What Does Not Having “Authority” Mean for Women in 1 Timothy 2:12?

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1 Timothy 2:11-12 is one of the pivotal scriptures in shaping our view of what women can and cannot do in the assembly. Interestingly enough, it isn’t really an assembly passage, although the instruction there certainly would govern what happens in the Christian assembly (church).

Before we start I want to tell you my intent. I am not going to tell you what to believe. That is between you and God. I am not going to attempt to force anything on anyone. I am going to tell you what is in the text and let you wrestle with it yourself.

Here is the text in question from several translations:

1984 NIV – “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

2011 NIV – “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

NASB – “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.”

KJV – “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

There is one word in the Greek text that is translated by 2-3 words in these English translations. The Greek word is “authentein” (which is an infinitive of authenteo) and the English translation of that word is in bold above.

Words Paul uses for authority

There are several words that get translated as “authority” in English translations. The NIV has 21 Greek words translated as “authority.” The word used most often is “exousia” (used nearly 100 times in the Greek New Testament). This word means to be in charge, have power or control.

Obviously the word in 1 Timothy 2:12 is not the word used most often. In fact the word in 1 Timothy 2:12 is only used once in the Greek New Testament. Once! Why did Paul change words? Would this make any difference in our view on women in the assembly?

What does this word mean?

Bauer gives it this definition, “to assume a stance of independent authority, give orders to, dictate”

Because we don’t get any other uses of this word in the New Testament, scholars have to look outside the Bible for help.

Here is info from a chart in “Women in the Church” by Kostenberger (who is a complimentarian and who believes that cultural influences are weighing on Christianity – which is certainly true and always has been so), p.78-79

Extra-biblical usages of authenteo over time
1 – “To rule, to reign sovereignly”
Used this way four times from 1 century BC to 6th century AD

2 – “To control, to dominate”
Used this way from four times from the second century AD to the 12th

2a – “To compel, to influence”
Used this way three times from 27 BC to 690 AD

2b – “In the middle voice – to be in effect, to have legal standing”
Used this way twice – in 235 AD and the 7th century AD

2c – “To domineer”
Used this way once by Chrsostom in 390AD

2d – “To grant authorization”
Used this way three times from 350-638 AD

3 – “To act independently”
Used this way three times from 390-6th century AD

3a – “To assume authority over”
Used this way three times from 390-9th century AD

3b – “To exercise one’s own jurisdiction”
Used this way four times from 2nd century AD to the 14th century AD

3c – “To flout the authority of”
Used this way twice – once in 690 and again in the 10th century AD

4 – “To be primarily responsible for, to instigate”
Used this way three times from 325 to 10th century AD

5 – “To commit murder”
Used this way once all the way over in the 10th century

The noun form of this word can mean murder but as you see above, the verb form under consideration, is rarely ever used that way and when it is, it is 900 years after Paul.

Remember, letters are situational/occassional. That means they are written to group of people with specific issues going on. I want to point out that for most of these definitions, we would all agree that in almost every instance, men shouldn’t do what this word means either. Read all of 1 Timothy to get an idea of what is going on with the women there. This is a necessary step for us to make application today. We cannot understand what a passage means for us now if we don’t also consider what it meant for its first audience.

What does Kostenberger conclude? That the only viable options based on the context are: 2, 2a, 3a, and 3c. Of those only 3a and possibly 2a do not contain a negative connotation in regard to the kind of actions the women are exhibiting.

Rejecting the “it’s just cultural” rationale

Whatever this word means I do not believe we dismiss it as some kind of cultural artifact. Everything is embedded with culture on some level. I believe that even things embedded with cultural meaning and value still have eternal truths we must learn and apply today.

From what you can see above, the word itself typically does have a negative meaning associated with it unlike typical words in Greek for authority. This is noted by Keener citing Scholer in “Paul, Women & Wives,” 108-109. Here is what Keener (an egalitarian) concludes on this matter,

“The evidence is not entirely clear, as Scholer observes, but Scholer is right that this is not Paul’s usual term for exercising authority. The context, which helps us reconstruct the situation, suggests that Paul may here be warning against a domineering use of authority, rather than merely any use of authority.” (p.109)

Here is the point I want to bring up and make you aware of. When people discuss this passage and apply it that rarely ever know that this is a word only used once that typically has a harsh edge to it – not the typical word use for authority.

Here are some questions to wrestle with. I am not going to attempt to tell you what to think. I want you to be informed.

Why did Paul use a different word here?

Did it have something to do with what women in Ephesus were doing?

If this is domineering, does that, as some scholars point out, also tie into the prohibition on teaching since women did teach in the early church, pray, etc – that possibly Paul is saying the teaching has a quality that is unacceptable in Ephesus and then gives a prohibition on it, not because they are women but because the women are the ones doing it (teach/have authority) in a way that is harmful to others?

I am not going to answer those questions for you but I do want you to ponder them.

We must go with Paul says. We must determine the meaning of what he said before we can apply it.Let’s actually look at what he wrote and form our conclusions. There are many things women are not allowed to do because the conversation is had like this word for authority is the same as the word he always uses.

Does anything change in your understanding of what women can or cannot do based on this word? Whatever this word means, women cannot/should not be doing it (and quite possibly men as well). Would violating this word keep women from praying, reading scripture, passing collection, doing announcements (We already dealt with the silence passages)?

Let us humbly and prayerfully consider these things.

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