The Women’s Question in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy

August 12, 2012

In his first letter to protégé Timothy, the Apostle Paul addresses a pastoral problem with advice and counsel. The statements he makes about women and ministry (1 Tim 2:8-15) are problematic in our twenty-first century context, but here they are in my own translation from the Greek:

 8 Therefore, I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without wrath or dispute. 9In the same way also, women to adorn themselves in respectable garb with modesty and discretion, not in elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothing, 10 but that which is proper for women professing piety, through good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly in all obedience; 12 but I am not allowing a woman to teach, nor to domineer a man, but to be quiet. 13  Furthermore, first Adam was formed, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman, having been led astray, has fallen into transgression (literally has become in transgression). 15 But she will be saved through the childbearing, if they remain in faith and love and holiness with discretion.

The “big idea” in this passage is that women are to devote themselves to learning sound Christian doctrine before they are allowed to teach in the church.  The church must not let itself be deceived or misled, and Eve is an example to the church of the consequences of ill-informed faith.

This instruction is directed to a church in some sort of doctrinal turmoil. Timothy is ministering in Ephesus (1:3) where “certain ones” are teaching strange doctrines.  This is the overriding occasion for the letter.  Paul draws the parallel between his own conversion from “blasphemer and persecutor” (1:13) and those in Ephesus who are presently teaching even though “they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions” (1:7).  Paul exhorts Timothy to “fight the good fight” and not to forsake the truth as Hymenaeus and Alexander have done.

In Chapter 2, Paul urges Timothy to pray not only for the church, but for the secular authorities.  He wants the men “in every place to pray” without wrath or dissension.  Likewise, he wants the women to be models of godly living.

Paul goes on in Chapter 3 to give the qualifications for positions in the church.  The men are to demonstrate their maturity in Christ by having a healthy home life and an ability to teach.  Moreover, they must not be new converts “lest they become conceited and fall into condemna­tion” (3:6).  The women should display the same qualities of godliness:  “dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things” (3:11).

After warning Timothy that the Spirit says, “in later times some will fall away,” Paul charges Timothy to remain steadfast in teaching the truth, and not to be intimidated by those who think he is too young to be a pastor.  Paul gives him advice on how to deal with his brothers and sisters in Christ.  He also enumerates administrative principles to guide the church, especially in the area of financial support to widows and to church leaders.  He warns against an unbalanced view of money and riches.

Finally, Paul warns Timothy against the consequences of false doctrine, how it hurts the church as a whole and the individuals who believe it.  His final exhortation is to stand firm and avoid what the world would call “knowledge” [a code word for human wisdom apart from and contrary to the word of God.]

In 5:3-16 Paul spends a great deal of time telling Timothy how to handle the problem of widows in the church who apparently don’t have enough to keep them busy and have become gossips and busybodies (5:13).  His exhortation to these women is the same as in 2:15:  “ . . . get married, have children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach.”

In this verse we have the key to understanding our assigned passage.  Paul is telling these women, who are going from house to house spreading false doctrine, to settle down at home and remain in faith, love, and holiness.  Mentions of discretion, modesty, and quietness in Chapter 2 and Chapter 5 as well as the parallel references to childbearing lead me to believe that the women who were causing the problems in Ephesus were these middle-aged widows.

In my next post, I will address the solution Paul teaches and its rationale from the Creation narrative.



2 Responses to “The Women’s Question in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy”

  1. Jodie Says:


    That’s an interesting observation about gossips and busybodies.

    The issue with gossips and busybodies is even worse today than it was back then, what with all the communication and social networking tools we have available. Any little thing someone does or says anywhere can be spun completely out of control and context forever, and made to look as if the sky is falling right in the middle of your own backyard.

    I wonder what the Church would look like if people took that injunction to heart.

  2. Dennis Says:

    Thanks for addressing the issue of women in leadership in your blog. I have a few comments on that passage that I pass on to you. First, I agree with your translation of verse 12 and I think you should highlight it. Paul says he does not allow women to teach. It is not “teach men” but teach. They did not teach other women, they did not teach children, they did not teach in Sunday school (did they even have Sunday School back then?). Anyway, the common interpretation of that passage is that Paul did not allow women to teach men. That is incorrect. He did not allow them to teach anything, for the reasons you cite in your blog. So, good-bye to lady Sunday School teachers.

    Second, one needs to distinguish in any of Paul’s letters the difference between descriptive and prescriptive text. In 1 Timothy 2 Paul is being descriptive, describing his practice. He is not being prescriptive, telling Timothy he has to do things the same way that Paul did. We make that distinction easily in other parts of Scripture. I do not see many pastors taking a vow and shaving their heads like Paul did in Acts. We need to make that distinction in 1 Timothy as well. That is key to understanding the passage. Paul is not commanding anything here, just telling Timothy what his practice was in one situation

    Third, the issue of the man as the “head” of the woman needs some thought. Our typical American English view of head means in charge of, having authority over, or just plain do-it-my-way-or-else kind of head. Yet the Greek kefalh has another meaning, as the word head does in English. It can mean “source” like the head of a river. That makes much more sense especially in the Corinthian passage, where Paul says that Jesus is the source of the man and the man is the source of the women, since Eve was created from Adam. That better reflects Paul’s view of male female relations and takes away any sense of superiority or authority of men over women.

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