John MacArthur, Beth Moore, and Jumping to Conclusions: The Assumptions Behind a Hierarchical Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12

Last week I listened to a podcast where two women explained how they “stand with the Bible” when it comes to their hierarchical interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12. As far as these Sheologians[1] are concerned, this verse proves that women should not teach the Bible to men, be in positions of authority over men, or be pastors and elders. The meaning of the verse is plain as day, they argued, so anyone who disagrees with their view is ignoring scripture.

These ladies went on to mockingly characterize women who believe God has called them to pastoral ministry as obsessed with selfish ambition. Women who “feel called” to church leadership, they laughed, go around whining about what they will do if they can’t be elders or pastors, as though there’s nothing else that needs to be done! As though men who aren’t called to be elders or pastors should go around complaining that there’s nothing for them to do, especially when there’s more than enough work to go around![

Then over the weekend a video of John MacArthur telling Beth Moore to “go home” hit the internet. After the laughter and applause died down Mac Arthur added, “There’s no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period, paragraph, end of discussion.” MacArthur went on to explain that “when you literally overturn the teaching of Scripture to empower people who want power, you have given up biblical authority.”[3]

Aside from the fact that the tone of both interviews was dishonoring, the idea that there is no room for differences of interpretation on this topic is presumptuous. John Macarthur and the women on the podcast are not “standing with the Bible” as they claim, but with certain interpretive assumptions they bring to Scripture, especially to 1 Timothy 2:12. This is what we need to grasp.

And this is why it is vital to take the time to identify those suppositions and determine if there are compelling reasons to accept them as a convincing argument for gender hierarchy in the church. We can do this with an attitude of respect toward those who come to different conclusions than we have. We do so by focusing on the ideas rather than attacking and mocking individuals.

So today I want to identify the main traditions that lie behind the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 that is said to prove male authority in the church. As you read you can think through the validity of the preconceived notions you have brought to the text. I won’t accuse you of rebelling against Scripture if, after weighing the evidence, you land on a different island than I have. I only ask that you take the time to listen, think, and perhaps do a bit of research.

Let’s review the passage first. We’ll look at vv. 8-15 since there’s wide agreement that these verses go together.

Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Tim. 2:8-15)

Okay, here we go.

Assumption #1: The setting is the church meeting.

Women can teach men or be their supervisors elsewhere, it is argued, but1 Timothy 2 is about what happens at church so women aren’t permitted to teach or supervise men in church. This is a widely held view on all sides, yet it seems to arise primarily from church tradition. The passage itself has no markers to indicate that it has to do with a congregational setting such as “your meetings” (1 Cor. 11:17), “when you come together” (1 Cor. 14:26), or “as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people (1 Cor. 14:33).

Also, the earlier commands about women dressing modestly and men praying without disputing point away from the church meeting, since presumably women should dress modestly everywhere and men should pray without arguing everywhere (as v. 8 states). At minimum it must be acknowledged that the congregational setting is an assumption, not something stated directly in the text.

Assumption #2: The switch from plural men and women to singular woman and man is inconsequential.

Virtually all hierarchical interpretations blow past this change that comes between v. 10 and v. 11, claiming that the singulars point to women and men in general. But in vv. 8-10 Paul was already speaking of men and women in general, so why the switch? And why the argument that the “plain sense” of the passage demands that a woman does not teach/exercise authority over men, when in fact all it states is that Paul does not want a woman to teach/exercise authority over a man?

Also, most hierarchicalists permit women to do the one thing the passage appears to prohibit, i.e. teach a man privately one-on-one. It is the public teaching of God’s word to a group of men that is forbidden, they say. Yet if we hold to a high view of the inspiration of scripture we ought to do our best to apply what is stated rather than what is not stated. We should also assume that Paul made the switch from plural to singular for a reason. Has, in fact, the setting shifted from men and women in general to the individual man and woman in relationship, perhaps in the home as husband and wife?

Assumption #3: The term translated “have/exercise/assume authority” is a general term simply meaning to be in a position or role of delegated authority over others.

The fact is that the word in the original language, authentein, is very rare and historically has proven extremely challenging to understand. Though modern studies have demonstrated that authentein is not a general term for exercising authority but rather has connotations of domination, domineering, and control, it is very difficult to turn the Titanic of hundreds of years of English Bible translation away from the iceberg of accepted interpretation. When your interpretation is unsinkable, why would you jump ship?

Even Chrysostom, who believed wholeheartedly in male authority in marriage, told men they should not authentein their wives. Clearly he did not understand the word to refer to a rightful use of authority, or he would not have forbidden it. An informed understanding of the word therefore indicates that Paul is not disallowing proper delegated authority or a position of authority, but rather inappropriate sinful dominance.[4]

Assumption #4: The prohibition on teaching combined with the one on exercising authority refers to the role of elder/pastor.

This one is a big leap. Even when I understood the passage hierarchically, it never occurred to me that it was talking about elders and pastors. In contrast to 1 Timothy 3 which explicitly deals with leadership roles in the church, chapter 2 does not mention them at all. Perhaps now that some of the foremost complementarian scholars acknowledge that neither 1 Timothy 3 nor Titus 1 prohibits women from becoming elders and pastors, it is seen as necessary to build the case from 1 Timothy 2.

So it is argued that since teaching and having authority are functions of church leaders, what Paul is actually prohibiting is the promotion of women to these specific roles. Yet a plain reading of the text would not lead one to the conclusion that it forbids women from becoming pastors and elders, but rather that an individual woman should not have an inappropriate relationship of dominance over an individual man.

Assumption #5: Verses 11-14 are perfectly clear even though v. 15 is not, since an understanding of v. 15 is not essential to Paul’s main point.

Hierarchicalists tend to throw up their hands over how in the world a woman can be saved through childbearing/childbirth, yet treat the difficulties posed by v. 15 as inconsequential or at least secondary. Read as a whole, however, it is apparent that in v. 15 Paul is responding to the issue that caused him to place restrictions on “a woman” in the first place. The passage builds to v. 15 and finds its climax there. For that reason it is essential to come up with a coherent explanation of v. 15 before we can assume we understand vv. 11-14. Without this, we do not know what problem Paul is addressing.

If v. 15 is understood in its simplest sense – that a woman will be kept safe through the ordeal of childbirth – it completely changes our conception of the situation Paul was addressing and the focus of his restriction. But my main disagreement with the traditional interpretation on this point is their claim that vv. 11-14 are plain as day while at the same time they struggle to make sense of v. 15. The two do not go together. At minimum it ought to be acknowledged that many unanswered questions remain that can and do affect the interpretation of vv. 11-14.

Assumption #6: The appeal to creation in v. 13 points to a fundamental hierarchical ordering of man and woman.

Since the man was created first, so it goes, men are created to be in authority over women. Yet Paul never says anything about men having dominion over women. His focus is that a woman (or a wife) should not teach a man (or a husband) in a domineering way or, perhaps, dominate him through her “teaching.” In other words, the appeal to creation may simply be a warrant that lends support to the idea that it is wrong for a woman to dominate or control a man, particularly her husband.

I believe we can agree that it is wrong for anyone to dominate another. Jesus called this “lording it over” others and strictly forbade it, even by those in proper leadership positions. The Bible never states that it is fine for a man to authentein a woman nor are men ever encouraged to exercise “proper” authority over women (echein exousiazo), but only to love them as Christ loved the church.

Assumption #7: The appeal to the fall in v. 14 demonstrates that women are inherently unsuited for leadership.

Paul’s point, hierarchicalists argue, is that women should not fill church leadership roles because they are more easily deceived than men. Yet Paul does not say that women in general are more easily deceived. It is a leap to assume this is what he meant and then apply it to all women everywhere, though that is precisely what was done throughout church history up to the modern age.

It is just as possible that Paul used Eve to communicate that some women in Ephesus were being deceived, just as he used Eve’s example to warn the Corinthians about the deception they had fallen prey to (2 Cor. 11:3-4). And in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 it seems that the specific deception had something to do with childbirth, explaining Paul’s focus on the women in this passage.

Assumption #8: The individuals who need to exhibit godly character in v. 15 are women.

This assumption has been reinforced by Bible translations that have changed the wording of the original language to “clarify” the meaning. Instead of what is stated in the Greek – “she will be saved/kept safe through childbirth if they continue…” – some English Bibles say “women will be saved/kept safe through childbirth if they continue…,” giving the impression that if women will continue in godliness God will reward them in some way. But the word “women” does not occur in the Greek of v. 15 and the verb “be saved/kept safe” is singular, so the subject is “she.”

If we take the original wording at face value, the “they” most likely refers to the man and woman of vv. 11-12. Except for Adam and Eve (who are past needing either salvation or protection) they are the nearest antecedent, and hence the most likely referent. If this is the case v. 15 would mean that a woman will be preserved through childbearing if she and the man she had previously been attempting to dominate (perhaps her husband)would now join forces and pursue faith, love, and holiness with propriety together.

Assumption #9: Submission and quietness are timeless feminine ideals.

Hierarchicalists teach that submission in quietness is the timeless role of women. This means women are to submit to the limitations and expectations placed upon them by men in the church and in the home, and they are to do so with a joyful spirit of servanthood. Men, on the other hand, are to establish those limitations and expectations with a humble spirit of servanthood. Both are called to servanthood, the one by following expectations and the other by setting them.

What we need to recognize here is that submission and the lack of agitation and aggressiveness entailed in the Greek word “quiet” or “quietness” were considered fundamentally feminine virtues by ancient Greeks and Romans in the same way that obedience was considered a fundamental virtue of slaves. There is undoubtedly a cultural component behind the application of these specific virtues to women in this setting.

I am not saying that women need not submit to proper Christian teaching or that they may be aggressive or contentious in learning environments. My point is that to take the words Paul used here and assume they describe the foundational calling of womanhood takes the passage out of its context. The New Testament teaches that submission and quietness are fundamental Christian virtues. All believers are called to submit to church leaders and Christian instruction without becoming contentious, so it is not surprising that Paul brings this up here.

Assumption #10: The Artemis/Isis cult background of Ephesus does not influence the interpretation of the text.

A recent study has demonstrated significant links between 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and the Artemis cult so predominant in Ephesus.[5] Strong parallels exist between the behavior and attire of first-century goddess worshipers and Paul’s instructions. The immodesty, the plaiting of the hair with gold and pearls, and the domineering aggressiveness Paul prohibits were all key components of the cult. In addition, Artemis was connected with the goddess Isis in a way that indicates a myth that asserted the woman was created first and the man was deceived enjoyed some acceptance in Ephesus.

In addition, we know that Artemis was worshiped as the “savior.” One of the key ways she functioned in this role was by protecting women through the ordeal of childbirth, the greatest threat to a woman’s health in the ancient world. Women were terrified of death or disability resulting from pregnancy and childbirth, and therefore were devoted to their goddesses of fertility. Walking away from paying homage to Artemis as part of their newfound Christian faith would have been terrifying, since the goddess was known to be vindictive toward those who dared to cross her.

With all of this in the background, it would not be surprising that some of these women were questioning their safety in childbearing and becoming contentious about certain Christian teachings, like the fact that they needed to turn away from idolatry. Paul wanted them to calm down, learn the truth, and be reassured that they could safely turn away from Artemis worship because Jesus would take care of them.

Whether you accept this precise reconstruction or not, it is difficult to argue that the Artemis background makes no differenceto an interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15, as many hierarchicalists seem to assume. One way or another, it needs to be integrated into our understanding of this passage.

The Path to Hierarchy

The path to an acceptance of gender hierarchy in the church includes, of necessity, grappling with the verifiability of these ten assumptions. As in a steeplechase competition, you can’t go around a barrier or skip a water jump and claim you finished the race. You may have gotten a lot of exercise, but you didn’t do the steeplechase.

In the same way there is no honest path to a hierarchical reading of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 that goes around any of these points. You have to go through them. In the end it was this weighing of all of my preconceived ideas that changed my views on the subject, though I’ll admit it took a lot of reading, a lot of study, and a lot of time.

If you take the time to work through each assumption yet still settle in the land of hierarchy, I respect your decision.

But at least you know how you got there.


[1] Their self-designation and the name of their organization. My earlier footnote here mentioned that I was unable to ascertain the names of the two women, but thanks to a reader I have learned that they are Summer White and Joy Temby. The confusion resulted from inadvertently accessing Summer’s earlier website at sheologian.com. The current site is sheologians.com. Thank you, Maria!

[2] “Why We Aren’t Egalitarian” by Sheologians, on podcast.apple.com, accessed 10/15/2019.

[3] “John MacArthur Beth Moore Go Home,” youtube.com, posted by reformationcharlotte.org, accessed 10/18/2019.

[4] On authentein see: Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, vol. 1 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006), 227; Klyne Snodgrass, “A Case for the Unrestricted Ministry of Women,” The Covenant Quarterly 67/2 (2009), 38; I. Howard Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles (New York: T. & T. Clark, 1999), 457-58; Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ (London: InterVarsity, 2019), 268-70; Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 290-94.

[5] Gary G. Hoag, Wealth in Ancient Ephesus and the First Letter to Timothy: Fresh Insights from Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus, Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplements, vol. 11 (Winona Lake, Indiana; Eisenbrauns, 2015).