“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man;
rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12).
The above verse is the source of much debate in the church. Some believe that this verse means that women should not be in positions of leadership in the church, especially when that leadership involves being in authority over men. Others believe that women can be in positions of leadership, and that the above verse was written by Paul to Timothy for a specific time, a specific place, and a specific issue. As a female Bible teacher, it may not surprise you that I (Helen) believe the latter. I believe that both men and women are given gifts by the Spirit and are called to exercise those gifts as the Spirit leads. We don’t see any indication in the Bible that certain gifts are for certain genders, and outside of this verse, we don’t see any suggestion that women should not exercise leadership when they have been equipped and called by God to do so. In fact, there are multiple examples of women in the Bible who are excellent leaders, teachers, prophets, and evangelists. We see women advise kings, understand Jesus’ Messiahship, and boldly declare the Gospel. The Bible records the story of a woman leading thousands to military victory, commends a woman as an apostle, and refers to women as those in positions of leadership, alongside men, in the early church. When I taught 1 Timothy, I delved into the meaning of the Greek words and the historical background surrounding the infamous “I do not permit a woman” passage, but here let’s explore the stories of a few of the women of the Bible to understand why Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 2:12 is situational, not universal – or, in SBS language, not a “timeless truth.”
We read of prophetess and judge Deborah, in Judges 4-5. Judges deals with a very dark period in Israel’s history, after the people of God had entered the Promised Land, but before they had a king. The people abandon the Lord, do what is right in their own eyes, and as a result, God gives them over to their enemies. This leads the people to cry out to God, and God responds to the cries of His people by raising up judges “who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them” (Judges 2:16). After a judge died, however, the people turned back to their evil ways, and were more corrupt than ever before. In the midst of this recurring cycle, we meet Deborah. In Deborah’s time, the Lord had given the people over to the hand of the king of Canaan; the commander of his army was Sisera. After twenty years of oppression, the people of God cried out to the Lord. His response was to raise up Deborah as a judge. Deborah is described as a prophetess, and as the wife of Lappidoth (Judges 4:4). The people of Israel came to Deborah for judgement, indicating that she was likely handling inter-tribal disputes too difficult for local judges (Belleville, 112). Deborah summons Barak, and Barak comes, showing Deborah’s authority. She commands Barak to gather 10,000 men, as she would draw out Sisera so she could give him into Barak’s hand. Barak’s response to this instruction is that he will only go if she will go with him, showing that he trusted in her leadership. The leadership of this woman led to the victory of Israel and the death of Sisera. Deborah prophesied that Barak would not be the one to have the glory, but that Sisera would be killed by a woman. Indeed, Sisera was killed by Jael, who drove a tent peg through his head, showing that Deborah was not only an effective leader, but a true prophet. Some believe that Deborah was an exception to the rule of male leadership – that she was only called to the position of judge because of the lack of godly men in Israel at the time. We do not see any indication of this in the text. Moreover, our next example is a woman who was called on for her prophetic ability and her godly leadership at a time when there were multiple competent, godly men in Israel.
The story of Huldah is described in both 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34-35; she was a prophetess during the time of King Josiah. God raised up prophets during the time of the kings in order to point His wayward people to Himself. The kings had a horrible track record of leading Israel and Judah in idolatry, rather than in the Law of God, and the prophets functioned as the mouthpiece of God, especilally in times when the people rejected Him. Though most of the kings were terrible and did not listen to the prophets, Josiah was an exception. At a young age, Josiah set about repairing the temple that had fallen into disuse. While the temple was being repaired, the high priest happened upon the Book of the Law. This tells us something about the state of the nation when the Book of the Law has been lost and forgotten! The Law was read to Josiah, and Josiah immediately ordered his high priest, secretary, and servant, “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us” (2 Kings 22:13). Josiah’s entourage responds to this command by going to Huldah, the prophetess. Huldah tells them that God will bring disaster on Judah and its inhabitants because they had forsaken God, but because Josiah was penitent and humbled himself before the Lord, he would be gathered to his grave in peace, and his eyes would not see the disaster that was coming. It is significant that the high priest would go to a woman in the first place, but it is especially significant that Josiah’s entourage would go to a prophetess in the time when Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk were prophesying – male prophets! As a result of Huldah’s prophecy (which came true), Josiah made a covenant with God to walk after the Lord and keep His commandments, and the people of Judah joined in with this covenant; the prophecy of a woman led to a nation’s repentance and recommitting to God.
Deborah and Huldah are two examples of women in leadership in the Old Testament, but what about the New Testament? Though there are several examples we could explore, let’s look specifically at Mary Magdalene, Priscilla, Phoebe and Junia.
While we most often think of Jesus surrounded by His twelve male disciples, He was also accompanied by women in His travels (Luke 8:1-3). This means that women were privy to Jesus’ teaching, witnessed miracles, and themselves were healed of “evil spirits and infirmities.” In addition to this, we see that when Jesus is arrested and crucified, it is largely his women followers who were present – John 19:25 tells us that “standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” What is perhaps most significant, is that the first witness of the resurrected Jesus is a woman – Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18). Jesus’ instructions to her are to “go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17). Mary Magdalene, a woman, is the first person commissioned with the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection. This is especially remarkable because at this time in history, women were not considered reliable witnesses in court, yet Jesus calls Mary to proclaim the Gospel to those who followed Him (Besançon Spencer, 139).
Priscilla and Aquila were tent-makers whom we first meet in Acts 18; they were Jews who had come to Corinth from Italy because Claudius had kicked all the Jews out of Rome. This couple worked with Paul, both as tent-makers and as evangelists. It is interesting to note that of all the times this couple is mentioned in the Bible, two thirds of the times, Priscilla is mentioned first, and she is always mentioned first when the context is ministry-related. When the household is referred to, Aquila is listed first (listing the husband first would have been customary when speaking of household matters in the first century), but when their ministry is being described, Prisicilla’s name always comes first. This indicates that Priscilla was at least as important as Aquila in their ministry, if not more prominent. Most interestingly, when Apollos does not understand the full Gospel as of yet (see Acts 18:24-19:1), Priscilla is an instrumental part of teaching him “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 19:26). This woman was called to instruct a man in the truth of the Gospel, a man who would become a key evangelist, particularly in Corinth. She is commended by Paul in Romans 16:3, 1 Corinthians 16:19, and 2 Timothy 4:19.
While we read little of Phoebe in the Bible, the two verses that are attributed to this woman (Romans 16:1-2) are telling. Some translations tell us that Phoebe was a “servant” of the church at Cenchreae, but the Greek word used to describe Phoebe’s role is the same word rendered “deacon” (see the footnote in your Bible for Romans 16:1-2). In 1 Timothy 3 we see that deacons were held to the highest character standards; they “must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless” (1 Timothy 3:8-10). Interestingly, what follows these verses is the instruction that deacons must be the “husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well” (3:12). As mentioned earlier, 1 Timothy was written by Paul, but Romans was also written by Paul; how can Paul commend a woman deacon when deacons must be the “husband of one wife?” The key here is to see that Paul is not demanding that deacons be married males (Paul himself was single, so such a requirement would count him out!), but rather that deacons be faithful to their spouses (if they are married), able to manage their households and their children. This is a quality that can be possessed by either gender, and must have been possessed by Phoebe, if she was a married woman. Phoebe is not only commended as a deacon, however; she was entrusted with carrying Paul’s letter to the Roman church, and the language used with regards to helping her in whatever she may need suggests that this woman was an itinerant missionary who would no doubt be involved in preaching the Gospel (Belleville, 121).
Junia receives even less text-space than Phoebe, but the controversy that has surrounded this woman has made her the subject of much debate. The King James Version says of her, “Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me” (Romans 16:7). So why the controversy? Though the early church had no problem with a woman being referred to as an apostle, in later years, the text underwent some creative re-translating, suggesting at times that a) Junia was actually “Junias” (a name that does not exist in any documentation coming from the New Testament period) or b) that Junia was “well known to the apostles,” taking her out of the apostleship position. To make either argument is to ignore early Greek translations and commentaries, which clearly indicate that this woman was an apostle (Groothuis, 194-195).
So if there are multiple examples of women in position of leadership throughout the Bible, why would Paul say, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12)? Paul is recorded as commending women throughout his letters; is he contradicting himself in his letter to Timothy? No. 1 Timothy was written to Timothy in Ephesus, where false teaching abounded. Women were particularly susceptible to this false teaching at this time in history because they were uneducated in the Scriptures, and because of the unique role women played in the cult of Artemis and in pre-gnosticism in Ephesus. As Paul tells Timothy that he does not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, he is not contradicting himself or negating the position of leadership women such as Priscilla, Phoebe, and Junia held (not to mention their Old Testament counterparts, Deborah and Huldah), but was combating the false teaching that was plaguing a specific city, at a specific time in history. In fact, I believe it is safe to say that Paul would not permit anyone who taught a warped version of the Gospel to minister. The timeless truth of this passage is therefore not that women should be prohibited from exercising the gifts of the Spirit (including the gift of teaching) as the Spirit leads, but rather that false teaching must be stopped, whether the source of this teaching is a man or a woman. This is the main idea of the entire book of 1 Timothy, and it is the heart of Paul’s situational restriction in 1 Timothy 2.
Belleville, Linda L. “Women Leaders in the Bible.” Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004. 110-25. Print.
Besançon Spencer, Aida. “Jesus’ Treatment of Women in the Gospels.” Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004. 126-41. Print.
Groothuis, Rebecca Merrill. Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997. Print.