Q&A: Should Women Be Silent In Church? Part 3

We have already seen, in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on 1 Timothy 2:11, that Paul has indicated that some in the Ephesian church are promoting controversial speculations, turning to meaningless talk, and blaspheming (not in the sense of swearing, but in the sense of speech that goes against God’s truths – we might rather say “teaching heresy”). Paul’s antidote to wrong teaching is right learning, and the desired outcome is quietness-peace. If all have right learning combined with quietness-peace, then the discord currently besetting Timothy’s church should be resolved. But why is this such a pressing concern for Paul in regard to the Ephesian church at this time?

The Need for Peacefulness in 1 Timothy Is Rooted in Historical Circumstances

This quietness-peace is a theme which runs throughout 1 Timothy 2 – not just for women in verse 11, but for all believers. The chapter opens with Paul beseeching the Ephesians to pray. The particular object of their prayers was to be “kings and all those in authority” (1 Tim 2:1-2).

The persecution of Christians had already been a factor in various times and locations prior to the writing of 1 Timothy. Paul himself had, of course, been a persecutor of the “followers of the Way” prior to his conversion. He played a role in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58, 8:1), and imprisoned men and women for their faith (Acts 8:3 ).

Later, as an apostle with a particular mission to the Gentiles in the Roman world, Paul experienced his fair share of persecution. One example is the riots incited by his preaching in Ephesus, which caused Paul to leave the city (Acts 19:23-20:1). He so gravely feared for his life that he felt he was unable to ever return to Ephesus (Acts 18:13-38).

There may have been a particularly pressing current reason for Paul’s advice to the Ephesians about kings and authorities, as his epistles to Timothy[1] are written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero (emperor from 54-68AD). Nero’s early reign was considered to be gentler, but as he neared the end of his short life, he had become more and more vicious and aggressive, perhaps even insane. Eusebius (the 4th century historian of the early church) says of Nero,

“To describe the greatness of his depravity does not lie within the plan of the present work. As there are many indeed that have recorded his history in most accurate narratives, everyone may at his pleasure learn from them the coarseness of the man’s extraordinary madness, under the influence of which, after he had accomplished the destruction of so many myriads without any reason, he ran into such blood-guiltiness that he did not spare even his nearest relatives and dearest friends, but destroyed his mother and his brothers and his wife, with very many others of his own family as he would private and public enemies, with various kinds of deaths… he was the first of the emperors who showed himself an enemy of the divine religion” (that is, Christianity). Church History, book II, ch. 25.

It has been claimed that Nero himself was responsible for the Great Fire of Rome in AD64, which was used as an excuse to persecute Christians, who were thrown to the dogs, crucified or burned. Suetonius, Cassius Dio and Tacitus (Roman historians of the first and second centuries) claim that Nero was known to dip the bodies of captured Christians in oil and burn them at night as a form of gruesome garden lighting – whether this was before or after the Great Fire of Rome is uncertain. The deaths of Peter and Paul are generally believed to have taken place in AD64 or 65 in Rome under Nero.

 

Q&A Should Women Be Silent in Church Part 3
Martyrdom of St Paul, Basilica of St Peter & St Paul, Petersberg bei Dachau, Bavaria, Germany. Picture by GFreihalter (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.o (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
Although the worst of anti-Christian persecution is yet to come at the time when Paul wrote 1 Timothy (62-63AD), it is possible that in his time of imprisonment in Rome immediately prior to writing, he had seen indicators of growing anti-Christian sentiment from Nero or his officials. It is not surprising that Paul identifies the goal of these prayers regarding kings and people in authority to be, “that we may life peaceful and quiet (hesuchion) lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:2).

 

So by the time when Paul wrote to Timothy in Ephesus, Christianity had already been persecuted in Jerusalem by Jewish officials. The persecution in Ephesus by local tradesmen and others wanting to protect the worship of Artemis was presumably a sufficient ongoing threat that Paul avoided the city. If Paul was so strongly threatened in Ephesus, then presumably those perceived to be his followers would have to tread carefully to avoid similar hindrances to their freedom to worship and to spread the Gospel. And furthermore, the unstable leadership of Nero is known to have caused significant persecution of Christians shortly after Paul wrote this letter, so it is quite possible that Paul is aware of which way the wind was blowing in Rome at this time.

Peacefulness – Necessary for the Unity of the Ephesian Church

Any organisation which is suffering from intense persecution from without cannot bear the pressure of intense disunity within, so I believe Paul’s desire to see the false teaching within the Ephesian church cease stems not simply from a general desire for harmony between believers, but from a well-founded suspicion that the church will soon face difficult external circumstances which will get worse before they get better.

The fact that men are told to lift holy hands in prayer rather than with anger and disputing (1 Tim 2:8) suggests that some men in Ephesus have been speaking in anger and causing disputes. The reference to lifting hands in prayer is possibly meant to suggest a contrast to the actions of men who might have been raising fists or pointing fingers as they angrily drove home their viewpoints. Men in Ephesus had a need to learn the value of right speech and back it up with right action.

See what Paul is doing here? He is constantly bringing troublemakers back to the need to cultivate an inner attitude of peacefulness, for their own sake and the sake of the church. Men who have been involved in angry disputes are given guidance about how to act so as to bring about peacefulness (that is, by lifting holy hands in prayer). A woman who has been involved in some kind of false teaching is encouraged to learn (a necessary correction to ignorance), and to do that with inner peace and tranquillity, refraining from the contentious speech she has been using (1 Tim 2:11-12). Believers (both male and female) who may be at risk of persecution by government authorities are urged to live in a peaceful and harmonious manner, for the sake of the Gospel (1 Tim 2:1-2).

So the call for the woman (or women) to learn peacefully (not in silence) is entirely consistent with Paul’s call for the whole of the Ephesian church to develop this attitude of peacefulness as they grow in knowledge of the truth.

In the final part in this series, we will look at a particular historical and biblical circumstance which makes it highly unlikely that Paul expected all women to remain silent at all times in Ephesus and elsewhere.

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[1] There is disagreement among scholars as to whether Paul was the author of the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus). I side with Gordon Fee, Philip Payne, Aída Besançon Spencer, D.A. Carson, Douglas Moo, Leon Morris, E.E. Ellis and other evangelical scholars in taking the traditional view, that these are genuine letters of Paul. In keeping with this belief, I support a date of 62-63AD for this document.

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