This article will engage 1st Timothy 2:11-12 in an attempt to clarify the nature of women in teaching roles. Let me begin by establishing a few of my presuppositions.
First, we must not allow 1st Timothy 2 to sit in isolation from other Scriptures that are instructive toward women in ministry, and likewise, we must not allow other Scriptures concerning women to negate the teaching of 1st Timothy 2. This will be clarified below.
Second, this article assumes a complementarian view of men and women as it relates to both their worth and roles. We hold that men and women are created by God in his own image and thus are equal in worth and value. And yet God, for his own good purpose and pleasure, designed men and women with different but complementary roles.
Third, we must reject any notion that suggests Paul is speaking only as a man and, as such, does not carry the same authoritative value as the red-letter words of Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and all is authoritative, inerrant, and sufficient.
With those things in mind, the verses in question read:
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.
Older translations, such as the King James Version, New King James Version, and NIV 1984, used the word “silent” in the place of “quiet.” The translation change in the 2011 update to the NIV wisely altered the wording from “silent” to “quiet.” Almost all modern translations now use the word “quiet.” Why is this significant?
Two primary questions must be addressed in this text in order to make sense of its meaning. First, what does Paul mean by “quiet” (or “silent”), and second, what is the nature of teaching and authority that Paul has in mind in verse 12?
Women Must Be Quiet (Silent)
A quick word study is in order. The word for “quiet” in verse 11 (hesychia) is the same word used for “quiet” in verse 2, which says, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” This shows us the semantic range and intended use by Paul in this particular context. The “quiet” Paul is speaking of here does not mean a complete absence of speech, but rather is alluding to a dignified and respectful life. We might say that Paul is describing a picture where Christians are prayerful for others and are devoted to a life of simple peace. That is why the word “quiet” is a better translation than “silent.”
Thus, the command for women to be quiet in 1st Timothy 2:11 is not a call for total silence, but rather is a call for them to act contrary to the curse of Genesis 3. After all, the church is to be a gathering of the redeemed who are committed to living in the grace of God and in opposition to the schemes of the evil one. A significant aspect of the curse is that “your desire shall be contrary to your husband” and women will naturally desire the roles and authority that have been granted to men. Men, in turn, will use their roles in oppressive and abusive ways against women. The church is called to oppose this reality of the fall through the power of grace. Thus, women are to peacefully (quietly) respect the authority God has given to men who shepherd and lead the church. Likewise, men are not to oppress women in the church and limit their giftedness beyond the scope of Scripture.
An important point of clarification is necessary. Varying roles for men and women were not a result of the fall. Before sin entered the garden, God designed Adam and Eve to be equal in dignity and worth but to complement one another in their roles and function. Sin did not create these differing roles, but rather sin brought a curse whereby women would desire the leadership of men, and men would act harshly against women. Paul’s ground for his argument of quietness and submission in women is not a cultural reality of his day but is built on the premise of creation (1st Timothy 2:13) and is therefore binding across all ages.
Teaching and Authority
Paul says he does not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. How should we understand teaching and authority in this context?
We must not conclude that women are strictly forbidden to teach the things of God, and we have reason to believe that Paul is not condemning every scenario where a woman might teach a man. Scripture clarifies this for us: Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila, is found teaching Apollos (a man) and is expounding the things of God to him more clearly (Acts 18:26). In Titus 2, women are called to teach the next generation of women. In 2nd Timothy 3, Paul reminds Timothy that he learned the Scriptures from women (his mother and grandmother). Paul provides instruction and clarification for women who are prophesying in 1st Corinthians 11:5, and Philip has four daughters who also were gifted with prophecy (Acts 21:9). So, clearly, women are gifted to teach and are instructed to do so.
How then should we understand Paul’s use of the word “teach” in verse 12? This is where the larger context of 1st Timothy 2 and the beginning of 1st Timothy 3 becomes essential (remember, there were no chapter divisions when Paul wrote these letters). In the opening verses of chapter 3, Paul will provide the qualifications for elders in the church, an office that most conservative evangelicals will agree is reserved for men. In describing the functions of the office of elder, it is not coincidental that elders are to function in two primary roles: Teaching and exercising authority (1st Timothy 5:17, Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2). Thus, within this context of 1st Timothy 2, it is best to understand Paul’s use of teaching to be in concert with the idea of “exercising authority,” and as such, Paul is not permitting women to assume in function the roles of authority that are unique and specific to the elders of the church.
What does this look like practically? The Bible does not explicitly or exhaustively demonstrate the precise roles for women in utilizing their gifts for ministry in the local church. We have a few Scriptural examples as mentioned above, and it is clear that God gifts both men and women with the Holy Spirit for the purpose of edifying the church and giving glory to God (1st Corinthians 14:12). What we can say for certain is that women are not to pursue or engage in teaching or any other activity that carries with it the authoritative functions of an elder/pastor. The local church must do the interpretive work to determine and communicate which functions and scenarios are specific and limited to elders/pastors. Women are then to honor those decisions and respect the elders who are called to shepherd the flock under the care of the Lord Jesus Christ. With that in place, women have been given important, necessary, and significant ministry responsibilities in the church and we should honor the gifting of women that God has so graciously given.
Personally speaking, I have a clear conscience when a committed female member of my church facilitates a co-ed small group discussion, such as when a small group reads and engages a Christian book. I have also placed women in co-ed teaching roles that involve a particular skill set, such as discussing parenting skills or communication skills for marriages. But I would not be comfortable with a woman engaging in authoritative preaching on a Sunday morning, nor would I place a female member as the primary teacher in a co-ed class that is expositing the Scriptures. To summarize, women should not engage in any activities that are understood by the church to be exclusively elder/pastor level responsibilities.
Lastly, this is a topic where independent, local Baptist churches will differ in their application of this text. Southern Baptists rightly cling to the “autonomy of the local church” and it is the responsibility of the elders to help guide the church to understand which roles, functions, and teaching scenarios are reserved for pastoral leadership and, thus, would be a violation of Paul’s instruction in 1st Timothy 2. However, the church must be careful not to limit women and their giftedness beyond the scope of the Bible’s own theological boundaries. Christians need to show charity and grace when opinions differ on the precise methodology to work out this command in practice. We give thanks to God for the incredible ways he has used and will continue to use women for the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ and for the health of the local church.
For the Glory of God Alone!