A Look at 1 Timothy 2:11-15

In Paul’s first letter to his protégé, Timothy, who was helping lead the church in Ephesus, we find one of the most controversial passages in the Bible, 1 Timothy 2:11-15. As this blog has turned somewhat into a way of processing things for myself, I tend to be drawn to passages like these. Sometime I should write a post on a not so super controversial passage, but we’ll save that for another day. Let’s start with the passage, and you’ll see immediately why it’s such a hotbed for debates:

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.

1 Timothy 2:11-15

Yikes. See what I mean?

I have made several posts recently about the importance of studying a text, rather than just reading it and going with our initial intuitive interpretation (see here, here, here, here, and here). I would like to go on that journey with you today. Would you join me?

To unpack this, I think we need to first see what he’s not saying. He is not saying that women should never teach or have authority over men in every and all circumstances. Why do I think that? We can see this just by looking at other parts of Scripture.

In Acts 18:24-28, we have a story of a gentleman named Apollos who was a pretty awesome dude. He knew the ways of the Lord and was competent in Scripture, but it says he only knew the baptism of John. Then Priscilla and Aquila (a wife/husband duo) took him aside and taught him the way of God more accurately. When you read the passage, notice three things: (1) Priscilla teaches Apollos, (2) the text is whole-heartily a positive one, and (3) Priscilla’s name was listed first; something that is extremely odd for that day and age. It indicates she was likely the more prominent between her and her husband.

Take also Romans 16:1-2, where Paul is commending a woman named Phoebe to the Roman congregations. He’s doing this in the customary way someone does to commend the person who is carrying the mail. There was no postal service in that time, so you had to send letters with someone. It would be expected that the carrier of the mail explain the letter to those who did not understand it. In other words, the first expositor of the book of Romans was, in all likelihood, Phoebe. Since women’s wisdom was not exactly seen in high regard in the day, Paul commends her for her spiritual qualifications, explains she’s a deacon of the church in Corinth, and calls her a patron:

A patron of a religious association was normally a well-to-do person who allowed members of a religious group to meet in his or her home. The patron was generally a prominent and honored member of the group and generally exercised some authority over it.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 1st Ed.

Furthermore, take a look at 1 Corinthians 11:5 – part of a controversial passage in its own right. If you want to learn more on it, this Bible Project podcast episode that is a Question & Response has helpful comments on it, beginning at 19:35. For today’s purposes, we’ll just notice that the verse assumes that women are prophesying in church. Prophesy in the Bible is not looking into a crystal ball and predicting who’s going to win the next Super Bowl. I find it helpful to think of the word “professor”. A professor professes about what they know and have studied. Prophesying is similar. It’s primarily to profess the truth. Sometimes God reveals to people future truths, but most often God is revealing the truth of a present situation, from God’s point of view, and its potential consequences. If the role of teaching is specifically to teach Scripture, the role of prophecy was to teach everything else. In other words, women were certainly not meant to remain quiet in the church gatherings, nor have no authority whatsoever.

From the three passages mentioned, we can glean that women not being quiet, teaching, and having authority over men were all present in the first century church, both in their gatherings and not. But Paul uses sweeping language against women leadership in 1 Timothy. How can this be all squared together? Well, I have heard this analogy that is helpful. Imagine a group of young boys in a classroom who are being particularly rowdy. The teacher goes home after that stressful day and shares with their spouse how “the boys” were being particularly frustrating that day. Though the teacher used the general term for all boys, they had particular boys in mind. This is not that uncommon of a rhetorical practice: “The coaches were grumpy at practice today” and “the men didn’t want to dance at the wedding” are both examples of all encompassing group identifiers referring only to specific people within those groups. Given these other passages of Scripture, it seems best to interpret 1 Timothy 2 like this. Furthermore, if you happen to read a lot of Paul, you shouldn’t at all be too surprised by his grand language. So what was the problem with these particular women?

We can further illuminate this passage by looking into the background information for Timothy’s context. The prominence of women in the cults of Ephesus almost certainly played a role in what Paul wrote. Though, as the link I just shared says, it is difficult to say with much certainty how much that effected the conversation. Regardless, the more important background information, it seems to me, would be around the educational rights of women:

The proper way for any novice to learn was submissively and “quietly” (a closely related Greek term appears in 2:2 for all believers). Women were less likely to be literate than men, were trained in philosophy far less often than men, were trained in rhetoric almost never, and in Judaism were far less likely to be educated in the law. Given the bias against instructing women in the law, it is Paul’s advocacy of their learning the law, not his recognition that they started as novices and so had to learn quietly, that was radical and countercultural.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 1st Ed.

I think we can find this background commentary’s view to be vindicated by expositing the text itself.

First off, the whole book of Timothy starts off as a warning against false teachers that are leading others astray (1 Tim 1:3-7). Keep that in mind. Talking about Christian teaching and learning is one of Paul’s main goals for the whole letter.

Then we come to our passage for the day. Let me share a visual for what I’m about to say:

Paul’s main point in the section is for the women to learn – this is extremely important to notice. We can see that it is primarily learning, and not quietness or submissiveness, because both quietness and submissiveness in vs 11 are connected to learning. They are not the main points, but learning. What then is vs 12 for, with quietness being restated? So that the women could learn! Not teaching or having authority is contrasted with quietness, which is for the purpose of learning. Vs 12 is Paul doubling down on vs 11, to make sure they understood him. Given the context noted above, this makes great sense. These women needed to learn before they could teach. They were not ready or qualified. Paul’s calling to submit here, then, is for the sake of being able to learn. How many times can I say it? This passage is about learning. haha

How does the reference to Adam and Eve support Paul’s thesis that the women need to learn? Well, remember the situation again. Men were educated and learned at the time. The women were not. The men have been “around longer”, so to speak. And what happens when people who are uneducated in Scriptures and the ways of God teach and have authority? Deception. We shouldn’t be surprised, nor think it’s random, that Paul uses the term deception. Remember, the main idea of what he’s saying in this section is about learning, and a main idea for the whole letter is regarding bad teachers. He uses Adam and Eve here as an analogy for all this. Adam was around longer and the one with less experience was the one deceived (initially). He was warning them of the dangers of teaching without education; without experience in God’s ways. The gender of Adam and Eve actually isn’t playing a role here. In this way, Paul would be using Adam (and Eve) to be a representative human, not a representative male human, consistent with his usual way of using him (Rom. 5, 1 Cor. 15).

What then do we make of Paul’s comment on childbearing in vs 15? It’s almost certainly a reference to Genesis 3:16, which is absolutely brilliant. Genesis 3:16 is the warning that God gave the yet-to-be-named Eve. She was given two warnings: the pain in childbearing and that men would unjustly rule.

The thought of referring to the pronouncement here and talking about being “saved” is touching, symbolically, on a much bigger truth. In general, the pronouncements on humanity in Genesis 3 can be seen as the warning that God is allowing suffering in the world. One of the key things regarding suffering in general, though it cannot be a full theodicy on its own, is that suffering is like a bitter medicine that transforms our character and draws us to God. In other words, it saves us. The terms “saved” or “salvation” simply refer to rescue. Though they are commonly connected to one’s justification before God, the terms are more general than that and can be used differently than that. It’s also common to be connected to one’s sanctification (ex. Phil. 2:12), as being transformed more and more into Christ-likeness rescues us from a life of sin and its consequences.

There are several passages and themes in Scripture that point to suffering saving us in this way, but one famous passage is in the beginning of James:

“Count it all joy my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have it’s full effect so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

James 1:2-4

By Paul pointing to God’s pronouncement after humanity sinned, he was doing so with the theological understanding that the “curses” on humanity (the serpent was the only one that was actually cursed) were a part of God’s plan to save us. God chose to allow the consequences of our sin, suffering, because similar to chemotherapy, it is a bitter cure for the sin that ails us.

In other words, this is Paul’s compassionate recognition of injustice, and his call to endure it. By pointing to God’s initial bitter prescription for us, Paul is saying to these women the same thing that James is saying. It was not good that the women weren’t educated in the Scriptures. He knows the barriers caused by men’s sin that have held women down. It’s awful, maybe even like the pain of childbirth. Paul could see that it sucked to not allow women to teach, even though that was necessary in Ephesus. It’s not that it was unjust that there were power dynamics in and of itself – the Son submitted to the Father, for example, and we are to submit to parents and elders – but that this was the outcome of an unjust power dynamic. Paul knew this. He’s well aware of the sentence following the one he alluded to. But he also knows that uneducated, baby-Christian teachers are the blind leading the blind; deception will happen. But he’s calling them to persevere through the consequences of the unjust power dynamic and the necessity of not being able to be equal teaching partners, with faith, love, holiness, and self-control, because it will have the full effect God desires for them. By referencing Genesis 3:16, he was symbolically referring to a great Scriptural truth about perseverance through suffering, the very thing they would need as learners; especially when their lack of understanding beforehand was due to patriarchal barriers.

Let me quote one more time from the IVP Background Commentary:

Given women’s lack of training in the Scriptures, the heresy spreading in the Ephesian churches through ignorant teachers (1:4-7), and the false teachers’ exploitation of these women’s lack of knowledge to spread their errors (5:13; 2 Tim. 3:6) Paul’s prohibition here makes good sense. His short-range solution is that these women should not teach; his long-range solution is “let them learn” (2:11). The situation might be different after the women had been instructed (2:11; cf. Rom 16:14, 7; Phil 4:2-3).

The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 1st Ed.

There are several commands in Scripture we do not follow because our situation is not alike to their situation. Dr. Craig Keener hilariously points this out in his essay on 1 Timothy 2:

If we must follow all commands in 1 Timothy as transcultural, even the most conservative churches are falling woefully short. Many do not prohibit water or mandate the use of wine for those with stomach ailments (5:23). Similarly, if we are to obey 2 Timothy, we should visit Paul soon, making sure we pick up his cloak and books from Troas before coming to him (2 Tim 4:9-13)—a command which may be a trifle difficult to fulfill these days, especially if Timothy already collected Paul’s belongings in Troas. (That Paul also calls Titus to come to him in Titus 3:12 surely makes this a transcultural requirement: We all should try to visit Paul in Rome, right?) We should also beware of Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14-15), despite the fact that, the mortality rate for people over 150 years old being what it is, he is probably dead.

Dr. Craig Keener, Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:8-15

What Keener is saying in a tongue-in-cheek way is a principle that’s not all that difficult and not all that controversial. As we differ further and further from the relevant specifics of their situation, our application of the text also needs to move further and further away from specifics; in the direction of background principles. We do this fairly intuitively for most passages in the Bible. For example, Paul commands the believers in Corinth to take up an offering on the first day of the week to go to the Jerusalem church (1 Cor. 16:1-4). Unless you happen to be connected to some believers in Jerusalem, you and I actively disobey a direct command of Paul’s on a weekly basis. However, we recognize that we are not in a similar situation, so we back off towards principles like generosity. It’s important for Biblical interpretation to mine for the principles.

I find it important to emphasize that suggesting that we don’t follow a direct command from Paul isn’t actually any aberration from normal Biblical interpretation, contrary to the usual light the gender role conversations are casted in. I am not disregarding the “faith, once and for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3) It’s basic Biblical interpretation to recognize the situational context. We do it intuitively quite often, like some of the examples Keener provided us, and sometimes it takes some study, which is simply the nature of the cultural distance we find ourselves with. Either way, it’s not suddenly choosing to reject the Bible, nor is it choosing to read this part of the epistle any differently than any other epistle. It’s just the principle stated above. It’s just doing the research so that we receive God’s Word for us, not our intuition’s word for us.

The question becomes, then, “How close are we with relevant specifics to the situation in Ephesus?” Given that Paul’s reasoning for the women of Ephesus are not to teach is that they needed to learn, it doesn’t make sense for us, now that women can and are educated and are quite mature in the Faith, to keep them from teaching or having authority. Doing so completely misses the principles that Paul is working from: submitting to those in leadership, humble learning, having reverent respect for the task of teaching, and guarding against false doctrines. A man walking out on a woman preacher speaking the truth because she’s a woman, for example, is actually the one disobeying 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

However, if we believe that Paul’s prohibition of women teaching and having authority over men is universal, we have some problems. One, vs. 11 suddenly plays no role in the conversation, despite its relatively clear connection with, and framing of, the verses that follow. Most damningly, though, is that it means that Paul’s use of Genesis is in fact to show that women are inherently more easily deceived. Suggesting Eve’s deception leads to the submissive role for all women is a non-sequitor, otherwise. No longer can his clear emphasis on deception in his lesson from Genesis be about Christian maturity, experience, and education as I suggest – for that principle can apply across genders – but for it to be a universal prohibition of women, the deception, too, must be universal to women.

Besides not being a very good reading of Genesis, such an interpretation ought to be a very obvious reductio ad absurdum. Unfortunately, it clearly is not. I have heard several people, sheepishly of course, suggest that women teachers tend to be more emotionally driven (which I guess is a sign of deception?), despite half the sermons I hear from men involve tears in their eyes. These people also have rarely, if ever, actually sat under a woman’s Biblical teaching. Surely they must have had female authority figures in their lives, though. School teachers? Professors? Supervisors? Surely they know that the claims that women are more easily deceived and are more emotionally driven speakers are garbage. I am blessed to be in a situation where I have come under the Biblical teaching of several different women on several occasions. They are some of the best expositors I know, and have been the Adam to my Eve. I don’t write this paragraph to shame people, but I just don’t know what to say. What do you do when a position ends up saying that up is down and down is up? One hundred percent of readers do this with vs 15, noticing that it is surely not true that women are justified before God by childbearing, despite that being a “face value” reading. If our interpretation got us here, we ought to have noticed something went wrong.

Now, there are more reasonable hierarchical views out there regarding women in leadership. Most often, these views involve limiting female leadership only to within church, not in general, agreeing with my assessment that Paul’s universal language is not literally universal. To me, the most reasonable justification for this scope narrowing that I’ve found is that the Sunday gathering is itself a ceremony (see here for more on why that would matter). Ceremonies reenact or display truths in a formal, ritualistic way, and often have specific roles to play within the rituals. The roles given, therefore, wouldn’t be sexist anymore than limiting the gender possibilities for certain roles in films. That’s just how roles work. It is not sexist, for example, that only men could be casted as Aragorn and only women could be casted as Arwen in the Lord of the Rings movies. The roles that men and women play would be a way of teaching specific Scriptural truths, and Paul would be reminding the congregants of these truths by referencing Adam and Eve in a symbol-ceremonial way. Though this type of teaching is uncommon in the West and modern Euro-centric cultures, it’s quite common in many other cultures’ practices today and throughout history. In response to inherent resistance to this way of teaching as even a possibility, we would simply need to respond that Christianity is not the white-man’s religion.

This view would say something like the following: men being in a position of authority would remind congregants of hierarchy in creation: God as the ultimate authority, then the heavenly beings, then humanity next – made in His image – then the animals and the rest of creation we are called to rule and care for (Gen. 1, Ps. 8). This would be the symbolic meaning of “Adam was formed first. And Adam was not deceived…” It reminds us of God’s good and ordered hierarchy. Women in roles of submission would remind congregants of all of our need to submit to each other and God’s created hierarchy. In Genesis 3, our sin twisted this hierarchy as we attempted to be in God’s role while actually being usurped by an animal. This is what Paul would be reminding Timothy of by saying “but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” And finally Paul’s referencing of childbirth would remind us of part of God’s solution to this problem, the bitter medicine of suffering, and our need to endure it as our way of sanctification – not unlike my own thoughts above.

We’d have here a reenactment of God’s intention, our problem, and (part of) the solution, enacted by the authority of men in the ceremony, the submission of women in the ceremony, and the reminder about suffering. On this view, through his direct, general call to women’s submission to men in church as well as referencing Adam and Eve in a symbol-ceremonial way, recalling the roots of the story the church ceremony is retelling, Paul would be reminding Timothy and the Ephesian church of their need to continue doing the church ceremony properly and to learn the truths this aspect of the ceremony teaches. The role for each gender was God’s quasi-arbitrary decision – and the role’s don’t define value any more than the roles of Aragorn and Arwen, it’s simply acting out a ceremony – but that decision is meant to be one of the elements of our church gatherings that aren’t contextualized to time/place, but are to unify all believers across the global, history-spanning Church.

The above view, to me, is the most brilliant, clever, and coherent complimentarian view I’ve ever come across, and I hope I’ve presented it well. I think it plausibly parries the accusation of being sexist, and the truths that the roles would be pointing to are certainly true. Furthermore, pretty much every culture in the history of the world is more ceremonial than the West, so the fact that it would be more ceremonial than Western evangelical Christians are used to should not be unexpected (by the way, I think the West misses a lot of important things regarding the Lord’s Supper and baptism because of our general lack of formal ceremony as a category).

Nonetheless, I have a few problems with this view.

For one, it doesn’t account for the examples of authority/non-quiteness in Phoebe or women prophesying in 1 Cor. 11, though I think Phoebe could probably be explained away. The combination of Phoebe being the mail carrier and being a patron make it more likely to me, looking at Romans 16:1-2 in-and-of-itself, that she was a church deacon in the formal sense. However, if we say she can’t be in that authority beforehand, it is still possible to take the less natural reading where she is simply a very servant-hearted woman (similar ideas to this is why I have chosen to leave Junia unmentioned). See here for more of my thoughts on the elders/deacons conversation. Corinthians seems to me to be a greater challenge, however.

Second, like the weaker complimentarian views above, this view also seems to make vs. 11 a disposable sentence within Paul’s argument. His emphasis would not be on learning, but on the roles, despite the alleged roles being connected to learning in vs. 11.

Third, for Adam’s earlier formation to point to hierarchy, it assumes a complimentarian view of Genesis 1-3, which is to be expected, I suppose. But as I’ve written before, I don’t think that’s the best reading of it (see here, here, and here). If women are men’s helper, it would imply women are in the role of authority. A quick search of the uses of Hebrew word there (ezer) shows it is used of God in almost every circumstance, most often in military contexts (so the term “deliverer” is probably a better translation). As I’ve written in the links above, I don’t think ezer has a hierarchical implication, nor do I think we are supposed to interpret it only applying to women. The point is that humans need other humans. But if we insist on hierarchy and that the helper role is women’s, it would be deliverance from the top down, not bottom up, like God delivering David.

Fourth, it would be strange that we would be reenacting an explicitly unjust consequence of the fall found in Genesis 3:16, just one clause following what Paul references here – even ceremonially, by way of reminder and endurance – in the same way it would be strange to induce the pain of child-bearing or plant thistles in each others’ gardens by way of ceremonial reminder and endurance.

Finally, the idea that the church gatherings were themselves ceremonies (as opposed to containing ceremonies, like the Lord’s Supper or perhaps early credal or Lord’s Prayer repetition, if traditions of that nature ought to be considered ceremony), is quite dependant on the view that the early church gatherings were designed based off of the synagogue gatherings. Though a popular belief, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for it and church services that run according to 1 Cor. 14 seem to be anything but ceremonial. Furthermore, we should expect a lot of early church practice to come out of Jewish practice, simply because that was the context it was born out of. Even if much of the early church practice was adjustments of Jewish customs (which is certainly true), it takes more than simply that observation to suggest the Apostles intended such practices to be transcultural. Moreover, though those who are much smarter and more educated than me suggest the language describing the church gathering seems to become more and more ceremonial over the first several hundred years of the church, the conspicuous absence of ceremonial in-itself descriptions of the Sunday gathering in the New Testament or in documents like the Didache suggests to me those are later developments, corresponding to the slow but sure re-introduction of many of the temple practices back into Christian practice – to the chagrin of most Protestant believers (this idea needs considerable nuance, but it is beyond the scope of this post). Though I think early church practice was definitely more ceremonial than my experience of church, it seems to me positing that the weekly gatherings of the church were themselves ceremonies is a hypothesis that has good explanatory power and decent explanatory scope, which makes it attractive, but has little direct evidence to support it.

But even if we are to consider the weekly gathering as itself ceremonial, however, I would simply disagree on the exegesis of Paul here, so I would just point people back to the text and the points I have made in my exposition. I don’t think there’s any reason at all in this text to think he is speaking of ceremonial roles here. Interpreting the text to have a focus on teaching/learning, as I have outlined, makes internal sense within Paul’s letter, makes sense of the cultural and situational context in Ephesus, makes sense of the women teachers lifted up in the Church in other parts of the New Testament, and it makes sense of the egalitarianism inherent in Genesis 1-2, which happens to be Jesus’ fave place for determining foundations (Mt. 19).

Since this passage is the most thorough of the passages that seemingly prohibit women in church leadership (which is quite a different conversation than the leadership in marriage debate), I think we ought to interpret the other ones in light of it. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, despite it’s apparent contradiction to 11:5, makes sense in light of the educational situation of women as well (and the contradiction melts away), and I suspect Paul’s phrase “as the Law [i.e. the Torah] also says” in that passage is referring to something similar to his use of Adam and Eve here, though that’s impossible to say for certain. All that said, however, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 does have the added element of textual variants making its authenticity at least debatable.

On my view of our passage today, Paul is calling particular women within his intended context to learn before teaching. This is wise and good leadership. It would be unwise for us, however, since our context has few relevant specifics in common, to make universal claims limiting women’s leadership in the Church. As Dr. John G. Stackhouse says:

[W]hen society was patriarchal, as it was in the New Testament context and as it has been everywhere in the world except in modern society in our day, then the church avoided scandal by going along with patriarchy, even as the Bible ameliorated it and made women’s situation better than it was under any other culture’s gender code. Now, however, that our modern society is at least officially egalitarian, the scandal (ironically enough) is that the church is not going along with society, not rejoicing in the unprecedented freedom to let women and men serve according to gift and call without an arbitrary gender line.

Dr. John G. Stackhouse, Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism

Keep Pondering,


8 thoughts on “A Look at 1 Timothy 2:11-15

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