The first letter from Paul to Timothy was written somewhere between 61 and 64 AD. Timothy’s mother was a Jew who became a Christian, and his father was a Greek. Paul had left Timothy to look after the community of believers in Ephesus, but while this letter has traditionally been referred to as a “pastoral epistle”, it should be noted that Timothy is never addressed with any title or is said to have that particular gift. He had traveled extensively with Paul (see references in Acts and Paul’s letters) and is mentioned in Heb. 13:23, likely after Paul’s death.
The cultural backdrop of this letter is well-established and must be considered in order to accurately interpret Paul’s teachings.1 Timothy was in Ephesus, a large and prosperous city (one of the ancient wonders of the world) dedicated to the fertility goddess Artemis (Greek; the Roman name was Diana). Women were especially drawn to this goddess because she was believed to protect them through childbirth, which carried a high mortality rate for mothers of the time. They also taught that woman was superior to man and possessed secret knowledge. And since the worship rituals involved sex for the purpose of imparting this knowledge to men, naturally the men approved as well. It was also believed that the priestesses were the descendants of the Amazons, who enslaved men to build the city for them. This is why they kept genealogies to prove their ancestry. And as Christianity spread there some mixing of teachings arose. One such teaching was that Eve, the superior, must have preceded Adam, to whom she imparted wisdom and made fully human, thus being his “savior”.
It should be noted that the letter to the congregation in Thyatira (Rev. 2:20) rebukes a woman referred to as “Jezebel” for what appears to be the same kind of practice as that of a priestess of Artemis. The city was known for its trade guilds and worship of Apollo, and the fellowship meals of these guilds included offering food to idols followed by orgies. Apollo was the twin of Artemis, and his earthly oracle was to be a maiden (later, a woman over 50) called the Pythia (python); see also Acts 16:16 where the slave girl is called a puthOna.
We also need to be aware of two rare words that Paul uses in 1 Tim. 2:12-15. The first is authentein. It is used in a context of murder or other forms of violence, and the early “church father” Chrysostom (who was active in the destruction of places of heathen worship such as the temple of Artemis) used it in the context of sexual license. It was never used to mean legitimate authority; in fact, it had no good connotations at all, and it appears only here in the entire NT. The second is teknogonias and literally means “the childbirth”, in reference to both the act of birth and the raising of the child; see the verb form in 1 Tim. 5:14.
Paul opens the letter with the usual greetings, identifying himself as an Ambassador sent directly by Jesus.
Timothy is to tell people to stop teaching falsehood. They are obsessed with myths and genealogies which distract them from the work of God, the purpose of which is to change the heart and produce a faith that is not obsessed with these other things. Some have deviated from this and are passing themselves off as teachers of the law, though they have no idea what they are talking about. And laws are not for the righteous anyway, but for the unrighteous:
Paul is a qualified teacher, chosen by God, in spite of what he once was. He had been the best of the Pharisees (Phil. 3:4–6), yet in God’s eyes he was vile and sinful. And there are two important points to note: not only did he have to give up his former ways when he was saved, but he also had to give up his former status as a teacher until he had been properly informed, as he states clearly in Gal. 1:12–13 . And his example is a prototype of many who would come to faith after him, such that we should never say someone is too bad to be saved.
Paul is delegating this teaching charge to Timothy for the Ephesian believers. But Timothy must be careful to be unbiased in the discharge of this duty; none are exempt from the discipline that is needed. Paul holds up two men as examples of some who have “shoved off” and “shipwrecked” concerning the faith. The Greek reads “concerning the faith”, not that these two have ruined the faith of others; that is, it’s the faith not their faith. They have turned away knowingly, given that “they shipwrecked” is in the active voice and “shoved off” is in the middle (they did it to themselves). Above all, they were a bad influence and thus had to be removed from the fellowship.
Note also that these two are handed over to Satan to be taught a lesson. This would not be done at all to unbelievers (see 1 Cor. 5:12–13), who would simply be thrown out as fakes. The fact that Paul adds the purpose is what makes the difference. And we should note that Paul named these false teachers, while another he will mention later is not named. The reason for the difference is not stated by Paul, but if someone is expelled from fellowship for the danger they posed to the faith, it would be reasonable to presume that they should be named so that other congregations could identify them and refuse them fellowship.
Timothy is to tell them to pray for a peaceful life by praying for others, but especially for the secular leaders so that they would not harass the believers. This is especially important given the preceding discussion, which Paul cites as the reason ("therefore"). It is inaccurate to take this to mean we should pray for anything and everything a government might do. Then they must demonstrate the Christian life in every way as a witness to society, because God wants everyone to be saved; Jesus died for all, not just some. And if anyone knows the truth it is Paul, who was sent to the non-Jews.
Timothy is to tell them to be sensible and self-controlled. The men need to calm down and live clean lives, and the women need to stop flaunting wealth and start acting with dignity like that of Judaism professors,2 not as priestesses of Artemis who would flaunt their status. Paul is addressing the particular problems there in Ephesus, not establishing some timeless principle that all men are unruly and all women flaunt wealth and engage in fertility rites. This is about sensible and godly decorum in contrast to the surrounding culture.
This is a good place at which to point out an important logical principle: a command for some people to stop doing something is not also the granting of permission for other people to start. For example, suppose children are playing in a playground, supervised by teachers. They are free to play as they choose but within guidelines, such as no hitting or shoving, no cutting in line, etc. Then suppose one child hits another and is given a reprimand. Does this mean the other children are now permitted to hit? Of course not. So when Paul tells a group of people to stop teaching falsehood, he is not at the same time giving permission to teach falsehood to those not in the group. Likewise, men are not allowed to flaunt wealth, and women are not allowed to pray with "unclean hands". This principle may seem obvious here, but it will come up again in more controversial passages, such as whenever he talks about husbands and wives.
One of those women needs to go back to square one and be a humble student first; she cannot keep the status and practices of a priestess of Artemis but must learn before she can teach again. This parallels Paul’s earlier experience as noted in 1:12–17. And the grammar (present active indicative) does not allow the interpretation of a timeless command for all women, but one that is limited to the present time for a woman. In addition, not only has Paul switched abruptly from plural to singular (“women must… I am not allowing a woman”), he has also gone from instructions for women who are already teaching to a woman who must stop for a time. We must also remember that Paul is addressing believers; instructions and commands to unbelievers would be nonsensical. This will prove critical in the last verse of the passage.
“I am not even… much less” can also be rendered “neither/nor”, but the former seems a better fit in the context of the Artemis cult. While some argue that the phrase means “teach that she is the originator of the man” per the Gnostic creation order, the grammar does not allow it since authentein is not a noun but a verb. That is, it is not “she is the authentein” but “she must not authentein”. If the former were true, we would also expect the wording to be along the lines of “I do not permit her to teach that a woman was the source of a man…” Referencing the principle established in the discussion on 2:8–10, Paul is not saying that men can authentein anyone either, or that men can teach falsehood.
The purpose of Paul’s reference to creation order is of course very much debated, but at the very least this is an obvious rebuttal to the Gnostic teachings. Paul has not discussed hierarchy here and it is not even implied in Genesis; to say otherwise is to beg the question. The topic throughout has been false teaching, and Paul ties the matter of a deceived woman (Eve) to a woman who is presently in a state of deception, as the grammar indicates. It denotes the continuing results of a past event, and it is singular. This means it cannot be interpreted as Eve’s past sin having results on all subsequent women, which would require a word that is both singular and plural (she sinned but they are still in it), an impossibility. Such an interpretation would also amount to arguing that while Adam’s sin affected both males and females, Eve’s somehow only affected females. Notice also that while Paul names Adam and Eve, he abruptly switches to the generic: Adam made first, then Eve, Adam not deceived, yet the woman. As we will also see with v. 15, Paul has “switched horses in midstream” for some reason, a reason we cannot lightly dismiss.
Verse 15 reads “But she will be saved… if they continue in faithfulness…”. We must not gloss over these pronouns. People might say “If any man steals, he will go to jail” and we understand that this applies to all men (and, logically, to all women as well, in spite of the masculine terminology). Or people might say “If men steal, they will go to jail.” But what nobody says is “If a man steals they will go to jail” (unless we impose the much later English generic singular, which those who vehemently oppose such usage cannot allow for this one case, just to make sense of the passage). But Paul says “she will… if they”, and we have no choice but to take it as it is without accusing Paul of the poorest grammar, and only at this spot in all of his writings. Both this and the unique use of the generic singular would be special pleading.
Who is “she”? It cannot be Eve or all women because, as already noted, this is singular and she is still in sin. So since the only woman being referenced here is the one teaching error it must be that woman. But who are “they”? We look for an antecedent (the earlier noun it could refer to) but find nothing obvious. What we do know is that they are not new believers, since they are to continue in faith etc., not enter into it for the first time. And they cannot be Adam and Eve, or all Christian women, because this woman’s being “saved” is conditioned upon what “they” do. We could speculate that “they” are the woman and the man, or maybe the women who are teaching accurately and faithfully, but that’s as far as the passage will take us. In any case, whether “she” will be “saved” depends upon what “they” do.
As for the word “saved”, note that its semantic range includes not only salvation in the eternal sense but also restoration. To argue that Paul always means the former begs the question; we can only know the range of meanings if we can clearly define it from every context. But in this case the context does not indicate the former, since as already noted it refers to what others continue to do. But if we insist that it is within the bounds of “saved” to mean that she will be saved by the continued faithful witness of others, then even more difficulty is introduced into the passage.
Why would Paul refer to eternal salvation as “the childbirth” only here? No other passage in the NT ever points to Jesus’ birth as what saves, but always to his death and resurrection, and the emphasis here is not on the product of that birth but the process. And why point it out only for this woman (or all women)? Women are saved the same way as men, so Paul’s unusual and roundabout expression here would make no sense. And it cannot refer to “role playing” whereby a woman is shown to be saved by her behavior since, again, men would be required to play their roles too, and salvation is only by faith. And how would Paul know that she will be saved by “their” example? And then what will we do when Paul tells Timothy that he can "save" both himself and those who hear him? In contrast, the meaning “restored” or “preserved” fits easily and simply in the context of this Christian woman sitting down to learn so she can be turned from her deception and restored to her teaching ministry.
So why did Paul use this expression? He seems to be engaging in one of his many plays on words to talk about restoration while putting down Artemis. This woman has to be humbled from teacher to student, and the purpose is to remove the false teachings. This is, in a spiritual sense, much like child-rearing. If we say she was not yet saved then we must wonder why the congregation would ever have let her teach in the first place, and why she is allowed (really, commanded) to learn (grow) if she had not yet been spiritually reborn. In other words, Paul’s attention to this issue makes no sense at all if the woman in question isn’t even a believer. So this “childbirth” is rendered as the “mentoring” that “they” will provide.
Above all, what we cannot do with this passage is elevate only one interpretation as “what God plainly says”. There is nothing plain or simple about it, long held to be one of the most challenging in the NT. Scholars differ widely on practically every part of it, and charges of “agendas” or bias can be thrown in all directions. It is wise to always interpret the disputable by that which is not; the overarching principles of our faith take precedence. Whatever interpretation one choses, it must conform to what Jesus taught and demonstrated, and to the apostles’ teachings for all believers.
Timothy is to select guardians based upon their already having achieved spiritual maturity and demonstrated the ideal Christian life. The guardian is not an authority, just as guards on the city walls were not the rulers of the city. Rather, this is one who protects the perimeter, who warns of danger and is prepared to fend it off if it comes near. The clear emphasis is on character and practical criteria by which to judge anyone (the Greek is non-gender specific) who aspires to this service. Undue emphasis has been placed upon “husband of one wife” and not nearly enough on the other qualities. Given that the culture expected men to have many courtesans, and that women were not afforded the same privilege, there is no reason for Paul to admonish women to only have one man. This quality of marital faithfulness is then followed by calmness and self-control, as well as responsibility and reliability. This does not describe the worldly “alpha male” but the “good shepherd”. Neither is this on-the-job training but the recognition of a life already dedicated to God.
Recalling the logical principle mentioned earlier, another instance is illustrated here. If “husband of one wife” means the guardian must be male, then it also means much more: he must be married, he must have children, and those children must be well-behaved. It is the fallacy of “special pleading” to pick only one item from the list as binding while making the others optional, since all are said in the same sentence and given the same weight. Also, one might remember the discussion of “a woman” and presume Paul is once again referring to an individual, but there is a key difference: it says “anyone” instead of “a man” or “a woman”. And of course we see nothing close to “he/they”.
Timothy is to select attendants based upon the same criteria as that for guardians. While scripture never gives details about the function or responsibilities of these attendants, we notice that Paul directs that they not be “profiteers”. This may be a clue that these were people who raised donations for the believers in need, but we can only speculate. Notice that Paul does not (nor does anyone else) connect these attendants to the seven chosen in Acts 6:1–7 . And the logical principle for guardians applies here as well: if attendants must be male, then there must always be seven of them and they must care for Greek widows. The “high rank” mentioned here is not earthly authority but spiritual reward, the crown of every believer living to please and serve God.
Paul pauses here to finish up the instructions, almost as if he had originally planned to end the letter at this point. But even in this we need to correct a misunderstanding. He is not giving instructions on how worshipers are to behave in a church building or sanctuary, but how Timothy (or possibly anyone) should conduct himself in the carrying out of these directives. The ekklesia is not a building made of stone but the people, those whose very bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19).
Verse 16 seems a bit out of place, but only until we see that v. 17 is the contrast to it. First Paul recites what sounds like a common Christian saying about the essentials of the faith, but note the reference to a “secret”. This is not a “mystery” that has to be figured out, but something that had been hidden and was now being made plain. The Spirit was then “openly” proclaiming that in the course of time many professing believers would wander off to follow the teachings of demons, and these teachings would be notable for their excessive micromanagement, of which Paul gives two examples: forbidding marriage and the eating of certain foods. We could add many more from our own experiences in the institutional church: rest on Sunday, no meat on Friday, no dancing or drinking, fashion rules, chains of command, attend “church” on Sunday and “holidays”, etc. This has been the norm for most of the Christian era and is only getting worse, adding such things as forbidding to speak “negatively” or to criticize “pastors”.
Paul has been telling Timothy what to teach others, but now his attention turns to Timothy himself, reminding him that he serves Jesus and not just the people. Again he alludes to the myths of Gnosticism in vs. 7, referring to them as silly old fables, and urges Timothy to approach his duties as an athlete in training for a contest. But what does Paul mean by “the savior of all people, especially the faithful” (vs. 10)? We can deduce from all the other writings of Paul that only those who accept God’s offer of reconciliation through Jesus are saved, so this statement is just another way to say the same thing. There are no other references that would permit the understanding that some people are more “saved” than others.
Timothy is to be a role model, in spite of his youthfulness. He was evidently given a gift through prophecies made when he was dedicated for his service, and such a thing is not to be taken lightly. But what does Paul mean by use of the word “preserve” in vs. 16, typically translated “saved”? It should be obvious that since Timothy was among those who would be “saved” by his own teachings, it cannot mean salvation from eternal wrath, but preservation from the falsehoods Paul has been writing about all this time.
Having established the importance of Timothy’s own character and example, Paul now turns to more personal directions for various groups of people in the congregation: older men, younger men, older women, younger women, and widows. There was no need to address widowers since they could support themselves, while widows were at the mercy of relatives or charity. The principle Paul is establishing is first of all that families take care of their own, so that the congregation is not burdened and can better serve those who have no one. But even the truly needy were not to be supported by the congregation if they were of low character or young enough to remarry (and there is no reason to think Paul’s specification that she be at least 60 applies in all cultures and times). Paul gives the reason for such rules: to protect the reputation of the faith. And he adds that anyone who fails to care for their own family (and this is certainly not limited to men, given Paul’s specific rules for women with widowed relatives) is worse than an unbeliever.
Does “worse than an unbeliever” mean those who fail to provide for their families lose their salvation? No, because it would be nonsensical to say that an unbeliever is worse than an unbeliever. What the context seems to indicate is that they are behaving worse than unbelievers, living according to a lower standard, and must be reprimanded. As with the situation Paul mentioned in 1 Cor. 5, a believer (and with the church’s approval!) can sink very low and still be restored when they repent, and one does not receive discipline if one is not a child of the family (Heb. 12:6–8).
Another faith question is raised in the statement about young widows who “have broken the pledge” (lit. “left the first faith”). Yet if it referred to salvation, it would not be designated as “first”, and we would be adding significant meaning to the text to say it means “the faith they had at first”. The phrase as a whole seems to refer to a possible pledge to remain single. Yet it is followed by mention of some who have turned back to the Adversary, but look at the statement just before it about not giving critics a foothold. These critics (lit. “those opposing”) are not identified as Satan (Adversary) and could be anyone; the same goes also for “some”. So it would appear that Paul is once again warning against giving such a bad witness that observers turn away from the faith as a result; that is, the “some” does not point to these women but to outsiders. It would also be quite inconsistent for Paul to make failure to remarry a salvation issue (ref. 1 Cor. 7, esp. vs. 9). And remember that we are still in this letter concerning false teachings and women in a culture of Artemis worship.
The gentleness of the Christian is to be the norm, especially when dealing with fellow believers, and even more so if they are in need of help. Paul showed through his treatment of the woman teaching falsehood that though she was in error, she was to be kindly but firmly corrected. Yet when we encounter hostile unbelievers, such gentleness can, and often does, lead to compromise and failure to clearly speak the truth. This is not to say we mock and revile the lost, especially if they are not hostile, but on the other hand we must not fail to stand firm for the truth, even if we are labeled as hateful or narrow. But keep in mind that one person’s definition of “nice” is not necessarily another’s, and neither are on a par with God’s. Look in the Gospels and the Letters, and see what Jesus and the apostles did, both gentle and harsh, and when they did which.
In vs. 14 we see the Greek word for “childbearing” or “childrearing”, and it’s in a list of common activities for women of that time and culture. But Paul gives the reason for this, and it is not to codify the limits of a woman’s sphere but to once again guard the reputation of the faith. Further, note the wording Paul uses to describe her status in the home: she is the “house despot”. If anyone is designated by Paul as the “head of the house”, it is the woman; it could not be stated any more plainly than it is here.
Now Paul turns his attention to elders who “stand before”, as opposed to simply the “older” men and women mentioned earlier. This “stand before”, proistemi, is the same word Paul used in Rom. 12:8 as one of the spiritual gifts, and refers to one who is a leader, patron, supervisor, and director. He also used it in 1 Tim. 3:4 regarding the qualifications for guardians. One might see a contradiction between what Paul just said about a woman being the “house despot” and what he said about the others, but that would only be the case if the guardian and “standing elder” are seen as rulers. So since Paul would not contradict himself, we must conclude that guardians and “standing elders” are not ruling authorities.
Paul specifies “double honor” for these elders, especially for the ones who teach scripture, and cites a principle from the old Law as the rationale. But while most interpret this as a figurative appeal for a literal paid position, the context here suggests that Paul is only drawing an analogy. One factor is the complete absence of any specific monetary value, which seems a glaring omission when we remember his specification for the age of an eligible widow. Another is the complete absence of any mention of salary for other alleged positions; that is, who is to be paid “single honor”, and how much is that? And of course Paul only uses the word “wages” for the OT reference, but “honor” for this one. Can we dismiss the literal meaning so easily? In other words, had Paul wanted to talk about honor, could he have said it differently or more clearly?
The primary point of this “double honor” is revealed in vs. 19 and is the counter-balance to it: “double shame”. While it would take more than a casual accusation against such an elder for it to even be considered, the elder who is found guilty of wrongdoing is to be rebuked publicly as an example and warning to the other elders. This is a serious matter that Paul emphasizes by charging Timothy to carry it out without bias or favoritism. Additional weight is given to this matter when Paul warns Timothy not to designate anyone an elder too quickly, or he (Timothy) would share in whatever error they commit. The modern habit of putting “pastors” above scrutiny or criticism stands in stark contrast to, and obvious violation of, this directive; much favoritism is shown to the entitled and their sins are covered over with excuses no one else can use. All of Paul’s teachings concerning leaders put them on a higher standard of morality, not a lower one. And the churches have long ignored the warning against the hasty appointment of elders.
Paul pauses here before moving on to the next topic. He tells Timothy to drink some wine for his ailment, which we know was not stomach problems but frequent urination, due to the unhealthy water there in Ephesus.3 Wine would not only cut down on water consumption but also supply some medicinal value, as it is now known to be healthy in small amounts. Then Paul informs Timothy about both hidden sins and hidden good deeds. We can only speculate as to why he interjected these things at this point, but it is likely that Paul did not write the whole letter in one sitting, and he has already said that he intended to see Timothy soon anyway.
Now the topic is masters and slaves, and once again the emphasis is on protecting the reputation of the faith, not dictating a list of duties or condoning the institution of slavery. It was a fact of life and the believers needed to know how to behave under it. Paul was not so much interested in correcting society’s ills as he was in correcting the believing community, which in turn would transform society. He cautions slaves to treat believing owners with respect as their spiritual equals.
Paul contrasts the teaching he has been giving to Timothy with that of those he calls conceited and ignorant, and describes them with similar terminology to that of the false teachers he mentioned in chapter one. Note that Paul does not hold back from derogatory terms for such teachers, a habit that would surely earn him a strong rebuke from those who wish to impose their own definition of niceness on everyone.
Paul expounds on the last characteristic of these people when it comes to the love of money, since they thought the faith was just another way to make it; they were “selling” the gospel for profit. But it is no different today, as anyone can see not only by watching TV but also by observing the typical church organization. While the majority of preachers may be sincere and godly, even they use the terminology of employment and career when speaking of their activities concerning the faith. They apply to churches as anyone would apply for a job, they are given a compensation package and staff, they have an office and supplies, they preside at business meetings, and they usually get a pension as well. Is this not the meaning of “they have received their reward”, as Jesus said in Mt. 6?
And who can deny that when one receives a salary, one is tempted to compromise on matters of the faith? If nothing else, “children supporting their parents” (2 Cor. 12:14) obligates the “parents” to please them. Or in the other extreme, some “shepherds” demand that the “sheep” care for them and obey them without question, berating them for not continually increasing their financial support. Clearly, even if a “pastor” may not consciously “love money”, the system’s very design gives Satan a foothold, and the demands of the “position” tend to crowd out time spent only on spiritual matters. We would do well to heed the advice of Peter and “not neglect the Word of God in order to wait tables” (Acts 6:2).
So Paul’s warning to the rich in vs. 9 is not just a general one but applies to teachers as well. As it says in Prov. 13:8, the poor hear no threats; they are not the targets of thieves or swindlers or political enemies. This is not to say that wealth itself is evil, but only that it poses a great danger. Those who have it need to keep a close eye on its effect on them.
In verse 10 yet another faith question is raised, and again we must ask who “they” are. Paul has been discussing people who sell the gospel for a profit, and the description does not sound as though these are believers. They have been lured away in the same manner as the seeds being choked by weeds in Jesus’ parable of the sower (Mt. 13:22), and there is disagreement over whether the seeds being choked or scorched by the sun refers to believers. Another factor in the parable is that Jesus was still speaking before the Holy Spirit had come.
At this point we are hardly surprised to see Paul tell Timothy to run away from such temptations. Some may think it spiritual or a test of faith to “play with fire”, but the “fire” of temptation is deadly and powerful, and we dare not think ourselves impervious to its attacks. Evil is something to be resisted, not challenged (James 4:7). This is a spiritual war, one that requires “contention”, and Paul solemnly charges Timothy with a mandate to keep these instructions to the very best of his ability.
After ending the previous section with praise to God, Paul gives additional warnings to the rich. Then he turns back to Timothy, once again urging his faithfulness to this assignment, and once again emphasizing the need to keep away from the distractions of the ignorant teachers. The reference to “what is falsely called knowledge” is a clear and direct jab at Gnosticism, the over-arching theme of the letter.