THE LIMITING PASSAGES: 1 TIMOTHY 2
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
1 TIMOTHY 2.11-15
One of the things that is so bafflingly ignored in this passage is the opening clause: a woman should learn. Paul’s focus in this passage is not on what women cannot do, but what they can do. He is not concerned with silence in general, but with silence in order to facilitate learning.
The verse reads literally: I do not permit a woman dominance of a man. Although commonly translated as a permanent injunction, it does not read that way in Greek. In the original languages, the text is written in the present active indicative case: I am not presently permitting a woman to teach.
Paul expects women to learn in quietness and full submission to those who know, and only then does he say that they are not to teach or exercise authority. Learning women are to be quiet. Paul never says that women are always to be learners and never to be teachers, nor does he say that they are forever to remain silent, for that would clearly contradict many of the practices Paul sanctioned and authored personally.
What Paul is talking about here is a temporary silence – a silence that facilitates learning – so that those who do not yet understand will not yet presume to teach. Remember, Paul is writing in a social and historical setting in which many women were straining under the bonds of the dominant male hegemony. Consequently, cults like the Dionysius and Artemis cults encouraged sexually provocative and extravagant dress, bold and often impassioned teaching, and outright hatred (and ritual castration) of men was growing like wildfire in the Empire. Caesar Augustus was even forced to pass laws to limit the freedoms of these New Roman Women (as there are now called by historians), which only further fueled the flames of their oppression and reaction.
Many of these New Roman Women had apparently found their way into Paul’s churches in Ephesus and Corinth, and Paul was forced to sift their newfound freedoms from their base hatred and excess (hence the sections of 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians that deal explicitly with how women should dress, etc.).
The main thrust of Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy is that learning should precede teaching. The women in these churches did not yet know enough to teach, and so Paul instructed them to learn. Women, who had always been gifted by God to speak for God and to lead God’s people, were doing just those things in Paul’s churches. But women who had not yet learned biblical theology or who had not yet learned how to live a Christian life were not to become teachers until they had learned orthodox theology. Paul was cautioning women from assuming roles for which they were neither trained nor equipped at the time. Once they had been fully instructed, they would then be qualified and competent to exercise the authority of one who teaches sound doctrine.
In short, Paul is saying that women must have the space and leisure to study and learn in their own way, not in order that they may muscle in and take over the leadership as in the Artemis cult, but so that men and women alike can develop whatever gifts of learning, teaching, and leadership God has given them.
On to the second issue in this passage…
For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
1 TIMOTHY 2.13-15
In every other instance of Paul’s writing he speaks about the Fall as being Adam’s fault (cf. Romans 5.12, for example). Curiously, he does not do so here. The reason he does this is because some of the New Roman Women were clearly pushing that – since sin entered through Adam – women were free from Sin because of their gender and should wrest authority away from men within the church because they were naturally better suited to lead.
Paul knows this is nonsense, and quickly dispels that false teaching by reminding his audience that Eve sinned also.
Some have used this passage to craft the Hierarchical Argument – an argument that states God has designed a hierarchy of authority and responsibility in which women finds themselves subordinate to men on the basis of gender. I have dealt with that argument elsewhere in this paper.
Remember that Paul’s basic point is to insist that women, too, must be allowed to learn and study as Christians, and not be kept in unlettered, uneducated boredom and drudgery. Well, the story of Adam and Eve makes the point well: look what happened when Eve was deceived. Women need to learn just as much as men do. Adam, after all, sinned quite deliberately: he knew what he was doing, and that it was wrong, and went ahead and did it anyway.