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Understanding Paul's Controversial Statements in 1 Timothy 2

Updated: Apr 26

We need to think about how our choices impact our church's witness.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Timothy 2:1-15

Many words have been said about the roles of women in churches, but the more important statements in this passage are those about prayer and salvation. Make sure when you try to explain what Paul said about women that you put plenty of focus on what he said about prayer and salvation!

For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 2:5

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]


So, this is exciting. We're going to talk about most of Paul's most controversial statements in one go. What could possibly go wrong?


I believe that the points Paul was making in his cultural context are clear, and if you think your class will be satisfied with his intention without getting hung up on the language, then you can actually have fun with this lesson. If you think your class will get stuck on the sticky debates, then you might want to get right to the verses! Here are the statements:

  • Pray for your government—even if they’re evil and out to get you (!)

  • God wants all people to be saved (so did God’s plan fail?)

  • A woman cannot have authority over a man (so are we hypocrites?)

  • Women are saved through childbearing (huh???)

Doesn’t that sound like fun? Again, I think there are reasonable explanations for all of Paul’s statements, some of which are theological and some of which are linguistic, and I’ll do what I can to help you out. Present your lesson reasonably, and I believe that your class will hear it. Maybe you won’t have any debates at all!


Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Differences Between Men and Women.

If your class can have fun with this, then you might be able to keep them from taking Paul’s words too “personally”. For whatever reason, people in the world today try to say that women and men aren’t different at all. We are exactly the same and can do exactly the same things. (If you want your brain to melt, go search the difference between egalitarianism and complementarianism.) That’s not true. God made men and women to be different, physically and emotionally. We all know that, even if some people want to deny it. But He didn’t do so to make men better, just different. Have your class share stories about how men and women are different, and how that makes life better for everybody.


Praying for Your Leaders.

Inside, I mention a situation in which President Trump visited a church unannounced and asked for prayer. Pick a leader that you like very much and a leader that you don’t like at all and imagine a scenario in which both persons visited our church this Sunday morning. How would you like our church to handle that? Then—how do you think God would want us to handle that?


The Power of Clothing.

Ask your class about the power of clothes. I googled that phrase and got back “The Science-Backed Power of Clothes”, “The Way We Dress: The Transformative Power of Clothes”, “How to Appear More Powerful through Clothing”, “This Is When I Learned the Healing Power of Clothes”, and a few billion more. Ask your class for positive and negative examples of the effect that clothing had on the people around the wearer. Hopefully we can all agree that clothes can have a big impact on others (have you ever heard “dress for the job you want, not the job you have”?). Then ask your class that same question except in a church setting. What is the negative power of clothing at church, and what can we do about that to make it all positive?


Being a Church Leader.

Here's a generic toss-up question that everybody should have some sort of opinion on. What qualities does God want from church leaders?

I’m really not exactly sure how best to help you out in preparing for this lesson, so I think I’ll just go through the whole passage and address the “controversies” as we come to them.


The Situation in the Church.

Remember that Ephesus was a very important and cosmopolitan city, with many wealthy and influential people as residents. It was the center of the pagan cult that worshiped the goddess Diana/Artemis. When any of those people became Christians, they brought all of that cultural and religious baggage into the church with them:

  • Men were in charge of everything, and the men with the biggest stick (or the most money) were used to getting their way.

  • Their wives were very affluent and often very bored (because they had little status), so they got their way through manipulation—gossip, slander, opulence.

  • Different classes of people were highly segregated (the rich were far above the poor), and clothing often revealed one’s place in society.

That’s the background of the people Paul is writing to, and I’m going to use that in a lot of my explanation. While I might personally prefer Paul to have used different wording in some of these verses, remember that I'm not a native Greek speaker from ancient Ephesus. I believe that this background will help us understand his main points. I’ll make sure to give all of the interpretations offered by scholars, and how they might apply today.


Just as a general observation, that cultural context isn’t too dissimilar to parts of American culture today. We’re still a male-dominated society, and the wealthiest/most powerful still exert a great deal of influence in society (and in churches). We have much we can learn here if we listen humbly.


Aside: Donald Trump at David Platt's Church

This is fascinating; some of you may have heard about this. Last Sunday morning [editor's note: this would have been June 2, 2019], President Trump made an unannounced stop at David Platt’s megachurch in Virginia (McClean Bible Church) and asked for prayer. Platt essentially prayed 1 Timothy 2 over the president (and gave a very strong gospel presentation) and sent him on his way.


The fallout has been quite tumultuous. A number of church members complained that Platt shouldn’t have done that—that praying for Trump showed a political leaning. And church members who dislike Trump as a person were even hurt.


Platt’s response to them was spot-on. The Bible doesn’t give us the option of whether or not we pray for our leaders. Reading between the lines, I get the impression that Platt would have preferred that Trump had not shown up at his church unannounced (Platt had earlier refused an invitation to pray at a White House prayer breakfast precisely so he could avoid political baggage), but without having the luxury of deliberation, Platt made the decision that he thought would bring the most glory to God: bring Trump out on stage, put his hand on him, and pray for him. Platt prayed that Trump would look to God for wisdom in making decisions that lead to peace, righteousness, and equality.


When I read this circumstance as well as Platt’s response, I don’t see any way how a Christian could argue with it and have a biblical leg to stand on. Here’s the only question we need to answer: would Platt have done the same had Nancy Pelosi showed up asking for the same thing? (She wouldn’t.) I believe he would. And so I think this makes for a strong example of the sort of thing Paul specifically commanded in 1 Timothy 2.

Part 1: Through Prayer (1 Timothy 2:1-7)

First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, a testimony at the proper time. For this I was appointed a herald, an apostle (I am telling the truth; I am not lying), and a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Paul has just said that he would give Timothy instructions on how best to handle the problems being faced by the church in Ephesus. Everything Paul talks about in this letter has to do with the church’s gatherings, and quite a bit of that is focused on what we would today call the church’s worship service. His “first” topic (and transition) is prayer. This makes a lot of sense. Who has Paul been warning Timothy about? False teachers who mythologize the law, minimize Christ, live from a damaged conscience, and teach things that stir up the people. What is the one practice that is (1) the polar opposite of those things and (2) the only remedy to those things? Prayer.


Think about it. When you are earnestly praying in the Spirit for the will of God, what happens? Well, you are changed. It is very hard for me to remain angry at anyone after I have truly prayed for them (and my interactions with them). When I have spoken with God, Jesus Christ and the sacrifice He made for me are the first thing on my mind, and living for Him becomes my top priority. So, if you have a church that’s messed up—filled with false teachings and people who don’t live out the gospel—the first thing to work on is the church’s prayer life. And Paul’s not talking about the “Wednesday night prayer meeting”; he’s talking about the “primary worship service”. You want to be modeling prayer for the entire church, not the faithful few. What could possibly be controversial about Paul’s prayer suggestions?


Controversy #1: Pray for Your Government

Paul tells us to pray for our government, even if it’s evil and out to get us. Of all of the controversies Paul stirs up in this passage, this is the one I expect to be the most problematic (in practice). I know plenty of Christians who refused to pray for Barack Obama, just as I know Christians today who refuse to pray for Donald Trump. (Or pick any other leader.) But Paul doesn’t give us any exceptions. Think about the government in Paul’s day. Rome was the most brutal government the world had ever known (see below); Nero was the emperor. Rome had allowed the crucifixion of Jesus. The leaders of Ephesus had just a few years earlier allowed the stoning of Paul! Paul was talking about praying for leaders who were openly antagonistic toward him (and would eventually kill him).


Why It’s Controversial. Come on, we’re Americans. I remember one otherwise sweet old Baptist lady who would not stand up when Bill Clinton entered the room (I was with her twice under those circumstances; she seriously wouldn’t stand up for him).


What Paul Means. Of all of the things we will talk about this week, this should be the most straightforward. There were powerful men in this church who were stirring up the people with their controversial teachings. Who are powerful men jealous of? More powerful men. Perhaps their teaching was coming across like campaigning or stump speeches (we’ve seen that happen in plenty of churches in America). What did Paul want these jealous and ambitious men to be doing? Praying for those leaders—praying that those leaders would craft a peaceful society (the very opposite of that Roman culture was! and the very opposite of what those men were probably working toward, a chaotic culture in which they could claw their way to the top). Paul didn’t want peace for the sake of peace (in other words, Paul wasn’t asking for a world in which he could grow old gracefully, unbothered by the dangers of life). Paul wanted peace for the sake of the gospel. Because the gospel is about peace between God and man, the best long-term environment for training up generations to follow Jesus is one of peace. The church spreads rapidly in times of persecution and war when Christ-followers can really shine their light in a dark place, but that comes at great cost to many people, and God doesn’t want that needless suffering.


Why It Might Not Be Controversial. It isn’t controversial. No Christian has any leg to stand on an argument that we shouldn’t pray for our leaders, even when we disagree with them. We just need to make sure we are praying for the right thing (and for the right reason).


Controversy #2: Universalism?

God wants all people to be saved. Sometimes, Paul makes his point by bringing things back to “the main thing”, which is that all people need to be saved by faith in Jesus. Why do we pray for our leaders? Because we want them to be saved. And we want to live in a world where people can learn about Jesus. If Christians stayed focused on this truth about Jesus, we wouldn’t get distracted by meaningless squabbles about the law or power or fashion. We would just be living for Jesus.


Why It’s Controversial. Actually, for two reasons. (1) If God wants everyone to be saved (so the argument goes), then either everyone is saved (universalism) or God is not omnipotent. (2) If Jesus gave Himself as a ransom for all people, then Calvinism (which teaches that Jesus died only for the elect) is wrong. This is one of the most important theological debates in the New Testament, and entire books have been written about them.


What Paul Means. Paul means exactly what he says here. God wants everyone to be saved, and that means praying for non-Christians, and praying for a world in which the gospel can spread easily. Jesus died for all people—His death is sufficient for every sin ever committed.


Why It Might Not Be Controversial. I personally don’t have a problem with Paul’s words. I don’t have a problem reconciling the idea that “God wants all people to be saved” with “but not all people are saved”. God created people in His image with a free will, and one of the consequences of that choice was that God gave people the ability to reject Him and His good plan. This causes God pain and sorrow, and I think it makes God greater and more worthy of worship, not less. Also, I believe that the Bible clearly teaches that Christ died for all people, not just the elect. Calvinism is simply wrong here. The Calvinist rebuttal is that if Christ died for all people, then all people should be saved (universalism) or else Christ’s sacrifice was a failure. I believe that the same argument about God’s will applies here. God gave people the ability to reject Him; that means He also gave people the ability to accept Him (we just need to respond to the prodding of the Holy Spirit). So, that means that Christ’s death was sufficient for the salvation of all people, but it is only efficient for those people who come to Him for salvation. Humans must bear a bit of responsibility in our salvation; Christ did everything for us—alone made salvation possible—but we still have to say yes. Honestly, even though the verses about women in church get the most “press”, I think that these verses have the biggest impact on the most important theological questions we should be asking about salvation.

Part 2: Led by Godly Men (1 Timothy 2:8)

Therefore, I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument.

Paul will have much more to say about these men in subsequent lessons (we will spend the next three Sundays talking about them), but this is all we get this week. Paul’s solution for ambitious men who are teaching things wrongly in the churches is for those men (and every man) to focus on right prayer in worship. Obviously, the primary content of that prayer must be what he just talked about:

  • praying for leaders to make wise decisions,

  • praying for all people to be saved, and

  • praying for their society to be at peace.

Doesn’t that sound like things we could all pray for more often? In your public prayers in class, challenge your pray-ers to include those topics in their prayer for the next few Sunday mornings. Paul gives some good general principles for us to remember: pray without anger or argument. Our prayers to God are no place for those. (Note: we can be angry with God in our prayers, or express our anger with other people to God for the purpose of helping to deal with them, but a public prayer in church is not the place for us to air our grievances with others.)

Part 3: Supported by Godly Women (1 Timothy 2:9-15)

Also, the women are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive apparel, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess to worship God. A woman is to learn quietly with full submission. I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed. But she will be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with good sense.

So, yeah. Let’s just get to it.


Controversy #3: Silent Women

Paul doesn’t allow a woman to teach (and a bunch of other stuff). Some of what Paul says is fairly easy to understand. The wealthy women in the church were wearing gaudy clothing to draw attention to themselves (perhaps sexually) and show off. There’s no place for that in the church. There’s a line between “dressing our best” and “dressing for attention”.


Linguistics can also help us. The Greek word for “quiet” is sometimes used for “silent”, but it’s just as often used for “peaceful”. I think that’s clearly Paul’s intent for the word—he’s been talking about angry and argumentative leaders and the need to pray for peace, so it would make sense that he applies that sense of the word to the boisterous women in the congregation. They need to “put a lid on it” and be peaceful in church. And remind your class that we’re talking about “in church” here; that’s Paul’s focus.


Why It’s Controversial. Just look below; 27% of mainline churches have a female lead pastor. That seems to be contrary to what Paul is saying, and they feed that into their “Paul is a chauvinist and we don’t need to listen to Paul, just to Jesus” echo chamber. They then use this to say about churches (like those in the Southern Baptist Convention) who reserve the position of senior pastor for males that we’re chauvinist and backwards and repressive. So, yeah, they make it controversial.


What Paul Means. Here’s the rub. There are several different schools of thought here, and not a lot of consensus. Here are four common approaches to these verses:

  1. Paul is just talking to the church in Ephesus where a specific group of women were causing an inordinate amount of trouble. In other words, this is not a universal command. That would make things easy, but the language he uses is very much universal. It seems like he is speaking of women “in general” (hence Adam and Eve reference).

  2. Paul is using hyperbole to make his point. He doesn’t mean “all women all the time”, but the situation in Ephesus was so bad that Paul resorted to over-the-top language. This argument has merit, but there’s no way to prove or disprove it.

  3. Paul is talking about a very specific position: that of the senior-most pastor. If a woman is not to have “authority” over a man, then a woman cannot be in a position of primary authority. I hold a version of this view.

  4. Paul is to be understood literally. Women must be silent in churches. They cannot teach mixed Sunday School classes or have any leadership position. There are plenty of churches who take this view (obviously, our church does not; Lindsay is my class teacher).

Lifeway plays its cards in the way it words its headings—worship should be “Led by Godly Men” who are “Supported by Godly Women”. They model this after God’s image of a marriage: the husband is the leader (the one responsible), and the wife is his helper and companion. Baggage has come in from those who have interpreted this to mean “The husband is in charge and the wife does what he says”. That is not what the Bible says. And nowhere does the Bible say that all women are to submit to all men. The Bible says that a wife is to respect her own husband. And in our passage this week, it would mean that a female church member is to respect the leadership of her pastor. I imagine that some of these women were giving Timothy fits and being very disrespectful. That’s bad. They are to respect Timothy’s leadership as the pastor. But this does not give Timothy the license to be a bad pastor (and simply expect everyone to follow him)! In a couple of chapters, Paul will set a very high bar for the pastor.


But I still have to deal with verse 12: “I do not allow a woman to teach or have authority over a man; instead, she is to remain quiet.” As I said before, I believe that “quiet” here has to do with her peacefulness, not her volume. But what about that first part? I actually think that those two things go together. What is Paul apparently complaining about? Women who do not respect their leaders and cause problems in the church service. Paul is certainly not saying that a woman cannot teach a man, period. Think about the great things Paul just said about Timothy’s mother and grandmother. And think about how Paul left the husband and wife team of Aquila and Priscilla to be in charge of the church in Ephesus, and he celebrated their role in teaching Apollos the truths of Christianity (see Acts 18). So what is Paul saying? I think that the key has to do with the word “authority”. Do you remember the conversation Jesus had with the centurion (Matthew 8) in which we learned that any authority the centurion had was given to him by a higher authority? The centurion didn’t have the authority. Caesar had the authority, and the centurion could only act under the authority of Caesar.


This can actually relate back to the model of a marriage. When we talked about marriage (a long time back), I explained that the Bible says that the usual role is for the wife to be the “homemaker” and raise the children while the husband works; that was the norm in that culture. But it wasn’t commanded to be that way. They can choose to reverse those duties (maybe the wife has better job skills), under the authority of the husband. Likewise, in a church, if a woman is deemed qualified to be a teacher (or read Scripture or sing a song—don’t tell me that those activities don’t also teach!), the church has the authority to give her that responsibility. She does not have the authority in herself. Does that make sense? Lindsay may be my class teacher, but if there were ever some kind of problem, I believe that she would defer to me as the education director, just as I would defer to David as the lead pastor. The authority is invested in David as the pastor by the church (congregation). David then, with the church’s involvement, invests responsibilities in his staff and other church members to the various tasks of the church, including teaching Sunday School classes. (And besides, remember that Paul’s primary focus here is the church worship service, not a small group Bible study.) This is why Southern Baptist Churches reserve the position of senior-most pastor for a male. We believe that that is Paul’s primary intent. Other questions—can a female be an ordained pastor? can a female preach?—are (I believe) outside the scope of this passage. I believe Paul is simply talking about the need for these women to respect the authority of the pastor and not take over a church gathering with their own (untrained) ideas. Remember that in Judaism, women were not allowed to learn the law at all. And in the Roman Empire, women were not given access to education! Would you want someone with no training or education to be offering doctrinal instruction in your church service? I can’t separate Paul’s instructions from that cultural setting.


Why It Might Not Be Controversial. Let’s go back through these verses with my “amplified” version:

  • Verse 9: “Women should dress modestly in church—not in a way that shows off their wealth or is sexually suggestive.”

  • Verse 10: “They should worry about their good works and decency, as is fitting for all Christians.”

  • Verse 11: “A woman is to be peaceable in church and respect the pastor.”

  • Verse 12: “She is not the source of instruction or authority but instead must respect the organization of the church.”

That sounds a little better, doesn’t it? That’s how I understand these verses. And yes, I believe that means a male should be the “final” human authority in a church, just as I believe that the husband has “final” human authority in a marriage. But everyone who has used this as a male-power-trip or to justify sexism is just wrong. Leadership is in serving. Christ “used” His authority by going to the cross. Yes, the serpent went after Eve as the “weak link” for temptation, but Paul makes it clear in Romans 5 that Adam’s responsibility is what led the human race into sin and despair. Not Eve. These verses aren’t about power. They’re about responsibility and order.


Controversy #4: Saved by Childbirth?

Women will be saved by childbirth. Scholars can agree on two things here: (1) Paul included this to soften what we just said in the previous verses; (2) Paul was countering a false notion in Ephesus that women shouldn’t bother having children. That’s about it. On its face, it looks like Paul is either saying that Christian women will be physically kept safe by God in childbirth, or that they will find salvation in having children. (A third option is that Paul refers to “the childbirth” prophesied in Genesis 3:15, but he’s usually more direct in his references.)


Why It’s Controversial. Obviously, those two ideas are simply wrong. Christian women died in childbirth, and salvation is found in Christ alone. (Paul knows that.)


What Paul Means. I explain this with respect to 5:14, where Paul tells younger women to get married and have a family. In Ephesus, the women who were unmarried social butterflies were the ones who got themselves into trouble. Paul was talking about keeping their witness, testimony, and person physically and emotionally “safe” from the angry, gossipy, manipulative people he didn’t want ruining the church. There weren’t any other options for women in that day. If they didn’t settle down with children, they would be “idle” and “busybodies”. Today, women have options—careers, education, positive social circles—that don’t have to include children. But Paul’s “if” applies to them too: “if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with good sense”. God won’t protect you from the consequences of a life lived outside of those bounds.


Let me know if you have any questions about how to explain this. I pray your class doesn't stir up needless trouble!

Aside: “Shamefacedness”

The KJV translates the word “decency” in verse 9 as “shamefacedness”, and this has led to much sorrow and confusion. The KJV is simply wrong; it’s a mistranslation. Churches have used this verse to say that women should go around church with their faces down and even looking ashamed of themselves (I guess simply for being a woman?). The actual Greek word doesn’t mean anything close to that. It simply means “reserved”, or as we would say today, “decent”. Just take a look at the context: Paul wants this church to bring glory to God in everything they do. The women were not doing so in their attire. Paul just wants them to be “reserved”.

Closing Thoughts: Women in Ministry

This was a harder number to find than I expected. Very few surveys look into the gender of church leadership, and the few numbers I could find were on sites that used those numbers for a political agenda (so I‘m not sure how accurate they are). In 2018, 20.7% of “clergy” were women. Not exactly sure what that means. I read that 27% of mainline churches are pastored by women, which must mean “senior pastor”(?). Certainly, we can see the effects of progressivism in here, women who want to prove that they can do the work of a man as good or better (because they’ve been told their whole lives that they can’t). But I don’t think that’s the whole story. In the Roman Catholic Church, 80% of all lay ministers are women. Women can’t be priests—that won’t change. But there is such a lack of men willing and able to serve that women step in to fill a void. I believe that because in the mainline churches that are supposedly “pro women leadership”, only 25% of their seminary faculty and 11% of seminary presidents are women, and only 4 women have served in top denominational roles. In other words, they’re not really “progressive”; they just don’t have enough committed men. If the men won’t get the job done, the women will. That’s an indictment of the men, not the women. The question is where we go from here, and that’s where the debates get heated.

Bonus Thought: Praying for a Brutal Government

It is hard for me to say anything with perspective on a number of these topics. I’m a well-educated, middle-class, white male living in the most “free” country in world history. But when Paul says to pray for your government, I believe he includes these:

  • Mao Zedong and the People’s Republic of China. Under Mao, the government literally stole every bit of private land in China and instituted farming practices that caused famines which led to the deaths of 36 million people. He killed more than 10 million more simply for criticizing him.

  • Stalin and the Soviet Union. He was Chairman Mao before Mao, doing the same things and killing 13 million of his own citizens.

  • Khmer Rouge in Cambodia resulted in the deaths of more than 2 million—of a total population of just 16 million.

  • North Korea. We don’t know how many people have been killed by the current regime (which goes back to the grandfather, Kim Il Sung).

According to current indexes of freedoms and humans rights, joining North Korea on the list of the most repressive countries in the world today are

  • Syria

  • Equatorial Guinea

  • Turkmenistan

  • Saudi Arabia

  • Eritrea

I find that list interesting. Syria, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia are Sunni Islam. Equatorial Guinea is Roman Catholic. Turkmenistan is half Russian Orthodox. Eritrea is half Christian. Research them if you want to know more.


The United States ranks 18 on a composite index, behind nations like Norway and Sweden and Canada. It’s very interesting to study their rationale. Just don’t try to talk about it in Sunday School! Way off topic.