1 Timothy 2:11-15 is a particularly controversial passage of the Bible. Within it, women are prohibited from “teaching” or “exercising authority” over men. What does this refer to in practice? To help us understand the meaning of the passage, we need to appreciate the careful way that Paul weaves references to the creation and fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3 into his argument.
Adam as Priest
The garden of Eden was the very first sanctuary in history. Like the tabernacle and the temple which followed it, the garden was a meeting place between God and man (Genesis 3:8). It was situated in a high place, with rivers flowing out from it to water the four corners of the earth (Genesis 2:10-14). Within this context, Adam was not merely a gardener, but the keeper of the sanctuary, appointed to “work it” and to “keep it” (Genesis 2:15). As the image of God, he had a special role to mediate the blessing of God to the rest of creation by his faithful service to God in the garden.
As part of Adam’s priestly task, he was issued a commandment forbidding him from eating fruit from one of the trees, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, on pain of death (Genesis 2:16-17). What is the “knowledge of good and evil”? Elsewhere in the Bible, it denotes adult maturity, as opposed to childhood innocence (Deuteronomy 1:39, Isaiah 7:15-16). I would suggest that the same is true here, that Adam as a new creation was still immature and not yet ready to receive the wisdom of the tree of knowledge.
In the creation of Eve, Adam is granted a “helper” who could assist him in his garden tasks (Genesis 2:18). Though Adam himself was the priest, the one who was given the principal task of keeping the sanctuary, Eve was there at his side. That’s when the serpent enters onto the scene. He promises Eve that in eating the fruit, she will not die and she will become like God in knowing good and evil (3:5 cf. 3:22). Now, although Eve appears to have known about the commandment prohibiting the fruit (3:2-3), only Adam as the priestly figure was given the commandment directly by God (2:16-17). So he should have known better than to eat of the fruit.
Instead, after seeing Eve eat some of the fruit, he also received some and ate it (3:6). When God appears in his glory, he discovers what had happened (3:8-19) and issues judgements upon all of them. He covers Adam and Eve’s nakedness with garments of animal skin, to ransom them from death (3:21) and drives them out of the garden. But this isn’t the end of the story. God also makes a promise that one day the woman will have victory over the deceiving serpent, through her offspring (3:15). For this reason, Adam gives her the name “Eve”, which means “mother of the living”, since through her offspring humanity will be vindicated over the serpent.
The Ministry of Death
All of this is relevant to Paul’s argument in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Paul is writing in a context in which false teaching like that of the serpent plagued the church in Ephesus (1:3-7). In writing this section of his letter, he wants to ensure that the same mistakes which happened in the garden of Eden are not repeated in the Ephesian Church. He orders the women to learn quietly, not disturbing the peace (2:11). This is not a prohibition on women joining in the songs or prayers of the Church, but of interrupting during the delivery of authoritative teaching.
The next verse (2:12) is the key commandment in the section, in which Paul forbids women from “teaching” and “exercising authority” over men. What sort of activity is Paul prohibiting? The Greek word for “exercise authority” is a very strong word, which outside the Bible often means “to slay”. I would argue that Paul is referring here to the discipline and excommunication of false teachers. Earlier in the chapter, he used the language of “handing them over to Satan” (1:20) in reference to this ministry, so the use of strong language in describing excommunication would not be unusual for Paul.
Viewed in this context, the reference to “teaching” is not simply referring to regular teaching or encouragement in the life of the Church, but is an authoritative ‘laying down of the truth’ in the face of false teaching. Paul explains all of this by referring to the fact that Adam was formed before Eve. Why is this relevant? Given our earlier study of Genesis 2-3, we saw that Adam’s creation before Eve is relevant in light of the fact that he is a priestly figure, the one to whom the commandment to abstain from the forbidden fruit was given.
Of course, in the new covenant the “sanctuary” is not the garden of Eden but the Church. Yet Paul still seeks to ensure that appointed men and not women are the ones in charge of ensuring that true doctrine is defended and false teaching resisted, deriving his rationale from Genesis 2-3. Indeed, Had Adam acted righteously he would have corrected the deceiving serpent and banished him from the garden. It’s for this reason that Paul goes on to speak about appointing Church leaders only a few verses later (1 Timothy 3:1-13). As Paul writes elsewhere of a church leader:
must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to
give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
The Ministry of Life
Having reminded us of God’s rationale in creating Adam before Eve, we then move on to the story of the fall. We are reminded that Eve, and not Adam, was the one who was “deceived” (1 Timothy 2:14). In context, this is not a condemnation of Eve over Adam. Being “deceived” implies that you were tricked, unlike Adam who had received a direct revelation of the commandment and therefore had full knowledge of his sin. Paul reminds Timothy of this not in order to lay the blame at Eve’s feet but to bring to his mind the consequences of going against God’s revealed will for men and women.
The final verse in the chapter has perplexed many commentators: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” (1 Timothy 2:15). I would argue that verse 15, like verses 13-14, is a reflection on Genesis 2-3. Firstly, Paul notes that Adam was formed before Eve (1 Timothy 2:13, cf. Genesis 2:7, 22). Secondly, he notes that Eve – and not Adam – was deceived (1 Timothy 2:14, cf. Genesis 3:1-6, 13). Finally, he looks forward to the salvation of Eve by “childbearing” (1 Timothy 3:15). This makes most sense as a reference to the promise that Eve would be given victory over the deceiving serpent by the seed which would come from her womb (Genesis 3:15).
Who are the “they” referred to in the second half of the verse? The most straightforward explanation is that they are the righteous, the seed born of the woman. In a special sense, Christ is the seed, the one who crushes the head of the serpent. However, “seed” or “offspring” in Genesis usually refers to the righteous as a group of people rather than an individual representative (eg. Genesis 4:25, 9:9, 12:7). So, in summary, the final verse means that Eve is vindicated (saved) through the bearing of children (the righteous), if those children remain steadfast in faith. By our faithfulness, we crush Satan under our feet and vindicate Eve over the serpent.
“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”
 The same two Hebrew words for “work” and “keep” are paired once again in Numbers 3:7-8, which describes the ministry of the priests with respect to the tabernacle.
 Note also the way that Solomon’s request for wisdom uses the language of discernment between “good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9).
 See also 1 Corinthians 5:3-5. In 1 Corinthians 5:13, Paul actually quotes a death penalty commandment from Deuteronomy 17:7 in the context of a discussion about excommunication.
 Elsewhere Paul is quite clear that Adam is the chief culprit (Romans 5:12-14, 1 Corinthians 15:22).