A Misunderstood Passage — Jon Mitchell, Editor (Editorial: September, 2021)

The directives Paul gave to the young preacher Timothy in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 are among the most controversial and misunderstood passages in the entire Bible.  Parts of these verses have been taken out of their immediate context as well as away from the overall context of the rest of Scripture (cf. Ps. 119:160a).  This has resulted in erroneous excesses in worship, incomplete teaching about the need for modesty, and flawed conclusions concerning the different roles of men and women within the church for which our Lord died.  Accordingly, it is good for us to examine this passage temperately and within the bounds of God’s Word.

Contextually, Paul was giving divinely-inspired instruction to Timothy concerning what to teach the Christians at Ephesus (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3ff).  At this particular point in his letter, he was instructing Timothy on what to teach the Ephesians concerning the different roles men and women have in the church (1 Tim. 2:8ff; cf. 3:14-15).  Men “in every place” were commanded to “pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (v. 8). 

“In every place” shows that these commands are universal in intent and not just limited to the local church at Ephesus.  It calls to mind how Paul informed Corinth of how he taught “(his) ways in Christ…everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17).

“Men” (v. 8) comes from the Greek term aner, which refers to the male gender.  Thus, Paul was commanding that in every place men pray.  Naturally, the question  is then asked as to whether women can pray.  This is where it is appropriate to examine both the immediate context as well as what the rest of Scripture says in order to come to the proper conclusion.

The New Testament commands all Christians to pray (cf. 1 Thess. 5:17).  It also specifically mentions Christian women praying (1 Cor. 11:5).  It also commands that Christian women not “exercise authority” over Christian men in the immediate context of this verse, which we will examine shortly in greater detail (1 Tim. 2:12; cf. 3:14-15).  Thus, we conclude that the directive in 1 Timothy 2:8 is not meant to prohibit women from praying to God and limiting that privilege to the male gender.  Rather, it is a directive that Christian men lead the prayers in worship assemblies in which both men and women are present.

Furthermore, Christian men are to do this only if they are clearly holy men.  This is the meaning behind the phrase “lifting holy hands” (v. 8).  The modern religious world has in recent generations found it in vogue for all who assemble in worship to lift their one or both of hands while singing, praying, and during the preaching of the sermon, usually while swaying and with eyes closed.  This author was once informed by a proponent of this practice that it was only by lifting her hands during worship that she know for sure that her worship was spiritual in nature.

This phrase was never meant to be taken literally.  Those who do so tend to end up being inconsistent of their literal application of this passage.  For one, as already seen, it is specifically the male gender who were told to lift up their hands, not women.  For another, they were told to do so while praying, not while singing or during the sermon.  In this author’s observation over the years of men and women lifting their hands during songs, sermons, and prayers, those who choose to interpret this verse literally — if indeed that’s what they’re consciously doing; the possibility exists that many if not most of those who lift their hands in the ways described do so because everyone else around them is doing so rather than out of a desire to obey 1 Timothy 2:8 — do not follow exactly what it would literally require.

In reality, “lifting holy hands” is what is known as a synechdoche, a figure of speech in which the part represents the whole.    Compare this verse to Proverbs 6:16-19, in which Solomon mentions several physical aspects of the body in a clearly metaphorical sense to describe certain sins (“haughty eyes, a lying tongue…a heart that devises wicked plans,” etc.)  Thus, “lifting holy hands” is Paul’s figurative way of saying that the Christian man who leads the prayers during the worship assembly must be a holy person.  He must be someone who is truly a faithful follower of Jesus, someone whose spiritual growth and obedience of God’s Word has set him apart from this sin-filled world (cf. John 17:17).  It is therefore of little wonder that Paul also directed that he not be a hot-tempered or contentious person by stating that he must also be “without anger or quarreling” (v. 8).

Thus, it would be good to view 1 Timothy 2:8 as the biblical qualifications for all who would lead acts of worship in the church assembly.  There is wisdom in making sure that those who stand before the assembly and lead the prayers, songs, and other acts of worship be men who are clearly faithful, sincere disciples of Christ.  When a Christian man who lives a clearly unholy, ungodly life, a brother in Christ who might infamously be known as a hot-head and extremely argumentative person, stands before the church and leads them in prayer, it can be very detrimental to the goal of worshiping in spirit and truth (John 4:24). 

Paul then turned his attention to women, commanding them to “adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness — with good works” (1 Tim. 2:9-10).  A good parallel passage to contemplate alongside this one is Peter’s similar instruction to Christian women:  “Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear — but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Pet. 3:3-4).

One question many have about these passages is whether Paul and Peter are saying that it’s sinful for women to braid their hair and wear gold, pearls, or any kind of jewelry or costly attire.  To determine whether this is the case, examine Peter’s directives closely:  “Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear…”  If the intent is to prohibit as sinful the braiding of hair and the wearing of gold and jewelry, then that prohibition would also apply to “the clothing you wear.”  In other words, it would be sinful for women to wear clothes in addition to wearing jewelry and having braided hair!  The ridiculousness of such a conclusion is made even more manifest by its clear contradiction to Paul’s command for women to be modest.  Additionally, it should be noted that James acknowledged without inherent censure that some came to the church assemblies “wearing a gold ring and fine clothing” (James 1:2).  A close study of James 2:1-9 shows that James did not condemn wearing fine, expensive clothing; he condemned showing partiality to those who did over the poor who did not.

What both Paul and Peter are actually commanding is that Christian women not make as their highest priority how they look — their appearance as judged by the quality and cost of the clothes and jewelry they wear and how their hair is adorned.  Instead, their highest priority should be “adorn(ing) themselves” – i.e., showing the world — “what is proper for women who profess godliness.”  This would be “good works” (1 Tim. 2:10), “the hidden person of the heart,” “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Pet. 3:4).  In other words, a Christian woman’s highest priority must be the same as a Christian man’s:  to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33), to grow spiritually and reflect Jesus to the world (Rom. 8:29; 12:1-2).  This must matter far more than how they look physically in what they wear.

Many have questions about Paul’s directive for women to “adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control” (1 Tim. 2:9).  Some conclude that this is simply a directive to not dress in expensive clothing during the worship services, but rather in modest clothing.  As mentioned earlier, James 2 shows this not to be the case.  Others view modest, respectable apparel as something which is completely subjective, dependent upon the culture in which one lives.  Fallacies lie within this reasoning also, in that it would lead for different standards of modesty all over the world, and all legitimate in the sight of God.  Is the Middle Eastern standard of modest apparel in which only a woman’s eyes may be seen just as modest as the standards of Santa Monica Beach where it is viewed as completely appropriate and normal for women to show their entire bodies with the exception of clothing which barely covers their bosom and midsection? 

Paul wrote to Corinth that God “is not a God of confusion…” (1 Cor. 14:33).  The Almighty has commanded that women wear “respectable” (kosmios, “orderly, i.e., decorous: – of good behaviour, modest” [Strong], “well-arranged, seemly, modest” [Thayer]), “modest” (aidos, “bashfulness, i.e. (towards men)…” [Strong], “a sense of shame, modesty…” [Thayer]) clothing, and to do so with “self-control” (sophronsyne, “soundness of mind…(figuratively) self-control — soberness, sobriety” [Strong], “soundness of mind; self-control, sobriety” [Thayer]).  Take note of those terms.  Respectable.  Decorous.  Of good behaviour.  Well-arranged.  Seemly.  Modest.  Bashfulness.  A sense of shame.  Soundness of mind.  Self-control.  Those concepts are not nearly as subjective as one might claim.  God is more objective in his views of modest clothing than we might think.

To see how this is so, do a word study of Genesis 3:7 and Genesis 3:21.  Adam and Eve initially tried to cover themselves with fig leaf “loincloths,” which in the Hebrew (chagorath) referred to basically underwear that would cover only one’s groin area.  (This means that those paintings that show a fig leaf covering over Eve’s bosom are inaccurate; only her midsection would actually have been covered.)  No wonder after doing so Adam admitted that he still felt naked (v. 10)!

However, at a later time God himself clothed them with “garments” (kethoneth) of animal skin.  This is a Hebrew term depicting a garment that covered one from the shoulders to the knees.  God himself chose that particular type of garment with which to cover them, and also chose to record it in Scripture as an instructive example to us (cf. Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11).  Thus, we learn that God’s standards of modesty involve being covered from the shoulders to the knees.  This is something Christian parents should teach and exemplify to their daughters, especially Christian fathers who know how easily males can succumb to temptations to lust through the immodest clothing they see.  Our sons should also be taught these standards of modesty in the interest of not placing a stumbling block of lust in front of women either (cf. Matt. 18:6-9).  Immodesty is definitely not in accordance with “what is proper for women who profess godliness.”

Paul then commanded women to “learn quietly with all submissiveness” (1 Tim. 2:11).  At the time he wrote this as well as today, cultures existed which strongly discouraged women from learning anything.  By inspiring Paul to command that Christian women learn, God shows Christianity to be quite different from the worldview of many both then and today.  The command to learn “quietly” (hesuchia) means, when a comparison is made of how this Greek term and its derivatives are used elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Acts 11:18; 21:14; 22:2; 2 Thess. 3:12), that total silence is not being considered.  Rather, God is instructing Christian women to learn with an attitude of quiet focus and openness.

Paul then expounded upon this command to learn “with all submissiveness” in 1 Timothy 2:12:  “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”  In his letter to Corinth, God inspired Paul to teach about the divinely proper scale of authority in spiritual matters:  “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3).  This scale of authority is seen in Paul’s words to Timothy in this passage.  “Teach” (1 Tim. 2:12) comes from the Greek term didasko, and means exactly that, in either a public or private setting depending on the context.  In this context, it’s pretty clear that public teaching is what Paul had in mind, especially since he also prohibits Christian women from “exercising authority” (authentein—”to govern one, exercise dominion over one” — Thayer) over Christian men.  To publicly teach gives one a sense of having authority over the assembly of those being taught.  The same naturally applies to the one “leading singing,” “leading a prayer,” or doing anything that would require one to stand in front of the church and act in an authoritative manner (such as giving thoughts about the Lord’s Supper or helping to serve it, etc.)

In modern western culture, these commands are very controversial and offensive to many who see them as an affront to women.  However, there is no legitimate reason for them to be viewed in such a way.  When we remember that Paul’s instruction to Timothy is limited to those within the church (“…I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God…” — 1 Tim. 3:14-15), then we see that God is not saying that no woman should ever teach or exercise authority over a man in any circumstance whatsoever.  1 Timothy 2:12 does not prohibit women from teaching men in secular matters.  It does not prohibit women from exercising authority over men in secular matters.  Thus, it is not a sin for a woman to teach male students in a secular classroom or be the supervisor of male employees in the workplace.  Additionally, since these commands are limited to “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God…”, we see that it would also not be sinful for Christian women to teach the gospel to non-Christian men.  This is true because non-Christian men by definition are not part of the church, and the Great Commission was given to all Christians of both genders (Matt. 28:19; Mk. 16:15).  1 Timothy 2:12 would likewise not prohibit a Christian woman from joining a Christian man in teaching spiritual truths to another man in a private setting, as was the case with Priscilla and Aquila with Apollos (Acts 18:26).  Nor would it prohibit Christian women (such as mothers or teachers of children’s Bible classes) from teaching or exercising authority over boys who happen to be Christians, since 1 Timothy 2:12’s “man” (aner) is defined by Thayer’s Greek Lexicon as “…a reference to age, and to distinguish an adult man from a boy.”  (“Boy” is translated from a different Greek term, pais.)  It wouldn’t prohibit Christian women from teaching by joining in congregational singing since that is one way we all are taught and all Christians, regardless of gender, are commanded to participate in congregational singing (Col. 3:16).  It certainly wouldn’t prohibit Christian women from teaching other Christian women (Tit. 2:3-5) or non-Christian women (Matt. 28:19; Mk. 16:15). 

Therefore, when we read elsewhere in the New Testament that women prophesied (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5), we can correctly conclude that they did so while following the parameters of the passages we’ve just examined.  (This is important to note because some false teachers try to downplay the importance and relevance of 1 Timothy 2:12 by pointing out that prophetesses existed in the first century church.)  It also makes very clear that this limitation on Christian women in no way keeps them from being very active in making significant and needed contributions to the cause of Christ, just as the limitations on some Christian men who do not meet the biblical qualifications for being an elder or a deacon (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9) do not keep them from being very actively involved in other areas of church work.

Why do these limitations on Christian women exist?  God inspired Paul to explain, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:13-14).  Adam was created before Eve, and Eve was created to be “a helper” to him (Gen. 2:18).  Additionally, Eve was the first to rebel against God, thus leading Adam and the rest of humanity into sin.  Satan approached Eve first rather than Adam, and it was Eve who initially was “deceived” (apatao) instead of Adam and then was “deceived” (exapatao — totally deceived, completely taken in by Satan’s lies), thus “becom(ing) a transgressor.”  “Became a transgressor” is in the perfect tense for in the Greek, thus showing a perpetual outcome.  In other words, just as there continues to be ongoing consequences for mankind due to Adam’s sin (cf. Gen. 3:17-19), there continues to be ongoing consequences for womankind due to Eve’s sin (cf. Gen. 3:16).  The prohibitions listed in 1 Timothy 2:12 are some of them.

It is important to remember this because some promoters of error, again in attempts to assign 1 Timothy 2:11-12 to the dustbin of irrelevancy, try to dismiss the passage as completely cultural in nature.  In other words, the thought is given that the command for women to not teach or exercise authority over men was given only because such would fit the culture of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago.  Now, in 21st century American culture, such a command would not apply.  Paul shows this to not be a culturally limited application by going all the way back to the beginning of time to give the theological reason behind these prohibitions.  Thus, these prohibitions were not solely applicable in a cultural sense to the Roman society in which Paul and Timothy lived.  So it is correct for us to conclude that they are just as applicable today as they were two thousand years ago when Paul wrote this.

Yet, 1 Timothy 2:15 gives both hope and a position of honor upon women, placing upon them a major contribution to the salvation of all of humanity.  Admittedly at first glance it is hard to see how this is so.  The verse itself at first glance is very ambiguous:  “Yet she will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”  Is Paul saying that the only way for a woman to be saved from sin is to bear children?  Some think so.  This author was told of a relative who gave the fact that she was a mother of numerous children and thus would be saved based on what 1 Timothy 2:15 says as her excuse for rejecting the biblical teaching that baptism is necessary for salvation (Mk. 16:16; 1 Pet. 3:21; Acts 2:38).    Some interpret this verse to mean that “childbearing” is a synecdoche to refer to the totality of women’s domestic role of being a wife, mother, and homemaker (cf. Tit. 2:3-4). 

Yet both of these interpretations present problems.  If a woman is biologically incapable of bearing children, is she condemned to hell through no fault of her own?  If a woman is never married, or becomes a widow before her and her husband have children and never remarries despite her best efforts to find another husband, then must she commit fornication in order to get pregnant and thus be saved through childbearing/  If a woman never marries and thus lacks a traditional domestic homelife, is she condemned?  Would this therefore require marriage for all women, and thus contradict Paul’s divinely inspired allowance for the legitimacy of being single (1 Cor. 7:6-9)?

A word study of the verse shows that the Greek article ho, translated “the” in English, precedes “childbearing” (teknogonia).  Thus, a more accurate English translation could say, “Yet she will be saved through the childbirth” (emphasis added), the birth of a Child.  When one remembers that Jesus, our Savior, was “born of woman” (Gal. 4:4), it is clear that a necessary part of God’s plan to save mankind was to have Christ come into the world by being born of Mary.  If a woman had not given birth to Jesus, none of us would be saved. 

Thus, God inspired Paul to tell Christian women that, in spite of the role Eve had in the downfall of man and in spite of the subsequent limitation placed on Christian women when it comes to teaching and exercising authority over Christian men in the church, we all still have much for which to be grateful to women.  Women (and men) will be saved because a woman gave birth to a particular Child who went on to live a sinless life and die as the propitiation for all of our sins.  If Christian women (and Christian men, as the rest of the New Testament shows) “continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control,” they will be saved by God’s grace because of that Child which Mary bore.

It is my hope that these thoughts on 1 Timothy 2:8-15 have helped you in your study and understanding of this passage.

 — Jon

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