Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 06/28/1992

1 Timothy 2:9-15

The Lifestyle of Christian Ladies

2:9 Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braid or gold or pearls or costly garments, 10 but rather by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness. 11 Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. 13 for it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. 14 For it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman, being quite deceived, fell into transgression. 15 But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self restraint.


We have seen that Paul gives us his theme and purpose for writing First Timothy in 1 Tim. 3:15. "In case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct oneself in the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth." In chapter 2, Paul is discussing how men and women are to contribute to this goal through their behavior, in the light of the fact that God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." Men are to do this by lifting up holy hands in prayer without wrath and dissension (v. 8), as we saw last week. The assumption is that the men in the Church at Ephesus where Timothy was pastor were hindering the progress of the Gospel either by their prayerlessness or by using their prayers improperly to make points in conflict (dissension). So, likewise, it is safe to assume that when Paul turns to the women in v. 9, his message to them is influenced by particular problems that had arisen in that church. It would appear that some of the Ephesian women were dressing ostentatiously and being contentious about doctrine in ways that threatened to overturn proper order and authority in the Church. Paul's instructions to them are intended to prevent these abuses so that the Church can function properly as the household of God and the pillar and support of the truth (3:15). If it is a dysfunctional household, it will be undermining the truth of the Gospel before the watching world rather than supporting it.


Now, this is one of those vexing passages that raise the issue of how we relate the Bible and the culture of its world to our world and our culture. What happens to instructions designed for the First Century when we translate them into practice in the Twentieth? This is not a simple matter. I do not see a whole lot of ladies in our congregation today wearing a head covering--as the Corinthian women were instructed to do! Are these ladies sinning? Most of us would say no; but how can you tell? Once you start using culture as an excuse not to obey plain biblical commands, where does it end? Won't biblical authority disappear altogether? This is not a danger that we should lightly dismiss. If every time it asks us to do something inconvenient we say, "Well, that was just their culture and so it doesn't apply to us," then the Bible's authority in our lives will truly have evaporated. On the other hand, can we really live as if we were still citizens of ancient Israel or the Roman Empire? Even the Amish cannot quite manage that. You run into serious problems which ever way you turn. Unless we have some clear principles by which to navigate these troubled waters, we will certainly come to make shipwreck of both the Church and our own spiritual lives. So let me begin by trying to provide a couple of those principles.

The first point to be made about this difficult problem is that an acceptance of and submission to Biblical authority is a logical and a spiritual prerequisite to our receiving any light at all on it. Robertson McQuilken makes a very profound point which is often ignored or neglected: Unless I am willing to wear a head covering (or have my wife do so), unless we are willing to have our women completely give up jewelry and makeup if that is really what the Bible requires of us, we are not ready even to begin asking the questions. Unless we are willing to obey the Bible even when it goes against our own culture and our own assumptions and our own preferences, we are not spiritually eligible even to be discussing this issue (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 23:2 (June, 1980): 120). And he is absolutely right. If your motive is to get out of doing anything the Bible says to us, rather than to discern and follow what it really does say to us intelligently rather than blindly, well, let not such a person imagine that he will receive anything from the Lord.

The second principle is this: The Bible itself must determine by its context how we are to apply its message today. It does this in four ways. First, we must be sure that our application does not put us into conflict with any other biblical passages whose clear meaning we have already discerned. Second, we should examine the nature of the reasons given for a practice: are they themselves cultural and local or are they theological and universal? Third, we must take into account the historical context: what was the situation faced by the original audience, and what was the author trying to accomplish in their lives? Fourth, in the light of all this information, we must carefully study the details of the text itself. I believe that if these steps are honestly and carefully followed in submission to the Holy Spirit, we will be able to find clear answers in most cases.

For example, let us take the Corinthian head coverings in 1 Cor. 11:10. It is clear that these veils were functioning as a symbol of the way these women related to the authorities God had placed in their lives. Now, a symbol is pointless if its meaning is not perceived. Veils do not convey any such idea in our culture today at all. To insist on wearing them would be like insisting on speaking Koine Greek whenever we preach the Gospel! The particular symbol then was cultural and local. But the principle of relating properly to authority and finding a practical way to express it that will be meaningful to the people around us is universal and eternal. Intelligent obedience to this passage today would not necessarily require women to wear veils or head coverings, but it would require them to think about how they can communicate that they have a proper relationship to God and their husbands to modern people.

I will do my best to apply these principles fairly and even-handedly to our study of 1 Tim. 2:9-15. As a result, neither Chauvinists nor Feminists can expect to be pleased by what I will say. The Bible was not written to please either of them, but to teach us how to live to the glory of God! Paul has two concerns for women in this passage that we need to understand and apply correctly: dress, and silence.

II. DRESS (v. 9-10)

Paul says, "Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braid or gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness." These words have been taken in basically two ways: first, that Paul is forbidding Christian women to braid their hair or wear jewelry at all; and second, that he is saying they should not put their emphasis on such things, but rather on adorning themselves with good works. Let's look at the passage carefully to see if we can determine which he meant.

There are some problems with the first interpretation, that Paul is forbidding jewelry or adornment at all. One is, how do you define jewelry? Ellen G. White rather arbitrarily told her followers that rings were out, but brooches were OK. Who's to say? Besides, if you want to be literal, the passage doesn't say jewelry; it says gold and pearls. Does that mean copper is OK? How about silver? My point is that if this passage were intended is a rigid rule rather than a general principle, it would have to have been worded completely differently. It is simply unworkable if interpreted as a blanket condemnation. And this approach is confirmed by the parallel passage in 1 Peter 3:3-4. "Let not your adornments be external--braiding the hair, wearing gold or jewelry, or putting on dresses." If we were to take Peter's words literalistically as a rigid blanket condemnation, they would impose mandatory nudity, since women would be forbidden to put on dresses! Peter's emphasis is therefore not on a literalistic understanding of the negative in v. 3 but rather on the positive in v. 4: "But let it [your adornment] be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God." Let this, rather than outward things, be the place where you find your beauty.

What Peter and Paul are talking about therefore is a matter of emphasis. Do not find your identity in outward things; do not place your self worth there. Today it might be designer jeans or something else, depending on the circles you move in. Instead, find your identity in Christlike character. Now, if we do not find our identity or self worth in external things, it follows that we will not spend extreme amounts of money or disproportionate amounts of time on them either. Braids were a contemporary Jewish fad in the First Century. As a fashion statement they were very elaborate and took hours to construct. Focus on your outward appearance should not be that big a thing in your life. But that doesn't mean we are required to neglect it or put no effort into it at all.

It is also important that we do not allow the letter of conservative dress to overturn the spirit of it. In the traditions that emphasize a literalistic application of these verses, it is possible to become proud of one's plainness. I have seen men violate the spirit of this commandment too in a kind of ostentatious conservatism in dress. I go to theological meetings where Christians of many traditions gather. There is a certain very conservative Baptist school whose name I won't mention whose professors all wear starched white shirts, thin, plain ties, and dark, solid suits with thin lapels that look like they were bought new forty years ago and just taken out of the bag. It is almost like a uniform. But the point is that people should not be able to identify us by our clothes but by our character. Anything that calls undue attention to our manner of dressing, whether it be gaudy and ostentatious displays of wealth or a conspicuous plainness--anything that focuses people's attention there rather than on our character is in violation of the spirit of this commandment.

II. SILENCE (v. 11-14)

Paul's second set of instructions--that women should keep silent and not teach or exercise authority over men--has been recently a more serious stumbling block to more people than the first. Let me try to get into its meaning through attempting to answer a series of questions which the text has inevitably raised for modern readers.

A. Did Paul consider women inferior to men?

No. Even here, he does not say that women are constitutionally more gullible than men, only that historically it was Eve who was deceived rather than Adam. And he makes it very plain elsewhere that he did not think of women as inferior in any way. He said in Galatians 3:28 that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, but you are all one in Christ Jesus." This means that men and women are equal in spiritual status, equal in their access to God. Now, this cannot be legitimately used to overturn distinctions in role if they are taught elsewhere. But it does mean that those distinctions, if we find them, are not based on or grounded in a view of male superiority.

B. Did Paul forbid women to speak in Church under any circumstances?

No. First Corinthians 11:5 proves that women could both pray and prophesy in public worship as long as they wore the head covering we have already discussed. Modern equivalents might be leading in congregational prayer and giving a "testimony." If they were not allowed to do these things, there would have been no point whatsoever in discussing what they ought to wear while doing so. It is clear that they both could and did.

C. Did Paul forbid women to hold church office?

No. Women could and did serve as Deacons. In Rom. 16:1, Phoebe is referred to as a diakonos. Greek, unlike English, has grammatical gender, so that nouns all have different endings depending on whether they are masculine, feminine, or neuter, and the adjectives and pronouns that go with them have to have those endings too. The curious thing here is that diakonos is masculine. If it were just a description of Phoebe as an informal "servant" of the Church (diakonos means "servant"), it would have to have been diakone, the feminine ending. The only reason for Phoebe to be called a diakonos is that the word had become the name of the church office. She was a deacon. Not, mind you, a deaconess (again, that would be diakone); a deacon. This interpretation is confirmed by 1 Tim. 3:11, where women are mentioned in the qualifications for deacons. Though some have tried to rationalize that this is a reference to the deacons' wives, that makes no sense. Why should the deacons' wives be singled out for treatment but not the elders' wives? In the light of Rom. 16:1, we can be sure these were women who were deacons.

D. Did Paul forbid women to teach at all?

No. Titus 2:3-5 makes it plain that they could teach women. And Acts 18:24-26 indicates that at least in certain contexts they could even teach men.

Well, then, what remains? What was Paul trying to say here? I have been doing a pretty good job of offending Chauvinists (and, yes, there are plenty of churches that are more strict on women than Scripture is on each of these points). Will I keep my promise and offend the Feminists too? Yes.

E. What then are women forbidden?

They are forbidden that kind or mode of teaching which carries with it the authority of the office of elder, that is, preaching as the pastor or minister of the Church. Why do I say this? For a number of reasons. First, this passage has to mean something, and something that does not involve Paul in a contradiction with his teaching elsewhere. Here teaching is coupled with exercising authority in a way that could be synonymous or explanatory. And what is this teaching authority that is reserved for men? It is not teaching in general, for that would make this passage contradict Paul's teaching in Titus and Luke's observations in Acts. So what is it? We move directly from this discussion into Paul's instructions on the qualifications for the church offices, elder and deacon. There are basically two differences between them: elders have to be "apt to teach" while deacons do not, and deacons can be women. There is no indication in the passage that this particular rule is related to a merely local and historical phenomenon; in fact, the reason given for it is an appeal not to culture but to the order of Creation. The simplest conclusion, and the only one that covers all the facts without involving Paul in a contradiction, is that women were not permitted to hold the office of elder or pastor. The "silence," the "teaching," and the "authority" in verses 11-12 are to be understood in that context.

Why was the office of elder reserved for men? We are not told explicitly. Possibly it was felt to be appropriate that leadership in the Church parallel the headship of the husband in the home. As the husband is given by God the responsibility of being the spiritual leader in the home, so the task of elder, pastor, official teacher, preacher, undershepherd in the Church is given by God to called men. Why? One thing we can be sure of it is that it was not because women were inferior. It is a mystery: we are speaking of Christ and the Church.


I hardly expect to win universal agreement with the position I have taken here. Emotions run too high, and too many people feel that their identity and self worth are tied up with the way these issues are worked out. People feel that either God's love and fairness to women or the very authority of Scripture itself are being threatened. Perhaps they are, in some of the extreme positions on either side. But I would plead with you to try to let Scripture set our agenda. We all think we are doing so already, but in reality I see a lot of people being driven either by the assumptions of a secular culture or by a blind reaction against them more than they are by Scripture itself. And that fact worries me a lot more than whether or not we are going to have women preachers. If both sides on this issue can be driven back to a certain humility before the Text, then maybe there is some hope for a healthy Church. If not, we are in for a long struggle with no positive outcome. May God have mercy on us all.

Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 02/15/2004