“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (1 Tim. 2:11-12, TNIV).
I suspect there are few passages in the Bible that have caused more controversy than this. For centuries these words have been used to keep women from taking active roles in the church such as preaching, speaking, and leading. Tragically, so often, this passage has been taken in isolation, out of context, and with no reference to what the Bible as a whole has to say about women. Given the numerous positive references to women leading the early church (Phoebe the deaconess, Junia the apostle, Priscilla teaching with Aquila, and Nympha hosting a church in her house, to name just a few), surely this passage requires more than a surface level reading.
For a start, the very fact that Paul was urging these women to learn was radical for his time; he was stepping out and going against the cultural norm. Many have seen the words “learn in quietness” and “full submission” as entirely restrictive, implying that women are never to speak or ask questions. On the contrary, “in silence” was a first-century phrase often used to describe wise learners. The meaning was not that one should never speak, but rather that one should have an attitude of respect for one’s teachers. Men too would have been expected to learn in such a way, respecting their teachers as conscientious students.
Paul then clearly wanted these women to learn, but why and for what purpose? False teachers were infiltrating the church in Ephesus, causing many to be led astray, including women. They were likely then going on to instruct others in this false teaching, causing confusion and damage to the church. Paul needed to put an end to that and, as such, these women were in need of education. It is logical that until these women learned the truth, Paul did not want them teaching others. After all, I suspect most of us would expect our teachers to know what they are teaching, and to teach correctly! Therefore this is a temporary instruction. “I do not permit” is in the present tense in the Greek, implying that this instruction was not permanent, but applied to the specific situation at the time. Paul most likely wanted the women to learn before they could teach.
How, then, are we to understand the instruction prohibiting women from exercising authority? Crucial here is the correct interpretation of the Greek word for “authority.” The word used occurs nowhere else in the entire New Testament and it most likely means something far closer to usurpation and domineering authority, exerting authority in a coercive way. Authority exercised in such a way would have been the opposite of the way Jesus exercised his authority: with love, sacrifice, and humility. Leadership in the New Testament is never about dominating power, whether carried out by men or women, yet this is probably how the women in Ephesus were behaving. Paul tells them therefore, that such a way of leading is not appropriate.
Dominance of one sex over the other occurred at the fall in Genesis 3:16. Until that time, Adam and Eve had been equal (Gen. 1:27-29). We still live in a fallen world; the effects of that in Ephesus were that women were trying to dominate. Jesus’ work on the cross means that we are now new creations, no longer bound by the effects of the fall, which include the dominance of one sex over the other. Through Jesus, we are equal.
Let us then be encouraged by these verses! Paul championed women’s education. He wanted them to learn and to understand their faith. Once they had learned, they would be in a position to teach others and to lead as equal partners for God’s Kingdom, according to the gifts they had been given.