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Men and Women in Ministry: 5 Crucial Questions About 1 Timothy 2:11-15

“11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing- if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (ESV).

This is undoubtedly the most important and controversial passage in either testament on the subject of women in ministry. On first reading it would appear that Paul restricts the exercise of governmental authority in the church, as well as the responsibility to teach, to men. Egalitarians, however, have objected, by asking five questions (or by posing five objections).

First, in this passage, was Paul merely prohibiting uneducated women from teaching men? No.

1. The text nowhere gives this as the reason for the prohibition. The reason is stated in vv. 13-14. It is unwise to ignore the reason that is given in order to supply one that isn’t.

2. If this were the reason for the prohibition, Paul could easily have said: “I do not permit uneducated women to teach or to exercise authority over men.”

3. Since Paul prohibits all women from teaching men, the egalitarian view must assume that all the women in Ephesus were uneducated. But we know this isn’t the case, as the example of Priscilla (in 2 Tim. 4:19; Acts 18:24-28) would indicate. In fact, recent research (by S. M. Baugh) has shown that it is not the case that all women in Ephesus were uneducated.

4. If the problem was uneducated women, why would Paul forbid them from teaching men but allow them to teach women and other children?

5. Why would Paul only prohibit uneducated women from teaching and not also uneducated men? If the lack of education was the principal obstacle to teaching then Paul should have extended the prohibition to both genders. Uneducated men would, in that case, be as unqualified as uneducated women.

Second, was Paul merely prohibiting women from teaching false doctrine or heresy at Ephesus? No.

1. Once again, this is nowhere stated in the text. The reason is stated in vv. 13-14.

2. The grammar requires that the actions (“teaching” and “exercising authority”) be regarded as either both negative or both positive. Recent research (see below) has shown that “exercise authority” is positive in thrust. Thus, so also is “teaching”.

3. If Paul had meant false teaching, it would have been quite easy for him to say so. He had a word that means precisely that. See 1 Tim. 1:3-4; 6:3 for the use of heterodidaskalein.

4. The verb “to teach” is almost always used positively in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim. 4:11; 6:2; 2 Tim. 2:2). The only exception is Titus 1:11 where the context makes it clear that false teaching is in view.

5. There is no evidence that the women in Ephesus were “teaching” false doctrine. Women are portrayed as being influenced by the heresy (1 Tim. 5:11-15; 2 Tim. 3:5-9) but not as teaching it.

6. The only false teachers specifically named in Ephesus were men (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17-18; cf. 2 Tim. 4:14). Why then didn’t Paul prohibit the men from teaching?

7. If Paul’s prohibition was provoked by some women teaching heresy in Ephesus , why did he prohibit all women and only women from teaching?

8. It is true that some women were gossiping at Ephesus (1 Tim. 5:13), but that is not the same as teaching false doctrine. We all know people who gossip but who don’t teach false doctrine.

9. There were pagan religions in Ephesus where non-Christian men and women did a number of things that were not done by Christians. But to say that they did such things after becoming Christians is mere speculation, not evidence.

10. None of the above is meant to suggest that no woman anywhere in the ancient world ever taught false doctrine. There was false teaching by a woman named Jezebel in a different city, Thyatira, at a later time period (Rev. 2:20), but that is not this time period and that is not this city. Jezebel shows the possibility of women teaching false doctrine, but many things are possible that never happen. As things stand, there is no evidence in Ephesus that this possibility was anything but that.

Third, isn’t it possible that the Greek word “authentein” means “to domineer” or “misuse authority”, or perhaps “to commit murder” or “to commit violence”, or perhaps “to proclaim oneself the author of a man”?

These are among the more common suggestions put forth by egalitarians to avoid concluding that Paul prohibits women from exercising legitimate spiritual authority over men in the local church. My response will be a brief summation of Grudem’s more extensive argument (pp. 304-322).

1. H. Scott Baldwin recently published the most extensive study of this word in which he examined every instance (82x) of its occurrence in ancient literature and papyrus manuscripts. He discovered that during the time of the New Testament the word is never used in any of the negatives senses suggested in the question above.

2. Baldwin demonstrates that there is no example of authentein meaning “to murder” until the tenth century a.d., more than nine hundred years after the writing of the New Testament (and even that 10th century example is open to debate).

3. There is evidence that the noun authentes (not the verb, which is what we find in 1 Timothy 2) could mean either “master, one who has authority,” or “murderer”. But these two senses of authentes probably have come from two different linguistic sources. In other words, the noun authentes “probably represents two different words that happen to be spelled the same way” (Grudem, 310).

Let’s assume, contrary to the evidence, that Paul used the verb to mean “to commit murder.” If so, we are being asked to believe that Paul said, “I do not permit a woman to murder a man,” as if to suggest that a woman murdering another woman is o.k.' Are we to believe that it was permissible for a man to murder either a man or woman? Who in the NT church would ever have argued that it was permissible for a woman to murder a man? Such a view of the verb in question renders Paul’s statement either utterly outrageous or utterly banal. “So, Paul, you’re telling us that Christian women can’t murder Christian men? Duh!”

4. The same arguments cited above weigh against the suggested translation, “to instigate” or “commit violence.”

5. Richard and Catherine Kroeger, well-known egalitarians, have argued that authentein means “to proclaim oneself the author of a man.” But none of the eighty-two examples of the verb have this meaning. The notion of “proclaiming” oneself anything is nowhere to be found. The bottom line is that “the Kroegers have produced no ancient texts that require this meaning. The meaning has been universally rejected by modern lexicographers as a mistake, since it is not found as even a possibility in any Greek lexicon for the last one hundred years. It is a meaning without support in any ancient text or any modern lexicon” (Grudem, 313).

What makes this critically important is that several more popular treatments of the role of women in ministry have appealed to the Kroegers’ “research” on the assumption that it is a cogent and scholarly treatment of the word. Clearly, it is not.

6. Andreas Kostenberger conducted research on the fifty-two other instances in the New Testament (as well as forty-eight extra-biblical examples) of the grammatical construction in 1 Timothy 2:12 and discovered that all of them fall into only two patterns:

(1) Pattern One – two activities or concepts are viewed positively in and of themselves; (2) Pattern Two – two activities or concepts are viewed negatively.

There are no exceptions to this. This means that if the activity of “teaching” is found to be positive, so also must the activity of “exercising authority”. As I noted above, in the pastoral epistles Paul consistently refers to “teaching” in a positive sense (unless made explicit by the context, such as in Titus 1:11), thus making it highly unlikely, if not impossible, for authentein to mean something like “usurp authority” or “domineer” or “misuse authority”.

Fourth, doesn’t Paul’s use of the present tense suggest that this was a temporary command, restricted to the early church?

The argument here is that Paul’s statement, “I do not permit,” has a present tense verb in Greek. Perhaps we should then translate it, “I am not now currently permitting a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” Once the temporary and unusual circumstances in ancient Ephesus that provoked the apostle’s words have passed, the command no longer applies.

1. But Paul quite often uses the present tense in commands that are clearly applicable for all time. See, for example, 1 Timothy 2:1 (“I urge”), Romans 12:1 (“I appeal”), as well as 1 Corinthians 4:16; Ephesians 4:1; Titus 3:8; just to mention a few.

2. The present tense in Greek is often used in what is known as a timeless or gnomic sense. The point is that what he recommends or prohibits is a timeless principle obligatory for all believers in all ages.

3. If we eliminated every instance in the NT where the author speaks in the first person (“I”) and employs a present tense verb, we would forfeit countless ethical and theological truths that are essential for Christian faith and living.

Fifth, and finally, isn’t the word “authentein” (to exercise authority) rare in the NT? Should we place so much emphasis on a verse in which an uncommon word is employed?

1. Simply because a word is uncommon or rare in the NT doesn’t mean we cannot determine its meaning. There is extensive Greek literature from the time of the NT that enables us to discern with a high degree of probability what a particular word meant in any particular context.

2. We must also remember that, in 1 Timothy, Paul uses 65 other words that are found nowhere else in the New Testament! In fact, there are 1,934 words that occur only once in the New Testament. But in the vast majority of cases we are capable of determining their meaning.