1 Timothy 2: on prayer, unity and the role of women in church

1 Timothy 2:1-15

Timothy has been urged to hold on to faith and to keep a good conscience.

Now Paul turns his attention to the God who desires all people to be saved.

Salvation is the big idea which controls this passage. Paul begins by speaking about the God who desires for all people to be saved (2:4), he speaks of the one mediator between God and men (2:5), and he finishes the chapter speaking about how specifically women will saved (2:15) - which is really rather odd.

And it is important to remember that for Paul salvation is both a moment, when a person is saved and passes from death to life, but it is also a process. So, for instance, in 1 Timothy he writes, "Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers." (1 Timothy 4:16)

And it is important that we hold this big idea in mind as we look at a passage about which there are fundamental disagreements.

There are three sub-themes in this chapter

The peaceful life
The role of women in the church


Paul urges us to pray for all people and especially for leaders so that we might lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.

There are two possible ways to read these verses.

The first is that we are to pray for all people and leaders, so that we can lead peaceful and quiet lives, with the assumption from the following verses that, as a result, the work of the gospel can advance. That is how I have always read these verses.

However, I think on reflection, there is a different way to read them: We are to pray for all people and for leaders, that they might be saved, so that - as a result - we will lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.

In other words, the peaceful and quiet life is not a condition for the advancement of the good news about Jesus. It is the result. It is the fruit of salvation. God's desire is that all people will be saved so that we can live peaceful and godly lives.

And that ties in with experience. Often the gospel is most readily accepted when people are not living peaceful and quiet lives. It often is most easily received when there is mild persecution of the church. And often it is when people and particularly rulers turn to Christ that societies begin to be transformed.

And Paul continues this theme of prayer by turning his attention specifically to the men in the congregation in Ephesus.

He wants them to pray. It is interesting that he urges the believing men to pray.

Often it seems to be women who pray easier than men. In prayer meetings there will usually be more women than men. That may say something about our prayer meetings, but it may also say something about men. Men prefer to do something, to be in control, or at least pretend that we are in control. We don't like to ask.

My son gave me a mug for Christmas. I'm fairly protective of it, because it says 'Dads' on it! Underneath the word 'Dads',it has the words, 'Proudly refusing to ask for directions since 1648'. And men typically are not very good at talking face to face with each other, and I wonder whether we are all that good at talking face to face with God. Having said that, we do as a rule find it easier to talk about something, usually when we are working together on something.

But Paul says, 'No; you men have also got to pray'.

So I urge the men here to pray. We meet for breakfast. We should also be praying together. And we are told what we are to pray for: that all people, especially leaders, will be saved.

We have, as a church, seen a significant growth in numbers attending some of our services. That is very exciting. However I am less encouraged when I think through how many people have actually been converted, how many people started coming as non-believers but have now turned to Christ.

And the problem is that we are trying to do this all by ourself. But we can't. We need God. It is God who desires all people to be saved, and it is God who converts. We can preach, we can invite people along to church, we can talk with them about faith, but it is God who does the work. Only he can change a person's mind and heart. And so we really do need to pray. And I know that happens in homes, in our services and home groups, but I would ask - if you are able to come - that you do try and make the parish prayer meeting.


This is a sub-theme running through both through this chapter and through the letter.
We have seen that one of the fruits of salvation is that we live peaceful, quiet, godly and dignified lives.

And so it is obvious that Paul desires the men to lift holy hands (the custom was for people to pray with their hands raised - it was rather a good custom because it prevented people from praying really really long prayers! - and Paul is saying that these hands need to be hands that have been given to God) without anger or quarrelling (v8), and that the women are not to be trying to outdo one another in their outfits or accessories (v9).

I read an article in the Times (6th January 2012) which was helpful. The writer was having a go at all those people who dissed women for having breast implants. She wrote,
"The simple point is that if beauty (along with youth) is power, then the loss of beauty and youth is the loss of power. To seek beauty — exchanging an ugly nose for a pretty one, say — is to seek power in life, or to try to retain power."
And so, she continued, you cannot blame women for desiring cosmetic surgery.

That is the way of the world. But the church really should be different. The men should not be arguing, trying to get one over on their rivals and competitors; and the women should not be seeking to outdo one another.

If people are to be saved, then there has to be a unity among the believers, and that means that we need to be willing, whether we are men or women, not to try and retain power, but to give it up so that others can grow. Otherwise the visitor coming in is going to feel the tensions as we posture in front of each other and they are going to say: 'this salvation should lead to peaceful and quiet lives, and yet look what these Christians are like. I want none of it'.

And so Paul says to the men, 'stop playing this power game; what really matters is prayer and having holy hands'; And he says to the women, 'stop playing the power game; what really matters is what you do, 'the good works' (v10). And he urges them to be submissive.

Of course, this means that there needs to be a bit of humility and submission, by both men and women. We need to recognise that because we are beloved by God we have nothing to prove; we need to be prepared to stop thinking that we know all the answers and that everyone else needs to listen to me (and I include in that our theories about the roles of men and women). And we need to realise that fighting for status in the church, or for the status of a group of people over against another group of people in the church, is anathema to the gospel.


And here we have two options, both of which, in my view, could be justified biblically.

The first view is that Paul is stating an eternal truth in verse 12. Women should not teach in church, or in any context where there are men. They should remain silent. The only people who they are permitted to teach are other women, girls and boys who are not yet considered adult (which, at the time, was about age 11). And Paul says that there are two reasons why women should not exercise authority over a man. Number 1: Adam was formed first, and number 2: it was Eve, the woman, who was deceived.

As an aside, I would point out that if we do take this line we need to be consistent. I was brought up in churches which did not permit women to exercise authority, but which did permit them to teach. And yet Paul writes, 'I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man' (and he is talking about men and women and not husbands and wives; we know that because later Paul talks about the role of widows in the church).

The second view, which you will realise is the one that I adopt, is that Paul is not laying down an eternal truth but is speaking to a specific church in a specific context. The fact that women were taking authority roles in the church of Ephesus, and that the men were opting out, was causing scandal in the wider society (just as it would do in say Saudi Arabia today). Also it seems that some of those women were 'gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not' (5:13).

You see, and here I come back to the big idea of chapter 2, Paul's desire was God's desire: that all people should be saved. And so for Paul there could be no scandal which would prevent people hearing the good news and coming to Jesus. We are to give the adversary 'no occasion for slander' (5:14), and the reason, for example, that there are such strict requirements for the person serving as an overseer (bishop) is so that, 'he must be well thought of by outsiders' (3:7)

But what then of the reasons that Paul gives for his prohibition on women teaching in 2:13-14? Are they not for all time? Adam was formed first and then Eve. And it was the woman who was first deceived by the serpent.

And if you simply look back to creation, then there really are no grounds for interpreting this passage in any other way than as a universal prohibition on women teaching or exercising authority in a church context. Clearly in creation there is a hierarchical order: man first, then woman. And men, despite what people would love to believe today, are generally physically bigger and physically stronger than women. And quite simply, if not held back by law or by gospel. they will use that strength to get what they desire. And so, for example, in the part of North London where we used to live, in many communities the men were non-existent in family or community life. Why? Because they could always find someone who would let them have sex when they wanted sex, but otherwise they lived exactly as they chose, taking no responsibility for their children or for the mothers of their children.

But Paul does not simply look back to the creation. He looks forward to the day when we all will be saved. He writes in verse 15 that 'she' (woman, eve) will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self control'. The second part is very similar to the instructions that he has given the men in verse 8, that they should lift up holy hands. But the bit about being saved through childbearing .. Is he saying that they will be kept safe in childbirth? Unlikely, and it is not true. Is he saying that they will be saved by having children? But that is a denial of justification by faith and by the fact that there is one mediator who gave himself as a ransom for all. So the option that many commentators take is that they will be saved through childbearing, through the birth of a child - the mediator himself, Jesus Christ.

In other words, even in the context of the Ephesian church where Paul insists on a strict division in the role of men and women, he looks forward to the day when we will be fully saved. Elsewhere the bible describes that day as a new creation, when all will be one in Christ Jesus and there will be neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28), when people will not marry or be given in marriage 'for they will be like the angels' (Matthew 22:30 cf Luke 20:36), and we will all be sons of God (Galatians 4:4f).

And my own view, for what it is worth, is that we can read the prohibition on women teaching and exercising authority in 1 Timothy 2 as cultural. The church can be the anticipation of that new creation; Christ has defeated the curse (and part of the curse was the statement to Eve, 'Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you' (Genesis 3:16).

Indeed, I would go further, and argue that in our own society today, for churches to restrict the role of women is as much a scandal in the biblical sense of the word (meaning stumbling block) for people to come to Jesus to be saved as it would have been, in Ephesus, for women to have been exercising positions of authority.

So there you have it: one take on 1 Timothy 2! As I said earlier, I know that some people here will take a different approach.

But what I do hope that we can agree on is what I would identify as the big idea of the chapter: That we are to pray for people to be saved because 'God our Saviour desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth' (2:4) that we are to live lives that are of complete integrity to that good news, and not do anything that might prevent people from coming to Christ. (2:4).


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