In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” (NIV2011)
What’s up with that? Is Paul really issuing a definitive command regarding women’s roles that’s binding upon all Christians today? Is this a clear directive that severely limits women’s ministry in the Church? That’s certainly how most complementarians understand this verse. But is that where the discussion ends? Paul said it, I believe it, that settles it?
But wait a second. Do all Christian women avoid gold and pearls? (1 Tim. 2:9) Do they cover their heads when praying? (1 Cor. 11) Should we always greet each other with a holy kiss? (Rom. 16:16) If we’re visiting the island of Crete should we assume that the people we encounter are all “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons”? (Tit. 1:12) Should we always carry a cloak, scrolls and parchments with us on our journeys? (2 Tim. 4:13)
In short, how do we understand the words of Paul? What ones do we choose to apply to our modern Christian practice and what ones do we disregard — and more importantly, why?
1 Timothy 2:8-15 is a notoriously difficult passage. Part of the problem is that we’re only hearing one side of the conversation — we’re listening in on one end of a two thousand year old discussion that wasn’t directly intended for us. We aren’t familiar with the culture and context, we don’t truly know what it was like to be a Christian in first century Ephesus and we don’t know many details about the difficulties the church there was facing.
Of course there’s the “easy” way out: argue that Paul didn’t write 1 Timothy and/or these seemingly misogynist texts are later interpolations. While such a suggestion may be anathema to many conservatives, it’s not an option we should dismiss outright. Even conservative scholarship generally accepts the possibility of a corrupted text — as in the case of the ending of Mark (Mk. 16:9-20) or the pericope adulterae (Jn. 7:53–8.11) or the final line of the Lord’s prayer (Mat. 6:13b).
We should seek the text in its original form and pursue the textual evidence where it leads us — even if that path questions long-held tradition. We shouldn’t disavow Pauline authorship just because we don’t like the message; we can’t pick and choose what Paul wrote based on our agreement with it. But the majority of modern scholars do reject Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy for a variety of reasons, many of them very good. However, for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to assume that Paul did write this letter. Most Christians accept the New Testament canon as we have received it and recognize it as being in some way normative in matters of faith and practice.
There is another possibility that we must consider: that Paul really was a misogynist — that these verses and similar ones elsewhere represent a truly misguided and antiquated notion of women’s roles. Paul was ensconced in a patriarchal culture and was merely reflecting those ideas, and now, in hindsight, we can recognize the error of his ways and reject such notions. Again, I think this is an option that needs to remain on the table. If, in exegeting the text, we determine that Paul (or the actual author of 1 Timothy) was advocating something we know to be clearly immoral, we should be willing to acknowledge that reality. But it’s important to note that Paul did make some enormously affirming statements regarding women and gender equality (Gal. 3:28, Rom. 16), so I don’t think we can dismiss his views of women as simply being representative of patriarchal first century culture.
What then is to be done with this tricky text?
Walter Liefeld, in his NIV Application Commentary on 1 Timothy, proposes asking the following questions about this passage:
- Does the use of the verb authenteo in this context restrict women from authority of any sort, or is a stronger meaning of controlling, dominating, or assuming authority on one’s own in view here, narrowing the scope of restriction?
- If a woman teaches a mixed group today, does that imply the same authority that the teaching of the early apostolic traditions about Christ had in the first century?
- Would a woman’s teaching men or being part of a leadership team to which men are accountable violate moral standards of decency today as it would have in Paul’s day?
- Was Paul’s description of his apostolic practice (“I do not permit”) a command for all time and circumstances, even though it was not expressed as an imperative?
- As we address our biblically illiterate society, is it meaningful to reflect Adam’s chronological priority and Eve’s deception by forbidding women from teaching men and from participating in leadership?
- If we require women to refrain from teaching or participating in leadership, should we, for the sake of hermeneutical consistency with Paul’s instructions about head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 (given the eight biblical and theological reasons for that practice), also require that practice today?
Liefeld goes on to state that if we are uncertain about the answers to any of those questions, we should be extraordinarily hesitant to restrict women’s roles in the church on the basis of this passage. These questions defy easy answers, and we should avoid quick and easy conclusions about this text.
But are there any alternative understandings of this passage?
Linda Belleville, in Discovering Biblical Equality, translates 1 Timothy 2:11-12 this way: “Let a woman learn in a quiet and submissive fashion. I do not, however, permit her to teach with the intent to dominate a man. She must be gentle in her demeanor.”
N.T. Wright, in The Kingdom New Testament, gives this translation for the same verses: “They [women] must study undisturbed, in full submission to God. I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; rather, that they should be left undisturbed.”
Both these translations offer intriguing and insightful possibilities for these verses. But, I fear they interpret too much, injecting theology and interpretation into the translation to an extent that isn’t supported by the underlying text. Just as the NIV, ESV, and NET translations seem to fall too far in the direction of absolute and severe limitation on women, Wright and Belleville seem to provide “easy” interpretations that obscure the hermeneutical difficulties.
To be fair, both back up their understandings with impressive scholarship. But that scholarship should inform our reading of the text, not the actual translation. Perhaps this is a verse that should be accompanied by a very large asterisk that directs the reader to Liefeld’s questions and encourages the reader to investigate the matter more fully.
In the end, we must be content with more questions than answers. We must seek to address the full context of the passage, historically and grammatically and theologically and place it in its appropriate position within (or outside) the Pauline corpus and the New Testament as a whole. Any understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12 that reduces it to a universal restriction on women’s roles in the church is, consciously or not, promoting a misogynistic and harmful view of women. But any understanding that simply dismisses the passage as the product of an ancient culture that now has no relevance to our modern life has also run roughshod over the text.
Returning to Liefeld’s questions, it seems clear to me that the answer to most, if not all of them, is “no” and that given such uncertainty regarding this text, women should have full inclusion in all aspects of church ministry. To settle for anything less is to fail to fully embrace the true message of Christianity.
Dan is the Executive Editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians blog. He is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has two cats.