This morning we come to a very difficult passage of Scripture. It’s one of the most difficult verses in all of Paul’s writings to understand. And understanding it is only half the problem. It’s also one of the most difficult writings to accept. It seems wildly out of date and possibly even offensive to the modern reader. If you bristled as you read this passage, you’re not alone.
Why would we look at this passage on Mother’s Day? Believe me, it’s not to offend anyone. It’s actually because I believe this passage provides a very needed encouragement to us today, and one that applies to everyone here.
This morning I want to look ask three questions of this passage. One: why should we look at passages we don’t like? Two: what does Paul mean? Three: what does this mean for us today?
One: Why should we look at passages we don’t like?
Before we look at this passage in particular, we probably need to deal with the elephant in the room. All of us – and I include me – have passages of Scripture that we love. But other passages, including these ones, are not to our liking as much. We still may affirm them as God’s Word, but we struggle with their meaning. If we’re honest, we can relate to what Mark Twain said: “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that I have the most trouble with. It’s the parts I do understand.”
We need to ask ourselves why we would even bother with a passage like this. Many people in fact dismiss it because it doesn’t fit with their understanding. They say that Paul was wrong our outdated or tied to his culture. But there are problems with this view.
Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3:16 of Paul’s writings:
He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Aren’t you glad that Peter says that Paul’s letters contain some things that are hard to understand? Every time you are wrestling with what Paul wrote, take comfort in the fact that even Peter had a hard time understanding them.
But Peter says two other things. One: that Paul’s writings are Scripture. This means that they although they are on one hand letters written by Paul, they are also more than that. They are God’s Word. Scriptures were written, Peter teaches, “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). We are not reading Paul’s thoughts as we read this passage. We are reading God’s Word, which means we can’t afford to ignore it.
This leads to the danger that Peter mentions: “…which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” One of the greatest dangers we face as we approach a passage like this one is to distort it so that it says what we want it to say. Once we start doing this, we put ourselves in the position of being able to pick and choose what we like and don’t like. What we’re doing is essentially elevating ourselves over the Word of God. Rather than listening to what God has to say to us, we put ourselves in the position of choosing what we’ll listen to, and what we’ll discard. Rather than sitting under God’s Word, we elevate ourselves above God’s Word. We also elevate ourselves above other cultures who have no problem accepting what the Bible says in this area, but who struggle with different areas. It’s actually a very arrogant assumption to make.
But there’s something else that happens. If you are in a close relationship with someone – a marriage or a close friendship – one of the marks of how genuine a relationship you have is whether or not you are willing to be contradicted by the other person. If I agree with Charlene only when she agrees with me, and then discard everything she says that contradicts my beliefs, then I don’t have a genuine relationship with her. It’s the same with our relationship with God. If you have a God who never contradicts you, then you don’t have a genuine relationship with God. If you have a God who always agrees with your opinions, you’ve made God in your own image. Tim Keller puts it this way:
Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination. So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.
So we shouldn’t avoid passages like this. We should actually welcome them as part of what it means to be in a real relationship with God. Passages like this are good for us, because they remind us that we are not in relationship with someone who always agrees with us. We are actually in submission to God who knows about, well, everything much better than we do, and who wants to be in relationship with us. That doesn’t mean that we won’t find it hard sometimes. But finding it hard shouldn’t make us shy away from wrestling with, and submitting to, the passages that trouble us.
With that in mind, let’s look at the passage before us and ask:
Two: What does Paul mean in this passage?
Entire books have been written on the passage of Scripture we have before us. I’m going to cheat and tell you what I think he’s saying without giving you all the complexities. Keep in mind that I’m giving you my interpretation. I think it’s a good one, but my interpretation has considerably less weight than the text itself. But let me tell you what I think Paul is saying here.
I believe what Paul is addressing is the eldership of the church in verse 12. The role of teaching and exercising authority is combined in the church under the position of elder. The issue I believe he’s addressing is in general who can serve as an elder within the church.
The problem he seems to be addressing is that some seemed to be teaching that gospel obliterates the differences between men and women. You can see why people believed this. They lived in a very patriarchal culture, and Paul came along and said:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
It’s clear that the gospel revolutionizes the relationships between men and women. After all, both were created in the image of God. Both men and women are equal in value. The gospel is revolutionary in its understanding of women, and its affirmation of their value and role. It elevates them in ways that would have been unthinkable when Paul read this letter.
But there’s a danger. It’s a danger they faced then, and it’s a danger we face today. The danger is to think that because men and women are equal, that they are the same. Anybody who thinks about this for a minute knows how ridiculous this is. Men and women are gloriously different. We’re obviously differently physically. But we’re also very different in the way we think. Our emotional wiring is different. A psychology professor from the University of California says that there are essentially two types of brains. The activity centers of the brains are very different, as well as the neurological pathways. I think we would all agree that men and women are equal, and yet at the same time they are wonderfully and gloriously different.
Paul says two things in verses 13 and 14. One: that the differences between men and women were hardwired at creation. Paul goes right back to creation to get this. He goes from the order of creation. It’s hard for us to understand this now, but birth order really did make a difference back then. It’s called primogeniture. The firstborn in a family was given a different role. Paul argues from the order of creation that men have a different role. He’s saying that men and women are equal, but that they have different roles that go right back to creation. They’re equal but different.
He also says that ignoring or subverting these roles causes all kinds of problems. He mentions the Fall. If you think he’s being hard in Eve here, you need to understand that Paul is even harder on Adam in Romans. Paul says that sin and death entered the world through one man. He’s not pegging all the blame on Eve. Both are responsible. The Fall reminds us that God created us to be different.
This is hard teaching. Paul knows it’s hard. Virtually everyone understands that Paul wrote verse 15 to cushion the impact of what he’s said. Let’s review what he’s said: men and women are equal but different, and disaster comes when we forget this. Men and women are vastly different, and men should serve as elders. Then verse 15:
But women will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
You may be thinking, “What? That’s supposed to cushion the blow?” It doesn’t seem much better. It seems like Paul is digging the hole even deeper!
Before the Fall, God told Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). This is God’s first command. God says in three different ways that we are to reproduce, to fill the earth. God wants humans, and lots of them. He’s created this world and wants us to fill it and, as someone put it, procreate so that we can co-create with Him.
In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve sinned, and the Fall took place, God could have written us off then. He could have said, “You know what, that’s enough. That command to have children? Forget about it. I don’t want any more.” But right there, right after we wrecked the world, God said to the serpent that the offspring of Eve was going to crush the serpent’s head.
And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.
And then there’s another note of hope. At the end of all of this, we read, “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.” Eve’s name literally means life-giver. God’s not done with us yet. Eve and generations of women ever since have brought life into the world. Every new life is a fulfillment of the command that God gave us, and a sign that he is not done with the human race yet.
By the time Paul is writing this letter, some are disparaging the role of mothers. Some of the false teachers in that congregation seemed to be disparaging sex. Some later Gnostics even taught that “marriage and the begetting of children are of Satan.” Just like today we face the pressure to downplay the role of mothers. Paul says: don’t you dare! Don’t ever minimize the fact that every child born is evidence that God is not done with us yet. Every child born is a continuation of the life that God gives. Every child is a continuation of the mandate that God gave us to co-create with him. Don’t ever let anyone put this down. It’s through this very giving of life that our Savior Jesus Christ came to this earth. And as women continue to do this, they continue to work out their salvation. Don’t let anyone ever put motherhood down.
This isn’t to say that every woman has to be a mother. He’s definitely saying that motherhood is to be esteemed.
Culture may obliterate many of the differences between men and women. But it can’t do one thing: make men give birth. But it can cause us to devalue labor and delivery. Paul says we must never do this. As John Stott puts it:
Even if certain roles are not open to women, and even if they are tempted to resent their position, they and we must never forget what we owe to a woman. If Mary had not given birth to the Christ-child, there would have been no salvation for anybody. No greater honor has ever been given to a woman than in the calling of Mary to be the mother of the Savior of the world.
That’s good, but I would also add that we owe a debt of gratitude for women who continue to bring new life in the world.
What does this mean for us today?
Let me tell you four things I think this means for us today.
One: we need to let the Bible speak to us even when it’s uncomfortable, and even when it says what we don’t want to hear. Some passages are hard. This is actually a good sign. It’s a sign that we are in relationship with God who, after all, does have the right to contradict us. So let’s not be afraid of passages like this.
Two: let’s celebrate the differences between men and women. Let’s never think that men and women are the same. We’re equal, but we’re very different. We need to work at this a lot, because there is so much pressure to resist being put in a box. Some boxes need to be broken, but we need to remember that God did make us different. As the French say, vive la difference!
Three: let’s value motherhood. We aren’t all mothers, and that’s okay. But all of us can hold motherhood in high esteem. This goes against the culture which tends to put other things first: career, advancement, vacations. One of the reasons I wanted to tackle this hard text is because I think it makes a very necessary point. Don’t ever let anyone put down motherhood. It’s great to do that on Mother’s Day, but it really needs to go much farther than that.
Finally: I love how even this leads us back to Jesus. Every child that’s born is a sign that God is not done with us yet. In fact, the very salvation of the world came through the birth of a child. Every baby that’s born is a sign that history is still unfolding, that God is still extending his grace, that he is still welcoming sinners to return to relationship with him through the grace that’s offered in Jesus Christ.