One cannot overestimate the importance of 1 Timothy 2:12 in the intra-evangelical debate over gender roles and women in ministry. There is a reason why countless articles and even an entire book have been written on the interpretation of this single verse. In many ways, this verse is the most disputed text in the debate. It is clear that Paul is prohibiting something, but just what he prohibits has been fiercely contested.
Complementarians argue that Paul prohibits women from doing two thingsâ€”teaching Christian doctrine to and exercising authority over the gathered church.
Egalitarians argue that Paul prohibits women from doing one thingâ€”a certain kind of teaching. They argue that there is no gender-based authority structure indicated in this text but that Paul means to prohibit women from “teaching with authority,” from “teaching in a domineering way” or from “teaching false doctrine.” In their view, Paul doesn’t prohibit all teaching by women over men, but only a certain kind of teaching. Recently, some egalitarians have argued that Paul means to prohibit women from “teaching and assuming authority” over a man. Philip Payne makes this argument in a 2008 article for New Testament Studies and in his 2009 book Man and Woman, One in Christ (Zondervan).
Sadly, the NIV 2011 reflects the latter approach in its rendering, “assume authority.” Here is how the verse appears in the four NIV versions since 1984.
|Text of 1 Timothy 2:12||Notes|
|NIV 1984 I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.|
|TNIV NT 2002 I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority overb a man;c she must be quiet.||b Or to exercise authority over; or to dominate
c Or her husband
|TNIV 2005 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;1,2 she must be quiet.||1 Or teach a man in a domineering way; or teach or to exercise (or have) authority over a man
2 Or over her husband
|NIV 2011 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;b she must be quiet.||b Or over her husband|
As you can see, the crucial change occurred in the TNIV 2005, which is the basis for the NIV 2011. What difference does this change make? “Assume authority” seems to imply the idea of acting independently in order to take up an undelegated authority. In other words, “assume authority” has the ring of a sinful power-grab. On this view, Paul is not prohibiting women from exercising authority per se, but only from assuming a stance of independent (and thus illegitimate) leadership in the church. So women may in fact teach men and exercise authority over them so long as such authority is properly delegated to them by the church.
It appears, therefore, that the NIV 2011 comes down on the side of egalitarianism in its rendering of 1 Timothy 2:12. The NIV translators, however, don’t see it this way. They argue that “assume authority” tilts neither in the direction of complementarianism nor of egalitarianism. In their Translators’ Notes, they write:
“‘Assume authority’ is a particularly nice English rendering because it leaves the question open, as it must be unless we discover new, more conclusive evidence. The exercise of authority that Paul was forbidding was one that women inappropriately assumed, but whether that referred to all forms of authority over men in church or only certain forms in certain contexts is up to the individual interpreter to decide” (p. 7).
But is it really true that this translation “leaves the question open”? I don’t think so. From the translators’s own words, we see that “assume authority” denotes an “inappropriate” taking up of authority. This gives a negative connotation to the word, and Andreas KÓ§stenberger has shown that a negative connotation is not possible in this particular grammatical construction (KÓ§stenberger’s conclusion has been widely received among feminist and complementarian scholars alike). So “assume authority” does not leave the question open but moves the discussion decidedly into the direction of egalitarianism.
For the record, I am not the only one who views “assume authority” as an egalitarian rendering. Interpreters from both sides of the debate view it the very same way that I have it here. This translation is in fact the preferred translation of Philip Payne, a New Testament scholar who has devoted the better part of his scholarly career to defending an egalitarian reading of scripture. Payne writes:
“Since lexical and contextual evidence favors the meaning BDAG gives for authentein, ‘to assume a stance of independent authority’, this article translates authentein ‘to assume authority’” (pp. 235-36).
“Teaching combined with assuming authority is by definition not authorized” (p. 247).
“What 1 Tim 2.12 prohibits, it must regard as negative: a woman teaching combined with assuming authority over a man” (p. 252).
“This oude construction makes best sense as a single prohibition of women teaching with self-assumed authority over a man” (p. 253).
Complementarian Wayne Grudem likewise agrees that this is an egalitarian interpretation. In his 2006 book Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?, he writes:
“In 1 Timothy 2:12 the TNIV adopts a highly suspect and novel translation that gives the egalitarian side everything they have wanted for years in a Bible translation. It reads, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man’… If churches adopt this translation, the debate over women’s roles in the church will be over, because women pastors and elders can just say, ‘I’m not assuming authority on my own initiative; it was given to me by the other pastors and elders.’ Therefore any woman could be a pastor or elder so long as she does not take it upon herself to ‘assume authority’â€¦ So it is no surprise that egalitarian churches are eager to adopt the TNIV” (p. 260).
Even though the TNIV 2005 employed the translation “assume authority,” it at least preserved alternatives in the note, “teach a man in a domineering way; or teach or to exercise (or have) authority over a man.” This note has disappeared in NIV 2011, so a complementarian interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 will no longer be available to readers of the NIV. All the reader has is an egalitarian rendering in the text. If the translators intended to “leave the question open,” why is this note removed in NIV 2011?
What’s the upshot of this translation for the average reader of the NIV? Those readers will see a significant change in their translation the next time they purchase an NIV. In their new Bible, “have authority” will give way to “assume authority” with absolutely no explanation in the notes. Those readers may very well conclude that women may exercise authority over men (i.e., serve as pastors) so long as they do not “assume” that authority independently.
My suggestion would be that NIV translators drop “assume authority” and use instead “exercise authority.” This is the translation favored by the NASB, ESV, NET, Mounce’s commentary, Knight’s commentary, and Schreiner and Kostenberger’s essays in Women in the Church.
One can’t judge a translation based on a single verse. Nevertheless, the mistranslation of this text is noteworthy. I hope it is changed in future editions, and I hope it is not indicative of how other gender passages are handled in the NIV 2011.