One other preliminary note to our 1 Timothy 2 passage is important. We must recognize Paul’s point in chapter 1 verses 7 and following. Paul speaks of fruitless teaching by those who “want to be teachers of the law, although they don’t understand what they are saying or what they are insisting on.” In other words, these ignorant teacher wannabes are promoting rules, regulations, and rituals that have no place in the freedom realized by the righteous who are beyond the law (1:9). After this warning, Paul points out that his own ministry was not highlighted because he had more spiritual insight, was more honorable than others, or achieved greater abilities. Paul points out he was the chief of sinners and an ignorant and arrogant Church-persecutor. Nothing commended him. But he saw Christ, and Christ—the Savior and Authority—gave him his message, which he tried to faithfully present. Now, with all that background, let’s dive into chapter 2.
Chapter 2 can be divided into three sections of unequal length discussing authority. The first section is merely verses 1 and 2, stressing that authorities outside the church should be prayed for in order to avoid their interference in the community of believers. This verse sets up Paul’s discussion as he turns to the Church because the natural question would arise, well, having dismissed the outside authorities, who then is the Church’s authority? So the second of our three sections highlights the fact that Christ, and Christ alone, is the authority for our individual and communal lives with God.
Note that in verse 7, Paul stresses to Timothy that he is telling the truth. Why would he have to do so to someone who knows Paul as well as Timothy does? Paul’s point to the young Timothy who is head over the large church of Ephesus is that he—Paul—holds no more authority or power than does Timothy. He is merely an appointed herald as Timothy is. It is Jesus who is the authority and the only one to whom we Christians are accountable.
Having established, then, that Jesus is the authority, Paul turns to the third section—life within the Church. How do we live with Christ as sole authority (2:8–15)?
Paul begins his Church-life discussion with the men, alluding to the problem discussed in his general letter to the Ephesians. He says that they should not interact in anger and argument, posturing themselves (as Ephesians suggests) as better than others spiritually or in any other way of Church standing before God. Rather than thrusting forward their own arguments and demands, they ought instead to raise holy hands to Christ—their authority. This advice is sound and good for us all. We may (and should) each seek to know as well as we can how God would have us live and relate to him. But we need to do that for ourselves, not to force the conformity of others to our own approach. This point is not always so easily achieved or understood as it first appears. We are told throughout the New Testament to rebuke, correct, and exhort. And Paul is not here countering any of that. We should—especially with regard to sin—point out failings and falterings. But in our pursuit of God, we cannot have the attitude that we control the pursuit of Christ by other Christians. All of this requires careful relational balance, and it depends heavily on the hearts of the Christian pursuers. It is easy to cut off the one who admittedly disregards God in pursuit of wrong. But for the one sincerely desiring to pursue God, but who does so in a perceived wrong fashion, we must be loving and patient. We turn, then, to Christ with uplifted hands to pray his intercession to do what we have no authority to do.
Of course, matters of individual church polity may require pastoral decisions for the effective operation of the church. And in that, pastors (elders) must be careful, and congregants would do well to submit to the desire of the whole. But we cannot trounce individual responsibility and relationship with a presumed mandate of authority. I am not offering any regulation by how such interaction would be most effectively accomplished. It has to be on an individual basis, handled with love and care.
But there is something else in this appeal to the men. The arguing and anger Paul spoke against was a common activity in their day outside the Church. The philosophers and religionists would argue (just as in Athens at the Acropolis) with each other on the steps to the Temple of Artemis. Remember that the temple was the center of Ephesian religious, commercial, cultural, and political lives. And the philosophers of Ephesus would use that backdrop where people gathered for all sorts of daily life needs, to argue (and angrily so) about life and the gods. From the introduction to this letter, we know Paul was setting Ephesian life against Church life, urging the Church not to let the Ephesian life (culture, religion, philosophy) infiltrate the happy communion of God’s people. And so here Paul is telling the Ephesian Christian men to reject the world’s way of interacting, realizing that authority, change, understanding, and growth all come by joining together on their knees with hands extended to the one authority who can satisfy all—Christ.
In verse 9, Paul turns to the same issue with women. We immediately notice that whereas the issue with men took one verse, Paul’s corrective to women will take seven. It is not necessarily so because the issue is worse. Rather, it is this issue with women that is uppermost in Paul’s mind because it is the conduit by which the false religion and culture is making its greatest inroads into the Church, particularly in Ephesus. While in other passages we have examined so far, we have noticed that women were being encouraged beyond and protected from limitation, here we see a definite corrective limiting a possible swing to the opposite extreme. And I think Paul shows his intention by how he proceeds in this corrective, touching first on adornment (9–10), then on attitude (11–14), and finally on authority (15a).
Notice how Paul addresses his adornment statement. He is not merely telling women to concern themselves with good works rather than attractiveness. He is also not instituting new rules for attire in church services or anywhere else. But if we don’t keep our background discussion in mind, we won’t be able to come to much else of a conclusion.
Remember that Paul is writing to combat false doctrine and encroachment of wrong (bad) cultural elements into the church. Ephesus was the world capital for the worship of the goddess Artemis, which affected almost every aspect of life for the Ephesians. The worship of Artemis was held in their famous temple and outside their temple and in processions along city streets. People would come from all around the known world to visit this temple/museum and, as you expect in any museum, be taught by the guides (priestesses) through narrative stories of creation and enchantment and wisdom. The priestesses would be outfitted in specific style of hair braiding and jeweled refinement, all identifiable as connection to their position. Of course, the styles would be mimicked by the general public, and even find their way, as culture and style do, into the Christian churches, especially among those women who thought of themselves as teachers. (The speculation here is not as speculative as it may sound. We know of the priestesses’ activity and attire partly through a sort of novel, Ephesiaca, written by Xenophon in the first to second century.)
So, Paul is not merely making comments about adornment of good works rather than style; he is particularly contrasting the teaching by women of the false goddesses and gods with the teaching by women of the church. His point, however, is what we may consider the traditional view: the outward, bodily adornment is not how we identify with our God, it does not elevate the wearer to special mediatorial status, so it should not be mimicked from the world as if it were.
In verses 11 through 14, we come to the main idea of Paul’s message: the attitude of the women in the Church. Paul begins with what seems, at first glance, like a command of abnormal limitation: “A woman should learn in silence with full submission.” But it seems stifling only because our minds jump beyond the text. Settle into what Paul has said. There are three noteworthy elements involved in this statement. First, the idea of submission (based on love)—Paul’s number one directive always among the body of Christ—is emphasized. This idea cannot be downplayed without misunderstanding Paul. When Paul said in Ephesians 5:21 that they (we) should all submit to one another, he meant it. The church will not—cannot—function without the mindful understanding and interaction of submission. Period. There is no qualifier to that statement. Submission in love as our motive, activity, goal, and result is our identifier as Christians (John 13:34–35; 1 John 3:11, 14, 18, 23; 4:12, 20; 5:2). And that attitude must be the priority of the leaders of the church even more so than of the congregants so that example and decision-making is guarded by it. So then, Paul urges women to submit. But note carefully that Paul is not creating a hierarchy of authority. Women are not told to submit exclusively to men. They should submit to men, yes; just as men ought to submit to women, women ought to submit to other women, and men ought to submit to other men. But no authority is commanded among us. We all should submit, and therefore, women should submit as they learn.
The second noteworthy element is that women’s submission while learning should be in silence. So, is Paul trying to say (as the Corinthians did in 1 Cor 14) that if women have a question, they need to ask their husbands at home? How absolute must this silence be? Well, Paul is not here saying what he rebuked the Corinthians for saying. The word used here (translated silence) isn’t even the same word.
The word Paul uses actually doesn’t have that much to do with speaking or not speaking but rather with meddling or not meddling. Thayer’s lexicon describes the word as meaning quiet, “as one who does not officiously meddle with the affairs of others.” And that fits the context well. It is not, therefore, whether a sound comes from you or whether you speak. It is about being an interfering, meddling, controlling, nuisance. Those who act in submission will not be such people.
The final noteworthy element is that this attitude of tranquil submission is one to be employed while learning. Notice that carefully. It is no mistake that Paul mentions a submissive attitude while learning in this verse and then will go on to mention the same sort of attitude in the next verse when talking about teaching. The verses are set in contrast to each other. In other words, it is almost as if Paul were saying that we all know learning has to be done in a submissive manner—the very idea of learning is gaining from someone else’s knowledge and wisdom provision. Paul point then will be to take this same attitude into your teaching. Let’s move on, then, to consider verse 12.
My English version of verse 12 reads like this: “I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to be silent.” First, yes, the word silent in this verse is the same one as used in verse 11. So for both verses the point is to not be officiously meddlesome but rather acting in tranquil submission. And we do see that verse 11 is speaking of women learning while verse 12 speaks of women teaching.
However, while in verse 11, Paul seemed to be in favor of a woman learning, a flat, surface read of verse 12 would appear to argue that Paul does not favor a woman teaching. Let’s look at that closely to be sure. The “I do not allow” is pretty straightforward in the Greek. Paul is definitely not in favor of the rest of the sentence’s predicate. But what is that rest? It is “to teach nor to have authority over a man.” Before we get buried in the Greek, notice first that the verse never states nor implies that the reverse then is true. It never says that a man then should either teach or have authority over a woman. Put that in the back of your mind. But now to the Greek.
The word “authority” here is not the normal word for authority used in the New Testament, and that should make us pause. Why does Paul not use the regular word (exousia) that he has used 25 times in other letters? Why does he pick this word (authentein) to use here and only here? This word is actually rather difficult to figure out it’s full meaning. But it is in its infinitive use along with its use in classical Greek that provides clearer meaning. The word is often used in a legal sense to describe crimes of violence. In its use as a noun, it means perpetrator or mastermind of a crime—especially of a violent crime. By the first century, the word was also being used of a master. A derivative of the word began also in the first century to mean sovereignty or absolute control. Thus, while post-first century, the use of the word is in a more neutral sense of sovereign or master, the pre-first century usage was in a negative sense of domineering control often for ill purpose. What then was Paul’s intent in using this term for this one-time use in his writing?
I think we need to stick to the context both of this letter and of Paul’s teaching in general. Submission in love for the Christian is Paul’s emphasis. Paul is not in favor of a woman acting with domineering authority over a man—any more than Christ was in favor of his disciples lording it over others (Matthew 20:25–26). But why would Paul be singling out the women here if men shouldn’t do it either? It is because he is writing to Timothy, and Timothy oversees the churches of Ephesus. It is the Ephesian religious culture that dominates Ephesian society. And it is the Ephesian women that dominate the religious culture. That domination was working its way into the Christian church, and Paul urges Timothy to stand in its way.
The oddest part of verse 12, however, seems to be Paul’s instruction for women “not to teach or to have authority” over men. How could Paul be fine with women in Corinth prophesying (ch 11), which involves teaching, and yet here in Ephesus instruct them not to? I believe we are not understanding the Greek correctly in our translations.
The Greek word e, translated or, is a disjunctive conjunction used to distinguish things or thoughts. However, that is not the word used here. Here it is the Greek word oude that is translated or or nor in most of our Bible versions. But this conjunction has the force not merely of listing two options but of moving from one to the other. For example, Thayer’s lexicon notes it can mean “not even,” where one option leads to another. It can have the idea of “in order.” For example, Matthew 6:19–20 warns against storing treasure of material value on earth where thieves break in and steal. The phrase “break in and steal” includes the same conjunction as in 1 Tim 2:12. It is not that the thief will do one or the other of two things: break in or, on the other hand, steal. Rather, the idea is that the thief will break in in order to steal. The same idea shows up in Revelation 5:3. The NIV tells us that no one “could open the scroll or even look inside it.” Again, the proper understanding is that no one “could open the scroll in order to look inside it.” Thus, in 1 Tim 2:12, we read that Paul does not allow a woman “to teach in order to have authority” over a man. And that fits exactly in line with Paul’s emphasis of a communal body of Christians who live by submission based in love. It also corrects the women who, in mimicry of the Ephesian false priestesses, were too zealous in lording it over the men in their teaching. It is not a ban against women teaching men; it is a ban against women seeking to be masters over men.