Q. Bronwen, I read in 1 Timothy 2:11 that women are meant to be silent and submissive in church. This seems kind of hard to take! And while our church uses this as part of the reason why women can’t preach, they are allowed to do things like lead the congregation in prayer, read the Bible passages, or give announcements – that’s not silence! Am I missing something here?
A. Great question! It can be confusing when the message we hear says, “The Bible is clear on this,” but then the actual application seems haphazard and perhaps even hypocritical. To get to the bottom of this, I think we should start by taking a look at the verse in question: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission” (NIV). In the KJV, it sounds a lot harsher: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.” Hmm…it sounds pretty sexist to modern ears, doesn’t it? But let’s stop and think about how it would have been heard by first-century ears.
These may be just nine little words, but to really get to the bottom of what this verse means, I will address it over the course of four posts. Today’s post will start by looking at the context of this verse within 1 Timothy. It will be followed up with a second post, checking out some important Greek words which help us to understand this better. The third post will look at some historical factors surrounding Paul’s concern for peace and unity in 1 Timothy 2. The final post will examine how the history of the leadership in the Ephesian church informs our understanding of 1 Tim 2:11, and summarise our understanding of this verse.
Putting 1 Timothy 2:11 in Context
If you’ve been in church for any length of time, you’ve probably heard a preacher saying something along the lines of, “A real estate agent will tell you that the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location. In understanding the Bible, the three most important things are context, context, context.” They’re not far wrong. So this is where we need to start – examining the context of 1 Timothy 2:11.
Paul was writing to his protégé, Timothy, who was leading the church in Ephesus at that time. Timothy is still a fairly young leader (1 Timothy 4:12), and Paul writes to encourage him and guide him in dealing with the confusion and disagreement going on among the Ephesian believers.
Good Speech vs. Bad Speech in Ephesus
Paul’s epistle talks a lot about what is wrong, contrasting it with what is right – teaching ignorant views vs. learning, what is false vs. what is true, and so on. There is a particular focus on bad speech vs. good speech. Let’s make this visual in a colour-coded summary of what Paul has to say in Ephesians 1 and 2 about bad speech vs good speech. Bad speech results in conflicts and disputes, but good speech results not only in right teaching, but also in peacefulness – another theme in this text.
The problems in Ephesus are caused by troublemakers who are ignorant of the real truths of God, and yet are going around, actively promoting their ill-informed views. Paul doesn’t only want to call them out on their false teachings, but he also wants to help the Ephesians (including the false teachers) to learn how to live in a way that pleases God.
It appears that a woman (or women?) is among these false teachers. As with all the false teachers, Paul’s concern is that her bad speech should be replaced with good speech which is based on a sound knowledge of true Christian doctrine. In making this change, not only could the woman could expect to achieve a greater sense of peace within herself, but by removing the cause of her current divisive influence (i.e. her incorrect doctrine), the church of Ephesus would become more peaceful and therefore, more effective in bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of that city.
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 “Command” is, in itself, neither good nor bad speech – a person can command in right or wrong ways. In this context, it is a right form of speech because it seeks to counter wrong speech.
 Again, “teaching” can be a very positive form of speech, but here, it is linked to “ignorant.”
 “Taught” in this context is most likely through experience rather than words.
 Authentein – frequently translated as have/usurp/assume authority – is a rare Greek word whose meaning is notoriously difficult to determine. One thing that does seem fairly certain about this word is that it does not refer to any kind of normal, healthy authority (if it refers to authority at all). Whatever it means, it seems highly likely that men would not be permitted to do it either.