Many people are convinced that if you believe and obey the Bible, you cannot allow a woman to serve as a pastor. They are convinced that 1 Timothy 2 requires women to be quiet in church and forbids them to teach or lead men.
A surface reading of 1 Timothy 2:11–12 appears to support that understanding. However, I have found that a more careful exegesis calls for serious reconsideration.
Christians who believe in verbal inspiration agree that words matter when interpreting the Bible. While rejecting the dictation theory of inspiration, they assert that the Holy Spirit guided biblical authors in the very words they wrote.
Therefore, to seriously study 1 Timothy 2, we must focus on the words Paul chose, especially two key words which have been used to limit the roles of women in the church: “quiet” and “authority.”
Haysukhia : What Does It Mean to Be “Quiet”?
Paul’s triple repetition of the Greek word pronounced haysukhia in 1 Timothy 2 is highly significant. “Quiet” (v. 2), “quietness” (v.11) and “be quiet” (v. 15) all translate the same Greek word (haysukhia). Discovering its meaning is key to discerning the theme and accurately interpreting the chapter.
The theme of the chapter is living peacefully and without conflict in the world (vv.1–7) and in the church (vv. 8–15). Paul emphasized this theme with instructions for men (v. 8) and for women (vv. 9–15).
Did you know that “quiet” (haysukhia) does not mean verbal silence (no talking)? Rather, as is obvious in verse 2, it refers to peace and serenity (no conflict). Paul did not call for prayer for rulers so Christians could live in verbal silence (that would be ludicrous!), but so they would enjoy a peaceful life—serene, tranquil, and free from conflict or persecution.
It follows then that Paul, using the identical word (haysukhia) in verses 11 and 12, is not requiring women to maintain verbal silence in church. Instead, Paul is saying women should learn, teach, and lead in a serene, peace-promoting manner rather than with a combative or argumentative spirit which would undermine living peacefully and without conflict. This parallels Paul’s counsel for men in verse 8, who, as they lead in prayer, must do so “without anger or disputing.” They also must promote peace rather than conflict.
This meaning of haysukhia is confirmed by its usage in other parts of the New Testament such as:
- Luke 23:56 (“rested” on the Sabbath)
- Acts 11:18 (“had no further objections”)
- Acts 21:14 (“gave up,” i.e. they stopped insisting on their viewpoint)
- Acts 22:2 (“became very quiet,” i.e. the violent mob stopped their angry yelling and efforts to beat Paul to death so they could hear what he said)
- 1 Thessalonians 4:11–12 (“lead a quiet life,” i.e. not a verbally silent life, but a peaceful life in which they would “mind [their] own business”)
- 2 Thessalonians 3:11–12 (“settle down” rather than being “disruptive…busybodies”)1
Sadly, the word “quiet” in this text has often been misused to deny women the opportunity to exercise Holy Spirit-given gifts for teaching or leading men. We act like Paul muzzled women from talking in church. This could not be farther from what Paul asserted.
Incidentally, those who wrongly interpret haysukhia in 1 Timothy 2:11–12, apply it selectively to teaching and leading. If, as they assert, the word refers to verbal silence, there is no textual justification for applying it so narrowly. If women were truly to be verbally silent, they would be barred from all talking in church—not just from preaching or teaching men. The fact that virtually no church demands or practices total silence for women in church should reveal the folly, and perhaps the patriarchal bias, behind their interpretation. No one forbids women from singing, making announcements, having conversations, giving testimonies, saying “Amen,” sharing prayer requests, or from teaching women and children in church, all of which involve talking rather than verbal silence.
Authenteo: What Does It Mean to Have “Authority”?
In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul used another Greek word—one which represents the most important argument regarding women exercising church leadership, often providing the brightest facet in the complementarian diamond ring.
Here, the rarely used Greek word authenteo, translated “authority,” does not refer to ordinary, positive leadership authority, but rather to abusive, bullying authority commandeered2 by an individual rather than being commissioned by the church.
Paul could have used any of the three commonly used Greek words (exousia, epitage, and hegeomai) for authority, including for church authority as in 2 Corinthians 10:8–9; 2 Corinthians13:10; Titus 2:15; and Hebrews 13:17. But he didn’t.
Rather, he selected a word, authenteo, used only here in all of the Bible. The regular meaning of the word in ancient literature is negative and refers to self-appointed, controlling, aggressive, or even violent authority which is harmful to those on whom it is imposed. It destroys the peace and harmony 1 Timothy 2 was written to protect.
For those who believe in verbal inspiration, then, it is very significant that Paul bypassed the common words he often used for authority in his letters and instead chose a one-time-only, rare word which, in the vast majority of its extra-biblical usages, portrays commandeered, abusive domination.
Chrysostom, an early church father who wrote his voluminous homilies in Greek, was certainly familiar with Paul’s lone use of this word in 1 Timothy 2. Marg Mowczko explains:
[Chrysostom] writes that a husband should not act this way toward his wife. This verb is translated into English as ‘act the despot.’”
It’s becoming clear that Paul was trying to indicate the inappropriateness of authenteo leadership.
Paul made an inspired word choice which reveals that his words should not be used to prohibit women from being appropriately commissioned to teach or lead in church, but rather to forbid women from commandeering for themselves a controlling and domineering kind of authority. That is not the kind of leadership Jesus modelled and taught!
Women Should Lead with Peacefulness and Humility
Understanding the inspired vocabulary of 1 Timothy 2:11–12 (“quiet” and “authority”) reveals that Paul was not forbidding women to be teachers or to hold positions of authority over men in the church. Paul was forbidding women from being a particular kind of teacher or leader—one who was unteachable, combative, self-appointed, domineering, bullying, and abusive. Obviously, neither women nor men should exercise such leadership in Jesus’s church.
Paul’s message in 1 Timothy 2 is that appropriately gifted women of godly character should be commissioned by the church to lead, teach, and pastor, but that women should never seize those roles for themselves to become church bullies.
Photo of Rev. Tammy Swanson-Draheim, Rev. Dr. Grace Ying May, and Rev. Elizabeth Testa at CBE's 2022 International Conference awards dinner.
In a few other passages where haysukhia might appear to mean verbal silence, a closer look will reveal that it involves a cessation of argument or debate.
Two English translations imply the self-appointment aspect of authenteo: the KJV (“usurp authority”) and the NIV 2011 (“assume authority”). This authority is commandeered, not commissioned/ordained by church elders.