The historic interpretation of 1 Tim 2

164_PaulSiconioTimothyThe Sunday lectionary in the Anglican version of the RCL is paying an occasional visit to the Pastorals just now. But it is neatly stepping over the most problematic passage for contemporary preaching, 1 Tim 2.8–15. The current debate about these verses is often characterised as being between those who maintain the ‘historic’ understanding of these verses, so requiring women not to teach or have authority in church, and those who want to offer an ‘innovative’ reading that allows for a full role for both genders.

But it is worth reflecting on how this passage has in fact been interpreted historically. Kevin Giles does just this in his article in Evangelical Quarterly from 2000, available for download here. Some of the voices from the past are well worth listening to.

Giles first notes that there is wide agreement amongst Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, Jerome, Aquinas and many others that v 11 means that Paul is demanding absolute silence by women in church at all times. ‘Calvin and Luther also took Paul to be saying women should keep silent in church, yet in practice they allowed women to sing hymns in church. Calvin allowed that they could lead in prayer, Luther did not.’ Here is a sample of related comments, some from Giles, some direct from the sources.

Chysostom in Homily 9:

For, as if they came hither for recreation, they are all engaged in conversing upon unprofitable subjects. Thus all is confusion, and they seem not to understand, that unless they are quiet, they cannot learn anything that is useful. For when our discourse strains against the talking, and no one minds what is said, what good can it do to them? To such a degree should women be silent, that they are not allowed to speak not only about worldly matters, but not even about spiritual things, in the church…For the sex is naturally somewhat talkative: and for this reason he restrains them on all sides.

On v 12 Luther comments:

This passage makes woman subject. It takes from her all public office and authority

and he here appears to understand this to apply in all spheres of life, not just home and church. Similarly, Calvin says that

Women by nature (that is by the ordinary law of God) are born to obey, for all wise men have always rejected gunaikokratian the government of women, as an unnatural monstrosity…the true order of nature prescribed by God lays down that the woman should be subject to the man.

The 19th-century Southern US theologian R L Dabney comments:

Man is the ruler, woman the ruled…Her race is a subordinate race…

Charles Hodge says:

Man’s superiority … enables and entitles him to command…This superiority of the man is … taught in Scripture, founded in nature and proved by all experience.

Calvin on creation order:

Now Moses shews that the woman was created afterwards, in order that she might be a kind of appendage to the man; and that she was joined to the man on the express condition, that she should be at hand to render obedience to him. Since, therefore, God did not create two chiefs of equal power, but added to the man an inferior aid, the Apostle justly reminds us of that order of creation in which the eternal and inviolable appointment of God is strikingly displayed…The reason that women are prevented from teaching is that it is not compatible with their status, which is to be subject to men, whereas to teach implies superior authority and status.

The influential English Methodist theologian, Adam Clarke, comments:

God designed that he (the man) should have the pre-eminence … the structure of woman plainly proves that she was never designed for those exertions required in public life. In this is the chief part of the natural inferiority of woman.

Irenaeus says: ‘Having become disobedient, she (Eve) was made the cause of death, both to herself and the whole human race’ and Tertullian goes further:

The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die.

Luther on the woman’s deception:

There was more wisdom and courage in Adam…Experience has been witness of this…It was not Adam who went astray. Therefore there was greater wisdom in Adam, than in the woman.

And Calvin:

[The woman] seduced the man from God’s commandment, it is fitting that she should be deprived of all her freedom and placed under a yoke

On the final phrase, about ‘being saved through the childbirth’, Chrysostom comments:

Be not cast down, because your sex has incurred blame…the whole sex shall be saved, notwithstanding, by childbearing.

Luther argues that women’s penalty for sin remains, notwithstanding the work of Christ:

The pain and tribulation of childbearing continue. These penalties will continue until judgement…You will be saved if you subjected yourselves and bear children with pain…If women bear themselves weary—or ultimately bear themselves out-that does not matter. Let them bear themselves out. This is the purpose for which they exist.

Calvin (says Giles) believes these words were added for the ‘consolation’ of women.

[In case it should] reduce women to despair to hear the whole ruin of the human race imputed to them…Paul reminds them that although they must suffer temporal punishment, the hope of salvation remains for them.

The reason for citing these perspectives is not simply to provoke revulsion against these views, though Giles does comment:

It is hard not to come to the conclusion that so much of what we have just outlined, which purports to be the exegesis of 1 Tim. 2-9-15, is not more a reflection of the androcentric and misogynist views of the theologians quoted, who are immersed in a thoroughly patriarchal culture, than the mind of God as revealed in Scripture.

(For a sustained argument along these lines, see Alvin Schmidt, Veiled and Silenced: how culture shaped sexist theology.) I would hasten to add that these readings are very hard to support from the text of Genesis and 1 Timothy, let alone the wider picture in the NT of men’s and women’s roles. For my own perspectives, see my entries on Genesis, on 1 Timothy, as well as on 1 Corinthians and Ephesians.

But Giles’ real point here is that even the most ‘conservative’ mainstream view arguing that women cannot teach does not argue for what these historic interpretations argue. The consistent position above is that women should not exercise any responsibility or authority in society, that their purpose in life is childbirth, and that this is because they are inherently inferior and more prone to sin. Contemporary conservative commentators are always very careful to distance themselves from such views.

The consequence of this is that, in the debates about the role of women, all views are ‘novel’ in the sense that they do not follow the above positions. So the debate is not between the ‘historic’ view and an ‘innovation’, but between two competing innovative readings, both of which are significantly different from past readings.

But I have further reflections on this dynamic. To recognise this history of interpretation is not to advocate a hermeneutical counsel of despair—if so many can get this so wrong, why bother reading these texts? Quite the opposite. It demonstrates how easy it is for us to be shaped by the values of our age and read this into the Scriptural text—and that applies to all sides in the current debates on sexuality and gender relations. Our careful engagement with the text of Scripture is more important than ever, as is the commitment to allowing Scripture to challenge and form our views.

The task of interpretation demands a high level of both self-awareness as well as awareness of the range of different perspectives. The only way to address this is to engage, positively, with those with whom we disagree, rather than retreating into ghettos of those who share the same view as we do.


Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

11 thoughts on “The historic interpretation of 1 Tim 2”

  1. This is a really interesting piece, and I am already planning to use it with my students. I realise that the main point is that neither side of the contemporary argument actually has history on its side, but what does it say about the church that we skip over the passage in the first place? It seems to me that among ordinary folk in the pews and beyond, there are two views of Paul – Paul is wrong, and should be ignored; Paul is right and should be obeyed. How do we move people into an actual debate about what Paul really said and meant – and I don’t mean among academics, but among those training for ministry and lay people.

    I am also interested in the extent to which the patriarchal interpretation of such texts leads to reluctance in many churches to get involved in work related to the sex trade, trafficking etc. Recently at a small prayer meeting I attended, the local sex trade was mentioned, and the response (from a woman) was ‘let’s pray it out’ – with no thought as to what would happen to the women involved. If women have brought it on themselves, in some way, how can the church respond, was, I think, the issue.

    Maybe that’s a red herring, but if the teaching and thinking of theologians has any influence, surely this kind of blind spot is one of the outcomes?

  2. Ian, Thanks for your article. My wife and I had a look at this passage at the beginning of the year, and our scrappy observations can be found here:
    I’d be interested to know what connections you think Paul is making between his teaching in 2:8-15 and his instructions to overseers in 3:1-8. It seems we often look at the former passage without considering the context, and despite the NIV heading I’m not sure that chapter 2 is about “instructions on worship” at all.

  3. I agree with the sentiments in this article. I think we need to extend the same consideration to the question of how commentators bring their homophobia into their interpretation of the passages of scripture relating to homosexuality.

  4. Isn’t it interesting [reinforcing this thesis] that Dabney talks about men and women as two races. As if that weren’t ridiculous enough, we need to recognize that race is a social construction and bears no biological weight. So a double whammy of errors then…

  5. Liz, thanks for the comments. On the second issue, yes, I am sure this is one of the factors, but I suspect there are many others. A lot of us have quite limited experience, and are afraid of getting involved in things we don’t feel comfortable with. Others of us, who have had the chance to move around and engage in the wider world, can easily forget this.

    On the question of church engagement in these difficult texts, I don’t think there are any other answers than continuing to make resources and discussion available. Blogs and such can help, but I think the pressure on initial training does not help.

  6. Pedantic Pete (hi! nice to meet a fellow pedant…!), I think you are quite right. This is particularly evident, as it is with the gender issue, in historic texts.

    However, my observation is that in the current debate the danger is the other way. People taking the ‘revisionist’ position seem willing to accept very poor arguments about the scriptural texts in attempt to support this view.

  7. For an alternative (minority) perspective, it is fascinating to read Gregory of Nazianzus (thanks Gabby!):

    How then do you demand Chastity, while thou dost not yourself observe it? How do you demand that which thou dost not give? How, though you are equally a body, do you legislate unequally? If you enquire into the worse— The Woman Sinned, and so did Adam. The serpent deceived them both; and one was not found to be the stronger and the other the weaker. But do you consider the better? Christ saves both by His Passion. Was He made flesh for the Man? So He was also for the woman. Did He die for the Man? The Woman also is saved by His death. He is called of the seed of David; and so perhaps you think the Man is honoured; but He is born of a Virgin, and this is on the Woman’s side. They two, He says, shall be one Flesh; so let the one flesh have equal honour. And Paul legislates for chastity by His example. How, and in what way? This Sacrament is great, he says, But I speak concerning Christ and the Church. It is well for the wife to reverence Christ through her husband: and it is well for the husband not to dishonor the Church through his wife. Let the wife, he says, see that she reverence her husband, for so she does Christ; but also he bids the husband cherish his wife, for so Christ does the Church. Let us, then, give further consideration to this saying. (Oration 37 section 7)

    There are some real echoes of Paul’s gender symmetry in e.g. 1 Cor 7.4, or even in the first part of 1 Tim 2, in which commentators widely note the symmetrical teaching.

  8. The biggest difficulty with any such investigation of a text that is, or at least appears to be, at odds with contemporary society, is not so much in the correct interpretation of scripture but how the practices related thereto are worked out in the church at large. If theologians and leaders come to one conclusion how do we roll outthe practice amongst all? How do we respond to congregations who, in good conscience cannot follow said teaching? There is more at stake than simply getting it right.

  9. Yes, I agree, but ‘getting it right’ is quite a good place to start!

    It is quite difficult to negotiate some sort of agreement between different points of view when one of those points of view is making claims that are clearly untrue. Once we are clear that all the currently proposed viewpoints are ‘innovations’ in a historical sense, I think it makes the discussion much easier.

    In my experience, the claim of historical continuity is just used as a naked power play.


Leave a comment