Paul’s statement that “a woman should learn in quietness and submission” in 1 Timothy 2:11 looks clear-cut in English, but as we have delved deeper into this verse in this series, we have found a number of factors which make it unlikely that Paul was calling for all women for all time to remain completely silent in church. Part 1 looked at the false teachings within the Ephesian church and Paul’s desire to see these teachers replace their ignorant and divisive speech with good speech. Part 2 examined Paul’s use of hesuchia, concluding that it is about inner quietness-peace (the proper attitude of a serious student of the time) rather than physical silence. Part 3 looked at particular historical circumstances during the reign of Nero which made unity within the church particularly essential. In Part 4, we will be looking at one other factor in the Ephesian church which makes it highly unlikely that Paul expects women to remain silent there – namely, its strong history of women in leadership, particularly Priscilla.
Priscilla, Aquila and the Establishment of the Ephesian Church
Any call by Paul to make women in general “silent” would be in stark contrast to his own practices as revealed in the greetings in his epistles to women in ministry roles and in the stories of Paul told by Luke in Acts. It would be particularly out of place in the history of the Ephesian church.
After living and working in Corinth together for three years, Paul, Priscilla and Aquila relocated to Ephesus and founded the church there (Acts 18). Paul stayed for only a short time in this fledgling church during his first visit. How could Paul leave such a “baby church” without strong leadership to ensure that it stayed doctrinally sound? Well, he didn’t. He left Priscilla and Aquila to lead the church. We are not sure whether Priscilla and Aquila were Christians already when they left Rome in 49AD as a result of the expulsion of the Jews, or whether they first became believers as a result of Paul’s ministry in Corinth. Regardless, their most serious theological formation took place as they sat at the feet of rabbi Paul, learning the deep truths of the faith.
Priscilla and Aquila were not just learners – but having drunk deeply at the well of Paul’s theological knowledge, they became competent and reliable teachers of the truth. The New Testament depicts them leading house churches and mentoring other leaders. One of the successes of Priscilla and Aquila’s ministry in Ephesus was the training of Apollos in correct Christian doctrine. He went on to become a significant Christian leader. It seems that Paul counted him as an apostle – “us apostles” in 1 Cor 4:9 is grammatically linked to “myself and Apollos” in 1 Cor 4:6.
Priscilla, Apollos and the Importance of House Churches
Some commentators try to rationalise the fact that Priscilla taught Apollos by saying, “Well, this was different – Priscilla didn’t teach Apollos in the church. She taught him at home, and under her husband’s covering.” This is a very flawed approach. Firstly, this “covering” doctrine is a modern invention created to try to give women certain opportunities in the church while ensuring that authority remains vested in men – you could say it’s sort of like keeping the cake away from women and eating it too. It has no biblical basis. Most importantly, it places husbands (and sometimes other men, particularly pastors and other leaders) between wives and Christ. 1 Timothy 2:5 tells us in no uncertain terms that there is “one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.”
Secondly, this division between church and home displays a woeful ignorance of the early church. There were no church buildings in Paul’s time. The very vast majority of churches met in homes. There is no evidence to suggest that at this point in time, the Ephesian church did not operate as a house church (or a series of house churches). It did, however, later meet in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, during the time of Paul’s second visit to that city (Acts 19:9).
Priscilla and Aquila are well known to have been house church leaders. There was no such thing as a modern Sunday worship service with a band, 45 minutes of preaching and a vibrant kids’ church program running parallel to it. Typically, in the house church setting, the Lord’s Table was the central feature, and many men and women present would share in various ways (prayers, prophecies, interpretations and so on). 
This distinction between “home” and “church” used to explain away Priscilla’s teaching displays ignorance not only of the practices of the early church, but also of what church is. The church is both something global – the entirety of Christians across the globe (and across time) – and something as local as “where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them” (Matt 18:20). Call this a low ecclesiology if you like big words, but I would suggest that it is instead a Christocentric ecclesiology – one in which the presence of Christ with gathered believers is the central defining feature of the church.
Furthermore, if you assume that Priscilla’s teaching of Apollos was non-authoritative because it took place in the home rather than in a church (temporarily ignoring the historical context), then you would also have to conclude that Paul’s teaching of Priscilla and Aquila, when they lived and worked together, was equally non-authoritative, as it seems that this teaching took place in the home (which would also have been their workplace). Interestingly, I have never seen any commentator suggest this about Paul’s teaching.
Priscilla and Aquila in Rome and Ephesus Again
Only a few years after commencing their Ephesian ministry, Priscilla and Aquila have returned to their former home in Rome and are house church leaders. It is not clear who they have left in leadership in the Ephesian church – Paul’s letter to the Ephesians gives us no information about this. Timothy does not appear to have been appointed to the Ephesian church until some time later.
Having firmly established the church in Ephesus, it seems likely that Priscilla and Aquila have turned their purpose toward the establishment or further development of the church in Rome. Perhaps this return to Rome was always their intent. Claudius – the emperor who had expelled the Jews – died on 13 October, AD54, enabling Jews to return to the Eternal City. The Epistle to the Romans – which places Priscilla and Aquila in Rome – was written in approximately AD55. For Priscilla and Aquila to have travelled to Rome and established themselves as house church leaders so soon after the death of Claudius, they must have travelled quite a short time after the emperor was murdered.
What is notable though, is that by the time Paul writes his final letter, 2 Timothy, Priscilla and Aqulia are in Ephesus again. “Greet Priscilla and Aquila and the household of Onesiphorus” (2 Timothy 4:19). Note that there is no evidence in this statement that Priscilla and Aquila are living in Ephesus in any permanent capacity – they do not appear to be running a house church, and are possibly staying with Onesiphorus.
There was no suggestion in 1 Timothy that they were present in Ephesus at that time (6 months to 2 years before the writing of 2 Timothy). So what brought them to Ephesus between the writing of these two epistles? One possibility might be found in Timothy’s ongoing difficulties in bringing the doctrinal and interpersonal matters under control. Whether at Paul’s instigation or through their own links with the church, a likely explanation for the presence of these respected, senior figures in the Early Church at Ephesus is that they went to assist Timothy in resolving matters, bringing their authority and theological expertise to bear in their former church.
Priscilla and Aquila’s foundations in Christian doctrine came from Paul himself and their success in instructing Apollos and evidence of their role as house church leaders in Rome indicates their skill in passing on sound teaching. It appears that this couple had a sort of roving commission, similar to that of the apostles, which saw their authority widely accepted in the churches from Ephesus to Rome. Indeed, Paul says that “all the churches of the Gentiles” give thanks for them (Rom 16:3-5). Clearly, one of the three most significant leaders of the early Ephesian church was a woman, which makes a command from Paul for general silence for all Ephesian women unlikely.
1 Timothy 2:11 – In Summary
Over the course of these four posts, we have discovered a range of factors which aid in the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11. Due to the false teachings which were rife within the Ephesian church, Paul was concerned to ensure that these wrong teachings were replaced by right teachings, the effect of which would be evidenced by right speech, right inner attitudes (quietness-peace) and right relationships (harmony among the believers). To a particular woman (or maybe some women) who had been causing disruption through false teaching, Paul gave the instruction to learn in the same manner as a male student or disciple, exhibiting the quietness-peace of a model student. Paul deliberately chose the word hesuchia, meaning quietness-peace, rather than harsher words indicating total silence. With this instruction to learn came a parallel command – a temporary injunction against teaching designed to last until the woman has learned right doctrine. The instruction to cultivate quietness-peace was given to the Ephesian church generally, in order that harmony within the church might enable it to resist persecution from without. It is unsurprising that Paul had such concern to bring the woman who had been involved in false teaching back into a right relationship with the church, as he was such a great advocate and partner of women in ministry roles, including Priscilla – one of the foundational and most influential leaders of the Ephesian church.
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Image created from Bust of a woman, Archaeological Museum, Athens, photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, 2009.
9 thoughts on “Q&A: Should Women Be Silent in Church? Part 4”
Brilliant! Well done, Bronwen.
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Thank you Bev!
Superb. All the way through. I especially agreed with your raising up the issue of “church.” OF COURSE Paul, Priscilla, Aquila, Apollos, et al worshiped in house churches. There were no such things as what we–in the 21st century–consider as churches. Houses -> changed into worship-spaces, for the period of time that people gathered together to worship God. This is exactly the same way God is worshiped in many places and spaces today, where it is dangerous to openly proclaim the name of Christ.
Good grief. How can some people be so narrow-minded as to expect that “mega-churches” are the rule, worldwide? Thanks for spelling out many of the misconceptions of today’s complementary-minded Christians … @chaplaineliza
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Thank you Eliza!
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Thanks Bronwen, I should admit, I didn’t think much about 1 Tim 2:11-15 before. The more I read about it, the more I know nothing about this! No wonder the internet (and real world) is full of strife for this issue. From what I’ve understood so far, the tension is still out there. Acknowledging the context of false teachers and examples of Paul’s women ministry partners, I still struggle to understand why Paul use vv 13 & 14 as his reasons. Thanks for your ministry via this blog!
Hi Rusdy, thanks for your comment. These are particularly difficult verses to interpret (don’t believe anyone who says they are simple and straightforward!), and I’m glad if these posts have been useful to you.
Verses 13 and 14 don’t immediately seem to have much to do with the rest of what Paul has been talking about, do they? They look really quite illogical in that context at first. Then if we look a most of the other places in Paul’s letters where he is dealing with issues relating men & women, especially when he writes to the Ephesians (Eph, 1 Tim, 2 Tim), he always seems to be harking back to Genesis. That’s a pretty big clue that should make us say, “Hold on a moment…it sounds like there is some issue in the background there that Paul is trying to correct that perhaps we don’t fully understand.” Paul’s letters are a bit like hearing one side of a telephone call – because we don’t know the other side of the correspondence and background problems, it can be tricky to interpret 100% of it correctly. If Paul is constantly trying to correct their understanding of Gen 1-3, then maybe the problem is some significant misunderstanding of the text, that somehow connects to the mistakes the people Paul is writing to are making in relation to their understanding of marriage and the ministry of women. What scholars have found is that in Ephesus, there were some…er…”alternate facts” about the creation story doing the rounds. Remember that the Jews were just one ethnic/religious group in the region. Every culture has its creation stories, and many stories in the Near/Middle East shared some similarities, making it particularly easy when one culture encountered another for some of the details from the other culture’s story to get absorbed into your culture’s version of it. Many of the versions of the creation story in cultures of that region had Eve (or whatever the name of the first woman was in their version) being created first, and then leading the man into enlightenment, not sin. The way Paul is reiterating that the man was created first in relation to correcting a false Ephesian teacher is strongly suggestive of some Ephesian believers having been taught this incorrect teaching. Many of the Ephesian believers would not have been Jewish, so wouldn’t have had a thorough grounding in the Hebrew Scriptures, nor would they necessarily have had ready access to them, in those days before the invention of the printing press. That made it easier for skewed versions of the story to gain popularity. It’s likely that the woman (singular) that Paul refers to when he says he’s not currently allowing a woman to teach or usurp authority was teaching some of these false stories. That’s a fairly abbreviated version, but it’s a start!
I have a Bible study that I run from time to time, covering what the Bible teaches about men and women from Genesis to Paul, in 7 sessions or two days. It covers 1 Tim 2:8-15 in some depth. You might find it valuable. 🙂
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