1 Timothy 2: An alternative reading?

In my previous post on 1 Timothy 2 and the created order, I questioned the view that Paul’s prohibition of women exercising authority in church is grounded in the created order. In this post, I’d like to examine an alternative view, one which I think makes more sense to me. I don’t pretend that this is an easy issue, and certainly I’m not claiming to have the “right” view. As William Mounce says in his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, “If one position were truly clear or obvious, then there would not be significantly divergent positions held by respectable scholars.” Speaking of other literature, I at the end of this post I will provide a ‘recommended further reading’ section.

So, let’s get cracking. What was going on at Ephesus to provoke Paul to write what he did? (See the passage in question here).

Firstly, I think it’s important to note that the letter itself is corrective. Paul isn’t writing a letter to tell them what ought to be done per se (i.e. from a blank canvas), he is telling them what they’re doing wrong. Hence, his mention of false teaching several times in the letter – and several times mentioning things which have gone wrong with younger widows and wives (most of chapter 5, for example, as well as them being instructed not to marry in 4:3).

Secondly, there is a parallel between 1 Timothy 2:9-10 and 1 Peter 3:1-7. Except that, in 1 Peter 3, Peter is talking unambiguously about husbands and wives. I wouldn’t go as far as saying 1 Peter 3 should be determinative for our understanding of 1 Timothy 2, but I think it’s a piece of evidence which points to the fact that the marriage relationship might be in view.

Thirdly, there is some evidence of – for want of a better word – ‘alpha females’ in the first-century Roman Empire, to the extent that Augustus had to legislate against it. These women “flouted traditional values governing adornment and dress and sexual propriety.” (Towner, p. 196).

Read against these three things, I think a possibility emerges: in Ephesus, these ‘alpha females’ were on the rise. Consequently, Paul’s letter is a direct rebuke for them: this movement should not be allowed to enter into the church. As such, what he says in 11-15 is a continuation of what he says in 9-10: he is simply talking about the same thing. What he is instructing is for marriage relationships to continue in a godly way, consistent with other Biblical teaching (such as the 1 Peter passage, also Ephesians 5). To my mind, this better explains his reference to childbearing in v15: men and women have roles within marriage, and it is right and proper if those are exercised properly.

This leaves the big question: how should we read Paul’s reference to the created order? Most of the ‘egalitarian’ reading I have done suggests that these ‘alpha females’ were actually using a heretical reading of the creation narrative in order to support themselves. As a corrective to that, Paul says “no, this is what happened in Genesis.” Personally I feel this fits better both with Paul’s other writings, as well as making sense of that particular reference. Hence, his emphasis on the woman sinning first, and his emphasis on man being created first (perhaps both of those things had been reversed by heretical ‘alpha females’ in order to assert their position).

As such, and particularly when combined with some of the other textual issues such as the meaning of authentein (to have / assume authority), I would not view this as a prohibition against women having authority roles in churches: instead, Paul is calling for men and women to have appropriate roles in the marriage relationship, as a corrective to a situation that was specifically Ephesian.

Now, I realise that this leaves a fair number of questions hanging, so at this point I’d like to hand over to the experts and provide a few links to further reading you may wish to do:

Further Reading

  • The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Philip H. Towner; NICNT). This is an excellent commentary, Towner takes the egalitarian view – most of what I’ve said here you will find in much more detail in this commentary.
  • The Pastoral Epistles (William D. Mounce; Word Biblical Commentary). This is another excellent commentary, Mounce takes the complementarian view.
  • Evangelical Feminism (Wayne Grudem). In this volume Grudem analyses 118 questions and gives his (complementarian) answer to them. Essentially, read this is you want the counter to what I’ve said.
  • Man and Woman: One in Christ (Philip Payne). I haven’t actually read this, but it came highly recommended by one of my lecturers at college. It sets out the egalitarian case, and apparently is excellent on the 1 Timothy 2 passage (not so much on Corinthians).
  • Women in Church Office (Gordon Hugenberger – PDF). Hugenberger examines 1 Timothy 2 and concludes it should be viewed as talking about husbands and wives.
  • Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul (Andrew Perriman). I found this a very helpful book, although I’m not sure I agree 100% with everything. Worth reading if you want a slightly different perspective on 1 Timothy 2.
  • Discovering Biblical Equality (ed. Pierce and Groothuis). This is a collection of essays on various topics, including 1 Timothy 2. I found Linda Belleville’s essay on 1 Timothy helpful, although – as above – not sure I agreed with everything. Worth reading though.
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8 thoughts on “1 Timothy 2: An alternative reading?

  1. So to clarify: What would you see as being in breach of what Paul says here? Wives not submitting to their husbands, or something else? And what is the significance of the teaching referred to here in the way that you are reading the text?

    Thanks for clarifying!

    • Hi Tim

      I knew someone would ask awkward questions 😉 It’s been a while since I read those books so apologies if this doesn’t answer your questions satisfactorily.

      There’s a lot going on in this passage but I think what would generally be in view is a breach of the marriage relationship (i.e. misusing authority, publicly contradicting husbands and destroying the unity of marriage).

      As such, what is at stake is the importance of that marriage relationship (c.f. the possibly gnostic false teaching of 4:3 – forbidding people to marry), not who or what is teaching whom. This is particularly important within both the context of the church as the household of God, as well as in sight of the culture of the day: I think one application may be not bringing the gospel into disrepute (certainly Towner and probably others believe Paul had in mind the church being in view of the wider community in ch.2, i.e. missionally minded).

      Certainly I think both of these touch on significant issues today!

      Phill

      • Hi, Mr Phill,

        Sorry, I was not trying to be awkward – I am perfectly capable of being awkward; I just thought that I might defer that until after I had clarified exactly what your “alternative reading” entails.

        In asking what, on your reading, would constitute a breach of what Paul says, I was effectively asking what does it mean to obey this passage.

        I think that I am clear on what you think obedience to this passage does not mean: on your reading, this passage does not indicate anything about gender distinctions for roles in the Christian assembly.

        As I see it, you are saying that 1Tim 2 has to do with not bringing the gospel into disrepute, and the thing that threatens to bring the gospel into disrepute is the suggested proto-gnostic teaching that is washing around undermining marriage, which fits with the first century feminism that produces “alpha-females”. Paul’s solution is then to re-read the Genesis account so as reinforce the appropriate roles within marriage.

        (It would be interesting to explore what you see as being the “appropriate roles in the marriage relationship” for which Paul is calling: if this is a relationship of ordered authority wherein the wife submits to the husband, then (a) this is an strange form of egalitarianism, and (b) we have little argument on how Paul’s teaching gets fleshed out at home, our only argument would be about whether that is what Paul is speaking about here.)

        Am I being fair to you in that reconstruction? Because it is important to me that I am hearing you correctly – not least because, if not any ensuing debate will be pointless!

        I think that I would have a few things to say to push back on slightly to try to tighten up the reading of the text.

        First, I am wary of applying the label “gnostic” to the doctrine of demons in 1Tim 4:3 – chiefly because we really do not have evidence of Gnosticism as a force in the first century (now, if you were to be taking 1Tim as post-Pauline then that would be a whole other kettle of fish). But your argument really does not require taking Paul’s language so far (reading, for example, a Gnostic ontology out of this verse is a big leap). “Ascetic” would probably be a more accurate label and so would strengthen your case.

        Second, I want to push back slightly on the emphasis on “bringing the gospel into disrepute”. That feels like a bit of an “apple-pie” statement (in the sense that no-one could object to it, just as no-one could object to ‘motherhood and apple-pie’). But where – in the text – are you seeing that as Paul’s concern?

        Third, if Paul’s concern was that the gospel might be brought into disrepute by the church giving way to proto-feminism, then it seems to me to be odd (to say the least) that the application of that is that in the church’s common-life today we should be going along the path of feminism. (If that makes sense).

        • Hi Tim

          What I’m most surprised about all this is that you are writing on the day of your big move! – hope it all goes well by the way.

          I think you are being fair in that reconstruction, although I’m afraid I may have been a bit woolly in the details.

          I think most of what I’ve read on the subject has labelled the teaching proto-gnostic, probably because, as you say, gnosticism wasn’t really a force in the first century. I should be more careful with that.

          I agree that bringing the gospel into disrepute is an ‘apple-pie’ statement, but at the same time that doesn’t make it wrong. I will have to re-examine the arguments made for viewing that passage as being about the church with outsiders in view, I can’t remember them off the top of my head. I will do some reading and get back to you.

          Thirdly, I don’t agree with your final paragraph. The church ‘going along the path of feminism’ today is only true if Paul’s original statement was against women teaching and exercising authority in the church. If Paul did not intend such a prohibition then the church being ‘feminist’ today is not a bad thing so long as you have the right definition of ‘feminist’. I think it’s possible to hold on to marriage on the one hand and on the other hold on to women in ministry without contradicting what Paul wrote here.

          Thanks,
          Phill

    • Hi Christopher, well the whole letter is in pretty general terms, wouldn’t you say? Why does Paul not name the false teachers he talks about? In fact, I think in the Pastoral Epistles Paul hardly mentions anyone by name, which some have suggested indicates that the letter is not authentically Pauline (it doesn’t have his usual greetings etc).

      I’m not sure if I’ve properly understood your question though 🙂

  2. Hi Phill, I guess my question is more about different types of generalisations. Generally referring to false teachers or super-apostles is understandable as they are groups characterised by their actions and not presumably gender specific, but the teaching here in Tim and also in Cor seems to refer to instructions for women by virtue of the gender rather than their actions. That instruction appears to be to refrain from teaching (at least in the english translation) and there seems to not be any similar general command (all men must be silent etc…) given to erstwhile alpha-males who were misleading the church?

    So the question is why are women in general told to refrain from teaching but men are not – given that there must have been cases when men were equally culpable for misleading the church.

    On another note, questions on Letter authorship is something we (as in the laity) rarely hear any analysis of – in church settings at any rate! Out of interest, which letters/gospels are contested? Which aren’t?

    • “So the question is why are women in general told to refrain from teaching but men are not – given that there must have been cases when men were equally culpable for misleading the church.”

      This is the problem with us not being able to reconstruct what Paul knew about the situation and the original context.

      Perhaps Paul knew that there was false teachers in general but only knew of what they were teaching, and he also knew separately that there was a problem with these ‘alpha females’ particularly at Ephesus. So he prohibits false teaching in general in one place, and he prohibits the assuming of authority of women over men in a different place as that is a separate situation.

      In my mind, what Paul writes in 1 Tim 2 quite nicely deals with a particular pastoral situation which doesn’t quite fit under the banner of ‘false teaching’.

      “On another note, questions on Letter authorship is something we (as in the laity) rarely hear any analysis of – in church settings at any rate! Out of interest, which letters/gospels are contested? Which aren’t?”

      I’m afraid I can’t give you much specific on this – it’s something I’m fairly new to myself! It very much depends on who you read. All the Pastoral Epistles are questioned to the extent that it’s difficult to be taken seriously in academic circles if you believe that Paul wrote them (although there does seem to have been a swing back the other way recently). I know that many doubt Ephesians is authentically Pauline.

      I have an ESV Study Bible which has an introduction to each book in there and goes into the authorship question. Also Carson & Moo’s introduction to the New Testament goes through the New Testament and deals with the authorship question – I haven’t been through all of it yet but I believe they try to defend the traditional authorship of the NT letters!

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