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1 Timothy 2:12-14: What We Can Learn from Paul's Chiasm

Introduction

The present essay focusses on several verses in a paragraph in Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

1 Timothy 2:8-15 I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument;  9 also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes,  10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.  11 Let a woman1 learn in silence with full submission.  12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man;2 she is to keep silent.  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, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.  (New Revised Standard Version—and throughout)

Much has been written on 1 Timothy 2.8-15 in recent decades because of questions about the role and status of women in ministry, but one point still needs to be made: the significance of the chiasm in vv. 12-14.  Attention to the chiasm highlights two important points for understanding the passage: (1) the main purpose of Paul writing this; and (2) the function of the Old Testament texts in vv. 13-14 in relation to what Paul says in verse 12.

Paul’s Main Purpose in 1 Timothy 2.12-14: Dealing with Communal Disruption

The chiasm is as follows:

A         I permit no woman to teach (v. 12a)

B         or to have authority over a man; (v. 12b)

C         she is to keep silent.  (v. 12c)

B         For Adam was formed first, then Eve; (v. 13)

A         and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (v.
14)

This chiasm helps the interpreter identify the main purpose of 1 Timothy 2.12-14.  First, the central piece of the chiasm, ‘C,’ is that a woman is to be silent (h─ôsychia).  Paul likely meant this quite literally—the woman should keep silent in the assembly (cf. 1 Cor. 14.33-35).  He says in 1 Timothy 2.11, 'Let a woman learn in silence (h─ôsychia) with full submission.'  This was a regular expectation in the culture.  However, there is a purpose behind this call for silence: the issue is not so much actual silence but not causing discord or disruption.  

Several things may be said to confirm this point.  First, the same term is used a little earlier in 1 Timothy with respect to how Christians should live as a minority group in the larger society.  Paul calls for prayer for persons in high position so that ‘we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way’ (1 Tim. 2.2b).  1 Timothy 2.8-15 is concerned with the same ethic but in the life of the church.  In this chapter, Paul is concerned with matters that can disrupt the 'quiet' of the church in society and within the church.  The central point of the chiasm in vv. 12-14 also emphasises this very point.

Second, within the letter overall, the issue of disunity is a real one for the church because there are false teachers that need to be countered.  Moreover, third, the false teaching includes issues for women in the church.  One issue is that the false teachers are saying that people should not marry (1 Tim. 4.3).  This causes problems for young widows, whom Paul alternatively advises to marry in order to deal with their physical desires (1 Tim. 5.11), becoming idle, gadding about from house to house, and being busybodies instead of devoting themselves to the task of managing their households (vv. 13-14).  The situation is dire: ‘some have already turned away to follow Satan’ (5.15) or, as 2.14 says, become transgressors (as Eve).  No wonder, then, that Paul reminds the congregation of Eve’s salvation through childbirth despite her facing temptation and falling into sin (1 Tim. 2.15a—the subject is singular in the Greek: ‘she [Eve] will be saved through childbirth’).  In 2 Timothy, another word is given about sinful people arising in the last days, including those ‘who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth’ (3.6-7).

Fourth, 1 Timothy 2.8, which begins the paragraph, is a word to men about their need to avoid quarrelling: ‘I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument.’  To this might be added the concern that is addressed after our passage: establishing overseers and deacons in the community.  This, too, is about establishing order in the community and avoiding communal disruption.  (One might make a case for the issue of disruption in what is said about the adornment of women in 2.9-10 as this could involve division between wealthy women and poorer women.  However, the thrust of the verses is on what accounts for the good life--good works.)

Verse 12 and the Old Testament Arguments of Verses 13-14

By observing the chiasm in vv. 12-14, one can also see that the reason Paul gives for women not teaching is the narrative of Eve being deceived by the serpent.  One would certainly not want someone deceived to be placed in the role of teaching others.  In a chiasm, what is said in the first part is related to what is said in reverse order in the second part (line A links with A, B with B).  Thus, the call for women not to teach (A) is not based on a creation argument (B, her being created after Adam): women were not created to be easily deceived.  The story functions as narratives do in moral argument: they illustrate the point.  The women in Ephesus falling into error were repeating Eve's sin.  The 'creation argument' in the text is 'B': a woman should not domineer over a man for she was created after the man (or, one could read 'husband' and 'wife' more specifically--but the point seems more general).

The second point of Paul’s is that women should not have authority over a man.  As is often pointed out, Paul does not use the typical word kyriein to say ‘have authority over’ but the word authentein, a word that appears to carry more of a negative sense, such as ‘domineer over’ (it is, on occasion, used for violent acts).  It is a fitting word in the narrative of Adam and Eve, for God, when delivering His punishment, says to Eve that her submission (literally, ‘turning’) will be to her husband and he will rule (kyriein--the word used for the man's rule in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew) over her (Gen. 3.16).  This is a reversal of Eve’s prior action, when she first yielded to the serpent’s false teaching and then gave Adam what had been forbidden from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  

This is where a creation argument is used: Adam was created first, then Eve.  He had authority over Eve by virtue of being created first.  In God's punishment of the couple, God declares that the man would rule (kyriein) over the woman (Gen. 3.16)--even this milder term used of the male's role seems to be tinged with negative connotations in light of the Fall and punishment. The thrust of Paul's point in 1 Timothy seems to derive from the situation in Ephesus: women had succumbed to the teaching of false teachers, as Eve had to the serpent, and were, like Eve, passing on the false teaching to others, including men.  They were creating disruption in the community and, by doing so, were not living a ‘quiet’ life.  They were creating discord and perpetrating false teaching.

It is important to see that the woman's ‘domineering over’ was a breach of God's intentions in creation, whereas the ‘teaching’ issue was a matter of the Fall—being deceived by the serpent—in this argument.  Paul does not say that women should not teach (A) because Adam was created first (B), and he does not say that women should not domineer over men (B) because Eve was deceived by the serpent (A).  ‘Deception’ (A) goes with ‘not teaching’ (A) and ‘Adam being created first’ (B) goes with ‘a woman not domineering over a man/husband’ (B).  (Neither is a man's 'ruling over' a woman a corollary of being created first but is a part of God's punishment of Eve.)

Having made this distinction, though, one needs to see that Paul equates the two points: women teaching is, in his context, an example of domineering over men, and both are examples of a woman not being 'quiet'--creating disruptions--in the community.  This equation makes sense in certain cultural contexts even today.  We might give a variety of reasons for when this makes sense: when men marry women a number of years younger than themselves, as in Paul’s day; when women are typically not educated, as in Paul’s day; when there is a particular problem with women in the community who are repeating the errors of Eve, as in the case of the Ephesian church receiving this letter; and when culture has certain expectations around gender that are being flouted.

The Contextual Components in Application of the Text

Yet it is this equation that surely is not always the case.  If women receive the same education as males, they will not be more susceptible to false teaching.  If teaching is not viewed as an act of authority but as a service, as often (not always) in our day, then the act of teaching is not going to be construed as lording it over someone else (in a negative sense).  If women are not perpetrating errors, including errors associated with them (teaching not to marry and not to bear children), the problem of their teaching will disappear.  And if culture does not have the same expectations of women regarding public speaking and teaching, then the implications of their doing so are also different.

All this said, there is no question that, when the issue arises, Paul wants to maintain distinctions between men and women and not blur the boundaries.  Gender confusion was a problem in Paul's day even if the issue pales in comparison to the social experiment underway in western society today. This very point is made in 1 Corinthians 11.2-16 in regard to head coverings at worship.  The question for 1 Timothy 2 is, ‘Is teaching a male role just like childbearing is a female role?’  The answer is cultural with respect to teaching in antiquity, but the matter is not like the natural role of childbearing for women.  Rarely did one find a female author or teacher,[1] and therefore a woman in such a role was stepping into a man’s world and thereby creating communal disruption.  Beyond what she might say in such a role, the issue was inevitably raised in such a context whether she was adopting a male’s role.  This fact may cause disquiet, as it did in the church in Ephesus, greatly exacerbated by the false teaching itself.  One must imagine from what Paul says that some women were teaching, forsaking marriage, and not raising children, and that in a society that understood such behaviour as socially disruptive.[2]  In fact, in the context of false teachers, it clearly was disruptive.  Thus, Paul’s statement in 1 Tim. 2.12-14 is not something for us to move beyond by means of a ‘redemptive hermeneutic’ (which is a way to dismiss the text by applying a new and, supposedly, higher value) but something that speaks to a specific situation not only in Paul’s day but also in our own when the conditions are the same.  When similar situations arise, we ought, too, to affirm what Paul himself says.

Conclusion

Following this line of argument, it may be appropriate to argue for women in the role of teaching in the church when the community is not struggling with confusion of gender issues and/or dealing with false teaching involving, in one way or another, women.  When teaching is not an instance of a woman domineering over a man or creating disquiet in the community or teaching falsely about womanhood, marriage, and childbearing, we may well be in a position to affirm women in a teaching role.  When society does not see women stepping into such a role as disruptive or confusing and when women are as educated as men, there is little reason, if any, to forbid women in ministries involving teaching.  An orthodox Christian Church in the west is likely in a position to encourage women in such ministries.  We might appreciate that the orthodox Church did not take this step in previous centuries in the west, when the cultural situation was different--and we might appreciate some cultural contexts outside the west in our day not taking this step at this time as well.

On the other hand, where gender confusion is an issue in a Church dealing with false teaching, as in mainline denominations in the west today, along with opposing the false teaching there may be reason to discourage women from teaching.  Such a situation is somewhat similar to what Paul was addressing in 1 Timothy.  There is some irony here.  The so-called ‘conservative’ (a very unhelpful term--better, 'orthodox') churches are precisely the ones that should encourage women in teaching ministry roles in the west, whereas the ‘liberal’ churches that see themselves as champions of women’s rights are precisely the churches that are in a situation where women teachers should probably be discouraged.  In the latter context, false teaching abounds, and it is often connected to confusion about gender, sexuality, and the role and status of women—among any number of other false teachings.




[1] Yet Lucian (late 2nd century AD) references three women—Aspasia, Diotima, and Thargelia— whom he lists in the annals of philosophy (The Eunuch 7).
[2] A number of passages could be cited here.  Consider Seneca: ‘I might say with good reason, Serenus, that there is as great a difference between the Stoics and the other schools of philosophy as there is between males and females, since while each set contributes equally to human society, the one class is born to obey, the other to command’ (De Constantia II.1).  Quoted from Seneca, Moral Essays, Vol. 1, trans. John W. Basore (Loeb Classical Library 214; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928).