Silent Women?

Recently a recent graduate of Avila University and a fairly new Catholic posted on Facebook that he was struggling with 1 Timothy 2:11-15, wondering whether Paul was being a bit misogynistic. A mutual friend invited me to join the conversation, and after doing a little homework (who does research for Facebook comments?) I had a few things to offer. I’d like to pick this up because it’s instructive in how we go about interpreting the Bible and how literally we should read it.

This is the passage, broadened slightly:

“It is my wish, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument. Similarly, women should adorn themselves with proper conduct, with modesty  and self-control, not with braided hairstyles and gold ornaments, or pearls, or expensive clothes, but rather, as befits women who profess reverence for God, with good deeds. A woman must receive instruction silently and under complete control. I do not permit a woman to teach her to have authority over a man. She must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. Further, Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed. But she will be saved through motherhood, provided women persevere in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” (1 Timothy 2:8-15)

There is another passage from first Corinthians along a similar theme:

“As in all the churches of the holy ones, women should keep silence in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. But if they
want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.” (I Cor 14:33b-35)

A reference was made in the Facebook discussion to Numbers 23:19, that God does not change His mind. Although that is certainly true, nowhere does Paul assume to speak directly from God, and the passages cited are about practical conduct of worship rather than morality or doctrine. It is God’s nature not to change; it is human nature to change. Trying to make something unchangeable does not make it divine in itself. In interpreting Scripture, it’s important not to project more authority in any given place then is asserted, and although there are parts of the Bible where God speaks directly, these passages aren’t among them.

I’ve already talked about the Temptation in the Garden of Eden in a previous post, Garden Thoughts, so I’ll refer you there for a take on Adam and Eve.

Background on Timothy: the first letter was not written as most of Paul’s letters, to Christian communities he had founded in greater Greece. It was addressed to Timothy, who had been a traveling companion of Paul’s earlier in his career, and the tradition assigns to leadership in the church at Ephesus. Letters in antiquity were rarely private correspondence, usually intended to be read to a group of people, and in this case the intended audience of this letter is clearly those involved with practical leadership of individual churches. As such, it’s not primarily to teach theology but help apply the Gospel to ordinary situations.

Ephesus in antiquity was the center of an international cult of the goddess Diana; Diana was considered the personal patron and protector of Ephesus in the same way Athena was patron and protector of Athens. In the 19th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the metal smiths of Ephesus rioted in protest to Paul’s preaching shouting, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28) Her cult was popular with the lower classes of Roman society, and slaves could find asylum in her temples. Worship of Diana could involve orgiastic celebrations presided over by female priests. In general, prophetic utterances of women in that culture were similar to the great Oracle of Delphi, where a woman in a trance like state babbled uncontrollably while nearby male priests tried to decipher what she said.

The situation in Corinth Paul addressed was rather chaotic, a congregation openly divided by social class, loyalty to particular preachers, and internal scandal. Ecstasy cults (with women priests) such as Diana’s were popular and well-known in that great seaport city, as well as immorality that stretched the limits of the easy-going Romans. Paul wrote two letters to this community he helped begin to try to get in control of a situation that was spiraling out of control, and this affected his tone and instructions to them.

One factor in Paul’s opinion was a common concern of the early Christian movement to distinguish itself from ecstatic cults (not to mention any other religion than Judaism). From the beginning, Christian emphasis on love and describing the Eucharistic gatherings as a “love feast” meant the secretive movement was in danger of misinterpretation. Christianity emphasized solemnity and self-control from the outset, not to mention sexual restraint, in contrast to these public and popular cults.  So for newly converted Christians, it was important for them to be clear about what their new faith was not as much as what it was. Anything that resembled a religious practice at odds with Christianity was to be avoided, as a sign of a clean brink from a former, corrupt way of life. Although women of means frequently hosted church gatherings in their homes (which was the standard meeting place for Eucharist in that time), anything resembling a female priesthood was to be avoided. There is a fair amount of research on the role of women’s leadership in the early centuries of the Church, some very controversial, and the further back we go in history, the more muddy the waters become about what exactly happened. However, the desire of early Christianity to distinguish itself both from Judaism and other religions is well-documented and universal.

In the spirit of our times, Paul would surely be a misogynist as much as the people of my small town in Missouri (including me) were racists. The people of my hometown would make incredible sweeping negative generalizations about African-Americans, but there was rarely anything personal about it, and they could accept and respect an individual once they got to know them. To say there were no examples of women in leadership of the early Christian movement would be wrong even in the most conservative view. Deborah the judge, Esther the queen, and the women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus were all examples of women leaders in the Old Testament; in Jesus’ circle, Mary Magdalene has a prominent role as the “Apostle to the Apostles”, and Paul himself singled out Pheobe the deaconess in Cenchreae for special greetings in his first letter to the Corinthians.

In interpreting Scripture, it’s important to remember the biblical authors were speaking within a cultural alien to ours, with different social conventions and expectations.  For example, in first Corinthians Paul forbids women to prophesy with their heads uncovered, it is probably to escape association with a pagan ecstasy movement, and by implication does not condemn the possibility of women prophesying with covered heads. In the Jewish synagogues of Paul’s childhood, men and women were segregated and men were the main actors in synagogue worship of the time. Women had more civil rights and responsibilities in Roman culture than Jewish culture, but they weren’t equals in any sense.

Through Western Christianity, it took several centuries before women have the right to sing or speak during worship outside of convents.  This is why church choirs for at least a millennium and a half only included boys and men. The Protestant Reformation didn’t change matters much initially: a young Johann Sebastian Bach got into trouble for letting his fiancée sing from the balcony. Only when women were accepted in public venues as performers was this principle relaxed.

The art of interpreting Scripture modern circumstances is complex. We all tend to see life through our own standards and mindsets. We all tend to read the Bible through favorite passages. Whether we take a particular passage at face value depends on what our starting point is, and what we believe Christ has to teach us. Paul had this very strong statement in his letter to the Galatians would should probably be a starting point for how we interpret Scripture in gender issues as well as any other social context:

“For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendent, heirs
according to the promise.” (Gal 3:26-29)

If we take this as our starting point, then it’s easier to try to look behind the text and find the human reason for its composition, find the specific purpose it’s meant to serve, and not feel bound to a literal interpretation. Roman society did not see men and women as being equals; the early Church being part of that society grew up with its biases and codes of conduct, and in the case of the letter to Timothy, chose to work within them rather than rebel against them.

I’m not aware of any Christian denomination that forbids women to speak in churches today. They might exist; I wouldn’t rule that out. Given the ambiguity of Scripture and occasional contradictions, it’s impossible to be a perfect Biblical literalist. How we read the Bible depends entirely on our starting point: whether we accept it as the inspired word of God or not, what we believe the essential nature of God is, how we see Christ and Christ’s mission, and how we believe human society should conduct itself make all the difference in the world how we read passages such as this. At the very least, any interpretation of any Scripture is answerable to the Great Commandment of Christ: “Love one another as I have loved you.” If it doesn’t seem to fit that standard, it means we have more work to do in interpretation, and leave the surface of the text behind.


  1. Pamela Demasi · · Reply

    Thanks for explaining these passages and putting a modern spin on these things.

  2. Monica Chapman · · Reply

    Excellent! Thank you!

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