Paul, Women, and the Church

Preface: I would be a fool if I thought that this article would put to rest the emotion-packed topic of women’s roles in the home and in the church. On the other hand, I would be unfaithful to my calling as a biblical exegete if I did not set forth another viable option for the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15. In this post I fully expect that some who comment may seek to overturn my conclusions in this all-too-brief article, and maybe I have overlooked something. However, with comprehensive exegesis of the text and discussions with scholars and reading commentaries my conclusions stem directly from the conviction that key data has been overlooked and needs to be integrated into the interpretation. This posting seeks to display all relevant data. May intellectual open-mindedness and Spirit-led kindness accompany all who read and choose to make comments. Dennis O. Wretlind, Ph.D

An Exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15            

The 21st century dawns as an unprecedented era of human history. Today what was “science fiction” just a few years ago is now real; what was once labeled immorality is today an alternative lifestyle.  Being a homemaker used to be a respectable role for women. Now it has subtly become a disparaging term. In short, we live in a day of a severely corrupted moral compass contributing to unprecedented social upheaval.  For the Church of Jesus Christ, this social restructuring can lead to opportunities for outreach to people searching for identity and meaning in life. It must also, however, become a time to clarify and proclaim the teachings of the Bible that impinge upon the social changes all about us.            

In the religious context a major social adjustment has been the ordination of women and their newly-acceptable role as pastors and senior pastors in some Christian denominations. Traditionalists and many conservatives reject such a role for women based in part on the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Without serious debate, this passage represents a politically and theologically electrifying text around which revolve philosophical and exegetical arguments pro and con concerning the role of women in the home and in the church. This posting will not silence the debate, but it will attempt to bring contextual clarity to an often neglected clause in the text that has significant if not fundamental bearing on the entire passage, namely, she shall be saved through childbearing

Survey of the Solutions

Commentators offer a number of solutions to the meaning of this clause. I quote six interpretations from the NET Bible, Biblical Studies Press, loc. cit. [Hereafter as NET] and for comparison I summarize four from, Homer A. Kent Jr., The Pastoral Epistles, 115-21:

  1. “Christian women will be saved, but only if they bear children.”
  2. “Despite the curse, Christian women will be kept safe when bearing children.”
  3. “Despite the sin of Eve and the results to her progeny, she would be saved through the childbirth–that is, through the birth of the Messiah, as promised in the protevanelium (Gen 3:15).”
  4. “This may be a somewhat veiled reference to the curse of Gen 3:16 in order to clarify that though the woman led the man into transgression . . . , she will be saved spiritually despite this physical reminder of her sin.”
  5. “It is not through active teaching and ruling activities that Christian women will be saved, but through faithfulness to their proper role, exemplified in motherhood.” [Quote from Moo, “I Timothy 2:11-15: Meaning and Significance,” Trinity Journal (1980), p. 71]
  6. “The verse may point to some sort of proverbial expression now lost, in which ‘saved’ means ‘delivered’ and in which this deliverance was from some of the devastating effects of the role reversal that took place in Eden. The idea of childbearing, then, is a metonymy of part for the whole that encompasses the woman’s submission again to the leadership of the man, though it has no specific soteriological import (but it certainly would have to do with the outworking of redemption).”

Comparison from Kent, The Pastoral Epistles, pp. 115-21:

  • Physical salvation—A woman who continues in faith, love, holiness and sound thinking will experience physical salvation in childbearing; that is, when she gives birth she will not die.
  • Spiritual salvation—By birthing children the soul of the mother would be saved if she died in the process.
  • Spiritual salvation in the home—A woman is saved by taking care of domestic affairs. This view tends to equate “childbearing” (τεκνογονία) verse 15) with the education of children.  
  • Spiritual salvation through the incarnation—The term τῆς τεκνογονίας refers to the birth of the Messiah promised in Genesis 3:15 in the Garden of Eden. Although Eve sinned and is worthy of eternal death, because of the Messianic promise and the childbirth of Christ, women will be saved if they put their trust in Jesus.              

Significant Issues

As a reference to what follows, verses 11-15 are quoted from the English Standard Version: “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.”

Contextual—Decorum in the church is the overriding concept in 1 Timothy 2 and 3 (see especially 3:14-15). When the men of the church gather for prayer, they are not to be harboring criticisms and grudges (2:9). When women come into the assembly they are to dress moderately (2:9-10) and behave according to prescribed patterns (2:11-12), and the behavior of women becomes the root from which the phrase, “she shall be saved through childbearing,” stems.             

In 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul states that he does not allow a woman “to assume a stance of independent authority, give orders to, dictate to” men (αὐθεντειν) [Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 150). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Hereafter as BDAG, Lexicon]

He explains his reasoning beginning in verse 13 with the illustration of the Garden of Eden events recorded in Genesis 3, “For Adam was first formed, then Eve.” God established a divine order of authority based on the order of creation. Man was to be the leader, and the woman was to be subject to him. A second reason given for this order follows the conjunction “and” (καί) in verse 14, “And Adam was not deceived; but the woman, being deceived, became a transgressor” (stated more definitively based on the Greek text and the extensive perfect verb form γέγονεν, “entered into a continuing state of transgression”) [See Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 893. Hereafter as Robertson, Grammar]. Paul declares that a woman must not seek to reverse the divine order of authority.             

A literary progression exists in this passage. Paul identifies Adam and Eve in the first part of his explanation (verse 13), but following this (verses 14-15) he includes Adam while “the woman” (ἡ γυνή) replaces Eve. Also, in verse 15, Paul moves from the singular subject in the first part of the verse (“she”) to the plural form of the verb in the second part (“they”). Paul’s development becomes clear. White explains, “St. Paul says ἡ γυνή rather than Εὕα, emphasizing the sex rather than the individual, because he desires to give the incident its general application, especially in view of what follows” [White, The First and Second Epistles to Timothy, 109].  Eve’s reversal of the creation order of authority continues to affect women as seen clearly by Paul when he applied this to the plural subjects of the verb “if they continue (μείνωσιν) in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

Paul alludes to Genesis 3 to illustrate and extend his argument. Most commentators agree that this was Paul’s reference underlying 1 Timothy 2:13 and 14. This being so, the phrase “entered into a continuing state of transgression” (ἐν παραβάσει γέγονεν) grows out of that text. What was Eve’s transgression?  Paul writes that Eve was “utterly deceived” (he differentiates between the simplex and complex forms of the verbs ἀπατάω and ἐξαπατάω). [See RobertsonA Grammar of the Greek New Testament, Ibid., 596 and 893-94; A Greek-English Lexicon, Ibid, 758 and 50-51; Kent, Epistles Ibid.,119] The serpent deceived Eve and she ate of the forbidden fruit. Adam also ate of the fruit perhaps as a result of Eve’s “suggestion.” Climaxing this event the Lord delivered judgments to each of the offending individuals:            

  • To Satan, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
  • To the woman, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to [literally, for] your husband, but [literally, and] he shall rule over you.”
  • To Adam, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Significant differences appear in these judgments. To the serpent and to man God predicates punishment based on a specific cause. To the woman, however, God does not say anything as to the reason for the punishment. Does this mean that Eve did not sin?

Theologians rarely interact with Eve and the sin question. The reason is obvious. If the Scripture expressly states that sin entered the world through Adam (Romans 5:12), it would be precarious to make too much out of Eve’s transgression. But Paul did place some emphasis on this matter in 1 Timothy 2:14.  The issue Paul alludes to here cannot be in contradiction with his earlier discussion of sin in Romans 5:12ff.  Paul is not talking about the entrance of sin into the world in 1 Timothy 2:14. He is talking about the usurpation of the divine order that took place in the Garden of Eden when Eve took on a dominant role.             

God said to Adam that he was being punished in part because he listened to the voice of Eve. He should not have listened, but then also Eve should not have solicited submission from Adam either. A divine order of authority was established by God, and Eve, by her assuming authority over Adam (αὐθεντοῦσα), became a transgressor.             

The meaning of the noun “transgression” (παράβασις) in this text involves an “overstepping, of deviating from an established boundary or norm” [BDAG, Lexicon, 758].  The meaning of this noun differs from the “sin” (ἁμαρτία) found in Romans 5:12. The context of 1 Timothy 2:14 discusses not Eve’s original sin, if it existed, but her later transgression of approaching Adam and sharing with him her new-found “delight.” The word “transgression” (παράβασις) corresponds readily with the dominance idea (αὐθεντεῖν) of verse 12, the fulcrum of Paul’s whole discussion. Eve, by her assumption of authority over Adam, overstepped the divinely-ordained boundary. This problem of submitting to God’s pattern of authority persists among women. Thus, in verse 14 Paul uses the extensive perfect “became” (γεγονεν) [Robertson, Grammar, 893-94] and the generic article with “the woman” ἡ γυνή] which translates as “she” in the initial verb of verse 15 (“she shall be saved”, σωθήσεται). Obviously, the future tense of that verb eliminates Eve as the subject, and the logical development of the argument moves away from the specific woman Eve to the female of the human species, “they,” the subject of the last verb in verse 15.

Critical issues

The above paragraphs contain enough debatable points to generate consternation or even anger in some, questions in others, and perhaps for still others added determination to revisit previous interpretations so as to validate or invalidate the conclusions. But if what has already been said hasn’t generate any of these, what follows may.

1 Timothy 2:15 contains three matters that must be dealt with: (1) the meaning of “she will be saved” (σωθήσεται), (2) Paul’s meaning of “through childbearing” (διὰ τῆς τεκνογονίας), and (3) the implications of the “if” (ἐάν) clause.            

(1) The verb  “she will be saved” (σωθήσεται) is viewed by many scholars to refer to justification in its initial stage. The word, however, does not always refer to this initial experience; it also refers to deliverance from the present sinful activities of saved Christians, continuing salvation, sanctification. To round out the theology, σωθήσεται  is also used for final salvation, glorification. In the context of 1 Timothy 2:15, sanctification is the preferred sense. The woman shall be delivered from the tendency of overstepping the divinely ordained order of authority providing certain conditions are met. Nothing in this passage presupposes that Paul had unsaved women in mind. The women who would be in the church services would most likely be the Christian wives of the Christian husbands.

(2) The most definitive phrase in this passage is “through childbearing” (διὰ τῆς τεκνογονίας). Although the force of the preposition “through” (διά) has been a source of difficulty as evidenced by the commentaries and translations, the common sense of διά followed by the genitive case is one of means and should be retained here. The same construction occurs in verse 10 where the clear idea of the preposition is that of means, and Paul indicated nothing in this later context suggesting a different syntax.             

The definite article “the” (τῆς) in this phrase presents another syntax question. Why does Paul make the noun τεκνογονίας definite?  Kent would say that it refers to the incarnation of Christ [Kent, Epistles, p. 119]. Others conclude that it is used generically, referring to a class rather than to a particular representative, “The idea of childbearing, then, is a metonymy of part for the whole that encompasses the woman’s submission again to the leadership of the man, though it has no specific soteriological import” [NET, Ibid., #6 above]. The answer to this syntax question may be found in the  Genesis 3 historical framework for 1 Timothy 2:11-15.             

Kent (Ibid.) finds the support for his incarnation view in Genesis 3:15. The “seed of the woman” refers to the Messiah who would bring salvation. Few evangelicals disagree with Kent’s interpretation of Genesis 3:15. But how this connects to Eve’s problem of usurping Adam’s authority remains obscure. An alternative view ties the historical reference to Genesis 3:16 which relates directly to the woman’s “transgression” (παράβασις).             

In Genesis 3:16 God punishes Eve with a two-pronged judgment. These two segments are identified by the accents in the Hebrew Bible (a poetic text) and identifiable in the New American Standard Bible (NASB) by punctuation and contents moving from pain in childbirth (“I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children;”) to desire for her husband (“Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.”)

The second segment of Genesis 3:16 is paraphrased in some translations to agree with the established or expected “conflict” interpretation. However, this interpretation, though popular, does not really fit the sense of the first line of the verse where God unequivocally stated that the woman will give birth with pain. She, like the curse on Satan and the curse on man, will have no choice in the matter. Satan could have said, “I refuse to eat dust,” but God took away his legs and he had no choice. Adam could have said, “I refuse to work the ground,” but his biological need for food gave him no choice. Eve could have said, “I refuse to become pregnant and experience pain, but her biological innate, motherly aspirations gave her no choice. To fulfill her natural feminine need required her husband to impregnate her. This event, the childbearing process involving sex, by nature and physically places the woman in a subordinate position to her husband. She cannot reverse the divinely established order of procreation and she must not seek to reverse the divinely establish order of authority in the home or in the church. The childbearing process (διὰ τῆς τεκνογονίας) serves as a constant reminder of God’s order of authority in both spheres. Syntactically, the act from which childbearing stems is definite, hence, the definite article is used.                      

The third aspect of 1 Timothy 2:15 which must be given special attention is the conditional sentence and its implications. The dependent “if” (ἐάν) part of the sentence, with its aorist subjunctive verb μείνωσιν and plural subjects “they” (the antecedents being saved, Christian women), is placed last in the text, effectively fronting the independent “then” clause of the condition and its troublesome clause, she shall be saved through childbearing. The aorist subjunctive μείνωσιν does not imply an entrance into a state, that isbecoming believers. The word’s meaning denies this as does the entire context. Rather, the subjunctive implies volition. [Robertson, Grammar, 933] “If they choose to abide” would be a good translation. Thus, the clause beginning with “she shall be saved” (σωθήσεται) is conditioned by willful abiding in faith, love, holiness, and sound thinking (σωφροσύνης).             

The third class “if” (ἐάν) clause implies that women will probably, but not positively, conduct themselves in a manner that delivers from “transgression” (παράβασις) as defined in this context. There is the possibility that some of these Christian women will not so abide; consequently, as expressed in the “if” clause, they will not be delivered (σωθήσεται) from the contextually defined transgression of αὐθεντεῖν (“to exercise authority over a man“, NASB). Thus interpreted, the ἐάν clause coordinates with and finalizes the teaching that began at verse 11.             

Cross reference issues

The stated interpretation of “through childbearing” (τῆς τεκνογονίας) is based upon the syntax, the meaning of the word in the context, and the Old Testament illustration. One reason for the difficulty of interpretation stems from the fact that the noun τεκνογονίας is a hapax legomenon (only used once) in the New Testament, in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), and in classical literature. One verb form with this root, however, occurs in the New Testament (τεκνογονεῖν, 1 Timothy 5:14, “bear children”) and this has definite bearing on the meaning of the noun in 2:15. First, the contexts are similar—the behavior of women. Second, Paul focuses on marriage and family living—the home. Third, mention is made of some women who, like Eve, have already turned aside after Satan (5:15). The primary differences in these two passages revolve around different circumstances. In 2:15 the circumstances center around church conduct; in 5:14, general conduct. The closeness of ideas in these two chapters appears to be mutually interpretive.             

Titus 2:3-5 provides a second cross reference. Since 1 Timothy was written before Titus but not by more than a few months, it would not be too bold to expect similar ideas in them that can shed light on each other. The subject under discussion in Titus 2:3-5 is the duty of the older women who are to teach the younger women to live “sensible, self-controlled; chaste, modest” [Newman, B. M., Jr. (1993). A Concise Greek-English dictionary of the New Testament. p. 178]. The semantically significant word in Titus (the adjective σώφρων) connects semantically to “self-control” (σωφροσύνη) in 1 Timothy 2:15.

Conclusion and Application             

1 Timothy 2:11-15 interpreted and summarized: as Christian women come to the worship service, if they are thinking biblically, soundly, and exhibiting self-control, they will realize that their place is one of submission to male authority both in the home and in the church. The tendency to usurp the authority belonging to the man is a problem that God dealt with in the Garden of Eden when He stated that through the childbearing process the woman must by nature and physically submit to the man. Submission, far from being a pejorative word as in modern-day English usage, becomes a positive, continual, gentle reminder of God’s established order of authority.         

For 21st century Christian women the application of this passage is two-fold. First, they must not strive to rearrange the divine order of authority in the home or in the church. As an aside, this text says nothing about the role women may and do play in the broader society. Second, those who desire to live as “is proper for women who profess godliness” (ESV, 1Timothy 2:10) should reflect on the facts that their subordinate role is divinely-ordered, biologically infused, and well-pleasing to God.

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