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Discourse Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:8–15

Reading 1 Timothy 2:8–15 Closely

Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:8–15, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over men in the church,” continue to generate a lot of discussion, in large part because of their significant relevance for men’s and women’s roles in the church. In my chapter in the book Women in the Church, I provide a thorough discourse analysis of 1 Timothy 2:8–15. The following summary will serve as a handy resource in canvassing the basic flow of the passage, though I refer the reader to the full treatment in Women in the Church. 

Overall Structure

Essentially, the passage breaks into three sub-units: verses 8–10, 11–12, and 13–15, with 11–12 being at the heart of the passage.

Verses 8–10
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.

The first unit, verses 8–10, is governed by the verb “I want” in verse 8. Paul here provides standard guidance for men and women. He resumes the main line of thought in verses 1-2 regarding prayer after the detour of verses 3–7. Yet verse 8 is not merely resumptive but also inferential: because prayer has salvation as its purpose, the burden in verse 8 is for men to join in united prayer. Then, in verse 9, Paul writes, “Women, likewise,” continuing to urge proper conduct in the congregation (“what is proper for women”).

Verses 11–12
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

The second unit, verses 11–12, features the fronting of “woman” in verse 11, which provides a topical frame indicating a change of subject. One also detects a shift from the plural “women” in verses 9–10 to the singular “woman” in verses 11–12, most likely in order to prepare for the reference to Eve in verse 13 (note the shift to “woman”—still in the singular—in verse 14); note that the shift from plural to singular individualizes the address.

Verse 12 opens with de (the first time in the unit; cf. vv. 14, 15), a development marker that further elaborates on Paul’s command in verse 11 regarding a woman learning in quietness and full submission. In other words, for a woman not to teach or exercise authority over a man in the church is an implication or outworking of the command to learn in quietness and full submission (i.e., it wouldn’t be submissive for a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man). Similar to “I want” in verse 8, Paul uses “I don’t permit” in verse 12 to express his authoritative instruction (here in the negative, as a prohibition).

Note that neither of these verb forms is in the imperative but rather both are indicatives. This doesn’t make them any less authoritative, but it does mitigate the force somewhat (i.e., Paul says things nicely and gently rather than brusquely or rudely). Yet note that Paul is not writing directly to men and women in the congregation but to Timothy, so here he is speaking more indirectly, telling Timothy how he should instruct men and women in the church as part of a pastoral epistle/household code. Note that more indirect does not mean weaker or optional, especially since Paul provides dual scriptural backing for his injunction in verses 13 and 14 (see below).

“Not … but” echoes the similar construction in verses 9–10, expressing Paul’s authoritative instruction in both positive and negative terms.

“Teach” and “exercise authority” in verse 12 parallels “learn” and “in full submission” in verse 11. Note also that “teach” is fronted in verse 12, probably for emphasis (i.e., for women not to teach men in the church is the main burden).

“Neither … nor” moves from specific to general. Specifically, women teaching men in the church is not permissible. More broadly, any form of exercising authority (such as serving as elder; cf. 1 Tim 5:17) is likewise not permissible. From general to specific would have been more common; specific to general shows that the specific activity (teaching) is the primary concern, plus Paul broadens scope to include any form of exercising authority as well, of which teaching would be the most conspicuous example.

In my chapter in Women in the Church, I then address the proposal by Andrew Perriman that verse 12 is only parenthetical and that the main point is verse 11 in conjunction with verses 13–14 (pp. 156–57). Interestingly, Levinsohn also says that verse 12 is parenthetical, but in a different sense than verse 12: verse 12 fleshes out the negative implications of the positive command (“let a woman learn”) in verse 11.

Verses 13–15
For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

Note that in verse 14 we find de (development of verse 13) rather than alla in verse 12 (contrast with verse 11), and then another de in verse 15. The passage features various inclusios: “in all quietness” is found at the beginning of verse 11 and again at the end of verse 12; “woman” is found at the beginning of verse 11 and end of verse 14; “self-control” (sound mind) is found in both verse 9 and verse 15. These inclusios underscore the unity and coherence of the entire unit.

Finally, there is a transition from verse 14 to verse 15: from aorist/perfect to future, and from third person singular to third person plural. Note also the lack of explicit subject in verse 15.

General Observations

  • There is an underlying concern throughout the passage to promote unity and avoid disruption of worship.
  • Also, there is a pervasive concern to uphold the proper authority structure in the church (not just through the rare verb authentein).
  • While men are mentioned, the primary focus is on women.
  • There is a repeated contrast “not … but.”
  • At the heart of the unit is verse 11, further developed in verse 12, and supported in verses 13–14.

Note: for a fuller discussion see the discourse analysis on pp. 152-58 in the 3rd ed. of Women in the Church (ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner; Wheaton: Crossway, 2016).