I Permit Not a Woman to Teach

One of the distinctives of most fundamentalist Christian churches, is the hierarchy of men over women. Several passages of Scripture are used, one of which is I Timothy 2:11-15:

“11 Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection.
12 But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness.
13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve;
14 and Adam was not beguiled, but the woman being beguiled hath fallen into transgression:
15 but she shall be saved through her child-bearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctification with sobriety.”
The Apostle Paul was writing to Timothy in Ephesus in Greece in about 64 AD. The custom in Ephesus at that time was for women not to be educated. Any educated woman was out of the ordinary in antiquity. It was not until the Middle Ages in Europe that nuns began to routinely be educated. Before that it was extraordinary to hear anyone, especially a man, say, “Let a woman learn…” Most men felt it was a waste of time to educate a woman, firstly because they did not believe women could learn, and secondly because they believed a literary, political or business education would be wasted on a housewife. What would she use it for? So for Paul to say, “Let the women learn” is amazing and unprecedented.
It was especially unprecedented in his own Jewish tradition, where one of the usual morning prayers included the phrase: “Thank you for not making me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman,” (dated in 220AD) and where school was reserved for boys. So what would cause the apostle Paul to make such a U-turn against his Jewish tradition?
It was the example of Jesus’ attitude toward women, the respectful way he treated women, not as sex objects, not as servants, not as children, but as equals. It was also the fact that the gospel stories are clear in the fact that the first witnesses of the resurrection, and first evangelists of the good news, were women who had come to the tomb to embalm Jesus’ body. This was in contradistinction to the Jewish custom of the time to not allow women (or shepherds) to testify in court because they were unreliable witnesses. God chose shepherds to testify about the birth of Jesus, and women to testify about his resurrection. God turned the hierarchy on its head to show that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

“But let her be silent” is the same Greek word as used 8 verses earlier to refer to the lives we should all lead, “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

The rest of the I Timothy 2 passage referred to the Grecian fables that were popular in Ephesus at the time, the center of the worship of the goddess Diana. The women had evidently borrowed some Diana theology and mixed it with the Adam and Eve story and began to teach:

1) that women were created first, and

2) were superior to men

3) until childbirth, at which time they became defiled (in the Diana cult, Diana was a virgin goddess).

Paul pointed out that Eve was not created first, and that she was not superior to Adam during the temptation by the serpent, and that women are not defiled by childbirth. Furthermore he wanted uneducated women to stop teaching fables, and learn. The apostle Paul referred to “old wives fables” later in his letter to Timothy, evidently referring to the Diana cult teachings handed down by older women. (The word “wives” is interchangeable with “women” in many languages, including the Greek in which Paul wrote.)
The phrase “I permit not a woman to teach nor to have dominion over a man…” is a conjunctive phrase often used by Paul. The “nor” joins the two items before “over a man”. So Paul was saying, “I permit not a woman to teach over a man, nor to have dominion over a man.”

Priscilla and Aquilla

Priscilla and Aquilla

He was not saying a woman could not teach a man, because there is a clear example of Priscilla and Aquila teaching Apollos the truth. This is the only married couple in the Bible in which the woman is listed first, indicating that she was the more knowledgable and took the lead in the teaching.

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About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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11 Responses to I Permit Not a Woman to Teach

  1. Junly says:

    “So for Paul to say, ‘Let the women learn’ is amazing and unprecedented.”

    I know this is the conventional wisdom, but its absurd. Every religion and society prior to Paul expected women to learn how to perform the household rites, to instruct the children in the religion, and so on. Judaism, of course, did not permit them to enter into formal training to become a rabbi, but that does not amount to banning them from all religious knowledge. This sort of statement that is was “unprecedented” for Paul to say “Let the women learn” comes from a latent anti-Semitism in Christianity.

    • sepunka says:

      “Judaism, of course, did not permit them to enter into formal training to become a rabbi. . .”

      That’s the point. Judaism did not let women have official, meaningful religious authority. Teaching “religion” to your children is not the same thing. In that capacity, the woman is expected to impart the knowledge given to her (by a man, ultimately) to her children. A woman was not permitted to devote her whole life to thinking about God and telling people the things she thought.

      Thus that Priscilla WAS a teacher, WAS a person of respect and honor among her religious community is important and the point of this article. If Timothy really means what COC thinks it means, her existence (and those of the women deacons) are an inconsistency a mile wide. But if he’s right about this Diana business, then it all makes sense. Paul is saying women aren’t to have dominion over men, but that doesn’t mean a man should have dominion over women. It’s just that that men lording it over women wasn’t the particular issue Paul was dealing with when he wrote this specific letter to that specific church.

      Using “anti-Semitism” is a smokescreen here… Lots of civilizations imposed gender inequalities on themselves, not just Semitic ones…

      Now, if you want to bring me some evidence that this man’s facts are wrong first before dismissing his conclusions, I’d be more than happy to hear about it…

      • Junly says:

        Why do you even want to be a preacher? If you do it right its extremely hard work, and its a thankless job. But anyway, that’s beside the point. My comment wasn’t really about women teaching at all. It was a response to the thoughtless stereotype that “So for Paul to say, ‘Let the women learn’ is amazing and unprecedented.” Judaism maintained that women could and should learn the Torah, but not that they should be officially trained to become rabbis….therefore it is a lie to claim that it was some radical new thing to say “Let the women learn.” I called it antisemitism because it specifically claims that Judaism is some kind of inferior subhuman religion on the basis of a lie that Judaism forbade women “to learn” (not just to formally train to become clergy) whereas Paul (who also forbade women from being clergy) said “Let them learn” or more accurately quoting them, “If they want to learn something, let them asks their husbands at home” which seems pretty dismissive to me! (Judaism now, of course, allows women to be rabbis in the Reformed and Conservative branches, in case you didn’t know.)

      • Hi Junly,
        I said Paul was the first man of antiquity in any religion to advise that women learn. And I also said that when Paul said let them ask their husbands at home he was only talking about the women who had prophetic husbands, no other women were being addressed in that passage. I believe that Paul was saying, once the women have learned, then they can teach. I don’t believe Paul was banning women from teaching for all time.

        Yes, I do know a female rabbi in the Conservative tradition.

      • Junly says:

        more accurately quoting them = more accurately quoting Paul

  2. Junly says:

    Also, because of the latent anti-Semitism in Christianity it is common practice to mention the man’s part of that particular prayer about thanking God for not making me a woman, but to ignore that in the same prayer the woman says “thank you for making me as I am.” The point of the prayer is not really to belittle women so much as to establish the fact that the man should be happy to be a man and the woman happy to be a woman, rather than, like in our confused society, trying to becomes some kind of transexual.

    • sepunka says:

      I’ve already addressed the “anti-Semitism” issue. As for the rest of it, do you really find nothing insulting about someone being thankful they aren’t a slave and then in the same breath a woman? Gentiles were people the Jews were alternately being enslaved by or being instructed to slaughter indiscriminately. The escape from slavery is the whole point of the entire book of Exodus! Parallelism is one of the chief attributes of Jewish poetry. When a man prays here that he is thankful not to be a woman, don’t you think the possibility exists that he is saying “Oh man! Dodged a bullet there!” Why doesn’t the woman say “Thank you for not making me a man”? Why not just let them both say, as you said, “Thank you for making me as I am”?

      In any event, in researching that particular chestnut, it turns out that prayer is probably of Hellenic origins, too, and is why there is the verse in Galatians stating that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave not free, neither male nor female in Christ.* So, clearly Paul was irritated at it as well. Will you defend it when Paul denounced it?

      Your comment on transsexualism demonstrates a misunderstanding of it. Please, would you learn about it a little more before you decide a whole class of people is confused? After all, they are as God made them.

      * My People’s Prayer Book, pp. 17-20, http://bit.ly/U6T41p

      • Junly says:

        “Why doesn’t the woman say ‘Thank you for not making me a man’? Why not just let them both say, as you said, ‘Thank you for making me as I am’?”

        Isn’t that the same thing for the woman to say “Thank you for not making me a man” or to say “Thank you for making me just as I am”? Probably it would have been better to make the prayers mirror each other exactly. Anyway, I don’t think this prayer really dates back to the time of Jesus and Paul anyway. Isn’t it of medieval origin? Or at least more like 2nd or 3rd century.

        “there is the verse in Galatians stating that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave not free, neither male nor female in Christ.* So, clearly Paul was irritated at it as well. Will you defend it when Paul denounced it?”

        I would defend it on this basis: I don’t think the point is to belittle women, but quite the contrary! I think the meaning is more like “Thank you for not making me a woman [so I can enjoy being with a woman].” I think its purpose is to acknowledge in a confessional way (just like Protestants confess their belief in justification by faith alone and such in their Confessions) that men and women are different and that this is by God’s design for sexuality. In fact, probably we should implement this in our churches and have the men say “Thank you for not making me a woman” and the women respond (like a responsorial Psalm in a Catholic mass) “Thank you for not making me a man” as a sort of affirmation of pride in one’s God-given gender in opposition to transgenderism and other fruity heresies being imposed on so many Protestant churches by the militant brain-dead victims of the 60s drug culture which produced the ‘gospel’ of “a gender-neutral-humanoid’s life consists in the amount of sex that gender-netural-humanoid has and the number of partners said gender-netural-humanoid has it with.” Clearly the Jews were on to something with this “I thank you that you didn’t make me a woman” prayer which the modern churches are in desperate need of discovering!

  3. Gary Cummings says:

    I was surfing on the net and found a list of progressive Churches of Christ. Many of them are so egalitarian they allow women access to ministry. Now that is major. Check out
    http://gal328.org

    There is an egalitarian COC near our house (2 hours). I may check it out sometime. They have some connection to the Hills Church, formerly Richland Hills COC. These churches will grow and thrive this new century, while the traditional COC cult churches will close their doors. The sooner the better.

  4. Todd says:

    Women in the Early Church did learn the Word. Women also spread the message outside of the Church. In the Roman world temples and religious institutes were heavily populated with priestesses. One of the most important religious leaders of the time was the Oracle of Delphi, a woman. So it is not accurate to say that women were not educated in the ways of religion or that female religious leaders were uncommon or abnormal, if fact is was the norm. Look at what early Christians taught, those who actually knew the Apostles, or were one generation removed. Instead of proof texting, and trying to refute or argue against those texts, try harmonizing the scripture. Look at it in its entirety. You will find gender rolls both implied, and defined. This is an inescapable truth. Think of it this way. The Scriptures Teach X. The early Christians understood X to be correct and practiced it. Why then would you reject X and adopt Y? Where does Y come from? Certainly not from the scriptures.

    • Yes, I think that this referred to are the uneducated women who did know the Word. Once they learned the Word, Paul allowed them to prophesy, and that was certainly a form of preaching Priscilla and Aquilla both taught Apollos the way of the Lord. Please read THE BLUE PARAKEET by Scott McKnight. I just finished it today. He writes well about this. Basically certain women were not allowed to teach or speak until they were taught. This was not a universal prohibition for all time. I have changed my mind over this many years ago.

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