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Topics: Complementarianism, Egalitarianism, Eikon

Are Husbands and Wives Addressed in 1 Timothy 2:9–15?

April 29, 2024

Editor’s Note: The following article is Part II of a response to Christianity Today’s April 2024 cover story on gender and appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Eikon. Parts I and III can be read here and here.

Gordon Hugenberger rightly reminds us in his essay in Christianity Today of the many areas where complementarians and egalitarians agree. In addition, we have all benefited from his excellent scholarship over the years. Still, I would dissent from his claim that 1 Tim. 2:9­–15 speaks of the relationship between husbands and wives instead of men and women generally. If we accept Hugenberger’s interpretation, the text doesn’t prohibit women from serving as pastors or from preaching the word when the church gathers for worship. Still, his reading of the text is quite unconvincing. There are decisive reasons for thinking that Paul speaks of men and women generally, not husbands and wives specifically, in 1 Tim. 2:9–15.

Hugenberger’s reading is flawed because the context in 1 Timothy 2 is clearly public worship, not the individual relationship between husbands and wives. When we read 1 Timothy as a whole, the focus in the letter is the public assembly of the church, the right teaching of the word and the refutation of false teachers. Paul often speaks of teaching in the letter, and it invariably refers to what occurs when the church gathers together (1 Tim. 1:3, 10; 4:1, 6, 11, 13, 16; 5:17; 6:1, 2, 3). A quick look at the letter verifies that we have a public setting. False teachers are threatening the church (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:3–7), and Timothy is charged to resist their influence (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:18–20), by proclaiming the gospel (1 Tim. 1:12–17; 2:3–7). First Timothy 2:8–15 is followed by a command to appoint overseers and deacons in the church (1 Tim. 3:1–13), and both are offices that relate to public ministry in the church. The Pauline instructions are designed to make the church a bulwark against the false teaching (1 Tim. 3:14–15). Paul immediately returns to the threat of false teaching and the need to resist it (1 Tim. 4). The role of elders is addressed again in 1 Tim. 5:17–25, and the letter ends as Paul emphasizes the importance of resisting false teaching and pursuing what is good and right and true (1 Timothy 6). The idea, then, that Paul addresses husbands and wives in chapter 2 doesn’t fit the aim and purpose of the letter. Hugenberger individualizes and privatizes a text that addresses the church which is gathered for worship and instruction.

Hugenberger claims that the terms used for men and women in the New Testament typically refer to husbands and wives, and thus, in his judgment the same is true in 1 Tim. 2:9–15. That sounds like an impressive argument, but when we examine the matter more closely Hugenberger’s reading fails. Yes, the words for men and women often refer to husbands and wives, but this is evident from the context in which these words occur. And the fundamental rule for interpreting the Bible is that we must interpret every text in context, and thus appealing to statistics doesn’t really prove anything. New Testament writers signal in context when husbands and wives are intended. The following examples illustrate the point: “the married woman” (Rom. 7:2); “each man should have his own wife” (1 Cor. 7:2); “to the married” (1 Cor. 7:10); “if any brother has a wife” (1 Cor. 7:12); “her husband” (1 Cor. 7:39); “let them ask their own husbands at home” (1 Cor. 14:35); “I betrothed you to one husband” (2 Cor. 11:2); “more are the children of the desolate one than of the one having a husband” (Gal. 4:27); “wives being subject to their own husbands” (Eph. 5:22); “wives submit yourselves to your husbands” (Col. 3:18); “husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; cf. 1 Tim. 3:12; 5:9; Titus 1:6); “instruct the young women to be lovers of their husbands  . . . being subject to their own husbands” (Titus 2:5); “wives being subject to their own husbands” (1 Pet. 3:1). We can also put it this way. If you replace “wife” and “husband” with “woman” and “man” in the texts cited above, it still clear that wives and husbands are on view by various modifers (e.g., “their”, “their own”, “one”, etc.). These modifiers are completely lacking in 1 Timothy 2, confirming that husbands and wives aren’t in view.

When husbands and wives are intended, the context makes it clear, but there is nothing in the context of 1 Tim. 2:9–15 to indicate that husbands and wives are in view. Paul could have easily added words like “your wives” or “your husbands” to clarify that wives and husbands are intended, but we find nothing of the kind. The references to men and women in 1 Tim. 2:9–15 are quite general, which is why the majority of commentators agree that men and women are the subject of the admonition, not husbands and wives per se. Yes, the text refers to Adam and Eve, but that doesn’t indicate that their marriage is in view. Paul appeals to Adam and Eve (1 Tim. 2:13–14) to ground his commands in creation—not to specify that that the command pertains to the relationship of wives to husbands.

Hugenberger makes a similar mistake in appealing to 1 Pet. 3:1–7 as a parallel to 1 Tim. 2:9–15. He rightly notes some parallels between the two texts, but the differences are more important than the similarities. There is no doubt that Peter speaks to husbands and wives in 1 Pet. 3:1–7 as he calls upon wives to submit to their husbands, and husbands to be understanding of their wives. But there is not even a whisper of a husband-wife relationship in 1 Timothy 2. Nowhere does Paul speak of “their husbands” or “their wives” or of how husbands and wives should relate to one another.

Hugenberger also thinks that a church gathering can’t be in view since Paul speaks of proper dress and adornment for women (1 Tim. 2:9–10), and we find a similar admonition in 1 Pet. 3:5–6. But Hugenberger’s claim hardly follows logically. Surely, the dress of women would also be a concern in the public assembly. And then we have to ask: would Paul restrict himself exclusively to the dress of married women? Certainly the adornment of single women would also be important. Actually, Paul must have public gatherings in his mind because he isn’t commanding wives about their adornment within the confines of the home. If Hugenberger were to say that Paul is concerned about the dress of wives in the assembly, then we are faced again with this question. Why would Paul only care about the dress of married women and not the adornment of single women?

To sum up, the reasons Hugenberger gives to defend the idea that husbands and wives are the subject of the commands in 1 Timothy 2 fail to convince. The judgment of most commentators is correct. Paul’s admonitions in 1 Tim. 2:9–15 refer to men and women in general and should not be restricted to husbands and wives.

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