Does the Bible say that women can’t teach or have authority over men? (Part 3)

In my last post I suggested that we can best understand what Paul says he doesn’t want women to do, when writing in 1 Timothy about teaching and authority, if we appreciate as clearly as possible what he does want them to do.  For that, we need to look at the words he uses.

Paul uses two forms of the same Greek root.  When he says that women should “learn in quietness,” he’s using the noun form, hēsuchia.  When he says that women should “be quiet,” he uses the verb form, hēsuchazō.

When we look at all the ways that hēsuchia and hēsuchazō (as well as the adjective from the same root, hēsuchios) are used in the New Testament, we discover something interesting.  (You can follow the whole word study in several posts starting here.)  While the root sometimes describes complete silence, the absence of speech or sound, it more often describes a person refraining from saying something they otherwise might.  In other words, it signifies that a person doesn’t object, or stops arguing.

One typical example is in the book of Acts.  After the apostles in Jerusalem heard Peter’s explanation of why he preached the good news to Gentiles, “they fell silent, and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life'” (ESV).  Clearly this is not silence in the sense of no speech, because the apostles continue speaking.  Rather, it means “they had no further objections,” as the NIV translates the phrase.

We know from Paul’s other letters that he does not want women literally to say nothing in gatherings of Jesus’ followers.  He tells the Corinthians, for example, that each person in their community, without qualification, should have something to share in worship, and he specifically describes women praying and prophesying.  So we need to recognize that in the passage we’re considering in 1 Timothy, and in the similar one in 1 Corinthians about women being “silent” (where Paul uses the synonym sigaō in place of hesuchazō), what Paul is actually saying is that women shouldn’t argue or object.

But what would women in particular have wanted to argue about or object to in this setting?  I believe that Richard and Catherine Kroeger, in their book I Suffer Not a Woman, have correctly identified the point of dispute.  It was the myth, prevalent in the Mediterranean world of Paul’s day, that the woman (Zoe or life in Greek, identified with Eve by syncretistic teachers) was created first and brought spiritual life to the man by showing him that the creator of the world was not the true, supreme God.

Paul’s comments here would be a correction of that myth.  In other words, by saying “Adam was formed first,” Paul is actually countering the content of this false teaching. He’s not citing primogeniture as a reason why men should be in charge of women.

So what Paul does want women to do is “be quiet” or “not argue,” that is, not dispute this point, particularly in gatherings of the community.  What he doesn’t want women to do is publicly and authoritatively “correct” a speaker, which they may have felt was a duty to their own gender.  (I’ll talk about this more in my next post.)

In my view, Paul’s use here of the infinitives didaskein (“teach”) and authentein (“be in authority” [?]) together is well suited to convey the idea of public correction.  The verb authentein appears only here in the New Testament, so we have no parallel uses that can confirm this is what the verb itself means.  However, this kind of correction is described in Galatians, where Paul says that he “opposed Peter to his face . . . in front of them all.”  The same kind of thing happens more privately when, as described in Acts, Priscilla and Aquila invite Apollos to their home and “explain the way of God to him more adequately.”

If this is really what Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy mean, then they have a specific, local focus: women representing this false teaching about the respective origins of men and women are not to argue with or authoritatively “correct” someone who is presenting the true teaching. (The example of Priscilla shows that Paul’s comments don’t even apply to women “correcting” men generally, but are limited to this specific issue.)

While many applications can be drawn for the present day from the way Paul addresses this situation in 1 Timothy, one application is not that no woman should be in a church-wide position of teaching or authority.  When we understand the historical and literary context of Paul’s words, we realize that the Bible does not teach this.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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