The woman taught once, and ruined all. – John Chrysostom1
First Timothy 2:9–15 is a difficult passage to interpret, and there are many opinions about appropriate meanings and applications. In the middle of the passage, however, is one verse that has been referenced throughout the history of the church as a clear mandate to restrict women from teaching, leading, or even speaking during worship gatherings:
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, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. 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. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.2
To interpret Paul’s meaning correctly, one must examine this command in light of the culture and situation of the believing community that this epistle was addressing. One must also look to surrounding context in 1 Timothy as well as other New Testament writings to see if Paul does, indeed, restrict women from teaching, leading, and speaking in the church. In this article, I propose that a correct interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 within the context of the epistle as well as the historic and cultural situation does not support a restriction of women. Additionally, the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, do not restrict women from teaching, leading, or speaking in the church community and its worship.
The problem of disorder in worship
I perceive the main problem that Paul is addressing in this passage to be women causing disruption of the community’s worship through their behavior, which includes their appearance and communication. The first aspect of this disruption is inappropriate dress. Some of the women were dressing elaborately, which may have indicated their class superiority within the culture, a superiority that would not be appropriate within the Christian church community (1 Tim 2:9). First-century satirist Juvenal provides evidence of the cultural situation that Paul was addressing with Gentile converts in the Roman city of Ephesus, to which 1 Timothy is addressed.
There is nothing that a woman will not permit herself to do, nothing that she deems shameful, when she encircles her neck with green emeralds, and fastens huge pearls to her elongated ears: there is nothing more intolerable than a wealthy woman. . . . So important is the business of beautification; so numerous are the tiers and storeys piled one upon another on her head!3
Paul’s solution is that women show propriety in their appearance and behavior in a way that represents their new life in Christ. Paul proposes that they dress modestly and find acknowledgment from the community through good deeds and worship (1 Tim 2:9–10).
False teaching was a problem in the community at Ephesus, and the teachers often targeted women, particularly if they were wealthy and could provide them with financial support. Paul placed primary importance on the topic of false teaching by immediately addressing it at the beginning of his letter (in 1 Tim 1:3–7), forgoing the normal introductions one would expect in a Greek epistle. This aspect of interpretation of the epistles is expounded by Franklin Pyles:
The epistles are written in the face of certain issues that have come to the attention of the apostle. A proper interpretation requires that this problem be identified to the best extent possible. The concern of the Pastoral Epistles is distorted teaching [diestrammena—Acts 20:30], false doctrines, myths and elements of Judaism [heterodidaskalein, muthois, genealogiais—1 Tim. 1:4]. Paul has previously warned the Ephesians not to be blown about by every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14), and warned them against those who would lead them astray (Eph. 4:17–24, 5:6–14). That these warnings were successful, delivered in person and in four epistles (Ephesians, and the three pastorals) is evident in the commendation the church receives for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans.4
The women who would have been targeted by false teachers seeking their financial support would also be the same who could afford expensive jewelry and clothes. Therefore, it stands to reason that, within this close context, Paul may be continuing to address the same women when he instructs them to learn quietly.
A key point of this passage that is often overlooked is the fact that Paul instructs the women to learn, albeit quietly. Within the Jewish culture, women traditionally were not allowed to study and were very restricted in religious education. In Greco-Roman cultures, this was not always the case, and some of the women in Ephesus indeed may have been leaders in cultic Roman religion. Ben Witherington points out Paul’s imperative that women are to learn:
In 1 Timothy 2:11, women are enjoined to learn. This may seem surprising to us at this juncture in history, but the degree of education appropriate for women was very much a subject of debate in the Greco-Roman world, with some suggesting that it was inappropriate altogether. We even have a notorious Jewish saying that urged “Better to burn the Torah than teach it to a woman.” (y. Sotah 3:19a) Here, in our text, women are not merely encouraged to learn, they are required to do so.5
Another factor that may have played a role in the need for the wealthier women of the church in Ephesus to learn quietly about their new faith was that Roman women were beginning to enjoy new freedoms at this time in history:
The “new Roman women” could be both brash and bold. The “new” wife or widow in the late Roman Republic and early Empire was one who pursued her social life at the expense of her family responsibilities. In addition, these women could often be outspoken, even aggressive, in public settings. . . . On the positive side, these new freedoms could be put to constructive use. Women became benefactors of worthy community improvements; and their wealth influenced commercial, civic, and provincial affairs. With their new freedom and mobility, women also began to occupy civic posts and bear the title of civic magistrates. This explains the important contribution some women played in the spread and support of early Christianity.6
In the immediate context of 1 Timothy 2:8, Paul addresses men regarding anger and disputes within the worship setting, showing that quietness in worship is required of them as well, being applicable to both men and women: “Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 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, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (1 Tim 2:8–10). Because verse 8 begins with “therefore,” and verse 9 with “I also,” the instruction here is to men and women regarding quietness and order in worship, which continues through verse 15. This implies that the primary problem is not the women learning, but peace and order in worship.
One might wonder why Paul would have women learn at all if he believed they were never to speak or teach. As we will see, women do indeed teach, and Paul commends them on their work as they colabor for the sake of the gospel. According to Witherington, 1 Timothy 2:11 tells women what they must do (learn), while 1 Timothy 2:12 states what they must not do at that time (teach): “The verb here, epitrepō, is present, continual tense. Paul does not say ‘I will not/never permit,’ but rather, ‘I am not [now] permitting.’”7 The implication is that Paul’s concern is not with women teaching, but with women teaching false doctrines, the primary concern of the entire epistle in context. He is instructing the women to learn about their new faith at this time, not teach, because they need to be instructed regarding the faith so that they will be able to discern false teaching.
Can women have authority?
Another issue that Paul addresses in 1 Timothy 2:9–15 is women “assuming authority” over men. Many have interpreted this passage to indicate a universal command for all the church at all times to restrict women from ever having any authority or leadership over men. However, this is not a valid interpretation of the term in this passage for “authority.” The Greek word translated “authority” here is authentēs and is only used here in the entire New Testament. There is much debate about exactly what the word means, but it does seem to denote an aggressive, domineering attitude, which is obviously unacceptable for men or women in the community of faith. According to Witherington,
In the first place, the noun authentia is found in the inscriptional evidence and can mean “perpetrator” or “master,” someone who has absolute sway over another. The verb, without question, is also a strong term, and while it can have a positive or neutral sense of “exercise authority over,” it can also clearly have the sense of “domineer.”8
As we will see, Paul commends women for their leadership in house churches, so he is not making a contradictory universal statement here about women teaching or leading in the churches. He is, however, addressing the issue of certain women who are being domineering in the community worship at Ephesus.
The reference to Adam and Eve in 1 Timothy 2:13–14 is often used as an argument that women are more easily deceived than men. For example, Robert D. Culver speculates:
Paul is referring to the womanhood of the first woman, the archetypal woman. He supports his apostolic refusal to let women be ruling authorities in the church or to be false teachers of men by referring to something about women’s nature—something different about woman as woman from man as man. In the temptation incident woman showed herself to be more susceptible to temptation through deceit than was the man. . . . Eve was deceived by a flashy half-truth; her man was persuaded by a tie of affection. She was deceived, but he was not. . . . The deception indicates a lesser ability in comprehension, and so this limitation is why it is not allowable for a woman to teach.9
However, in referencing Adam and Eve, I believe Paul is again supporting his overall theme in the epistle of instructing against the infiltration of false teaching. First Timothy 2:13–14 says, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” Paul is saying that he is not now permitting these women to teach, because they are teaching false doctrines that cause people to be deceived and to sin, just as Eve was deceived in the garden by false teaching.
The reference to childbearing is more difficult to define, but may be a reference to proto-gnostic influences included in some of the false teaching, and Paul is correcting those misunderstandings. Incipient Gnosticism held that the physical and material were evil, so some may have wanted to avoid sexual relations or procreation as being an unspiritual practice.
Another possible interpretation is that Paul is making a statement about the messianic promise to Eve in Genesis 3:15: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Because Paul in close context references Genesis regarding the creation of Adam and Eve and their fall, I believe he is continuing in verse 14 in the Genesis reference when he states that women will be saved through childbearing, recalling the messianic redemption promised through the seed of the woman. This includes, rather than excludes, women in the plan of salvation and redemption.
Overall, Paul is proposing an attitude of faith, love, holiness, and propriety as women learn sound doctrine in the community of faith with the same quietness and order that Paul requires of men. He is implying that this approach will be a defense against the same type of false teaching that deceived Eve, while these particular women learn to participate in God’s plan of redemption and restoration as followers of Christ.
Overall biblical testimony about women
Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 has produced many opinions and much debate, particularly since traditional, restrictive models of interpretation began to be questioned in the last century. However, one important aspect of interpretation is to look at the overall biblical testimony of a topic and allow that testimony to shape the interpretation. In this case, 1 Timothy 2:9–15 has a command to women to learn, but a temporary restriction against their teaching. This is “sandwiched” between a very specific address to certain wealthy converts who brought into the church habits that needed to be addressed, and a difficult-to-interpret comment about salvation through childbearing. It is important to use clearer biblical passages to interpret those verses that are less clear or more mysterious. When viewed in light of the biblical testimony of women leading, teaching, and speaking in prophecy throughout the New Testament, one should conclude that Paul is indeed restricting false teaching and inappropriate behavior, not restricting women from participation in the worship of the church through teaching, leading, or speaking.
There is overwhelming evidence throughout the New Testament that women are to speak within the community of faith, but guidelines for community worship and leadership are to be observed by both women and men. In close context to this passage, in 1 Timothy 3:11, there is a list of qualifications for leadership, which is inclusive of women. Chapter 3 begins with qualifications of overseers in the church and continues the discussion with a reference to deacons, which is inclusive of women, since it describes requirements for women in leadership. The phrases “in the same way” clearly connect these qualifications as a continuation of those for overseers:
In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. (1 Tim 3:8–11)
Certainly, Paul would not have provided qualifications for women deacons in such close context if he really did intend to restrict women from teaching or exercising authority in the church in 1 Timothy 2:9–15.
The epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy are written by Paul to Timothy, and both have a primary concern with false teaching in Ephesus. In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul states, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” Later in the epistle (3:14–15), Paul instructs Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Clearly, Paul is referring to the two women who instructed Timothy in the Holy Scriptures from his birth and whom he has identified in the opening of the letter. Thus, any interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 that restricts women from teaching would be in direct conflict with Paul’s other writings to Timothy honoring the teaching ministry of women.
The book of Acts includes many references to women teaching, leading, and speaking (including teaching men) in the early church. In Acts 2:17–18, Peter declares that the prophetic vision of Joel is coming to pass in the early church and includes the Holy Spirit being poured out on all flesh, including women who will prophesy. In Acts 16:14–15, Lydia is described as responding to the gospel and being responsible for the conversion of her entire household, a feat that would have required her to teach or preach the gospel to her household at minimum. Certainly, there would be men serving in the household who submitted to her teaching. In Acts 18:26, Apollos is described as being instructed by Priscilla and Aquila. Priscilla’s name is referenced first, which may signify her preeminence as teacher within the wife-husband team, but, regardless, she was involved in the instruction of a man. In Acts 21:19, there is a report of the four daughters of Phillip who all functioned in prophecy, which would have been difficult to do in complete silence.
In Romans 16:1–6, Paul sends greetings to many friends and fellow workers in the faith. He mentions many women who have been involved in leadership and service to his apostolic work, including Junia, who is listed as an apostle. In Philippians 4:2–3, Paul references two women who have contended by his side for the cause of the gospel, an obvious testament to their work and leadership within the church. In 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul gives a specific instruction to women regarding etiquette to follow “when they pray and prophesy,” indicating that he has no objection to women speaking, praying, or participating in prophecy during worship, so long as it is done appropriately.
These Scriptures attest to the fact that 1 Timothy 2:9–15 should not be interpreted as a universal mandate for women to be silent in the church or restricted from teaching or having authority. This interpretation would be in conflict with the close context of 1 and 2 Timothy, as well as other writings of Paul, and the testimony about women in leadership in the early church in the book of Acts. David Scholer points out the need to be able to discern Scripture that is normative for all situations at all times:
It might be useful to distinguish between authority and normativeness. Authoritative texts, I would posit, can have degrees of normativeness, which can be related to situational differences in which the authority functions, to different parts of a text, or to the way the text can be read at different settings at different times. The text can be authoritative but not necessarily normative in the same way in all times and all places. I think this is an important recognition for us to make. “Greet one another with a holy kiss” is enjoined on us five times in the NT . . . but we do not take it as a Biblical injunction that actually controls our liturgical life.10
Paul is addressing specific issues with specific women in a specific community. His restriction of their teaching cannot be viewed as a universal command without contradicting his comments regarding women both in close context as well as in other books in the New Testament, as David Freedman notes:
The “occasional” nature of Paul’s letters must be taken into consideration when evaluating such difficult texts as 1 Cor 14:34–35, or its parallel in 1 Tim 2:8–15. In both cases, Paul and/or the Paulinist who wrote these verses is dealing with problems in the Pauline communities. The rulings given apply to specific problems of women disrupting the worship service, or usurping authority over others. In both cases, the abuses are being ruled out, but this does not foreclose the issue of whether or not women who did not abuse their privileges might speak or exercise authority if it was done in a proper and orderly manner. . . . In fact, in view of the evidence that various women were Paul’s co-workers in the Gospel ministry it is unlikely that these texts were ever intended to do more than rule out certain abuses.11
In summary, a proper interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9–15 must be made in light of the overriding purpose of the epistle to assist Timothy in making a defense against false teaching in Ephesus. Therefore, Paul’s temporary restriction against specific women teaching should not be viewed as a normative, universal mandate for women in the church. Additionally, such a restrictive interpretation would not account for the overwhelming scriptural testimony contradicting any interpretation that forbids women to teach, lead, or speak in the church. The scriptural testimony includes close context in 1 and 2 Timothy as well as passages in other epistles of Paul as well as the book of Acts. Women are seen in Scripture as leaders who teach, lead, and speak in the early church and are commended by Paul for their work and service to the kingdom of God.
This article appears in “New Testament,” the Summer 2013 issue of CBE’s academic journal, Priscilla Papers. Read the full issue here.
- John Chrysostom, 1 Timothy, Homily 9.
- 1 Tim 2:9–15, emphasis added. All Scripture quotations are from the NIV.
- Juvenal, Satire 6.53, 58, www.tertullian.org/fathers/juvenal_satir_06.htm. See the discussion in Steve Robbins, 1 Timothy 2:8–15: Paul and the “New Roman Women” at Ephesus, Vineyard Leadership Institute, www.sjvineyard.com/uploads/2/9/4/1/2941034/paul_and_the_new_roman_women.pdf, accessed Sept. 2009.
- Franklin Pyles, “An Exegetical Study of 1 Timothy 2:11–15,” Ambrose University College website, https://online.ambrose.edu/alliancestudies/pyles/Pyles_1Tim2.htm, accessed 16 June 2013.
- Ben Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 226.
- Pyles, “An Exegetical Study.”
- Witherington, Letters and Homilies, 226.
- Witherington, Letters and Homilies, 227.
- Robert D. Culver, “Let Your Women Keep Silence,” in Women in Ministry: Four Views, ed. Bonnidell Clouse and Robert D. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1989), 36–37.
- David M. Scholer, “Feminist Hermeneutics and Evangelical Biblical Interpretation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30, no. 4 (1989), 412–13, www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/30/30-4/30-4-pp407-420-JETS.pdf, accessed May 2012.
- David Noel Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York, NY: Doubleday) 1997, 1992. Accessed through Prolepsis.