Let the Women Learn

1 Timothy 2:8–15

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 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. 11 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. 13 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.

This is the most controversial passage in 1 Timothy. And one of the most controversial in all of Paul’s letters, and all the New Testament, and all the Bible. 

It has not always been controversial. That’s a recent phenomenon in the history of the church. And controversial doesn’t necessarily mean unclear. The passage itself is not too difficult to understand. Our problems with it today have to do with application. Especially when we believe the Bible is God’s word to us. If this is not God’s word, then the problems disappear. Then we simply say, Times have changed.

But Christians in general, and specifically we here at Cities Church, believe this is an enduring word from the risen Christ, through his inspired spokesman, to the church. So we take this passage, and all Scripture, with utter seriousness. But that doesn’t mean the application is easy.

Multiple aspects of this passage are an affront to modern, secular thinking. I do not want us to shy away from the discomfort we may feel, but for clarity’s sake, I do want to tell you upfront what this passage does not teach:

  • That women today should not braid their hair or wear gold jewelry or pearls

  • That women must stay silent once they walk in the doors of the church

  • That women should not teach at all

  • That all men are fit to teach in the gathered assembly

  • That all men have authority over all women

  • That salvation is by works (childbearing) rather than faith

But what makes this passage difficult in terms of application today is not just modern notions of equality in women but sinful notions of selfishness and laziness in men. This passage begins with a word directly about men, and then the other seven verses are more directly about women. Let me begin with a pointed challenge to the men.

In some conservative circles, this passage is misused more often by men than women. We assume that because God designed men to be husbands in the home, and elders in the church, that means added privilege but not responsibility or sacrifice. So, brothers, who consider yourself well aware of the distinctive callings of men and women, make sure that your so-called knowledge doesn’t become an excuse for laziness and selfishness but that you feel the weight of being like Christ to his church. Mature men keep Ephesians 5:23 together with 5:25: “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church . . . . Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . . .” (Ephesians 5:23, 25). Jesus is head, which did not mean that he claimed selfish privilege but that he sacrificed himself for the good of his bride.

Four Charges

As we’ve said in this series, the key verse in 1 Timothy for what Paul is doing in this letter is 3:15: he writes to convey to Timothy, and the Ephesian church, and to us, “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God.” There are implications in this passage, and in particular in Genesis 2–3 to which this passage refers, that extend beyond the church, to the home and, in some sense, to all of life. However, remember Paul is writing here about “how one ought to behave in the household of God.” In particular, the worship gathering is in view in this passage.

Now, without shying away from any of the prohibitions Paul gives in this text — which it’s easy for us to focus on — let’s highlight four positive charges as we move through this passage. I highlight these because I want to make sure we hear them, along with the others that may feel negative to modern ears.

1. Let the men pray. (verse 8)

Verse 8: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.”

One thing we will see throughout these verses is that Paul deals with men as men, and women as women. He’s not afraid to acknowledge our differences and challenge our characteristic sins. God designed men and women with glorious differences, which in our sin produces different tendencies to disorder. In verses 9–10, for women, it’s improper attention to appearance, and in verse 8, for men, it’s improper anger and quarreling. (Not that anger and quarreling are only male issues, or that improper attention to appearance is only a female issue. But there are characteristic tendencies here based on differences in our God-designed nature.)

Here, for the men, the positive attribute is strength, and the attendant danger is anger and quarreling.

Paul wants the men to pray “lifting holy hands.” Throughout the Bible, hands represent strength. Again and again God is said to have saved his people from slavery with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. And Paul challenges the men, at their point of glory — which is their strength (Proverbs 20:29) — to be holy. That their prayers, which in this context means in the context of worship, come with hands lifted in glad submissiveness to God. All Christian men are men under authority: the authority of the risen Christ.

And Paul challenges men specifically at two points of typical male weakness: anger and quarreling (picking the wrong fights). God made men to feel a holy jealousy to guard and protect their families and communities, but our sin can turn an impulse to holy jealousy into sinful anger. And God made men to be fighters, holy warriors in the right battles, to “ride out victoriously for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness” (Psalm 45:4). Sinful anger and unnecessary quarreling are male tendencies to sin, given the distinctive design and calling of men.

So the call here for men is to address anger and pursue peace. And this is not just for Ephesus. Paul says “in every place.” As he is putting the Ephesian church in order, through Timothy, he is not attending to Ephesian distinctives. Rather, he is aligning the order of the Ephesian church with the order he institutes in all the churches.

But again, the positive here is a particular call for men to pray. Perhaps because men can be so task- and thing- and visibly-oriented that they need to be reminded more often than women about the power and necessity of prayer.

Here God draws attention to a husband’s prayers. Let the men pray. It is not enough just to read and study the Bible for yourself. Let the men pray. And it’s not enough just to teach the family God’s word. Let the men pray. And it’s not enough just to work hard with your hands and sacrifice personal convenience to love and serve wife and kids. Let the men pray.

So, brothers, two challenges: First, let’s not let the sun go down on our anger. Do not ignore or try to bury your anger. Anger is a response to some love threatened. So let’s ask ourselves, not just in the corporate gathering, but about any eruption of anger, “What love was being threatened that made me angry?” Most often, we’ll find a disordered love. Something to repent of, and ask for God’s help, that our love for it be restored to its proper place. 

Secondly, brothers, we have a particular calling to prayer, for our wife, for our family. Are you, not just your wife, covering your household in prayer? How many marriage problems and parenting problems would be solved if husbands and fathers gave themselves to daily, serious, action-inspiring prayer? So, #1, let the men pray.

2) Let the women do good. (verses 9–10)

Verses 9–10: 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.

Ladies, now the next seven verses are about you, even though verses 12–13 very much have to do with men. Having addressed the male tendencies to improper anger and quarreling, Paul now turns to the more feminine tendency of improper attention to, or intention with, physical appearance. Just as men are strong, and need a related warning against anger and bickering, so women are beautiful, and need a related warning against show and superficiality. (It’s easy to see how the male and female temptations go together when men fight over women, and when women dress in such a way as to encourage it.)

There is a word here in verse 9 to add to our typical conversations about Christian modesty: “respectable.” This exact word (Greek kosmios) occurs only two times in the New Testament, and the other is just breaths later in 1 Timothy 3:2 (an elder must be respectable). Respectability means to engender or encourage respect. To make respect easier for others, rather than harder. And it relates, unavoidably, to how we dress (among other things). How we adorn ourselves externally, relative to societal expectations and norms, engenders respect or undermines it. And God means for his people, beginning with the leaders, and including the whole church, to be the kind of people who seek to make respect easier for others, not more difficult.

It is at least juvenile, if not self-absorbed, to attempt to draw special attention, whether positively or negatively, by the way we dress. Love and maturity lead us to consider others, from a full heart, and to try, within reason, to put them at ease, rather than shock, offend, distract, or entice.

Our conversations today about modesty often turn on how much skin is visible or how tight clothing is. Paul doesn’t mention skin or tightness. The cultural situation is different. His emphasis is on undue cost and soliciting undue attention, which still applies today. And why is the corporate gathering such a flashpoint? With no social media to present the best image of themselves 24/7 online, the corporate gathering was a focused occasion to show their quality in public.

What about the surprising specifics Paul mentions? “Not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.” Paul’s appeal is not to nature. He doesn’t point to any rationale that would say that braids and gold and pearls are wrong in every time and place, but he warns against ostentation and seduction. Against giving undue time and money to dress, and using beauty to distract and control men, or try to make other women envious. 1 Peter 3 also warns women against braids and gold. According to one scholar, “In both Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, sexual seductiveness is linked with extravagant adornment” (Schreiner, Women in the Church, 95). 

The principle Paul is getting at is seen in his surprising turn at the end of verse 10: How will you turn heads — with good looks or good works? Paul doesn’t then comment on certain external things to wear. The positive point is the desire to do others good, not distract them.

Note again that the charge to women to do good doesn’t not mean that men should not do good, or that men are not tempted to give undue time and attention to their appearance. We should not be so naïve as to think that respectable and appropriate dress is only a female issue, perhaps especially today.

And we shouldn’t think that “good works” here is in any way an insignificant calling. This is a major theme in 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. This is the first of four mentions in 1 Timothy, and Titus alone mentions good works six times. Paul is very clear that we do not earn our acceptance with God by our good works (2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5), but that in Christ, we are made new, with new desires, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we become the kind of people who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14), who are eager and ready to do good works (2 Timothy 2:21; 3:16–17; Titus 3:1–2), who devote ourselves to good works (Titus 3:8, 14). Over time, good works will be conspicuous (1 Timothy 5:24–25). They will give rise to a good reputation (1 Timothy 5:9–10) and make us a model for other Christians (Titus 2:7–8). God means for women to be a force for good in the church and in the world, to see the needs of others, and make Jesus look good through good works, rather than themselves look good through excess attention and energy given to external adornment. 

Ladies, Christ, though Paul, is not telling you just to blend in. He’s saying give your attention to blessing others in need, not drawing attention to yourself. In the words of Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

But how will this happen? Does Paul expect women to just up and do good? This relates to the theme throughout 1 Timothy that sound doctrine produces sound living. God’s good news, through faithful teaching, produces good living. Doing good begins with learning truth. So, not only should the men pray, and the women do good, but third, let the women learn.

3) Let the women learn. (verse 11)

Verse 11: Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.

Before we talk about “quietly” and “with all submissiveness,” we should acknowledge how countercultural this was at the time, that Paul would command Timothy, “Let the women learn . . .” Other traditions in the first century, even within Judaism, did not allow women to learn. It was shocking when Mary sat at Jesus’s feet instead of doing the so-called “woman’s work” with her sister, Martha. And Jesus commended it: “Mary has chosen the good portion” (Luke 10:42). “Let the women learn” felt uncomfortably progressive in the first century. Christianity is the original and true women’s lib movement.

However, let’s be clear, the main effect of the verse is not that women should learn but how. Paul is addressing the manner in which such learning should happen in corporate worship. “Quietly” (or “silently” in some translations) is a word we stumble over. What does Paul have in mind with “quietly”? Well, in this very passage, back in verse 2, he uses the same word when he says Christians should “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Quiet here isn’t about decibels but disorder. We say “peace and quiet” in English as well. The two go together

Similarly, in 2 Thessalonians 3:12, Paul says to Christians who were lazy and not working and going around disturbing the peace to “do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” And at the end of Acts 21, and the beginning of Acts 22, when Paul motions to address the riotous crowd, “there was a great hush . . . . And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet” (Acts 21:40–22:2). This is a kind of “peace and quiet” that enables people to listen to public speech. Remember they did not have amplification. There needed to be order, not chaos, for women to be able to learn. The command to Timothy is “let the women learn quietly” — without distraction, whether from others or from the women themselves — “with all submissiveness.” The submissiveness here is first and foremost to God and the risen Christ. And then, under God, to the leaders and order of the church.

So the men should pray. The women should do good, including dressing respectably. And the women should learn. But who is doing the teaching?

4) Let the elders teach. (verse 12)

Verse 12: I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 

Now I said, “Let the elders teach,” but verse 12 doesn’t mention any elders. Where did they come from? Well, as we’ll see next Sunday, that’s where Paul goes immediately after our passage. Chapter 3, verse 1: “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” (Overseer = elder = pastor in the New Testament.)

And one thing that makes elders distinct from deacons is that elders must be “able to teach” (3:2). And the elders not only teach but “manage” (3:5), or better, “lead.” That’s the pair of verbs here in verse 12: teach and exercise authority. Elders feed (through teaching) and lead (through governing). 1 Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders who rule (lead) well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” How do elders rule well, or exercise authority? Preaching and teaching. We see the same pair (teaching and exercising authority) in 1 Thessalonians 5:12: “respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord.” Labor (in teaching) and lead (through oversight). Elders govern, or lead, the church, and they do so through preaching and teaching the words of Christ in the writings of the apostles.

It is amazing that under Christ, under the apostles, who did God put in charge of his church? Not savvy executives. Not successful businessmen. But teachers. Pastors are teachers (Ephesians 4:11). Throughout the New Testament, leaders teach, and teachers lead (Hebrews 13:7). In the church, authority does not lie in the elders in and of themselves. Their authority is teaching authority. They are stewards of God’s word. The locus of pastoral authority is rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). Jesus is the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). His apostles, like Paul, are his inspired spokesmen. And pastor-teachers exercise authority in the church not by domineering or pulling rank or claiming personal privilege but by patiently, persuasively, faithfully, self-sacrificially teaching the apostles’ word. (Which doesn’t mean that all Christians don’t grow into serving as teacher in certain contexts. All Christians teach the commands of Christ in the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19; and mature into the ability to teach others, Hebrew 5:12; older women teach younger women, Titus 2:3–4; Timothy himself was taught by his mother and grandmother, 2 Timothy 1:5; 4:13; indeed there’s a sense in which all Christians teach each other, Colossians 3:16; but here the emphasis is on the pastor-elders being the guardians and instructors of the apostles’ teaching.)

Why Male Pastor-Teachers?

So, note well that Paul does not say that every man has authority over every woman. And he does not say that every man is fit to teach in the gathered church. Simply being male doesn’t qualify a man to teach, but why it is, then, that the elders must be men (as we’ll see next week)? This is where many studies of this passage end: Paul said it; take it or leave it. But Paul doesn’t end here. When we say, “Why?” after verse 12, he says, “For” (because) in verses 13–14. He points us to the answer we’re looking for.

Verses 13–14: For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

Paul’s answer to why it’s fitting in the church for the elders, who are men, to teach is because of God’s design in creation. “Adam was formed first, then Eve.” It’s not just the details of the story that matter, but God’s design beneath the details. Four key words in verses 13–15 correspond exactly with four words in Genesis 2–3: formed, then, deceived, and childbearing. (Turn to Genesis 2–3 with me to see the correspondence for yourself.) Let me walk through those four words, explain the significance, and we’re done. 

First is “formed.” Genesis 2:7 says “God formed the man.” In verses 8–14, God plants a garden. Then in Genesis 2:15, God puts man in the garden to work it and keep it, and in 2:16–17, God gives him the moral vision of the garden: eat of every tree but one.

Genesis 2:18 has the second word: “then.” “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’” Then God made woman. So, as Paul says, “Adam was formed first, then Eve.” This is God’s order in creation. First he forms Adam, and gives Adam his word for life in the garden. Then God forms Eve, and the man is to teach and lead his wife. This is God’s order in creation, which corresponds to his design.

That’s verse 13 and Genesis 2 and creation before sin enters. Then we turn to verse 14 and Genesis 3. 

In Genesis 3:1, the serpent approaches the woman. They dialogue. Eve decides to eat the fruit, and gives to her husband who is said to be with her (verse 6). When God comes to confront them about the transgression, he comes to Adam, who blames his wife. And when Eve explains herself to God, she says, in verse 13, “the serpent deceived me, and I ate.” There’s the third word, “deceived.”

So God has his order: man formed first, then woman. And his order is not arbitrary but by intentional. God made Adam to work and keep the garden. Adam was to guard the garden. To set boundaries. God made Adam strong, to use his strength to confront serpents and swiftly escort them off the property, and if necessary put his foot through their skulls.

But Satan subverted God’s order. Instead of going to the man, he approached the woman. He went against God’s order (which was a function of God’s design), Adam allowed it, Eve was deceived, and they fell from paradise. And as Paul seeks to put the house of God in order in 1 Timothy, he says to remember God’s order and design. Don’t give way to Satan’s inversion and subversion. It’s not because women are more gullible than men, or less competent than men. It’s that God made men for this. For guarding and protecting their households, and their country, and in the church, for a band of qualified men to serve together to guard and protect the doctrine of the church. To take initiative. To put themselves forward, rather than women, for criticisms that come with public teaching, and for the messes of handling serious crises. To press truth, with courage, to people’s lives. To take up the heavy and painful realities of Scripture, like the wrath of God and eternal judgment in hell. To hold up God’s truth with forcefulness in preaching. To create categories and set up boundaries. To renounce false teaching. To advocate for women and their flourishing. To sacrifice personal comfort and ease to nourish and cherish and protect the church.

So, that’s three: formed, then, and deceived. The fourth and final is “childbearing.” That’s 1 Timothy 2:15.

Verse 15: Yet she will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

After this extended focus on women in verses 9–15, Paul ends with a word of hope for women. “Childbearing” is the single most obvious, stubborn, striking difference between men and women. Men, we cannot do everything a woman can do. We cannot bear children. And that single most obvious difference is just part and parcel of a whole-person design down to every single cell, physically, emotionally, psychologically, that makes men and women gloriously different. And so in Genesis 3, because of sin, man and woman are cursed in their characteristic spheres. Adam: pain in his labor (working the ground). Eve: pain in hers (childbearing, Genesis 3:16).

But in verse 15 Paul moves beyond the curse. Childbearing is the flashpoint of the woman’s special design in creation, and so also in the curse, but now also in salvation. “Saved through childbearing” doesn’t mean “saved by childbearing.” It means being saved from or through a danger. It’s like 1 Corinthians 3:15: “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” 

So, Paul’s culminating word here to women who persevere in faith is hope, not despair. Blessing, not curse. Salvation, not destruction. God sees and knows the pains of your unwanted singleness, your infertility, your hyperemesis, those arduous hours of childbirth, those postpartum weeks of healing, those months of breastfeeding, those years of childrearing, the lifetime of pains and disappointments and frustrations you experience in your female body and soul in this fallen world. He sees and knows and he wants you to take heart, that these present manifestations of the curse will soon fall away. He will save you through them, as you keep trusting in him and living according to his calling.

The Table

As we come to the Table, we remember one last detail from Genesis 3. Before God spoke in Genesis 3:16 to the woman of increased pain in childbirth, he spoke in Genesis 3:15 to the serpent about the woman’s offspring: “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Adam failed to protect his house. But Jesus, the offspring of the women, did not. Even as the serpent bruised his heel, he crushed the head of the devil at the cross.

Here at the Table, we eat together as men and women, together as God’s people, together as co-heirs of Christ, being saved together — through the pains of our labors — thanks to Jesus, the one mediator between God and man.