On Women Leaders in the Church: Timothy’s cultural context

artemis-greek-urnFor many of the Christians that believe women are not to be ordained, authoritatively teach in churches, nor hold formal church leadership offices, 1 Timothy 2:8-14 is the first (and oftentimes the only) Bible text they throw out as a conversation-ending, slam dunk against people they feel are “re-writing” the Bible for their own ends.

When last we left our on-going series on women in the church, we talked about the text and translation of this passage. We talked about its history of mistranslation and how the seemingly best and most consistent translation offers us a different picture than the traditional one. Today, we’re going to pull back from the text itself to look at the culture and context behind the letter.

my thesis

I’ll give my view up front, so you can leave it, take it, or read on for why I land there. This post is a long one.

Over a third of the verses in the book of 1 Timothy are occupied with false teaching. The ones propagating these teachings are not spoken of in any masculine terms or pronouns, and most of the offending individuals and groups directly named in both letters to Timothy are women.

When you outline the false teachings Paul talks about in 1 Timothy, they correlate exactly to the teachings of the female-led Artemis cult in Ephesus (where Timothy was), as well as early signs of Gnostic teaching (a fusion of these pagan beliefs with Christian ones).

It is my belief then, that these verses are Paul’s countering of specific heresies rampant in the Ephesian church, being taught by women who had been immersed in the pagan female goddess cults of that particular area and time.

Paul is trying to correct the women spreading these ideas, and to encourage Timothy to create an environment where everyone can learn proper doctrine and beliefs, so these heresies don’t continue. These verses are not trying to limit all women for all times from holding any authoritative positions in any churches.

the background & false teachings

Timothy was an elder at the church in Ephesus. The economic, religious, and social culture of the city was built almost entirely around several cults to female deities, the biggest of which being Artemis (pictured above) and the Egyptian goddess Diana. Women were the religious leaders in the city. The book of Acts talks about how ingrained this cult was to the fabric of Ephesians society.

The Artemis cult in particular was the primary religious force in Ephesus. Her Ephesian temple was one of the seven wonders of the world at the time. The entire authority structure of the cult was based around a story about how women, descended from mythical Amazons, enslaved the men around Ephesus and forced them to build the city for them. These female leaders would write up elaborate genealogies to try and connect themselves to these great heroes in the stories and so support their religious authority.

Further, Artemis was a fertility goddess, whose name means “protector”. It was believed that she was the deity that could be given credit for keeping women “safe” through childbirth.

In the Ephesian cults, women were seen as the source of life and light to men. They were believed to be mediators between Artemis and males, primarily through sexual rituals. It was thought that through these sexual rituals and the sexual gaze drawn by their lavish and risque cultic clothing, they could bestow upon men their own secret “divine knowledge” of Artemis.

an (educated) reconstruction

We see from that Acts account linked to above that Ephesian people were passionate about Artemis, and Paul’s preaching against this started riots in the city. The early converts in Ephesus (especially the women) would likely have lots of religious baggage as they entered into the new Christian faith. Many, as they faced family, societal, and psychological pressures would likely try and combine their new faith with the old. We know that it was this just this sort of thought process that led to the formation of Gnosticism in the early church.

Now, “Gnosticism” is less an actual religious faith with doctrines, practices, and such, and more of a nebulous word for a few philosophical assumptions that people carried with them into any number of religious communities. The reason why Christian Gnosticism was such a big deal was that the philosophical beliefs were seen as so antithetical to core Christian commitments, that you couldn’t neatly fit the two together without radically altering one or the other to the point of unrecognizability.

Nevertheless, people sure did try. We have some evidence of Gnostic-influenced beliefs forming out of a fusion of the Ephesian Artemis cult and Christianity. What were some of these uniquely “Christian flavored” Gnostic-Artemis beliefs?

  • First, as women were the source life to men, it was taught that Eve came first, and then she gave life to Adam. Gnostics called Eve “the illuminator”, believing she actually liberated the world by the eating the fruit and giving humanity the secret “knowledge” (Greek, gnosis) of life and death.
  • Also, as part of the Gnostic rejection of the material world, and in a certain twist on the Artemis beliefs, they taught that a unique salvation was offered to those women that rejected childbirth, opting instead for dedication to pursuing higher “divine knowledge”.
  • Lastly, we know that women comprised many of the leaders of Gnostic cults in the late-first, early-second, century. That’s why many Gnostic texts and beliefs exalt the superiority of women above men.

the text

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 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—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

Do you see any of those beliefs mentioned earlier?

Women should dress modestly for worship, unlike the worship they had grown up seeing. Paul’s description here of what the women should not wear, matches the images we have of Artemis worshipers.

Paul commands that women be taught “proper” doctrine. Traditional Jews and Greeks did not believe in the value of teaching women. The Artemis cult was not one of study and thought, but rather myth-telling and sex. And so, Paul was not only offering this empowering statement for women to learn, but was also trying to help ensure the Ephesian women were able to properly deconstruct their previous pagan beliefs without turning to attempts to merge the faiths.

We talked about that word “authority” in the last post, and that it was most often used to describe domineering sexual dominance. In my further research since then, I’ve found that some of the newest work by classicists into this word show that part of its connotation is to “claim to be the originator of”.

(I know this “authority” word stuff seems unnecessarily complicated, and that perhaps people are just trying to see what they want to see in this word. I promise, this is a very unique word in Greek, and doesn’t even appear anywhere else in the Bible. It really is that complicated.)

A big argument of conservatives is that Paul “roots his argument here in creation”. In other words, if Paul was just speaking to this context at this time, he wouldn’t appeal to Adam and Eve and the very structure of creation in his argumentation here.

I hope that in light of the false teaching I mentioned before, these words make more sense. Paul is countering both the specific feminist genealogy myth that Eve came first, and the general idea of female superiority over men because of it. He does this by pointing out that, not only was Adam made first, but Eve was deceived!–hardly superior, and hardly having brought “enlightenment” to all. (The further implication here is that she was deceived because she had not “learned” like Paul commands a few verses prior.)

Lastly, this weird statement about child-birth counters both the Artemis belief and the Gnostic one. To the Artemis followers, Paul says that God will keep women safe in childbirth, if they continue in faith and holiness–not Artemis. To the Gnostics, Paul says that women will be saved even through the physical and material process of child-birth, and not by repudiating it.

evidence beyond these verses

The rest of Timothy

Paul tells Timothy to stop the teaching of certain “ones” (not specifically “men”) who are “occupy[ing] themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training” (1:3-4); he warns against the tales of “old women” that are preoccupying the church (4:7); he has to remind the church that Jesus is the only mediator and liberator of humanity (2:5-6); in his list of requirements for elders in Chapter 3, Paul uses gender neutral language throughout (we’ll talk about the “husband of one wife” thing another time)–the “if any man” part and the “he”s used in some translations are not in the Greek.

Paul points out that God wants all people to come to a “knowledge” (gnosis) of the truth, not just a select few who think there is some “secret” knowledge that only they know (2:4); and, lastly, in Paul’s final benediction to Timothy, in summarizing all he’s written about, he writes: “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith.” (6:19-21).

The rest of the New Testament

We also have some relevant evidence elsewhere that give further credence for this picture I’m offering concerning these verses.

The female missionary, church planter, teacher, and leader Priscilla was a member of this church in Ephesus (Acts 18:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). This shows us the ease with which the Ephesian church accepted female leadership in their midst. It also should give us pause before we think Paul is, in these verses, dramatically limiting the roles of women in doing the very things we know this woman did.

In the letter to the church in Thyatira (a city near Ephesus and shared much of the same cultural influences), the author of Revelation talks about a woman he calls “Jezebel”. He says she is falsely prophesying and teaching Christians to “practice fornication and eat food sacrificed to idols”. First, one should notice a prominent female heretical teacher in the area of Ephesus. Second, one should notice that the writer said he had given her “time to repent”. Of what? Not teaching, prophesying, or even eating the food sacrificed to idols (Paul has cleared that elsewhere), but rather “just” the fornication.

In the letter of 2 Peter, a writing long believed to be written in the midst of heavy Gnostic heresy, in chapter 2, the writer summarizes many of the beliefs and actions of the false teachers. Not only do they mirror closely what we’ve talked about earlier, but many of the criticisms levied at these teachers involved the sort of sexuality and “enticement” practiced by the female Gnostic leaders we’ve already talked about.

in conclusion

We need to remember that Timothy is a not a general letter to a church, but a personal letter giving instruction to a specific pastor on how to handle the onslaught of false teaching that had broken out in his church at Ephesus. The church is in total chaos and false teaching is everywhere (1:3-7, 18-20; 4:1-8; 5:20-22; 6:3-10, 20-21); female widows were giving way to “idle talk” and speaking “nonsense” (5:13); the elders were in outright sin, such that they were to be rebuked in front of everyone (5:20); many had been falling away completely (5:15). Men became angry and were quarreling, even during worship (2:8); false teaching was creating a toxic atmosphere (6:4-5).

This dramatic and intense state of affairs should offer us caution before directly applying each and every word to our contemporary context. A lot was going on behind the scenes here, and wisdom would dictate sensitivity and caution before making these verses a primary foundation upon which we establish far-reaching limits on a huge part of the body of Christ, and how they might lead and love us well.


10 thoughts on “On Women Leaders in the Church: Timothy’s cultural context

  1. Excellent article, Paul. I appreciate the studying and thought behind all of this. I do have a question on the other side of the argument – more of a devil’s advocate question than a disagreement question: what about the Eastern Church? As far back as we can tell (or at least as much as i know), they have never had female elders/pastors/priests/bishops/etc. Given that I tend to lean heavily on church tradition as well as scripture, this seems to be a pragmatic counter-argument, in that, they are the oldest “communion”, yet have never practiced this. Could you theorize about why this is so?


  2. Paul, I think you’ve done a great job of stating your arguments here. I think you are spot on with the cultural background and I think that much of what you wrote here will be of great benefit to Christians who wish to know more about, not just this topic, but 1 Timothy in general and how we can connect with that part of Scripture today. Thanks for writing this.

    Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention a couple of things “from the other side.” First, I’m not sure that I would ready to pin all of the titles on Priscilla that you conferred upon her. She is always mentioned alongside her husband Aquila after all. Nor should we jump the gun and imply that, just because the Christians in Ephesus (including Apollos when he was there) enjoyed the teaching of Priscilla (in much the same way that men like us enjoy and benefit from the teaching of various gifted female teachers today), that there is not a kind of teaching role in the church that God has reserved for certain men. As far as we know, Paul is not, after all, writing these epistles to Priscilla (or any of the other prominent and gifted women who may have been there); he is writing these epistles to Timothy and telling HIM to correct the false teaching of the church.

    Finally, as I said in a previous comment, I think that we should make a clear distinction between the OCCASION for Paul’s words and the RATIONALE which he supplies for those words. And so, I think it is appropriate to say that the occasion for Paul’s words arises from the specific situation at Ephesus, but it is still true that the rationale for Paul’s words goes far beyond the situation at Ephesus. He can only correct the situation at Ephesus by appealing to truth that is universal and applicable to all people at all times in all places. He’s not creating a concoction specifically for them. He has an antidote for that illness that will work anywhere in the world whenever the church is infected by it. He’s simply applying that one antidote to Timothy’s situation.

    The conservatives, in my opinion, are right when they point out that Paul roots his rationale in creation and, as a result, his words in 1 Tim.4:12-15 are universally applicable, even while they are undeniably shaped by the specific context in Ephesus at that time.

    Again, Paul, thanks for taking the time to write this series of posts.


    • Thanks for the gracious and thoughtful reply here, Ray. Sorry to keep doing this, but my post for Monday is on creation-order stuff, so hopefully today addresses done of what you’re saying. Also, if you have something you’ve written before, or want to write up something larger and longer and more self-contained, I’d be happy to post it here as a post in and of itself. No point in your thoughtful comments being relegated to the bottom of the page, haha.


  3. Great article, Paul. Keep up the good work! I should get my Aunt to read this. She just became an Elder at my church. I look forward to your future posts. I’m especially interested to see what you do with creation-order issues, as well as with the husband/elder stuff. Have you read any of Catherine Clark Kroeger’s work? I think she would be tremendously helpful for your project here. Also, and perhaps a sidenote, I thought that it would be worth mentioning, to strengthen your argument, that “fornication” is a translation of the word “porneia” which is almost always used by Paul in connection with cult prostitution. I actually can’t think of an instance when he doesn’t use it in that sense. That has other implications, but I thought it might be helpful to you, so I made mention of it.


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