Excerpted and adapted from John Jefferson Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” published in Priscilla Papers 23.2 (Spring, 2009).
First Timothy 2:11–15, and especially verse 12, has long been a focal point in modern discussions of the leadership of women in the church. Traditional reservations about women as pastors and elders have generally made two assumptions in the interpretation of this passage:
(1) that the meaning of authentein in verse 12 is clearly known and should be translated simply as “have authority,” and
(2) that the appeal to the creation narrative naming Adam and Eve in verses 13 and 14 implies a universal, blanket ban on women exercising authority over men in any (or some) church settings.
The second of these assumptions is our focus here: does 1 Timothy 2:12 forbid women from exercising authority over men in all churches, for all time?
It has been argued that because Paul’s reasons for barring women from authority are based in creation itself, this prohibition was God’s clear intent from the beginning, and should be a universal principle in all churches.
The problem is, this argument fails to account for the context-specific way Paul applies creation texts. Paul consistently draws implications from creation texts in ways that are related to specific pastoral and theological concerns for specific churches and congregations. At times, he even applies the same texts in different ways.
Adam, Eve, and Sin
In writing to the church in Rome, Paul singles out Adam, not Eve, as the one who brought guilt and death upon the entire human race (Rom. 5:12–21); Eve is not even mentioned. Adam is the representative of fallen humanity, just as Christ is presented as the second Adam, the “one who was to come” (v. 14). The focus on Adam is consistent with Paul’s purpose in setting forth his gospel as a gospel for the entire human race, for Jew and Gentile alike. He is concerned with the global and universal relevance of the gospel, and consequently reads Genesis 3 in terms of Adam’s disobedience that led to condemnation for all people (5:18).
In 1 Timothy 2, on the other hand, Paul casts Eve as the figure through whom sin entered humanity, which is reflective of the Ephesian situation. False teachers are misleading the women, threatening to corrupt and destroy the church, which Paul sees as a parallel to the deception of Eve.
In both Romans and 1 Timothy, Paul’s use of the creation account is based on his specific purpose in writing.
Does Eve Represent Women? Or Everyone?
In 2 Corinthians 11:3, Paul writes that “I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds might be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” by the “super apostles” who are preaching a “different Jesus” (vv. 4–5, emphasis mine). The point to be noticed is that Paul draws a parallel here between the deception of Eve and the danger of the entire Corinthian congregation (or its [male] leaders) being deceived by false teachers. In this text, the figure of Eve clearly represents the entire congregation and not specifically the women within it, as though they, by virtue of their gender, were uniquely susceptible to such deception. This is to be contrasted with the reference to the deception of Eve in 1 Timothy 2:12, when Paul is writing to a church in Ephesus where some of the younger widows have already “turned away to follow Satan” (1 Tim. 5:15), and he is aware of “weak-willed women” who are being deceived by false teaching.
This comparison of 2 Corinthians 11:3 and 1 Timothy 2:12 shows that Paul does not have a “one size fits all” reading or application of the Genesis narratives of creation and fall: “Eve” can be seen as a figure of women in Ephesus or as a figure for an entire church in Corinth—because the local circumstances differ, though false teaching is a danger in both settings.
In writing to Corinth and Ephesus, Paul draws applications from Genesis in a church-specific and context-sensitive way.
Another example of Paul’s context-specific application of creation texts can be seen in his different responses to food controversies in Ephesus and Rome. In 1 Timothy 4:1–5, written to Ephesus, Paul responds to false teachers who are forbidding marriage and the banning certain foods. He refutes them, saying “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (v. 4). The principle here reflects the teaching found in Genesis 1:31, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” The institution of marriage and all types of food are in and of themselves “clean,” based on the goodness of God’s creation.
But, writing to the Romans, Paul approaches the topic differently because of the different circumstances of the Roman church. As with the Ephesian congregation, the apostle alludes to the creational principle of the goodness of all food (14:4), but in the Roman church there are other dynamics to be considered: the practices and scruples of Jewish and Gentile converts whose different religious and cultural backgrounds are creating problems of conscience and troubling the unity of the church. While in principle the Gentile believers in Rome could insist on their “creational right” to eat meat, Paul urges them to defer to the conscience of the Jewish believers. The unity of the church and respect for Christian conscience are more important than any individual’s right to eat meat.
Paul is not denying the principle that meat itself is clean; he is applying it in light of the particular situation in Rome. In Ephesus, Paul can be more insistent on the “creational right” to eat all foods because the denial of this right is coming from false teachers who are in danger of abandoning the faith and following deceiving spirits (1 Tim. 4:1). Here, the issue of food is implicated with the preservation of the faith itself.
The food controversies also highlight another point: just because Paul makes a creation-based argument in one context that all food is clean, he does not grant permission for all believers in all contexts to eat whatever they want. Likewise, a creation-based prohibition against women exercising authority in one context does not necessarily apply universally.
Regarding food controversies, Paul appeals to creation texts in a context-sensitive way meant to preserve faithfulness, sound doctrine, unity, and good order within churches.
Where Does That Leave Us?
Is Paul prohibiting Ephesian women from taking authority in Ephesus? Yes, because false teachers pose a grave threat to the survival of the church in Ephesus, and women in particular are being misled by these teachers. Does Paul’s appeal to creation mean that he intends to establish a universal ban on women exercising authority in church settings? No. Like he does elsewhere in his writings, Paul is appealing to creation for a specific purpose in a specific setting.
Paul sees a parallel between the deception of Eve in Genesis 3 and the deception of women in Ephesus, just as he sees a parallel between the deception of Eve in Genesis and the deception of the congregation in Corinth. In different circumstances, where women are faithful and act in ways that promote unity and harmony within the church family, the way would be open for them to exercise authority.
The general, “universal” lesson that should be drawn from Paul’s use of Genesis texts is that whenever and wherever anyone is being misled by false teachers, that person or group should not be in a position of church leadership; soundness in the faith is a necessary condition for service as an elder or deacon.