she must be quiet

Read 1 Timothy 2:8-15.

This is a tough text; tough to grasp and perhaps even more challenging to practice. Difficult passages demand our respect with an adequate investment of time and consideration. Consequently, today’s post will be longer than normal, though, I pray, not more difficult to grasp.

It is difficult to read any Scripture except through our own cultural lens. That is, it is far easier to read into Scripture the meaning we assume it has for us rather than to allow ourselves to read out from the word it’s intended meaning. But the only wise choice for us to make is to ever take the hard way – to let Scripture speak to us “unplugged,” to let it come to us “unfiltered,” as it were.

This very passage is a sterling example of the difficulty of that task. Say anything – anything at all – about the role of women in church today and not only will a legion of cultural assumptions rise up, but they will typically accompanied with great feeling. Together these two elements make for much dust thrown into the air, through which it is difficult to see at all clearly what the word has to say to us.

Coupled with these two difficulties (our expectations and emotions) are two other difficulties – candid comments and cryptic statements. Here in this text, we have hardly recovered from the shock of Paul’s words that Christian women must not dress in a way that draws attention to themselves or to their place on the social/economic ladder of society (2:9-10) when we are hit with reasoning and words that seems to be almost totally beyond finding out to us moderns (2:13-15a). In fact, if you like dance, then you’ll truly relish the diversity of old soft-shoe and tap-dance interpretation scholarly commentators offer on how to interpret 2:13-15. Talk about tough texts!

Then, sandwiched between these two segments are the two most potentially flammable verses of the whole paragraph:

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” (2:11-12)

Right here, two more elements come into play – context and translation. First, context. Rarely today do we hear or see these words interpreted in light of their context, that is, with anything else in mind that Paul has already said in this letter to Timothy or is about to say. Typically one hears or sees them referenced as something like a “proof text” or “footnote.” Standing all alone by themselves these verses seem to say women should not speak when Christians are gathered together as a church. However, when we consider the context of Paul’s remarks – the remote, surrounding and immediate contexts – they seem to say something entirely different to us.

The remote context – what Paul had to say in other places in other letters at other times – is clear enough. If Paul as consistent at all, he certainly didn’t have women being totally silent in mind when he wrote these words here. After all, he had no problem whatsoever with women praying and prophesying (1 Cor. 11:5) and singing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) in early Christian worship assemblies. The surrounding context tells us Paul was obviously concerned about the content of some of the things taught in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3-7,18-20) and the character of those who led in some fashion there, both men and women (1 Tim. 3:1-13). The immediate context (1 Timothy) lays stress on the “propriety” (2:9,15b) of the women in the Ephesian church, again, as we’ve already noted, they they not accentuate themselves or their means (2:9-10).

Now, a second factor should be noted – translation. Two words, or phrases, that stand out in the verses we’re examining most closely (2:11-12) are easily misunderstood – “quietness” (2:11) or “quiet” (2:12b) and “assume authority over” (2:12). Since the word “quiet” frames this section, appearing as it does at both the start and finish of this passage (2:11,12b), it is obvious that this is the word Paul wished to stress and that best sums up what he intended to convey. However, what does not come across clearly in the use of our English word “quiet” is the fact that the word Paul uses here refers not so much to “vocal silence” but to “a tranquil life free of disturbance.” In fact, that is precisely how Paul used the very same Greek word underlying this one in this same letter just a little earlier as he requested prayer for government officials:

“… that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (2:2)

It should be noted that an entirely different word was available for use in the Greek language to denote “verbal silence.” Paul was familiar with that word and used it on occasion (cf. 1 Cor. 14:28,30,34). It is, therefore, particularly significant then that Paul did not use that particular word here in this passage if what he had meant to get across was the thought that Christian women must remain verbally silent in a Christian worship assembly in order to be pleasing to God.

The Greek word translated as “assume authority over” finds it’s only appearance in the Bible right here (2:12). However, unlike the word “quiet,” where we could see how the word is used elsewhere in Scripture to discover its meaning, we must seek this word’s meaning in it’s use outside of the Bible. Outside of Scripture this word is typically used to describe something close to “total domination” and to do so often with intimidation and humiliation. The word is even used to signify “murder,” something that conveys the ultimate in intimidation, humiliation and domination.

All of this puts Paul’s statements in a whole new light, don’t they? Paul was not trying to tell all Christian women everywhere of all cultures and all times to hush up when assembled in the presence of men, but was getting onto some rather overbearing, arrogant Christian women in the church at Ephesus who were disrupting, and potentially derailing, the church’s life. And so now, it’s not so hard to hear what Paul was trying to say as not so much something like how we’ve heard it often construed (“Women should shut up when they’re in church”) so much as something like:

“I do not permit a woman to teach a man in a domineering, intimidating way, rather, but in a non-disruptive manner that engenders peace.”

What should we do with this text? Pray.

Heavenly Father, help all your people to treat your word, and all those with whom we share it, with great respect. May we never slight you by reading or practicing your word superficially. Open our minds to the true understanding of your word, whether or not that understanding matches up with what we have understood before. May we not take your words out of context and so, treat you as someone to be manipulated to affirm our traditions, culture or ways. Bring forth from us a spirit that longs to dig deep into every word your Spirit has delivered us and to allow your word to ever give us the final say on the meaning of your words. Give us courage to put your word to work and to submit to you for, after all, you gave us your word to live by. In the name of Jesus, teach us humility and give us peace as we assemble in his name. Amen.