Why 1 Timothy 2:8-15 Does Not Ban Women from Teaching & Having Authority in the Church

Patrick Franklin

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why-1-timothy-2-does-not-ban-womenFrom the mailbox: “Just wanted to say thank you for your article on 1 Timothy 2. It was a great reference for me as my 13 yr old daughter asked me about it when she read it during her devotions. I was not sure how to respond to her until I found your article.  Thank you!”  God Bless, Brian

As long as 1 Timothy 2 continues to be used to restrict women from fulfilling their call to discipleship we will continue sharing good scholarship on this passage. Today’s “long form” post is by seminary professor Patrick Franklin.

Perhaps the most frequently cited text used to restrict or prohibit women from ministry and leadership in the church is 1 Timothy 2:8-15.

Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. 

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”

A surface-level reading suggests that women in general ought to dress modestly, learn in quietness and full submission, and refrain from teaching and assuming authority over men. The “reason” given is that Adam was formed first, while Eve was formed second and was deceived . . . but (seeming jump in reasoning here) women will be saved through childbearing if they continue in faithfulness.

On the basis of this, it is easy to see why those who hold to a complementarian position believe that women should not be placed in positions of authority over men or participate in activities that assume such authority (e.g., teaching, leading). There are several problems and/or questions that arise immediately with such a reading. Briefly, some of these include:

Such a reading of 1 Timothy 2 does not account for the context of the passage.

Notice that the passage begins with the word ‘therefore.’ I remember hearing somewhere that when we see a ‘therefore’ we need to ask ourselves “what is it there for?” In other words, the context within which this instruction arises is given in what comes before. What comes before? Going back to 1:3-7 and 1:18-19, we see that Paul has given Timothy a command to root out false teachers that are causing problems in the church. We don’t know much about these false teachings, other than that they involved “myths and genealogies” likely imported from local pagan religions.

(See also 1 Timothy 2:12 in Context)

A reading that takes the text at face value without probing deeper theologically runs into problems in verses 14-15.

Paul here blames the woman for being deceived, whereas elsewhere he blames Adam without even mentioning Eve (Romans 5). This is not a contradiction, as both Adam and Eve were at fault, but it points to the contextual nature of Paul’s instructions and shows that he appeals to the creation texts somewhat pragmatically in order to guide his congregation pastorally. Another theological problem with a surface reading of the text is how to account for the comments about childbearing. Are not women saved by grace through faith, as Paul says all believers are in Eph. 2:8-10?

(See also The Creation and Salvation of Women)

There are logical problems with a surface level reading.

Paul tells women to learn in quietness and full submission in the worship service, thus refraining from teaching. Elsewhere he expects that women will prophecy during worship— yet prophecy is both vocal and includes a teaching component (see 1 Cor. 11:5; 14:1-18). How can a woman prophecy, and so edify others publicly, when she is also expected to remain quiet? This indicates that Paul’s instructions are not universal and absolute, but contextual and time-bound.

An additional logical problem is that Paul seems to blame Eve, who was deceived, more than Adam who was not deceived but evidently disobeyed with full knowledge of what he was doing. Why is it worse to be deceived than to disobey blatantly? Are mistaken teachers worse than corrupt ones? Again, something is going on here, beneath the surface of the text, that Paul is doing when he draws on the creation account in Genesis.

Finally, is Paul here suggesting that women in general are more naive, more easily deceived, than men? I hope not. That’s a testable hypothesis and one, it seems to me, that does not fit evidence and experience. (My guess is that women, in general, score at least as high if not higher in emotional intelligence than men). Women are not inherently more easily deceived.

(See also Women, Teaching, and Deception)

Truly, 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is a troubling and confusing text on a number of levels.

In saying this, I am by no means suggesting that this passage is less inspired or less authoritative for Christians than any other biblical text. I’m simply suggesting that understanding its meaning and significance takes some work. And, given the interpretive and exegetical issues involved, one must remain humble about one’s views about this text.

I’ll push a little further: one should probably not make this text the foundation of one’s theology of women in relation to ministry. Rather, it makes sense to interpret difficult texts, such as this one, in light of clearer texts, individual parts in light of clear patterns, developments, insights, and teachings that we observe from reading the entire Bible.

(See also Defusing the 1 Timothy 2 Bomb)

Here’s what I suggest is going on beneath the surface of 1 Timothy 2:8-15, and here I am drawing on the work of biblical scholars such as Ben Witherington III1, Cynthia Long Westfall2, and Craig S. Keener3.

1. Paul is not writing a general, universal treatise on women in the church.

Rather, he is giving particular, context-based instructions to the women in Ephesus (the location of Timothy’s church) in order to address a larger issue (or set of issues). That larger issue is his main concern and purpose for writing. The immediate context for Paul’s instructions involves two important details: (1) the presence of false teaching (and false teachers) in the church, leading to (2) problems arising in the church’s worship gathering leading to division and other harmful consequences.

As Keener notes “it is probably no coincidence that the one passage in the Bible prohibiting women teaching Scripture appears in the one set of letters where we explicitly know that false teachers were targeting and working through women.” Both men and women are contributing to the problem (see v. 8, where Paul instructs men to pray without anger or disputing), but there seems to be something especially problematic about the behavior of the women, given the space allotted to Paul’s instructions concerning them.

2. Paul says nothing in 1 Timothy 2 about women being subordinate to men in a general sense.

Witherington writes, “What vs. 11 speaks about is learning quietly and so being in submission to the teaching and what is being required of the listener” (emphasis added). The main problem is the false teaching, not the gender of the person doing the teaching. It is very likely that there were women in the Ephesian church who were voicing false teachings. They are being instructed to be quiet and listen to the authoritative teaching of the church and its gospel.

3. The women Paul is addressing are likely high-status Gentile women who have recently become Christians and members of the Ephesian church.

Notice that verses 9-10, concerning modest dress for women, assume that these women have the means to adorn themselves with “elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” Some of these high profile and wealthy women may have formerly been priestesses and/or prophetesses in their former pagan religion. At least some were educated and had skills in rhetoric. Given their background, they may have assumed that they should naturally take leadership and teaching roles within the church, without having first been adequately trained biblically/theologically, mentored/discipled, and spiritually formed through Christian worship and spiritual disciplines in the context of the Christian community.

We still encounter this kind of problem today, though it surfaces in different ways. A CEO of a large corporation becomes a Christian and assumes his business skills and experience are adequate to qualify him for leadership in the Church. A high school English teacher thinks that his evident teaching skills automatically qualify him for the ministry of preaching. The point is that entering into teaching and leadership ministries in the church requires prior preparation through biblical and theological instruction, mentoring/discipling, and immersion in Christian practices and community.

The women in Ephesus were being banned from teaching and leadership not because they were women, but because they were not ready, not adequately trained for the job. And given their status (used to being people of influence) and values (it is important to be rich and to appear affluent), it seems that they lacked both knowledge of the Christian faith and the humility and self-awareness to recognize their lack. Many of these high-status women probably had male slaves/servants who were now worshipping with them in the Christian church (see Westfall, p. 172). The kind of ‘authority’ they were used to exercising over them was no longer fitting in the context of Christian worship and community (again, Westfall).

(See also Why Women Need to Learn in Quietness and Submission)

4. Knowing something about the identity of these women helps us make sense of Paul’s application of the creation texts.

Witherington argues that the reference to Eve being ‘deceived’ makes sense in a context in which those without adequate training, and who were in fact deceived by non-Christian teachings, were asserting their authority to teach others. Paul alludes to the story of the Fall in Genesis 3, perhaps somewhat pragmatically, in order to press the point that when one who is deceived (as Eve was by the serpent) leads and teaches others, big problems result.

Witherington also points to the rabbinic tradition. Some early Jewish commentators noticed that God’s initial instructions not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are given first to Adam (and directly to him only), as Eve had not been created yet (see Gen. 2:16-17). The rabbis reasoned that Eve was vulnerable to deception by the serpent because Adam had not instructed her well enough concerning the ban. Gen. 3:2-3 might lend support to this theory, because it records Eve misquoting the original ban when speaking to the serpent.

So, in light of this, Witherington suggests that Paul’s point in citing the Fall story is that people who are not adequately trained and taught should not be put in a position to lead and teach others. The women in Ephesus whom Paul bans from teaching are not banned because they are women, but because they are deceived by false thinking due to their lack of Christian education and training.

(See also Who Are the Women in 1 Timothy 2:1-15?)

5. Paul does not say “I never permit” a woman to teach or have authority over a man.

Although many who hold to the complementarian position seem to read the passage this way, Paul simply says “I am not permitting.”

Here Witherington makes an argument based on the tense and force of the Greek verb translated ‘permit’: “As Philip Payne has shown, there is not a single instance of the use of this verb in Greek literature where this form means “I am permanently banning…This is a verb which implies a ban for a specific period of time until the problem is remedied or the proper conditions are met for women having learned enough to be able to teach. Paul could have said “I will never permit women to teach…” but he did not, and for a good reason.”

Thus, the Greek construction of the text suggests a temporary and contextual ban, not a permanent and universal one.

6. The word that Paul uses for ‘authority’ in 1 Timothy 2 is an unusual word.

In fact, it’s the only time the New Testament uses this particular word (authentein). When Scripture speaks of having or exercising authority, it characteristically uses other commonly used Greek words. Many translations of the passage have given a neutral sense to the term, for example they render it “have authority” or “assume authority.” However, recent research has shown, through thorough and detailed analysis of the term as it occurs in its various contexts in ancient literature, that it often carries a negative tone, judgement, or connotation (especially when one person is performing this action toward another).4

(Read More on”Authentein”)

In light of this, the first part of verse 12 should probably be translated loosely as follows: I do not (presently) permit a woman to teach or exercise her authority inappropriately over a man. Interestingly, the situation in Ephesus looks like an inverted manifestation of the curse in Genesis 3: “your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.”

In conclusion, this passage is not a general ban prohibiting women from teaching and having authority in the church.

Paul is writing a letter to a particular congregation, in a particular place (Ephesus), at a particular time (the ancient world), and for a particular set of reasons (to address false teachings and harmful, worldly power dynamics taking place in the church).

In our fallenness, we have a propensity to attempt to use and control one another. Cultural power dynamics often determine who the winner of that contest will be (often men, but in the case of ancient Ephesus, women). But Christians should be different. Both men and women are called to submit themselves to Christ and his gospel, and to one another in mutual service under Christ.

________

1 Ben Witherington III, Literal Renderings of Texts of Contention – 1 Tim. 2.8-15

2Cynthia Long Westfall, The Meaning of αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2.12Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 10 (2014): 138-73.

3 Craig S. Keener, Was Paul For or Against Women in Ministry?

4 Westfall writes, “On the basis of the patterns associated with the word in the register of church leadership and office in this sample of occurrences, this verb should not be used to exclude women from appointment or election to any aspect of church ministry or leadership, because that class of action is never in view in the occurrences of the word. The use of the gloss ‘to exercise authority’ in 1 Tim. 2.15 either misrepresents or overextends the meaning of αὐθεντέω beyond what has been found in the register of church leadership or in comparable grammatical constructions.

If this passage is, in fact, in the context of Christian worship, this prohibition could command a woman not to ‘abuse’ a man in some way in either speech or action in the course of a worship service. The prevention of abuse is far more likely than a general neutral prohibition of ‘having the authority’ of a master or ‘assuming authority’. It is likely that a woman, particularly a wealthy widow, would be present in an Ephesian house church with at least one male, who might be a slave if she was not accompanied by a husband or male family member.

Furthermore, the worship services were most likely held in the largest homes available, and women who owned such homes (such as Lydia) would be the masters of male slaves who would be under their direction in serving the agape meal—and this would even be the case with women in their husband’s homes, because men were not involved in the overseeing of this kind of domestic arrangement.” (“Meaning of αὐθεντέω,” p. 172).

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READ MORE ON 1 TIMOTHY 2

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“But What About 1 Timothy 2:12?” Ten Talking Points

1 Timothy 2: Paul’s Original Language, Timothy’s Original Context

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First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives

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9 Comments

  • I agree with Luke above. Why all the analysis? Adam and Eve? C’mon.

  • It seems to me that a lot of time is often spent in parsing out nuances in Scriptural writings … trying to find alternative renderings of words, or subtle nuances in grammatical structure, or precedents in other passages. And this is often done because we treat those Scriptures as if they were God’s own words. In fact, I often hear people say things like: “God tells us in his word that … “ And so we approach them as if they have to be the absolute truth and authority on a given matter.

    Why can’t we just treat these writings for what we know they are … *Paul’s* words on this subject. Paul is a 1st century Greek/Roman/Jewish male, and would think in that fashion. Coming from that world-view, Paul also had strong words to say about the length of hair (for both men and women). He believed in a third heaven (that part of the cosmos behind the “waters above” being held back by the solid firmament over the Earth), and that human souls resided deep in the depths of the earth. He founded a key tenet in his theology upon the existence of a first Adam, from/through whom death was first introduced to the world. He didn’t outrightly oppose slavery (he could have been much more direct in his letter to Philemon). These are all examples of him thinking like a 1st century Greek/Roman/Jew. Why can’t we just treat his writings as such?

  • Wow tnat was unusual. I just wroe an reeally
    long comment but after I clickked submit my comment didn’t show up.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Regardless, just wanted
    to say wonderful blog!

    • Lea – so sorry to hear that your thoughts evaporated into cyberspace! I know what that’s like – very frustrating!

      Anyway, thanks for your comment.

      Patrick

  • Thanks for your comment, July. Yes, it is sad. But there is hope for change.

    I think it’s also important to point out that the notion of equality between the sexes is not a self evident idea, obvious to all times and cultures universally. Patriarchy seems deeply embedded throughout history and cultures, with some exceptions of course. The amazing thing is that the Christian Scriptures recognize and name where patriarchy comes from (our fallen human nature, as depicted in Genesis 3) and portrays it as sinful.

    And patriarchy isn’t unique in this regard. The overall biblical portrayal is that humans tend to resist God’s redemptive work in all kinds of ways, yet God persists to change hearts and minds. Humans in general have continuously failed to recognize the equality and intrinsic dignity of ‘others’ – they have tended to recognize this primarily in their own tribe, culture, ethnicity, nation, or group, while minimizing or even denying it in others. The notion that we are one, common human family, all with intrinsic dignity (to which we attach human rights) – as a widespread idea – is a very recent one (though based on the ancient belief in Genesis 1 that all human beings are made in the image of God).

    So, yes, the fact that we are slow to recognize equality is sad. But it’s not new. And its not just Christians. My hope is in Jesus, who showed us in the flesh what God is like and how God values all people, even when that meant turning social conventions on their head (often to the great frustration of the powerful religious leaders of his day).

    • Patrick, this is very helpful context! I agree that this is an issue not just in the church, but across all arenas of life. It is deeply ingrained in our culture – full equality of all people is really countercultural, not “bowing to culture”, as some critics of egalitarianism claim. I am so thankful for men like you who continue to speak up against the grain 🙂

  • How sad that Christians need to dissect these verses to find out if women are equal under God to men. You can write books and blogs and reasons without end…but in the end too many men think so little of women that they will never, ever, choose to do the right thing and treat women as God does…for God is no respecter of persons.

    • Judy, you are right that many men will probably never change, but on the other hand, we know many men who have always believed that we are truly one in Christ. We also know many men who have changed and many more who are willing to reexamine their assumptions and the interpretations they’ve been taught. Every few weeks we hear about a church that is reexamining their restrictive position on women, and there are entire church planting movements that support women as new church pastors. Seminaries that support women’s ordination continue to have good enrollments and at The Junia Project we have been in conversation with several denominations and organizations committed to making structural changes so that women leaders are valued and encouraged. I hope that you can find a church or group in your area that will give you more hope on this issue!

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