Do You Cower From Girl Power? On Women in Authority (1 Timothy 2)

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.

For centuries, this one verse has held women back from ministry. Often it is coupled with 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 for support, but as I discussed last week, the latter passage dealt with silence at specific times during public services. (read last week’s blog here) Unfortunately, by interpreting this to mean women should not teach men or hold any type of office, we actually create more problems than we would solve.

The first problem is textual. Many assume that “quietness” and “submission” apply only to women, but shouldn’t men learn in such a way as well? Verse 8 mentions the men’s tendency towards “anger or quarreling”, certainly a hindrance to anyone who is supposed to be teachable. It seems more plausible to me that Paul is addressing a local problem in Ephesus at the time: the men having a problem with their anger and quarreling, possibly raising their hands in anger rather than in blessing and prayer and the women having a problem with appropriate clothing and accessories and interrupting teaching in church services instead of listening quietly.

The word translated “to have authority” is found nowhere else in the Bible or in any other first century document. This is important because the meaning of the word changed dramatically. It first meant “to murder,” then connoted a “broader concept of criminal behavior,” and later (after the first century AD) its usage became “to exercise authority.” (Wilshire, ‘The TLG Computer and Further Reference to ΑΥΘΕΝΤΕΩ in 1 Timothy 2.12’, 131) Since there is a more common Greek term for having authority, Paul’s use of this term must have been intentional, giving it a more criminal or even violent connotation to it, though certainly not implying murder. Unfortunately we have no evidence either way to make any kind of definitive statement.

The second problem is this: if our interpretation contradicts what Paul says in other letters, then Paul is either contradicting himself or we are misinterpreting something. If we take 1 Timothy 2:11-12 to mean that women should have no authority over men, then how do we explain Romans 16:1? “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea.” Even if you believe that “deacon” should be translated “servant” as some claim, how do you account for the description of her in the following verse? Paul exhorts the whole Roman church to “welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints” and “help her in whatever she may need from you.” Does this sound like a description of a lowly servant to you? Perhaps she epitomizes what a deacon should be and Paul wants her to be recognized and honored for her work as a deacon. Paul even goes a step further, saying she was a “helper (or patron) of many” including himself.

The third problem is theological in nature. If women are to submit to all men, then why are Deborah and Queen Esther not only featured as heroic leaders, but also clearly raised up to prominence by God Himself? Judges 4:4-6 describes Deborah as “a prophetess” and a judge with authority over men, sending,summoning, and giving orders to them. Some claim this was because no man stepped up, but the text does not condemn her and God blesses her endeavors and delivers Israel from its enemies. Wouldn’t God say something or cause her to fail if He disapproved of her authority?

 Queen Esther is another good example. Not only does God bring her into position “for such a time as this,” but she is even encouraged not to remain silent. O the irony! Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:13-14)

The most compelling example to me is Priscilla. First of all, she teaches Apollos, who “was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:24-26) Notice she not only teaches a man, but she teaches a teacher. She is even listed before her husband five out of the seven times she is mentioned in the Bible. While that does not prove she is greater than her husband, it indicates she is in many ways equal with (if not superior to) him.

Paul met Priscilla in Corinth(Acts 18:1-2) and he later left her and Aquila inEphesus(Acts 18:19). These two cities happen to be the two cities Paul would later write to regarding women and silence. Was Paul writing to those cities to shut women like her up? If so, why does he acknowledge her at the end of 1 Corinthians and 2 Timothy? And if she is such a gifted teacher that she can teach something to a learned man like Apollos, why would Paul take her to Ephesus to do anything other than to teach? What is she supposed to do, shut her mouth and make tents?

This is by far my longest blog and it is filled with more questions than answers so I will end with this. Look at the context of 1 Timothy. From the beginning of the letter, it is clear that Paul wishes to combat false teaching. How should this be done? By not allowing the women who were largely responsible for spreading the false teachings to teach any longer. Is this to be a general prohibition of women teachers and leaders? I think Deborah, Queen Esther, and Priscilla would have something to say about that.

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