Interpreting the Bible can be a tricky proposition. But don’t take my word for it. Take God’s word for it. Reflecting on his contemporary Paul’s theological writings, the apostle Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:15-16:
Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
There it is: “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand.”
And God’s people said, AMEN. Of course, we’re not certain which Pauline teachings Peter had in mind, but it seems like there’s a good chance he was talking about passages like 1 Timothy 2:8-15.
You know that text. It’s the one that has been used for centuries to silence women in God’s church. And it’s been used in these ways in large part because generations of interpreters have tried to understand the passage literally. And since verse 12 suggests that women be silent and not take authority, they obviously should not be leaders and pastors. But here’s the problem.
No one interprets 1 Timothy 2:8-15 literally.
As a thought experiment, let’s imagine a faith community that lived by the plain and literal meaning of 1 Timothy 2: 8-15. If you were visiting such a community, you would experience at least these four things.
1. Men praying with arms raised.
First, guys, you and I should never skip arm day at the gym. Because in a literal 1 Timothy 2:8-15 community, men would be praying with their arms raised. All the time. Everywhere. Verse 8 explicitly calls for this: “Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.”
2. Women, get ready to be vetted.
In a church that literally subscribes to 1 Timothy 2, instead of greeters we’d have the fashion police. In a community like this there would be a strict dress code for women. It’s right there in verse 9-10: “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, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” Imagine the work of making sure that everyone was in compliance each Sunday. Nice outfits? Leave them at home. Fancy haircuts? Don’t risk it. Earrings? Nope. Wedding rings? Get out.
3. Properly-dressed women would need to be quiet.
Verse 11 calls for learning in “quietness and full submission,” and verse 12 prohibits women from teaching. In a church that functions according to the literal meaning of 1 Timothy 2:8-15, the teaching and learning process would purely be the domain of men. Full stop. So, women, no asking questions, no proposing alternate theories, no correcting false teaching, no exhortation, no praying, no leading worship, no teaching the kids, no teaching other women, no anything.
4. There would be a ton of teaching on marriage.
In a community that literally embraces 1 Timothy 2: 8-15 there would be pressure to get married and have children. Arranged marriages might even mark a community like this one. This is because verse 15 notes that “women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety.” What would a community like this do with unmarried women? What would a community like this do with married women who didn’t want or couldn’t have children?
Let’s be honest. Everyone likes to talk about the interpretive complexities of verse 12, and rightly so. But verse 12 isn’t the most difficult verse in this passage, considering a literal understanding of the text. That honor belongs to verse 15. If you are constructing a theology of salvation, you would certainly want to avoid the plain and literal meaning of verse 15.
What’s the point here?
Very few scholars, even most ardent and earnest complementarians, interpret 1 Timothy 2:8-15 literally. Those who do are in the minority. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. A church marked by these four things is surely a church you’d want to avoid!
We all make interpretive choices. Even those who would interpret verse 12 literally choose not to do the same with verse 8 or verse 15. As Scot McKnight says, “Every one of us adopts the Bible and (at the same time) adapts the Bible to our culture. Everyone picks and chooses.” (Blue Parakeet, pg. 13)
So let’s rid ourselves of the notion that 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is clear because “it means what it says.” Almost no one interprets the passage literally; we all pick and choose. Instead, let’s be like Peter and acknowledge that a text like this one is difficult to understand. And then let’s have robust conversations about how we’ll interpret the passage.
More on the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2: