1 Timothy 2 and Women in Leadership: a Reading of the Text

Those who oppose the recognition of women as pastors and elders in the church often suppose that they have the biblical high ground. They accuse those who welcome women into church leadership of denying the literal meaning of the texts, playing fast and loose with scripture. To open church office to women, they argue, undermines the authority of the Bible. But this perception assumes a way of reading the Bible that is neither ancient nor sustainable. Nor, for that matter, literal. Let me illustrate what I mean by a close reading of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, a passage that is often cited as the strongest biblical prohibition of women in church leadership.  

The passage goes like this in the NIV translation (the ESV is similar): A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Timothy 2:11-15)

Reading in the Ancient Context

There are things that can and should be said about how to read this text., things that are not apparent from the English translation. The translation is highly misleading, or so I will argue. But for the moment take the text as it lies on the page. It seems to proscribe women speaking or having authority in church (and, perhaps, having authority anywhere else).  But now, set alongside this text, this one about slavery (Ephesians 6:5-8), also quote from the NIV: Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.

This passage for slaves follows exhortations for children to obey their parents and for fathers not to exasperate their children.  Immediately following the passage is an exhortation for slave masters commanding them to treat their slaves humanely. In this section, Ephesians sets up the relationship between children and parents as parallel to the relationship between slaves and masters: both children and slaves are charged to obey; both fathers and slave owners are charged to treat those under them kindly.  It assumes these relationships as structures of society.  Slavery is taken for granted, and slaves are commanded to obey, respect, and fear their masters.

For many centuries passages like this were used to justify slavery.  What changed?  Not the text, but the way we see the text.  Or, better, how we see the text in relationship to other texts in the Bible and, more importantly, to the fundamental message of the Bible.  We believe that the God of the Bible is a God of justice.  The Bible teaches that truth.  Take, for example, Psalm 33:

      For the word of the LORD is right and true; 

         he is faithful in all he does. 

      The LORD loves righteousness and justice; 

         the earth is full of his unfailing love. 

       By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, 

         their starry host by the breath of his mouth. (Psalm 33:4-6)

The psalm goes on, but this short excerpt suffices to make the point: God’s word–which is not only the Bible but the word that underlies creation–is a word of justice.  God loves justice.  It took a long time, but eventually human beings began to see that slavery is never just.  No one should own another human being. Once we saw that, we began to see certain texts, texts that had previously been passed over, as of fundamental importance, texts like Galatians 3:28:  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

We began to see that the slave texts were an accommodation to the social norms of ancient societies. How do you handle slavery when you are a small and sometimes persecuted minority in a society that assumes slavery? You do what Ephesians 6 does.  You try to bring whatever grace to the situation you can bring, and this is in fact what the Bible does in Ephesians 6: slaves, be good slaves; masters, be good masters.

We read the Bible–Christians have always done this–in dialogue with what we have learned about society, with our sense of justice, and, above all else, within the Spirit of God who leads the church into all truth (John 16:13).  It is in this dialogue between the text of the Bible and what the Spirit teaches us that we hear God’s word about slavery, women and men, marriage and children, and much else.  

We, the church, the people of God, are or should be always in dialogue with the Bible.  In this dialogue it’s important to pay careful attention to the text.  It’s important to expect the text to speak to us.  This is part of what it means to confess, as we do, that the Bible is the Word of God.  It speaks to us.  But not always in the same way.

We have not thrown the slavery texts out of the Bible.  We have reread them, not as justifications for slavery, but as guides to the relationships of authority and power in society.  We often read these texts as applicable to employees, taking from them the strong counsel that Christians should be good employees when possible and that bosses should be good bosses. In this way, we have retrieved these texts.

A reading of 1 Timothy 2:11-15

Sometimes in the course of reevaluating a text we discover things about it that we had not noticed before because before we were blinded by our assumptions, assumptions often taken from the culture in which we live. Take the text I quoted above from 1 Timothy 2:11-15. In the past, we read it as a wholesale proscription of women serving in the church in positions where they would speak or have authority over men.  That reading begins with an assumption: that in verse 11 women are being told to be in “full submission” to men. But that’s not what the text says, not even in the NIV translation. It does not say that women are to be in “full submission” to men. It says simply that they are to learn quietly and submissively. To whom are they to submit?  Perhaps to God.  That is how N.T. Wright, a leading New Testament scholar takes it.  Or, perhaps, to the teaching itself, which is how I would take it. As I’ve already indicated, I translate verse 11, “Women should study silently and submissively.”  

So why are women singled out for this advice. Wright points out what many other scholars have: that 1 Timothy may have been addressed to Timothy in Ephesus, and that it wasn’t a private letter but a letter intended to be read by Timothy to the church.  Ephesus was famous for its temple to Artemis (Greek; Latin, Diana).  The priests of the temple of Artemis were women.  Wright says, “They ruled the show and kept the men in their place.” That statement may go beyond the evidence, but perhaps a certain attitude prevailed in Ephesus: women were seen as more spiritually adept and therefore should be in charge.  Even if this assumption about the text is not true (that it was written to Ephesus and that it has in mind the priestesses of Artemis), one can assume that in the church to whom this letter was written the women were not inclined to silent and submissive learning and—this is important—that this was culturally offensive. My own reading of this is that the text is addressing a tension between a conservative Jewish group in the church and less conservative Hellenized group. The author is trying to tamp down this tension.

This, in turn, makes sense of the next sentence: “I do not allow a woman to teach nor to dominate a man.” (This might be better translated, as the NIV footnote has it, “I do not allow a wife to dominate her husband.”) This is not a biblical principle for all ages, nor is it stated as such.  It’s what Paul, the putative author of Ephesians, advocates for his churches, given the culture and the age in which he lived.  This is his general practice in his ministry.  Note that he begins his statement with, “do not allow. . .”  I, not God.

But there is a larger point to be made.  By focusing on what women are not supposed to do, we have lost something essential and, in the light of the time, altogether surprising.  It’s found in main verb of the sentence: “Women should learn. . .  The verb is the one from which the Greek word for “disciple” is derived. “Women should learn as disciples. . .” What we fail to notice, because we live in the 21st century and not in the 1st century, is that the whole idea of women learning, of their being disciples of Rabbi Jesus, was a radical departure from the culture. 

There is a story in the gospels—a story that properly read should stun us.  It’s the story of Mary and Martha, the Bethany sisters.  The story is told in Luke 10:38-42.  Jesus comes to the home of the sisters.  Martha bustles around the kitchen getting the meal ready, while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, who is teaching his disciples.  Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to give her a hand, but Jesus refuses, saying that Mary has chosen the better thing.  What we don’t notice about this story—again, because we live in the 21st century—is that the story has to do with whether women can be and, indeed, should be disciples of Jesus along with men.  The language of the story, Mary “sat at the feet of Jesus listening,” is the language of discipleship: disciples “sat at the feet” of the rabbi.  Martha represents the position that women should stay in traditional roles; Mary represents the new freedom in the church for women to be disciples of Jesus.

This is why the first and perhaps main thing we need to notice in 1 Timothy 2:11 is no the silence and the submission but the learning.  “Women should learn. . .”  They have the same right and responsibility as do men to learn the faith–to become disciples of Jesus.  The rest of the passage has to do with the practicalities of how this can best happen in the church where Timothy is the pastor.  

The practicalities

As is typical of the New Testament, the text adds a piece of biblical interpretation in order to justify the advice that Paul is giving to Timothy. It’s based on Genesis 2 and 3.  In the Genesis passage, as we know, the woman eats the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  She gives the same fruit to the man, who promptly and without comment also eats it.  This new knowledge has consequences for the man, the woman, the serpent, and even the ground—all of which is spelled out in Genesis 3. 

The 1 Timothy passage does two things with this material.  The first is that it suggests (it doesn’t quite come out and say this) that the woman could well have been more willing to learn and a little less assertive than she was in the garden.  It doesn’t point out what seems obvious: that in the story the man takes no responsibility at all.  This first point supports the idea that women should learn quietly and submissively.  

The second thing the text does with the Genesis 3 story is turn the consequences for the woman—that she will experience pain in childbirth—into something positive: “But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with propriety.”  What this holds out to women is that bearing children can be a good thing, not a bad thing.  This is a matter of great consequence. Women who wanted to study in Paul’s day—to learn to be disciples—were advised to avoid getting married and having children. Having children was dangerous—women frequently died in childbirth—and consuming—there was no time for anything else. And you were under the firm jurisdiction of your husband. This passage holds out to women the hope that they can be both disciples—students of the faith—and mothers. This is the primary point of this passage.

One more note before we look at how this passage might play out today. Don’t get hung up on the word “saved” in the text: “Women will be saved through childbearing;” we have thinned down the meaning of the word “saved” beyond recognition.  It doesn’t mean here (and in many other places) “to go to heaven” or “pass the judgment of God,” as if women who have babies were suddenly promoted to the status of being “in” as opposed to being “out” by whether or not they have children.  “Saved” here means to live one’s life in the grace of God. (It means more than that, but that’s for another time.)  What Paul is saying is that women can live grace-filled lives as mothers as well as students of the faith—disciples in the strict sense.

This is written to a specific situation (perhaps Ephesus) and to a specific culture.  Paul’s approach to the situation contains Spirit-filled wisdom. It acknowledges that women can be disciples. This was at the time the cutting edge of the church. But Paul also acknowledges that women can be wives and mothers. By doing so, he suggests that women do not have to choose between being disciples of Jesus Christ and being wives and mothers.  But other literature of this time, including some popular Christian literature suggests the opposite.

One of these pieces of devout literature is a story about a woman named Thecla.  In the story, Thecla encounters Paul himself, abandons her fiancé, becomes a disciple, is condemned to death, and miraculously escapes execution.  It’s all very exciting, but what’s clear is that Thecla must choose between learning and marriage, Paul, representing discipleship, or her fiancé. In the story, Thecla chooses learning and becomes the leader of a philosophical symposium for women.  For the women of this time, this was a heroic choice. Paul in 1 Timothy suggests another way: a quiet discipleship, not dominating, one that includes both discipleship and motherhood.

What of today?  The text needs sensitive application.  It does not say that women cannot be elders or pastors.  In fact, it suggests that women can and should become disciples.  And disciples become teachers.  They apprentice themselves to a teacher so that they also can become teachers.  But in becoming disciples and, thereby, teachers, women (like men) should do so in ways that respect culture. The norms that are suggested here still apply: a certain quietness, submission to the word, not seeking to dominate. They apply to both women and men. But the culture has changed. We are in the culture in which most of us live past the point where placing women in positions of authority is considered offensive. As a matter of fact, the opposite is largely true: excluding women is offensive.  

Reflecting on this text, it has occurred to me that it has precisely the right message for our time. To women who are called into church leadership, it says, Do so, but do so with sensitivity and grace; to women who are called into the traditional roles of wife and mother, it says, Your way is also blessed by God.  It presents women with many paths to discipleship.  

One more thing (skip this if you think you have read enough)

Like many other biblical passages, 1 Timothy 2 invites us into a dialogue with the text.  What is the fundamental truth here?  How can it be sensitively and wisely applied in our churches today?  Paul is balancing two things in this passage: women as disciples of Jesus Christ (like the Mary of the Mary and Martha story) and respect for the community, especially the then existent norms for marriage.  We are called to a similar balance: not just for women but for men.  How do we balance leadership in the church with marriage?  Anyone who has served in church leadership knows that this can be difficult.  The Bible invites us into this dialogue.

But, someone might say, shouldn’t we take the text literally?  Of course.  We should always try to read the scriptures (and anything else) “by the letter,” paying attention to the meaning of the words, using the best wisdom and scholarship available to us. I’ve tried to do this in my examination of the text, and in doing so have come to quite different conclusions from those reached by a surface reading of the text in English. We ought always to try to read the text well—literally.  But sometimes what counts as literal isn’t really literal at all.

A case in point is the common claim among evangelical Christians that 1 Timothy 2 is important because it makes a “creation order argument” for excluding women from church leadership.  This claim is at the heart of what is sometimes called “complementarianism.”  Complementarianism is the idea that men and women are essentially different.  Men are made (created) for leadership; women for other roles.  To put a woman in a leadership role in church is to go against her nature.

Never mind that this same argument was made by slave owners and others about black people: they are different, these people said. They wouldn’t be happy if they were free.  Never mind also that there are many examples of women as effective leaders, including women who serve as pastors and elders in churches. It’s not what the text says: there is no creation order argument in our text. The Genesis text is used to illustrate and inform a piece of pastoral advice. The text does not say this is the way God created women and men.

The idea of a creation order is that certain things are set in stone. For the most part that’s not how the Bible speaks. Not even in Genesis. The Bible looks for newness: a new earth and new sky, new hearts, new spirits.  For the Bible, the future is not going back but forward, not about what we were but about what we are becoming.  The idea of a creation order does not arise from the text, but is imposed on it.  Paul uses Genesis 2 and 3 but not in a creation order way.

This could be argued at more length, but here’s the point.  Often when we think we are being literal, we are bringing to the text our own ideas and assumptions.  It’s for this reason that thinking of biblical interpretation in terms of dialogue helps us.  It’s a dialogue between the Spirit book and the Spirit community.  In that, there is hope.

Clayton Libolt

3 responses to “1 Timothy 2 and Women in Leadership: a Reading of the Text”

  1. Another interesting thesis to be nailed to some church doors for consideration of a reformation. I really appreciated your last summarizing paragraph. Thanks for the insights, Clay.


  2. I remember many years ago that you preached a sermon on the Martha and Mary story. Immediately afterward, I went to a SS class comprised solely of women. Right off the bang, there were comments (ok, loud complaints) about your attitude toward Martha. They said you and Jesus (men!) had no clue about the need for preparation when you have a guest, let alone who was going to do it. These were the women who would slip out of the service early to get the coffee ready. I thought their reaction was hilarious, but on some level, I understood them too. I think they felt a little betrayed because they made their preparations out of love and service to others. They also thought that Martha was likely very hot, stressed out, and unappreciated, and that she felt she was being treated unfairly. Sort of like at many Thanksgiving dinners. So maybe you might want to give Martha a little credit. Perhaps her first priority was Jesus, but in a different way.

    • Hi Susan. Good to hear from you. In the story of Mary and Martha, Jesus doesn’t criticize Martha for what she is doing nor, for that matter, do I. He criticizes Martha for criticizing Mary. Mary has chosen to do what women were seldom allowed to do in that culture: become a disciple of and study at the feet of a rabbi.

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