(1 Tim. 2:12-15) Are women allowed to teach men or not?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12). Many people are offended at this passage, because it explicitly states that women are not allowed to teach or have authority in the church. Before we offer our interpretation, let’s consider the traditional interpretation of this passage, verse-by-verse.

Traditional view

(1 Tim. 2:12) But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.

The traditional interpretation states that this is a universally binding command. Therefore, whether we’re offended or not, we need to follow what Scripture teaches.

(1 Tim. 2:13) For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.

The traditional interpretation argues that Paul is backing up his point by appealing to the original human couple: Adam and Eve. Jesus did the same thing, when arguing about marriage (Mt. 19:4-5), quoting from Genesis (Gen. 1:27; 2:24). By appealing to the original human design, Paul is demonstrating that Adam was the leader in the relationship—being created first. Likewise, men should lead—not women. Moreover, in Genesis 3:16, we see that Adam ruled over Eve.

(1 Tim. 2:14) And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.

Again, under the traditional view, Adam wasn’t deceived. Eve was. Therefore, because women are not as theologically strong as men (i.e. they are prone to deception more than men), women shouldn’t teach. Some traditionalists will even add that women are more emotionally driven, while men are more logical. This could be what Paul is pointing out here. For instance, Mark Driscoll (former pastor at Mars Hill Seattle) writes,

Without blushing, Paul is simply stating that when it comes to leading in the church, women are unfit because they are more gullible and easier to deceive than men. While many irate women have disagreed with his assessment through the years, it does appear from this that such women who fail to trust his instruction and follow his teaching are much like their mother Eve and are well-intended but ill-informed… Before you get all emotional like a woman in hearing this, please consider the content of the women’s magazines at your local grocery store that encourages liberated women in our day to watch porno with their boyfriends, master oral sex for men who have no intention of marrying them, pay for their own dates in the name of equality, spend an average of three-fourths of their childbearing years having sex but trying not to get pregnant, and abort 1/3 of all babies… and ask yourself if it doesn’t look like the Serpent is still trolling the garden and that the daughters of Eve aren’t gullible in pronouncing progress, liberation, and equality.[1]

(1 Tim. 2:15) But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.

Traditionalists point out that women have an important role in raising children and taking care of the family. It isn’t that women are not important or equal to men (Gal. 3:28). Instead, they simply have different roles.

Response to this reading: The Background in Ephesus

The key to understanding this difficult passage is to grasp the historical backdrop in Ephesus:

First, Gnosticism plagued the church in Ephesus. Paul told Timothy to “instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines” (1 Tim. 1:3). The Ephesian church must have been riddled with false teaching; otherwise, Paul wouldn’t have felt the need to open his letter in this way. Paul refers to this teaching as “fruitless discussion” (1 Tim. 1:6). When you read the Gnostic literature, it is complete nonsense. This was intentional on their behalf, because only those with “special knowledge” were supposedly able to understand it. Kroeger and Kroeger explain, “Gnostic writings do indeed contain material which appears pure nonsense. Sometimes there are long strings of repetitious nonsense syllables, sometimes there are riddles and paradoxes; and yet they conveyed significance to the initiate.”[2]

Later, Paul states that these false teachers “forbid marriage” and advocated “abstaining from foods” (1 Tim. 4:3). Of course, ascetic Gnostics viewed marriage as sinful. Moreover, Paul spoke against the “empty chatter” and “what is falsely called ‘knowledge’” (1 Tim. 6:20). The Greek word here for “knowledge” is gnosis. Elsewhere, Paul describes the false teachers as having “a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words” (1 Tim. 6:4). In his second letter to Timothy, Paul tells him to “refuse foolish and ignorant speculations” (2 Tim. 2:23; c.f. 2:14, 16). Again, all these passages explain that proto-Gnosticism was part of the false-teaching in Ephesus.

Second, women spread this particular false teaching in Ephesus. While the passages above refer to false teachers who are “men” (1 Tim. 1:6), this could be a case of gender neutral language. In the same way, God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4). Of course, passages like this apply to both men and women. This is why some translations render 1 Timothy 1:6 as “individuals,” rather than simply “men.”

In addition to gender neutral language, Paul specifically mentions women, who were proliferating false teaching in Ephesus. Paul writes that “they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention… some have already turned aside to follow Satan” (1 Tim. 5:13, 15). Paul’s harsh language suggests that these widows were spreading false teaching. The Greek word for “busybodies” (periergoi) should actually be associated with working magic. Commenting on this passage, Kroeger and Kroeger note, “They speak non­sense, a characteristic of Gnostic communication, and are called periergoi, often translated ‘busybodies’; but the Greek word might well be translated ‘workers of magic.’ The same term (ton to perierga praxanton) is used in Acts 19:19 for ‘those practicing magic.’”[3] Craig Keener writes, “A survey of every word in extant Greek literature translated ‘busybodies’ …as those spreading false or improper teaching.”[4]

Paul also states, “But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women” (1 Tim. 4:7). Kroeger and Kroeger comment,

Interestingly enough, some English translations fail to note the Greek word graodeis (pertain­ing to old women). In antiquity old women had a reputation for storytelling which sometimes put the gods in an outrageous light. From earliest times in Anatolia, female religious officials known as “old women” kept alive the ancient myths. The tales, or myths, are said to be bebelos (opposed to God; 1 Tim. 4:7). Translators usually manage to give the impression that the tales were harmless, but the writer of the Pastorals viewed them as a serious threat. The ancient power of the “old women’s” myths was pitted against the power of the gospel.[5]

While these fables and myths might seem innocuous to the average reader, Paul elsewhere notes “[They] will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:4). In other words, these “myths” were not harmless biblical stories; they were aberrations of the biblical stories that turned people away from the truth. Kroeger and Kroeger write,

Recent scholarship suggests that Gnostic-like myths opposed to traditional biblical values may have been afloat in Alexandria as early as the second or first cen­tury before Christ.’ Philo, who died in C.E. 45, utilizes the very theme which was to draw rebuttal by Paul: namely, mythologiz­ing Eve as the one who brings knowledge and meaningful life to Adam.[6]

You can read these Gnostic texts for yourself in their book I Suffer Not a Woman (see Appendix 7). Therefore, the bottom line is this: there were women teachers in Ephesus who were distorting the creation account, and this was turning people away from following Christ. With this historical backdrop in mind, let’s interpret 1 Timothy 2:12-15.

Alternate Interpretation

(1 Tim. 2:12) But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.

Paul normally tells Timothy “We know” (1 Tim. 1:8) or reminds him of “faithful sayings” (1 Tim. 1:15). But this passage appears to be a novel teaching for Timothy. Keener observes, “Had this rule been established and universal, is it possible that Timothy, who had worked many years with Paul, would not have known it already?”[7]

In the original Greek, the phrase “I do not allow” should be translated “I am not allowing,” because it is in the present indicative verb.[8] Therefore, Paul could be pointing out that he is currently not allowing women to teach in Ephesus, because of the rise of false teaching among women. This grammatical argument carries little weight on its own, because Paul often uses the present indicative verb to be universally binding. Mounce writes,

In his thirteen epistles, Paul uses 1,429 present-tense active indicative verbs (out of a total of 2,835 indicative verbs). If this objection is true, then almost nothing Paul says can have any significance beyond the narrow confines of its immediate context… When one looks at the use of the present tense in the Pastoral Epistles, the general, universal scope of the tense is continually illustrated. In the Pastoral Epistles there are 111 present-tense indicative verbs.[9]

That being said, when we combine this grammatical argument alongside the historical backdrop in Ephesus, it’s possible that in this circumstance the present indicative limits his command to this particular situation.

Moreover, when Paul refers to “authority” in this passage, he doesn’t use the typical word for authority (exusia). Instead, he uses the Greek word authentein, which is unique to this passage. In fact, this word has a disputed meaning. It can be rendered “domineer” or to “take control of.” However, according to Kroeger and Kroeger, it can also be rendered “originate.” This last meaning would accord with the next verse, where the false teachers were claiming that Adam originated from Eve.

By “remain quiet,” Paul might not be saying that they need to be silent forever. But he is saying that they should remain quiet for the purpose of learning (Acts 15:12; 21:40; 22:2). Paul tells others to be quiet, but this is not universally binding (1 Cor. 14:28, 30). The same word for “quiet” is used in verse 2 to refer to all believers (“we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity”).

(1 Tim. 2:13) For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. 

When we read this verse, we might ask ourselves a question: Why is the order of creation important to the subject of women teaching? If creation order was this important, then why are women still allowed to prophesy (1 Cor. 11:5), which is an important gift?

Paul must be bringing up the creation order, because this was a common Gnostic heresy that was being promulgated by female false teachers in Ephesus. Kroeger and Kroeger write, “Most Gnostic accounts show Eve as pre-existing Adam; in one account she is actually the hermaphrodite from whom Adam is drawn.”[10] In other words, Paul is setting these heresies straight: Eve wasn’t created first; Adam was!

(1 Tim. 2:14) And it was not Adam who was deceived (Greek apataō), but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression (Greek parabasis).

The false teachers were being deceived by “demons” (1 Tim. 4:1) and “Satan” (1 Tim. 5:15).

When we read this verse, we need to ask ourselves: If women are so easily deceived, then why isn’t an important doctrine like this mentioned somewhere else in the Bible? If women are biologically prone to being deceived, we would expect much more teaching on this subject. Moreover, there is no evidence to support that women are worse in interpreting Scripture. Women do not get lower grades on seminary exams. In fact, as we look through the history of the church, we see that male theologians have been just as deceived as female. Moreover, the modern missions’ movement was largely led by women. Tucker writes, “Women—single and married—constituted about two thirds of the North American missionary force.”[11] Mark A. Noll notes, “A major factor in the rising missionary interest was the participation of women… Single women in their own missionary societies combined with the wives of male missionaries to make up 60 percent of the nation’s missionary force in the late nineteenth century.”[12]

Elsewhere, Paul ascribes the guilt of this situation to Adam—not Eve (Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 15:21-22). The Greek word for “offense” (Rom. 5:14) or “transgression” (1 Tim. 2:14) is parabasis. It is used for both Adam and Eve. Moreover, the Genesis account itself states that Eve gave the fruit “to her husband with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6). In other words, Adam was standing with Eve, and they were both deceived at the same time.

Moreover, if women are so easily deceived, then why are they allowed to teach other women and kids? Titus 2:3-4 states: “Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, 4 so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children.” Virtually all commentators agree that this passage permits women to teach other women. However, if women are more easily deceived, then this would be the worst venue for them to teach! They would be teaching other women, who are easily deceived! Furthermore, why did Paul affirm the teaching ministry of Timothy’s mother and grandmother, if women are so easily deceived? (cf. 2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15)

By contrast, Paul is responding to a very specific heresy in Ephesus. This is why in the next chapter he writes, “I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; 15 but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God” (1 Tim. 3:14-15). There must have been something happening in Ephesus that Paul was specifically writing to. Kroeger and Kroeger write,

A variant of the same treatise inserts the comment that the archons ‘intended to deceive him.’ Although the text which survives is a Coptic translation of the original Greek document, the translator retained the Greek word apate for “deceit.” The verbal form appears in 1 Timothy 2:14, which says that Adam was not deceived (apatao).[13]

Keener also suggests that this could be an analogy—not the basis of gender—but on the basis of general gullibility, citing 2 Corinthians 11:3 that refers to both men and women.[14]

(1 Tim. 2:15) But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.

This verse seems equally bizarre. However three interpretations are possible:

First, Paul might be commenting on the prophecy of Genesis 3:15. In the original Greek, “women” is not there; this is inferred from the context (“if they continue…”). Moreover, the word “childbearing” is preceded by the article. For this reason, some translators render this verse: “The bearing of the Child” (see margins of NLT and NEB). Under this rendering, Paul is showing that sin came through Eve, but the savior came through Eve, as well. This would be perfectly consistent with Paul’s exposition of Genesis 3, which is the context of this passage.[15]

Second, Paul might be saying that women will be saved from the Curse. This would fit with the context as well, where Eve is cursed for childbirth. But she is also saved from the Curse through godliness. Keener writes, “It may thus be that Paul’s promise that the women will be brought safely through childbirth is seen as a relief from part of the curse, from which believers will not be completely free until they share fully in the resurrection.”[16]

Third, Paul might still be fighting Gnostic thought in this passage. Gnostic teachers considered child-bearing as sinful. For this reason, Paul could still be attacking this view.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while the traditional interpretation has the benefit of a straightforward reading of the text, as you can see, it still has problems of its own. Moreover, it fails to comprehend the historical backdrop of Ephesus, in favor of a concise and clear-cut reading. However, much like 1 Corinthians 11:5-6, we need to interpret Scriptural commands in light of their historical context. And finally, the traditional interpretation must consider the gravity of whether or not they are wrong in their view. If they are, they would have effectively cut their work force in half, because of misinterpreting a single verse of Scripture. This would mean that God’s church would be benching half of its gifting and talent, because of a misinterpretation of a single biblical passage. As Keener observes, “Perhaps if we do not know for certain whether we are right or wrong, we ought to give the ‘benefit of the doubt’ to those who claim that God called them and who evidence the fruits of that call in their lives, rather than passing judgment on them.”[17]

For further reading, see our earlier article “Christianity and Women.”

[1] Mark Driscoll, Church Leadership: Explaining the Roles of Jesus, Elders, Deacons, and Members at Mars Hill, Mars Hill Theology Series (Seattle, WA: Mars Hill Church, 2004). 43.

[2] Kroeger, Richard Clark., and Catherine Clark. Kroeger. I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992.

[3] Kroeger, Richard Clark., and Catherine Clark. Kroeger. I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992. 62-63.

[4] Craig Keener “Women in Ministry,” Two Views of Women in Ministry. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 2001), 54.

[5] Kroeger, Richard Clark., and Catherine Clark. Kroeger. I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992. 64.

[6] Kroeger, Richard Clark., and Catherine Clark. Kroeger. I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992. 65.

[7] Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 117.

[8] Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 112.

[9] Mounce, W. D. (2000). Pastoral Epistles (Vol. 46, p. 122). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[10] Kroeger, Richard Clark., and Catherine Clark. Kroeger. I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992. 122.

[11] R. A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), p.16. Cited in Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 257.

[12] Kee, Howard Clark (et al.). Christianity: A Social and Cultural History. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991. 697.

[13] Kroeger, Richard Clark., and Catherine Clark. Kroeger. I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992. 123.

[14] Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 117.

[15] See Stott, John Guard the Truth: The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus. The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1996. 87.

[16] Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 119.

[17] Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 113.