Answering Questions on 1 Timothy 2:11-15

I recently wrote an article entitled “Do Paul’s Instructions for Women Apply Today?” in which I argue that although Paul certainly wrote 1 Timothy 2.11-15 to address a specific situation facing the church in Ephesus, we cannot simply dismiss his words as having no application for the church today. When Paul instructed women not to teach or exercise authority over men, he based these instructions upon principles which would be recognized as applicable in all the churches.

In response to my article, a fellow blogger wrote a very kind and thoughtful response. I encourage you to read it here.

It should be noted that this blogger strives to take the authority of scripture seriously. She does not find Paul’s instructions offensive but rather finds the interpretations often assigned to these verses as offensive. In other words, the debate is not about whether or not we should follow scripture. The question is a question of exegesis. What did Paul mean, and how did Paul intend these scriptures to be understood and applied?

The blogger makes some interesting observations and raises some really good questions. While each of her points deserve far more discussion than what space allows in a single blog post, I hope that by sharing some brief thoughts I can help explain why many Christians have found such arguments unconvincing. After wrestling with many questions and objections, they are convinced that Paul actually intended for women not to teach or exercise authority over men, and that is a doctrine that we should continue to uphold.

This blogger raised three objections to my understanding. Here are my responses in the order in which the objections were presented.

Ephesus and the Cult of Artemis

The first objection raised is that since Paul usually refers to “women” generally, and then shifts in this passage to speak about “the woman”, it suggested that Paul was referring to a particular woman who was troubling the church with her false doctrine. Since Ephesus was a pagan city which harbored the cult of Artemis, it is argued that this woman was likely a former pagan priestess, who was teaching that women were created superior to men.

If this historical reconstruction is correct, it strengthens the conclusion that Paul’s instructions were written to correct the specific problem caused by this particular woman, and thus should be understood as a temporary restraint on women.

I find this particular reconstruction and the conclusions drawn from it to be unconvincing. Even if this reconstruction of the problem is correct, it does not establish the conclusion that Paul’s commands for women have no application beyond those particular circumstances. Paul may have responded to this particular woman with a general principle that would be recognized as universally applicable.

I won’t argue that this reconstruction of the problem is necessarily wrong, as Acts 19 certainly confirms the presence of Artemis worship in Ephesus. But I find this approach far too confident in our ability to identify the nature of the false teaching in much detail, especially since Paul is fairly tight-lipped about the nature of the false teaching.

This particular reconstruction would be strengthened if it could be shown that the Artemis cult was plagued with devotion to myths and genealogies (1 Tim. 1.3-4), the Jewish law (1 Tim. 1.6-11), and asceticism (1 Tim. 4.3-4). Part of the problem is that beyond some very fragmentary evidence provided within the letter, we know very little about the nature of the false teaching in Ephesus.

As for the shift from plural “women” to singular “woman” in verses 11-15, this could be accounted for by the reference to Eve in verses 13-14, for Eve could be understood to be representative of all women. This too would account for the otherwise unexplained shift back to the plural pronoun “they” in 15b. Although applying “woman” to Eve may be inconclusive, it is at least contextual. Plus, it seems strange to me to think that Paul would refuse to name a particular false teacher when he doesn’t seem to hesitate with doing so in other passages (cf. 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17, 4:14).

The Meaning of “Authentein”

The second objection raised revolves around the meaning of the word “authentein”, translated by the ESV as “exercise authority.” The blogger writes “usually it’s thought of as a violent word, akin to castration and murder – which some of the cults were into, so it should not be overlooked as a factor in Paul’s statement here.”

It is then suggested that the problem was that the women weren’t simply exercising leadership, but rather they were exercising violent authority over men as they had once done in the cult of Artemis. Therefore Paul was not restricting women from leadership in general, but rather he was restricting them from a particular form of violent leadership.

I question the claim that “authentein” is “usually thought of as a violent word” since nearly all major English translations translate the word using non-violent phrases such as “exercise authority” or “have authority” as opposed to more violent sounding options such as “dominate.” Part of the reason they opt for this non-violent translation is because of how the word “authentein” was used in other places around the time Paul wrote 1st Timothy. “Authentein” never appears in any other Scripture and only appears in a handful of extra-biblical writings prior to 300 AD. Of these occurrences the verb nearly always carries the idea of “having authority”, “originating”, “ruling” or “acting on one’s own”, and with one debatable exception is nowhere used to refer to violent authority. This is why most Bible translators choose to translate authentein as “exercise authority” or “have authority.”

A violent connotation of “authentein” is sometimes argued based on its etymology, having derived from the noun “authentes” (“murderer” or “master”). But it is important to remember that context is key for determining a word’s meaning. For example consider the English word “manufacture”. Today it means made by machine. Etymology would suggest that it means hand-made (manus is Latin for hand). If someone were to look to etymology rather than context to define manufacture, they would end up with nearly the opposite meaning.

In the context of 1 Timothy 2:12, the verb authentein is held in close connection with the verb translated “teach”. If “exercise authority” has a negative, violent connotation, we would need to argue that “teach” has a similar negative connotation. Since “teaching” is not an inherently violent activity, neither should we conclude that “exercising authority” is an inherently violent activity.

If Paul did intend to use the verb to refer only to violent forms of leadership, why would Paul forbid only women from this particular kind of authority? It would make more sense if he forbade all Christians from exercising violent authority, whether men or women, especially since 2:8 informs us that it was the men who were actively involved in anger and quarreling. If exercising violent authority was the problem, this would only make since if all the women in Ephesus (including Priscilla, cf. 2 Tim. 4.19) were trying to exercise violent authority, since his prohibition is applied to all women.

An Ungodly Interpretation?

In my estimation, the third objection gets right to the heart of the disagreement about this passage.

But if Paul was not talking about the local cults’ influence, and was indeed saying that the reason women are not to teach or have any authority in the church because she was created second after man, I have to say that I heartily disagree, and in fact find it an ungodly approach, as a female Christian and alleged child of God.

She goes on to describe several of the challenges she finds with this particular conclusion. Does this imply that women are forever in debt to Eve’s sin in the garden, while Adam was able to get away with straight up lying to God? Does this imply that God only lifted his curse from man, and while women continue to be punished for Eve’s failure? If women are naturally more easily deceived, why are they only restricted from teaching men? How can they be allowed to teach anyone, let alone other women and children? Does this imply that it is sinful even for a woman to read Scripture publicly? If women can only be saved through childbirth, what does this imply for women who are barren or single? If a woman has no authority to confront a man, what is she supposed to do if she is wrongfully accused by a man? How can a woman exercise her gifts? How can we really say that women are part of the same holy priesthood if they cannot exercise the same authority as men? How does it make sense to have restrictions on talented and educated women, while some uneducated men are allowed to lead, simply because they have different body parts?

These are all really good questions, and many more questions similar to these could be raised. But it should be noted that these concerns are primarily practical concerns rather than exegetical concerns. There are some exegetical questions looming behind these practical questions (for example, what did Paul mean when he said she will be saved through childbearing?) But still, the distinction between exegetical questions and practical questions should be noted. If Paul actually intended that women should not teach or exercise authority over men, this most certainly runs contrary to the thinking of our modern culture and directly confronts many of our cultural sensibilities. It understandably raises hard questions.

These are good questions that need to be wrestled with. But when a possible meaning of scripture strikes us as ungodly, we need to step back and ask why. It could be that we are misunderstanding scripture. But it could also be that our understanding of godliness has been (unintentionally) shaped by culture more than by scripture.

If the suggested problem of the cult of Artemis is correct, then this text becomes an example of how we as Christians should allow Scripture to challenge our culture’s notions of right and wrong. If a former priestess of Artemis were to start with her own cultural sensibilities of right and wrong, and then work her way back into Scripture, she would have missed the opportunity to have her sensibilities corrected by Scripture. When Paul founds his teachings by turning to Genesis 2-3, he was demonstrating the importance of starting with exegesis. We must start with exegesis, and allow proper exegesis to determine our sensibilities of what is and isn’t godly.

Much more probably needs to be said and I’m certain more questions could be asked. I don’t pretend to proclaim the final word on the subject. I’m content with leaving judgment for the only Judge that matters. But I hope that by sharing these thoughts we can all gain a better understanding of the nature of our disagreements.