The Problem with Prayer in 1 Timothy 2:9-15

If we interpret 1 Timothy 2:9-15 through the lens of the context of the entire letter which is to correct false teaching, then we can understand that the restrictive measures Paul takes against these Ephesian women corrects some blatant error at that place and time. Theextreme” limitations Paul placed on the women of Ephesus is contrary to his customary practice. The mixed-up, no-good, spirituality that was being taught in Ephesus led people astray from the true faith. Extreme measures were needed that solved the problem. Paul’s instructions concerning women must be understood in context of the dangerous false teaching found in Ephesus.

They were praying wrong.

Prayer is the immediate topic beginning in 2:1. The false teaching in Ephesus was affecting who the church prayed to and how they went about their petitioning. We see this is a church-wide problem for Paul urged everyone  to pray for peaceful and quiet lives (2:2). He linked quiet, peaceful, godly living with achieving God’s evangelistic goal of bringing all people to a knowledge of the truth (2:4). Paul urged prayer correlating to the sound doctrine he taught them. We are to pray to the one true God our Savior (2:3), through His mediator, the man Christ Jesus (2:5). Here is the heart of the corrective teaching on prayer, which resulted in the practical instructions to men and women. Prayer directed to the one true God should be marked with peace and propriety, unlike prayer to idols.

Posture in prayer

In verse 8, men were instructed to lift both hands in prayer. This may indicate that a particular posture was in vogue that reflected idolatry. Most certainly, it was contentious, as Paul warned them against anger and arguing.

Verses 9-15 continued Paul’s flow of thought on prayer in verses 1-8, as he connected the prayer of men to the prayer of women with hósautós, or “likewise/also.”

…I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. I also want the women… (2:8-9a) NIV

As in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5, Paul assumed both men and women would be praying in the church community. And, according to 1 Timothy 2:4, men and women were both to pray in a fashion that would not detract outsiders from knowing the true gospel.  Hesuchia, translated as “quiet” in verse 2, is the same Greek word Paul used to describe the desired attitude for women verse 12, often translated as “silent.” Regardless of how hesuchia is glossed in translation (as silent or quiet), Paul applied it to both genders in Ephesus (2:2), with special insistence that the women comply (2:12).

Apparel in prayer

Praying posture and emotion was affecting prayer for the men. For women, it was their apparel and attitude (2:9-10). Paul asked for modest dress, which he defined as decent and proper – without a show of wealth. Our modern mind equates modest apparel with more fabric, but Paul’s context reflected the idea of simplicity.

I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes… (2:9) NIV

Sandra Glahn argues that in Greco-Roman society, braids, gold, pearls and expensive clothes were a mark of affluence, “associated with a person’s rank.”[1] This suggests that the women of Ephesus were entangled with the love of money (3:3; 6:5-10) and status, and this was evident in their arrogant attitudes and ostentatious attire. Paul distinguished good works as the apparel of those who worship God (2:10), in contrast to the ostentatious display of rank and wealth associated with idolatry. [2] (The next article on Artemis will provide explanation for Paul’s emphasis on apparel in worship.)

The attention given to praying women at the end of chapter 2 correlated with a particular Ephesian problem Timothy needed to correct. We get a clearer picture of what these women were doing with their voluble and interfering ways in chapter 5.  Some women were in danger of judgment (5:12), “saying things they ought not to (5:13),” followers of Satan (5:15), and exploiters (5:6, 16). This painted a picture of women who were not only disturbing the households of the church, but were demanding monetary support, and were implanting teaching that Paul calls “satanic” (5:15). We must not isolate Paul’s instructions in 2:9-15 from the problems he described with the Ephesian women in chapter 5. These women were undermining faith in Jesus Christ, especially when it came to who and how they prayed for help.

The motivation for prayer

If we find prayer as the context for Paul’s instructions introducing 1 Timothy 2:9-15, then we find the motivation for the context at its conclusion. Verse 15, which has been a debated enigma for millennia, states the concern that drove the Ephesians to pray in error.

Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (2:15) ESV

David Scholer calls verse 15 the climax of the passage and links its positive assurance for women with the negative mandate prior in verse 12.[3]

I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man. (2:12a) NIV

The main puzzle to solve in verse 15, to address Paul’s meaning for the entire passage, is the type and method of salvation promised to women. In verse 15, Paul declares that “she (a singular pronoun inherent in the singular verb) will be saved through childbirthing, if they (a plural pronoun inherent in the plural verb) continue in faith and love and holiness with self-control.” While there are many explanations for Paul’s switch in grammatical numeric value in this verse, Sandra Glahn suggests a simple explanation. Paul is borrowing a popular, local saying.[4]

“She will be saved through childbirth”

Scholars have identified that Paul often used popular sayings and quotes as a springboard to his teaching, but they are sometimes missed due to the limitations of Greek punctuation and historical context. Greek writing did not have a set way to indicate quotations, so many times archaeology and historical study reveals what could be a quote after years of research. That is the case for  1 Tim. 4:8-9 NASB; 1 Cor. 6:12 NIV; 1 Cor. 7:1-2 NIV; 1 Cor. 15:33; Titus 1:12, and Acts 17:24-29. Here is a modern example of how this works.

Be all that you can be if they sign up with the right mindset and willingness to work hard.

This quotation, without the quotes to indicate a popular saying, would be lost on anyone not watching American TV in the 80’s and 90’s. But put in the proper punctuation, and voila. “Be all that you can be” if they sign up with the right mindset and willingness to work hard. This indicates a context for us to interpret through.

If the phrase, “She will be saved through childbirth,” was a local slogan, Paul borrowed it to make a specific point, not to present an alternative salvation for women. This would be a simple explanation for the switch of numerical value in his subject. And it is a reasonable assumption for two reasons. Paul was known for using common sayings, and the famous, local deity of Ephesus was Artemis, the goddess of childbirth. We will detail her worship in the next article.

Ephesians 2:8-9 says we are saved by grace through faith, not by works. Titus 3:5 says salvation is not by works, but by God’s mercy. Paul is consistent that all people are only saved by faith in Christ alone.  We can be confident Paul was not teaching women have a special method of eternal salvation by giving birth. Instead, Paul used a local saying to assure women that they would survive the dangerous ordeal of childbirth.

Why is this particular assurance about surviving childbirth necessary contextually in the flow of Paul’s logic? It must have something to do with the instructions and teaching Paul gave immediately prior to this promise.

Understanding verses 11-14 in context with Paul’s promise to women in verse 15, gives us a glimpse at the false teaching Paul was correcting. In verse 11, Paul uses the only imperative verb in this passage to command the women to learn.

A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. (2:12) NAS

Certainly, they must learn in order to correct the superstitious and fictional notions that had deceived them. What is the best posture for learning? Paul agrees with one hundred percent of teachers, everywhere. A student must keep their mouths shut, and be willing to learn! Apparently, the Ephesian women were talking too much and instead of submitting to learn proper doctrine, they refused to listen.

Not only did these women with false notions refuse to learn, they insisted on teaching and controlling men with their false ideas (2:12). This false teaching most likely had its roots in a creation myth, because Paul proceeded to correct these ideas in verses 13-14. Adam was created first, not Eve. Eve instigated transgression because she was deceived. This was a simple correction of the facts, which the women in Ephesus apparently had not learned or disagreed with.  The refusal to learn (11), the dominating insistence of women (12), and the incorrect teaching about the creation order and fall (13-14) were all bound together in these women’s fear of dying in childbirth (15), according to Paul’s flow of argument.

What is not written in Paul’s words is the specific error his instructions corrected, because Timothy already knew them. For the modern reader to deduce what contemporary error these instructions addressed, a survey of what we know of the Ephesian religion and culture blended with the specific instructions Paul gives, is helpful. Read more about it.


[1] Sandra L. Glahn,”The First-Century Ephesian Artemis: Ramifications of Her Identity,” Bibliotheca Sacra 172, no. 688 (2015): 450-469. New Testament Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed November 29, 2017), 456.

[2] Ibid., 457.

[3] David M. Scholer, “1 Timothy 2:9-15 and the Place of Women in the Church’s Ministry,” in Women, Authority and the Bible, ed.  Alvera Mickelsen (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 196.

[4] Glahn, 466.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s