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1 Timothy 2:12

This note is supplemental to the discussion on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Part 5 of the current series Women in the Church. Verse 12 is central to an interpretation of the meaning and force of the instruction regarding women in the passage. Here is the teaching in vv. 11-12 as a whole:

“Women must learn [manqane/tw] in quiet(ness) in all (proper) order [u(potagh/]; and (indeed) I do not turn over [e)pitre/pw] to women to teach, and not to have power (over) a man, but to be in quiet(ness).”

There is a kind of symmetry, or chiasm, in the author’s statement:

  • Women to learn in quietness and (under) order
    —I do not turn over to them (the right/authority, etc) to teach or have power over a man
  • (Women are) to be in quietness

In some ways, the key element is the central verb e)pitre/pw, “I do not turn over (to)”, which is usually understood in the sense of “I do not permit/allow…” This personal statement is significant in light of the questions surrounding the authorship of Pastoral letters (and 1 Timothy in particular). There can be no doubt that it relates in some way to a similar instruction in 1 Cor 14:34-35:

“The women in the congregation must keep silent, for it is not turned over [e)pitre/petai] to them to speak, but they must be under (proper) order [u(potasse/sqwsan], even as the Law says. And if they wish to learn [maqei=n] some(thing), they must ask their men [i.e. husbands] about it in the house [i.e. at home]…”

The common/related Greek words and the portions in italics show how close the two passages are, in the general sentiment that is expressed. For more on the context of 1 Cor 14:34-35, see the discussion in Part 2. In 1 Corinthians however, it is clear that Paul does allow women to play a leading/speaking role in the Church (i.e. the worship-meeting), since they may pray publicly (out loud) and deliver prophetic messages, as long as certain cultural-religious customs (involving dress code) are maintained (1 Cor 11:2-16, and cf. the discussion in Part 1). Based on 1 Cor 14:3ff, it also seems evident that a woman who prophesies, in so doing, edifies and instructs the entire congregation (including the men). Is there a contradiction between 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Tim 2:11-12? For those who hold 1 Timothy to be pseudonymous, the situation is easier to explain, since the formula “I do not…” is taken as a kind of literary fiction—Paul is used to convey instruction to Church leaders regarding how congregations should handle and govern affairs. At the time 1 Timothy was written (c. 80-100, according to this view), the more charismatic and egalitarian approach found in the Corinthians churches, has been replaced by a carefully defined, organizational (and hierarchical) structure. On the other hand, if 1 Tim 2:11ff is genuinely Paul’s own teaching, a bit more comment is required.

The force of e)pitre/pw—There are several ways the situation may be understood based on the first-person use of the verb in 1 Tim 2:12:

1. Paul is simply personalizing the general instruction in 1 Cor 14:34f—”I do not…” instead of “it is not…”—as befits the nature of the letter (i.e. to his close friend and colleague Timothy, instead of the congregations of a city/region). The context is then best understood as similar to that in 1 Cor 14, on the theory, perhaps, that two specific situations are being addressed in vv. 34-35: (a) women/wives in the congregation responding to the message (prophecy) being delivered (cf. verses 29-31), and (b) women/wives seeking to learn more about what was said. 1 Tim 2:12 would relate more specifically to (a).

2. Paul is distinguishing his own (personal) instruction to Timothy from the practices current in the churches of Corinth (which he hopes to regulate, but does not prohibit). In other words, Paul himself does not allow women to hold such teaching roles, and instructs Timothy to follow his example in the churches which he oversees; but he does not interfere with the practices at Corinth (i.e. women functioning as prophets/preachers) as long as things are done to respect gender-distinction in relation to church custom and the order of creation.

3. The same essential situation is expressed in both 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:11-12—i.e., that women, as a general rule, are not to speak/teach/preach publicly in the congregation (where men and women are present together). 1 Cor 11:2-16 reflects the exception of women in whom the (high) gift of prophecy is recognized; they may speak/preach (i.e. utter prophecy) in the worship-meeting, but only in a manner which symbolizes conformity to the order of creation (use of head-covering). In 1 Cor 14:34, Paul implicitly cites the Law and Church custom (v. 33b, 11:16), whereas in 1 Tim 2:12 it is his own (apostolic) authority (cf. also 1 Cor 14:37).

4. Paul is referring in 1 Tim 2:11-12 to a specific (local) situation, perhaps related to the spread of false/aberrant teaching (1:3-7ff; 4:1-4ff). According to 2 Tim 3:1-9, certain kinds of false or heterodox teachers had apparently made some headway among women in the community, and it is conceivable that Paul thought this might spread throughout the congregations. In such a context, e)pitre/pw might then might carry the sense of “I certainly would not…”, “make sure that…”, “I would urge that…”, or something similar.

Of these, options 2 and 3 are the most tenable. I suspect that #3 more or less reflects Paul’s own views on the subject. When dealing with specific questions regarding (corporate) church life and worship, he tends to be rather conservative and cautious, always careful to observe established custom and a proper order of things. On the other hand, he often uses much more radical language and conceptual models when referring to the essential religious identity of believers in Christ (Gal 3:26-29, etc). He no doubt realized that this language could be misunderstood or applied in ways that disrupted Christian unity. In some areas, there is evidence in the letters of how he sought to work through these potential problems (cf. 1 Cor 8-10); unfortunately, we have preserved only glimpses of this in terms of gender-relations in the Church.

A proper understanding of 1 Tim 2:12 also requires that we explore what Paul (or the author of the letter) means when he uses the verb dida/skw (“teach, instruct”). This will be discussed in the next note.

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