The letters written or often co-written by the apostle Paul are not abstract theology but contextual discipleship, addressing concrete issues in local congregations. They are correspondence, and they require careful interpretation, because we have lost the letters written to Paul and because the Greek in which they were written lacks the punctuation or structure we would use today to, say, indicate where we are citing part of a letter we were responding to.
Paul ministered alongside the church at Ephesus for two years, and when he moved on, appointed his disciple Timothy as an overseer of the church. This was not a unilateral position; what we might call leadership was exercised collaboratively at both a local and regional level. Timothy is one of the leaders in Ephesus, also in communication with Paul. The apostle John was also based in Ephesus, exercising a travelling ministry across Asia Minor from there, and Mary the mother of Jesus was the surrogate grandmother of his household. Mary was known in the church at Ephesus. Her story was known.
In correspondence we have between Paul and Timothy, the older man helps the younger man wrestle with discipleship questions. Paul addresses men behaving badly, disputing with angry argument; and women behaving inappropriately, competing against one another in dress codes lifted straight from the pagan temple. He then turns to deal with a married couple, where the wife is abusing the equal authority she has within their relationship to withhold sexual intimacy.
Paul reminds them that women, whose voice is given to teach, must also be willing to learn, and insists that a wife must not abuse authority against her husband.
Paul goes on to remind them that in the Genesis account, the woman is made to be the one who delivers her man from adversity, not fights against him; and that it was the asserting of an independence that resulted in Eve’s great loss; yet, Paul insists, this Ephesian woman will be spared the resulting increased pain in childbirth if as a couple they stand together united in faith, love and holiness, with propriety.
Or perhaps the reference to Adam and Eve is the woman’s reasoning for withholding sex—that her husband ought to accept the wife God has given him, and accept her fear of a consequence that men do not suffer—to which Paul counters, if you will work through this impasse together, God will deliver you from the pain you fear.
What is interesting is that Mary is known in the church in Ephesus. At a later date, and to address other theological questions that are abstract rather than pertaining to discipleship, the Church claimed for Mary a perpetual virginity. But had this been her life story, it would have given precedent for permanent sexual abstinence within marriage. The case of the couple in Ephesus would not have been a cause of controversy. Or, if it were, addressing it would have involved demonstrating why Mary was not a role-model in this regard, but an exceptional case. As it is, permanent sexual abstinence in marriage is strongly discouraged in the early church, but rises to a place of prominence later on, hand-in-hand with the growth of the idea of Marian perpetual virginity.
In short, beware addressing abstract theological ideas, and focus on discipleship, on the practical outworking of following Jesus as we live out our daily lives and work out our relationships.
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