On Women Leading Stuff in the Church: 1 Timothy 2:8-12

Anyone that’s actually been following this series on women in the church knows that I haven’t done what most people do when approaching this topic: jump to the proof-texts. I felt that doing it the way I have done was necessary because there were far deeper things that affect how we interpret these texts that needed to be dealt with before we even opened the Bible. In Systematic Theology, this process is called Prolegomena (Greek for, roughly, “things that need to be said first”). It’s a long-standing theological principle, and there’s nothing demeaning to the Bible in approaching theology this way.

how we’ll do this

But it wasn’t until I started writing this post that I realized another reason for my delay. This has been a really hard post to write. Not for content or conviction, mind you. The main issue has been this: for much of my readership (or at least those I would be most interested in changing their minds–those men in higher places in entrenched and influential places that already disagree with me on this), I don’t know that I can say anything different than they have already heard. Further, what can I offer that a simple Google search won’t? I don’t like feeling like feeling like I’m contributing to the noise.

I really don’t want to go into the theological and textual minutiae here in these posts, but I don’t know what’s most helpful to this discussion: a full-scale survey of all the known uses of the Greek word for the “authority” Paul doesn’t permit a woman to hold over a man (hint, hint: it doesn’t mean “authority”)? An in-depth and well-cited description of the unique and, frankly, counter-intuitive religious and historical scene in Corinth and Ephesus? I’m not quite sure.

So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m just going to, in fairly general terms, try and deconstruct the more conservative way of taking these verses, and also offer a construction of how I view the verses now. If people need me to cite sources and defend every little sentence I say, then I can do that, but I don’t want to bog down this post with that stuff, because the people that care are generally the people that both know where to find the information and/or already know this information and have chosen (for whatever reason) to disregard it.

the text

So here we go.

Here’s the text in question for today. Rather than start with the “easier” and less significant texts, I figured I’d just go for the jugular here and go big. This is the single most “problematic” text for those that see a valid place for women in the ordained leadership offices of the Church. The text is 1 Timothy 2:8-14:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.


Well, right off the bat we have some problems here.

v.11, “quietly”: most modern translations put this as “silence”. The ESV here gets it closer to the accurate translation. Everywhere else this work id used in the Bible, it refers to a quiet environment or peaceable presence. This makes sense as Paul just told the men to stop fighting and speaking up during the service (v.8) so (as implied by this verse) the women, who have been staying clam, can learn in a place that is peaceful and not distracting.

“submissiveness”: I’ll go ahead and put this here. This word has no indication in the text as to what the women are submitting to. It is very likely (and fits the context well) that it is referring to being submissive to God, the Holy Spirit, the leaders preaching (both male and female, in my mind), or to the Word being preached.

v.12, “authority”: this is the most famous mistranslation. I really don’t have the space to put all the points here, but here’s the important bits. This word, in all of Greek literature, never means “authority” as in legitimate, healthy authority. In other words, what women are being held back from is not something that, elsewhere, men are allowed to exercise. Paul talks about “authority” a lot in his writings, and he never uses this word for good, healthy church (or any other kind of) authority.

In the earliest Greek writings, this word always means abusive, coercive, violent, and even sexual domineering. This translation is reflected in both the Old Latin and Latin Vulgate translations (from the second to fourth century); they use the words “dominate” and “domineer” instead of “hold authority”. This translational tradition continues in every translation all the way (even through the male-centric King James Version) until around World War II. That’s right. In the history of translation, this word was never translated as “authority” until about 60 years ago.

This is describing something that no believer should exercise over one another, not a good thing that is reserved uniquely for men to exercise. Why would he direct this just to women? We’ll get there.

textual context

Timothy was an elder at the church of Ephesus. Paul spent more time at this church, and went through more experiences here, than in any other place. He personally discipled Timothy and installed him as an elder there. Paul is writing this letter to Timothy years after founding the church, after hearing it has fallen into disarray.

Looking through 1 Timothy, you will see that there is a lot written against false teaching. This (and how it has affected the church) seems to be the main reason for Paul writing this letter. It’s the first thing Paul gets to after saying hello to Timothy (1:3-4). (Traditionally, that verse is translated as if it’s talking about certain “men” teaching false things. The ESV again (and surprisingly) gets it right by reflecting the gender-neutral nature of Paul’s concerns by instead warning against “certain persons” teaching these things. In fact, all of these warnings in 1 Timothy are gender-neutral).

Paul briefly describes these false teachings and then spend the rest of chapter 1 and the first half of chapter 2 reminding Timothy of the Gospel. He then talks about who this applies to the men and women in the church that are acting wrongly (our passage above), and then gives him qualifications for proper leaders in the church (a passage, by the way, that is gender-neutral, except for that “husband of one wife” thing, which we’ll talk about another time).

Paul encourages Timothy as a leader that some people will fall away form the faith, but God is faithful. He ends the book by giving him some practical considerations for how to lovingly and properly deal with different folks in the church.

This was already getting longer than I wanted. Later, we’ll go into the historical context (of which there’s a lot), and I’ll offer a perspective on the text that tries to be sensitive to all of these issues. What we’ve gone through so far are the minor points of looking at this text and, on their own, should not be enough to build an entire theological perspective off of–I get that. The real importance in interpreting this text comes from the historical context, so don’t worry–there’s more to come.

[image credit:”Untitled” by Angie Hoffmeister on Tumblr]


7 thoughts on “On Women Leading Stuff in the Church: 1 Timothy 2:8-12

  1. Pingback: N.T. Wright: Egalitarianism isn’t “progressive”; it’s biblical. Others object. {8} | the long way home

  2. I appreciate your thoughts here, but feel like I’d really benefit from/enjoy a dialogue between you and someone from a differing perspective.

    Not that this is necessarily the case here, but I’ve read enough theology/exegesis that at the time sounded right, but when examined more closely displayed some noticeable flaws and oversights. Again, not saying that’s the case here, just that I don’t know enough to know – make sense?

    I’d love to see you do some back and forth posts on this topic (and others while we’re at it) with someone of a different perspective who can go tit for tat with you from a scholarly standpoint.


  3. Pingback: On Women Leaders in the Church: Timothy’s cultural context | the long way home

  4. Perhaps, Whit, I can be one of those people who comes from a different perspective.

    First Paul, it wouldn’t be fair to the discussion to paint those on the other side as people who “for whatever reason have chosen to disregard the information” that you present. We haven’t disregarded it; or at least I haven’t. I simply disagree with your conclusions and see some issues with your process for arriving at those conclusions.

    Having said that, let’s deal with your section on the apostle’s use of the greek verb here translated as exercising authority or dominating (1 Tim 2:12). You do a good job pointing out some of the history of the word’s usage in extra-biblical sources, and it is especially helpful to know how that verb “authenteo” has been translated in older translations of the scriptures. But once we get past our appreciation for your scholarship, we still have the same issue. Why does Paul say what he said in 1 Timothy 2:12. What is the meaning of the prohibition in this verse, and why is it specifically pointed at women in this case? Paul does not say, “I do not permit ANYONE to do this.” He means to single out the female portion of the church here. That’s the obvious part. That’s what everyone can see without reading 500 books. That’s what we need answers for.

    Now, you and many others will say at this point, “You need to understand more about the historical context in order to know why Paul focuses this prohibition on the women. It is because of a problem that existed in Ephesus at that time. Customs and teachings of a particular female-dominated cult were creeping into the church through certain women.”

    Pointing this out is helpful but, at best, it only tells us about the OCCASION for Paul’s words. It does not establish his RATIONALE for those words. I often find that people on your side of the discussion are confusing those two. I see traces of that confusion in your own arguments.

    Yes…part of the occasion for Paul’s instructions was the influence of Ephesian cults and gnostic heresies. But the RATIONALE for the apostle’s instructions is found in 1 Timothy 2:13-14. And when we read his rationale, we cannot convince ourselves that Paul’s reasons are rooted in things that are only true of women in Ephesus at that time.

    He says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to [dominate]…FOR Adam was formed first, then Eve.”

    Paul’s rationale for 1 Tim.2:12 begins right there, and that rationale is clearly rooted in things that are true about all women in all places at all times. It’s based, first of all, on the order of creation. In essence, Paul says that the order of the church in Ephesus (and we would rightly apply this to every other part of the world) is to reflect the order of creation itself. It would be a terrible mistake to buy into the argument that this is only applicable to situations that resemble the one in Ephesus during Timothy’s time.

    The OCCASION for Paul’s words owes itself to the cultural context of Timothy’s situation. However, the RATIONALE for Paul’s words arises from the universal truth of creation itself and is, therefore, applicable to all people in all places at all times.


  5. Pingback: Women & the Church: What’s Adam & Eve got to do with it? [1] | the long way home

  6. Pingback: Women & the Church: What’s Adam & Eve got to do with it? [2] | the long way home

  7. Pingback: A Male Feminist Wrestles with the Bible (come watch!) | Prodigal Paul | the long way home

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