One of the most controversial questions of the modern church relates to the role of women in the body of Christ: Can women teach the congregation? And if not, why would the Apostle Paul issue specific commands for women to be “quiet” and refrain from teaching (1 Timothy 2:11-12)?
Before diving into some of the details of this complicated topic, we have to take a few things into consideration. First, the letter to Timothy, penned by Paul, was written to address a specific church, with instructions for how to deal with that church’s personal challenges. Second, we must consider historical context and cultural environment, which have an effect on the instructions Paul gives. And finally, we must read these passages with a mind that recognizes neither Jesus nor the Apostle Paul was “sexist” (a topic addressed in this post).
The question of teaching women is rooted in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which says: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” At first glance, this verse is alarmingly exclusive. Could Paul really be saying women aren’t allowed to speak in church? Actually, that’s not what he was saying at all.
According to author James Hurley, the Greek word for “quiet” in this passage “does not mean silence but carries with it connotations of peacefulness and restfulness…. Paul is not…calling for ‘buttoned lips’ but for a quiet receptivity and a submission to authority.” (Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective, p. 201) This is further proven by the activity of New Testament women, from the disciples of Jesus to deaconesses of the early church. In Romans 16, Paul commends himself to Phoebe, Prisca, Mary and Junia, the last of whom is referred to as an “apostle” who was imprisoned like himself (v. 7, HCSB). In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul gives instructions about orderly worship, and in doing so reveals that women “prayed and prophesied” publicly within the church (v. 5). And in Acts 21:9 we see the four daughters of Philip prophesying at the early church gatherings. This being the case, Paul would be contradicting himself to bar women from having a voice within the church, as they were already actively speaking—and with his endorsement.
Given the scriptural proofs, women were permitted to prophesy in the early church, an action Paul describes as “[speaking] to the people for edification, encouragement and consolation” (Romans 14:3). So if prophecy is for edification, what is teaching? In the early church (as indicated throughout the Pauline epistles), “teaching” always pointed to specific doctrinal instruction. To teach on this level required authority over all members of the church, including men. Because of the nature with which Paul defined Christian marriage (outlined in Ephesians 5), women filling pastoral roles would contradict the order of marriage (wives acting as the authoritative head of their families), and thus, the order of the church. But this does not mean women were or are lesser beings. This is not an issue of equal value, as our culture would have us believe, but of different, but equally valuable roles. Paul never stated that women could not hold leadership positions in the church; rather, he gives limits on one role and one only: the position of authority over the congregation, also known as pastoral leadership.
Timothy was a young pastor (1 Timothy 4:12) in a church that had an issue with false teachers, specifically false teachers who targeted women (2 Timothy 3:5-7). With the danger of false teaching and the potential susceptibility of Timothy’s congregation, Paul’s letter may have issued these directives out of protection, not limitation. And certainly, there have been churches who abuse Paul’s words to subjugate and silence women in ways Paul never intended. Some of this subjugation may have begun with good intentions, as there is indication that the roles of women in the church were restricted beginning in the second century, when Gnosticism (a cultic ideology that gave women authority but denied the truth of the gospel) threatened to divide the church. Whatever the case, we must consider these factors as we look at this passage and Paul’s instructions concerning a woman’s role in the church. The delicacy of this passage is revealed in the many interpretations Christian denominations have given to Paul’s words, and this article is not long enough to address all aspects of the subject.
We can, however, come away with this reassurance: Christian women—from the disciples of Jesus to deaconesses and servants of the early church—were permitted to speak the gospel, discuss God’s Word and serve God through the local body of believers. Some of these women were pivotal to the spread of the gospel, and some—such as Junia—were even imprisoned for their faith. We should continue to boldly speak the gospel and bring God’s truth to our spheres of influence, certainly inside the church, but even more importantly outside of its walls.
To read a more detailed analysis of this topic, check out this article.