Rock Your Role is a series examining the “go to” and hot button Scriptures that relate to and help us understand our role as women in the church. Don’t forget to prayerfully consider our three key questions
as you read.
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.
1 Timothy 2:11-12
I’ve never met a Christian woman, who, upon reading these verses for the first time joyfully embraced them without the slightest hint of balking, surprise or, “Wait, what?”. I have no doubt that such women are out there, somewhere, it’s just that I’ve never met one of them.
For 21st century American Christian women, these are hard verses. Whether you’re old enough to remember bra burnings and hard line feminists like Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda or you were born into a world replete with female engineers, construction workers, and urologists, you’ve probably been inundated with the “anything boys can do, girls can do better” message since the doctor announced, “It’s a girl!”
And that’s exactly why this passage seems to us like a cold bucket of water. It’s what we bring to the table, our presuppositions, that make these verses feel like a big, fat, arbitrary “no” from a God who just wants to spoil our plans, when everything else in the world says “yes” to whatever we might aspire to.
I’ve struggled with God’s instruction in these verses, trying to stretch it, Silly Putty style, into what I wanted it to mean, so that I could do what I wanted to do and still be “covered” biblically. And, ladies, let me tell you something- that is a sinful, wicked, self-seeking, and self-centered way of approaching this or any other Scripture. An approach from which I have had to repent many, many times.
Looking for loopholes and exceptions and trying to see how close to the line of sin we can get without actually putting a toe over is a characteristic of a carnal mind, not a mind set on pleasing God. Godly women don’t look for ways to get around Scripture. Godly women look for ways to obey Scripture. It’s God’s desire that we flee as far away from sin as we possibly can, and, instead, “pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace.” He wants us to love, embrace, and obey His word, not rebel against it, even in our hearts, even in the name of “ministry” or “serving God.” So let’s keep that in mind as we take a look at this passage.
Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. 1 Samuel 15:22-23a
As always, we must examine every biblical passage in context, which means we need to start off by understanding a little background about the book and its author, and by reading the whole chapter.
First Timothy (along with 2 Timothy and Titus) is one of the pastoral epistles. It was written by Paul to young pastor Timothy as sort of a job description and operations manual for pastors, elders, and the church. So right off the bat, an important point we often miss about 1 Timothy is that it was written to a man, Timothy, a pastor, who would use this letter to train his elders (also men) and, subsequently, his congregation. That doesn’t mean that 1 Timothy doesn’t apply to women, or shouldn’t be studied by women, or that women aren’t required to obey 1 Timothy. It just means that when we open the letter of 1 Timothy, we need to understand that we, as women, are reading somebody else’s mail. Mail that pertains to us, yes, but mail that’s addressed to Timothy, and by extension, to pastors and elders today. That will help us better understand the tone and perspective of the passage.
The focal verse of this chapter is verse 4
God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Everything else Paul talks about in chapter 2 revolves around the idea that God wants to save people. He wants the church to pray for people, including governmental officials so that they will be saved. Paul was appointed a preacher and apostle so that people might be saved. Men shouldn’t detract from the gospel by quarreling or anger so that people can be saved. Women’s attire should not distract from the preaching of the gospel, and their good works should point people to the gospel so that people can be saved.
And, finally – an exhortation to men – Timothy and the elders are to allow women to be taught the gospel so that they might be saved. See that word “let” right there at the beginning of verse 11? Timothy and the elders have the responsibility to step up and make sure women are allowed to come into the church and be taught the gospel. That’s something we take for granted now, but in a time when women were routinely regarded with the same value and intelligence as a stick of furniture or the family cow, this was huge. This just reinforces what we learned from Galatians 3:28: everybody is welcome at God’s table. There are no second class citizens in God’s kingdom. God wants to save women, too. We modern women rarely appreciate how precious this concept would have been to first century women hungry to know and be known by God. And the men were to make sure it happened.
But, as Jesus said, “to whom much was given, of [her] much will be required.” The men had the responsibility to make sure women were taught God’s word so they could be saved and grow spiritually, but the women had the responsibility to listen, learn, and conduct themselves in a way that would not hinder others (or even themselves) from learning and hearing the gospel.
Paul goes on to explain in verse 12 what he means by “quietly with all submissiveness”: Women are not to teach men or exercise authority over them. In the first century church, this would have been relatively easy to understand, since church services were fairly simple and didn’t include programs, parachurch organizations, Christian conferences, etc. But in our day, perhaps a little more explanation would be helpful.
Teaching includes any situation in the gathering of the body of Christ in which women would be giving instruction to men in the Scriptures and/or on spiritual matters (which, in a biblical church gathering, would necessarily include Scripture), whether in an official position of teacher (pastor, teaching elder, Sunday School/Bible study teacher, or other leadership position) or any other situation requiring exhorting, teaching, or explaining of the Scriptures.
Exercising authority includes any official position (pastor, pastoral positions, certain committee positions, elder, teacher, director, or other leadership position) or other situation which places a woman in charge of, over, or responsible for men or places men in a role subordinate to a woman.
But why? Why would God reserve the positions of teaching and authority over male or mixed groups to men? He gives two reasons in verses 13-14. God’s design for male headship, and Eve’s deception and sin.
For Adam was formed first, then Eve– Starting with Creation (not the Fall), God began laying out the pattern of male headship in the foundational institutions of His kingdom: Creation, the family, and the church. Man was created first, woman second. Man was given authority over Creation, woman was specifically created for him, to be his helper. We also see male headship in the family. God requires husbands to take the primary leadership role and wives to submit to and respect their husbands.
And, finally, we see God’s design for male headship in the church, not only in overt passages like 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14, the description of qualifications for pastors and elders, and the precedent of male leadership in the Old Testament temple, but also in the beautiful picture of Christ, the bridegroom, as head of the church, His bride, who lovingly submits to Him. Starting with the very first man and woman, before sin entered the world, God initiated a pattern of male leadership.
And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor– Here, Paul reminds us that, when Eve listened to the serpent, she stepped out from under her husband’s oversight, was deceived, and sinned. Eve’s sin reminds us that she not only was deceived into rebelling against God’s command about eating the fruit, but she also broke His design for male headship in marriage. In establishing male leadership in the church, God is recalling, reflecting, and restoring His pattern of male headship that started in the Garden.
But I’ve been taught that 1 Timothy 2:12 only applied to the particular time and culture in which it was written.
No, that’s not the case. We’ve just seen that clearly spelled out in verses 13-14. God explains exactly why He’s delegating the teaching of men, and authority over men, to men. There’s nothing in these two verses that even hint that this command is temporary or restricted to the women in the first century Ephesian church. The first reason was the Creative order – Adam was formed first, then Eve. The second reason is that Eve was deceived. Both of those reasons are universal (applying to all women and churches everywhere regardless of era or culture). It makes no sense that these two reasons related to Eve would apply only to first century Ephesus any more than it would make sense for them to apply only to tenth century Damascus or seventeenth century Paris.
Next, again, we examine the context of 1 Timothy 2. There are all sorts of instructions to the church in that chapter. Was the instruction to pray for governmental leaders (1-2) limited to the first century Ephesian church? Were only the men of the first century Ephesian church to pray without quarreling (8)? Was modesty (9-10) only required of women in the first century Ephesian church? Then why pick out this one instruction in verse 12 and claim it was limited to that time and culture?
Finally, look at the overall general pattern of male headship and leadership in Scripture. First human created? A man. The Patriarchs? As the word implies – all men. Priests, Levites, Scribes? Men. Heads of the twelve tribes of Israel? Men. Major and minor prophets? Men. All kings of Israel and Judah? Men. Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic Covenants? All established between God and men. Authors of Scripture? Men. The forerunner of Christ? John the Baptist – a man. Messiah? A man. All of the apostles? Men. All of the pastors, elders, and deacons of churches in the New Testament? Men. Founder and head of the church? Christ – a man. Leader and head of the family? Men. Now which fits better with this pattern, women preaching to, teaching, and exercising authority over men in the church, or women not preaching to, teaching, and exercising authority over men in the church?
But what about women in the Bible who served in leadership roles like Deborah, Esther, or Priscilla? Doesn’t that mean it’s OK for women to preach, teach men, and exercise authority over men in the church?
No it doesn’t. The Bible does not contradict itself because its author, the Holy Spirit, doesn’t contradict Himself. If you’d like to read more about how Deborah, Esther, Priscilla and other women of the Bible were actually acting in obedience to God’s role for women, please read my article Rock Your Role: Oh No She Di-int! Priscilla Didn’t Preach, Deborah Didn’t Dominate, and Esther Wasn’t an Egalitarian.
But I’ve been told it’s OK for women to teach co-ed Bible classes or preach to co-ed audiences as long as they don’t hold the office of pastor and as long as they’re preaching/teaching “under the authority” of their husband and/or pastor.
No, that’s not OK with Scripture. First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 restrict the office of pastor to biblically qualified men, but, as we’ve seen in this article, 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits women from carrying out two of the functions of pastors (preaching/teaching the Bible to men, and exercising authority over men) as well, and neither 1 Timothy 2 nor any other passage of Scripture gives husbands or pastors the authority to grant women permission to violate God’s Word. For more information on this question, see my article Fencing off the Forbidden Fruit Tree.
In God’s perfect plan, Janes and Jills are not to serve as pastors. They are not to preach to or teach men at Christian conferences or other gatherings of the body of Christ. They are not to teach co-ed Sunday School classes. They are not to serve in positions or places of authority over men in the church.
But even though we daughters of Eve bear the taint of her reproach in this small way all these years later, God has graciously provided us with many, many ways to redeem the name of womankind by serving Him if we “continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” (15) One of those ways is the gospel influence mothers are able to have in their children’s lives. Think about it. Samuel had a godly mother. Timothy had a godly mother and grandmother. Jesus had a godly mother. It is no small thing to pour the gospel into your children and raise them up to be mighty men and women of God.
So, ladies, let’s stop clinging to the fence God has placed around the pulpit, bemoaning the fact that He doesn’t want us to cross it, and trying to figure out a way to sneak over, under, or around it. If we’ll just turn around and leave that fence behind us, we’ll find a wide open field of opportunities to serve God in His church, His way.
Ten Things You Should Know About 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and the Relationship Between Men and Women in the Local Church at The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) This is a refutation of the most common egalitarian arguments against the plain meaning of 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
Why Women Should Not Teach the Bible to Men by Josh Buice
Will the Next SBC Resurgence Include a Redefining of Complementarianism? by Tom Buck The springboard issue for this article series was the movement to elect a female president of the Southern Baptist Convention, however, it is largely an exposition of the text of 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Regardless of whether or not you’re familiar with this issue, and even if you’re not Southern Baptist, these articles are helpful and easy to understand. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4
Only Men May be Pastors at Founders Ministries
What Does It Mean That Women Should “Remain Quiet” in Church? at Crossway