When dealing with difficult passages, we need to remember three rules:
1. Context is key.
2. We interpret a passage we are unsure of in light of passages we are certain of.
3. We let the author speak for himself
Much of Paul’s letter to Timothy talks about rebutting and correcting false teachers that were influencing the church in Ephesus. He addresses topics and groups within the church that were being swayed by these teachers, including marriage, food, wealth, men, women, and church leadership. In this next passage, Paul takes a moment to address the question of women in church leadership.
1 Timothy 2:9-12
Also, the women are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense; not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive apparel, but with good works, as is proper for women who affirm that they worship God.
A woman should learn in silence with full submission. I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to be silent.
It’s statements like these, especially when taken out of context, that cause a lot of strife within the modern church. However, before we dismiss Paul’s instructions as being old-fashioned or oppressive, let’s consider some context.
Paul’s direction here is for women who affirm that they worship God, and as such, this passage falls under the theme of the previous context. Paul began this section with instructions for all believers. He stressed the importance of living a quiet and tranquil life, one displaying godliness and dignity in such a way that our lives become a “walking witness” for the God we have a direct relationship with.
Paul moves from how women who worship God present themselves publicly and then immediately moves to how she can be learning. That may seem like an unusual transition, given the culture of the time. There were not a lot of education options for women in the ancient world, as all of the formal teachings and instructions went to men. When he says that a woman should learn, we can observe that Paul is counter-culturally giving the women of the church an equal opportunity with the men of the church to be learners of God’s Word.
Now let’s look at the ‘how’ a woman should learn. The Greek word for silence doesn’t mean “not talking”; instead, it refers to someone with a stable quietness who doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others or act in an unruly manner. Additionally, the Greek word translated as submission means to “rank under”. Just like in military settings, rank has to do with order and authority, not personal superiority or inferiority. In fact, the teaching style of the day held an expectation that a pupil would do all their learning with both of these two characteristics – silence and submission. As such, Paul isn’t suppressing women here – instead, he is holding them to the same expectations as the male learners.
Understanding Paul’s word choice also helps us interpret why he says I do not allow a woman to teach or have authority over a man. The verbs teach and have authority are both in the present tense, which implies a continuing ministry rather than a single instance of ministry. Additionally, the word for have authority over is unique in comparison to the typical Greek word chosen to describe someone in a higher ranking position. Instead, Paul is describing a woman who acts without accountability, who domineers as an absolute master within the church family. By recognizing that the context immediately after this passage gives specific qualifications for church overseers and deacons, we begin to see that Paul’s prohibition here specifically addresses only the official teaching and ruling ministry of the church.
While the current cultural and educational settings would have been familiar to the Ephesian church, Paul doesn’t appeal to those cultural norms to justify his instruction. Instead, he looks back to God’s initial creation:
1 Timothy 2:13
For Adam was created first, then Eve.
We’ll get deeper into Paul’s reasoning for referencing back to God’s initial design for the family in the next post. And in the text that follows, we’ll observe that Paul gives specific criteria for the men who want to be in the overseer or deacon roles. We’ll see that God’s standard for those roles is quite lofty, and that they carry the risk of significant punishment for those who mishandle the position.
For now, though, because we took the time to examine the text, can see that Paul’s direction isn’t some off-the-cuff, all-women-are-slaves-to-all-men kind of idea. Paul is addressing a specific leadership situation within the church family. His directions are not a prohibition on women leading in business, government, or even other sub-groups within the church family.
Instead, we’ve discovered how this passage fits into the theme of this section in Paul’s letter to Timothy. Proper dress, a right attitude, and orderly church-family leadership are all ways that Paul directs women to flesh out their part of all believers’ responsibility to lead a tranquil and quiet life, with both godliness and dignity.