The NIV on 1 Timothy 2:12

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 things—teaching Christian doctrine to and exercising authority over the gathered church.

Egalitarians argue that Paul prohibits women from doing one thing—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).
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’… 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.


  • Ross Shannon

    “If the translators intended to “leave the question open,” why is this note removed in NIV 2011?” This is the key question in my mind. Well stated brother!

    Thanks for your work Denny.

  • Brent Hobbs

    The translation is certainly an attempt at middle ground, but I am inclined to agree with Denny that it (perhaps inadvertently) lends itself to the egalitarian interpretation.

    It’s not necessary to read it that way, but I think that’s the most natural way for most people to read it.

  • Douglas Moo

    As one of the NIV translators, let me just make four comments. First, as another post indicates, there is so much uncertainty about this key word that the accusation of “mistranslation” is simply not fair. Second, the rendering “assume authority” was actually taken from Bill Mounce’s commentary on the Pastorals; and Bill, as you will know, is a complementarian. Third, the footnotes were dropped in the updated NIV simply because the translators believed that “assume authority” could be taken in either direction. We often use this phrase in a neutral way (e.g., “When will the new President assume authority”?). Four, it is our intent to provide a translation that is faithful to the text, bowing to no particular theological agenda (in this case, neither “egalatarian” or “complementarian”). Our rendering of 1 Tim. 2:12 was sincerely intended as our best effort at rendering this very obscure word in a way that would not be driven by either theological agenda.

  • Denny Burk

    Thanks for the comment, Dr. Moo. Let me respond to each of your points in turn.

    First, I don’t intend “mistranslation” as an accusation. I just mean to say that the interpretation reflected in NIV 2011 tilts toward the egalitarian view. I understand that the translators wish to give a neutral rendering, but I don’t think “assume authority” achieves that.

    Second, I can’t find “assume authority” in Mounce’s commentary. Mounce renders this verse with “exercise authority” (Mounce, WBC, p. 102). In his concluding paragraph on verse 12, he writes:

    “Paul is prohibiting two separate events: teaching and acting in authority… Paul does not want women to be in positions of authority in the church; teaching is one way in which authority is exercised in the church” (p. 130).

    Third, we may have to agree to disagree about whether or not this is a neutral translation. That being said, we’ll also have to agree to disagree about the wisdom of removing the notes.

    Fourth, I don’t question the translators’ intentions to “provide a translation that is faithful to the text, bowing to no particular theological agenda.” That is what we are all hoping for. My assumption is that every member of the committee has the best of intentions in this regard. Nevertheless, it is significant that in the committee’s attempt to provide a “neutral” rendering, they’ve taken a step back from the more clearly complementarian reading contained in NIV 1984. A lot of ink has been spilled since 1984 on this question, and I can understand the desire to be neutral on such a contentious question. But it is nevertheless a move away from what came before.

    I want to be faithful to the text as you do. In this case, however, I think the best rendering is “exercise authority.” For me, Baldwin and Kostenberger’s studies (as well as yours) establish the point. I would just like to see that reflected in NIV 2011.

    Thanks again for the interaction.

    Denny Burk

  • Ryan

    Not trying to open a can of worms but I think Denny raises a good point in asking what it the impetus for changing from “have” to “assume?”

    Has there been new evidence that clearly sways us away from “have?” Or is there something in the evangelical climate that tilts in the the direction of using the word assume?

  • Denny Burk

    By the way, I should mention that Baldwin lists “assume authority” in his range of possible meanings for authentein, and he even says that the idea is “not intrinsically negative” (p. Women in the Church,” 45, 47). He includes it, however, as a sub-meaning of “to act independently” which he says “carries the idea of being one’s own authority” (p. Women in the Church,” 47). This appears to me as a contradictory point in Baldwin’s survey. “Assume authority” cannot be neutral if it is subsumed under the negative idea of “acting independently.”

    As far as translation is concerned, this comes down to matter of usage and how English readers will understand “assume authority.”

  • Brent Hobbs

    Wow, thanks to Dr. Moo for wading into this discussion. I still think I would prefer with, Denny, “exercise” rather than “assume”.

    On the other hand, it’s true that someone can “assume” authority either through their own power or through the power of another person. Dr. Moo’s example of the presidency is a good, valid example of the latter.

    You could certainly argue that in order to “exercise” authority, one must first “assume” authority by some (undefined) means.

    Like I said, I’m with Denny in that I would prefer “exercise” or “have”, but I don’t think that “assume” is an awful translation either.

  • Tim Etherington

    I found Payne’s statement very interesting:

    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).

    BDAG is a pretty reliable lexicon and really the standard. Yet, as Payne indicates, there is more to translation than simply looking a word up in a lexicon and plugging it in. Context must be considered and 1Ti 2:2 stands in a broader context that shades the meaning of authentein toward or away from either complimentarian or egalitarian positions.

    For me the context shades it toward complimentarianism. It would be interesting to hear why Payne believes it shades it the other way.

  • Rod Phillips

    I agree. I think that this translation is a “drift” and will only embolden the egalitarian crowd and cause further confusion to the body of Christ. Thankfully I have an ESV handy!

  • Phil

    Does ths mean that men can assume authority over other men without being affirmed by church leadership?
    Also, If Paul didn’t intend to draw any distinction between men and women in this passage, than why would he have included it in the first place? Why wouldn’t he have just said something like; “Respect elders in the church, and do not assume authority over one another.”

  • David Rogers

    I’ll try to comment without getting moderated out again.

    (I do believe that blog hosts can do whatever they want and moderate out whatever they wish. It may have been that I submitted a link, or that I was posting someone else’s ideas rather than my own digesting of them. I certainly hope that it wasn’t that what was submitted was too much of an academic challenge and thus had to be censored.)

    Payne offers the conclusion that the verb “authentein” has no instance of meaning “exercise authority” before AD 370 and that it can be reasonably concluded that the verb means “to assume a stance of independent authority” which BDAG attests to.

    Payne thus offers the translation “assume authority”.

    One can find his argumentation in his work Man and Woman, One in Christ, 361-97. His argument is best evaluated by reading him directly, then reading his reviewers (e.g. Schreiner) and then reading Payne’s rejoinder to Schreiner’s points. A robust academic scholarly assesment of the issue can then proceed to whatever conclusion one decides to come to.

  • Tim Etherington

    An excellent question Phil. From what I’ve heard from the egalitarian side, the reason women are specifically called out in 1 Timothy is because there was a problem with this at Ephesus. There is no historical evidence so it must be assumed to make the argument work but there it is.

  • BradK

    Good question, Phil. Also, if the author of 1 Timothy (whom I also take to be Paul) intended to refer to authority here, why didn’t he use exousia as he did in many other cases in other letters?

  • Wayne Leman

    Well, since none of us yet convincingly knows what authentein meant to Greek speakers of Paul’s day, I’d like to agree suggest that the KJV “usurp authority” is a likely candidate, although it is largely an obscure word for today’s English speakers. “Usurp authority” means to take authority which rightfully or legally belongs to someone else. ISTM that this may be the most neutral of all wordings possible today. For complementarians it can mean that men are the only ones who have the right to exercise authority over others within the local congregation (or whatever one’s preferred context is, the Body of Christ, etc.). For egalitarians it can mean that women are not to take away authority from men when the men already have the authority. But women would not be prohibited from assuming authority when there is no male in that position who already has the authority.

    Regardless of which interpretation is correct, ISTM that Scripture teaches each of us, male or female, not to take away from someone else what belongs to them. Power grabs are not to be part of the Body of Christ. Christ himself represented humble servant leadership in the best way, as we know from Phil. 2 and elsewhere.

  • henrybish

    Regarding Dr Moo’s comments,

    1) Even though there are examples of ‘assume authority’ being used in a good sense I think most people coming to the 1Tim2:12 text probably do not naturally read it that way. It would be interesting to do a poll of all sorts of people to see how they naturally read it.

    2) What about all of Kostenberger’s work?

  • Phil

    Brad and Tim,

    Good thoughts. I wonder why Paul supported his argument with a reference to Adam and Eve. That, in my opinion, gives Paul’s (inspired)logic a timeless quality. One of my Profs acknowledges Paul’s intent here, but accuses Paul of bad reasoning. I don’t understand why someone (especially a teacher) would prefer to plant seeds of doubt in the authority of the Scriptures.

  • Iver Larsen

    When my wife and I revised the old Living Bible in Danish to produce something like the New Living Translation, 1 Tim 2 was a big challenge.
    We must appreciate that the NT was NOT written in an environment of an egalitarian society. The place of the woman was in the home taking care of her husband and children, especially for the Jews. A translator must respect this as a historical fact, and the readers of the Bible must understand this difference. Translating an ancient text and applying it in today’s society are two different things.
    We should also remember that women at that time did not have the same opportunities for education, either generally or in Bible knowledge, as the men had.
    We should accept that men and women think differently and reason in different ways. God created man and woman differently for them to complement one another, not to compete. That is not a value statement. I am sure Paul would see men and women as equal in value, but with different functions and tasks.
    Also, I believe that a “teacher” in Paul’s letters is not primarily a communicator, but more a person with God-given authority to determine what was (and is) true or false teaching. False teachers can be men or women, but it takes a special calling to be a “teacher” in the biblical sense. And a “teacher” is far from the same as a pastor/shepherd. (I consider women to be generally better shepherds than men. The current common concept of a “pastor” does not follow NT teaching.) Sometimes a man (or woman) who is called to be an evangelist or prophet assumes the calling of a teacher with disastrous results, especially if they are unwilling to submit their teaching to evaluation by people who are called by God to be teachers.

    Just to give a different perspective from a different language and background, let me back translate v. 11-15 from Danish into English: “A woman ought to submit and receive teaching in quietness. I cannot allow a woman to act as a teacher. She should live in quietness and not be dominating towards a man (or: her husband). Why? Because Adam was created first and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived by Satan, it was Eve, and that resulted in rebellion against the will of God. However, the (married) woman will reach eternal life by cherishing the calling to bring up her children well and live a thoughtful life in faith and love and holiness.

  • John Thomson

    Scripture says Eve believed the lie. Adam, on the other hand, did not. Adam knew it was wrong. His action was one of weakness; he followed his wife. His affection for her weakened his resolve and the world, including Eve, was plunged into death.

    Christ also loved his ‘Eve’. His affection led him to ‘follow’ his deceived and guilty bride, not into sin but that he may become sin for her and rescue her from all the consequences of Adam’s sin and her deception.

    It is a great pity if the redeemed ‘Eve’ is still deceived and willing to believe the lie.

  • Joseph

    I don’t really see the issue with “assume”. During my time in the military a new commander was said to “assume command” and that was not a power grab or independent exercise of authority.I am going to side with Dr Moo on this one.

  • Chuck Hubbard

    “Assume,” “exercise,” or “usurp” – Certainly those are English modifiers to the Greek verb “authentein” that in some way means authority. And those modifiers can sway understanding which unfortunately differs based on our own individual background.

    Somehow we need (and I trust all desire) to understand the passage in the way the human and the Ultimate author intended it.
    And we have to recognize that this Greek word is not used elsewhere in the scripture which would be our first choice at discovering a proper understanding. So where do we go and how are we to understand this passage?

    I suggest that we observe the setting and background of the human author and reader, Paul and Timothy. Paul was a Jew and even though Timothy had a gentile father, he would have been considered a Jew through his mother’s heritage.

    As such, they both participated in worship under the Synagogue and Temple systems that existed from the time of the Babylonian exile. That system operated very similar to the Orthodox Synagogue of today. It is easy to go into that setting to understand what Paul would have meant even though Timothy was in a gentile city. Of course remember Paul started his ministry in most cities in the Jewish Synagogue of the city.

    Under the Synagogue system, women could be very influential (A Jewish wife’s interpretation of the Law could be and at times was accepted above that of her Rabbinical husband.) Nevertheless, because of God’s commands, she could not lead a Synagogue ot Temple service. That was considered taking authority over a man and was not allowed, BY GOD – from the Jewish understanding of the Old Testament.

    This was not new information to Timothy and therefore needed no additional explanation or modifying words.

    Under the Synagogue system a woman could pray, but she could not lead or represent the congregation in prayer. A woman could read the Torah, the scriptures, but she could not lead the congregation in that reading – because it did not fit God’s command.

    And I believe based on God’s command, that a woman cannot lead a church congregation – in prayer, in scripture reading, in song, in … – even though she may be more talented or skilled or more spiritual than the man who should be chosen – just because God commanded it.

  • Donald Johnson


    You are wrong about Timothy, that is why Paul circumcized him in Acts 16, because his status was not so clear. Once he was circumcized, then he was accepted as a Jew.

    It is true that the temple system had a male priesthood per Torah, but the synagogue system was a creation of the Pharisees; therefore anything they proscribed was a tradition of humans and subject to Torah. And there is no written restriction in Torah for participation by women outside of the temple system, for example, women prophets and even a judge prophet are endorsed by God. One is not to add nor subtract from Scripture and if human traditions do that, it is the traditions that must be negated and not Scripture.

Comment here. Please use FIRST and LAST name.