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Published Date: August 7, 2023

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Is There Anything More that Can Be Said about 1 Timothy 2:8–15? “Propriety,” A Surprisingly Significant Word

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Do we really need yet another article on 1 Tim 2:8–15? Is there anything left to be said about that contentious paragraph? As the writer of Ecclesiastes lamented: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9 NIV).

I will not be going over ground well-covered.1  Those who spend time in this passage are aware of the debates and controversies involved:

  • Determining the difference between universal truths for all time and local issues being addressed at a point in time.
  • Whether the passage is talking about men and women or husbands and wives.
  • The debate around the unusual word for “authority” (authentein) in v. 12: does it refer to normal authority or to something more unpleasant, like “usurping authority,” or to something else altogether?2
  • The debate around what the Adam and Eve illustrations signify: is the word “for” (gar, “for Adam was created first then Eve”) causal (justifying why women cannot teach or have authority) or is it illustrative (introducing examples of what the writer is talking about)?
  • If Eve supposedly represents all women for all time and she was deceived (not Adam) and that is why women cannot teach or lead, then how do churches allow any woman to teach Sunday School, lead a women’s Bible study, etc.? Why does the supposed universal truth, or “creation ordinance,”3 have a point where it can be broken?
  • What does “she will be saved through childbirth” mean? Eternal salvation? Physical safety? A vague reference to Jesus Christ coming as a child? Another illustration and allusion to the problems specifically happening in Ephesus?
  • Debates around the permanent subordination of women being paralleled to the supposed permanent subordination of Christ to the Father.4

This article proposes that some things are still to be more fully explored. The following discussion will make an observation about 1 Tim 2:8–15 that does not seem to have been given serious attention.5

Overview

The following discussion will focus on one key word: the noun sōphrosunē, spelled sōphrosunēs in the genitive case. This word appears twice, in vv. 9 and 15 (both in the genitive), and then a cognate (the adjective sōphrōn) appears soon after in 3:2 as a condition for overseers/elders. (Further cognates appear throughout the Pastoral Epistles). It is typically translated in ch. 2 as “propriety,” “modesty,” or “self-control.”

It is the contention of this article that this word’s first and foremost meaning is being “clear-headed,” or “a rational thinker,” or “not muddled in thought,” and that Paul is using the word with that meaning in mind.

This article further proposes that sōphrosunē in 2:9 is integral to a trajectory that permeates the paragraph. Even though it begins with reference to women’s clothing, it does not limit itself to that. Paul almost immediately goes on in v. 11 to demand that women learn in v. 11 (manthanetō, “learn,” is the only imperative verb in the paragraph). By wanting women to learn, he is desiring that certain new converts move from muddled thought to clear-headed thinking about the faith and how it should be lived out. Paul goes on to note Eve’s ignorance in v. 14 (contrasting it to the ignorance of some women in the Ephesian church, again highlighting his desire for them to learn and move out of that ignorant state). He then repeats the word in v. 15 to drive the point home: he wants these Christian women to be clear-headed. Finally, he uses a cognate of the word in 3:2 as a quality essential for leaders: that they be sound in their thinking, clear-headed, not muddled in thought. This word is part of a key recurring theme of the paragraph and helps identify the overarching concern of Paul here.

The key theme of this famous paragraph is that all the members of the church should be clear-thinking, mature Christians, whose sound thinking leads to mature Christian life seen in the appropriate virtues and behaviours. With that foundation, such people can then be leaders and teachers in the church. Indeed, the letter starts and ends with such concerns about being grounded in sound teaching (see 1:3–7; 6:20–21). This theme, in fact, continues throughout entire epistle.

Meaning and Translation of Sōphrosunē

Meaning

Sōphrosunē first and foremost means reasonableness, rationality, mental soundness; and second, good judgement, moderation, self-control.6 Clear thinking will indeed lead to right living.

This word does not simply mean “propriety” in a stand-alone sense. It can mean, in some contexts, propriety that comes from clear-headed thinking, but neglecting the “clear-headed” aspect does not capture the heart of the word.

Some commentators only offer “propriety” or synonyms like “modesty” in their discussion, without any reference to clear-headedness or rational thinking.7 Other commentators admit the word has this meaning, even if buried in a long list of options. Such commentaries understand it as something akin to “modesty” while ignoring or rejecting the implications of its core meaning for 2:8–15.8 The standard NT lexicon shows how it can be combined with other virtues (hence good judgement and moderation).9 But to strip this word of its natural meaning (a meaning readily given to its only other use in the NT, Acts 26:25) and to leave it as referring to some other virtue is to damage the word. In our case here, it also weakens the understanding of this passage. It undermines seeing a clear context for what is about to follow in vv. 11–14, come to a climax in v. 15, and then be reinforced in 3:2.

I. Howard Marshall’s commentary finds a better all-encompassing understanding of the word. He notes that it originally referred to “a sound mind,” but “it represented the virtue of restraint of desire, hence the sense of ‘rational’, intellectually sound, free from illusion, purposeful, self-controlled, with prudent reserve, modest, decorous.”10 The right use of the controlled mind, the rational and clear-headed thinking that takes place, is like a key to showing the right emotions in one’s life. The word, however, does not just mean different emotions or personality traits devoid of the key.

Different Meanings for Men and Women?

Some even consider the word to mean “modesty” and “propriety” in 2:9 and 15, but then in 3:2 when a cognate of the same word is used (and they assume it refers to male overseers/elders) it suddenly means “clear-headed” and “making sound judgements.”11

Perschbacher’s lexicon offers a brief definition of sōphrosunē: “sanity, soundness of mind, a sane mind, Acts 26:25” and then adds “female modesty, 1 Timothy 2:9, 15.”12 Perschbacher’s acceptance of a different meaning for the verses that deal with women (whereas Acts 26:25 refers to Paul) is unexplained. This principle of allowing gender to determine the meaning of a word is repeated for the cognate sōphrōn. Perschbacher defines it: “of a sound mind, sane, staid, temperate, discreet, 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:8; 2:2; modest, chaste, Tit. 2:5.”13 Thus the “modest, chaste” definition, with no additional options for “sound mind” or “sane,” is reserved for a text clearly about women (Titus 2:5).

Some writers note that ancient Greeks could use the word in a different way for men and women.14 Patriarchal Greek authors15 are unashamed in their distinction of how they use the word. “Aristotle states that it is not the same virtue in women as in men,”16 and indeed, Greek authors tend to emphasise the moral qualities that stem from rational thought, more than the thinking process itself, when it is used of women.

Nevertheless, to imply that Paul is using it in exactly the same way as Greek philosophers or writers used it is a leap that is not warranted.17 Paul is writing this word in a paragraph that insists that women learn (2:11). His treatment of women is not like the Greeks or the Romans or the Jews of his day. Women are a part of Paul’s ministry team. He commends them frequently for their contribution to ministry. Names like Priscilla, Phoebe, and Junia—and their ministries—are well known. This is the same Paul who says that, in Christ, there is no distinction between men and women (Gal 3:28). This is the same writer who would say in 2 Tim 2:2 that, once competent men and women (anthrōpos, “people,” not anēr, “men”) are trained up, then they will be able to train up others after them. When Paul uses sōphrosunē of himself (Acts 26:25) it is undeniable he is using it to mean “clear-headed and not muddled in thought.” He would not use it differently for women, whom he sees as fully equal in Christ and equally competent to minister on his teams. If Paul is thinking (in v. 9 at least) about its application to how the women dress and present themselves, he is not leaving that thought isolated as he continues the paragraph.

Translation

Sōphrosunē wrongly translated as just “propriety” creates the impression that the author wants women to only show conformity to conventionally accepted standards of behaviour or morals. Without the full meaning of the word, one might read this as some kind of mindless submissiveness, or even ignorant deference to others. Translated as “modesty” or “propriety,” it becomes a relatively weak aside, rather than vital information, and undermines Paul’s deep desire to have women trained up correctly for ministry.

Sōphrosunē in the New Testament

When Paul starts to talk about women in 1 Tim 2:9, one of the qualities he expects of a godly woman is sōphrosunē. This word is not common in the Greek NT. It only appears three times: twice in this paragraph (vv. 9 and 15) and once in Acts 26:25 (“‘I am not insane, most excellent Festus,’ Paul replied. ‘What I am saying is true and reasonable [sōphrosunē]’” (NIV).18

When Paul begins talking about some of the newly converted wealthy women in the church of Ephesus, sōphrosunē enters his mind as a quality he wants them to display, initially in the context of how they dress for church and then in a summary statement after he has written about teaching, authority, and Adam and Eve. When Paul begins to wrap up his reflections on women in the church in Ephesus, he finds it important to state it again. It is, perhaps, his last word on the matter at hand, depending on whether we consider 3:1 the end of the paragraph or the beginning of a new thought.19 It virtually bookends his comments, and it informs what he writes in between.

Beyond Sōphrosunē

Educational Emphasis

Paul wants the women converts in the church of Ephesus to go from muddled thinking to clear thinking, from confusion and the baggage of their old views to clarity about the truth of the gospel and how that works out in real life.

It certainly seems that some wealthy (v. 9) women converts who are hoping to be prominent in the church need to be more fully trained up first. They need to sit at the feet of their teachers for a while to learn and grow. After all, their current male teachers have been in Christ longer than they have, and they understand the doctrines and truths of the gospel (just as Adam came first then Eve, these men have been in Christ before these particular women of concern). And these wealthy women converts have baggage to let go: false beliefs and an incompatible worldview that needs correction. The male teachers they currently have, whom they are seeking to usurp authority over, are not the ones who are deceived and are a part of false belief systems. (He parallels Adam and Eve with the situation in Ephesus a second time: it was Eve who was the one deceived, not Adam. The new converts are the ones deceived, not their current teachers). Those same women have new learning to experience and some unlearning to do. The wealthy and prominent women of Ephesus have been involved with religions and cults before finding Christ, and aspects to their worldview and certain beliefs will be at odds with the Christian message. They need to be trained. That is why the only imperative in the paragraph is in v. 11; Paul commands that women learn. That verse is the high point of the passage.

It is certainly a good thing if anyone (men and women) seek to be overseers (3:1). But that can only come with mature faith, holiness, love, and clear-headedness (2:15).

1 Timothy 2:15 has often been problematic for commentators. It seems out of place, random, confusing, perhaps even embarrassing. But its use of sōphrosunē, repeated from v. 9, indicates it continues Paul’s flow of thought. He reuses sōphrosunē in v. 15, combining it with faith, love, and holiness. To reduce sōphrosunē to “modesty” ignores the flow of thought. The women Paul has in mind need to think reasonably and sensibly about everything. In fact, if they are well trained in the faith, that will flow over into their daily lives as they live out higher Christian principles.

Note the emerging theme: Paul wants women to be clear-thinking, not muddled in thought, in v. 9. He strongly insists that women learn in v. 11. He parallels, in v. 14, the women who are ignorant and deceived in Ephesus to Eve who was deceived in Genesis. And he says again in v. 15 that he expects women to continue in faith, love, holiness, and clear thinking that will save them from slipping back into error and heresy. A strong educational emphasis that includes women being trained up permeates the paragraph from start to finish.

Authority and Leadership

Women who are keen to be in positions of authority are being encouraged by Paul to be trained up, but not to grasp at leadership before they are ready for it. There is no shame in waiting or in doing other things while you are learning. There is no shame in motherhood: you can be saved while being a mother too. You can be saved through childbirth, that is, you can still be a forgiven and redeemed member of the church, while performing the role of a mother. It is not to be shunned as if it is an inferior way of spending one’s time for a season. Of course, you would need to demonstrate that salvation by a life of ongoing love, faith, holiness, and clear thinking.

Conclusion

The core meaning of sōphrosunē adds weight to the argument that this paragraph’s emphasis is about education and training for ministry. Paul wants to train up women converts in correct doctrine and practice so they can be useful for future teaching and leadership. Paul wants to help the new women converts get to the point where they can teach because they will be well trained and are thinking correctly and reasonably. They would have dropped all the false understanding and mistaken worldview that they brought into the church at the time of their conversion. Until they are properly trained, those women cannot teach, and they certainly cannot usurp authority over their male teachers. They might have been prominent in their previous religious cults that Ephesus was famous for, but it is different now. Now, they have to learn and be trained up and demonstrate a mature Christian lifestyle.

Egalitarian interpretations of 1 Tim 2:8–15 are not dependent upon this understanding of sōphrosunē, but they are bolstered by translating it more accurately, as “clear thinking.” 20

Notes

  1. As most are aware, there are two main schools of interpretation regarding this pericope. The “traditional” interpretation (the complementarian view) sees the teaching about women as binding for all time. E.g., Douglas Moo, “What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men?: 1 Timothy 2:11–15,” ch. 9 in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Crossway, 1991) 179–93; 233–52 in the 2021 ed. The egalitarian interpretation sees the teaching as specific to the local Ephesian churches at that time. E.g., Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality (Baker, 1997) 209–29; Jim Reiher, Women: Leadership and the Church (Acorn, 2006) 85–93.
  2. For normal “authority,” see George Knight III, “Authenteō in Reference to Women in 1 Timothy 2.12,” NTS 30/1 (1984) 143–57. For other meanings, see Leland Wilshire, “The TLG Computer and Further Reference to Authenteō in 1 Timothy 2.12,” NTS 34/1 (1988) 120–34. See also David M. Scholer, “The Evangelical Debate Over Biblical ‘Headship’,” ch. 2 in Women, Abuse and the Bible: How Scripture Can be Used to Hurt or Heal, ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger and James R. Beck (Baker, 1996); Ronald W. Pierce, “Evangelicals and Gender Roles in the 1990s: 1 Tim 2:8–15: A Test Case,” JETS 36/3 (Sept 1993) 343–55.
  3. Consider that A. M. Stibbs wrote that allowing women to lead men would “violate the created order” in the Pastoral Epistles, in The New Bible Commentary, ed. D. Guthrie and J. A. Motyer, rev. ed. (InterVarsity, 1970) 1171. He notes that the Adam and Eve references are “guiding principles of universal and abiding application.”
  4. This last issue is more often linked to 1 Cor 11. See Terran Williams, “Subordinating Jesus and Women (and How Influential Evangelical Teachers Led Us Astray),” Priscilla Papers 36/3 (Summer 2022) 9–15; Kevin Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate (IVP Academic, 2002).
  5. I will not be so arrogant as to pretend this is a totally new insight. While I have not found others addressing the implications of the issue I am raising, I admit that I (like every other scholar on the Pastoral Epistles) have not read everything written on the passage.
  6. BDAG s.v.
  7. For example, Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC (Tyndale, 1957; IVP reprint 1983) 75–79.
  8. For example, William Barclay, The Letter to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, rev. ed. (Christian, 1987) 80–81. Barclay does not discuss the word when it first appears in ch. 2 but does consider it when a cognate appears in 3:2. “It is variously translated of sound mind, discreet, prudent, self-controlled, chaste, having complete control over sensual desires. The Greeks derived it from two words which mean to keep one’s mind safe and sound” (80). Barclay then looks at the noun (which had appeared twice in ch. 2, but he still does not reference those passages) and explores how various Greek writers used the word (80–81). Essentially, it describes the person who has used reason to tame their passions and desires. It is being clear-headed and insightful in ways that align one’s behavior with such clear-headedness. Barclay’s insights are always worthwhile; it is pity he did not consider the implications of the word in 1 Tim 2:9–15.
  9. BDAG s.v.
  10. I. Howard Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Pastoral Epistles, ICC (T&T Clark, 1999) 182.
  11. E.g., Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Timothy, Reformed Expository Commentary, ed. Richard D. Phillips et al. (P&R, 2007).
  12. Wesley J. Perschbacher, ed., The New Analytical Greek Lexicon (Hendrickson, 1990) 400.
  13. Perschbacher, New Analytical, 400.
  14. For example, Ceslas Spicq, TLNT s.v.
  15. My phrase for them, not Spicq’s.
  16. Spicq, TLNT, 364.
  17. Spicq does not make that leap. A critic of his might not like the way he has highlighted the Greek writers, and might speculate that Spicq implies such a conclusion.
  18. The lexical family has about a dozen other appearances, some of which are mentioned in this article.
  19. Although it is arguable that the chapter break is out of place and the flow of the argument continues into ch. 3, 3:1 is not only an introduction to what follows. It is also a conclusion to the material in ch. 2. The opening sentence of ch. 3 is an unambiguously gender-inclusive statement. 3:1 is, in fact, an encouraging verse for women seeking to minister in churches. See Jim Reiher, “She Desires a Noble Task,” Mutuality 28/1 (Spring 2021) 19–21.
  20. For a more thorough examination of what a wide range of Greek scholars say about this word, see my longer paper, “Is There Any More to Say about 1 Timothy 2:8–15? ‘Propriety’,” at http://jimreiherswritings.com.