The Bible does not prevent women from actively serving in the worship assembly—from speaking, teaching, leading, having authority, etc.—per a growing number of Church of Christ congregations, most Church of Christ colleges, the vast majority of Biblical scholars, and the overwhelming majority of U.S. Christianity.
Yet, nearly all Churches of Christ completely exclude women from actively serving in the worship service—from reading scripture, preaching, leading singing, leading prayer, taking up the offering, helping with communion, etc.
The Churches of Christ is nearly alone among U.S. Christian groups in completely excluding women from actively serving in the assembly. Almost no other group of any size completely excludes—some will not ordain women as the senior pastor or priest, etc., but even they do not completely prohibit women from speaking in the assembly (from leading singing, reading scripture, etc.).
This article, part 3 of a series, sets out three categories of how churches interpret 1 Timothy 2:12 as not completely excluding women from speaking, teaching, or actively serving in the assembly.
Congregations Making a Change
Parts 1 and 2 point to study materials of 10 Churches of Christ that changed their practice to have women speak in the assembly, cite a longer list of Churches of Christ in which women speak in the assembly, and describe scripture relating to female elders.
These Churches of Christ often point out that
(a) excluding women from speaking, teaching, and having authority contradicts many, many passages in the Bible in which God asks women to speak to, teach, and have authority over men, in an assembly and elsewhere, which suggests then that the traditional Church of Christ interpretation of 2:12 to stop women from speaking, teaching, and having authority over men in an assembly, in Sunday School, and elsewhere is off;
(b) 1 Tim 2:12 is in a letter that says right up front in 1 Tim 1:1-7 that it is written to address a particular kind of teaching and authority (an authoritative, “final / ultimate say”-type, like a teacher of the law, one involving a disruptive, domineering approach that includes false doctrine or uneducated teaching), not all kinds;
(c) 1 Tim 2:12 uses a rare word authentein, a word used nowhere else in the Bible, to convey that it refers to a very particular kind of teaching and authority (a seizing, domineering, non-peaceful one), not all kinds; and
(d) Everyone acknowledges that specifics expressed in other passages in 1 Tim, a letter written about 2000 years ago, (e.g., men must raise holy hands when they pray, women cannot wear gold or pearls, women must wash the feet of other Christians, and slavery is acceptable), were specifics for the specific culture, time, and people of Ephesus in the first century, so it is hypocritical, discriminatory, and wholly inconsistent to insist that a perceived specific in 2:12 must be followed by women today.
Three Major Approaches to 1 Tim 2:12
Here are three ways in which these congregations have interpreted 1 Tim 2:12.
First Category: Only senior pulpit preacher and elder prohibited—all other roles open to women.
Some congregations conclude that 1 Tim 2:12 means women ought not engage in any authoritative (the final-decision type) teaching or authority, i.e., that of elder or senior pulpit preacher. They conclude women cannot serve as an elder or senior pulpit minister but can do anything else, including reading scripture, leading singing, and leading prayer in the assembly and teaching Sunday School.
Check “teaching” or “authority” in relation to 1 Tim 2:12 in most any credible Bible-word-study resource and one can see that such a continuous, authoritative type of teaching and authority (like the final word kind of teaching) is the kind of activity to which 1 Tim 2:12 is directed (and not all types of teaching / authority). In other words the “teach or have authority” in 2:12 is not simply any kind of teaching or authority but is a particular kind, “the” ultimate teaching authority on the subject. This is indicated by 1 Tim 1:1-7, too.
One can debate whether, in the Church of Christ structure, a preacher is “the” authority on any subject. The elders make the decisions. One can also debate whether any one elder is “the” authority, unless a church has only one. Congregations in this category, though, consider the senior pulpit preacher and elders to be the kind of “to teach” / “assume authority” meant in 1 Tim 2:12.
Second Category: Only a domineering teaching of false doctrine is prohibited–no role is per se prohibited.
Congregations in a second category have a similar view to those in the first (agreeing the instructions focus on only authoritative-type teaching or authority). They conclude, though, that the instructions ask women not to engage in authoritative-type teaching or authority only if the teaching or authority involves a domineering approach that includes false doctrine or uneducated teaching that is disruptive.
1 Tim is a letter, and Paul expresses the kind of teaching and authority about which he is writing at the very beginning of the letter. Paul tells Timothy to stay in Ephesus to “command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer …. Such things promote controversial speculations …. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about ….” (1 Tim 1:3-7) Teachers of the law of the time asserted authority even greater than the written scripture and had conflicted with Jesus.
Moreover, in the same vein, the Greek term in 1 Tim 2:12 often translated usurp authority — authentein — refers to a domineering kind of authority, not the usual kind of authority. Paul used the usual word for authority plenty of times. He used this rare word here instead. Second- through fifth-century translations of the Bible translated it to refer to “dominate a man” and “domineer over a man.”
In other words, congregations in the second category agree with those in the first: Paul is referring in 1 Tim 2:12 to the kind of teaching and authority like the “teachers of the law” do (as 1 Tim 1:3-7 indicates). This is a final-say-for-all-religious-instruction-everywhere and greater-than-the-scripture type of teaching and authority.
But, more specifically, Paul is referring to such teaching and authority that further involves disturbing the peace and that is of false doctrine and that is done by people who are domineering and uneducated (who do not know what they are talking about), as 1 Tim 1:3-7 and authentein indicates.
Thus, these congregations conclude that 1 Tim 2:12 asks women not to act in a domineering, unprepared, etc., manner relative to men when engaging in authoritative, “final-say”-type teaching. Under this view, women are not prohibited from reading scripture, leading singing, leading prayer, preaching, etc., and they are also not prohibited from serving as elder or pastor or pulpit minister (as long as they do so in the usual, peaceful manner).
Third Category: The specific instructions in 2:12, like those in other part of 1 Tim regarding slaves, lifting holy hands, and foot washing, express general principles (encouraging knowledgable and peaceful teachers) for today and not specific requirements for today.
Some congregations conclude that specific instructions in 1 Timothy—whatever they are—including any specific instruction in 1 Timothy 2:12, were not intended to apply for all time or to all cultures, situations, or people. Instead, the specific instructions were directed to the that particular time, culture, situations, and people.
This is not to say that the specific instructions are useless or to be completely ignored. While a specific instruction might not be one that is applicable for all time or to all cultures, situations, and people, it is still the case that general principles can be useful for other times, cultures, situations, and people.
They see as strong evidence that the specific instructions in 1 Tim was not meant to apply for all time or to all people, etc., things said in those texts like:
- “I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands ….” (1 Tim 2:8)
- “I also want the women to dress … not with … gold or pearls …” (1 Tim 2:9)
- “No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, … [and] washing the feet of the Lord’s people ….” (1 Tim 5:9-10)
- “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.” (1 Tim 6:1)
Either (a) congregations today are being hypocritical and sinful by ignoring all of these other specific instructions or (b) the specific instructions in 2:12 ought to be recognized as, like these others, intended as applicable only to the particular time of the letter and/or to the particular culture, situations, and people.
Under this view, 1 Tim 2:12 thus does not prohibit women from engaging in any active service in the assembly (including preaching) or in Sunday School. Likewise, neither do those passages nor others, prohibit women from serving as deacons or elders or senior preacher. Instead, 2:12 encourages knowledgeable, peaceful teaching and service.
Congregations in all three categories reject as irrational and unbiblical the view that 1 Timothy 2:12 means that women are not to teach men.
Even in ultra-conservative, ultra-fundamentalist churches, women teach men in the assembly all the time. Every Sunday.
Women teach by their presence. They teach by the look on their face. They teach by their body language. They teach by their gestures, by their laugh, by their cry. They teach when they sing. They teach by how they treat their children by their side. They teach when they whisper things to their husbands. They teach by how they treat their husbands. They teach by the way they dress. They teach by how they treat others. They teach if and when they take communion. They teach when they use sign language to teach, including what is being said and done. They teach when they say “Amen.” They teach when they write an encouragement card and put it in the plate. They teach when they go forward to ask for prayer or ask to be baptized. They teach through the hymns that they write that we sing all the time. Women teach ….
And women teach and have authority over men all the time — in the workplace, in government, in the military, when they teach high school, ….
Scripture Over and Over ….
The Bible tells women over and over again to teach and have authority over men. God has Huldah teach men about scripture. (2 Kings 22:11-20) God has Deborah prophesy and lead all of Israel. (Judges 4-5) God has Anna prophesy and pray in the Temple to men. (Luke 2:36-38)
Jesus asks a woman, Mary, to be the first person on resurrection morning to go and speak the good news to assembled men and to tell them what Jesus wanted them to do. (Matt 28:8-10; John 20:10-19) Paul tells us that Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos about God. (Acts 18:24-26) The first thing Peter says when the spirit comes on him at Pentecost in saying that God will pour out God’s spirit is that your sons and daughters will prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18) God asks women and men to teach one another through scripture and song. (Col 3:16) Paul notes that women were praying and prophesying in the churches. (1 Cor 11:5, 16)
And who does the Apostle Paul say is prophesying (teaching!) in the assembly when the unbeliever is converted? Everyone — women and men– “the whole church.” (1 Cor 14:23-25)
Paul even tells us that singing is a type of teaching. (Col 3:16) If women cannot teach in the assembly, then they cannot sing in the assembly.
Indeed, Galatians 3:28 explains “nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
It goes on and on.
So, the concept that 1 Tim 2:12 means that women are not to “teach or have authority over” (if you consider what happens in the worship assembly to constitute “having authority over”) men—-in the way one usually thinks of those things—-whether in the assembly, outside the assembly, over the assembly, or under the assembly—-directly contradicts common sense, what every congregation does, the Bible, and what God asks women to do over and over and over again.
The usual reason given for completely excluding women in this way: (a) a quote of 2:12 with no context, (b) asserting it “plainly says” women cannot teach or have any authority over a man in the assembly, and (c) saying it is because Eve was created after Adam and was deceived in the Garden.
Nevermind that virtually no credible Biblical scholar, not even extremely conservative ones, says this verse means what the common English translations say (e.g., “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” (KJV)).
Nevermind that the text does not say that the instructions in 1 Tim 2:12 is limited to the assembly. Indeed, nevermind that the book of 1 Tim discusses matters outside the assembly and that for centuries 2:12 was viewed as applying outside and inside the assembly. Nevermind that the Churches of Christ, in the 19th and well into the 20th century, firmly asserted that 2:12 applied everywhere—-in government, in the workplace, etc.
And nevermind that creation-order and the Garden story does not seem like a reason God would ban 14-year old girls from reading scripture in church. And nevermind that creation-order and the Garden story makes the same, if not more, sense as reasons for the other interpretations of 2:12.
And nevermind that prohibiting women from teaching or having authority over a man contradicts multiple other passages in the Bible, including multiples ones in which God asks women to teach and have authority over men, in an assembly and elsewhere.
What’s the Big Deal?
It ought to be obvious that subjecting a girl to sex discrimination, and having her observe other girls and women being discriminated against, beginning at a young age is harmful to her in multiple ways, psychologically, spiritually, and physically.
Indeed, a recent study published by Oxford University Press indicates that having only male congregational leaders causes long-term harm to the girls in the congregation: it reported that adult women who had only male congregational leaders growing up had, as an effect, (1) lower self-esteem (associated with more depression and anxiety), (2) less education, (3) higher unemployment, and (4) more of an authoritarian and judgmental view of God (associated with negative psychological health), on average, than men and than women who had influential female congregational leaders growing up.
Also, boys and men take the lessons learned in church and apply them outside of church. It is not hard to surmise that teaching boys and men that sex discrimination is acceptable inside the church increases the likelihood and magnitude of sex discrimination that the daughters of the church will face outside of church—in the workplace, in school, and in life.
There are many more problems with it.
It’s a big deal.
This article is about some details of scripture text.
Scripture text is not really what most people rely on to figure out what is Biblical and right on this issue, though. The vast majority have given the relevant text little thought.
And scripture text is not what young girls and boys in the congregation rely on to figure out what is Biblical and right relative to this issue, either.
Nearly all those members and girls and boys rely on one thing to tell them whether the practice is Biblical: the presence of the good people in the pews around them and their silence on this issue.
Those members and girls and boys see good women and men they trust in the pews smiling and saying nothing about it while the daughters of the congregation watch themselves and their mothers and their female friends and the mothers of their female friends be discriminated against Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
Those good women and men, by their presence and silence on this issue, are in effect the Bible on this issue for those girls and boys and others in the congregation.
It is that Bible—you, your presence in the pews with your silence and your going along with it—that is read every Sunday by those girls, boys, and other members.
What does that Bible say to those girls, boys, and other members?
It says sex discrimination is OK? Some images of God can be heard from and some can’t? We think the potential harm to young girls is acceptable? Sex discrimination is OK if it is needed to keep some adults happy?
It says I am willing for these girls to go through this to avoid taking a chance on losing members? We are going to keep doing it because some adults might get upset if we don’t? It’s not worth spending time on? I am scared to discuss it? I don’t know why, but all the rest of Christianity is wrong? The negative impact on girls in the congregation is acceptable to meet my family’s goals? I’ll ignore the impact on the girls and women around me again this week? And the next?
What does that Bible say?
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Notes & Sources
1 Cor 14:34-35 is discussed in some detail here.
1 Tim 2:12 is discussed in more detail here.
See sources cited in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, including the study material of the various congregations.
See also Steve Gardner, “Most Church-of-Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services: Violates 1 Timothy 2:12 “do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man”? (Part 4, Conclusion),” AuthenticTheology.com (May 30, 2018), and sources cited therein.
I use the term “authority” because that is the commonly used term, but it is not really authority. A more accurate term for reading scripture, preaching, leading prayer, etc., in the assembly is “active service,” not “having authority.”
For each category, the view is discussed from the standpoint of that category.
There are other categories and multiple permutations. A fourth category, one I did not see play a major role in the materials I surveyed, is the view that 2:12 is limited to the husband-wife relationship.
It is worth noting that a substantial group of scholars view 1 Tim 2:12 as directed towards wives and husbands not all women and men.
1 Tim 2:12 says “I do not permit gynaiki to teach or to assume authority over andros; she must be quiet.”
The Greek term gynaiki can mean “a woman” or “a wife,” and the Greek term andros can mean “a man” or “a husband.” Context determines which.
Most study Bibles will include a footnote telling the reader that it can be either.
There are very good reasons to believe that 1 Tim 2:12 refers to not permitting a wife to teach or assume authority over a husband and not to denying every woman in the world the ability to teach or assume authority over any man. (Note that it is generally agreed that “she must be quiet” does not mean complete silence or anything along those lines, but simply means she must be peaceful–see 1 Tim 2:2, which uses the same term in Greek that gives you a better sense of the mind of quiet / peacefulness to which it refers).
The context of verse 12 strongly suggests it is discussing wives and husbands. Verse 11 refers to “submission,” normally a husband-wife issue, but not always. Verses 13 and 14 refer to Adam and Eve, husband and wife. Verse 15 discusses childbearing, again relating to husbands and wives under God’s plan.
Verses 9-10 refer to women dressing modestly and good deeds, which relate to women generally, and Paul seems to shift to a more specific mode in verses 11-15, directed to wives and husbands in questions of teaching and authority. Young’s Literal Translation agrees, referring to ‘husbands.’ Most other translations leave it ambiguous, for the reader to decide, dropping a footnote to say it could be directed to wives.
Also, note that those who insist that 1 Tim 3 rejects female deacons do so on the basis of insisting that 1 Tim 3:11 refers to the wives of deacons and not to women deacons. The word used in 1 Tim 3:11, though, is the same word used in 1 Tim 2:12 (gynaiki), just in plural form. So, if 1 Tim 3:11 refers to wives of deacons, then it is nearly certain that 1 Tim 2:12 refers to wives, as the two use the same word just a few sentences away from one another in the same context.
I did not see a congregation base their decision solely on this issue, but I saw some that raised it.
Thus, congregations in this fourth category conclude that, in 1 Tim 2:12, Paul says he does not let a married woman teach or usurp authority over her husband. You could view this as a nepotism policy of sorts. Of course, one would still need to figure out what “teach or usurp authority” means under one of the other categories. Under this view, Paul was not asking that women be generally prohibited from anything except possibly certain activities relative to their husbands.
For discussion on 1 Tim 5, see Linda L. Belleville’s discussion at pages 62-63 of Two Views on Women in Ministry (Revised Edition), ed. by Stanley N. Gundry (series editor) Grand Rapids: Zondervan (2005).
Updated as to 1 Tim 5.
Picture is from pixabay.
All scripture from NIV or KJV unless otherwise noted.