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.
Paul 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.