Women Are to Learn, Paul Tells Timothy
August 13, 2012
Paul left us with one argument against women teaching in the church, based on a theological understanding of Genesis 1-3. We must reckon with this because our default setting is “to take the Bible literally.” And yet, as we have observed in the last few days, the witness about women in leadership in the NT is mixed. 1 Timothy 2:11 is the most serious challenge to women’s ordination, and therefore we must examine what it meant to its original hearers and how it is to be applied today.
The passage begins with Paul’s expressed desire for men “in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without wrath or divisive arguing.” “In every place” probably means “at every opportunity,” and “lifting up holy hands” requires one to come before God freely and with a clear conscience. Paul starts his instructions to Timothy with this call to prayer; prayer for his leaders and his society as well as for each other demonstrates loyalty, unity and godliness (2:2).
Likewise, the women are to behave in a way that would substantiate their claim to godliness. They should display modest dress and adornment so that their inner beauty is also visible. The specific mention of costly garments, expensive jewelry, and elaborate hairstyles coincides with Paul’s comments later about the accumulation of wealth. It may be that among their many problems, these women are not proving to be good stewards of their money. Paul here is asking them to let their stewardship reflect the priorities they should have as Christians.
In 2:10 Paul elaborates on what is respectful behavior for the women. He says, “Let the women learn . . .” They are to receive instruction in the things of God. This was a new freedom they had in Christ. Jewish women were not allowed to be taught spiritual things, so the fact that these women were to have the privilege of learning is significant. They are to learn quietly (the rendering “in silence” is overdoing it in this context. See 1 Timothy 2:2 where the Greek connotes “peaceful, unassuming” rather than “silence” as many present-day editions translate it); that is, they are to learn patiently, humbly and respectfully. They must do so in obedience, demonstrating discipline and submission to their teachers and to the truth of the gospel.
The women may learn, but Paul is not allowing them to teach or to domineer over men. The present active indicative “I am not allowing . . .” leaves open the question of future teaching. For now, they are not qualified. That Paul would discourage “domineering” (authentein) is not unusual, since his exhortation to downward mobility is well documented (see e.g. Philippians 2:1-5). In several instances he urges the church to be “tenderhearted toward one another” (Colossians 3:12) and to “submit yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Further, this is the only time he uses this particular vocabulary word, most often translated “exercise authority over.” Catherine and Richard Kroeger, intrigued by this word, searched the concurrent secular literature for some sense of its meaning. They determined that authentein is an ugly word connoting the manipulation of men with sexual pressure. When Paul speaks of authority in the strong, positive sense, he uses exousia, as in Romans 13:1-2. The reader should be aware that several Greek words are translated into the English as “authority” and that an investigation of the meaning of each would be fruitful in making distinctions, particularly as they apply to women.
If the reasoning so far has been straightforward, “the plot thickens” at this point! “For (gar) Adam was formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but Eve, having been led astray, fell into transgression.” Gar is a conjunction, introducing either a causal association or simply a new thought. It is not obvious what Paul’s intended meaning is here. In my next post I will explore the possibilities.
 Catherine and Richard Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (Baker Book House, 1992).