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This question was left over from a Stump the Elders panel at The Church at Sunsites and is not a new one, but it has been recently revived in our own culture and in a few societies around the world. Sadly, many men have used this verse and like verses in the Bible to try to domineer over women, and many women have used this verse and like verses in the Bible to try to raise themselves up. Here, I will be dealing only with 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Other instructive verses must be dealt with in their own context. One thing is for sure: I have never been in a church where the women are silent either.
In 1 Timothy, Paul is writing to his younger student, Timothy, instructing him concerning his Gospel mission and concerning the appointing of elders in every church in Ephesus. Paul begins, in chapter 1, by encouraging Timothy to remain dedicated to God’s word and to true instruction. Timothy’s goal is to further God’s administration by faith, not by works (1:4). His enemies are those who want to be teachers of the Law but do not understand what they were saying or the matters about which they were making confident assertions. In this context, Paul is having to deal with some sort of false teaching. Before the apostle instructs such humility from women, he encourages it from men (2:8).
What reason does Paul have to instruct a certain demographic of people not to teach or to hold a position of authority, but to instead practice humility and holistic submission? It isn’t because women are the subjects of men. It is because we are all subject to God. There were some in Ephesus pretending to be gods achieving their own glory. This is affirmed for us in the historical record of Ancient Rome. Artimis was the patron deity of Ephesus. She was a Greek ‘goddess’ who supposedly elevated the status of women. In Ephesus, there was also a prevalent anti-male cult and a political push for strict matriarchy. This was the sort of extreme feminism that we may be starting to see in our own context. Part of the legend of Ephesus’ founding was that the Amazons, a mythical tribe of warrior women, founded the city. I know, this insinuates some horrendous things about Wonder Woman, but we don’t need to get into that. There were male religious groups in Ephesus and the Roman government regulated those religious groups.
The false teaching that would have come into the church would have been teaching specifically about the exaltation of people rather than the glory of God. Sadly, we see it in many groups that claim to be Christian in our day. Just as in Ephesus, we see women fighting to be pastors and we see men devaluing women. What we forget when we strive to elevate ourselves, no matter our perspective genders, is that we were all created by God the way that we were created for service to Him according to His will and purpose- not ours. Paul’s response, or rather his instruction for the good of the people in Ephesus, was that men should be humble in a way that made sense and that women should be humble also in a way that made sense, in a way that recognized the preeminence of Christ and encouraged all people to abide in God’s glory rather than seek their own or rest in the image of one personality or another.
The message for men and women in 1 Timothy is this: Don’t think too highly of yourselves. God is the one who created you. The woman was deceived in the Garden. She thought too highly of herself, taught what was not good to her husband, and was not willingly submitted to God. Christ is your deliverer. We come from a place of weakness. God’s strength is made evident in that weakness. That is the whole point of this instruction. All people are of a humble estate. Christ alone is our deliverer, our righteousness, and our glory. So, we take the position of humility even if we think we deserve something greater. Our goal is not to do what we can get away with or what is acceptable. Our goal is to abide in Christ and to live in such a way that our lives honor Him, no matter what we have to give up. If we think we deserve or are entitled to something greater, we prove that we do not actually believe God’s grace to be sufficient for us.
So, the instruction is not that women have to be silent. It is that all people, moved by God’s holiness and Christ’s sufficiency, choose to live humbly and according to God’s design for the genders He created. This requires wisdom and humility to be produced in both the men and women of God. See more about biblical manhood and womanhood by clicking here.
We get a fuller grasp of the doctrine of subordination in 1 Corinthians 11. To see how Paul explains this and why the Bible explains God has created on Gender as subject to the other, click here and work through the passage.