March is Women’s History Month: Discussing 1 Timothy 2:12

As a woman Christian Apologist felt called by God to teach, a first reading of the passage in 1 Timothy 2:12[1]is extremely troubling. A literal reading of this verse declares that a woman should not teach or have authority over a man. But was this instruction by Paul to Timothy’s church universally applicable to all churches for all time? There are some who interpret this verse to mean that women are never to teach within the Church – ever. The Matthew Henry Commentary reflects this interpretation:

 According to St. Paul, women are not allowed to be public teachers in the church; for teaching is an office of authority. But good women may and ought to teach their children at home the principles of true religion. Also, women must not think themselves excused from learning what is necessary to salvation, though they must not usurp authority. As woman was last in the creation, which is one reason for her subjection, so she was first in the transgression. But there is a word of comfort; that those who continue in sobriety, shall be saved in child-bearing, or with child-bearing, by the Messiah, who was born of a woman. And the especial sorrow to which the female sex is subject, should cause men to exercise their authority with much gentleness, tenderness, and affection.[2]

– Matthew Henry


This isn’t a ‘rare’ interpretation. Many in the Church over the centuries have understood the entire passage of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 similarly. At first reading, it does seem to infer that women are second-class citizens, who are not even allowed to dress attractively, and are the daughters of Eve, the “original trouble-maker.”[3] This view of women, the other half of the Imago Dei (Image of God), has been used to mistreat half of humanity for far too long.

Yet, this interpretation is hard to swallow. Given other passages in the Bible that contradict this instruction, since women have taught throughout Scripture, it is plausible that the Church has seriously misunderstood this verse.[4]When this verse is studied in its cultural context, we will see that Paul did not mean to prohibit women, who are gifted to teach, from exercising their teaching gifts in a public congregation with mixed company for all of time.

Cultural Influences

Without understanding the cultural context of Scripture, or knowing the heart of God, skeptics are quick to jump to the conclusion that the Bible contradicts itself because there are some passages that appear mutually opposed. That is why it is critical, for a more comprehensive view of the Word of God, to grasp what was going on in the First Century when this letter was written to the young pastor, Timothy.

Timothy’s church was in the city of Ephesus. This was a commercial crossroads, and therefore, attracted a great variety of visitors with diverse religious beliefs. According legend, Ephesus was founded by the tribe of the Amazons, great female warriors. The name is possibly derived from “Apasas,” the name of a city in the “Kingdom of Arzawa,” which means the city of the Mother Goddess.[5]Ephesus was also the home of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Temple Artemus (or Diana), where a statue of the goddess Diana, who was believed to be a product of angels, was worshipped.[6]

There was a ‘female-only’ cult in Ephesus, that met in the Temple Diana. The “priests” there were all women, and “they ruled the show and kept the men in their place,” according to New Testament Scholar, N.T. Wright.[7]

Paul wrote to cities that were Greek and often had goddesses, instead of gods, as the chief leader of their city. The Greeks adored women, holding to some of Greek Mythology and polytheism. Greeks went overboard and made gods out of women, and since men gave into temptation easily, they believed that women held this kind of power over men.[8]In nearby Corinth, Aphrodite was also worshipped as the goddess of love. 

The Exception, Not the Rule

The cities of Corinth and Ephesus are the only areaswhere Paul addressed the differences between men and women in leadership of the church. It is important to note that 1 Timothy 2:12 is also theonly versein the Bible that prohibits women from teaching, or being in positions of authority over men. The meaning of “to teach or have authority over” occurs nowhere else in Scripture.[9]Hence, it demands careful attention.

Historical Influences

Under Greek rule, Ephesus was a center of learning and the birthplace and home of the great Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. Women enjoyed rights and privileges equal to men and there are records of female artists, sculptors, painters and teachers.[10]Under Roman rule, at the time of Paul’s visits, it remained a leading political and intellectual center, with large libraries and schools of philosophy.[11]One secular-historian says there was a decline in this once cosmopolitan city when Christianity became the dominant religion in the region. Thus, the Emperor Theodosius had all the temples and schools closed; women were reduced to second-class citizen status, no longer allowed to teach men or work independently in the arts:[12]

Worship of the ancient mother goddess Artemis was forbidden, and the Temple of Artemis was destroyed by a Christian mob, the ruins used as a quarry for building materials for other local projects such as churches. The streets, once adorned with statuary, highly maintained and lighted by the oil lamps at night, fell into decay and darkness as the attention of the now-Christian citizens of Ephesus was directed toward the Second Coming of Christ.[13]

Could this radical social reform be what God had intended for women? It is understandable why cult ritual practices were forbidden (and it is typical of human behavior to often “throw the baby out with the bath water”), but to reduce women to be viewed as second-class citizens? Sadly, this attitude has been prevalent in history, and it reduces the female half of the Imago Dei to a status of inferiority. 

Adjusting to New Ideas

 It is probable that the letter to the Galatians would have been circulating among the new Christian churches, as well, and the new-found freedom in Christ, of which Paul wrote, was perhaps causing some testing of new behaviors that were not always acceptable. Just like churches struggle today trying to make sense of male and female roles, imagine not even having the entire New Testament available (since it was still being written) for guidance on how to organize this budding new religious movement.

So, Paul taught what is required of membership in God’s family. Christians are now the renewed people of Abraham: the male line and circumcision no longer matters (Gal. 3:28). This could have led women to assert themselves in the worship service in ways that threatened unity, which was a major focus in Paul’s writing to Timothy.[14]

Imagine what Paul must have encountered when the new churches were formed: disruptions in the worship services (by women inquiring of the meaning of prophecies[15]), anger stemming from confusion, arguments of some men also contributing to the problem, and a possible disregard for biblical distinctions.[16]These are the issues Paul sought to address, among troubling false teachings.

Regarding the issue of speaking in church services, in the Middle East it was taken for granted that men and women would sit apart. Services were also held in formal or classical Arabic, which men knew and many women did not.[17]So, when Paul says the women should “remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12), he was probably addressing the women who may have been bored in the service, and talked among themselves. Paul encourages them instead to ask their husbands questions about the sermon when they get home.

Letters Versus Epistles

When Paul wrote his letters to certain churches, theologians see these letter writings as a kind of hybrid between a private letter addressing specific issues going on within a particular church, and a literary epistle containing more generalized theological matters as a whole.[18]First Timothy is a letter, and Raymond F. Collins notes that “of all the literary genres, it is the epistolary genre that is most conditioned by the coordinates of time and space, historical and relational circumstances.”[19]One can infer, then, that the content of Paul’s letter to Timothy immediately related to a situation that determined this composition. So, what was the problem that led to the restriction on women teaching in Timothy’s church? 

False Teachers: Gnostics & Pagans

Timothy’s church had split from the synagogue. Even though its members were both Jewish and Gentile, it was the Gentiles who “openly confessed their evil deeds,” including the practice of “magic arts.”[20]Because of this, many theologians state that what Paul is stressing is the infiltration of false teachings into the church at Ephesus.[21]Others concur, insisting that 1 Timothy 2:12 contains a temporary restraining order issued to stop a certain group of women who were teaching the heresy in Ephesus. They see this restriction as a local rather than universal rule.[22]Considering what the city of Ephesus was like back then, it is very plausible that newly converted women may have been bringing pagan practices into Timothy’s church. 

An early form of Gnosticism was also infiltrating the Ephesian church during the time Paul wrote to Timothy. The Gnostics taught that material things are bad, and this carried over into the view of marriage: they had an ascetic attitude towards it. This is what Paul addressed in chapter five, when he speaks of young widows (5:3-16). “The prominent teaching role of women in Gnostic circles helps explain Paul’s restriction on women teaching in this situation,” Dr. Payne noted.[23]

The Gnostics held a dualistic view of a person: the spirit was good, the body was bad. This carried over into the forbidding of marriage, while engaging in libertarian behavior (since one’s body was considered of little importance). This libertarian tendency directly opposed Paul’s teaching on holiness, propriety and modesty, to name a few.[24]Gnostics also held that Christ did not bodily raise from the dead, and that only Jesus’ spirit resurrected. Paul addresses this in the second letter of Timothy, saying this teaching had already destroyed the faith of some.[25]

In addition to the false teaching of the Law and the Gnostics, women teachers were not acceptable in either Greek or Jewish societies in the First Century and before. Women were not even counted as reliable witnesses in courts back then. So, it would have been counter-productive to allow women to teach.[26]

False Teachers: The Jewish Heresy

Again, Paul’s primary purpose in writing a letter to Timothy was to advise Timothy on how to overcome false teaching.[27] In 1 Timothy 1:7, Paul refers to those “who want to be teachers of the law.” Centuries of traditions from observing the Law were now being changed as Christ became the culmination of the Law (Rom. 10:4). New converts probably had the Old Testament (since New Testament was literally being written), and continued observance of the Law was a constant problem Paul sought to correct. He also addressed myths, endless genealogies, controversies causing people to leave the faith, and other meaningless talk and/or misuse of the law.[28]

In chapter two, Paul stresses peace in contrast to the contentiousness of false teachers. Some infer that women were more easily led by false teaching because of Paul’s reference to Satan’s deception in 1 Timothy 2:14. This is what some other theologians think also provided the basis for restricting teaching by women.[29]        

Suffice it to say, women had it rough. They were not educated, had no voice in politics, and could not be witnesses in a court trial. They were not allowed to speak to men in public, and were required to veil their faces whenever they left their homes.[30]

It is important to note that in 1 Timothy 2:10, Paul is addressing women “who claim to be devoted to God,” or submitted to Him. Then, following in verse 11, Paul encourages women to be educated. N.T. Wright believes, given the Biblical context, that the main point is that women should learn in full submission towards God.[31]The focus is that women are encouraged to learn; by doing so, learning could eventually lead to teaching.

Regarding the words “having authority over,” the word choice Paul used was a rare verb (authentio), and has more to do with ‘flouting’ authority by ‘control and dominance’ rather than a forbidding of shared participation in corporate congregational decisions.[32]Paul also says that Eve “became a sinner” (v. 14), but this has been poorly misunderstood to deride Eve as the sinner who plunged humanity into misery.[33]Paul does not mean to infer because Eve is a sinner he is restricting her from teaching. Instead, it is understood that he may have seen the woman as more easily deceived and perhaps not as trustworthy. Paul did not intend to make women appear insubordinate to men; some think he is merely referring to the original deception.[34]Paul was no sexist, but rather a champion of the equality of men and women before God.[35]It is thought that he was addressing Eve’s ‘bad influence’ over Adam (v. 14), which resulted in disaster.

Evidently, a Jewish heresy related to the Fall, was also being taught at the time. These false teachers taught that male authority in the church and home, and the women’s childbearing role, were curses for sin. Paul corrects this by explaining that Jesus’ atoning work restores everyone to the pre-fall state. Eve’s curse involved oppressive male leadership and pain in childbirth, shattering the original harmony between man and woman. In pre-fall creation, leadership and childbearing were not cursed but blessed.[36]

Concluding Thoughts 

If it is true that women should not teach or preach to men in any public capacity in the church, then it follows that a pastor should never recommend a book to his church that is written by a woman, or allow a testimony given in church that includes explanation of scripture or encourages the church to obey. How about allowing women to be worship leaders? Since lyrics can have a teaching or exhorting capacity, one might as well prohibit that, too. Does this fit with the biblical narrative? Just think of the songs Miriam and Deborah sang to publicly edify Israel for that answer (Exodus and Judges).

Even Complementarian New Testament Scholar, Thomas Schreiner, said that: “men should be open to receiving biblical and doctrinal instruction from women. Otherwise they are not following the humble example of Apollos, who learned from Priscilla and Aquila.”[37] Schreiner encourages women to share what they have learned from the Scriptures when the church gathers, citing both 1 Corinthians 14:26 and Colossians 3:16 as mutual teachings not limited to men. He rightly stated that “sometimes we men are more chauvinistic than biblical.”[38](Where he feels the line should be drawn is women filling the pastoral roles, but that is not the subject being addressed in my article.)

“The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers,” said former President Jimmy Carter, who is now advocating for women’s rights globally.[39]

Just consider the countless women on the mission field that preach, teach, evangelize, and lead evangelical ministries in non-Western countries. The Church needs women to help fulfill the call to “go into all the world and preach to all creation” (Mark 16:15). However, just like any leader in the church, women (and men!) should show appropriate submission to the spiritual head, or the elders of a church body where they teach, and most importantly, Christ Himself, who is the Head of the Church (Eph. 5:23).

Practical Church Application

After careful consideration of the historical and cultural settings surrounding 1 Timothy 2:12, I believe I have shown that women who teach biblical concepts to a mixed audience in the Church are not being disobedient to God’s law. The three most significant principles learned from this passage are: 1) False teachers (male and female) were bringing heretical ideas into Timothy’s church; 2) Women were worshipped as goddesses in Ephesus, and that kind of influence, or anything resembling deception, was prohibited; 3) Women sat separately from the men in church services, and were chatting amongst themselves (since they may not have understood the language), which is why Paul instructed them to keep silent during the service. Given these cultural and historical factors, and since there are many examples elsewhere of women leaders in Scripture who engaged in biblical instruction, women should be allowed to teach men today in church settings. 

Individual churches manage women teachers in a variety of ways. Some churches, that take a more conservative view of this verse, try to get around it by putting a man in authority over a woman so she does not usurp his authority. These churches will often allow her to teach other men in certain situations. However, the verse does not say: “I don’t allow a woman to teach unless she has a man over her.” A church practicing this would still be in violation of its own interpretation. 

The best thing churches can do is to have a governing body in which every teacher, preacher, prophet or leader (male or female) should be submitted. All churches should be fully submitted to God, and seek His wisdom, guidance and instruction in the Bible as best understood. If a woman is called to teach, and is not permitted because of a church’s interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12, it might behoove her to find a church willing to use her gifts to build up the Body of Christ. If she feels called to remain in such a church, then she should pray for God’s favor to show those in decision-making roles how the Bible does not prohibit women teachers. With prayer and God’s blessings, hopefully the church will see the benefit of allowing the gifts of the Spirit to be fully utilized by women, who should teach under the submission of church leaders and God Himself, just as godly men should do.

Works Cited

Beck, James R. General Editor. Two Views of Women in Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Kindle.

Cabal, Ted. General Editor. The Apologetics Study Bible.Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007. Print.

Carter, Jimmy. “Losing My Religion for Equality.” TheAge.com.au.(April 27, 2017.) Website. Accessed May 5, 2017.

Gundry, Robert H. A Survey of the New Testament.Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012. Print.

Hutchison, John. Matthew–Revelation New Testament Survey Course-pack. La Mirada, CA: Biola University, 2017. Print Course Materials.

Liefeld, Walter L. The NIV Application Commentary on 1 & 2 Timothy & Titus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999. Print.

Mark, Joshua. “Ephesus.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. (2009.) Website. Accessed May 1, 2017.

Matthew Henry Concise Commentary. “1 Timothy 2.” The Bible Hub.(2017.) Website. Accessed March 13, 2017.

Payne, Philip B. Man and Woman, One in Christ.Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009. Print.

The Telegraph, “Top 10 Worst Bible Passages.” Telegraphy Media Group, Limited.(2017.) Website. Accessed March 13, 2017.

Towner, Philip H. 1-2 Timothy & Titus.Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1994. Print.

Vallotton, Kris. Fashioned to Reign. Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2013. Print.

Wright, N.T. Surprised by Scripture. New York, NY: Harper One, 2014. Print.

Footnotes


[1]“But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.”

[2]Matthew Henry Concise Commentary, 1 Timothy 2, The Bible Hub website, http://biblehub.com/commentaries/mhc/1_timothy/2.htm, accessed March 13, 2017.

[3]N.T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture(New York, NY: Harper One, 2014), 79. 

[4]Women functioned as prophets in the Old Testament (Exod. 15:20-21; Judg. 4:4-5; 2 Kings 22:14-20). Anna in the New Testament also served as a prophetess (Luke 2:36-38). At Pentecost, the Spirit was poured out on both men and women (Acts 2:17-18). Phillips daughters were prophets (Acts 21:9), and women in Corinth exercised the gift of prophecy, as well (1 Cor. 11:5). Prophecy is not the same as teaching, but one can infer that women spoke spiritual revelations over both men and women. Junia is also listed as an apostle, and most scholars agree that this is a feminine name (Rom. 16:7). The spiritual gift of teaching as listed in Romans 12:6-8, also gives no indication that a woman cannot have this gift. It follows, then, that women would exercise this gift in mixed company within the church and, in fact, did. In Acts 18:6, Priscilla and Aquila together instruct Apollos in the ways of the Lord. Also, in Titus 2:3 the teaching of women is commended. 

[5]Joshua Mark, “Ephesus”(Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ltd., September 2, 2009), accessed May 1, 2017.

[6]John Hutchison, Matthew–Revelation New Testament Survey Course-pack(© Biola University), 30. 

[7]Wright, 80.

[8]Kris Vallotton, Fashioned to Reign(Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2013), 103.

[9]Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 291.

[10]Mark, “Ephesus,”accessed May 1, 2017.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Philip H. Towner, 1-2 Timothy & Titus(Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 69.

[15]1 Cor. 14:33-35

[16]Ibid. 

[17]Wright, 72.

[18]Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 404. 

[19]Payne, 291.

[20]Acts 19:18

[21]Payne, 294.

[22]Towner, 72.

[23]Payne, 298.

[24]Ibid.

[25]2 Tim. 2:16-18.

[26]Walter L. Liefeld, The NIV Application Commentary on 1 & 2 Timothy & Titus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 98.

[27]Payne, 294.

[28]Payne, 296.

[29]Ibid, 297.

[30]Vallotton, 103.

[31]Wright, 80.

[32]Liefeld, 99.

[33]Ibid, 100.

[34]Liefeld, 100.

[35]Ted Cabal, general Editor, The Apologetics Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 1801. Also, in Romans 16, Paul lists people he considers colleagues, and approximately 30% of them are women.

[36]Ibid.

[37]James R. Beck, general editor, Two Views of Women in Ministry(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), kindle location 5256. 

[38]Beck, 5330.

[39]Jimmy Carter, “Losing My Religion for Equality,”(TheAge.com.au: April 27, 2017), accessed May 5, 2017. Carter has served as a Deacon and Bible Teacher for decades in his Southern Baptist Denomination, and after sixty years, recently broke ties from this denomination due to its biblical interpretations on the role of women.