Paul's Radical Vision for Women: An Alternative Reading of 1 Timothy 2


What does the Bible have to say about women in leadership? This is one of those subjects that has immediate practical and ethical implications for millions and millions of individual lives. It’s not at all theoretical. There is a growing number of conservative pastors and leaders today, especially throughout the United States, who hold very firmly to a view they call complimentarianism, which effectively means that God created men to be the leaders and women to be the supporters. I think this is a tragic misreading of what the Bible has to say on the subject, and a misleading use of the word "complementary".

In my estimation, the New Testament is overwhelmingly clear in affirming women in all levels of authority. In fact, if it weren’t for one singularly misunderstood text it would be nigh impossible for any Bible-reading Christian to conclude that women should be withheld from operating in particular types of leadership. That one text, 1 Timothy 2:12, has been disastrously mishandled in most cultures throughout the history of the church, due largely to the patriarchal values engrained in most cultures. After being disconnected from the rest of the New Testament, from Paul’s other writings, and even from the surrounding context of the passage in which it appears, this one verse has been used as a proof-text to silence and subdue half of the human race. By contrast, I believe Paul’s own intention was that women, as indiscriminate members of God’s renewed family, would be empowered to a place of dignity and purpose the world had never seen. It’s because I believe this that I want to confront the traditionalist reading of this text.

Please note, however, that I am talking strictly about public roles here, not personal identity, which is regularly (and wrongly) read into this subject. Let me say this emphatically: I do not deny that there are many obvious differences between men and women, any more than I would deny the differences between various races and ethnicities, or even the differences between individuals of the same sex and race. God created human beings, not as hermaphrodites, but as both male and female, and thus I regard the current effort to flatten out the male/female distinction as nothing less than the denial of a major aspect of our God-given identity. However, I don’t find any suggestion in Scripture that these differences of identity should lead to distinct gender roles in the public service of the Church. Quite the contrary, in fact: the New Testament constantly challenges the surrounding culture’s assumptions about the capability of women to lead with authority.

I think it’s also important to note that the general distinctions of temperament and character between men and women are differences of relative degrees that always break down in specific examples, which makes any cultural stereotype problematic when compared with the traits of individual men and women. For instance, men may be stereotyped as being tougher and more driven, whereas women are stereotyped as being more tender and compassionate—but it’s impossible to even say that without recognizing (a) that there are so many exceptions to the rule, and (b) we cannot use such a generalization to govern the way men and women should be, lest we confine men to narcissism and women to passivity.

The biggest problem with complimentarianism, in my estimation, is that it tends to over-compartmentalize character traits into “masculine” and “feminine” categories, when in God’s design many of those traits should actually be normative for both genders; they’re not about being a man or a women, but about being fully human. Men and women should both show initiative, leadership and strength, as well as compassion, empathy, deference and love. But through colluding with a deep-seated cultural stereotype, complimentarianism actually reinforces and justifies many of our shortcomings, not as men and women, but as human beings.

That said, I strongly believe we need more women leaders in the church, not because they are identical to men, and even less because I think they should be more like men, but precisely because they are so distinct and thus have a unique offering to bring to the diverse tapestry of the body of Christ.

The New Testament's View of Women

So then, with that introduction out the way, let’s begin by casting the net wide: Outside of 1 Timothy 2, what does the New Testament have to say about women in leadership? The first thing we notice, of course, is that Matthew goes out of his way to list the significant women in Jesus’ genealogy, which is rather unusual (to put it mildly) for patrilineal lists of this kind (Matt 1:1-17). Then, as the gospels unfold, we constantly see Jesus subverting the dominant view of women in that culture, dumbfounding his disciples by speaking openly with the woman at the well (John 4:27) and allowing Mary to sit among the men and listen to his teaching (Luke 10:38-42). Next, we are amazed to see that women, not men, are recorded by the gospel writers as the first witnesses of the resurrection, which is all the more remarkable because women were not considered to be credible witnesses in that culture (cf. Luke 24:11; Mark 16:11). In short, the way that Jesus treats women throughout the gospels is remarkably out of sync with the Judaism of his day, and stands (along side his acts of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation) as a powerful reflection of  his larger kingdom-bringing work.

Most significant to our subject of women in leadership, however, are the several women mentioned by Paul in Romans 16. The first person highlighted is Phoebe, with whom Paul entrusts the massive responsibility of delivering the letter to the Romans. This huge task is less surprising when we discover that Phoebe is “a deacon of the church in Cenchrea,” and probably also a successful businesswoman, since she is able to travel independently and is a financial benefactor to Paul and many others. After Phoebe, Paul greets his good friends Prisca and Aquila, who were evidently well known leaders in both Corinth and Ephesus, and who we see also in Acts 18:2, 26; 1 Cor. 16:19; and 2 Tim. 4:19. It’s noteworthy that Prisca is mentioned before her husband on several occasions, suggesting that she was just as well known as he was and was capable herself of setting someone like Apollos straight in his teaching (Acts 18:26). But lastly, and most remarkably, Paul mentions a woman named Junia, whom he calls “prominent among the apostles”.

Junia deserves special attention, since most traditionalists (even if they admit that women may lead to some capacity) are not open to thinking the Bible allowed them to hold such high-level vocations as apostles. According to Richard Bauckham, “the history of the matter is a sad story of prejudice making bad translation” (Gospel Women, 166). It wasn’t until the medieval period that scribes, assuming that only men could be apostles, started to introduce the male form “Junias” to their copies of Romans 16:7, but all the earliest manuscripts have the female form “Junia”. From the twelfth century on, however, “the assumption that only men could be apostles and that therefore the name must be male was thereafter dominant down to the 1970s” (Gospel Women, 167). Some commentators, giving up the suggestion that Junia was a man, have proposed that the phrase “prominent among the apostles” should be translated instead as “well known to the apostles,” i.e. that Andronicus and Junia were not themselves a part of the apostolic body. But while this reading is grammatically possible, it is not the most natural way to take the phrase in question, which is why it was not accepted by most of the early fathers, despite their views about male authority in the church. Bauckham’s conclusion is this: that “the only prudent course for the exegete is to accept that there was indeed a female apostle named Junia” (Gospel Women, 167).

There are other passages we could discuss, but I think the point has been made. It’s important that we recognize the high place given to women throughout the New Testament, and especially in Paul’s own writings, before we consider 1 Timothy 2, because any text taken out of context is liable to be misconstrued. Think about what Paul says at the end of that chapter: Women will be saved through child bearing! If we took that statement on its own without consulting the rest of the Pauline corpus, we would inevitably misunderstand Paul’s meaning.

Which raises an important hermeneutical point about the Pastoral Epistles in general. Much more than Romans, Ephesians, or Colossians, in approaching a letter like 1 Timothy we get the sense that we are strangers listening to one side of a phone call between friends who understand each other very well. Paul and Timothy are like brothers, so Paul doesn’t feel the need to explain the contours of his theology as he would to a whole congregation, because he knows Timothy already understands. Instead, he can be practical in his instruction, and he knows that Timothy will understand the general principles behind his specific applications. Thus, if we allow ourselves to fill in the ambiguity of the present passage with what we know of Paul’s beliefs from the rest of his writings, as well as from what we know of the wider culture of the period, then I think we will find a satisfying paradigm to guide us through the fog.

The Contours of Paul's Theology

So what are the contours of Paul’s theology, and how does that help us understand his meaning here? Paul was committed to building communities which would reflect the transforming power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, communities which would stand amidst the powers of the age as signposts to another kingdom and another set of values. Within that eschatological framework, he believed the social hierarchies ingrained in fallen humanity would have to go—whether it be the hierarchies of Jew and Gentile, of slave and free, or of male and female. Remember that Adam ruling over Eve is said to be a consequence of the fall in Genesis 3:16, and not a part of God's original order in Genesis 1-2. But according to Paul, Jesus Christ has redeemed God's people from the curse of the fall, a curse which the law could not undo (cf. Rom 5; Gal 3).

To paraphrase a point made by N. T. Wright, there was an ancient synagogue prayer in which the man who prayed would thank God that he has not made him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman, at which point the women in the congregation would thank God “that you have made me according to your will”. Well, part of Paul's point in Galatians 3:28 is to say that the church, the family of Abraham renewed and reconstituted in the Messiah, is a people who cannot pray that prayer, since within this family such distinctions are now irrelevant.

At the same time, however, we must also keep in mind the deeply nuanced way in which Paul approaches both Jew/Gentile relations and slave/free relations throughout his writings. While he insists that Jew and Gentile are one in the Messiah, he constantly warns Gentiles against a reactionary pride and the tendency to set up a kind of alternative ethnocentrism (e.g. Rom 11:18). And while he also warns slave owners that “your own Master is in heaven, and with him there is no partiality,” he still urges Onesimus to return to his master out of obedience to the Lord (cf. Eph 6:5-9; Phil 10-16). In both cases, Paul's message was one of radical equality in Christ, but the goal of that message was never rebellion or anarchy but rather joyful obedience as unto the Lord. If we approach 1 Timothy 2 with Paul’s eschatological vision in mind, and in light of the nuanced way that he applies it with respect to Jew/Gentile and slave/free relationships elsewhere in his writings, I think we can see that he acts in the same manner with respect to men and women. Which brings us, finally, to the passage in question.

1 Timothy 2:8-12: A Radical Vision for Men and Women

The first thing to notice about this passage, since Paul himself gives this point pride of place by saying “first of all” (vv. 1-8), is that the primary exhortation here is to the men of the congregation, not the women: “I desire therefore that men pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, without anger and disputing.” The point here is clear, and it gives us a glimpse into the pastoral need that Paul is addressing. The men in Timothy’s congregation were succumbing to some of the classic stereotypes of fallen masculinity, i.e. anger and arguing, instead of following God’s design of prayerful devotion and dependence on God.

It appears that it was within this vacuum of leadership, as verses 9 and 10 indicate, that the women of the church were asserting themselves in overcompensation, and hence in succumbing to the parallel stereotypes of fallen femininity, of being unlearned, indiscreet busybodies who spend the better part of their energies fussing about things that don’t matter (note the parallel in 5:11-14, which suggests that it was mostly young widows in Timothy’s congregation who were causing such a commotion). Paul’s point is that the women must likewise be set free from this damaging stereotype, not so that they can be the unobtrusive slaves of men, but so that they can make a meaningful contribution to the wider society. On this note, Wright points out that while the phrase “good works” in verse 10 sounds pretty bland to us, it was in fact “one of the regular ways people used to refer to the social obligation to spend time and money on people less fortunate than oneself, to be a benefactor of the town through helping public works, the arts, and so on [cf. 5:9-10].”

This brings us to the key verse (verse 11), which is regularly overlooked by interpreters eager to get to the main fighting ground of verse 12. Paul commands that the women of the congregation should not be restrained from studying and learning for themselves, as they regularly were within the wider culture of the period. This verse reflects the heart of Paul's eschatological vision in Galatians 3:28. That the women should be allowed to do this “in full submission” is often taken to mean “under the authority of men,” but I find it much more likely that it speaks of submission to God through the gospel, i.e. that they would be given in faithful obedience to the subject of their learning—and of course this would be just as true for men. As Andrew Perriman says, "Eve’s mistake was not that she usurped Adam’s authority but that, misled by the serpent’s deception, she disregarded what she had been taught." Paul's point, then, is that the women should learn in such a manner that they are not so easily deceived. Needless to say, this instruction is completely countercultural, and is exactly the sort of thing we should expect from the man who wrote Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians.

But what, then, do we make of verse 12? Is it not true that Paul forbids women from teaching or having authority of any kind? Hardly. When Paul says “I am not now permitting women to teach” he most definitely does not mean that he never allows women to teach. In fact, not even John Piper and Wayne Grudem take it to the extreme of an absolute prohibition of all female teaching, for they recognize that Paul instructs older women to be “teachers of good things” with regard to younger women in Titus 2:3-4, and that he commends Timothy’s own mother and grandmother for the teaching they gave him from the Scriptures (2 Tim 1:5; 3:14-15). Indeed, Piper and Grudem recognize that “Paul endorses women prophesying in church (1 Corinthians 11:5) and says that men ‘learn’ by such prophesying (1 Corinthians 14:31) and that the members (presumably men and women) should ‘teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ (Colossians 3:16). Then, of course, there is Priscilla at Aquila’s side correcting Apollos (Acts 18:26).”

Of course, we could point out several other examples of women leaders and teachers throughout the New Testament, but the point is that Piper and Grudem recognize enough instances of women teaching in the New Testament to conclude that Paul could not have had every form of teaching in mind in 1 Timothy 2:12. “Teaching and learning are such broad terms,” they say, “that it is impossible that women not teach men and men not learn from women in some sense.”

Now, seeing that Piper and Grudem are among the most outspoken traditionalists on this matter, their conclusion invites the following observation, vital for the ongoing discussion of Paul’s meaning: Contrary to the way things are regularly construed, this is not a matter of one side holding on faithfully to what the Bible says about women while the other side avoids it at all costs. As we noted earlier, 1 Timothy 2 is a tremendously difficult passage, and, unless complimentarians are prepared to say that women will be saved through childbirth, they should be more open to discussing what the other parts of the passage might mean in their own canonical and historical context.

As it turns out, the historical context of Ephesus may be of particular importance here, since it was that city to which the letter was sent (1:3), and the main religion in Ephesus was a female-only cult. The temple of Artemis (or Diana, as the Romans called her) was a massive structure which dominated the area; it was the city’s largest temple and its most famous shrine. And since the temple was home to a female deity, it was only appropriate that the priests were all women. The significance of this point cannot be understated, for while most women throughout the world at the time were dominated and marginalized by men, the situation in Ephesus was in some ways reversed: the women ran the show and kept the men in their place. How might such an estrogen-charged culture have affected the fledgling little church under Timothy’s care? How might Paul address such an environment, where the pendulum of gender-based authority had swung to the opposite extreme of the rest of the world?

We may find the answer to these questions reflected in the most controversial verse of the passage (verse 12), most importantly in the word most often translated as “have authority”. It’s a difficult word to translate, as it appears nowhere else in the New Testament, but there's some evidence to suggest that it often carried a negative connotation: not just “have authority” in a neutral sense, but more specifically “exercise dominion over” or “usurp authority”. Indeed, after examining over 300 occurrences of this verb and its cognate authentēs, L. E. Wilshire claims that, prior to and contemporary with the first century, authentein often had negative overtones such as “domineer,” “perpetrate a crime” or even “murder,” and that it wasn’t until the later patristic period that the more neutral sense of “have authority” came to dominate. While a precise lexical definition may be beyond our grasp, however, in this instance the negative sense of authentein as an action and not just a position does seem to fit best with the surrounding context. The issue for Paul is not leadership as much as it is the abuse of leadership.

In view of all of the above, we can only conclude that Paul's instruction in 1 Timothy 2:12 is meant to be specific to the young women in Ephesus--who were in no position to teach, not because of their gender, but because of their immaturity. At every point, his advice reflects exactly the sort of thing we should expect from the radical eschatological vision that we see in full color throughout Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. In conclusion, I offer an alternative translation of 1 Timothy 2:8-12, which I think does a better job of reflecting the particular resonances we should hear in Paul's terse language.

I desire therefore that the men should pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, without anger or disputing. And likewise also the women, adorning themselves in modest apparel, with dignity and simplicity; not with superficial embellishments like elaborate hair styles or gold or pearls or expensive clothing, but rather in the character of women who profess to be godly, that they should adorn themselves with joyful service to the community. They should be allowed to study in quietness and in full submission to God. Now, I’m not suggesting that the women should be the ones to teach or take authority over the men. But they should be allowed to learn in quietness.

In Christ,