2 Timothy 2:9-15: The Complementarian Proof Text?

About a month ago I was sitting in a denominational class. Between bouts of  copious note taking and undivided attention I was checking Facebook. An old friend of mine  messaged me and asked me this question:

. . . It seems from your posts you are Egalitarian. Growing up through YFC in what way do you think your cultural bias shaped your views? How do you handle Paul’s argument in 2 Tim [he meant 1 Tim 2]. when he argues back to creation/order and his use of panta/”all”. Do you take Paul to be a chauvinist or are those ad hoc arguments for Corinth, Ephesus?

This was a private correspondence and he likely would be mortified that I am blogging about it (he also assured me that he wasn’t being as antagonistic as he originally sounded). However he raised important issues which are worth addressing. I am an egalitarian, in part because I affirm my wife’s life calling to vocational, pastoral ministry and think that she has the gifts, grace and strength to lead in the church and to lead well. I am offended by anyone who tells me she is disqualified from her call just because ‘she’s a woman.’ But 1 Timothy 2:9-15 is a difficult passage for me and  I always  seek to be biblical in my understanding. What authority does this text have for us today? How are we to read it? Am I, as an egalitarian, really listening to this scripture? Or am I seeking to explain it away? These are hard questions which deserve thoughtful answers. I hope my post below at least gives the start of some answers. Here is what the passage says:

I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

Paul exhorts women to modesty, propriety and good deeds ‘appropriate for women.’ He says, rather strongly, that women are to learn in quietness and full submission, without authority or a teaching voice. And he grounds his argument for their silence and submissiveness in the created order (v. 13) and Eve’s deception (vs. 14).  Knock down complementarian argument right? Or is it? Um . . .not exactly.

How to Read the Bible 

One of the accusations leveled at us egalitarians is that we try to explain  difficult passages like this away rather than really listen to what the Bible is telling us. I certainly do not want to explain the living powerful Word of God away. Instead I want to attend appropriately to it, with a discerning eye to what passages like this mean within the wider context of biblical revelation. In other words, we read difficult texts with in the context of the entire biblical witness.  When complementarians fail to attend to the wider context of scripture, they also run the risk of ‘explaining the Bible away.’ This is not to say that the Bible is a 21st Century feminist manifesto.  It is a  collection of books compiled in the context of several patriarchal cultures.  And yet the egalitarian impulse is preserved for us in the text itself. So lets listen to the biblical witness before we parse hard passages:

  1. Read 1 Timothy in the context of  the Genesis account– Paul invites us to reread the creation and fall accounts recorded in Genesis 1-3. What picture of Biblical manhood and womanhood emerge as we read these texts? Genesis 1:26-7 presents the creation of humankind, male and female mutually bearing the image of God. Complementarians read past these verses and point to the alleged subordination of women in  Genesis 2, but some of their observations are overwrought. The term ‘helpmate’  or ‘helper’ applied to the woman in Gen. 2:18 does not mean underling or assistant but means something like “I will make a ‘strength/power’ corresponding to that of man.”  Elsewhere the term is applied directly to God. Furthermore, Adam’s first description of his wife is one which testifies to their mutuality, “You will be called woman for you are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh (23).” Gender subordination is the result of the fall (God’s curse on the woman in Gen. 3:16, and Adam’s ‘naming’ of Eve, defining her by  her role rather than by their mutual relationship in Gen. 3:20). This was not the way things were meant to be.
  2. Read 1 Timothy in the context of Jesus’ life and ministry– Yes Jesus had 12 male disciples but he also defied convention by having women disciples. The trajectory seems to be inclusion, not exclusion. Remember Jesus came to take away the curse away (more on this later).
  3. Read 1 Timothy within the context of Paul’s Ministry– If this was the only thing we knew about Paul and his ministry we might say that women should be excluded from a teaching ministry. However the Bible gives us evidence that Paul did include and affirm women in ministry.  In the book of Acts and in the Pauline Epistles we read about women prophets (Acts 2:17; 21:8-9), apostles, evangelists and teachers (Acts 18), and deacons (Rom. 16:1-2). Even 1 Cor. 11 (another Complementarian proof text) assumes that women will be speaking and prophesying in the context of worship.  However we read hard  passages like 1 Timothy 2, we need to also wrestle with a broader swath of New Testament texts which seem to imply a more generous and inclusive reality.
  4. Read this passage in conversation with New Testament egalitarian texts-  There are three worth mentioning: Galatians 3:28, 1 Cor. 12:13 and Col. 3:11. All three of these texts talk about the dissolution of racial and economic differences. Galatians 3:28 expounds on the theme proclaiming that gender is no longer a barrier to our life in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female  for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Complementarians point out that this passage talks about equality in terms of salvation but there is a radical leveling implied.  When a first century Jewish woman who had  been excluded from the temple courts heard statements like this, something basic about her full humanity was affirmed. Salvation is not just pie in the sky when you die but an entry into a new reality which had implications for all our earthly relationships. As F.F. Bruce said, “If restrictions are found elsewhere . . .they are to be understood in relation to Gal. 3:28. and not vise versa” (in his 1982 Galatians commentary).
  5. Reading this passage within the context of  Timothy– The fact is that 1 Timothy was a particular letter, written in a particular context, to a particular person for a particular reason.  Church order and gender roles is not the main concern of this letter, false teaching is. It is reasonable to conclude that Paul is addressing the issue of  heresy, some of which was taught by women and may be a result of their inferior education and opportunities in that culture (which made them more easily hoodwinked).  21st century women have much more access to education  and aren’t quite so easily duped!
We need to keep all of this in mind when we read the passage or we may end up enshrining another age’s cultural standards rather than the trajectory of the kingdom of God.

Reading 2 Timothy 2:9-15

When it comes to this particular passage, I will admit that I would rather Paul didn’t say things this way. It certainly appears to be a universal pronouncement applicable to all women for all time. For an egalitarian, this is bar-none the hardest passage to deal with and complementarians can make solid exegetical arguments based on the Greek grammar alone. They pull out this passage like some sort of trump card feeling like it justifies their view. If this was the only passage we have which addressed the issue,  complementarianism might carry the day, but it is not. And even here, Paul gives us a seed of change in gender-relations. What do you suppose Paul meant by saying, “ But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” in verse 15? Could he be referencing the curse described in Genesis 3 (the very  passage Paul has been reflecting on)? Genesis 3:16 describes God’s curse of  the woman and her subsequent subordination to her husband:

To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;

with painful labor you will give birth to children.

Your desire will be for your husband,

and he will rule over you.

However this curse comes on the heels of God’s words to the woman’s tempter, the  serpent:

And I will put enmity

between you and the woman,

and between your offspring and hers;

he will crush your head,

and you will strike his heel.”

I would submit that Paul has this passage in mind when he talks about women being saved through ‘childbirth.’  He doesn’t intend some general word about how women ought to be barefoot and pregnant. Does some sort of generalized statement of salvation through childbirth even make sense in light of  biblical theology?!?  He is reminding Timothy of a moment in salvation history where woman’s salvation (liberation) was promised. The fulfillment to this promise came through Jesus and with his death and resurrection  the curse was broken. I believe Paul  is exhorting the women of Ephesus to abandon their positions as teachers, to learn in full submission until they are fully formed in the truth of the gospel. They are to not revel in cheap freedom they don’t understand, but in the life, freedom, salvation bought by the blood of Christ. This was pragmatic and temporal advice given to women at a point in the church’s history when women had little to no religious education. Today women are statistically more versed in gospel truth than men (who are not good church attenders, pray-ers or Bible readers). Women today are walking in the freedom of Christ as God’s kingdom is coming. Yahoolujah!

My Complementarian Friend was Not Convinced.

Of course none of my reasons convinced my friend to abandon his complementarian ways ( either on this passage or my thoughts about my culturally construed views). He has a fundamentally different read on the witness of scripture than I do (and in the Bible, patriarchy is not  that hard to find).  I honestly think that if you take this passage in isolation, the complementarians have a great argument (though not knock down case, there is more I could have said here). But an isolated passage (or 2-3 isolated passages if the Corinthian texts bug you) should never be used as a hammer, trump card or proof text. Read the Bible, read it all, read it well.

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3 thoughts on “2 Timothy 2:9-15: The Complementarian Proof Text?”

  1. I think a big gap in the complementarian/egalitarian debate is that the former distinguishes between role and value and the latter does not, or thinks any such distinction is suspect.

    1. Luke- see I would say the difference is the former prescribes the role and the latter doesn’t. Remember that those of us on the Egalitarian side are not confused that women and men are different (of course they are). We just are careful about what universal inferences we make in terms of which roles are available to which gender based on those differences. I do hear you though and take your point.

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