the shape of leadership

What Paul Really Says About Women in Ministry, Part 3

In the conclusion of this series, we’re taking a look at 1 Timothy

George P Wood on February 2, 2017


In Parts 1 and 2 of this three-part series, we’ve looked at 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 1 Corinthians 14:34,35. To this point, we have seen that Paul does not limit the ministries women can perform in the church. Paul's concern in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is social propriety. In 1 Corinthians 14:34,35, it is fitting and orderly worship. Both concerns are consistent with an egalitarian understanding of the ministry of women.

Neither passage explicitly teaches men's authority over women. Indeed, neither passage explicitly limits the speaking ministries of women at all. The former passage deals with how women should speak in church; the latter addresses how they should learn, not whether they can teach.

The first — and, as far as I know, the only passage in either Paul's writings or the rest of the New Testament — that explicitly limits the kinds of ministry women can perform in the church appears in Paul's first letter to Timothy.

Paul writes in 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."

Of this passage, egalitarian Linda L. Belleville writes: "Despite a broad spectrum of biblical and extrabiblical texts that highlight female leaders, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 continues to be perceived and treated as the Great Divide in the debate."

So, how do complementarians interpret this passage? Douglas Moo writes: "We think 1 Timothy 2:8-15 imposes two restrictions on the ministry of women: they are not to teach Christian doctrine to men and they are not to exercise authority directly over men in the church. These restrictions are permanent, authoritative for the church in all times and places and circumstances as long as men and women are descended from Adam and Eve.”

By contrast, Man and Woman, One in Christ egalitarian author Philip B. Payne writes: "[First Timothy 2:12] does not support a universal prohibition of women teaching or having authority over men. Nothing in this passage states that women are inherently unsuited to teach or exercise authority over men in spiritual or any other matters. Nor does Paul universalize this particular prohibition for all churches and all times.”

The "Great Divide" between complementarians and egalitarians centers around three questions:

  • What is the context for Paul's instructions?
  • What did Paul command?
  • Why did Paul command it?

To answer the first question, we must realize that Paul's overriding concern in 1 Timothy is rebutting false teaching at Ephesus. Thus, as in his letter to the Galatians, Paul skips his standard statement of thanksgiving in 1 Timothy and gets right to the point: "command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer" (1:3; cf. Galatians 1:6).

He ends the letter on a similar note: "Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith" (6:20,21).

Paul returns to this concern throughout the letter (1:18-20; 4:1-8; 5:11-15; 6:9,10). It is likely that women were involved in teaching false doctrine.

Payne notes, "Paul repeatedly describes women using identical or similar expressions he uses to describe false teachers.” As specific examples, Payne cites 1 Timothy 5:12-15 and 1:20; 5:15 and 1:6; 5:11,12 and 4:1,2.

That brings us to the second question, which must be answered by focusing on verses 11 and 12. Given women's role in promulgating false doctrine, it is not surprising that Paul commands them to "learn in quietness (en hēsychia) and full submission" and to "be quiet" (einai en hēsychia). ("Learn" is the only imperative verb in verses 11 and 12; "I do not permit" is an indicative verb.)

The prepositional phrase en hēsychia functions as an inclusio here, indicating that learning in quiet is Paul's primary concern in these two verses. Such quietness is appropriate to those who need to learn, obviously, and especially if they have been talking "nonsense, saying things they ought not to" (5:13). It is also a demeanor appropriate to all Christians, whom Paul says should aspire to live "quiet lives" (2:2, hēsychion bion) — and not just Christian women.

So, Paul commands women to "learn in quietness" (verse 11). He goes on to prohibit them from didaskein and authentein in verse 12. Didaskein means "to teach."

Regarding this prohibition of teaching, Paul cannot prohibit here what he permits elsewhere. Paul greeted Priscilla in 2 Timothy 4:19, which means she was present in Ephesus when Paul's letters to Timothy arrived. Paul expressed high praise of her in Romans 16:3,4. Along with her husband, Aquila, Priscilla had led the Ephesian congregation in Paul's absence (Acts 18:19-21), a congregation that met in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19,20).

While in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila took the gifted Alexandrian evangelist Apollos under their wing and "explained to him the way of God more adequately" (Acts 18:26). (Notice that Luke lists Priscilla first, suggesting that she took the leading role in teaching Apollos.) In Acts 28:23, Luke uses the same Greek word — to describe Paul's public teaching. Both men and women, then, served as teachers in the Early Church.

Moreover, we have seen that Paul accepted the prayer and prophetic ministries of Corinthian women (1 Corinthians 11:5), a role that would have included publicly evaluating prophetic messages (14:29). Given that Paul mentioned prophesy prior to teaching in his spiritual gifts list (12:28) and encouraged the Corinthians to seek spiritual gifts, but "especially prophecy" (14:1), it is unlikely that he would have allowed women to prophesy publicly but not teach publicly.

Given Paul's praise of Priscilla and what he says about women prophesying at Corinth, then, it is likely that he permitted women to teach men. Why, then, does he seem to prohibit it in verse 12?

That brings us to authentein. Does it mean (a) "to exercise authority" (ESV), (b) "to control," in the sense of domineering (CEB, Common English Bible), or (c) to "usurp"/"assume" authority (KJV/NIV)?

It is one thing to prohibit women from acting in a domineering manner or from usurping authority; it is another thing entirely to prohibit them from having any authority in the first place. I believe that the best translation of the Greek verb authentein is "to assume or usurp authority." This is not a modern, egalitarian invention, by the way, as the 400-year-old KJV translation of verse 12 indicates. Lexicographers have long known that the Greek verb authenteō has negative connotations, including "to murder," "to domineer," and "to usurp."

The reason complementarians believe that authentein does not have negative connotations here is because it is paired with didaskein, which does not have negative connotations. Grammatically, however, the not/neither (ouk/oude) construction in Greek may function "to define a purpose or goal" or "to merge [two verbs] together to convey a single more specific idea." This would render the meaning either "to teach in order to dominate" or "to assume authority to teach." In either case, the issue is not that women teach men but how they do so. As long as they do not teach in a domineering manner or assume authority to teach, women are free to teach.

That brings us to the final question, which must be answered by focusing on verses 13-15. All commentators agree that Paul grounds his commands in verses 11 and 12 by appealing to creation (verse 13), the Fall (verse 14), and redemption (verse 15) — in other words, the events of Genesis 2 and 3. The agreement stops there, because it is now clear how the grounding relationship works.

Hierarchy belongs to the order of the Fall, not the order of creation.

In “What Does It Mean,” complementarian Moo, for example, understands verse 13 (viewed in conjunction with 1 Corinthians 11:3-10) to mean that "the man's priority in the order of creation is indicative of the headship that man is to have over woman.”

The problem with this interpretation is that (a) it's not obvious that "head" means "authority" in 1 Corinthians 11:3, and (b) Paul himself subverts such an interpretation in 1 Corinthians 11:11,12, when he writes, "Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as a woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God."

If, as I argued above, Paul's point in 1 Timothy 2:13 is similar to his argument in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, then proper social decorum is the point at issue, not male permission. Ephesian Christian women were not demonstrating proper respect to their male teachers. That would explain why Paul emphasized learning "in quietness."

Moo interprets verse 14 to mean, "Eve was deceived by the serpent in the Garden (Genesis 3:13) precisely in taking the initiative over the man whom God had given to be with her and to care for her. In the same way, if the women at the church at Ephesus proclaim their independence from the men of the church, refusing to learn 'in quietness and full submission' (verse 11), seeking roles that have been given to men in the church (verse 12), they will make the same mistake Eve made and bring similar disaster on themselves and the church.”

But the serpent didn't tempt Eve to take the initiative over Adam. He tempted her to eat the forbidden fruit — the same fruit God commanded Adam not to eat (Genesis 3:1-7; cf. 2:5-7). Moo is reading hierarchy into the temptation narrative. In reality, the first explicit mention of a husband's "rule" over his wife comes in Genesis 3:16, where it is mentioned as a divine judgment against Eve for her transgression. Hierarchy, in other words, belongs to the order of the Fall, not the order of creation.

Paul cites Eve's deception in warning Ephesian women to avoid false teaching. In 2 Corinthians 11:3, he pointed to Eve's example to caution the entire Corinthian congregation: "But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ."

Why did Paul write, "Adam was not the one deceived"? It cannot mean that men are less gullible or prone to false teaching. After all, the only named false teachers in 1 Timothy are men: Hymenaeus and Alexander (1:20). Moreover, if Adam was not deceived (cf. Genesis 3:6), then he sinned willfully. It makes little sense to prohibit women from exercising teaching/authority roles because Eve was deceived, but to allow men to exercise them despite the fact that Adam knew what was right and did wrong anyway.

Perhaps Paul, by contrasting Adam and Eve in verse 14, is simply providing warrant for why men such as Hymenaeus and Alexander are being "handed over to Satan" (1:20), while women are enjoined to learn "in quietness" (2:11). The men knew better and abused their positions of authority; the women didn't and were trying to usurp positions of authority. The better way for all is to learn the truth first and then teach it.

Finally, regarding verse 15, Moo writes that it designates "the circumstances in which Christian women will experience ... their salvation — in maintaining as priorities those key roles that Paul, in keeping with Scripture elsewhere, highlights: being faithful, helpful wives, raising children to love and reverence God, managing the household (cf. 1 Timothy 5:14; Titus 2:3-5).”

By contrast, Payne concludes, "'The childbirth' makes best sense in this context as a synecdoche referring to Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:15, cf. Genesis 3:15).

The problem with Moo's interpretation is that it's difficult to square with Paul's preference for celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7:1,8. If women need not marry in the first place, then why must — or how can — marital roles confine their ministries? Indeed, isn't it possible for women today to follow the example of Priscilla, who was both a faithful, helpful wife and a teacher of doctrine to men like Apollos?

The difficulty with Payne's interpretation, on the other hand, is in seeing how a reference to the Incarnation grounds the command to learn in quietness and not to assume authority to teach.

These difficulties remind us that no interpretation of verses 13-15, whether complementarian or egalitarian, is without problems. Interpreting Paul in these verses is like listening to one-half of a phone conversation. You hear the response, but you don't know what questions prompted it.

For Paul, creation, the Fall, and redemption provided grounds for his commands to Ephesian Christian women to learn in quietness and to refrain from assuming the authority to teach. They do not prohibit women from exercising rightly established authority to teach, as Priscilla's instruction of Apollos reminds us.

And so we return to the question I asked at the outset: Does the New Testament limit the ministries women can perform in the church?

In all the New Testament, the passages most commonly cited as affirmative answers to this question are 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:34,35; and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. The first addresses how women minister in the church, not whether they can minister. The second addresses how women should learn in the church, not whether they can teach. And the third prohibits assuming or usurping the authority to teach, not teaching per se.

Consequently, a negative answer to the question is the best answer. God both calls and empowers men and women to minister in His churches. Let all of us — men and women alike — carry out this mission in the power and love of the triune God for the common good!

This is the third installment of a three-part series on women in ministry. Make sure to read Parts 1 and 2. This article originally appeared in Enrichment Journal and has been used with permission.

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