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

In this series on women in the church I haven’t taken the usual approach of jumping right to Bible verses. I feel there are far deeper things that affect how we interpret before we even opened the Bible. I thought we should talk about that.

This has also been a really hard post to write. For much of my readership (especially those whose minds I am most interested in changing–male church leaders who disagree with me), I don’t know what I can say that’s different than what they’ve heard before. I don’t like feeling like I’m contributing to the noise.

So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m just going to try and deconstruct the more conservative view of these verses (this post), and then offer a reconstruction of how I view the verses now (the next post). If people need me to cite sources and such, then I can do that in the comments. I won’t 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 it and have incorporated it into their view. So here we go.

the text

Here’s the text in question. 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 (ESV):

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.

problems in translation

v.11, “quietly”: most modern translations put this as “silence”. The ESV here gets it closer to the accurate translation. Everywhere else in the Bible this word 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. This word is about the environment in which women are learning, not the demeanor of those women.

“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 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 over others. 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 70 years ago.

This is so important. This word translated here as “authority” is describing something that no believer should exercise over one another, it’s not talking about a good thing that is reserved uniquely for men to exercise. Why would Paul direct this just to women? We’ll get there.

textual context & the structure of the letter

Timothy was an elder at the church in Ephesus, where Paul spent more time than in any other known place. He personally mentored 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.

Paul’s main reason for writing is because false teaching has infected the Ephesian church. Timothy only gets 2 verses of greeting before Paul gets right to the bad teachings (1:3-4). (By the way, though older translations say “certain men” are teaching false things, the ESV correctly brings out Paul’s gender-neutral words against “certain persons”. In fact, all of the warnings in 1 Timothy are gender-neutral).

Through Chapter 1 and the first half of Chapter 2, Paul briefly outlines the false teachings reminds Timothy of the foundational Gospel message. He then talks about how this applies to the men and women in the church (our passage above), and then gives qualifications for proper church leaders (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 then spends the rest of the book encouraging Timothy as a leader that some people will fall away from the faith, but God is faithful. He ends by giving practical considerations for how to lovingly and properly deal with different groups in the church.

In the next post, we go into the history and culture behind the letter, and I offer a perspective that tries to be sensitive to all the issues. What we’ve gone through so far are minor points and, on their own, are no slam dunk–I get that. The historical context is really important, 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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