Headship in the Church (1 Timothy 2:11-15)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In our previous study, we began to consider what the text of Scripture has to say with regard to gender; specifically, God’s revelation of the equality and differentiation between male and female; what God says concerning equality of dignity and diversity of function.

We discovered that man and woman were created with equal dignity, for both were created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-28). We also saw that this equality was not unqualified. That is, there was a created difference between man and woman. Namely, the man was the head and the woman was the helper. A couple of things must be said in this regard.

First, this role differentiation is seen clearly in the context of husband and wife. That is, Adam was not the “head” of every woman who would live in his lifetime. He was the head of his wife and his daughters (until they were married). We need to beware of a chauvinistic egalitarianism as much as an evangelical feminism. The corollary to this limitation also relates to the woman as “helper.” Eve was not every man’s “helper,” only Adam’s. The same is true today: the wife is the helper to her “own husband” (Ephesians 5:22).

This contextual understanding is important, for to ignore this may, and often does, lead to the erroneous teaching that women can never be in a leadership position over men. As I understand Scripture, such an assertion is unbiblical.

Those who would argue that women can never lead men will not recognise the legitimacy of female teachers and principals in co-ed schools; they will not recognise the legitimacy of women serving in parliament; they will see it as inappropriate for women to serve as “bosses” in the business world, the medical field, or in any sphere where males are accountable to them. As far as I understand the text of Scripture, this general “across the societal board” limitation cannot be justified.

A second observation must also be emphasised. We have established from the text that the reason for male headship and female helpmates is “chronology of creation.” That is, man was created first and then Eve was “taken out of man” (hence the name “woman”). But I believe there is justification to say that it was not merely a matter of “chronology,” but that it was also a matter of “biology” and “psychology.” That is, male and female are different by design. The reason that man was created first was because God designed him to be the leader; just as woman was created second because she was designed to be the helper. In other words, man was designed to lead and woman was created to be a helper to the man. The order of their creation manifested that anthropological reality.

I say all of this to merely point out the reality that male and female are different by design, different by God’s design. And thus there really is a God-ordained “genetic” differentiation between men and women. Man is “wired” to be the head and woman is “wired” to be the helper. Hence, if we are to live lives to the fullness of our God-given potential, we must live out the uniqueness with which we were created.

Now, this leads us to the topic of our study. In light of what we have learned thus far, is it Scripturally permissible for a woman to have headship over a man or men in the church? To frame the question more specifically, does the Scripture permit a woman to serve in the office of an elder/pastor/pastor-teacher?

I have framed this question deliberately, for the issue is, “What does the text say?” Since the church is accountable to Christ, His Word must determine our faith and practice.

Let me state at the outset that this is actually a very simple question to answer and it can be adequately answered with a very straightforward, “No,” based on the verses that are the focus of our attention tonight. But, for several reasons, this topic does require a more thorough approach than an appeal to a proof text. Let me take some time to explain some of these reasons.

First, because we live in a sin-cursed world, our “thinking,” even in the church, sometimes is a bit skewed and even “thick” when it comes to Scripturally plain issues. Because we battle with authority issues, we often make a debate out of the plainest declarations. We sometimes muddle straightforward precepts. And I believe that this is where much of the church finds itself today.

Thus, when it comes to a clear passage such as 1 Timothy 2, there are those who will argue that this was a “culturally conditioned” statement, and that surely this cannot be binding upon we who minister in the 21st century? This mindset is “legion” today and thus we need a fresh and thorough exegesis of this issue. The foundation that we laid in our preceding study is essential to grasp if we will demolish the egalitarian error that surfaces due to the “culturally conditioned” argument.

Second, and somewhat related to the above, is the fact that the Scriptural data on this issue can sometimes be a bit confusing. To be frank, the texts sometimes appear to be contradictory. Consider the following: the Scriptures forbid a woman to teach a man, and yet Priscilla was used of God to instruct Apollos, a man who became a leader in the church. Timothy was taught the Word by females: his mother and grandmother. Philip, one of the early church evangelists and deacons, raised four daughters who prophesied–and the text would indicate that they did so with divine approval. The Scriptures state that women are to be silent in the church, and yet they elsewhere give allowance for women to both pray and to prophecy in the church (1 Corinthians 11:5). So, which is it? Are women permitted to teach men in the church, or not? Or is it possible that there is no contradiction at all, but rather a differentiation between these gifts of speaking and the proper “sphere” in which they can be exercised?

In light of this, we need to patiently exegete and expound these texts so that we do not misinterpret the Scriptures. We do not want to embrace a position with regards to this issue that either understates or overstates the biblical teaching. For example, some would teach that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 disqualifies a woman from being a missionary, from witnessing to men and from giving a testimony in the church service. Others would dilute this statement and claim that this prohibition was only a “localised” limitation and that, outside of the unique situation in Ephesus, this prohibition is not binding. So let us, over the next two or three studies, examine these passages as we seek to come to the biblical conclusion with regard to the issue of “headship in the church: male or female?”

In this study, we begin with what I believe to be the defining, conclusive passage with regard to this issue. Though perhaps some of our deeply-held convictions are the result of compelling evidence from Scripture this passage gives conclusive evidence with regards to our question. And it clearly comes down on the side of male headship only in the church and thus women are restricted from holding the office of elder/pastor/pastor-teacher. There is also plenty of compelling evidence, which leaves the matter without question, at least for those who will be honest with what the text says.

Let’s first expound this passage and then make some summary observations and practical conclusions.

The Context of the Passage

1 Timothy is one of three epistles known as “Pastoral Epistles,” the other two being 2 Timothy and Titus. Timothy and Titus were pastors, to whom Paul wrote with the injunction to take the Word of God seriously. Paul expected these pastors to speak with authority and to enforce in their churches the things of which he wrote. “These things command and teach,” he told Timothy (1 Timothy 4:11). Again, Timothy was to “charge some that they teach no other doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3; cf. 1 Timothy 1:18). Titus was to “set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Titus 1:5). Their authority in all these things was to be the Word of God:

14But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; 15And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

1I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; 2Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. 3For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; 4And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. 5But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.

(2 Timothy 3:14-4:5)

One can understand the timidity that Timothy would have faced in leading the church in Ephesus. Paul had been in Ephesus longer than any other church on any of his missionary journeys. He left Timothy in charge when he departed from Ephesus. Those, you can imagine, were quite some sandals to fill! And yet Paul told Timothy to lead the church with authority.

From Ephesians and from 1 & 2 Timothy, it is clear that problems had crept into the church which Timothy needed to resolve biblically. There was an unbiblical disunity in the church, as well as authority problems, as is clear from the verses under scrutiny in this study. There were false teachers in the church, whom Timothy needed to root out.

The Pastoral Epistles, then, deal with church issues, and thus they are binding on the church throughout the ages. It is often argued that the commands concerning gender roles in this epistle are not binding upon the 21st century church because they were merely localised commands within a specific cultural context. This, however, will not stand under biblical scrutiny, and we will address this objection in more detail as we proceed through these verses.

We should, however, note that Paul wrote these words to Timothy because there was obviously a problem with the church in this regard. Thus he writes to give instruction as to the proper role of men (2:1-8) and women (2:9-15) in the church; that is, in corporate worship.

It is instructive to note that Paul’s injunctions here apply not only to the 1st century church in Ephesus, but to “every where” (literally, “in every place”). That is, all local churches everywhere are to obey this command. But it is a command specific to local churches: these words cannot be extrapolated to cover all spheres of society.

The instructed role of women in the church begins, according to this text, with their modesty of dress, “9In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; 10But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9-10). In the days in which Paul wrote, “broided hair,” “gold,” “pearls” and “costly array” were associated with loose-moralled women. God does not want women in the church to be a distraction to the worship. Paul then comes to the text of our study, in which he deals with the proper place of teaching in the church; and specifically, women’s relation to the teaching ministry of the church.

The Circumstances of the Passage

As noted above, the fact that Paul dealt with this issue clearly indicates that there was a problem with it in the church. Pastor Timothy faced the problem of false teachers and teaching, disunity and even with an apparent lack of proper leadership amongst the elders and deacons of the church (cf. 1 Timothy 3). The result of this was that the gospel was being undermined in Ephesus.

Amidst these other doctrinal issues, a further problem seems to have surfaced in the assembly. This problem pertained to the proper exercise of headship in the church. This had led to disruption and disorderliness in the church, as well as a certain distortion of the gospel.

We must not lose sight of the gospel issue underlying all of this. Paul’s concern was that the church faithfully fulfil its stewardship of the gospel truth. Evangelical feminism and chauvinistic egalitarianism would truncate the gospel, and the apostle would not stand by idly and allow this to happen. It was a serious issue, and one that needed to be dealt with.

Though we are not given great detail as to the cause of the problem, I wonder if it was not perhaps the result of an abuse of Paul’s words to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Perhaps false teachers had crept into the church, instructing the women there that all social distinctions had been removed in Christ. Perhaps they had encouraged women to take leadership positions, arguing that they were “missing out” if they did not do so. Perhaps this false teaching had even crept into the home (cf. Ephesians 5:18ff). Whatever the case, Paul clearly saw a problem in the church and wrote to correct it.

The Content of the Passage

Paul’s argument takes a three-pronged approach. He begins by giving a restriction (2:11-12), proceeds to state the reasons for the restriction (2:13-14), and concludes by expounding the proper responsibility of women in the church (2:15).

The Restriction Expected

The restriction that was expected of God and thus of Paul is clear, “11Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. 12But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (2:11-12).

Paul commands women here to “learn in silence.” The Greek word here translated “silence” is rendered in 2:2 as “peaceable.” Of course, this cannot mean that women must be completely silent in the worship services of the church, or else they would not be able to obey the command to worship God in song (see Ephesians 5:18-19). Rather, Paul is speaking in the direct context of the public teaching of God’s Word.

Whilst the emphasis in these verses is not on “learn,” there is a good principle here: when we gather as the church of God, we do so in order to learn from His Word.

But the emphasis here is on “silence,” which raises another interesting question. If women are to “learn in silence,” does this give free reign to men to speak up during the public exposition of God’s Word? That is, can a man in a worship service stand up and begin publicly debating with the preacher? Whilst there may be a time for such public questioning, the corporate worship service of the church is probably not usually the time. Why, then, does Paul emphasise the silence of women and not give the same injunction to men? Once again, it is obvious that there was something of a problem with this in the church; that is, women were not being silent during the public teaching of the Word, and thus Paul wrote to address that specific problem.

The word “subjection” or “submission” can have a negative connotation to those who do not understand Scripture. However, there ought to be no real problem with the term. This word simply means “to rank under,” and has nothing whatsoever to do with worth. In the military, a private may be ten times the man that a sergeant is; however, the private ranks beneath the sergeant by virtue of office. In the same way, women are to have a submissive spirit in the church. Particularly, they are to be submissive to those in the church who are involved in teaching. Women must come with a submissive spirit toward those in leadership in the church, ready to learn from God’s Word.

Of course, this highlights the importance of men selecting a proper church for their families to attend. If a woman is expected by God to submit to the elders of a local church, her husband or father had better make sure that he takes her to a church whose elders deserve respect, because they are faithful with the truth of God. Women should not criticise the leadership of the church, but men must be sure that they take their families to good churches, so that their wives and daughters have no grounds to criticise the leadership.

The submissiveness spoken of here is not merely to the teaching, but also to the teacher. It is assumed that everyone in the church–men and women alike–will submit to the teaching of the church’s leaders. But here the ones being taught are clearly seen in subjection to those teaching; in this specific context, men and teaching and women are learning. Thus, the exercise of the gift of teaching to the corporate body of the local church is limited to (qualified) males.

This verse alone (2:11) excludes women from pastoring a church, but this fact is made plain in 2:12, “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

Evangelical feminism distorts the plain reading of this verse to suit their agenda. The evangelical feminist version of Paul’s words reads, “I do not suffer a woman to teach men authoritatively…” (i.e. in an authoritarian manner). There are, however, at least two major problems with this interpretation.

First, when anyone teaches the Word of God, the teacher bears intrinsic authority, for he or she is teaching the Word of God. Simply put, it is impossible to teach the Word of God without authority. If you are teaching unauthoritatively, you are not teaching God’s Word; if you teach God’s Word, you will be teaching authoritatively.

Second, however, there are two commands explicit in the text: (1) not to teach men, and (2) not to usurp authority over men. Paul does not permit a woman to teach God’s Word to a man in the corporate setting of the church, for this automatically places her in a position of headship over the man. In simple terms, this is disobeying God. Instead, women are to learn in silence during the corporate teaching of the Word; not that she cannot utter a sound, but that she is to be “quiet” when it comes to the exercise of the gift of teaching in the corporate setting of the local church.

There are, however, some who would raise objections to the truth. Consider some of the women in the Bible who were involved in teaching–even in teaching men, in certain cases–and who were commended for it. Take, for instance, Priscilla who, together with her husband Aquila, instructed Apollos in the faith (Acts 18:24-28). Is that not an instance in which a woman was used of God to teach a man? Lois and Eunice instructed Timothy in the faith (2 Timothy 1:5), and Philip had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:8-9). Paul acknowledged that both men and women prophesy and pray in the church, and he did not rebuke the women for doing so (1 Corinthians 11:4-5). God certainly does not contradict himself; therefore, there must be a way in which all these instances can be tied together biblically.

Obviously, the Bible allows for women to teach in certain contexts, but not in other contexts. The context of 1 Timothy 2 is the public worship services of the church; there, it is forbidden for women to teach men. However, in other instances it is acceptable. It is acceptable for a woman like Priscilla to join her husband in instructing a young believer in the faith; this in no way violates the headship of the husband. It is acceptable, indeed expected, for a mother or grandmother to instruct her son or grandson in the faith while he is still young, like Eunice and Lois did for Timothy. There are contexts in which women–like Philip’s daughters and the women in Corinth–can teach in the church: ladies Bible studies, Sunday School, etc. Women are not forbidden to witness to men, or even to instruct men in a personal capacity (e.g. missionary wives, etc.). Men are nowhere forbidden to read books written by Christian women!

What is forbidden is for a woman to teach men in the corporate worship services of the local church. In short, women are not to disrupt the unity of the church by bucking the authority of the (male) church leaders. Perhaps this was the problem in Ephesus. “Perhaps,” wrote one author, “they were expressing their ‘liberation’ from their husbands by speaking out against and criticising the male leaders in the church.”

Clearly, this prohibition prevents a woman from serving in the office of an elder (pastor). For Paul defines the office of an elder as having authority over the members of the church. It is not the person in the office of elder who has (personal) authority; it is the office that bears the authority. If the office of elder bears authority, and women are not permitted to exercise authority over men in the church, women are consequently not permitted to fill the office of elder in the church.

The Reasons Expounded

Paul will not implement restrictions in the church without giving reasons, and in 2:13-14 he expounds the reasons, “13For Adam was first formed, then Eve. 14And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”

Paul’s first argument is pretty straightforward, “For Adam was first formed, then Eve.” Paul traces his reasoning to creation; specifically, to the order of creation of mankind. Adam was created first; Eve was created second. This indicated God’s clear design for man to be the head and for woman to be the helper.

This stated reason is not arbitrary; it is, rather, theological. That is, it is rooted in a deliberate act of God at creation. Biblical headship of the husband is an issue of created order. That order was perfect and thus male headship in the church is the expected, mandated order.

The apostle’s second argument calls for closer examination, “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” Here, Paul roots his reasoning in the fall. This shows that God’s design was the same before the fall as it was after the fall, which means that it is the same today.

Now, we must note here what Paul is not saying. He is not claiming that, by nature, women are more susceptible to deception than men. I have the highest regard for the shrewdness of my wife in judging character. She is far better at that than I am, and I respect her judgement. There are many women who are far less prone to deception than many men; that is not Paul’s point here.

What Paul is saying is that women, when they ignore or distort God-assigned roles, are “fair game” for deception. Why was Eve deceived? Largely because she stepped outside of her God-given sphere of authority. And, of course, Adam failed to do anything about it. Whoever was to blame for the role reversal, it is clear that role reversal was at the heart of man’s first sin in the garden.

I have no doubt that the widespread call in the contemporary church for female leadership is due to failed male leadership. When men lead as God intends, temptations to role reversal are more easily squashed, and deception is less likely to take place.

I remember seeing Joyce Meyer on TV once, strutting around the stage, saying, “I’ve had people telling me that, since I’m a woman, I can’t pastor.” With a dramatic pause, she leaned into the microphone and said, “Then what have I been doing for twenty years?” Immediately, the audience erupted into applause. As the camera panned around the congregation, I noted that it was mostly women cheering. And many of the men cheered as well. Shame on the husband who would subject his wife to that kind of ministry!

There is nothing in this text that indicates that women are inherently more prone to deception than men.

Somewhere along the line, the leaders of the church in Ephesus had failed to enforce biblical principles and practices, and they had thus allowed distortion of gender roles to take place in the assembly. Now, Paul wrote to correct the mess.

There is, however, an objection with which we must deal; one that is often encountered when studying passages like the one at hand. This is the “cultural” question: what about the claim that Paul was simply writing in a particular cultural setting and that, for those not living in that culture, these words are not binding? Let me make a few comments about that claim.

First, there are some cultural (and personal) situations addressed in Scripture which do not apply directly to our culture today. For instance, the Romans were told to “salute one another with an holy kiss” (Romans 16:16). The Corinthians and the Thessalonians were given the same charge (1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:16). People greeted each other in that culture by kissing one another on the cheek. That was the way that men greeted men, and women greeted women. All cultures are not bound by this specific type of greeting. I have been in cultures where the greeting is the same as the ancient Eastern greeting: a kiss on each cheek. But South African culture subscribes more to a handshake than “an holy kiss.” Does this mean that South Africans must change their way of greeting to align with Scripture? No. The principle in these verses is that we should greet one another. Christians are still bound by that: it is right for us to greet one another when we gather. But the culture in which you live will determine the manner of that greeting.

Another example of this is Paul’s charge to Timothy, “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for they stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities” (1 Timothy 5:23). Obviously, Timothy had some stomach problems. Evidently, he was so wary of the dangers of alcohol that he refused to partake, choosing instead to abstain entirely from alcohol. Paul wrote, however, and told him that, for the sake of his stomach, it was necessary for him to drink wine. Once again, this command is not binding on Christians today. Whilst the Bible nowhere forbids a Christian from drinking wine, it also nowhere commands it. We cannot take 1 Timothy 5:23 and use that as a proof text that Christians must drink wine. No, Timothy lived with a particular personal condition that forced the situation upon him, but the instruction is not binding throughout the ages. The question is whether the same is true of Paul’s words in 2:11-15.

Second, we must acknowledge that all Scripture was written within a cultural context. The New Testament authors did not just write arbitrarily, hoping that their words of wisdom would apply to believers somewhere. Instead, they responded to particular situations in a particular culture at a particular time. Nevertheless, whilst cultural circumstances gave rise to the commands of Scripture, those commands are no limited to those cultural circumstances.

Third (and this is key), the specific command in question is, I believe, transcultural. I say this for at least two reasons.

In the first place, the instruction pertains to a permanent, transcultural fixture of the local church: the ministry of teaching and leading. As noted, not all churches in all cultures greet one another with a kiss; however, all churches in all cultures certainly have preaching. Thus, if this ministry extends across cultures, so do the instructions that affect that ministry.

Furthermore, the instruction here is rooted in theology. Paul clearly gives biblical support for his argument. Since theology does not change, neither does the command that is rooted in theology. Nothing in the text suggests that Paul’s words would ever cease applying; what reason do we have to suggest that they have stopped applying today?

The permanence of this command is fundamental to the very nature of Scripture. If you begin casting aside this command because you are uncomfortable with it, you will soon begin doing the same with other parts of Scripture. Ultimately, you will become your own judge of what God said and what He didn’t, and this “threatens” the very nature of the gospel itself. And how sad it is when the church–“the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15)–embraces falsehood!

The Role Exalted

If the leaders of the Ephesian church implemented what Paul instructed, would not the women feel “left out”? If they could not lead the church, what was their purpose in the Body?

Keep in mind the larger context here. The false teachers had led women in the church astray (2 Timothy 3:5-7) by telling them that they were missing out: they could lead just as well as the men. A headship problem had arisen in the church, even in the family structure (Ephesians 5:21ff). A “libertine” spirit had been the result (1 Timothy 2:9-12). Women were encouraged to cast aside societal restraints. They should forget about modesty and sobriety, and should embrace positions of leadership in the church. That is the way in which they would find fulfilment.

Paul thus writes to set the record straight. But the question still remained, “How can I as a woman really experience all that there is to the Christian life? How can I make a significant contribution to the kingdom of God?” Paul thus writes to exalt the role that God has given to Christian women, “Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety” (2:15).

Eve did not attain significance by taking upon herself Adam’s role and partaking of the fruit. Her significance was attained when she raised a godly seed. In the same way, a Christian woman’s highest calling–despite today’s opinions to the contrary–is to raise a godly seed. Christian women have the exalted responsibility to raise godly sons, who will be the church leaders in the next generation. They have the exalted responsibility to raise godly daughters, who will one day raise godly sons and daughters of their own, that the church might continue in faith for generations to come. The woman’s role has a direct bearing on the next generation: how much more exalted could it possibly be?

This is by no means suggesting that single women (or married women without children) cannot be significant in the church, and we will take time in a future study to consider the roles of singles in the church. Nevertheless, should it not be the church’s desire to have a multigenerational church? Most certainly! And the way this will happen is if Christian men and women are committed to fulfilling the roles that God has given to them in the church.

Clearly, women cannot serve in a teaching capacity over men in the public gathering of the church. Equally clearly, women are restricted by God’s Word from the eldership of the local church. Let us pray that biblical elderships would enforce this for the glory of God and for the good of the church. Let us pray that Christian men will be real men, leading the church and standing on the truth.

Listen to Sermon