Reader Question: “I’m writing to ask a question that I’m seeing hotly disputed by many. Within ‘the Church’, what place does the Bible give to women? Is 1 Timothy 2:12-14 Paul’s advice for us today, or is it wise to just regard that as one method for that particular time and place?”
My Response: Thank you for your insightful question. It is a good one and very legitimate. When read apart from any other Scripture, Paul’s wording in 1 Timothy 2:12-14 sounds universal for all women everywhere. However, this is an excellent demonstration of needing to let Scripture interpret Scripture. If this was the one stand-alone shard of writing we had from the Apostle Paul’s teachings regarding church leadership and gender roles, we could take it exactly as it is, at face value. But that is not our reality.
Our reality is that we have over a dozen complete books written by Paul which contain a large canon of instruction regarding church leadership and gender roles, and it is in this light that we must evaluate and interpret these controversial verses in 1 Timothy 2.
For instance, if you read Paul’s greetings in Romans 16:1-16, he greets numerous women, along with men, sighting the roles these women have played in his own spiritual development and in starting / leading / hosting churches that Paul had planted.
Don Williams, in his book, The Apostle Paul and Women in the Church (Regal Books, 1977, 41-47), makes the following observations about the women leaders mentioned in this passage:
- Phoebe was a deaconess.
- Priscilla was a church-planter and co-pastor.
- Junia was a minister “of note among the apostles”.
- Other women mentioned in Romans 16 who served as co-laborers in Paul’s ministry were Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, the mother of Rufus, Persis, Julia, and the sister of Nereus.
Williams goes on to point out that the Book of the Acts of the Apostles records the ministries of Dorcas, Lydia, and the four daughters of Phillip who prophesied or preached. The Apostle Paul clearly utilized women’s God-given leadership skills and gifts for ministry.
Alvin John Schmidt, in Veiled and Silenced (Mercer University Press, 1989, 219), states that “the apostolic church was very relevant to the women in that it gave them unparalleled freedom and released them from centuries of cultural oppression. That is why women were so extensively and intensively involved in the life of the apostolic church”.
Just think of the way women are oppressed and subjugated in the Middle East today. It was much the same in Paul’s day, and yet here he is throughout his New Testament writings, promoting nothing short of a cultural revolution in Jesus, through the educating, empowering, and promoting of women in ministry leadership in the Church!
With the examples of women who served with Paul in leading the developing churches, why would he say that he did not permit women to teach or have authority over men in 1 Timothy 2? Or, how could the same Paul who wrote words of gratitude to ten leading and influential women in his Romans letter, say so emphatically in the letter to the Corinthian church that women were to be silent in the churches and were not allowed to speak (1 Corinthians 14:34)?
There’s a bigger question embedded in all of this, of course: if Paul was writing under the inspiration of God, then is this how God sees women in church leadership? Again, we need only consult the rest of Scripture to find the answer:
In Acts 2:17-18, Peter points to Pentecost as the fulfillment of God’s prophesy from Joel 2:28-29 that His Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, on “your sons and your daughters… both men and women”, and these both would “prophesy” which is a Biblical word that means “to speak forth the message of God with power and authority”. Yes, through Joel, God says both men and women would do this. And through Peter, God says that Pentecost was the confirmation of this promise!
God’s empowerment of female leaders is not just a New Testament or post-Pentecost reality, however. Deborah was chosen by God to be the leader of Israel for 40 years in Judges 4-5. Five Old Testament women were named in the lineage of Jesus the Messiah in Matthew 1:1-16 – and this at a time and place in history when all genealogies were only listed patrilineally (that is, they usually listed the blood-line through the male descendants only).
And there were other female prophets who ministered before the people and the Lord throughout both the Old and New Testaments.
So, in light of all this, what do we do with 1 Timothy 2:12-14 and 1 Corinthians 14:34?
Professor of Pastoral Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Janet M. Peifer, writes on the historical and cultural context of this time period, “One must keep in mind that prior to this time, only the men had the privilege of learning through formal study. Paul’s assertion in 1 Timothy 2:11 that ‘women should learn’ was indeed a new day for the believing woman.” Paul is empowering female believers by encouraging the Church to educate both genders! This is not misogyny; it is a call for a church-led movement toward education equality and empowerment of women!
Dr. Peifer goes on: “Responding to the women’s lack of training and maturity, Paul therefore declares, ‘I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she is to keep silent’ (2:12 NRSV). The literal translation from the Greek is, ‘I am not presently permitting a woman to teach or to have authority over men….’ The verb used is present active indicative. It was never intended to be a prohibitive statement or a prescription for all times, places, and cultures. If it had been written for that purpose, there are other Greek verbs and tenses which would have been used to clarify the intention.”
The Bible is not a compilation of isolated teachings. It is a single, cohesive narrative. Thus, we must read it and interpret it according to the whole. Our best interpretive tool for any word, phrase, sentence, or concept in Scripture is the rest of the Bible. This issue of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34 is an excellent example of that. When we study the cultural context in which these verses were written, and then compare them with the rest of the Bible’s message regarding women, we come away with a much more complete and accurate understanding of what Paul was saying, and why, and how we are to apply his teachings to all places at all times. After all, it was this same Paul who wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Sorry for the long response… this was a fun one for me to look up and learn more about for myself! Thanks again for the question, my friend – I pray all of God’s very best for you both now and always! –nick