1 Timothy 2:11-15 is interpreted in many conservative circles today as referring to all women, everywhere, whether young or old, single or married. If a woman is married, she’s told that she can’t teach in the church because to teach in the church is to “exercise authority over men,” and thus, the woman is, in effect, exercising authority over her husband (or so the thought goes).
If a woman is single, she’s told that she can’t teach in the church because she’s not to be over men in general. But if she’s single and unmarried, why does she have to submit to males when they’re not of her own household? Why is it that the single woman is unmarried, yet when it comes to church leadership, she’s treated as though she’s married?
That’s the subject of this post, honestly — to determine the nature of the women in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. We’ll study the verses in question to determine the nature of women in the epistle, then we’ll determine why the nature of the feminine audience is important.
The Nature of Women In 1 Timothy 2:11-15
What is the nature of women in 1 Timothy 2:11-15? We have to examine the text to determine the feminine audience.
In verse 11, the Greek word gune refers to both a wife (married woman) and a single woman. In other words, without regard to other information in the text itself, we can’t know on the basis of this one Greek word. In verse 12, we see the Greek word gunaiki, which has been translated “a woman” but could just as well refer to “a wife.” The word andros, referring to the masculine, could mean “husband” or “male.”
Evidences of the Nature of Women (1 Timothy 2:11-15)
The “women” of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as wives
When we get to 1 Timothy 2:13-15, however, we receive more information that can help answer the question of the nature of women in the epistle. First, we see in verse 13 that Paul discusses the creation of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were husband and wife; Eve wasn’t created just as a single woman, then married later. When she was brought to Adam, it was right after she was created and the two became one flesh (they were married by God Himself). God was the Officiator and Minister of the first wedding in Scripture.
The discussion of Adam and Eve, or Paul’s discussion of them, rather, indicates that husbands and wives are in view here: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve,” the NKJV says. In verse 15, we read that “she will be saved in childbearing.” The “she” is the subject of debate for some, but I believe it refers to Eve (the “woman” of verse 14) being preserved by the reputation of the women in the church who would bear children.
Paul writes in the same epistle that he wanted young widows to marry and bear children — childbearing taking place in the context of marriage:
11 But refuse the younger widows; for when they have begun to grow wanton against Christ, they desire to marry, 12 having condemnation because they have cast off their first faith. 13 And besides they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not. 14 Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully. 15 For some have already turned aside after Satan. (1 Timothy 5:11-15)
The phrase in bold says that the younger widows should “marry, bear children” (1 Timothy 5:14). Notice that marriage comes before children, as Paul didn’t endorse fornication, but rather, marriage before childbirth (see Hebrews 13:4). Thus, childbearing in 1 Timothy 2:15 refers to married women, wives, not single women.
With these examples from the text in view, then, we can rule that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 doesn’t refer to all women in general but rather, married women (wives) in particular. For it is the married women who were lacking in self-control with regard to their husbands, the andros (Greek) mentioned in 1 Timothy 2:12.
What Paul says about single women (1 Corinthians 7:8-9, 25-26, 32-35)
To see 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in context, and to appreciate the fact that it does not refer to single women, let’s read Paul’s exact words to single women in 1 Corinthians 7:
8 But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; 9 but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)
Paul says that it is good to remain unmarried, provided someone can exercise self-control and abstain from fornication and sexual immorality. But if such a person cannot, then they should marry because marriage is better than hellfire and sexual sin (“burning with passion”).
Let’s look at Paul’s words throughout the remainder of 1 Corinthians 7:
25 Now concerning virgins: I have no commandment from the Lord; yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy. 26 I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is: (1 Corinthians 7:25-26)
Paul says that concerning the unmarried and virgins, “I have no commandment from the Lord.” Interesting. If single, unmarried women were to sit under the authority of males in the church and never exercise authority, why wouldn’t Paul say that here? If God desires all women to be married and “under the authority” of a husband, why does Paul say that “I have no commandment from the Lord”? His words here reveal that God doesn’t command single women to marry as if they only exist to be under the rulership of a male. Contrary to what Southern Baptist and complementarian theology may tell you, God’s Word affirms women, even as singles. God didn’t even say in Scripture that single women can’t teach, preach, or Pastor. That conclusion is also farfetched, unfounded in Scripture, and nothing more than a traditional thought from Southern culture without biblical warrant.
In light of the end of the world, the time of Jesus’ return, Paul says it’s good for men and women to remain in the state they are in; that is, if someone is single, he or she should remain single. So, if Paul affirms women in their singleness in 1 Corinthians 7, the last thing he would do is write a letter to Timothy in Ephesus and tell single women that they cannot exercise their spiritual gifts in leadership positions over men. If anything, Paul would’ve told single women that they qualify for spiritual gifts and leadership positions, just as they are — single.
Paul distinguishes between married and single women (1 Corinthians 7:32-35)
I just said at the end of the last section that Paul doesn’t chide single women for being single. In fact, he says that he has no commandment from the Lord for them — a statement that implies God is just as pleased with single, unmarried women as He is with married women (wives).
Here in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul details further his stance about unmarried women and wives (married women) when he says the following:
32 But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. 33 But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife. 34 There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. 35 And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction. (1 Corinthians 7:32-35)
Paul says that “there is a difference between a wife and a virgin” in 1 Corinthians 7:34. I wish that all complementarians would understand this very verse of Scripture. The problem with complementarian interpretations of passages such as 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is that they put all women, both unmarried and married, into the same exegetical basket where a prohibition to married women becomes a prohibition to unmarried women becomes a prohibition to all women — married, unmarried, divorced, engaged, or otherwise. But that is not the case in Paul’s writing, nor is it the case before God. There is a difference between the unmarried woman and the married woman, between the female virgin and the wife.
That difference means that, whereas the married woman must submit to the authority of her husband, single unmarried women can teach, preach, and Pastor the church of God in Christ (the universal church, not the denomination) without having to “submit to the authority of a man” in so doing (unless that “man” is her Pastor, father in the ministry, the church that elects her to the Pastorate, or God Himself). Single women aren’t bound by the same rules as married women because they aren’t under the “lordship” (lowercase “l”) of a husband. God has given the husband headship in the home, as is clear from passages such as 1 Peter 3:1-6, and married women (wives) must first minister in their homes before they can minister in the church. Often, married women called to be Pastors, preachers, and teachers will have to set aside whatever church activities they could do in order to take care of their husband and children, precisely because their first ministry is to their home.
In contrast, single unmarried women aren’t married and don’t have the duties or responsibilities of marriage. Unmarried single women don’t have to submit to the “lordship” of a human husband because they don’t have one. They don’t have to put family above church life and ministry because they don’t bear that responsibility. They don’t have a family of their own making, so they’re free to pursue whatever ministerial responsibilities, duties, and callings they feel inclined to.
“The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord,” but the married woman “cares about the things of the world,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:34. Yep, it’s true: the married woman’s focus isn’t as God-ward as the unmarried single woman’s focus because she has to tend to her husband’s biological needs (hunger, thirst, sexual, other comforts).
In contrast, the unmarried woman is “holy both in body and in spirit,” meaning that she abstains from sexual intercourse (no fornication or adultery or sexual immorality of any kind) and she is free in spirit to serve the Lord. What this means is that the unmarried single woman can do nothing other for God than ministry work because that’s what she, alongside married Christians, is called to do. Without the demands of home life, she is free to work in the secular world for a monthly paycheck and serve in the church (work for which she could also receive a paycheck) to best give of her time, money, talent, and resources. The unmarried, single woman “cares about the things of the Lord,” a statement that shows that she should invest in church ministry in a deep and lasting way if she has no familial duties.
Conclusion: 1 Corinthians 7:34, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and their applications
Taking 1 Corinthians 7:34 into account, we can see then that the passage of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 doesn’t refer to all women in general but rather, married women (wives) and how they respond to their husbands. The use of Adam and Eve by Paul, the mention of Eve being saved through childbearing (a marriage activity, for marriage only), and the mention of women doing something to “a man,” are all indicators that the women in question were married women, wives, not single women.
We can apply this today in the church in this way: stop placing both in the same basket. We must stop treating single women as if they are married women when they’re not. We must stop telling them that “their true love will come along one day,” as if God isn’t their true love and He isn’t enough (when He is). We must stop grooming them for their wedding day, telling them “your time will come” as though they’re being left out of something necessary to life.
And when it comes to teaching and preaching 1 Timothy 2:11-15, we must stop telling unmarried single women that they too, like married women, must surrender to “a man” and that they are designed for nothing more than the kitchen and the bedroom. In truth, unmarried single women are to be distinguished from married women. It’s time we not only teach and preach this in our exhortations to them, but also incorporate 1 Corinthians 7:34 into our biblical interpretation and application.
And when we do, complementarians won’t have much of an exegetical leg to stand on because it is the part (married women, wives), not the whole, that’s in view.