I have been thinking a lot about the women in 1 Timothy, specifically the ones referenced in 1 Timothy 2:11-14.
“Let a woman learn in silence with full submission,” the author writes. “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
What provoked these strong words from the author of 1 Timothy? What happened that transforms this epistle from general teaching to specifics?
To be certain, as a woman who was raised Southern Baptist, I was taught these words. These were the expectations of God for me because of my gender and, indeed, these were the gender norms I was born into because of Eve’s transgressions.
For 25 years, I bore the weight of these expectations and the repressions of these women and even of Eve for no reason other than the fact that I was female
I didn’t, however, hear a sermon preached about 1 Timothy 2:8: “I desire, then…”
No, these words from the author of 1 Timothy were not his own, I was told, but were from God because of the apostleship claimed in the previous verses and because all Scripture was God-breathed.
There was no question asked about why this would be the desire of the author nor any discussion about why this instruction was given so clearly in this text, but in Galatians 3:28-29, the claim is, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
I’ve wrestled with this passage because as I voiced a call to ministry as a Baptist woman, I knew I was going to encounter resistance. I knew my call to preach and pastor would result in difficult conversations.
What I didn’t know was that in being who I was created to be (not who other people told me I was created to be), I would be a theological crisis.
By answering a call to ministry, I tested a widely held understanding and interpretation of Scripture.
I have been condemned to hell and judgment too many times to count (and these are the nicer reactions), and it all comes back to these women addressed in 1 Timothy and the women addressed in 1 Corinthians 14.
Yet, epistles weren’t generally written to try to dictate theology, but rather were written for a specific occasion or purpose.
Once I learned this about the epistle genre, I couldn’t help but wonder what in the world was going on with these women?
Was there an intense mommy war going on about whether women can work outside of the home or whether they should stay home with their children? Was there an intense debate about whether it was better to breastfeed your own child or make use of a wet nurse?
Did one woman call another woman a bad name or, God forbid, say she had put on a little weight? Was it an outside conflict that had entered into the holy and sacred worship space?
Or was it something more specific, like what kind of wine should be served at communion or whether wine or grape juice should be used or maybe who was in charge of the altar flowers that week?
It better have been something very important – because the ramifications of the argument or disagreement in the stark reprimand that women should be silent in these two communities of faith have been felt for more than 2,000 years.
It’s hard to believe these women could have that much influence.
Then again, if I think about my own journey, it has been women, not men, who have delivered the harshest, most soul-crushing blows in my search to answer my call to preach and pastor.
It has been women who have told me how to dress (and not dress) in order to look more like a man in the pulpit. It has been women who have accused me of “just trying to make a name for myself.”
It has been women who have told me that I was wasting my time seeking a theological education when I should be out serving the Lord.
Not to mention the women who have told me that my heels were too high, my dress too short, my pants too tight, or that I needed a little more blush because I looked too pale.
Certainly, I have had wounds from men as well, especially religious male leaders, but these wounds haven’t been the hardest for me.
The wounds from the women, the ones whom I hoped would support and affirm me not just because we were women, but because they too have experienced the uphill battle for equality in our sociopolitical context.
Thanks be to God I have found love and support and encouragement in some women, but the soul wounds still aren’t healed.
Maybe the women to whom the author of 1 Timothy was writing and the women in Corinth didn’t know the precedent they were setting.
Maybe they didn’t have any way of understanding the vast impact they could have on women 2,000 years later, but we do.
We know the devastation that comes when we finally understand what is happening and voice our concern together only to have our united voice and concern rejected.
We know the powerful way that women can unite against another woman, even when it means supporting and affirming an abuser and a misogynist.
We know because we are living in the sociopolitical and theological aftermath.
We know our power. We know that we have the power to unite or to divide. We know we have the power to harm or to destruct.
We know we have the power, and yet again and again we use it against each other rather than to create something new and beautiful.
I’ve held anger for these women addressed in 1 Timothy and in Corinth, and, indeed, the women who delivered those soul-crushing blows to me as I pursued my call.
But if I’m honest with myself, I’m thankful for these women because they have helped me realize just how powerful my voice can be.
May my voice be one of reconciliation and healing.
Merianna Harrelson is pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in West Columbia, South Carolina, and editor-in-chief of Harrelson Press Publishing. A version of this article first appeared on her website and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @MeriannaNeely.
Pastor of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, South Carolina, and editor-in-chief of Harrelson Press Publishing.