Pursuing Partnership, Part 18C: What Does the Bible Say? Continuing in 1Tim 2:8-15

Pursuing Partnership Series: Men & Women In Leadership
Part 18C: What Does the Bible Say?  More on the Interpretive Difficulties in 1 Timothy 2

By Heather Althoff, ThM (Dallas Seminary), LifeWay Church – Missions Pastor

The Disputed Passages: A Second Look at 1 Timothy 2:8-15
As we continue to walk through 1 Timothy 2:8-15, it feels like the passage gets more and more problematic. While the full situation and context of the book can leave us vexed, verses 11 and 12 are notorious both for their challenging vocabulary and the difficulty of their application.

Quietness and Submission
The NIV translates verse 11 as, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.” Apparently one or more women were not learning in quietness, or possibly were not learning at all and were teaching while still ignorant of correct doctrine. Grammatically, the only imperative in this sentence is the command to let a woman learn. Some argue that the weight of the command is simply on letting the woman learn, possibly in order to counteract a Jewish response of excluding women completely, following the synagogue tradition.[1]

Others argue that the key is the manner in which the woman learns. En hesychia is sometimes translated “in silence” while other translations choose “in quietness,” pointing out that the same word is translated 8 verses earlier “to lead peaceful and quiet (hesychion) lives.” Depending which sense you follow, a woman should not make a sound, or should be ready to learn with peacefulness or without contention.

The rest of the command instructs the woman to learn with full submission. Some see Paul commanding women not to speak or teach as a sign of full submission to their husbands or men, who are tasked with leadership. Others argue that submission is to the teaching, not specifically to any person. By this they mean that she is ready to obey the teaching. The argument for interpreting the passage as a command to submit to teaching, rather than to some or all men, is based on the following observations:

1) There is no reason to assume that these women are married (widows are discussed in depth in chapter 5, but marriage is not discussed). As a result, a command to submit to their husbands seems unlikely in this context.

2) Grammatically, “submission” modifies the verb to learn, communicating that women should submit to what they are learning, not to a person or group of people.

3) Verses 11 and 14 contrast Ephesian women with Eve. Emphasizing the command to learn, some argue that the contrast instructs the Ephesian women to “learn” rather than “be deceived,” and to be in “all submission” to the teaching, rather than becoming a sinner.

Permission to Teach?
In many translations, verse 12 begins, “I do not permit a woman to teach…” The struggle with this phrase is that the form of the Greek verb can mean “I never permit…” or “I’m not permitting in this situation…”. The context defines the meaning. Often, scholars simply interpret the phrase in light of their pre-existing views on women and authority. Some see a universal prohibition while others see a situational one. Those who see a situational prohibition note that nearly every time this verb is used in the New Testament, it refers to specific or limited time duration.[2] Those who see a universal prohibition apply this passage in a number of ways, including teaching men, teaching groups, teaching authoritatively, or teaching as an elder, to name just a few options. The wide variety of applications comes from the simple fact that Paul acknowledges and commends women like Priscilla, who clearly taught.

Unfortunately, verse 12 does not get clearer as we go on, though most readers wouldn’t know it by looking at their English translations. After saying, “I do not permit/am not permitting a woman to teach,” Paul writes, “or to authenteina man…” The verb authenteo appears only this one time in the New Testament, and it is rarely seen even outside the Bible in Greek documents of this time period.[3] While texts hundreds of years after Paul do use authentein to mean “exercise authority, ” its etymology to this point indicates meanings as varied as “murder,” “have legal standing,” to “instigate.” To say that it is difficult to understand the meaning of this term with any degree of certainty is an understatement. Many argue that Paul had many other common words to use if he had simply meant to prohibit women from “exercising authority.”

Something about the situation in Ephesus called for this unusual word. In Paul’s time, authentein appears to have had a negative concept, leading many scholars to argue that it indicates dominating or assuming authority for oneself. In fact, English translations before World War II tended to translate authentein as “to dominate.”[4]

Once again, we are left without a clear and obvious answer. Just as we may never fully understand the situation in Ephesus at this time, we may never know Paul’s intention for the words he spoke into it. Falling back on the interpretive principle of “obscure in light of the clear,” we must be incredibly careful about using this passage as a foundation for our theology of women and the practice of the church.

Next week, we will look at the final perplexing phrases of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and consider what is implied by the order of creation and in what sense women are saved through childbearing.


[1] See Philip Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 303.

[2] Payne notes Mt 8:21, Mk 5:13, Lk 8:32, Lk 9:59, Lk 9:61, Jn 19:38, Acts 21:39-40, Acts 27:3, Acts 28:16, 1 Cor 16:7, Heb 6:3 as examples. Man and Woman, One in Christ, 320.

[3] Payne states that “there are only two established and uncontested occurrences of the verb authenteo through the end of the first century AD.” The first instance of its use confirmed to mean “exercise authority” is ca. AD 370. For his analysis of the word’s etymology, see his chapter “1 Timothy 2:12: Part III: Does authenteo mean “Assume Authority”? in Man and Woman, One in Christ, 361-397.

[4] Timothy Larson proposes several cultural factors that may have affected the shift at this time in his 2017 essay “Evangelicalism’s Strong History of Women in Ministry” https://reformedjournal.com/evangelicalisms-strong-history-women-ministry/ .