I Do Not Permit A Woman

I Do Not Permit A Woman June 24, 2013


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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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 WilkinsonDan Wilkinson

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.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I love that you leave us with questions rather than attempting to give us a firm answer. Thanks, Dan!

  • This makes you think, ponder, try to determine a conclusion we may never settle, being so far removed from the setting and audience being addressed.

    As in so many things in scripture, there are no easy answers, and no cheat sheet either. That is what makes scripture fascinating

  • Herro

    Are you guys “non-fundamentalists” or “liberal fundamentalists”? I ask because your pre-occupation and worries about what some guy (whether it be Paul or a later writer) wrote 2000 years ago seem rather strange.

    If 1Timothy were chrystal-clear on these six points, it was meant to be very authoratative, it was meant for all times, would you then just say: “That’s it, no women pastors, for the Bible tells me so!”?

    I.e. are you just biblicists who *just interpret the bible differently* than most fundamentalits?

    • I find myself saying this quite often. We’re Christians, so the Bible is the sacred, foundational text of our faith. It tells us, in copied, re-copied and translated form, what those prophets, teachers and apostles from 2000 or more years ago thought was important enough to set down in writing about God and about their interactions with God. We use it to learn how to become Christians and how to live the Christian life, with the understanding that to use and apply these writings as scripture we must attempt to put ourselves into the cultural and linguistic context of the times they were produced.

      • Herro

        James, you say that these are the records of what these guys thought was important. That’s all fine and good. But what happens often is that Christians think that these writings are authoratative (i.e. ‘they say so, so it’s true’-mentality).

        I mean, Augustine also wrote down what he thought was important, but you would never think of using him to settle whether women should be pastors or not. Why not treat the writings that happened to end up in the Bible the same way?

        • My opinion is that many other writings can be treated as scripture but no other writings form the “starting point” for Christian faith that the Bible does. I view 2 Timothy 3:16 as a “benchmark” that can be applied to the question of whether a given writing is or is not scripture and, therefore, is or is not worthy of considering “authoritative” on its subject matter. The key question being “Is it profitable?” for the uses given by the writer of 2 Timothy: doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness. I think we would all agree that none of the Bible’s writings on the subject of slavery are any longer profitable for instruction in righteousness because we can all agree that owning slaves is not a righteous behavior.

          • Herro

            James: I would like to hear more about what you mean by the Bible being the “starting point”.

            But regarding the rest, it sounds to me like you are proposing a test for deciding whether a document (or a part of it) is “authoratative” or not. Do you think that *all* the books of the Bible would even pass that test, while books outside it would pass? The book of Joshua comes to mind

          • The book of Joshua, for instance, may not be as valuable as some other Bible writings for formulating doctrine or instructing us on how to live righteously. However, it does form a valuable part of the background of Judaism from which Christianity sprang. Jesus was a Jew and was steeped in the traditions and teachings of the Hebrew faith. We can’t properly begin to understand who He was and the significance of what He taught without knowing the faith tradition He came from.

            By “starting point”, I mean that there are other writings out there whose subject matter is the Divine and the relationship between humanity and God and whose material can be profitable for the purposes given in 2 Timothy 3:16. For example, I find the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures useful as well as the writings of some mystics like Rumi and Kahlil Gibran. But these works, however valuable and useful, cannot teach us how to become Christians or how to start out in Christian faith.

        • What about Deborah? A civil and religious leader of Israel for 40 years?

          • Herro

            allegro: What about her? :S

            James: Sure, the book of Joshua is valuable in that sense, but so is stuff like Tobit or 1Enoch.

            But do you consider writings like Joshua to be authoratative because they provide cultural context? Or are they just helpful to understand the truly authoratative writings? :S

    • James Garcia

      I’ve said this many times in other places, but to me, it seems as if the Bible has become a huge stumbling block for the church altogether. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would be sent to teach us, to guide us, to comfort us. He never once said “I will one day send a book, after that, let’s stop worrying about the Holy Spirit and focus on what that book says…” The early church didn’t have the Bible and the survived and flourished, sending the church spreading across the world. If we focused on reading the Bible as a history of the church, to see where the church got its roots, and stopped using it like a huge rule book, we might be able to hear the urging of the Holy Spirit a little better. The legalistic religion that Christianity has become can only be said to come from the Bible and people trying to use it to control and dominate others. If we got our teaching from the TRUE teacher (The Holy Spirit) we wouldn’t have to worry about getting interpretations wrong.

      • Deferring to the teachings of the HS doesn’t resolve differences of interpretation — if anything, it opens up a whole new can of worms, with multiple people and groups all claiming to be receiving guidance straight from God.

        • James Garcia

          Hmmm… Didn’t seem to be a problem with the early church… It seems to me that the Bible and it’s interpretations are what has caused such a huge division in the body of Christ, leading people to condemn others as heretical because they have different interpretations. It also allows people that want power to say “well see? The Bible says so!” If you JUST rely on the Holy Spirit (which is what the Apostles and early Christians did) you don’t feel like you’re being heretical or blasphemous by questioning what people say. As it stands now if you even THINK about questioning a “Biblical” teaching you are condemned and attacked. I trust God enough to believe that the true body of Christ would be able to tell the difference between someone pretending and someone that was truly being led by the Holy Spirit. There are documented cases of this in the Bible itself that show this to be so (see the story of Simon the sorcerer, who was eventually exposed as a false prophet.) The reason this isn’t happening now is because people have stopped looking to the Holy Spirit for guidance and instead look to the Bible. When there is a disagreement instead of looking to the Holy Spirit they say “well see? The Bible says so!” But the problem with that, is that the other person can ALSO say that, they’ve just interpreted it a different way. This is another reason why I believe the Bible is a stumbling block for the church.

          • “Didn’t seem to be a problem with the early church” !!! Because the early church didn’t have any confusion, was all exactly on the same page on all the issues and functioned in perfect peace and harmony — NOT!

            I appreciate your deference to the work of the Holy Spirit, and I completely agree that the Church needs more of that. But I don’t think the HS is a panacea for divisions within the Church. People always find a way to assert power and authority, whether through misuse of the Bible, misuse of the HS or through a myriad of other means.

          • James Garcia

            Can’t say I don’t agree with that. Too bad everyone can’t just agree that doctrine doesn’t matter and just focus on loving and helping each other out. I always say that people should to the loving and helping and let Jesus do the converting, judging, and saving if necessary.

  • John Shore

    All Christians are “biblicists,” Herro. And yes, we here at UC certainly do interpret the Bible differently than do fundamentalists. That’s kind of the point.

    • Herro

      Surely you can be a Christian and think of the Bible as just a collection of non-authoratative ancient writings?

      So basically if the bible were absolutely clear regarding homosexuality being a sin and women not being pastors, you would agree with the traditional fundamentalists?

      • Check out the about tab at the top of the page. That should give you some insight about where we stand on some things.

        • Herro

          Thanks allegro. Though I had already found it and read it.

          • I see where gay sexual encounters may be interpreted as sinful in scripture but it can be talking about something else entirely. Considering how little time is. I spent on the matter throughout the Bible, it seems more a non issue

          • Herro

            Right. There are just handful of verses that deal with it. So something has to be mentioned often in the bible to be authoratative? Trying to filter out the stuff you don’t like in the bible from the good stuff is a messy business, and I don’t think you can get the desired results by stuff like frequency of it being discussed.

          • it’s much less a matter of “filter out the stuff you don’t like” than it is a matter of carefully and prayerfully assessing “what was the writer trying to say to his audience?” “who was the intended audience?” “is this actually important or useful to us now as we try to formulate how to live today as Christians?”

          • Well consider this. What if its not the bible that is authoritative at all? What if its a tool that is used that hints at the authoritative along with other tools?

            I personally consider the bible as such giving the title and task of authority to God, who is by no means found only within the confines of the bible.

            Therefore, I , like everyone else will deem passages as important or not depending on what I hope is a sound course to following God.

      • For the record I do not believe that being gay is remotely sinful . The idea is quite offensive to me and completely counter to my foundational belief of loving all people with the amount i desire for myself. I also think that women have taught and led in some fashion in the church for as long as there has been a church. They should get more equal standing and respect for their contributions and abilities which are in no way superior nor inferior to their male counterparts.

  • EllenHar

    The only actual imperative in the passage is “let the women learn.” The word for authority in this passage is unique – it is not the same word that is translated as “authority” anywhere else in the scriptures. That alone should raise a red flag regarding the meaning of this passage. The actual meaning is more mysterious, likely having something to do with women’s roles in the cult of Artemis which absolutely dominated the city of Ephesus in which Timothy’s fledging little church was trying to take hold. In the larger context of his letter, Paul is talking to Timothy about false teachers of all kinds- both those who teach falsely in order to deceive, and those who teach falsely out of ignorance and lack of education. It is likely that this woman is probably in the category of being a false teacher, and whatever was happening between women and men in the local cult of Artemis (a fertility cult), it makes sense that Paul would not want that to infiltrate the church. That teaching had to stop. But the imperative is, let the women learn (so they do not teach falsely). Eve was ill informed when she made her decision to eat the forbidden fruit. Adam was not. In chapter one you see what Paul does with the men who are deliberate in their falseness — he hands them over to Satan.
    (That cult also promised to keep women safe in childbearing. It also makes sense that Paul would want women to trust God for that, and not the local cult.)
    In light of the fact that women held all sorts of church offices and roles in Paul’s time, including Apostle (Junia), to interpret anything Paul writes to justify shutting down the voice of women just doesn’t fit.

  • I always heard (even in a Southern Baptist congregation, no less, years ago), that some of these passages about women were highly cultural – that is, the “do not teach” one pretaining to women at that time and place not having much formal education… so less a jab at women and more something like “If all your art training is in doing stick-figure comics, you aren’t qualified to teach an advanced life drawing class.” *Shrug* What’s weird is that my old church interpreted it this way for Sunday School teachers but the more “traditional” “women are magically spiritually-inferior” when it came to the prospect of woman pastors…

    Not like I’ve been to church in years, but that’s what I remember.

    (Testing the waters… seeing if I’m allowed to come back. I will go right away if I’m not welcomed here. Just let me know).

    • Some southern Baptist congregations have female worship leaders and of course a slew of Sunday school teachers. They do let women speak or even preach on special occasions in some congregations. They just haven’t jumped in the pool yet, preferring to just wade on the shallow end in this.

      Your contribution does show that the church, is making some progress, we just need to work to ensure that all feel respected, able to contribute, participate wherever their talents lie.

  • Dona Lynette Stewart

    I disagree with Paul. I reject this passage. Paul has too much ego, and seems almost abusive, psychologically. Every scripture is given by God, but there is nothing like this in the Gospel. Like Paul forgot and failed to comprehend. So why is it sacred writing? It’s in the Bible! No one questions the Bible (at least, very much). If you have read Machiavelli’s The Prince, you will find striking similarities. Was Machiavelli right on? Heck no! God is to be loved, not feared. Same with women. I think Paul may have to pay for what he said. I don’t think he will make it through the judgement.