Our Scripture reading for today is from 1st Timothy – often called one of the ‘pastoral letters’ in the New Testament, where Paul is giving his young friend advice about his ministry. This reading is usually divided into two separate sections, but I think it’s much more powerful and much clearer when it’s all together. That said, I’m going to give you fair warning: things are going to get a little awkward. It’s fine. We’ll work through it.

Before we dive in, I want you to have some background. Timothy, who’s receiving this letter, is currently in Ephesus dealing with a small crisis. There are what Paul calls ‘false teachers’ going around claiming to be teachers of Christ, but actually peddling some really weird and unhelpful stuff. They were, essentially, the ancient equivalent of cult leaders, and they were specifically targeting wealthy women, who would then be convinced to give them money to help “support their ministries.” This warning against false teachings and what to do about them takes up the entire first chapter of this letter, and it continues in what we’re about to hear.

There were also some tensions between the social classes in Ephesus – where some would flaunt their wealth, even sleeping with their massive pearl earrings in, while others struggled to make enough for food and shelter. This tension carried over to the church, which was supposed to treat all people equally, but struggled.

Timothy, who is young and new to ministry, seeks advice from his mentor, Paul – who was the one that planted the church in Ephesus to begin with. What we’re about to hear is part of the wisdom he receives.

Scripture: 1 Timothy 2

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For

there is one God;

   there is also one mediator between God and humankind,

Christ Jesus, himself human,

   who gave himself a ransom for all

—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; 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, 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. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

I have some thoughts about that second half, believe me. But first I want to address the first half of the chapter, focused on prayer and praying for one another.

Paul encourages every believer to pray – not just for themselves, but for one another and for the kings and leaders and all those who make decisions on their behalf. And he doesn’t just say ‘pray’, either. He uses four different words, each translated in various ways, to encourage Timothy and this church to pray prayers that ask something of God, to talk to God about everyday things, to give thanks and praise, and to pray in a way that can change them, too.

According to Paul here, praying for others is the way we can participate in God’s hopes and God’s care for the world. He frames our prayers as an extension of the ways Jesus has already intervened on our behalf, to reconnect us to the heart of God and help us turn from anger and arguments to peace.[1]

And we are not just encouraged to pray for those we know and love, who are like us, – but everyone. Paul uses the Greek word for ‘everyone’ three times in these seven verses, hammering home the idea that Jesus has one salvation for ev.er.y.one.

And to our modern ears, it all goes downhill from there. The last seven verses of this chapter have been used to keep women from leadership in the church for centuries, because when taken at face value, this passage seems to ban all women in all times and all places from preaching, wearing jewelry, coloring or braiding their hair…the list goes on and on.

But does it, really? Is that really what Paul meant?

I don’t think so.

That interpretation just doesn’t square with what we know to be true about Jesus – that he had female disciples like Mary Magdalene, that the women who found the empty tomb were the first ones to preach about his resurrection, and that he regularly held conversations and even theological debates with women. It also doesn’t square with what we know about the early church, or even about Paul and Timothy. Paul called women co-workers and apostles in many of his letters. Priscilla, Lydia, Dorcas, Junia, and innumerable other women were leading house churches and preaching and supporting missionaries. In a couple of weeks, we’ll hear about the ways Timothy himself was introduced to the faith by his mother and his grandmother.

All of that would be rather difficult to do in complete silence.

This is why it’s important to read scripture in its original context.

The issues that Timothy is having in Ephesus seem to revolve around a particular group of women who were not only flaunting their social standing in a church community that’s meant to transcend those class boundaries, but also disrupting worship with arguments and questions from those false teachers they were giving money to. This was neither helpful or healthy for the worshipping community.

So what some people interpret as a universal commandment for all women all the time, most of today’s scholars believe was meant only for a particular group of women in Ephesus.

Paul is setting a boundary here, saying that this particular group’s behavior is inappropriate for a growing community of Christians, and giving Timothy some sound advice about how to handle it: ask them to not disrupt worship, but have their arguments on their own time, and to consider the ways their actions are increasing division in the community rather than building relationships and furthering the message of God’s love for all people.

Note, too, that Paul does instruct these women to learn. He encourages them to ask questions, to be actively engaged with this new faith in a way that many women in the ancient world were not – or not allowed to be.

This passage closes with a reference to Adam and Eve, which some readers use to argue that women are naturally more easily deceived than men – and that’s why they shouldn’t be teachers or leaders, but rather need to rely on men to guide them in all things.

But this argument was not meant to institute some sort of additional hierarchy in the church. That’s kind of the whole point of the first half of this passage – that salvation is for all people through Christ, and the only one who can stand between a person and God is Jesus himself. It would be nonsensical for Paul to argue that more than half the population would need an additional mediator because of their gender.

Rather, this reference is more likely to be another jab at the ways those false teachers lied and manipulated people, who would then go on to spread their message of confusion and greed, which could easily lead to further sin and grief.

That Genesis reference isn’t done yet, though. This is where I get really frustrated with certain New Testament translations.

Because ancient languages are confusing and don’t always match up perfectly with our English grammar, translation always always always involves interpretation. That’s why, in every Bible study, I ask folks to bring their own favorite version – because sometimes, translations can be very different.

The New Revised Standard Version, which is what I read earlier, translates verse 15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”

Given the context, the ‘she’ in this passage is likely a reference to Eve. The word for ‘saved’ is the same one used in verse 4, where Paul says that God wants everyone to be saved.

But this is how the Common English Bible translates verse 15:

“But a wife will be brought safely through childbirth, if they both continue in faith, love, and holiness, together with self-control.”

(Side note: this translation uses the word ‘wife’ instead of ‘woman’ in verses 11-15, because ancient Greek only had one word for both ‘wife’ and ‘woman’ and it’s up to translators to figure out which one the writer meant to use.)

While the second translation is certainly less offensive than the idea that a woman can only be ‘saved’ if she has children, I’m still not sure that’s what Paul was going for.

Rather than add another condition for women to be fully included in the community of faith, though, I think this verse is a promise: that when we (we meaning humans of all genders, races, and social classes) live in community together and continue to grow in faith, love, holiness and self-control, then we are part of redeeming the whole world and countering the effects of that first sin. God’s promise to Eve was that one of her children would eventually crush sin and death – and that’s precisely what Jesus did. That is the ransom Jesus paid.

And now, our job is to get out of our own way so that we can live and love like Jesus. That means not constructing any more hoops to jump through, not adding any additional steps or requirements for salvation or restricting entire groups of people from leadership or service in the Church.

Despite what others may say, I truly believe this passage is an All Y’all promise and an All Y’all invitation to participate in the ways God is redeeming the world. Whether it’s church leadership, teaching, caring for the vulnerable, lifting others up in prayer, or simply being willing to listen and learn and grow – this promise is for you and for all those who will come after you:

You are a beloved child of God who is called to do wonderful and wondrous things, and nothing – no person or pastor or priest or label or category or anything else in all of creation – can stand between you and Jesus.

Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Kindle Location 3177). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.