Did Paul Say Women Could Never Teach Men?

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

John Piper, “Did Paul Say Women Could Never Teach Men? Response from John Piper,” The Standard 74:4 (April 1984): 39–40. This was a response to Alvera and Berekely Micklesen, “May Women Teach Men?” The Standard 74:4 (April 1984): 34, 36–37.

The Mickelsens’ case rests on two pillars. One is that my interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 puts Paul in a position of contradicting his own practice and “the principles taught by our Lord” and the “norm laid down at Pentecost.” The other is an attempt to reconstruct an historical situation in the church at Ephesus which would make plausible their interpretation of the text as a temporary restraint on pedagogically ambitious ex-prostitutes.

The first pillar doesn’t hold up.

  1. It is an argument from silence that Priscilla, Lydia, Phoebe, Euodia and Syntyche held authoritative teaching offices in the early church. The assumption seems to be that the only women Paul would value as partners are women who functioned as authoritative teachers of men. That Priscilla’s name comes before Aquila’s (Acts 18:26) is a slender thread with which to topple the plain meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 11:7-10.

  2. It is yet to be demonstrated that anything Jesus taught or did contradicts the idea that certain authoritative ways in which women can relate to men are unfitting.

  3. The prophetic gift promised to women in Acts 2:17 is not conceived by Paul as a right to exercise authority over men in the church. That’s why he gave instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 for how they could prophesy with an attitude of submission.

Nor will the second pillar stand. It is built out of a methodological sleight-of-hand. First, make some general observations about conditions in ancient Ephesus. Then speculate that the text might have former cult prostitutes in view. Then turn around and call this the historical context and use it to restrict the text’s application and eliminate the apparently straightforward teaching.

  1. Sophrosune (1 Tim. 2:9) does not imply former cult prostitutes. The word’s one other use on the lips of Paul is “reasonableness” (Acts 26:25), and the synonymous adjective form (sophron) is used of men 1 Tim. 3:2) and old women (Titus 2:2).

  2. The call for women to act and dress respectably (katastole kosmio) is common toward all women in Paul’s day, not just prostitutes (cf. Epictetus Encheiridion, 40, etc.)

  3. The earliest evidences for authenteo meaning simply “exercise authority” are in fact prior to the third century (the Rhetorica of Philodemus and papyrus number 1208, both from the first century). But Thomas Magister and Michael Glycas, cited by the Mickelsens, date from the twelfth century A.D. at the earliest.

  4. It is a wild shot in the dark to speculate that the reason Paul said “Adam was formed first” (v. 13) is that the converted cult prostitutes were teaching that Eve was created first and had special knowledge which could be imparted by fornication! Why shoot in the dark when 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 provides the closest analogy for Paul’s argument in 1 Timothy 2:12-13? Why? Because the women at Corinth are godly prophetesses, not prostitutes—and should still be submissive.

  5. The statement, “Adam as not deceived, but the woman…,” is a singularly unsuitable way of “explaining” that immodest, erstwhile prostitutes should learn a while before they teach men. If their problem is with untaught immaturity, why should Paul point out that Adam was not deceived?

In the apostle’s mind the problem is not with the untaught teaching the taught, but women teaching men.