Biblical Patriarchy and 1 Timothy 2:12

12 in the Greek BibleMy wife and I have a friend from college who has asked some insightful questions in the comments section of my previous post, “Postscript on Women in Ministry.” Our friend’s questions bring to the surface some of the practical issues upon which Complementarians have yet to reach consensus. One of the chief issues that Complementarians disagree on is whether it is ever appropriate for a woman to teach Christian doctrine to men in the church.

I am posting my response to my friend below. This response does not comprise everything that needs to be said on this issue or this text (1 Timothy 2:12), but I hope it can serve as a spark to ignite a conversation that needs to take place among Complementarians.

For a broader treatment of this topic see Russell Moore’s “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Winning the Evangelical Gender Debate.”


Dear Friend,

Thanks for your comment. You have hit a point upon which complementarians have not reached consensus. What complementarians agree on is summed up in the Danvers Statement that I alluded to earlier. But they are not in agreement upon everything.

In short, complementarians agree that the Bible teaches a principle of headship that must be observed within the church and within the home (e.g., 1 Cor 11:3; Ephesians 5:21ff). For most, the practical implications of this principle are twofold: (1) the office of pastor/elder is only to be held by qualified male believers, and (2) the husband is the leader in his home.

Nevertheless, many Complementarians continue to disagree concerning how this principle of “headship” should be observed within the church. While there is agreement that pastors/elders should be male, there is disagreement concerning what the Bible says about women teaching mixed audiences. Some complementarian churches do not allow women to teach mixed adult audiences, while other complementarian churches do allow it. On this particular point, there is agreement in principle (observing headship), but disagreement in practice (teaching mixed audiences).

To some extent, I’m sure the disagreement is probably driven by pragmatic considerations. But to some degree, the disagreement is also due to conflicting interpretations of the Bible, especially 1 Timothy 2:12. Commentators point out that 1 Timothy 2:12 has at least two possible translations/interpretations:

Translation #1: “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.”
Translation #2: “I do not allow a woman to teach with authority over a man.”

Notice that the first translation prohibits two things: teaching and exercising authority. Notice that the second translation only prohibits one thing: a certain kind of teaching.

Complementarian churches that allow women to teach mixed audiences tend to favor the second translation. The idea seems to be that a woman can teach a mixed audience as long as she does so under the “headship” and authority of the pastors/elders and her husband. When she teaches under the auspices of those “heads,” she is not violating the command in 1 Timothy 2:12 which prohibits “teaching with authority,” because she is teaching while under authority. You mentioned Beth Moore’s ministry in your comment. I know, for instance, that this “headship view” is what is practiced at her church, the First Baptist Church of Houston. FBC Houston claims to be a complementarian church, but Beth Moore and other women frequently teach mixed audiences at that church.

What is my view on this question? I agree with the first translation that I listed above. The best I can tell, Paul teaches that women cannot be pastors/elders (a la “exercising authority”), and they are not to teach Christian doctrine to adult male believers. The dispute over the proper translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 does not come down to what is the most literal rendering. All sides agree that the literal rendering is the one reflected in Translation #1. The question is whether or not Paul is using a figure of speech called hendiadys.

A hendiadys is a figure of speech in which an author expresses a single idea by two nouns instead of a noun and its qualifier. I can give you example of this figure of speech in English. Consider the following sentence.

“He came despite the rain and weather.”

Doesn’t this sentence really mean this:

“He came despite the rainy weather.”

In other words, by separating the term “rainy weather” into “rain” and “weather” the speaker accentuates the adjective by transforming it into a noun.

Some commentators think that this is what is happening with 1 Timothy 2:12. Therefore they translate it so that “authority” modifies “teach.” So “to teach or to exercise authority” becomes “to teach with authority.” My main problem with this translation is that I am convinced that the words that are used in the Greek text of 1 Timothy 2:12 are not the kinds of words that ever get used in this figure of speech called hendiadys (see Andreas Köstenberger in Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15). So my reasons for rejecting Translation #2 are exegetical.

The result of my understanding of Paul’s teaching is that gifted women teachers do need to exercise their teaching gift. I think there are innumerable appropriate contexts in which they can and should teach (e.g. Titus 2:3 and the list in my previous post). But in the church, they would want to be careful not to violate the scripture’s command not to teach Christian doctrine to men.

I’m not a perfect man or a perfect exegete. But I have been looking at this issue for many years, and this is the best I can make out of what Paul is teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12. This isn’t, by the way, the view that I had when we were in college. To be quite honest, back then, I hadn’t really even thought about this verse or these issues very carefully. When I started college, I was more or less a default egalitarian. So now you know that I have come to this view rather late in my Christian walk.

I hope that I can rally other complementarians to this point of view because I think it is the correct understanding of the text, not just of 1 Timothy 2:12 but also of the Bible’s comprehensive vision of complementarian values.

Well, that’s a long comment, and if you made it this far, you deserve a medal. Thanks for reading my blog, and thank you for your comment.

Denny Burk


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