When it comes to working out life in the early church we know more about some churches than others. When it comes to working out gender roles in the church, some churches are more important than others.

Which leads us to Ephesus, because in Ephesus those questions overlap. We have much more information about Ephesus than many other early churches – certainly more than Antioch, the churches in Galatia, Colossae or the churches in Crete or Cyprus for example. Few rival it either in terms of the extant archaeological site or the amount of information available in the New Testament.

Most of the events from Acts 18-20 are set in or around Ephesus, Paul wrote a letter to the church at Ephesus and Paul wrote two letters to Timothy who was in Ephesus and the first of the seven letters of Revelation was to the church in Ephesus.

In addition Ephesus was one of the largest cities of the Greek and Roman empire and the ruins are some of the most extensive in the Mediterranean and there’s a lot that has been learnt about the city and it’s life. This is a significant amount of information which makes Ephesus important.

It just so happens that Ephesians and the letters to Timothy also contain the most hotly debated verses in the debate about the role of women in the church, namely Eph 5:21-33 and 1 Tim 2:8-15.

The broad position is that egalitarians (those who think all roles and offices in the church are open to both men and women) think that the commands in Ephesians and Timothy are contextual and only applied to Ephesus and curiously that no comparable situation could arise today that would require the same apostolic solution. So, for example, Rachel Held Evans says,

“Can we really compare women who have devoted their lives to studying scripture, many with seminary degrees and years of experience, to the promiscuous, first-century Roman widows mooching off the church and spreading idle tales from door to door?”

Or David Capener says,

“Carve the Greek up any which way you want, you still need to read this in the context of Ephesus.  Widows moving from house to house, spreading false teaching, the female priestly cult of Artemis — what might Paul say into this context to bring some clarity and order? What makes this a universal statement for all churches in all times?”

Complementarians, unsurprisingly, take a different view especially as all the New Testament has a context and we take plenty of it as applicable for today. No one is saying we shouldn’t follow the first half of Eph 5:18 or 1 Tim 6:9 because well that was Ephesus and we’re all better than that now.

As Kathy Keller, rightly, says in her e-book,  Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles:

“First, everything that Paul (or any other biblical author) wrote was to a specific group of people with a specific situation in view. Nothing in Scripture is addressed to “the church throughout the centuries, in whatever time, place, or cultural situation you find yourself.” In compiling the canon, it was a presupposition that God’s truth was applicable to the church throughout history because God himself is immutable, omniscient, and omnipotent— thus capable of revealing himself at the proper time and through the agents he had prepared to carry his words.”

So what do we know about Ephesus?

Where is Ephesus anyway?

It’s in modern day Turkey, around 1000km north of Jerusalem.

Was it an important city?

It certainly was. Around the time of the Apostle Paul, Rome had made it a provincial capital and it hosted around 250,000 residents. Few cities could rival it for size, wealth and power. Its temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Who was Artemis?

Artemis was the Greek goddess of hunting and interestingly childbirth (see 1 Tim 2:15) and the people of Ephesus took her as their own and so in the whole pantheon of gods for the people of Ephesus, Artemis was the most important and significant. RE Oster said, “There was no other city in the Empire whose ‘body, soul and spirit’ could so belong to a particular deity as did Ephesus to her patron goddess Artemis.”

That makes the conflict in Acts 19 a massive upheaval in Ephesian society, culture and even economy.

So what happened in Ephesus?

Plenty. It was in Ephesus that Apollos was discipled and trained (Acts 18:24-27). It was in Ephesus that the sick were healed by Paul’s old handkerchiefs and aprons (Acts 19:12). It was in Ephesus that the seven sons of Sceva lost a punch up with a demon possessed man (Acts 19:13-17). It was in Ephesus that a massive pile of magic books were burnt (Acts 19:19). It was in Ephesus that Demetrius started a massive uproar as thousands protested at the declining influence of Artemis and decline in trade of silver idols because of the growth of the church.

What do we know about the church in Ephesus?

A lot so these are just highlights. They had issues with false apostles (Rev 2:2) and at some point began to lose their first love of Christ (Rev 2:4; 1 Tim 1:5). They had regular struggles against false doctrines (1 Tim 1:3, 1 Tim 4:1, 1 Tim 4:7, 1 Tim 6:3-5, 1 Tim 6:20-21, 2 Tim 2:16,23, ). They also (like all churches) had a number of pastoral issues to face and one of which was young widows with not enough to do who had been particularly prone to false teaching (1 Tim 5:13, 2 Tim 3:6-7).

So…?

According to the egalitarian camp, Paul’s instruction in 1 Tim 2:12 is a straightforward response to the problems in Ephesus and only for Ephesus. They see no reason to extend the ban on women either teaching or in positions of authority in either time or space. It was for just then and just there. Held Evans quotes Scot McKnight,

“His concern is with some untrained, morally loose, young widows, who, because they are theologically unformed, are teaching unorthodox ideas.”

But…?

Well, there are a few problems with this thesis because although it seems reasonable that the false teaching was spread by the women it almost certainly didn’t start with women. It started with some men and we have some likely suspects too.

Who were they?

Contenders include Hymaneus (1 Tim 1:20 & 2 Tim 2:17), Alexander (1 Tim 1:20) and Philetus (2 Tim 2:17).

What did they teach?

Hymaneus & Philetus taught that the resurrection was purely a past event and there would be no future resurrection (2 Tim 2:17-20) but there were other false teachers and apostles who had an unhealthy interest in myths, genealogies and poor understanding of the law (1 Tim 1:4).

And…?

Well it seems somewhat strange if the problem was male false teachers and apostles (which they were) that Paul’s situational response was to ban women from being teachers. If it was only women who were causing the problem in Ephesus then the response makes much more sense, but what seems to be happening is that the women were led astray by men who took advantage of them.  It’s a situation Paul was obviously aware of when he talked with the Ephesian elders in (Acts 20:28-31) in Miletus.

So Paul’s response to false teachers who were ungodly men is to appoint godly men as elders whose characters were known to the congregation and could be trusted and that same response would also deal with the problem of the gossipy, loose young women of Ephesus who were learning the ways of Christ.

So was it a response just for Ephesus?

That seems unlikely for a number of reasons. Setting aside the much disputed meaning of Paul’s reference to Adam & Eve in 1 Tim 2:13-14, a case can be built from what we know of Paul’s practices. He gives the same instructions on elders to Titus in Crete as he does Timothy in Ephesus. In his teaching to the church in Corinth, Paul seems aware that a consistent approach is needed. He travels and he knows that false doctrine also travels so to protect the churches he advocates a consistent approach to ethics and church government (see 1 Cor 16:1, 1 Cor 14:33, 1 Cor 11:16) across the churches he has responsibility for. It seems unlikely then that Paul approached Ephesus in a manner inconsistent with his practices in other places that would cause confusion but as he says in 1 Tim 3:14-15 teach something that would be repeated and replicated.

And the relevance for today is…?

Personally I’m not convinced the human condition has changed all that much. Gossip, idleness and sexual immorality remain issues within churches. Men still teach false doctrines and the uninformed (of either gender) are still taken in by it. Simply because we don’t have temple cults that worship Artemis doesn’t mean the problem has gone away – it’s just taken new forms. So if the problem hasn’t changed, I’m not entirely sure why moving away from the apostolic solution will prove to be a wiser course.

All of that means I’m not yet persuaded that Ephesus is such a special case that it’s teaching on gender roles has no relevance to today, in fact the opposite is true, I’m more persuaded that it’s as relevant as ever.