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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

How Should We Apply 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Today?

Learning with a humble posture, not restricting women, should be the goal for applying 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

In light of my commentary, I want to reflect briefly on how we might apply 1 Timothy 2:11-15 today. I’ll mention two big-picture principles, though I’m sure we could mention more. Then I want to do a thought experiment with you.

Prioritize Learning Christian Doctrine

False teaching was the big obstacle for the church in Ephesus. As it spread, the result was that people were being deceived. In the case of our passage, a woman or many women were deceived into believing they could dominate a man/all men (in my interpretation). False doctrine led to wicked behavior.

Paul’s short-range solution was simply to say no teaching or domineering. His long-range solution was to command that this woman/women learn with a teachable heart. He actually mentions the long-range solution first. The implication is that once someone demonstrates knowledge, humility, and self-control, they’d be eligible to teach.

The broad, abstract principle for us is that in order to combat false teaching, in any form, and avoid deception we must train and equip people in the church to know the truth. The concrete expression in Ephesus was to let this woman learn but, in the meantime, not teach because of her domineering manner.

The concrete expression in our churches may be very different.

Additionally, we must not put people in positions of leadership who are easily deceived due to lack of training, whether they are male or female. Someone who has not been educated is more susceptible to false teaching.

Formal education isn’t the point; knowledge is. In order to detect false teaching and avoid deception, you need to know the difference between truth and falsehood.

So, let’s teach people the Scriptures!

Prioritize a Humble Posture

Learning is not all. It must come with a humble posture, in full submission to God. That was Paul’s concern. Also, remember the call to “continue in love, faith, and self-control” in verse 15. Whether the person is new to learning or actively leading, the fruit of the Spirit, not authentein, is what should characterize them.

This is what we’d want for any student, male or female, who studies any discipline, right? How much more in theology?

We need men and women who are ready and willing to learn, not to push their way to the top of the church org chart, but to serve and lay down their life for others.

Competence is important, but competence in the hands of someone without character is a dumpster fire.

Anyone who has been a leader for a while knows this because we remember what we were like when we were young leaders! I’ll be the first to admit it was ugly.

We should remember though that 1 Timothy 2 says nothing about leadership! We read that into the passage, and we’re influenced by our English translations of authentein.

But the question remains: What about domineering leaders?

In Ephesus, the problem was that someone who did not have legitimate authority was trying to seize it. In the United States today, we have people (mostly men, by the way) who have been given legitimate authority in the church and are abusing it.

Simply, some of our churches (it’s hard to know how many) have bullies for leaders.

You know the famous names and churches. Perhaps you’ve even experienced it yourself. The problem is that it gets defended and justified with spiritual-sounding lines like,

  • “You’re being insubordinate to pastoral authority.”
  • “You’re causing division in the body.”
  • “You shouldn’t talk about your pastor’s attitude or behavior. Even if you think it’s abusive. That’s gossip!”
  • “His heart is in the right place.”
  • “Well, we need to give him grace.”

And on and on.

These “leaders” are authentein-ing their way through ministry. To authentein is to be full of yourself (remember the prefix “autos” in the last post?). Yet Jesus emptied himself. He didn’t come to lord it over. He became a servant who washed feet. And he calls us to do the same.

So, let’s prioritize character before calling, gifts, or ministry fruit when training someone or entrusting them with any level of leadership.

A Thought Experiment

If you’re a complementarian, I want to invite you to a brief thought experiment. It may not change your view, but I hope it makes you question your assumptions.

Experiment #1. Let’s assume that my interpretation is correct in that Paul is not talking about exercising positive, legitimate authority. Let’s assume authentein means domineering or seizing of authority, making it illegitimate. It’s not something anyone, male or female, should do or have, right?

So then consider: what if a man in your church was doing what Paul describes in 1 Timothy 2?

How would you handle it or expect the leaders to handle it?

I hope that little reversal helps you see that the problem here is not one’s gender but one’s heart. It’s why Paul calls for stillness (twice), submission, and love, faith, and self-control.

Isn’t the heart, not the appearance, what God looks at? Isn’t that what biblical application is all about?

I’ll grant that you may be stuck on Paul’s mention of Adam and Eve in verses 13-14. That may be why it’s so hard to not think gender is the central issue. But consider he may be 1) clarifying orthodoxy, or 2) clarifying that Eve was not Adam’s boss but his partner.

Experiment #2. What if the church in Ephesus was actually walking together in love, faith, and self-control. What if Timothy fought against false teaching but it wasn’t destroying the church from within? What if that woman wasn’t authentein-ing but living in humility and doing what Paul told the church to do in Colossians 3:12-17?

Then Paul would have never written those words. If that were the case, we would not have one explicit passage in the entire New Testament that restricts women from teaching men.

The overseer qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 may mean that only men can be elders/overseers. (I have my doubts on that, too, and I’ll try to show that in the next post.) But that text does not preclude women or non-elders or anyone else from teaching in the church. Many complementarian churches today will allow males who are non-elders or not even members of the church (e.g. a guest speaker for the weekend) to preach in a worship service.

Why not allow women to do this, too? Well, 1 Timothy 2:12, complementarians argue.

But without 1 Timothy 2:12, there is no support in the entire Bible for keeping a woman from teaching a man.

Well-known blogger (and complementarian) Tim Challies writes, “What the Bible teaches in one place it cannot refute in another.”[1]

We do see evidence of women teaching and leading in other parts of Scripture, Old and New Testament. (Check out the many posts I’ve written on this here.)

Paul tells the churches in Corinth and Colossae that they will teach one another. He expects it. And he doesn’t parse gender lines in those letters. Why? It’s likely because he wasn’t making a universal rule in 1 Timothy.

It begs the question, can we really use this one verse to nullify all those other instances?

This is the reason why Bill Mounce, a complementarian scholar, says that “the context thus limits the universal application [of 1 Timothy 2:12] to some extent.”[2]

I’m not trying to undermine the authority of 1 Timothy 2:12. Instead, I’m trying to show (quite outrageously, I admit) that to build an entire theology and practice on one verse despite quite a bit of evidence to the contrary is probably not a good idea.

Summing It Up

I hope these thought experiments help you see that Paul’s solution was specific to a problem in Ephesus while Timothy was there, not something every church in every culture in every generation deals with.

We’d do well to focus on the two principles I mentioned above and work out, in our own contexts, how to concretely express them.


Notes

[1] Tim Challies, “The Five Tests of False Doctrine,” 2/6/2017.

[2] Mounce is quoted in Michael F. Bird, Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012). I found the quote here.