There are many churches worldwide that have women in ministry positions. There are also very many churches that don’t – and won’t. 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is “the eye of the storm” for women in ministry according to pretty much most people.
Whatever you think about these verses is very likely to shape what you think about women in ministry and all Bible references to women’s roles in the church.
Read 1 Timothy 2:8-15. When you first read it, the bit about Adam & Eve seems a bit confusing but the main thrust seems pretty clear:
- Men are to pray, and to teach with authority
- Women are to dress modestly and learn quietly
For some, there’s a fear that somehow women will be deceived more easily than men, so it’s best they just stay at home having children. That’s pretty much the understanding for many, many men and women.
In some churches, women are expected never to pray out loud, never to read the Bible in services, never to be counted at all. Women are there to make tea and not much else. Not forgetting “purity culture” – imposing restrictions on what women should wear (no makeup, skirts below the knee only, etc).
It seems women need to do this lest they become a temptation and distraction for the men – as if it’s a woman’s fault that a man can’t control himself.
All in all, women can feel crushed and suffocated in church, even while carrying on with successful careers and homes outside. And it’s that mismatch that’s led many people to re-think these verses – and take a fresh look at women in the Bible over all.
Women in the Bible
Honoured in the Old Testament
In Judges, Deborah was the only woman to lead God’s people. She was far more capable than any of the men around.
Then there was Abigail, wife of the fool Nabal. She went against her husband’s wishes and managed to save many lives, ending up herself a wife of David.
Ruth was very much on the front foot when it came to getting Boaz to do what was right.
Esther was somewhat passive at the hands of men initially. But when the moment came to do God’s will she stepped forward, directing the men into action.
Even the Old Testament “ideal” of a Proverbs 31 woman is someone who is resourceful, hard working and godly – not exactly a stay-at-home mum.
Even more in the New Testament
By the time you get to the New Testament, women are even more prominent. There seems to be a deliberate shift towards honouring and recognising women.
From the first page, Matthew’s genealogy takes the unusual step of including some women’s names.
In John 4, the woman of Samaria tells everyone about Jesus. The whole episode is one of immeasurable grace, and surprising smashing of taboos to bring life to the lost.
Who was at the crucifixion to see Christ die? Who were the first witnesses of his resurrection? Women. That’s not an accident. It’s a deliberate honour.
In Acts 2, Peter quotes the prophet Joel: “Your sons and your daughters will prophesy” – that’s a measure of how radically different things were to be once the Holy Spirit came to all God’s people.
In Acts 16, the first believer in Europe was Lydia, a woman.
In Acts 19, we find Apollos – a powerful speaker who only knew some of the Good News about Jesus. The couple Aquila and Priscilla sat him down and taught him the truth more fully. Notice that: Priscilla taught him. In Romans 16, Paul refers to Phoebe the deacon, and calls Aquila and Priscilla his “co-workers in Christ”. Both of them.
We could go on. And we also note how our own society is still learning to value women equally with men. We’re not there yet.
But all this has led to a closer look at 2 Timothy 2:8-15.
Scripture under scrutiny
Now some people will dismiss these verses as simply out of date and optional – a liberal view of Scripture. That’s such a low view of Scripture they’d believe and do anything. We’ll ignore them.
But there are plenty of evangelicals (men and women) with a closer look at the text. Have we missed something? It turns out it’s a complex text with many questions.
E.g. in, “I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” – the word translated “have authority” is really rare. It only appears here once in the New Testament. It’s extremely rare even outside the Bible. Some translate it “have authority over” others prefer “dominate, overpower, control” (more negative).
Remembering that this is a letter to Timothy in Ephesus, it’s always helpful to think about what might be going on to cause Paul to write the letter: Ephesus was home to the temple to Artemis of the Ephesians – a goddess, served by women priests. It was a wealthy city, with wealthy powerful women, women who might well be in a position to dominate men. In chapter 5, Paul has much to say about the women there at Ephesus.
So various reconstructions have revised 1 Timothy 2:8-15 as relating to women in Ephesus only. Not all women everywhere. In particular, since Paul is clearly writing to Timothy about false teachers in Ephesus, it’s suggested that it was the women who were those false teachers.
Some have gone further and said this isn’t even about church leadership as such, but a problem of rich and powerful women going round overpowering men for sex.
However you interpret it, if you see these verses only applying to a situation in Ephesus 2000 years ago then the door is open to allowing women “to teach and have authority” in church today.
There are problems though. For example: if the false teachers are women, why are they only not to teach or have authority over men (is false teaching ok for women)? The arguments and questions go back and forth, but never produce a coherent view on which everyone agrees.
It’s not convincing, no matter how much you want it to be.
Read it again verse by verse
So we go back and read it again – in context. Timothy was to correct the false teachers by getting them back on track. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. God wants everyone everywhere to be saved and to come to know the truth. They’re to pray for a society and environment in which we can preach the Good News and live it out in peace and godliness.
And v8 begins with a big fat “Therefore”. Therefore, read v8-15 with gospel intent, and corrective action.
I recommend reading this passage in the CSB, having the fairest translation overall:
Read 1 Timothy 1:8.
- If Paul put prayer for peace in society “first of all” in v1, it’s no surprise that we’re to pray in peace with one another.
- Pray with “holy hands” – clean consciences.
- “Without anger or argument” – no diversions, just a focus on what we’re praying about: The mission to save souls.
- This task is particularly given to men but women aren’t excluded. But at the very least, if no-one is praying in a prayer meeting, men should step forward and pray.
Verses 9-10 are about women and begin [lit.] “Likewise, the women…” All women in every place – likewise.
Verses 1-2 were about praying for a peaceable society in which to proclaim the Good News about Jesus. Verses 7-10 match that with a peaceable, credible church of men and women who speak into their culture.
Read 1 Timothy 2:9-10. This is not what they call “purity culture.” This is about the church’s gospel credibility to the watching world. By all means, wear nice clothes and look lovely. Women are not responsible for the sins of others. I heard of a young woman who persuaded her boyfriend to buy her some trainers for Christmas. They cost £700. That is the nonsense that Paul is speaking of here – along with any kind of clothing that robs you of credible witness. Reject the world’s idols. Ensure that people more impressed by the loveliness of Jesus than you.
In verses 1-7, words about “all” or “every” appeared 6 times. And Paul wrote about how there is one God and one mediator for all. There’s a clear universal theme. That continued in v8 with “in every place” and then 9-10 “likewise”. In v13-15, Paul makes a point based on Adam and Eve – very much the universal couple.
So we come to v11-12. Read 1 Timothy 2:11-12. They go together. They don’t say “that woman” or “those women” but “a woman”. These are general statements about women.
V12 has (at least) two unusual features:
- First is that rare word translated “have authority over”. There are various possible meanings, but all have that same sense of one person having authority over another.
- The second feature is the unusual syntax – the specific order of words and tenses.
It binds “teaching” and “having authority over” together – you can’t separate them.
V12 excludes women from being a “teaching+authority” person in a local church – a pastor, elder, vicar…
But it’s actually quite narrow and specific. In truth, it leaves a great many other things open to women. Things that many men have wrongly closed in the past.
Paul gives the reason for the limitation in v13-14. Read 1 Timothy 2:13-14.
- In Genesis, God instructed Adam. Adam instructed Eve.
- Then Satan deceived Eve. Adam was there. He had the word of God first hand, but he didn’t stop his wife sinning.
- When God cursed Adam, he said “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you…”
- It’s not that women are deceived more easily (ridiculous, sexist idea). It’s just that God set things up a certain way.
Then read 1 Timothy 2:15. There’s a weird mix of singular “she” and plural “they”. And “childbearing” has an unusual “the childbearing” that doesn’t make sense in English.
The “she” seems to refer to Eve. Death came into the world through their sin. But she was the one promised a hope, an offspring who would crush Satan’s head.
- Christ is that offspring who was born of a woman.
- He has crushed Satan’s head.
- And God will crush Satan’s head under our feet too (Romans 16:20)
- Hence the call to continue in Christ, and to crush Satan and his ways every single day through a life of “faith, love, holiness, and good sense” – so leading others to Christ.
Hopefully everything we’ve seen makes it clear that just as God created men and women in his own image, we are equal. Men are of equal substance to women, just as God the Son is of equal substance to the Father. Difference without grading.
Still though, we might well ask: If all this is about proclaiming the Good News about Christ, why are women still restricted? How does this help promote the gospel in our world?
- We touched on the way God taught Adam, and how Adam was supposed to teach, not listen to, his wife.
- There is notion of “headship” at work. In 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul wrote “The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”
- That does not mean that all women should submit to all men. But it’s certainly taught that a wife ought to submit to her husband – a mirror of the church submitting to her husband, Christ.
So a church that doesn’t have a woman in the pulpit is making a statement that points to Christ (or should be):
- It’s an opportunity for women to publicly display submission (whether married or single), pointing to how the church displays submission to Christ.
- And here’s the big one: It’s an opportunity for men to display love without coercion or control (whether married or single), displaying Christ’s tender, nurturing love for his church. And this is something men have failed in stupendously for generations. We went for power instead.
1 Timothy 2:8-15 has been abused by men (and still is) to limit women in the church in a way that the New Testament condemns. We’ve all lost out from it.
More, not less
Women are to do more in churches, not less. We’ll see some more of that in Chapter 3.
- We go back to Priscilla, Paul’s co-worker, and delight in women missionaries and evangelists. We’ve watched Passion for Life videos with women teachers happily.
- I’ve benefited from extraordinarily good women lecturers in Bible college.
- We could easily benefit from women speaking on all sorts of topics, like church history, culture, or evangelism.
For now, we need to finish with a reminder of the need for grace towards others who come to different conclusions.
- Not the liberals! If someone has a low view of Scripture it’s not worth debating finer points of Scripture.
- But there are very many sincere Christian women who are convinced they are called to ministry by Christ himself.
- They lead churches that have embraced women leaders.
- Let’s be careful and gracious. Saying things like “Haven’t they even read 1 Timothy 2?” isn’t helpful – because they have, and came to different conclusions.
May the Lord help us as we seek to proclaim him in every way, together as his people, that his will that people be saved be met.