Passages that Seem to Limit Women: 1 Timothy 2:11-15

4 Feb

Okay Ladies and Gents, the day has come.  Today we’re going to tackle 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.  But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

I know what you’re thinking:  “This looks pretty straightforward.  Paul is clearly banning all women from leadership for all time.”  I thought that for a long time too.  If you still think that at the end of today’s blog- it’s okay.  I respect anyone who holds a position because he/she feels it’s more biblical.  But I’m asking you to go with me, and ponder a notion that may be unfamiliar- even threatening- for just the length of this post.  Don’t get defensive.  Don’t feel attacked, because that’s not my intention here.  Aristotle said that it’s the “mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”  So, whether you are a complementarian, egalitarian or undecided, let’s entertain some thoughts…

In biblical studies classes, one of the first things we learn is to honor the context.  The context takes everything into account from the genre of the book, to the literary, historical and cultural settings of the author and audience.  The bible cannot mean something to us today that it never meant to the original audience.  Context is always important.  It is necessary for sound interpretation.  So let’s take a look at the context of 1 Timothy.

  1. Author:  Paul the Apostle
  2. Audience:  Timothy, the pastor of the church in Ephesus and student/co-worker of Paul
  3. Genre:  Epistle, or letter.
  4. Date:  mid 60s CE
  5. Major Themes of the letter:  correcting false doctrine and removing/limiting  those who are propagating the false doctrine

There are several implications just from these five pieces of information.  First, since we hold to Pauline authorship (and I do), that means that all of Paul’s writings are relevant when discussing this particular prohibition on women.  Second, we recognize that 1 Timothy is a letter.  We know from the beginning that we’re missing half of the conversation.  Furthermore, it’s a letter to a particular person, in a particular situation, in a particular location.  We cannot get away from Timothy’s context because his context (a church in Ephesus that is combating false doctrine) is the purpose for the entire letter!  Finally, we must consider the way the broad theme of the letter may influence the particular statements found therein.

Reading Paul in light of the whole NTImage

Since Paul is the author of this book, it’s only right for me to consider ALL of Paul’s teachings on women in conjunction with this passage,which is the only explicit limitation on women teaching men in the entire Bible.  This means that I read 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in light of Galatians 3:36-39, Romans 16 (see blogs on Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia), and 1 Corinthians 12 (which lists spiritual gifts without reference to gender). In these three passages, not to mention the biblical accounts of female prophets and leaders and the example of Jesus (blog to come), we see Paul affirming women leaders!  He calls women his co-workers, and he praises them as teachers, leaders, patrons, and even an apostle.  It would seem that the bible in general- and Paul is particular- is sending mixed messages; which leaves us with two possible options.  1) Paul was unstable and double-minded or 2) some things that Paul wrote in letters were meant to address specific situations and were not intended to be normative.[1]

I don’t know about you, but option number two seems much more likely (not to mention less problematic).  And it makes perfect sense given the context. Almost the entire letter of 1 Timothy addresses false doctrine.  A group of people were spreading heresy and Paul was giving Timothy some suggestions to shut it down.  One of those suggestions was to stop the women in Timothy’s congregation from teaching.  Honestly, it isn’t all that surprising those women were part of the problem.  They had very little education, if any at all.  Women were often quite young and were typically married by fourteen (give or take two years), which made them more susceptible to bad doctrine.  If the woman was a widow or wealthy wife, she had some spare time and could easily go from house to house, teaching others the heresy she’d learned.  Paul was completely right to shut this kind of behavior down!  It’s worth mentioning that Paul also cracked down on the men who were leading in Ephesus.  The problem was not that women were teaching, but that women who were unlearned and susceptible to false doctrine were spreading heresy.

A close examination of the specific text

Most translations begin this passage by saying, “I do not permit.”  However, many Greek scholars will point out that Paul is actually speaking in the present tense, as if to say, “I am not permitting.”  This suggests that Paul was speaking with regard to the particular situation in Timothy’s church, rather than all churches.

Secondly, very few people point out how radical it was that Paul said women should learn.  Everyone harps on the quietness and submission part, but that was completely in line with Paul’s culture.  It was not normal, however, for women to be given a significant religious education.  In that respect, Paul is being quite progressive. Giving women a proper theological education would also serve as a corrective to false doctrine and enable women to teach at a later date when they were qualified.

Thirdly, there is a great deal of debate, amongst biblical scholars, regarding the use of “authority” in this passage.  There are some who believe it is best understood as an authority that domineers, rather than leads.  Here are two articles that address that interpretation more fully.  The second link is a little more detailed.

http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/1-timothy-211-15

http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/can-women-teach-part-ii/

Paul then points to Adam and Eve as a reason for the restriction on women.  In this instance, I disagree with the article from CBE (the first of the above links).  I don’t think Paul is saying anything about the inherent equality of women and men.  Rather, I think Paul is actually going back to the issue of false teaching. If  you refer to the creation narrative, you’ll notice that God instructed Adam not to eat fruit from the tree at the center of the garden.  Yet when Eve conversed with the serpent, she was under the impression that the fruit could not be eaten or touched. Somewhere along the way, Eve was misinformed and was deceived because of it.  I don’t think Paul is using creation order as a reason for male headship (read my blog on Genesis and womanhood where creation order is dealt with in great detail).  I also don’t think Paul is putting all the blame for the fall on Eve.  There are other places (like Romans 5 and 1 Cor. 15) when the blame is put squarely on Adam.  It seems to me that Paul is harkening back to a familiar story where poor instruction left a woman vulnerable to deception and took humanity down a bad path.  The same was clearly happening in Ephesus.

Others believe Paul was actually “correcting” previous teachings that ignored Eve’s part in the fall (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15).  Thus, it would function as a good reminder that neither men nor women were morally superior.  That’s legitimate, but I find it less persuasive.

As for the section on childbirth… I have no idea what Paul meant there.  There’s actually no consensus amongst New Testament scholars on that one, so I won’t presume to offer an interpretation.  The CBE article I linked to mentions Artemis worship.  Others have suggested it referred to protection during childbirth.  Frankly, there isn’t enough evidence, in my opinion, to do anything but speculate here.

In summary, the context of false doctrine in the epistle to Timothy, combined with a close study of the specific verses, all of which are read in light of Paul and Jesus’ affirmations of women, point to an interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 that was specific to the situation of Timothy’s first century church in Ephesus, and is not prescriptive for all women, for all time.


[1] Normative means something is applicable for all people, in all culture, for all of time. 

5 Responses to “Passages that Seem to Limit Women: 1 Timothy 2:11-15”

  1. Kathy February 4, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    Kate, I admit that the entire section on Adam and Eve makes little sense to me. To build a doctrine excluding women from speaking/teaching/preaching/praying based on those words just doesn’t line up for me. Clearly we are missing something in cultural translation there!

  2. leahsumner February 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    Reblogged this on leahsumner.

  3. Changed By Grace November 12, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    Kate, I would like to commend you on the well written nature of your argument. However, I can not and do not agree with your conclusion.

    The link below leads to arguments that address this issue, both logically, respectfully and Scripturally. On the right hand side is a box that contains the rest of the articles from the series the below linked article is from, each addresses an aspect of the argument you have posted.
    http://carm.org/1-tim-212-13-and-women-pastors-and-elders

    In closing, I find that your premises are contradicted by their application and you use Scripture to suit your desires rather than be shaped by it…

    1Timothy 6:
    “3 If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, 4 he is proud, knowing nothing, but is (*)obsessed with disputes and arguments over words (*), from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, 5 useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.”

    Your entire argument is built upon disputing the meaning of words…

    I hope and pray the best for you, and hope that you look into the CARM articles… The one question that drives my constant pursuit of pure doctrine, and Godly knowledge and wisdom is if I am wrong who will I harm and how long will a minor wrong remain that way before slipping me into a much more severe error?…

    • katemuhlbaier November 12, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and ability to disagree with grace. I hope to do the same.
      My one immediate push-back would be that the entirety of the argument is not based on semantics. Rather, the meaning of words become important when the entirety of Scripture is not in agreement with one small passage. By that I am referring to Romans 16, Acts 2,18, and Jesus’ own interaction with women, in addition to other examples of women in leadership and authority in the Bible. Given the “inconsistency” (in that it only appears inconsistent- I don’t actually think Scripture is inconsistent with regard to women), I was driven to delve deeper into the meaning of words. I will check out your articles.
      Blessings,Kate

      • Changed By Grace November 12, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

        My apologies for generalizing my statement, referring to the entire argument being built on the meaning of words… While using generalities help make communication easier, it can be misleading. I do not hold to generalities… where mankind is concerned, other than what Scripture has to say, because I have found that any generality is almost guaranteed to be wrong.

        I offered the articles, because it did not seem to me that would not come across as me being on the offensive as it would if I just listed counter arguments…

        I pray God’s grace and peace is with you,

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