Reflecting on 1 Timothy 2:11-15
The issue of a woman leading or teaching in the church is clearly misunderstood by many and is a contentious subject that divides the body of Christ. The stumbling block is generally over scripture, with 1 Timothy 2:11-15 being perhaps the most prominent of these.
Let’s consider what it says:
“Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. 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 woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”
To some of us, it’s as plain as day what Paul is saying in these words. Others of us believe he cannot possibly be saying what a simple reading of the text seems to indicate.
In order to understand the issues that Paul addresses here, we need to have context in two areas. Firstly, we need to get textual context by examining these verses in the light of the whole letter. And, secondly, we need to get the historical context.
If we look at Paul’s opening address to Timothy at the beginning of the letter, we can see that Timothy, a co-worker in Paul’s church planting team, had been asked to “remain at Ephesus so that [he] may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine…” (1 Timothy 1:3).
Then, in 1 Tim 2:11-15 Paul addresses one of these “different doctrines”, the idea of female religious superiority. It was the prevalent belief in Ephesian religion that man came from a woman deity and then subsequently sinned. Also, men were to be subject to women teaching them and to their authority. This idea had apparently infiltrated into the local church’s thinking.
Let’s examine Paul’s instruction that corrects this:
Quiet & Submissive?
Paul tells Timothy, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.” This describes the proper demeanor in which both men and women should learn. Except, in this case, it was evidently the women who needed instruction and correction. Let’s consider this:
Firstly, “let a woman learn” was huge progress in that women were often untaught and relegated to the sidelines of life, including among the Jews. Now they were among those being taught.
Then, “quietly” suggests refraining from the bustle and chatter that some may have been previously used to, but that would disrupt a learning environment. This may also be the start of Paul correcting the opposite extreme of female dominance that was prevalent in that society’s religion.
And, “with all submissiveness” is a call to appropriate Christian behavior where men and women are “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
No Teaching or Authority?
Paul goes on, “I do not permit a woman to teach …a man.” Here Paul is addressing the false idea of women being the source of truth. The Spirit of God is the source of truth and it can be through men and women. Consider this in the light of “the anointing which you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that any one should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie, just as it has taught you, abide in him” (1 John 2:27).
Paul goes on, “or to exercise authority over a man”. Prohibiting the exercise of authority over one another is not foreign to Christianity. Consider Jesus’ prohibition on disciples having authority over one another in Matthew 20:25-27. Again, here, Paul recognized that certain women, in the church at Ephesus specifically, needed addressing on this issue.
Paul continues with, “rather, she is to remain quiet.” This is again an attitude for learning and not a strict prohibition from any interaction.
Tearing Down the False Teaching
Then he says, “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 — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”
Here Paul corrects the false teaching that man came from a woman deity by stating that Adam was formed first and then Eve. He doesn’t do this in order to place Adam over Eve, but to simply pull to pieces the false teaching. Then, to further take it apart, Paul states that it was actually the woman who was initially deceived and who became the first transgressor. Not the man as the false teaching taught.
The Mess from Misunderstanding
Some in the church today suggest the prohibition on women teaching is based on Paul’s reference here to a propensity for women to be more easily deceived. However, Paul was not saying anything of the sort. He was merely showing up the false teaching. Frankly, as I look around and at our past, the devil hasn’t needed help from women for this. Men themselves have been deceived and have done a right royal job in promoting false teaching.
Through our misunderstanding of the context and what Paul was addressing, we have swung the pendulum from the false teaching of female dominance in teaching and leadership to an equally false teaching of male dominance in teaching and headship.
Paul was not prohibiting women from teaching men or from speaking God’s word with authority. He was simply bringing wayward thinking in line with the equality that should exist in the body of Christ.
(Note that Timothy was not the pastor of the church in Ephesus as has been mistakenly attributed to him. For more on this, see my post on Church Leadership).