For all those that argue for the full inclusion of women in leadership in the church, 1 Timothy 2:12 holds a remarkable place of power in the argument. I have argued that the Bible and especially Paul elevate women in leadership, and that 1 Corinthians is a fine example of Paul’s argument for radically equal relationships between husbands and wives. But this passage has a way of trumping all others in this conversation.
I rather agree with Gail Wallace from her post with an enviable title, “Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb,” that this one passage is a little like throwing a grenade into the conversation. (You should check out her post if for no other reason than to explore the good work that is being done over at The Junia Project.) The reason this is so effective at stopping conversation is that it alone of all New Testament passages would seem to prohibit women’s leadership if read with a hermeneutic that is not aware of contextual matters. That is an important sentence for this discussion, so I will unpack it some more.
All other passages on this issue, if read within the full context in their own right, will show that women had various kinds of teaching and leadership responsibilities. A good example is the heavily contextual matters of 1 Corinthians 11. But as I explained in that post, neither this verse nor 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 can legitimately be taken in this way because 1 Corinthians 11:5 assumes that women will be leading and prophesying in the congregation. But this one passage from Paul (1 Tim. 2:12), if read on the surface can easily be mistaken for prohibiting women’s leadership and it has often been read that way.
So let’s begin by saying this: This one verse is the lynchpin in the entire complementarian argument. Before I get into the interpretation itself, it is an important principle of interpretation that we NOT build entire systems of theology upon a single verse. It is also a principle that we have to take the whole counsel of God’s word together, and that the bulk of the material that supports women in leadership at all levels cannot be undermined by a single passage to the contrary. Finally, it is also an important principle of interpretation that you do not build entire networks of theology off of passages that are unclear. While I will try to clarify the context and meaning of this passage as much as possible, there is still considerable ambiguity as to how it should be interpreted.
11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (1 Timothy 2, NIV).
The source of that ambiguity primarily rests on the ambiguity of a single word: authentein. This word appears no where else in the New Testament. It appears as a verb only here and about 4 other occurrences in all literature of the period (Payne, 361-397; it begins to occur more often several hundred years later). The noun forms appear more often in extra-biblical literature, however. “As Chantraine noted, the authent- root words are typically strong and emotionally-laden words with negative or dominating overtones such as: murderer, domestic murderer, perpetrator, or autocrat” (Payne, 363). The verb form is sometimes used for murdering someone or for “murdering one’s self” (suicide), but that is clearly not the application here.
The more applicable uses of this word have to do with something like the word “domineer.” According to Belleville, “In fact, all known extrabiblical instances of autothentein (rare though they may be) prior to the second century AD without exception have to do with power or domination” (Two Views On Women In Ministry, 95). For instance, in the context of a financial dispute over the price for ferrying cattle, “I had my way with him [kamou authentekotos pros auton], and he agreed to provide Calatytis the boatman with the full fare within the hour” (quoted in Two Views, 96). And then in a second century AD text on astronomy, Ptolemy says
If Saturn alone is ruler of the soul and dominates [authentes] Mercury and the moon, if he has a dignified position with reference to the universe and the angles, he makes his subjects lovers of the body, strong-minded, deep thinkers, austere, of a single purpose, laborious, dictatorial, ready to punish, lovers of property, avaricious, violent, amassing treasure, and jealous; but if his position is the opposite and without dignity… (Tetrabiblos, III.13, my emphasis)
Paul had several verbs at his disposal that would mean “to have authority” as the 1984 NIV improperly translates 1 Timothy 2:12 (the new edition is “assume authority,” only marginally better). Paul is concerned that women had started to “teach and domineer” over men in the same way that men had previously done to women. It’s not surprising that women in Ephesus would do so.
As many have argued, the permission for women to learn which is given in verse 11 is an innovation within Jewish circles. Here as in so many other places, Paul wasn’t affirming the patriarchy of his time. He was subverting it. Only men learned the Scripture in such a way. But women having religious authority was not unique in Ephesus (where Timothy is pastoring when the letter is written). In fact, the goddess Artemis, who’s temple was the most prominent religious feature in Ephesus, had a woman as high priestess. Unlike the “temple priestesses” in Corinth, the high priestess in Ephesus was not a “leader” with no real authority that was being abused for sex. The Artemis priest had real authority. So the women in Ephesus would be even more likely than the women in Corinth to take the permission to learn as a matter of privilege that could be lorded over the men. Other women in their city already held such religious authority. It’s likely (though not certain) that Paul is calling these women to learn in submission to God, not to men, just as the men would be called to do.
Paul is not concerned with women teaching, but rather misusing their new permission to learn as a permission to lord over the men as teachers. Most of them simply would not have been ready for this kind of role, given that few would be educated at a very high level. And given that the point of Paul’s writing is concern with false teachers (1 Tim 1:3-7), it’s not surprising that he would chasten the domineering authority of women that were largely uneducated.
Some have argued that the reason given for the subordination of women is not a cultural one, but is rather based on primal man and women (Adam and Eve). They would suggest that this is about the way things always are between man and woman. But notice the argument: Adam was born first, then Eve, and it was Eve that was deceived. Why was Eve able to be deceived in Genesis? The text isn’t explicit, but notice that Eve isn’t there when God gives commands about the garden to Adam. She only had these commands second hand, and therefore is easily deceived about what God actually said to Adam. Like the women in Ephesus, she was easily deceived because she had not been taught. As Paul instructs a community dealing with false teachers, he instructs them to not let uneducated women become deceived and then perpetuate false teaching.
It seems unlikely that any modern person could argue theologically or practically that women are any more open to deception than men in respect to false teaching. Women today are not only educated as well as men, younger women are on average more educated than younger men. The implications of this passage are (at least) a warning not to allow those that are of inferior teaching ability to domineer over the congregation in their ignorant zeal, whether they are men or women.
I do not think that Paul intended his words to mean that women could not teach men, in his time or ours. I think he was concerned that women were domineering men, and were often (in his time) doing so from a place of ignorance.
Some have read the list of qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 as prohibiting women from these positions. The argument goes something like this: “An elder has to be a ‘husband of one wife.’ A husband can’t be a woman, so elders must be men.” This argument is such a bad interpretation that I know very few scholars that even bother with countering it. Even the two complementarian scholars of Two Views On Women In Ministry do not make an argument from these passages. To insist that this construction means that an elder must be a man would also mean that an elder must be married and have children. Obviously this would exclude Jesus, likely Paul, and most of the men that have been called to lead the church throughout her history. It would also contradict Paul’s own instructions to remain single for the sake of the Gospel (1 Cor. 7).
These instructions, quite simply, are about the lifestyle of the potential leader. It is telling that Paul gives no other demographic information about potential leaders. He isn’t concerned with demographics in these passages, but ethics.
I have not written in such a manner to finally convince those that disagree with me. I only hope to scratch the surface of assumptions about these passages (and those from previous posts) to provoke an interest in you that will cause you to probe into the sources cited here. After many years of study, I’m more convinced than ever that Paul never intended to limit the leadership of women in any way, in spite of too many claims to the contrary.
The scholarship is readily available. The one that has ears, let them hear.
Click here to see all that I’ve written on women in ministry.
In addition to the sources cited in this article, I also recommend these sources for more help with 1 Timothy:
Discovering Biblical Equality (IVP anthology)
Paul, Women, and Wives (Craig Keener)
Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes (Kenneth Bailey)
Women Leaders and the Church: Three Crucial Questions (Linda Belleville)