March 23, 2007

1 Timothy 2:12

Over at Better Bibles Blog, Suzanne has been doing a series on Bible passages relevant to women in leadership. 1 Timothy 2:12 is of course an important verse to deal with on this subject. She hasn't actually got to it yet, but it came up in the comments to the post on 1 Corinthians 12:27-31, and I felt that I needed to say more about it than could reasonably be said in a comment, so here it is:

1 Timothy 2:12 is a very difficult verse. When taken with the following few verses it appears at first glance to make some argument like the following: Adam was created first and sinned intentionally. Eve was created later, and transgressed as a result of being deceived. Therefore, women should not teach or dominate (the exact meaning of the word autheneo is disputed, but it is stronger and more negative in connotation than "exercise authority") men. This doesn't make any sense. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Paul is drawing a generalization out of the Adam and Eve story (which is what seems most likely to me). Suppose that, either due to the way God created us initially, or inheriting our ancestors' defects, men are statistically more likely to sin willingly, and women are more likely to sin in by being deceived. It would not be too terribly surprising if this turned out to be true as a statistical generalization (nor would it be too surprising if it turned out not to be true), because many statistical generalizations about male vs. female psychology may be drawn. However, the problem with statistical generalizations is that they are subject to individual counterexamples. It is a logical fallacy to conlude from this type of generalization that some individual woman is more likely to be deceived into sinning than some individual man (or, conversely, that some individual man is more likely to sin willingly than some individual woman). Giving orders about who ought to teach or have authority over whom on the basis of this type of generalization is like deciding that because women are shorter than men, women shouldn't be asked to change light bulbs (or something). But this is just silly. To make matters worse, we've got the baffling verse about being saved through childbirth right after it! (On verse 15: I think it's got to mean either: "she will be preserved [i.e. kept safe] through childbirth" or "she will be saved by the birth of a Child [i.e. Jesus]." Both of these positions are taken by considerable numbers of commentators.)

Now, I don't know what Paul means, but I trust that he means something that isn't silly. Furthermore, Evangelicals believe that this is the word of God and, therefore, where a clear command is given, we obey first and then seek to understand. And the command is, I think, at least much clearer than the reasoning given. It says, literally, "But I do not permit a woman to teach, nor to dominate a man, but to be quiet" ("in silence" is, I think, a bit too strong.) Now, this can't be interpreted to prohibit the activities of Lydia (Acts 16), or Priscilla (Acts 18), or Lois and Eunice (2 Timothy 1). It probably also shouldn't be interpreted to prohibit the activities of Deborah (Judges 4ff.). Furthermore, it can't be interpreted to prohibit a woman from praying or prophesying publicly (1 Cor. 11). It also can't be interpreted to prohibit a woman from doing anything which is required of all Christians (e.g., testifying, announcing the Gospel to non-believers, being in fellowship with other believers, etc.), or receiving anything which is promised to all believers (e.g. hearing the Word, receiving guidance from the Holy Spirit, etc.).

Beyond these limitations, it should be noted that Paul uses the present infinitive, instead of the more common aorist infinitive. The present is used to emphasize "progressive/repeated aspect," which would seem to imply that Paul is only prohibiting a woman from being in the habit or position of doing these things, and not from special instances in extenuating circumstances.

But what of teaching or having authority outside the Church? Well, Paul says "I do not permit," and he was an apostle writing to a young pastor about order in the Church. Should we really interpret him to be making broad, general prohitions? I don't think so. I think that, like most of the rest of the book, this is an instruction about Church order.

Finally, a woman is prohited specifically from "dominating a man," and presumably the prohibition on teaching refers to teaching a man as well. The word is aner. If it meant her husband, it would probably have the definite article (and, actually, in Koine one would usually expect an actual possessive pronoun), which it doesn't. However, this probably does refer specifically to adult men.

So, we have in 1 Timothy 2 a very specific, localized prohibition: within the Church, a woman is not permitted to be in the habit or position of teaching or dominating an adult man. If we don't understand the reason for the command we must not extrapolate anything broader from it. Furthermore, it can't be expanded very much in very many directions without contradicting other Scriptures. However, if we are Evangelicals, we also can't just ignore it. We may not understand the justification, but it's plain to see that the justification is not some specific situation that was going on in Ephesus, but some more general principle. If we take the Scripture to be the Word of God, then we have to obey first and hope to understand later.

Posted by Kenny at March 23, 2007 5:39 PM
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Comments

Kenny, thanks for wrestling with this. I appreciate the fact that you openly state that you don't know for sure what 1 Tim. 2:12 refers to. I think that is a good attitude to have when it comes to parts of the Bible that seem not to correspond well with other parts of the Bble.

Posted by: Wayne Leman at March 23, 2007 7:13 PM

Thanks for this. I had to change a couple of lightbulbs today!

Posted by: Suzanne McCarthy at March 23, 2007 8:49 PM

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