Timothy’s Women Leaders

How Paul’s Disciple Saw Greatness

Curtis Hefner
Jan 21, 2019 · 11 min read

by CURTIS HEFNER

At the midway point of the 1st century, a letter from Paul the Apostle came into the hands of his son in the faith. The latter, also called an apostle, was at the time ministering faithfully in Ephesus. This letter, which we call 1 Timothy, features one section that extolled calm and peaceful living, a section that has since been used to argue that Paul prohibited all women everywhere from teaching or exercising authority in the Church.

Because I am not a Greek scholar, I have no special insight to offer regarding the subtleties of textual interpretation on this messy issue, an issue that challenges the lingual mastery of experts (I have included an article at the end that may be of help with that). Instead, I am going to explore what Timothy’s life experiences imply about his thinking. That is to say — considering his history,

Therefore, I desire the husbands in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or dissension. Likewise the wives to adorn themselves in well-ordered apparel, with modesty and prudence, not with braids and gold or pearls or extravagantly costly raiment, But rather with what befits women professing reverence for God: good works. Let a wife learn in quietude, in all orderly compliance; But I entrust it to a wife neither to teach nor wield authority over her husband, but to abide in quietude, Because Adam was formed first, then Eve, And Adam was not deceived; rather the woman, being deceived, came to be in transgression; But she will be saved through the bearing of children if they abide with temperance in faith and love and holiness. [1 Timothy 2:8–15]

1 Timothy Was Born of a Forbidden Marriage
Before the Israelites were to enter the land promised by Yahweh to Abraham, their intermarriage with people who served other gods was forbidden.

Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, [Deuteronomy 7:3]

A mamzer may not enter the assembly of Adonai, nor may his descendants down to the tenth generation enter the assembly of Adonai. [Deuteronomy 23:2]

Though Scripture does not explicitly define the meaning of the Hebrew word mamzer (ממזר), according to Talmud Kiddushin 70a, Timothy would qualify:

…in the case of a gentile… who engaged in sexual intercourse with a Jewish woman, the offspring is a mamzer. [Kiddushin 70a]

Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. [Acts 16:1]

Timothy’s mother was Jewish (descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and a believer (with faith in Yahweh). Timothy’s father was a Greek, and not called a believer. Therefore, Timothy was a mamzer — excluded from the assembly and not circumcised as an infant. I suspect Timothy was barred from circumcision since his mother would have intended to obey the command to circumcise.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a woman conceives and bears a male child… on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” [Leviticus 12:3]

We can be certain that Timothy was not circumcised as a child, because he was circumcised after meeting Paul.

Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. [Acts‬ ‭16:1–3‬]

2 Timothy Was Taught Faith by Women
Timothy was taught faith in Yahweh by his mother (Eunice) and grandmother (Lois). He was not taught faith by the male leadership in the synagogue who excluded him as an uncircumcised mamzer.

Paul refers to Timothy’s faith heritage in a letter:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.
[2 Timothy 1:5]

How did he learn the Scriptures? I assume that his mother Eunice taught him according to the command:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. [Deuteronomy 6:4–7]

3 Timothy Was Discipled By a Proponent of Equality — Paul
Timothy was notable to the believers in his hometown, even though he had been excluded from the assembly. Paul took Timothy on as a disciple, affirming him as a valued member of the family of God, teaching him how to interpret the Scriptures and understand them as a Christian.

The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of [Timothy]. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. [Acts 16:1–3]

Even before his conversion, while he had been persecuting the Christians (to the point of murder), Paul would have known of the Jewish heritage of female leaders.

  • Deborah, the honored prophet and judge of Israel in the days before the monarchy.
  • Hulda, the prophet during the reign of King Josiah.
  • Esther, the queen whose actions saved the Jews from genocide.
  • The unnamed mother of “King Lemuel,” whose inspired teaching was so treasured it was recorded in Proverbs 31 to be honored along with the rest of the Writings.

After his conversion, Paul saw no distinction between Jew or Greek (family lineage), slave or free (social status), and male or female (sex).

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. [Galatians 3:26–29]

Paul was an egalitarian in Christ and an expert on the Scriptures. And, as evidenced by accepting Timothy as his disciple, Paul saw no distinction between those born of marriages forbidden or permitted. In fact, Paul asserted that knowledge according to mere flesh was incompatible to the new creation life in Jesus, the Anointed. And the new creation life is such that those entering become God’s righteousness because of who He is, not because of who they were.

Thus, from now on, we know no one according to the flesh, even though we have known the Anointed — yet know him now no longer — according to the flesh. Hence if anyone is in the Anointed he is a new creation; the old things have passed away; look: They have become new. And all things come out of God, who through the Anointed has reconciled us to himself, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation: So that God was in the Anointed reconciling the cosmos to himself, not accounting their trespasses to them, and placing in us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors on the Anointed’s behalf, of such a kind that God makes supplication through us: for the sake of the Anointed, we implore, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made the one who knew no sin into sin, so that in him we might become God’s righteousness. [2 Corinthians 5:16–21]

Therefore, I desire the husbands in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or dissension. Likewise the wives to adorn themselves in well-ordered apparel, with modesty and prudence, not with braids and gold or pearls or extravagantly costly raiment, But rather with what befits women professing reverence for God: good works. Let a wife learn in quietude, in all orderly compliance; But I entrust it to a wife neither to teach nor wield authority over her husband, but to abide in quietude, Because Adam was formed first, then Eve, And Adam was not deceived; rather the woman, being deceived, came to be in transgression; But she will be saved through the bearing of children if they abide with temperance in faith and love and holiness. [1 Timothy 2:8–15]

Let us review. Paul wrote a short letter to Timothy. Timothy, as we have seen, was a man who first was excluded from the teaching of men, then was taught faith in God by women (his mother and grandmother), then was discipled by a man who preached equality in Christ. Would Timothy have understood this letter as Paul warning him against a wife who wanted to teach and wield authority over her husband instead of learning in all orderly compliance? Or would he have taken it as a prohibition against all women, everywhere, serving the church?

The only way Timothy had come to faith in God was through the work of female authority figures. Timothy would have recognized that combativeness was not characteristic of a Christ-like wife or husband. So, a wife should not raise her words up to wield authority over her husband. And a husband should only lift up his hand without anger or dissension. A husband and wife should live in the peace of God, free from abusive conflict.

Nowhere is Paul dictating a principle against women teaching. He knew that the Scriptures testify to the fact that wise kings listen to the wise words of wise women (see Deborah, Hulda, Esther, and King Lemuel’s mother).

4 Great Leadership is Great Service
Remember that Jesus equated greatness to service, not to eloquence nor fame.

The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. [Matthew 23:11–12]

How did Jesus demonstrate his greatness?

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” [John 13:1, 3–5, 12–17]

At the pinnacle of his self-realization, Jesus showed true greatness by humbly, lovingly washing the feet of those whom he was teaching. He decided that his authority was best demonstrated by loving service to others. Jesus fully realized how much power he wielded and how he related to God; the logical conclusion of this realization was to serve.

To Jesus, great leadership is great service.

The mindset that forbids women from church leadership misunderstands the familial nature of the church. This mindset equates leadership with greatness, but does not equate greatness with service like Jesus does. It is a mindset out of step with Jesus Christ.

Consider these questions:

Have you ever heard someone opposed to female leadership express the same opposition against women serving children in the nursery or helping out in the kitchen?

If Jesus is the model, and if Jesus equates leadership with service, then why would women be permitted to serve in one way and not another?

And, I don’t suppose that anyone would make the case that teaching is not a service. Most church “services” are composed almost entirely of teaching.

And what is the effective difference between washing feet and washing dishes? Is changing diapers a loving service? Would the Father redeem his beloved child from filth?

What is the gospel? Can you teach the gospel of Christ without the loving service of Jesus? Can you lovingly serve like Jesus without teaching an example?

5 Father is the Model. Jesus modeled the heart of his Father. In fact, Jesus claimed to do only what he saw his Father model. And he commanded his followers to do the same.

Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.
[John 5:19]

As the Father has loved me I have also loved you; remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have spoken these things to you that my joy may be in you and your joy may be made full. This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.
[John 15:9–12]

When Jesus saw behavior in the character of his Father, he adopted it as his own. And he taught his followers to do likewise — to love as they had been loved. So, back at the supper, why did Jesus demonstrate his love by washing feet?

He did what he saw his Father doing. Near the beginning of his ministry, Jesus’s own feet were washed in the middle of a dinner.

“One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.” [Luke 7: 36–38]

While his host questioned Jesus’s ministry credentials because of his interaction with this woman, Jesus interpreted the service as a loving expression of thankfulness in good faith. Later, when he was reaching for a way to demonstrate the incredible love of his Father to his disciples, when he wanted an example of humble service that was worthy of imitation, he followed the example of this great woman.

For followers of Christ, authentic leadership is loving service, just like Jesus, just like the Father. This standard holds true for both men and women. We do not wield authority over one another, but serve one another in love. We do not know one another according to the flesh — neither heritage, nor class, nor sex, nor conception circumstance — but according to Christ in us, who has made us imagers of God’s righteousness in the new creation.

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. [Genesis 1:27]


I recognize that there are many reasonable questions a student can ask of 1 Timothy. I am not trying to minimize the messiness of textual inquiry. Instead, I am attempting to help Christian readers consider the experience-based worldview of Timothy as the intended recipient of the letter.

For an accessible consideration of this text by a scholar, I recommend this excellent article by Margaret Mowczko.

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