Q&A: Should Women Be Silent In Church? Part 2

In the previous post of this Q&A on 1 Timothy 2:11, we looked at the context of the Ephesian church at that time – a church disrupted and divided by many false teachers. One of Paul’s main concerns in this epistle to Timothy is to turn the situation around by encouraging the Ephesians to replace “bad speech” (which included myths and endless genealogies, gossip, lies, false teaching) with “good speech” (including petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving for all people and proclamation of the Gospel), so that the disruption would be replaced by peacefulness. In this post, I will look more closely at 1 Timothy 2:11 itself, particularly examining the word Paul uses for “quietness” or “silence” and the command to learn.

“A Woman Should Learn in Quietness/Silence”

The Greek word translated in verse 11 as “quietness” (NIV) or “silence” (KJV) is hesuchia. The KJV’s choice of “silence” is overly harsh compared to the choice of words Paul used in Greek. If Paul’s intention to tell women to “shut up and don’t say a word,” he had far better Greek options available to him, such as:

  • Sigaō – to keep silent, to keep secret, to be kept in silence, to be concealed. Example: “Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet (sigēsē), but he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (Luke 18:39).
  • Siōpaō – to keep silent (voluntarily or involuntarily), to become silent, to hush, to quiet, to hold one’s peace, to be mute. Example: (The angel Gabriel said to Zechariah) “’And now you will be silent (siōpōn) and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time’” (Luke 1:20).
  • Phimoō – to close the mouth with a muzzle, to silence. Example: “For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence (phimoō) the ignorant talk of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15).

Paul rejects all of these options and goes with the much gentler hesuchia. Bill Mounce’s Greek dictionary gives the definitions: quietness, silence, settling down, lack of disturbance, rest, quiet, tranquillity, a quiet, tranquil life, silent attention.  Strong’s Concordance explains, “for the believer, 2271(hēsuchía) is used of their God-produced calm which includes an inner tranquility that supports appropriate action.”

A Better Translation – Quietness-Peace

Philip B. Payne (author of Man and Woman: One in Christ)  suggests that a better translation of hesuchia than “silence” is “quietness-peace” – the opposite of contention and disputing. (Remember how Paul is continually contrasting opposite concepts in this epistle? Good speech, bad speech. Truth, lies. Quietness-peace, disputing.) This attitude is the kind of godly contentment that led the sons of Korah to declare, “He says, ‘Be still and know that I am God’” (Psalm 46:10) and caused David to reflect, “He makes me to lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he refreshes my soul” (Ps 23:2-3).

Why was Paul telling women in particular to live in quietness-peace? Let’s just backtrack for a moment. Paul actually speaks of a woman (singular). It is possible that he had in mind a particular woman who was one of the false teachers in the Ephesian church. It is my observation that Paul likes to give those who are mistaken in their teachings some grace by not naming them. The exception is when a false teacher reaches a point of no return in the iniquity of their instruction – he names and shames Hymenaeus and Alexander, saying that he has “handed them over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20). By not naming those he believes are still capable of redemption, Paul accords them a measure of honour which makes their reconciliation possible.

If he is indeed speaking to one particular woman, Paul knows that both she and Timothy will know who is being spoken to here. Presumably, this woman has been at the centre of some of the disruption that has arisen in the church as a result of false teaching. It is possible that she is one of those depicted in 2 Timothy 3:6, “who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women” – a woman would have far greater access than a man to enter the private domain and speak with (and corrupt) another woman, in accordance with cultural proprieties. As with most false teachers, her main sin is that of ignorance. So what does Paul do to counter her ignorance? He instructs her to learn.

Commanded to Learn

The significance of Paul’s instruction to this woman to learn is lost on us in a society where women and girls have the freedom to learn anything – from the alphabet in kindergarten, to the theory and practice required to complete an apprenticeship as an electrician, to a PhD in molecular biology. There is no subject matter or level of studies which is off-limits to women in Australia. It has not been so for most girls and women in most cultures at most stages of history.

Firstly, in a Jewish context, learning Scripture was primarily a male’s work. There is some debate over whether some girls may have had a degree of scriptural instruction, possibly in the home rather than in the local synagogue.[1] Some first century Jewish leaders were, however, vehemently opposed to teaching Scripture to women. Rabbi Eliezer wrote, “Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman…Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity.” (I agree with what you’re probably thinking right now…Eliezer was not a particularly nice chap.) Looking at the Ephesian (Gentile) context, Philip Payne notes that no women’s names are found on the student lists of Ephesian schools.[2]

Secondly, Paul’s instructions to the woman indicate that she is to learn in the manner of a disciple, a serious student. Although today’s students are expected to express their own opinions and even debate a point with the teacher, this was not the manner of a decently behaved and serious student in the first century. Payne notes, “(Hesuchia) indicates a manner of learning that was culturally regarded as being the appropriate attitude and deportment of a well-bred serious student. Paul here commands that women be permitted to learn as proper students, with a quiet and teachable spirit.”[3] So while we hear Paul as saying to the woman, “Shut up and don’t speak,” in the original cultural context, he is saying, “Get out there and learn. Not just in a half-baked way – apply yourself to serious study just like any male student would. Get an education!” When the woman has learned to understand the Christian faith more accurately, her “bad speech” will be transformed into “good speech.”

Submission here should be understood as submission to the truth being taught.

A Permanent or Temporary Ban on Women Teaching?

Paul follows up this instruction for the woman to learn with a temporary ban on her teaching (1 Tim 2:12), which further reinforces that for now, she is to focus on learning the truth and cultivating quietness-peace. In our English translations, the tense used when Paul says “I do not permit” sounds as though it is a permanent command – women are not allowed to teach forever, end of story, good night. However, the Greek tense is one which is rarely used for permanent, ongoing instructions, but rather, for temporary situations. Perhaps a better translation is “I am not currently permitting…” Philip Payne demonstrates that Paul is very particular about making it clear when he is creating a universal, continuing instruction – something Paul does not do here.[4] The one clear command Paul gives in this passage is the command for the woman to learn.

In summary, 1 Timothy 2:11-12 gives a temporary command that is probably given to one particular woman, to cease teaching for a time in order that she might learn, and to do so in the quiet, teachable manner of a good student. He does not demand the silence of all women in church for all time.

You can find Part 1 of this series here, Part 3 here and Part 4 here. To ensure you don’t miss it, why not follow the God’s Design – Perth blog via our Facebook page or by signing up to receive posts by email…or preferably both? From time to time, additional items of interest are published on the Facebook page, which are not found on the blog. However, Facebook does not show all those who “like” the page all of my posts all of the time. To be sure you will not miss out on great content, I would encourage you to sign up for both.

[1] Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, Grand Rapids, 2009, p. 209

[2] Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, Grand Rapids, 2009, p.314.

[3] Payne, p. 315.

[4] Payne, p. 322.


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