Q&R: How Do You Read the Prohibitions to Women (1 Timothy 2)?

Question

How do you understand 1 Timothy 2, where Paul tells Timothy that he does “not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over men”?

Response

I really think you should try to get hold of Gordon Fee’s little hermeneutics book, Gospel and Spirit, where he spends a chapter directly addressing the issue of how to interpret 1 Timothy 2.
Essentially, he makes the hermeneutical point that our first reading of the Scriptures is through the double doors of Gospel and Spirit. That is, (1) we center our faith and practice around the clearest Scriptures that focus on the implications of the gospel, which in the case of women, includes those “in Christ” texts, where the Old Temple walls of partition have been removed and now “in Christ,” there is neither Jew nor Greek, Scythian or Barbarian, male nor female, slave nor free.
And (2) we center our faith and practice on the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh, as in Acts 2–where old and young, men and women, even the slaves, are included without distinction. These primary texts establish the theological and spiritual inclusion of women, not only to Christian faith, but to ministry.
Thus, we also recognize that the New Testament reports this in practice, beginning with Mary the mother of Christ (as the living temple in whom the Shekinah glory dwelt in her womb), Mary Magdalene (first witness of the Resurrection and apostle to the apostles), Photina of Samaria (John 4’s woman at the well, equal to the apostles, first evangelist to the Samaritans), the Deacon Phoebe (who Paul chose to read/explain his epistle directly to the Romans), Priscilla the Teacher, Junia the Apostle, etc. The fact is that the historic church has recognized saintly women practicing the so-called five-fold ministry from the first century forward.
Then Fee specifically addresses the passage in 1 Timothy which is notoriously difficult to translate, incredibly obscure in its argument, and most of all, extremely particular in its application–meaning that it is directed at a particular crisis in a specific congregation. Fee shows how we must never generalize such a historically particular text in order to trump the far more clear Gospel/Spirit texts, which is what is required by those who use 1 Timothy to limit the role of women in the church. And anyway, when rightly understood, the passage almost certainly does no such thing.
From my own point of view, 1 Timothy is an excellent a diagnostic tool of one’s hermeneutical orthodoxy. Those who atomize, literalize, and totalize those few verses in order to put a glass ceiling on women in ministry immediately demonstrate their departure from the apostolic tradition of interpretation. They’ve read it as a letter that kills without perceiving the spiritual heart that liberates.
For some helpful follow-up, one of Paul’s best living interpreters is probably Lucy Peppiatt (principal of Westminster Theological Centre). Her books and the following comments bear the authority of a very careful, conservative scholar who is also led by the Spirit in her love for and exploration of the Pauline corpus (regardless of whether we attribute 1 Timothy to Paul).
Finally, even the Easter Orthodox Church, which has yet to ordain female priests, has never regarded 1 Timothy 2 as forbidding women from either teaching or exercising authority over men. Even the male-dominated priesthood dismisses the notion as silly. On these points, see my interview with Archbishop Lazar Puhalo on the topic:
I also found Frederica Mathewes-Green’s article on ordination helpful here:
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Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More