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Topics: 1 Timothy 2, Complementarianism

Say What, Paul? Six Things 1 Timothy 2:8–15 Does Not Mean

March 16, 2023

8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

What Does 1 Timothy 2:8–15 Mean?

A lot has been said, could be said, and needs to be said about 1 Timothy 2:8–15, but many of things said have either been misleading or just plain wrong. This is true for feminists who deny the apostolic witness of Paul, evangelical feminists (egalitarians) who affirm his apostleship but restrict his words to Ephesus, and traditional Christians who have demeaned women by so vociferously proving the point that women cannot teach men in the church, they have effectively denied the vital place of women—and women teaching, see Titus 2:3–5—in the church.

In scholarship, the most thorough explanation of this passage has been the book Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, edited by Thomas Schreiner and Andreas Köstenberger. If you are studying this passage, this is a must-read. I have found much help in it and highly recommend it.

What follows cannot replace a thorough multi-discipline study of the passage. What I do want to do is outline a number of ways we must not read this passage. Without claiming to have a full grasp of everything in 1 Timothy 2:8–15, therefore, here are six things the passage does not mean or imply. In the next article, I’ll add another six.

1. First Timothy 2:8–15 is not just for women.

Situated in a letter to Timothy (1:2) for the household of God (3:14–15), the instructions given in 1 Timothy 2 are not written to women but to Paul’s envoy, who has been commissioned to order the church around the truths of the gospel. The focus on Timothy doesn’t change the content of the letter, but it may change the way we hear its tone and perceive its aim. Paul is not writing to put women down; he is writing to raise them up along with the entire household of God.

On this point, verses 8–15 speak to men and women. While some commentators suggest grouping verse 8 with the preceding verses on prayer, the balanced instructions to men (v. 8) and women (vv. 9–15) indicate he is looking at both sexes together. In fact, this is what Paul does again in 1 Timothy 3, where he speaks to elders (vv. 1–7) and deacons—both male and female (vv. 8–13). First Timothy 5 also gives a balanced message to men and women.

Altogether, it is important to see that these verses are not just directed at women. They are given to the church, composed of men and women, for the stated goal of bringing ordered worship into the household of God.

2. First Timothy 2:8–15 should not be restricted to Ephesus.

All of Paul’s letters are occasional in nature, which means all of his letters are grappling with the particular challenges of a particular church in space and time. Though many have sought to dismiss Paul’s words by restricting them to Ephesus, there are at least two problems with this.

First, verse 8 states, “I desire that in every place the men should pray . . .” The language of “in every place” indicates Paul is applying his apostolic instructions to the situation in Ephesus. He is not tailoring a specific instruction for them; he is applying God’s truth to the church in Ephesus.

Second, Paul’s appeal to creation (v. 13), the fall (v. 14), and salvation (v. 15)—salvation which is for all people (v. 4)—indicates the universal extent of his instruction. Certainly, there are elements specific to Ephesus (e.g., the clothing mentioned in 1 Timothy 2:9–10 is a reflection of clothes worn by the virgin priestesses of elite citizens of Ephesus), but this does not mean that we can restrict Paul’s instructions to that church.

3. First Timothy 2:8–15 is not specifically about women’s roles in culture.

Paul is writing a letter to Timothy for the church. And as with all Paul’s instructions to men and women, their focus is in marriage (see Eph. 5:22–33; Col. 3:18) and in the church. The instructions are written to purify Christ’s body of believers; they are only indirectly related to men and women in culture (see #4). In fact, because “in every place” relates to churches (see 1 Corinthians 1:2 and 1 Thessalonians 1:8), we can know that Paul’s words are for the church.

The instruction about hair, jewelry, and clothing, therefore, is not a blanket statement for women’s fashion sense in all spheres of life. Nor is Paul suggesting that all women are guilty of such showy dress. He is also not restricting ostentatious dress to women—men too can be immodest in their dress.

Paul is also not working with footnotes, where he can sufficiently nuance every statement he makes. He is simply stating that worship is for the glorification of God, not the glorification of the flesh. And when the people of God gather together, the church service is not meant to be fashion show, but gathering where good works are on full display.

4. First Timothy 2:8–15 is not unrelated to culture.

If Paul’s words are directed to the gathering of the church, it does not follow that they have no application to venues outside the church. Because the church is the place where men learn to pray without anger (v. 8), and the place where women learn to walk in godliness with good works (v. 9–10), it follows that these life-patterns would continue outside of worship gathering.

In other words, if a woman is being told by the culture that she must dress a certain way or fix her hair (or any other part of her body) to find value, the community of faith (i.e., the culture of the church) should say (and model) in response that a woman’s value comes from Christ and the good works he is producing in her. Remember, “good works” is the purpose of salvation. Saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8–9), all those “created in Christ Jesus” are created “for good works” (2:10).

The corporate gathering of the saints should produce in women (and men) a desire to live out their faith that corresponds to who they are in Christ. And because God has given distinct roles for men and women in marriage and the household of faith, these gendered traits of godliness will impact every sphere of influence or vocation they enter. Nevertheless, Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2 are not directly applicable to all areas of life. They are focused on the worship gathering.

5. First Timothy 2:8–15 is not negative in intent or content.

When preached or proof-texted in isolation from the rest of 1 Timothy, the tone of these verses can become very negative. With such a tone, the message becomes truncated: “Women do not have permission to teach,” and even “Women cannot teach.” Such a summary of the passage grossly misinterprets the passage and the positive instructions contained therein. Indeed, while many focus on the “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man” (v. 12), there are at least three places where positive instructions are given. And it is these positive instructions that have the main focus.

First, women should adorn themselves with good works. When we boil the meat off the bone, the main point of verses 9–10 is this: Women adorn yourself with good works. The main point is not about clothing women shouldn’t wear; it is about characteristics of godliness that women should wear. When read next to other words from Paul, this becomes clear. Paul calls all Christians to put off the old self and put on the new self (Col. 3:9–10). Paul happily employs clothing language metaphorically, and in 1 Timothy 2 the metaphorical “putting on” good works is the positive message.

Second, Paul’s command in verse 11 is “Let a woman learn.” This is a positive invitation for women to be afforded the same opportunities for instruction, growth, and godliness. Rather than relegating women to some other gathering or some discipleship program that is less rigorous than that of men, this is full-on endorsement of women to learn and think. Indeed, the church desperately needs female theologians and this verse is one of the strongest supports for this.

Third, enigmatic as they are, Paul’s words “she will be saved through childbearing” are positive. Like Peter’s words that wives “are heirs with you in the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7), the promise of salvation secures the place of women in the kingdom of God. And more, the stress on childbearing, a uniquely feminine trait, emphasizes the fact that women are not saved by eschewing their nature as women. Rather, it affirms the blessedness of being a woman, especially one who abides in faith, love, and holiness.

6. First Timothy 2:8–15 is not primarily about what to wear (at church).

Certainly, verses 9–10 say something to women about their hair and clothing, but this is not the main point. The context of these verses is worship in the household of God. It goes without saying that some forms of dress can be distracting from worship—When my son has asked to dye his hair green for Sunday, I’ve told him ‘no’ for this reason—but here the focus is not on the impact female dress will have on others; the emphasis is on the woman’s approach to worship.

Modesty here is not a command for women to protect the eyes of their brothers. There is a place for that consideration, but it is not here. Rather, the point relates to the heart of the woman. Her motivation for gathering should be to worship God, not to bolster her self-worth through outward adornment.

Even more, Steven Baugh has shown how expectations for temple worship in Ephesus may color this text. In Ephesus, the temple to Artemis involved virgin priestesses, not cult prostitutes. These young women came from well-to-do families, where service in the temple depended on possessing great amounts of wealth. In context, modesty relates to “costly apparel” required to serve in Artemis’s temple. Paul is stating that such extravagance is not needed for, but only stands in the way of, good works.

Therefore, Paul’s instruction should not be taken as transcendent norms for clothing. They clear a path for women to pursue good works in Ephesus, without the pressure of dressing up like temple priestesses. Something similar could be applied today, wherever external pressures inform or deform Christian worship.

This concludes the first half of twelve things 1 Timothy 2:8–15 does not mean. In a second article, David adds six more.

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