The traditional interpretation of this passage is that women may not teach in public but may teach in private. Of course, nothing in the passage mentions teaching in public — rather it appears that all teaching by women is prohibited. But such an interpretation is contradicted by Priscilla’s teaching of Apollos (Acts 18:26). It is often argued that 1 Tim 2 is all about the public worship. However, this would mean that Paul was only concerned that women dress modestly at church or that women may exercise authority over men outside the public worship.
Thus, there are several difficulties with this interpretation. First, we don’t allow women to teach men in Sunday School, even though when we consider 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, we declare that women can ask questions in Sunday School, since it is a “private” setting. How it can be that Sunday School is public in the context of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and private in the context of 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 is beyond me!
Second, there is no obvious reason in current culture that a woman teaching in Sunday School would be unsubmissive while teaching at home would not be. After all, outside of the church setting, we are all routinely willing to be taught by a woman in a public setting. It only seems wrong to us at church, and then only because of our interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
Third, nothing in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 limits the scope of its prohibition to the assembly or even to church affairs. Rather, we add this limitation by cobbling “in the churches” from 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 into this passage. But Paul did not write Timothy expecting him to pull out his pocket copy of 1 Corinthians and then read the two passages together to find Paul’s meaning. No, Paul meant 1 Timothy to be understood from 1 Timothy.
Finally, there is no basis in the Creation accounts to prohibit a woman from teaching a man. The only arguable basis is that a woman can’t exercise authority over a man due to her role as suitable complement — but only a wife is a suitable complement and then only to her husband. Women are not, as a class, suitable complements to each and every man.
Thus, we are well justified in searching for a fresh interpretation.
A. False Teachers and Unlearned Women
The Ephesian background. Paul wrote 1 Timothy to Timothy while Timothy was in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3), and so the letter deals with the situation in Ephesus. Unlike 1 Corinthians 14, Paul does not say that he does not allow women to teach or have authority “as in all the congregations.” Thus, his command may well be localized to Ephesus. Moreover, the fact that Paul takes personal credit for the command — “I do not permit …” — indicates that Paul was making a rule to meet the needs of the particular time and place, much as he prohibited the Corinthians from eating together to prevent the abuse of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11.
The earliest New Testament books often deal with the problem of Judaizing teachers, arising from the efforts of certain Jews to mix Christianity with the Law of Moses. Later books (including 1 Timothy), however, begin to deal with Gnosticism, arising from the efforts of certain Greeks to blend Christianity with the Gentile mystery religions.
Many scholars dispute that Gnosticism was a First Century phenomenon, and certainly history tells us that Gnosticism was not formalized until the Second Century. On the other hand, the mystery religions and pagan philosophies that gave rise to Gnosticism had been around for centuries, and we see in the Pastoral Letters and many other books of the New Testament the troubles these false ideas were causing very early in the history of the church. Call it “pre-Gnosticism.”
Evidence of Gnosticism in the Pastorals. And indeed there is ample evidence in 1 Timothy of Paul’s concern regarding pre-Gnostic teachings. Moreover, it appears that much of the problem centered on the women in the congregation.
(4:1-7) The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.
One characteristic of Gnosticism is asceticism. Some Greeks taught that material things are evil and must be given up to be truly spiritual. Thus, the enjoyment of the pleasures of this world must be forsaken. This false teaching was eventually accepted into Christianity, resulting in the monastic movement, Lent, and similar efforts to escape the world that typify medieval Catholicism. But Paul says that there is nothing wrong with enjoying God’s Creation and that there is no merit in giving up some pleasure just for the sake of suffering.
We should also understand that Paul meant “old wives’ tales” to be taken literally. We use it as a figure of speech, but Paul was referring to tales told by old wives! As was also true in Corinth, in Ephesus the women were uneducated and generally did not work outside the home. Once a woman had raised her children, she often became idle and was subject to becoming a gossip, as Paul states later.
But these same women were the foundation of many of the Ephesian religions. Unscrupulous men found the opportunity in this to raise themselves to positions of influence and to make money at the expense of naive women. And we should not underestimate the naiveté of certain classes of First Century women. Imagine growing up with no formal education, no opportunity to associate with better-educated people, no television, no magazines, no periodicals, and no radio. “Ignorant” understates the situation. Such women, through no fault of their own, would doubtlessly be easily duped by whatever cult was fashionable.
(1 Tim. 5:11-15) As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to. So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.
The Ephesian women formed a class that was subject to the sins of gossip and slander. But the danger was perhaps much worse than the translators indicate. The word translated “busybodies” can also be translated “practitioners of magic arts,” which is how the same word is translated in Acts 19:19. The Ephesian religions were often characterized by the practice of “magic” cults.
We see in the final quoted sentence that Paul was very concerned for the reputation of the women in the Ephesian church. The command to have children and to marry is to protect their reputation in a world where an unmarried woman frequently became a temple prostitute for lack of any other means of employment.
We see the same problem with many of women members of the church at Ephesus reflected in 2 Timothy as well.
(2 Tim. 3:6-7) They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.
Summary. Commentators are essentially unanimous in recognizing that 1 Timothy was written in part to combat the evils of pre-Gnosticism. Male false teachers created the problem, but the problem spread and infected the church in large part due to the ignorance and naiveté of the women. Thus, in a society where women were unspeakably uneducated and ignorant, and where false teachers were spreading anti-Christian traditions by taking advantage of women, Paul had very good reason to place limitations on the authority that women should have.