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Chapter Five: Literary And Theological Context of 1 Timothy 2:15


Grammar and lexical studies rarely hold the final word in translating and interpreting texts, and 1 Tim 2:15 is no exception. As all good seminary students know, context is everything in interpretation! The following sections briefly address the literary and theological context of 1 Tim 2:15. First, the occasion and purpose of this communication from Paul is considered including a section on the false teachings at Ephesus. Second, important theological themes of the Pastorals in general and 1 Timothy in particular, are explored. The third section reviews Paul's specific teachings regarding women found in three passages in 1 Timothy, including the immediate context of 2:15. The final concluding section serves the purpose of drawing significant conclusions from each of these areas which may aid in the understanding of 1 Tim 2:15.

Occasion, Purpose and False Teachings

What prompted Paul to write a letter to his associate Timothy? What is the main purpose of the letter and how does that relate to the basic themes and message of 1 Timothy? Are there any clues in the letter as to the nature of the false teachings Timothy was facing? The following paragraphs examine these issues.

An understanding of the occasion for the writing of 1 Timothy helps to illuminate its message. Paul had left Timothy in charge at Ephesus while he himself went on to Macedonia, writing the first epistle to Timothy in part to supplement his oral instructions to his younger associate.215 Timothy was not a bishop/pastor of the Ephesian church but functioned as a temporary representative of Paul in his apostolic capacity.216 The Pastoral Epistles in general are addressed to individuals (Timothy and Titus) and thus seem to be personal letters, but the content of their teaching reveals them to be official communications meant to be heard by entire congregations. The plural benediction (1 Tim 6:21b, uJmw'n) reveals that 1 Timothy was to be "overheard" by believers associated with the named recipient.217 This served the purpose of both encouraging Timothy in his work while also authorizing him before the church as the apostolic representative.218

The central concern and primary purpose of 1 Timothy is to provide instructions for confronting and combating false teachings/teachers and for restoring the stability in the church disrupted by these teachings.219 First Timothy 1:3 expresses this purpose: "As I urged you when I was leaving for Macedonia, stay on in Ephesus to instruct certain people not to spread false teachings." This overall purpose drives many of the themes in the book such as Paul's socially conservative agenda (including a focus on the correct ordering of the community and living a pious life) and his emphasis on sound teaching and strong, solid leadership.220 The underlying spirit of all of these ideas, however, is Paul's evangelistic mind and the concept that the true teaching of the gospel coupled with an exemplary lifestyle has, as its ultimate goal, the leading of others to salvation.

Towner proposes, "Most of Paul's statements in the Pastorals and the manner in which he makes them are governed by the presence of heresy in the churches."221 It follows then, that comprehending the nature of these heresies would contribute to our understanding of many of the statements found within the Pastorals, including 1 Tim 2:15. This is, of course, not as simple as it may seem. Though all three Pastoral Epistles speak to some type of opposition to the faith, the rather vague references make it difficult, if not impossible, to give exact identification to this heresy.222 Thus one must glean from the epistles themselves what information is available. For example, 2 Tim 2:18 indicates there is some misunderstanding about the resurrection and that false teachings are circulating that the resurrection has already occurred.223 The effect of this teaching seems to be the idea that some type of spiritual "fullness" is completely available in the present.224 The false teachings also involve ascetic tendencies including the forbidding of marriage and abstaining from certain foods (1 Tim 4:3). An interest in myths and genealogies play a part in the unrest (1 Tim 1:4, 4:7; Tit 1:14, 3:9) and the results include petty disputes and arguments (1 Tim 6:4-5; 2 Tim 2:14, 3:9). The teaching seems to be causing some type of unrest among the women of the community (1 Tim 2:9-15, 5:15) and possibly among slaves also (1 Tim 6:1-2) as well as disputes and anger among the men (1 Tim 2:8). The false teachers themselves desire to be teachers of the law (1 Tim 1:7) yet are only promoting the "chatter" and "absurdities" of false knowledge (1 Tim 6:20).

Though the picture is sparse, the danger of these teachings is evident from the harsh language used to describe and denounce it.225 They are teachings "fit only for the godless and gullible" (1 Tim 4:7), the product of "the hypocrisy of liars" (1 Tim 4:2), characterized by "empty discussion" (1 Tim 1:6), and produced by one who is "conceited and understands nothing, but has an unhealthy interest in controversies and verbal disputes" (1 Tim 6:4-5). Though a complete and definitive list of the heresies may never be available, Paul's language and attitude certainly demonstrate the seriousness with which he took these affronts to the message and its dissemination.

Theological Themes in 1 Timothy

The three major themes in the Pastoral Epistles are faith, salvation, and good works,226 all of which appear in 1 Tim 2:15. The following paragraphs consider the special concerns of the Pastorals regarding these three themes and the relation between the three.


The frequency of pivsti" (33 occurrences) and pistov" (17 occurrences) alone reveals the prominent role the theme of faith holds in the Pastorals. The three epistles, however, give evidence of a flexibility for these terms. Often the term, "faith," is creedal and objective representing the doctrinal content of the gospel which must be preserved in the face of false teachings (this understanding is frequently expressed by the noun with the article or when paralleled with "truth").227 However, Paul also uses the term with its more standard sense of "trust" and as an adjective referring to fidelity.228 The progression between these three meanings for faith is quite logical. The faithful have faith in something and thus the term "the faith" becomes the embodiment of that which describes one's faith.229


Several components in the Pastorals confirm Paul's traditional teachings on salvation: faith alone, and not any type of work, places one in the position of acceptance by and friendship with God. First, all but one of the active forms of swv/zw have God or Christ as the subject, and only God and Jesus are assigned the title, Savior. Salvation is clearly the work of the Triune God. Second, several explicit statements deny any idea of works-based salvation and confirm salvation as the merciful gift of God. In 1 Tim 1:14, Paul credits the grace of the Lord for bringing him faith and love, and 2 Tim 1:9 declares that the God who saved us did so by his own purpose and grace and not because of any human works. Titus 3:5 is equally forceful: "He saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit."

The present reality of salvation along with its unfinished nature is a special concern in the Pastoral Epistles.230 Because of this, there is a strong sense of human responsibility and obedience throughout the book. Yet at the same time, this emphasis is balanced by a soteriology rooted in the tradition of salvation by grace as discussed above.231 In the Pastoral Epistles, good works never merit salvation, but are always a consequence of it.232 A salvation that is accomplished by Christ, yet at the same time unfinished, is a result of the believer's present existence between the two advents of Christ.233 Paul describes the present age as evil and mortal, and because of this believers are to look for Christ's return for the completion of salvation.234 Paul uses epiphany language to refer to the first advent of Christ as well as his second return, depicting salvation as related to both of these events and therefore a past, present, and future reality. In the present, believers have obligations to holy living, for repentance from sinful behavior coupled with the call to a holy life are a part of God's salvific plan.235

Good Works

The previous section reveals that good works are not described in the Pastorals as meriting salvation, but as a necessary consequence of salvation.236 The strong emphasis on good works in the Pastorals calls all believers to be ready to perform such works (1 Tim 2:10, 5:10, 6:18; 2 Tim 2:5, 3:17; Tit 3:1,14). It is salvation by grace which makes these good works possible for the believer,237 in contrast to the opponents of the faith and false teachers who are worthless for good deeds (Tit 1:16).238 The outcome of the gospel is a change in behavior and thus good practice is an expected reality of the truly converted.239 The underlying tone of these teachings on good works is the church's continuing mission to spread the gospel: good deeds lead others to Christ (1 Tim 3:7, 5:14, 6:1).240

Women in the Pastoral Epistles

As a group, women are the special concern of Paul's instruction in 1 Timothy in three separate contexts. First is the immediate context of the verse at hand, 1 Tim 2:9-15, concerning their dress and issues of learning and teaching. Second, the behavior of women connected to leadership positions in the church is the subject of 3:11. Third is the most lengthy of the contexts focused on women: the discussion of widows in 5:3-16. These passages will be examined in the following paragraphs and significant insights they may give to the interpretation of 2:15 will be explored.

1 Tim 2:9-15

Interpreting 1 Tim 2:9-15 is an ominous task and can hardly be accomplished quickly or lightly. This passage has been at the center of the debate concerning the role of women in the ministry of the church for several decades and still divides evangelical Christianity today. A full discussion of the views and implications of this passage could and has produced complete theses, dissertations, and books. The discussion here, then, must certainly be limited to what elements in this passage may contribute to an understanding of its final verse rather than a detailed discussion of its interpretation and application for today.

Verses 9-10 set the tone for this passage by describing a woman's ideal wardrobe and conduct as suitable, modest, proper, and respectful. Good works are mentioned explicitly in verse 10 as the best adornment for the woman who is concerned with honoring God. The controversial verses 11-12 address the issues of learning and teaching. A woman's attitude in learning should be characterized by a quiet and submissive demeanor and the areas of authority and teaching men are to be avoided. The level of difficulty, and therefore controversy, seems to rise with the verse number, for the interpretation of verses 13-14 is a challenge. These verses take the reader back to the Garden and the creation/fall stories, focusing on Eve's deception and possibly alluding to the curses and promise following the fall. The message of verse 15 concludes this section on women with a reappearance of the idea of a suitable, self-controlled lifestyle for Christian women.

1 Tim 3:11

In 1 Tim 3:11 Paul is speaking of the behavior of a group of women whose identification is debated. He is either referring to the wives of the deacons mentioned in the previous verses or women who actually serve as deacons. For our purposes here, this debate will be saved for another day and the insights these words have regarding 1 Tim 2:15 will be the focus. Differences abound between the two contexts. 1 Tim 2:15 speaks to women in general while 3:11 speaks to a certain group of women connected, either directly or through their husbands, to church leadership. Thus in 3:11 qualifications for leadership is in view and in 2:15 there seems to be more basic spiritual connotations in the forefront. The conduct expected of women in these two verses, however, is quite similar. Faith and faithfulness are common themes in both as is the concept of self-control.

1 Tim 5:3-16

The discussion of widows in 5:3-16 also shares common themes with 2:15 which may contribute to understanding the latter. The first paragraph (5:3-8) concerns which widows should receive the respect and financial support of the church. With strong language, Paul teaches that family members should care for their own, and thus only widows with no other hope should receive help from the church. The widow whose hope is in God and who continues in prayer rather than seeking pleasure is one who is above reproach (5:5-7). The second paragraph gives further requirements for widows. Similar to deacons and elders, a widow on the list for aid should have been the wife of one husband. Verse 10 follows with a focus on the good works which should have characterized her life, among these are raising children. Younger widows seem to have been causing disturbances (5:11-13), thus rather than receiving financial support from the church, Paul wants them to marry and be about the business of managing a household and caring for their children (5:14). The specific purpose for this command is that they not give Satan the chance to harm the witness of the church in the community through inappropriate behavior.

Significant Insights

In the Pastorals and especially in 1 Timothy, Paul addresses the conduct and behavior of women in a manner and length unprecedented in his other epistles. These passages suggest that there were serious issues regarding the women at Ephesus. Whether from cultural pressures or from the influence of the false teachers, the women in the community at Ephesus were straying from the truth and behaving in such a manner as to hinder the gospel rather than promote it. In addition to the modesty and self-control of women, the role of wife and mother seems to be of significant interest to Paul in these letters, suggesting these roles were being neglected and/or avoided by the women possibly because of the deceptive false teachings circulating in the church. Paul attempts to correct this aberrant behavior with correctives for unacceptable behavior and praise and honor for women who have faithfully fulfilled these duties. First Timothy 2:15 seems to provide some corrective teaching for these behaviors by connecting childbirth with the more lofty spiritual ideas of salvation and faithfulness.

Chapter Summary

The meaning of 1 Tim 2:15 is clarified somewhat by identifying the purpose of the letter: combating false teaching and thus restoring the order and preserving the witness of the church in the community. The unacceptable behavior of some of the younger widows in the church and the circulating idea that marriage was something to avoid suggest that 2:15 could be a statement related to confronting such ideas and practices. The suggestion in 1 Tim 2:15 could be shaped by a contrary view espoused by the false teachers that women were to be saved by devotion to Christ expressed in a celibate rejection of traditional roles.241 By connecting a life committed to nurturing one's children with salvation, Paul is affirming the choice of marriage and motherhood as an acceptable lifestyle which leads to glorification rather than one to avoid in order to enhance one's spiritual life.

The theological themes of the Pastorals also contribute to a deeper understanding of the message of 1 Tim 2:15. The concern in the Pastorals to express the integral connection between good works and salvation, while strongly affirming that salvation is based on God's grace alone, helps explain the correlations made in 2:15. Women will be saved if they abide in the faith and truth of the gospel yet this salvation is also linked to the good works of holiness, self-control, and childbearing. A faithful and holy life is the outcome of true faith; the cause and effect are inseparable from one another.

This idea of motherhood as an acceptable and proper lifestyle in which a woman may experience the present realities of salvation is seen in other instructions regarding women in 1 Timothy. The raising of children is a good deed which gives evidence of a widow's faith and thus helps qualify her for honor and financial support from the church. Younger widows are encouraged to marry and have children so as to combat the subtle attempts of Satan to nullify the work of the church. Motherhood, it seems, is an appropriate and honorable work with spiritual benefits for the woman who undertakes it, either as a strong evidence of her faith, or as a lifestyle which enhances her witness to unbelievers and buffets Satan's work.

215 Everett F. Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), 328.

216 Henry Clarence Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), 262.

217 I. Howard Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles, The International Critical Commentary, ed. J. A. Emerton, C. E. B. Cranfield, and G. N. Stanton (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1999), 12.

218 Werner Georg Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament, trans. Howard Clark Kee (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973), 367; and Gordon D. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Good News Commentaries, ed. W. Ward Gasque (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1984), xxiii.

219 Philip H. Towner, 1-2 Timothy & Titus, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, ed. Grant R. Osborne (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 22; and John B. Polhill, Paul and His Letters (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1999), 407.

220 Polhill, Paul & His Letters, 407; and Kümmel, Introduction, 386.

221 Towner, 1-2 Timothy & Titus, 26.

222 Harrison, Introduction, 328.

223 "They have strayed from the truth by saying that the resurrection has already occurred and they are undermining some people's faith." 2 Tim 2:19 (NET).

224 Towner, 1-2 Timothy & Titus, 23.

225 Ibid., 25.

226 William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, no. 46 (Nashville: T. Nelson, 2000), cxxx.

227 Ibid., cxxx-cxxxi.

228 Ibid., cxxxi.

229 Ibid., cxxxii.

230 Towner, 1-2 Timothy & Titus, 28.

231 Marshall, Pastoral Epistles, 102.

232 Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, cxxxii.

233 Towner, 1-2 Timothy & Titus, 29.

234 Ibid., 28. See 1 Tim 4:1 and 2 Tim 3:1.

235 Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, cxxxiii.

236 Ibid., cxxxii.

237 Frances Young, The Theology of the Pastoral Letters, New Testament Theology, ed. James D. G. Dunn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 28-9.

238 Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, cxxxiii.

239 Young, Theology of the Pastoral Letters, 30-31.

240 Towner, 1-2 Timothy & Titus, 29.

241 Young, Theology of the Pastoral Letters, 36.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines

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