What Does It Mean for Women to Learn in Quietness and Submission? 1 Timothy 2:11

Tania Harris

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1 timothy 2 (1)

1 timothy 2 (1)

They are the verses of Scripture used most frequently to silence women in the church: 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

I remember reading them as a 26-year-old when first contemplating my call to ministry. God’s voice had been clear, but those three short sentences were not; “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit her to teach or have authority over a man. She. Must. Be. Silent.”

I’d sat there reading the passage over and over; trying to find something I hadn’t seen before. The black and white lettering seemed so stark, so clear; so… black and white. Why would Paul say such a thing? In my church, Paul’s instructions were taken literally. Women weren’t permitted to speak whenever men were present. They couldn’t lead, teach, or even pray. Growing up, those words hadn’t particularly bothered me, but now they smarted like lemon juice in an open cut. No matter how I read them, the conclusion was still the same – I couldn’t follow God’s call.

An Invitation to Learn

As a pastor today, it’s obvious that my understanding of those few verses has long since changed. Though I didn’t know it back then, I’d been reading Paul’s instructions as a 21st-century woman influenced by modern ideals. When Paul first wrote those words to Timothy, his audience would have heard them very differently. While I was reeling from Paul’s admonition to be silent, they would have been reeling from Paul’s admonition to learn.

For women in the church of the first century, the idea of learning was an outrageous one. It was the men who learned, not the women. Women stayed home from the synagogue; they didn’t speak in public or occupy themselves in things of the Law. To a first-century female, Paul’s admonition to quietness was nothing new. It was the call to learn that was the shocking wake-up call.

In these few verses of Scripture, Paul was radically changing the rules. Under the new regime inaugurated by Christ, women were being given the same opportunity to grow in their faith as the men. They were being offered a VIP pass to enter the spiritual classroom and grow in the areas that mattered most. This was radical stuff for the Greco-Roman world! It was a grand departure from a culture that considered the words of the Torah “be better burned than entrusted to a woman.”[1]

The Issue of False Teaching

The call to learn was especially important in the Ephesian church where false teaching was rife.[2] “Godless myths” and “false doctrines” threatened the very essence of the Gospel and as a newly planted church, Ephesus was particularly vulnerable (1 Timothy 1:4,4:7). But who were these people in the church who wanted to be teachers of the law, but didn’t know “what they are talking about” (1 Timothy 1:4,7)?

Paul’s repeated references to “troublesome women” in his letters indicate who the likely culprits were. It seems the women of Ephesus were not the upstanding role models Paul envisioned for the community of faith. “Weak-willed” and “loaded down with sins,” they wore the gaudy clothing of prostitutes (1 Timothy 2:9-10), “wormed their way” into the homes of other women, “saying things they ought not to” rather than tending to their own families (1 Timothy 5:13,14, 2 Timothy 3:6-7). These women may have been eager to exercise their newfound freedom in Christ, but instead of building the church, they were effectively destroying it.

Anointed but Un-trained

It really is no surprise that this kind of problem developed in Ephesus. History tells us that the town was a haven for goddess worship and in particular, the cult of Artemis. People came from all over Asia Minor to pay homage to the fertility goddess and visit the famed temple in her honor (see Acts 19:23-31). The teachings of the cult were far removed from the teachings of Christianity. Devotees believed that all life flowed from the goddess and therefore women were superior to men; they were born first, seen to be the “origin of wisdom” and needed no man to marry or reproduce.[3]

Now it seemed these false teachings were infiltrating the Christian church as women usurped the position of those who were established and qualified.[4] Paul’s solution was for these women to learn. They should adopt a posture of humility and quietness, acknowledging their ignorance and submitting to those who knew more.[5] The teachings of Artemis were not to be confused with the teachings of Jesus. For in God’s kingdom, women were as morally responsible for sin as men (Romans 5), birth order was irrelevant to your standing before God (1 Timothy 2:13-14) and marriage and childbirth were a legitimate way to live (1 Timothy 2:15, 4:2,3).

As Paul had already said, in the church of Jesus, there was “no longer Jew, nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). This was as true for the women at Ephesus as it was for any other Christian community. The women there could be like Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia who used their gifts to teach and lead, but first, they needed to learn. First, they needed to submit to their appointed teachers, understand the full tenets of the gospel, and grow in maturity. Then, and only then, could they take their place.

No Escape Hatch

While our times are different, Paul’s words to women of the first century are still applicable to women of the 21st. God is still calling us to learn.

Back when I first heard God’s call, I thought the only way I could be in full-time ministry was to marry a pastor, so I bucked at any thought of going to Bible College myself. Why would I need to if my husband was already trained? Part of it was understandable – becoming a “pastor’s wife” was the only model I’d seen. But if I’m honest? 1 Timothy 2:11-12 had become a neat escape hatch. I didn’t want to pay the price of being trained. I wanted a man to give me a free pass.

Then when God called me to plant a church as a single woman, I understood there was no way out. I may have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, but I still needed to learn. God wanted me to deal with my insecurities as a leader and develop my giftings in my own right. There would be no riding into ministry on the coat-tails of my husband.

Like the women of the early church, women today are still called to learn.

Paul’s instructions are relevant not because we’re perpetuating false ideas about a goddess cult, but because as women, we are still new to this. Today it is still uncommon for a woman to lead a church in her own right. In my denomination’s national leadership, which has held to gender equality since its inception, there is still only one woman represented. While social forces have encouraged us to take our place, in the church we have some catching up to do.

This is not to say that our development as women is the only limiting factor in realizing God’s vision for equality or that there isn’t a place for affirmative action. But first and foremost, we are responsible as individuals for what we can do to develop the gifts we’ve been given. Each one of us must embrace the freedom to grow that we’ve been offered. Like those first century women, we can all respond to the invitation of 1 Timothy 2 to learn in quietness and submission.

References:

[1] According to the popular 1st century Rabbi Eliezer, (Sotah 3:4)

[2] 1 Timothy 1:4,18-20, 4:1-8, 5:16, 6:3-10; also 2 Tim 2:16-18, 3:1-9, 4:3-4, 14-15.

[3] Kroeger in Mickelson, A. (Ed), Women, Authority and the Bible, InterVarsity Press, U.S.A, 1996, p.228.

[4] Paul commands the women not to ‘usurp or assume’ authority. The Greek term he uses is ‘authenteō’, a word that is very difficult to translate since it is only used once in the whole Bible – here in 1 Timothy 2:12. In other writings of the same era, it means ‘one who, with their own hands, kills another or exercises abusive dominion over another to the point of murder’. It seems Paul’s intention was to these women were taking on positions that were not theirs to take. Read more about the Greek term here.

[5] Note that only wise people of superior birth were to learn ‘in silence’, Spencer, Aida Dina Besancon, “Eve at Ephesus”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 17:4, December 1974, p.215-222.

Image Credit: Morguefile

Tania Harris

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13 Comments

  • I feel like I have found a well of cool water in a barren desert since finding this website. In my heart (after studying scripture for many years) and soul, I know that as women, we have gifts more than childcare or organizing a potluck. My gifts are in counseling marriages, yet rarely has that gift been validated in the church.
    Thank you, Tania, for sharing your story!

  • I have spent my entire Christian walk, of around twenty three years, as a complimentarian. I didn’t understand how anyone could possibly get around 1 Timothy 2. I’m not a stupid woman and have been struggling enormously with a call to preach and no obvious outlet to do that apart from the ‘women’s meeting’ or sunday school. And there’s a hefty element of pride and not wanting to have been wrong all these years. I used to blog stridently about complimentarianism.

    But a friend who I confided in sent me here and this is the second article on 1 Tim 2 I have read that feels like shackles being taken off me. I could cry. In fact I am.

    • Kay, you are not alone! So glad that you are paying attention to your calling, and expecting the Lord to bless you mightily for that. This passage has been misused for so long. There is another great post on it that just came out today and gives even more proof that Paul never meant to shackle women. I think you will appreciate reading it as well. 6 reasons 1 Timothy 2:12 is not as clear as it seems

    • Hi Kay,

      Lovely to hear from you & I am so blessed that the article has been helpful – it certainly speaks of your humility that you would share your story! I do find the background of the Artemis cult to be the most logical explanation for a stream of thought that so obviously contradicts other scriptural themes. Other explanations I’d read for Paul’s comments about female deception and being saved through childbirth seemed trite and even a little silly. But I can still remember sitting at my desk and feeling just a little frightened that my world had just suddenly shifted and I was separating myself from what so many around me held to be true. I pray that God will bring you peace as his Spirit works to bring clarity to your world!

      Tania

  • It’s quite likely that the letters to Timothy and Titus were not written by Paul, but are later texts that come from a period when the church was becoming more institutionalized (and patriarchal). That’s probably a majority view among objective biblical scholars.

    1 Timothy 2 and Titus 2 don’t fit in at all with what we can observe from Romans 16 about how women were active in the early church. Particularly with Phoebe being mentioned first, and probably being the one who delivered the letter – it’s unlikely that all these passages come from the same author.

    • This seems to be the concensus in the academic world yet it is still not widely taught. Whether it was Paul or others writing in the name of Paul, it is still in the official canon of Scripture and so we have to address it. As you point out though, it contradicts Paul’s other writing and his own practice. So it’s frustrating as a woman that people continue to misuse these verses. Thanks, Oliver, for not being one of them!

  • Please do not take this as a personal attack. It is intended to be a loving critique. I’ve never understood how we can apply these contextual (Ephesian church specific) commands today. They have no meaning now. What does have meaning now is the general teaching about greed, which dominates American and Western world and the Christian institutions that are called to be lights in the darkness. The ABCs (attendance – in services, buildings, and cash) of “church” reveal that we are not even trying to follow the Living Christ.

    After years of suffering under the crushing burden of greed, the Lord is healing me. How can we still be actually considering that Paul’s teachings on women have any meaning today? God has raised up countless women to mightly teach and lead in His name. Everyone should be humble and silent when they don’t know or need additional spiritual transformation led by the Lord. This includes me. My gender has nothing to do with it.

    Let’s end the distraction and call out those who have strayed from the truth and follow celebrity “pastors” who are obviously completely ruled by their flesh and the love of money. Jesus shows us the way. Follow Him!

    • Hi Sam,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond! Yes, may God help us to oust our greed and pride as a Western church. Amen to that!

      Have you read Kristof & WuDunn’s ‘Half the Sky’ or Carolyn Curtis James ‘Half the Church’? If not, I encourage you to read them. Both give a profound and comprehensive overview of how gender inequality has a devastating impact worldwide on both the productivity of nations and the potential of individuals to flourish in their God-given potential. As a church called to bring his kingdom to earth, it is our mandate to facilitate God’s heart for all people – including the women. There is so much work to be done!

      Blessings

      Tania

  • This post was super helpful to me. Thank you, Tania.

  • This is a fabulous article! I appreciate how impossible it is to conclude you’re dismissing parts of the Bible you don’t like. You have seriously wrestled with this passage and honored its meaning. Well done!

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