Do Paul’s Instructions for Women Apply Today?

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (1 Timothy 2:11-12)

It shouldn’t surprise us that the meaning and application of this passage is at the heart of many passionate debates. If these instructions seem to be embarrassing and offensive, preserved from a bygone age of sexism and patriarchy, we need to ask why.

Many Christians believe that Paul actually intended for women not to teach or exercise authority over men, and the reason these verses feel offensive is because our modern western culture has it wrong. After all, every culture has its own unique values, and in our culture, one of the highest values is that you simply cannot disqualify someone from doing something on the basis of gender alone.

Despite what many think, I can assure you that most who hold this view aren’t motivated in the least by sexism or male chauvinism (at least not knowingly). Rather they believe the Scriptures are God’s inspired words. They believe the Creator has the authority to critique all cultures, even our own.

Other Christians believe the reason these verses seem offensive is because they have been misunderstood and abused. They do not believe that these verses are themselves offensive, but rather the traditional understanding of these verses is wrong and should be recognized as sexist and offensive. It is frequently suggested that Christians have often overlooked that 1 Timothy is an “occasional document.” In other words, Paul’s words were “occasioned” by a specific set of circumstances facing the church in Ephesus in the first century. It is thus suggested that Paul was not restricting all women from all teaching and authority in all times, but rather was restricting a few specific women in a specific situation.

Despite what many think, many who hold this view do not reject the authority of God’s word, nor are they simply pandering to modern culture (at least not knowingly). Rather they are committed to reading Scripture in context and recovering the true intent of those teachings.

In other words, a large part of the debate revolves around one very important question: Were Paul’s instructions for women in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 intended to be occasional or universal in application?

1st Timothy: An Occasional Document

The observation that 1st Timothy was an occasional document is absolutely correct. The specific historical context of the letter should be taken into serious consideration as we seek to interpret Scripture.

None of us, for example, have ever felt compelled to travel to Troas in order to deliver Paul’s cloak from Carpus’s house to Paul in prison, even though 2 Timothy 4:13 gives a clear command to do exactly that. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point well. The reason we don’t travel to Troas is because we recognize that the command was occasioned by a specific circumstance. Paul obviously had no intention for that particular command to be obeyed by every Christian in every circumstance.

Another example, less extreme and closer to our context, can be found in 1 Timothy 2:9-10.

Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness – with good works.

Very few Christians would use this verse to suggest that women who braid their hair or wear jewelry are sinning. While most Christians agree that the principle of dressing modestly is a universal principle that still applies, they recognize that the specifics (braided hair and jewelry) were occasioned by the specific culture, where braided hair and jewelry would be connected with trying to flaunt one’s beauty. The original historical circumstances into which the Scriptures were first written must be taken into consideration.

In the case of 1st Timothy, Paul clearly wrote the letter, at least in part, to confront the problem of false teaching in Ephesus.

Remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine… which promote speculations… Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions. (1 Timothy 1.3-7; cf. 1.18-20; 4.1-10; 5.11-15; 6.3-10, 20-21).

What’s more, chapter 2 begins with the phrase “First of all, then” (2.1), showing that Paul’s following instructions are connected to the charge to resist false teaching in chapter 1.

We must learn to think contextually. We must be very careful about quoting random verses out of context, and asserting what it “plainly says” without giving consideration as to whether the verses are being understood correctly, or are even intended to apply to our current situation.

A Word of Caution

Even though 1st Timothy was written in response to a specific situation in the church at Ephesus, it does not logically follow that the problem of false teaching explains every feature of Paul’s teaching in the letter. After all, Paul was well traveled, and had a general understanding of what teachings and organizational structures were common among all the churches (cf. 1 Tim. 2.8; 3.1-13).

When Paul uses phrases such as “the saying is trustworthy” (1.15, 3.1, 4.9), this indicates that he was referring to teachings that would be understood as credible. Paul understood that there was a universal body of teachings, which he refers to as “words of the faith and of the good doctrine” (4.6) which he expected the church at Ephesus to uphold.

This indicates that there were authoritative teachings that were recognized as universally applicable to all Christians, and Paul often appealed to these teachings to establish his specific instructions for the special circumstances he was addressing. We cannot simply claim that instructions written to specific situations have no application beyond those specific circumstances.

We must determine whether Paul’s instructions in 2.10-11 were temporary instructions in response to the impact of false teachers, or whether Paul was responding to those specific problems with general principles that would be understood as universally applicable. Merely observing that Paul’s instructions are somehow connected to the specific occasion of false teaching does not in itself indicate that they have no application today.

We must ask the following question. Can we show that Paul prohibited women from teaching or exercising authority solely on the ground of the false teaching afflicting the church in Ephesus, or does he ground his teaching in a universal principle which would be recognized in all the churches?

If we could show that Paul gave these instructions solely on the ground of the false teaching and its specific features, it would strengthen the conclusion that these verses are not directly relevant to the church today. This is precisely what some have suggested.

The “Women as False Teachers” Argument

It is sometimes suggested that Paul’s command was due to the fact that women were the ones spreading the false teaching. The text, however, is unclear on this point. In each of Paul’s letters to Timothy, whenever he specifically names false teachers, they are always men (1 Tim. 1.20; 2 Tim. 2.17, 4.14). Women are portrayed as being influenced by the false teaching (1 Tim. 5.11-15; 2 Tim. 3.5-9), but are never specifically described as the ones doing the false teaching.

Now it is certainly possible that women were in fact engaged in false teaching. The fact that Paul instructs women not to teach or exercise authority indicates that some women were trying to do just that. But the suggestion that women were prohibited from teaching and authority because they were primarily the ones doing the false teaching cannot be established from the text.

Even if women were among the false teachers, why would Paul forbid only women from teaching? Since Paul names men as false teachers, would it not make more sense for Paul to simply forbid all false teaching, whether by men or women? If false teaching was the reason for Paul’s command, this would only make sense if all the women in Ephesus were spreading false teaching, since his restriction was written against all women.

The “Women Were Uneducated” Argument

Another common suggestion is that Paul’s command was due to women being uneducated, and thus more easily deceived by false teaching. If this is the case, it would suggest that Paul’s prohibitions no longer apply once women are educated. While it is true that many ancient near eastern women were not given the same kind of educational opportunities as men, the suggestion that all women in Ephesus were uneducated does not fit with the evidence.

The description of women’s attire in 1 Timothy 2.9 suggests the presence of some upper-class women, who likely would have had greater access to education. Also, it is likely that Priscilla was in Ephesus (2 Tim. 4.19) and we know that she was educated (Acts 18.26).

The Reason for Paul’s Command

So why did Paul command women not to teach or exercise authority over men? If we look closely at the text, we won’t be left guessing.

For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2.13-15)

The reason a woman is not permitted to teach or exercise authority over a man is because man was “formed first”, yet it was the woman who was first deceived, and because Eve’s hope was to be found in her offspring.

While these verses are certainly not easy, and raise many more questions, it should be noted that the reasoning for Paul’s command goes back to the very beginning, prior to the fall, and is established upon the principle of God’s design for man and woman, and lessons learned from Satan’s strategy for attacking that design. In other words, Paul establishes his command upon universal principles.

Conclusion

More questions can and will be raised about 1 Timothy 2:11-12, and they all deserve consideration. But we must not make the logical fallacy of dismissing the application of Paul’s instructions simply because 1st Timothy was an occasional document. If we were to claim that occasional documents have no relevance to the church today, then no Scripture would be relevant to the church today since every book of the Bible was written to address specific situations.

While recognizing the occasional nature of Scripture is certainly important to prevent misapplication, we must recognize that those same scriptures may also establish universal principles. One principle in particular is God’s design for man and woman as it was established in the beginning.

2 thoughts on “Do Paul’s Instructions for Women Apply Today?

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