It was an educating experience for me as a leader. The passage has been a heated battleground for alternative interpretations over the last 30 years, so I was interested to discover how influenced my group members have been by these views, when our church’s preaching and practice has been uncompromisingly complementarian – women and men are equal, but have different roles.
Paul’s text says: ‘I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness – with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 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 – if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.’
We had a great time talking about how men should pray, not fight. We had a good discussion about the particular issues the women in the group faced on the clothing v godliness issue. I spent a long time on these two questions, secretly hoping that the discussion over verses 11–15 would be squeezed a little shorter.
We had 20 minutes of slightly confusing discussion, which raised more questions than it was able to answer, but my issue as a leader was: how do I land the study in an encouraging and substantial place, rather than leave group members going home with their heads reeling in confusion.
Three big points occurred to me
• Look to God for peace. It feels ironic that a passage that has been the cause of such controversy and heated argument starts with a command for men to pray, not fight! When we gather, we should be lifting our hands to the Father in praise and pleading for his work to grow in our lives. Not lifting our hands to ball our fists for an angry fight.
• We are all disciples. In the middle of the arguments, we have lost the radical encouragement that Paul gives: Let a woman learn... In the ancient Greek world, women's education was not encouraged outside the home. Paul is saying that we are all disciples – learners of Jesus Christ. Our Father wants us all be learning and growing – even if the routes to that end may differ slightly.
• We must all grow in holiness. Yes, verse 15 is problematic. Who is the ‘she’ in the first half of the verse, and who are the ‘they’ in the second half? What does it mean by ‘childbearing’? There are at least four different ways of making sense of this – all of which have some significant problems attached to them. But what is not in dispute is what the Lord is calling all of us to: faith, love, holiness and self control.
We’ve got to sweat the hard stuff in our groups and wrestle with passages of Scripture that we all find difficult or confusing. But it’s never good to leave people only with the problems to argue over. The difficulties in a passage can often obscure the underlying truth so that we fail to see the positives.
Leave them with a vision
So, as a small group leader, you have one clear aim when you approach any passage over which there is controversy: make sure you leave them with a vision of how great and wonderful our God is, and a challenge to grow.
Tim Thornborough is the Creative Director at the Good Book Company.