(Editor's note: Quotes from Mimi Haddad and their placement in the article “Scriptures used to support varied understandings of women’s role” by Word&Way Associate Editor Vicki Brown may have been misleading to some readers. Word&Way regrets that the quotes used might have given the impression that Scripture itself takes a back seat to interpretation. Here, Haddad provides a complete picture of the analogy she used.)
In my recent interview with the New Voice Media Group (which includes the Baptist Standard, the Religious Herald, Word&Way and Associated Baptist Press), I used rock climbing as an analogy for biblical interpretation not to suggest that we move beyond a high regard for Scripture as authoritative for faith and life. Rather, my purpose was to suggest that when climbing a steep rock or when reading a confusing passage in Scripture, the temptation is to hug the rock too closely — to rely upon the "clearest reading" of the English text. 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is a classic example. It is a very steep rock — it is a difficult text to interpret not only because Paul suggests that women are saved through childbearing (1 Timothy 2:15), but also because Paul uses a strange Greek word, found only once in the Bible — authentein (1 Timothy 2:12). We cannot build a universal application from a difficult text like 1 Timothy 2:11-12 by hugging the rock — by insisting upon the "clearest reading of the text." The text, 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. That despite the laws of gravity, the safest path upward is not to hug the rock but to lean away from it in order to 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 lean back and consider how other writers from the first century used 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 authentein as "domineering," or "usurping authority." Today's readers must also resist the "clearest reading" of this passage to uncover the situation of Ephesus whereby we discern the moral teachings that have universal application. 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, and this background helps explain why women affiliated with Artemis may expect and even usurp authority to promote myths and genealogies that are contrary to Scripture. Paul opposes their 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 bring Apollos to their home — a house church, where Priscilla and Aquila explain "the way of God more adequately" (Acts 18:26). In short, Priscilla instructed a powerful speaker in the very place — Ephesus — where Paul asks women not to usurp authority over men. Clearly, the type of leadership Priscilla exercises is one that is godly and not domineering. Importantly, she does not promote myths and genealogies but explains 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 to exclude false teachers who usurp authority.
To give Scripture its fullest authority in our lives means we resist the "clearest reading of the text" when doing so places Scripture at odds with itself, 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.