I have an easy trick for you if you ever want to gather a crowd in the cafeteria on the campus of your local Bible College or seminary. Grab a seat at a table that is populated with men and women, and say, “How about the Apostle Paul, huh? Do you think he was a sexist? What do you make of the whole ‘women should be silent’ thing?” This trick also works if you want to empty out the newcomer’s lunch at your local church. Just have the residing pastor or leader read First Timothy 2:11-14 and say, “This is my life verse.”

1 Timothy 2:11-14
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

Why does this text create so much controversy? I’ve had numerous dialogues with pastors, church leaders, and Bible-reading Christians about this text in the last several years. A common opinion I’ve heard from those who are uncomfortable with what it says is “That text is problematic.”

Over the last 40 years First Timothy 2:11-14 has become the source of great angst for certain interpreters in the Western world. As you research this text nowadays, you will run into two prevailing interpretive frameworks. There is the “traditional/historic” framework and the “progressive/revisionist” framework. Traditionalist Kent Hughes, in his book First Timothy and Titus: Guarding the Deposit, points out that the progressive viewpoint has a very short history:

“…it was only in 1969 that the progressive, revisionist view began to appear in the literature of the academy. [Bob Yarbrough, Professor of NT at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School] concludes that the rise in the progressive interpretation’s promotion following the women’s movement of the 1960s is ‘indebted significantly, and at times probably culpably, to the prevailing social climate rather than to the Biblical text.’ Similarly, Harold O.J. Brown observes, ‘When opinions and convictions suddenly undergo dramatic alteration, although nothing new has been discovered and the only thing that has dramatically changed is the spirit of the age, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that that spirit has had an important role to play in the shift.’”[1]

I think this is accurate. One of the reasons I’d cite to support this quote is that the progressive and revisionist view of this text has only taken root in highly secular, liberal, feminist societies. The church outside of Western Europe and North America doesn’t struggle with this text like we do in the West. Additionally, for 19 ½ centuries, the church in no part of the world struggled with this text.

Revisionist views of this text has only taken root in highly secular, liberal, feminist societies. Click To Tweet

If you want to hold onto the Bible while working around what Paul says in this text, you need to offer a coherent interpretation of it. With increased scholarship in recent decades, the progressive reading of this text has offered one of these 6 arguments for why Paul said what he did:[2]

1) Paul was wrong.

This is a pretty radical argument. The idea here is that Paul misinterpreted Genesis 1 and 2, taking his cue in writing this text from his Jewish roots, where women were prohibited from teaching men in the synagogue. Most who hold this are probably departing from an orthodox understanding of inspiration and infallibility of the biblical text. How do you, with any integrity and consistency, pick and choose when Paul was wrong vs. when he was right when you’re reading the New Testament?

2) Ephesus was a feminist hotbed in religious circles.

If Ephesus was a place of specific feminist ideology, Paul could have simply been correcting the women in Ephesus, rather than prescribing these gender roles for all churches. Upon further examination, this theory falls flat. As Hughes points out:

“The problem here is that a ‘feminist Ephesus’ never existed, as S.M. Baugh has shown in his devastating essay and critique ‘A Foreign World: Ephesus and the First Century.’ Ephesus was a very conventional Roman provincial city with no women magistrates and with pagan cult hierarchy controlled by men.”[3]

3) “Exercise authority” has a negative meaning such as “usurp” or “control.”

The Greek language doesn’t support this. The linked verbs in 2:12 are “teaching,” the Greek word didasko, and “exercising authority” (authenteo). They are connected by the conjunction translated “or” or “neither/nor” (oude). Andreas Kostenberger does a thorough examination of this sentence structure in the book Women in the Church. His conclusions are precise and definitive. Basically, if the ideas are linked in this way linguistically, they must carry the same connotation, either positive or negative. When didasko is used in the NT, it is positive in every single context. “Exercising authority” therefore, cannot be rightly interpreted “usurp” in this text.[4]

4) Paul’s teaching was only temporary.

The verb translated “I do not permit” is in the present indicative, not the imperative. The thinking goes, that if Paul wanted to give a universal command, and not simply a temporary instruction for Ephesus or perhaps the early church, that he would have said this in the imperative. In early Greek studies, you do learn to translate the present indicative of this verb, “I am not permitting.” This is one of those things, that when you first hear it you think, “I’ve got it! The church for 1950+ years missed the tense of this Greek verb that I was able to spy in my second semester!”

Then you research the New Testament and you find numerous examples of Paul giving universal and binding instruction to churches (which no one argues about) where he uses the present indicative. For example, Romans 12:1 where he says, “I appeal to you brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God.” The verb we translate “I appeal to you” is in the present indicative. Did Paul only mean to appeal to the Roman church with Romans 12:1? No one argues that. Consistency demands that if you want to preach Romans 12:1 as it is written then you need to preach 1 Timothy 2:12 as it is written.

5) This text is talking about marriage, not church.

Read the entire context of 1 Timothy and you’ll dismiss this argument by the time you get to chapter 3, verse 16. Clearly, in context, Paul is giving prescriptive instructions for how the church ought to be ordered and structured. As he says toward the end of chapter 3:

1 Timothy 3:14-15
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.

6) The Galatians 3:28 trump card.

This is probably the most oft used argument. Galatians 3:28 reads that in Christ there is neither “male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile.” It’s a phenomenal text that contains an amazing truth about salvation in Christ. However, at least three glaring things are wrong with using the Galatians 3:28 trump card in the gender roles debate.

  • Galatians 3:28 doesn’t abolish gender distinctions or gender differentiation. If it did, gender wouldn’t exist. This is the argument that revisionist writers who want to shift the church’s historic teaching on sexual ethics are using. I don’t know why well-meaning egalitarians are missing how revisionists in the homosexual and transgender movements are using their misrepresentation of this verse.
  • Gender roles isn’t the context of Galatians 3:28. Paul is clearly talking about salvation in that text. Meaning, as it relates to receiving salvation from Christ and being an heir of the promise of the gospel; your race, gender, or socio-economic status is irrelevant
  • The Galatians 3:28 trump card approach turns Paul’s (and other NT writers) inspired witness into a mess of contradictions. Galatians was one of the first letters (if not the first) penned in the New Testament. Why would Paul destroy gender distinctions, and then follow this up by totally contradicting himself by teaching gender roles in the home and church with two major texts in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, Ephesians 5:21-33, Titus 1:5-9 and 2:1-10, 1 Timothy 2:8-15 (and Peter in 1 Peter 3:1-7)?

Paul roots his teaching on gender roles in creation—meaning these truths can’t simply be Ephesus or Corinth specific. These are universal directives to the church in all ages and cultures.

All six of these progressive arguments fall flat as they are put to the test. I think the traditional interpretation of First Timothy 2:11-14 is clearly the most faithful approach. In this text, Paul paralleled gender roles in the church to gender roles in the home. The redeemed community of the family of God reflects the divine design of men and women; rooted in creation, awaiting consummation.

[See Part 2 – What to do with First Timothy 2]

[1] Hughes and Chapell, p. 68.

[2] Hughes summarizes these arguments on pp. 69-70, any direct quotes will be footnoted.

[3] Ibid, p. 69.

[4] Kostenberger, Schreiner, and Baldwin, Women in the Church, pp. 89-103.