This passage is probably one of the most controversial of all texts in the New Testament. On the face of it, the text seems to be saying that women have no teaching role in the church. As a result, some contend that it degrades women at the expense of men. They point the finger at the chauvinistic Paul. For example, one woman has written:
“As Scripture, the Pastorals have shaped a world in which women and other have been subordinated and devalued. . . . Such texts, contained in sacred authoritative canon cannot but become 'texts of terror' . . . in a democratic society which views the position of women, lay people, servant, slaves, etc. in a totally different light. . . . How can we be true to ourselves, to our deepest social and moral commitments, while remaining true to the Christian tradition?”1
Though I disagree with this author's assessment of the Christian teaching, I do admire her honesty with the text. There are other commentators on the text, who though sharing a similar commitment with me (at least, theoretically) to the authority of Scripture, nevertheless seem to be able to either ignore Paul's words here or to do hermeneutic gymnastics to get around the plain meaning of the text. She might have completely given in to the wisdom of this world, but they have managed to surrender in more subtle ways – yet they have given in all the same.
However, I think the lightening rod nature of this passage is such that it might tend to hide the bigger picture: are we going to be faithful to genuine, vintage Christianity – the Christianity of Christ and his apostles – or are we going to capitulate to the culture? I ask this because this issue is bigger than the roles of men and women in the church. It is possible to be right on this issue, and yet be as infected with the spirit of the age as any secularist. Worldliness comes in many different flavors and in many disguises. Sometimes conservatism is just another disguise for worldliness.
Consider the Pharisees of Jesus' day. They were about as religiously conservative as they come, and yet they had capitulated to the spirit of the age in the most fundamental way possible: they were infected with the love of this world. So if we see in this text a call to resist the pressure to conform to this present world in the area of the mutual roles of men and women in the church, it should also remind us of the Biblical imperative to be not conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2),
But what did Paul have to say about the roles of women in the church? Is he really the chauvinist that so many today portray him to be? To answer these questions, we need to take an honest view of the text and seek to hear the apostle speak in his own words rather than to import our own meaning into the text. When we look at the text itself, then, what we find is that the apostle tells us what women should do in the church (v. 11), then what they should not do (v.12), which Paul grounds by giving two reasons. The first reason comes from creation (v.13) and the second from the distinctive natures of men and women (v.14). Finally, Paul affirms that motherhood is the primary role of the woman, and that by serving God in this role she will be saved (v.15).
What women ought to do in the church (verse 11): “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.”2
It's important to see that Paul does not begin this paragraph with a limitation on the believing woman's role in the church. Rather, his first word is positive: it is not about what a woman cannot do but what a woman should do in the church. And what is this? It is that they should learn. This is amazing because in the first century world, both among the Romans and the Jews, education was mainly reserved for men, and women were by and large left out. In fact, among the rabbis it was said, “It would be better for the words of the Torah to be burned, than that they should be entrusted to a woman.”3 Thus, when it is claimed that Paul was merely echoing the sentiments of an oppressive culture against women, we need to remind ourselves that this was in fact not the case at all. If anything, Paul was breaking through many long-standing cultural taboos against the place of women in society. Paul wanted the believing woman to be just as educated as the believing man. After all, the call to renew the mind applies to all believers, not just men.
And there are many examples in the New Testament of godly women who devoted themselves to Biblical education. Perhaps the brightest example is that of Priscilla, who along with her husband Aquila, educated the eloquent Apollos in the gospel (Acts 18:26). Timothy himself owed much to the educating influence of his godly mother and grandmother (2 Tim. 1:4-5; 3:14-15). And in Titus 2:3-4, Paul commands the older women to teach the younger women what it means to be a Christian woman. So if women were teaching Biblical principles to others, then it must be that they themselves had first learned these truths. And in each case, Paul commends those women who were doing so, and exhorts others to follow in their steps.
It could be that the words following “let a woman learn” are what provoke a negative response in many: “let a woman learn quietly with full submissiveness.” To some, these words might conjure up an image of women with tape over their mouths! But that is far, far from what Paul had in mind here. In fact, as a teacher myself, I can affirm that these instructions simply apply to anyone who is learning anything. You simply cannot learn unless you have a quiet and submissive demeanor. And this goes for men as much as it does for women,
When Paul modifies “learning “ with “quietly,” it needs to be pointed out that this is not a prohibition of all speaking in the church by women. In fact, women are encouraged to pray and prophesy in the church by Paul himself (1 Cor. 11:5). The context of 1 Corinthians 11 is the public worship of the church, not the private practices of men and women. So when Paul says that it is a shame for a woman to pray and prophesy in the church with her head uncovered, he is implying that if her head is covered, then it is right for her to pray or prophesy in the context of the gathered community of believers. Thus, by “quietly” Paul means to describe the demeanor that must be adopted by anyone who wants to learn. There must be a receptiveness to the teaching, a willingness to receive the truth – as opposed to a combative, argumentative response to the teacher.
Furthermore, when Paul modifies learning by “with full submission,” this is not a reference to a kind of submission that is appropriate only for women. What women are to learn is Biblical truth – God's truth, and it is to be submitted to with complete devotion by all who hear it. Men and women must learn God's word in this way. In other words, the submission called for in the text is a function of what is being learned more than a function of who is teaching it. When God speaks, we all must learn with quiet mouths and submissive hearts.
An incredible example of this is seen in Mary, the sister of Martha, in Luke 10:40-42. Martha was encumbered with serving the meal and ,looking for Mary, found her at the feet of Jesus, quietly receiving his words. When Martha sought to rebuke her and enlist Jesus to make her get up and help with the work, she receive a startling rebuke herself from the Master: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” As Ryken has put it, “This is the way all God's people learn.”4
What women ought not to do in the church (verse 12): “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”
What is Paul forbidding here? At this point, there is a great divergence of opinion, and yet one feels that our current cultural mindset and its adoption by many with regard to the mutual roles of men and women is more responsible for this divergence than any lack of clarity on the part of the text.
For example, some say that Paul is not forbidding women to teach in the church in an absolute sense, but in a sense that was limited by the context of the times. This is worked out in several ways. Some argue that Paul is simply forbidding the believing women to teach error in the church, and that is all. They point to the term “exercise authority” and claim that this is a negative term and therefore that “teaching” must also have some negative connotation to it, such as teaching error.
However, this is false. “Teaching” in the New Testament is almost a universally positive term, and unless context determines otherwise, it must be assumed to mean “teaching the truth” not the teaching of error. This is seen in both of Paul's letters to Timothy (cf. 1 Tim. 4:11; 6:2; 2 Tim. 2:2). Furthermore, the text simply doesn't say that women shouldn't teach error; if Paul had meant that, he probably would have used another word that meant “to teach error.”5 Moreover, if this were so, Paul would be saying that women should not teach error, giving men an implicit pass. Finally, it would be strange for Paul to say this, when women were not the main proponents of the error in the Ephesian church in any case; men were the main proponents.
What Paul is forbidding to women is the authoritative and public proclamation of the Scriptures. Authoritative and public teaching of the gospel is what ought to characterize the teaching of the overseer, for their teaching is to be obeyed (cf. v.11; 4:11; Heb. 13:7,17). Note that not all men are called to the role of overseer. Men who are not overseers are also called to “learn quietly with full submissiveness.” As Ryken argues, “This verse does not mean that all men are to teach all women. Nor does the Scripture say that all women are to submit to all men. Rather, these verses say that all women are to submit to the teaching and discipline of the pastors of the church. In this respect, they are no different from Christian laymen who are not ordained elders.”6
Thus, Paul is not making an absolute distinction between men and women here. Rather, he is making a distinction between the office of an elder and the role of the woman. Women are not to exercise this authority; in God's good plan, it has been reserved for certain men – those whom he has called into the ministry of the overseer. Teaching is the role of the elder (see 3:2), and it is the role of the elder to lead the church authoritatively through the teaching of the word of God, the Scriptures. To this leadership both men and women are called to submit, as far as the overseer follows Christ. No woman, however, is called to this role by God. That is what Paul forbids.
It is sometimes argued that the examples of women teaching in the church are counterexamples to this view of the text. However, this is a specious argument. None of the examples mentioned in the New Testament, from Priscilla to Timothy's mother to the older women teaching younger women are examples of women in the role of the pastor/overseer, exercising public and authoritative leadership over men in the church. And even though women were encouraged to prophesy in the church, such were subject to the evaluation and judgment of other prophets– an evaluation reserved to believing men (1 Cor. 14:33-35).
Two More Objections
Nevertheless, some remain unconvinced. First, some reason that Paul is forbidding women to teach, but is not doing so in an authoritative way – in other words, in this text, as in 1 Corinthians 7:25, Paul is simply giving his opinion. The basis for this view of the text is found in the very personal way in which Paul communicates his view: “I do not permit...”, and in the word “permit.” However, this view is based both on a misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 7:25 as well as a false assumption with respect to the authority of Paul's personal language. In the Corinthians passage, Paul is in fact not giving his opinion, but states that he is speaking (authoritatively) as one commissioned by Christ on a topic of which there is no specific word from the earthly teaching of Jesus.
Further, Paul often says “I” when issuing commands (cf. 1 Tim. 2:8; 5:21; 6:13-14), so this is no proof of a personal opinion. All of Paul's words in this epistle are prefaced by his opening greeting to Timothy: he is “Paul an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope” (1:1). These are the words of an apostle speaking authoritatively, not the musings of a philosopher speaking hesitantly.
Second, some argue that Paul is not giving a general rule for the church for all time, but addressing a specific historical situation and giving ad hoc advice meant just for the Ephesian church at that time. There are several variations of this; one variation is that Paul placed limitations on women with respect to teaching because of their lack of education – and when that was remedied, the limitation would be removed. However, this is simply not in the text. But more importantly, the reasons for this limitation are given in the next two verses, and these verses simply say nothing about a lack of education.
Perhaps more silly is the claim that Ephesus was a radically feminist city (due to the influence of the temple of Artemis in Ephesus), and hence Paul was forbidding women to teach there as part of his effort to combat this radical feminism. But the facts – as well as the overall context of the passage – simply do not support such a claim. In fact, as Mounce puts it, “Ephesus was not a unique, feminist society.”7 There is no reason to see Paul giving advice to Ephesus that would have been any different in this respect to any other church at that time.
The Reasons for the Limitation
Paul's first reason is given in verse 13: “For Adam was first formed, then Eve.” Paul here is referring to a difference in role, a difference marked out by the order of creation, Adam, then Eve. It is important to note here that Paul is not saying that men are better than women, and that is why they ought to lead and not the woman. The limitation is not rooted in men being superior but in men and women being given distinctive roles.
Stott explains how Paul derived such distinctions in the order of creation: “His argument for masculine 'headship' from the priority of Adam's creation is perfectly reasonable when seen in the light of primogeniture, the legal rights and privileges accorded to the firstborn. For Adam was God's firstborn. In addition to being created after Adam, Eve was created out of him and for him, to be a helper suitable for him and corresponding to him.”8 The practice of primogeniture said nothing about the superiority of the firstborn in terms of intelligence, gifts, or abilities. In fact, there are many examples in the Bible itself, in which the firstborn was rather lackluster when compared to his siblings (one thinks of Reuben, the firstborn of the patriarch Jacob). Even so, Paul is not implying here that Adam was superior to Eve, or that men are superior to women. Rather, his reason lies in the order which God has provided.
This order is an order put in place by God at creation. Thus, it transcends any cultural considerations. What Paul is saying here undermines every attempt to make this passage relative to a particular culture. Paul's reason makes this passage an absolute for anyone who believes in the authority of the Scriptures.
Some may say that this marginalizes women by forbidding them a pastoral role in the church. But this attitude is actually rooted in a modern lie – the falsehood that a person's worth is tied to their importance or function or role in any society. Not only is this a lie, it is a lie which dehumanizes women. For it is dehumanizing to place a person's worth in their role or function. You do that to machines, not to persons. Rather, a person's worth is found in their being created in the image of God, and gladly living out the roles in which God has placed us.
The second reason is found in verse 14: “and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Paul is not saying here that Adam did not sin – after all, in Romans 5, he puts it all on Adam's account that sin came into the world, and through sin death spread to all. In that account, Eve is not even mentioned. Nor is Paul saying that women are weak and men are not. Rather, Paul is saying something about the distinctions in the nature of men and women. Regardless of what modern feminists might tell us, men and women are different. This difference does not point to one being superior over the other. But along with certain differences come peculiar weaknesses. It is not that women are weak and men are not; rather, it is that both men and women have weaknesses, but that these weaknesses are different. In accordance with our particular weaknesses, God has placed men and women in roles that complement each other and help each other to avoid those weaknesses to which we are prone. Thus, Thomas Schreiner has pointed out the fact that “[w]omen are less likely to perceive the need to take a stand on doctrinal non-negotiables, since they prize harmonious relationships more than men do. . . . Men who value accuracy and objectivity can easily fall into the error of creating divisions where none should exist and become hypercritical. They should learn from women in this regard!”9
In this sense, our roles are partly rooted in the Fall, for weakness is a result of the Fall, not of the Creative order which was good. However, it is important to note that Paul does not root our mutual roles in the Fall alone, but in the Creation as well. Thus, it is not true that Christ's redemption has done away with all such distinctions. Christ came to overthrow the Fall and to restore Creation, a Creation which recognizes distinctions in the roles of men and women.
Persevering in Biblical Womanhood (verse 15): “Yet she will be saved though childbearing – if they continue in faith and love and holiness with self-control.”
The obvious question is that if woman are not to teach or exercise authority over the man, what then is their role? This is the question that Paul seems to be answering in verse 15, though in a rather awkward way. At first, it seems that Paul is saying that women are saved by having babies! Of course, Paul cannot be saying that. What then is he saying?
My paraphrase of verse 15 is this: “The godly woman will be saved as she perseveres in her God-given role, in faith, and holiness, and self-control.” Paul summarizes her role as “child-bearing,” not because it is a woman's only role, but because it is a significant one, one that differentiates the role of a woman from that of a man. We can see the importance Paul places on such a role in 5:14, “So I would have the younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.”
Paul is not saying that women merit eternal life through childbearing. He is simply connecting perseverance in faith to salvation, which he does everywhere. You are not saved because you persevere, but you are not saved without perseverance, either.
In the end, the best place for anyone to be – man or woman – is to be in the role in which God has places us. In many cases, this may be neither pleasant nor glamorous, but when the dust of the universe settles before the judgment throne of Almighty God, all that will matter will be to hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” (Mt. 25:21).
1Frances Young, quoted in Mounce, The Pastorals (WBC).
2Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations come from the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible.
3John Stott, Guard the Truth.
4Philip G. Ryken, 1 Timothy (REC).
5The Greek word heterodidaskalein as opposed to the word Paul actually used, which was didaskalein.
6Ryken, 1 Timothy (REC).
7The Pastoral Epistles (WBC).
8Guard the Truth.
9Qtd in Mounce, The Pastorals.