An Analysis of and Response to Stott’s Understanding of 1 Timothy 2:9-15

1. Introduction.

John Stott

The question of how God has designed us, as gendered beings, is a prominent one within the mind of the modern Christian. [Note]  In light of its impact on our view of ourselves and God, [Note] a biblical understanding of gender issues is of utmost importance within the evangelical church today.

John Stott is one influential evangelical leader who has attempted to provide an answer to this question. This answer is expressed, in part, in his exegetical comments on 1 Timothy 2:9-15; and so it is these remarks which we shall consider. Yet, since his understanding of these verses is so largely determined by the concept ‘cultural transposition’, we will begin by considering how he defines this term.

2. What John Stott means by the phrase ‘cultural transposition’.

Stott (1996) asserts that “Scripture is an amalgam of … eternal truth which transcends culture and its transient cultural presentation. The former is universal and normative; the latter is local and changeable”. This is his basis for ‘cultural transposition’. As can be seen, it calls for that which transcends culture, in the Bible, to be held universally, while that which is transient to be transposed into contemporary culture. Adopting this hermeneutic, he suggests, will allow us to avoid the two opposite errors of, firstly, lifting up the cultural expression to the level of essential revelation (and thereby establishing both types as absolute) and, secondly, bringing down the essential revelation to the level of cultural expression (and thereby establishing both types as subjective). [Note]

2.1. Expression within 1 Timothy 2:9-15.

When it comes to 1 Timothy 2:9-15 John Stott suggests that we see two instances where ‘cultural transposition’ needs to be applied.

The first is found in verses 9-10. Here he tells us that we see the essential revelation being that “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control” (1 Timothy 2:9, ESV). Yet, Paul’s commands regarding their clothing, hairstyle and jewellery must be transposed into relevance for our culture.

The second instance is found in verses 11-15. He suggests that we see here two antitheses within the text; one being between submission and authority, the other between silence and teaching. He (Stott, 1996) then encourages us to see “the submission–authority antithesis as permanent and universal (because grounded in creation, see verse 13)” while seeing the “silence–teaching antithesis as a first-century cultural expression of it, which is therefore not necessarily applicable to every culture, but open to transposition in each” (Stott, 1996).

3. Evaluation of Stott’s interpretation and application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15.

3.1. Stott’s hermeneutical principles.

Since Stott’s approach is governed throughout by this specific hermeneutic (cultural transposition), one needs to begin by evaluating it. So the question needs to be posed, “Is cultural transposition the best interpretative approach for these verses?”

The initial concern of any reader will be that there is no inherent distinction between the cultural and normative within the text. Stott (1996) dismisses this view as being naïve. <span title="He does so by saying that since most of the New Testament is addressed to specific situations if we lose the distinction between what is local and what is universal we will have to interpret everything as being either only locally applicable or only universally applicable. In light of the wisdom literature of the Bible, this response is legitimate. God never claims to speak into a static world, or a world devoid of differing cultures and worldviews. Rather, he always speaks to the world in the state and place it is in. This results in God applying truths differently in different situations.”>[Note] Yet, in his response, he does not provide a way to distinguish between the cultural and the normative. This is a problem as, without this ability, one can easily stray into subjective decisions about what is universal and what is cultural. This is worth bearing in mind as we continue.

Notwithstanding the above, Stott’s argument for this approach to 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is strengthened by his finding of two other cases for cultural transposition in 1 Timothy 2:8-10. Stott argues that these cases should at least make us open to the possibility that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is a case for cultural transposition.

Yet, notice that at no point does Stott suggest a reason for why these three instances are necessarily bound together. Furthermore, at no point does he acknowledge that it is not necessarily the case that verses 11-15 take the same form as verses 8-10. Therefore, although one may see legitimacy to the method, one need not feel that they necessarily have to adopt it as the interpretative method for these verses. [Note]

3.2. The meaning of “I do not permit” (1 Timothy 2:12).

Stott clearly sees these words as an authoritative command by the apostle. He (Stott, 1996) links this use of ‘permit’ to that of the parallel passage in 1 Corinthians where “Paul identifies his permission as both the teaching of ‘the Law’ and ‘the Lord’s command’”. Thus Stott argues that this permission is more than Paul’s personal opinion, and so he is not willing to allow us to limit their application. [Note] Rather he suggests that we take seriously that Paul does “not permit” (1 Tim. 2:12, ESV) what follows.

Beyond this observation, Stott takes their meaning as self-evident and instead deals generally with verses 11-12. [Note] As a result, we cannot directly examine his understanding of their meaning, but will have to infer something of the shape of his understanding from what he says about the verses in their entirety. So what does Stott say regarding 1 Timothy 2:11-12?

Stott asserts that there are two antithetical instructions to women. He (Stott, 1996) expresses the double antithesis in this way, “[A] woman’s behaviour in public worship is to be characterised by quietness and/or silence, not teaching, and by submission, not authority”. Yet he does not hold these antithetical statements as being equally normative. Rather, for reasons given above, he sees the positive statement, “Let a woman learn” (1 Tim. 2:11, ASV), as being linked to a clause with universal reach; while seeing the negative statement, “I do not allow” (1 Tim. 2:12, NET), as being linked to a clause which is a cultural application of the previous universal imperative, and is therefore open to transposition. [Note]

In seems clear, therefore, that Stott sees these words as a command (as opposed to a concession), which carries apostolic authority (rather than personal opinion), and was applicable culturally (rather than universally). One must heartily agree with the first two statements, while the latter must be examined further.

3.3 The meaning of the words “teach” and “have authority” (1 Timothy 2:12).

Stott (1996) emphasises that we should begin our analysis of these verses “by affirming… that a woman’s ‘submission’ to male ‘authority’ is in God’s purpose normative”. He points us to 1 Corinthians 11:2ff for the strongest biblical justification for this view. [Note] In light of this he says that the call for women’s submission to men is what is universal here.

This leads him to conclude, because of ‘cultural transposition’, that being silent in church, as opposed to teaching, was the cultural application of this universal principle. As an explanation, Stott (1996) says that “silence is not an essential ingredient of submission…. Similarly, women teaching men does not necessarily symbolize taking authority over them”.

That raises the question of how authority is exercised in the local church, for that is where Paul’s commands are concentrated in 1 Timothy 2. This is a crucial question, which once decided will determine whether Stott’s position is valid, or needs to be reconsidered. In an attempt to provide an answer to a similar question, Moo (1991: 186) says, “[The] activity of teaching, precisely because it does come to God’s people with the authority of God and His Words, is authoritative”. [Note]

Stott, of course, does not feel it appropriate to speak of the authority of elders. To defend this view, he appeals to Jesus’ words in Mark 10, where Jesus compares the world, whose “officials exercise authority over them” (Mark 10:42), with the church, where “greatness would be measured by service” (Mark 10:43).

This, however, is an inadequate position. For if we extend our consideration to the beginning of Jesus’ statement in Mark 10:42 [Note] it becomes clear that Jesus is not comparing the existence of leadership within the two communities, but the manner in which that leadership is exercised. Therefore his (Stott, 1996) assertion that “there are now no authority figures in the church,… all Christian teachers are called to teach humbly under [the New Testament’s] authority” must be rejected.

Yet, we need to be clear that once this view of Stott’s is undermined, he can no longer use ‘cultural transposition’ as a means to understand this passage. The reason for this is that he can no longer hold to ‘having authority’ as being the eternal principle, and to ‘teaching’ as a cultural application. Instead he will have to lift ‘teaching’ into the category of eternal principle, which in turn will make both the ‘teaching’ and the ‘having authority’ universally applicable. While this does not suit Stott’s view, it seems that seeing both commands within this category is the most faithful approach to verse 12.

3.4. The reason for the references to Adam and Eve (1 Timothy 2:13-14).

Stott’s (1996) basic understanding here is that, “as the conjunction ‘for’ implies” these references to Adam and Eve provide a biblical basis for the male authority that Paul has presented in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Paul, Stott argues, presents this biblical basis as being firstly established by creation and then by the fall.

Firstly, Stott looks at verse 13 [Note] and sees primogeniture as the basis for Adam’s authority. He (Stott, 1996) suggests that “the priority of Adam’s creation is perfectly reasonable when seen in the light of … the legal rights and privileges accorded to the firstborn”. So male headship was established by the priority of Adam.

Secondly, Stott looks at verse 14 [Note] and sees Eve’s transgression in Genesis 3 as being a rebellion against an implicit authority structure. This, he argues, points to another basis for male headship. [Note]

This is a fairly standard treatment, which is supported by many other scholars (such as Moo, 1991: 190; and Carson, 2009). In light of this fact, and due to space restrictions, we shall unfortunately do no more than affirm the position Stott adopts. [Note]

3.5. The bearing of 1 Timothy 2:15 on 1 Timothy 2:12.

Stott understands 1 Timothy 2:15 to be referring to the birth of Christ. Therefore he opts for the NEB translation of this verse, which has the rendering, “[women] will be saved through the Birth of the Child”. Stott (1996) sees this link as being a development of the previous verses for since Paul has already recalled Genesis chapter 2 and 3, and so “a further reference to the coming redemption through the woman’s seed, recalling Genesis 3:15, would be most apt”. [Note]

While this view is not impossible, it is unlikely. Paul’s reference to ‘childbirth’, or ‘bearing of children’, does not naturally lead us to consider the birth of Jesus. [Note] Rather, it leads us to think in general terms of bearing children. Moo (1991: 192) defends this position by informing us that “The verbal form of this word… is used in 1 Timothy 5:14 … to denote bearing or raising children generally, and this is the meaning we would expect it to have in 2:15 also”. This seems to be correct.

It is more realistic to see this, alongside Philippians 2:12, as being a call for women to work out their own salvation. Grudem (2004:73-74) takes the reference to childbearing as a synecdoche for the specific tasks and roles which women are called to, by God, in totality. [Note] One who adopts this view would opt for a translation of them like the ESV, which says “[She] will be saved through childbearing”.

The reason for this understanding being more likely is that it seems to most naturally fit with Paul’s logic. Paul, in verses 11-15, is presenting an argument. In each clause he is developing it. So Paul begins by saying that in the local church he does not permit women to teach or have authority over men. He then moves to saying that this is because of the order instituted in creation, and seen rebelled against to bring the fall. Finally, he argues that, instead of trying to attain what is inappropriate, women should work out their salvation by trying to attain what they are called to by God. It is in this line of thinking that the remainder of verse 15 (ESV) makes the most sense: “if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control”.

4. Outline of suggested understanding of what 1 Timothy 2:9-15 means for the church today.

Assuming the above to be the logic of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and incorporating into that our understanding of 1 Timothy 2:9-10 discussed earlier, we may say generally that Paul is calling the local church to act in light of the ransom and the revelation they have received (1 Tim 2:6). Specifically this means, on the one hand, that women should dress modestly (1 Tim. 2:9-10) – and remove anything which stands in the way of doing that. On the other hand, however, it means that we should live in line with the way God has made us as gendered beings. In light of creation, and the fall, this will mean that men adopt the serious responsibility God has called them to (which is leading the local church, [Note]) and it will mean that woman adopt the serious responsibility of living in line with what God has called them to (which is childbearing. [Note])

Yet the principle behind verses 11-15 calls us to say that both genders need to live in line with how God has designed us. So if a either gender, in the local church, rebels against this call, then that gender needs to be called to repentance. [Note] Thus it is not only the women, in the church, who need to be called to the obedience of these scriptures; as if the men could keep living in rebellion. In fact, in South African churches, there is a great ignorance, among men, of what it means to lead; this passage calls for that to be corrected.

5. Conclusion.

Our examination of John Stott’s approach to these verses has shown us that ‘cultural transposition’ is not the most helpful interpretative method to adopt when seeking to understand 1 Timothy 2:9-15. While the method helped at certain points it ultimately failed because the silence-teaching antithesis, which Stott attempted to make cultural, resisted his efforts and was established as being a universal principle. We have therefore seen that Paul is developing a specific argument in these verses; namely that God designed each gender, at creation, to operate in a certain manner, within an ordered structure, and that structure must be expressed in the local church. Since the women were rebelling against this structure, he establishes that they must not seek what is inappropriate for them (to teach and have authority over men), but must instead seek what they are called to.

Bibliography

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  • STOTT, J.R.W. 1996. The message of 1 Timothy and Titus: the life of the local church. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press. Available: Logos.
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Kyle Groger
Sometimes I wonder about who God is and what the world is all about. Other times I attempt to get Christian African content distributed on the web.