Women in Ministry and 1 Timothy 2:12

1 Timothy 2:12 has become the most debated verse in intra-evangelical debates about women in ministry. For this reason, it was no small matter when the translators decided to revise the rendering of this text in the 2011 edition of the NIV. Paul appears to be prohibiting two activities—teaching and exercising authority—but the new NIV alters that reading.

NIV 1984 “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.”

NIV 2011 “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.”

For whatever reason, the translators decided to change the interpretation. The difference is subtle but very important to the discussion of women in ministry. On the one hand, the 1984 interpretation prohibits women from exercising authority or serving as pastor/elder. On the other hand, the 2011 interpretation does not. The 2011 edition prohibits narrowly taking up authority to oneself. The former prohibition is generic, and the latter specific. Thus the 2011 translation can be interpreted merely as a limitation on women taking up undelegated authority to themselves. They can “have authority” over men and be pastors so long as that authority is properly delegated to them. It is no surprise, then, that Egalitarians such as Philip Payne favor the translation “assume authority.”

The issue comes down to the proper interpretation of a single Greek word—authentein. Does it mean “have authority” or “assume authority”? I have argued elsewhere that the distinction is significant and that this particular translation represents an egalitarian drift in the text of the NIV.

Commentators have difficulty deciding the question in part because the word is so rare. It only appears one time in all of biblical Greek, and only a handful of times outside biblical Greek before the end of the first century. Which brings me to the point of this post.

Al Wolters has a very important article in the most recent issue of The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. In this article, he highlights a long-overlooked instance of authentein in extra-biblical Greek. He shows that authentein is neither pejorative nor ingressive. In other words, extra-biblical sources confirm that authentein does not mean “assume authority” but “have authority.” For those of you who have been following the discussion about the meaning of authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12, you’ll want to make a note of this article.

Al Wolters, “An Early Parallel of authentein in 1 Tim 2:12″ JETS 54.4 (2011): 673-684.

This is the single most important verse in the discussion among evangelicals about gender roles and ministry, and the NIV reflects the wrong interpretation. This article from Wolters is another reason that the translators ought to consider changing it.


  • Robert Slowley

    Unfortunately issue 54 of JETS does not seem to be available on their website, it only goes up to 51. If I am right in presuming that they intend for access to the journal to be open on the internet, and it is just not online as they’re slow in doing so — could you perhaps put a scan of the relevant article online somewhere?

    • Robert Slowley

      Ah no. I now see that it is intentional – access to the most recent issues are restricted to members. That is a shame.

  • John

    In this verse, I understand the teaching part because we hear teaching all the time, but what actual authority do church leaders have over individual members? Authority to do what?

    • Chris Taylor

      Several examples come to mind:

      First, Paul calls for a collection to be taken that will taken back to the suffering church in Jerusalem. If Hafemann is reading 2 Cor right, Paul is basically saying, ‘Prove that you are in Christ by participating if this offering.’ Obey your leaders by participating in the projects/causes they take up on behalf of Christ.

      Second, Paul tells Philemon to receive back his slave as a brother in Christ. While Paul certainly leaves the ultimate decision up to Philemon’s ‘free will’, he also demonstrates that Philemon doesn’t really have a choice when Paul states, ‘Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say. (Phm 1:21 NAS)’ I dare say, Paul is not throwing his weight around as an Apostle, but leading the flock as an overseer. Thus, overseers can and ought to speak into the financial dealings of the saints.

      Third, Paul tells various churches how to receive and support missionaries.

      Fourth, Paul tells husbands and wives how to treat each other. He also tells Masters and Slaves how to treat each other. Certainly Paul is demonstrating to the overseers the way to oversee.

      Fifth, Paul tells the two Ladies in Phillippi to get along with each other. He also tells the leaders there how they are to help these women. Obey your leaders when they tell you to kiss and make up.

      Sixth, Paul tells the congregation to evict the evil doer and then tells the church how to treat those who have been evicted. There is a lot of authority given to the overseers.

      I could go on, but this gives sense for how I read the word.

      More food for thought:

      Heb 13:7 Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.

      1Co 16:16 that you also be in subjection to such men and to everyone who helps in the work and labors.

      Act 20:28 “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

      1Th 5:12 But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction,

      1Th 5:13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.

      1Ti 5:17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.

      Phi 2:29 Therefore receive him in the Lord with all joy, and hold men like him in high regard;

      Mat 16:19 “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

      Joh 20:23 “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”

      Act 6:3 “But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.

      Act 16:4 Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees, which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe.

      1Co 11:2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.

      Phi 3:17 Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.

      1Ti 3:1 It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.

      Tit 1:5 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you might set in order what remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed you,

      Jam 3:1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment.

      1Pe 5:5 You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

      • John

        Thanks for all the references. I belong to a Baptist church, and we do not have any overseers who are outside the local church like Paul was, and even in the local church, we are congregationally ruled, not elder led. The pastor preaches God’s Word to us and leads us in spiritual matters, but we answer only to God for how the church is run. Is that what would be considered the pastor’s authority, or would you see this as a deficiency?

        • Chris Taylor

          Evening John,

          I’m actually Presbyterian (although I attend a Baptist church). From the Presbyterian perspective, we agree with the Baptists in that each congregation is basically a self-governing unit. There is federal decree that can come down from GA that dictates how a church can/should conduct itself. In its best sense, a Presbytery is really just a regional body of elders who can provide a second opinion on hard cases made by a local session of elders.

          Given my background, I probably shouldn’t answer your questions about Baptist church polity, but I at least let you know what I think, since you asked.

          I think Baptist churches that have strong ruling elders most closely resemble the NT evidence. We don’t have any apostles anymore, so outside madates should really be very limited (I would only include things like missionary and church planting oversight by a sending church).

          I think Baptist churches that are completely self-governing are clearly out of accord with the Scriptures. How can a congregation submit to their leaders/elders/pastors, when they force their leaders to submit to them? I just don’t see this in the Bible.

          Be Well,


          • John

            Chris, thanks for the reply. I agree with you that if there is to be any human authority in the church, it should be placed in the hands of the ruling elders. If you don’t have elders who truly lead and make the decisions, then there would literaly be no authority. That makes me wonder why more Baptist churches don’t have ruling elders instead of congregational rule. Thanks again for the info.


  • Sue

    Has Wolters ever responded to the NIV Committee’s comment that this is Calvin’s interpretation? Jerome – dominari, Luther – herr sein, KJV – usurp authority.

    I have discussed this by email with Wolters in depth and he felt that “usurp” was not pejorative, but we also talked about Lancelot Andrewes, editor of the KJV, and that he used “usurpers” as a traitor, worthy of death.

    Can we see some of this article?

  • Sue

    Here is his conclusion,

    ” The verb essentially means “to be master,” to be superior to another in prestige, authority, or skill.”

    Clearly women are allowed to be masters in skill. To be a master over others in authority is not supported for any role of church leadership in the NT. However, I await Al’s response to my questions.

    However, to be a master in skill is a new meaning to the verb not attested to elsewhere. We are in good company if we stick with jerome, Luther and Wycliff. This could well be understood as Jerome did by dominari, compare with 1 Peter 5:3. This concurs with my previous understanding of the verb, that there is no example of this word being used for one person in authority over another in a non-pejorative sense.

    I have communicated this to Al this afternoon. Thanks.

    • Chris Taylor


      Your argument is anachronistic at best and misleading at worst. Certainly you must agree that the only reason it could possibly be appropriate to translate the word as ‘usurp authority’ back then was because the mere thought of a woman having authority over a man was seen as a ‘monstrous’ act that mirrored the act of Satan trying to take a position that had not been granted to him by God. In their minds, for a woman to ‘have authority’ over a man is proof enough that she has usurped God’s authority and taken something for herself that she is not authorized to have.

      While the translators show their hand in using the word ‘usurp’, the emphasis is not on the act of taking authority, but having authority. To twist the passage to make the emphasis on how a woman comes by such authority is simply not supported by the historical context within which 1) the Bible was written, or 2) the Bible was translated by Wycliffe, etc.

      Was it okay for them to translate it ‘usurp authority’? Yes, in their day. But ours is a very different day with very different battles.

      Chris Taylor

  • Sue


    I have thought about that. You are right that this was Calvin’s interpretation. But ” usurp authority” came into the English in the Bishop’s Bible under Queen Elizabeth, so I think that even at that time, there was a dual understanding of the text.

    But if we go back to Jerome, he translated it with dominari, as in 1 Peter 5:3 and in Gen. 3:16, also surely negative, meaning to “rule” but not as God had originally intended.

    However, back to Wolter’s point. he agrees with the substance of what I wrote above, that his example does not refer to a person having authority over another person.

    Se the frontispiece for the Bishops Bible with the elevated Queen, in wikipedia.

    I have honestly wondered about this, but I do find that the pejoritave sense of authenteo was firmly established in other key evidence near the time of the NT and that this is what Jerome and Erasmus were reflecting. I don’t think that it is right for us, influenced by our own current culture to change the meaning from ” usurp” or ” domineer.”

    • Chris Taylor

      Dear Sue,

      Thank you for your measured and reasonable response. For my part, I think lexical studies can play a very limited role on this one. In general, they are helpful only so far as they give us the semantic range for a given lexeme. The job of the exegete is to analyze a passage in its complete grammatical-historical context, in order to understand how a given author intended the passage to be read.

      In this case, even if the lexical evidence could demonstrate conclusively that there was a negative connotation behind the mere use of this word, from the historical perspective, were still left with the fact that the main issue for the New Testament authors, was not how a woman came to have such authority, but the fact that she had it.

      It seems to me that Denny is right to press the issue with today’s translations precisely because there are some who are reading modern sentiments back into the ancient text.


      Chris Taylor

  • Daryl Little

    If I may, were the current understanding of the word “usurp” to be in view in this passage, I find it striking that Paul would specifically reference it in relation to women,

    It is possible, I suppose, that he was dealing with a church which only had trouble with women usurping authority, and not men, but, given the propensity of all of us to want to have a say in making decisions and telling folks what they ought to be doing, I find that to be unlikely.

    Further, since that only real authority the leaders in the church have, is the authority which comes from the responsibility to teach Scripture correctly and “enforce” (bad word I know, but you take my meaning) right belief in the church.

    If a women is barred from that teaching role, as this verse clearly does, then what authority is left her? I would suggest, none at all.

    Which, I suspect, is why the two things (teaching and authority) as so inseparably linked here. To not be permitted to teach. is to not have authority, whether that be identified as “having” or “usurping”.

    I believe the issue Denny is high-lighting for us is that a correct reading of “authentien” surely strengthens the case, but I don’t think it makes the case on it’s own.
    I think the context and the content of the whole verse makes the case, both for the doctrine, and, most likely, for the corrected translation of the word itself.

  • Sue

    My sense is that the original word in Greek refered to being in control of, or command of in an absolute way, and meant more coercion. This is found in Baldwin’s study and elsewhere. So, it simply never refered to church leadership at all. To then transform it today into a word that implies church leadership is really placing something in the Bible that was not there originally. It really seems better to take the words at face value and reflect on that.

    I realize the passage seems to counter women teaching, but there was false teaching, as Titus 1 also records.

    The difficulty is that women have been skilled, have been provided with equal insight, with a nature to teach, and to govern. This is the design of women.

    On a different note, Elizabeth was the supreme governor of the Church of England.

    I can’t tell anyone what this passage means, but I do find that the NIV 2011 has taken the traditional and time honoured approach to translating this text, as they have done with Romans 16:7 also. I feel especially that the condemnation of a translation that stands so firmly in the KJV tradition is to be regretted. Is there not some other way to exclude women than to resort to throwing suspicion on a time honoured translation tradition?

  • Sue

    I just wanted to add that from my point of view in my hometown, near the translators of the NIV and ESV, the most important verse really is 1 Tim. 2:8. That’s what people see here.

    • Chris Taylor

      Dear Sue,

      I grew up in Wheaton, am related to the publishers of both the NLT (by birth) and the ESV (by marriage), and studied intermediate Greek under Dr. Moo (NIV) at Wheaton College. To be sure, I never once heard anyone emphasize 1 Tim. 2:8 in relation to the roles of men and women in the church. It certainly isn’t held as the most important verse in the Wheaton area.

      Though I do agree that it is important in showing how men are to act in the church, just as (or should I say, in the like manner due to the conjunction in 2:9) 2:9-15 is important for showing how women are to carry themselves in the church.

      All the best to you,

      Chris Taylor

      • Sue

        I am thinking rather of the principle of 1 Tim 2:8. It is an inside shame that the translators, and editor, of the one translation have publicly made an issue of disputing another translation on such tenuous grounds that cannot be faulted outside of the need to suppress women.

        What I am trying to say is that others note the disreputable behaviour of men disputing, more than they take exception to women teaching in church. Much of BC was evangelized first by women pioneers, so that is not considered to have a negative impact on the witness of the church. But men insulting each other has been noticed to the detriment of the church.

  • Sue

    I am sure you know that Jim Packer has lent his endorsement to the NLT but not to the NIV 2011. This has caused a seriuos fracture in those I am acquainted with. This is so sad because some are elderly men and I grieve so much for what has happened.

    • John

      As you know, there has been a concerted effort against the NIV for quite a while now, and not just because of this one verse, although they have been beating the drum about this one verse for some time now. Other than the CBMW and some in the SBC (usually those associated with the CBMW), no one is attacking the NIV. And it is strange that they don’t attack the NLT, NET, NRSV, CEV, or any other translation that try to be accurate on gender. Right now, the SBC is deciding whether or not to stop selling the NIV in its company store, Lifeway, but they continue to sell these other translations. I think they have elevated the issue of the status of women in the church to just as high a level as belief in Christ and continue to attack those who disagree.

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