“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission.” – 1 Cor. 14:34
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” 1 Timothy 2:12
I could easily write a 10,000 word post on those verses, but I want to attempt to briefly make a few key points. Let’s see if I can keep it to 1,000 – 1,200 words!
First, I don’t know of any churches or Christians that interpret these verses absolutely literally. Because if you do, that means a woman must literally be silent when she walks through the door of the church – she can not sing, can not have a discussion, can not speak in order to teach children or other women, can not share a prayer request, can not pray out loud, can not read Scripture out loud, etc.
Perhaps one could argue that it is only referring to a church service, not to times or church activities outside of the sanctuary. However, even in the sanctuary in churches that are strict on women, women are generally allowed to sing, introduce their solo with a few words of explanation, share a prayer request, etc. And consider that songs can teach doctrinal truths. So a woman could technically be teaching as she sings! Hmm.
But my point is this: No one takes these verses in a strict literal sense.
These verses are being interpreted in some way by everyone, no matter what their position on women in the church happens to be. Women do not have to be totally quiet or silent, and are permitted to speak in some circumstances even by those strict with women.
I make this point partly because there are some (who are restrictive of women) who claim that they interpret the Bible literally and have a high view of Scripture — While those of us who give women more freedom to speak and serve in the church are not taking the Bible literally and have a low view of Scripture. That is not only unfair, but inaccurate.
In addition, it is “interesting” to me that in churches restrictive of women that there is NO uniformity or consistency. For example…
At one restrictive church a woman can do a Scripture reading, while at another this is forbidden. At one restrictive church a woman can pray in the service, while at another this is forbidden. At one restrictive church (pushing the limits!) a woman may preach as a substitute but they make it clear she is under the authority of the male senior pastor.
So…this is awfully confusing!! Why all the differences??
If the Bible is so clear about what women can and cannot do, why is there such a lack of consistency among these churches??
For the second half, I want to share some interpretive thoughts. Remember that the letters in the New Testament were not written directly to us, but to people then. That does not mean these letters have nothing to do with us – of course they do! I am a Bible teacher. But an initial step to understanding a passage or letter is to understand the original cultural situation. How did it apply to them? Then we can figure out how it applies to us. Sometimes this is easy, but other times challenging. One must find the underlying timeless principle in the passage. The particulars may not apply to us, but there is a broader way it applies to our day and time.
An easy example is the New Testament command to greet each other with a holy kiss! Do we greet each other with a holy kiss today? No! Are we being disobedient? Are we failing to take the Bible literally? No. This is how people greeted each other back then. Today we might shake hands or hug. So we apply this today to mean that we should greet each other warmly, whether with a hand shake, smile, or hug.
Both the church in Corinth and the church in Ephesus had problems that they were dealing with, such as false teachings or morality concerns, and the letters partly address these particular issues. In Ephesus some women were causing problems (see 1 Tim. 5:12-15; 2 Tim. 3:6-7) and this certainly sheds light on Paul’s instruction that women should learn in silent submission and not be permitted to teach (1 Tim. 2:11-12). Specific troubling circumstances in that church had to be addressed. Scholars have also noted that the present tense of “I do not permit” in the Greek conveys that this was advice for the current situation in Ephesus and not a universal prohibition for women for all time.
Verse 11 (of 1 Timothy 2) says to let a woman learn, and this is significant for several reasons.
For one, it is the one grammatical imperative in the passage. Let women learn!
Secondly, it would have been a real bombshell, as it was counter-cultural for that time period. In Jewish tradition, only sons and husbands were to study the Law. Now women are being told to learn!
Thirdly, placed in context, since women appear involved with false teaching in Ephesus, the corrective solution would be for them to learn. Before a woman (or man for that matter) should teach, they need to be grounded in accurate doctrines of the Christian faith.
It further states that women should learn in silence and submission. The Greek word translated silence refers to quietness-peace, or the opposite of disruption. This would be the culturally appropriate attitude for ANY serious student, whether male or female. Male students should also learn in a quiet way, respectful of their teacher.
Besides not teaching, verse 12 states that a woman should not have authority over a man. Evangelical scholar Philip Payne argues extensively that the Greek conjunction used to connect the phrases on teaching and authority is similar to a hendiadys where two expressions convey a single idea. An English equivalent might be the use of ‘n, such as “Don’t eat ‘n run.” This does not prohibit either eating or running by itself, but leaving immediately after eating. Like-wise, verse 12 contains one prohibition, that of a woman taking self-assured teaching authority not recognized by the church.
Other scholars note that the Greek word translated “have authority” is authentein and it refers to a usurping or dominating authority. The word used elsewhere in the New Testament for a more positive sense of authority is exousis, yet that is not the word used here in 1 Timothy. This matches up with Payne’s idea above.
Women are not being prohibited from ever teaching men. Women are not being prohibited from ever having authority in the church. Rather, they are not suppose to teach in a usurping, dictatorial, domineering way. They also need to be instructed in the truths of Christianity. For that matter, the same would apply to men.
As I approach 1,200 words, I need to close!
I will briefly mention the 1 Cor. 14:34 passage. Women should be silent in church. However, earlier in the same letter (1 Cor. 11) Paul says that women CAN pray and prophesy in the church! Yes! It says that when men or women pray or prophesy in church that cultural norms should be observed – for men they should have their head uncovered, and for women their head covered. Paul would not be contradicting himself this close together in the same letter, and there are a couple interpretive possibilities…that would make this post too long if I share them.
The point is that one should not rip a single verse out of context. We must look at its immediate context and the specific church problem being addressed at that time, AND ALSO to the rest of Scripture. If you look at Scripture as a whole with fresh eyes, women are doing things that fall under the category of leading, taking initiative, having authority, and teaching in the church.
The time is short and the days are evil – we need all hands on deck! Restricting half the church is shameful. Women need to be free to serve the Lord Jesus with whatever gifts they have been given. Go women – serve your Lord! Teach, preach, pray, serve, lead!