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:
Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb
1 Timothy 2:12: Ten Talking Points
I am so glad to have found this blog. Until about a week ago, I didn’t know that there were others out there supporting women in Chrisianity the way you are. It’s so great to know that my beliefs and the relationship my husband and I have is not going against what the Bible says.
When I first started going to church, I thought I’d finally found one which matched my beliefs until I went to one of their teaching nights which addresses controversial subjects such as sex, marriage and gender roles. Unfortunately, it turned out they would not let women pastor to men, and they also believed that women who chose not to, or were not able to, have children were going against their life’s purpose. It was extremely hurtful for me to hear since I am not able to bear children. Suffice it to say, I did not go back after that night.
It’s sad to see
I’m glad you found this blog as well; it’s terrific. Blessings to you on your journey, Kristin!
Sorry, but I for one do take these verses literally. Charismatic churches have raised hands for prayer and worship (although the attitude is what matters), women can still flaunt their wealth by their clothes and jewellry and fancy hair dos, and the learning in quietness is hardly difficult to understand. I even take verse 15 literally, since I can’t think of a figurative way of understanding the text. The point of discussion on v 15 is ‘what are women saved from’ in this verse.
Doesn’t mean there is nothing to discuss, especially in the practical application without addition to or subtraction from what Paul actually wrote, but I cannot subscribe to the theory this is all too difficult to understand. I’ve given egalitarian interpretations of this passage a fair hearing (such as reading this blog from time to time!), but they are often harder to understand and more convoluted than taking it more or less at face value.
Ken, thanks for responding. There is indeed much to discuss in texts like this one. I don’t think this passage is *too* difficult to understand, but it is difficult. All the more reason to be careful with our hermeneutics, and to have vigorous conversations, even debates, in our communities. I’ve never met anyone who interprets texts such as this one completely literally.
I appreciate this article, Rob.
Calvary Chapel St. Pete uses the aforementioned guidelines, excluding women… Sadly, they do not allow women to do anything but teach children—-apparently that’s okay. Also, less than 1% of the entire church gathers for corporate prayer (held regularly before the Wednesday night services)—-a handful of women, only one or two men at most—-no pastoral staff, regular staff or administration (and if they do walk through the church, they talk, laugh and carry on, disrupting those who are praying).
I attended for about two years… So this is firsthand information. …the reasons I left.
It all became brazenly clear after a major church split… an obvious time to gather for prayer.
I get it. I grew up in a church exactly like this, until the week after high school. Probably half of the church people were my relatives either by blood or by marriage. I am 70+ years old and I can tell you that it doesn’t work. Don’t get me started! LOL You forgot the 4-5 verses that instruct one to “greet the brethren with a holy kiss.” Yes, we did that too. Literally. On the lips, not “European style”. Thank you for your insight, Rob!
Thank you, Rob! So appreciate this!
You bet. Thanks Rae!
I never could understand about why churches that throw the biggest fits about making sure that women don’t teach are often the churches that have the biggest fits against raising hands in church. Or about how women that wear hats to church are often the most “rebellious.” I could go on, but we all know how little consistency there is in churches that emphasize only the verses that suit them.
Amen. Thanks Ann!
There’s a typo. The verse cited at the beginning is from 2 Peter, not 1Peter! 🙂
We go it. Thanks Mircsi!
Got it! Thanks 🙂
That’s a great place to start! Admit that there is no way we can simply and literally interpret any one part of the passage. When I was in seminary, we had to write a position paper on verse 15. There were several views on it we found through academic journals, all very different from each other. Everyone in the class was struggling big time on what to make of the verse.
The problem is, we are seeing only one-half of the conversation. It’s like listening to someone talk on the phone, not able to hear what the other person is saying. You can only take an educated guess from what is said throughout the whole conversation, putting clues together to figure out what the two people are talking about. It’s how we need to view any of Paul’s letters. He is writing in response to someone/something. So what he is saying could mean different things, according to what thing he is responding to.
There is an excellent book, very well-researched, on this passage I can recommend: “I Suffer Not a Woman to Teach.” It’s published by IVPress and gives a good possible answer to the other side of the conversation in 1 Timothy 2. I personally believe Paul is addressing false teaching by gnostic teachers. So many of the clues in the letter, and especially this passage, lead to that possibility.
But the first step is being willing to acknowledge it’s not a simple passage to interpret. Then we can talk.
Yep, amen. I wish more of our communities of faith had a vision for making spaces to do that talking!
Good job, Rob. And once people understand the issues with literalness they next get to grapple with context. Who were these people Paul was writing to, where did they live, what were they dealing with, etc.
Indeed. Thanks Tim. Appreciate you!