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Women Should Sit Down and Shut Up? Why the Apostle Paul Does "Not Permit a Woman to Teach"
Much religious, scholarly, and feminist debate has centered on two contentious factors of I Timothy. One concerns the identity of “the women” in I Timothy 3:11 and whether or not Paul intended for women to fill leadership roles within the church. Another, closely related, concerns the identity of “a woman” in I Timothy 2:11-12 and whether or not Paul intended to forbid women from positions of teaching authority.
When considering the qualities of spiritual leadership given in I Timothy 3:1-13, we cannot apply Paul’s qualifications for “the women” without understanding his restrictions on “a woman” in 2:11-12. What was the original situation Paul was addressing? In other words, why does Paul forbid “a woman” from teaching in this specific context, contradicting other biblical evidence that Paul commends female spiritual leadership within the very church addressed here?
With analysis of the passage in both its immediate and overall context, although Paul previously states he does not “permit a woman to teach” (2:12), a proper understanding of the New Testament historical/cultural situations and roles leading up to I Timothy 3:1-13 indicates that the intent of 2:11-12 is not to ban women from teaching but to equip female ministers within the church.
Significance of Artemis Worship
Perhaps foremost to an understanding of the original situation Paul addresses in I Timothy is a proper perspective concerning the state of cultural immorality dedicated to Artemis, pagan goddess of fertility, whose worshippers surrounded the Christian church in Ephesus at the time. As most sources agree, the apostle Paul is believed to have written I Timothy between A.D. 62-66, sometime after his first imprisonment in Rome and approximately a decade after his founding of the Ephesian church, where Timothy, his young protégé, was now pastoring.
According to the Life Application Study Bible (2005) “Ephesus, along with Rome, Corinth, Antioch, and Alexandria, was one of the major cities in the Roman empire” (p. 2187). Only Ephesus carried the distinction of being the home of the temple of Artemis, which characterized the city’s main attractions. As Cunningham and Hamilton (2000) note, “Ephesus had to be intimidating when Timothy first arrived. The huge, golden image of Artemis… was placed within the columns of her temple so that she could be easily seen from the sea” (p. 205).
For the Christian church in Ephesus, the surrounding mix of political, commercial, and religious interests was complicated by cultural tensions both within and without. Comfort (2009) observes, “One of the problems that the Ephesian church continually battled was the impact of the cult of Artemis on its rank and file” (p. 12), since Ephesus was renowned as the site of the supposedly extraterrestrial image of the goddess. As Comfort points out, “The tourism potential did not go unnoticed, nor did the commercialism surrounding it” (p. 12).
The significance of Artemis worship is perhaps best captured in Cunningham and Hamilton’s (2000) description of Ephesus as a “squalid moral stew,” explaining,
“The city was the center of a worldwide following for Artemis, the fertility goddess with two dozen bare breasts, also known as the Great Mother of Asia... Stirred into this were the orgiastic rites of other mystery religions, witchcraft, and the Roman worship of Caesar. In fact, though Ephesus was known as a political and educational center, much of its economy was based on its occult activities… Paul’s team had long gone, but Ephesus remained a great spiritual battleground for Timothy, the young pastor” (p. 206).
Then, just as now, the Christian church faced a steep uphill climb in its stand for godly living in the midst of an ungodly society. On top of these external cultural factors, by the time of Paul’s first letter to Timothy, Payne (2009) states that the church in Ephesus had become “a mixed Jewish and Gentile fellowship… a predominantly Gentile congregation that Paul warns against libertarian influences” (p. 295).
Furthermore, as Comfort (2009) states, a sizable Jewish contingent was still active in the city and, “according to the Jewish historian Josephus, enjoyed special privileges under Roman rule—including military and Sabbath travel exemptions, the freedom to assemble, and the right of access to kosher foods” (p. 12). These were privileges held by Jewish Christians by default but not shared with Gentile believers, stressing internal relationships even as the Christian community sought solidarity to deal with the anything-goes, Artemis-worshipping Ephesian culture around it.
Male/Female Norms in Ephesus
Considering the effects of the deviant culture of pagan worship at the doorsteps of Christian believers in Ephesus, a proper understanding of the specific situation Paul was addressing in I Timothy 2:11-12 also involves a look at the varying views of male/female roles in that time and place. For instance, a traditional Jewish-Christian believer’s opinion of acceptable behavior would have been much different from that of a pagan Artemis fanatic. Furthermore, a newly converted Gentile Christian would hold views that were different from an orthodox Jew’s, and meanwhile, the influences of burgeoning Gnostic teachings were introducing even more variables into customary male/female affairs.
On top of all of these factors lies the biblical evidence of ongoing, countercultural Christian affirmation of women’s equality and value as spiritual leaders in the church, demonstrated perhaps most effectively in the history of both the subject and the recipient of Paul’s words in I Timothy.
As Cunningham and Hamilton (2000) ask, “What was Paul saying here? Was he really saying that women should not teach, here in a church where Priscilla had been a founding leader? A church where she had spent much time along with her husband, Aquila, correcting the early errors of Apollos, discipling him for leadership? Was Paul, who had asked the church in Rome to receive the woman minister Phoebe with all due honor, now contradicting himself, telling Timothy never to allow women to be leaders in the church?” (p. 207).
It is significant to note that Paul commended the teaching influence of Timothy’s grandmother, Lois, and mother, Eunice, in raising up the godly young man Paul had appointed to pastor the Ephesian church (2 Timothy 1:5), especially since it is to this particular young man that Paul is now delivering these instructions concerning the teaching influence of women. Therefore, in order to understand the apparent contradiction in I Timothy 2:11-12, it is important to consider the existing male/female dynamics at work in the immediate context of the situation Paul is addressing within the Ephesian church.
For example, why the focus on what women are wearing? Right before Paul frames his prohibition against female teaching authority in I Timothy 2:11-12, he issues a stern directive targeted at women’s appearances: “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (2:9-10, New International Version).
Logically, we can presume that if Paul was instructing women in the church to dress modestly, then there was a problem with women in the church dressing immodestly, most likely as a result of a conflict between cultural norms and Christian standards. According to Cunningham and Hamilton (2000), “[I]n New Testament times, ostentation in dress was in itself considered a mark of promiscuity” (p. 212). Considering the Christian church was one of the early proponents of monogamy at the time, a perception of promiscuous women in its ranks could certainly be damaging to the credibility of the Christian message.
Along with the suggestion of immorality, Comfort (2009) indicates that such ostentation, spurred by cultural trends, could be associated with vanity and wastefulness: “Then as now, good looks had to do in large part with what is fashionable… Hair styles, precious stones, and beautiful clothes define what is in vogue. The standard of good looks in Paul’s day included gold-braided hair, pearls, and expensive clothes” (p. 52). Therefore, Comfort argues, Paul’s references to such specific and deliberately sexist female considerations suggests that Paul’s concerns are directly tied to the situation of his time, indicating cultural rather than universal applicability of these particular prohibitions.
Furthermore, Payne (2009) points to political differences between Gentile and Jewish believers as another factor impacted by female appearances within the Ephesian church: “Immodesty posed a risk because Gentile Christian communities, unlike synagogues, lacked the protection of legal associations ratified by the emperor and the Roman senate, so they were vulnerable to private prosecution for criminal action if they were seditious or promiscuous” (p. 312).
Although Ephesus might well have earned its reputation as an orgiastic melting pot, higher societal and philosophical sentiments of the time indicate this particular city might have been at cultural odds with a more respectable surrounding mindset. Comfort (2009) highlights “two highly lauded Greco-Roman virtues” in 2:9-10: first is to act in a “decent” and “appropriate” way (p. 51) and second is to exhibit “sound judgment” (p. 52). Dissecting I Timothy 2:9-10, the verses leading up to Paul’s ban on female teaching authority in 2:11-12, Robinson and Wall (2012) point out, “The images of the ideal Christian woman are enveloped within a rhetorical unit bracketed by the repetition of ‘prudence,’ which was the most universally admired female virtue of the period” (p. 50). Payne (2009) affirms, “Contemporary standards also affirmed modesty and decried ostentation” (p. 312).
In other words, norms for male/female behavior in Ephesus might not meet the general cultural standards of Rome or the greater empire, just as today’s expectations for one’s behavior on the Strip in Las Vegas would not necessarily reflect the higher ambient ethics of more metropolitan locales.
Other historical points of interest concern alterations to the traditionally subordinate female role outside of the Christian church. Although Jesus Christ remains the earliest recorded feminist advocate, it seems women’s lib might have already experienced some small steps forward by the time Paul wrote his first letter to Timothy. Payne (2009) mentions, “Tregiari argues that ‘subordination of the wife… was not essential or important by the time of Cicero.’ Bruce Winter, too, affirms ‘the demise of the image of the subordination of wives by the end of the Roman Republic’” (p. 315).
Interestingly, then, it seems Paul’s command for the submission of women came at a time when women were no longer as inclined to submit to the commands of men. In Ephesus, in particular, the influence of a pagan belief system centered on worship of the goddess Artemis also served to elevate the value of femininity. If nothing else, as Payne (2009) notes, “The prominent teaching role of women in Gnostic circles helps explain Paul’s restriction on women teaching in this situation” (p. 298). Liberated femininity was a factor in some fringe cults, increasing the importance of distinguishing the Christian perspective.
Although historical evidence indicates that the teaching role might not necessarily be limited by gender in the greater cultural context, those same cultural influences likely posed a hazard to the Christian community as it stood in Ephesus, specifically. Payne (2009) goes on to explain,
“There is evidence that most women lacked the training in Scripture available to men and that women were particularly susceptible to the false teaching. Since [the uneducated] message [of women] would not be welcome, it would cause the kinds of controversies troubling Ephesus and would be more likely to be perceived as dominating. Any teaching aims to influence, and some people in a male-dominated culture such as Paul’s [traditionally Jewish culture] might have considered women teaching men to be dominating under any circumstance” (p. 384).
Educational Disadvantages of Women
Why would a woman’s assumption of teaching authority be considered “dominating” in Paul’s time? First comes a question of the likelihood of a woman’s qualifications for teaching at all in Paul’s time. Despite the advancement of women in some limited capacities, such as in the early Gnostic movement, the Life Application Study Bible (2005) emphasizes, “In first-century Jewish culture, women were not allowed to study” (p. 2190).
This restriction was not unique to a traditional Jewish upbringing. Comfort (2009) notes, “While a female student is hardly a novelty today, it was quite unusual in Paul’s day. Girls in the Greco-Roman period were taught the three ‘Rs.’ But higher education past the age of 12, though on the rise, was still not commonplace” (p. 57). Although the education dynamic might have been shifting by the time Paul wrote his first letter to Timothy, women’s newly granted access to learning in Christian home churches would not have made them overnight experts in Scripture.
While Christianity was paving the way for equality between the sexes (probably a popular move among Gentile believers), customary Jewish opinion on the matter remained behind the times. Additionally, even in the culturally progressive Roman empire, women still had a long way to go before they would catch up to their male counterparts. Regardless of one’s cultural or religious upbringing, then, a woman would inevitably be behind the curve in comparison to a more educated man. Therefore, in regard to I Timothy 2:12, it simply would not make sense for a less knowledgeable woman to claim for herself the authority to teach a more knowledgeable man.
Practically speaking, then, within the Christian church, Payne (2009) explains, “A probable contributing factor to Paul’s restriction [on women teachers] was that most women in Ephesus from either a Jewish or Gentile background would have had little knowledge of the Scriptures and the Christian message” (p. 335). All factors considered, Payne summarizes,
“In the face of women dressing indecently and involved in false teaching, it would be only natural for the Jewish elements of the church to be tempted to return to the synagogue custom of excluding women from assemblies where the law was taught and for socially conservative Gentiles in the church to want to restrict women’s place in the assemblies. To counteract such thinking and the problem of ignorance highlighted in 1:7, Paul commands, ‘Let women learn’ (2:11); and to counteract the women’s excesses he adds ‘in all quietness’ and then restricts women’s teaching (2:12). Several factors in the situation in the Ephesian church evidently called for this restriction from Paul. Most prominent seems to have been the deception of women by false teachers since this is the focus of the historical example of Eve’s deception and the fall mentioned in I Timothy 2:14… This, combined with the ingrained Jewish tradition of not allowing women to teach in the synagogues, would have led to deep concerns on the part of the Jewish pillars of the Ephesian church and a fighting spirit on the part of the Judaizers” (p. 303-304).
Ultimately, that Paul should open the door for women to learn at all in the face of these issues—much less address any potential issue of women teaching—was a radical departure from longstanding male/female norms of the time. Payne states, “This command for women to learn contrasts with the absence of women from any list of students in Ephesian schools of that time. It also contrasts with the Jewish tradition that women are not obliged to study the law, but they are to encourage their sons and husbands to study it” (p. 314).
Considering the issue of uneducated women seeking to teach, we might consider Paul’s earlier cause of concern in I Timothy 1:7, where he states, “[The false teachers] want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (New International Version). Here, as Paul’s contrast calls out, the desire to be a teacher is not wrong; the act of presuming to be qualified to be a teacher is wrong. Paul brings the point home later, in 3:1, when he states that someone who wants to be an overseer “desires a noble task.” Paul then goes on to provide the qualifications for that task, including “able to teach” (3:2) on his list.
In effect, Paul delineates the differences between those who “want to be teachers” (1:7) and those who are “able to teach” (3:2), underscoring the importance of learning before teaching.
Deception/False Teachings among Ephesian Women
Again, the issue of false teachings in the Ephesian church is the main theme of I Timothy. In fact, as Payne (2009) posits, “The false teaching is of such central concern to Paul that nearly every verse in this letter relates to it” (p. 296). Specifically related to cultural male/female norms resulting in an educational disadvantage among women of the time, the Life Application Study Bible (2005) states that “the women were especially susceptible to the false teachings because they did not yet have enough Biblical knowledge to discern the truth” (p. 2190).
The emergence of Gnostic teachings and the ongoing issues of Jewish exclusivity within the circumcision sect, Payne (2009) explains, would have exacerbated confusions over the central Christian message of God’s will for all to be saved. Considering women’s historical role as second-class citizens in society, it was perhaps only to be expected that this oft-ignored half of humanity should eventually get tangled up in the debate.
In the collision of influences from an immoral pagan culture and an uprising built around deception, a “libertarian tendency” seems to have been a particular threat to the Ephesian church. According to Payne (2009), Paul’s references to teachings as “falsely called knowledge” suggests that “an early form of Gnosticism or proto-Gnosticism had infiltrated the Ephesian church” (p. 298). Furthermore, such teachings emphasized the spiritual and disregarded the physical, regarding “what one did with one’s body as of little importance. This allowed them to excuse libertarian behavior” (p. 298), a tendency that would have been right at home among the loose morals of Ephesus.
Yet lax standards were surely not the only appeal. Considering the pro-equality position of the Christian church to begin with, what was it about the Gnostic add-on that was so attractive to women in particular? Payne (2009) explains,
“Three characteristics of [the false teachers’] message stand out that would have little appeal to men… Forbidding marriage, saying that the resurrection has taken place, and abstaining from certain foods express overly realized eschatology. Presumably these people argued, based on Jesus’ statement, ‘At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage’ (Matthew 22:30), that since the resurrection has already taken place, they should forbid marriage now. Similarly, since things of this world are of no spiritual value, they denied the goodness of God’s created world and advocated abstinence from sex and food. These false teachings would appeal particularly to women in Ephesus, especially widows, since having no husband, they were social outsiders relegated to the fringes of power in their society. This false teaching affirmed their dignity. Indeed, it affirmed that they were already in the ideal (eschatological) state of being single before Christ. It proclaimed an exalted status for women and a freedom from the obligation of marriage. It is no wonder that this new teaching attracted women” (p. 302).
With a look at all of these factors playing into the overall contextual background behind the situation Paul wrote to address within the Ephesian church, it is possible to appreciate the complex, volatile mixture of issues inherent in the specific point Paul confronts in I Timothy 2:11-12. Here, Paul extends a particular form of mercy to the women who have fallen prey to false teachings. After all, the men in the current state are not the ones who have been deceived, since they have had the education required to properly understand Scripture. Like Adam, who received his commands directly from God, the men should already know better. It is the women, who have not had access to the same education their male counterparts have enjoyed, who have been deceived by the false teachings. Like Eve, who received mixed messages from Adam and from the serpent, the women in the Ephesian church have been led astray by a message that appeals to their ignorance.
For this reason, the corrective from Paul is that “A woman should learn,” and moreover, she should learn “in quietness and submission” (2:11), rather than asserting herself in her ignorance and speaking authoritatively about a subject she does not understand. Because these particular women have not learned, they have been deceived by false teachings; because they have been deceived, they should not spread ignorant talk within their church body.
Paul’s Solution to False Teachings
With his shift into delineating leadership qualities in I Timothy 3:1-13, in effect, Paul makes an emphatic statement about the potential of a woman who has been deceived, suggesting that, through submissive learning (2:11), even such a one can acquire nobility. Following Paul’s line of reasoning through I Timothy 2-3, he implies that a woman must learn before she can teach, but if she (or “whoever”) aspires to be an overseer in the church, that is, in fact, a “noble task” (3:1).
Essentially, Paul puts these over-eager aspirants in their proper place, listing the qualifications an individual must meet before assuming an oversight role. The qualities Paul presents in I Timothy 3:1-13 serve as an antithesis to the main problem of false teachings within the church body, a problem that has particularly affected the female contingent as addressed in 2:9-15.
If those who have been deceived are not allowed to spread false teachings (2:11-15), and if these are the qualities inherent in those who are allowed to guide the church (3:1-13), then the problem of false teachings will be solved. In this respect, rather than issuing a blanket ban on female teaching authority in the church, Paul’s instructions in I Timothy 2:11-12 serve instead to prescribe the changes needed to properly equip these women for their growing role in ministry.
(2005). Life application study Bible: New international version. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale.
Comfort, P. W. (2009). Cornerstone biblical commentary: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Cunningham, L. & Hamilton, D. J. (2000). Why not women? A fresh look at scripture on women in missions, ministry, and leadership. Seattle, WA: YWAM Publishing.
Payne, P. B. (2009). Man and woman, one in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Robinson, A. B. & Wall, R. W. (2012). Called to lead: Paul’s letters to Timothy for a new day. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.