Why Does the Apostle Paul Tell Women to Be Silent and Not to Teach?
- Catherine Segars Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2021 26 May
Should women be silent in church?
More than any other ancient book, we see women operate with incredible grit and determination throughout Scripture, accomplishing amazing feats of perseverance, tenacity, fortitude, courage, and strength.
In the Old Testament, Sarah births a nation at the age of 90. Jochebed defies the Pharaoh to rescue her son. Miriam prophesies and sings over a fledgling nation. Deborah commands armies as the chief prophet and judge in the land. Jael assassinates the enemy. Jehosheba preserves the lineage of David. Huldah instructs the king. Rahab operates as a spy. Esther saves her people.
In the New Testament, an unwed girl accepts a divine, dangerous assignment that changes the course of human history. Anna becomes the first evangelist, prophesying that the Messiah has come. Mary lavishes her inheritance on the Messiah’s feet.
The women at the tomb are the first to testify of Christ’s resurrection. The women at Pentecost prophesy and speak in other tongues. Priscilla instructs Apollos. Chloe leads a house church. Phoebe is a deacon and currier of the Gospel. Junia is an apostle.
And yet, the very things that many of these women did in Scripture, they cannot do in some Christian circles today.
Women Are Unjustly Limited by These Two Misunderstood Scriptures
Recently, the mayor of a small Texas town invited a group of missionaries from YWAM, Youth With a Mission, to give the invocation at a city council meeting. Mayor Eric Rogue had only one request—that the representatives who prayed were not women.
Given the litany of examples from Scripture mentioned above where women pray, praise, prophesy over and instruct nations, much less congregations, why this prohibition?
Two New Testament passages are frequently referenced in order to forbid women to minister as these women in Scripture do. Or rather, these verses are used out of context to limit the role of women in ministry.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 says,
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
And 1 Timothy 2:11-12 says,
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”
For thousands of years, these two passages have been used to silence the voice and gifts of women.
In a recent article, I examined other passages of Scripture from both the Old and New Testament which conflict with the interpretation of these verses that silence and limit women. And in another article, I examined the critical cultural context necessary to understand the meaning of these passages.
Without this vital framework, these verses are easily misunderstood.
Think of this article as the third installment of a trilogy on women in ministry (also read Why We Should Reconsider What the Bible Really Says about Women in Ministry and Does Scripture Oppress or Liberate Women?)
Now it is finally time to examine the translations of these specific verses to find an interpretation that is consistent with all of Scripture. Let’s break these two passages down to really understand what Paul is saying and what God’s is heart towards women in the church.
Does 1 Corinthians 14 Actually Say that Women Should Be Silent in Church?
A strict moratorium on women speaking in the church is not just inconsistent with the whole of Scripture — it is inconsistent within the same letter.
In chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians, just three chapters before the supposed restrictions on women speaking in the church, the Apostle Paul gives both men and women instructions on how to pray and prophesy in the church assembly (1 Corinthians 11:4-5).
One can pray silently, but prophesy is always audible. If Paul instructed women on how to prophesy in the church, he did not expect them to be silent. Nor did the Holy Spirit expect women to remain silent as his fiery baptism caused both men and women to prophesy and speak in other tongues at the church’s gathering on Pentecost (Acts 2).
It is illogical to suggest that Scripture requires women to be silent in the church just moments after instructing women on how to prophesy in the church. It is contradictory to think that God requires women to be silent in the church assembly when the Holy Spirit caused women to prophesy and speak in other tongues at the Pentecost church gathering.
And let’s not forget Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah prophesied over the nation of Israel, not just a small church assembly.
Scripture must interpret Scripture. If something is inconsistent, it must be in our understanding, not in God’s intention.
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So Why Does Paul Tell Women to Be Silent in Church in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35?
According to Dr. John Temple Bristow, the answer lies in the words that Paul chose in 1 Corinthians 14.
For silence, he could have chosen the verb phimoo” which means “forcing someone to be silent,” or hesuchia, which means “quietness and stillness,” but he didn’t. Paul chose the verb sigao, which is “a voluntary silence.”
“Sigao is the kind of silence asked for in the midst of disorder and clamor.”[i]
Likewise, when Paul said “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church,” he could have chosen any one of dozens of Greek words that imply speaking in ministry. “Five of them denote preaching or proclaiming, and twenty-five others can be translated ‘say,’ ‘speak,’ or ‘teach.’”[ii]
Paul didn’t use any of those words. Instead he chose the word laleo, which can mean speaking something important. “But of all the verbs that can be translated ‘speak,’ only laleo can also mean, simply, talk.”[iii]
Dr. Bristow contends that Paul was telling women to stop chattering during what had become very unruly gatherings. And the context of order, which is the clear theme of the entire chapter, supports this interpretation.
The silence required in chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians is a voluntary silence in accordance with the need for order in the church service. It was not intended to silence women outright.
The New Testament Liberated Women
Keep in mind, for the first time women were allowed to participate in the church service. They were no longer relegated to the balcony, hidden behind a curtain. They were on the main floor.
Women had been given instructions on how to pray and to prophesy in the service, but this privilege had become a disruption. The women were chattering and asking questions, which is precisely why, in the midst of the admonition to stop disturbing the service, Paul says, “If they [women] want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home” (vs. 35).
Paul was condemning disruptive chatter and questions that interrupted the service.
Why Does Paul Tell Timothy That He Does Not Allow a Woman to Teach or Exercise Authority over Men in 1 Timothy 2?
There are many theories here, but why search for one at all? Why not just accept this recommendation at face value?
Because at face value, it contradicts so many other Scriptures.
If God did not approve of women leading and instructing men, why was one-third of Israel’s first leadership team female? God said to the prophet Micah, “I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4).
Why was Deborah the chief prophet and judge over all of Israel for four decades? Why was Huldah the most accurate prophet in Israel, and why did God use her to instruct the king? Why did Anna prophesy at the temple and Priscilla instruct Apollos?
In many instances, women do teach, lead, and exercise authority over men in Scripture. This fact requires an explanation.
Other Parts of 1 Timothy 2 Are Not Practiced Today
In this same section of Scripture, women are told not to wear gold or pearls, and they must not braid their hair (vs. 8). Are these prohibitions binding for all women of all cultures? Biblical scholars today, like Dr. Bristow and David Joel Hamilton, agree that these admonitions sought to distance women from an ostentatious and promiscuous culture[iv] in which temple courtesans braided gold jewelry into their hair.[v]
This section of Scripture also says, “But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (vs. 15).
Read that verse again.
Did Paul suddenly change the criteria for women to be saved?
Clearly not, although at face value it seems to. Too many other verses in Scripture tell us that salvation comes through faith, not childbirth. (Mark 16:16, Luke 7:50, John 5:24, Acts 10:30-31, Romans 10:9-10, Ephesian 2:8-9) Some suggest that this verse is referring to a woman being saved from dying in childbirth. Others suggest that this refers to the salvation that came through the birth of Christ. Whatever the meaning, it is clear that spiritual salvation does not come through bearing children.
So, the verses prohibiting women from wearing jewelry or braiding their hair and the verse saying that women are saved through bearing children are not taken at face value, while the prohibitions of women teaching or exercising authority are.
Is it logical to surgically remove this single exclusion and make it binding while the others aren’t?
At best, this is an inconsistent application of Scripture. We need to dig deeper to find a meaning that is consistent with many clear examples of women speaking, teaching, and leading in the Bible.
But before we consider those theories, we must first recognize how ground-breaking Paul’s admonition was.
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Paul Commanded That Women Learn
Much is made of the fact that 1 Timothy 2:11 says “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission.” It is rarely noted, however, that this commandment to learn was a landmark, groundbreaking amendment for women.
Prior to the establishment of the New Testament church, women were not allowed to learn at all.
Critics focus on the “quietness and full submission” required in this section and not the revolutionary command that “a woman should learn.” “The Bible not only permitted but also required educational opportunity for women.”[vi]
For the first time in Jewish history, women are now students just like the men.
And the posture of a male disciple was “quietness and full submission.” “Before, throughout, and after Paul’s time, the rabbis were agreed that silence was an admirable attribute for the pious scholar.”[vii]
The posture of silence and submission required in this section of Scripture was not a restriction, is was a sign of equality. Women were now given the same privilege and responsibility in learning as the men.
So, why did Paul say, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12)? Let’s explore 3 different explanations.
The “Specific Woman” Theory to Explain This Passage:
Biblical scholar David Joel Hamilton contends that in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, Paul is speaking of a specific woman. After discussing women in general, Paul suddenly switches to the singular in these two verses and the two verses that follow.
This theory “is based on a very clear grammatical shift in the Greek. From verse 11 to the middle of verse 15, the plural nouns are gone. They’re all singular: ‘a woman,’ ‘she must be silent,’ and ‘she will be saved through the childbearing.’ Then, in the second half of verse 15, Paul returned to the plural.[viii]
“Why did Paul make this dramatic switch from plural to singular?” Hamilton asks. He concludes that Paul “had a specific Ephesian woman in mind as he wrote these words to Timothy. The context suggests that she was a vocal promoter of the false teachings troubling the Ephesian church.”[ix]
What was that false teaching?
The entire book of 1 Timothy is predicated on Paul’s desire to set right the errant doctrines mentioned in chapter 1. And one heresy fits the context more than any other: Gnosticism.
This leads Biblical Scholar John T. Bristow to a logical conclusion: “It seems almost certain that Paul’s intention was not to make any statement regarding superiority or inferiority, but to refute the doctrines of certain Gnostic teachers,”[xi] one of whom might have been a woman.
The “Oppressive Culture” Theory to Explain This Passage:
Bristow offers another theory in his book, What Paul Really Said About Women.
Given the incredibly misogynistic and oppressive atmosphere for women permeating from the Greek culture and Jewish practice of the day, “Teachers, at first, had to be men, for only men were educated in the faith. And Jewish custom strictly forbade women from conversing with men other than their husbands,”[xii] according to Dr. Bristow.
In the New Testament church, there were some serious roadblocks for women leading and instructing as Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah had in the Old Testament. First, Greek culture and Jewish practice restricted them from learning. Then it restricted them from speaking.
How could women teach what they had not yet learned and were not allowed to say?
The “Mistranslation” Theory to Explain This Passage:
Yet another more compelling theory uncovers the true meaning of the word authentien, a word found nowhere else in the Bible.
This verb in 1 Timothy 2:12 is ordinarily translated “to have authority or power over.” Greek scholar Catherine Clark Kroeger, however, uncovers that this translation was not common until the third or fourth century. At the time of the New Testament church, this verb also had the meaning “to originate.”
Given that Paul’s clear objective in this letter is to defeat false theology, one of which was the Gnostic teaching that man originated from woman, a more accurate translation of this text may be, “I do not permit woman to teach nor to represent herself as originator of man.”
This translation explains why Paul then immediately sets the creation account straight, stating that man was created first, then woman (vs. 13).
Kroeger contends that Paul’s objection is not to women teaching in general, rather his objection is to what some women were teaching.
And there are other theories. Not all of them can be true, but some fit with the clear examples of women ministering throughout Scripture better than the theory which requires women to be silent.
Does Scripture Restrict Women from Speaking, Teaching, or Exercising Authority in the Church?
God certainly didn’t restrict women when it came to Miriam, Deborah, and Hulda. And the New Testament was birthed in the Holy Spirit’s baptism which fell on men and women alike.
Anna is the first evangelist testifying that the Messiah had come. Paul himself commends the teaching ministry and leadership of Priscilla, Phoebe, Chloe, and Junia.
Women have been restricted and oppressed throughout history, and this unfortunate reality is seen in Scripture and church history as well. But a strong argument can be made that this is not God’s doing. It is man’s.
We should consider the poignant plea of the founder of modern nursing:
“I would have given her [the Church] my head, my hand, my heart. She would not have them. She did not know what to do with them. She told me to go back and do crochet in my mother’s drawing-room; or if I were tired of that, to marry and look well at the head of my husband’s table. ‘You may go to the Sunday School if you like it,’ she said. But she gave me no training even for that. She gave me neither work to do for her, nor education for it.” (Florence Nightingale in a letter to Dean Stanley, 1852)
How many Nightingales has the church lost?
Perhaps the church should be busy setting women free to use their gifts like God did with these incredible women in Scripture instead of creating a dogma out of four verses that stand in stark contrast to so many others.
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[i] Bristow, John Temple, What Paul Really Said About Women: An Apostle’s Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love. Harper Collins, 1991, pg. 63.
[iv] Hamilton, David Joel, Why Not Women? A Fresh Look at Scripture on Women, in Missions, Ministry, and Leadership, YWAM Publishing, 2000, pg. 212.
[v] J.T. Bristow, pg. 90.
[vi] D. J. Hamilton, pg. 218
[vii] Spencer, Aida Dina, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry. Thomas Nelson, 1985, pg. 79. Quoted in Hamilton, David Joel, Why Not Women? A Fresh Look at Scripture on Women, in Missions, Ministry, and Leadership, YWAM Publishing, 2000, pg. 218.
[viii] D.J. Hamilton, pg. 213.
[ix] Ibid, 214.
[x] J.T. Bristow, pg. 75.
[xii]Ibid, pg. 72
Catherine Segars is an award-winning actress and playwright—turned stay-at-home-mom—turned author, speaker, podcaster, blogger, and motherhood apologist. This homeschooling mama of five is the host of CHRISTIAN PARENT/CRAZY WORLD, a Life Audio podcast about raising godly kids in an ungodly world, and she is matron of the Mere Mother website, which delves into critical cultural issues that affect families and marginalize mothers. Catherine helps parents navigate through dangerous secular landmines to establish a sound Biblical foundation for their kids. You can find Catherine’s blog, dramatic blogcast, and other writings at www.catherinesegars.com and connect with her on Facebook.