promote myths and genealogies that are contrary to Scripture. Paul opposed theses efforts by using the unusual Greek word authentein.
Studying the situation at Ephesus further, we observe that Priscilla and Aquila built a church in their home in Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:19), just as women such as Lydia, Chloe, Nympha and Apphia also built churches in their homes.
Significantly, Priscilla is mentioned ahead of her husband in teaching one of the most gifted speakers mentioned in the New Testament — Apollos. They brought Apollos to their home — a house church where Priscilla and Aquila explained “the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26).
In short, Priscilla instructed a powerful speaker in the very place – Ephesus — where Paul asked women not to usurp authority over men. Clearly, the type of leadership Priscilla exercised was one that is godly and not domineering. Importantly, she did not promote myths and genealogies but explained the way of God more adequately. The universal principle of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is not to exclude women (like Priscilla) from teaching, but rather to exclude false teachers who usurp authority.
Giving Scripture its fullest authority in our lives means resisting the “clearest reading of the text” if doing so places Scripture at odds with itself, such as when reading 1 Timothy 2:11-15 at face value.
Hugging the rock and clinging to a plain reading of the passage may feel safe, but it places Paul in conflict with himself. It is the surest path not to the top of the mountain of biblical clarity, but to the bottom.