Twelve Words, Twelve Interpretations: 1 Timothy 2:12 image

Twelve Words, Twelve Interpretations: 1 Timothy 2:12

There are at least twelve ways of understanding and applying 1 Timothy 2:12. That’s nothing if you compare it to Hebrews 6:4-6, for which there are at least eighteen, but it’s quite formidable considering the disputed phrase contains only twelve Greek words. Here’s what it says, with a word-for-word translation underneath:

Didaskein de gunaiki ouk epitrepō oude authentein andros all einai en ēsuchia.
To teach
a woman/wife
I permit
and not
to exercise/assume authority over
a man/husband
to be
So what does it mean, and how should it be applied today? In fact, should it be applied today at all? What is ‘teaching’? What is ‘exercising/assuming authority’, and what is that mysterious forward slash doing in there? Does ‘I permit’ mean that Paul was only expressing a personal opinion, rather than the words of God? Does this mean women can’t speak on Sunday mornings in church? Or explain the Bible to men at all? Or (as one female friend of mine at University was told) pray scriptural prayers in the presence of men? Are we only talking about married couples here? Are we saying that women can teach in the kids and youth work, but have to stop when the guys turn eighteen? Can women be in jobs where they need to manage men? And so on and so on.

Here are twelve ways of answering those questions. They are not mutually exclusive, but they do reflect generally different approaches to the text and its application. The first three involve arguing that Paul was not trying to prevent women from teaching or exercising authority in the church at all:
1. The word authentein should be understood in a negative sense: to usurp authority. Paul is urging women in Ephesus not to take authority which is not rightfully theirs. All proper use of authority is fine.

2. The key phrase, didaskein oude authentein, is a hendiadys, a construction in which one idea is expressed by means of two connected words, and should be understood like this: ‘I do not permit a woman to teach, and thereby to exercise authority over a man.’ When combined with #1, this interpretation sees Paul as prohibiting women from teaching in a way that usurps men, and nothing else.

3. Paul is speaking specifically to marriages here: wives are not to teach or be in authority over their husbands.
The next three read the text in a more traditional way – that in this particular verse, Paul is saying that he does not want women to teach or exercise authority over men – but do not see this as a restriction for the whole church, for all time. Rather, there are particular cultural circumstances which prompt Paul to bring this restriction, and since those cultural circumstances no longer exist, Paul’s prohibition need not be observed today:
4. First century Ephesus was the centre of the worship of the goddess Artemis, and this explains why women in this church would have been particularly likely to throw their weight around and boss men around. This is what Paul was objecting to; where this specific situation does not exist, Paul would have no problem with women teaching men.

5. Women in the first century were largely uneducated, and therefore were not to be given the role of teaching and governing the church. Now that women are as educated as men, Paul’s restriction does not apply any longer.

6. Patriarchal culture was a fact of life in the first century, and to challenge it too overtly would have undermined the progress of the gospel. Paul, therefore, continues to operate within a patriarchal social structure (as he does here and in Ephesians 5, Colossians 3 and so on), but he sows the seeds elsewhere for its abolition. The redemptive trajectory of biblical ethics leads us to move beyond restrictions like this one.
Finally, there are those who believe that Paul’s restriction continues today (like the first three), and that he is restricting women from teaching and exercising authority over a man (like the second three). It then becomes a question of how this particular instruction is to be applied in modern church life:
7. ‘To teach or have authority’ means to be an elder in a local church, since teaching and governing are the two main things elders do. Women are restricted from being local church elders, but not from anything else.

8. ‘To teach or have authority’ refers to preaching from the Bible when the church is gathered on Sundays. Women may teach in all other areas of church life (seminars, books, conferences, downloads, articles, small groups, etc), but not when the whole church comes together on Sundays.

9. ‘Teaching’ means defining doctrine for the church: ‘this is what must be believed, and this is what must be done’. Women may speak publicly, instruct, exhort, explain Scripture, preach the gospel and so on, but defining doctrine for the church, and exercising spiritual authority over the church, are for male elders.

10. Paul is restricting women from teaching men with authority. They may teach men, but not in an authoritative way.

11. Paul is limiting Bible teaching to men. Women can teach on subjects which do not involve expounding Scripture – life skills, parenting, marriage, and so on – but not on the Bible. This restriction applies not just to Sundays, but in all situations in church life.

12. Women are not to teach or instruct men on anything, or to exercise authority over them in any way. This applies in all contexts, and therefore women should not manage men, teach them how to do things better, and so on.
Exegetically, the first three above have substantial problems, and are rarely supported in commentaries and scholarly journal articles. Andreas Köstenberger’s argument concerning didaskein oude authentein has largely won the day – Paul either sees both as positive or both as negative, but he didn’t think teaching was positive and authentein negative – and the grammatical arguments in favour of seeing the clause as a hendiadys are weak. The argument that Paul’s comments only apply to husbands and wives, when the whole of chapter two seems to address men and women in general and not just married people, is likewise improbable. Consequently, most egalitarian scholars gravitate to one of the second group of three.
Here, however, there are hermeneutical problems, as I have argued previously – it is a good rule of thumb to do what the New Testament says, unless there are clear reasons not to – as well as exegetical and historical ones. Exegetically, Paul’s argument is not grounded in the culture of the day, the quirks of Ephesus or the lack of educated women, but in creation (2:13-14), and it therefore seems that whatever Paul is restricting, he is restricting on the basis of the way men and women were created (which would correspond to the way he invokes Genesis 1-3 throughout his letters). Historically, it is simply not the case that all women were uneducated in the Greco-Roman world, nor that Paul was unwilling to challenge the patriarchal culture of the day to give women far more status and responsibility than they would otherwise have been granted; both of these things are apparent from the number of times women appear in key roles in Paul’s letters. Frankly, there is a ‘have your cake and eat it’ quality to some egalitarian arguments at this point: Paul was both a liberationist visionary who encouraged women as deacons and apostles (Rom 16), and a man hidebound by his patriarchal culture to the extent that he never reached the stage of liberation that we, many generations later, can (1 Tim 2). It therefore seems best, for exegetical, historical and hermeneutical reasons, to assume that (as with almost every verse in the NT epistles!) we are dealing with an instruction that believers today are intended to follow, and to sit somewhere in the third block of interpretations.
But where? We can surely rule out #12 as being miles away from Paul’s purpose in the passage (which, as he says in 3:14-15, concerns how people conduct themselves in the church), and #11 would mean Paul banning here what Priscilla clearly did in Acts 18:26 (which is possible, but unlikely). #10 involves the grammatically improbable appeal to a hendiadys (see above), and is also at risk of seeing ‘authority’ as nothing more than tone of voice and manner: it would be a mixed blessing, I suspect, for a woman to be asked to teach, but in a non-authoritative way! #8, which is where a good many churches I know tend to sit, inserts a concept, that of the main talk from the stage in a Sunday meeting, which is both anachronistic – did the early church really do it like that? (1 Cor 14:26) – and not mentioned by Paul.
I tend to think that Paul’s use of didaskō and didaskalia favour #9, and that #7 involves talking about something Paul doesn’t (eldership) and not talking about something he does (teaching) – but I suspect that, when all is said and done, there is not much practical difference between the two anyway. Defining doctrine, exercising spiritual authority and serving as elders/overseers are all part of the same package (1 Tim 5:17), and Paul limits both this function and this office to men (see also 1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Outside of this restriction, all other people in the church, whether male or female, can function and flourish in all other areas of ministry.
Not all would agree with the position I’ve sketched here. (In fact, most wouldn’t!) But here are two little thoughts that some might find helpful. Firstly, there is John Piper’s response to the supremely awkward question, ‘I’m a guy. Is it wrong for me to listen to Beth Moore?’ He answers no, but explains that it could be if you became dependent on her as your pastor (which coheres well with #7 and #9: it’s not explaining the Bible to men, but functioning as the authoritative elder/overseer/pastor and definer of doctrine for men, that Paul is restricting). Secondly, there is the analogy of marriage: it’s not inconsistent for a husband to be head of his family, but to defer to his wife on all sorts of issues where she knows more than he does. In fact, when Paul talks about the role of women at home, he uses the strong verb oikodespotein (to rule the household), which he does not see as incompatible with submitting to their husbands. By analogy, we might suggest, elders/overseers can define doctrine for and exercise authority over the church, but still release women to instruct the church on pretty much any topic where they are more qualified or gifted to speak. I find that argument fairly compelling.
As to the flashpoint question - whether forty minute Sunday morning sermons in a local church necessarily involve defining doctrine (Teaching with a capital T), or whether they involve the sort of teaching that all of us are called to do (teaching with a lower case t, as in Col 3:16) - churches need to make up their own minds, mindful of the fact that the way we do Sundays today is likely to be very different from the context of the early church. My assumption is that most people in our world, and in my church, would assume that the preacher of the sermon is speaking with a God-given authority to declare what should be believed and what should be done in that local church, and therefore that a full-length Sunday morning message in my church involved Teaching, not merely teaching. But that doesn’t mean this would always be the case. And it’s not like I have any verses to prove it, or anything.
Anyway, that’s where I’ve got to, and where we are as a church in Eastbourne. May the discussion commence!
Andrew’s next book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption, will be released in April, published by IVP.

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