1 Timothy 2:11-15 Commentary – “Quietness & Submission”
By Peter Haas
[NOTE: This Post is Part Two in a commentary on “complicated passages about women in ministry.” Be sure to read Part 1 where Peter Haas introduces the key debates on this subject in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35]
A lot of people get strange ideas about women in ministry due to a small number of passages – especially 1 Corinthians 14; but the trickiest passage is the one in 1 Timothy 2:11 which says,
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” 1 Timothy 2:11-15 NIV
There are Christians who believe that women are sinning if they teach the Bible to a man. Indeed, they claim that women were “eternally designed by God to NOT teach.” And they claim that this position, often called the Complementarianposition, is clearly advocated in 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
Others object saying: there is no way Paul would or could argue the Complementarian position — especially since it contradicts the teachings of scripture in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, the New Testament has examples of significant teaching roles by women. Luke specifically mentions that Priscilla (wife of Aquilla) taught Apollos (Acts 18:26). Or Titus 2:3–4 and 2 Tim 1:5; 3:15 show that women taught the faith to other women and children (they weren’t totally “silent” as some Complementarians argue. And lastly, 1 Cor 11:4–5 shows women “praying and prophesying” in public places. How could these examples possibly exist if Paul actually forbade all teaching – and even further, advocated for “silence?”
Indeed, even Paul gave instructions to women on how to pray and prophesy in church (see 1 Corinthians 11:4-5). I.e. How can he teach women to declare the oracles of God and then simultaneously teach that women were “eternally designed by God to NOT teach and moreover must be silent?”
The reason this is important is because, as we approach this complicated text, our hermeneutical assumptions matter! Was Paul teaching Timothy about how to deal with “these women.” Or was he making universal claims about all womenthroughout all time — I.e. Since the Fall, women are now preordained to quietness until Christ returns?
I believe that a careful exegesis of 1 Timothy will reveal that Paul would not subscribe to the Complementarian position as it is currently taught today. Indeed, Paul wrote: “the women are to be worthy of respect…trustworthy in everything” (3:11) – which includes every good work, preaching included. Thus, there’s no way Paul could be putting an eternal gag-order on women preachers and then a few sentences later, he encourages Timothy to help women become “trustworthy in everything.”
My Complementarian friends might object: “But Paul points to Eve being deceived by the serpent” – which indicates that this command is a punishment going back to the Fall of mankind.
And I would push back: “This Complementarian line of reasoning makes two giant logical leaps that are not actually present in scriptures.” In other words, the Complementarian position brings two significant yet unnecessary assumptions to this text that I want to quickly point out. And after doing so, I will show how they create a problematic interpretation of this passage.
Two Large Logical Leaps
For starters, even if Eve’s deception somehow predisposed women to having problems, it doesn’t also necessarily mean the following two statements:
(1). God never designed women to ever teach a man even before Adam & Eve’s sin. Some of my Complementarian friends concede: “You’re right. In this text, Paul doesn’t directly say, “women were eternally designed to never teach. Indeed, Paul points to a specific point in time for his rationale, to the fall of Eve.” And thus, they admit: “It’s possible that before the Fall women could teach a man. But ever since, Paul allegedly tells us, “Women should stay silent for now until Christ returns.”
Naturally, this could create a problematic view of the atonement. It essentially states that “The cross did not atone for ALL sins – and particularly Eve’s sin” — which is why we need to gag women until heaven? Could Paul really be teaching that the power of the Holy Spirit fails to redeem women as it has redeemed men? Certainly not! Even still, Complementarians approach this text with a preconceived logical assumption that it’s a woman’s “sin nature” or “eternal design” that results in this lasting command. Thus, I call this assumption the Design Myth – which I will attempt to debunk in a short while.
As to the second logical jump that Complementarians bring to this text:
(2). Paul is essentially saying that “Women have no hope of EVER teaching men — at least until heaven.” — and why? Because they mistakenly believe that Paul is saying: “Eve messed it up for them until heaven.” In other words, Complementarians carry this belief that, women have no timeline for redemption this side of heaven – an assumption I call the Redemption Myth. Thus, women must resign themselves to “be quiet and have babies.”
Naturally, I don’t believe that 1 Timothy supports either of these assumptions. But it’s critical for me to point them out in advance because, it surprises me how many people engage this discussion without even realizing they believe them!
Indeed, before you continue reading, I encourage you to sit down and read through the entirety of 1 Timothy a few times. It should only take about 10 minutes each time you do this. The reason for this is because, after you read the entire letter a few times, you’ll start to see a lot of subtle details about the specific women at Ephesus. And these small details will undercut both the Design and Redemption assumptions that Complementarians often bring to this text.
THE ALL-IMPORTANT CONTEXT: An Exegetical Approach
Keep in mind, 1 Timothy was not written as a “generic letter to churches.” Unlike books like the Book of Romans, Paul was not giving advice to a generic audience. He was writing to his “true son in the faith” (1:2). In some ways, by reading a personal letter like this, it’s like we’re listening to a one-sided phone conversation. We’re hearing what Paul is saying. But we don’t know all the drama that caused it.
So allow me to summarize some of the drama; and, after doing so, we will unearth the subtle clues that back this up. And finally, in light of these exegetical nuggets, we will finish up by making better sense of 1 Timothy 2:11.
The church in Ephesus wasn’t merely struggling with bad doctrine. It was struggling with a kind of teaching that non-Christians in Ephesus would have found borderline absurd. (Think along the lines of snake-handling, or a belief that’s easy to mock).
Keep in mind, in Paul’s time, there were far less women than men due to female infanticide. Almost every major institution had an overabundance of men compared to women – including churches – because it was extremely rare for Roman and Hellenistic families to raise more than one daughter. As shocking as it sounds, if a family had a second daughter, they would generally put them to death. This is how Roman and Hellenistic families viewed the female gender. And outside of Christian or Jewish groups, it was not merely legal to put newborn girls to death, but it was expected.
Thus, it would have been profoundly unique and almost suspicious for any religious group like the church in Ephesus to have an overwhelming number of widows. Widows of child-bearing age were, almost always, remarried in a short window of time – as multiple single men were lining up for them. Hence, it was downright scandalous to have youngwidows being taught that marriage and childbearing were sinful.
Again, according to historian Rodney Stark, early Christians were seen as bizarre because: (1). They allowed their families to have more than one daughter (they didn’t believe in female infanticide); (2). They wouldn’t marry off their daughters until, at least 13 year olds; whereas, Romans would marry off their girls as young as eight! Pedophilia was rampant among the Romans. Thus, Christians already appeared radically unique for simply believing that, (A). It’s ok to not kill your extra daughters. And (B). It’s ok to allow them grow to 13 years old before sending them off to make babies for another family.
But I say this because, any church with widows would have been seen as ultra-strange and absurdly counter-cultural all by itself. And if you added in the fact that, some were teaching “marriage and sex” are bad, it created a situation where Paul was thinking: “The church in Ephesus will be completely disqualified as bizarre cult if you (Timothy) don’t confront this.”
Paul reveals that two men, Alexander and Hymenaeus (vs 20), and a large group of church women (particularly youngwidows), were teaching that marriage and childbearing were wrong. Even worse, they were accusing one of the teaching elders of bad teaching – and worse, these teachings were done in order to extract more money for themselves (under the presumption of “helping widows.”) And, quite naturally, Paul was disturbed.
Aside from making the church look weird in the eyes of the community, these false teachers were undermining God’s plan for creating healthy marriages, healthy families and a healthy church. And the contextual clues inside of 1 Timothy substantiate these details.
UNPACKING THE DETAILS:
Paul was uniquely worried about bad doctrine when he told Timothy:
“Stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer.” 1 Timothy 1:3 (NIV84)
Indeed the teachings were so disturbing to Paul that, he himself was planning on returning to address it; but, in the meantime, an immediate response was necessary:
“I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household.” 1 Timothy 3:14-15 NIV
Paul doesn’t give us the specific names of these ladies (unlike the men, Alexander and Hymenaeus in vs 20) but he does say:
“Some [young widows] have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.” 1 Tim 5:15
This implies Paul is not speaking about “young widows in general.” Indeed, he points to “some” who are troublemakers (Vs 13). I point this out because it could be a significant detail arguing against Complementarianism.
These ladies were clearly a stressful concern to Paul as he repeatedly mentions them – at least three times. Earlier he wrote: “the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything” (3:11). Once again, note the definite article the women – only used when speaking of a specific group – not women in general. And these women concerned Paul enough that he brought them up a third time (6:4-5).
But what was Paul’s grudge with these women? The text implies that these women were causing contention over how to handle doctrines (chapter 4) and over benevolence budgets for widows (chapter 5). We get the sense that there were young widows who felt entitled to church money due to their widowed position. Yet, Paul implies this might just be a petty money-grab that is due to discontentment and materialism (see 2:9; 5:9, 16; 6:6-10, 18). And it was apparent that Paul felt these particular women were overly concerned with “elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes” (2:9).
On top of this, these widows were being falsely taught to not marry (4:3) — making their welfare requests to the church permanent and untenable (see 5:3, 9). Naturally, this would not only harm the churches’ finances and reputation but was a direct affront to the sanctity of marriage which is an institution designed to benefit both men and women.
Yet, somehow, these unhealthy women were turning this moment into an accusation of one of the healthy elders.
Hence Paul cautions Timothy: “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses” (5:19).
But perhaps the most interesting verse (that informs Paul’s statements on women) comes from chapter four: Paul digs into the types of bad doctrine that are apparently taking hold in Ephesus (presumably through these two men and a handful of troublesome young widows).
Paul says, “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.” 1 Timothy 4:3 NIV
So, the church in Ephesus is unfortunately being taught that sex, child-rearing and marriage are actually wrong. By forbidding people to marry, Paul interpreted this as an affront to Gods heart for family and parenting – hence, the large number of widows. Paul revealed his additional concerns that, these young widows can’t simply “turn off” their God given sexual desires nor their desires for childbearing (5:11, 14).
Now the reason these details matter is because, the modern reader might be tempted to think that Paul is simply making over-generalized sexist statements when in fact he is addressing a specific church problem in a personal letter to Timothy.
Much like a wildfire is started when dry conditions meet irresponsible uses of fire, Paul is observing that these anti-child bearing / anti-marriage teachings are igniting an entire demographic into church chaos.
This is critical context because, when Paul says that: “But women will be saved through childbearing” (2:15), and gives a clear allusion to Gen. 3:15-16, he’s not trying to make a universal statement against all women teaching, as much as he’s addressing an anti-sex/anti-marriage teaching which is manifesting itself in a doctrine/teaching crisis.
So, let’s go there! What does this reference to Adam and Eve mean?
Paul refers to the fragility of humans by going back to the original marriage: Adam and Eve.
But before we do, let’s remember the situation that led to this first marriage. It was God who first said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Genesis 2:18. I.e. Man by himself is inadequate. He is “not good.” But why?
We can only guess why God would say this about man. (My wife could probably think of a few reasons). But, Paul refers to this first marriage by pointing out a certain responsibility that Adam failed to be responsible for:
He writes: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.” (1 Tim.2:13)
In other words, because Adam was born first, like all firstborns, there was a leadership responsibility that God required of him. And it continues:
“And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”
Now, although it sounds like a jab against Eve, it’s actually a jab against Adam because, “he was formed first.” That statement about birth order is critical because, Paul was saying: “Adam knew more (Gen 2:16-17); Adam had lived longer; yet, he failed to lead Eve. He abdicated his role. And to make another indictment against Adam, Paul says: Eve was tricked into sinning but Adam walked into sin eyes wide open – no deception necessary!
Why would Paul be pointing this out to Timothy? Perhaps because, Paul is trying to fire Timothy up to have some courageous conversations – to stop people from sinning. Perhaps he is reminding Timothy of another leader who failed to lead, as if to say: “don’t be like Adam.” But, the net effect of Paul’s words could be interpreted as: “Remember Adam and Eve: Eve had a better excuse than Adam. The serpent beguiled her. And Adam allowed this to happen!”
However, a lot of interpreters approach these statements with the exact opposite assumption in mind. They think Paul is making a sexist jab against women, as if to say, “men are smarter than women” – specifically, “Eve was the dumb one.” And thus, we miss the irony of Paul’s statement. It would be similar to saying: “Adam was the one who knew better – he was born first – he wasn’t tricked, he was just dumb!” He’s actually making Adam look dumber – as if men are idiots who can’t see the obvious implications of the moment.
For example, in Paul’s time, it was common responsibility for “first born” sons to have to take care of the entire family (which is why they were given a ‘double portion’ to make up for this double responsibility). Adam failed this. Even more, he failed to defend his marriage.
Thus, the takeaway to Timothy: Don’t allow these “unmarried / unprotected widows” (and their anti-marriage teachings) to cause sin. Married people are stronger when they stick together. And when people carelessly surrender leadership, deception happens.
But Paul takes his reference to Adam and Eve one step further by saying:
But women will be saved through childbearing— if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” 1 Timothy 2:15
Does this mean they should just “Stay home and raise kids?”
Not at all.
Remember, Paul said a few verses earlier: “Women should learn…” (2:11).
Stop and absorb those three words:
WOMEN. SHOULD. LEARN. He’s referring to doctrine, to leadership, to wisdom in general. And why? He wants them to pass it on!
Quite often, people obsess over the latter words: “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.”(NASB).Yet, Paul wasn’t saying this as some sort of “eternal punitive discipline” as a result of Eve. To the opposite, Paul was saying, there’s a redemption arc that’s achievable for women.
Paul himself admitted his own idiotic teaching mistakes just a few verses earlier: “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” 1 Timothy 1:13-14
In other words, God is currently building him into a better teacher! He went from being a false teacher to a great teacher. It’s one of the redemptive themes of this letter. And the implication is the same for both Timothy and these women.
But what are we to make of the statement: “women will be saved through childbearing” (2:15)?
Some scholars think Paul is referring to the curse Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve fell. God unpacks the curse, saying to Eve: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Genesis 3:16
But in the preceding verse (vs 15) God promises to crush the head of the serpent through her seed — speaking of Christ. I.e., The messiah would eventually appear. Women were literally and figuratively saved through childbearing.
Thus, when Paul referenced this, he wasn’t saying: “Go home. Shut up and make babies.” Rather, he was directly counteracting the false teaching that marriage and child-rearing is sin (see 1 Tim. 4:3).
“So” Paul writes, “I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.” 1 Timothy 5:14 NIV
Once again, his advice is for widows – not merely “women.” Even more, his advice is for younger widows implying that he has looser standards for older widows. And ultimately, his goal is to prevent “slander” – to prevent bad things from being said about the church by outsiders.
Why Do These Details Matter?
Ultimately, I’ve noticed that Complementarians don’t like to acknowledge many of the above details because,
(A). It undermines their narrative that: “Women were eternal designed by God to not teach.” They don’t want to see Paul as reacting to a specific group of people who were perpetuating a specific doctrine. They want to see this command as being a part of an eternal design for women (The Design Myth) as women are more prone to deception.
(B). The details in this letter imply that God has a redemption arc for women to eventually teach. Again, Paul said: “Women should learn” – which, to some men, would have been a radical statement all by itself. But, if Paul restricts women due to Eve’s sin, then when is Eve’s sin atoned for? Most complementarians would argue that, at the very least, women must wait for their resurrection bodies. But other complementarians would say: “Women were never supposed to teach a man.” And they will realize this and accept it with joy when they get to heaven (the Redemption Myth).
But allow me to continue meditating on these scriptures. Because, as I do, you’ll notice a steady stream of qualifying words that make the Complementarian interpretation of this passage increasingly awkward.
So let’s move onto Paul’s statement:
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.” Vs 12?
Some scholars have written endless articles about the present tense Greek verb translated “do not.” I.e., They argue Paul is saying, “I currently do not permit…” implying a temporary state. And this might be a correct translation. But, to be honest, despite all the articles written on it, I don’t believe there are any that authoritatively necessitate one interpretation over another.
Other scholars interpret Paul as saying: “[Under these circumstances] I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.” I.e., Timothy would automatically understand that these unique circumstances were implied… or were limited to the women at Ephesus. Once again, this could be true. Yet again, despite all the articles written on it, I don’t believe there are any that authoritatively argue we must interpret this one way or another.
What we do know for sure is that the Bible clearly permitted women to prophesy over men (see Joshua 4:4). We see women like Nympha who hosted churches in their homes (Col. 4:15). We see churches co-led by husband-wife duos like Pricilla and Aquila (Romans 16:3-5). We even see women like Junia who are called “apostles” (Romans 16:7). Indeed, Deborah not only held court, judging the tribes of Israel, but she led 10,000 men into battle. So, how could God allow a female Judge if he eternally designed women to not have authority over men as Complementarians argue? And even worse, why would the scriptures so clearly applaud Deborah? Ultimately, I believe it’s because, the Complementarian’s “design assumption” simply isn’t true. It’s classic eisegesis: (they bring hidden assumptions to the text that obscures the meaning and creates contradictions.)
But allow me to end by giving you one last contextual clue that leads me to disagree with the Complementarian position:
Once again, the complementation position argues: “women were eternally designed (before the Fall) to not have authority over a man.” Yet, in this passage, Paul didn’t use this line of reasoning. Rather, he anchored his argument to a specific point in time, Adam and Eve’s sin – NOT God’s design.
When I pointed this out to my Complementarian friend, he finally conceded: “O.K., so, this passage isn’t the best for proving that women were ‘eternally designed’ to not teach; however, it DOES say that, because of Eve’s sin, they can’t.” I.e., Instead of women being forbidden due to an “eternal design by God,” they should be eternally forbidden due to Eve’s sin.
However, I disagree with that statement because, if that’s true, we must also say: “The death of Christ only atoned for men and not for women.” Again, my friend was carrying the assumption that, “there can be no atonement for Eve’s sin, and therefore, no opportunity for women to ever teach” — which is crazy talk!
Indeed, Paul implied the exact opposite: “Women should learn…” (2:11). He’s advocating for their redemption! If Paul believed that women are eternally restricted from teaching (until heaven) then, such commands would be absurd. He would instead say: “Women, don’t even bother learning. Just have babies.”
So, to summarize: Paul was writing an emergency letter to his son in the faith. The church in Ephesus was already completely bizarre in that, it not only had an abundance of widows, but, it had a ministry for widows! Once again, in Roman culture, there was always an over-abundance of men (due to female infanticide). And a typical Roman family would have immediately married their daughter to someone new.
Paul knew that churches already offered a giant upgrade to Hellenistic women – advocating for multiple pro-women values that were already radical by themselves.
Thus, Paul was writing this letter with the hope of saving the Ephesian churches’ reputation in the community. He was ironically attempting to dial back what some might call “extreme wokeness” in favor of a redemption arc for women that was more palatable to Roman culture.
So, do I believe there are complex arguments being made in this passage? Yes. And there is room for various interpretations. However, I believe the clues in the context simply don’t support the design assumption nor the redemption assumption that Complementarians bring to the text. The details Paul gives are too specific.
Thus, we can’t toss out historical context and exegetical considerations in order to substantiate these two giant logical leaps: that God never designed women to teach men (either before the Fall, or since); and that, women have no hope of teaching men until heaven, or even longer.
[For Part Three – “What is headship?” see commentary on Ephesians 5:22-33].