A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;[b] she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one who was deceived, it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
THE 1 TIMOTHY 2:12 BOMB
Last spring a group of 40 women and men met to share our “theologies of women” and to talk in small groups about the messages we hear about gender roles and a woman’s place in the church. Each group then created a poster summarizing their discussion to share with the larger group.
My favorite poster was one that showed stick figure men and women climbing a “stairway to heaven”, so to speak. Some steps were depicted with a lone man or woman making the climb. Other steps depicted a couple or a small group climbing the stairs together. On one step a man was reaching down to pull a woman up. On another a woman was reaching down to pull a man up. It was a beautiful depiction of the body of Christ working together.
Except that in the space above the stairway the group had drawn a bomb falling with the caption “1 Timothy 2:12”.
When this was presented to the larger group a lively discussion ensued. The consensus was that this verse often functions as a “conversation stopper”. Typically, what happens in a discussion is that the person who holds the hierarchical or complementarian view says something like, “Say what you want, but 1 Timothy 2:12 makes it clear that women cannot be in authority over men…”
Did Paul really intend to drop a bomb that would forever exclude women from all levels of church leadership? I don’t believe he did, and to borrow a cliché from movies and television, I’d like to share some steps we can take to “defuse the bomb” and encourage a more accurate understanding of Paul’s purpose in writing this “difficult passage”.
STEP ONE: CUT THE TRANSLATION WIRE
Before we conclude that this passage is “clear” we must consider the limitations of our English translations. The most problematic issue is the rendering of the verb authentein as authority. This unusual Greek verb is found only once in scripture and rarely in extrabiblical texts, where it is usually associated with aggression. Authentein is translated as “domineer” in the Latin Vulgate and New English Bible and as “usurp authority” in the Geneva and King James Bibles.
A study of Paul’s letters shows that he regularly used a form of the Greek “exousia” when referring to the use of authority in the church (see 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 9:4-6, 9:12, 11:10, 2 Cor 2:8, 10:8, 13:10, Col. 1:13, 2 Thess 3:12, Rom 6:15, 9:21). So it is strange that some modern versions translate this simply as “authority”. Considering the context, it is likely that Paul was objecting to something other than the legitimate use of authority in 1 Timothy 2:12. (More on authentein here, and see a more recent follow-up post here.)
There is also the possibility that the verb didaskein (to teach) is linked here to the verb authentein in what is called a hendiadys (two words joined by a conjunction to make a single point). “Don’t eat and run” would be a modern example. So a better interpretation might be “don’t teach in a domineering way”.
Additionally, the grammar in this passage changes abruptly from the plural “women” in verses 9 & 10 to “a woman” in verses 11-15. Then it changes back to “women” in the next chapter, suggesting that Paul had a specific woman in mind, perhaps one that Timothy had written to him about. Furthermore, some scholars believe “I don’t permit” could also be accurately translated as “I am not currently permitting”. So while these verses are often used to defend male-only leadership, current scholarship suggests that the passage is anything BUT clear on the issue.
STEP TWO: CUT THE CONTEXT WIRE
You’ve heard the real estate expression about property values, right? It’s all about “location, location, location”. Since the Bible is made up of a variety of genres (law, history, poetry and wisdom literature, prophetic messages, gospel accounts, letters), to interpret it correctly, we have to think about “context, context, context” . In the case of 1 Timothy, Paul was writing a personal letter instructing Timothy about how to deal with heresy being spread by false teachers in Ephesus. This is spelled out at the beginning of the letter:
“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless geneaologies… They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm…” (1 Tim 1:3-4, -7).
Keener notes that while these false teachers were most likely men, much of the spreading of the false teaching was through women in the congregation. It is likely that most women in the Ephesian church had limited training in Christian theology and that their interest in false doctrine was proving to be dangerous. There is no evidence in the text that Paul was writing to establish a permanent restriction on all women for all time.
Another interesting fact about 1 Timothy is that the myths and endless genealogies circulating in Ephesus included the idea that Eve was created before Adam and was superior to him. (Read this post for other facts about Ephesus and goddess worship and this one for detailed explanation of gnostic teachings about Adam and Eve.)
It is likely that Paul was writing to correct false notions that were circulating rather than suggesting that Eve’s deception should be the basis for banning women from teaching. This cultural context also helps us understand Paul’s mention of the creation order in verses 13 and 14 (more on Paul’s use of the creation narratives here).
STEP THREE: CUT THE INTERPRETATION WIRE
There are some well-established principles of biblical interpretation that are helpful in navigating highly contested passages like this one. Here are a few to consider:
Doctrine should not be built on a hapax legomenon (a word that occurs only once in an author’s writings or a text). When a word is only used once it is difficult, if not impossible, to infer the writer’s meaning, since there are no other examples of word usage to compare. The word “authentein” translated as authority in 1 Timothy 2:12 is a hapax legomenon. This fact alone is sufficient to suggest caution in using this text as a foundation for church doctrine.
Interpretation should be consistent with the rest of the passage under study. As Groothuis notes “It is inconsistent to regard the dress code in 1 Tim 2:9 as culturally relative, and therefore temporary, but the restriction on women’s ministry as universal and permanent. These instructions were part of the same paragraph and flow of thought.”
Similarly, if we insist that verse 12 is applicable today, to be consistent, that ruling should apply to the whole passage, including verse 15 (women shall be saved through childbearing). I find it concerning that most people who claim that 1 Timothy 2:12 is clear and applies today usually don’t have a clue as to what the verses that follow mean and how they should be applied.
Interpretation should not contradict the rest of the author’s teaching. For example, 1 Timothy 2:1-10 provides instructions for both men and women to follow when praying in public. And in 1 Corinthians there are instructions for women praying and prophesying in church. Paul gives many other instructions about corporate worship and spiritual gifts that are not restrictive of gender. He also commends a number of women serving in leadership positions (Romans 16). So Paul is generally supportive of women’s participation, which contradicts the idea that women must be silent.
Interpretation should not contradict the overall teaching in the New Testament, especially the example and teaching of Jesus. As Brauch notes, “Christ is the center – the Logos, the living Word, and Scripture must be viewed through the Christ filter. Jesus’ words and acts are normative and paradigmatic and should be a critical filter for interpreting scripture” (pp. 248-9). In the gospels Jesus never suggests that women’s roles were to be secondary or limited in the community of faith, even when he had the opportunity to do so.
Once these issues of translation, context, and interpretation have been considered, it seems that 1 Timothy 2:12 only prohibits women who do not have rightful authority to do so from teaching and assuming authority over men.
There is much more that could be said, as thousands of pages have been written on this one passage. At times it seems like there are diminishing returns on continuing the conversation and so I’ll stop here for now.
As Harriet Congdon pointed out in this post, in this middle time between creation and the new heaven and earth, the church should be making every effort to function as the New Community made possible by the redemptive work of Christ on the cross. The full inclusion of women in leadership is part of that redemptive work and is vital to the health and effectiveness of the church in this century.
In light of current biblical scholarship, it’s time to acknowledge that there are too many problems with this passage to continue using it as a weapon against women called to church ministry.
DISCLAIMER: I almost titled this “1 Timothy 2:12 for Dummies”, not because I think readers are ignorant, but because this is not a comprehensive theological exposition. It is simply a summary of my personal study and reflects what I understand at this point in time. There are many excellent resources that do treat the passage in depth. Those who want more than these “Cliff Notes” should check out this excellent 5 part series: 1 Timothy 2:12 in Context and the following books: Keener’s Paul, Women and Wives, Bailey’s Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, Groothuis’ Good News for Women, and Belleville’s Women Leaders and the Church.
Click here for a Spanish translation of this post.
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