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Is 1 Timothy 2:12 a Clear, or Obscure, Text?

Is 1 Timothy 2:12 a clear, or obscure, text? The scripture says, “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet.” Before addressing the “clear or obscure?” question, it’s interesting that the one Bible verse that speaks of preventing a woman from teaching is 1 Timothy 2:12. Consequently, the overarching question for interpreters must be, “What is the divine meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12 in the context of the church?

The apostle Paul’s statement creates a dichotomy for women and for the church. Paul either prohibits all women from teaching and exercising authority over men as a binding universal rule, or he sets a temporary limit on women due to a problematic situation occurring in the church at Ephesus. One likely scenario that will be explored further: A woman or wife, and possibly a recent convert(s) from the Artemis cult, was teaching in a domineering manner.

False Teaching and the Cult of Artemis

Paul’s personal and instructive letter to Timothy, the protégé he left to minister in Ephesus, expresses his detailed concerns about the problem of false teaching there (1 Tim 1:3–7; 4:1–3; 6:4–5). False teaching by men, and possibly by women, threatened sound doctrine and Paul needed Timothy to address it.[1] A strong cultural influence in Ephesus was the cult of Artemis. The palatial temple of the goddess Artemis, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, was located there.

In Acts 19, Luke recounts the story of a silversmith named Demetrius who was selling Artemis shrine figurines. Demetrius gathered fellow artisans together to rail against Paul because his preaching “that gods made by hands are not gods at all” threatened their lucrative businesses. Over and over, the crowd that filled the theater angrily shouted “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:19–41). From Luke’s account, it is clear that Paul was familiar with Artemis, her followers, and her influence on teachings that “stood in direct opposition to biblical truth.”[2]

Also called “Artemis Savior,” Artemis was a twin of Apollo, and the virgin daughter of Zeus and Leto. Her name means “safe and sound,” and in the ancient world, she was associated with childbearing and midwifery.[3] According to the myth, she helped her mother over the nine days it took to birth her twin brother, Apollo. Sandra Glahn, author of “Nobody’s Mother,” clarifies that Artemis was not a goddess of fertility, nurturing, or mothering.[4] The influence of this “celibate goddess,” Glahn notes, “may explain why the church in Artemis’s city was so filled with single women.”[5] Paul made numerous references to these women, “young (5:11, 14), old (v. 9), causing difficulty (v. 15), and/or needing to marry and have children (v. 14)—and the teaching of some forbidding marriage (4:3).”[6] Gary Hoag, author of Wealth in Ancient Ephesus and the First Letter to Timothy, ascertains that Paul’s letter “is targeting heretical thought and practice imported into the fledgling Ephesian church via the wealthy women from the Artemis/Isis cult.”[7] Echoing Hoag’s view, Ben Witherington explains that it’s likely that women of social rank had an expectation “to play a religious role in the Christian meetings” but needed to learn first.[8]

Clear or Obscure?

Returning to our initial question: Is 1 Timothy 2:12 a clear, or obscure, text? Scholars disagree on the answer. Carolyn Custis James explains why it matters: “It’s a hermeneutical best practice to build your theological system on clear texts rather than [on] passages that are subject to dispute.”[9] J.I. Packer states it this way: “What appears to be secondary, incidental, and obscure in Scripture should be viewed in the light of what appears to be primary, central, and plain.”[10] Rebecca Groothuis writes,

“It is important to maintain interpretative consistency with the rest of a biblical author’s writings as well as the whole of Scripture… unclear and/or isolated passages are not to be used as doctrinal cornerstones… This hermeneutical principle prohibits building a doctrine of female subordination on… 1 Timothy 2:11–15.”[11]

Jamin Hübner researched “the ‘obscure-in-light-of-clear’ principle” and found that it is “held by both those evangelicals who forbid women pastors and those who do not.”[12] Many complementarian scholars use the description “clear” to describe verse 12. For example, Thomas Schreiner calls it “the clear teaching of Paul,” one that “must be the guide for understanding the role of women.”[13] George Knight III declares it “the clearest,” an apostolic teaching that “insists on men being the primary leaders in the church (just as in marriage).”[14] Similarly, Susan Foh describes the verses as giving “a relatively clear command.”[15]

John Stackhouse, “a man who has served time in both camps [complementarian and egalitarian],” concluded, after researching 1 Timothy 2:11–15, that it is “easily one of the most obscure of the classic passages on this matter.” Thus, he came to the “paradigm-shifting” conclusion, “Nobody could explain this passage.”[16] Hübner argues that those who reject women as pastors “tend not to uphold” the “obscure-in-light-of-the-clear” principle. And, he makes a five-point argument for why 1 Timothy 2:9–15 is an “obscure,” “difficult,” and “less clear” passage:

  1. Generates highly disputed meanings, currently and in the past.[17]
  2. Requires extensive exegesis, because a straightforward reading isn’t sensible.[18]
  3. Contains a significant number of “obscure” words.[19]
  4. Results in vast numbers of “diverse interpretations,” regardless of one’s view on women.
  5. Applying it is very difficult.[20]

Limitations Disunity

Regarding the diversity of interpretations, the majority of complementarians interpret 1 Timothy 2:12 as a teaching that permanently restricts the ministry of women in the church in two ways: teaching doctrine to men and exercising authority over men.[21] Denny Burk concludes from it, “The governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men.”[22]

However, in the view of complementarians John Frame and Craig Blomberg, verse 12 does not restrict woman from teaching man. Frame writes, “She is only forbidden to occupy the special office… May she stand behind the pulpit as she exhorts the congregation from the Word of God? Scripture does not forbid that.”[23] Women may preach, teach, evangelize, and pastor, according to Blomberg’s view, but they are prohibited from holding the office of elder.[24] Harold Hoehner, like Frame and Blomberg, believed women may not hold the office of elder or bishop, but Hoehner believed women may be ordained, as long as the purpose is to affirm her gift(s) and not to an office.[25]

While egalitarians do not understand 1 Timothy 2:12 as limiting women’s leadership or spiritual gifts, their interpretations vary also. Cynthia Westfall states, “The claim that only men can hold ‘positions of authority’ in the church is based on a non-Pauline understanding of both the nature of ministry and the nature of spiritual authority.”[26] She adds, “Paul’s Epistle to the Romans would have been a more logical place to make a clear prohibition on women teaching and in ministry.”[27] Hübner writes, “The quiet demeanor and recognition of authority which are to characterize the learner are contrasted with teaching in a manner which is heavy-handed and abuses authority.”[28] Hübner also discusses the variety of interpretations among egalitarians, “Some egalitarians believe that Paul was addressing false teaching, others the particular behavior of certain women in classroom kind of settings, others the status of uneducated women, and so on.” He concludes that both camps, despite the vast amount of scholarship written on 1 Timothy 2, lack “interpretational unity.”[29]

Multiplicity of Interpretative Issues

There are a plethora of interpretative issues in verse 12.  As has been demonstrated, scholars in both the complementarian and egalitarian camps hold varying views. Below is a list (not exhaustive) of interpretative issues in verse 12:

  • The switch from “women” plural in verses 9 to 10 to “a woman” singular in verses 11 and 12
  • Whether to translate the Greek word gynē as “woman” or “wife,” and if “wife,” to correspondingly translate anēr as “husband”
  • The possibility that Paul had a limited audience, or time, in mind from his use of the present tense for the verb “to permit” or “to allow” (in the sense of “I am not allowing” versus “the Lord says”)
  • The meaning of didaskein for “teach”
  • The relationship between “teach” and “have authority” as connected by the Greek word oude—that is, are two actions prohibited, “teaching” and “having authority,” or is one action prohibited, “teaching with (a certain type of) authority”
  • The rare use (used only once in the New Testament) of the Greek word authentein—what is the nature of this word used for authority, is it a positive or negative exercise of authority, and why did Paul use the Greek word authentein rather exousia, the usual word for authority and one he used elsewhere in the biblical text?

Conclusion

Is 1 Timothy 2:12 a clear or obscure text? And, what are the implications of its application in the church? Peter understood the difficulty of deciphering certain biblical passages. He writes, “Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). One must look to the clear teaching in biblical passages and not to the obscure or difficult passage—search the whole of Scripture for clarifying unity and harmony—especially when determining prescriptive practices. An examination of the sheer volume of scholarly words generated and polar-opposite conclusions drawn from the dissection of 1 Timothy 2:12 gives one pause before declaring it a clear text from which to prescribe limits on the teaching ministry of women.


[1] Sandra L. Glahn, “The First-Century Ephesian Artemis: Ramifications of Her Identity,” Bibliotheca Sacra 172 (October–December 2015), 450–69.

[2] Glahn, “The First-Century Ephesian,” 455.

[3] “Artemis has her name from the fact that she makes people ‘Artemeas’” meaning sound, well, or delivered…. “And both Helius and Selene are closely associated with these, since they are the causes of the temperature of the air. And both pestilential diseases and sudden deaths are imputed to these gods” (Strabo, The Geography of Strabo, vol 3, trans. Horace Leonard Jones [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924], 14.1.6, accessed June 1, 2022, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Strab.+14.1.6&fromdoc=
Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.019).

[4] Sandra L. Glahn, Nobody’s Mother: Artemis of the Ephesians in Antiquity and the New Testament, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2023), 113.

[5] Glahn, “The First-Century Ephesian,” 454.

[6] Glahn, “The First-Century Ephesian,” 454.

[7] Gary Hoag, Wealth in Ancient Ephesus and the First Letter to Timothy: Fresh Insights from Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015), quoted in Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 151.

[8] Ben Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians: A Socio-Historical Commentary on Titus, 1–2 Timothy and 1–3 John, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006),221. Quoted in Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision, 147–48.

[9] James, Half the Church, 156.

[10] J. I. Packer, “Infallible Scripture and the Role of Hermeneutics,” in Scripture and Truth, ed. D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 350, quoted in Jamin Hübner, “Revisiting the Clarity of Scripture in 1 Timothy 2:12,” JETS 59, no.1 (2016): 109.

[11] Rebecca Groothuis, Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War between Traditionalism and Feminism (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997),113, quoted in James Hübner, “Revisiting the Clarity of Scripture in 1 Timothy 2:12,” JETS 59, no. 1 (2016): 112.

[12] James Hübner, “Revisiting the Clarity of Scripture in 1 Timothy 2:12,” JETS 59, no. 1 (2016):109.

[13] Thomas Schreiner, “The Valuable Ministries of Women in the Context of Male Leadership,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, 1st ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 218.

[14] George W. Knight III, “The Family and the Church: How Should Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Work Out in Practice?” in RBMW, 352.

[15] Susan T. Foh, “A Male Leadership View: The Head of the Woman is the Man,” in Women in Ministry: Four Views, ed. Bonnidell Clouse and Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1989), 103 n. 11, quoted in Hübner, “Revisiting the Clarity,” 111.

[16] John Stackhouse, quoted in James, Half the Church, 156.

[17] “The traditional interpretations, inferences, restrictions, and practices built on that one verse create inconsistencies, contradictions, and incoherence between Pauline texts and within Pauline theology” (Westfall, Paul and Gender, 260).

[18] Sarah Sumner writes, “A prime example of a biblical text that cannot sensibly be taken at face value is 1 Timothy 2:8–15” (Sarah Sumner, Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership [Downers Grove, MI: IVP Books, 2003], 210).

[19] Hübner produced a chart showing that “Paul uses several words in 1 Timothy 2:9–15 used only once in the NT (hapax legomena). Not only that, but Paul’s frequency of these odd terms is unusually high.” In Jamin Hübner, “Revisiting αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2:12,” Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters 5, no. 1 (Summer 2015): 41–70. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26371734.

[20] “Complementarians disagree over what makes some teaching authoritative and other teaching non-authoritative (e.g. the office? Content? Personal qualifications? Church context?” In Hübner, “Revisiting the Clarity,” 100, 107, 109.

[21] Douglas Moo, “What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men?” in RBMW, 180. See also Schreiner, “The Valuable Ministries of Women,” 218; Carson, “Silent in the Churches,”152; Saucy, “Paul’s Teaching on the Ministry of Women,” in Women and Men in Ministry: A Complementary Perspective, ed. Robert L. Saucy and Judith K. TenElshof (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2001),306–307.

[22] Burk, “Is Complementarianism?”

[23] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010), 639, quoted in Jamin Hübner, “Revisiting the Clarity of Scripture in 1 Timothy 2:12.” JETS 59, no. 1 (2016): 107.

[24] Craig Blomberg quoted by Saucy, “Paul’s Teaching,” 307.

[25] Hoehner, “Can a Woman?” 768.

[26] Westfall, Paul and Gender, 260.

[27] Westfall, Paul and Gender, 297.

[28] Jamin Hübner, “Revisiting αὐθεντέω (authenteō) in 1 Timothy 2:12,” Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters 5, no. 1 (Summer 2015), 41–70. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26371734.

[29] Hübner, “Revisiting the Clarity,” 109.

Dr. Cynthia Hester teaches, writes, and speaks on topics of faith and women, both women in the Bible and church history. A graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary with a Doctor of Ministry (DMin, 2022), Cynthia writes at cynthiahester.com and is a contributing author to the book 40 Questions About Women in Ministry (Kregel, 2023). She has also written articles published at Fathommag.org, Parker County Today, heartstrongfaith.com, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In 2021, Cynthia founded Theology of Women Academy.® In this online academy, she teaches Christ-followers, including ministry leaders, the spectrum of orthodox views on women and the church to equip them to develop their beliefs—their theology of women. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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