Learn in Quiet and Submission? (1 Timothy 2:11-15)

1 Timothy 2:11-15 is perhaps the most troubling in the New Testament in terms of what Paul commands for his churches and his reasons for those commands. The command is for women “to learn in quiet and submission” (v. 11). As with Paul’s commands about modest dress, the most common way to explain these verses is to say that Paul is dealing with a particular problem with overbearing women teachers in Ephesus, and that the situation is unique. He is not intending to declare that women should be absolutely silent in church!  It is best to read this passage in the context of the quiet life Paul described in the first part of this chapter and as an extension of the other disruptions to the quiet life in the preceding paragraph.

Duct TapePaul does say that women should learn, but they ought to do so with the same sort of dignified grace that he encouraged in the first seven verses of the passage. What are these women doing that is not “quiet”? This is left unstated, but it is possible that the instructions on dress and teaching which follow are the hint that some women are “taking charge” in a way which would offend Greeks and Romans.

This verse does not indicate to whom they ought to submit. It is often read as if Paul says that they ought to submit to their husbands (like Eph 5:22) or to the (male) pastor of the church. But that is not actually stated, so it is at least possible that this submission is to the word of God itself.

More difficult, Paul states that he does not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” (v. 12). This is consistent with 1 Cor 14:34, and is also consistent with Jewish synagogue practice as far as we know in the first century. In addition, there is no evidence of women assuming the role of a teacher in a philosophical school or public venue.

Women did teach, but in private instruction (of children, for example). Priscilla is an example of a woman who taught Apollos in Acts 18:26. Towner suspects that Paul’s freedom in Christ gave woman and slaves far more freedom in the church meeting than they would have had in a public meeting (Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 218.).

The problem in Ephesus is wealthy women in the church who were under the influence of the opponents, who used their prominence (wealth) to promote a teaching that Paul has already rejected because it is incompatible with the Gospel.

The key word in the verse is “have authority over” (αὐθεντέω). The verb has the sense of “to assume a stance of independent authority, give orders to, dictate to” (BDAG), and the Jerusalem Bible has “tell a man what to do.” Much ink has been spilt trying to sort out what this word means in this context. (For example, G. W. Knight, “αὐθεντέω in Reference to Women in 1 Tim. 2,12,” NTS 30 (1984) 143-57.) The noun (αὐθέντης) is usually translated master, and BDAG speculates that the word is the source of the Turkish effendi.

The verb has the connotation of domineering, going a bit beyond the teaching of a lesson from the Scriptures. In the context of a problem with “wealthy women already behaving badly,” many scholars understand this term as prohibiting these women from assuming control of the church in order to promote their particular brand of false teaching. If the problem had been “wealthy men behaving badly,” Paul would have likely said the same sort of thing to them.  (Imagine, for example, what Paul might say to Fred Phelps!)

The background in Ephesus is therefore important since it appears that some wealthy women are taking the Pauline idea of equality in Christ to insist that they be considered teachers and elders in the church and pushing their particular problematic version of the Christian faith.

16 thoughts on “Learn in Quiet and Submission? (1 Timothy 2:11-15)

  1. Phillip, I appreciate your thoughtful contextualizing of what indeed is a “troubling” passage. Not just to women who may feel constrained in use of strong gifts or outright constrained and disrespected, or tensions with developments of culture. But also in terms of consistency within what are considered Paul’s writings and teaching/practice.

    I do understand why it is so but cannot accept as intellectually honest that the bulk of Evangelical (let alone Fundamentalist) leaders/scholars go against the strong consensus of biblical scholars overall… with the plainest and most plausible “solution”: This “letter” (with 2 Tim. and Titus) were NOT written by Paul, but considerably after his lifetime. Things were getting further from the example of both Jesus and Paul, and into integration with “secular” culture.

    As you know, but many readers will not, there are numerous lines of evidence examined by honest, seeking scholars when trying to date and attribute authorship to ancient documents. And in the case of the Pastoral Epistles, the evidence is strong in numerous of these lines that Paul’s “signature” is a forgery. There is already reference to one of the common-place forgeries in 2 Thess. (2:2), apparently of Paul’s name, whether or not 2 Thess. itself was by Paul. So, with what we know (and don’t know) of the creation of our present NT canon, should it be any surprise that compromised, “UNPauline” teaching on the role of women in Christian teaching and leadership would have gotten into it? (This I say with recognition of the I Cor. 14 passage which is too involved to go into here.)


      • Sorry about the convoluted writing. As to books in the canon, it’s a complex subject, of course. My own studied opinion is that the concept of an inspired, authoritative canon is itself seriously flawed and ultimately unhelpful. That is, in the form in which it is used in traditional orthodoxy.

        But for starters, within orthodox circles there have historically been disputes on many such as James, Jude, Revelation…. Depends whose challenges one takes more seriously than others. And how late one considers them still valid… Luther’s in the 1500’s?

        While I know this author is not well-regarded by traditionalists, to say the least, I highly recommend “Forged” by Bart Ehrman. It’s one of the few lay-oriented books that reflects some fresh research… and a compelling case for revising scholarly views of “canonical” authorship of numerous books. Also how “schools”, disciples and later writers in another’s name are assessed, and much more.


      • I would like to start thinking a little differently about the disputed letters. To say they are either “authentic” or “forged” sets up the dichotomy too sharply, possibly in taking forged as an excuse to dismiss them as authoritative (a motivation easily understood in the Pastorals).

        A letter could be written by a disciple who genuinely sought to reflect the mind of Paul, perhaps even using / editing genuine Pauline fragments. Such a letter could be called forged, but still reflect an authentic Pauline voice. Is that really a “forgery”? How does that differ from common descriptions of how Isaiah was formed, or maybe even the Psalms?

        In addition, a pastoral letter from the Pauline circle (rather then the hand of Paul) could still be accepted as authoritative for practice and doctrine, especially if it was related to Paul closely. A letter like 3 Corinthians failed because it was not close (enough) to the Pauline circle, maybe this would be an example of a forgery (along with the letters of Paul and Seneca).

        I suppose there were other Pauline letters which were not considered authoritative even if authentic. Like 2-3 John, Paul probably wrote many short notes which were not collected (probably due to their personal nature).

        So genuine does not automatically mean authoritative, authoritative could be separated from genuine. (Bear in mind, at ETS that is a radical thought, but I am at SBL for this comment! I also think there are good reasons to accept the Pastorals as authentic, but that is for another time.)


      • Phillip, in response to your thoughtful comments on authoritative voices, forgery and such: There’s a LOT to discuss here… hope we (and many more Christians) will get to it further when more of an intentional topic (not an aside as here). But a couple thoughts:

        Way too few people get into “thinking about thinking” or serious analysis of the very paradigms that strongly structure thinking and perception in a given area (here, “orthodoxy” or its subset of “evangelical” systematic theology and view of Scripture). College should be just the beginning of this. But a strong beginning. For me, it was not much stimulated at Biola University nor at Talbot School of Theology; and I suspect similarly for most X’n schools and even secular universities. So…

        … Applied to authority in and of Scripture, your comments seem in the same direction as my “radical” but not-really-so-radical thinking (tho taken as damningly radical by my family and former colleagues who are Evangelicals). Like thousands of others, I now have a significantly modified “system” or paradigm (developed over 20 years post-evangelical, following 27 adult years Evangelical).

        I see mostly the overt human processes in assigning authority and the divine only as the subtle undercurrent. It is clearly HUMANS who do evaluations and assign authoritative status to a given “scripture” (of any religion or subset of one, as in the differing Bibles of Jews, Catholics and Protestants). This is often after a lot of nasty battle which hardly seems “Spirit-led”. It is also on the basis of factors after the lifetime of a given author, and very often involves a multi-author editing factor. Thus, much of the highly variable, subjective nature of memory and legend-making enters in.

        In other words, that a text is later labeled as Scripture seems definitely NOT an actual matter of real-time unequivocal divine inspiration (as validated by miracles or supposedly “special” supernatural revelations to the author, etc.). In orthodoxy, the prevailing view has some works/words validated in this basic (unreal) manner. They are then posited with “divine” authority, placing them apart from/above all other works/words.

        Now, if Christians want to have (as I do, with many progressive friends) a “canon” of texts we view as foundational thinking and “the better collected thoughts and historical summaries of our early period” I’m fine with it. But that’s not how “authority of Scripture” works (and which works should be included) in the vast majority of Christianity. I won’t here go into the many serious problems emerging from the way authority IS treated.


  2. I wonder where Adam and Eve would fit in. “Paul” here refers to him. Maybe it is just an analogy—-the rich women are spreading false teaching, as Eve was—-as opposed to “Paul” making a blanket statement about men and women on the basis of Genesis 3.


    • I take it you don’t accept the Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles; hence, you wrote “Paul.” I am curious as to what false teaching Eve was spreading.


      • Oh, I’m open either way on authorship. On what false teaching Eve was spreading, I suppose it would be what the serpent told her. The analogy would be that Eve was deceived and encouraged her husband to sin, as the wealthy women were deceived and were spreading heresy. You ask in your comment below about whether there is evidence that women were spreading heresy. II Timothy 2:6 mentions gullible women influenced by those who have a form of godliness, so that could be a reference to it.


      • I suppose the claim women were more active in leadership in the early church is a double-edged sword; if women were teaching they are as likely as men to develop some sort of heretical idea or practice!

        I think there is a good argument to be made that the problem in the background of 1 Timothy is a woman teaching some sort of false doctrine. This is not to say it’s false because she is a woman, but because it is not in line with the Gospel. This passage is used to silence all women, but Paul would be just as angry with a male false teacher. Th trouble is he makes the blanket statements about all women, that is the hard thing to explain.

        Another angle at this problem is the fact that some orators in the Greco-Roman world preyed upon gullible women (think Gildiroy Lockhart). It is possible Paul is reacting to some women who have been taken in by a teacher who manipulates them.


  3. I don’t see any reason to mitigate this passage, and I am thankful that Paul was the kind of guy who told it like it was. He would not have felt comfortable in today’s politically correct world, particularly since the culture has made such powerful inroads into the church.

    Where is the evidence for false teaching by wealthy women in the church at Ephesus? I would like to have chapter and verse because I just don’t see it. Good exegesis takes into account the context in which a verse or verses appear, and you do a commendable job of that. However, is the point taken too far? Paul says remarkably little about the nature or the persons involved in this ascetic heresy. Therefore, we should proceed with caution in our interpretation of following verses.

    In any case this heresy does not seem to be the only reason for Paul’s injunction that women keep silence and learn in submission. His argument is that women are easily deceived, just as Eve was deceived by the serpent in the garden of Eden. Men have primacy in teaching because Adam was created first. Eve was his helper, not his leader, and women should, therefore, not occupy leadership positions over men in the Church. The Greek verb authenteo is forceful. It is tantamount to “telling a man what to do.” That’s the way it is, and if bossy women don’t like it, they need to do some serious soul-searching and prayer.

    Unless I am wrong, and I am open to that possibility, it seems disingenuous to concoct a straw man (false teachers of the female persuasion in Ephesus) in order to soften Paul’s message about the role of women in the Church. Doubtless there were false teachers in Ephesus, but how many were female, and what was the impact of their teaching? Times have changed, but doctrine and people haven’t, and I think this passage applies as much to us today as it did to first-century believers.


  4. As far as the application of such a passage is concerned, I think Longenecker puts it best, “That being said, it is our contention that the church in any given generation needs to grapple with how best to interface with ambient culture in ways that are faithful to the gospel and attractive to outsiders.” (TTP 275). While I realize he is referencing Titus, I think a similar principle applies. We each have to wrestle with this idea in a current and relevant way. Fundamentalism seeks to refute this idea and build walls according to these passages word for word. Paul might have “told it like it was” but he also said some pretty politically left stuff. Saying things like “here there is no greek nor jew” would not have likely been something the moral majority would have hopped on board with. Imagine the same idea replaced with gender identity or sexual orientation! Now, I am not hinting at the idea that Paul would have condoned such things (nor is that the point of this post) but he certainly might have said a few countercultural things, and they likely would not have fit in the perfect mold of a politically left or right mindset. Similarly, I think that Paul assessed different situations in different ways. Rather than a blanket statement which applies to all church scenarios, perhaps there is a sort of cognitive dissonance to be understood here. While Paul says a few words about women in these pastoral epistles, he also values the leadership of Phoebe in Romans and other women in the church. My point is this; I have to agree with Dr. Long that setting any sort of dichotomy too sharply with Paul is usually a bad idea. So many people read Paul as either a rebellious libertarian Christian radical, or a peace loving liberal pacifist, which both lend a certain political and social identity to him. If I were a betting man, I would say that Paul would have appreciated women in the church differently in different contexts.


  5. I speak of all of this in political terms because I think in America we devote a sort of political identity to ourselves which bleeds into our reading of scripture. Some people don’t want women to teach or speak strictly because they are conservative, and that’s basically it! Not that there is anything wrong with that, it is just interesting to see in churches, and plays a big role in their interpretation of scripture.


  6. This is indeed a challenging passage to read as a woman. Context is key in reading this correctly. Regarding spiritual gifts, if a woman has the spiritual gift of teaching, she should use it! As the body of Christ, men and women must work together. We need each other. With that, I think women are better at teaching women, and men are better at teaching men. Going back to the fall of man, Gen 3:16 says that men will rule over women. This was not God’s original plan from the beginning; from the beginning he made man and woman as equals, but the fall screwed that one up. That is what caused such a patriarchal society, in that in those times, it wasn’t even an option for women to teach or preach. This made Paul’s gospel so inclusive when he brings up women and slaves. However, male teaching is accepted by society because of the innate urge to listen to men (the fall) which makes it hard for men to listen to women. But even in that culture, listening to women was unheard of in formal settings. This is why Paul doesn’t urge the women to preach, because that was already unheard of and would be distasteful to society. In verse 12, the word silence bugs me, but the greek word doesn’t refer to a verbal silence, but a spiritual quietness. The women who were teaching in the church were wealthy and ignorant. Paul was probably asking for a quiet spirit, but also for truth to be preached. This regards anyone male or female: if the speaker is ignorant on what they are speaking on, (the gospel) then they shouldn’t speak at all. Living in American society today is challenging because it puts a lot of pressure on women to be equal or better than men in many areas. There is also a trend going on today that gender roles do not exist or that one gender doesn’t need the other. However, men and women need each other! We are built differently and do different things to glorify God. When reading the Bible with this American lens, we forget the context of the passage and we have to go back to the beginning in Genesis.


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