Does 1 Timothy 2:9-15 Prohibit Women from Teaching in Church?
1 Timothy 2:9-15 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. 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. (NIV)
This passage is one of the chief “proof texts” used by complementarians to espouse the doctrine that women are not allowed to teach or lead adult males in the church.
For some, this is a simple misunderstanding of Scripture. For others, this text serves to bolster the sin of misogyny. This is a sin that must be repented of if the church is going to enter into the destiny the Lord has intended. If you see this passage as a prohibition on women speaking in church, I ask you to consider it again in light of other biblical texts and the historical context.
Let’s briefly work through this passage to grasp what Paul was communicating. For our purposes here, I’m going to camp primarily on verses 11-12 because those tend to be the ones that most people dial in on. For many it will be surprising to find out that these verses have nothing to do with whether or not a woman can teach or lead in the church. I will have to address some grammatical and historical concepts to gain understanding of what Paul was actually saying, so I encourage you to hang on as we plow through a few technical components of interpretation.
Principle and Praxis
Let’s start with the principle and praxis argument I explained in Women in Ministry? Part 2. If 1 Timothy 2:11 is interpreted to mean that women are not allowed to teach or have authority over any adult male, then each of the following biblical scenarios should have never been allowed: Deborah being a prophet and judging the entire nation of Israel; Miriam being a prophet sent before the nation of Israel alongside Moses and Aaron; Huldah instructing Josiah, the king, the high priest, and other male governmental leaders regarding the Book of the Law; the Samaritan woman from the well preaching to both men and women about Jesus; Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” instructing the Apostles that Jesus had been resurrected; the women from the Upper Room “declaring the wonders of God” to the men of various nations gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost; and Priscilla teaching Apollos, “the way of God more accurately.”
Since the biblical narrative doesn’t support an interpretation that disallows women from all of the above occurrences, we have to come to the conclusion that such an interpretation is not consistent with the volume of Scripture. We have to agree that whatever Paul is saying in this passage must reinforce what the volume of Scripture teaches about the role of women.
Furthermore, Paul’s own instructions on the appropriate way women are to minister in the church in 1 Corinthians 11:5-6 would also stand in opposition to this supposed exclusion of women speaking in church. And when we consider Paul’s example we find that he affirmed and commended the ministries of several women: Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia (Romans 16:1-7).
Paul described Phoebe as a deacon of the church in Cenchrea (Romans 16:1). A deacon was a church leader who had to meet certain qualifications in order to serve in the church (1 Timothy 3:8-13). He encouraged the church at Rome to aid Phoebe because she had poured herself out, serving many of the believers, including Paul Himself.
Next, Paul affirmed Priscilla, naming her before her husband Aquilla. Some scholars see this as a reference to her being the senior spiritual teacher of the two. Otherwise, she may not have been mentioned at all. Paul names them both as his own “fellow workers” (Romans 16:3), describing how they both led the church in their own home and how the both risked their lives for himself and all the majority Gentile churches. As fellow workers, they were both involved in preaching, teaching, and leadership of the church.
Finally, he affirms Junia, along with her husband Andronicus, as ones who were imprisoned with Paul and, “outstanding among the apostles.” (Romans 16:7) It seems very likely that they were imprisoned for preaching the gospel, having been in Christ longer than Paul and respected by him. Commentators are split about the meaning of the phrase, “outstanding among the apostles.” Some take it to mean that the apostles respected Andronicus and Junia greatly. Others take it to mean that they were outstanding apostles themselves. John Chrysostom, John Calvin, and Martin Luther all held this view. I believe it is the more likely interpretation that Junia, being a female, was an apostle.
There are several indicators within the language that Paul uses that narrow the scope of the passage considerably. The Greek words that are sometimes translated “man” (Gr: Aner) and “woman” (Gr: Gune) in this passage can also be translated “husband” and “wife.” When considering how Paul usually uses these terms in other passages (Rom 7:2-3; 1 Cor 7:2-4, 10-14, 16, 27, 29, 33-34, 39; 14:34-35; Eph 5:22-25, 28, 31, 33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Tim 3:2, 3:11-12; 5:9; Titus 1:6) as well as this one, it becomes clear that Paul had husbands and wives in mind when he was giving these specific instructions. The mention of Adam and Eve in verses 13 and 14 further reinforces the idea that this was Paul’s intention. This minor clarification changes the overall thrust of his instructions quite a bit. Paul wasn’t addressing how women and men were to operate in the church at large; he was specifically addressing how Christian husbands and wives were to operate in the society.
Regarding the word “silent” in this passage, David M. Scholer, late Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, provides the following helpful insights:
The word in verses 11 and 12 often translated as “in quietness” (11) and “silent” (12) is identical in Greek. The same term is used by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:12, which the NIV translates as “settle down.” The point is that this term, which is often assumed to mean only “verbal silence,” is better understood as an indication of proper order or acceptance of normal practice. 1
Scholer’s point is that the Greek term translated, “quiet” and “silence” should more likely be translated as “settle down” or “quietly”. The use of these words are not to be considered as a universal prohibition on women speaking, but rather an appeal to women to carry themselves in modesty and propriety when speaking to their husbands publicly.
Scholer goes on to explain the term translated, “to have authority”:
The term translated “to have authority” (authentein) occurs only here in the New Testament and was rarely used in the Greek language. It is not the usual word for positive, active authority. Rather, it is a negative term, which refers to the usurpation and abuse of authority. Thus, the prohibition (2:11–12) is against some abusive activity, but not against the appropriate exercise of teaching and authority in the church.
By comparing Scripture with Scripture we find that the terms translated “silent” and “to have authority” should more likely be interpreted “settle down”, “quietly” and “usurp authority”. It’s far more likely that Paul was instructing the wives to maintain a settled attitude of quietness and submission so as not to upset the witness of the church with unbelievers in the city.
For us to further understand the specifics of this passage, we must provide some explanation for the cultural norms in ancient Ephesus. Let’s move forward to consider the culture of the day. Examining the cultural issues will help us zero in on what Paul was actually instructing.
When we look at the entire chapter of 1 Timothy 2, it’s easy to see that beginning in verse 9 Paul begins to give specific instructions for how women are to govern themselves. He says women are not to adorn themselves with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive clothing. While Paul’s encouragement for modesty and propriety should be universally applied, most people recognize that the specific prohibitions are only culturally applicable to that time. Unless we believe that these prohibitions apply universally to the church without regard to the culture of the day, we must see the prohibitions as culturally relevant in the first century. If we agree that vs. 9-10 have an era-related cultural application then we must agree that the prohibitions of verses 11-12 have an equally era-related cultural application.
So why was Paul addressing the specifics of women’s clothing and adornment? At the beginning of 1 Timothy 2 Paul makes it clear that he has a specific goal in mind, that the believers, “may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness”(vs. 2). In his epistles, Paul often encouraged the churches to operate in behaviors that conformed to the societal norms of the day for the sake of an “ethical apologetic” (1 Thess 4:11-12; Col 4:5; Phil 4:5; Titus 2:3-10; 3:1-8). He emphasizes this very thing in chapter 3 when discussing the qualifications for overseers, stating that they must have, “a good reputation with outsiders” (1 Tim 3:7).
From verse 1-8 of 1 Timothy 2 Paul emphasizes the missional calling of believers to the society. In verse 9-10 Paul appeals to modesty, decency, and propriety as a means for the women to live lives in godliness and holiness. The reason behind this instruction is that in Ephesus at the time temple prostitutes dressed in the manner he was discouraging. He didn’t want the women of the church to be confused with the prostitutes of the day. Therefore, Paul gave the prohibitions regarding dress and hairstyles so that the women in the church would not be labeled as prostitutes and bring a reproach to the gospel.
At the same time women who were boisterous or loud would also be identified as acting improperly toward their husbands and seen as a stumbling block to the unbelievers. Paul’s admonishment to be quiet and not act domineeringly was an encouragement for the women to live in accordance with the cultural norms of the day. He wanted the family unit to portray an appropriate stability that would draw unbelievers instead of repel them.
Taking the societal context into account and considering some of the grammatical cues from the passage, it becomes clear that Paul’s so called prohibition of women teaching in the church was actually an appeal for wives to abide by societal norms in the family. He wanted them to be able to witness the Gospel without unnecessarily being a stumbling block to unbelievers.
He comments on the creation order as a reminder of the reasoning behind appropriate headship in the home. (I recognize that a full discussion of biblical headship is needed. That will have to wait for another day) He explains that because of the sin of the fall and its subsequent curse, women are subject to their husbands. And though they receive increased pain in childbearing, they can be confident that the Lord will preserve and deliver them even through the difficulty of it as they live vibrantly in faith, love, and holiness.
In this light, I’m offering the following paraphrase of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 as a reasonable alternative to understanding what Paul’s intention was in these verses.
Since it would be offensive to the unbelievers around you for wives to go around wearing the same attire that prostitutes wear, please don’t wear elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive clothes. Likewise, since Greek culture finds it offensive for women to get out of alignment with societal norms, wives, make sure that you are peaceable when you are publicly receiving instruction from your husbands. Don’t act in a domineering way toward him by being instructive with him. If you’re wondering why I am saying that wives should submit to their husbands, I will remind you of two reasons: 1) Adam was created first, then Eve was created (this is a picture of the coequal Persons of the Trinity having distinct roles). 2) It wasn’t Adam that was deceived first, it was Eve, and part of her punishment for that sin was that her “desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” So, just as Christ is Head over His Bride, your husband is to be head over you. By the way, now that we are talking about Eve’s punishment for sin, if you are worried about this part of the curse, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe,” just remember that as long as you are walking in faith, love, and holiness, God is going to keep you safe during childbirth.
I recognize I have not addressed every question that arises from this passage (i.e. defining headship, cultural propriety, roles of men and women in the family, etc.) I don’t have the time here to do such a study. But the main point I want to emphasize is that the use of this passage as a silver bullet to disallow women from leadership and especially teaching in the local church is quite suspect and, in my view, a complete misinterpretation of the passage.
I hope this will be helpful for your own studies. Feel free to leave comments or ask questions.
1 A Biblical Basis for Equal Partnership, Women and Men in the Ministry of the Church; adapted from a series originally published by The Covenant Companion, December 1, 1983; December 15, 1983; January 1984; and February 1984 issues