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An Examination of 1 Timothy 2:8-15

Adapted with permission from Dr. Daniel Crabtree’s doctoral project, “Let Them Preach: A Class on Women in Ministry,” copyright 2006.

Daniel Crabtree is an associate professor at Central Bible College, Springfield, Missouri. He served for 12 years as senior pastor of churches in Cleveland and Dayton, Ohio. During those years he served on various district committees and was involved in sectional leadership.

First Timothy 2:8-15 is often used as the foundational biblical argument of those who deny women the right to teach or exercise authority over a man. Since this passage is the only place in the New Testament that explicitly addresses the issue of women not being permitted to teach, it is necessary to argue in some detail why the restriction on women teaching in this passage applies only to the situation at Ephesus and not to women universally.

Paul demonstrates that he is not in favor of restricting the role of women in the church on the basis of gender, but instead that he upholds the sanctity of marriage and family.

Paul’s purpose in writing Timothy was to encourage Timothy to confront the false teachers who had infiltrated the church at Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3). The heresy created a chaotic situation. Some of the men argued when they should have been praying (1 Timothy 2:8). Some of the women dressed immodestly and ostentatiously displayed their wealth (1 Timothy 2:9). Paul planned to pay a personal visit to Ephesus in the immediate future to deal with the developing crisis (1 Timothy 2:14). However, in the event that his arrival at Ephesus was delayed, Paul wanted Timothy to take immediate and firm action. Paul’s instructions to Timothy were written to restore order so, “you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household” (1 Timothy 3:15).

What was the nature of the false teaching that concerned Paul? And how much can we know about this false teaching? The answers to these questions have left scholars divided. Some argue that the false teaching was radical and included the belief that Eve was created first. 1 Paul’s prohibition against “a woman teaching” was directed toward those women infected by this false teaching. Paul refers to Adam being “formed first” (1 Timothy 2:13) to deny the false assertion of Eve’s priority. However, one view cautions against this approach because, “Paul tells us remarkable little about the specifics of this false teaching, presumably because he knows Timothy is well acquainted with the problem.” 2 Instead, this false teaching was an “over-realized eschatology” by denying a physical resurrection, and claiming that a “spiritual” resurrection had already happened (2 Timothy 2:18). This view seems to parallel the situation at Corinth where women had disregarded their appropriate roles in response to an “over-realized eschatology” in which marriage was downgraded to a less spiritual state (1 Corinthians 11:1-16). 3 In such a state, the absence of marriage and the responsibility of child rearing would have “liberated” some of the Ephesian women from traditional family responsibilities.

Paul, however, wants to uphold the status of marriage, and counsels the younger “liberated” widows who have too much idle time to settle down, marry, and raise children (1 Timothy 5:11-15). This does not mean that Paul thought this was the only profitable use of women’s time. In other places, Paul speaks with high praise of women ministers (Romans 16:1,2,7; Philippians 4:2,3). Of particular interest is the teaching ministry of Priscilla, who, while at Ephesus (the city where Timothy pastored), instructed Apollos in “the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:24-26). But Paul is forced to fight on two fronts. He disagrees with those who seek to limit a woman’s role in the church (Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 14:33-36), and at the same time he wants to uphold the sanctity and importance of a woman’s role in marriage and family (1 Timothy 4:3; 5:11-15).

Verse 15 is vital in understanding this whole passage because it presents Paul’s conclusion where he tells the women what he wants them to do. 4 If we are uncertain of what Paul meant in this verse, how can we be certain we have correctly interpreted the entire passage? What does Paul mean by women being “saved through childbearing?”

One interpretation of verse 15 takes into consideration the situation at Ephesus. 5 Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus to deal with the false teachers (1 Timothy 1:3). The false teachers had seduced and deceived “weak-willed women” who were “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Timothy 3:6,7). Some of these women began spreading the false teaching from house church to house church. The evidence for this is found in 1Timothy 5:13 where women are “going about from house to house ... saying things they ought not to.” The assumption is that the church met in houses, which is made more probable by Paul’s statement concerning how he taught “from house to house” while at Ephesus (Acts 20:20). Paul describes the false teaching at Ephesus as including “old wives tales” (1 Timothy 4:7), something Paul took seriously enough to feel that it posed a threat to the congregation. The seriousness of the women’s error is demonstrated by the fact that some of them had “already turned away to follow Satan” (1 Timothy 5:15). If the “gossiping” the women did from house to house was only saucy tidbits, then it is unlikely that Paul would have declared that some of them had “already turned away to follow Satan.” His condemnation indicates that false teaching must have been involved. Paul’s solution to the problem is that the women should settle down, get married, have children, and manage their homes in order “to give the enemy no opportunity for slander” (1 Timothy 5:14). 6 This is the same advice he gives to women in 1 Timothy 2:15 when he tells them they will be “saved through childbearing.” Thus, this very difficult verse begins to make sense only when it is interpreted in light of the situation at Ephesus. Paul’s conclusion to the passage on women (1 Timothy 2:9-15) is advice given to a particular group of women at Ephesus. If this is true of his conclusion, then it seems reasonable that the rest of the passage is also directed toward the same group of Ephesian women.

When Paul places restrictions on women in 1 Timothy 2:11,12, he has in mind these women spreading false teaching. It is them he admonishes to “learn in quietness and full submission” and does not permit to teach or “to have authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:11,12). What is often overlooked is his command that “a woman should learn” (1 Timothy 2:11) is in the imperative in the Greek. In fact, this is the only imperative in the entire passage. 7 Many think Paul is commanding women not to teach, but instead he is specifically commanding them to learn. This is of critical importance because learning is the antidote to the disease of heresy. Paul is interested in “saving” the women, a concern that is demonstrated in his treatment of women throughout 1 Timothy.

While these women are learning, they are not to teach or usurp authority. When Paul speaks of not allowing women to teach, he uses the present tense which could be translated, “I am presently permitting no woman to teach”. 8 The word Paul uses for “authority” is authentein, and it isused only in this New Testament passage. This makes arriving at a biblical definition of the word somewhat problematic. One must look to secular sources in an attempt to ascertain its precise meaning. However, this is complicated by its infrequent use in secular Greek literature .9 One interpretation of the word is “murder” or “to declare oneself the author or source of anything”. 10 Another view notes that this interpretation is from the patristic period and instead suggests that authentein originally carried a negative connotation of “usurp” or “domineer” and only later came to mean “authority.” Since the earlier meaning more closely corresponds to the time period of the writing of 1 and 2 Timothy, the best translation for authentein is “to domineer.” 11

Complementarians argue that Paul is enunciating a universal principle when he does not allow women to teach or have authority because of his reference to Adam and Eve (1 Timothy 2:13,14). The argument is that since Paul’s prohibitions are grounded in creation, the prohibitions must be universal. 12 However, some significant objections to this view exist.

The first objection is the inconsistency with which those who favor restrictions on women ministers interpret the passage. If part of the passage is interpreted as having universal application, then all of it should be interpreted the same way. 13 If Paul’s forbidding women to teach or have authority is universal, then his injunction “she must be silent” found in the same verse must also be universal. The same argument could be made concerning the braided hair, gold, pearls, and expensive clothes mentioned in verse 9. Furthermore, that “women will be saved through childbirth” would also be universal, rendering it difficult if not impossible to interpret.

A second objection is that one should not assume that a reference to Adam and Eve means a universal principle is at stake. In other places Paul speaks of Adam and Eve when the application is culture-specific and not universal (i.e., 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 where head covering is based on creation). Other New Testament teachings, such as the Sabbath-Saturday position, are based on creation and are not universal.

A third objection is that the “for,” gar, in verse 13 can be explanatory and not causative. Gar can be translated, “for example.” 14 If this is true, then Paul does not refer to Adam and Eve to give the reason for the prohibition, but to give a biblical illustration for the situation at Ephesus. Just as Eve was deceived and influenced Adam, so the women at Ephesus have been deceived by false teaching which they are spreading to others. In 2 Corinthians 11:3, Paul uses Eve as an example of those who are in danger of being deceived. In verse 13, Paul refers to Adam being “formed first” to indicate that Adam was the one who had been instructed by God. Eve was not yet created and by comparison was “untaught” or “unlearned.” 15 This was the reason she was more easily deceived by the serpent and the reason women in Ephesus have been more easily deceived as well.

In conclusion, in 1 Timothy 2:8-15, Paul instructs a group of women who have been deceived by false teachers to learn in submission. While they are learning, they are not to teach, but rather remain silent. For some of them, especially the younger widows, Paul encourages marriage and having children in opposition to what the false teachers have been saying. Paul demonstrates that he is not in favor of restricting the role of women in the church on the basis of gender, but instead that he upholds the sanctity of marriage and family.


1. Women, Authority and the Bible, ed. Alvera Mickelson, 225-244. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1982.), 225-244.

2. Douglas Moo, “What does it mean not to teach or have authority over men?” In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A response to biblical feminism, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1991), 180.

3. Ibid, 181,182.

4. Craig Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992.), 118.

5. Gordon Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus. (San Francisco: Harper Row Publishers, 1984.), 33-40.

6. Ibid, 83.

7. Judy Brown, Women Ministers According to Scripture. (Springfield, Miss.: Morris Publishing, 1996.), 291,292.

8. Ruth Tucker, Women Caught in the Maze: Questions and answers on biblical equality. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992.), 114.

9. Women, Authority and the Bible, ed. Alvera Mickelson, 202.

10. Catherine Clark Kroeger,Women Authority and the Bible, ed. Alvera Mickelson, 225-244.

11. Craig Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul, 108, 109.

12. Ibid.

13. Judy Brown, Women Ministers According to Scripture, 282.

14. Craig Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul, 115-117.

15. Ruth Tucker, Women Caught in the Maze: Questions and answers on biblical equality, 115,116