Pursuing Partnership Part 18A: What Does the Bible Say? The Interpretive Difficulties in 1 Timothy 2

By Heather Althoff, ThM (Dallas Seminary), LifeWay Church – Missions Pastor.

This article is part of the series Pursuing Partnership: Men and Women in Ministry.

Part 18A: What Does the Bible Say?  The Interpretive Difficulties in 1 Timothy 2

The Disputed Passages: A Second Look at 1 Timothy 2:8–15

As we continue in our Pursuing Partnership series on different understandings of how women contribute to God’s work in the home, church, and community, let’s move on to an exploration of  1 Timothy 2:8-15.

This passage has the distinction of being regarded as one of the clearest or one of the most obscure passages concerning women’s leadership in the New Testament, depending on who you ask. George Knight III speaks for many when he says that 1 Timothy 2:12 is “the clearest” apostolic teaching that “insists on men being the primary leaders in the church (just as in marriage).”[1] On the other hand, Sarah Sumner joins other scholars in arguing that this passage “cannot sensibly be taken at face value.”[2]

For the average reader of an English translation, parts of 1 Timothy 2 seem quite clear: Paul expected women to remain quiet and he did not allow them to have authority over a man. However, even a surface reading can leave readers scratching their heads. How are these statements tied to the order of creation? And how does Eve seem to bear the brunt of the first sin and deception here when Adam clearly bears some responsibility in other places in Scripture? And most baffling, what does Paul mean that women will be saved through childbearing?

What many readers don’t realize is that, even the “clear” parts of this passage, when studied in the original Greek, present a complex web of issues that make it extremely difficult to understand with certainty. Scholars have identified at least eight different issues, including issues of grammar, vocabulary, and cultural context. Dr. Linda Belleville says, “There is barely a word or phrase that has not been keenly scrutinized and hotly debated.”[3]

While the issues can be intimidating, this passage should not be overlooked by those on either side of this issue. If we believe that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable,” we cannot simply dismiss this passage. We must wrestle with it. However, we do need to be up front and informed about the difficulties of using this passage as a foundation for our theology of women.

The Westminster Confession of Faith reads: “When there is a question about the true and full sense of a Scripture, it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”[4] Most pastors and theologians abide by this general principle when trying to discern clear doctrine from Scripture.

In other words, while we do not ignore any part of Scripture, we weight passages differently for theology and practice. Christians should feel more comfortable placing weight on passages that are clear rather than those that are obscure.

Jamin Hubner has outlined a helpful checklist for defining an obscure or difficult passage:[5]

  1. The meaning of the text has been and still is highly disputed.
  2. The text does not make sense according to a literal, straightforward, or face-value reading.
  3. The text contains an unusual number of obscure terms.
  4. The text has produced a large number of diverse interpretations.
  5. The text, if appropriate and applicable, is particularly difficult to apply in concrete, contemporary situations.

According to this intuitive definition, there can be little argument that 1 Timothy 2:8–15 should be considered and treated as an obscure passage.

1. Is the meaning still disputed?

It seems fairly obvious to all sides of this debate that the meaning of this text is disputed, and has been for at least the last fifty years. Craig Blomberg, a complementarian scholar, has called 1 Timothy 2:12 perhaps “the single most scrutinized verse of Scripture in recent scholarship.”[6]

2. Does the passage make sense according to a plain, straightforward reading?

Almost no one reads this passage and sees it as simple and clear. There are issues of adornment, modesty, quietness, submission, authority, creation order, and salvation through childbearing.

3. Does the passage contain an unusual number of obscure words?

While 1 Timothy 2:9–15 is comprised of eighty-two different words in the Greek, six of them are used only once in the New Testament. At least one of the unique words, authenteo in verse 12, greatly affects the meaning, and has the additional distinction of being extremely rare even outside the Bible in ancient literature.

4. Are there large numbers of diverse interpretations and (5.) applications?

Once again, a look through the literature on this passage confirms that there is an extremely wide variety of interpretations and applications even within the complementarian and egalitarian camps. Among complementarians, the views of verse 12 alone range from prohibiting women from teaching men, being elders, teaching doctrine, teaching publicly, teaching a group of men, teaching in a church setting, occupying a special office of teaching within the church, exercising authority within the church, or taking over the church government.[7] Among egalitarians, the views are equally varied, ranging from this passage addressing false teaching, uneducated women, or the actions of a specific woman in the Ephesian church.

In the coming weeks, we will look at these difficulties and wrestle with the possible meanings of this passage, reminding ourselves to weigh this passage appropriately.


[1] George Knight III, “The Family and the Church: How Should Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Work Out in Practice?” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, 2nd ed. (Wheaton:Crossway, 2006), 352. Quoted by Jamin Hubner in his article, “Revisiting the Clarity of Scripture in 1 Timothy 2:12” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 59:1 (March 2016) 99-117.

[2] Sarah Sumner, Men and Women in the Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 210-12.

[3] Belleville, Linda. Exegetical Fallacies in Interpreting 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Priscilla Papers, Publication Date:  2003-07-31.  Journal Volume:  17.  Issue:  3.  Season:  Summer.

[4] Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.7; 1.9.

[5] Jamin Hubner, “Revisiting the Clarity of Scripture in 1 Timothy 2:12” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 59, no. 1 (March 2016): 99–117.

[6] Craig Blomberg, “Women in Ministry: A Complementarian Perspective,” in Two Views of Women in Ministry, ed. James Beck, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 168.

[7] For a sample list with references, see the adaptation of Jamin Hubner’s article here: https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/revisiting-clarity-scripture-1-timothy-212.


This article is submitted by Wendy Wilson of Missio Nexus and of Women’s Development Track.  Women’s Development Track is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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