Witherington’s Non-Patriarchal Reading of 1 Timothy 2:12

1 Timothy 2:8-15 has a been a battleground in the recent history of interpretation as scholars have been offering varying interpretations of a passage that at first blush cuts against modern egalitarian sensibilities. Verse 12 has proven to be particularly problematic for modern interpreters who support the ordination of women as pastors.

A literal translation of verse 1 Timothy 2:12 reads: “I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over/domineer a man.” At the heart of the exegetical dispute is the problem of translating the phrase “to teach or to exercise authority over.”

Dr. Ben Witherington, who will soon be adding to his impressive list of literary accomplishments a new commentary on the pastoral epistles, has recently offered some reflections on his translation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 (see his blog). Witherington argues that understanding the background of Paul’s command is absolutely critical to a proper interpretation of the verse. He writes:

What I would stress at the outset is that Paul is correcting problems in worship— correcting both men and women as is perfectly clear from vs. 8 where he tells the men to not dispute or get angry but rather to start praying. He then corrects women in several particulars. I would stress then that the correction of an abuse of a privilege is not the same as the ruling out of a proper use of a privilege, in this case the privilege of speaking in worship or even teaching. Paul is not laying down first principles here, he is correcting an existing problem . . .

In other words, Witherington avers that Paul is not laying out a general principle that would be normative for all Christians. Rather, Paul is confronting a specific abuse in the Ephesian community: “The issue here in Ephesus is that there are some women who are seeking to teach or take authority over men, without first being quiet and learning about their faith .” Therefore modern readers should not treat this verse as if Paul were laying down a limitation on women in ministry because “the correction of an abuse of a privilege is not the same as the ruling out of a proper use of a privilege.”

There is much that needs to be said in response to Witherington’s exegesis here, but I would like to point out one difficulty that I see with his reasoning. Even if we grant that Paul is confronting a specific abuse in the Ephesian church, it does not necessarily rule out the possibility that he might appeal to “first principles” to address that specific problem.

So even if we grant the background as Witherington has described it, it may very well be that Paul sees a specific abuse and corrects it by appealing to a more general principle that is rooted in Jewish-Christian patriarchy. That is in fact what I think Paul is doing here.

Dr. Witherington disagrees and has responded to my objection in the comments section of his blog. Even though he did support his reading by appealing to egalitarian readings of other Pauline texts, I am still not satisfied that he has answered my specific objection.

I suppose the debate will have to continue.


  • Nicole

    I have always struggled with my role as a woman in the church because on occasion I will be asked to lead worship for our Sunday service. Is this having authority over men? I do not pray or read Scripture. I just play guitar and sing. It is a frustrating dilemma for me. I am not sure where I stand but I tend to lean towards your interpretation.

    Thanks for posting this!

  • Denny Burk

    Dear Nicole,

    Thanks for the comments.

    You aren’t the only one who has had these questions before. My wife is also a singer. One time I was asked to preach and lead music one Sunday at a certain uber-reformed church in the area. I wanted Susan to help me out with leading worship, but the pastor told me that the elders would not have it. Their policy was absolutely no female involvement up front (except for a woman who played the piano!).

    This was several years ago, and as a result of that experience I have thought a lot about this and what the scriptures teach. The Bible speaks explicitly to the issue of who can be elder in the church (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) and to issue of who can teach mixed audiences (1 Timothy 2:12). In both cases, only men alone are in view.

    I do not think there is biblical warrant for limiting the role of women in public worship beyond those two items. It is clear that in the NT, women were praying and prophesying. Obviously they weren’t banned from speaking altogether (1 Corinthians 11:5). It was just that when they did pray or prophesy, they did so not as elders or as teachers per se. They did so under “authority.” I don’t want to go into the issue of “prophesy,” but it is sufficient to say that they were involved.

    All that is to say that I think women can lead worship. When they do so, however, they need to do it such a way that they don’t “preach” and “teach” in between songs. There’s a way to do it that honors headship, and when it’s done that way I think its okay. Also, it’s important to remember, that the NT teaches that being filled with the Spirit involves “singing to one another” (Ephesians 5:19). I take it this applies to women as well as men.

    Anywho, that’s my short answer. Let me know if you want more.

    Denny Burk

  • Denny Burk

    Dear Nicole,

    In the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, there’s a chapter titled “The Valuable Ministries of Women in the Context of Male Leadership: A Survey of Old and New Testament Examples and Teaching.” You should check it out.

    If you don’t have the book, you can download the entire thing for free as a PDF document. Here’s the link: Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

    I hope all is well on your end.

    Denny Burk

  • Michelle


    I’ve actually been to Ben Witherington’s website to view your response to his question.

    I will say this: it’s very possible that what you’re saying is true.

    Nevertheless…I think enough still has not been said about this. As a current seminary student pursuing an Master of Divinity in Christian Apologetics, I have taken my share of hermeneutics classes (which, by the way, are required).
    I actually had a seminary professor (who taught my hermeneutics class) who discussed this passage. When it came to other passages, he always said, “Context, context, context.” He always taught us that context determines the interpretation of the passage. However, when it came to the passage of 1 Timothy 2, he took the prohibition against women and discussed no context at all.

    His problem is what most people I’ve found (including those with much seminary education) seem to do when interpreting this passage. Expositors of God’s Word have to remember that an air-tight hermeneutic is essential to faithfully declaring God’s Word.
    If an air-tight hermeneutic consists of using a background situation to determine the interpretation, the same rules apply here with 1 Timothy 2.
    Often in Paul’s letters, he provides a synopsis to his later comments and vaguely recounts the issues in the church (such as with the Colossian church or the Corinthian church with their divisions between Paul, Cephas, and Christ). 1 Timothy 1 gives us a synopsis of the prevailing situation at Ephesus: verses 3-7 read (using the English Standard Version):
    “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.”
    We gather a few things from these few verses of chapter 1: (1) there are false teachers in the church, (2) they are teaching a different doctrine, and (3) the false teaching consists of myths and genealogies.

    In verse 6, we find that the false teachers have a gathering of followers: “Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion.” Prior to verse 6 Paul has talked about the reason why he and Timothy teach and preach. But here, we see that there are those who have abandoned such intent. Their intent is now to cause a disturbance in the body of Christ.
    Verse 7 serves as the pivotal verse: “[certain persons] desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.”
    The followers are not just following for the sake of following; they desire knowledge so that they can be teachers, over the congregation. Yet, Paul states that they have no idea what they say nor knowledge concerning what they are being taught (which is false teaching). They are not very well-educated regarding the false teaching, but instead embrace it without questioning its nature.

    But, despite what these teachers and followers are doing, Paul says in verse 8 that “now we know that the law is goof, if one uses it lawfully…” To use the law “lawfully” means to use it correctly, according to how the Word should be handled (“to rightly divide the Word of truth”).

    This, then, serves as the setting for the scene in 1 Timothy 2 where Paul corrects abuses in the church. In 2:8 where Paul talks against the men lifting their hands “without anger or wrath,” he is talking about how the heresies are causing controversy in the church, that even in praying the heresies are breeding quarrels and a hateful spirit. They can’t seem to pray without arguing…in verse 9 with the women, they are to also pray but pray having “modesty and self-control.” Here, both men and women are corrected in their prayer life. In verse 10, Paul makes it clear that what should govern the life of a woman is “good works.” And then, he uses verse 11; so before we read verse 11, we have to read it with the idea that “good works” are key (Paul will then address what is being done that is bad).
    Verse 11 says, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.” Women should learn, but learn by submitting to the material being given them.
    Verse 12 says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” The English Standard Version actually leaves out the greek word “de” following all of verse 12. So, translated accurately, verse 12 says, “But I do not permit a woman…” This verse has been misinterpreted for a few reasons. I won’t go into the Greek word for “authentein” that has been disputed. I suggest that you read a book called “I Suffer Not a Woman” by Katherine Clark Kroeger and her husband, Richard Kroeger. Although she is egalitarian, I think there are some things in the book that are worth paying attention to.
    She makes the point that the Greek word “authentein” is where the English word “authentic” derives from. Something that is “authentic” is true, genuine, something “original.” Here, Kroeger translates this verse as being against women who assert that Eve was the first human being created, not Adam. This makes sense because Paul later writes “she will be saved through childbearing.” The “she” refers to “Eve” because this is the last woman mentioned. The “they” of verse 15 refers to the women of Timothy’s church. Paul later tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:7, “have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths…” The “myths and genealogies” were the reason why Paul would not allow the women to teach. Does Paul ever address the false teachers? Yes he does; look in 1 Timothy 6:3-5– “if anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ…he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing…has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words…and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth.” The false teachers liked stirring up controversy, which is evident through Paul’s rebukes in 1 Timothy 2; in addition, they also further stirred up controversy because the minds of their followers were “depraved in mind and deprived of the truth.” They didn’t know how to weigh what they were being told, just easily bought into it.

    The false teaching is constantly mentioned by Paul throughout 1 and 2 Timothy, which is why he writes to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching…persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (4:16).

    Another thing to note in this book is 1 Timothy 5. Having taken three semesters of Koine Greek, I can say that there is a word in this passage that will clarify and put an end to the constant friction regarding women we’ve had. The word for “older women” in 1 Tim. 5:2 has been mistranslated constantly. Most commentators translate the word “presbuteras” as “older women,” but the KJV translates it as “elder women.” The word “presbuteras” should be translated as “elder women,” which doesn’t refer to “older women” as much as it does to women in the office of “elder.” Once again, context determines meaning, and the context of 1 Timothy 5 will determine how we interpret the word “presbuteras” (Greek). When Paul writes about younger women, notes what he says in 1 Timothy 5:14,15– “I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households…for some have already strayed after Satan.” But when he writes about the older widows, he writes in 5:9, “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works.” Why would Paul mention for “older widows” to be enrolled? To be enrolled to what? Why do older widows have to have qualifications for this so-called “enrollment?” The reason is because they are being enrolled to serve as “elders” in the church, the church office of elder. Look at 1 Timothy 5:17– “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” The word here for elders is “presbuteroi,” the same word used in Titus 1 to refer to the ordained office itself. But notice that, with Titus 2, older women are to teach younger women, and older men are to teach younger men. Why? because the things they are to teach are relating to the genders. These older women are included in Titus 1 because they are not teachers and preachers, but advisors, counselors to the young wives in the church.
    Look back at 1 Timothy 5:2. The word for “elder women,” translated “presbuteras,” is the feminine form of the word for “elders” in Titus 1 (presbuteroi). But the elders of Titus 2 are counselors. The elders of 1 Timothy 5 are the teachers and preachers. As I said, Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, ESPECIALLY those who labor in preaching and teaching.” The word “especially” is highlighted because it bears some importance. The reason why Paul singles out this group is because there is a group of elders that are not the teachers and preachers, but simply counselors. These then, are the older men and women of Titus 2. But the “elder” men and women of 1 Timothy 5 are the teachers and preachers of the church. Paul doesn’t single out who teaches and who preaches in the church; only in Titus 2 does he distinguish– because these matters, while tied to the theological, are not theological by nature.

    I know I’ve given a lot here, but I just wanted to contact you and offer the best of research I’ve done on the subject. Remember, in 1 Timothy 2:10, Paul made it clear that women were to be doing “good works”; in 1 Timothy 5, older women are to be enrolled as “elders” in the office because they have “devoted [themselves] to every good work.” These “elder women,” older female teachers and preachers, are in stark contrast to younger women, who are stirring up trouble in the churches by listening to and believing the false teachers.

    So when Paul writes for women not to teach, he is not writing for them not to have public office, or to use their gifts in public office, he is simply delaying their right to teach because they are, like Eve in the passage, “deceived” and have not “come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Remember, this is the same Paul who wrote in 1 Corinthians 14:39 to not forbid speaking in tongues and in 1 Thessalonians to not despise prophesyings (1 Thess. 5:20). Why then, would he halt women’s God-given right to exercise their God-given gifts in the public assembly in an authoritative manner?
    My prayer is that all of us can come to the proper understanding. But I pray that we can with the aid of the Holy Spirit. Please contact me with any questions or comments you may have.

    God Bless,

  • Janet Lock

    My response to the latest debate on whether to allow female bishops in the church of England is this: shame on the women who are willing to play the hierarchy game at all! Nobody who takes Jesus’ words seriously can support a system which promotes ambition for advancement in personal authority. Let’s get this into proportion – a Sunday morning church meeting lasts 2 hours. Why all the fuss? We are so caught up within the system that we forget the remaining 166 hours in the week. “They might be able to exclude you from their church games, but nobody can stop you serving your Father God” So don’t be unhappy – life is too short, just let yourself be led by the Holy Spirit and have an adventure with God.

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