In 1 Timothy 2, verse 12, Paul writes: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent." Primarily because of this verse, we as a denomination did not ordain women as elders until the year 2007. Our change of policy involved a change in the way we understood this verse.
Our study paper on this verse was 22 pages long; this article does not pretend to give a thorough analysis, but to briefly identify three key questions that can help us clarify what this particular verse means. For more details, see our study papers.
1. Was this Paul’s permanent policy, or was it a temporary policy?
Answer: It was apparently a temporary policy, needed for the situation that Timothy was in. This can be seen by looking at 1 Corinthians 11, verses 3 to 16. In this passage, Paul said that women should have something covering their head whenever they prayed or prophesied. Scholars do not agree on precisely what this head covering was, and for our purposes it does not matter. What is important is that Paul was allowing women to speak.
Where were the women speaking? Paul would not need to give instructions about how women appeared when they were in private. This was some sort of public setting in which male and female believers gathered, prayed, and spoke to one another. This sounds like church.
What were the women speaking about? We know what prayer is, but what were the women doing when they prophesied? Paul tells us what prophecy is in chapter 14, verse 3: a message spoken to strengthen, encourage, and comfort other people. It might concern the future, but need not. It might be like modern preaching, or might not. The important thing is simply that the women were speaking in a church meeting. Verse 5 says that these messages edify or build up the church.
So the women in Corinth were being inspired by God to give messages that helped men and women in the church. Paul allowed some sort of speaking in Corinth, but in 1 Timothy 2:12, he said that the women should be silent. So to avoid contradiction, at least one of these verses must be seen as temporary. If silence was a permanent policy, then Paul violated his own policy when he allowed women to speak in Corinth. But if permission was the normal policy, it would still be possible for Paul to issue a temporary restriction due to some need in Timothy’s situation.
So this line of analysis tells us that 1 Timothy 2:12 should be seen as a temporary policy. Indeed, that is the way that Paul himself describes it: "I do not permit…" This was his policy at the time he wrote.
2. This was Paul’s policy at the time; was it also God’s policy?
In question 1, we focused on the silence that Paul commanded, and saw that Paul did not always require women to be silent in meetings of believers. Now we can look at the issue of authority. When Paul wrote 1 Timothy, he did not allow women to have authority over men. So we must ask, are we today supposed to have the same policy as Paul did? Or we can ask it another way: Does God have this policy? Does he ever allow women to have authority over men?
Yes, he does. Judges 4:4-6 gives a clear example. Deborah was a prophetess God used to lead the nation of Israel. She "held court under the Palm of Deborah," which was a public place that people could come to. God spoke to her, gave her commands, and she gave those commands to Barak, the military leader of Israel (verse 6). God gave her authority over Barak and the other Israelites.
This was not a worship service, but it is a clear case in which God allowed a woman to have authority over men. However, when Paul wrote 1 Timothy, he did not allow women to have authority over men—and he made no distinction about civil and religious authority (Deborah made no distinction in the two types of authority, either, since in her case they were combined). In question 1, we saw that Paul’s policy about women speaking in church was apparently a temporary policy. Here, we see that his policy about authority is also temporary, since God does not make that sort of restriction permanently.
3. Is 1 Timothy a manual for how churches ought to operate today?
Sometimes people assume that if Paul had a particular policy, then we ought to, too, because he was inspired by God. But if we take a careful look at his letter, we will see that parts of it don’t apply to us today. It was, after all, written to Timothy in first-century Ephesus, not directly to all of us. The letter has a lot of good material in it we can apply today, but is also has some things in it that we don’t.
The best example is in chapter 5, verses 3-16. Paul is telling Timothy to put widows on some sort of list (apparently a list for financial support) only if they were over age 60. He says that younger widows are probably going to want to get married and will end up breaking "their first pledge" (apparently some sort of vow they took in order to be on the list for financial support).
Nowadays, we do not maintain this sort of list, and we do not put age restrictions on which widows we will help. Our social and economic circumstances are quite different, and almost all church leaders and biblical scholars recognize this. Nevertheless, Paul gives several commands in this passage that we ignore—even commands can be limited to the culture they were given in. How much more so the policy that Paul states in 1 Timothy 2:12?
Paul also commands in verse 8 that men should lift their hands when they pray. We do not enforce this as a command today, nor do we greet one another with a holy kiss, as several letters command (for example, 1 Thessalonians 5:26). The principle of friendly greeting is good in today’s church, but Paul went beyond generalities and commanded a specific form of greeting that is not appropriate in our culture today.
Clearly, there are some things in Paul’s epistles that do not apply in our culture. The question that we should ask is, Is 1 Timothy 2:12 one of those temporary instructions? From our analysis above, apparently so. This does not mean that it is less inspired, or that we are choosing to ignore the Word of God—no more so than when we decide not to command kissing in church, or commanding women to wear head coverings, or when we decide that men do not have to raise their hands when they pray. We are not ignoring the Word of God when we recognize that some of it was written for ancient Israel, or for the ancient church, and it does not necessarily apply today in all its details.
Now, not all Christians agree on this matter. Some people believe that the church should restrict women from having leadership roles in the church. We believed that way ourselves for a long time, but we believe that we have now come to a better understanding of the scriptures—more like what Paul really meant, and what God really meant, and what the epistle really is. We believe that when God gives pastoral gifts to women—the ability to teach, to encourage, and to inspire people to follow Christ—then those women may be recognized as elders or leaders within the church.