Women in Leadership: 1 Timothy 2

Dale M. Coulter

Paul’s first letter to Timothy has become a flash point over women in leadership. There are a number of possible applications with respect to the role of women and leadership: 1) women cannot teach/preach and thus cannot pastor or lead beyond other women or children; 2) women can teach/preach but cannot serve as bishops and thus cannot exercise ecclesial authority over others; 3) women can teach/preach and exercise ecclesial authority.

One can find the first position among scholars such as Wayne Grudem and John Piper. It is also the official position of the Southern Baptist Convention. Most Church of God ministers hold to the second or third position. In this blog, I am going to make a case for the third position.

In making this case, I will not be arguing that women should be bishops. In other words, I am not tackling 1 Timothy 3 and the question of whether Paul’s language allows for women bishops. I am keeping my remarks strictly to the question of leadership in support of the second item of the General Council agenda that “General-Council certified women ministers” can sit on the General Council.

Considerations of Scripture

The Church of God stands for the verbal inspiration of scripture and the whole Bible rightly divided. The first is a theological commitment to scripture while the second is a commitment on how to interpret scripture. We should not confuse the two.

Verbal inspiration means that the Spirit has inspired every word. There is a fullness to inspiration. The Spirit has so guided the human authors that His words and their words fuse together. We claim mystery on precisely how the Spirit guided. The outcome of this guidance was the infallible Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of scripture. No translation is infallible. Yet, every translation, insofar as it accurately reflects the original texts, participates in the infallibility of scripture. This is why the accuracy of the translation matters more than its readability.

The commitment to the whole Bible rightly divided involves a hermeneutical principle. Every scripture must be understood in terms of its immediate context and the broader context of the entire biblical witness. The Reformation principle of historical-grammatical exegesis means that to understand the immediate context, we must examine the historical and literary dimensions. To this immediate context must be added the entire biblical witness. One cannot understand 1 Timothy 2 apart from the larger body of Paul’s letters, the New Testament, and the Old Testament.

The difference between the immediate context of 1 Timothy 2 and the broader context of Paul’s letters, the New Testament, and the Old Testament is where interpretations diverge. It is a mistake simply to isolate 1 Timothy 2 and then use it as a measuring rod for everything else Paul wrote. This is not following the basic principle the Church of God has established in its commitment to the whole Bible rightly divided. All scripture is inspired and no scripture is more inspired than any other. Everything Paul writes is “of the Spirit.”

It is also a fundamental category mistake to think that this is a matter of a different theological commitment to scripture. Too often we think that a different interpretation means a different theological commitment when it does not. This is a mistake that I see made over and over by claims like “I just believe the Bible” or “I stand by the Word” or appeals to “the plain meaning.”

The Two Contexts

The broader context of Paul’s letters reveals important biblical truths about women in leadership: 1) they were co-workers (Priscilla); 2) they sponsored house churches (Chloe, Lydia); 3) they were teachers (Priscilla); 4) they were foundational prophets who helped establish the church (Anna, Philip’s daughters); 5) they were apostles as part of team minister (Andronicus and Junia). All of this tells us that women were exercising various kinds of leadership, including leadership that was equipping others for the faith. In this sense, they were exercising authority over others, including men.

Sometimes women leaders overstepped proper boundaries for worship or were not correct in their teaching. For example, in Corinth, women were prophesying without the proper attire for worship (1 Cor. 11). They were also not following proper order in worship and some may have been part of the so-called “super apostles” (2 Cor. 12:11). Paul’s response was not to deny the role that women played but to argue for the proper way to fulfill this role.

Paul’s statement that “women are to keep silent in the churches” was not a complete ban on women speaking (1 Cor. 14:34). We know this because Paul affirmed women prophesying and praying (1 Cor. 11:5). The plain meaning of women keep silent might be taken to mean women cannot speak unless we place that scripture in the larger context of 1 Corinthians and the Pauline letters. This is crucial.

In turning to 1 Timothy, we should note several things. First, the letter was written after 65 AD to address the Ephesian house churches Timothy was leading in some way. Some of these house churches had been in existence for close to 15 years. This was long enough to create problems of false teaching and challenges to Timothy’s leadership.

Second, Paul’s listing of requirements for bishops are not exhaustive. For example, Paul says that a bishop should be the husband of one wife. This does not mean that only married men could be bishops. Paul and Timothy were both most likely single. The plain meaning of “husband of one wife” might seem to rule out unmarried persons, but the broader context of Paul’s letters tell us it does not.

Third, Paul distinctly singles out a group of women who were flaunting their wealth. By singling out expensive clothing, gold, and pearls, Paul returns to the question of proper dress for women in worship. He had told women they should pray or prophesy with the proper attire on their head (1 Cor. 11). In 1 Timothy, there seems to be a connection between wealth, teaching, and authority. We know that the letter largely deals with false teaching and false teachers. This is the background.

What we may deduce is that Paul is dealing with wealthy women who in some way are participating in false teaching and taking authority over men to do so. Paul returns to his admonition that women should listen quietly (1 Tim. 2:11). We already know from 1 Corinthians that Paul does not think the command for women to keep silent is an absolute one. Paul is not contradicting himself. Scripture is in harmony.

The question is what to make of Paul’s use of the unusual verb “to have authority over” (1 Tim. 2:12). The difficulty is twofold: 1) why Paul chooses a Greek that is extremely rare (this is the only place in the entire NT that the verb is found); 2) what Paul intends by this particular choice. All commentators recognize the basic meaning of “to have authority over” and the fact that the verb only appears here. Some commentators have argued that the verb has a positive connotation meaning rather than the negative one of “to dominate” or “to domineer.” Given the context, however, it is difficult to rule out a negative meaning entirely. I have concluded that Paul singles out a group of wealthy women attempting to exercise authority over their husbands and other men in the context of the house church. His warning is specific to them.

There are many issues I have not addressed in this already long blog. What I hope I have done is show that Paul makes statements like “keep silent” that do not mean a total ban on women praying, prophesying, or speaking. Both in Corinth and in Ephesus, Paul is dealing with a select group of women who are disrupting the order of worship with their dress and their actions. Paul seeks to silence these women.