When it comes to understanding biblical teaching about the role of women in the church, there seems to be danger on every side. First, there is the danger of controversy. Few issues have brought more division in recent years than the role of women in the church. Entire denominations have either split or formed over the question of women’s ordination.
Second, there is the danger of letting culture overrule Scripture. No matter how they are understood, God’s instructions for women stand against the prevailing attitudes of contemporary society. To the postmodern ear 1 Timothy 2:11–12 sounds like gender discrimination. The very idea that women would be forbidden to teach men would cause a scandal in the classroom or the marketplace. Why should things be any different in the church? On this issue, perhaps more than any other, there is tremendous pressure to let the tail of culture wag the dog of biblical truth.
Third, there is the danger of allowing church history to dictate how Scripture should be applied. When questions arise about the role of women in ministry, many churches say, “We’ve never done it that way before.” As a result, the spiritual gifts of women often have been marginalized, to the impoverishment of the church.
Fourth, there is the danger of allowing personal opinion to distort our understanding of Scripture. One pastor experienced this firsthand when his church entered a prolonged conflict over the role of women: “The struggle began as one day an elder said to me, ‘I expect to moderate the Elders’ Board this year when we change our Constitution to allow women to be elders.’ In response, I asked what his understanding was of 1 Timothy 2:13, where Paul, addressing the matter of a woman teaching or exercising authority over a man, writes, ‘For it was Adam who was first created, then Eve.’ He responded, ‘I don’t like that verse.’ ”1 Admittedly, some Bible verses are hard to like; nevertheless, they reveal the mind of God the Holy Spirit, so like them or not, they are to be believed and applied to daily life.
Finally, there are difficulties with the text itself. What do these words mean: “quietly,” “submissiveness,” “teach,” “exercise authority” (1 Tim. 2:11–12)? Each term calls for careful definition. Then there are further questions: What is the precise relevance of Eve’s deception (1 Tim. 2:14)? Or what can it possibly mean to say that “she will be saved through childbearing” (1 Tim. 2:15)?
The passage defies simple answers. In the face of these dangers and difficulties, the only way to proceed is to recognize that we bring prior assumptions to this passage, asking the Holy Spirit to correct those assumptions as necessary and working through the passage as carefully as possible.
TO LEARN …
The previous section of Paul’s letter to Timothy (1 Tim. 2:9–10) ended with warnings about being immodest. This section contains warnings about being insubordinate (1 Tim. 2:11–15), beginning with a positive command: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness” (1 Tim. 2:11).
With this statement Paul shatters conventional stereotypes—not modern stereotypes, but ancient ones. In the Roman world, women were considered to be intellectually second-class. It was widely accepted that females were academically inferior. Thus, the educational system was designed primarily for men, not for women. If possible, the Jewish rabbis were even more chauvinistic. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, “It would be better for the words of Torah to be burned, than that they should be entrusted to a woman.”2 In other words, educating women was a big waste of time. Not surprisingly, women played a very small role in the public life of the synagogue. The Babylonian Talmud explains the difference between men and women in worship: “The men came to learn, the women came to hear.”3
The Word of God says nearly the opposite of what many Jews and Romans said. Before he makes any prohibition, the apostle writes words of liberation: “Let a woman learn” (1 Tim. 2:11). Because a woman is a human being made with a mind in his image, God requires her to learn. It is her responsibility before God to become a student of biblical doctrine.
This shows that the Bible is not afraid to confront culture. It is sometimes argued that Paul inherited negative attitudes about women from his rabbinic training, or that the New Testament is held prisoner by ancient, patriarchal attitudes about gender. Here we find exactly the opposite. The same is true throughout the New Testament, which is sprinkled with examples of women engaged in vital ministry, many of them close personal friends of the apostle Paul. It is not too much to say that one burden of his ministry was to ensure that the gifts of women were used to their fullest extent.
Christians ought to take great encouragement from what biblical truth has done to improve the status of women. The church has not always lived up to what the Bible says about gender, but whenever it has, women have been greatly blessed. A document signed by “Women of Renewal” states: “Because the Bible is the most effective force in history for lifting women to higher levels of respect, dignity, and freedom, we join an historic succession of women whose Christian faith is forged from biblical truth and whose lives are shaped into Christ’s image on the anvil of obedience.”4 The church has some reason to be ashamed of the way it has treated women, but no reason to be ashamed of what God has said about women in his Word.
If a woman must learn, how should she do it? “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness” (1 Tim. 2:11). The word “quietly” (hēsychia) is repeated at the end of verse 12. “Quiet” is a much better translation than the one provided in the New International Version: “silent.” The word does not mean that women have to keep their mouths shut. Rather, it refers to a gentle demeanor, as it does earlier in the chapter, where Paul says that Christians should lead “a peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim. 2:2; cf. 1 Peter 3:4).
A notable episode from the life of Paul helps to show what the apostle means by “quietly.” On his last trip to Jerusalem, Paul was confronted by an angry mob outside the barracks where he was to be imprisoned: “And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying: ‘Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.’ And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet” (Acts 21:40–22:2). Two different Greek words are used to describe this crowd: first the people became “hushed” (sigēs); then they became “quiet” (hēsychia). It is the latter word which Paul uses in 1 Timothy 2:11–12—not the word for keeping silent, but the word for being respectful. Paul is telling women to give their ministers the same undivided attention that he himself received when he spoke in Jerusalem.
Women are also to learn with all “submissiveness” (hypotagē). To submit is to be obedient, to yield to authority. Here it means to respect the leadership and authority that God has given to the elders of the church. It means to receive their teaching in a spirit of cheerful agreement.
When these two words are put together—“quietly” and “submissiveness”—they do not describe an unusual style of learning that is unique to women. Rather, they describe the only way a person can learn at all. Any teacher knows it is impossible to teach someone who is talking all the time. Good teachers maintain order in their classrooms because good learning requires good listening. Learning also requires a teachable spirit. It is impossible to teach someone who thinks he or she knows all the answers already. To learn is to submit to the knowledge and authority of a teacher. Every good student is quiet and receptive.
A wonderful example of this kind of submissive learning is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Jesus had stopped in their home to rest. While he was there, Martha “was distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40). Meanwhile, Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening to everything he said (Luke 10:39). It made Martha mad to see Mary loafing around when there was work to be done. In her exasperation, she finally complained to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me” (Luke 10:40). Notice what Jesus did not do in response. He did not tell Mary to go back to the kitchen where she belonged. He did not relegate her to so-called women’s work. Instead, he said, “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).
The words of Christ confirm the dignity and necessity of women becoming students of the Bible. They also serve as a rebuke to any man or woman who thinks theology is mainly for men. What Mary was learning from Jesus was the Word of God. She was learning true doctrine and how to apply it in daily life. God wants women to be knowledgeable in the Scriptures and sound in their theology.
Notice the way Mary learned: she “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (Luke 10:39). Mary learned in the rabbinic style. She kept her place; she was listening rather than talking; and she was sitting at Jesus’ feet, which was the place of submission to teaching authority. In other words, as Mary sat in the seminary of Christ, she “learned quietly and with all submissiveness.”
This is the way all God’s people learn. They sit at the feet of their Master, even when he is speaking through the voice of a minister. I often have occasion to hear other men preach. When I do, my aim is to learn in quietness and full submission. I strive to resist the urge to say, “Well, that’s not quite how I would handle that text.” Rather, I must submit, not so much to another minister, but to the Lord himself, who wants me to sit at his feet the way Mary did.
Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Timothy, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Daniel M. Doriani, and Philip Graham Ryken, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 58–60.
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