“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:12 NIV).
This verse continues to be an obstacle preventing churches from moving toward a more robust theology of women.
In “Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb” I addressed how context, translation, and interpretation suggest that Paul’s primary concern here was addressing false teaching rather than making a broader statement about restricting women’s roles.
Today I want to go in a different direction.
I often hear from people that when this verse comes up in discussions what usually happens is that a few salvos are tossed back and forth (along with a few pointed comments about one’s view of scripture), and then the conversation stalls.
One reason this happens is that people haven’t taken enough time to study and think through their views. But I also suspect that we need to figure out how to have this discussion in a more constructive way.
With that in mind, I humbly offer ten talking points to help generate more thoughtful conversation.
1. What do you think was going on in the church at Ephesus that prompted Paul to write such strong words about women? Could this have had something to do with this restriction?
[This purpose of this letter was for Paul to address the problem of false teaching in Ephesus, which was being spread by women in the congregation. Craig Keener writes more on this in his excellent book Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul.]
2. How do you reconcile 1 Timothy 2:12 with other passages where Paul encourages women to speak in church?
[The admonition to be quiet contradicts I Corinthians 11:2-6 where Paul instructs women about praying and prophesying in corporate worship. In Colossians 3:16 Paul writes “let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” So it seems that he did not expect women to be quiet in the church at all times.]
3. Do you think the women Paul worked with and commended in Romans 16 were required to be quiet in church and had no authority?
[We know from the rest of the New Testament that Priscilla instructed Apollos, Phoebe was a deacon and Paul’s emissary to Rome, and Lydia oversaw the church at Philippi. Junia is called an apostle and was imprisoned for her witness. It seems unlikely that these things could have been accomplished while being quiet in church or without any church authority.]
4. The word Paul used here for authority is different than the terms he uses in the rest of his writing, and it is only found once in the entire bible. Could it be possible he wasn’t talking about typical church leadership, but something else?
[One problematic issue is the rendering of the verb “authentein” as authority. This Greek verb is found only once in scripture and rarely in extrabiblical texts, where it is usually associated with aggression. It is translated as “domineer” in the Latin Vulgate and New English Bible and as “usurp authority” in the Geneva and King James Bibles. More on authentein here.]
5. What do you think Paul really meant when he said women must be silent or quiet? If we take this literally, then shouldn’t women refrain from speaking in church – at all?
[The word “hesuchia” was mistranslated as “silent” for many years in some English versions of the Bible. The more correct meaning is along the lines of “quietly” or “in quietness”. It is the same word used in 2 Thessalonians 3:12 when Paul instructs people to “settle down” and in 1 Timothy 2:2 when he tells the church to “live peaceful and quiet lives”. So it does not seem that Paul’s intention was that women would never speak at all.]
6. Some Greek scholars point out that the statement “I do not permit” could be interpreted as “I am not [currently] permitting”. Doesn’t this allow for the possibility that Paul’s words were not a permanent sanction?
[As Tim Peck noted in his comments on this related post: “The Greek verb epitrepeo (“permit”) is in the present tense and indicative mood. Tenses in Greek work differently than they do in English, as they demonstrate the ‘kind of action’ not just the time of the action. Thus some scholars see significance in the present tense (“I am not permitting”) as implying that Paul is giving a command that he does not see as timeless.”]
7. Paul gave the churches a lot of “rules” that we don’t follow today: it is not good to marry, men should not have long hair – women should, avoid the legal system, men should lift their hands when they pray, women should not wear gold, slaves obey your masters, and so on. Why should we follow this one and not the others?
[Both sides have a high view of scripture, yet both are selective in their applications. For example, Paul also said it is not good to marry, men should not have long hair – women should, avoid the legal system, men should lift their hands when they pray, women should not wear gold, slaves obey your masters, and so on. Rachel Held Evans notes that “this is not mere ‘picking and choosing.’ Our rationales for selectivity are often thoughtful and reasoned…We are all selective, so let’s stop accusing those who select differently than we do of usurping the authority of Scripture.” Our understanding of some of these “rules” has changed over time as biblical scholarship has improved. For example, most modern translations now present “Good not to marry” in 1 Cor 7:1 as a quote. Don Johnson* suggests that “a good way forward is to closely study the texts, see as best we can as to what they meant to the original audience and then see how it might apply to us today.” ]
8. I’ve noticed that most people who believe that verse 12 applies to women today don’t believe that about verse 15: “women are saved through childbearing”. If we’re going to take this scripture literally, shouldn’t we be consistent with the whole passage?
[See #7! Marg Mowczko has written an insightful reflection on verse 15 here.]
9. It’s interesting that Paul’s restrictions on women only show up in two of his letters. If Paul intended to establish some kind of permanent policy, don’t you think it would show up more in his writing?
[Paul’s restrictions on women only show up in his letters to the two churches known to be dealing with issues involving women (false teaching in Ephesus and disorderly worship in Corinthians. Bob Edwards explains more about the situation at Ephesus here. While scripture only needs to say something once for it to be a part of God’s revelation, we should be cautious in building doctrine on these “once said” things, especially when their meaning is highly contested.*]
10. What do you see in this passage that suggests that Paul meant this to be a permanent restriction on all women for all time?
[As explained in this post, our knowledge about early church governance is inferred from bits and pieces of information in Acts and the Epistles. And we know that women exercised leadership in the early church, including the roles of apostle, prophet, deacon, evangelist, and teacher. So we should not assume that Paul intended for his limitation on women to be continued indefinitely into the future. (More on women deacons and elders).]
This list is not exhaustive by any means.
There are other considerations and we need the Holy Spirit to enlighten our understanding. But I’m hopeful that these talking points can help us better explain why 1 Timothy 2:12 should not be used to defend gender hierarchy in the church.
If we really want people to reconsider their position on this “proof text bomb” let’s figure out how to have this discussion in a more meaningful way. Are you with me?
P.S. Thanks to reader Don Johnson for his insights into points #7 and #9 now added to the original post. I also appreciated his approach to teaching this passage: “The way I teach this verse is to show the translation options for each word, and then show how one can make choices that ends up with a very restrictive understanding and make other valid translation choices that results in no restrictions today other than everyone should learn, teachers should learn before they teach, and when learning, be in good order, not disruptive. In other words, the way one understands this verse says more about the interpreter than might be imagined, in that way it acts like a mirror.”
YOUR TURN: What are some talking points or strategies that have been helpful to you when difficult passages like this come up in conversation?