FOURTEEN QUESTIONS ABOUT AND ELEVEN INTERPRETATIONS OF 1 TIMOTHY 2:12

“I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent [or quiet].” 1 Timothy 2:12 (NRSV)

Some suggest the above text is clear, obvious in its meaning, and uncomplicated. Quite the contrary, I think, and for at least three reasons: (1) fourteen questions that reflect how difficult its interpretation is, (2) eleven distinct but seemingly viable interpretations of the text, and (3) its history of interpretation.

These considerations, among others, make this one of the most problematic texts in Paul to understand and apply. 2 Peter 3:16 recognizes some texts in Paul are “hard to understand.” Is 1 Timothy 2:12 one of them? Perhaps so, given its history of interpretation and applications.

FOURTEEN QUESTIONS ABOUT 1 TIMOTHY 2:12

  1. Does “man” refer to any male (including eight year old persons), all baptized/born again men in the church, all men (whether Christian or not) at a certain age, or to only husbands (as a domestic teaching rather than a “church” or assembly teaching)?
  2. Does “woman” refer to any female (including eight year old persons), all baptized/born again women in the church, all women in creation (whether Christian or not), or to only wives (as a domestic teaching rather than a “church” or assembly teaching)?
  3. Does “a woman” refer to a specific woman who was a protagonist of some sort and creating a disturbance, or is it generic for all women, or only some women like those identified in 2:9-10?
  4. To what does “teach” refer—official church authority, instruction of any kind, singing? Does it include speech like making announcements, reporting on mission work, serving on a praise team, leading worship in song and prayer?
  5. Is the purpose, content, or style of teaching part of Paul’s concern in this text? Or is it only the act of teaching itself?
  6. What is the meaning of the rare word for “authority”—is it negative, positive, neutral, official, leadership in any form, or a specific form of leadership? What is the lexical meaning of authentein (“to have authority”)–legitimate authority, oppressive authority, domineer? Why does Paul only use this word once in all his writings, and why did not Paul use one of his typical words for leadership/authority that are present elsewhere in the Pastoral letters?
  7. What is the grammatical relationship between “to teach or have authority over a man”—is it is it about the manner/style of teaching, or two separate but related acts, are the two verbs both positive/negative or mixed, does “over a man” apply to teach as well as having authority?
  8. What is the setting for the prohibition—assembly, home, society, public, private, etc.? Is it limited to any of these settings, or is it universal in intent?
  9. Is the intent situational (addressing a specific problem for a limited moment), universal and timeless, or both? What is the universal principle and how is it related to the situation? Is the statement itself the universal principle or an application of a principle within a particular situation? Why does Paul uses a word that typically addresses a limited situation (“permit”) instead of a more general and often used verb to “command” in the Pastorals?
  10. What is the meaning of “silent” or “quiet”—does it refer to voice, demeanor, submissiveness (but to what or to whom—husband, all men, church authorities, church teaching, the assembly, God)?
  11. How do we apply this text in our contemporary settings—what is “leadership” in our contemporary church architecture (serving communion while standing, serving on a praise team before the assembly, etc.), what is the line between teaching and non-teaching in this text (is there a difference between teaching and prophesying, making announcements, giving a testimony a baptism or in the assembly, requesting prayers, confessing sin, etc.?), what kind of authority (leadership?) is envisioned in our present settings, and are women to be “silent” with their voice, only “quiet” in their demeanor, or both?
  12. Where do we apply this text in our contemporary settings—small groups, home devotionals, public assemblies, Bible classes, street preaching, one-on-one evangelism, PTA meetings, etc.?
  13. What is the social, cultural, and historical context of this text? How would this have been heard in its context in light of the particular situation of the Ephesian house churches?
  14. What is the literary context of this verse, the purpose of the letter itself, and the disturbances surrounding women in Ephesus evident in the letter?

ELEVEN HISTORIC INTERPRETATIONS OF 1 TIMOTHY 2:12

Bold=the NRSV text; Italics=an interpretative perspective

1.   I permit no woman to teach at all or have any authority over a man in any circumstance whether in society, home, or church; she is to keep silent in all contexts where men are present and submit to all men.

This was the typical interpretation for most of the Post-Constantinian church (fourth century onward). Women may only teach, have authority, or lead an assembly or group in female-only environments, whether in public or private. At times, women were not even permitted to write for publication, which is a form of teaching.

2.   I permit no woman to teach in any public (though it is permitted in private) venues where men are present or to have authority over a man in any public contexts, including social, political, and educational ones; she is to keep silent in public situations and maintain her role as a keeper of the home.

This was, historically, the interpretation of the vast majority of Christian traditions. Women were excluded from all public venues whether in society or church, though often encouraged to teach in private (within certain parameters). For many, “man” is defined as any adolescent male or any male that has been baptized/born again.

3.   I permit no woman to teach any man in any religious context whether at home or church (including small groups, Bible classes, and other religious venues) or have authority over a man in the life of the home or church (though she is permitted to do so in social contexts); she is to keep quiet and submit to men in the home and church.

This modern interpretation restricts its meaning to the church and home. A woman is not permitted to lead (have authority over) men in any public or private gatherings of the church in any way. This excluded women from leading small groups that included men in their home as well as teaching Bible classes, and it excluded women from leading prayers in such setting (sometimes, including leading their own husbands in prayer). It is represented by many traditional (“hard”) complementarians. For many, “man” is defined as any adolescent male or any male that has been baptized/born again. However, women may teach and have authority over men in social, educational, political, and other contexts.

4.   I permit no woman to teach any man in any public church context or have leadership authority over a man in any public way; she is to keep silent rather than teach; she is to submit rather than exercise public authority in the assembly. But she is permitted to teach in private contexts and public social venues.

This modern interpretation restricts the prohibition to public church contexts. A woman is not permitted to lead men in the public gatherings of the church in any way, whether visible and/or audible. However, it gives women space to teach in other settings such as small groups, Bible classes, or report on mission work to a group (depending on what is considered public or private). Some “soft” complementarians understand the text in this way. For many, “man” is defined as any adolescent male or any male that has been baptized/born again. However, women may teach and have authority over men in social, educational, political, and other contexts.

5.   I permit no woman to teach any man as an official church authority figure or in any way to have official authority over a man as a preacher (e.g., the official senior minister), pastor, or elder; she is to keep quiet by submitting to the authority of male church officials, though she is permitted to teach and have authority in private contexts, various religious gatherings, and social venues.

This modern interpretation restricts the prohibition to official authoritative speeches and decisions within the church. Primarily, this restricts women from becoming pastors (including the regular “preaching minister”) and elders. A woman may teach in religious contexts such as Bible classes, small groups, and even preach on occasion to the whole assembly as long as she does not assume the role of elder, senior minister, bishop, or some official authoritative representative of the church. Some “soft” complementarians understand the text in this way. However, women may teach and have authority over men in social, educational, political, and other contexts.

6.   I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man in the sense that she may not usurp or take by force an authoritative teacher role in the public assembly; she is to keep an appropriate quiet[ness] in the public assembly.

This modern interpretation affirms women teachers (including the public assembly) as long as they are serving quietly under the leadership of church male authority (e.g., elders). Some suggest there is a hard theological boundary (e.g., no women elders or preachers) as to what church officials may permit while others believe elders are guided by a spiritual wisdom that discerns what is culturally appropriate for the sake of the health of the congregation.

7.   I permit no [wife] to teach or have authority over a [husband]; she is to keep a quiet demeanor in relation to her husband at home and in public, especially in the public assembly of the church.

This modern interpretation restricts the teaching to the relationship between a husband and wife in public or in the public assembly. Some limit it to only domestic relationships, and thus it does not apply to church organization or assemblies. It is limited to the interaction between a husband and wife. Consequently, it contains no other limitation on the participation of women in the public assemblies of the church.

8.   Accommodating to the Roman cultural setting for the sake of the gospel, I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep quiet as they submit to God so that the gospel might get a hearing.

This modern interpretation reads the text similar to the way many handle slavery texts. Living within the Roman culture, Paul does not take a revolutionary approach but a quiet subversive one. The gospel must be heard first before any revolutionary changes are possible in cultural dynamics. But Paul does not intend this as a universal, timeless prohibition. It is an accommodation to the domestic patterns of Roman culture.

9.   For now, I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man due to the turbulent circumstances surrounding women in the Ephesian house churches; she is to keep a quiet demeanor in all her activitives.

This modern interpretation affirms the situational nature of Paul’s statement. It is peculiar to Ephesus in some sense and is Paul’s response to those specific circumstances. Paul does not intend this as a universal, timeless prohibition but is limited to the peculiar circumstances of the Ephesian house churches.

10. I permit no deceived woman to teach false doctrine or to have authority in a way that negatively and abusively overwhelms or dominates a man; she is to keep a quiet demeanor in all her activities, just like all believers. Once she has learned, then she may teach.

This modern interpretation affirms the situational nature of Paul’s statement and identifies it as a problem with some women who have been deceived by false teachers and were active among the house churches. Paul does not intend this as a universal, timeless prohibition but is limited to the specific circumstances of the Ephesian house churches.

11. Paul or one of his disciples wrote, I permit no woman to teach at all or to have any authority over a man in any circumstance whether in society, home, or church; she is to keep silent in all contexts where men are present and submit to all men. But this is an enculturated perspective that is no longer viable in our contemporary context.

This modern interpretation suggests the author is simply wrong, though his direction was appropriate for his own cultural location or perhaps was blinded by his own cultural values. This perspective understands the prohibition in the same way as the Post-Constantinian church, which is #1 on this list.

*If you are interested in my own view, you can watch this video, or read the appropriate chapter in this book.*

SOME RELEVANT HISTORY FOR CHURCHES OF CHRIST

In the nineteenth century, many leading teachers among the churches of Christ believed that 1 Timothy 2:12 had universal application. It was not limited to the assemblies of the church but also applied to societal relationships and vocations. Consequently, 1 Timothy 2:12 was used to deny women the vote, oppose public speaking by women in any social situation, and reject any kind of public leadership on the part of women.

If the historic, traditional interpretation that dominated for centuries in the Post-Constantinian era is correct, they had a point. If the prohibition of 1 Timothy 2:12 is rooted in some kind of “order of creation” (primogeniture or firstborn), then it applies universally—whether in church assemblies or educational and political ones. Whatever is rooted in creation, complementarians typically believe, applies to every aspect of human life.

It would seem a consistent application of 1 Timothy 2:12—if one thinks this expresses a timeless prohibition—excludes women from any public leadership or authority, whether in the church or in society. That is how our “forefathers” read it until women were given the right to vote, hold political office, sit on juries, serve as judges, and become Presidents of universities as well as sit on the boards of Christian universities. Subsequently, we no longer believed that, adjusted our interpretation, and decided that the text only applied to (any?) assemblies of the church (and/or home) while continuing to ground the prohibition in some kind of “creation order.”

This came into specific focus when the woman’s suffrage movement—the movement to secure the right of women to vote in local, state, and federal elections—became a prominent question among the churches.

In 1874, D. G. Porter, a minister within the American Restoration Movement, wrote an article entitled “Republican Government and the Suffrage of Women” (Christian Quarterly [October 1874] 489-90) in which he concluded that women do not have the right to vote “unless, indeed, it is proposed to proceed upon what seems the absurdest of all principles; namely, subordination at home and in the Church, but independence and equality abroad. We call this proposition absurd, because it would seem that if woman can be equal to man in authority anywhere, it must be at home and in the Church; and that her equality here, if indeed that ought to be her position, must be the foundation of her equality in external affairs.”

According to this argument, 1 Timothy 2:12 forbids women to have authority over men because this is the order God instituted in creation. If this order is rooted in creation, it is universal. It cannot apply simply to the home or church, but it must apply to society as a whole. Consequently, women do not have the right to exercise the authority of voting or have authority over men in any social situation.

This was a common argument in the late nineteenth century, and we can see it or something similar among some of the most respected leaders among Churches of Christ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

David Lipscomb (d. 1917) wrote:

For women to enter the work of public speaking or of leadership in the affairs of this world is to cut them off from childbearing (Gospel Advocate [3 July 1913], 635).

Woman’s work in life is to bear and train children. No higher, holier, more sacred work has ever been committed to human beings. This is her chiefest work in life. If there were not a passage of scripture on the subject except to indicate this, it would forbid her engaging in any work incompatible with this. Public speaking in any of the callings of life that demand a constant strain on the mind, a constant anxiety and care in reference to the public affairs of church or state, an excitement of the ambitions for place and power, not only destroy her taste for and cause her to neglect the home and family duties, the duties of wife and mother, but such a strain on the mind destroys the ability for childbearing (Questions Answered, 739).

R. C . Bell (1877-1964) in The Way (1903), p. 776:

[W]oman is not permitted to exercise dominion over man in any calling of life. When a woman gets her diploma to practice medicine, every Bible student knows that she is violating God’s holy law. When a woman secures a license to practice law, she is guilty of the same offense. When a woman mounts the lecture platform or steps into the pulpit or the public school room, she is disobeying God’s law and disobeying the promptings of her inner nature. When God gives his reason for woman’s subjection and quietness, he covers the whole ground and forbids her to work in any public capacity…She is not fitted to do anything publicly….Every public woman—lawyer, doctor, lecturer, preacher, teacher, clerk, sales girl and all—would then step from their post of public work into their father’s or husband’s home, where most of them prefer to be, and where God puts them….You are now no longer a public slave, but a companion and home-maker for man; you are now in the only place where your womanly influence has full play and power.

History enlightens us. Even among Churches of Christ we have not always interpreted this text the same way–and many other examples could be cited, including no women teachers at all. This ought to give us some pause, especially if we think we understand this text correctly and have no doubts about our conclusions.

CONCLUSION

A text with such difficulties, questions, and history of interpretation (where only an extreme minority would hold the traditional, historic interpretations of #1 or #2) should not be the basis of excluding women from teaching in the public assembly because . . .

  1. the diversity of interpretation is disorienting to some degree,
  2. the questions are debatable at every turn, especially the meaning of authenteo,
  3. other texts affirm women prophesying with men present,
  4. the story of women in the Bible runs against the grain of this text (e.g., Miriam as a leader of Israel [Micah 6:4], Deborah has authority to judge and prophesy [Judges 4:1-3], etc.),
  5. the application of this text is wildly inconsistent,
  6. the history of interpretation indicates the church has often been wrong in the application of this text,
  7. the understanding of this text, even among traditionalists and complementarians, has changed in the light of further study and positive (as well as negative) illumination of cultural contexts.

Consequently, any certain application or interpretation of this text does not take full account of its difficulties. 1 Timothy 2:12, given our distance from the situation the text addresses, the problems of grammar, and a critical issue of lexicography, is not a clear and unequivocal text.

Given the principle of interpreting the more obscure texts in the light of the clearer texts, it is best, then, to interpret this text in the light of clearer texts such as the gifting of women to prophesy among other texts.

Peace upon God’s church



6 Responses to “FOURTEEN QUESTIONS ABOUT AND ELEVEN INTERPRETATIONS OF 1 TIMOTHY 2:12”

  1.   Chuck Dorsey Says:

    Translating “Didaskein” and “Authentein”
    Chuck Dorsey

    None of us are first century people, none of us have any clue as to first century world views (as being experiential to us), none of us speaks Koine Greek, none of us have ever experienced the first century milieu that the original authors and readers of the NT experienced.

    There’s more to translation than merely scribbling down English so-called equivalent definitions of Greek words. Words paint pictures in readers’ minds–in the case of the NT, pictures that we cannot “see” in our minds because we’re 21st century people. And, idioms create the most vivid pictures. A Greek idiom most always means absolutely nothing to us, especially when giving it merely an English definition.
    Therefore, a so-called “literal” translation is absolutely impossible.

    The best that can be hoped for is a translation that captures in our mind’s eye a picture that was equivalent to the picture seen in the mind of the original readers.
    That can only be accomplished through a “dynamic equivalent” translation.
    1 Tim 2:12 is a perfect example … “I do not permit a woman … to have authority over a man …” (NIV) The KJV says, “usurp authority over a man.” Neither translation captures the idiomatic picture of “authentein.”

    So, what happens? We see a picture in our mind of “usurp authority” and assign to “authentein” a definition that our mind sees; but it is far from the picture the Ephesian church saw when they read “authentein.” Thus, the erroneous doctrine that women can’t teach or have any authority in church (or even anything that might look like authority to our minds’ eyes).

    Louw and Nida have demonstrated that “authentein’s” idiomatic English equivalent is “to bark orders at” a person because they are “self-imposed autocrats.” Surely no Christian should “bark orders at” another Christian. And, understanding that 1 Timothy was written to a specific church to address specific issue (by nature it is an occasional document/letter), it is obvious that the Ephesian church had some women who were “barking orders at” men.

    Therefore, the best translation we can hope for is one that equivalently paints in our mind’s eye the same picture that “authentein” painted in the mind’s eye of the original readers. Louw and Nida have painted for us “to bark orders at” as a dynamic English idiom equivalent to “authentien.”

    Another issue is, since both of the words didaskein and authentein are infinitives, what does that require when two infinitives are linked together?

    1 Timothy 2:12 reads in the Greek NT …

    “didaskein de gunaiki ouk epitrepo oude authentien andros”

    The question here is how does the use of “ouk … oude” function with the two infinitives “didaskein” and “authentien”?

    A.T. Robertson notes … “The use of ‘ouden’ with the infinitive after ‘ou’ with the principal verb is common enough” (A Grammar of the Greek NT in the Light of Historical Research, p. 1162). On the other hand, it is argued that its use with two infinitives does not occur very often. However, there are examples outside the NT where “ouden” has an epexegetical sense when coordinating two infinitives (Isa 42:24; Ezek 44:13; DanTh 5:8; Pol. Hist. 30.5.8.4-6; Jos. Ant. 6.20.3-5).

    Köstenberger persuasively argues that “ouden” links two concepts or activities that are either viewed positively or negatively by the author (A. J. Köstenberger, “A Complex Sentence Structure in 1 Timothy 2:12,” in Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger, Thomas R. Schreiner, and H. Scott Baldwin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 81-103). Bowman shows that in every ou/de infinitive construction in the New Testament, two separate ideas are always meant, though the two infinitives are clearly related. Even though the two infinitives form two separate commands, the negative connotation of “authentein” gives “didaskein” its own negative nuance, along the lines of “teaching illegitimately” (A. L. Bowman, “Women in Ministry: An Exegetical Study of 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” Bibliotheca Sacra 149 (1992), 202). Payne notes that the two infinitives should be taken together in a grammatical relationship called hendiadys, such that only one activity is prohibited: teaching in an autocratic/authoritarian (“authentein”) way
    (Cf., Payne, “The Interpretation of I Timothy 2:11-15: A Surrejoinder” [unpublished paper that is included in “What Does the Scripture Teach About the Ordination of Women?” produced by the Committee on Ministerial Standing of the Evangelical Free Church of America], pp. 99-100).

    In other words the passage may be translated, “I do not permit a woman to teach, namely, to exercise autocratic teaching over a man.” Even though two prohibitions are given, the second informs the basis for the first; the second infinitive elaborates on the aspect of teaching that is at the heart of the prohibition.

    Therefore, taking all things into consideration, a dynamic equivalent translation of 1 Tim 2:12 would look like this …

    “Some of you Ephesian women have been barking your teachings at men. I do not allow any Christian to insist on their own way without deference to others. Such persons should shut up.”

    In essence, a dynamic equivalent translation is a much more literal translation in that it paints the picture that was meant in the Greek more clearly for our 21st century minds. The word-for-word Greek-to-English translation just can’t do that!!

  2.   Brian Says:

    If it were just verse 12 alone I would have no problem, but unfortunately (or fortunately) it is followed by 13-15. These verses show that this is not a cultural thing. Paul gives a biblical reason for why he doesn’t allow women to teach or have authority over men. It seems pretty clear cut to me. If it wasn’t for verses 13-15 I would have no problem with seeing Paul’s prohibition as cultural.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      True–we don’t interpret anything in isolation from context. At the same time, there are also interpretative/hermeneutical problems with understanding 13-15. Perhaps another article detailing those might be appropriate.

  3.   Ray Hawk Says:

    One thing bothers me more so than other questions on this passage and other passages. Since people in following centuries after the first one, had to depend upon the clergy’s interpretation of scripture until printing came along, and Bibles were not as available as they are today, how many folks during that time were concerned about Greek tenses, cultural overlays, the effects of tradition, the power of influence, and etc. when it came to studying passages like 1 Timothy 2? How did one work out his own salvation under such circumstances? If grace blesses the ignorant, what would be the best course? I’m not putting down scholarship, just wondering if we have to make sure we’re following the right scholars? If so, whose scholarship is the best? Hint: John Mark, I lean in your direction.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Thanks be to God that our salvation does not depend upon tenses, lexicography, and particular verses. Rather, it depends on the gracious work of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit, and we can learn that story through oral communication, art, mentors, and liturgy (worshipping God with a community every Sunday).

      There are many dimensions of the Bible that are simple, clear, and tells the story in such a way that a normal farm boy can embrace its narrative. The story of God sending the Son in the power of the Spirit is part of that narrative.

      At the same time, there are dimensions of Scripture that are more difficult, complicated, and hard to understand. In that sense, there are texts that depend upon a fuller awareness of what is happening in the text, especially when it comes to lexical, grammatical, and situational aspects. Perhaps the “initiated” are better equipped for such than the normal farm boy.

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