As I read 2 Timothy 3, verse 6 caught my attention. Paul says, “For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions…” What does Paul mean by “weak women”?
“Weak women”, as translated from the Greek text, is the diminutive form of “women,” similar to “duckling” as the diminutive form of “duck.” It is a common understanding that women in this time period (and indeed at many points throughout history and in various cultures) were considered only slightly more capable than children. The Greek text has also been translated by scholars as “silly women,” or even “idle women,” meaning those who avoid the weight of responsibility by refusing to take one’s duties seriously. This idea seems to be supported by Paul in his first letter to Timothy. In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul gives instructions concerning widows, and he points out two sorts of widows from his observations. There were those who were lifelong workers and engaged in good deeds; and there were those who, without work, had learned to be idle. The trivial way some women treated the gospel and its implications for their lives could be considered silly, idle, or weak.
In spite of their low social status, women could still attain a position of influence, especially if they were wealthy. In the book of Acts, we see references to the influence of “leading women,” both those who heeded the gospel, such as Lydia in Acts 16:14, and those who did not, such as those in Acts 13:50. The influence women had for or against the gospel was not trivial.
If women were wealthy, married or widowed, historical accounts (such as those recorded by Paul Veyne in A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium), tell us that men seeking to build reputations and fortunes would seek their patronage. The men Paul warns Timothy about sought to capitalize on the spiritual struggles and various weaknesses that “weighed them down.” For example, supporting a successful male teacher in the Roman world would give an already prominent woman even greater status, which could be appealing to a woman who struggled with pride or feared for her well-being. Paul is clear that these men were crafty and their motives not easily recognized.
If they were younger widows without wealth, society in that day would have expected them to gain security by seeking men of means to provide for them, either through marriage or by becoming a concubine, which was socially acceptable. Out of love for them, Paul would not have them marry pagans or false teachers. He desired that they trust God to provide what they needed, either through the church or through marriage to a believing spouse (see 1 Timothy 5:14).
For much of history, there have been low expectations of women. However, it is important to note that the diminutive form of the word “women” here is not being used as a stereotypical description of all women. Paul addresses particular women here, not women in general. These particular women did not understand the gravity of what was at stake. They did not realize that they were being taken advantage of by men who were “lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant…lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” Even worse, these women might have been seeking to take advantage of others instead of trusting the gospel and remaining faithful. These women could end up promoting false teachers, either through ignorance or deception, which was a significant danger for those in the church.
So how does Paul’s warning relate to us today? Though there are many examples today of the situation described by Paul, I think the publishing industry in particular provides a clear one. Like the men Paul describes, the publishing industry at large is pursuing patrons, not promoting truth. In a fallen world where we can be driven to desperately seek answers to improve our lives, to be more successful, to do the “right” thing, or to appease guilty consciences, it is easy to be led astray by the false promises that thousands of books provide. Even what might be considered “christian” often simply disguises “self-help” behind a thin veneer of Jesus. There might be wisdom to glean from these books, but indiscriminate acceptance would be unwise. We can’t be immature or idle about what we read. (As an aside, I am grateful for Exodus Women Read and those who lead it, who choose books wisely, and encourage discussion about their content. If you are looking for something to read, ask them!)
While not everyone is called to be a seminary-trained theologian, I do think we are all called to understand the seriousness of what’s at stake when we allow false teaching to obscure the gospel and its implications for our lives. In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul exhorted Timothy to entrust the word of the gospel to faithful “anthropoi,” a word which includes men and women. They were to be like Timothy’s mother and grandmother, who were the opposite of “silly women.” Lois and Eunice took the word of God seriously. They handled it wisely, remained faithful to the truth of the gospel, and were able to guide and guard others by teaching them. They held fast to God and his word and were not swayed by the promises of false teachers. They taught Timothy well, and the church through the ages has benefited from their faithfulness.
I love that Paul does not release women from theological responsibility by belittling their competence according to the judgments of the general culture of his day. Rather, Paul says, “Women! Be strong! Be wise! Be mature! Be engaged, not idle, despite what society expects from you. Do not be deceived. You are not, by your new nature in Christ, silly, idle, or weak.”
And for the men out there, I think this wonderful call is for you, too!