This morning I read an article on the Junia Project’s website called “Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb”. The article provides three steps for “cutting the wire” of arguments that use 1 Timothy 2:12 to exclude women from teaching or having leadership over men in the church. In this post I want to offer a point-by-point response to the arguments that the author makes in this article. The point of this post is not to show that women shouldn’t be able to teach or have authority over men in the church – that’s a totally different issue. The point of this post is to show that the particular arguments used in this article should not be used to make the point the author is trying to make. We’ll look at each point one at a time and see where the mistakes are made.
1. The Rendering of the Verb αὐθεντεῖv (authentein)
At the beginning of the article the author makes two points about how the verb αὐθεντεῖv (authentein) should be translated in 1 Timothy 2:12. First, the author says that the verb αὐθεντεῖv (authentein) is not the normal word used for authority in the church in Paul. On the basis of this the author concludes that Paul’s concern must be “something other than the legitimate use of authority”. Rather than referring to exercising authority in general, the word should be understood to communicate the idea of “domineering” (cf. the translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 in the Vulgate). The second point that the author wants to make about this verb is that it is used to form a hendiadys with the verb διδάσκειν (didaskein, “to teach”). A hendiadys is a construction where two words are connected by a conjunction but one word is actually meant to modify the meaning of the other word. So, according to the author, when these two verbs are combined it should be translated, “to teach in a domineering way”.
Let’s deal with these issues one at a time. First, the fact that this isn’t Paul’s normal word for exercising authority in the church doesn’t mean that Paul’s concern must have been for something other than the legitimate exercise of authority. If someone were to argue that point it would have to be based on (a) the usage of this word in other writers around the time of Paul and (b) the immediate context of 1 Timothy 2:12. When you look at how αὐθεντεῖv (authentein) is used by other writers it is clear that it simply means “to have authority over someone else”. It doesn’t refer to the use of authority in a domineering way by itself: there would have to be something else in the context to make it clear that that was the case.
So the real question, then, is whether or not there is anything in the context of 1 Timothy 2:12 that would indicate that Paul is speaking about exercising authority in a domineering way. The answer is that there is nothing in the immediate context that would indicate that this is the case. In this context the verb simply means “to have authority over someone else”. [For a discussion of Wilshire’s article on αὐθεντεῖv (authentein) see my entry here].
[Incidentally, the Vulgate’s translation of this passage does not support the idea that αὐθεντεῖv (authentein) means “to be domineering” in this context. The Latin verb used here is dominor. While it’s true that the English word “domineering” ultimately derives from this word, in Latin this word simply means “to have authority over someone else” in this context.]
Second, although this author is not the only one to suggest that διδάσκειν (didaskein, “to teach”) and αὐθεντεῖv (authentein) form a hendiadys, it is difficult to reconcile the resulting meaning with what Paul says right afterward. In the second part of 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul says that rather than teaching or exercising authority over men in the church, women should be silent (ἡσυχίᾳ) . He is not simply forbidding teaching that’s domineering or even teaching that’s simply authoritative (the normal way of understanding the hendiadys in this verse) – he is forbidding all teaching. The second part of the verse seems to preclude any possibility of teaching, whether domineering, authoritative, or otherwise. Whether this was merely a temporary injunction based on the current situation in Ephesus or if it was Paul’s usual practice is another issue. The point is that this second part of the verse strongly speaks against simply understanding αὐθεντεῖv (authentein) to only refer to a particular kind of teaching.
2. Singular vs. Plural
The author suggests the possibility that in 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul is only thinking of a particular woman rather than women in general based on the abrupt shift from the plural (“women”) in verses 9 to 10 to the singular (“woman”) in verses 11 to 15.
This is a very bizarre way of looking at the text. There are two issues with this point. First, if Paul were thinking about a particular woman, he probably would have used the definite article (“the”) in front of the word “woman”. The fact that there is no article indicates that he is speaking about women in general. And even if there were a definite article, Paul would have had to mention her earlier on in the letter for anyone to know who he was talking about. As virtually every New Testament scholar would recognize, Paul’s use of the singular here without the definite article refers to women in general.
Second, regardless of what one thinks about Paul’s reasoning in the verses that follow (2:13-15), why on earth would he have to use that kind of argument to get one particular woman to be quiet? That makes no sense at all; his reasoning is too general. So it is completely misguided to think that Paul’s shift to the singular means that he is speaking about one particular woman. Even to mention this as a serious possibility shows a lack of understanding of how the language works.
3. The Use of the Present Tense
The author suggests the possibility that because Paul uses the present tense of the verb ἐπιτρέπω (epitrepo – “to allow, permit”) that he actually means, “I am not currently permitting a woman to…”.
Again, there are two problems with this. First, the author is reading way too much into Paul’s use of the present tense. The present tense can’t be used to communicate that kind of meaning by itself – Paul would have had to use an adverb or an adverbial phrase to modify its meaning. It may well be that this was only a temporary rule but this cannot be determined on the basis of the tense that Paul used. Any standard Greek Syntax book would make that clear.
Second, if Paul really did mean “I am not currently permitting” this wreaks havoc on the author’s understanding of the verbs mentioned in point 1 above. Did Paul really mean, “I am not currently permitting women to teach men in a domineering way” with the possibility that this might be allowed in the future? She can’t have it both ways.
4. Permanent Restriction vs. Temporary Measure
The author argues that there is no evidence in the text to indicate that Paul was establishing a restriction that was meant for all time. She appeals to contextual evidence (i.e. false teaching in Ephesus) to indicate that Paul’s instruction was related to false teaching.
Once again, there are a number of problems with the point the author is trying to make. First, this understanding does not match up with her interpretation of διδάσκειν (didaskein, “to teach”) and αὐθεντεῖv (authentein) mentioned in point 1. Is she saying that the command for women not to teach in a domineering way is not a permanent restriction? Might that be permitted in the future? If the problem is false teaching, why is Paul only concerned about their demeanor while teaching? Again, the author can’t have it both ways.
Second, while the background of false teaching is definitely important, there is nothing in the immediate context that would indicate that this is why Paul formulated this rule. If the present tense of ἐπιτρέπω (epitrepo – “to allow, permit”) can be used for anything it is to show that not permitting women to teach or to have authority over men was Paul’s usual practice (the customary present). If he were laying down a specific directive for the church in Ephesus, Paul would have used the imperative – “Stop permitting a woman to teach or have authority over a man!” – not the present tense. No doubt Paul had false teaching in mind when he was addressing this issue but the way he words things makes it seem as though he is appealing to his common practice rather than imposing something novel and merely temporary.
Third, there is a real hermeneutical issue with the way the author words her point (hermeneutics in the sense of figuring out how the text applies to our present situation). If we need an explicit statement to indicate that Paul’s instructions were meant to be permanent, we would be in big trouble. All of Paul’s letters were meant for particular situations. Figuring out if and how a passage applies today is much more complicated than appealing to something like this (I hope I misunderstood her argument here). It may well be that Paul’s restriction – even if this was his usual practice – does not apply to churches today. But there are much better arguments that could be used than this one.
5. Doctrine Built on a Hapax Legomenon
According to the author, it is dangerous to build doctrine on a hapax legomenon (a word that only occurs once in a particular author’s writings). The word that she is referring to, of course, is αὐθεντεῖv (authentein), which only occurs here in Paul.
There are two problems with this as it applies to 1 Timothy 2:12. First, even though αὐθεντεῖv (authentein) only occurs once in Paul, the basic meaning is clear based on its usage in other writers from around the same time. Scholars do this kind of comparative work all of the time, even with words that occur more than once in a particular corpus. An author’s particular use of a word, of course, is determinative, but it goes without saying that how other authors use the word is relevant – especially if the usage is fairly standard. And that seems to be the case with this word.
Second, even if the meaning of αὐθεντεῖv (authentein) were unclear, the meaning of the word διδάσκειν (didaskein, “to teach”) is perfectly clear. Since it is unlikely that these verbs form a hendiadys, the prohibition against teaching would still be clear. [Also, if the author thinks this word is so unclear, why argue earlier that it means “domineering?]
Third, I find it very unlikely that scholars who argue that 1 Timothy 2:12 is normative for the church today base their arguments strictly on this passage. But that’s another issue.
6. Consistency With the Rest of the Passage
The author suggests that it is inconsistent to say that Paul’s instructions about women’s dress in 1 Timothy 2:9 is culturally relative while 1 Timothy 2:12 is applicable for all time.
I honestly don’t see how this is inconsistent, regardless of which position a person takes on 1 Timothy 2:12. Paul makes it clear what his real concern in 1 Timothy 2:9 is – that women dress modestly, with decency and propriety. Then he gives a number of examples of what he considers to be immodest: braided hair, wearing gold or pearls, and wearing expensive clothing. A good argument could be made that the specifics are not the issue; the real issue is the principle. It should be clear that 1 Timothy 2:12, regardless of where a person comes out on the issue, is a different kind of thing altogether. One could make the argument that Paul’s argument in 1 Timothy 2:12 is culturally conditioned and, therefore, not normative for the church today, but that is a much more complicated argument than arguing that the specifics in 1 Timothy 2:9 are culturally conditioned. I hope that it’s clear that the charge of inconsistency in this case is overly simplistic.
7. Consistency With The Author’s Teaching Elsewhere
According to the author, if 1 Timothy 2:12 is a general prohibition about women teaching or having authority over men, it would be inconsistent with Paul’s teaching elsewhere. For example, Romans 16 mentions women in leadership positions, 1 Corinthians 11 mentions women prophesying in the church, and 1 Timothy 2:1-10 (1 Corinthians 11 would have been better) implies that women were allowed to pray in public in the church, going against what Paul said about being silent.
Let’s start off with Romans 16. There are two verses that are usually pointed to in order to support the argument that women were generally permitted to teach or have authority over men: Romans 16:1 and Romans 16:7. Romans 16:1 refers to Phoebe as a deaconess. Apparently she is the one who delivered Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. There is nothing, however, in this designation to indicate that she taught publically in church services or that she had authority over men. If the Apostolic Constitutions and the Didascalia (writings from the patristic period) are any indication, the primary role of deaconesses was to serve other women. They would assist in female baptisms, hand out aid from the church to poor women, and serve other women in church meetings (see John McGuckin’s A-Z of Patristic Theology). Of course things could have been different for deaconesses in the New Testament but it seems unlikely.
I agree that Romans 16:8 speaks about a female apostle (whatever that term means here). But there are two issues that need to be made clear. First, the word “apostle” isn’t being used in the same sense as “the Twelve”. That’s not because Junia is a woman – the same holds true for Barnabas being called an apostle. Paul makes a clear distinction between the Twelve and other people who are called apostles. Second, even if Junia was an apostle in the same sense as Barnabas or even Paul (more of a missionary designation), it would still have to be argued that her exercise of this office involved teaching and having authority over men. It seems more likely that Junia would have ministered to other women in contexts where it would have been inappropriate for a male “apostle”. The burden of proof is heavily on the side of the person taking up the contrary position. So Romans 16 doesn’t really seem to be a problem.
What about 1 Corinthians 11, where it speaks about women prophesying in the church? I would argue quite strongly that both in the Old and New Testaments there is a clear distinction between teaching and prophesying. The difference between teaching and prophesying is that prophecy comes directly from God without any intermediary while teaching doesn’t. When someone prophesies, they are receiving a message directly from God; when someone teaches they are basing their message on scripture. In the Old Testament, only men (specifically priests and Levites) could teach; but there are several examples of female prophets. We may think that this is a fine distinction that shouldn’t really matter but that’s the way things are presented in the Old Testament. Something similar seems to be the case in the New Testament. This makes sense based on what can be seen in the New Testament and based on the fact that a good percentage of early Christians were Jewish. So Paul seems to have been okay with women prophesying while men are present but he does not permit women to teach (assuming 1 Timothy 2:12 reflects Paul’s normal practice).
As for women praying in the church, this doesn’t seem very relevant for 1 Timothy 2:12. 1 Timothy 2:12 is about women teaching in the church so when Paul says that they are to be silent he must be talking about silence with respect to teaching men.
8. Consistency With Jesus’s Teaching
The final point that the author makes is that Jesus never limited women’s roles to a secondary position in the church even when he had the chance to do so. If 1 Timothy 2:12 was a general prohibition of women teaching or having authority over men in the church, Paul would be going against the pattern that Jesus established.
While it’s true that women play an extremely important role in the ministry of Jesus (they supported him financially, they didn’t abandon Jesus when he was being crucified, and they were the first ones to witness to the resurrection), the plain fact is that Jesus chose twelve male apostles even when he had the opportunity to choose female apostles. This is not to say that this definitively establishes a pattern for how things should be for all times and all places – but it does mean that there is no contradiction between 1 Timothy 2:12 and Jesus’s teaching.
Again, my point is not to argue that women should not be allowed to teach or have authority over men in the church today – my point is that these are not the best arguments to do that. Whenever we’re trying to argue a point from the biblical text, we need to make sure that we don’t skew the evidence to favour the position that we hold to, regardless of what position that is. That’s one reason why I respect Krister Stendahl so much. Krister Stendahl was one of the most influential New Testament scholars of the 20th century. He was also influential in the movement to allow women’s ordination in the Church of Sweeden, but he did not do this at the expense of exegetical integrity (see the discussion in James Barr’s, The Concept of Biblical Theology and Stendahl’s own writings). His conclusion was that Paul did forbid women to teach or have authority over men as a general rule. For him, that’s simply where the evidence from the New Testament pointed him. But, in the end, he did conclude that, given the cultural situation today, women should be allowed to be ordained today. His commitment to understanding what the text actually says, regardless of what he might have wanted the text to say, is a good example for all of us to follow, regardless of which side of the fence we land on when it comes to the role of women in the church today.
 See especially the detailed analysis in George W. Knight III, “ΑΥΘΕΝΤΕΩ in Reference to Women,” NTS 30 (1984): 143-157. See also Leland Edward Wilshire, “The TLG Computer and Further Reference to ΑΥΘΕΝΤΕΩ in 1 Timothy 2:12,” NTS 34 (1988): 120-134. The evidence that Wilshire presents is vast and, in my opinion, ultimately supports the position being presented here. Wilshire argues at the end that the use of this word doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the church offices in 1 Timothy 3. However, this argument – which is extremely brief and somewhat incomplete – is not really based on the study that makes up the bulk of the argument. He does make mention of the fact that αὐθεντεῖv (authentein) is not the normal word used for authority but doesn’t really come to a conclusion on what the significance of that might be. It is important, though, to be careful how one uses the lexical information in Wilshire’s study. It is important to note that the evidence listed in Wilshire’s study where the word has negative connotations (“murderer”, etc.) are from a related noun, not the verb itself, which is extremely important. And even if the verb could be used to mean something like this, which it doesn’t, it would be illegitimate to suggest that it has violent connotations simply because in some writers it is used to refer to murder (which it doesn’t, of course). The author of the article on the Junia Project and several others make this mistake in the comment section of the article. She lists negative meanings from Wilshire’s article, not noting that they come from the noun, not the verb, and suggests that these all need to be taken into account when trying to understand 1 Timothy 2:12. This is a classic example of illegitimate totality transfer. It is not good enough to simply cite a scholarly article; the article itself needs to be understood properly and the information in the article needs to be used properly.