1 Timothy 2:11-12: No Women Teachers?

The language here is seemingly straightforward and clear. But does Paul really mean what we think he means? And if he does mean it, is this an instruction he intended for universal application, regardless of historical context and circumstances?

This passage and 1 Timothy 2:13-15 are at the heart of the ongoing discussion of the place and role of women in church, home and society. Answers to the above questions are critical in that discussion.

This passage is a difficult one for yet another reason, namely, an emotional/experiential one. As a male, I am sure I cannot fully grasp the impact this apostolic word must have on women. But given that limitation, I can nonetheless understand something of the damage to one's self-worth and sense of giftedness this restrictive word must evoke. We are living at a point in history in which women and men are recognized as equally gifted in intellectual ability and communication skills. In such a climate, the apostolic prohibition seems particularly difficult to understand and accept. For what is it about gender which militates against the full expression of the Creator's gifts of heart and mind and spirit?

This question has often been answered with the assertion that clearly defined roles for men and women are divinely ordained and that Paul's restrictive instruction is evidence of such a universal norm. That response, however, is problematic. The account of the creation of male and female in Genesis 1--2--which we take as a foundational theological statement of the Creator's design and intention--affirms male and female as equal and complementary. Both are bearers, together, of God's image (Gen 1:26-27). Both are given the mandate to responsible sovereignty over the created order (Gen 1:28). The creation of the woman is intended to rescue the man from his aloneness and to provide him with a complement (Gen 2:18).

Over against an ancient view that the gods played a trick on man by creating woman of inferior material, the creation account of Genesis affirms the woman to be of the same essence as man ("bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," Gen 2:23). Thus the view that God intended the woman for a restricted role in home, church and society cannot be grounded in the order of creation.

A restricted status for woman has been traditionally grounded in the account of the Fall (Gen 3) in both Jewish and Christian thought and practice. But it is clear from the context of Genesis 2--3 that the words of 3:16--"Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you"--do not announce God's created design for a male hierarchy. Rather these words announce a cursed existence because of a broken relationship between the human creation and the Creator. A restricted place for woman, and male-over-female dominance, is thus not divine purpose but an expression of human sin.

For Paul, the purpose of Christ's redemptive work was to set God's creation free from the curse of Eden. Those "in Christ" were new creations (2 Cor 5:17), freed from the bondage of sin and its expression in human relationships (Rom 6:5-7). In the new humanity created in Christ, the culturally and religiously ingrained view that some human beings, on the basis of gender or race or social status, were in some sense inferior could no longer be maintained (Gal 3:26-28). That was surely one of Paul's central theological convictions.

In discussing the passage in 1 Corinthians 14:33-40, where Paul instructs women in the church to "remain silent," we saw that this restriction was not universally applied either by Paul or by other early congregations. Women functioned in prominent leadership positions (Phoebe, Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche, Priscilla, Junia), designated as ministers (or deacons, Rom 16:1), fellow workers (Rom 16:3), colaborers in the gospel (Phil 4:2-9), apostles (or messengers, Rom 16:7). The Spirit of God empowered both men and women to be proclaimers of God's redemptive work in Christ (Acts 2:14-18). Women's participation in the edifying presentation of the gospel and vocal prayer in the congregation were a normal part of early church life (1 Cor 11).

In light of the above considerations, reasons for the particular restriction imposed on women in Timothy's congregation must be discovered from within the text and the situation in the church which Paul addresses. If, as we have seen, a curtailed role for women was neither a part of the divine intention in creation nor a normative aspect of the redeemed order, then the curtailment of their speaking and teaching and leading--in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2--must be in response to critical, local situations. Investigation of 1 Corinthians 14 revealed such a crisis setting in Corinth. A critical situation in the life and faith of Timothy's congregation seems likewise the reason for Paul's instruction here.

Upon reading 1 Timothy, one becomes immediately aware that the integrity of the Christian faith is at stake. There are some in the church who teach false doctrines and are occupied with myths and other speculative ideas which militate against sound and sincere faith (1 Tim 1:3-4). Some have wandered into vain debates, seeking to be teachers without understanding and discernment (1 Tim 1:6-7). There is throughout a concern for maintaining and guarding the truth of the faith (1 Tim 1:19; 2:4-7; 3:14-16; 4:1-3, 6-7, 16; 6:1-5, 12).

We do not know the identity of the false teachers or the full content of their teaching. From the instructions given, we can conclude that the false teaching led to a disregard for proper decorum and practices in the church (1 Tim 2:8-15) as well as to a rejection of the institution of marriage (1 Tim 4:3). In light of this last aspect of the heretical teaching, it is noteworthy that particular attention is directed to young widows (in 1 Tim 5:9-15), who are urged to marry, have children and manage their homes (1 Tim 5:14). When these normal, socially prescribed roles and functions are neglected or rejected, these women are prone to "gossiping" and being "busybodies, saying things they ought not to" (1 Tim 5:13).

On the basis of this data, at least two reconstructions of the situation in Timothy's congregation at Ephesus are possible: (1) the women in the church at Ephesus were the primary advocates and promoters of the heretical teachings which were upsetting accepted patterns of congregational and home life; (2) the women in the church had been particularly influenced by the heretical teachers. Such a situation in the Ephesian church is addressed in 2 Timothy 3:6-9, where women, the special targets of those "who oppose the truth" (2 Tim 3:8), become "unable to acknowledge the truth" (2 Tim 3:7).

In either case, Paul's restrictive word in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 must be understood within a context where false teaching is at issue. The general prohibition against all those who "teach false doctrines" (1 Tim 1:3) is now focused specifically on the women who have fallen prey to such false teaching or who are involved in its promulgation.

The admonition of 1 Timothy 2:11--"learn in quietness and full submission"--is thus directed at the women who, on the basis of the heretical teaching, have become loud voices, strident advocates of ideas that are upsetting the ordered contexts of congregational and home life. The "submission" enjoined on them is most likely a submission to the elders in the church, who are guardians of the truth and ordered worship. The prohibition against their teaching is occasioned by their involvement in false teachings. Finally, the prohibition against "authority over a man" (1 Tim 2:12) must be understood within the context of their rejection of the authority of others, probably the male leaders in Ephesus whose orthodox, authoritative teaching is being undermined by their heretical views. The unusual Greek word used carries primarily the negative sense of "grasping for" or "usurping authority." Thus, the restriction of women's place and participation in the life and ministry of the church at Ephesus is most probably "directed against women involved in false teaching who have abused proper exercise of authority in the church (not denied by Paul elsewhere to women) by usurpation and domination of the male leaders and teachers in the church at Ephesus." Paul goes on to ground this instruction in reflections on selected passages from Genesis.

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The Hebrew word translated "helper" (in Genesis 2:18 and 2:20), as a designation for the woman, is used only 16 more times in the Hebrew Bible. In those cases, it is always a designation of God as the One who saves, upholds and sustains his people (as in Ps 46:1). There is no sense in which this word connotes a position of inferiority or subordinate status. The word translated "suitable for" literally means "in front of," signifying one who stands "face to face" with another, qualitatively the same, his essential equal, and therefore his "correspondent."

See Gordon D. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Good News Commentary (San Francisco: Harper & Row,1984), who makes a persuasive case for 1 Timothy as an occasional letter addressing specific heretical teachings.

David M. Scholer, "1 Timothy 2:9-15 and the Place of Women in the Church's Ministry," in Alvera Mickelsen, ed., Women, Authority & the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 205. This essay, and several others in this volume, present an excellent study of the exegetical, historical-cultural and linguistic issues in this hard saying and related biblical texts.