“Woman, be silent!”

by K.W. Leslie, 14 June 2016

1 Timothy 2.12

Years ago I taught the bible classes at a Christian junior high. It was overseen by an Assemblies of God church, and if you know the denomination, you’ll know we have women pastors. Haven’t always, but have way longer than most denominations.

I should also mention the school accepted students, and hired teachers, from just about any denomination. Frequently half my students were Catholic, which used to weird out the Protestant parents whenever I taught on purgatory.

Anyway, one morning one of my kids informed me, “Mrs. Gopinatha” (name randomly picked; actual name withheld to protect the guilty) “says women can’t be pastors.”

This came as no surprise to me. Mrs. Gopinatha was a member of one of those independent Baptist churches. You know the sort. Most of the reason they’re independent is ’cause they figure everybody else is wrong.

“Oh does she,” I said.

“Because she says the bible says women can’t be pastors.”

Well, I was raised Fundamentalist too, and knew my King James better’n she did.

“She’s got that part wrong,” I said; “it says women can’t be teachers. Show her 1 Timothy 2.12 the next time she tries to teach you anything biblical.” Here’s that verse, by the way:

1 Timothy 2.12 KJV
But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.

Sexists love this verse. Love love love. Quote it every time a woman dares try to correct ’em—whether it’s an unrelated woman in their church, up to and including the pastor’s wife; whether it’s a relative, like a mother, aunt, or sister; but especially when it’s a relative they think they’re in charge of, like a wife or daughter. Absolutely no woman is qualified to teach, rebuke, or correct them. And if they dare try, it’s usurping his divinely-granted patriarchal authority as a man.

What’re the chances they’re quoting it out of context? Hundred percent.

What’re the chances they don’t care, so long that their misquotation keeps them in power? Hundred percent.

Women teachers in the bible.

The bible has many examples of women prophets. The judge Deborah, obviously. Jg 4.4 Likewise Miriam, Ex 15.20 Huldah, 2Ki 22.14 Isaiah’s unnamed wife, Is 8.3 Elizabeth, Lk 1.41-45 Mary, Lk 1.46-55 Anna, Lk 2.36 Philip’s unnamed daughters, Ac 21.8-9 and all sorts of women who heard the Father, his angels, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit speak with them. Now, what happens when God gives you a message you’re meant to share with others? You tell them what he said, and you teach them what he meant. Teaching is part of prophecy.

Paul, who wrote 1 Timothy, wasn’t unfamiliar with women teachers. He lived with one of them: Prisca of Pontus—“Priscilla” to her friends. She had to leave Italy with her husband Aquila, and Paul met ’em in Corinth. Ac 18.1-3 Acts tends to refer to ’em as “Priscilla and Aquila,” rather than following the usual ancient custom of listing the husband first, ’cause you know who probably did all the talking in that relationship. When the evangelist Apollos needed correction, Priscilla and her husband taught him where he was off. Ac 18.26 Paul considered both of them his coworkers, Ro 16.3 and even asked Timothy to greet her in his second letter. 2Ti 4.19

So if Paul knew women teachers, worked with them, and even approved of them, how was he then turning round and banning them from teaching?

The context.

Okay. If all we have is the grammatical context, if we don’t know any of the historical backstory, I admit Paul comes across sexist. He wants the women to be rid of their fancy outfits and keep their mouths shut; he’s worried they’ll stumble like that silly Eve; he wants ’em to stay home and make babies; he wants them to know their place and stay in it. Sounds like a patriarchal paradise.

1 Timothy 2.8-15 KWL
8 So I want the men to pray everywhere, lifting clean hands—
without anger or debate. 9 Women the same.
In ordinary clothing, with modesty and moderation: No fancy braids, gold, pearls, expensive dress.
10 Instead, whatever’s appropriate for women who claim to worship God through good deeds.
11 Women: Learn silently. In obedience to everything.
12 (I don’t allow women to teach, nor shout over a man; she’s to be silent.)
13 For Adam was formed first. Then Eve.
14 Adam wasn’t deceived. The woman, deceived, overstepped.
15 Eve will be saved, by the Child descended from her.
Women too, if they stay in faith, love, and holiness with moderation.

Why isn’t this the right way to interpret this passage? ’Cause it’s ignorant of historical context.

First-century churches were based on first-century Pharisee synagogues. Yes, sometimes churches’d meet in someone’s house, but it’s not like 21st-century house churches, where people gather in the family room or bonus room or converted garage or back deck, and otherwise have 21st-century worship services. These houses would have a large, spare upstairs room, much like the upper room Jesus and his students had their last supper in. There, they could have a proper synagogue church service. The elder Christians would get out a copy of the scriptures and read from them, and then take questions from the newer believers. Just like any rabbi and his talmidim/“bible students.”

Here’s the problem. Synagogues were for men. The men were the students. They were the spiritual leaders of their families, the heads of their households, the patriarchs. They were expected to learn all the commands and how they’re best interpreted, teach them to their children like the Law instructed, Dt 6.7 and abide by them.

Women, on the other hand, weren’t students. They were spectators. Yes, they should learn this stuff too, ’cause if they became mothers they’d have to raise good Pharisee children. Not all Pharisees agreed on women’s education, but most synagogues did create a women’s section in the back. Men would be up front, reading the scriptures, teaching the lesson, leading the music, and otherwise participating. Women would tend the minor children, and listen—not participate.

So when Paul wrote about women afthenteín/“overpowering” a man, despite the KJV translating it “to usurp authority,” it’s not about women stealing power, staging a coup, nor taking over. It’s about the fact women were participating in the Christian services. They weren’t remaining silent in the back. They were posing questions to the teacher. And in order to do it, they’d have to shout, from the back of the room, louder than the men up front who were also posing questions.

The classroom would be noisy enough, but now people were shouting. Which completely went against the sort of order and decorum Paul felt we oughta see in church services. God doesn’t do confusion; he does peace! 1Co 14.33

Likewise if a woman wanted to teach, she’d have to go into the men’s section—and that’d also disrupt things. Especially since women would therefore feel even more free to shout questions from the back.

So you see the problem. But the real source of the problem wasn’t shouty women. It was the fact the synagogue setup was sexist. And Christians had adopted it—without adapting it to the new realities of the New Covenant.

Women and men, equal under Christ.

We see this new reality in the Mary and Martha story in Luke.

Luke 10.38-42 KWL
38 In their travels, Jesus came to a certain town.
A woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.
39 This woman had a sister named Mary,
who sat at the Master’s feet, listening to his lesson.
40 Martha was busy with a lot of service. Standing there, she said,
“Master, my sister left me to serve alone; doesn’t it bother you? So tell her she should help me.”
41 In reply the Master told her, “Martha, Martha, you worry and fret over much.
42 There’s one necessary thing—and Mary made a good choice. It won’t be taken from her.”

In synagogue, Mary would never get to sit at the rabbi’s feet. Never ever ever. Never get the chance to ask him questions. Never get the chance to be heard. She’d have to sit in the back, frustrated. She’d have to pass her questions along through her dad or brother or husband—if he remembered to ask them. Or if he didn’t ignore the fact she wanted the rabbi’s ruling, and try answering those questions himself, and figure his own answers were adequate, and authoritative enough. (And perhaps a little self-serving, if the question challenged him in any way. You know how know-it-alls can get.)

But on this day, Mary had full access to the Master, and wasn’t throwing away her opportunity. And, as Jesus told her sister, good for her.

This is how God’s kingdom is supposed to work. Women have equal access to the Father in prayer. Women likewise have equal access to our Lord Jesus, and the authority to ask for anything in his name. Women likewise are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and have full access to his power. For when it comes to accessing God, his salvation, and his power, there is no female nor male. Ga 3.28

As wrote the very same apostle who stated women ought not disrupt the services. Well of course they shouldn’t. And no men should disrupt ’em either. But this means we need to give women full access to our services, church resources, the Christian teachers, and the apostles and prophets who lead our churches. Women should have the ability to raise valid questions—same as any and every man.

The first-century synagogue layout was wholly inappropriate for Christian congregations. Over time Christians stopped using it. Sad to say, not because they realized it was sexist. It took a long time for them to realize this—and many of us still haven’t.

Y’see by the second century, Christian services had moved away from the synagogue’s interactive question/answer format. They became more of a lecture format: Homilies and sermons where the people don’t interrupt with questions. Meaning everybody was to be silent in church—women and men alike. Churches were still segregated (and many churches still are), but at least the women got to be on the left, instead of in the back.

Since Christians no longer have personal experiences of why women oughta be silent in the churches, we’ve lost sight of the historical context. So sexists invented a new one: Women need to shut up because they’re women.

Sexists, keeping women under their thumbs.

You remember that bit Paul included at the end of chapter 2, about Adam and Eve? Thought I was gonna skim past it, didja? Even though sexists claim it gives ’em really good fodder for why they’re totally right.

Starting at verse 11—’cause that’s the context.

1 Timothy 2.11-15 KWL
11 Women: Learn silently. In obedience to everything.
12 (I don’t allow women to teach over, nor shout over a man; she’s to be silent.)
13 For Adam was formed first. Then Eve.
14 Adam wasn’t deceived. The woman, deceived, overstepped.
15 Eve will be saved, by the Child descended from her.
Women too, if they stay in faith, love, and holiness with moderation.

Sexists say verse 12 is the context: “Women are to be silent, because Eve was so easily tricked.” But really it’s verse 11: “Women, learn in obedience—because Eve was so easily tricked.” Women, you need to learn your bibles. You need to learn who Jesus is and what he teaches. For yourself. Don’t depend on your husband to learn it for you!

The sexist’s description of a woman’s relationship with God: Rather than Jesus being that middle umbrella, all God’s blessings must come through her husband. (Although since an umbrella blocks things like sunlight and rain, I have no idea why they’re so bloody insistent upon this umbrella metaphor. Leave it to the devil to keep us blind to blatantly stupid things in our beliefs.)

You know why Eve was deceived? Because Adam hadn’t adequately instructed her. When God told the first man the Tree of Knowledge led to death, Ge 2.16-17 he hadn’t created the first woman yet. It was on Adam to inform her. Eve’s doubts, uncertainty, and ultimately her fall, was because she was supposed to have a direct relationship with her Father. Adam was not her intermediary. There’s only one intermediary between God and humans, 1Ti 2.5 and that’s Jesus—and no man has been appointed as his substitute.

Women, never assume your husband’s spiritual leadership makes up for your own lack of study and knowledge. It didn’t for Eve. Adam wasn’t tricked, but Eve was. And she pulled down her husband with her. Elsewhere, Paul pointed out all can be led astray like she was 2Co 11.3 —women and men both.

A wife’s duty to her husband is to keep up with him spiritually. And even challenge him sometimes, because iron’s meant to sharpen iron. Pr 27.17 Husbands must never be able to get away with twisting the bible in order to domineer their wives. And vice-versa. Spouses are to love and serve and submit to one another, Ep 5.21 not force one another into slavery. The whole bit where Adam was to rule over Eve Ge 3.16 was a curse—one of the many curses upon humanity which Jesus’s death broke. What business do we Christians have restoring those curses?

Another curse upon Eve was the pain she’d suffer in childbirth Ge 3.16 —a curse passed down to all women. Again, it’s one of the curses Jesus’s death broke. We now have medical methods which can block that pain. I realize certain badass women wanna go through it anyway—and hey, that’s their choice; I sure wouldn’t. But forbidding women their God-given rights as his daughters, is like men forbidding all women from pain management in childbirth. It’s just as silly and wrong. And evil.

Thankfully, Eve’s childbirth produced us—and for that matter the very person who saved her, Christ Jesus. And all women will likewise be saved by him—but they need to trust him to do that, follow him, get to know him, and produce good fruit. Not expect their husbands to produce that fruit for them. We’re individually responsible for our individual relationships with God. Regardless of what sexists teach.