As a woman who is an ordained minister and senior pastor of a local church, it often surprises people to learn I once was a zealous apologist against women in ministry leadership. I even went so far as to put “offerings” (written notes) in the offering plate at church with questions like, “How do you justify having women ministers in this church?” and I’d add Bible verses like 1 Timothy 2:11-12.
So this journey from anti-women-in-ministry apologist to ordained-senior-pastor involved significant soul searching and scriptural examination for me. I wasn’t easily convinced.
As I grew in scriptural understanding, I learned the importance of context and interpretation. That’s not a cop-out for allowing pick-and-choose-ianity (the idea that I can take the parts of scripture I like and discard the parts I don’t). Rather, an intellectually honest examination of scripture doesn’t pull verses out in isolation and build a theology out of them, but reads them in the context of the chapter, the book, and the totality of the whole story (all of the Bible). After all, scripture is consistent because God doesn’t contradict Himself.
In the thoughts below, my intent is to share what changed my mind about the 1 Timothy verses and women in ministry leadership, with the hope that it helps inform or clarify others’ thoughts as well.
How I Understand 1 Timothy 2:11-12
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.
- Women are not completely prohibited from speaking in church
The word for “quietly” and “remain quiet” (or ‘keep silent’ in other translations) is hesychios. It’s used in Acts 11:18 and Acts 21:14, usually translated “held their peace” or “ceased objections.” It can’t mean “be completely quiet” because right after this word is used, the people continue talking, just not by further challenging or arguing.
The word also is used in 1 Thess. 4:11, 2 Thess. 3:12, and 1 Tim. 2:2 to describe the “quiet” life believers are to lead. Unless we chose to read this as a requirement for monastic silence in our daily living, we can’t honestly interpret it as “no talking” for women in 1 Tim. 2:11. Instead, its use here is consistent with the understanding that “quietly” and “remain quiet” mean holding their peace and ceasing objections, arguing, and challenging those providing instruction (in this case, Timothy).
The word that means “no talking” in Greek is sigao. It’s used in Luke 9:36, Acts 15:12, and 1 Cor. 14:28, 30, and 34. So if Paul really meant the women weren’t to speak in church at all, he would’ve used sigao.
Paul also talks about women who are prophets—those who speak the word, heart, and encouragement of God to others. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 11, he gives women instruction about praying and prophesying in church services. In addition, when he speaks of spiritual gifts like prophet, pastor, evangelist, apostle, exhorter, tongues, interpretation of tongues, leader, and teacher, he doesn’t limit them to men only. (Ephesians 4, Romans 12) He also instructs all believers to teach and admonish one another with pslams, hymns, and songs. (Colossians 3:16) All of these verses indicate that Paul believed women could speak in church.
It therefore seems in 1 Timothy 2 that Paul isn’t prohibiting women from speaking in church, but from speaking in ways that challenge or object to the appointed leader of the church (in this case, Timothy).
- Ways women can and can’t teach or exercise authority over men
The word for “authority” used here is authentein. In English it’s translated as “exercise authority,” but our modern English language translation misses the connotation of the word in Greek. This is the only time authentein occurs in the Bible. So to understand its meaning at the time, we must refer to external sources.
People on both sides of the women-in-ministry interpretations regard L.E. Wilshire’s research on the meaning of the word. Wilshire found that authentein, and its related noun authentes, consistently means “to instigate violence,” “to murder,” “to domineer,” “to get one’s way,” “slayer,” or the mastermind or perpetrator of a violent crime or act of war. In short, Wilshire concluded Paul was saying that women in Timothy’s congregation were not to teach or instigate violence. He bases this conclusion upon a study of every known use of the word authentein in Greek literature for 400 years surrounding the writing of the New Testament.
The grammar Paul uses here sheds further light on the meaning of this verse. In Greek, Paul uses the indicative verb for “allow,” and infinitives for “teach” and “exercise authority.” This means “teach” and “exercise authority” act like nouns that, when taken together, describe each other and, by extension, a larger picture of what’s happening. In other words, 1 Tim. 2:12 could be paraphrased as, “I am not permitting women to teach in such a manner as to misuse authority in a domineering way over men.” When written this way, it’s easier to understand how authentein explains the way in which Paul is not allowing the women to teach. In other words, Paul isn’t prohibiting women from ever teaching men, but from teaching men in a domineering, usurping, selfish, or power-hungry way.
I found it interesting that authentein traditionally was translated as “usurping” or “misusing authority,” and only recently has been translated with a neutral connotation of “exercise authority.” Translating it in a neutral way makes it easy to confuse with the words for “authority” and “exercise authority” (exousia and exousiazein) that are frequently used in other parts of the New Testament, including in Paul’s letters when referring to the use of authority in the church. (See 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 9:4-6, 9:12, 11:10, 2 Cor 2:8, 10:8, 13:10, Col. 1:13, 2 Thess 3:12, Rom 6:15, 9:21) These words have neutral connotations, both in Greek and in English, and are used in ways that mean “military rank above others,” “leader,” “in charge,” “competent,” and “responsible for.” It’s significant that Paul did not use a common, neutral, catch-all term for “exercise authority” when he spoke of the women in Timothy’s church. Instead, he used an uncommon and negative term for “authority.”
Once we realize that Paul is speaking against women presuming to take charge by means of self-appointed authority, the text reads quite differently. He is telling Timothy to beware of women who, after being corrected, rise up over the one who corrected them in a challenging and confrontational manner. Such women, who “usurp authority,” are unsuitable for spiritual leadership. They manifest the opposite of what ought to be true of godly leaders—selfless surrender, sacrifice, and submission. (Rom. 12:10, Phil. 2:2-11)
So Paul wasn’t prohibiting women from teaching or exercising authority over men, but from teaching men by usurping authority or being domineering.
- In the context of the letter to Timothy
Context, context, context! What was going on in the church at Ephesus that caused Paul to feel he needed to counsel Timothy not to let women teach men by usurping authority or being domineering?
With little formal preparation, Timothy was appointed lead pastor of the sizable congregation Paul developed in Ephesus. Timothy was under personal attack, probably based on his age and inexperience, and because he was correcting several false teachers and leaders who had a foothold in the church. (1 Tim. 1:3-4, 4:12, 5:1) Paul’s letter to Timothy was to encourage him and provide practical instruction to deal with people in Ephesus who were challenging his rightful spiritual leadership in the fledgling church, functioning as false teachers who were spreading heresy. (1 Tim. 1:3-7) Some of them were men (see 1 Tim. 2:8) and some were women (see 1 Tim. 2:11).
1 Tim. 2:11 addresses the women, and it mirrors the command Paul gives for men in verse 8: “I want men…to pray…without wrath or dissension” (emphasis added). 1 Tim. 2:11 also is part of Paul’s broader focus on putting an end to disputation and discord within Timothy’s church.
Women in Ephesus likely were in a culture that celebrated women’s dominance over men. After all, it was situated in the shadow of the temple of the goddess Artemis, and pagan worship of Artemis, including sexual relations with the pagan priestesses, was normative. Ephesus was one of the wildest and most idolatrous cities in the Roman Empire. Understanding Paul’s command as not allowing women to dominate men makes sense in the context of the Ephesian church culture.
I also learned that one of the myths and endless genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4) promoted in gnostic (heretical) teachings was that Eve was created before Adam, or even created Adam herself! (See Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons, Gospel of Philip, Apocalypse of Adam). These teachings may have been used to support the false idea that she (women) was superior to him (men). Understanding this context helped bring me clarity about verses 13 and 14, where Paul introduces comments about Adam and Eve’s relationship: in contrast to the gnostic teachings, Paul gives a short and clear recount of the creation story.
Re-writing the Adam/Eve narrative in this way loses the very point of the story, and Paul addresses it here. A disregard for authority is exactly what caused Eve to take the fruit. Before Eve had been formed from Adam’s rib, God gave Adam instruction not to eat of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Gen. 2:17) Adam later told Eve what God said. But Eve “fell into transgression” when she disregarded what Adam said because she didn’t hear it for herself. Instead, she regarded her first-hand reasoning above second-hand teaching, and she ate the fruit.
Leaders who act like Eve did – who are a law unto themselves, who regard their own perspective above that of their mentors and teachers – are dangerous. In effect, Paul is telling Timothy to disqualify for ministry leadership people who cannot govern their lives by what they are taught by others. When a woman is corrected by a leader’s teaching, Paul wants Timothy to watch if she will accept it, or refute it. Does she put her thoughts and conclusions first, and others’ teaching second? If so, prohibit her from teaching or usurping authority!
- It’s Gotta Be Consistent with the Bible
I’ve come to understand the overarching story of the Bible as oneness created (with God and with each other), oneness destroyed (by sin), and oneness restored (through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ). So my starting point in thinking about particular verses is that believers are in the oneness restored part of the story—the part where God has gotten rid of divisions between people that served to subordinate one to another: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) Reading 1 Tim. 2:11-12 as promoting oneness destroyed through the continued subordination of women to men in the body of Christ is fundamentally inconsistent with the story of the Bible.
On top of that, the Bible indicates Priscilla instructed Apollos and co-pastored a church with her husband, Lydia hosted and oversaw the church at Philippi (pastored it perhaps?), Phoebe served as a deacon, Nympha and “the chosen lady” led churches, and Junia was an apostle (more on this below). These are positions of authority, as are the women who served as prophets among the churches and preached the gospel after they were scattered during Saul’s persecution. After all, Ephesians 4 tells us the prophets and evangelists are for the “equipping of the saints for the doing of the work.” (Romans 16:3-7, Acts 8:1-4, Acts 18:24-26, Acts 21:8-9)
In the gospels, Jesus never suggests that women’s roles were to be secondary or limited in the community of faith, even when He could. Instead, He defended women (the adulteress nearly stoned by the townsmen), converted them and sent them out as evangelists (Samaritan woman at the well), and validated women as students (disciples) of His (Mary who chose to sit at his feet and learn), even though Jewish law prohibited this (‘Better to burn the Torah than teach it to a woman’ j. Sot. 3.19). After Jesus’ resurrection, He chose to reveal Himself first to His female disciples, entrusting them with the Gospel message. He sent them to the 11 remaining Disciples to tell them what they saw. They were sent ones (apostles) to tell the Good News (evangelists). As NT Wright points out, they were the apostles to the Apostles.
- It’s Gotta Be Consistent with the Other Things Written in 1 Timothy
Understanding 1 Tim. 2:12 shapes how we understand the other statements Paul makes in 1 Timothy. If we were to assume that 1) 1 Timothy 2:12 says women can never teach nor have authority over men, and 2) that prohibition applies to all churches for all time, then intellectually honest interpretations of scripture would apply the same principles consistently to Paul’s other commands in 1 Timothy 2 (we can’t say some of these statements applied only in the cultural context, but others applied to all churches for all times). With that said, here’s how the different instructions could be interpreted consistently:
|Verse||Interpretation Consistent with “Women can’t teach or have authority over men” (Complementarian)||Interpretation Consistent with “Women can’t teach in a way that’s domineering or usurps authority.” (Egalitarian)|
|1 Tim. 2:8
I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.
|Men have to pray with their hands raised (but women don’t).||A directive helpful for the church in Ephesus. The principle to apply to today’s churches: We want praying male leaders serving in church, lifting their hearts to God and without imposing their will in anger.|
|1 Tim. 2:9-10
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, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
|Women can’t wear jewelry, expensive clothes/brands, or style their hair.||A directive helpful for the church in Ephesus. The principle to apply to today’s churches: Women’s claim to godliness is not a fashion statement, but demonstrated by good works that’s neither disquieted itself nor disquieting to others.|
|1 Timothy 2:15
But women will be saved through childbearing-if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
|1) Women can’t be saved unless they birth children, or
2) the curse of despair and pain in childbirth is not God’s final word to women, but His plan for their salvation and hope is for the next life (we’re still living in oneness destroyed). In the meantime, women have to suffer through childbirth and He will be with them in that suffering (and, it would be most consistent to say women can’t take pain medicine, but experience the fullness of the childbirth curse because we’re not yet living oneness restored—the full weight of the curse is still in effect).
|1) An instruction fitting for an Ephesian culture in which heresies promoted asceticism (celibacy) or licentiousness (promiscuity) as signs of faith in Christ. The one extreme opposed the Artemis-worshipping culture; the other embraced “freedom” within the culture. Paul refutes both extremes with, “Women of true faith are free to have sex within the sanctity of marriage.”
2) the curse of despair and pain in childbirth is not God’s final word to women, but instead His plan is for salvation and hope now (because we’re living, at least in part, in oneness restored). So women find salvation even going through childbirth as men will be saved as passing through fire (1 Cor. 3:15)(and taking pain medicine is consistent with this interpretation—there is some relief from the curse for those who believe)
- Other Insight from History
This fascinated me – the excavation and restoration of the Catacomb of Santa Priscilla in Rome depicts frescoes of women performing priestly functions, including leading the Eucharist (communion) and leading mass with men present. This is archaeological evidence from the early church that women served in ministry leadership roles.
Another thing that fascinates me is the re-writing of Junia’s name. (Romans 16:7) Some modern Bibles translate the name Junia as Junias, making it a male version of the name. As a man’s name, Romans 16:7 can be read consistently with a women-can’t-be-leaders interpretation. However, most New Testament scholars and the majority of Greek New Testament manuscripts record the name as Junia, a female name. Ancient Greek Orthodox paintings also depict her as a female leader. Junia was widely changed to “Junias” when the Greek New Testament was translated into Latin, but there is no evidence of the name “Junias” in any other literature pre-dating or contemporaneous to New Testament times. It would be as if we re-wrote “Cynthia” to be “Cynthias.” The weight of the evidence indicates Junia was a woman, and she was an apostle.
Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 leads down two general paths. If you translate the words one way, you get a highly restrictive understanding of what women can do. If you translate the words in another way, you only get ministry leadership restrictions like be teachable, operate under legitimate (not self-appointed) authority, and don’t usurp the authority of the rightful leader.
I believe the latter translation and interpretation is more consistent with other passages in scripture and with the overall Story of the redemptive work Christ ushering in oneness restored. From my perspective, the phrase in 1 Timothy 2 so often used to deny women positions of spiritual authority was simply intended to address one type of illegitimate and ill-gotten authority: authority that has been wrested from the hands of rightful leaders. So I choose to read 1 Timothy 2:11-12 in light of oneness restored rather than oneness destroyed.
Many thanks to Daniel A. Brown and Gail Wallace for their writings on this subject. For more information on this topic and discussion of other women in ministry verses, I recommend The Problem with the Problem with Women in Ministry Leadership.