Restrictive Passages: 1 Timothy 2

“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” (1 Timothy 2:11-12).

This is one of two NT passages in which Paul restricts the roles of women. Some say 1 Timothy was not written by Paul and should not be included in our Bibles. Others suggest this is an example of a flawed Paul’s misogyny and should be ignored. After giving both positions consideration, I am not convinced. I suggest we treat 1 Timothy as being of Paul and belonging in our Bibles. I reject the notion that Paul is a misogynist. Without a doubt, Paul is restricting women in 1 Timothy 2. The question for us to determine is what exactly is being restricted by Paul? Let me suggest two possible readings for this passage that should be considered in light of how they read in the context of 1 Timothy as a letter and the Bible as a whole.

The first reading: Paul is restricting all women in all places for all time from teaching or assuming authority over men. Paul explains his position by referring to the order of creation and deception.  Adam was formed first, before Eve; therefore men have authority over women.  Eve was deceived first, before Adam; therefore all women need to be led by men. God never intended for women to teach or assume authority over men. God always intended men to exercise authority over women.

The second reading: Paul is restricting unlearned women at Ephesus (or anywhere else) from teaching or assuming authority over men. Paul begins the passage by urging women to learn (a radical, non-traditional position in Paul’s day). Paul explains his instruction by referring to the order of creation and deception. Adam was formed first, so Adam had more time to learn from God than Eve. As a result, Eve was deceived first. Women in Eve’s position (unlearned women) should quietly learn rather than teach or assume authority over men.

Do churches choosing reading number one practice a more restrictive view than Paul taught even assuming reading one? In what way does a woman greeting the church or making an announcement violate the restriction regarding teaching a man or assuming authority over a man?  The same question should be asked with regard to passing trays, praying, reading scripture, sharing personal reflections at communion, or leading songs. Do any of these involve authoritative teaching? Do they necessarily involve assuming authority over a man?  What if men ask women to serve in these ways? How is passing a tray from front to back more authoritative than passing a tray from side to side? If we conclude leadership should be male rather than shared, and we think passing trays is an act of leadership, perhaps we need to rethink our view of what constitutes leadership. What did Jesus do or teach that would lead us to conclude something like passing trays was an example of Jesus-style leadership?

While sorting through this passage to determine which reading best fits and to examine our own practices, we need to remember the importance of humility, grace, and love. All of us, me included, need to be submissive learners.

6 thoughts on “Restrictive Passages: 1 Timothy 2

  1. Bob,
    Thanks for your thoughts…I believe you are right on, especially concerning the definition of leadership. I truly believe it is time that we look at the words we use; words have meanings (just ask an attorney). The reality, within the church setting, is that most actions and “positions” are those of service not true leadership. One major defining action of leadership is its authority to instill discipline. How can passing a tray, doing announcements, praying, starting a song or even sharing thoughts or gained insight from Scripture constitute leadership? I see these as acts of service.

  2. Great thoughts!

    If I understand it correctly, (1) the first century church met in people’s homes, not in a specially-constructed building and (2) the Lord’s Supper was part of a larger community meal. Given these assumptions, it seems most probable that it would be the women doing most of the work with regard to both the meal and the Lord’s Supper.

    I know one church that studied the entire issue and came to the conclusion that females could lead public prayers in the corporate assembly but they could not pass out the trays for the Lord’s Supper.

    I’m not sure where I am on all of this but for me that conclusion is precisely backwards. Leading a prayer comes closer to exercising authority than serving bread and wine. Again, I’m personally not convinced that women are forbidden to pray in the assembly, but to conclude that leading prayer is allowed while passing out trays is not just does not make sense to me.

  3. The leadership of elders and congregational autonomy come into this discussion as well. What is perfectly acceptable for women (or men for that matter) to do in one culture or setting may not be acceptable in others. Always also we should consider that “change for change sake” often puts a stumbling block in the way of weaker Christians. If we seem unclear about a particular issue, time and slow, gradual adjustment is perhaps the better course than a rapid overthrow of tradition. If it is a case of sinful behavior an immediate correction is needed. The rub with the second reading is how far to we extend roles to women and then, of course, defining leadership itself.

  4. Will, I am so thankful for both your open heart for Scripture and your pastoral sensitivity. That, my brother, is a powerful combination!

  5. Bob, thanks for stopping by to read and comment. This study has been a fun journey for me! Glad to hear others processing through this difficult material. May your journey be blessed.

  6. John, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate the sensitivity you have for this study and for congregational sensitivity. I need to spend more time pondering the essence of leadership.

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