On Women in Church Leadership: 1 Tim 2:8–15

I began writing publicly about women in church leadership in 2014, while my family was still in Peru. I was applying to doctoral programs with the intention of studying biblical interpretation, and I was thinking a lot about the role of the biblical text in my tradition (Churches of Christ). Megan and I were also preparing to return to the US and discussing our fit among the churches that raised us, as well as our children’s future experiences. To that point, their primary experience of church had been in fully egalitarian house churches, and we grieved at the thought of ushering them into a more restrictive vision of God’s gifting of women. In that context, I wrote some preliminary thoughts about the issue (here and here), and then we got busy with the business of finishing up our time in Peru.

As it happened, we moved back to a church that was on the cusp of confronting the question of women’s roles in church, and in that context I wrote on 1 Cor 11 and 1 Cor 14. It was an opportunity for me to articulate my understanding of some key texts and to put into practice some hermeneutical commitments that I had been working on. This was an exercise as a participant observer in a church where I was both a returning missionary and an interloper, not a formal leader. I had every intention of moving on to 1 Tim 2, but I was accepted to Fuller, and once again we got swept up in a transition.

Once more, we landed at a Church of Christ that was gearing up for a long and arduous process of confronting the question of women’s participation in the body of Christ. We have had more of an insider role here, though still not a position of formal leadership. For me personally, though, there has been a strong sense of observing the process—now in another church in the same tradition with much of the same baggage, but in a very different US context. This experience has happened in parallel with my doctoral studies in theological interpretation of Scripture, so I have been, I think, an keen observer. Aside from caring deeply on a local, personal level, I always have a theoretical eye on the uses of Scripture in the tradition I feel called to serve.

This church situation has also made me hesitant to continue writing on the subject. I have expressed my opinions as a participant in the discussion, but I have been cautious about putting my thoughts in writing. Rightly or wrongly, online publication has felt risky in the contemporary social media context, even though my writing style (long words, long sentences, long paragraphs, long posts, long everything) hardly lends itself to the kind of sniping typical of the Twitter age. That is to say, I’ve been observing and reflecting on the nature of public discourse, not least in light of the current presidency. These broader dynamics have a great deal to do with the way biblical interpretation and theological leadership is unfolding in the twenty-first century—just as they did in nineteenth century during the formative era of the Stone-Campbell movement and the twentieth century during the emergence of Churches of Christ (more about which is for other posts).

Now, however, it has been over three years since my last post on the subject, and I feel ready to pick up where I left off. What animates this post in particular is a concern I believe to be at the heart of 1 Tim 2: the vital importance of Scripture’s role in the life of the local church and, by extension, the role of the church’s teachers. In the discussion about women’s roles, we find ourselves in a potentially vicious circle: to a great extent the question is about women interpreting Scripture as teachers in the church, and in order to deal with the question, the church must interpret Scripture. This circle is part of a larger one in which 1 Tim 2 takes part: the riskiness of interpreting Scripture in the context of mission raises its own challenges, and in order to deal with them, the church must risk interpreting Scripture in the context of mission.

What I’m doing and what I’m not

Let me start with some big-picture pointers.

  1. A prior theological commitment to the mission of God directs my reading of the text. In the simplest terms, I think that Scripture as a whole tells the story of God’s mission, that the church’s life is constituted by participation in that mission, and that Christian theology as a whole is derived from that participation, especially from the church’s interpretation of Scripture in virtue of that participation. This approach to the text is intertextual, because I am connecting 1 and 2 Timothy to both the rest of Scripture and the texts of Christian theology. What I notice and highlight below is a result of the intertextual connections I am making (mostly implicitly).
  2. Explicitly, I am focused on the co-textual world of 1 Tim 2:8–15, which I take 1 and 2 Timothy to comprise. Co-texts are those that surround and connect compositionally to the text being interpreted. This is commonly referred to as “context” (as in, “don’t take that word out of context”). I’m reserving context for a broader usage, however. As the common phrase “historical context” indicates, context refers to anything that goes with the text to clarify its meaning. In contrast, co-text refers only to texts that are connected compositionally to the interpreted text. Since 1 and 2 Timothy are two distinct compositions, they are not technically co-texts, but I am taking Paul’s whole correspondence with Timothy as a single composition anyway (I think there are warrants to do so, but I won’t go into that here.)
  3. The important thing is that the co-textual world of 1 Timothy 2:8–15 emerges from extensive engagement with both books as a whole. As in the previous two posts on female leadership in church, I take my time working through the words of these two books, sometimes quoting at length and highlighting Greek vocabulary that seems pertinent. Readers may find the results tedious, but the procedure is not optional in my view. I am writing within a church tradition that purports to approach the text with the utmost seriousness, and our difficulties regarding women’s roles are ostensibly because the specific words of the text matter. For that reason, the burden of this post rests on the way I understand the words of the passage’s co-textual world to relate to one another.
  4. I am not, however, advancing a historical-critical argument. While I am not only conversant with but indebted to that sort of study, I think that when engaging this discussion on a congregational level (which is where my tradition’s polity makes its decisions), we have to come to terms with the relative impotence of historical-critical methods to settle the dispute(s). I think that is the case for two reasons.
    • Generally, historical-critical scholarship has proven no more able to offer definitive answers than any other method. This is important to note precisely because it plays a modern knowledge game that pretends to offer certitude on the basis of facts (here, historical facts). Take virtually any debated issue in biblical interpretation (and a great many no one in churches bothers to debate!) and you will find a variety of interpretations of the facts. Ultimately, historical-critical scholarship is, like everyone else, playing a rhetorical persuasion game. Who can make the best case for their construal of the evidence? When regular church-goers become exasperated with biblical scholarship because it unendingly multiplies opinions, they’re right. Obviously, I don’t mean that all scholarship is useless. Nor that there aren’t ways to decide which interpretations of the historical data are more plausible. But that is all they are: decisions about plausibility. Take, for example, N. T. Wright’s argument about the significance of the Ephesian Artemis cult for understanding 1 Tim 2:11–12 (article here; video here). I find his argument to be extremely plausible—in fact, the most likely historical explanation of context. But even after reading a lot more than the average church leader or lay person about the alternative arguments, that is still the most I can say: I find X more convincing than Y and Z. That does nothing to settle the matter in a congregation and ultimately only invites the church to argue about what constitutes historical-critical plausibility or despair in the face of inconclusive historical evidence.
    • Specifically, among Churches of Christ, historical-critical scholarship is impotent because it simply is not the way our populist movement approaches Scripture. It is certainly the way our graduate theological programs do, and therefore the way our well-trained ministers might do, but that possibility has proven to have little effect on the way our churches interpret passages like 1 Tim 2:8–15. Now, I’m extremely interested in making an argument (elsewhere) that churches—I mean, the average church member—should be shaped by theological scholarship, including biblical studies. But such an argument would address the reality that the church is generally not well-formed by the tradition’s most knowledgable teachers, and in that situation it matters little what scholars have to say about any given passage. Church members and leaders bent toward study may read substantial commentaries and articles (please God!), but when it comes down to reading the text together and deciding how to live in a local context, we have to learn to approach Scripture in ways that do not depend on the rarified conversations carried out among historical-critical scholars.
  5. In the end, what I’m after here is a close reading of 1 and 2 Timothy that engenders an interpretation of 1 Tim 2:8–15. What happens if we take our time with the text and listen closely? Certainly, we are dependent on translational aids, including the insights of biblical scholars and linguists—this is an absolute fact of the church’s relationship to Scripture. But we readers also necessarily construe the passage one way or another, in relationship to its co-texts or not, with better or worse theological commitments directing our reading. I advocate here an approach that, although not simplistic, I believe congregations can follow if they indeed take the words of the text seriously.

1 and 2 Timothy: The function of Scripture in the context of mission

Yes, mission is the context. Christ “proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world” (1 Tim 3:16) is central to the storyline of every NT text. Even granting that the pastoral epistles are steeped in a period of church institutionalization, there is no part of formalizing roles such as overseer (episkopos) or servant (diakonos) that is disconnected from the pressures and tensions of mission.

“The glorious gospel of the blessed God”  (1 Tim 1:11) has taken root in Ephesus. Now, there is a corollary issue: “sound teaching that conforms” to that message (1 Tim 1:10–11). This sound teaching is the thread that runs through 1 and 2 Tim (1 Tim 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13; 4:3). This is not, however, the “sound doctrine” of my youth—the set of positions about which our group was right and everyone else was wrong. Though the language sounds antiquated, we have to rescue Paul’s words from those sorts of connotations so that we can hear the driving concern.

The proclamation of the gospel in historical, cultural, local contexts generates tremendous theological energy. The teaching (doctrines) that consequently come to articulation can never be something like a Platonic ideal, but they do run a massive spectrum of more or less conformity to the gospel. And conformity in turn correlates with the effects of the gospel in the life of the church. These are the stakes of teaching in Ephesus—and in our contexts today.

On the one hand, “the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5). These are the proper effects of teaching. On the other hand, the quality of life that results from such instruction “is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3). In other words, this life is what God wants for his people precisely because he wants others to become his people.

Teaching results in life that results in teaching. Sound doctrine does much more than make church people right; “knowledge of the truth” is not an end in itself, because the salvation of everyone depends on the lifestyle of the church that knows the truth.

This interdependence is why the claim in 1 Tim 2:3 (that God desires everyone to be saved) is framed by an account of how Paul acted on the front end and an account of Paul’s role as herald and teacher on the back end. The phrase “I acted ignorantly in unbelief” [agnoōn epoiēsaen apistia] (1 Tim 1:13) is extremely poignant. What God makes of Paul is not a source of information but an example [hupotupōsis] (1 Tim 1:16)—therefore, God appointed him “a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” [didaskalos ethnōnen pisteikai alētheia] (1 Tim 2:7). This interplay of doing and teaching, ignorance and truth, is the weight that rests upon the “then” [oun] of 1 Tim 2:1 and the “then” [oun] of 1 Tim 2:8:

1 Tim 2:1–6
1 Tim 2:8–15
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable [hēsuchion] life in all godliness [eusebeia] and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time.
I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God [theosebeian]. Let a woman learn in silence [hēsuchia] with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

This is a single argument, a continuous discourse on the problem identified in the opening of the letter:

I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct [parangeilēs] certain people not to teach any different doctrine [heterodidasalein],  and not to occupy themselves with myths [muthos] and endless genealogies that promote speculations [ekzētēseis] rather than the divine training that is known by faith [oikonomian theou tēnen pistei]. But the aim of such instruction [parangelias] is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk [mataiologian], desiring to be teachers of the law [nomodidaskaloi], without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions. Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately [ean tis autō nomimōs chrētai]. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching [tē hugiainousē didaskalia] that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Tim 1:3–11).

That list of sins at the end of the passage is liable to distract some readers if it activates a mental schema formed by preachers firing lists of condemnations like so much guilt-coated ammunition. Paul’s point, to the contrary, is the one I’ve already highlighted: sound teaching, teaching that conforms to the gospel, is teaching that results in and derives from a kind of action—a poiēsis that I would call missional (again, see 1 Tim 1:13). The driving concern is legitimate use of the law (“law” is shorthand for Scripture, i.e., the Hebrew Bible as it was available to the church at that time).

Who are these Ephesian church members “desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions”? The same ones teaching “profane myths and old wives’ tales” as opposed to “sound teaching” (1 Tim 4:6–7). It is not incidental that these “myths” are called graōdēs, which means “characteristic of an elderly woman.”[1. BDAG, s.v. γραώδης] Nor is it coincidental that so much of 1 and 2 Timothy is given to discussing the women of this community (but not all women in general—that is an unsustainable leap).

The women in view here seem to include a group of widows who are “gadding about from house to house [tas oikias]; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say” (1 Tim 5:13). To conclude that this gadding and gossip are a separate issue from the unsound teaching that Paul is worried about would be a failure of imagination. This is a house church scenario. Just as life and teaching can’t be separated, neither can some imagined formal teaching and the house to house life of the church. “For among them are those who make their way into households [tas oikias] and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:6–7). Again, before painting Paul as a misogynist, it is only fair to note that he does not say that all women are silly gossips. In fact, he is confronting the fact of the powerful agency of certain women in Ephesus who presume to teach. The problem is not that they are women but that they are wrong, and they are influential.

More specifically, the problem is threefold: bad conscience (1 Tim 1:5, 19; 3:9; 4:2; 2 Tim 1:3), deceptiveness (1 Tim 4:1–2; 2 Tim 3:4, 13), and destructiveness (1 Tim 1:10; 4:6; 6:3–4; 2 Tim 1:13; 2:17; 4:3).

Bad conscience refers to the disjunction between teaching and godliness (eusebeia). This is why Paul is so concerned with both Timothy’s teaching and his conduct. As in Paul’s ministry, they are always inseparable.

These are the things you must insist on and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct [en logō, en anastrophē], in love, in faith, in purity. Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders. Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching [seautō kai tē didaskalia]; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Tim 4:11–16).

In particular, the monetary support of teachers (1 Tim 5:17–18) is a temptation for “lovers of money” who are “holding to the outward form of godliness [eusebeias] but denying its power” (2 Tim 3:2–5). Thus, Paul writes:

Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness [tē kat’ eusebeian didaskalia], is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness [eusebeian] is a means of gain. (1 Tim 6:3–5).

Again, it is a mistake to imagine that this issue can be partitioned from the widows who are interested in being on the church’s list of financial dependents—the same widows “gadding about from house to house” (1 Tim 5:3–24). The “honor” of “widows who are really widows” (1 Tim 5:3) is synonymous with the “double honor” of “those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17)—not because all are teachers but because all are intertwined in the same church economy in which teaching and leadership are worthy of monetary honor.

Deceptiveness refers to a consequence of ungodliness: “the hypocrisy of liars [hupokrisei pseudologōn] whose consciences are seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim 4:2). Such people are “impostors” [goētes; lit. “swindlers”], “deceiving others and being deceived” [planōntes kai planōmenoi] (2 Tim 3:13). These words are not meant to be personal attacks. Paul is identifying a characteristic that plays an important role in the situation to which he writes. Truth and teaching are intimately bound together, not in the competitive sense (“our teaching is true, theirs is false”) but rather in the ethical sense (“their teaching is a deception, our teaching is not”).

Destructiveness refers to the opposite of soundness. “Sound teaching” is a medical metaphor: the adjectival participle translated “sound” comes from the verb hugiainō, meaning “to be in good physical health, be healthy.”[2. BDAG, s.v. ὑγιαίνω] The health vs. disease motif echoes in the phrases already quoted above in reference to the would-be “teachers”: they have a “morbid [nosōn] craving for controversy and for disputes about words,” and they are “depraved [diephtharmenōn] in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim 6:4–5). The word translated “morbid” indeed denotes morbidity, sickness, and ailment. The word translated “depraved” connotes a sense of destruction as spoilage and wasting away. Thus, Paul associates “wrangling over words” and “profane chatter” with the imagery of destructive ulceration: “their talk will spread like gangrene” [gangraina] (2 Tim 2:14–17).

Because of contemporary usage, it is important to note that “profane chatter” here is not what we call “profanity,” as though the problem were course language or dirty jokes. Paul’s concern is about the effects (destruction, rot) caused by the opposite of “rightly explaining the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). This is the case every time he uses related phrases. Sound teaching is set in contrast with “myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations” (1 Tim 1:4), “profane myths and old wives’ tales” (1 Tim 4:6–7), “profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim 6:20), “stupid and senseless controversies” (2 Tim 2:23), and, one last time, “myths” (2 Tim 4:4). For Paul, the stakes of this sort of chatter, gossip, wrangling, and speculating are the health or destruction of the community.

These themes—bad conscience, deceptiveness, and destructiveness—outline the situation that drives Paul to emphasize Timothy’s teaching role as a deacon: “If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant [diakonos] of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching [kalēs didaskalias] that you have followed” (1 Tim 4:6). Paul advises Timothy that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher [didaktikon], patient, correcting opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim 2:24–25). And “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” [en pasē makrothumia kai didachē] (2 Tim 4:2).

(Note, by the way, that Paul’s severe judgment of the situation cannot be taken as meanness. For example, calling the controversies in question “stupid and senseless” is not a failure to be “kindly to everyone.” Paul might, of course, have failed personally in that regard many times. I simply believe that he is too calculating to let his words contradict his instructions to Timothy. Paul is way too concerned about how his conduct bears on the coherency of his message to make that kind of misstep in a composed letter. Some views are stupid, destructive, and deceptive, and Paul seems to think that discussing those sorts of judgements openly is not in conflict with the imperatives of godliness in teaching.)

For the same reasons, Paul is very concerned about Timothy’s endeavor to raise other teachers. Whoever aspires to be a spiritual overseer of the community [episkopos] must, Like Timothy (a deacon), also be “an apt teacher” [didaktikon] (1 Tim 3:2). In the midst of this situation, there is urgency in the instructions about overseers and deacons. “What you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful [pistois] people who will be able to teach [hikanoi . . . didaxai] others as well,” writes Paul (2 Tim 2:2). But the situation also call for caution: “Do not ordain anyone hastily” (1 Tim 5:22)—literally, “do not hastily lay hands on anyone” [cheiras tacheōs mēdeni epitithei]. As with Timothy’s own ordination at Paul’s hands, the requirement is “sincere faith” [tēs . . . anupokritou pisteōs]—literally, “unhypocritical faith” (2 Tim 1:5–6). This brings us full circle to Paul’s stated reason for writing 1 Timothy—the “aim” (telos) of instruction is “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” [pisteōs anupokritou].

All of these dimensions of the argument that binds 1 and 2 Timothy together converge in the famous passage about inspired Scripture:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed [emathes kai epistōthēs], knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings [hiera grammata] that are able to instruct [sophisai] you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture [graphē] is inspired by God and is useful for teaching [ōphelimos pros didaskalian], for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work [pros pan ergon agathon exērtismenos]. (2 Tim 3:14–17)

From beginning to end, these letters are attuned to the “use” (1 Tim 1:8) and the “usefulness” (2 Tim 3:16) of Scripture. Its usefulness for teaching is not absolute (“inspiration” makes no such guarantees!), because it depends on legitimate use—one that results in the equipping of the church for every good work, that is, for mission. Or, to reintegrate teaching and doing once more in terms of Paul’s participation in God’s mission: “my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and suffering” are inextricable (2 Tim 3:10).

This, then, is the context in which 1 Tim 2:8–14 should be read. It is a threefold missional context, wherein: (1) the use of Scripture is rooted in participation in God’s mission, (2) the use of Scripture is for missional ends, and (3) the inclusive nature of mission opens the church to competing claims about the value of (1) and (2).

1 Tim 2:8–15 in its threefold missional context

Returning to 1 Tim 2:8–15, let’s break it down syntactically. This exercise is more helpful using the Greek text simply because translation tends to gloss features of the syntax, but most translations that do not slide completely into paraphrasing can still be put to relatively good use. Here’s how I break down the phrasing:

I desire, then,

that in every place the men should pray,

lifting up holy hands

without anger

or argument;

also that the women should dress themselves


and decently

in suitable clothing,

not with their hair braided,

or with gold, pearls,

or expensive clothes,

but with good works,

as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.

I permit no woman

to teach

or to have authority

over a man;

she is to keep silent.

For Adam was formed first, then Eve;

and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

Yet she will be saved through childbearing,

provided they continue

in faith

and love

and holiness,

with modesty.

To reiterate, “then” in v. 8 is carrying forward the logic of Paul’s apostleship, namely, God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), into this new discussion about men and women. Unsurprisingly, in light of the problem to which Paul is applying that logic—ignorance and unsound teaching—he addresses Ephesian men who are in a state of “anger and argument,” which calls to mind Paul’s self-description as “a man of violence” [hubristēn] (1 Tim 1:13) a few sentences earlier. This is in contrast to the “quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim 2:2) that Paul believes to be conducive to his mission and theirs. In other words, just as my reading of the co-textual world indicated, the topic doesn’t change. This is an even more vital point to emphasize as the discussion apparently moves to women’s apparel.

The phrases “that in every place the men” and “also that the women” are in parallel construction, subordinate to “I desire, then.” The “then” carries through both sets of instructions. Whereas the violence of the men is in view, the status symbols of the women are in view, and both are inseparable from the misuse of the law seen in the co-texts. I think status symbols is the right way to characterize braided hair, gold, pearls, and expensive clothes, because (1) the vocabulary (kosmiō meta aidous; v. 9) is laden with connotations of respect and honor and (2) the co-text has already indicated a problematic correlation of money, teaching authority, and honor in this setting. These women “profess reverence for God” [theosebeian] but seem to confuse status symbols with the real qualities of “godliness [eusebeia] and dignity” (1 Tim 2:2) that Paul is after. These qualities correspond not to fashionableness and wealth but to “good works” [ergōn agathōn]—precisely what Scripture rightly used should produce (2 Tim 3:17).

Therefore, the structural and thematic links extend naturally into the discussion of women learning and teaching. The “quiet and peaceable [hēsuchion] life in all godliness and dignity” that Paul wants for the whole church entails the same “silence” [hēsuchia] that he wants for these women who need to learn better how to use Scripture. It is a state of peaceableness in which one can learn to submit to sound doctrine. It should hardly need saying, this does not imply a contrast with men, as though men should learn in a state of disruption with rebelliousness. The point, as the co-texts suggest, is that these women in Ephesus, acting in just these ways, need both an opportunity and a disposition to learn, because they desire “to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions” (1 Tim 1:7).

Since they lack a peaceable environment and a submissive disposition, Paul instructs them not (1) to teach, or (2) to have authority (authentein) but (3) to keep silent (hēsuchia). A few translational issues arise. One, “to have authority” simply does not do justice to the dictatorial connotation that the word authentein carries. It is better translated as “to lord over” and designates a kind of power play that neither men nor women can legitimately make in the kingdom of God. Two, hēsuchia pops up once more (signaling its importance). In order to underline the sense of a peaceable environment, I’m going to use the lengthy phrase, “state of quietness without disturbance.”[3. BDAG, s.v. ἡσυχίᾳ] Three, the translation “I permit no woman” [gunaiki ouk epitrepō] is treacherous, because it conceals the fact that epitrepō is the verb governing all three phrases that follow. The awkwardness this creates is reflected in the NRSV (quoted above), which uses a semicolon to set apart “she is to keep silent” as a separate clause. Translated more rigidly, v. 12 says:

I do not permit a woman

to teach,

or to lord over a man,

but rather

to be in state of quietness without disturbance.

All three infinitives—to teach, to lord over, and to be—depend on “I permit.” But, of course, for Paul to say he “permits” a woman to be in state of quietness without disturbance undermines the force of the command. Notably, a secondary definition of epitrepō is “order, instruct”[4. BDAG, s.v. ἐπιτρέπω]. The sense of the sentence is that Paul is ordering these women to stop teaching and lording over the men of the church (apparently using their status symbols as a cudgel in service of the ambition to be teachers despite their ignorance) and to start assuming the disposition of a learner. Again, I find it impossible to think Paul would give different instructions to men who acted as these women were.

Finally, coming to the most peculiar aspects of the passage, we find the theme of deception so prominent throughout the passage’s co-textual world. If we needed more proof of how tightly connected this passage is with the problems of unsound teaching that run through both books, we find “deceiving others and being deceived” [planōntes kai planōmenoi] in 2 Tim 3:13 to be synonymous with the terminology of the biblical story that Paul uses to interpret these women: “the woman was deceived [exapatētheisa] and became a transgressor” (1 Tim 2:15). For that is what Paul is doing: interpreting them with the biblical story—reading them into Eve’s being deceived.

The point needs some emphasis. It is a mistake to take Paul’s use of Scripture here simply to be an exegesis of Gen 3, as though he were finding in the story of Adam and Eve a set meaning like, “Women are prone to deception, but men are not, therefore women should not teach in the church.” He is not taking a universal meaning from Genesis and applying it to all women; rather he starts with the specific problem of these Ephesian women and holds the biblical text up to them as a mirror. He does the same with the entire Corinthian church, men and women: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). The reason Paul can use Gen 3 for both women and men here, then women alone in 1 Tim 2:14, is that he is not excavating a single, determinate meaning and “applying” it. Rather, in both cases, being deceived is the situational concern, and he is calling for those who are deceived to identify themselves as deceived by finding themselves in the symbol of Eve.

Of course, the gravity of that identification is not the status “deceived” but the consequences it carries. We have already seen that the consequences of unsound teaching are, for Paul, the driving concern. Sound teaching results in the equipping of the church for good works—for mission. Unsound teaching results in decay and destruction of the community. The pivot in v. 15 (“yet”) is Paul clarifying that finding themselves in the symbol of Eve does not mean that they should also read themselves into the “curse” of Gen 3:16. This clarification is necessary because Eve’s confession, “The serpent tricked (ēpateēsen; LXX) me, and I ate” (the only place where Paul’s deception vocabulary appears in the Greek Old Testament version of the story) leads directly into God’s declaration of the consequences. The last thing Paul wants is to suggest that the “faith and love and holiness” (2 Tim 2:15) of a Christian woman make no difference for the story of humanity’s being deceived. Quite the opposite: the sound teaching that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save (sōsai) sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) is what will lead “everyone to be saved (sōthēnai) and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), including women who “will be saved (sōthēsetai) through childbearing.” The details of this expression have confounded biblical interpreters since shortly after Paul penned them, but I’m not worried about a solution, since it does not bear directly on the question of female leadership. It seems clear to me, in any case, that Paul is nuancing his use of the Eve story: identify yourself in Eve’s being deceived, but do not forget that we are in Christ, the new Adam (cf. “in the Lord” in 1 Cor 11:11). Paul wants these women to start acting and thinking like they are “in Christ.” To do that, they need to recognize that they have been deceived, but that recognition should not lead them to think they are “in Eve.”

So how have they been deceived? The same way we all are—by competing accounts of truth. Paul’s persistent criticism of controversy, disputes, wrangling, chatter, contradictions, and, above all, myths signals the powerful presence of competing claims “falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim 6:20). Who calls them knowledge? Obviously, the women in question, but more importantly, the intellectual and cultural leaders who have shaped their thinking. In other words, as in every mission context, we are dealing with the collision of worldviews (“myths” is a key word here) and, more to the point, the use of Scripture in the midst of that convergence.

Let me repeat the threefold missional context of biblical interpretation outlined above: (1) the use of Scripture is rooted in participation in God’s mission, (2) the use of Scripture is for missional ends, and (3) the inclusive nature of mission opens the church to competing claims about the value of (1) and (2). The major issue in Ephesus is (3). The major issue, in other words, is not simply that converts in the cultural context of Ephesus carry residual beliefs and practices that are incompatible with the gospel. That is always the case in every culture—it is a boring observation. The major issue is that certain women holding to these beliefs and practices are also making a bid to become teachers, directly undermining both the use of Scripture rooted in participation in God’s mission and the equipping of the church for participation in God’s mission. In this context, Paul commands these women not to teach but to learn.

Back to the tensions of a missional reading

In our current context, a similar dynamic prevails. Because the same theological impulse that brings Paul to say that in Christ there is neither male nor female (again, see here) animates missional theology, missional ecclesiology is essentially inclusive, so a missional reading of 1 Tim 2:8–15 might result in a gender-inclusive interpretation. Yet, I think the dynamic in contemporary missional ecclesiology is actually more complex than simply letting that theological anthropology guide the reading (which is also a legitimate move for a congregation at a different place in the hermeneutical circle).

In the present context, it is not simply that patriarchy is a false understanding of the relationship between men and women in Christ, though it is that. Egalitarians will call patriarchy an invasion of cultural values foreign to the gospel, and complementarians will say the same of the apparently late-modern gender roles that egalitarians espouse. But I think the subtler issue is that missional ecclesiology today comes after the fact of church patriarchy, which means that the inclusiveness of the ecclesiology that would affirm the equal calling and gifting of men and women in Christ also entails inclusiveness toward those already in the church who are carrying forward a commitment to the tradition of patriarchy. Not for nothing, it is often traditionalist women who insist that women must not teach (yes, the irony should be palpable).

Let me be more specific. Sound missional ecclesiology entails the practice of inclusive, communal reading and interpretation of Scripture, a practice in which the whole community, gifted for participation in God’s mission, reads Scripture as participants in God’s mission, in order to equip one another for participation in God’s mission. By virtue of that commitment, missional churches are necessarily inclusive toward those who would advance an inherited patriarchal understanding of 1 Tim 2:8–15.

In other words, as 1 and 2 Timothy has taught us, a missional hermeneutic leaves us open to viewpoints are in conflict with the use of Scripture rooted in participation in God’s mission and with the use of Scripture for missional ends. This is no less the case when the competing claims are brought forth from church history.

The inclusiveness of missional ecclesiology occasions another problem consonant with those in Ephesus: the ignorant are included. I’m taking a page from Paul here, so “ignoran” is not an insult but a description. Ignorance is the state of lacking knowledge. It is a natural state. We all begin there in regard to everything and remain there in regard to many things. But that doesn’t make it virtuous or desirable.

In my tradition, however, the cultural current of anti-intellectualism that pervades our approach to spirituality and, in particular, biblical interpretation makes ignorance into a virtue. This is a huge topic on which I intend to write a lot more, but the short of it is that our profoundly populist movement believes in the capacity of the average, uneducated Bible reader to find the “plain” or “simple” meaning of Scripture. The Bible “says what it means and means what it says.” The meaning is “black and white.” In the case of 1 Tim 2:12, the meaning is plain: “I permit no woman to teach.” Simple. Done.

Any claim to a more complicated interpretation of 1 Tim 2 crashes into the cultural commitment to the virtues of uneducated readers and the simplicity of Bible reading. And any more complicated missional interpretation of 1 Tim 2, by virtue of its inclusiveness, opens itself to the ignorance inherent in this anti-intellectual church culture. This dynamic is not identical to the situation in Ephesus, because these women may have been very well educated in the so-called knowledge that Paul rejects. In fact, that may be what made some of them think they should be teachers. Nonetheless, I see a striking parallel between their ignorance of sound teaching and the ignorance that traditionalist, anti-intellectual church culture promotes.

So, I think Paul would say something similar to the church today: women should use Scripture as participants in mission, women should use Scripture to equip the church for mission, and whoever teaches that women should not use Scripture in these way needs to stop teaching and find a quiet place to learn.

A missional reading of 1 Tim 2:8–15 reveals a tension inherent in reading Scripture missionally: The exclusion of people from full participation in the life of the church—including congregational interpretation of Scripture—on the basis of gender or education is incompatible with missional theology. Yet, Paul excludes some from teaching because of their ignorance—ignorance about the gospel, about the inseparability of teaching and participation in mission, and about the legitimate use of Scripture. The ignorance of church members is a missiological problem, then and now. We have to ask: Who is able to handle the law? Who is able to teach faithfully? Who is able to equip the church for good works? Our inclusiveness must live in tension with the requirement that some members of the community learn instead of teaching—whether that teaching would be done from a formal position of authority, as participants in a Bible study, from house to house, or through any of the many ways that theological influence is actually exercised. This tension between inclusiveness and legitimate use of Scripture is vital for missional hermeneutics, especially in populist, congregationalist traditions like mine.


3 thoughts on “On Women in Church Leadership: 1 Tim 2:8–15

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