What Does 1 Timothy 2:11-12 Teach About The Role Of Women?

By: David Posey

Timothy 2:9-15 is the pivotal passage in the New Testament on the woman’s role in the church. Nearly every interpreter agrees that it restricts the woman’s role in some way. Unless there is some reason why this passage should not be applied by the 20th century church, then every other passage on the role of women must be reconciled to this one.

Before turning to an examination of the passage, particularly verses 11-12, I want to suggest first that regardless of our conclusions about this passage any real solution to the turmoil over this issue will turn on the willingness of women to accept their God-given role in the church. Those women who clamor for “place” and seek “the best seats” violate not only the spirit of several passages that speak specifically to the demeanor of women, but also many others that forbid every disciple, whether male or female, from striving for “place” in the kingdom.

So even if someone could persuade us that 1 Timothy 2:11-12 does not prohibit a woman from taking a public part in the local church today, we must still face the question: “what kind of woman pleases God?” The teaching in passages like I Peter 3:1-6 and 1 Timothy 2:9-10 could not be more lucid: women glorify God by cultivating a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet. 3:4) and “by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness” (1 Tim. 2:10), not in the public arena, as some men are commanded to do. If a woman insists that these stipulations belittle her then she has problems that will not be solved by an exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

What does I Timothy 2:11-12 say to honest hearts about the role of women? The use of the plural forms in 2:1 (entreaties, prayers, petitionss) and 2:8 (men) suggests that Paul is concerned particularly with the public assemblies in this passage, though not necessarily “at the building.” The instructions here would apply to any mixed gathering of God’s people.

Paul tells Timothy that he wants the men to pray in these gatherings, lifting up “holy hands” (2:8). Verse 9 (lit., “likewise women”) connects Paul’s next statement with the preceding instructions. Men are to conduct themselves in a certain way when they pray (“without wrath and dissension”); likewise, women are to conduct themselves properly. A woman is to fill her role in the church in a different way than a man. Men are charged to take the public part; that is appropriate for them (but see the caution in James 3:1). Women, too, are to do those things that are “appropriate” (NIV) for a woman who professes godliness (that is, one who is seeking to glorify God in her life).

What is “appropriate”? Verses 11-12 restrict the public role of women in some way. What is Paul restricting? In sum, he says “women are to learn quietly and in entire submissiveness  I do not permit a woman to take an active role of leadership in the public gathering of God’s people.” Note that there is no restriction in the passage to Sunday morning “worship services.” Whatever Paul is forbidding applies to all instances of “gatherings,” including a Bible class in a home.

The Greek words Paul uses here are significant. The word “quietly” (NASB) is from hesuchia, translated “in quiet fashion” in 2 Thessalonians 3:12. Paul is commanding a certain demeanor from women, an attitude of heart that produces quiet subjection, a far cry from clamoring for a public role. “Subjection” is from hupotasso and means the voluntary decision to obey another. In Romans 13:1, Paul uses the same word to describe our obligation to the government.

In v. 12, Paul amplifies, and perhaps modifies, his statement in v. 11. He says that he does not permit a woman “to teach or exercise authority over a man.” Since women are commanded to teach on occasion (e.g., Titus 3:3-5), we know Paul is not ruling out all teaching for women. The key phrase is “over a man.” A woman cannot teach or hold a position of authority in the local church that would place her in a superior position to a man. This is the only instance in the New Testament of the Greek word authenteo, rendered “exercise authority” (NASB). Feminist protests notwithstanding, the meaning of the word is settled: it means to “assert the self ” or to “dominate.” Such dominance is most obvious where a woman takes a formal teaching role in the church. But “teaching over a man” can also take place from the pew, or at a kitchen table, or whenever a woman attempts to “assert herself ” and dominate a man in a Bible discussion.

In summary, Paul commends a quiet attitude on the part of women, commands subjection of them to their male counterparts and condemns any teaching or exercise of authority by them that would be “over a man.”

This message is so clear that attempts to dull’ the application of it takes some real ingenuity. Of course, some argue that “Paul was a chauvinist,” or that the New Testament epistles are just “good advice,” or make sundry other arguments that deny the veracity of the Bible. Some claim that Paul was dealing with a cultural problem in Ephesus and thus the application of the prohibition is limited to Paul’s time. Feminist Catherine Clark Kroeger, for example, argues that Paul is saying, “I do not permit a woman to teach error,” shifting the emphasis from woman to error. The particular error Paul had in mind was probably Gnosticism, she argues.’ Besides the fact is that Gnosticism was not well-attested before the second century A.D. Furthermore, Paul says nothing at all about the content of teaching here. It would have been easy enough for him to use the word “error” if that is what he wanted to say. On “exercise authority” (authenteo) she concludes that it represents “a tenet propounded by the heretical teachers.” But earlier in her article, she concludes that authenteo could mean “to proclaim oneself the author or originator of something.” While that definition is a stretch, she still recognized that authenteo is a verb. But later, she makes authenteo a noun, “tenet,” apparently because that serves her purpose better. Instead of sound exegesis she is forcing Scripture to accommodate her particular point of view.

Some argue that a local church eldership, or a Bible class teacher, can, in effect, nullify Paul’s limitation by “delegating” authority to a woman. But they do not have that authority to give. The word authenteo means to “dominate,” not “authority” (exousia). The issue is not that a woman is taking away a male teacher’s authority, but that she is stepping out of her God-given role in seeking to teach over a man. God has not given elders the authority to set aside God’s instructions in any matter he has spoken, including this one.

I’ll conclude by stressing that our interpretation of this passage is not informed by a desire to “keep women in their place.” Nor do we wish to resurrect the extreme views of the past. Aquinas said that woman is “defective and misbegotten” and Tertullian claimed that women are the “devil’s gateway.” But nothing in Scripture warrants such a dismal view of women. On the contrary, women have often played a major (though non-public) role in the growth of church. Pheobe, Priscilla, Eudodia and Syntyche, Lydia and others helped spread the gospel in a quiet, God-glorifying way, “by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness.”

Woman have a different role than men, but nothing in Scripture suggests that women are second-class citizens of the kingdom. And Paul holds no brief for men who regard them as such  they can expect no more help from Paul than the most wide-eyed liberal feminist who is demanding her place in the church.


‘Catherine Clark Kroeger, “1 Timothy 2:12, `A Classicist’s View,”‘ Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelson, editor,pp.225ff.

Guardian of Truth XXXIX: 3 p. 8-9
February 2, 1995