Chapter 17 of Sarah Sumner’s book called “Men and Women in the Church” is titled “In the Name of 1 Timothy 2.” In this chapter, Sumner begins to present a small study in hermeneutics. Contrary to what is mostly believed about egalitarians, Sumner hasn’t written her book without some background in hermeneutics:
“I first learned the basics of hermeneutics at Baylor University. Everyone who majored in elementary education was required to take a course called ‘Teaching Reading.’ The objective of the class was for teachers to learn how to help children with their reading comprehension. I don’t remember much else about the class except the most important lesson we learned—to teach kids to read for meaning. READING ISN’T READING if the reader doesn’t listen for the MEANING…the task in reading Scripture is TO CATCH THE PROPER MEANING IN ORDER TO APPLY THE PROPER MEANING, to hear for the purpose of doing what God tells us to do” (Sumner, page 208).
With the italicized words above, Sumner makes a profound point regarding the process of hermeneutics: interpreting the passage in its context (including time) is what is first required before a person can interpret the passage in our modern time. You can’t place the passage in our modern time and THEN reread the meaning of what it would have meant, say, in the first century AD. To do so, as I’ve stated in other posts, is to OVERSTAND the text.
When it comes to studying the text, then, how are we to go about the task of interpretation?
“We do not see the Bible as a BOOK OF SECRET CODES that ought to be read mystically as an allegory. When the Bible describes a miracle, we believe a miracle happened…as partakers of the gospel, we are not suspicious of the text. On the contrary, we believe that it’s best to accept the plain and simple meaning of a given Bible passage IF A STRAIGHTFORWARD READING MAKES SENSE” (Sumner, 209).
To support her view, she quotes the great preacher and theologian John Wesley:
“It is a stated rule in interpreting, NEVER TO DEPART from the plain, literal sense, UNLESS IT IMPLIES AN ABSURDITY” (209).
After discussing the proper process of hermeneutics, she applies this to the passage at hand (1 Timothy 2):
“A prime example of a biblical text that cannot sensibly be taken at face value is 1 Timothy 2:8-15. Let’s examine it together.
‘But women shall be preserved[saved] through the bearing of children.’ A straightforward reading of this line of the Bible is clearly unacceptable to the born-again Christian mind. Evangelicals don’t believe that women’s souls are saved by motherhood. Moreover, it is counter to the gospel to insinuate that childless women are going to hell because they are childless. Therefore, theologically, this verse can’t mean what it sounds like it means. The Bible says that no one can be saved by anything other than grace. How is the average reader supposed to figure out that ‘saved through the bearing of children’ means ‘saved through the blood of Jesus Christ’?
Consider another line of this same passage. ‘But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.’ Here we face the same difficulty. There’s no way to interpret this verse at face value unless we’re ready to say that it is sinful for a man to learn about God from a woman. Of course most of us hold a more modified view. But that is the point. We hold a view that differs from a straightforward reading. We say, for example, this verse restricts women from teaching the Bible ‘with authority’ to men ‘publicly at the main church service in a pulpit on Sunday morning.’ In other words, WE ADD EXTRA PHRASES TO THE BIBLICAL TEXT in order to make sense of the verse” (Sumner, 210).
Sumner presents us with 1 Timothy 2 and shows the implications of interpreting this passage literally. In conversation about this passage, however, believers give away their need to “add extra phrases” to demonstrate what this text means. And why do we add extra phrases to what this verse means? Because it needs some clarification, because we need some interpretation for this verse. Reading it straight would make us think that salvation could come SOME OTHER WAY—which is totally inconsistent with what the Bible teaches about salvation (for example, Romans 10:9).
Sumner then centers in on two theologians, Wayne Grudem and John Piper, to demonstrate that, they too, don’t believe in a literal reading of the text. In response to Elisabeth Elliott, Grudem and Piper are supportive of her ministry:
“Openly they[Grudem and Piper] believe that the biblical injunction…does not constrain all women entirely. Rather, as they see it, it constrains most women to employ ‘impersonal’ and ‘indirect’ communication to men whenever the gospel is proclaimed.”
To see this quoted openly, read Grudem and Piper’s book on “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.” I have posted some on this book and will post further in the future.
Sumner uses the above reference of Grudem and Piper to strengthen her argument regarding how conservatives must “re”interpret the passage so as to accommodate the up-front absurdity of the plain, literal textual reading:
“Here again the driving point is that Piper and Grudem, like everybody else, nuance their reading of 1 Timothy 2. They respond to 1 Tim. 2:12 as if Paul had said, ‘I do not allow MOST WOMEN to teach men IN PERSON, but I do allow for EXCEPTIONS, and I DO ALLOW FOR WOMEN TO TEACH MEN THROUGH OTHER MEDIUMS such as books and radio because that mode of communication is more IMPERSONAL and INDIRECT” (Sumner, 211).
Notice that not all women are included in the injunction, but MOST women. If a woman operates through magazines, books, videos, and talk shows and radio time, she is somehow ADHERING to this verse; but if she’s in a pulpit teaching Scripture or preaching on Sunday morning, then she is IN VIOLATION of this verse.
I like Sumner’s re-creation of 1 Tim. 2:12 (according to Grudem and Piper) because that is what these two men believe. They honestly allow for exceptions, but then stick to generalities. Grudem does this in his book “Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth.” I stated it in a post earlier this week that Grudem writes about women “in general,” but still notes exceptions. He thinks that most women are relational and nurturing, although SOME women are not. Most women think with their emotions, but SOME women do not. It seems as if Grudem and Piper allow a few women to pursue what they love—as long as most women are left “in their place.” But God doesn’t make exceptions, He makes rules; and when a woman is gifted in teaching and preaching, it should be evident to everyone around her that an extraordinary call of God is on her life—and her giftedness should be exalted and encouraged.
While I am not a feminist, I do believe that everything serves a purpose. And Sarah Sumner is not a feminist, but she believes the same. I leave you with the following:
“Could it be that the global trends of feminism coincide with God’s plan to REFORM THE WAY THE CHURCH TREATS WOMEN? After all, there is biblical precedent for God to use pagans to make his name known and act on behalf of the oppressed. Cyrus, King of Persia, was chosen of the Lord in spite of his false beliefs (Isa. 45:4). God used Cyrus to bring Israel back from Babylon. Would it be so unlike God to use the waves of feminism to REFORM THE WAY THAT PEOPLE EXPERIENCE CHURCH?” (Sumner, 55).