3 dangers with interpreting this passage
As a young Christian, I became convinced of a complementarian position when it came to women in leadership. In any argument 1 Timothy 2:11-12 was my trump card. It was so clear that anyone who disagreed was clearly denying the authority of scripture and was driven by a culture-pleasing and ultimately liberal agenda. Though I respect my many friends who hold a complementarian position due to their reading of scripture and their conscience I have changed my mind. I am not alone in this change: Howard Marshall, Chris Wright, John Ortberg, Ron Sider and Bill Hybels have made the same journey. In such a short article it’s not possible to solve all the controversies surrounding this passage, so I’ll merely ask some framing questions to help us navigate the pitfalls this verse creates.
Here’s the passage in question:
2 I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. 7 And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.
8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
- Edit 1 Timothy 2:11-12 out of scripture, dismissing Paul as sexist
All scripture is God-breathed. That means it carries the weight and authority of God behind it. Some of my complementarian heroes accuse egalitarians of not taking scripture seriously. To be honest they have a point: but only about some egalitarians. I have heard many times that we can ignore Paul because he was obviously a misogynist. I have also heard people argue that we can ignore Paul and prioritise Jesus. But this is not an option for an evangelical egalitarian because of our doctrine of scripture. The scriptures are not a random collection of the thoughts and suggestions of certain ancient people as to how one might like to do church. No, we believe that scripture is breathed out by God which means that when we ignore scripture we are ignoring God. Paul is not speaking his own views or opinions – he is being used by God to communicate His word to God’s church.
- Use 1 Timothy 2:11-12 as a lens through which to interpret every discussion of women in leadership
J.I. Packer argues clearly that “scripture must interpret scripture; the scope and significance of one passage is to be brought out by relating it to others”.
We don’t try and interpret a Bible text in isolation – we need to allow the rest of scripture to inform and temper the limits of the interpretation of a text. For example: Paul talks about the baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29– it would be wrong to build a theology of posthumous salvation from this verse when the scriptures are silent on this issue. Of course, holding the whole of scripture in our minds when we interpret any one part is difficult to do.
3. We ignore the context of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 in the letter itself
This verse is more complex to interpret than immediately meets the eye.
i) No one believes that a woman’s salvation is guaranteed through physical childbirth – the climax of the argument in v.15.
ii) I have yet to visit a church that consistently applied the prohibition of gold jewellery for women (v.9), the lifting up of hands for men in prayer (v.8) and the restriction of women from leadership roles (v.12). There are clearly time bound contextual elements in this passage that do not apply across all times and all cultures and universalising one without the others is very selective.
iii) An argument back to creation is not a deal-closer. There are two problems with arguing the mention of Adam and Eve means this is a creation ordinance. First, Paul argues from creation that women should cover their heads in worship and that men should uncover their heads in worship (in 1 Corinthians 11:7-9), but most interpreters understand the specific issue of head coverings is culturally and time bound and so does not apply today. Second, Paul’s argument is also from the Fall – it is at the Fall that Eve was deceived and “became a sinner” and the events of the Fall are being undone by the redeeming work of Christ. Also when it comes to the Fall the rest of Paul’s reflections do not pick out Eve as more culpable than Adam. (see Romans 5:14).
Finally, the specific challenges Paul addresses in the letter cannot be ignored.
As Scholer argues: “1 Timothy should be understood as an occasional ad hoc letter directed specifically towards enabling Timothy and the church to avoid and combat the false teachers and teaching in Ephesus.”
Paul’s prohibition of women in leadership in 1 Timothy was due to the specific challenges Timothy faced in Ephesus. For me this makes sense of the ministry that Paul encourages in women such as Junia, Euodia, Syntche and Priscilla. I remain convinced that those women that God has called and gifted for leadership roles within the church should be encouraged and empowered to use these gifts to the glory of God.
 Packer, J.I. (1958) Fundamentalism and the Word of God, IVP, p.103
This blog was first published for Sophia Network’s blog.
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1. Tim Keller, women in leadership and ignoring your own rules.
2. Learning from women in leadership – inspiring quotations from women leaders.
Photo credit Photoree. Alyssa L. Miller