1 Timothy 2:12 What was Paul thinking?!

Preview: Should women be allowed to preach or does Paul’s prohibition apply today?

The apostle wrote, “I do not permit me a woman to teach or have authority over a man. She must be silent.”

What is one to do with this Bible verse from Paul’s letter to Timothy?!

Here’s how I address it in my book Communicate to Change Lives.

Take the common meaning in the original languages

Words change over the years. Right now I would be terribly misunderstood if I said, “I’m feeling very gay today.” Fifty years ago, it would have meant I was happy, joyous. In 2007 it means something very different. If I say, “That’s a really bad car,” I’m not saying it needs to be recalled for safety concerns. It’s a really cool car (which doesn’t refer to temperature at this time.) All these examples have the shelf-life of milk!

It’s the same with Scripture written thousands of years ago. Let’s take an often misinterpreted verse:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent” (1 Tim. 2:12).

In 60 A.D. the word translated “authority” from the Greek actually had multiple meanings (and since this is the only time the word is used in the New Testament, it’s impossible to determine how Paul used it from other contexts.)

Scott Baldwin, popular author on women’s issues, notes several possible translations: to control, to dominate, to compel, to influence someone/thing, to domineer/play the tyrant, to grant authorization, to act independently, to assume authority over, to exercise one’s own jurisdiction, to flout the authority of, to commit murder. He concludes the most likely translation is “to have authority over” or “to domineer.”

Catherine Kroeger, a Greek scholar and founder of Christians for Biblical Equality, argued that authenteo is an erotic term best translated “to engage in fertility practices.” She later changed her interpretation to mean “proclaim oneself author of a man” in response to “a Gnostic notion of Eve as creator of Adam” (2 Tim. 2:13). Dr. Kroeger also notes that the word, used at the time in court briefs, refers to “self murder” or suicide. L. E. Wilshire studied 314 references to authenteo and concluded it originally was connected with murder and suicide, but later to “broader concept of criminal behavior.”

Thus, those supportive of women in ministry, interpret it to mean to “dominate” which Paul strictly forbids since men and women are to be viewed as equals (Gal. 3:28) and submit to one another (Eph. 5:21). Fundamentalists interpret the word to denote a hierarchy; women must not be in a supervisory role over men. (However the word didn’t mean hierarchy until 300 AD.)

The best we can conclude is that there is no precise definition for the word.

Take the cultural context of the passage

In that culture, women were not allowed a formal education, so virtually all women in Ephesus at that time were illiterate. This, of course, made being a woman teacher a bit difficult!

Melanie Kierstead, of Asbury College, also argues that Paul wrote the controversial passage to address the matriarchal culture of Asia Minor, and particularly Ephesus, where the gods were all women and the human men were ceremonially castrated. Thus, these are specific instructions for a specific people (those in the Ephesus church) at a specific time (first century) in a particular place (Asia Minor where the temple of Dianna, goddess worship, and matriarchal dominance were). Other scholars, however, believe temple prostitution was no longer practiced in 60 A.D. Ephesis.

Take the broadest, most documented position

If you have a church filled illiterate women who are recent converts from goddess worship (or ex-temple prostitutes), 1 Timothy 1:12 is wise advice for that church at that time.

But if you look at the entire Bible’s view of women, you see many leaders and teachers: prophets (Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Isaiah’s wife, Philipp’s four daughters), military leader and judge (Deborah), disciples (Mary, Martha, Joanna, Mary Magdalene, Susanna, and “many more”), deacon (Priscilla), and church leader (Lydia).

Then you have to deal with Acts 2:1718 which is a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy “your sons and daughters will prophecy.”

Following these three principles will clear up many apparent “contradictions.”

Copyright © 2007 James N. Watkins. All rights reserved.

Related articles
A case for women in ministry
What does the Bible really say?

Bonus post: From Ken Schenk professor at Houghton College:

I usually do an annual women in ministry post Here is this year’s:

1. Patriarchy (more recently given a nice name, “complementarianism”) is a consequence of sin and the fall.

2. So we are not surprised to find that the Day of Pentecost is the ultimate unwinding of patriarchy. “Your sons and daughters will prophesy” (Acts 2:17). “In Christ there is not ‘male and female'” (Gal. 3:28). We differ nothing in spirit or mind, only in body, and the male sexual body is not particularly known for its spiritual or prudent leadership.

3. And this is the trajectory of heaven and the kingdom, because in the kingdom women “are not married or given in marriage” (Mark 12:25). They are like the angels with full and equal status, not in subjection to men.

4. We see this salvation from the Fall peak through in the Old Testament. Deborah is the highest political authority in Israel over all men. Huldah is the highest spiritual authority in Israel over all men. At the very least, this shows that patriarchy is neither absolute nor intrinsic to nature.

5. This full restoration of humanity is in view in the ministry of the early church–Junia, an apostle (Rom. 16:7); Phoebe, a deacon (Rom. 16:1); Priscilla, the teacher of Apollos (Acts 18:26); Lydia, the house-church leader (Acts 16:15). As we would expect, the Holy Spirit is the great equalizer and empowerer.

6. This is hard for some people, even Christians, to handle. Culture is too strong. God meets people where they are and moves them from there. There are accommodations to the less than ideal in Scripture (e.g., Matthew. 19:8) because the books of the Bible were first written to real people. Ironically, those in the church who oppose women in leadership and ministry focus on verses where the approach is not distinctive from the culture but accommodates it for contextual reasons (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:12; Col. 3:18).

But if we can make the church, let alone the world, move closer to the kingdom, why would we settle for the “weak and impoverished elements” of the world (Gal. 4:9). The church thus should favor the full participation of women in ministry and leadership on every level.


Author and speaker

6 thoughts on “1 Timothy 2:12 What was Paul thinking?!

  • February 16, 2021 at 11:29 am

    Name one female that Jesus, Paul, or anyone else annointed, ordained, or elevated to having a teaching position of authority over men.

    If Paul’s command was strictly to the church of Ephesus, wouldn’t we see him ordaining women as having teaching authority in other churches? The problem with your explanation is that we don’t see that.

    If you want to better understand a confusing or “controversial” scripture, look at other parts of the Bible for context clues. Women play important roles in ministry, no doubt. You did a good job pointing that out. But NOT ONCE is a woman given authority to teach over men who is not under the oversight of her husband (Priscilla & Aquila).

    • February 16, 2021 at 3:37 pm

      In Romans 16:7, Paul greets Junia (her name in Greek is Iounian, female gender) as one who is “outstanding among the apostles.” He wrote that she was “more spirited than lions.” Early church leaders such as Origen praised her as an exceptional apostle. Virtually all Bible translations through the 1300s translated the name as feminine.

      It’s interesting that you mention Priscilla and Aquila. They were instrumental in disciplining Apollos and in the six mentions in the Bible, Priscilla’s name comes first in three. Were the bible writers trying to make the point they were equals in this ministry? Some Bible scholars suggest that Priscilla wrote the book of Hebrews. It’s the only book in the New Testament without an acknowledged author. In the patriarchal culture—but certainly not in Jesus’ high regard for women—it would not have been accepted at the time.

      But to me, it’s most interesting that the person sent by Jesus to proclaim the most important message ever was not Peter or John, but Mary Magdalen. “He is risen!” (And let’s not forget, Jesus sent out the woman at the well to tell the men about him and she obviously produced a great harvest.)

      Christianity was born in a culture where Jews praised God that they were not born a Gentile, a woman or a dog. Women were not allowed to own property, and if divorced on a whim were often destined to be a slave. If you were Roman, the paterfamilias—the male of the family—could determine if a newborn would live or be cast out onto the trash heap and could order any family member killed for disobeying him. Women were considered “chattel”—property—and were believed to be only the “garden” (dirt) in which the male “seed” grew into a baby. Not a good time to be a woman. But Jesus and Paul elevated women to an equal status—unheard of in thousands of years of history. Truly, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And all are needed and equally valued in the Body of Christ.

      So, to have prominent women leaders at the time, would have been few and far between. We do have Lydia, a wealthy business woman, who opened her home for Paul to plant one of the first churches in Rome.

      That includes women teaching Sunday school, Christian college courses, and serving in leadership roles in parachurch organizations. I am thrilled that the Wesleyan Church ordained the first woman in American in 1850 and just recently had an amazing woman as the leader of the denomination. Women fill all spots of leadership within the worldwide and local churches.

      And I’m married to an ordained minister who grew a stagnant church into a thriving Body of Christ for 16 years. So, yeah, I’m biased. But I do believe there is biblical precedent in women prophets (preachers), a woman judge, deacons, and a woman apostle named Junia.

  • February 23, 2021 at 3:58 pm

    Hi, I am a woman and I disagree with you but I’m writing this comment to say I’m sorry for the hateful comments you have received. It’s disappointing to witness. I believe women should not teach in church and you believe they should but we are united in our faith in Christ. I pray the Lord gives us all discernment to realise what His truth is and to follow Him.

    • February 23, 2021 at 4:15 pm

      Thanks so much, Millie. I so appreciate your Christ-like spirit. We’ll agree to disagree until we get to heaven when all these earthly disagreements will disappear.

      “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 John 2). 

  • July 3, 2022 at 2:51 pm

    Hi James,

    Thank you so much for your wonderful post. I agree with you that women can teach God’s Word. As you point out, the Bible is full of examples where women are doing just that. I personally believe that Paul is quoting a faction of men in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. And I believe that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 has some major translation issues. I have written a book on the topic. If you are ever interested in reading it, I will send you a free copy if you contact me on my website. But thank you again for your beautiful egalitarian heart. Your sister in Christ.

    • April 27, 2023 at 1:52 pm

      This is a very thoughtful and holistic view of the Bible and this passage and I really appreciate this article. I dont think patriarchy is good for us, nor is modern feminism. Men and women are going to have to unite as equals (equal not necessarily equitable if you catch the distinction) for progress in this world, in my humble opinion. Subjugation is not going to get us there.


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