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 have long since changed. Though I didn’t know it back then, I’d been reading Paul’s instructions as a 21stC 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 Ancient Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (Artist impression)
The call to learn was especially important in the Ephesian church where false teaching was rife.2 In this newly planted church, wrong doctrines and ‘godless myths’ were rife, threatening the very essence of the Gospel and the health of the community. The culprits it seemed, were ignorant and misguided; they were those who wanted to be teachers of the law, but didn’t know “what they are talking about’ (1 Timothy 1:4,7) and it appears that they were women.
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 this kind of problem developed in Ephesus of all places. History tells us that the town was a haven for goddess worship and in particular, the cult of Artemis (Diana). People came from all over Asia Minor to visit the temple of the god known as the ‘mother of all living’. Images of Artemis dominated the city with tombs cut in the shape of a womb and an entire industry built around her worship (see Acts 19:23-31). When it came to beliefs, the cult of Diana held vastly different views to Christianity. Devotees believed that all life flowed from a female god and therefore women were superior to men. They were born first, thought to be the ‘origin of wisdom’ and thus needed no man to marry or reproduce.3
Now it seemed the teachings of Artemis were infiltrating the new Ephesian church as false teachers usurped the position of the proven and qualified.4 Paul’s solution was for these women to learn and to learn well. They needed to adopt the posture of humility and quietness, submitting to those who knew the truth of God’s heart. They should take the same privileged position of ‘quietness and submission’ as he had when he learned from his teacher Gamaliel.5 The teachings of Artemis were not to be confused with the teachings of Jesus. For in God’s kingdom, women were just as morally responsible as men (Romans 5:12-14). Eve was as much deceived as Adam and birth order was irrelevant to your standing before God (1 Timothy 2:13-14). And in the church of Jesus Christ, marriage and childbirth were a legitimate way to live and should not be forbidden (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 fulltime 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 (Read Why God Called Me to Lead a Church as a Single). 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.
This is probably more the case in church-life than it is in the broader community. Today women are graduating from university with the same if not higher rates as men6, but it is still extremely uncommon for a woman to lead a church. In the national leadership of our denomination (which has held to gender equality since its inception) only one woman is represented. Even this year at my church’s global conference, there were no women in the line-up of speakers. While social forces have encouraged us to take our place, we have some catching up to do.
This is not to say that our development as women is the only limiting factor in realising God’s vision for equality or that there isn’t a place for affirmative action. There are still attitudes and policies in place today that do not affirm the truth of Galatians 3:28. 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 to learn in quietness and submission.
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- According to the popular 1st C Rabbi Eliezer, (Sotah 3:4)
- 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
- Kroeger in Mickelson, A. (Ed), Women, Authority and the Bible, InterVarsity Press, U.S.A, 1996, p.228.
- 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.
- 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.
- 2015 data from the Education Department reveals women are currently graduating at higher rates than men: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/gender-gap-widens-as-women-graduates-outpace-the-men/ cited, 19/10/15
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