Witherington’s Non-Patriarchal Reading of 1 Timothy 2:12

1 Timothy 2:8-15 has a been a battleground in the recent history of interpretation as scholars have been offering varying interpretations of a passage that at first blush cuts against modern egalitarian sensibilities. Verse 12 has proven to be particularly problematic for modern interpreters who support the ordination of women as pastors.

A literal translation of verse 1 Timothy 2:12 reads: “I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over/domineer a man.” At the heart of the exegetical dispute is the problem of translating the phrase “to teach or to exercise authority over.”

Dr. Ben Witherington, who will soon be adding to his impressive list of literary accomplishments a new commentary on the pastoral epistles, has recently offered some reflections on his translation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 (see his blog). Witherington argues that understanding the background of Paul’s command is absolutely critical to a proper interpretation of the verse. He writes:

What I would stress at the outset is that Paul is correcting problems in worship— correcting both men and women as is perfectly clear from vs. 8 where he tells the men to not dispute or get angry but rather to start praying. He then corrects women in several particulars. I would stress then that the correction of an abuse of a privilege is not the same as the ruling out of a proper use of a privilege, in this case the privilege of speaking in worship or even teaching. Paul is not laying down first principles here, he is correcting an existing problem . . .

In other words, Witherington avers that Paul is not laying out a general principle that would be normative for all Christians. Rather, Paul is confronting a specific abuse in the Ephesian community: “The issue here in Ephesus is that there are some women who are seeking to teach or take authority over men, without first being quiet and learning about their faith .” Therefore modern readers should not treat this verse as if Paul were laying down a limitation on women in ministry because “the correction of an abuse of a privilege is not the same as the ruling out of a proper use of a privilege.”

There is much that needs to be said in response to Witherington’s exegesis here, but I would like to point out one difficulty that I see with his reasoning. Even if we grant that Paul is confronting a specific abuse in the Ephesian church, it does not necessarily rule out the possibility that he might appeal to “first principles” to address that specific problem.

So even if we grant the background as Witherington has described it, it may very well be that Paul sees a specific abuse and corrects it by appealing to a more general principle that is rooted in Jewish-Christian patriarchy. That is in fact what I think Paul is doing here.

Dr. Witherington disagrees and has responded to my objection in the comments section of his blog. Even though he did support his reading by appealing to egalitarian readings of other Pauline texts, I am still not satisfied that he has answered my specific objection.

I suppose the debate will have to continue.

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4 thoughts on “Witherington’s Non-Patriarchal Reading of 1 Timothy 2:12”

  1. I have always struggled with my role as a woman in the church because on occasion I will be asked to lead worship for our Sunday service. Is this having authority over men? I do not pray or read Scripture. I just play guitar and sing. It is a frustrating dilemma for me. I am not sure where I stand but I tend to lean towards your interpretation.

    Thanks for posting this!

  2. Dear Nicole,

    Thanks for the comments.

    You aren’t the only one who has had these questions before. My wife is also a singer. One time I was asked to preach and lead music one Sunday at a certain uber-reformed church in the area. I wanted Susan to help me out with leading worship, but the pastor told me that the elders would not have it. Their policy was absolutely no female involvement up front (except for a woman who played the piano!).

    This was several years ago, and as a result of that experience I have thought a lot about this and what the scriptures teach. The Bible speaks explicitly to the issue of who can be elder in the church (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) and to issue of who can teach mixed audiences (1 Timothy 2:12). In both cases, only men alone are in view.

    I do not think there is biblical warrant for limiting the role of women in public worship beyond those two items. It is clear that in the NT, women were praying and prophesying. Obviously they weren’t banned from speaking altogether (1 Corinthians 11:5). It was just that when they did pray or prophesy, they did so not as elders or as teachers per se. They did so under “authority.” I don’t want to go into the issue of “prophesy,” but it is sufficient to say that they were involved.

    All that is to say that I think women can lead worship. When they do so, however, they need to do it such a way that they don’t “preach” and “teach” in between songs. There’s a way to do it that honors headship, and when it’s done that way I think its okay. Also, it’s important to remember, that the NT teaches that being filled with the Spirit involves “singing to one another” (Ephesians 5:19). I take it this applies to women as well as men.

    Anywho, that’s my short answer. Let me know if you want more.

    Thanks,
    Denny Burk

  3. Dear Nicole,

    In the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, there’s a chapter titled “The Valuable Ministries of Women in the Context of Male Leadership: A Survey of Old and New Testament Examples and Teaching.” You should check it out.

    If you don’t have the book, you can download the entire thing for free as a PDF document. Here’s the link: Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

    I hope all is well on your end.

    Thanks,
    Denny Burk

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