Women in Church Leadership - a Series of Study Papers
The following study papers were commissioned by Grace Communion International as part of its consideration of whether women may be ordained.
10. Questions About 1 Timothy 2:11-15
For many people, 1 Timothy 2:12 is concise proof that women should not have authority in the church. Paul did not allow women to teach or have authority, they say, and neither should we. However, we do not insist on the last part of the verse: “she must be silent.” Not even Paul believed that women should be silent at all times, even in church. In this chapter, we examine this verse more carefully in its context to see what Paul is really prohibiting. As we look more carefully, we discover questions about how we should apply these words to the church today.
These verses are important, so we must study them carefully, with prayer, to try to avoid mistakes. As we noted at the beginning of this series, we want to base our beliefs and practices on Scripture. We do not want to twist the Scriptures. At the same time, we want to recognize that there are genuine difficulties in understanding this passage. One scholar wrote, “It is sometimes implied that the hierarchicalist’s argument all boils down to 1 Timothy 2. This is patently not the case…. If anything, this passage complicates matters because the exegetical questions are so complex.”
Because of the difficulties in this verse, this study is long, even when some of the important supporting material has been moved into bracketed notes. We encourage you to read it carefully, and at least read the summary at the end. We pray that we can all examine this passage of Scripture with a sincere desire to hear what God is saying to us through it.
Observations and Questions
1 Tim. 2:11-12 says: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” We will begin with a few observations about these verses, noting areas in which we need further clarification:
1) Paul did not believe that “a woman…must be silent” at all times. He says that women can pray and prophesy in a worship service (1 Cor. 11). There may be a difference between prophecy, which Paul allowed, and teaching, which he did not—or a special situation in Ephesus may have called for silence.
2) The Bible does not teach that females can never have authority over males. Scripture allows women to have civil authority over men, and to have authority over male children, male teenagers, and possibly others. Again, we must find out what situation Paul was dealing with, and whether it applies to the church today.
3) When Paul says, “I do not permit…,” he is stating his policy for churches in his jurisdiction. This may imply that all churches in subsequent centuries should have a similar policy—or it may not.
4) 1 Tim. 2:11 says that a woman should learn in “full submission.” However, Scripture does not teach that a woman must be in total submission to all men. So we need to find out what kind of submission Paul is talking about.
5) 1 Tim. 2:12 does not use the normal Greek word for authority (exousia)—it uses the rare Greek verb authenteō. We need to find out whether there is a difference in meaning between these two words.
6) In verses 13-15, Paul appears to give reasons for what he says in v. 12. But the reasons given create additional questions:
a) V. 13 says that Adam was formed first, but it is not clear why that should be a reason for women to avoid authority specifically in church, when women can have authority in civil government.
b) V. 14 says that Adam was not deceived—thereby suggesting that he sinned deliberately. It is not clear why this is a reason for men to have authority.
c) V. 15 says that “women will be saved through childbearing,” but this does not make sense for spiritual salvation or physical protection.
7) 1 Tim. 2 addresses several cultural matters: for people to pray for kings, for men to lift their hands when they pray, and for women to avoid braids, jewelry and expensive clothes. We need to find out whether we can take v. 12 as a permanent guideline when we do not take vv. 8-9 as permanent guidelines.
8) Paul’s letter gives pastoral advice on a variety of topics to Timothy as he grapples with a controversy in Ephesus (1:3). Some of the advice seems applicable for any church in any age, but other remarks seem specific to Timothy’s situation. We need to find out whether we should take 2:12 as a permanent policy when we essentially ignore Paul’s advice in 1 Tim. 5:9 to maintain a list of widows over age 60.
9) In 1 Tim. 6:1-2, Paul counsels slaves to submit to their masters, especially if the masters are Christian. We need to find out whether Paul’s advice for women to be submissive is also rooted in a cultural situation that is no longer universally true.
Most of these observations and questions have come from people who disagree with the traditional interpretation. That is not surprising, because on almost any subject, people who are happy with the traditional view have little incentive to ask for more details. However, the requests for clarification are legitimate, and we need reasonable answers. We will start by presenting the traditional or complementarian view, then egalitarian objections to that view, and finally a discussion of whether the objections are reasonable.
The traditional view
James Hurley argues that 1 Timothy was designed to give instructions that would apply in all churches, in all ages:
It is universally accepted that 1 Timothy was intended to provide a clear statement concerning certain issues which its author, whom I take to be Paul, felt needed attention….
Paul wrote…“how it is necessary [dei] to conduct oneself” [3:15]. Dei is an impersonal verb meaning “one must” or “one ought.”… Paul’s use of dei here is presumptive evidence that he considered what he said normative beyond the immediate situation…. Paul’s abstract language indicates that his instructions should have a general rather than closely limited application….. He delivers “trustworthy sayings worthy of full acceptance.”… Only the last section of the fifth chapter is pointedly restricted to Timothy.
Thomas Schreiner, another traditional scholar, is more cautious: “The letters should not necessarily be understood as timeless marching orders for the church but must be interpreted in light of the specific circumstances that occasioned them.” Although parts of the letters deal with deviant teachings found in specific situations, he says that the letters as a whole “reflect the pattern of governance that he expected to exist in his churches.” T. David Gordon writes, “The Pastoral Epistles are…written with the purpose of providing instruction of ordering churches at the close of the apostolic era.”
Hurley notes that 1 Tim. 2 deals with prayer and worship. Referring to “the prayer posture of the day,” Paul exhorts the men to pray in a peaceable way. In particular, he wanted them to avoid anger and an argumentative spirit. Paul then advises the women to avoid ostentatious hair and clothing styles. “Both sexes are to live holy lives of obedient works. The difference between the commands to the two sexes gives us some indication of besetting sins of the day.” Paul’s instructions “are, to a certain extent, culturally relative,” but they are based on timeless principles: humility and good behavior.
Paul does not forbid all braids and jewelry, Hurley says.
He refers instead to the elaborate hair-styles which were then fashionable among the wealthy…. He probably meant “braided hair decorated with gold or with pearls.”… Obedience to this command of Paul’s requires no subtle exegetical skill or knowledge of the customs of Paul’s day; it requires only an assessment of what adornment is excessively costly and not modest or proper. Christians…have no need to set aside Paul’s instructions as somehow “culture bound.”
Paul then addresses another aspect of behavior appropriate for women: They should learn quietly and submissively. Douglas Moo observes, “That Paul wants Christian women to learn is an important point, for such a practice was not generally encouraged by the Jews.” Paul is not just stating a personal preference, Hurley argues—Paul gives v. 11 as a command. The Greek word “does not mean silence but carries with it connotations of peacefulness and restfulness…. Paul is not…calling for ‘buttoned lips’ but for a quiet receptivity and a submission to authority.” “Not absolute silence but rather a gentle and quiet demeanor is intended.”
Why did Paul feel it necessary to write this verse? Moo says, “Almost certainly it is necessary because at least some women were not learning ‘in quietness.’… The facts that this verse is directed only to women and that verses 12-14…focus on the relationship of men to women incline us to think that the submission in view here is also this submission of women to male leadership.” “It is certainly possible that the prohibition is given because some women were teaching men.”
Why silence only the women? Was it because the average woman was not as educated as the average man? No, because Greco-Roman society had some educated women and many illiterate men. If education was the problem, then it would be inconsistent for Paul to silence women but say nothing about uneducated men. Some inscriptions in Asia Minor show that women functioned as high priests in some temples—therefore there was no cultural scandal involved in women being in authority, which leads Wayne Grudem to conclude that Paul’s directive must have been based on God’s law, not cultural sentiments.
However, this does not mean that women should not speak in church. Hurley writes: “Women were certainly free to speak in the Pauline churches (1 Cor. 11). Paul is speaking only of teaching situations here in 1 Timothy 2.” In support of this interpretation, he notes that v. 12 is a conceptual repetition of v. 11. Learning corresponds to not teaching, and submission corresponds to not having authority. Just as Paul wants women to learn in a submissive manner, he does not want them to teach in an authoritative manner.  Hurley concludes that the verse means “that women should not be authoritative teachers in the church,” and he associates that with the office of elder. Paul did not forbid all teaching by women, Hurley claims. “What Paul disallowed therefore was simply the exercise of authority over men.” Werner Neuer writes, “Paul excludes women from the office of teaching because teaching the assembled congregation would necessarily place them over men.”
Moo acknowledges that the present-tense form of the verb “permit” could allow for a temporary situation, but a present-tense verb can also be used for a permanent command (e.g., Rom. 12:1). Whether Paul indicates a temporary prohibition or a permanent rule cannot be decided by the grammar, but only by the context. Moo notes, “Paul’s ‘advice’ to Timothy is the word of an apostle, accredited by God, and included in the inspired Scriptures.” Even an indicative verb—a statement—can be used to imply a command, as Paul does in verses 1 and 8.
What sort of “teaching” is not allowed? The Greek word for “teach” can refer to a ministry that any believer might do (Col. 3:16), but it more often refers to a special gift associated with church leadership (Eph. 4:11). “In the pastoral epistles, teaching always has this restricted sense of authoritative doctrinal instruction” (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:2). Teaching was an important part of the function of an elder (1 Tim. 3:2).
However, in Protestant churches, authority is based in Scripture, not in the preacher. Does modern preaching involve the same sort of authority? Moo argues that it does, since “the addition of an authoritative, written norm is unlikely to have significantly altered the nature of Christian teaching…. Any authority that the teacher has is derived…but the activity of teaching, precisely because it does come to God’s people with the authority of God and His Word, is authoritative.”
What is the difference between prophecy (which women may do, according to 1 Cor. 11) and teaching (which they may not, according to 1 Tim. 2:12)? Neuer says, “In contrast to prophecy, which is related to specific situations and according to Paul is subject to assessment by the congregation, teaching is binding and of general validity, so that the congregation must submit to it (cf. Rom 6:17; 16:17; 1 Cor 4:17; 15:15ff.; Col 2:6-7; 2 Thess 2:15).” Grudem says that teaching is based on transmitting apostolic teachings, whereas prophecies may have errors and must be evaluated. Schreiner is reluctant to accept Grudem’s definition of prophecy as “mixed with error,” but he argues that it is different from teaching, vertical rather than horizontal, and more spontaneous. “Prophecy applies to specific situations and is less tied to the consciousness of the individual.”
What sort of authority is not allowed? Paul does not use the normal word for authority here (exousia), but a rare word (authenteō). Traditional scholars argue that the meaning is the same: to have authority over. “The two words are used synonymously in at least eight different contexts.” Köstenberger analyzes all the “neither…nor” constructions in the New Testament, and finds that in all cases, both words are positive, or both are negative. Since Paul views “teaching” as a positive function, it suggests that he also viewed authenteō as a positive function: to lead, direct, or exercise authority. Although teaching is good, Paul said that women should not teach men; in the same way he said that women should not exercise authority over men even though authority in itself is not bad. Paul is making restrictions not because the activities are bad, but because the people are female. This is simply the counterpart to what Paul said in the earlier verse, that women should be submissive.
What “men” are in view here? Since the Greek words gynē and anēr can mean either woman and man, or wife and husband, depending on context, some have suggested that Paul did not make restrictions on all women, but only on women exercising authority over their own husbands. But Moo notes that Paul speaks of men in general in v. 8, and women in general in v. 9, and if he wanted to shift the meaning to wives in particular, he would need to supply a verbal indicator, such as by saying that he did not allow women to exercise authority over their own men. Lacking such an indicator, and since the surrounding context is about church rather than family relationships, it seems best to conclude that Paul is speaking of men and women in general—or more specifically, the men who had authority in the church. As Schreiner writes, “The context of verse 12…suggests that the submission of all women to all men is not in view, for not all men taught and had authority when the church gathered.”
Paul’s comments were motivated by a particular problem in the church at Ephesus, but that in itself does not mean that his advice does not apply to other situations. He addressed the specific situation in v. 11, Moo says, and then supports it in v. 12 with a general statement about the way he wants all of his churches to function. He is restricting women not because they are uneducated or deceived (a temporary situation); he is restricting them because they are women (a permanent situation). They are allowed to teach, but not to teach men. They can have authority, but not authority over men.
Reasons for the prohibition
Hurley argues that Paul bases his view on Scripture, not on the cultural situation. By following his instructions with gar (usually translated “for”), Paul is expressing reasons for his command. Paul makes no reference to social customs, or to the idea that most women did not yet have enough education to be teachers, or the idea that they were the chief proponents of false doctrine. Rather, he says that Adam was created before Eve, thereby giving him authority over her, just as the firstborn son eventually “became the head of his father’s house and leader of its worship.”
Moo writes, “For Paul, the man’s priority in the order of creation is indicative of the headship that man is to have over woman.” He writes:
By rooting these prohibitions in the circumstances of creation rather than in the circumstances of the fall, Paul shows that he does not consider these restrictions to be the product of the curse and presumably, therefore, to be phased out by redemption. And by citing creation rather than a local situation or cultural circumstances as his basis for the prohibitions, Paul makes it clear that, while these local or cultural issues may have provided the context of the issue, they do not provide the reason for his advice. His reason for the prohibition of verse 12 is the created role relationship of man and woman, and we may justly conclude that these prohibitions are applicable as long as this reason remains true.
Eve rather than Adam was deceived, Paul writes in v. 14—but how does that support a rule that women cannot teach men? Hurley asks, “Would you rather be led by an innocent but deceived person, or by a deliberate rebel?” He dismisses the idea that women are too gullible to be teachers (cf. Titus 2:3, 2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15). However, that interpretation is found in the early church fathers, and it is the simplest reading of the text. Neuer refers to “the greater susceptibility of women to temptation,” and says that Paul, rather than oppressing women, is simply keeping them out of a situation they could not handle. Grudem is not clear on this point, but says that Paul refers “to a characteristic of Eve that he sees as relevant for all women in all cultures.” Grudem writes, “Some complementarians understand this verse to be referring to the fact that Eve wrongfully took leadership in the family and made the decision to eat the forbidden fruit on her own, and other complementarians understand this to refer to a woman’s ‘kinder, gentler nature’ that makes her less likely to draw a hard line when close friends are teaching doctrinal error.” Both of these ideas seem far from what the text actually says—it specifies deception, and says nothing about leadership or gentleness.
Does the text imply that women are more easily deceived? Moo thinks that this interpretation is possible, but unlikely. “There is nothing in the Genesis accounts or in Scripture elsewhere to suggest that Eve’s deception is representative of women in general.” Moreover, Paul allows women to teach other women—they are capable of teaching correctly. Schreiner also argues against female gullibility: “This interpretation should be rejected since it implies that women are ontologically and intellectually inferior.”
Schreiner notes that “all sin involves deceit,” and Adam was therefore deceived; what v. 14 means is that Eve was deceived first—the word “first” is understood from an implied parallel with v. 13. He writes:
Paul’s purpose is…to focus on the fact that the serpent approached and deceived Eve, not Adam…. The serpent subverted the pattern of male leadership and interacted only with Eve during the temptation. Adam was present throughout and did not intervene. The Genesis temptation, therefore, is indicative of what happens when male leadership is abrogated.
In effect, Schreiner is blaming Adam for sinning first, for he failed to protect his wife from the serpent. Hurley also wants to blame Adam: “Paul seems to be saying that Eve was not at fault; she was deceived…. Could it be that his point in verse 14 is that Adam was the one appointed by God to exercise religious headship?” Moo makes a slightly different suggestion: Verse 14 “is intended to remind the women at Ephesus that Eve was deceived…precisely in taking the initiative over the man…. If the women at the church at Ephesus proclaim their independence…they will make the same mistake Eve made and bring similar disaster on themselves and the church.” In short, there is no widely accepted view among traditional scholars.
Finally, we will consider v. 15, which is not a reason for Paul’s prohibition, but a qualification for v. 14. Nevertheless, it is part of the paragraph. Hurley says that if the verse “refers to salvation from sin, it is a flat contradiction of Paul’s view of salvation by trust in Christ.” Another option is that the woman will be kept safe in childbearing (implied in the NIV), but “this seems almost totally irrelevant to the context.”Moreover, as Schreiner says, “the fact that Christian women have often died in childbirth raises serious questions about this interpretation.”
The grammar allows another possibility: She (singular, referring to Eve) will be saved through the childbearing (the Greek text has the word “the,” possibly referring to the birth of Christ), if they (plural, referring to all later women) remain in the faith. It is not that Eve’s salvation is dependent on later women’s faithfulness, but the thought is elliptical, requiring readers to supply a verb: Eve will be saved through the birth of Christ, and subsequent women will be saved, too, if they remain in the faith. This is a possible interpretation, Hurley says, but “it breaks with the flow of the passage.” Schreiner argues against it: “Those who posit a reference to Jesus’ birth have subtly introduced the notion that salvation is secured as a result of giving birth to him, whereas the text speaks not of the result of birth but of the actual birthing process.”
Moo suggests that the verse designates “the circumstances in which Christian women will experience their salvation—in maintaining as priorities” the role that Scripture assigns to women. Paul has simply mentioned one role—bearing children—as a way of designating the female role in general.
Schreiner agrees, saying that childbearing “represents the fulfillment of the woman’s domestic role as a mother in distinction from the man.” He notes that the verse mandates more than childbearing: “It is not sufficient for salvation for Christian women merely to bear children [i.e., accept the female role]; they must also persevere in faith, love, holiness, and presumably other virtues…. Women will not be saved if they do not practice good works.” 1 Tim. 4:15-16 provides a parallel—Paul says that Timothy will save himself by being a good pastor. An insistence on good behavior does not negate the doctrine of salvation by grace and faith. The point is that women do not need to take on a man’s role in order to be saved. Despite what the false teachers might say against childbearing, women will be saved by staying in their traditional role.
There are some difficulties in this interpretation: First, it ignores the change from singular to plural, requiring that women in general be represented first by a singular and then by a plural. Second, it makes the verse an odd tangential idea nearly irrelevant to the context: I do not permit women to have authority over men, because men were created first and Eve was a sinner, and oh, by the way, women will be saved by being good women. Third, if Paul wanted to refer to the female role in general, he would have been clearer if he had used a principle he had already mentioned—submission—rather than introducing the specificity of childbearing. Last, it speculates that the false teachings at Ephesus included a criticism of childbearing. This is a plausible suggestion, since the heresy included a rejection of marriage (4:3), but this speculative reconstruction of the setting is precisely the method that traditional scholars have criticized egalitarians for using. If v. 15 can best be explained by suggesting that it is a response to a particular false teaching in Ephesus, perhaps that approach can be used for the statements in vv. 13-14, too.
Overall, we might find Paul’s logic hard to understand, Gordon admits, but this is not a reason to reject what he says. Moo concludes that “we are justified in requiring very good reasons from the text itself to limit the application of this text in any way. We find no such reasons. Therefore, we must conclude that the restrictions imposed by Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12 are valid for Christians in all places and all times.”
In the previous section, we presented the “traditional” view. However, as Proverbs 18:17 says, “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” It would be foolish for us to decide the matter before we have heard the other side ask questions about the conclusions. We began this paper with a number of observations, and the traditional interpretation addresses some of them better than others.
1) The text twice calls for women in particular to be quiet; it does not allow for any form of teaching. However…
2) Women can prophesy in a worship service, saying things that instruct others (1 Cor. 11). Paul believed prophecy and teaching to be different activities, but it is difficult to prove any difference in the results. Men might learn something from either form of speech, and both types of speaking need to be evaluated. It is not clear why women should be allowed to speak spontaneously, but not with advance preparation.
3) Females can sometimes have authority over males. Paul was dealing with teaching in the church setting; he was not addressing civil government, business, public schools, or evangelism. However, the rationale that complementarians sometimes use to support male authority based on Genesis 2 is not valid when it comes to civil authority, and this inconsistency suggests that the rationale itself may not be valid.
4) Was Paul stating his own policy, or a permanent rule for all churches? Traditional scholars may claim that everything in the letter is permanently applicable, but this is not true. Or they may say that Paul’s restriction is permanently valid because Paul supports it from Genesis, but this ignores the fact that Paul used Genesis to argue for a cultural custom in 1 Cor. 11. Paul’s policy might be appropriate in all churches at all ages, but the fact remains that it was inspired to be written as his policy, and his preferences are not always permanently valid (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:7).
5) A woman should learn in “full submission,” but women do not have to submit to all men. In church, a woman’s submission should be to God first, Scripture second, and the sermon third. If the pastor says something that contradicts Scripture, a woman should not submit. It is doubtful that this type of submission can be described as “full.” Since modern preaching may contain erroneous ideas and must be evaluated, it is not more authoritative than prophecy was. Perhaps the role of the pastor and the preacher’s authority in the church is different today, significantly altered by the existence of the New Testament as the authoritative record of church teaching. People in the pews now have an objective standard by which to judge what is taught, whereas before they did not.
6) 1 Tim. 2:12 uses the rare Greek verb authenteō. Although it is tempting to see a difference in meaning for a different word, there would be little point in Paul saying that he had a policy against allowing one group of people to exercise a wrong kind of authority against another group; the verse more naturally says that Paul did not allow women to do something that was permissible for men. It is not clear whether he prohibited teaching and authority, or teaching with authority, and it does not seem necessary to choose between these two—either way, the verse seems to contradict Paul’s policy of allowing women to prophesy in the Corinthian church.
7) In verses 13-15, Paul gives unusual reasons for what he says in v. 12.
a) Adam was formed first, and that might give him authority—but there is nothing in Genesis to say why it would give him (and by implication all males) exclusive authority in doctrine but not in civil government. Traditional interpreters do not explain why one applies but the other does not; they base their belief on 1 Tim. 2:12 rather than Genesis 2, and it is erroneous to say that Genesis 2 gives males authority specifically in matters of worship.
b) Adam was a rebel. Traditional interpreters do not explain why this has any relevance to church authority, and it suggests that there was something going on behind the scenes in Ephesus that we do not know about. The readers knew why this was relevant to Paul’s prohibition because they had information that we do not. Otherwise, the structure of the verse implies that Eve’s gullibility is relevant to contemporary women, but some complementarian scholars distance themselves from this traditional interpretation.
c) V. 15 says that “women will be saved through childbearing.” Interpreters agree that this is a difficult verse, and it again suggests that we are missing some crucial information. This increases the possibility that Paul is addressing a situation that is unusual.
8) 1 Tim. 2 addresses several cultural matters. Traditional scholars say a) we can see a universal principle behind vv. 8-9, but v. 12 is a universal principle, and b) Paul supports v. 12 with evidence from Scripture, thereby indicating that it is a universal rule. However, 1 Cor. 11 shows that Paul can use Scripture even when arguing for a cultural custom, and he could have cited a scripture to support vv. 8-9, too, without making them universal. The principle behind v. 12 may be a general one, just as it is for 5:9 or 6:1.
9) Some of Paul’s advice seems specific to Timothy’s situation, without any specific “application” required today, so we cannot assume that every passage must be applied today—for example, 1 Tim. 5:9. Traditional scholars do not address the inconsistency very well.
10) In 1 Tim. 6:1-2, Paul counsels slaves to submit to their masters for the sake of the gospel. Paul’s advice is not a permanent approval of slavery, and in the same way, his policy for women may be a temporary need, not a permanent approval of authority restricted to males. Paul did not directly command slavery, but his policy was that slaves should submit to their masters. By doing this, Paul “taught something less than God’s ideal in order to advance the gospel”—which means that he might have done something similar for women.
The question in this passage is not just one of exegesis (what did it mean?), but also one of hermeneutics (what does it mean for us?). We want to understand what Paul wrote, but we also want to understand whether and how we should apply it in churches today. That is a question of hermeneutics, the art of interpreting the text for modern application. Paul said that younger widows should get married (5:14), but does this advice apply to all younger widows today? Do cultural expectations make the situation of widows significantly different today? (In many cultures, they probably do, and in some, perhaps not.)
When Paul told slaves to submit to their masters, was he endorsing slavery? Christian slave-owners often said he was, but when other Christians perceived the injustice involved in owning a human being, they began to ask more questions of the texts. It is generally only when people see problems in the way that a text is applied, that they begin to ask more probing questions of it. People who are happy with the status quo don’t see the need for questions, but when questions arise, we all need to look at the text more carefully. Sometimes the objections are valid; sometimes they are not.
Scholars on both sides of this controversy agree that 1 Tim. 2:12 puts certain restrictions on women: Paul did not allow women to teach or to have authority over men in the functioning of the church—he told them to be quiet. The question is whether these restrictions were based on the situation in Ephesus, the culture in the Greco-Roman-Jewish world, or a principle rooted in the way that God wants men and women to interact with one another in worship.
Craig Keener presents an egalitarian view, but begins with this admission: “I believe that Paul probably prohibits not simply ‘teaching authoritatively,’ but both teaching Scripture at all and having (or usurping) authority at all.” But he then asks, “Is this a universal rule? If so, it is a rule with some exceptions…. But it is also possible that this text is the exceptional one, which can be argued if it can be shown to address a particular situation. After all, if it were to be a universal rule, one might have expected…Timothy…to be aware of this rule already.” He then gives evidence that there are exceptions, and he notes, “The one passage in the Bible that specifically prohibits women from teaching is addressed to the one church where we know that false teachers were effectively targeting women.”
Many egalitarians do not argue about what 1 Tim 2:11-15 says—they disagree about its significance for the church today. Although there are a few disagreements about specific words in the text, much of the egalitarian case focuses instead on evidence that the text was not written “for all churches in all subsequent centuries.” Much of this effort has been an attempt to show that Paul was addressing an unusual situation—they have tried to sketch a situation that motivated Paul to write these verses. These reconstructions are speculative, sometimes implausible, and sometimes contradictory. Since the original situation cannot be proven, we will not spend much effort along these lines. However, we will address some evidence that may suggest that Paul’s policy is not intended for all time.
First, there is evidence that some commands in Scripture do not apply today. For example, as we saw in a previous paper, women do not need to cover their heads when they pray in church today, nor do believers have to greet one another with a kiss. We do not have to pray for Paul to be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, nor encourage virgins to avoid marriage. Some commands in Scripture are based in culture; the question here is whether Paul’s policy on the conduct of women is one of them.
There is evidence within the Pastoral Epistles, too, that even though these letters give guidance on church matters, some commands are situation specific—even though the original readers might have assumed the commands to be universally true. When Paul says that older widows should be put on a list and younger widows should remarry, Timothy may well have thought the rule applicable for all time. When Paul commands Christian slaves to serve their Christian masters well, there is nothing in the text to indicate that Paul expects this situation to be a temporary one. Therefore, although we base our beliefs and practices on the Bible, this does not mean that we have to follow every instruction that the Bible contains; we have to see whether it applies to us. This does not prove that 1 Tim. 2:12 is a temporary admonition—it simply shows that it may be.
To put the matter in simple terms, we see in 1 Cor. 11 that Paul permitted women to speak in worship meetings, but in 1 Tim. 2:12 he said they should be silent—they cannot teach or have authority. There are two basic ways to address this difference:
1) Complementarian scholars try to resolve this contradiction by saying that 1 Cor. 11 permits a form of speaking that is not authoritative. Although they cannot prove that modern preaching is more authoritative than ancient prophecy, they believe that this distinction best resolves the problem, and Paul’s prohibition is still valid. In brief, “We know that women cannot have authority, so the speaking that Paul permitted in Corinth must not be authoritative.”
2) Egalitarian scholars try to resolve the problem by saying that 1 Tim. 2:12 was a temporary restriction based on circumstances in Paul’s churches at the time he wrote, a situation that apparently did not exist when he wrote to Corinth. Although they cannot prove what that situation was, it is not necessary to reconstruct it. The fact that Paul allowed women to prophesy in Corinth shows that the restriction was not a rule for all time. In brief, “We know that Paul permitted women to speak, so the prohibition in 1 Tim. 2:12 (which includes speaking) must be temporary.”
We believe that the second approach has more merit, for these reasons:
- Prophecy, by its very nature, seems to involve authority, for it means to speak words inspired by God. Prophecies must be “weighed” (1 Cor. 14:29), but this is done not to disagree with God, but to ascertain whether the words are from God. If they are words of God, they should be heeded. Modern preaching does not have more authority than first-century prophecy, and it is inconsistent to argue that women may be inspired by God to speak in church about everything except the Word of God. In Corinth, Paul allowed women to speak with authority in church, which indicates that the prohibition in 1 Tim. 2:12 should not be taken as a universal or permanent rule. The inconsistent attempts by complementarians to draw lines between what women can do and what they cannot suggests that the task is impossible.
- Paul was inspired to write this prohibition as his own policy, not as a command. True, his policies might sometimes be taken as a command, but we have also learned to discount the policies he describes in 1 Cor. 7, for example. When Paul wrote to Timothy, he had a policy against women in authority—but God does not seem to have that policy. He gave Deborah authority as a prophetess and judge—and there is no logical reason why the creation priority of man gives males exclusive authority in the religious sphere but not in civil government. The Bible clearly shows that although women rarely had civil authority, God does allow it, and the primary passage that would seem to limit female authority in the church is introduced as a policy rather than a command.
- Considering the nature of 1 Timothy, it is not surprising that Paul is describing a policy that was of temporary validity. It was written to help Timothy combat some heresies that were causing problems in Ephesus; its directives include cultural matters such as the posture of prayer and the way in which women might adorn themselves. Paul’s advice concerning widows, despite being issued with commands, is not applicable to the church today. Although the letter is about church administration, it was written for a specific situation, and we should not assume in advance that its instructions are timeless truths.
Complementarians argue that Paul’s policy must be universal, because he supports it from Scripture. However, we see in 1 Cor. 11 that Paul uses Scripture to support his command for women to wear head coverings, too. He can use Scripture to argue for a temporary policy. His use of Scripture is not an attempt to explain what Genesis means—it is simply a use of one part of Scripture to add support to one part of his argument. Moreover, the obscurity of 1 Tim. 2:13-15 suggests that Paul was dealing with an unusual situation, and that we do not understand the relevance of his arguments because we do not know the details of the situation. It is not clear why Adam being formed first would give all subsequent men authority in the church but not in civil government; it is even more obscure why men should have authority if Adam sinned deliberately.
In short, it is difficult to take this passage as a permanent command restricting all women from all leadership positions in all churches. It indicates that women should not speak in church, and yet Paul himself permitted women to speak authoritative words in church. His prohibition should therefore be seen as based on the situation at the time, not a rule that applies in all circumstances. It is not even written as a command, so it is preferable to take it as a policy of temporary validity, given because of a temporary need.
The early church had a different view. We respect church history, but in this case we believe that Scripture, our standard for faith and practice, has been misunderstood—just as it was often misunderstood in the matter of slavery, and of salvation by grace. The culture of previous interpreters had blinded them to questions they should have asked but did not. Scholars of all persuasions today recognize errors in the historical interpretation of passages about women.
In the next chapter, we will conclude this series of studies with some policy recommendations for the diverse situations found within our denomination.
Appendix 10A: Authenteō
“A precise consensus as to the meaning of the word has not been achieved among well-known lexicographers.” The word sometimes had a negative meaning, sometimes a neutral meaning of exercising authority. The lexical question is what it meant when Paul wrote the Pastorals. Did it have a negative meaning—to use violence, to domineer, to usurp authority—or a neutral meaning, to exercise authority in general, in a way that might be either bad or good?
Baldwin analyzed 85 occurrences of authenteō and found only three uses before Paul. Philodemus used it in the sense of “to rule”; a private letter used it in the sense of “to compel,” and Aristonicus used it to mean “instigate.” Some of the most negative meanings suggested have been based on the fact that the noun authentēs can mean murderer, but there is no evidence that the verb was used to mean “murder,” and the noun may not necessarily be derived from this verb.
Two examples from Chrysostom (a.d. 390) are particularly interesting: “Eve exercised authority once wrongly.” Baldwin comments: “The implication…is that Chrysostom could not make the negative force felt without the addition of kakōs [“wrongly”], and he therefore did not regard the verb authenteō as negative in itself.” However, in the second example Chrysostom uses authenteō with a negative meaning without adding any word: Do not try to have your own way with unbelievers, but redeem the time (he is commenting on Col. 4:5). Baldwin concludes that in this instance, the word means something like “domineer.”
Baldwin concludes that the word most often has a neutral meaning, but as with any word, the final determination of meaning must be based on the context in which it is used.For endnotes, click here.